Personal preferences – a rant

I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but there are certain food stuffs that I prefer not to eat. I have developed and changed my preferences over a number of years as I have aged. I will try most things at least once before I decide if I wish to repeat the experience based on my enjoyment. I have no interest in what others think I should like. How could others possibly know what will please me?

Take shellfish as an example. I just adore the taste of the shellfish that I have tried, but I now refuse to eat it for a reason. When I was on my honeymoon, my husband and I stopped for lunch one day at a lovely little coastal cafe where I ordered a crab salad. This was the first chance I had ever had to try crab and it was delicious. Around fifteen minutes later, feeling decidedly unwell, both lunch and breakfast made a dramatic reappearance.

The incident reminded me of a similar experience a few years previously when I had disgraced myself at a friend’s house after consuming a yummy prawn curry, lovingly prepared by his mother. After the crab incident I decided that perhaps shellfish were not for me.

Most people will understand and tolerate such preferences. I have a similar issue with raspberries, once again discovered when I was presented with these delights in a pudding at a friend’s dinner party, and spent the next few hours miserably contemplating a toilet bowl. I realised that I had encountered similar issues on previous occasions and added these bright red fruits to my list of banned substances.

There are, however, less dramatic preferences that others seem unwilling to tolerate. Like many British people, I enjoy a nice cup of tea. As an aside, complicated political events mean that I am also Irish, a fact that gives me a certain amount of nostalgic pride. However, I have chosen to carry a British passport so claim that as my nationality rather than the land of my birth. I know a lot of Irish as well as British people who choose to drink their tea very strong.

I like my tea to be made with an ordinary teabag in a pot, with just a splash of milk at the bottom of a large mug before it is poured. I also like it weak. This seems to offend so many people who are convinced that, because they would not choose to drink weak tea, I cannot possibly wish to have mine served in this way.

It is such a simple request to make, to pour my tea before the leaves have had time to fully brew as that is the way I like it. Others look at me aghast and cannot believe that I could enjoy such a beverage, because they would not. Thus I am presented with a drink that I will not enjoy. Often when I am out this results in me asking for coffee, which I do like strong, and drinking tea only when at home and in control of the pot.

It is not just friends and acquaintances who refuse to allow me to indulge certain preferences that they cannot approve. When I am eating out in a fine restaurant the talented chefs will rarely cook my meat the way I like it, particularly beef. Despite the fact that I am paying for this meal, and ask that it be well done, it arrives pink and chewy, sometimes even bloody. In this instance it seems that the customer is not always right.

Now, I get that a piece of quality beef does not require a lot of cooking, and that connoisseurs believe that the animal need only to be shown the heat source briefly before being served. If that is how others choose to eat their beef then that is fine with me, I just wish that they would be as fine with my choices.

Fellow diners wrinkle their noses and decry my wish to spoil a delicacy by incinerating it. If that is how I wish to eat it then why does this annoy them? What is it to them how I wish to eat when I am not asking anyone else to do as I do? Once again, I will rarely order beef when out as I know I will not choose to consume what is presented to me. It is a shame as I enjoy a good piece of beef, but only when cooked through.

I would never claim to be an expert on food or wine, yet I know what I like. I am willing to try new dishes but, if I know from experience that I will not enjoy some supposed delicacy, then I see little point in eating it just because the rest of the world rates it highly.

I mentioned wine. I have lost count of the number of people who have turned up their noses at my choice of wine. In this area I am only too well aware that I am not an expert. When I have been out with others who know what they are doing I have been offered some delightful choices. I have also been offered sweet or paint stripping concoctions that ensured I went home half a glass short of sober.

I generally know which of my friends and acquaintances I can trust to choose my wine for me, those who will select a bottle of something that I will consider nectar. I also know those who have preferences that differ so markedly from mine that I will order my own bottle and leave them to enjoy theirs. This is not an insult to their taste as they sometimes seem to think, but simply a difference. Why do some people not understand that it is fine for individuals to enjoy different things?

When it is just me drinking, I choose what I know I will like, usually a Chardonnay. This may not be considered classy, but then nor am I. There is no need for others to turn up their noses, laugh at my choice, or mention some television show that mocks this widely derided grape. Wine is to be enjoyed, so I drink what I know I will like.

I feel frustrated when my children refuse to try new dishes. Once tried though, once given a decent chance, each of us will favour different things and this is okay. If my preferences lower your opinion of me then I can live with that. Just please don’t ask me to drink strong tea or sweet wine. And pressure me into eating shellfish at your peril.

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Time for reflection

I sat down yesterday to write this post and stopped. I needed time to reflect on the myriad of thoughts and feelings that were swirling around inside me. The past few days have been quite different to the life I normally lead. Different in a mostly good way but with a few challenges, my reaction to which I needed time to process. Yesterday I was running on very little sleep and I needed to know that it wasn’t this that was clouding my vision.

I had set myself a number of goals early last week, some of which included submitting a few pieces of writing to various sites. With my other commitments I ended up on Friday needing to either abandon these plans or sit down quietly for several hours to catch up. I chose the latter.

I am not normally so disciplined when writing but I enjoyed the exercise and submitted the pieces as planned. I then had to step away from my computer to rearrange our house for a party my daughter was hosting on Saturday night. She did most of the cleaning and tidying herself but I needed to move some furniture around and get ahead of the family tasks that I would not have the chance to accomplish over the weekend.

Our family room and kitchen provided the main party space.

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Our lounge was turned into a massive bed with mattresses, duvets and blankets covering as much of the floor as we could manage.

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It was a fabulous party. Seventeen teenagers attended meaning that we had twenty in the house. It was loud but happy and all seemed to have a lot of fun. My daughter had billed it an All Night Marvel Movie Marathon and little sleep was had by any of us. Between films (they watched five in total) they played pool, listened to music and had those serious discussions that intelligent teenagers excel at. In the background I was producing as much food as I could get through my oven, plating it and clearing debris.

To protect the innocent I will not be posting any of the during or after photos. Suffice to say there was no damage but a lot of mess to clear up. My husband took over kitchen duties in the morning to produce a late breakfast fry up and by the afternoon we were able to cut the enormous cake that my younger son and I had made the previous day.

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All in all, a successful twenty-four hours and one very happy daughter.

Now, as anyone who follows my blog regularly will know, I have grown very uncomfortable with social situations in the past few years. I was therefore particularly pleased that I got through this weekend without any panic attacks, and I surprised myself by enjoying the whole event. I physically hurt yesterday evening from lack of sleep but it was worth it.

Having delivered the last of the party goers to the train station late afternoon I was glad to put my feet up and see how my submitted stories had been received. I was aware that there was a discussion brewing on one of the sites but had not had time to consider a response to this as carefully as I would have liked. On another site my story was receiving very mixed reviews.

As a writer it is hard for me to critique my own work. In my head I will have all the background to each character along with the reasoning behind their behaviour. Getting this down using only necessary words can be tricky, it is the skill of the trade. Often my reader’s interpretations will be unexpected.

One of the stories I submitted received some very positive feedback. It also bombed in the voting; it was on this site that the discussion brewed. Other writers noted that the number of reads their story clocked up was around a quarter of the total votes cast. Clearly not all voters read every story as instructed. There was speculation that followers voted for those whose writing they knew and liked without reading the other submissions. It was pointed out that the rules were the same for everyone so, whilst this may not be ideal, it was not unfair.

I hope that the increased interest in this weekly challenge does not wane and that the relaxed and friendly atmosphere on the site can be maintained. I understand why the discussion happened. It can be disheartening to submit a story and have it ignored by so many. However, the quality of the writing is high and all feedback is useful. I do wonder about entering each week but I enjoy writing the stories and welcome the readers I get.

On the second site I discovered a different state of affairs. The story I had submitted was receiving lots of views and trending. It was also generating a lot of negative comments. Some readers liked it but quite a few considered it poorly written, sloppily punctuated and one even described it as incoherent.

Naturally I feel happier with positive feedback than negative. However, all feedback is useful and I was grateful that readers had taken the time to explain the aspects of my writing that they felt were weak. I will take all of their comments on board. I smiled wryly to myself though that the apparently badly written story ranked better than the supposedly well written one in the challenges to which they were submitted.

I will never make it as a writer if I allow myself to become too sensitive to criticism. To improve I need to keep practising and to work on the shortcomings highlighted by readers. I will try to produce another couple of stories this week, I will not give up just because I submitted a story that was not well received by all.

As a novice writer it feels as though I have reached another milestone on my journey. Now I need to get my house in order. Fun though the party was, I may take some time to fully recover.

So many books, so little time

Reading a good book can be such a satisfying experience in so many ways. It offers physical rest, escapism, food for the imagination; it raises questions to consider and issues to mull over afterwards. I read an eclectic mix of genres, generally eschewing the most popular best sellers. I like my books to be meaty or amusing and not too predictable. I do not need to like the characters, but I do like to be able to empathise with the situations they experience. I wish to immerse myself in their world; sometimes I do not wish to leave.

I have loved books from as far back as I can remember. As a child I would spend many hours enjoying the worlds created by Enid Btlyton, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Forester, Arthur Conan Doyle and J.R.R. Tolkien. As a teenager I was made to study the classics at school, an experience which put me off these wonderful books until I was well into my twenties. I then I gave Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters another chance and found that, when I could read the books purely for pleasure, I enjoyed them very much. I still dislike Dickens and find Shakespeare only works for me when played rather than read. As a lover of literature this shameful admission makes me wonder if I am lacking in some intellectual ability. Sorry guys, but Shakespeare just doesn’t do it for me.

In my late teens I discovered the bookshelves in local charity shops and went through a phase of reading cheap, romantic novels. I would buy them for next to nothing, read them like comics and leave them wherever I happened to be for someone else to find and, hopefully, enjoy. On a back packing trip around the Greek islands I filled the bottom of my rucksack with a dozen or more of these tacky tales and abandoned those completed in the Gideon Bible drawer of whatever accommodation I happened to be in. They seemed appropriate, sunny holiday reading at the time. After the pressure of exams, they allowed me to switch off.

I have always been influenced by the books being read by my friends. I moved from my romantic trash period to reading Jeffrey Archer, Ellis Peters, Ben Elton and Douglas Adams; only the latter has stood the test of time. I still seek out recommendations but have learnt to listen most carefully to those who know my tastes and are therefore likely to recommend a book that I will consider worth reading. Whilst I do not wish to limit my choices unnecessarily and thereby miss the next book that I will adore, there are too many popular, formulaic, easy reads out there that I have no wish to spend my valuable time on.

I do try to find new, contemporary authors to read and have very much enjoyed books by Sebastian Faulks, Maragaret Atwood, Iain Banks. Lionel Shriver,  Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami. My shelves are overflowing with other books, some of which I have rated highly but represent my only experience of that author. There are so many good books out there and so little time to enjoy them.

Of course, there are also the many books that I have read and been disappointed with. Some have been almost good, others easy reads but weak. If I truly dislike a book then it is consigned to the charity shop as I never seem to have adequate space on my shelves for all the books I buy. I have also lost more books than I can count because I have leant them out to friends. There is joy in sharing a good book even if this does risk never seeing it again. I like the feel of a physical book in my hands and have no wish to move to an electronic reader.

I am fortunate in having a few friends who are writers. Their quick wit and erudite conversation makes me want to bask in their company; my mental abilities are sloth like compared to theirs. I am always interested to read their work but find it hard to then give an unbiased critique. There are so many preconceptions to get through; it can be difficult to read the story for what it is.

In many ways the same is true of any reading experience. When I pick up a new book by an author I have not tried before, I judge only the contents of the pages I am reading. If I have read and enjoyed another book by that author then I cannot help but compare them. From time to time I will read up on authors that I admire and I then find that I am adding that knowledge to my judgement of their books. An extreme example of author bias spoiling my potential enjoyment of a book would be ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey. This was written as a work of fictional but was marketed as a memoir (a genre I dislike). Many authors base their first book on their own experiences and, if James Frey had sold this as originally intended, then it may well have been considered an insightful if ultimately unrealistic exploration of the mind of an addict. By trying to pass it off as truth both he and his book were discredited.

As a lover of books I am always interested to find out the types of books enjoyed by my friends and acquaintances. Although I believe that the books we enjoy give an insight into our character, I am wary of any attempt to prove any sort of  intellectual superiority. If we did not enjoy different books then the variety available would not be published and we would all be the losers.

Who is to judge what makes a book good? It is my view that a good book is one that may be read and enjoyed. Whether it educates, stimulates, amuses or merely entertains it serves a purpose. If it is beautifully written, atmospheric, evokes emotion, admiration or empathy then all the better, but if an author can write a book that others wish to read then they have succeeded, whatever the highbrow literary world may make of their work. In these days of competition, profit and self publication it is harder than ever for an author to get their work under the radar of the reading public. I will not judge those who succeed any more harshly just because I, personally, do not choose to read their work.

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