Giving thanks

My American friends and acquaintances are today celebrating Thanksgiving. I do not know a great deal about the origins of this national holiday but, from the little that I have read, some of the historical details are a bit suspect. By that I mean, as I understand it, some of the things that happened way back may not be the sort of things that should be celebrated. Nevertheless, it is now a long, holiday weekend with a tradition of spending time with family to give thanks for what each has. I like the idea of that.

I like the idea of stopping what we are doing for a little while and giving thanks. I am thankful for the good health that I and my family enjoy, for our comfortable home and for my husband’s ability and willingness to work hard and thereby provide us with all the essentials and a fair few luxuries as well. I am thankful for the love, care and consideration that I experience each day from those around me. I am also thankful for my friends.

I have given my friends quite a hard time over the past couple of years. As I have backed away from so much social contact, concentrating my efforts on my writing and on line presence, my friends have not been given the time and attention that they deserve. As I have struggled with my own inner demons, I have neglected the many friends who have been there for me. I am thankful that they have put up with how I have treated them, that they have made the effort to stay in touch and meet up on the terms that I can cope with.

I love the way it is possible to have minimal contact with old friends but then, when we do manage to get together, often after many years of not seeing each other in person, our enjoyment and conversation feels so natural, as if we did this all the time. I hope that these friends know how much I treasure them.

Newer friends have been willing to schedule in time for walks with me, even when their lives are so busy, thereby allowing me the one to one social contact that I can manage. If it weren’t for these people then I would be at risk of turning into a hermit. I am thankful that they have put up with my panics and imaginings, reassuring me that it is okay for me to work through this period of my life in whatever way I need.

And then there are the friends who have surprised me with the efforts they have made to help me out. I find it hard to ask for anything, I much prefer to give. These people have stepped in with practical help for specific problems without expecting anything in return. I am immeasurably grateful for their efforts on my behalf. I am thankful that we can be friends.

Although I am aware that many people feel uncomfortable with on line, social media, I have found it of great value in recent times. It has enabled me to, not just keep up some contact with those I know but do not often see; but also to reach out, share and learn from those who I would not otherwise have any contact with. It has enabled me to keep in touch with many I may not know well but would like to know better. I am thankful for these more distant friendships too.

I feel privileged to live amongst so many interesting people with their disparate lifestyles and views. I feel privileged that many count me amongst their friends.

The evening meal that I will prepare for my family later today will consist of our normal, midweek fare. My husband will come home after his long day at work, my children will have homework to deal with. Although on this side of the pond we will not be celebrating anything special, I will still give thanks.

My life is good because of the people I share it with.

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Writing challenge

I have signed up to take part in National Novel Writing Month (NoNoWriMo). This is a writing challenge that requires participants to produce a unique, short novel (50,000 words) between the 1st and 30th of November. The point of the exercise is to write a complete, lengthy story. The result is not expected to be publishable.

I have no plans to attempt to write a book for publication. Although I have plenty of ideas in my head, I do not consider that I have the skill or the discipline to put together a polished manuscript. I am under no illusions about the difficulties that writers have getting their work accepted by a publisher. I am well aware that there are a very large number of people out there who think that they have a book inside them. Many talented writers do and will still not achieve their dream.

What I wish to achieve is an improvement. I play the piano (badly) and would like to refine my limited skills. No matter how much I practice though, I am never going to make the grade as a concert pianist. This does not mean that I should give up playing; I enjoy making music, even if I am only doing so for myself. I see my desire to improve as a worthwhile aspiration, even if it will lead nowhere tangible.

Likewise with my writing. I would like to be a better writer and the only way this is likely to happen is if I practice. I can read widely, compare and contrast the styles of various authors and commentators, but if I do not sit down and create my own, unique text then I will never hone what limited skills I may possess.

Writing is my hobby and gives me pleasure. WordPress is my club, where I can share with others who pursue the same interest as well as enabling me to put my thoughts and ideas out to a wider audience via social media. Feedback from readers gives me an insight into how my writing comes across to others; the pieces that I am most satisfied with are often not the ones that are best received.

I also create works of fiction but these are on going and incomplete. By taking part in NaNoWriMo I will be encouraged to finish a story, even if it is not as polished as I would wish. I have a habit of returning to works again and again, changing a word or a phrase here, tidying up the plot there, rather than getting down a complete first draft before entering the editing phase. I want to see if I am capable of taking a tale through to a decent conclusion.

A lot of people look on NaNoWriMo as an exercise in creating bad writing. By demanding a set word count in a given time frame, with no quality checks along the way, the resulting ‘novel’ is unlikely to be the next best seller. For me, however, this is not the point; I will use it to see what I am capable of producing. I do not expect anyone else to read the results of this exercise, just as I do not expect anyone else to listen to me play the piano (I really am an untidy musician).

There seems to be a certain amount of snobbery amongst some writers. Those who are capable of earning a living from the regular, quality output that they produce may look on the plethora of amateurs who populate the blogosphere with a degree of contempt, but I find this attitude disappointing. If writing gives pleasure then I would encourage this pursuit as much as I would encourage those who partake in any other creative hobby. I admire the established writers who are willing to help and encourage the amateurs, even if their output leaves much to be desired.

November is already a busy month for me and by taking on the NaNoWrMo challenge I am setting myself up to be more time pressured than I am used to. It will be interesting to see how I cope. I will not be putting the story that I write out on this blog; I have no wish to share what is likely to be an unimpressive piece of writing.

You will, however, be able to track my progress via the little widget I have installed on my sidebar; the aim is to reach a word count of 50,000 by the end of November. It is easy to start a new project fired with enthusiasm. I wonder will I have the resolve to continue when life demands my time and my ideas wane. It wouldn’t be a challenge if I expected it to be easy; roll on November that we may begin.

NaNoWriMo

Off line

My on line life is important to me. I value the interaction with others, many of whom live too far away to make meeting up on any sort of regular basis possible. I value the fact that those who live closer share aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise be aware of on their social networks. I value the opportunity that the internet offers me to read the opinions and musings of interesting people who I would be unlikely to meet in any other way.

As I have trimmed and tailored my social life to better suit my fluctuating moods over the past year, my on line activity has offered me a lifeline. However down and insular I have felt, I have been able to log on and reach out to a world that keeps turning whatever personal crisis I am dealing with. There has always been somebody out there, however near or far they may be, willing to offer me wise words.

Last weekend I set off with my husband and sons for a few days camping in the New Forest. With my daughter away from home for a month this was to be our main family holiday. Last year we took a cottage near the coast for a week but did not consider the trip a success. With lots of space and comfy beds the children felt too much at home and did not interact with my husband in the way that he likes when on holiday. Sleeping in a tent forces us all together. With only natural light available we sleep and rise at much the same time; with only limited space and facilities we survive as a team.

Although my ageing bones can only cope with sleeping on an air bed for a few days at a time I am happy to share the adventure that living under canvas offers. What I had not expected was to be totally cut off from the rest of my life for the majority of our time away. Before setting off I had topped up my smartphone and packed the in car charger. When the phone battery ran down at the end of the first day and the charger failed to work, I found myself off line for the remainder of the holiday.

A few friends have been away this year to beautiful places so remote that no internet is available. On their return they have commented that they found this restful; I did not. Of course I was fine, but I missed being able to communicate. I missed the interaction and the ability to reach out to those who would understand what I was going through, whatever that may be.

As my children have grown older and more independent they have developed their own interests. Although I wish to know about their thoughts and plans, their detailed knowledge of esoteric subjects leaves me with little option but to prompt, smile and listen rather than join in. I do not possess the cognizance that would enable me to usefully add to a conversation that revolves around a discussion of the detailed workings of electronic or mechanical devices. It is left to my husband to offer useful responses; perhaps this is a part of what he enjoys about our family time away.

Our location was not so remote that I could not have sought out a WiFi link on our days out, but that is not how I choose to go on line. I wish to participate fully in each family activity; to step away for the sole purpose of logging on would have been a disruption too far.

For me, the internet is something that I turn to when I am not needed elsewhere; when I have a little natural solitude that I may choose to use as I please. I did not wish to miss out on family time, to choose not to join in with the holiday in order to log on. Whilst I gain enjoyment from sharing it is not a necessary part of the fun.

I once saw a sign in a building that amused me. It said ‘In the event of fire, please leave the building before tweeting about it’. I guess this past week has shown me that I can still have an enjoyable holiday without links to the rest of my life. However much pleasure and benefit I may gain from it, I am not totally addicted to my social networks.

Along with a comfortable bed and a private shower, getting back on line was one of the home comforts that I looked forward to enjoying on my return. With all that has been happening while I have been away, it will now take me some time to catch up with what the rest of the world has been doing in my absence.

Español: Logo WiFi Vectorizado

Barbeque

So. tonight I am tidying up, putting away, sorting through the detritus of a family barbecue. My children have extricated themselves from their computers and games consoles; my husband has donned his manly pinny to cook on an open flame; I have poured myself a glass of wine and retreated to the sunniest part of the garden.

We do not do barbecues that others may be impressed with. Burgers, sausages, buns and dips are as posh as we go. The attraction is in the way that we relax when there are no expectations. My children pick up whatever food they want from the grill and eat, mess about and chat as they wish. I look out of a window as I unload the laundry that has dried on the outside line and observe my sixteen year old horizontal on the grass as my fifteen year old throws a ball for her to catch; for whatever reason, they are finding this activity hilarious. This is family life at it’s best.

I went through a number of years when I would schedule weekends when friends and their families could join us for informal suppers or adult dinners; for afternoon barbecues or drinks parties that merged afternoon into evening. I had a lovely group of friends whose company I enjoyed. We met up regularly in each others homes to eat and drink and party.

What happened?

My children started to question why they had to spend their time in this way. Sometimes it worked well, but too often it didn’t. While I was off having fun, they were having to deal with situations that left them wronged and compromised. Their difficulties overflowed into my evenings and my friendships suffered. I backed away.

For now we appear antisocial. We organise our evenings to suit our own moods. This evening I danced with my daughter as I once did with a friend and she commented that I was lucky to be able to relax enough not to care of others perceptions; I could be myself.

I count myself lucky to still have good friends, but can now only truly relax when with my little family. I do so hope that they will continue to feel that they can relax when with me.

Burger Flight

Music and sunshine

The weather has changed for the better. After the long, cold and damp winter the return of the blossom on the trees and the warmth of the sun feels like a generous gift. I have been spending as much time as I can outside and can feel my body relax and unwind as it draws in the heat from the sun and the beauty of the plants awakening from their long sleep. I have missed this.

Having been looking forward to this long weekend it started out by disappointing me; too often this can be the case. When I expect little I can be pleasantly surprised; high expectations allow a fall. The romance of my midweek wedding anniversary, which had lingered agreeably, quickly dissipated when my husband announced that he had not saved the weekend for us as I had expected. Determined not to make a fuss, I opted to use the sunny evening for a long walk. It is one of the pleasures of a late sunset that evening activities such as this are possible. The day may be used to the full and I made the most of it.

The pulchritude of the countryside helps to put my muddled mind in order and the effort of a brisk walk took up the excess energy that is required to sustain a low mood. I returned home feeling ever so much better. My personal issues put in perspective, I was happy to find that one of my children had stayed home. A little company for my fish and chip supper was much appreciated and I determined to stay cheerful for the rest of our planned family time.

It is enjoyable to go out and about with those we love; meals out, trips away and other adventures provide moments to look back on. Often though, just spending time together can be as satisfying. A day of cooking and gardening followed by a meal and a DVD at home may not seem to offer as much enjoyment as an exciting night out, but can feel just as good. We benefit so much from time spent just being together.

I am always aware that family time is in constant flux. As the children grow older and develop their own interests they opt to spend less time with their parents. Even when we are together their preferences and conversation changes over time. They are becoming their own people, a process that I find fascinating as I get to know the grown ups they will become. What moulding can be achieved in childhood is more or less complete by the time they reach their teens. Support from parents is still so important, but they are no longer mine; they belong to themselves.

We did not plan to spend the whole weekend at home. My eldest son has a burgeoning interest in classical music so I had booked tickets for a Sunday afternoon concert in a nearby city. Growing up I tried to play several musical instruments with mixed success. My father is very musical and I suspect that my interest was as much an attempt to garner his favour as any real interest on my part. However, studying the form and content of classical music for school exams and learning to play those instruments gave me an appreciation of the genre and I am happy to encourage my son’s interest. There are some evenings when a piano sonata fits my mood so much better than my daughter’s heavy rock.

One of the few downsides of living in a rural location is the inaccessibility of the arts. There is also the issue of cost. A trip to the theatre is not an outing to be undertaken lightly; it is very much a special treat. We combined our concert trip with a visit to some specialist shops as sports gear was required that needed to be personally fitted. My son and I then spent a most enjoyable couple of hours listening to Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Borodin. I must ensure that he is allowed to experience live music with some frequency such was his appreciation of this event.

Today we have been blessed with another warm and sunny day. I am unaware of any plans that will take us from home unless we choose to go so I anticipate a relaxed and cheerful day. If the weather holds through to the evening we may even light our barbeque for the first time this year and eat alfresco.

There are times when I wonder if I rely too much on others to provide my happiness; I am well aware that it is not their responsibility but mine. How hard it is though, when we have invested so much of ourselves in those we love, to not feel some degree of expectation that willingness to share and give will be reciprocated. Perhaps this is why those moments, when time and self are offered without limit, feel so precious; their rarity adds to the value.

For now I must go forth and garner the enjoyment on offer. I will live for the moment which today, in this glorious spring sunshine, has the potential to be quietly fabulous.

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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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When others speak my mind

One of the aspects of blog writing that I really enjoy is the exposure it gives me to other blog writers. Sometimes I read a post and feel as satisfied as I do after eating a good meal. To find some vague thoughts that I may have been pondering expressed clearly and succinctly is a delight.

I put together my last series of posts while thinking about Easter; what it meant to me and why. This took me a few days, but didn’t mean that I stopped thinking about other issues. It was good, therefore, to find some of these being discussed by bloggers that I follow. If you think that the topics on this list sound interesting then grab yourself a cup of your favourite beverage and read on.

How to Talk to a Skeptic About Rape Culture | Rant Against the Random

Lexicon entry: animus | Butterfly Mind

Stop Telling Women to Smile | Make Me a Sammich

I am also reproducing here a speech that I reblogged on Tumblr (followthehens) because I think that it speaks for so many who question our attitude to the current education system. However my views on the world may be tarnished by the behaviour of others, while our young people speak with this voice I have hope for the future.

‘(Erica Goldson graduated as valedictorian of Coxsackie-Athens High School. Instead of using her graduation speech to celebrate the triumph of her victory, the school, and the teachers that made it happen, she channeled her inner Ivan Illich and de-constructed the logic of a valedictorian and the whole educational system.)

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test.

School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not “to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.”

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you.Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!’

For those who are interested, this post also gives food for thought: School shouldn’t be about equality | The Grumpy Giraffe.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend. xx

English: So called "New Matura" from...

The charity industry

Today was another mufti day at my children’s school; a chance for the pupils to ditch their uniform and make a statement about who they are by the way they dress. Some will welcome the chance to be themselves, others will worry about fitting in. All is being done as part of a fund raising day; funds raised will be donated to a chosen charity; my children had no idea which one.

It used to be that I would happily support the major charities but this is no longer the case. So many charities now receive government funding and spend a significant proportion of their income on lobbying for their pet projects. In some cases the government has cut back on direct support for those in need, assuming that the charities (which they help to fund) will step in to help. In other cases the charities do not oppose government plans and then receive funding to help alleviate the issues caused by their implementation. It all strikes me as a bit underhand and is not something that I am willing to support.

Even the definition of what makes a business a charity has been stretched. ASH is a charitable body that aims to bully the world into banning smoking by demonising smokers. In Britain, key funding for ASH’s campaigns comes from the government’s Department of Health as well as from two major charities in their own right: the British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK. Whilst these two charities may do good work on the ground in their fields of expertise, the diversion of funds from one charity to another makes me wary of all involved. If I make a donation then I wish that money to directly fund the projects that I am led to believe the charity supports.

When the National Lottery was introduced in Britain in 1994 much was made of the charitable component of the ticket price. The government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport decides which ‘good causes’ are to receive funding and there seems to be little accountability. Although village halls and sports clubs around the country have benefited, huge sums have been given to the government’s pet projects including the 2012 London Olympics. I fail to see how this could be described as a good cause.

Today is Comic Relief or Red Nose Day here in Britain. Although now much more wide ranging in scope, this charitable endeavour was set up to raise funds to help those affected by the 1985 famine in Ethiopia. The original televised broadcasts of the people suffering from severe malnutrition as a result of this famine shocked many into supporting the cause. Since then there have been many further reports suggesting that offering relief from famine is too hugely complex to truly benefit from even the best intentioned quick fix. Flying in food can cause more harm than good when a local economy is breaking down. Throwing money at a cause is not enough and can often be counter productive.

There are still charities that aim to help those in need rather than just provide employment for those in the organisation. I have recently been watching some fund raising efforts by UNICEF, an international organisation that receives funding from the governments of many countries but which is apolitical. It’s aim is to help children, mainly through their mothers, in the poorest regions of the world. In the field at least I can see a lot of good work being undertaken with an emphasis on local people being educated and trained to help themselves. I also take an interest in ActionAid, another international organisation that works with an indigenous population to fight poverty and injustice. Enabling people to cope with difficult situations themselves by offering training and education to help them improve their lives and the lives of those around them seems to be a more sustainable solution to extreme poverty than flying in food.

I have no wish to promote these particular charities but merely to point out that I do not view all charities as tainted. When someone rattles a collection jar in front of me in the high street or asks me to sponsor them to walk, run, swim. shave or grow facial hair I am still likely to decline. This is not because I do not support their efforts but rather that I am wary of where my money will go and how it will be used. When I do donate to a charity I like to research it carefully and decide if I can trust that charity to offer help where it is needed rather than to simply perpetuate itself.

Whoever my children’s school are raising money for this time there is no doubt that a good number of the young people have put a great deal of time and effort into making the fundraising a success. This is worth supporting. We who have so much need to remember that we are privileged and should be willing to help those who are not so fortunate. It is up to each of us to decide which causes we wish to support, be that with time, money or both, and I am absolutely behind efforts to encourage philanthropy in our young people.

What a shame that the term charity has been hi-jacked by the self-serving who mislead and thereby tarnish even the best of intentions. I can understand why some people I know will only give to small, local endeavours where they can see for themselves the good that can be done. If we wish to offer support to those whose very lives are in the balance, in countries where corruption is rife and war is a way of life, then an element of trust is required that can be hard to foster. There are so many who can benefit from so little. Getting beyond the cynicism and offering support may not be as straightforward as we would like but is still so necessary.

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The joy of books

Yesterday I went out for lunch with some ladies from the village I live in. This is a rare event for me as I am not usually one of the ‘ladies who lunch’. It was good to have the opportunity to chat as I hadn’t seen most of them for several months since I left our Book Group. I had been a member for several years and thought long and hard about my decision to leave. However, life moves on and I needed some time out to sort through the issues in my head and reset my priorities. This is an ongoing process but I am feeling more settled now than I have in some time. Leaving the group was the right decision but it was still good to catch up with a few of the members yesterday. They are a lovely, friendly group of ladies with some strong and interesting views. I enjoyed the conversation we shared over our meal.

One of my greatest pleasures is to read a good book. I enjoy a good film but I love books. I generally prefer fiction to fact, although I do read some history, science and media books. I dislike autobiographies and memoirs, particularly when they promote a modern day celebrity or spin a yarn as truth which is subsequently discredited. My antipathy towards this genre has been challenged by the works of Doris Lessing and Roald Dahl as their memoirs told such interesting stories that they could have been fiction. They did not come across as promoting themselves but rather as telling an interesting tale. Their stories were well written; development of the plot mattered more than the main characters.

When a book that I have enjoyed is made into a film I often avoid watching the adaptation. I do not wish the wonderful images in my head to be spoilt by someone else’s interpretation. I become particularly annoyed when a perfectly good ending is changed, or when a key storyline is ignored. The film of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ was an example of this. It seemed so weak when the book had been so powerful.

There have been adaptations that I have enjoyed, such as ‘The Remains of the Day’. There have also been films that stand up well even if they do not follow every thread and nuance in the book on which they are based, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. The sheer length of these films allowed much of the key character and plot development to be covered. I still don’t understand why the film changed the detail of Sauruman’s demise but I enjoyed the films despite discrepancies with the book

Adaptations of books for television often give scope for more detailed coverage although the budget may constrain the quality of the finished product. I enjoyed the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ right up until the end (why did they have to kiss!?!) and found ‘Cranford’ more engaging than I had the book on my first reading. Having watched the television series I reread the book and enjoyed it more.

My film and television viewing is via DVD so I will generally be watching something well after others have seen it. Last year I bought my son the George R.R. Martin books from the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series. My son raved about these books so I decided to get him the television adaptation ‘A Game of Thrones’. I ended up reading the first book on which series one is based at much the same time as watching the show. This was not ideal but I was still impressed with both. I found the television series rather too graphic with it’s nudity and sex scenes but it follows the book closely and is well acted so I put up with my discomfort. With the DVD box set of series two due to go on sale next month I am now reading the second book.

Having read a good book I enjoy discussing it with others which is why I joined a Book Group. Over the years the group introduced me to some excellent books and authors that I may not otherwise have come across. My views of the books we discussed often ran against the general consensus. There were no complaints about this although in the end I was feeling uncomfortable expressing myself. I think this was indicative of my wider malaise at the time.

Books feed my imagination and broaden my experience and understanding. They make me think through issues and question my perspective and principles. I love to discuss a book as each reader is affected by what is written in a different way depending on their views and life experiences. A good book is an escape but also an education. I feel fortunate to have friends who have written books, both published and self published authors. I have the highest regard for these intelligent, fascinating, self deprecating individuals.

What makes a book good is an interesting question. The best seller lists are full of formulaic thrillers, chick lit and soft porn; none of which I enjoy. I want to be challenged and educated by well written prose and original thinking. However, if we all liked the same sorts of books then there wouldn’t be the breadth and depth of choice available and we would have less chance of finding the next, inspiring work. Getting people to read books matters, whatever they choose to read. To quote Haruki Murakami, whose books I have enjoyed: ‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’ Choose carefully what you read, but do it.

Song of Ice and Fire Books

Possessions

The best things in life are not things. Good health, a pain free day, enough food and comfortable shelter are all so much more important. Feeling safe, cared for and loved will provide more contentment than any number of possessions. Yet, it is still so hard not to feel possessive of the things we own.

I love to read good books; I have had some interesting discussions with friends about what makes a book good. I have many bookshelves full of books that I have enjoyed and that I enjoy sharing with others. I lend books out to friends regularly. A physical book is, generally, a low value and easily replaceable item. I often buy my books second hand as I do not need them to be in pristine condition. I have avoided moving to an ebook reader as I wish to be able to share my books around. Why then do I feel irritation when one is not returned? Surely it is better that a book be read than that it gather dust on a bookshelf.

I recently noticed that a few of my much enjoyed books had gone. I remember lending some of them out so approached the lady I thought I had leant them to and asked if she had them. She did not. She had another book of mine and had borrowed one of the missing volumes at another time but returned it. As I lend my books out widely and regularly they could be with any number of people. I felt a sense of embarrassment at having asked for their return. I felt petty and mean, especially when I realised that I had approached the wrong person.

I am as much annoyed by the irritation I feel at the loss of these possessions as about the loss itself. I try to be a generous and giving person and do not wish to concern myself about a few books that I have leant out and that can easily be replaced. When I have finished with some item; toys that my children have outgrown, books that I have read but not enjoyed or clothes that will no longer be worn but that are still in good condition; I gain pleasure from passing them on to someone who will benefit from them. A number of my friends use sites such as ebay to raise money from such things. I have sold a few, small bits and pieces, but found that I gained more satisfaction from passing on freely than from the small sums I raised through sales. When I have expressed this view I have been accused of not appreciating that others have more need of the money than I. Whatever the truth of this, I would not wish to try to influence others behaviour. If they derive satisfaction (and useful money!) from selling items then that is good. I derive satisfaction from giving things away, but only I guess when I have finished with the items myself.

My feeling of loss over a few books cannot be explained in purely monetary terms. In lending out a possession we show trust in the borrower; we show that we wish to share what we have with them. When I have borrowed from a friend I have taken especially good care not to cause damage. Perhaps some of the irritation that can arise from such acts of kindness is in the unknown differences in how a person values an item. There are books that I have leant out that I would happily give away; I do not require them back. There are other, much loved tomes, that I am lending out because I wish to share the enjoyment; I would wish this book to be returned. I cannot expect a borrower to know the difference.

One of my friends keeps a notebook in which she writes down who she lends a book to and when. She also writes her name in her books. Perhaps if the loss of a few books irritates me then I should follow her example. I would prefer, however, to just get over my possessiveness. Good things should be shared and I want to continue to pass on the joy of reading a good book. I wish to cultivate a more generous spirit and not be mean and petty with my possessions.

It is the things that we do not own and cannot replace that have a true value. Our possessions only have a value in the pleasure that we derive from them; it is the pleasure that is of value rather than the thing. Today I will sort through my bookshelves and try to work out which of my books are missing. If I regret their loss then I will replace them. I will remember how fortunate I am that I can do this. I will continue to lend out my favourite books and hope that the pleasure that I derived from reading them can be shared. I will strive to improve myself by cultivating a more generous spirit. How much richer our world would be if all could manage to be just that little bit more giving, not of things, but of themselves.

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