Month: September 2015

How Did It Get So Late So Soon?

I’m 54 years old but I won’t be for long.  The middle-aged bell is tolling and it tolls for me – am I really half a century old?  We all know that Time and Tide Wait for No Man, as St Marher so very nearly said many centuries ago (round about 1225.)   St Marher is credited with coming up with this medieval gem, when what he actually said was:

‘And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet’
(and the time and the tide that you were born shall be blessed)  :-

which, besides not rolling off the tongue in quite the same way, doesn’t mean the same thing at all.  But apparently the saintly Marher got the whole time and tide thing going before Geoffrey Chaucer hit the nail on the head a century later giving us this more recognisable version:

‘For though we sleep or wake, or roam, or ride, time forever flees away; it will tarry for no person.’

Yes we’re all obsessed with Time.  We pass time, spend time, kill time, waste time, take time off, hit hard times and always run out of our allotted time, here on earth.  I’ve got 13 clocks in my house – I counted them (I must get another one as that’s probably very unlucky.)  There’s the 1930’s mechanical clock on the mantelpiece. There are the digital clocks on the telly, the laptop, the iPad, on two computers, the microwave, three mobile phones and the oven.  Then there’s the kitchen clock on the wall and the alarm clock in the bedroom.   And I constantly glance at almost all of them, even though I’m in no particular hurry and have no particular place to go.

Time, as Einstein pointed out, is relative and I don’t need to verify any equations to know that he was right.  It seems like just a couple of years ago that I was 40, waking up on that particular birthday with a feeling of dread.  My diary entry for the day reads like something from a Gothic novel, including the sentiment ‘I’m very old now.’   Oh get a grip woman, you were just 40 years old for goodness sake and here you are fourteen years later, strangely feeling younger than you did then.

I know that various kinds of stuff happened during the years between 40 and 54 but they’ve mostly been erased from the memory banks (thank goodness for my riveting personal diary installments) – like my final year uni exams and graduation day.   I seriously cannot remember a thing about those two events, which is pretty scary.  I’ve tried conjuring up images from those times.  Tried to see myself sitting exams and walking across the graduation stage to collect the certificate and I just can’t do it.  One of the most, supposedly, important days of my life has been successfully filched from the grey matter by Time.  There’s no photographic evidence either to help jog my non-existent memories – 1982 being before we felt societal pressure to upload our every movement to anonymous servers somewhere in North Carolina.

Similarly my wedding day is a forgotten blur.  If I didn’t have a shaky video of myself going in and out of the church, I’d seriously question if I’m actually married.

There are 5113.39 days contained within the 14 years between 40 and 54 and I can clearly remember about 75 of them.  What on earth happened to those thousands of other days?  Where did they go?  I know I lived through them because I’m still here to tell the forgotten tale, but it’s as though I’ve been travelling on a train that only occasionally stopped at a place I can remember, and that train seems to be travelling faster and faster.

Time is linear (apparently this is debatable) but it doesn’t seem to be.   When I look back, as I frequently do being prone to nostalgia, the past doesn’t come at me in a nicely ordered series of well-remembered events.  Rather the life-enhancing events, and the cataclysmic ones, seem to randomly stand out in astonishing clarity against a backdrop of stuff that mostly took place in the shadows.

After my first son was born he was whisked away for a post-birth procedure and then whisked back in again, a scrunched up little thing with his eyes firmly shut – and suddenly he opened them.  I remember the shock of those slate grey eyes, feeling like I was looking into the face of something alien from whichever planet babies come from (yes I do know where babies come from.)  27 years later and that son walks into the room and I can barely remember him at any other age; and yet the memory of the first time he opened his eyes is clear and present.

I’ve always been obsessed by Time.  The way it sometimes speeds up, or slows down (like when I’m covered in toxic hair dye for 20 long minutes, at the hairdressers, praying that I won’t go into anaphylactic shock.)  The way it sometimes stands absolutely still and leaves a memory imprinted on the mind that will never fade.  The way you can never hold on to the moment; or this moment; or that moment, the one that just went – forget it, we’ll be here all day.

I’ve kept a diary for 42 years.  Just a mundane account of an ordinary life, only missing the university years, which probably accounts for the permanent memory loss of that time.  If you want to remember your miniscule time on this planet then keeping a diary is probably the most important thing you can do, because Time will fly, and you will forget almost everything, because Time is a master thief, leaving no evidence behind.

It’s why, however old a person gets, their time on earth just never seems to be enough, because most of those years disappeared without trace, sucked into the Space-Time continuum or into a Time Wormhole thingy – wherever stuff that you can’t remember goes.   An old person (even older than me) will often be heard reminiscing about times gone by as though it all happened just yesterday.   I may be 80/90/100 these ridiculously old people will say but I feel like I’m still 18 – as though those 70 odd years in between NEVER HAPPENED.

And that’s exactly what Time does to you.  When I was 23 I used to think people in their 30’s were OLD and PAST IT (seriously I really thought this, I have diary-based evidence.)  And then suddenly I was 40, and now suddenly I’m 54 and, with equal suddenness, I’ll soon be into my eighties (if I’m lucky.)  Old age is starting to look like it’s not that old after all.

Some oddball scientists believe that Time may not be linear and may not exist.  You can’t blame them because nobody knows what Time is.  We measure it via seconds, minutes and hours but that’s only imposing a perceived order on something which is intangible.  Most normal scientists however believe that Time does exist and that the evidence of our senses is enough to tell us that events always move forward.  That the image of that fruit cake must have followed on from all that sticky gunge in the mixing bowl (I’ve been watching too much Bake Off) and it’s mostly NEVER the other way around, unless you have the baking skills of a wardrobe.  They believe that Time travels forwards in one direction like an arrow – never upwards, backwards or sideways.

Attempts are being made to apply quantum theory to Time; to break it down to its tiniest components, one of which is a femtosecond.  (Warning: layperson’s (me) sciencey stuff coming up.)  A femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second.  We can’t visualise a femtosecond, being as there’s no ‘femtosecond’ hand on your average wrist watch, and if there were it’d be useless because you wouldn’t be able to see it.  To get an idea of how impossibly teeny-tiny a femtosecond is you could say that a  femtosecond is to a second what a second is to the time spent sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting to be called for an appointment at 2.00 pm,  32 million years into the future (which is sometimes the only time you can get an appointment.)

By quantifying Time the boffins presumably one day hope to discover if there is a finite split-second out there, which can’t be split any further, implying that there could be an infinitesimal gap between those seconds, meaning that Time passes in discrete quantum steps rather than flowing smoothly like a river (what?)  i.e. (more rubbishy, layperson science stuff coming up)  –  that presumably there would be gaps of absolute nothingness in between all those ever so tiny, they’re almost invisible seconds.  That maybe Time moves along like those cartoon flip books, femtosecond after femtosecond, creating the illusion of seamless reality.

And I’m thinking that if Time is full of these invisible holes then that’s probably where all those lost days go and all those lost memories.  That maybe Time is a gigantic sieve and the routine boring stuff mostly falls through, leaving behind the things that really matter.

Dr Seuss summed it all up rather brilliantly:

How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.*
How did it get so late so soon?


*that’s not a typo

Try Singing It Instead

We live in politically correct times.  Every difference must be incorporated into the homogeneous whole.  Every obnoxious, recalcitrant school-age child must be kowtowed to and understood.  Provision must be made for every disability in and outside the workplace.  The disabled grace our screens in an attempt to normalise the wheelchair; normalise physical deformity; normalise those that fall outside society’s norms.  And thank the….. (whoever we Atheists give thanks to) that things have slowly changed.

As Jim Carrey frequently said  (in Bruce Almighty)

Yes IT’S GOOOOD!!!’, except it isn’t all good.  Have you ever seen a TV presenter with a stammer?  Have you ever been greeted by a receptionist with a stammer?   Have you been cold-called by a stammerer?   Did your teacher stammer?   How many people in your workplace stammer?

I stammer and therefore I am; by which I mean, I’m pretty much defined by the way I speak (or try to speak.)   I’m lucky though because the rest of me ‘works’ – I can see, walk, hear and run (at a push)   and yet a sometimes severe speech hesitancy has effectively controlled and informed the way I live my entire life.

Stammering is a difficult one.  Most stammerers look normal – and some look like movie stars:  Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Harvey Keitel,  Sam Neill, Emily Blunt,  James Earl Jones (ironically in possession of one of the most celebrated voices on the planet) all stammered but, unlike the rest of the non-hollywood stammering club, they managed a miraculous cure.

Emily Blunt works with the American Institute for Stuttering.  Her stammer (or stutter in American) surfaced at the age of 7/8, becoming problematic at age 12/13 (mine followed the exact same pattern) before ending completely in her teenage years (mine didn’t) when a teacher suggested she try acting, in particular adopting a different accent, as a way of controlling her impediment – and it worked.  But those childhood years, when she was rendered almost mute (James Earl Jones did become mute) by her speech impediment, made a lasting impression on the actress, spurring her on to help those still afflicted well into adulthood.

The fact that Emily Blunt chooses to discuss stammering at all is a revelation, because stammering is not talked about in the media and the number one reason it’s not talked about is that the people afflicted lack the ability to talk about it.

Imagine dreading almost every situation where you are required to answer simple, basic questions via the spoken word.  A couple of days ago I was painting the bedroom walls, content and happy (except for the nagging worry of forthcoming routine mammogram results, but that’s a whole other post.)  I was happy because physical labour requires zero communication skills.  Mid-paint and the door knocked.  A courier, delivering a package for next door.  Would I take the package and what’s my surname?    In a split second I went from calm person who paints to a deer caught in the headlights.  My surname begins with a consonant, and I block severely on the hard consonants.  I had to tell him my surname, he was ready and waiting, proffering the digital signing thingy as he spoke.  Briefly I toyed with the idea of pretending to be deaf, or dumb, or even inventing a new surname, one that preferably began with a vowel – and then I tried to speak.  He thought he’d misheard.  ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that’, he said, whilst I gradually lost all eye contact.  I tried again.  He repeated the name as it sounded to him;  ‘n-n-n-no, s-s-s-sorry, it’s …..’  I said, trying again, with an effort more usually reserved for weight lifting.  After several seconds (which seemed like an eternity) he heard the correct name, I signed and he left.  I closed the door.  Standing in the hallway I breathed normally again and told myself that it didn’t matter what strangers think of me; that a stammer is not a serious disease; that at least I’m not one of those fleeing refugees.  But in that previous, brief moment of acute shame and embarrassment, none of those reasons seemed to matter.

But a stammer can be serious.  Ok, it doesn’t kill you, unless you decide to kill yourself.  Dominic Barker, a 26 year old with two degrees killed himself in 1994 after an interviewer told him he would never get a job unless he cured himself; you know, like the wheelchair users could walk again if only they put their minds to it.  Ok, you don’t have to take dangerous drugs to control it but its effects are insidious and, in many cases, it can and does ruin the potential of someone’s life.

Run through any series of job adverts, in any field you care to choose, and a theme will become apparent.  Must have excellent communication skills is the war cry of every job search page.  Maybe you’ve got your degree, maybe even a PhD.  Maybe you’re the smartest, most full of talent person on the planet, but you lack the one thing the workplace environment values the most – COMMUNICATION SKILLS – because you stammer dammit.

It would be lovely to mention the stammer during the, mostly, online application process, because telling people you stammer beforehand lessens the embarrassment, lessens the shock-factor, lessens the having to explain why you’re coming over as something from a freak show.  And nowadays the telephone interview has become part of the overall selection process; even when applying for internships lasting roughly 6 weeks.  Could they have invented a more hellish selection process for the stammerer than one that relies solely on the sound of your voice?

But admitting you stammer on an application form is not easy because, uniquely, a stammer is seen as somehow your fault.  This disabling speech problem is not seen as a disability at all.  If you just pulled yourself together you’d be the life and soul of the fluent-speak party.   Heck even those who stammer feel it’s their fault – despite the fact that recent research has shown that stammering is almost always genetic.  That most stammering runs in families and does not indicate a psychological problem, or a childhood trauma, or an inability to cope with life.  That most stammerers are perfectly normal, well-adjusted people.  The speech part of their brains just processes speech in a different, less efficient way than the non-stammering population.

More depressingly, research also shows that stammerers earn significantly less than non-stammerers, because those who are well educated can be found in more ‘menial’ jobs where excellent communication skills are not the first requirement.

But I stammer so I must have a serious character flaw (I’m prone to thinking) when there’s no obvious physical or neurological reason for this inability to speak.  Maybe I’m a weak person – I must be because I can’t do something as simple as stopping stammering.   Beneath the fact of the stammer lies all this low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, brought on by the stammer.  Anxiety does not cause a stammer (as many people seem to think) – the stammer generates the anxiety.  In other areas of my life I will be confident where others would fear to tread.  I will sing in public.  I will write job applications for friends that I know will guarantee them a job interview.  I will edit essays, knowing that I CAN DO THIS.  I will press ‘publish’ on these posts for the blog that no one reads, even ones that contain rubbishy works of art, only hesitating for a moment.

But combine a stammer with anxiety (stammering and social anxiety walk pretty much hand in hand) and I feel a constant need to apologise to everybody for the fact that my mouth doesn’t seem to co-ordinate with my brain.  To apologise for the fact that they’re having to wait for me to get my words out, that I’ve interrupted the flow of a group conversation, that I can’t do something that everyone else on the entire planet does without thinking, and with ease.

Try singing it instead,’ someone said to me a couple of months ago.  I didn’t mind this advice except for the fact that it was given ‘in my face’, in a group setting at a volume that everyone could comfortably hear, causing silence to fall and all eyes to rest on ME.  So I smiled and let it go, even though all I wanted to say was: ‘Is singing everything really an answer?  Do you really think going through life like you’re in the Sound of Music is going to work?’

‘Why do you stammer?’ some people will ask – like I have a choice in the matter. ‘Do you have brain damage?’ one GP practice nurse asked, in the kind of slow, emphatic way people sometimes use to speak to the deaf or to someone who’s not all there.   Whilst being fitted for glasses the optician asked my name, not bothering to look up.  Whilst I silently blocked, attempting to get my name out, he suddenly said ‘what’s the matter are you deaf?  and finally looked at me.  Wondering how a deaf person would have reacted to his non-caring and impatient manner, I carried on trying to get the words out; trying to be normal, trying to fit in, trying not to slap him across his uncaring face.

After university (another stammering nightmare) I obviously had to work; had to do something with my life so I became a secretary.  This was in the days when people were employed to type, take shorthand etc.  For 3 years I did office admin stuff (happily because filing, typing letters etc doesn’t require speech.)  But sometimes I had to answer the phone.

For the average stammerer the phone is a tool of the Devil. The fear I felt when left alone in the office with The Phone was palpable.  In those moments the room would shrink down so that the only visible thing in the place was the loomingly large, black office phone.


Unable to concentrate on anything else I would sit there waiting for the thing to ring.  Waiting in a cold sweat because I knew I couldn’t say the obligatory company name when answering the phone.  This inability led one Manager, unfortunate enough to get me on the phone, to ring my boss and demand that I be sacked immediately as stuttering maniacs weren’t part of the company’s image.  My reaction to this was to go in the next day, looking much smarter than I usually did, and confront my boss with the news that I didn’t stammer on purpose, I didn’t do it to make the company look bad and that this Manager was wrong to call for my enforced redundancy for something that was beyond my control.  But the stammer was a problem.  Frequently I found myself facing discrimination in the workplace for something I couldn’t help;  like the person who can’t help being in a wheelchair; the person who can’t help that they’re feeling like ending it all; the person who can’t help that he’s dyslexic, deaf or blind.

And every night would be spent lying in bed worrying about all the following days activities that required speech in the workplace, causing a knot of anxiety in my stomach and an inability to sleep.

But that was 28 years ago; maybe things have changed.  And most people were accommodating.  Most people are NICE when confronted with the stammer.  They’ll offer to finish my words for me; or ask if it’s ok to finish my words for me.  They’ll tell me to slow down, that maybe my brain is going too fast for my mouth (some stammerers don’t like this approach, it doesn’t bother me.)  They won’t look away.  They’ll maintain eye contact whilst I struggle for breath and the words.  And sometimes they’ll tell me they barely notice my stammer anymore, even though I know that’s not true.

And I’m lucky, very lucky.  I have a caring husband (it still amazes me that somebody was willing to take on somebody with a stammer.)   I left work to look after our children and he never once brought up the fact that he was now the sole breadwinner, because he knew how difficult being a stammerer in the outside world had been.  He makes all our phone calls, orders my meals in restaurants, sometimes answers for me when meeting new people.

And I know that we’re all supposed to face our fears and just get on with it but, unfortunately, I’m a giver-upper, a quitter, a throw-the-towel-in-because-I’ve-had-enough kind of person.  And sometimes it’s just easier to get by with a little help from our friends.

Stammering is a frustrating problem.  Sometimes, inexplicably, the words just flow.  Sometimes the effort to speak is so great that you just give up.  Modern technology has been a godsend.  Texting, email, messaging and Skype have saved my a-a-a-awkward, s-s-s-stammering life.  I can book and buy stuff online, without using the dreaded phone.  I can text friends and acquaintances.  I can Skype my sons and bore them with fluent, inane, motherly chatter.

And I’m pretty sure that the reason I write, and the reason I love writing is because I stammer.   The written word flows.  There’s no hesitancy, no disruption, no embarrassment, no shame.   The words trip off the pen – or the keyboard.  Writing is freedom and writing is power.

This connection between stammering and the written word must be no coincidence.  The list of authors who stammered is long and surprising:

Lewis Carroll
Arnold Bennett
Somerset Maugham
Aldous Huxley
Elizabeth Bowen
Philip Larkin (who also happened to be the librarian at my university)
Henry James
Charles Kingsley

Would a cancer sufferer/victim of racism/refugee fleeing a war torn country/those confined to a wheelchair swap places with a stammerer?   Probably and in a heartbeat.

E-e-everyone has pro-pro-problems.  Maybe s-s-s-stammering is not such a s-s-s-serious pro-pro-problem  after all.  It j-j-j-just s-s-s-s-sometimes feels like it is.

(give me a moment and I’ll try singing that instead.)


Art Stuff

Dear Blog

As you’ve entirely supplanted the real-world diary I kept for years and years, I thought I would start including (occasionally) some personal type stuff in amongst my very, very interesting posts; the ones which always receive lots of comments and such like (thanks Dad for my one cherished comment.)

Drawing is something I’ve done sporadically since my teens,  Trying to paint those drawings is something I tried doing only a few years ago, spurred into action by son No.3’s GCSE in Art (with the exception of a stint at oil painting, when pregnant with son No.2, to which I attribute his creative talents.)  I’ve never taken an art class and my art teacher at school was distinctly underwhelmed by my efforts, advising me against studying Art at ‘O’ level, let alone A level.  I don’t know any drawing techniques or painting techniques.  This little painting hobby surfaced over the years, to sink back down again, until Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year came on the telly and I caught the painting bug again.

Sky’s arty-farty competition led me to spend a couple of months last year avidly watching YouTube videos on how to paint, using water colours, oils and acrylics.  I watched genius people at work; one genius in particular, working in oils, whose time-lapsed portraits made it seem as though a real person was about to step out from the canvas.  They all assured me that absolutely everyone can draw and paint – all it takes is practice.

Maybe I can paint I thought (until I gave it a go) realising that most people can’t draw and paint.  I can’t mix colours right, I can’t do proper shading.  Hair that looks like hair defeats me.  I concentrated on portraiture because I like drawing faces for some reason, and it turns out that drawing people’s faces is possibly the hardest thing on the planet.  Seriously, drawing and painting landscapes/still life is a doddle compared to getting somebody’s eyes, nose, ears and mouth in the right place.

Here is a series of photos showing some of the stages of a painting (I’m using the term ‘painting’ loosely here) I did over a couple of days this week.  I use the alarmingly non-artistic combo of acrylic paint and cheap, kids’ felt tip pens.  Acrylic paint is wonderful stuff.  It can be used like oil, by bunging it straight on out of the tube, or like a watercolour paint if you water it down. You can paint over previously painted areas over and over again.  It dries almost instantaneously which is a bit of a pain, but not a problem when you’re a total amateur and don’t know what you’re doing anyway.  The felt tips allow me to define an image and to also hide the pencil outlines of the original drawings; of which there are usually many.  I find it impossible to paint anything straight on to paper/canvas/board without having a drawn base.

I used a cheap sort of very thick cardboard for this picture, which comes in packs of 6 from W H Smiths.

I paint from photographs, not having the skill to paint from real life.  I took photos of the various stages of this impressive work of art throughout my house, because I worked on the sketching part all over the house, in-between doing the washing up etc.

The first attempts at drawing this image were too horrific to put on here as the young lady, in the photograph I used, turned out looking more like a ‘grotesque’ from one of those Victorian freak shows.  This always happens when I start drawing anyone.  They look like they’d be more at home in a film about the walking dead.  I always wonder where to start first.  With an outline of the head?  With the hair?  Placing the features roughly where they’re supposed to go?  After much rubbing out this version appeared.  Version 1 had no shoulders.

Version 1

caroline image 1

After deciding that version 1 looked too grown up, when the young woman in the photograph used still retains a very girlish quality, I tried de-aging the sketch which resulted in losing any likeness to the subject at all and completely cocking up version 1, which led to an art-inspired panic because I’d rubbed out most of version 1 with no hope of ever getting it back.  Shoulders appeared.

Version 2

image 3

This version resulted in better shoulder width/proportions and slightly better placed facial features (proportions/perspective are very very difficult, I find) but still looked a bit old, not to mention the pencil marks I was putting all over the neck area in an attempt to draw a proper neck.

I gave up on the neck at this point and further tried going for a younger look, losing the likeness to the subject entirely in the process, but cheered myself up by adding a butterfly.

Version 3 (woman and fan/hallway)

image 5Further improvements which weren’t improvements.  Particularly the chin which was on the point of disappearing.

Version 4 (woman with bananas)

image 6First painting spell.  If any artists ever land on the blog that no one reads, I’d be really grateful if they could tell me how my previous sketches suddenly turned into this, because I have no idea what happened.  It’s very amateurish I know, and very cartoon-like (which my painting always is because I don’t know how to paint), but it looks much younger that the previous versions and more actually like the person I was trying to paint.

Version 5

image 7And then the final version looked like this taking me completely by surprise, which is strange considering I painted it.  It’s not a proper painting (I know this because I checked out The Royal Society of Portrait Painters.)   I can’t create texture with paint, everything looks very flat and I used black felt tip (for heavens sake) to define the strands of hair etc which must be a real artistic No-No.

I shall carry on with the painting (other paintings that is, not this one) regardless, adding updates when, and if, they happen.