Tuesday, 23 January 2018

"From Christian Friends"

I came roaring at Benedict Ambrose like a bear for he had the post but not my longed-for faux bear-fur hat. The postman had buzzed at the office door only once, we assume, and when no-one answered, he just just left a note saying we could get my package at the local post office. How frustrating.

But B.A. held up a card as if to protect himself from my wrath at the postie, and it contained a gift certificate for Tesco (a British grocery store) and a mysterious message:

"In thankfulness for Mark's recovered health. With love from Christian friends."

Naturally we looked at the postmark to see where these Christian friends had come from, but we had never heard of the town, so the pleasant mystery continued.

Meanwhile, from the very beginning we suspected that these Christian friends are from the Reformed tradition, as in "praying for the living, not for the dead," so let this be a tribute to their faith and gratitude to God on our behalf, bless them. We thank them very much.

Of course, they seem to want to be anonymous and may shun tribute, so I will end with "Praised be Jesus Christ forever and ever, amen."

Monday, 22 January 2018

"Non Moriar, Sed Vivam"

Recently Benedict Ambrose and I received another beautiful card from Emma, who sews habits for the Dominicans. Thank you very much, Emma! We are very touched that you arranged to have MORE Masses said for us.

We really will never be able to sort out whose intercession was the one that brought about B.A.'s "pretty miraculous" recovery! Maybe they all did.

Although there have certainly been ugly moments in the past year--the ugliest stemming from moral weakness or mistakes--there have been many, many, many beautiful ones, too. Some have been provided by readers! Some have been provided by family and friends around us. One was hearing the voice of the local Caregivers' Association representative on the phone.* The most beautiful were provided by Benedict Ambrose himself, when he was simply out of his mind.  One of my favourites was when, one or two nights before the final operation, he stopped fighting against me and food and decided he liked custard.

But he was in his right mind yesterday when he was in the back of church, in his old place in the choir pews, singing the Offertory:

"Dexteram Domine fecit virtutem, dextera Domine exaltavit me:
non moriar, sed vivam, et narrabo opera domine."

(The right hand of the Lord has wrought strength, the right hand of the Lord has exalted me: I shall not die, but live and tell of works of the Lord.")

Me, I burst into tears.

I knew a priest once who preached about wanting to paint smiles on all the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although I liked him a lot and usually found his homilies like manna in the desert, I did not like that. There was a metal sculpture in the centre of that town dedicated to dead and injured workers: it showed a strong, muscular man whose head had been crushed. It was a stark reminder of men throughout the history of the town who had been badly hurt or killed in any kind of dangerous job, and by extension their bereaved parents, wives and children. A smiling Madonna is lovely at Christmas, but when you are going through agony and disaster, the Sorrowful Virgin is the  woman you KNOW really understands.

In the same way, I think, the Traditional Latin Mass really expresses the seriousness of human worship for a God who is both good and terrifying, who permits an inexplicable (and rare) brain tumour to grow and yet who guides a dangerous operation to its optimal end.

And I throw in that plug because a reader  in Toronto wrote in to say that she had gone to a Traditional Latin Mass because I write about it and now goes regularly, because she loves it so much.

In other news: Although I have been making my painful way through the Urdu alphabet, I'm putting further Urdu studies on hold until July. It seems that I am being called to review German for the next few months.

Postscript: B.A.'s being sick, with all the blood, vomit, bumps and scars that it entailed, was not ugly compared to moments when other people's rashness, laziness, impatience, or incompetence--including and especially my own--came into focus. A tumour is sad and scary, but not evil, just as a hurricane is sad and scary, but not (in itself) evil. It is the human response to the illness the tumour causes (or to the hurricane) that is good or evil. I heard that in theology school, and I now I have done the field work, so to speak. It's true.

*What to say to the spouse of a very sick person after asking how the sick person is: "And how are you?" This, I think, is especially true in the UK where medical personnel can sometimes (not always) make you feel less useful or valuable than a seeing-eye dog.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

"Pretty Miraculous"

One last post--I hope--on Benedict Ambrose's late, unlamented brain tumour.

Three months after his last operation, B.A. and I sat across from a brain surgeon, who peered avidly into B.A.'s face and said, "Nothing asymmetrical."

This was the first indication we had had that my husband's face might go asymmetrical after he was released from hospital. Maybe surgeons can't really tell what has happened to your face for a few weeks after they have cut things out of your brain. Or maybe the surgeon was just taking a personal satisfaction in an operation that went even better than he thought it could.

"It's pretty miraculous," said the surgeon.

Afterwards B.A. repeated, "He said the M-word! He said the M-word!"

I wasn't as excited because the "miraculous" had been modified by "pretty", and as happy as I am that B.A. isn't going to die anytime soon, and doesn't have brain damage, and doesn't seem to have nerve damage, I felt guilty that I didn't entirely focus on the canonisation of Venerable Margaret Sinclair when praying for B.A.'s tumour to disappear. In the end, I broke down and used holy oil touched to the bones of two different saints--one bottle sent from Arizona, and the other from Rome--and, really, I asked the Blessed Mother for help quite a lot and also prayed directly to the Source of All Miracles.

Given that as soon as B.A.'s breathing tube was removed he started yelling "Her Immaculate Heart will Triumph!," and he pronounced this at widening intervals over the next three days, I'm kind of thinking this miracle, under God, belongs to the Immaculate Heart.

(Nevertheless, I'll be making one last walking pilgrimage to the shrine of Venerable Margaret Sinclair. With flowers.)

And now life goes on. B.A. will return to work on Friday. He'll be part-time for awhile. He's picked up the permission-to-work letter from the GP.

For a couple of weeks now, he's been washing the dishes, taking out the rubbish and the recycling, and even reading up on the Scottish Enlightenment period, which is one of the nicest parts of his job. We're going on a trip to the Continent next week, and although we will have to tell security people B.A. has a delicate device in his head that can be messed up by magnetic x-rays, we're not expecting any trouble.

He has a zipper-like scar at the back of his neck, which he doesn't mind, and bumps and ridges on his scalp, which he minds less now that he's had a haircut that proves he still has enough hair to cover them.

He doesn't remember very much about the seven months between the diagnosis of his brain tumour and its removal. He's definitely hazy on the various operations in between and he seems to have forgotten all the horrid periods in which his health declined again and I had to beg reluctant doctors to see him. And I'm really glad about this because I remember these times in technicolour detail, and as painful as it was to be me, it was clearly much, much worse to be him.

One of the hardest things for me to wrap my terrified mind around was that the natural order, as I had experienced it, had been turned upside-down. I grew up in a traditional family in which the Dad was rarely ill, never seriously ill, and never unemployed, in both senses of that word. He went to "the office" (which was in a university) to work, and when he came home he went "down to his office" (which was in the cellar) to work some more. When something needed doing around the house, like fixing the washing machine, he did it. All sources of material goods, my stay-at-home mother was very adamant that we children understood, flowed from my father.  Ultimate honour and obedience, under God, belonged to my father. And when finally someone in the family did fall very ill indeed, it was my mother.

You can probably see where I'm going here.

I've always expected to take care of children, and I helped with the bathing and dressing and diapering and spoon-feeding of my youngest brother and sisters and, much less often, of my nephews and niece. But nothing prepared me for carrying out amateur physiotherapy and basic hygiene for my own husband. Or for overriding his complaints that he couldn't, he didn't want to, that hygiene preserves health was a myth, etc. Or for--in the most stressful period of my entire life--taking a full-time job--a very important, specialised and hard-to-get job, too, the answer to a prayer, but also a reversal of the natural order as I know it: the Man is the principal breadwinner, and he takes care of the Woman. Man, the head; Woman, the heart. Man, source of cash. Woman, reading books while doing laundry.

There were many low points, but the one that haunts me today is that, when after a long argument, I got B.A. into a hot bath, he screamed because the porcelain tub hurt him so much.

Oh, and that last bath, in which he simply couldn't get out, so I had to get in myself and pull him out. (That, I know now, was so incredibly dangerous, I should have called an ambulance instead.)

It wasn't like a nightmare from which we couldn't wake up because it was all real, and I knew it, even if the first doctor I spoke to that day didn't know it, or insisted that the last operation had gone so well. And then, believe it or not, a friend sent me an email claiming that mutual friends had entreated her to make a "formal intervention" telling me (in short) that I was culpably negligent in my husband's care. Part of the evidence, apparently, was my blogposts. There was too much about me and my interests, about which nobody gave a ****.

Blogging, which had always been a source of comfort in times of serious stress or depression, had led to this completely unexpected kick in the head by someone I had greatly admired and considered a dear friend. I had just returned home from the hospital to which I had managed to get B.A. admitted, and I couldn't believe my eyes. On the one hand, this person isn't married, and just as happily married 22 year olds don't really understand what it is to be 36 and Single, many lifelong Singles don't really know what "happily married" actually means, or what a spouse's illness does to the other spouse, or how one particular couple habitually interacts. On the other hand--cruel, cruel, CRUEL.

I'm very happy and thankful that B.A. is better. He isn't going to die from the late, unlamented tumour. He hasn't been permanently incapacitated. He's going back to work.  He's recovering. But I have not recovered.

I have not recovered. That's just how it is. And if you don't care because clearly Benedict Ambrose, who does not have a blog, and whose few articles you have never read, is so much more interesting, likeable, and valuable to you than I am, then ask yourselves how you know him at all.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Screen Time, Cookies, Languages

Screen Time 

How many hours do you spend on the internet?

I wrote an article this week about concerned Apple investors who want the company to do something about children's addiction to their iPhones. But as I read their letter, I thought about my own internet habits, and how I worried ten years ago that I was addicted. I thought it had something to do with the short wait between pressing a button and getting the information (or email) I wanted, and made a resolution never to play a slot-machine.

However, now that a growing number of people are worried about children and the internet, and concluding owlishly that parents have to be better models of screen-use, I hypothesise that all human beings are potential internet addicts.

If I don't have a computer around, I don't break into a sweat if I can't check my email. Minus a computer, I can go for days without the internet. However, it feels like a nice treat to pop into an Internet cafe and see what email is waiting for me.

It's weird, isn't it?

Yesterday I started to track my screen time, and I thought that it wouldn't be very much because it was a Sunday, a day off from work. At the end of the day, I totalled up 4 hours, 45 minutes, plus 1.5 hours of watching television. So that was 6 hours, 15 minutes.

It's been 32 minutes today already.


The Christmas cookie eating ended when my parents went back to Canada. It was lovely while it lasted, but now it is time to repair the damage. This year's method of post-Christmas slimming involves intermittent fasting (16-8) and a low-carb diet. If the scale is correct, I have lost almost 5 pounds so far.

We have a friend who is an intense keto dieter, and this entails eating a lot of meat and abstaining from sugar, grains, potatoes, etc. I looked up "keto desserts" that eschew artificial sweeteners as well as maple syrup and date syrup, but in the end the only ones that don't sound awful involve Greek yogurt or whipped cream and raspberries. I was hoping that I would find something clever involving carrots or celeriac, which both taste very sweet to me now. However, I think the most thoughtful way forward, when one has invited a keto dieter to supper, is to serve the cheese course at the same time as the pudding, assure the keto-er that they need not have any pudding at all, and supply him or her with a square of 90%-100% chocolate with their coffee.

One difficulty I have with the temptation to "go keto" myself is that B.A. and I are going to Kraków later this month, where there are such delicious rose-jam doughnuts, potato pancakes, cream cake (the kremówka so beloved by Saint John Paul II), and pierogi that it seems a shame not to eat them. Of course, being already on a low-carb diet, I shouldn't eat them anyway--unless in small amounts so as not to get sick. Maybe I will let B.A. do the honours to the carbs, and I will pay my respects to the vast range of Cracowian meats--oh, and the grilled oczszepek cheese.


I have now read Chapter 11 of The Magician's Nephew in Polish (i.e. Siostrzeniec Czarodzieja), and will spend the next few days looking up the words I don't know and memorising the ones that seem most useful.

Something interesting happened last week--it took me a much shorter time to read and to finish looking up the vocabulary for Chapter 10, and then Chapter 11 had significantly fewer words I didn't know. I have read that language acquisition involves sudden jumps in improvement, and my experience bears that out. This seems to be one of them.

Meanwhile, I have begun memorising the Urdu alphabet.

I have now spent an hour on the internet, so off I go.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Skating and its Aftermath

Happy New Year! I am relatively motionless in an armchair for the second day in a row, having hurt my right shoulder on December 27 and not doing anything about it until yesterday.

I am typing with my right elbow jammed against the side of this conveniently designed chair so that my shoulder doesn't move.

The injury came about because of skating. Last week I went skating in Edinburgh's St. Andrew's Square with my mother and brother and a young family with children, and it was wonderfully warm. It was so warm that the ice kept melting and refreezing, so that every scratch and tear in the surface instantly healed as if by magic. It was constantly a centimetre deep in water, and it made for fantastic skating, even with picks on the ends of the purple plastic rental skates.

Suddenly I realised that I was good at something I'd forgotten, having learned how to skate at the age of four and having been enrolled in an ice hockey league at 11 or 12, or whenever it was. I was a terrible player, but I was a good, fast skater. And, lo, even with picks on the ends of the rental skates, I quickly returned to my teenage facility on the ice, skating forwards and backwards and generally speeding about like Gaetan Boucher while all about me Scots tottered and fell. Not only was skating over that constantly self-smoothing ice a marvellous feeling, a fellow ex-pat popped up unexpectedly and witnessed my triumphant flight.

But alas! I turned up at the rink a week later to experience the magic again, and the ice was in a shocking state. It was very, very cold, so the ice could not heal itself, and if the ice had been cleaned before opening that day, I would be very surprised to hear it. And then there were those stupid picks on the ends of the purple plastic rental skates. Before long they caught on the pitted surface, and I fell. And fell again. And then fell with an almighty crash with--bizarrely, since I was taught better than this over 35 years ago--one arm out to stop my fall. That was it for Ms. Right Shoulder.

"Are ye all right?" demanded a blue-eyed old man with a wide grin as I dragged myself to a bench. He was not skating himself, so I suspected him of having a kinky interest in watching women fall down and hurt themselves. I sat down until I established that my arm was not broken, and then I went back on the ice to finish my allotted time.

Afterwards I went on a cafe crawl with my brother Quadrophonic, and then next day the Historical Household went to the countryside for two days, so I didn't do anything about my shoulder, except not do any work. On Saturday, however, I was in enough pain that I had a meltdown to my ex-pat pal about my Lot in Life, and on Sunday morning I telephoned the NHS 24 hour hotline.

I hoped very much nobody would advise me to go to an Emergency department, and nobody did. Instead they told me to take paracetamol and ibuprofen at intervals all day, and so I did. And I am doing the same today. And it is marvellous.

Sitting immobile in an armchair popping pills and reading novels because you have to is a great way to end the old year. It is also a good way to begin the new year. Well, after an hour of Polish review and my first lesson in Urdu because, never mind a new year, there is no better way to start a morning than with  a good helping of brain training.

Życzę wszystkiego najlepszego w nowym roku (& *نیا سال مبارک ہو ) !

*We will have to trust Google Translate on this: lesson one was very basic.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas at the Historical House

First, here is a much better post on the subject of Christmas in an old house. It is by Hilaire Belloc.

I know it is much better than my post before my post comes into being because I am terribly, terribly tired. I am often tired by sunset Christmas Eve and again by Christmas Night, but this was the first Christmas Eve I was tired when I woke up. And I was tired this morning until I went out and walked two miles.

This was not the first Christmas I had hysterics because of a kitchen failure; that has happened at least twice before, years ago. However, it was the first Christmas I had hysterics on Christmas Eve. It was the trifle what done it: the custard I had made from scratch didn't set. I fled from the kitchen and wailed--deep, loud sobs--in the bedroom until I remembered the box of shop custard left over from my most recent attempt to fatten up B.A. I then got up and found my mother cheerfully preparing the custard, having already cut up the cake in 1 inch pieces.

I went to bed soon after. It was fortunate we had planned to go to the Third Mass of Christmas, at noon, not the First, at midnight.

My mother made the Sacred Christmas Bun. She woke up at 6:30 AM to bake it, which was very nice for me, as it meant I didn't have to do it.

Christmas Dinner was splendid: Autumn Vegetable soup with thyme from the planters outside the house; honey-glazed curried carrots; green beans with red pepper and almonds; roast goose stuffed with lemons, potatoes, rosemary and thyme;  cranberry relish; the trifle; mince tarts; mixed nuts; white white, red wine, ice wine. There were five of us to consume it--three had flown from Canada to do so.

After a rest, I left the family in front of "Scrooged" and washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. I was very pleased and proud about my clean kitchen afterwards. Despite the odd attack of hysterics this year and that, I really do enjoy baking Christmas treats and making Christmas dinner. However, I have discovered this year that I was too tired from working 8 hour days, 5 days a week to really enjoy the kitchen marathon. I do not know how other women who work full-time manage it all.

This morning I put away the dishes and then went for a walk by the Firth of Forth, and I felt very glad of the fresh air and exercise. Writing news full-time is a very indoor pursuit. Eventually I found a cafe that was actually open, and a woman in it made me a cappuccino, and I was very glad of that too. Then I walked home and suggested to my mother, brother, and husband that we walk by way of the cycle paths to central Edinburgh, leaving early enough so as to get there before dark (i.e. 4 PM). They agreed, so we all had a splendid walk through the remnants of countryside between the Historical House and the city.

But I won't do the dishes tonight. I am done with washing/cooking/cleaning for the next 24 hours. And, on a week's furlough from the Culture Wars, I will spend as much time outside as possible for the next six days.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Secrets of Learning Languages Part Two B

I may be awfully stupid, but it took me years to drop the idea that one can learn languages simply by
attending courses. It never occurred to me that successful language learning takes an enormous amount of private work, parcelled into a long series of manageable tasks. Today I suspect I could learn even mathematics, so long as the plan of work was divided into sufficiently small parts.

That's why I am hesitant in recommending language classes. However, it cannot be denied that formal classes are a good resource, if only because you have at least one fluent person in front of you serving as a model.

University Classes (Day)

At nineteen, I believed firmly that you found languages came easily or you were dumb at them. Thus, I wasted a lot of time shedding tears over my Greek textbook, feeling stupid and hating myself. I did much better at Latin, which which I was already somewhat familiar. I flunked Irish outright, in part because I hated the sound of myself struggling with the words and so ceased trying. Lord, it was awful to be nineteen.

Were I to wake up and discover myself nineteen again, only--please God--without the fear and the crippling self-hated, I would sign up for Russian and Business and work towards becoming a multi-millionaire. I would locate and befriend my best friend Trish on the proper day, but otherwise I would keep my head down, make a workable plan and memorise, memorise, memorise, speak, speak, speak.

Undergrad university programs are valuable for their resources. Both my universities (Toronto and Boston College) had excellent language labs, but unfortunately I never used the Toronto one. I often used the BC one a for French and German, which seemed to make the Language Lab Librarian happy. They also have exchange programs with other universities, and this is important because apparently immersion really does the fluency trick. Finally, they have professors who are so potty about their languages they did PhDs in them and now need to justify their courses' existence with the numbers of students who take them. Thus if you show yourself keen, they will love you and help you with all their power.

University Classes (Night)

I am a morning person, and I am afraid to be out after dark on my own. Nevertheless, I went to night classes at Edinburgh University for five years to learn Polish and brush up my Italian. The principal Polish instructor is a very dedicated and very clever teacher. If she could make her students fluent in Polish sheerly though teaching, she would.

However, the two big problems with night school classes are that (A) you are surrounded by people who also don't speak your target language fluently and, more seriously, (B) there are no tests.

No tests, no grades. I suspect the "Languages for All" program is shrewdly thinking that adult learners hated tests and grades when they are students, and now just want the fun parts of learning. I sympathise. But testing is HOW we memorise and grading is HOW we can judge our progress. We cannot learn to speak languages very well without testing our recollection. Every foreign language conversation is a kind of test.

In despair I asked my night class teacher if any of her night school students had become fluent in Polish, and after thinking about it awhile, she said yes--one. I think he was Dutch.

But despite that depressing statistic, under her watch Polish night school courses are flourishing. There is a sort of Dumbledorska's Army at Edinburgh Uni marching onward and onward towards fluency, never quitting, no matter how many years they have signed up with Languages for All.

If I were starting Polish 1.2 all over again,  I would make all the vocabulary in Dumbledorska's excellent class materials into flashcards, memorise them, and then read her meticulously written dialogues aloud to captive Polish friends, or cajole them into reading them with me.

Another advantage of night classes is that if you take them long enough, you find yourself with a small band of people just as obsessed as yourself and who (unlike other family and friends) admire you for your stubbornness. And if your mutual obsession is Polish--Hej, chłopcy, bagnet na broń just about sums it up because you are actually becoming Polish by osmosis.

Private Tutors

I have had six private Polish tutors, and one Italian one, and only three of them have been paid. In general I have operated on an Language Exchange basis: I proofread your university papers, you listen to me read Polish.

Paid-in-cash tutors are the best tutors, in my experience, for a few reasons. First, tutors who are friends are too kind and gentle and, unwilling to see me suffer, let me give up too soon.

(That said, one of my friends has been an enormous help by writing me long letters in Polish in difficult handwriting. Although the handwriting has occasionally reduced me to tears, it turns out that the longer it takes to read a word, the better you recall it. Thus there is a virtue in chicken-scratch handwriting hitherto unappreciated.)

Second, paid-in-cash tutors have skin in the game, as the kids say. Mine seem very conscientious, too.

The advantages of paid tutelage over night school classes are very important to me:

1. you, and you alone, are in the linguistic spotlight for the lesson and you have no place to hide;
2. you can meet your tutor at the time of day you are most brainy and/or comfortable;
3. you can reschedule meetings, so you never lose your money's worth; and
4. at the advanced level, you can just have conversations for most of the lesson, which is the best way to reach your linguistic goal, if that is to have conversations with native speakers. *

The disadvantage is that going to a tutor costs more than going to class, if you are the sort of person who never misses a class.

I'm very grateful for my five years of Dumbledorska's night school classes, and I do plan to return from furlough when it's feasible, but I have to say that my ability to converse in Polish has really come along only since I began:

1. lessons with my current tutor,
2. to read a chapter of the Polish translation of The Magicians' Nephew a week with
3. strict attention to the meanings of ALL the words and
4. memorising 5-10 of the new ones every day with
5. meticulous record keeping.

*You don't need a tutor for Latin. Work though Wheelock, then purchase an advanced grammar and a good dictionary, and get to work translating Caesar, Horace and Cicero.