Thursday, 29 August 2013

Signed off - my last visit to Dr Curtis in London

Actually, that's a pretty inaccurate post title. There was nothing to sign, and it won't necessarily be my last visit. But, subject to any future need to consult him, this was my last regular visit in a series that began in December 2008. I have now moved off Dr Curtis' 'active' list of patients, and will henceforth consult him only 'as needed', and will not see him at regular intervals any more. No more letters reminding me that a visit is due. My records will be preserved, and not wiped. He will write to my doctor to confirm the new arrangement.

And to recommend no change in my current hormone regime.

He was satisfied with my latest test results - see the post Hormone Balance on 15 August - and remarked that at this stage (after more than four years on hormones) I should be focussed on maintaining my female look, rather than creating it, or enhancing it. Indeed, too much oestradiol would risk such things as breast cancer, and possibly other health risks. A lowish dose was sufficient. At some point natal women came off their HRT, but I could not. It was not known what the consequences of taking feminising hormones lifelong were. He was glad that my doctor was so co-operative and monitoring me closely, with six-monthly or annual blood tests, depending on what was being tested for. So was I. It was a major reason to stick with that practice, and not move away from my village.

Really, the only physical problem I had was that I was a bit overweight. It was a stable condition - my weight now was exactly the same as twelve months ago - but it would do no harm to get myself in hand. And the two obvious solutions (reduction of sugar and fat intake; and more exercise) were simply waiting for the right motivation. Such as wanting to impress someone very special.

We parted on very cordial terms. I felt he had seen me through a difficult phase of my life. I was very grateful. I felt properly 'finished' now.

It struck me, as I left the building, that all day long I had moved through one social situation after another that would have had the 2008 self in a panic. Seated on a packed train all the way to London; the ladies' loo at Victoria; an Underground journey cheek by jowl with all kinds of people; a visit to a popular national gallery (The Tate Modern); a walk over the Thames on a crowded pedestrian footbridge; another Underground journey; a walk through John Lewis. Under scrutiny all the time. All done without thinking. The 2013 self could function rather well as an ordinary woman, a woman who did everything that other women do, and I felt myself wondering why I wasn't taking full advantage of the fact. I should be pushing the boat out.

On the train back home, there were three presentable men in my part of the carriage. Two were doing something on a laptop or tablet. One was engaged in emailing somebody on their phone. From time to time, they looked me over, and then continued with their work, obviously not seeing anything more than a harmless middle aged woman. I wondered what would happen if something occurred to make us all start talking. I rather looked forward to an incident that would halt the train - a lineside grass fire, perhaps - and create just such an opportunity to speak, and break the ice. But it didn't happen.

On the journey up to London, there had been a different kind of incident. A cheerful-looking woman with a baby in a pram boarded at Croydon. The very young baby soon began to cry. I couldn't help trying to see. I wasn't the only one. She had a bottle ready, and that did the trick. I wanted to say something to her, but she was just a little too far away. Oddly, my eyes filled with tears. I did not understand quite why, but they did. It must be an ongoing effect of the hormones.

I wonder what other emotional surprises are still in store. I may be signed off, but I think I'm only at the very start of whatever female adventure will come my way. Bring it on.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Niece and nephew have news for me

My niece J--- phoned me a day or two ago. She'd just come back from holiday. It had in fact been her honeymoon.

She and her new husband K--- had gone to Iceland with just a handful of very immediate family on both sides, basically parents, and had got married with one of the famous waterfalls thundering away as a backdrop. Wow. What an incredible idea!

K--- had previously been her partner of about ten years. Both had very well-paid jobs in computer software. They could afford exotic holidays, and in fact I'd thought they would fly off to the Pacific for the event. Any children in sight? Oh no, she said - still two years off at least. They simply thought the right time had come to get properly hitched, with minimum fuss.

Not that I'd call two weeks in Iceland 'minimum fuss'! Iceland...a place I'd been dreaming of going to for thirty years past. It was still very high on my personal list of must-see holiday destinations. I already had a collection of books and maps for a trip there one day - but not of course the money, though that could be in place before I'm sixty-five. I thought it was an excellent place to get married in, and congratulated my niece for her choice of wedding venue - and how organised.

I wish I'd been able to have a skeleton guest list when I got married in 1983. But my Mum baulked at not inviting various aunts and uncles, and it was the same on W---'s side, and so it all got out of hand and a bit contentious. At one point Dad begged the two of us to 'just go off somewhere, and get the deed done and out of the way', and sidestep the frantic circus that it had all become. Not that my wedding was in any sense a fancy one: a register office, then a local dining pub; then a late-afternoon drive down to Shaftesbury in Dorset for the First Night; and then onwards across a frosty Dartmoor to a wintery honeymoon at Padstow in Cornwall. The only waterfalls there were the frozen ones in the cliffs. It was a very chilly February.

So, I asked my niece, what about a card and a wedding present? Absolutely not. Really. Everybody had been told the same. OK. But we will meet up again in North London after my West Country Tour, when of course the wedding photos will be available, and perhaps I can then take them out for lunch.

That wasn't the only hot family news though.

My nephew M--- and his partner C--- (they are also of about ten years standing, though not yet married) have released the information that their first baby - due at or around 17 September - will be a girl (how lovely). The name has been chosen, but is secret for now. C--- is doing well, with no problems. M--- is of course getting nervous. They are both fiercely independent, and have insisted on no money contributions from anyone. All the baby stuff is bought and ready for use. All well and good, I said to my sister-in-law G--- when we spoke on the phone, but a few months on, and the odd cheque for this and that might well be welcome! We'll all bide our time, and chip in as the need arises.

One thing that I found interesting is that M--- and C---- are deferring their own wedding until their child is walking and able to take part in the ceremony, the idea being that they will do it as a threesome, as a family unit - an event that the little girl will actually be able to remember. I think that's a wonderful idea.

They are still hoping to get married in a magnificent setting. Arundel Castle was the top choice when I last heard. I can't imagine they will really be able to afford such a venue, or should try to, when a decent flat of their own is a clear priority. But hey ho, it's their life, and if it is Arundel Castle then it'll be fairly local to me, and I can go to town with my wedding outfit.

Another thought: assuming the little girl is safely delivered, I shall become a great aunt. Great Aunt Lucy. I like it.

The baby's name, assuming safe delivery, is out: it will be Matilda Elizabeth Dorothy Dommett. The second and third names are the great-grandmothers on both sides. M--- and C--- are thinking that Matilda will naturally become Tilly. It might of course as easily become Matty, but Tilly will be very nice, although as a great aunt I shall insist on calling her Matilda if I wish to be prim and severe. Not that I want ever to do anything but love that child. It's a new beginning, a new generation. I agreed with M--- that it's such a pity that his father, my brother, isn't alive to see this.

It's a sobering thought, but when Tilly is of university age I will be eighty or so. Dear me!

Monday, 26 August 2013

A dodgy educational history

And now another flash of autobiography. A glimpse at my school reports when I was aged nearly nine and twelve and a half. You're going to see my name as a child of course, but that can't possibly matter now. It might after all be another person entirely, and not the me that now is, five decades on.

Remember, by the the time I was five I was encased in a protective armour of secrecy that I had fashioned for myself. I was difficult to know, a solitary child who never showed the world, not even her parents, the real child within. By twelve I was consumately practiced in the arts of dissemblance and secret subterfuge, as well as any courtier, resigned to playing a careful, low-profile game of survival inside an institution that I passionately disliked. My two objects: (a) to leave with enough educational ammunition to land a money-making job; and (b) simply to join the adult world that had been beckoning for a very long time, a world in which I would at last have some personal control over my young life, and not have to toe the line. But of course I did not see how unrealistic I was.

The grammar school I did time at was full of strict rules and competitive expectations. I saw that several of the masters who taught me also thought the ethos stifling and out of date, but they had to conform, keep quiet, and become part of 'the team'. I had enough intuition to see that some of them, such as the art and music masters, felt pretty uncomfortable with their position. It was very easy to spot the career masters, who aspired to become Head of their Department, and shaped their behaviour accordingly. I did not want to sell my soul like that. There must be more to life than being a hectoring martinet.

One or two masters of lesser ambition had instead written and published standard textbooks on this or that. For instance, Mr Colebourn, the Latin master, had published Latin Sentence and Idiom and Civis Romanus by the time I was there, and of course we used those books. They are still standard works in 2013. For the record, I liked Latin. It was an introduction to early Roman history (Romulus and Remus, and the tyrants) and Julius Caesar's descriptions of how he conquered Gaul (that's France nowadays). For O-level Latin we studied Virgil's Aeneid (which deals with the destruction of Troy, and the hero's subsequent wanderings around the Med). These were interesting academic diversions, although I hasten to add that I was rubbish at Latin, and couldn't get even a scrape pass at the exams. I was never any good at any exams at all, with the sole exception of my three A-Levels. More on that later. Of course, there was plenty of messing around. I remember, in 1966, when the Beatles' Yellow Submarine was in the charts, seeing 'We all live in a yellow navis longa' written indelibly inside my copy of Civis Romanus, a navis longa being a sea-going galley, vaguely like a Viking longship. I didn't call Mr Colebourn's attention to it. He would have spluttered with outrage, and had me caned, thinking that I was the culprit and stupid enough to give myself away. As if. Not this wary fox.

One thing I remember about Mr Colebourn was that when he sat down in front of the class, reading a passage from one of the textbooks, his trousers would ride up above his socks, and I couldn't help noticing how smooth and hairless his legs were for a man in his fifties. As if shaved. It was disturbing and distracting. Funny the things you recall.

So onto that school report at age nine, at Barry Island Junior Mixed. Here's the document:

Summer Term 1961. The young me had come third in a class of twenty-eight. The teacher Mr Roberts (his words signed off by head teacher Mr Davies - both good Welsh names!) had written 'Julian has attained a good position in class. He is a diligent and eager worker, and should be able to continue with this splendid effort.' Splendid So what had I done to deserve that? Very good conduct, never late. I'll grant him that. But despite the list of subjects, I was really being assessed only on English and Maths. He was right to give me top marks for English. I loved the subject. I probably earned hatred for my flawless reading ability, and alienation for being quick with apt and clever words. My maths mark looks slightly doubtful, though, and in point of fact I was a complete duffer at any figurework. I don't know what Mr Roberts based his '84 out of 100' on. He must have made it up.

Not that he went out of his way to be nice to any child. He was the teacher who forcibly stopped me reading any more Beatrix Potter - an incident described in my post Welcome to Melford Hall on 9 October 2010. I certainly never gave him any apples, nor sucked up to him in any way. I see him now, in my mind's eye, a middle-aged man in a small school, destined never to rise further in his career. Even Mr Davies the head teacher was never going to get higher. Dead end jobs. And the class was full of dead end pupils. I remember one dockworker's son, nicknamed Ocker, a big, lumbering boy. Big enough to push me around - but in fact we kept our distance. I respected his fists. He respected my tongue and my fierce face when threatened. He couldn't tell whether it was bluff or not. It was not: I would have seriously hurt him if he laid a hand on me. I had read how James Bond fought the ruthless agents of SMERSH. I was licensed to kill.

Three years later, after the family had moved from South Wales to Southampton, I was at Taunton's School, and my Autumn 1964 report was a glowing one:

Top of the form! I'd come up from far behind like a surprise Grand National outsider to beat twenty-eight other kids. I'd finished a losing twelth in the previous term's race. Dad's pencilled figures in the left-hand margin show how eagerly he and Mum tried to follow my school career. They must have been delighted with this result. Mum especially would have exulted.

But the report is full of holes. Even English was a contradiction: 'The grammar puzzles him at times, but his written work is most promising.' No surprise there. I've never been one for artificial analysis, and English Grammar at the time pulled sentences apart in a way that made no sense. I revelled only in free composition. The weak subjects were Latin, French, Science and Handicraft. The last bored me to death, but I'd wanted to do well at the others. I was finding that in a class of well-motivated pupils who had flown through their 11-Plus exam, I was an also-ran. And this was not even the brightest class for my year. But it was still pleasant to get a 'Congratulations!' from the peppery old headmaster. I did so much want to please my parents.

It was a high-water mark. From here on my form position gradually sank, to the puzzlement of the masters and the despair and shame of my parents. I lost heart. It was just too difficult to handle the horror of puberty and the pressures of term exams at the same time. I could never explain that to anyone. I sat on it. I pulled myself together just in time to get good grades in my A-levels in 1970. Here's the proof, on the slip of paper that was posted to me:

Geography: an A grade (actually with distinction). English Literature, a B grade. Art, another B grade, although if I hadn't trashed my still life, it would have been an A. Mum and Dad had something to celebrate again. Why not? I did it for them.

For myself, I hardly cared. My Art College course had been vetoed by my parents. I was destined for the Civil Service, already accepted in fact, bar some easy formalities. Dad had arranged it, and Mum wanted it for me. Forty-seven years of servitude lay ahead, then release at age sixty-five, with a pension. (I got remission for good behaviour, and served only thirty-five years)

I didn't think about all those - most of my year - who had gone off to university. I had deliberately not applied. But I thought much more of the few who had taken what is now called a gap year. One in particular had bought himself a guitar and gone to New Guinea on a social service project. New Guinea! Distant, exotic, primitive, life-changing. One could discover one's true self in a place like New Guinea. But it was too late to go, and I knew that I would not be allowed to. And I wasn't going to put up a fight. I fell in with my parents' wishes.

And so began decades of doing the conventional thing. Of doing what was expected, but wanting to do and become something else, though never quite formulating what that something else might be. It was no consolation to realise that most people have to squeeze themselves into the same standard mould, for better or worse. Very few ever manage to find a life that fits them properly.

I still mourn for New Guinea. Why, I might have learned to play the guitar quite well - and who knows what else.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

We make her paint her face and dance

John Lennon liked to compose hard-hitting songs with great music that did not pull punches. Songs that were sometimes tender, sometimes with the twist of bitterness to them. I'd say that despite his more-than-occasional offensiveness, he was socially aware to a high degree, and that his eyes were opened still further by his talented wife, Yoko Ono, who gave him an insight into the condition of women.

One song comes to mind above all others. It's off the Some Time In New York City album of  1972, not generally reckoned to be the couple's most commercially successful effort, although it was a favourite of my brother's, and I do believe I've still got his original vinyl LP up in the attic. This album was produced in all sincerity to raise a clenched fist at social issues that complacent and comfortably-off people ought to be thinking about. The background is explained in the Wikipedia article at

The song? It's Woman is the Nigger of the World. If you want to be jarred out of your comfortable complacency, do give it a listen. Here is the YouTube video of the live stage performance in New York: And this is the rather more forceful recording studio version: John Lennon's voice and the sound of the saxophone are very good, even if you dislike the lyrics. But I think the lyrics are worth close study. Here they are:

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes she is...think about it
Woman is the nigger of the world
Think about something about it

We make her paint her face and dance
If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us
If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man
While putting her down, we pretend that she's above us

Woman is the nigger of the world...yes she is
If you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave of the slaves
Ah, yeah...better scream about it

We make her bear and raise our children
And then we leave her flat for being a fat old mother hen
We tell her home is the only place she should be
Then we complain that she's too unworldly to be our friend

Woman is the nigger of the world...yes she is
If you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave to the slaves
Yeah...alright...hit it!

We insult her every day on TV
And wonder why she has no guts or confidence
When she's young we kill her will to be free
While telling her not to be so smart we put her down for being so dumb

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes she is...if you don't believe me, take a look at the one you're with
Woman is the slave to the slaves
Yes she is...if you believe me, you better scream about it

We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance
We make her paint her face and dance

In the Wikipedia article on the song itself, it is said that 'The phrase "woman is the nigger of the world" was coined by Yoko Ono in an interview with Nova magazine in 1969 and was quoted on the magazine's cover. The song describes women's subservience to men and male chauvinism across all cultures.' Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wikipedia adds: 'The Lennons went to great lengths (including a press conference attended by staff from Jet and Ebony magazines) to explain that the word "nigger" was being used in an allegorical sense and not as an affront to black people.' And: 'Through radio and television interviews, Lennon explained his use of the term "nigger" as referring to any oppressed person.' I hope that's perfectly understood.

So the next question is this. That was in 1972. Does the song still have relevance in 2013? Forty one years later. Two generations further on. Surely times have changed, and we have all made progress.

Well, although there can't be many women in modern Western-type societies who will accept that home is the only place she should be, I don't observe many other departures from the 1972 scenario. There are a lot of men around in 2013 who still expect their women to look like sexy painted goddesses, who still expect their women to be subservient to all their wants and preferences, who still assume that women have fluff where their brains should be, who still think it right to force little girls into a standard female mould, who still feel no concern at advertisements that make women feel inadequate if they don't conform to a fashionable appearance, who still expect them to get pregnant so that they can be fathers to trophy children and prove they are real men, who still want their women to be accomplished and refined and dainty (and not free to relax and behave naturally), who still expect to have the casual right to fancy another, more attractive woman and betray their partners, who still think their own sexual needs are paramount, who still expect to be waited on hand and foot by a female partner. Who basically still think they are much more important than women, full stop.

And all men have discovered that if enough pressure is piled onto her, a woman's will is likely to crumble into tears of surrender - not because she is weak-minded or over-emotional, but because her conditioning from birth onwards has made her vulnerable to male coertion and control.

This is all a disgrace, but it's what obtains in 2013, just as it did in 1972, or any date you might care to name.

It doesn't help that women are still physically shorter and weaker than men. And still psychologically the second fiddle - though why that is I do not know, because there is no reason at all to feel intellectually inferior. Perhaps it stems from how societies are made up, the so-called 'natural division of responsibilities', that tends to place women in a slave role indoors: unpaid and put upon. The victims of many convenient assumptions that give men the best of it. Even in sunny Sussex.

I know one can point to Superwomen in all fields of endeavour, successful women, independent women, women who call the tune. But ordinary women in ordinary homes can fare badly. It is said that all a woman really wants is a home, children to raise, and a man - though that sounds to me like a man's assertion, not a woman's. It is certainly true that there are women about, a lot of them, who put up with all kinds of abuse from their partners without clearing out. They may be afraid, or psychologically dependent, or see nowhere else to run away to, but I do not agree that it's 'their fault'. We all have to live within society's framework, and any society in which women can be beaten up by men, or made to do unspeakable things for a man, is a sick society.  

So on to another question: is this song still the authentic voice of feminism?  Perhaps its terms are a bit old-fashioned now. We have all become more sophisticated and subtle. Gradually freedoms and legal rights have stacked up for women. Gradually it has become much less acceptable to grope women in pubs, slap them if they speak to another male, roger them at the office Christmas party, steal credit for their hard work, and deny them promotion. Gradually women have come more and more into important decision-making processes. But I can't help thinking that modern feminists have much to complain about. Legal equality may have been largely achieved, but what about social attitudes?

I have before me that epitome of civilised living, this month's Caravan Club magazine. It's full of happy pictures of Men Driving Cars That Tow Caravans, and Men Tinkering With Caravan Equipment, while the Ladies are making a nice cup of tea. Couples are shown with the Man holding a smaller Woman in his arms: she looks deliriously content in his firm and possessive embrace: he looks assured of a jolly good bonk in the very near future. That's why caravans have comfy beds and curtains, and corner steadies. Didn't you know? Or an older couple, standing with their arms around each other: a totally conventional picture, a myth perpetuated, a model to ape. Where are the lesbian couples? Where are the solo women caravanners like me?  

So finally: is the song now relevant to the particular position of trans women? I can only speak for myself, but I'd say most definitely yes, because whatever view may be taken of my strict biological status, in the real world I am taken to be an ordinary woman, and come in for whatever stick is being handed out. I always knew it would be like this. While transitioning, I always expected mockery from men. Now I expect condescension. While transitioning, I felt highly visible to men. Dangerously so. Now I have become almost completely invisible to them, simply because I am old and unpretty, and therefore of no interest. Other women always give me a glance, we all give each other a once-over, but my plainness is reassuring; and if conversation develops, I am just one of the Sisterhood, another powerless sufferer in a world still dominated by men.

Well, not powerless in my own self-view. That male conditioning I had gives me an arsenal of secret weapons. I am not accustomed to abuse, and will bite back. I do assert any rights I might have. I don't crumble. I do strong. Even if it usually suits my book to seem gentle and compliant, no man is going to get the better of me. But I still have to live within society's current framework, and that means paying attention to the entrenched stereotyping that goes on. And all those things I listed above, the things that still seem to be the 'natural' assumptions of millions of men, have to be contended with. In such a way that I don't look like a ridiculous, troublesome, argumentative old hag.

Kermit the Frog thought it was not easy being green. It's even harder being a woman.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Fatbergs and soapbergs

Did you catch the news item earlier this month, about the gigantic fifteen-ton 'fatberg' that had blocked the drains under Kingston-upon-Thames in south-west London? Here's a link to the BBC News report on it: It was more awesome than disgusting.

Well, I had my very own 'soapberg' to cope with. This was congealed washing machine soap that had blocked the drain for my kitchen sink, the outflow from the washing machine running into the same drain. It was unsuspected, because I use Persil non-bio liquid detergent capsules in the machine, or liquid Stergene when handwashing, and never powder. You'd think that liquid detergent wouldn't lead to any problems, but it clearly did. My next door neighbour K---, who is a plumber, said to me that although using a 40 degree Celsius wash cycle is mostly a Good Thing, it will accelerate the build-up of soap deposits in pipes and drains. Once a month, I should have a high-temperature wash to help blast the build-up with scalding hot water.

Will do! My cotton whites will now get the full treatment.

But I'm leaping ahead. Four days ago I noticed that after washing up the dishes (with Fairy liquid), the water was taking a long time to drain away. This had happened before, last March. Curious, I'd discovered that the kitchen drain was hidden under the conservatory floor, beneath a removable section, as in this photo that I took at the time:

It looked all right. I decided that there was really no need for action. And indeed it soon seemed to correct itself, although on odd occasions I heard strange gurglings as water drained away. But I shrugged my shoulders in a devil-may-care fashion, tossed my hair, and snapped my fingers.

But as I said, four days back the suds would not drain away at all. So I had another look:

Hello, hello! The chipboard floor looked a bit damp. I unscrewed the section of floor over the drain:

Oh dear. Full to the brim, and likely to overflow if any more water were added. I could see congealed soap. I didn't flinch. I stuck my arm in and dredged with my bare hand. I hauled out a bowlful of unwholesome-looking gunge:

Some would say that I am just not the type to get my hands mucky and smelly like this - let alone my entire arm. Some would say, in fact, that I am far too much of an overfastidious wimpy girly to do anything that involves dirt and mess. Well, they are wrong. I will do whatever it takes, even if I have to become a foul-smelling mudball. Naturally, I'd have worn protective gloves if I'd had a cut that might get infected. And equally naturally, I'd have backed off if tentacles with suckers on them had groped for me while delving into that slimy hole. But it was in fact a straightforward clearance job.

It didn't do the trick though. Somewhere beyond the reach of my fingers was a soapberg solid enough to dam the water and stop the drain working. Time for an expert. K--- was on holiday in Devon with his wife J---, but was returning shortly, and could tackle the job today. He had a complete set of drain rods and other items. So this morning, having located where the external drain cover was, I managed to prize it up with a spade, ready for K--- to work his magic:

First, K--- used a heavy-duty plunger, which quickly dislodged the soapberg. Water flowed out freely. Wonderful! Then he connected his rods, and fed them down the drainpipe, to make quite sure that there was nothing that might still cause trouble:

It's so nice to have K--- and J--- as neighbours! Afterwards, I thanked K--- profusely, and gave him a fiver, as the price of a pint, by way of a very sincere and relieved 'thank you'.

Incidentally, the drain we fed the rods down wasn't in my garden. It was in T---'s next door. All the drains for my house are on T---'s property, a potentially awkward arrangement. But for now we had access, and we got on with it before any prospective buyers for T---'s home turned up. There would have been raised eyebrows from the estate agent and those potential buyers if we had been caught red-handed doing our drain-clearing stuff! Maybe a stiff rebuke from the solicitors too. So in a way fate has been kind to me, making the soapberg go critical just before viewings commenced. And decently ahead of my going away on holiday too.

Here I am, about to seal up the drain cover again:

The next household problem is the gas main. The gas people are going to modernise all connections to the gas supply. Everyone in the village. Two chappies came round this afternoon. I had a discussion with them. I must be able to get away with my caravan in September. They think they will have fixed my section of road before I need to depart. I hope so: it will be very inconvenient if I can't tow my caravan off my property because there is a girt great hole in the road outside!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Next door is finally up for sale

My next door neighbour T--- died months ago, in early April. His little bungalow had been his pride and joy. Originally bought with his mum (he never married, nor had a family of his own), T--- had been living there alone in retirement for a very long time. He had good friends in the village, and some he'd used to work with up in London. He was well-liked, and his planting out of bedding plants, to achieve a glorious display of colour, was an annual event that he kept up into his early 80s.

He knew me as I used to be, when Mum and Dad were his neighbours and not myself, when I was just a twice-weekly visitor. We always got on very well, even when I moved in as the new owner of my house after Dad's death, and it was instantly clear to anyone not completely blind that I had embarked on my transition. T--- proved to be broadminded about that, and, bless him, made strenuous efforts to call me 'Lucy'. We generally had a good half-hour chat about all kinds of things when we saw each other in our front gardens. I sometimes wondered if he was lonely, or at least short of company, because those who don't see many people from day to day often are very chatty. But I usually liked a jolly good chinwag. It was also, let's face it, good for the neighbours to see us talking, because it meant T--- thought me OK as Lucy. His acceptance and respect meant they could treat me the same way, if they were at all wondering how to react.

On two occasions I asked him about what he was doing for a Christmas Dinner, and whether he'd like to join me. But he was very independent, and assured me he was fine, it was all in the oven. And really, there was no reason ever to doubt what he said. I didn't press him, not wanting to intrude, just as I didn't want intrusions into my private living space either.

I specially invited him to my 60th Birthday Family Gathering last year. He stayed to the very end, and he told the neighbours across from him that he'd had a very good time. Indeed I thought so too. He got on well with most people, and although he dressed like someone out of the 1950s, I believe he was nevertheless a closet party animal.

But he died this year, and was suddenly gone, his house bereft of life. And gradually nature undid his neat and tidy gardening. Thank goodness the solicitors, who had taken over all his affairs - no family to do it - authorised my mower man to keep his lawns looking decent. A neighbour trimmed the foliage around the front windows.

We all wondered when something definite would happen about the house. The last rumour heard was that it would be auctioned. But today, late in the morning, a man came to erect a For Sale sign. So: it was going to be sold normally. I looked at the estate agent's website, and got up the details. There it was, with pictures of the garden and the interior accommodation, most of which I'd never seen, having never been beyond the hall and kitchen.

Oh dear, it was, as I had guessed, full of old-fashioned furniture, and anything but swish and modern. But it was clearly clean and tidy. And actually, for any buyer wanting a blank canvas to work with, this would be an ideal property. It could quickly and easily be stripped back to a shell, and a smart new interior put in. T---'s house was a mirror-image of mine: a perfect house for an older couple without children, or indeed any single person who didn't mind a garden to look after. Future-proof, if one had any mobility issues and couldn't cope with stairs.

I am now going to be very curious about who buys it - and for what. The asking price is a bit over £300,000, more than I would have thought it was worth in its present state. But presumably the estate agents know their business, and have carefully pitched the price to get a sale without delay, so that the estate can be wound up. I expect that offers will be somewhat lower, maybe around £280,000. When I know the figure, it will be a good guide as to what my own house must be worth.

The photos taken by the estate agent were poignant: it still looked lived-in, a house as it would be if the owner had just popped out for a while and was coming back shortly. And not as houses look when they are artificially dressed up for sale. Buyers will understand at a glance that the previous owner has died, and that the house is being sold without fuss by the administrator of the estate.

I do hope that whoever becomes my new neighbour will be friendly and nice to know. T--- would want that.

The estate agent's property description had a Street View to click on. Oh, how strange: Google must have visited the village in 2009. There was T---'s house, and Dad's house (now mine), and the house across the road that belonged to a lady called S---. And there were their cars. T--'s dark green one, Dad's gold one, and S---'s orange one. All now gone, like their deceased owners, but still there to be seen on Google Street View. What a strange feeling to contemplate that.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Bikes versus cars

I was once very, very keen on cycling. This was when I was thirty or so and living in London. That was in 1982 and 1983, thirty-odd years ago. It was an interest I embraced suddenly, and then discarded just as suddenly - for good reasons.

I should explain that I never owned a bike in childhood, and did not learn to ride one until I was thirty. That's why I was so smitten. It was much more than just a novelty, it was a revelation, something I'd missed out on, and like any convert I was fanatical. I instantly fell totally in love with the whole notion of cycling. It was a city thing, but it could take you out into the countryside, and it had connotations of freedom and rebellion. It was obviously good for physical exercise. Pedal power seemed in every way wholesome and virtuous. It did not pollute the roads with exhaust fumes. It seemed also to have a philosophical element to it, or at least you had to change your mindset in a good way.

I bought inspiring books about cycling. I bought glossy cycling magazines. I added accessories, becoming a saddle fetishist, a pannier fetishist, a lighting fetishist, a tyre fetishist, a bike lock fetishist. I bought reflective belts and ankle straps, to ward off the city traffic. I had mirrors, so that I could see what was coming up behind. I was going to ride hard and fast, and cut through the London buses and taxis with confidence. For I was now a Road Warrior.

I learned to repair punctures, to replace cables and to use special brake blocks. I tried various styles of handlebar. I even experimented with different gear ratios. I found bicycle shops that catered for the cycling enthusiast - not the old fuddy-duddy enthusiast, but the younger kind that were fired up by the latest technology. The term 'mountain bike' was still new, and the notion of a tough, go-anywhere machine had a magical appeal. I couldn't afford one of those: but I went through two more ordinary bikes in quick succession.

I deferred renewing my Underground season ticket. I would save money by cycling from Wimbledon to Victoria and back every day. An hour's journey. I started when it was late summer, in sunshine. It seemed ideal. I noticed the extra cash in my pocket. But the days got shorter. As soon as the light level fell, I realised how vulnerable I was, how invisible. I had a couple of very close shaves. And then a spate of punctures. The potholes and bumps were a nightmare in near-darkness. I gave up. This was stupidity. I was going to get knocked off and hurt. And as it grew colder, so the trains seemed more and more sensible. The bike was put away, never more to be ridden. I sold it a few months later.

I was disillusioned, and I have remained disillusioned. And from being avidly pro-bike, I have become firmly a champion of four-wheeled transport. The advantages of having a wheel at each corner of a covered platform with seats on it seem overwhelming. You are large enough to be seen; you are protected from weather and impacts; you can't fall over; you can carry passengers; you can carry a useful load; and given the right kind of engine and fuel, you can travel a long way very quickly. Pedal bikes can't do any of that. Even if it had to be a car that looked like a weird Mars rover, it would still be more versatile, and safer, than a bike.

Bikes scare me. Every time I see a bike rider, I am scared that I will witness a dreadful accident as frustrated car drivers ahead of me take risks to get past. I am afraid that one day, when I am passing, a cyclist will swerve to avoid a pothole, or a crack in the road, or a dead squirrel, or wobble as cramp strikes in a leg muscle, and we may connect with ghastly results.

Cyclists face a hazard overload. Really, I can't see how it's possible to enjoy doing what they do. In fact I think that cycling is a type of suicide, certainly an activity that will inevitably put you in hospital sooner or later. Nothing would induce me to get on a bike again.

I can't see why little children are allowed onto any road where traffic might go. They may wear helmets, and they may be shadowed by a parent, but in reality they are horribly exposed to death or serious injury. I shudder to think what would happen if they wobbled and fell as a car passed. Whereas if these children (and their parents) were all in four-wheeled buggies or carts, they would have a much better chance of survival.

But I really want to propose that cyclists should be banned from all roads that cars can use. Lives are at stake. Cars and bikes simply do not mix. Nor, for that matter, do cars and horses, or cars and pedestrians. Each needs their own roads and paths and ways that none of the others can use. Of course it won't happen.

Gangnam Style and Gangsta

Let me assure you at once that I do understand that there is no connection, culturally or otherwise, between the South Korean swanky-suburban dance fad from 2012 and the ongoing violence-ridden way of life adopted by certain young city dwellers who have affinities (real or imagined) with an underprivileged ghetto background. But I will confess that until a day or two ago I had mixed them up in my mind. It was the 'gang' element, which made me automatically shy away from learning more.

So I thought that Gangnam Style was a populist and acceptable take on a black urban subculture! Similar perhaps to admiring the sometimes-stylish American gangsters of the 1920s onwards - although I'm referring to questionable figures like Bonnie and Clyde, rather than the cosy and lovable portrayals of gangster life, or rather criminal life generally, that have been a constant theme of the British and American TV and films for decades. What was fare such as Minder on TV, but a distinctively Cockney take on London criminality? And wasn't humorous stuff like Only Fools and Horses underpinned by a reality that there are seedy people whose way of life is built around dishonesty and sharp practice, avoiding not only the Police but the local gangs of truly professional criminals? And there are many other contemporary examples of bad behaviour being dramatised because the characters, and what they do, look interesting. I dare say the book sales of crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who died yesterday, will now enjoy a surge. Not from this quarter, though: I had never heard of him before he died, and his death will not make his adventures of petty crooks any more appealing, nor more urgent to know about.

Something made me look up Gangnam Style on Wikipedia, and light dawned. What an idiot I'd been. No wonder certain political leaders had thought it OK to ape the dance routines in the pop video. I studied it carefully on YouTube. My reaction: this would be great as an exercise workout, in the privacy of my own home of course. I liked the girls' outfits very much, and the movements were so simple that I felt I could copy them faithfully, even with my dubious co-ordinational powers. 'Dress classy, dance cheesey' - yep, that's me!

I felt even more silly, because I could have have consulted Urban Dictionary long ago. After all, I bookmarked it three years back. These are the Dictionary's definitions of Gangnam Style and Gangsta:

Urban Dictionary is a very good place to tap into what clued-up people take a view on. Recommended. Yo.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Common People

This is the title of a song on Pulp's Different Class album of 1995. You must surely know what it's about - a student girl with a rich father asks Jarvis Cocker (vocals) to show her how the 'common people' live, including how they make love. Cocker obliges, while at the same time despising her for her naïve romanticisation of ordinary people's lives. Thinking of her as a 'tourist', able to escape from the whole depressing world of the 'common people' simply by phoning her wealthy dad, who can immediately whisk her out of it. She doesn't have to put up with chip-shop grease in her hair, and cockroaches in the bedroom - a phone call to her dad will 'stop it all'. Unlike how it is for the rest of us.

The song has many good lines, and the music is exciting to listen to, inducing a sensation that nothing matters, and that all responsibility is pointless. So much so, that this is a dangerous track to listen to when in a car on a fast road. You tend to drive faster and faster as the song progresses, as recklessness takes over. But then, that's the song's basic message: that the 'common people' - the submerged millions of people who are stuck at the bottom, and have shallow lives 'with no meaning or control', and for pleasure can only 'dance, and drink, and screw, because there's nothing else to do' - are powerless. Nobody cares about them, and they have stopped caring about themselves. Also that anyone who treats them as interesting specimens, or tries to understand them, or apes their ways for fun, is despicable.

I don't think the 'common people' in the song are necessarily 'working class' in the British sense, because the lyrics suggest a downtrodden, cynical and somewhat desperate subculture that I can't equate with my own perception of long-standing British working class aspirations - such as getting a good education and/or first-class vocational training - siezing a chance to get on - and becoming a force in such diverse arenas as politics or the performing arts. Surely, even in 1995, the notion of an Orwellian proletariat without any hope of betterment was quite dead. And, it must be said, squalid deaths among the rich and famous and privileged have never been a rarity, with 'living a pointless existence' a chief reason to drink or drug one's moneyed self into oblivion. So I think that the 'common people' in the song are an overdrawn fantasy, conjured up to highlight just how crass it is for rich girls to indulge their curiosity.

For all that, I think Common People makes its point rather well, and is still cutting-edge. There are millions of people who don't earn enough to escape a hand-to-mouth existence, who have no security of living accommodation, and who can't escape the social problems of a tatty neighbourhood. People who may use Food Banks.

And this is where I revealed myself to be an ignorant, middle-class tourist just a couple of days ago. I was entering Waitrose (which as you know is an upmarket foodstore, part of the prestigious John Lewis empire), and I was accosted by an earnest woman who was part of a team asking incoming Waitrose customers to donate to the local Food Bank. My first reaction was to fish for coins in my purse. Lady Bountiful. No, she didn't want money! She wanted food in tins and packets, the sort of stuff that would keep, and could be given to deserving local families. Could I consider buying some extra items while shopping in Waitrose, and giving them to the Food Bank people waiting with boxes at the exits? She gave me a leaflet on what the Food Bank was all about, and exactly what they were looking for.

I was determined to oblige, but at the same time it was a novel thing to be doing. Giving money was one thing. That was easy, and required no thinking. Selecting nutritious and appealing food in tins was quite another. I had to use my imagination. It wasn't quite as bad as 'wondering what the Common People eat', but I did have to put myself in the place of some single parent who wanted to heat up something tasty for the evening. A tin or two of corned beef wasn't going to do it. Tinned curry? Sardines? The kids might not like the taste. I settled on two tinned steak pies, which I would certainly eat if so minded. Job done. I got a nice 'thank you' on the way out.

But of course I really ought now to make this a habit. 'Ought'? Why? Shouldn't the government see to it that families do not go hungry? But the stark fact is that they know caring people will step in, and get comfortably-off Waitrose customers like me to cough up.

And not just Waitrose customers. I dare say that there are Food Bank people outside ASDA as well (ASDA being a downmarket foodstore, part of the less prestigious but mighty Wal-Mart empire).

'I dare say'. There, I've given it away: I never shop at ASDA. Why ever not? Their prices are famously cheap, car fuel too. But I don't. And I will be frank about the reason. I think the staff are very helpful, but the customers make me feel uncomfortable. I feel like an intruder into their space. Some of them are most certainly the sort to give you a hostile stare. I feel I shouldn't be there, and whereas I love having a lively chat in Waitrose, I would be careful about opening my mouth in ASDA. The place makes me wary, even afraid. I feel that I might, at any moment, get badmouthed by some sneering lout with a beer belly, or given a killing look by some impatient mum with lank hair and kids out of control, who resents my affluence, my freedom from grinding family responsibility.

'Birds of a feather flock together'. It's so true. I go to Waitrose because I won't be mobbed and pecked there. I feel tolerated in other places too, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer for instance, but I have a definite no-go list in my head, and ASDA is on it.

By the way, I'm talking about ordinary social tolerance here. I'm not talking about tolerance of the fact that I am trans. That would be something else again. If ever the cry goes up in a crowded foodstore, that a trans person is shopping there, I know exactly where the ensuing nightmare of being publicly embarrassed and pushed around by surly lads will happen. Sorry, ASDA. It's the people who appreciate your very low prices. A bit like the situation in another Pulp track from Different Class, the one titled Mis-Shapes:

We'd like to go to town, but we can't risk it
They just want to keep us out
You could end up with a smack in the mouth
Just for standing out, now really

I often think how apt that is for people like me. Whether I see myself as being trans, or merely a half-posh tourist, I could be taking a big risk. Maybe you too.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Never say never: going back to New Zealand

With some misgivings, but being determined not to deviate from the position as I saw it, I did not send a birthday card (nor the usual small present) to my step-daughter in New Zealand.

I should perhaps more properly call her my my 'ex step-daughter', as her mother and myself were divorced way back in 1996. And now it may well be 'my lost step-daughter'. Yet another casualty of transition.

Not doing the regular annual birthday thing seemed awful, and the decision really hurt me inside. I felt it might hurt her too. But then her own decision not to send me a card had made me feel that the end had finally come, after so many years; and the best thing now was to draw a line under our very tenuous relationship. At least she would not be embarrassed any more.

I very nearly sent her a long letter to explain all this to her. I typed it out, signed it, enveloped it, then thought better of posting it. A letter was so physical, something both of us would have touched with our fingers, not like spoken words, not like an email. You could hold it in your hand, and if you didn't rip it up, you might keep it forever, to be read again at any time, with renewed emotional effect. That indeed was the power of letters. That was why people often kept love-letters for years and years, as tangible evidence of what was, or what might have been.

But a letter could also be a monument, a tombstone. No resurrection, no call back from the grave, would be possible if I actually sent a letter right across the world with frank words in it that I could never retract. Not horrible words, mind you. They were nice words; but regretful and honest, and they might well put the seal on a definitive farewell. I wasn't sure that I really wanted to shut the door so firmly. So I settled on silently doing the same thing as A--- had, and then await any comeback. None so far.

More than a relationship hangs on this. Could I ever revisit New Zealand if I knew that there was somebody there who no longer wanted to see me, her family also? I thought no, I wouldn't want to go back there knowing that.

But then things can change. The two months in New Zealand in 2007, seeing the place with M--- in a campervan, constituted a pretty comprehensive tour. But because we were constantly pressing on nearly every day, there were many places that needed a closer look on a return trip.

I often look wistfully at the 4.000-odd edited photos that I've got of our 2007 trip - I did it earlier this morning. But this time I found myself rebelling against all inhibitions. Why should the place be out of bounds? I told myself that nothing should ever stand in my way if I wanted to see it again. Not the fond relationship gone, not the rigours of travel there and back, not the cost. Well, that's new. I must be in the mood for breaking chains!

They say that 'he travels fastest who travels alone'. Make that 'she' also. And indeed, I might actually see more and experience more by travelling around on my own, to my own loose and easily-modified schedule. I like maximum flexibility where holidays are concerned. I can be happier seeing just two or three places really well, in any order, than attempting to fit in a dozen places in a rushed and timetabled way. Besides, I want opportunities to chat to local people, and who knows, share something of their lives.

My NZ photos are on my PC, arranged in easily-accessed folders, and it's a doddle to see whatever takes my fancy. And what lovely pictures they are.

I can just imagine myself cruising around in a hired 4x4, and staying in guest houses and cabins as the mood takes me. A car can take me to many places that are off-limits to a campervan. Campervans are awkward in towns, clumsy on busy roads, hard to park, and an obvious target for thieves - and therefore not my preferred choice. Admittedly, M--- and I pitched overnight in many very scenic spots that only campervans would use. But I want comfort and convenience, and personal security too, and would only consider a campervan if the costs of car hire, accommodation and eating out were too much to be sensible.

So I now intend to return to NZ under my own steam. I had already been thinking of a five-year Holiday Savings Plan. This definite destination, not the only one either, will keep me to that plan even more assiduously.

And by 2018, I should be more finished as Lucy Melford, in ways that I wish M--- and A--- could see and appreciate. M--- saw me in my first raw state and recoiled. A--- saw me last year in a half-completed state and clearly wasn't impressed. I really wanted her not to see me until I felt ready. I wanted her first glimpse of me to be my arrival at Auckland airport years from now, looking chic, perfectly poised, and attractive. She saw me too soon. That's a shame, but that's how life is.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Three songs all mixed up - but I'm ready for my singsong now!

I continue to maintain that my taste in music is questionable, and might best be described as 'populist'. Certainly, more than the odd sneer has been levelled at the 1,400-odd mp3 tracks on the micro-SD card in my mobile phone, a collection that ranges in time and style from vintage Frank Sinatra to the Sugababes. The sneers do not matter. This is the soundtrack of my life, and I'm not perturbed if entire genres are missing, or that much of the collection is basically 'top of the pops'.

I'm still adding to it. My prime source nowadays is the Amazon MP3 Store on the Internet, but even they do not always have what I want. Recording artists and bands have sometimes got into disputes with their labels, or with each other, and that may delay or prevent the listing of many mp3 tracks that one might now badly want. For instance, most of the Dave Clark Five's output in the 1960s is not up for purchase on Amazon. I do have Glad All Over, but I'd dearly love to bag Bits and Pieces, and several others. Or it may be that just one or two individual songs are inexplicably not available, such as You Don't Have To Go, by The Chi-Lites in 1976, even though all the rest are easily purchased.

Sometimes I can't buy because I can't remember the name of the artist nor the correct title of the song, even though I may recall odd little details about it.

Here's an example. Some months back I added James Blunt's amazing 2005 song You're Beautiful to my collection, which is about his catching the momentary gaze of a girl with the face of an angel on a tube train. I won't swear that I ever saw a video for it, but I think I must have. Anyway, real or imaginary, it had confused my memory of another tube train video, an older one, which showed a naked girl singing directly to the camera while the other passengers completely failed to notice her nudity. Her song is one that I've long wanted, and I believed she was singing about love or beauty. One other thing: she had an unusual name. But I couldn't remember what it was. You can see that Mr Blunt's song and video had got in the way. But then there was yet another song, very popular, about being beautiful, and I wanted that too. I had no idea who sang that one, but I knew she was so well-known that I'd kick myself when I eventually found out, and it might be the same girl who was singing her heart out in the tube train.

And then today, when idly searching in the Amazon MP3 store, I came across Christina Aguilera, and a few clicks on from that, her 2002 anthem Beautiful, which was one of the songs I couldn't remember. Duuuuh. Kick! And then the mists cleared. The nude girl on the tube train had been singing about being thankful, not about being beautiful. A few more clicks, and I finally had the song: Thank U by Alanis Morissette in 1998.

Ah, what pleasure it was to finally have these two missing songs! It had taken over a decade.

But now I can sing along with the two girls in my bathroom, or when doing the ironing, and kid myself that my own voice is very much like theirs. Well, a bit like theirs.

Number games and life games

On my Android tablet and phone there is an app called Days Since, on which you set up events you wish to remember (future ones, as well as past ones) and then it will tell you how many days have passed since this or that happened, or how many must be lived through before something will come to be.

And today, there are two round numbers.

3,000 days since I retired on 31 May 2005. And 900 days since my surgery on 1 March 2011. That's strange, that these two most important events should go 'round-number' on the same day.

Take the first figure, 3,000 days since retirement. It's really getting to feel a long, long time since I last worked, and even though I do frequently talk about the benefits of getting some kind of job - I was discussing it with my cousin R--- just a few evenings ago - it doesn't have much reality. Can I really see myself getting up early, donning a shop uniform, and standing behind a counter for hours on end? Or can I really see myself thumping a keyboard in front of a screen in some back office? And, in either case, being at some manager's beck and call? Just for a bit of cash?

Of course, there would be the social side: staff friendships, favourite customers. But then, I've got a social life now, and I can expand it at will if I want to. I'm not lonely or bored, nor constantly at a loss for things to do.

Above all, do I want to give up control of my leisure time? Do I want in fact to enter into a commitment that might quite often stop me from doing the spur-of-the-moment things that give me so much pleasure? A sudden wish, for instance, to drive off to a café and have a mid-morning or mid-afternoon cup of tea, and a stroll through lovely grounds, or along a beach, camera in hand?

My cousin thought I'd romp through any job interview, citing my confidence, presence, ability to communicate, people skills, and heavyweight career background. I hardly recognised myself! But even if she was correct, even if my target employer, Waitrose (i.e. John Lewis) were genuinely into Diversity and wouldn't turn a hair at employing a trans woman, I doubted whether I'd be a suitable candidate for whatever positions were going. I'm simply not hungry enough for the money, the responsibility, and the chance to be a success in the workplace. I need to be those things. Otherwise, there will be no compelling incentive to stick at it, or to do that bit extra. And it would be immoral in my view to take a job on a hobby basis, when many others, perhaps less dazzling at interviews, would genuinely need the work, and would give better service in the long run than I could.

But it's an issue that keeps nagging at me. Days Since tells me I still have to wait another 446 days before my State Pension begins. Right then - a part-time job to last for just one year. But R--- did the same at my age, she took a part-time job in the garden department of B&Q after retirement as a headmistress. And seven years on, she is still working there. So, if the job is right, once you are in, you stay in. It clearly becomes part of your life.

And that other figure, 900 days since surgery. That seems a long way in the past too. Every day, morning and evening, I see myself unclothed. It's not an hourglass figure, but, considering my age, it looks very satisfactory. I look like a typical late middle-age woman - too much fat, too many unwanted bulges, but comfortable in her skin. There are millions of women just like me, and it's worth putting the flab and tired skin on display, because it's a fabulous way to blend in.

But, in some respects, I do seem freakishly young - where are the bingo wings? The crinkled and veiny hands and arms? The parchment skin on my face and chest? Thank goodness nobody can see the teen boobs. Only my legs, mottled with red and blue veins here and there, are suitably old-looking. Perhaps my throat now has the scrawniness that a woman of my age should possess. And although there's nothing beautiful in my face, it's got that sagging heaviness you see in older women who were never pretty. I'm sure the 'Miss' in front of my name raises no eyebrows. Of course I do think about facial surgery, and what it might achieve; but there would be no point in having any, because I'd end up looking unnatural.

So it seems that I'm in fact happy with how things are! Why then these speculations on a different occupation and appearance for myself?

I think it's because, in this life, one is never left in peace. You feel under constant pressure to meddle with a winning personal formula. People expect you to progress, to look for challenges, to achieve, to move forward, to simply do something. To keep changing for the better. And not just to stand still because you are content. Some would say that I've wasted the past 900 days on navel-gazing, when I should have been making my mark.

I say pish, bosh and humbug.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Google Chrome

I've just switched to Google Chrome. I saw it in active use on my cousin R---'s laptop the other evening, and thought, wow, that's quick! And legible too. So this morning, when a not-infrequent update battle took place between Windows, F-Secure and Firefox, with nobody winning, I decided to simplify my life and say goodbye to Firefox.

This was no light decision: I still basically liked Firefox, and had used it as my PC browser since 2005 without much to complain about, except that as it matured it added more and more features that I didn't want. All these add-ons and plug-ins and other things made updates ever more tedious, because they ceased to be instant, and I sometimes had to endure delays while Firefox brushed me aside, took over, and updated itself.

A particular annoyance was its own security features, which competed with the comprehensive ones already provided by Windows and F-Secure. F-Secure was needed for the PC, tablet and phone, and I could buy a well-priced package that protected all three, even though that involved two versions (Windows and Android) of the same product. Incidentally, with F-Secure installed on the PC, I did not need the extra level of security provided by Windows, but there was no harm in having an alternative at hand, just in case. I didn't need two alternatives, however.

Chrome is a leaner web browser, with a cleaner-looking interface. It is of course designed to complement Google Mail and other Google products, and by using it for all my Internet-linked devices I can get the bookmarks on them all perfectly synchronised. It's also nice to have a common house style for the browser.

No doubt I will discover a couple of drawbacks. Chrome cannot be lightweight without a few compromises. Its inability to hide remembered passwords was in the news a few days back, but that's not in fact news, since Chrome has from its start in 2008 deliberately kept security very basic, defending this decision by pointing out that there are plenty of third-party security packages available that will do password protection and parental controls, and so forth. Personally, I never ask a browser to store a password where absolute secrecy matters.

I'm noticing a welcome change just typing this post out on Blogger - the default font is larger, and I'm not getting irritating warnings all the time that the text 'hasn't been saved'. These are little improvements, but welcome, and if Chrome works like a proper PC browser on the tablet and phone as well, instead of in the somewhat limited way previous browsers have, then I shall be smiling broadly. Anything that simplifies and speeds up blogging while I'm away in the caravan is going to add pleasure to my life!

Well, I've discovered one nice surprise already. Immediately after posting the above, I tackled my next item for the day, which was making a backup of all my blog posts for the first half of August. This involved selecting the text (and any pictures) straight off the web page, and pasting it into a Word document, in this case two documents called '2013 08 postings 1' and '2013 08 postings 2'. To my amazement, the pasted text was exactly as it appeared in the web page, light orange background and all, and not some messed-around version in a different font. Even more amazing, the footprint was so small, despite the usual liberal use of photos in my posts.

That made the backup much faster to do. It suggests that only four documents will be needed for the whole of August. Not much work there, then! For comparison, I needed ten Word documents to accommodate the backup for the whole of July, when I was copying off the web pages provided by Firefox. Clearly Chrome somehow presents web pages with a lot less underlying formatting.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Hormone balance

I now have the results of various recent blood tests - a whole battery of stuff. For me, the two headline results are these:

On 14 April 2011 (soon after surgery): 427 pmol/L 
On 29 September 2011: 461 pmol/L 
On 12 March 2012: 306 pmol/L 
On 6 August 2013 (now): 146 pmol/L

Post-op, I have consistently used 100 mcg oestradiol patches twice-weekly. These results show that after a post-surgery surge, my oestragen level has dropped back to the level that a pre-menopausal natal woman would have in the first week of menstruation, before she ovulates. (See the helpful Wikipedia diagram:

Well, that seems fine; but whether 146 pmol/L is actually sufficient to maintain (and carry on enhancing) my female characteristics is something that I'll have to discuss with Dr Richard Curtis when I see him shortly.

On 3 September 2010 (six months before surgery): 2.4 nmol/L
On 29 September 2011: 0.9 nmol/L 
On 12 March 2012: 0.4 nmol/L 
On 6 August 2013 (now): 0.4 nmol/L

That's entirely expected. Post-op there should have been only the normal female slow drip of testosterone from the adrenal gland, and that's what I've got. It is probably too low for an energetic sex life, but in my situation, that's no bad thing. I've got over any embarrassment about 'having a testosterone test', now that I know women have testosterone floating about inside them too!

Although I know that I'm overweight, I'm in two minds about doing anything very serious about it. My weight is stable, the same as it was this time last year, my size 16 clothes still fit, and it gives me lower-body bulk to counterbalance the upper-body broadness. Better to be a blob top and bottom, than a top-heavy blob, I say!

I also know that I'm not fit, in the sense that going up a long flight of steps puffs me out and can make my leg muscles protest. I ought to address that, and will when I go on holiday again next month. I'm always a lot more active when caravanning, compared to when lounging around at home.

In all other respects, I feel fine. There are no health issues to report to Dr Curtis, and I'd say that physically I've settled down wonderfully since the Op on 1 March 2011.

My mental and emotional states must have been modified since then, but if so the changes have been so gradual that I haven't been able to detect them. I don't think I've become significantly more scatter-brained, or careless, or tempestuous. I know some people do.

However, I had a moment today when I was stumped over a simple task that went wrong, and got a bit wound up. I had to appeal helplessly for assistance, instead of applying cool-headed male-type method to solve the difficulty. It was in the village library, where I wanted to photocopy my blood test printouts, so that Dr Curtis could have copies too.

First, I couldn't get the photocopying machine to fire up. I nearly gave up, but I'd put 60p in the coin slot which was not to be lightly abandoned!

Then the machine sprang into life, why I did not know. I managed to copy four of the six A4 sheets. But then it displayed an odd no-paper-in-the-tray message. One of the staff put in some more paper for me. But it still wouldn't copy the last two sheets. The girl who had only just helped me with the paper was busy with all the young children using the library for the first time, with grandparents in attendance, and I didn't lke to pester her again. I saw a man browsing the shelves, and appealed to him, simply because, as a man, he ought to be practical. But he bumbled and didn't know anything, and was no use, even though I egged him on with encouraging flattery and sundry you-can-do-it noises.

Just as we jointly admitted defeat, the machine suddenly reset itself of its own accord, burst into ready-to-copy mode, and so I could proceed - although by that time, I was thoroughly exasperated. I felt so pathetically useless.

She, who could be a techno queen with a PC or a tablet or a mobile phone or a camera, was powerless in front of this wayward photocopier! It was so infuriating not to have any notion how to make the thing behave. I was reduced to trying buttons at random. In my office days, I'd have been much more adroit and resourceful. Logical. Unflustered. Assured of finding a way. Clearly my mind had lost some ability to puzzle things out, at least when put on a spot. And tears of frustration had been getting close. Dear me!

Well, I offer this up as at least some evidence that the legendary Melford cool can be knocked sideway by very little indeed. And that hormones are not to be trifled with, because they have very strong effects.

I will take issue with anyone who suggests that I'm just getting old. What a snide insinuation.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013 verdict: dangerous, and a waste of my time

Last night I shut down my account. Well, to be more accurate, I disabled it: it still exists, and can in theory be revived. But it won't be.

Nothing much had happened over the three days of this experiment. Nobody had got in touch with a question to harrass me with. itself had shot two 'Questions of the Day' at me. One was: Which is brainier - cats or dogs? and the other was What insects are you afraid of? I ignored both. I could have clicked on the 'Get a random question' button, but I couldn't be bothered.

Of course I'd not played this correctly. I should have had Facebook and Twitter account on the go already, and then linked those to the account, so that all my friends and contacts on Facebook and Twitter could see my questions and answers, and have an hilarious time following my progress. I can imagine how it would be, if some anonymous person had kept pushing me with questions about my favourite things, on my attitudes to teen sex and music, and whether Xbox or PlayStation was best for gaming. What a spectacle, as I tied myself up in knots with my answers, and dug an ever-deeper hole for myself!

But I'd given the game away with frankness about my adult status, and my oldie photo. The troublemakers who bully kids into suicide wouldn't be willing to take me on. I should have posed as a youngster; but then I've never used that kind of deceit, and never will.

So, end of experiment.

The verdict? I can't see the point, let alone the fascination, of sites like this. If I ever needed to pass the time, or keep boredom at bay, I can think of several far better ways, including playing cards, and writing posts for my own blog if staying indoors is unavoidable.

I don't think that is harmless. It clearly exposes participants to intrusive and abusive questioning from unnamed people. That can't be fun, even if you're grown up, and have some ability to bite back. If you're teenage, and not used to being treated like trash, it could be devastating to your fragile self-esteem.

I'm not surprised that is a long way behind the social networking front runners in popularity. My brief forays into Facebook showed me that FB is (or can be) a much richer experience. Twitter less so. But both let you throw out silly or flippant questions and comments, and both expose you to nasty and hurtful remarks in return. Well, at least those should come only from your nearest and dearest, and trusted contacts. With, you usually don't know who is asking.

And that's so dangerous. It's like responding to a knock on your door on a dark and creepy night, long after midnight, and expecting the caller to be a lovely gentle stranger full of good intent. Whereas common sense should tell you that opening that door will be the beginning of a nightmare you may not survive. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

My four legged friends

They say in the TV and film professions, 'never work with animals', mainly because you can never be quite sure what they will do. I endorse that.

However, I quite like most creatures great and small. I'm not sentimental about them, and there's no way that I'd ever leap into white water or a frozen lake to rescue someone's pet, but I do agree that well-disposed, well-behaved animals are pleasant to be with. And I completely see that with some animals you can develop a very good rapport.

They all know who is their enemy and who is their friend. It's no good trying to put them off if basically you know, and they know too, that in the end you will be nice to them.

Thus I will declare firmly that I'm not the sort of person who gets soppy over dogs. But this doesn't deter them. They ignore all the negative vibes, and roll their eyes appealingly at me, whining for my touch. God knows why they want to revel in my company. No sensible humans do. Couldn't they check out how men and women behave, and take their cue from that? Not a chance. I'd positively never want to own a dog, but you can't avoid their company, and actually I get along fine with nearly all of them. Cue some excellent dogs I've known:

I was a cat owner (or at least lived with cats) for twenty three years in my Old Life, but similarly I am not besotted with them and want no more in my daily life. But they always seem to know that if they are presentable I will have them up on my lap, and tickle their chin, and gently tug their ears, and stroke them just so. And find myself anchored to the sofa for hours. Sigh.

Thank goodness you can't be quite so intimate with horses. My riding experience with horses (covered in my post South of England Show 2 - The Silence of the Lambs on 10 June 2013) has not been good. Noble animals to be sure, but wilful, and too large and heavy for my liking. Horses represent potential injury so far as I am concerned. That said, horses have an intelligence and sensitivity that seems supernatural, and there's no denying that the right horse will be a friend indeed. Anyway, the other evening I had the opportunity to be in a big field with a lovely South Downs view, and I made friends with a diminuitive Shetland pony called Larry. Here we are, in a photo taken by my friend R---, who was looking after Larry and the three other horses:

Isn't he sweet? Also featured is my new shawl, seen better in this close-up:

It was close to sunset, and there was a slight nip in the air. That shawl was just the thing to keep nice and warm, especially as I'd forgotten to put on a bra! I'm anticipating that it will get worn to death next month in the West Country, when I'm walking on beaches or pubbing in the evening.

Back to horses. They all seem to be very individual. You can sense their character in their faces, can't you, as in these past shots of mine:


I think that part of the appeal of horses is that they have those big eyes, and can give you a deep gaze. It doesn't happen with insects; and no matter how interesting their actions, they always seem unaware of you as anything other than a possible building-sized threat. This bee, for instance, at Sissinghurst yesterday - way too preoccupied sticking its head into flowers to notice how close my lens was:

Oblivious of me. But I was still careful not to get in its way. There were an awful lot of bees at Sissinghurst, the most I've seen so far this year. They were all very busy indeed.

Hacking it with the Big Boys

Just a quick post - I want to go to bed - built around a photo I took on the way home from the North at the start of July. It shows a lineup of huge container lorries at Toddington Services (Southbound) on the MI motorway. Rather pathetically sandwiched between them is Fiona and my little caravan:

How small and vulnerable my ensemble looks! And yet I whizzed past plenty of these giants on my way up North and back again. It makes you wonder what would have happened if, in a moment's inattention, we had touched.

In case you're wondering why I was mixing it with the professional drivers of the road haulage business, I should explain that Toddington Services (Northbound) is a different animal from Toddington Services (Southbound). Northbound, the owners of the services have provided special parking for caravans, away from the lorries, although one still has to contend with coaches. Southbound, there is no special provision, and you have to try your luck in the lorry parking area, and risk feeling intimidated. Pretty poor, I say.

Lorries are coming and going all the time: I had only seconds to grab this shot before I would have been run over.

I will say the drivers behaved very well. There were no wolf whistles or appraising stares or hello-darlings (or whatever it would be in French or Polish or Czech). Given the size of the cabs, it's easy to see how a driver might enjoy a fair bit of living space onboard, but it's not a life that has many attractions, given that your choice of route and speed and place to stop for rest must be very restricted, to optimise the use of fuel, and keep other costs to a minimum. Plus the ever-present danger of theft or hijack if you leave the vehicle, unless of course you can find collective safety in a convoy.

Which reminds me of a certain 1970s pop song - no, not the original Convoy (1975), but the spoof British version called Convoy GB (1976) starring CB delinquents Plastic Chicken and Superscouse, in which much is made of 'changing gear' and losing a few people down exit sliproads when the line of lorries - 'the biggest truckin' convoy outside the USA' if I remember rightly - gets to Spaghetti Junction. See for references to both songs. Ah, they don't make pop songs like that any more...