Lessons from the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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To all the teachers who thought that they were gods, thank for teaching me realism, even if that wasn’t your intention 

To all the teachers who only worked with their fauns, thank you for teaching me that flattery and adoration isn’t the only way to get somewhere after all

To all the teachers who thought that their subject was the be all and end all, thank you for teaching me a broader definition of success and achievement than you planned to 

To all the teachers who beat a path out of the school gate at every opportunity, desperate for a smoke or a drink, thank you for teaching me that, whatever your opinion of me, I was doing a better job of surviving than you 

To all the teachers who didn’t believe me, thank you for teaching me that I didn’t need your validation 

To all the teachers who only knew one way, their way of doing things and refused to budge, thank you for making me a determined, independent learner

To all the teachers who didn’t have much to share with the class, thank you for taking some pressure off someone who wouldn’t have succeeded in a tougher academic environment 

To all the teachers who didn’t do anything about the bullying, thank you for helping to forge a passionate defender of others

To all the teachers who bullied me, thank you for making me stronger 

To all the teachers who found something for me to do or an errand to send me on, thank you for letting me be useful, for letting me give something back when I was at my lowest and most broken 

To all the teachers who ever listened, thank you for giving me your time, even if neither of us understood what I was saying 

To all the teachers who took me seriously, thank you because finally I can too

To all the teachers who let me come and go as I needed, thank you for making your classroom, and your entire subject, a place of safety

To all the teachers who would let me tackle projects my own way or to work alone instead of in a group, thank you for letting me learn at my own pace and in my own style 

To all the teachers who would answer my questions, thank you for hearing me out and for seeing my learning as more valuable than your time or lesson plan

To all the teachers who believed in me and who gave me responsibilities, thank you for seeing me as more than just a statistic but as an individual that I would eventually find too

To all the teachers who cut me some slack, thank you because I don’t think any of us realised at the time what or how much I was up against 

Looking Better – A Photo Retake

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Here’s a slightly more photogenic view of Australian Crunch:

Australian Crunch

FO: The Lunchbox Project

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Sandwich Fillings

The knitting bug really has me smote at the moment.  My physical health is a little better at the moment and I’m just so enjoying being able to do creative things again.  It’s one of the things that I really miss when I’m ill, not being able to express myself or entertain myself.  Being ill gets very boring and frustrating rather too quickly for comfort.  Even when I have the strength to pick up my needles, I end up knitting so slowly and painfully (physically and figuratively) that it just isn’t enjoyable or pleasant.  This time I’ve so ill that I could barely read and when I did get the strength together to finally read a book, it took me hours and hours of very slow reading.  I’m a fast reader and it sucks most when illness takes away the things that identify you most and that you enjoy most.

Anyway.

I’ve been knitting again.  It’s another gift.  Starting school is always an important occasion to mark but it can be hard to do when your little friend lives on the other side of the world.  I often make cakes for local school starters but that doesn’t survive posting very well.

Starting school is all about shoes and new clothes (uniform here, traditionally bought several sizes too big for growing into), sometimes new stationery and books (but not normally for junior school) and the all-important lunchbox.

There’s a lot of choice on the market these days for lunchboxes, even in this country.  When I was little in a small town (English small town not American village) there was pretty much the choice of two lunchboxes.  Only that it wasn’t actually a choice because one was blue and had that famous steam engine on it and the other was pink with those ponies on it.  Funny enough, I had a pink lunchbox.  So did pretty much everyone else.  With names emblazoned in permanent marker, or for the inventive parent, a scraggy strip of masking tape and biro.  Occasionally someone got hold of a lunchbox in a different colour or design.   Those boxes stood out on the lunch table.  But I don’t think that there was any jealousy.  They were made of super tough plastic (and subsequently lasted years), a box with two halves, a slightly suspicious hinge (which is probably why they never lasted longer) and a contrasting colour square handle.  Inside was a matching flask of a density of plastic that was remarkable and best suited for time capsules rather than being lugged around by an infant.  That was lunchboxes back then.

Now they come in a plethora of designs and shapes and colours.  I imagine that even for a four-year old that there are all sorts of subconscious fashion minefields to negotiate when choosing one.  I suppose that is one reason to be grateful for school uniforms.  Non-uniform days were always a nightmare dreaded for weeks in advance by the completely fashion-oblivious overweight frump of myself.  It was easier in Sixth Form, I had developed a little more deliberate awareness of what I wore (having long been the victim of five years out of date pass-ons from cousins who were always three foot taller and skinnier) and for non-uniform days, we wore pigtails or bunches and remnants of our previous uniforms with the loosely knotted ties somewhere by our stomachs.  It was the fashion, one created within the confines of one small school.

But lunchboxes are important.  Well, food is.  Armies, school children and me all march on their stomachs.

So I knew what I’d be making up for this particular school start.

A lunchbox.

Knitted, of course.

But life and me being who we are, things had got a little bit behind so I had to get a rush on.  It seems some countries actually start school halfway through the summer holidays which, first of all, is both confusing and weird and second, not convenient when you’re trying to work out your deadline.

How Do You Make a Swiss Roll?

Push him down a mountain.

(Yes, highly PC in this day and age).

I decided to start with something easy to get me started.  This pattern was deliciously simple but so effective.  If you’re just learning to knit, I recommend making one of these up.

There are probably all sorts of rules in place as regards the healthy contents of a child’s lunchbox these days but what is the first day of school without cake?  You have to have cake in a lunchbox.  Just a little one.  Sometimes.  It’s got to better than crisps, surely? (Besides, I can’t knit crisps).

Chocolate Swiss Roll

I Can’t Make Sandwiches

It’s true, I can’t.  It’s one of those truly English concepts that have just bypassed me, I’m game to cook from exotic cultures the world over but I cannot master English.  My cooked breakfast (other than being vegetarian) usually features non-English staples such as halloumi, roasted peppers and waffles.   My husband’s mini-roast may have meat and potatoes on the plate but also grilled Mediterranean vegetables.  I’m a fusion specialist, clearly.

I don’t get sandwiches, not English sandwiches.  There’s the sliced bread which the Iberians have appropriately branded ‘bimbo’ and that my father called ‘blotting paper’, it’s great for toast but it’s not great stuff.  Then you need a wafer of cheese or ham or both.  For someone brave and daring, there may also be some pickle (not a gherkin if you’re American) but probably just mayonnaise.  There will be no salad, not even a leaf of iceberg.  But do you know what the worst thing is?  They butter the bread!  I’m serious.  No, English sandwich is complete without a foot deep smearing of margarine.  They don’t even use real butter.  An English sandwich has no depth and has a tell-tale ooze of yellow slime squishing from between the slices.  I don’t get it.

My husband has banned me from making him sandwiches.  My idea of a sandwich is to grab whatever happens to be in the fridge and stick it in.  With no butter.  And plenty of salad.  And plenty of flavour.  I had jalapeño and cream cheese sandwiches at school which is the closest I came to being bland.  In America, I found out that bagel shops think that this is fine and will add avocado too.  Mm.  But apparently pesto is not an acceptable alternative to pickle.

So knitting an English sandwich was something of a challenge.  The husband, who has limited tolerance thresholds when it comes to make-believe, is convinced that my bread is way too thick and plump.  But then he reckoned that the crust round the outside of the bread was the filling.  It got very confusing.  Chocolate spread or fish paste?

Slice of Bread

The bread is made in the pattern from two white sections and then knitting a huge long strip of crust.  I knew that I didn’t have the patience to knit a four stitch scarf and then do all that fiddly sewing.  I hate sewing, have I mentioned?

Instead, I knitted the bread as one section with a strip of crust between then picked up stitches all the way around with a circular needle and knitted the crust from that.  An awful lot less sewing, thank you very much.

Bread Slice Mark 1

Even though it used a lot more yarn, I found that having the ‘crust’ on both edges and therefore folding in double actually made it easier to sew up.  If you get what I mean!

Bread Slice Mark 2

As this was a pattern for an English sandwich there was no salad in it.  I didn’t approve.  I had to make at least some lettuce!  The lettuce is a modified version of the lettuce made for the burger pattern at the beginning of the same pattern book.  The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the lettuce is technically made from crocodile.  So whilst the ham is probably technically vegetarian, the lettuce isn’t.  Only in my world.

Crocodile Lettuce

It’s definitely a high fibre sandwich and is about as synthetic as an English sandwich.  Although the ham probably has a higher protein content than that found in the supermarket.

Ham and Cheese Sandwich

Oranges and Lemons

Or just a satsuma.  A classic piece of fruit for a child’s lunchbox.  I’ve made an orange before from a different pattern set and borrowed a technique from that to give the satsuma appropriate texture, simply turn the knitting inside out and use the reverse (or ‘wrong’) side!

Satsuma

Bananas in Pyjamas

Well, if not pyjamas, then a very natty peel-able skin.  I just love that!  Isn’t that cool?  I had to master sewing (ugh!) in a zip which I’ve never done before in my knitting but it was definitely worth it.

Banana with Peelable Skin

Like the orange, I have knitted bananas before.  There was one from the fruit set I knitted a while back and the really fiddly silly little bits one for the monkey.  The banana from the fruit set had a few stitches put in it to give it the curve and this was the only downside with this particular pattern, the banana was totally straight!  I don’t eat bananas (husband says that (apparently) I have put the zip at the wrong end and that you open them from the other end to mine, but how am I meant to know?!) but I do know that they curve.  I had a little light bulb moment.

Do you remember that moose I made?  Well his antlers were held up and shaped by pipe cleaners.  (Technically, one, cut in half).  I still had some.  They’re the modern type of pipe cleaner, slightly floppy and furry but not as reliable as the old white cotton caterpillar ones that I remember.  I had to twist two together to get enough rigidity for the banana.  I put them in the middle of the fruit and stuffed around them.  The banana curves.

Pipecleaners for Stiffness

Banana

Improvising

For the items above I was working from patterns which is a lot easier.  However, there is something very important that you need in a lunchbox that I didn’t have a pattern for.  A drink.  You’ve got to have a drink.  Even camels like me take one in our lunchboxes.

I had to improvise.  I made up a piece of knitting that when folded made a carton shape the same size as a sponge scrubber (clean but the same was what I use for washing up, stripped of the scratchy pad).  I then made up a wee circle of garter stitch (remember what I said about orange texture?) which I borrowed from a flower pattern to sew on and then it was all downhill after that, I had to sew.  I cannot sew.  I had to embroider.  I really cannot embroider.

Orange Juice Carton Front

I robbed a straw from a real wee drinks carton and sewed it on the back.

Orange Juice Carton BackBut there was still something missing from the lunchbox, it felt like I’d missed out on something important.

Yoghurt.

All children have a yoghurt in their lunchbox.  I don’t why, maybe it’s some unwritten Law.  I don’t like fruit yoghurt.  And I have never seen a pattern for a yoghurt pot.

It was time to improvise.  Again.

The pot was knitted in the round on DPNs.  (That’s the good thing about learning a new skill, you will always end up using it again).  I knitted a strawberry to sew on, I’m sure what I based it on, perhaps the same flower centre but misshaped.

Strawberry Yoghurt Pot

Then I had a snag.  How do you knit a yoghurt pot lid?

 I did my best.  I went for seed stitch.  (Or moss?)  I remembered to work a line of decreases for that little snap corner.  But it came out a little bit big.  I didn’t mind.  It was just about big enough for me to embroider the word ‘yoghurt’ wonkily across it.  But it was rather big on the pot.  Way beyond the husband’s imagination threshold.  I didn’t have plan B so it was going to have to do.

Yoghurt Pot Lid

I will never be a designer.  Nor should I be allowed to be.

But I finished the lunchbox up, adding some cute little hair ties and posted it off.

Lunchbox Project

I wonder what little one will make of it.

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On Poetry

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It perhaps says quite a lot about me that I only get around to talking about National Poetry Month on the last day of the month.  However, it does seem to have taken everyone else to the middle of the month to realise it too.  So maybe I’m only two weeks behind after all.

I don’t know about how it is for everyone else, I can only speak for myself, but poetry seems to have disappeared off the world radar these days.  Yeah, I know that there are national poets but it’s seems to be a title only, there’s few who can name the poet much less any of his works.  Gone are the days when farmsteaders were versed in the Bible, Shakespeare and Milton.

Poetry isn’t cool.  Is poetry not relevant anymore?  I don’t think we can argue that, modern poets seem to be tackling a diverse range of contemporary issues.  (I can only say that because I’ve bumped into a rainbow of words these last few weeks, mainly on blogs not through any erudite or cultural experience of my own).  Maybe it is because we now live in a modern world of soundbites, pithy at best but if not, then amusing on a basic level and preferably crude, garnered from films and celebrities.  Maybe we don’t have the same attention spans anymore.  A haiku might be more appropriate.  But too highbrow, too artful.

It comes down to attitude.  Poetry is for other people.  Who are those people?  Will we ever know?  Probably not, the mythical demographics of popular consciousness are vague, distant.  Poetry is not just seen as some elitist taste like opera and ballet.  (Apart from ballet classes for the female under eight, people from all classes and neighbourhoods with aspirations and a sense of de rigueur and duty send their precocious darlings off in worn shoes and badly stretched leotards.  Real ballet is as far apart from junior ballet classes as Pluto is from the Sun, still remaining an alien art form).  Poetry is fluffy and wet, poetry belongs to those of queer minds and dispositions, the uncool.

We did poetry at junior school before we learnt self-consciousness.  Acrostics mainly.  Hammered out sentences across the initials of a word, much like the début of a banana-fingered piano player.  I didn’t even realise until last week that you don’t have to keep the initials in order.  Maybe the Laws of Poetry can be broken.

In middle school, we progressed into laboured ABAB rhyming.  If you wanted to live dangerously you could always mix up the form but again poetry was all about Law.  It was ordered, twee and contrite.  We learnt poems.  The kind of poems that were guaranteed to put pre-adolescents off poetry for life.  For example, how can a cloud be lonely and how can it wander?  Do I really care about a field of daffodils?  I remember something about Adlestrop.  Which in my pun-creating mind sounds like a tantrum gone awry.  The only good thing that came from that experience and reading some book about a chalice being found was a lifelong passion for the rural abandoned that continues with me still and surfaces in my photography.  Early on in middle school we did our own versions of the Jolly Postman, much more my cup of tea.

And in senior school?  Poetry went the way of Creative Writing.  Nonexistent.  For GCSE, we did one creative piece.  I think it had to be a side of A4, a very short short story.  We did War Poetry, rushed through in perhaps less than half a term.  It wasn’t about the poetry either, it was all about themes and issues and culture and history.  But I met the famous War Poets of World War I, a love that I still carry with me.  I liked the work of Sassoon but preferred Owen.  The next closest we came to poetry was Shakespeare, enshrined as Law that all GCSE students must study at least one piece in their two years.  He wasn’t popular, he used weird words, a language more alien to teenagers than Arabic even thought it was purportedly their own.  I love Shakespeare but haven’t really returned to it since school apart from harvesting the occasional monologue or duologue for other studies.

That was my education in poetry.  Or at least my formal education.  There was poetry at home.  As a young child, I had volumes of nursery rhymes and spent hours poring over them before moving onto the Nonsense Rhymes and an Old Possum’s Book of Cats.  Oh and there was AA Milne.  My father loved Winnie the Pooh as much as Paddington.  In the old days before I was born and he was still commuting, he would read Winnie the Pooh on the London train between the bowler hats and the copies of the Times.

My mother on the other hand had once entertained dreams of a university scholarship and furnished me with a proper anthology, probably one of her own school prizes like my World Atlas and French dictionary too.  Her maiden name printed neatly on the inside.  This was poetry that meant that you were someone, this was poetry that was meant to be learnt.  I never got on with it.  The only poem that I truly loved was the Night Mail, it stays in my head still.  (Trying to find a link for the poem, I have discovered that it was originally written to accompany a film documentary and one commenter is right, it does sound a lot like modern rap in this version at least!)  It was the magical rhythm and the pictures it conjured.  That’s my kind of poetry.

Therefore I am not a cultured being.  I sometimes feel that I should make more of an effort, that for some reason I should be a cultured person.  The kind who remembers the big words and proper terms for everything, the kind who can string fancy words into any sentence, the kind who can quote poetry and literature more easily than I remember the day of the week.  But truthfully, I feel that it’s a little too much beyond me.  Maybe it’s an attitude thing.  To be all of those things would mean being posh, being highbrow, being a hundred and one things that I am most definitely not.  Besides which, my head would hurt.

I wrote poetry as a child but like my creative writing, I eventually realised that my talent did not amount to much, that I would go no further.  Maybe it was living with that aforementioned attitude.  Writing was always something I did in secret, some shameful weakness on my part.  Less socially acceptable then stuffing chocolate bars and biscuits behind closed doors.  And I had no framework and few points of comparison.  In the old-fashioned novels of my childhood, writers burnt with genius and dashed off great oeuvres in a few strokes of the pen.  However I have recently realised that apparently it’s not meant to be like that, writing is meant to be hard work, it is something that has to be crafted.  But I didn’t know at the time.  I got discouraged.  My pastimes not belonging in the modern world.

Modern poetry was, and in fact still is, something inaccessible, something entirely alien to the Laws of Poetry with which I grew up, I mean some of it doesn’t even rhyme!  My poems belonged to the sentimental tripe of antiquity, a genre which I didn’t even enjoy reading.  But there was nowhere else to go, nothing beyond.  I only know acrostics and ABAB.  I have a funny feeling that poetry is more than that but it would be like trying to force an introduction with some learnéd, highbrow culturalist at a gallery opening.  Little me doing that!  No chance.

So poetry remains for other people.

The Mask I Wear

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~ Trigger Alert! ~

It’s funny because I actually hate wearing masks, claustrophobic with scratchy edges, eyeholes positioned carefully to be in the wrong place for me blearily staring out without the safety of my glasses underneath.  It was cool to use masks in our drama work at school, I’d wriggle out, try and find some other role for myself.  The cheap, white plastic faces that the others delighted in, high art at its very best, just meant fear and induced panic to me.  I was never cool.

You see part of the problem is that I already was wearing a mask.  Some paint their faces, an inch of slap, to hide behind and to pretend that they’re something that they fear that they might not be.  Others create intricate masks, masks that allow them to play a role whilst hiding the reality beneath.

I don’t know what role I was hoping to create.  I think it was generic ‘normal’.  I don’t remember consciously creating the part nor do I remember the moment when I first donned the mask.  But now it accompanies me everywhere, I don’t go out without it.  I even forget that I am wearing it.

This mask allows me to be, relatively, cool and collected.  This mask gives me a veneer of confidence, a quiet assurance that I try to pass off.  It permits me to function in a demanding world without a barrage of questions, without exposing myself to the pain, threats and dangers that everyday life poses.

I got so nervous about going out; I felt somehow that I had no right to be out and about, I was embarrassed by being out and about, that I used to force myself to greet strangers in the street.  Don’t worry this was perfectly normal behaviour for everyone else; I grew up in a small, friendly town.  Eventually I built up the confidence to ask questions in shops, I would force myself to walk in and find something to ask about.  Asserting my right to be present in their shop.

I was talking to a friend the other day.  She hadn’t realised that I was shy.  I am, painfully shy.  I hate talking to people; will do anything to avoid it.  I only do it for the sake of politeness; I have mastered the art of small talk.  I have even mastered the art of small talk without looking like I am being tortured.  I do it to fit in, I do it to be ‘normal’, I do it because it is expected.  When I have to go out to something social, my stomach churns with nerves, never mind butterflies it is an entire fleet of Wellington bombers.  And not in rubber boots either, hobnailed ones.

My nerves got so bad that I once developed a stutter.  I’ve suffered with panic attacks for over a decade.

But life has to go on.

I got through the stutter by pretending that I was performing a role.  I could speak in public by pretending to be someone else.

I guess that that is where the mask partly comes from.  But there were other expectations too.  Expectations that family, culture, society all impress upon you.  You try not to let anyone down and to do that, you have to become someone or something else.

Otherwise most days I wouldn’t be able to function.

Now I am so used to wearing it that I forget that I am wearing it.  The role I have unwittingly created is also a burden to me.  It is a responsibility to keep it up, to maintain it daily.  A responsibility and a struggle.  I can’t just crack now because everyone knows the other me.  I can’t burst into tears for the slightest reason.  I can’t ask for help.  Because with this mask on, I am in control, everything is under control.

But it isn’t.

So what do I do?  I have no choice but to keep on wearing the mask, to continue with my daily performance.  An artiste pandering to some expectant audience.  I have become the mask.  I don’t know if there’s anything underneath anymore.  Or if, maybe, that fragile shell is all that is holding me together and then I don’t really want to risk taking it off either.