You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Couldn’t we just skip spring?

I never liked spring. Spring is an uncomfortable time of year and every year older I get the more uncomfortable I get with it. I’ve never quite been able to pin down why this is.

April is the cruellest month… as the poet Ezra Pound put it. And the reason he gives for this?

…breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.

I seem to remember from my distant ‘Eng Lit’ past that lilacs are synonymous with lust, or at least they were around the time this poem was written. Lilacs flaunt their sinful, lustful little stalks in TS Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady too, come to think of it:

Now that lilacs are in bloom

She has a bowl of lilacs in her room

And twists on in her fingers while she talks,

“Ah my friend, you do not know, you do not know

What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;

(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)

“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,

And youth is cruel, and has no remorse

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”

Could that be it? The further away from lust you grow, in body and in time, the more distasteful reminders of it become? I was watching a pair of pigeons out on the back lawn this afternoon. She was waltzing about looking for sunflower seeds overlooked by the sparrows, he scuttling behind her in that weird bobbing courtship dance they do – obsequious, desperate. I am here, your Feathered Majesty, and only too willing to serve…

I caught myself thinking, Pack it up you two, or get a room.

I suppose it reminds you how very old you have become when every tree is suddenly, horribly out in overblown, luxuriant blossom – so pink, so white, so bridal!

And then there’s the weather. I went to visit my old lady today – not Mum, the other one – and standing at her front door shivering as the chilly wind blew in and the laburnum blossom danced and pranced on her lawn she seemed quite upset by it all. It should be warm, we both knew it. Either good and warm or good and cold but not this ghastly can’t make up its mind, middle of the road changeability. We couldn’t be doing with it, either of us.

At least we’re into May now. That’s April disposed of. Bad things always seem to have happened to me in April, and the lowest sloughs of despond. I remember one awful walk alone in April. I had forced myself to go out because I knew I would go mad if I didn’t. My shoes were worn out. The sky was the colour of old saucepans. Passing motorists had dropped cigarette packets beside the road, the tinfoil catching the afternoon light, and someone had tossed out an old music cassette (remember those?) with brown tape streaming off into the grass of the verge.

Everything seemed odd, the wrong colour, polluted. Down the side of the hill, in the distance, horses were bending their heads to eat the wet spring grass in a field. There was something horrific about it, something wrong. I suppose it wasn’t the worst day of my life – the very worst ones seem to merge and sink out of sight – but this particular one took root in my memory.

Spring always affects me like that. I was a winter baby. Give me icy roads every time, and that kind of damp cold that gets into your bones. Give me blizzards and an early, cosy nightfall. Failing that let me have lazy summer heat when the roads are empty at noon and nobody stirs, or autumn and the sudden death of the leaves, the first few gales.

Couldn’t we just skip spring?

No voice at the world’s tribunals

I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.

It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.

Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.

When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.

I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.

When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”

What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?

I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.

I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.

But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.

“I will in a minute,” he said.

“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”

He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.

Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.

Now, the point of this is twofold:

Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.

Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy.  We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.

I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”

The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?

It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.

Anita Brookner: Look At Me

Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane

In my monogrammed gold pyjamas…

I don’t normally write about politics – well, maybe a wee nudge in passing – mainly because, after all, who am I?

Closely followed by and who cares what I think?

Supplemented by and in any case, it’s boring. Well, not to me, but then I’m odd. But this post seems to want to be written, and nothing else is queuing up to be written instead of it, so here goes nothing.

I feel I’ve learned quite a few things recently, by observing the rise and rise of Mr Trump in America, and Brexit gradually unfolding in Britain: the value of humility, for instance, and a willingness to modify your opinions where necessary.

When That Woman in the Horrid Trouser Suit, that Elderly Plumber with the Rod Stuart Hairdo and possibly Someone Else Annoying went all the way to the Supreme Court to challenge our Government’s right to trigger Article 50 (signalling our intention to leave the European Union) I was furious. I voted to leave. We voted to leave. I lived in a democracy. I had been given – wisely or not – a vote in a democratic referendum. So I voted. And I won. We won, and now this woman

I hated her. Every time she appeared on my television set yet again, I hated her. However, I would not have abused her on social media, as some did. Neither would I have written a newspaper headline describing the Lord Chief Justice and two of his colleagues, who decided in Ms Miller’s favour, as Enemies of the People. That’s because I’m old fashioned. I believe in courtesy, kindness and moderation. I believe in good sportsmanship – the idea that you should be modest in victory and generous in defeat. I believe that blind fury/incoherent ranting mean you have already lost the argument.

And now, watching what is happening in America, it seems to me that I was wrong even to have thought ungenerous thoughts about Ms Miller and her irritating trouser suit, or those pompous old farts of Judges in their wigs and gowns. I see the various Courts in America struggling to curb the rise of an out-and-out autocrat. I see that they, and the people themselves, protesting in whatever way they can, are now all that stands between democracy and dictatorship, and that may well be the case for the next four or (surely not?) eight years. How could I have thought badly of our own judges for doing what they were appointed to do in helping to define our democracy?

Before this last year, I wondered how dictators ever came to power. How did Hitler, for example, ever get to be in charge of Germany? Couldn’t people have seen through him? How did all those ghastly African dictators get to be in power in the first place? I used to think maybe it was because in Africa people were less sophisticated than us, politically (I know – a prejudice left over from Imperial days) but that did not explain Germany. Now I have watched this process happening, potentially, in the last place I would ever have expected to see it. I see how easy it is to fool at least half of the people, half of the time. And that’s all you need. Half of the people, half of the time.

I have been thinking about the Peter Principle:

Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.

Or, more specifically:

In an organizational structure, assessing an employee’s potential for a promotion is often based on their performance in the current job. This eventually results in their being promoted to their highest level of competence, and potentially then to role in which they are not competent, referred to as their “level of incompetence”.

Maybe this is what has happened on a grand scale in America. Someone who was extremely good at one level of “running things” has got himself promoted to a much higher level of “running things” and he’s not exactly coping.

I dislike having to feel sorry for obnoxious people, but in spite of myself I am beginning to feel a little sorry for President Trump. Unwillingly, I try to imagine myself in his place: I am seventy-going-on-three and wandering around the palace of my dreams late at night in my monogrammed gold pyjamas, gleefully exploring its many rooms and corridors. My father’s house has many mansions… Maybe I open a desk drawer here, or peer behind a brocade curtain there. I look up at the portraits of past presidents. Here I am guys!

I wanted to win, and now I have won. At last, I’m in charge…

(My father, an electrician working for the Electricity Board, over the years refused several offers of promotion. He was popular, and a good organiser. He’d probably have made a good foreman, but he used to quote this little verse:

The working class can kiss my ****/ I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

The extra money would have come in handy for a man with a wife with a wife and three large daughters to support, but he stuck to his socialist principles.)

…but oh, it’s not much fun in my palace of dreams: it’s hard work, it’s long hours and SO much more complicated than I imagined. People don’t just do what I tell them, like they ought to. People are criticizing me. Me!

And there’s NO ESCAPE. I can’t just tell them well, I won – but now I’d really rather go off and play golf a lot or get back to buying hotels. I can’t just turn to the nearest minion and say – here, take over this President thing for me, will you? It’s not nearly as exciting as campaigning.

I’m BORED now.

Now, I am BORED.

So bored!

toad

Daily Dog

I was going to call this post ‘Groundhog Life’ but decided against. It’s a good title, though I say it myself, but who’s going to click on something that might make them miserable in these dire and depressing times? Maybe I should have gone the whole hog (hog!) and called it ‘Reasons to be Cheerful. But there weren’t any.

So, where did ‘Daily Dog’ come from?

A confession, ladies and gentlemen: I am now the possessor of a Daily Dog loo seat, and this in spite of the fact that I twelve cats and no dog. I have never actually had a dog – can’t remember ever taking a dog for a walk, even.

The old loo seat broke – who knew loo seats didn’t just go on forever? – and I had to replace it. I saw this Dog loo seat online and, despite there being other novelty loo seats available – plants, little fishes, bamboo designs etc – and a whole range of acceptably plain white loo seats, for some reason I ordered the Dog one. I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

It’s kind of an ironic Dog, in that here is this foolish lop-eared Jack Russell reading a newspaper called The Daily Dog on my toilet seat, in the midst a houseful of cats. I thought it might make my sister laugh when she next comes over from Canada (I can hear her now, coming down the stairs (‘Linda, am I right in thinking …?’).  And it’s liberating, I suppose, to have at last overcome my working class horror of bad taste.

And I thought it might make me smile when I was taking myself too seriously, and in fact it does although the novelty might wear off in the decades to come. It’s likely to last decades, this loo seat. Excellent quality, whatever its appearance – got the soft close lid and everything. Well, I suppose it could have revolved or played a tinny version of Für Elise. The cats are intrigued. They sit and watch as instead of the usual crashing and splintering the lid gently sinks and the newspaper-reading pooch heaves once again into view.

And ‘Groundhog Life’?

Every now and then I type into Google ‘What is the meaning of life?’ just in case the All Knowing One has come up with the answer since the last time I asked it. Invariably it hasn’t. However, it sometimes throws up interesting bits of random reading. This time I came across an online university philosophy course by a gentleman called James Fieser of UTM (University of Tennessee at Martin) the first chapter of which is entitled The Meaning of Life. It’s an overview of philosophy, very readably written, and I am gradually working my way through it. I thought it might be available in book form, in which case I would have bought it, but it only seems to be accessible online.

In this chapter Professor Fieser describes a test to determine how much of a grip the ‘What is the meaning of life?’ question has on you personally. This test was designed by German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche and is called The Eternal Return. It’s like a thought experiment. You imagine – doesn’t matter if you don’t believe – that the current universe is just one of an endless series of universes. One universe ends, the next one begins, identical in every detail. You will therefore have no choice but to re-live this same life again and again and again for all eternity. If Eternal Return feels like a nightmare to you, then you have issues with the meaning of life.

It certainly feels like a nightmare to me. Does it to you? It wouldn’t be so bad if you had the opportunity to change things in each successive life, but to carry on having to suffer the same horror, grief and pain, making the same mistakes and never being able to learn from them?

I do try nowadays not to dwell on such stuff. If I catch myself either moping about the past, obsessing about the future, fantasising about better pasts and better futures or away in la-la land generally, I gently return myself to the present moment. Unfortunately the present moment contains President Trump, old people queuing for thirteen hours in hospital corridors because the National Health Service is disintegrating, innocent children starving to death and getting killed, and then people taking umbrage and ringing up complaining because they have been forced to look into the eyes of a newly-dead child…

It contains February, my birthday month (naturally) and the worst month of the year in the UK. It’s ten in the morning and looking out of the window beyond my computer I see the sort of grey-brown foggy darkness you would normally expect around dusk. A cold rain is falling and there is a crust of sleet and snow over all. The birds gobble up anything I put out for them, hanging on through the icy cold so as to produce another springful of baby birds. Everything seems ravenous. Yesterday I found myself putting out an extra slice of bread for the Ratties. Yes, I am even feeding rats now.

So you seek that’s why I just had to have the Jack Russell loo seat!