A bunch of nonsense

A bunch of nonsense

I grew up in a house filled with books. To be honest, they were mainly from the library (we visited every week), but the books we did own included a set of encyclopedias, a few well-worn paperback novels, and quite a few children’s books, received as gifts from various relatives or as prizes at the Sunday School Anniversary.

Our library included two volumes of poetry, one by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, and the other a collection of poems by Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971).

Nash wrote over 500 poems in his lifetime, for both adults and children, and early in his career he was employed as a copywriter for an advertising company. His poems are funny and clever; he had just the right type of temperament for an advertising man.

Here are a few of my favourites:

The Fly

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly, 
And then forgot to tell us why.

The Camel

The Camel has a single hump, 
The dromedary two, 
Or is it just the other way, 
I’m never sure – are you?

Celery

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Nash was just 29 when he published his first collection of humorous poems to critical acclaim. The following year he left his job to concentrate fully on writing.

He also wrote the scripts for three MGM films and the lyrics for three Broadway musicals including the hugely successful A Touch of Venus, starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker about a mannequin who comes to life.

Watching this old clip from reminded me of the 1987 film Mannequin which I have always loved.

Despite being a poet at heart, he still needed to make a living. He sums it up beautifully in this short poem.

Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

This is an example of a nonsense poem. Nonsense poems often change the spelling of words to make things rhyme or make them more amusing. They are best read out loud and children usually love them. Other writers of nonsense poems include Lewis Carroll (The Jabberwocky) and Edward Lear (The Owl and the Pussycat).

Do you have any favourite poems from your childhood?

Writing better content

Writing better content

Over the past few months a lot of free courses have been offered on the internet, so I’ve been madly signing up for things that interest me. These are mainly around writing and using social media, so I’ve got a thousand ideas about things I could do, but of course I’m still nervous about doing anything in case it fails and I look like an idiot.

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t really matter if things don’t work out, but if you’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to make things perfect (or at least pretty good), then it’s hard to really adopt the idea of sharing a minimum viable product. It doesn’t come easily to put something out there until you’ve double and tripled checked that it looks good and doesn’t have any errors.

But the reality is that even when you check everything carefully, you still make mistakes. It can be incredibly hard to see your own errors, even though it’s pretty easy to spot mistakes in other people’s work. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed family who are quick to let me know if I’ve made any major blunders, or even just repeated words which I have a habit of doing.

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting webinar on content writing, so I thought I would share some of my key take-aways in case they are relevant to you and your writing,

  1. Manage your time. Try to draft your work quickly so that you can spend the bulk of your time on editing and polishing. You can’t edit your words until you’ve got something on the page to work with.
  2. Edit your work but don’t keep polishing it endlessly. Focus on getting it finished. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can spend a lot of time and energy fiddling around with the wrong thing, for example drafting and re-drafting the first sentence, only to chop it off before you hit send.
  3. Don’t try to impress people with your writing. Instead focus on what your post/email/report is trying to say. You should have a clear message, so put your energy into working out what that message is.
  4. Write in your natural voice. I find it very odd when people write in a stuffy, overly wordy way, when this is not the way they usually talk. Write as simply as possible. I promise you that no-one will complain.
  5. Bounce back quickly from mistakes. Make a checklist of your frequent errors and check your work before you publish. Examples might be using one particular word too often. Keep a sticky note on your desk to remind you how to spell any words that you commonly misspell.
  6. Ask someone else to read your draft. As I mentioned earlier, it can be almost impossible to see your own errors. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to check your work.
  7. Try leaving your work to marinate overnight. Sometimes the right words just jump into your brain when you stop thinking so hard. If possible, leave your work as a draft and come back to it the next day. You will usually be able spot any errors or fluffy bits straight away.

Thank you for reading my blog. If you like it, please share this post with a friend or colleague.

And if you see any errors, please let me know.

No morning tea please

No morning tea please

After making the big decision to retire, I had to formally submit my resignation through our online HR portal. This triggered what is known as a “termination process” also known as “offboarding”.

The language made me feel quite ill and a little bit anxious. I’ve been working at the organisation for 14 years, so to end my career in this impersonal way felt a bit sad and confirmed my view that working for a large government department turns you into little more than a number, fodder for the machine.

I emailed my manager to let him know that I was submitting the form and he emailed me back the offboarding checklist. This is to ensure that you settle all your accounts and hand back any equipment that’s been issued over the years. He also rang to say that he would miss me, which was nice. I specifically requested that there be no fuss as I just wanted to walk away quietly.

I’ve always hated those corporate morning teas that are usually held when someone leaves. I dislike the people who only turn up for the free sponge cake and the ubiquitous cheese and crackers. I hate those speeches where the top brass talks mainly about themselves or tells embarrassing stories about the poor person who is leaving.

I hate the bit where the person says that they won’t miss the work, but they’ll miss the people. I know that for most people this is true, but I will genuinely miss the work and the people.

I will miss laughing with my team-mates, helping people solve problems, and moaning about senior staff who send you long rambling emails but don’t ever say what they actually want you to do.

I’ll miss people shouting across the room to ask me how to spell accommodation and other tricky words.

When I went in yesterday to return my laptop and security pass, I was still a bit surprised at how upset I was. There were only about four people in the office and the place was a wasteland of blank screens and empty chairs. I handed over my computer and the admin person said weakly, “we should have bought a cake”.

I wandered off down the corridor and came across a lovely colleague that I’ve known for years. She could see that I was upset so she gave me a hug (verboten).  She told me that I would be missed and that I’d had a big impact on the organisation.

It was nice after all.

Emma Peel: feminist icon

Emma Peel: feminist icon

I was sad to hear that the British actress, Diana Rigg, had passed away at the age of 82. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rigg was most famous for her role as the female lead in the TV show, The Avengers, which ran from 1965 to 1968. In the show she was strong and fearless, solving crimes with her partner John Steed, who sported a bowler hat and carried a cane. Very British.

I loved that show and I desperately wanted an Emma Peel doll, so it was something of a miracle when I received one for my 10th birthday. I suppose I was a little old for playing with dolls, but I thought she was the ant’s pants.

Like the actress, the doll had long reddish hair and came wearing tight black leather trousers and knee-length black boots. She came with three different outfits, all black, as well as a shiny gun! This makes me laugh now. I can’t imagine a doll coming with her own gun these days, but in the show, Emma could shoot the cork out of a bottle of champagne at twenty paces and was also skilled at fencing, karate and judo. She was whip smart and able to outwit even the most diabolical criminals. She never lost her cool.

She could do anything and I wanted to be just like her. Maybe not so sporty, but smart and sassy. I loved her independence and secretly thought that a life of fighting crime would suit me very well.

In the show Emma Peel worked for the British Secret Service, which is interesting because the marriage bar – legislation that prohibited married women from joining the civil service – was only lifted in 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and not until 1973 for the Foreign Service. In Australia, the marriage bar wasn’t lifted until 1966, so for the audience it would have seemed very audacious for Emma to have been working in such a powerful role, let alone as a sexy spy.

Emma had a husband, but he conveniently went missing in the Amazonian jungle after his plane crashed. She also drove a white convertible (a Lotus) which only added to her appeal.

Diana Rigg was also well known for her role as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones and was also a Bond girl, playing opposite George Lazenby in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but she will always be Emma Peel to me.

Sisterhood

Sisterhood

When my mother died four years ago, I felt like I’d lost a good friend as well as a mother. She was my greatest supporter, along with my husband and kids. I used to think that this was par for the course and just part of being a mother, but I’ve since realised that not everyone has this experience. I think everyone needs a cheerleader in their lives, someone to listen to you, even when you are being unreasonable, someone to tell you to keep going when things aren’t going well.

When I was in my late fifties, my mum sent me a stanza from a poem enclosed in a birthday card. The poem about being an adventurer in the world and was scribbled out on a scrap of paper in her usual fashion. She was forever recycling bits of paper and envelopes, sometimes you even got second-hand birthday and Christmas cards.

My mum was a very unsentimental person and would frequently give away birthday and Christmas gifts within moments of receiving them, sometimes while you were still in the room, so when she sent me that scrap of a poem, I loved it because I knew it meant that she understood that I was struggling with getting older and wondering what was left for me. She wanted me to know that everything would be okay and that there were plenty of adventures yet to come.

I still miss her very much, but since she’s been gone, I’ve developed a much closer relationship with my eldest sister who lives 2,000 kilometres away on the other side of Australia. I have two older sisters and a younger brother, and we all get along really well, but my eldest sister and I have gotten much closer in the last few years. She moved out of home when I was in my early teens and we have rarely lived in the same city in the past forty years, but these days we email or message one another several times a week. We share thoughts, dreams and frustrations. We talk about our mum, swap recipes, and complain about our sore backs and stiff shoulders. We frequently make unkind comments about “stupid people”. She badgers me about whether or not I’m writing (I asked her to) and always comments on my blog posts, even when they aren’t very remarkable.

I’m grateful for all my siblings, but it’s especially wonderful to have a sister who doesn’t judge you and is interested in the most mundane aspects of your life. It makes the loss of my mother easier to bear, and I’m so glad we’ve reconnected. Here’s to you Bev!

Bev and Marg enjoying spending time together in London

It’s time to retire

It’s time to retire

I was supposed to go back to work in late September, but I’ve decided to retire while I still have the energy to do the things that I want to do. I told a few of my friends about my decision and most of them said, “I knew you wouldn’t go back”, which is odd because I didn’t really know myself until a few weeks ago.

Lots of people tell me that they would retire tomorrow if they had the money, but for me the decision about how and when to retire has resulted in many sleepless nights and long circular conversations with my friends and family. I’m grateful to have had those listening ears, and thought I’d share a few thoughts in case you are also contemplating retirement.

I have always liked working and wasn’t even thinking about retiring until last year when I was lucky enough to go to New York with my youngest daughter. When she announced that she was going to book some flights, I think I kind of invited myself along, or maybe she asked if I would go with her. Anyway, I jumped at the chance and we had the most fabulous holiday. I’m so glad I went as I doubt that I’ll ever get back there again.

Woman eating hot dog in New York

While I was in New York it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be around for ever and perhaps I should start making the most of my time. It would be awful to be given some kind of diagnosis that cut short your life and to have spent all your time at work when you could have been having fun. I’m not expecting anything awful to happen to me, but you just never know how long you’ve got on this earth.

Even so, I still struggled with the idea of being a retired person. My sense of identity has always been strongly connected to my working life and I was a bit worried that I’d feel a bit unmoored when I left work. I also worried that my natural inclination to futz about all day would lead to me being very unproductive or doing nothing at all. Fortunately, neither of these has eventuated during my long service leave. Whilst it’s true that I spend more time doing household tasks – it’s hard to ignore the washing up when you’re at home all day – there’s also more time for reading, writing, and learning new skills.

When I talk to people about retiring, the conversation usually revolves around the question of having enough money, so one of the things I’ve been doing over the last 12 months is tracking my spending. I know that the Covid 19 has reduced most people’s outgoings, but I honestly don’t think I need a huge salary. I have pretty simple tastes and apart from the household spending, it’s seems like the most common things I buy are wine and coffee. Even though I’m an avid reader, most of my books come from the local library or from friends, and I’ve only filled up my car with petrol once in the last three months.

We aren’t planning any renovations and we aren’t allowed to travel, so the main thing to spend money on is the garden and that doesn’t cost much, especially if you grow things from seed.

It’s true that I will miss my friends at work, but they aren’t physically at work, so the social aspects of being in an office no longer exist. I’ll miss chatting in the kitchen and people randomly asking me how to spell things. I’ll miss contributing ideas and working in a team. I won’t miss the endless re-writing of reports that no-one reads, the long interminable meetings where no decisions are made. Work is not always productive or meaningful, sometimes it’s a sheer waste of time that would be better spent weeding the garden, writing or reading a book. These are by far my favourite activities and I’m looking forward to exploring new horizons. So whilst I’m sad to be leaving my job, I’m pretty excited about the future.

If you read this blog and you’ve been part of my working life, thank you for your companionship and your enthusiasm and do keep in touch. I’m planning to write here more regularly so please keep reading and chime in with your thoughts if you’d like to.

Cheerio for now

Marg

August update

August update

I’ve been on leave for five months so I thought I’d provide a bit of an update on my progress. I always have big plans but I’m not always good at executing them, so this is really an accountability exercise as much as anything. Also, people keep asking me what I’ve been doing, so here’s a potted summary.

I’ve made a bit of progress with my “to do” list. Several cupboards have been cleaned out and quite a few books and clothes have found their way to the charity shop which have now re-opened. I’m sure they are drowning in a sea of things that people have decided they don’t want any more. I gave away all my old linen and then realised that I could have used them as drop-sheets when I was painting.

I haven’t tackled the photos. I was going to sort through the ones I have in hard copy from the olden days and digitise them, but I haven’t even opened the boxes. There are literally hundreds of them, if not thousands. It’s my least favourite task (too emotional) so I’ll probably put that off until I’m well and truly retired.

I’ve painted the spare-room and just need to buy a new blind for it to be completely finished. I was going to buy some new carpet but decided to save some money and have the existing carpet cleaned. It looks better than it did before. Some of the painting is a bit dodgy, especially around the skirting boards. I threw out the old mattress and then spent hours reading mattress reviews so that I could purchase the perfect replacement. The last two mattresses I bought have been too hard, so I was determined to choose well this time around. I’m not sure I have as it’s a little bit high. Just as well no tiny people are likely to be sleeping in that bed or they will need a ladder to get in and out.

The garden hasn’t had much attention because I hurt my back moving some furniture. It also meant that the painting was undertaken at the speed of a snail, if not slower. I’ve had a few trips to the physiotherapist so I just need to be patient and do my exercises so that I can attack the weeds which are growing profusely after some decent rain.

I’ve been writing a fair bit. I’ve done two short courses in non-fiction writing which have both been interesting. I wrote a few intros to a book about retiring and then my enthusiasm just petered out. It’s not that I don’t think I can write a book, but perhaps that’s too much to tackle as a writing project. An article I read recently suggested that it was foolish for people to plan to write a book when they haven’t even written any short stories. I think that there’s some truth in that. I probably should try writing some essays or articles first.

I’ve been looking at the structure of non-fiction books with a much more critical eye. I’m interested in seeing how the contents are organised and I’ve learnt quite a lot by just observing the conventions of the form.

I’ve had a lot more time for reading but my TBR (to be read) list is growing by the day. The more time you spend reading about books, the more books you find that you absolutely MUST read. I’m not bothered by this; I would probably choose to read a book before doing anything else.

I’ve been doing lots of cooking and eating and made some particularly nice marmalade this week. Hubby has continued with his bread-making so we’ve always got some nice bread at hand.

Most of all, I’ve been having fun and trying not to watch the news. I hope you are all doing well and making some progress towards your goals, big or small.

Book group “rules”

Book group “rules”

About 12 months ago we welcomed a new member to our little book group. At least I thought we were welcoming, but it turns out that perhaps we weren’t quite as welcoming as I had imagined. Our new member has decided to quit, citing the need to get up incredibly early to catch the 5am train, but we all know that we could have done more to make her feel like part of the group.

It wasn’t all our fault of course. Sometimes people just don’t gel with other people and that’s ok. It’s probably really hard for a new person to join our group which has been meeting for about twenty years. We have a good understanding of what kind of books each person likes to read, and we often swap books that we think another member will like, but we don’t mind branching out into something new every now and then. It’s very boring to read the same kind of books all the time. I like to think we aren’t too narrow in our choices although we mainly read fiction.

The last book we read was non-fiction and was chosen by the new person and I found it a difficult and sombre read. I was glad I had read it, but it was an awfully dark book to read in the middle of a pandemic. It didn’t help that it was a true story. A horrifying tale of man’s inhumanity to man set on Manus Island. If you aren’t familiar with what happens on Manus Island, let’s just say that it makes me ashamed to be an Australian.

I expressed these views at our meeting. Perhaps I should have kept them to myself? Was she offended that I didn’t enjoy the book she had chosen? To be honest, it’s not a book that anyone would enjoy, but it’s an important book and I think I made this clear.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with some ideas (I hesitate to call them rules) on running your book group.

  1. If people don’t like the book you’ve recommended, don’t take it personally and don’t apologise. We once read a book that I recommended and loved, and my friend said it was “like eating cold porridge.” I thought her comment was hilarious. Some books are just not for you and that’s okay. You are allowed to love books that other people hate. It’s nice when everyone says “I loved this book” but it’s not necessarily desirable, and it’s definitely not mandatory. Some of our best discussions have occurred when half the group loved the book and the other half hated it.
  2. Try to give some space to the quietest person in the group. They usually have something brilliant to say if everyone else shuts up and gives them a chance.
  3. Communicate with the group in between meetings and don’t leave anyone off the email list or they’ll get miffed. Try to make sure that everyone “replies all”. Private messages just confuse things and leave some people in the dark about what is happening. Feelings can be hurt.
  4. Don’t try to keep the conversation completely on the book. Tangents are ok and sometimes very interesting. We’ve had some awesome discussions about the themes of books (motherhood, grief and loss, sexuality) and if someone had insisted that we “must go back to talking about the book” then these discussions would never have happened.
  5. Be forgiving if people forget what the book is or what date the meeting is. If you’ve taken on the role of unofficial secretary, send out a reminder. People are busy and have a lot going on in their lives. (This is actually a note to self. I get annoyed when people forget when book group is, but my life is relatively uneventful. Also, I put it in my calendar!!)
  6. Try to find ways to diversify your reading. There are some fantastic books out there that aren’t on the best seller list. Try reading some translated books, some classics, and some genres you don’t usually read. Also try graphic novels, YA fiction, poetry and memoir. You might be just on the verge of a great new discovery. Here’s a great blog if you are interested in hearing from different voices.
  7. Check that the library has at least two copies of the book before you recommend it. Not everyone has the financial means to buy new books.
  8. Also, it’s worth checking out what kind of book boxes your local library can provide. They often have multiple copies of books just waiting to be borrowed by book groups.
  9. Try to have some kind of system for choosing the next book. Our group usually has a list of books we think we’d like to read in the coming year but we still spend ages trying to decide what to read next, so this year we are trying a rotation method where each person takes a turn to choose the book. I’m not sure whether this is working for everyone, but it does cut down the time trawling through possible reads and it means everyone gets a chance to choose at least one book they like.
  10. Just to reiterate point one (and because a list of 10 points is tidier than nine) please remember that what you have in common is curiosity and a love of reading and that if no-one likes the book you chose, it’s okay. After all, it’s not as if you wrote it.

Do you have any suggestions to add?

What are you consuming?

What are you consuming?

A young girl is found dead in the forest and the killer is at large.

I often wonder why we are attracted to this scenario when it’s such cliché. It seems that in nearly every new thriller another girl is found dead in the forest. How many forests are there in the world? And why is it always (or mostly), a young girl who’s been murdered? And more importantly, why do we continue to watch these shows and read these books when the world seems to be falling down around our ears. How has it become normal to watch the re-enactment of a murder as a way of winding down after a hard day at work, or escaping from the realities of the news?

I’m not judging you. I’m exactly the same. I’m looking out for that great new show or book that will take me away from a world where disasters are much too real and terrible things are happening. I recently watched an entire series on SBS in just a few days which I know isn’t anything unusual, people binge watch all the time, but it’s unusual for me.

Perhaps fictional murders are easier to deal with than real life. No doubt there’s a lot of psychology here (and a few PhDs in the making), but for my money I think that the fact that we know it isn’t real is somehow weirdly comforting. The mystery element of working out “who done it” engages our brain and takes us away from our everyday problems.

To offset my viewing choices, I’ve tried to expand my mind with some non-fiction titles during my time at home, but I’m still drawn to murder mysteries as they are just so consumable. It’s so easy to just keep reading, sometimes late into the night. The room painting project is suffering and so is the writing.

I wonder if you are drawn to murder mysteries in these strange times or whether you are after a good comfort read? I’m trying to alternate between books that inspire, educate or inform, and just pure escapism. I can churn through light fiction in a couple of days, but the more serious stuff seems to take weeks to read, even though it’s good for my mind and my soul.

I try not to feel guilty about reading light fiction, in fact I don’t know why I even think I SHOULD feel guilty.

There are enough things to worry about without thinking that your reading isn’t up to scratch.

After all, who’s judging? I don’t worry about what other people think but sometimes I get to the end of a book and feel like I’ve been eating fairy floss. I haven’t learnt anything, I haven’t filled up my brain with any goodness, I’ve just distracted myself for a few hours. I suppose there are worse vices but I’m conscious that my reading and viewing choices are a bit unsatisfying. A bit like eating too much ice-cream, enjoyable at the time but not very nutritious.

For me, the best solution is to find books that are compelling, well-written, but not too demanding. I’m quite keen on endings that are uplifting. They don’t have to have a happy ending, all tied up in a bow, but I do like to finish a book feeling that things will work out eventually.

Do you have any suggestions that fit those criteria? I already have a massively long TBR, but one can never have too many books to read.

The writer’s contract

The writer’s contract

I’ve just finished reading a book with a maddening ending. It was a well-constructed mystery with quite a complicated storyline full of lots of twist and turns and I was really enjoying it until I came to the end and found that ALL the clues were essentially red herrings and that the truth was something entirely different.

I think that when you read a mystery you are entering into a kind of contract with the writer. They feed you clues (a few red herrings are ok) and you try to work out who the baddies are and why they committed the crime.

At the end of this book I felt like I’d been cheated. No-one was really who you thought they were, and everyone was lying except for the lead character who’d really just been duped by everyone else. I wouldn’t have guessed the ending in a million years (which is ok, I’m not a detective) but I like to be able to look back through the story and see that the clues were all there if you looked hard enough.

I won’t name the book as it got rave reviews and I admire and respect anyone who can actually write a whole book, but all the same, it was disappointing. I might read another book by the same author as I liked her style and the lead was pretty quirky and interesting. It could have just been me that missed the clues, but I really don’t think so…

By contrast, The Wife and the Widow by Christian White has a really satisfying ending which you don’t see coming (and I won’t give it away) but when you look back you can see that it all makes sense. I read a review that said you could see the ending a mile off, but me, I didn’t see it at all.

This got me wondering where the term “red herring” actually comes from. According to this article, red herrings (being very smelly) were commonly used to train animals (horses or dogs) to follow a scent, but the term was first used in a literary sense by the British journalist William Cobbett in an article about the press allowing itself to be misled by false information. I guess that would be called “false news” these days.

I don’t like too many red herrings in books unless they are explained later. It’s too easy to throw in random clues that have nothing to do with the storyline. I especially hate it when people are described as ‘suspicious’ and turn out to be perfectly normal. Why tell us that someone is suspicious if they aren’t? It’s breaking the writer’s contract. I expect the author to tell me the truth and keep their part of the bargain, otherwise I just get cross.

What about you? Is there anything that drives you crazy?