The Fox & The Boy

Ok,  here it is.  This is the result of the previous post where I decided to write a short story. I managed to knock this out in about half a day in the end. All things considered, I don’t think it’s too bad, but I still had an internal freakout about posting.  Let me know what you think.

 

 

The Fox & The Boy

It was dark in the forest. The trees loomed overhead, knitting their branches together so it was impossible to tell what was sky.  Not that it would have mattered. The day had been damp and rainy, clouds still sat low adding to the depth of the blackness.  Where there was enough light to reach the ground, shadows danced and flowed through the tangled undergrowth as the wind rocked the boughs above, creating faces, bodies, creatures lurking just beyond sight.  An unnamed beast screeched, its voice magnified and mirrored by the creaking trees and rustling brambles.  Against the trunk of a gnarled old oak, down between the roots, almost entirely submerged under swirling, dead leaves, with her arms around her head and her tear streaked face buried in her knees, there huddled a girl, no more than six years old. The creature shrieked again and she whimpered, shrinking into an even smaller ball, desperately wishing she could be anywhere but here. Alone in the mud and detritus, in the dark, bitter weather, she sobbed into her sodden skirt, wedged in the nook at the foot of the tree; and that is where, hours later after the dawn had finally broken and the wind had died down and the rain was only a drizzle, the boy found her.

He was tall for his age, only nine years old but already broad at the shoulder and strong in the arm.  Both were down to his father; that he should be tall was no surprise but his strength could only have come from rigorous practice under a watchful eye with a sword, shield, club, and lance.  It was not the burly brawn of a farm hand or labourer, but the honed physique of a soldier in training. He was in a foul mood, as he often was lately, so he kicked his way through the twigs and leaves, stomping heavy-booted, swinging a broken branch into the bushes and muttering to himself.  At first he did not see her there, tucked away under the debris of the storm. He would have walked by, but she sighed in her sleep and stirred a little.  He jumped back, expecting a fox but raising his stick in case it was something bigger.  Gradually, the form resolved itself as leaves fell away and she sat up, slowly, stretching her aching limbs and looking about with bleak confusion.  For a few moments they looked at each other.  Then, she screamed.

“Stop that!” he commanded, using a tone borrowed from his father.  To his surprise and relief she did, but her eyes were wide and her tiny body trembled. He dropped to his knees on the damp ground and placed the stick beside him.  “You can come out now.”

She did not move, just stared at him with round, dark eyes.

“Come on,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if he spent every day coaxing small children from hollowed trees. “It’s no good you sitting in there.  There might be snakes. Or spiders.”

In a second she was up, frantically swiping at her clothes with her hands and whimpering.  In her haste to be far from the threatened spiders she caught her boot in a loop of root and tumbled over with a cry, landing heavily on her face and hand. Slowly, she clambered up enough to sit facing him, clutching her bruised wrist to her chest and crying quietly.  He studied her.  She looked awful; her dark red hair was matted and tangled with leaves and twigs and plastered across her head in all directions. Her face was coated with mud and grime and laced with scratches and her hands the same, with black fingernails. Her dress was torn and filthy and the sole was coming away from one of her boots.  She was a pitiful sight.  He shuffled over to her.

“Show me your arm.”  Obligingly, she held it out for his inspection, flinching as he prodded the swelling and gave a gentle turn.  “It’s just a sprain,” he declared, confidently.  He’d had enough to recognise one.  She pulled the injured limb back as soon as he released it. “Where are you from?”

She looked about her and her little forehead creased in worry. She didn’t know. “Where do you live?” he continued, “What’s your name? Where are your parents?”  The forehead crease became a lip wobble which became a low wail. He huffed. “Don’t start crying again!” Girls were difficult enough, without crying.  He offered a silent thanks for the fact he was an only child. “Well, you can’t stay here.” He stood up and offered her a hand, which she took, a little reluctantly.  He pulled her to her feet. She was so light, he almost stumbled backwards. Skinnier than any six year-old had any right being. The sense of duty he’d been acting from faded, replaced with concern; an emotion he was not familiar with. He studied her again. Her face, under the mud and scrapes was pale and gaunt, her eyes red-rimmed, dark circled and sunken, with little light behind them.  The hand in his was slight and bony.  She had not eaten in a long time.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She simply met his eyes with that same worried confusion.  “You can come with me. I’ll find your family.”  He gave her a gentle tug to encourage her to walk and, picking up his stick, turned back the way he had come.  She trailed along behind him as they went and he made sure to crush down the tougher brambles and nettles for her.  As they walked, he talked.  He had never been very good with silence.

“My name is Sebastian. Sebastian Penhaligon. My father is the Captain of the Watch in Kelvar. That’s the Capital City.” He said this with a great deal of pride; although he and his father did not often see eye to eye, the prestige and fortune of his situation did not escape his notice, young as he was. “We’re here because of the war. You probably don’t know much about it.” He had that condescending tone of children who are aware of their own importance. “There’s a war because there was a murder. My father is here with the King.” He could not help the swelling of pride in his chest as he went on. “My father is an advisor to the Guard and he fights with their army.” Sebastian’s knowledge of this area was not firm, but he was more than willing to piece together things he knew with things he believed to create a likely truth.  “I came with him because it’s good for me to see war.”  His face set into a grimace as he remembered what he had seen of war. It was hard to understand what was good about it.  “My father says the more I know about the world the better equipped I shall be to master it.  That’s how men become great.”  He fell silent for a while as he thought over the conversation he’d had with the Captain that morning.  It was probably less of a conversation and more of an argument.  They were happening with increasing frequency these days.  Sebastian was not inclined to follow his father’s serious instruction; he preferred a free-spirited existence where he did not have to be in the training yard soon after dawn, before breakfast, mimicking the training of the Watchmen. Learning discipline.  His heart longed for his own space, the chance to discover for himself what the world could offer him and where he wanted to go.  He did not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores, but he was beginning to feel the pull of rebellion and the more he saw of this war, the more he knew he did not want to be his father.

The girl was limping. Sebastian had not noticed at first because the ground was uneven anyway, but the rhythm of her uneven gait attracted his attention and he stopped her.  “Do your feet hurt?”  She was resting her right foot — the foot with the broken boot — on its toes.  “Show me.”  As with his father, it never occurred to him to ask permission.  She hobbled backwards a half step.  “Sit down,” he glared.  She sank to the ground and sheepishly stretched her leg out in front.  The sole of the boot was half gone and she had no sock.  There was a deep gash in the heel of her foot.  It was red and angry, swollen and seeping.  It looked like there was something imbedded in there.  She gasped when he touched it.  “That’s no good,” he said. “It’s still really far to where we’re staying.”  He turned and crouched. “Get on then.”  She didn’t move.  He looked back over his shoulder. “Climb on, come on! You can’t walk all the way and if I’m not back by breakfast father will know I wandered away.” The Captain thought Sebastian was in his room, thinking about his attitude. “I won’t drop you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”  Reluctantly, and with some difficulty, the girl clambered onto his back.  She barely weighed anything, no more than the pack his father had him wear for morning runs at least.  With a few adjustments she was secure and comfortable, though she clung to him for dear life as he began to walk again.  For over an hour they continued like this, with Sebastian telling her about his home in Kelvar; his friends and teachers, his room, the things he owned, the horse he’d been riding here who he didn’t like so much as his own horse in the city because it wouldn’t keep his head out of the grass.  He told her how he’d learned to do a backflip and climb the stable building so he could get into the tree beside it and climb up high enough to see right out to the plains and how a lady in the hamlet made bread with plums in that was almost like cake but you could put butter on it.  The whole time she listened, nestled against his back with her head on his shoulder until they finally emerged from the cover of the trees to the edge of the battlefield and she slid down to the grass.

This battle was long over.  Broken weapons remained and some corpses too, but they were mostly being picked over by carrion and scavengers. There was nothing for the living here. The wind ruffled the long grass and carried the scent of the fires smouldering in the distance, out towards the mountains.  Faint plumes of smoke made the horizon hazy.  The girl sniffed back her tears.  Sebastian did not know it but somewhere in this field lay the girl’s father and beyond, in the burnt out remains of a village, her mother.  She had fled before the soldiers to follow her father, but had not found him and, through the horrors of the fray, had somehow survived to the forest at this edge of the plain where she had remained since.

Pulling his eyes from the scene, Sebastian found the girl a stout branch blown down from a tree in the night, as tall as her shoulder, and instructed her to use it as a walking stick for a way as the going was easier here and he would carry her again soon.  Their progress was slow but steady.  He wished he’d had the forethought to bring a water pouch with him, but then he’d stormed away so quickly he had not considered it.  Skirting the space between grass and trees they rounded the forest and could see, nestled by a narrow stream at the bottom of the hill they’d been on top of, a small cluster of buildings, surrounded by fruit gardens, fenced paddocks of pigs and goats and small plots of land given over to farming.

“That’s where we live for now,” Sebastian told her. “Some of the people left when the army came but because it was our army some people stayed. My father is in charge of this position. There are positions all along here,” he gestured out into the countryside as he recalled a map the Captain had shown him, “but most of the soldiers have gone that way as the enemy retreated.  There’s still a few left, just in case.” He pointed a short way beyond the hamlet’s fields to a collection of tents, starkly grey and ordered against the greenery, where banners fluttered in the breeze.  The smell of flowers and food, warmth and welcome wafted up, mingling with the grim scents behind them and drawing them on.  The girl climbed back into her place on Sebastian’s back and he followed a worn track that wove it’s way gradually down to the houses. Some were wooden, some were stone, most were thatched.  There were flowers and berry bushes, trees that yielded apples and plums.  If she did not know her own village was gone forever the girl would have sworn she was home.  Sebastian made his way directly to a large stone house.  It was long and low and had a stable and trees, carts and wagons. The King’s banner flew from a pole beside the door.

“This is my house,” Sebastian said as he lowered the girl to the ground.  “I suppose it’s not really my house. Our real house is in the city but we were allowed to live here while father is working.  “It’s a full week to my real house from here, if you have to walk.”  He pointed to the stable block.  “Go in there and I’ll be back.” He trotted away through the door. The girl’s heart pounded in her chest as she hobbled to the stable. Inside there were three separate compartments, two of which contained horses.  The warm air smelled of hay and animals; sweet and comforting.  She flopped into the straw of the empty stall and waited.  After a short while, Sebastian returned with mugs of water and some bread.  It did not have plums in, but it did have a thick smear of butter.  The girl nibbled it gingerly, as if afraid of what food would do to her empty stomach.  While she was occupied with the bread, Sebastian gently pulled off her boot and examined her foot.  It looked bad and as he touched it she cried out in pain and began to cry again.

“Wait here,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily as she had nowhere else to go.  This time he was gone longer, but when he came back he had a small parcel and a pot of steaming water.  Settling himself on a low bundle of straw, with her foot up on his lap, he proceeded to unwrap the package. “This is chickweed,” he began, holding out a handful of small, white flowers on thin, green stems.  She took one. “We use this on the horses when they cut their feet.  You crush it in your hand,” he did so “and then let it steep a while,” he dropped it into the hot water “and then we’ll strap it to your foot and it pulls out the poisons.”  He swirled the pot.  It smelt odd, but not unpleasant.  While he waited for the herb to brew, Sebastian dipped a piece of cloth into the liquid and began to dab it delicately on the girl’s tiny foot.  She winced.  “It’ll be better soon,” he said, “I promise.” He didn’t know why, but he suddenly felt incredibly protective of this scrawny creature with those huge, dark eyes as if, if he could only keep her safe, everything in the world would be better.  He continued to clean her foot until the herbs were ready, then bundled them into a poultice inside a clean piece of cloth and pressed it to the sore. “It’ll feel better soon.  You should go to sleep, you look tired.”  She lay back into the straw and closed her eyes.  “Please don’t die,” he whispered.

She drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the day, sometimes woken by the throbbing in her foot, sometimes by noises in the yard, so she pulled more straw over herself in hopes she would not be discovered. Sebastian came to the stall several times to check on her and bring food but could not stay as he had errands for his father.  By the time the light outside was dimming she felt much better than she had for a long while.  Sebastian brought left over soup from dinner, still lukewarm, and some of the bread with plums in.  It was as delicious as he had described and she ate it greedily.  A movement at the door made them both jump.

“Sebastian!” It was the Captain.  The boy jumped to his feet and faced his father. The Captain looked beyond him to the small girl huddled in the straw, clutching the bread, then back to his son. “Don’t feed the vermin, Sebastian. It only encourages them. Get rid of it.”  He turned and left.  The girl was shaking as Sebastian knelt beside her.

“Don’t worry, you can stay. I’ll hide you. Then we can find where you live.” He brushed her matted hair out of her eyes and gave her a strong hug.  “I wish I knew what to call you.”

“Imogen.”

He drew back and met her eyes.  It seemed a little light danced in them now, faint, but there. “Imogen. That’s nice. I’m going to call you Fox, because that’s what I thought you were when I first saw you. Imogen Fox.”  He stood up. “I have to go in, now, Fox, but I’ll be back. We’re friends now.”  He tossed her an old horse blanket.  “Goodnight.”

Imogen Fox watched him go with a smile, then lay back in the straw, snuggling under the mouldering cover and closed her eyes against the last of the light, determined to forget everything except this boy; the boy who saved her.

Writing Challenge

So I got completely stuck writing. You know when you’re just writing nonsense and filler and it’s terrible but you have no idea where you’re supposed to be getting to or how to get there? That. In order to prevent the inevitable meltdown of ‘oh my god everything I write is awful I hate myself’ I decided to change tact and pick up something I’ve not touched for a while. Then it occurred to me that because I’ve not touched it for a while I can’t remember what had happened so far.

Now, because today feels like a Writing Day, not an Editing Day (shut up, that’s totally a thing) I figured that, instead of rereading a lot of words and discovering I hate those too, I would set myself the challenge of trying to write the origin story for two of the main characters; the theory being that this will get my brain into the right universe, let me write and give the other plot time to stew by itself for a while so it can think about what it’s done. It might also help me with some of the detail of this project.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll post it up later (assuming I don’t chicken out) and you can let me know what you think.

Fandoms

So, an idea for a something came to me, but I wanted to gather some research first.
Fandoms. They seem a little nuts from the outside (and frankly, from the inside too). For those unaware few – a fandom is (according to Wikipedia) “a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates “fannish” (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest.”

 

Some of the biggies are Whovians (Dr Who), Sherlockians (Sherlock), Directioners (1Direction), Beliebers (Justin Bieber), Browncoats (Firefly), Potterheads (Harry Potter) and Trekkies (Star Trek). You’ve probably heard of most of them, even if you didn’t realize they had their own special name. They have message boards, forums, fan clubs, appreciation sites. Social media is connecting people like never before, with the heartwarming message that it’s ok to love what you love, even if the rest of the world thinks you’re several sandwiches short of a picnic.

 

It’s not what you love, it’s how you love it.  Don’t take that as an excuse for anything illegal, people.

A unifying factor of the fandoms is the level of obsession. It’s a whole other world of in-jokes, fan fiction (some of which is very, uh, enlightening…), cartoons, memes, shipping (the act of supporting a relationship between characters or people, real or imagined – for example, you might ship Harry & Hermione, or the Dr & Rose, or Zayn & Perry). The point is, it’s an all-consuming thing.

 

http://www.redbubble.com/people/sevenhundred/works/8644769-vote-geek-in-2012?p=sticker

You can rely on a fandom for creative imagery…

 

Anyway, getting a little off topic… Ummmm…. Oh, yeah:

 

What I want to know is: How has your fandom (whether you’re active in one or just pretty fanatical about something); your obsession, the place where you go when you’re feeling introverted or when you just need people who understand you, that safe familiar, comforting ‘I’m just going to sit here and draw all the Doctors as if they were CareBears’ or ‘I suddenly feel compelled to reread Chamber of Secrets because I think we all learned something from that’ or ‘I think I’ll just marathon Firefly because wasn’t the world a better place when Nathan Fillion was my Captain…’ – that thing you love – how has it helped you in your life?  Particularly if you sometimes feel a little introverted, a little isolated, a little misunderstood…

 

http://dragonageconfessions.tumblr.com/image/58515727854

It’s comforting to relate

 

Answers on a postcard below, please. Depending what I get back, I’ll clue you in on the idea.

(Apologies for the poor writing – this came to me in a flash between ordering takeout and Hard Knocks and I wanted to get it down before I forgot/chickened out)

Nerdcore Dividing

It seems like every five minutes, nerd girls are coming under attack.  Cosplayers are attention seeking, Felicia Day is a fraud.  A lot has been said on this subject, particularly after ex-Destructoid writer Ryan Perez called out Day on Twitter, demanding to know what value she added to the gaming industry, and more recently after Dirk Manning (another interwebs writer) posted this meme to his Facebook wall.  What then followed was something of a bust-up between Manning and Jennifer De Guzman, PR & Marketing Director at Image Comics (home of Tank Girl and The Walking Dead amongst many, many others) wherein De Guzman responded with this.  Apparently, the two have since ‘made friends’.  Their battle may have ended but this by no means suggests the war is over.

I have two rules when debating an issue like this (well, two main rules.  I withhold the right to add or edit additional rules on a whim):

  1. You are entitled to your opinion – as Voltaire is misquoted as saying ‘I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’  However, if you’re going to put your opinion out in the world, do yourself the courtesy of being able to back it up.  “Because I said so!” is an argument best reserved for parents at bed time, and even then the alternate “because you are five years-old and you need your sleep so your brain can rest up for all the exciting things we’re going to do tomorrow” would probably help the cause.
  2. If you are going to enter into the debate (see 1), argue with the point, not the person.  You wouldn’t accuse the victim of a racial attack of being overly sensitive due to the colour of their skin, so don’t resort to saying the girls are taking offence because, well, they’re girls.

The angle this debate continually circles back to is this: girls probably aren’t real, genuine nerds, especially if they have the audacity to dress up or be pretty.  It seems as though a certain element within Geekdom is holding an entrance exam that the participants don’t realise they’re taking.  Having your boobs on display is an instant fail.  Being a boy is a free pass to the next round.  Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, many boys have leapt to the girl’s defence, but the fact that we are having this debate at all – in a time when women’s rights are such a hot topic and even their own bodies are potential up for political management – is worrying at best.

Many girls (and boys, for that matter) spend their childhood hearing that they’re a loser, a geek, a nerd, not pretty enough, cool enough, on trend enough, not welcome here.  Now, after staying true to themselves and holding on to their identity – in some cases slowly discovering it over many years of floundering to feel accepted – they finally find a pocket to feel safe in and they’re told they’re not genuine enough to play.  Ironically, it seems that part of the crime is being too pretty, too confident, too comfortable with themselves.  The question then becomes: says who?

No-one is born knowing Stan Lee’s entire catalogue.  No-one arrives in this world completely immersed in the Star Wars universe.  Every single self-professed geek out there had to start at the beginning and, whether we’re happy admitting it or not, there are plenty of people out there who know more about our chosen love than we do at any given point.

Censoring people on something as subjective as ‘liking something’ places a person on a slippery slope.  Who decides what constitutes ‘genuine’ nerdiness? A friend of mine is a, let’s say keen, Dr Who fan.  I’ve never been into it myself, so if she were to quiz me on my nerd credentials based on the good doctor I’d straight up fail.  No nerd badge for me.  However, if I asked her where the city of Rapture was she’d probably break out an atlas.  No nerd badge for her.  She wears her boobs well, too.  I should probably revoke her Whovian status, just to be on the safe side. 

Image from http://batty4u.tumblr.com/post/35682242812/sailorswayze-am-i-right-ladies

How often has this happened to you?

Once we acknowledge that it’s ok to be a geek without an all encompassing knowledge of every nerd creation ever, the remaining hurdles are exclusion and sexism.  We’ve all been guilty of feeling threatened by someone encroaching on our territory and we all want to protect the thing we love because to us it’s sacred, but there’s a difference between loyalty to your fandom and blankly refusing to accept that someone else might like something as much as you do.  When I talk about exclusion here I don’t simply mean ‘girls excluded from Geekdom’; rather the assumption that being one thing automatically precludes one from being something else – in this case that being female is a direct block to being a nerd.

A cursory exploration of the universe at large would seem to counter this.  Out of interest I had a quick scout of my football team’s cheerleaders (gaming, comics and football? Unconscionable!) and discovered, among the teachers and business women who make up the rosters there is also a chemical engineer and a radiologist.  At least one of the Saintsations is pre-Med.  Clearly, something is amiss here – are they scientists, cheerleaders or football fans?  Displaying your body on theme must mean you’re not a genuine football fan – it can only be for the attention, right? – but then you can’t be an academic and a sports fan, so maybe these women are fake scientist whores?  I’m confused.

If it sounds ridiculous, it’s the same logic as applies to booth babes and cosplayers.  Hot girls don’t like geeky stuff and do love attention. Heaven knows hot girls have a really hard time getting attention so they dress up at conventions in the hopes that someone will finally look their way.  Of course, there are girls who dress up for the attention (or, heaven forbid, because it’s a job. As an aside, I wonder how many men would question the ability of the girl draped over the hood of a Camaro to identify all the parts of the engine inches below her…) and probably couldn’t tell you what Picard says over the Next Generation titles.  But then, there are boys in muscle-padded Batman suits who don’t know that Dick Grayson grew up.  Or even who Dick Grayson is.  Who’s the fraud now?

This is where sexism plays a part.  I could say that the boys who don’t want the girls to play are still the pale, skinny, virgins living in their parent’s basements, terrified that if the girls come in they might expect interaction and induce an asthma attack.  I could say that, but it would be just as unfair as saying cosplay is something for the boys to look at.  What about the happily-in-a-relationship fancy-dressers?  What about girls who like girls?  Are they doing it for the boys too?

Girls can be nerds.  So can boys, old people, young people, lawyers, dentists and models.  Anyone.  So what if they don’t reach the lofty standards prescribed by some?  Your universe is not being invaded.  It doesn’t hurt anyone – you still have your love of whatever you love, you still have your friends and your forums and your in-jokes.  Nothing is being taken away from you by the girl in the Cat Woman costume. Yes, sometimes she is a sexually forward girl having a laugh, but if a nerd-girl can dress as a cheerleader, acting, like, all, stoopid, for Halloween, it’s ok for a ‘non-nerd’ to dress as the adorkable Zooey Deschanel.  It’s not intended as a threat, even if taken as one.  No-one is trying to out geek anyone – except, apparently, the geeks.

There are many strong, female icons within Geekdom; not only in the pages of the graphic novels (where they are usually really underdressed for the situations they find themselves in) but creating and producing, writing, directing, innovating.  How can we hold up the example with one hand and then slap down anyone audacious enough to aspire with the other?  How can we say that it’s ok to idolise our pen and ink heroes, but it’s not ok to dress like them?  How can we suspend our disbelief enough to allow an alien to fly through the skies of Metropolis, but not enough to allow that not everything women do is for the sexual gratification of men?  If it’s ok to give people a good, metaphorical kicking for daring to differ from our exacting standards who decides how much of a kicking that should be?  Should I stop at calling you a liar, or do you deserve to be called a whore?  How about I actually kick you?

Ok, so that might be taking the debate a little far, but I am genuinely concerned that if it’s possible to justify vitriol over being a ‘genuine nerd’ the gate is opened to more and more narrow-mindedness.  There’s enough segregation and intolerance as it is.  In a world where a schoolgirl is shot for wanting an education it seems ridiculous that when there’s the option of being inclusive – for absolutely no additional effort – particularly in a group where the main tenets are tolerance, understanding, acceptance and being a hero – it is apparently necessary to find an excuse to belittle and exclude.  To say everyone has to like the same things to the same degree is like saying everyone has to like sage green, no other green, and they’d better like it as much as everyone else.  It’s not necessary and it’s not up to anyone to decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t.  What works for you may not work for me; you don’t have to like it, but once people start taking it upon themselves to impose their standards, unilaterally, the boundaries begin to blur.  What if I were to say no-one’s a geek unless they can redraw the fourth panel from Watchmen, accurately, from memory and then, with no prompting, correctly name the (and by ‘the’ I mean ‘my’) top ten characters from a genre I will not identify?  What if I then graded your importance within the community based on your efforts?  Any boys who’ve been the gym go straight to the bottom.  To declare a hierarchy of ‘liking stuff’ is sad. To base it on gender is appalling.

Right now I’m sitting wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and there’s a decal of Iron Man on my laptop.  Part of me is waiting for some jumped up ego to ask me to recite Wonder Woman’s story after the Infinite Crisis to justify branding myself up like this.  It’s the equivalent of asking me the exact shade of blue my jeans are, with the hexadecimal code.  I don’t know.  I just like it.  I’ve never read a single Wonder Woman comic, so I don’t profess to be an expert; if someone asked me if I was a Wonder Woman nerd I’d say no, if they asked if I was some kind of nerd, I’d probably say yes.  I have a nerdy love for many things and I feel comfortable calling myself a nerd.  You don’t have to agree, but frankly it’s none of your business.  How about we let me decide.

11/11

It goes without saying that I miss my dad. Especially on his ‘anniversary’. It’s been 17 years to the day, today; four years ago it switched so that now I’ve been without him longer than I had him. It’s a strange feeling, year on year, knowing that ratio is only going to get bigger, that each year adds to the list of things I do that he won’t be a part of. Last year I got married. This year I moved to California. He would have loved to see both, I think.

I remember him once telling me about his own father, who also died tragically young long before I was born. I asked what he was like. He told me “He would have loved you.” Now, I will have to say that to my future children, as I’ve said it to my husband who never had the pleasure of meeting the man. I wonder what I would say about him, start to pick through memories to see if they are real, did it happen or did I imagine it happening? Some memories are stronger than others – the more you revisit them, the brighter they become – but there are so many things I don’t remember clearly now, things I’ve fudged in the remembering, changed the colour of t-shirts and paraphrased the words, and things I’ve forgotten completely. I put him in where he probably wasn’t, take him out where he definitely was.

Even though it’s been 17 years (my God, how has it been 17 years?) I don’t feel like I’m clinging to a ghost. He’s every bit as much a part of who I am today as he ever was, not a day goes by that he doesn’t cross my mind – sometimes I’ll be reminded of him by something, sometimes I’ll ask his opinion, wonder what he’d make of what I’m doing or thinking. For so many things, I find myself checking the date to see if he would have known about it, and wondering what he’d make of things like iPads. I still dream about him. He’s in his jumper that might actually be pink, but is really red, usually, and most often he’s driving me somewhere. And I still say ‘my parents’ when I mean ‘my mum’.

Not long ago, my mum came to visit us in San Francisco. We went into Wine Country for her birthday and she casually mentioned, as we roamed the vineyard, how dad had spent time grape picking for a winery. It was a fact I’d never heard before. I wondered what other little nuggets of information about this man there were that I’d probably never know – it’s hard enough getting to know people when they’re right in front of you. Then I wondered who drank the wine he picked the grapes for. Was it cheap plonk for the supermarket, or is there a bottle of it sitting in someone’s cellar right now, waiting for the perfect moment?

There are so many things about my dad that I’ll probably never know, just like there are so many things about me that he’ll never be a part of. I like to think that we’d both be proud of each other.

Recently, I found something I’d written a long time ago and thought it was time to share it, because it sums up how I feel a lot of the time.

Sometimes I feel like he’s slipping away
And I can’t remember the details
Of his face,
The sound of his voice.
So I concentrate
On his eyes behind those glasses
How it felt to hold his hand in the street,
Snuggle behind him on the sofa,
Take aeroplane rides on his feet.
And my chest hurts and I can’t breathe,
But I don’t care
Because I love him.

To sleep, perchance to dream

I have a problem sleeping.  I would guarantee that right about now my friends and family are shaking their heads in disbelief, certain they have evidence to the contrary.  It’s not that I can sleep, I don’t have that insomniac problem of tossing and turning in desperation. It’s not even that I can’t stay asleep.  In fact, I’m very good at staying asleep. This truth of it is I have a problem going to sleep: I don’t want to.  Since I was small I haven’t been very good at going to sleep; fighting it as long as I could so I didn’t miss anything, driving my parents mad with incessant chatter all the way from Germany to England to visit my grandparents only to finally succumb at the end of their street.  I don’t know what I thought I’d miss from a car on the M25 at 9pm, but whatever it was I was certainly going to give myself every chance to see it.

Now, when I should know better, I still have a mental block against allowing myself some shut eye.  I’m definitely a night owl, much more so than an early bird, but at the same time I really need my 8 hours.  Clearly, these facts are not compatible with a productive morning.  I’ve had long conversations with myself about it; a regular feature of these being The Countdown which goes: “It’s midnight.  If I go to sleep now, I’ll get 8 hours before I get up…” “Ok, now it’s 1am.  If I go to sleep now, I’ll get 7 hours sleep…” “Ok, it’s half past 2….” Repeat until brain gives up.

One of the problems is I’ve gotten very good at coming up with excuses.  I’m so good, in fact, that I can not only come up with them but actually convince myself I believe them.  Lets take a look:

The Next Episode (aka We Can’t Leave It There!)

We have a system in our house.  He plays games on his PC, I watch sci-fi shows, he pretends he isn’t interested by asking questions, making comments and recognising people who crop up in other things (even though he isn’t watching either show, honest). Unfortunately, a lot of sci-fi shows use the ‘dun dun DUUUUUUN’ method of show ending – that is, they leave you on a cliff hanger or big reveal to ensure you tune in next week.  Which is all well and good when you have to wait a week, but when you have the whole series on Netflix – just sitting there waiting – it’s almost impossible to turn it off.  This is how we’ve watched the entire back catalogue of 5 different shows in 4 months…  Netflix has now introduced a feature that starts playing the next episode automatically 20 seconds after the previous episode finishes.  Admittedly, it also asks you if you’re still watching after you haven’t touched the remote in a while, but honestly, when you reach this point it’s probably too late.  He tends to lose hours by the bucketload when he’s gaming (who doesn’t?) so he’s no help.  “It’s probably bed time, right?” “Yep, just let me choose my level up attributes…”

Which leads us nicely on to:

Just One More Level

I got an iPad for my birthday.  It’s amazing. I’m not sure how I lived without it. It’s also a fantastic device for playing games on.  My personal favourites include Lego Harry Potter, Where’s My Water?, Words with Friends, Draw Something and Cut the Rope. Words with Friends and Draw Something I’ll let off – the others clearly hate sleep.  Not only are they beautifully made and completely engaging they’ve been designed to be all but impossible to stop playing. Progress mid-level can’t be saved so you have to play to the end and, when you get there, the ‘Next Level’ button just sits there – daring you not to tap it. I’m sure people exist with the willpower to just put the thing down but I am not one of them.  And so it goes, one addictive level after another until exhaustion, completion or somebody takes it away from me.  The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the iPad (although its portability is most certainly a factor); there are several PlayStation games where I’ve found myself saying ‘I’ll just get to the end of this bit’ only to be dropped into a cutscene that changes everything and had to carry on after because, you know, people are shooting at me, I’m saving the world here! I can’t just leave it like that!

I’m Getting To A Good Bit

Getting to a good bit is a great excuse because it’s entirely subjective.  I can justify a ‘good bit’ in a book as anything from well written to explosive action without having to explain anything. “It’s probably time to go to sleep” “In a minute, I’m getting to a good bit”.  The length of ‘good bits’ is also open to interpretation too, along with the distance between good bits and how good they are. “Are you done yet?” “I’m just getting to a good bit!” “You said that 20 minutes ago.” “I know, it’s another good bit!”

I Can’t Stop Until I Win

A variation on ‘Getting to a Good Bit’ and ‘Just One More Level’ is “I Can’t Stop Until I Win’. This ‘winner complex’ means that if I’m playing something that has a defined ‘win’ I have to achieve it before I can stop.  It applies to a certain extent to Where’s My Water and the like, but the real culprit here is Solitaire. I’ve played each of the 16 version of solitaire available on Solitaire City so many times I’ve got the best score on every one – and in most cases on each of the variations within each version.  It can be safely said that I have nothing else to gain from playing this game and yet, night after night, I play game after game of it. My self inflicted rule is that I have to win to be able to stop playing.  I’m not even sure why.  It’s become something of a ritual now.  I go to bed, turn out the light and pick up the iPad.  I’m beginning to get rather concerned that I’m training myself so I can’t sleep without it, so I’m trying to practice putting it down again but my willpower isn’t up to much and I find myself saying “Just three more… just another bonus go… I must be due a good hand next deal…”  This is why I am not allowed to go to Vegas.

I’ve Just Had A Brilliant Idea

My subconscious mind has a knack of springing the world’s best idea on me at 1am.  It generally zips through at lightening speed; just the subtlest hint of a brainwave, demanding to be developed.  Birthdays, dinners, writing, shopping, training. It doesn’t tend to be any specific theme but if I don’t deal with it that instant it’s lost to the world forever.  Which means I wake up in the morning thinking “I had a great idea last night… now, what was it about?” So, obviously, I have to deal with it or I’d spend my whole life wandering around in a daze of uninspired dreariness.  The downside of this comes from the instant availability of all information, ever, in the form of the internet.  Which just so happens to be completely accessible from the iPad. And, as anyone who’s ever looked anything up knows – it never stops there. Before you know it, it’s 3am and you’re so far down a Wikipedia chain you may never see daylight again.  Great for general knowledge and the spewing of random facts, not so good for bags under the eyes.

What Do I Have To Do Tomorrow (aka The List, including the Alphabet Game)

Assuming I’ve turned off the TV, overcome the iPad obsession and put down the book you’d think now would be the time to accept that my body needs sleep.  Perfectly natural, good for you sleep.  But no.  I have ways to entertain my brain even when there are no obvious distractions.  The first tactic I recognised in the film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ (not great, not terrible, kinda meh) where SJP is laid in bed running through everything she still has to do on her List.  It’s probably familiar to a lot of women – get something out for dinner, fix the husband’s jeans, paint the bedroom, get the dog a new harness, find somewhere to keep the baking things, buy some flowers… it goes on and on.  I generally write it all down, but I’ve found that running through the next day actually helps mellow me out – it’s like giving myself a heads up on what I need to think of excuses to avoid doing.  Once the list is done and I’m still fighting sleep I resort to the Alphabet Game.  It’s a simple concept – pick a topic (dog breeds, cheeses, actresses surnames, trees) and name one for every letter of the alphabet.  It’s an effective way of tricking my brain into going to sleep – it thinks it’s working on a game but it’s actually a lot more like counting sheep and I generally drop off around N.  These two are the only distractions I don’t have sleep guilt over, as they get me organised and finally allow me to relax enough to get some proper rest.  But even these aren’t foolproof.

The Big Question

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a certain part of my brain who’s sole purpose in existing is to mess with me.  It’s the part that calls me fat and makes me say dumb things to smart people.  This part of my brain has been running a 30 year experiment to see if it can keep me from allowing myself go to sleep and it doesn’t play fair.  I know this because, once all of the other distractions are out of the way, it gets right up close to my ear and whispers “You know, you’re going to die one day. Night!”  During the day, I can hold rational discussions about this (admittedly morbid) fact of life. I wouldn’t say I’m OK with it, but it doesn’t freak me out too much.  At night, it’s a different story.  As soon as the thought crosses my mind I need lights and distraction – in the form of anything at all that will stop me hyperventilating myself into the grave my brain has so thoughtfully reminded me of.  So, I pick up the iPad and play solitaire until my eyes don’t work anymore, pick a topic and list myself to sleep.  Which, when I’m there, is a wonderful place of rest and recovery.  I wish I could let myself get there sooner.

Not crazy, just a little unwell

A man stands in the street. He’s yelling about something, incoherently but with enthusiasm. He crosses against traffic and disappears. I cross with the light. Suddenly, he’s back in the road, continuing his rant. The group of hipsters outside the coffee shop are incredulous: “How the hell did he get back over there?”

San Francisco is like a crazy aunt – you love her to death but wish she’d remember to take her meds. She’s not intentionally racist or homophobic although she says the most inappropriate things. She’s incredibly tolerant, open and welcoming and leaves you to your own devices but still manages to be in your face though she doesn’t baulk at the guy with the bespangled gentleman parts strolling along Market in his birthday suit. In some ways it’s freeing – there’s a lack of judgement and a sense that you could do and be anything. In other ways it highlights the need for a universal healthcare system to protect those who aren’t simply expressing themselves. If the most vulnerable in our society aren’t able to access decent healthcare provision – particularly for mental health – the place they’ll end up is the middle of the road, imploring the passers by to ask the Israelis about President Clinton.

Not everyone needs pity. The grubby man sitting on the pavement with a group of drunks who asked me how my puppy’s socialization was coming along, the woman with the cart of junk who instructed the slurring man (whose pot habit was probably the mildest of his addictions) on the correct way to ask to pet the puppy may well be living with the results of their own actions and choices. But the veteran asking everyone within earshot alternately if they have any food and if we know what really happened in Vietnam is clearly not getting the help he needs. Who can say where these people will end up without the proper help? It’s important to remember that, wherever we are, some people aren’t just crazy, they’re very unwell – in a genuine sense that requires medical interventions they’re unlikely to ever see – something we should not only be saddened but embarrassed by. It should shame us that there are so many ways to drop out of ‘the system’ and so few ways back in.

Of course it should also be remembered that, particularly in San Francisco, some people are properly mad. Mad like your crazy aunt who wears oversized floral hats and a bright yellow track suit to go to the shops. It adds to the flavour, which is a good thing as long as there’s not a bitter aftertaste.

A man who crossed the street with me catches my eye. “I’ve not been in San Francisco for a while. I’d almost forgotten.”

It’s been a while…

Well hello! Long time no see.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t written in a while, which is pretty much entirely down to laziness. I am a very lazy person when it comes to doing the things I’m supposed to be doing: washing up, sorting out the kitchen cupboards, finishing a crocheted blanket and, most notably, writing. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, lately. I start blog posts in my head when I’m out and about and then promptly don’t write them up. I work my way through story plots in the shower and then turn on Food Network and leave them to fester. My head tells me ‘everything you write is rubbish, no-one wants to read that’, so I don’t bother. It’s something that most people come up against at some point in their lives and I hate what I write so much it stalls me and I find a hundred distractions instead of doing what I should be doing, and what I love to do. In order to say ‘I’m a writer’, I need to write. So I am going to write. I will probably need some motivation, so feel free to nag me about it. And feel free to make requests, if there’s something you’d like me to write about (anything you like!).

This way, maybe I’ll actually get psyched up enough to finish something, become a best selling author, sign movie deals and make millions. And then I might buy you dinner.

If you’re going to San Francisco…

It’s been a week since we got to San Francisco.  I appreciate that we moved on Monday and it’s now Tuesday, but even though we pretty much got to do last Monday twice I’m not counting it because my brain had practically given up playing the game by the time we got here.

In short – I like it.  It’s a beautiful city.  It’s clean, friendly, sunny and has a gentle buzz about it, as if there’s a whole load going on just beneath the surface.  It’s also a dog city.  Seriously, almost everyone here has a dog.  They’re everywhere – trotting behind their humans in the streets, playing catch in the park, waiting patiently outside cafes and restaurants. Despite this I have yet to see poop on the pavement.  It’s the little things.

Speaking of the little things, these are the things that are taking the most getting used to.  Looking the wrong way before crossing the street.  The light switches and plugs.  The fact they don’t seem to sell squash (juice) and that creme fraiche is $7.  I’ve spent about half an hour staring at the shelves in Safeway and Mollie Stones in baffled silence.  I’m looking forward to the moment I don’t have to translate the dollars into pounds and the pounds into grams to know whether it’s good value.  The same goes for temperature.  And the oven.

So far this week I’ve done a lot of exploring.  San Francisco is a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own distinct flavour and yet clustered together, so they almost run into each other.  And, thanks to the Muni (the bus/tram/underground system) it’s possible to run into each with remarkable ease.  We were told before we arrived that areas can change dramatically with just the cross of the street and it’s certainly true, which makes for interesting bus rides.

So far, I’m in love with Pacific Heights.  It’s a boutiquey neighbourhood – everything from Marc Jacob, Betsy Johnson and Ralph Lauren to independent book shops, interior designers and neon outlined burger bars.  There’s a little cinema that’s currently showing Rocky Horror at midnight, a park that looks down over the Bay and two Starbucks.  The buildings are a mishmash of styles, predominantly reminiscent of the Jazz era, with no two exactly the same.  The colours add a sense of individual style and bring vibrancy and fun, the gold painted details catching the sun with sparkling warmth.

The houses of Pacific Heights proudly show their colours (www.silverlionservice.com)

Noe Valley (pronounced No-ee) is another area I’ve already developed a fondness for.  Even after only one visit,  it’s hard not to be taken in by the small-town feel of the place and quirky little shops.  It’s a haven of the technology set – Google and Facebook have a lot of employees in the area – so it wasn’t surprising (although it was still all I could do not to burst out laughing) when, on entering the small Starbucks we were met with a sea of laptops, all lined up neatly, and the insistent tapping of the keys.  For the downside to Noe, the clue is in the name. It’s set along a valley so it seems like wherever you go, you’re heading uphill.  To be fair, this is the case with most of San Francisco but for some reason in Noe it seems more pronounced.  It makes the bus ride more of an adventure, though, as you roll up and down slopes that at first you think you’ll never make it to the top of and then wish you weren’t facing backwards as the ground disappears beneath you and you desperately hope the breaks are working.

When they say 'Hill', they're not kidding... (www.brokeassstuart.com)

 The ride back from Noe Valley passes through Castro, the rainbow district.  And, man, do they have their rainbow on down there!  By all accounts it’s the party neighbourhood, full of bars and clubs.  So far I’ve only seen it from the bus but I’m going to have to go and explore this vibrant neighbourhood.  It sounds a little hippy, and possibly a bit patronising to say it, but I was genuinely excited and happy to see this place where rainbows were plastered on everything from the lampposts and benches to the banks and restaurants, people were expressing themselves freely with their clothes and and couples could walk down the street hand in hand without fear of abuse.  I was less thrilled to see the naked guy at the bus stop (why is it always the old, slightly overweight guys?) and laughed to see the nail salon called ‘Hand Job’ (until which point I’d been thinking ‘way to keep it classy, Castro’).  It’s certainly somewhere I’m going to have to check out in greater detail.

The bright and vibrant Castro district is somewhere I'm looking forward to exploring. (www.sfcityscape.com)

I think it’s safe to say that San Francisco is gradually increasing her grip on me.  It’s only been a week and I’m feeling like this is somewhere I could really get used to living.  More than ‘used to’ in fact.  I think I could love it.

Schrodinger’s Move

I’m sitting in a coffee shop-cum-art gallery, contemplating.

Apparently they don’t have bacon. Or chocolate. Well, they do have chocolate but it’s not chocolate. Or the metric system. Even the bits I do understand I don’t get. Their gallons are bigger. And what’s with water boiling at 212 degrees?

It’s going to take more than 12 hours to get home. But then mum says you’re never really that far away wherever you are on the planet – you could be home within 24 hours if you really wanted to be. I guess the bigger problem is that it’ll cost over $500 to get home. Which puts a limit on visits. That said, I don’t see a lot of people more than 3 or 4 times a year anyway, so really it’s no different. Except usually we’re in the same time zone. Still, with social networking, late hours and early starts it’ll probably take care of itself. People stay in touch with people they want to stay in touch with. I can use it as a ‘friendship test’. If you want a cheap holiday you have to post at least one thing a week to my timeline.

I’ve promised myself I’ll write. I have this vision of sitting in a coffee house, not unlike this one (although they don’t have to provide toilets, which could be an issue..) tapping away at the keyboard. This is a good thing. I’ve wanted to get more writing done for a long time. To be honest, I won’t have much else to do. I’m not going to know anyone. In some ways, that’s quite a freeing thought: I won’t know anyone, but they won’t know me. The cool, interesting, awesome person I want to be, with a well developed sense of style and myself – I can be that person. Or whoever else I fancy being. And no one will have seen my wardrobe, so really everything I own is new. Which is good, because I have no idea when, or even if, I’ll get a job to pay for anything else!

The woman behind me in the cafe is talking about seeing Birdsong on the TV. Her voice is shrill and continuous. I’ll have to get used to that in a whole new accent. I should probably practice not correcting the pronunciation of ‘herb’ and ‘aluminium’. A plus here is that I already watch a lot of their TV. I’ll be ahead in some series. I might even get a few more that will probably be very good and never make it over here. A minus would be my uncontrollable mimicking of accents. It generally sounds like I’m taking the piss. Do they say ‘taking the piss’? They don’t say ‘have a go’. Apparently it’s ‘take a shot’. Odds are I’m going to baffle a lot of people. The sort of person introduced with a caveat. “Don’t take her the wrong way, she’s English.”

At least it’ll be sunny. When it’s not foggy.