Monthly Archives: June 2015

Lemons, Radio 4, and Turning Into My Mother

Kitchen

One morning a little while ago, I was standing in the kitchen in my apron, making apple pie. I was rolling out pastry made to my mother’s recipe, and in the background, Radio 4 was playing. Probably I was listening to an interview with a redoubtable old lady who had trekked solo across the Arctic with a band of huskies. Or maybe some comedians were struggling to get to Mornington Crescent, or a resident of Ambridge was worrying about whether he’d be able to dig up the potatoes in the South Field before the rain started.

Anyway, I was feeling completely content and in my element, until a realisation struck me – I had become my mother. Everything about the scene – the pastry, the radio station, the apron – was the very essence of her.

This moment had been coming for some time. My mum always used to say,
“Every week, I buy a lemon. I never know what I’m going to need it for, but I buy it just in case. And every week, I always do need it”.

My husband Anthony had heard her say this, so every time I bought a lemon, he used to asked in anxious tones whether I knew what I was going to use it for. He was checking that I hadn’t bought it ‘just in case’ – which would be a sure sign that I was turning into my mother.

These days, I use lemons in all sorts of recipes and tend to have several in stock at a time, so they can no longer be used as a becoming-my-mother-indicator. Indeed, my friend Adi came over a few weeks ago on the Jewish Sabbath for a post-synagogue meal. It was a last-minute invitation and so I hadn’t prepared anything – or indeed, done any food shopping for several days. So I explained that all I had to offer her for dessert was a lemon or an apple. Then I checked, and realised we had run out of apples.

She said she didn’t want the lemon, and personally I think that’s quite rude. When you’re invited to eat in people’s houses, you shouldn’t turn down the food you’re offered. I felt my hospitality was just thrown back in my face.

Anyway, back to my mother. I asked Anthony yesterday, for the purposes of this blog post, in what other ways he felt I was turning her. He said that he was unable to answer that as it would only get him into trouble. No amount of pressing would get him to say anything else, so I can only guess.

If I ever find myself watering the garden while it’s actually raining, the die will finally be cast.

Porridge and Sweetcorn: the Psychology of the ‘Free Gift’

Filed away in my parents’ house I found this letter that I wrote to Father Christmas when I was 5:

IMG_0033

Why a little girl from a Jewish family was writing to Father Christmas in the first place is a subject for another day…

The paper is blackened with soot because it had been sent up our chimney (obviously the only way to communicate with Santa Claus) and, as my father has noted at the bottom, was subsequently retrieved from the garden.

The first thing that might strike you about this Christmas list is the paper it’s written on. It advertises:

ANUSOL: Soothes painful piles and anal irritation 

My father practised as a GP in a large Sunderland health centre and drug companies constantly tried to seduce him with freebies, including this branded paper.

Practically everything in our house seemed to have the name of a drug company on it: paper, pens, calendars, mugs…

My parents always welcomed these gifts enthusiastically. I’m pretty sure that we would have had a sofa with Amoxicillin-branded cushions or a car painted with the Nurofen logo, had they been offered to us.

I remember one of the free items was  a gadget that would cut through your seat belt if you found yourself entangled in it due to a car crash. I’m not sure what was written on it. Perhaps, “You’ll never feel trapped with Laxido”.

I think there’s a curious psychology surrounding the idea of the ‘free gift’. (Incidentally, the term itself is tautological: if it’s a gift, then you’d expect it to be free.) We have a tendency to accept things that are free, even if we have no desire for them whatsoever.

I re-entered office life last year after nine years of working from home. I was bizarrely excited about every aspect of the corporate world because I’d spent so long away from it. One day I emailed my husband Anthony in great excitement, saying,

“They’re giving away free porridge with golden syrup in every kitchen!”

“But you don’t like porridge…” he replied.

“Yes,” I said, “but it feels really good to know that if I did like it, I could have it. And for free!”

More recently, in my current office, these boxes turned up containing packets of microwavable ‘express’ sweetcorn:

IMG_0035

This photo was taken only about 5 minutes after they’d arrived and already the boxes are half empty. By the time the email came round saying ‘There are packets of microwavable sweetcorn in the kitchens’, the whole lot had already been snaffled.

Now sweetcorn is, admittedly, quite a useful thing. Most people like a bit of sweetcorn with their dinner now and again. But nobody could claim it was exciting. I’m not sure the fact that it ‘heats in 1 minute’ really made much difference either. I don’t generally think, ‘I would eat sweetcorn much more often if only it didn’t take so long to prepare…’.

No, the speed with which those packets vanished was, I’m sure, almost entirely due to the mysterious power of the ‘free gift’.

Anyway, back to the Anusol…

I can only assume that Father Christmas was not impressed with my choice of writing paper because, despite having requested it in my letter, I wasn’t given a Cindy (sic), and certainly didn’t receive ‘all the clothes and all the furniture’ to accompany her. Which just goes to show that presentation really matters: sometimes it’s worth ignoring the free gift and spending a bit of money.

If you would like more of this sort of nonsense, why not ‘like’ my Facebook page – or take a look at it, at any rate?
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How many kisses is too many kisses?

XXXXX

When I was a brand new editorial assistant in my first publishing job, I signed off an email to one of the company directors as follows:

Susan xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The moment I pressed ‘send’ I realised what I’d done and I sat there, frozen in horror.
Once I’d started breathing again, I realised I couldn’t just pretend it hadn’t happened, or she might think that *I* thought this was an appropriate way for a junior to sign her name to a director. But how do you say sorry to someone for having put too many – or indeed, any – kisses in a message to them…?
“I apologise for my excessive epistolary affection”?
“I will endeavour to communicate via a more formal register in future”?

In the end, I put my head round her office door, red-faced, and mumbled somethig inarticulate. Given that she was far older and more experienced than me and in a position of power, this was her cue to be amused and reassuring and make me feel much better.

She wasn’t and she didn’t. Instead she was bemused and condescending, which is why I’m clearly still trying to get over to trauma 18 years later.

It hasn’t stopped me from putting kisses after my name, though, when I’m actually writing to a friend. I’ve noticed that there is a definite etiquette involved in this process. The number matters. One kiss means you’re on friendly terms. It *might* mean that you’re close, but it could also apply to, for example, a client you know well or another mum you chat to in the playground. Three kisses definitely signifies that you’re good friends, whereas an extravagant row of many kisses either means that you’re twelve-years-old (in which case you might intersperse them with circles to represent hugs), or that you’re writing to your partner or very close friend.

In an email exchange, it’s interesting that most people will copy your pattern exactly. For example, two kisses after your name will get you two kisses after the recipient’s name.

There is a gender segregation here, though. Men are definitely less generous with their rows of x’s. If I’m writing to one of my male friends, most of whom tend not to put kisses after their names, I find myself having an internal dialogue as follows: “He doesn’t, so probably I shouldn’t. But if I were writing to a female friend I definitely would. It feels really unfriendly not to. So I will – I shouldn’t let my normal writing style be dictated by someone else.” Then I do so, and immediately feel very slightly silly and childish. And then I feel annoyed with myself for being so insecure.

I write most of my messages on my phone using voice recognition, so if you see me with my phone to my mouth saying “love-Susan-ex-ex-ex-ex-ex”, this will be why. Please try not to cross the street.

Love Susan xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

PS When searching for a suitable image to accompany this post, it was noticeable that when I put ‘kisses’ into Google Images I got lots of nice pictures of pink lips, whereas when I searched ‘kisses xxx’ the results were startlingly different. It probably would have been better if I hadn’t been doing it outside my daughter’s ballet class.

***

If you would like more of this sort of nonsense, why not ‘like’ my Facebook page – or take a look at it, at any rate?
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What does your wedding invitation say about you?

Rachel Knickmeyer: knickmeyer.net

Rachel Knickmeyer: knickmeyer.net

One summer we had two wedding invitations displayed side-by-side on our mantlepiece.

The first was to a wedding of wealthy friends. It arrived in an envelope sealed with stamped wax. The invitation itself was made of thickly textured card with gold engraved type. It was surrounded by a band of lace, secured by an artificial rose.

The second was to a Quaker wedding. The invitation was on a sheet of typed A4 paper (recycled).

The first wedding directed us to a wedding list registered at one of the major department stores. The second had a note saying that if anyone would like to buy a gift, the couple would very much appreciate the following… There was then a list of items which included (without any reference to branding) a cheese grater, a sieve and a wooden spoon. I don’t remember, but I strongly suspect there was also a suggestion to contribute to a chosen charity, as well or instead of giving a present.

The weddings themselves were the embodiment of their invitations. At the first wedding, the bride wore Pronovias. Waiters in black tie circulated with champagne cocktails and intricately-constructed canapés, after which the guests sat down to a 5-course meal in an elegant hall. Each table had a flower display worthy of a design award.

At the second wedding, the bride wore a purple dress that could be used again in future. The guests carried the vases of flowers from the Meeting House to the party venue. There was a delicious vegetarian buffet after which we danced outside on the grass (it was a warm evening). At the end, we waved the bride and groom off as they cycled away on a tandem. It was perfectly clear that the couple would have embraced these choices however much money they happened to have in the bank.

So what to make of this? Both weddings featured a loving couple who wanted their friends and family to celebrate their union with them. I don’t think one was morally superior to the other.

It must be said that our own wedding was much closer to the first than the second – far less showy and less opulent it’s true, but it still had all those trappings on a more modest scale. Yet I admire the anti-materialistic impulse. I like the purity of it – the way it gets you away from the surface of things to focus on what really matters.

The problem is, I really like pretty stuff. And kitchen gadgets. And Apple products. I could definitely forsake most wordly things so long as I could still shop at Lakeland. And my Cath Kidston handbag is going to need replacing soon. And I’d need to keep my iPhone, iPad and iMac…

Maybe I don’t have a Quaker soul.

If I get fed up with Judaism and can’t become a Quaker, I might consider Sikhism. They really have the right idea, the way every service ends in a shared meal. Yes, I think I will become a Sikh. I don’t know what their weddings are like, though…

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specialinvite.ru

specialinvite.ru

Do As You’re Told!

Barbecue

My friend Emma mentioned the other day that she’s very much looking forward to coming to our 10th anniversary barbecue next month. I was a bit perplexed by this because I wasn’t aware we were having one. She showed me the entry in her calendar:

“Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue (babysitter booked).”

What struck me later is that my first thoughts were not: “We have already been married for more than ten years, and we don’t own a barbecue”.

These were, to be fair, my second thoughts.

But my first thoughts were:

– Bloody hell – now that it’s in Emma’s diary, we’re going to have to arrange it.
– We’ll have to buy a barbecue and we can’t afford it.
– Maybe we could just use one of those disposable ones.
– Who else should we invite?
– My husband doesn’t even like barbecues.

All of this only took a few seconds and then I came to my senses. But it got me thinking about how extremely suggestible some people are (e.g. me) and how others are the exact opposite.

I’ve worked with people, for example, who completely refuse to respond to anything I ask, apparently on principle.

I say: “Please could you… [insert here completely basic function of their job]” and instead of saying, “Yes, of course!” they respond with a question of their own. The conversation then spirals into a bottomless pit of doom where I begin to consider eating my own arm.

So perhaps it’s better to be easily led like me. Although it must be said I’ve done many stupid things, just because someone has suggested them to me. Despite the fact that any kind of risk-taking makes me feel panicked and miserable, not excited and alive, I have been guilty of the following (you can surmise for yourself how old I was for each):

– ringing on doorbells and running away.
– climbing over a spiked fence to leave the grounds of a castle because it was quicker than going back to the main exit.
– stuffing rude notes through the next door neighbour’s letterbox.
– trespassing in an old lady’s garden in Siena in the middle of the night.
– drinking half a bottle of vodka in 30 minutes and spending the next few hours lying in a flowerbed throwing up.

I get that this is a pretty weedy list of misdemeanours to show for my 41 years. I expect I could dredge up some more if I thought about it really hard. But the point is that I didn’t want to do any of those things and nor did I feel good about them, either at the time or afterwards.

Anyway, the barbecue mystery was finally solved. It wasn’t “Reubens’ 10th anniversary barbecue” but “Reuben’s 10th anniversary barbecue” – i.e. the barbecue of Emma’s friend Reuben.

“You should both have paid more attention to the placement of the apostrophe,” her husband said, sternly.
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