International day of …

This morning I was vaguely encouraged, for no good reason, to read in The Age that 1 October is the International Day of Older Persons.

When I informed my beloved of this, she snorted and enquired as to why they didn’t just call it the International Day of Old People. This set me thinking about euphemisms and their continued popularity. Maybe we could have an International Day of Euphemisms. The difficulty is that these circumlocutions seem to be popular year-round.

Body parts seem to provide a rich source of euphemisms. I was reminded of an old one a few days ago, when my exercise physiologist asked me if I was feeling a stretch in the lower part of my back. Thinking of the antique phrase “lower back”, I asked if she meant my bottom. (She didn’t.) The backside is also referred to in polite circles as the BTM. (Modern American parlance refers to the “butt” — itself also a euphemism, and something that seems to have displaced “bum”.) The nether regions seem particularly to attract euphemisms, “down there” being a sort of catch-all phrase that springs to mind. When considering the business end of the BTM, the “Khyber Pass” (usually abbreviated to “the Khyber”) is one of a large group of euphemisms employing rhyming slang.

Everyone will have their favourite euphemism. The motoring industry has provided a few good ones. One from yesteryear, also qualifying as an oxymoron, was “compulsory option”. (This was a way of allowing a manufacturer to price a car under a particular price point, by “disallowing” a particular feature that purchasers had to pay for separately.) Others that come to mind: “budget” (poverty pack), “detuned” (gutless), “economy” (couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding), “family” (a boring barge), and “reliable” (whitegoods on wheels).

Euphemisms are a peculiar sub-branch of language because they are a way to refer to something without actually naming what you are referring to. I generally disapprove of euphemisms because I feel they blunt meaning — this being, obviously, their purpose in life. (At least the ones using rhyming slang are a bit witty.) When pondering this topic I thought “Wouldn’t it be great to compile a dictionary of slang?”. A quick Google search revealed that, as often, I am late to the party. Several quite august publishers such as university presses have brought out dictionaries of euphemisms. One example is R W Holder’s now rather venerable A dictionary of euphemisms, published by Oxford University Press. (No, I’m not going to give you publication dates — the thing has gone through more editions than I’ve had hot dinners.) There are numerous lists of euphemisms on the internet, too, of which this one at Lynn Schneider Books has some quite funny examples.

Slang seems to go the other way to euphemisms in finding a zingy and forceful way to refer to things. An earlier post in this august publication, Partridge in a pear tree, listed some of the slang expressions for the male generative organ. (Warning: adult content.)

Isolation diary day 13

Well, we have passed the half way point in the four weeks. (It is only day 13 because we weren’t really isolated on Day 1; consequently I started the count on the second day.) It has been quite a busy day. As usual, we went for a walk after breakfast. Our route, however, was a new development. We walked up our street to Wattle Park, then headed first east, then traced a big arc back the other way almost up to Riversdale Road. Continuing south, we came out at the golf course club house, where we used to go for coffee before the current unpleasantness. I found the hilliness of this new route tiring; possibly I was still feeling the effect of having done a walk and a workout yesterday. It was a good time to be about, though. It was cool, only about 16 degrees, and pretty quiet. We saw a neighbour on our way home, who waved theatrically at us from the far side of the road.

When we got home, my beloved went back to work, preparing for a virtual staff meeting at 11.00. I had a bit more breakfast, then, as silently as possible, mixed up a batch of bread dough, and put on a load of washing. The bread was necessary because Woolies hadn’t been able to supply the loaf I requested in our last online shop. This is a minor drawback with the process. If the store that fulfils your order doesn’t have a particular line in stock, they just don’t supply it, and give you a refund. But it isn’t possible to nominate a second option in case your first choice is unavailable. You never know what they’ll have, however,  so if you order two types of bread you might get both. Why not just freeze one? I do this quite a lot, but at present the freezer is pretty chockers, already containing a gluten-free loaf for my beloved, batches of rice, chickpeas, pasta, meat, and so on. 

Anyway, I was well placed to knock up a loaf at home, having flour (both wheat and spelt) from a previous shop, and yeast, salt, and sugar in the cupboard. The recipe I have taken to using is for an oatmeal no-knead variety, which is easy and reliable. You can find it here; do give it a go! The recipe as it stands makes two loaves. If you don’t want to make this much, just adjust the quantities. But I reckon if you’re going to go to the trouble, you might as well get two loaves out of it. (Ease back on the salt, though. The recipe calls for a tablespoon, which is far too much. Just use 1 or 1.5 teaspoons, for one or two loaves respectively. And I put the yeast up to 2.5 teaspoons for two loaves.)

Apart from these tweaks, I make the recipe as it stands, but I use a roughly 20 cm square tin with a removable base. After the loaf cools down, I just cut it in half to make two rectangular loaves, slice both, and freeze one. This time I used a mixture of wholemeal wheat flour and white and wholemeal spelt, mostly because I had bits of the last two hanging around. I have also used chia seeds instead of half a cup of the oats; sunflower seeds would probably work well too. As you can see, this recipe is very forgiving. 

(Speaking of baking, I was puzzled to read about a lady complaining that she had plain flour, but wanted self-raising. She wanted someone to swap the latter for the former. Had she not heard of baking powder? You don’t even really need a sifter; just stir the baking powder into the plain flour with a fork.)

I had a minor contretemps yesterday when I thought of the poem, and was looking for my notebook in which to jot it down. It was nowhere to be seen — the notebook, that is — although some might think I was referring to the poem. My beloved sensibly observed that the notebook must be in our place somewhere. Am I the only person I know who can lose something after a fortnight in isolation?

I found another notebook, of course, but the experience was quite irritating. At various times I need to make notes for poems, bits of the memoir, things that I am told by various medicos, and general stuff. I have tried splitting a big notebook up into sections with sticky tabs, but it is hard to predict how many pages to set aside for each section. Using several notebooks is just a nuisance. Different stuff ends up all over the place, and is impossible to keep track of. And, particularly for poetry,  I need to capture what thoughts come my way before they evaporate!

What works best for me in these literary endeavours is a Japanese system called a Traveler’s Passport Notebook. (That’s how they spell it). This is basically a leather binder with an elastic strap that goes around it. This binder is about passport size, as the name suggests, so it readily fits in a jacket pocket, or the outside pocket in a backpack. The binder can hold five or six bound A6 size blank books, each on its special rubber band-type thing. Consequently the books sit nicely next to each other. (If you prefer, they can go one inside another, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do this.) There is also a piece of heavy thread sewn into the binder that you can use as a bookmark. The Traveler’s people also make a pen holder which clips onto the binder, which I have — no more hunting for a pen. With my trusty vintage Dymo labeller, which I found in the local op shop, I have made labels for each of the books. Genius! Now I can readily make notes, keep them all in the one place, but separate all the different materials. (This of course assumes I can find the thing.)

When I got my hands on it — it was in a jacket pocket — I wanted to be able to find it the next time I lost it. So I ordered a few more bits and pieces for it, including a transparent zipped pocket. Thank goodness for the internet! I plan to put a Tile device inside this pocket. This is a little bit of electronics that works via Bluetooth, and is intended to help you locate your keys, phone, and so on. (I don’t tend to lose those things, but I have misplaced this notebook before.) This may sound a tad both OCD and OTT. However, I find losing things monstrously irritating. My memory is so bad, I almost never remember where I left something. Anyway, all these schemes keep me off the streets, so to speak, and I’m doing my bit for the economy! A win-win! 


A poor thing, but mine own

I have made a start on the memoir. Until now I have been talking about, researching, thinking about, and making notes for it – everything except actually writing it. Siblings have sent me lots of useful stuff that they have found about memoir writing. I appreciate it all. All the encouragement has been fabulous, as well! It has all helped me refine the concept, and get to grips with the actual doing of it.

One question I was asked was, is it going to be a memoir or an autobiography? These categories obviously overlap. I had always thought of memoir as something fairly contained in time. Those that I have most enjoyed have often been a record of an episode in the author’s life. (Peter Stothardt’s On the Spartacus road is an example.) Autobiography, on the other hand, has always seemed like more of a record of the author’s life; a biography written by the subject. Obviously no account of anyone’s life can be 100% complete. As a form, however, to me, autobiography aims to be comprehensive. Mine will be quite selective, and thus more of a memoir.

Over the years I have read quite a few memoirs and autobiographies, as well as straight out biographies and autobiographical novels: just about every permutation.  It is evidently a form capable of enormous variation. I have learned something from most of these. Whatever I produce will be informed by these examples, but mine as well.

I can see that I am proceeding about it in a rather subterranean way. I have made quite a few notes, including a list of episodes that seem worthy of inclusion. (This list is in tabular form, so that I can mark off the episodes that I have written, whether these have been revised, and so on.) I thought about possible structures, and even titles, and wrote all these down as well. Some time then passed, during which I didn’t write anything at all extended. On Friday, however, I felt it was time to start.

I read an article that included a useful tip from Hemingway: every time you finish, write down a pointer about where to start next time. (I’d discovered this myself when writing my minor thesis about forty years ago, but forgotten it.) I just have to keep adding bricks to the wall. I’ll be doing this on and off. When it is finished, or ready to show, I’ll tell you.

Little wins

I had a couple of little wins the other day. The issues that are trivial in themselves, but it is surprising how irritating they can still be.

The first and more trivial of the two was to find a refill for my notebook pen. I have a small Filofax that I am using as a notebook for ideas for the memoir and other things. This notebook has a very short pen that I bought years ago in Pen City, the wonderful shop on Swanston Street. (This pen is the perfect diameter for the pen loop in the Filofax. One that is too small just falls through the loop and gets lost; a bigger one would strain the loop or tear it off.) Much as I enjoy browsing through Pen City, I didn’t want to go into town just for a pen refill. So it was more in hope than expectation that I asked in a paper shop on Burke Road.

What do you call a shop that sells paper and pens nowadays? “Paper shop” sounds like a newsagent, but “stationer” to me means a shop with pens, inks, ledgers, notebooks, writing compendiums: every conceivable thing to write on and with. Brands like Churston Deckle, Osmiroid, Parker, Qink, and whoever made that onion-skin writing paper. Anyone who wanted to write anything went to a stationer’s. Whether it was an accounts ledger, a letter to Mum, a note on your desk calendar, a short story or a love poem, they had what you needed. After a visit there, countless words evolved from being inside someone’s head to written form, like salmon eggs morphing into fish.

The other one was working out why my new-ish tablet wasn’t connecting to public wifi (such as at shopping centres or the library). This was a puzzling problem, as the older tablet does this perfectly. I had rung Samsung tech support about it. Their first suggestion, which was to switch on automatic date and time in the settings, worked perfectly. Then the problem recurred. During a second phone call they suggested all sorts of unlikely things. You need to go home and see if you can connect to your home wifi. (I have been been using it all the time, most recently that morning.)  Maybe the wifi isn’t working at the shopping centre. (The tablet finds it and can tell me the signal strength.) Maybe the wifi is slow because there are lots of people using it. (It was ten-thirty in the morning on a weekday.) You need to do a factory reset on your tablet. (I’ll lose all my data.) Yes, but we can tell you how to back it up. (I need to be at home to do that.) Yes, you do. We’ll save your details so you don’t have to explain it all over again. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, I figured it out myself. In the settings I could see that several apps had permissions. I guessed that one of these apps was interfering with the messages you get when you try to connect to public wifi.  No message getting through, you don’t get to accept the terms and conditions: no wifi. One of these apps was Twilight, something that gradually turns your screen less blue (i.e. more red) to reduce the amount of blue light getting through to your eyes in the evenings. I uninstalled the updates, then deleted the app. Now I can connect to wifi anywhere!

Sexing up the library

The title of this post might be taking it a bit far. However, libraries might just be getting a bit more frequently into the public eye of late. This article In The Guardian goes behind the scenes at the NSW State Library. The intrepid reporter is Caroline Baum, their first reader-in-residence. (Should the link not take you there, try a Google search on “Secrets of the library: ‘magic with livestock’ and Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk”.  “Secrets of the library” will probably do the trick; the longer your search string, the more chances to make a typo. You don’t need the quote marks.)

Does a library really need a reader-in-residence? That’s what librarians do all day, isn’t it – read? (You wouldn’t say that, of course! You know that’s a bit like saying “people working in supermarkets must eat a lot”.) Personally, I think it is a darn good idea of NSWSL to make someone reader-in-residence, particularly if that someone is Caroline Baum. Library lifers such as I used to be, until early release for good behaviour, can stop noticing the extraordinary things they work with. An outsider can come in and say “You’ve got what?”, and write about it, for the general public, in a readable way.

This is a particularly valuable thing to do when the library has archival materials. These can be a massive time and resources sink, requiring special treatment galore. If they are unbound, the boxes you put them in, need to be acid-free. The cataloguing is much more elaborate. And you can’t just slap a label on the spine and stamp the thing. But these documents are unimaginably precious. Imagine not having Cook’s journals from the Endeavour, or Watkin Tench’s narrative of the establishment of Botany Bay. Somebody, some day, will want to go through Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk, too.

There is an unstated conflict for those working with rare books, special collections, or whatever they are called this week. You want people to know you’ve got them, and you don’t really want people to know you’ve got them. After all, the people who need to know about these things, like researchers, will already know, right? No need to put it too widely about. Nowadays, however, I think rare books specialists really do want to tell people about all the great things they’ve got. (Put this down to a win/win  combination of professional ethics and needing continuing funding.) They certainly put a lot of effort into cataloguing and digitising them, for everyone who has a web browser to read.

Caroline Baum’s article takes in a few of the fabulous treasure troves in NSWSL, like the Robbins collection about stage magic. Some of the cookbooks sound familiar from my Special Collection days. There was an eighteenth century one all about puddings, jellies and confections; the jelly moulds looked exactly like the ones used today. There is something very touching about holding a cookbook that has notes scrawled in the margins.  The exercise books of handwritten recipes, or ones clipped from yellowing newspapers, are even more intimate. People in a hundred badly-lit kitchens actually scribbled on, peered at, and sweated over these things. All to feed those they loved.