Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 19 – Something you regret

They say you never regret what you have done, only what you haven't done. There is one thing that I have done that I regret. When I was little I had a toy clown who played cymbals if you pressed his tummy. He wasn't my favourite toy, and once when I was told to clean up the mess in my room I threw him away in the garbage.

The thing I regret I didn't do was playing – it has just occurred to me now, honestly! - if not cymbals, at least percussions in a student orchestra. I was sixteen and had by then given up my music lessons, but the conductor, a family friend, tried to persuade me that anyone who could read sheet music would be perfect with chimes, tambourine and triangle. I thought the whole idea was ridiculous. The conductor's stepson, a few years older and without any knowledge of music took the job. He got tons of good friends in the orchestra, travelled all over and had a lot of fun.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 18 – Your favorite birthday

You only turn half a century once in a lifetime, so I decided to have a big party. Because of my peregrination I had friends here, there and everywhere whom I wanted to invite, and the only way I could do it was to organise an international conference. This brought in people from the USA and Australia, and it was a bit easier with Russia and Finland. I had to book the venue a year in advance because it was a castle, the Royal Horse Guard Mess in Stockholm. Possible because of Staffan's connections in military music. There was a reservation in the booking contract that if the Commander-in-Chief of the Swedish Armed Forces wanted the venue at short notice he would have priority. We took the risk. We also had to get special permission to take foreign citizens into Swedish military territory.

The catering at the Mess helped me to compose the menu and plan the schedule. “Birthday? Count with at least four hours at table”. She was right. We started with arrival drinks in the magnificent rooms, and then sat down at table in a huge hall with marble columns and crystal chandeliers. There were speeches and songs and sonnets written and performed by friends and family, and I laughed and wept and laughed again. There were people from all the many periods of my life, my former teachers, my former students, my present colleagues, my co-authors, my travel companions, my family and my Cucumber Mum, a Swedish children's author who had adopted me as her “sweet little cucumber”. The food was superb, and there was a surprise desert that I had not ordered. There was dancing to a band in old-fashioned army uniforms. When the clock struck one, nobody wanted to go home.

I cannot imagine a grander birthday. Thank you all who made it such a wonderful day. Peace over those who are longer among us.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 17 – Your favorite memory

Many years ago in the Dreamtime I went to Australia together with Anton who was then eleven years old. The proper age for initiation rite. We had been in Australia two years before, travelled around from Ocean Road to Barrier Reef, from Penguin Island to Jacob's Creek, and we had also been to Ayers Rock. We had called it Ayers Rock because we knew no better. But we wanted to know. So we went back to stay for a longer period and try to understand. We would write a novel about an eleven-year-old Swedish boy's encounter with Dreamtime.

The people at Ayers Rock resort thought I was crazy when I wanted a place to rent for three weeks. They told me nobody ever stayed there for more than two days. We rented a caravan and a car. Every morning we went either to Uluru or Kata Chuta and walked and talked. We saw Uluru at sunrise and sunset and even in the rain, which we were told only happened once every ten years. We read stories and made stories. In the evenings I wrote down our made-up stories and read to Anton who would say that I had got everything wrong.

I had a permission to go into Aboriginal lands which I had applied for and was granted six months before. The community where I could go was three hundred kilometres into the desert, and you needed a 4x4. There was no guarantee that we would even be allowed to fill the car with gas. I didn't take the risk. Well into the second week, when we thought we had read every piece of information available and taken every guided tour, we saw a small inconspicuous ad promising an unforgettable experience. The understatement of the millennium.

We joined a group of five and a female guide. The other people had booked years in advance. We went five hundred kilometres into nothing in a vehicle that looked like a merrily painted tank. We slept in swags on the ground and cooked over a fire. Water for personal hygiene was rationed to a little bowl every morning. The Milky Way rotated over our heads at night.

On the second day a group of Aborigines approached slowly. Linda, the guide, had told us that we had to be patient. They would come when they decided we were ready. There was no point trying to rush. Meanwhile we gathered seeds and made bread. Not the way they show you in tourist resorts: here are some seeds, try to grind them on a stone, and now taste the bread. It takes hours to gather enough for a very small loaf. It takes hours to grind. You get a new sense of time.

Then finally came the storytelling, moving around, observing every detail in the landscape. Where we only saw sand and stones, suddenly there was a waterhole. There were five kinds of edible tomatoes and fifty deadly poisonous. There were honey ants to dig from under the sand. There were kangaroos to hunt. Not with boomerangs, but with rifles. One of the elders made a spear for Anton. I wanted a spear too. He said, through Linda, that women did not have spears. We women were taken to women's sacred places. Anton was allowed to go to some men's places because he wasn't smoked yet. We danced the Lizard dance. We followed the Lizard Man's tracks across the country.

Eight days in the Dreamtime. The Aborigines have a special tense to indicate Dreamtime, something like “he has always been doing...”. Anton and I have always been walking through the desert listening to stories.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 16 – Your first kiss

This is the first heading in this marathon that I dislike. Excruciatingly boring. All first kisses are the same, and we have seen them zillions of times in movies. Instead I'll write about my most bizarre kiss - or better still, I'll show it.

Visiting Jesus

Each college in Cambridge has its special charm and its own customs. Last Thursday I was invited to Education dinner at Jesus. Education dinner means that all students in college who study education are invited, whether they are undergrads or PhDs. Brilliant idea. And some teachers are invited too. Jesus is a very old college, and the dinner was served in the old refectory, with low ceiling and lots of wonderful period details. Food was excellent, which I cannot say of all the colleges I have so far had the honour of being invited to.

It doesn't happen often that you have a chance to talk to students whom you meet once in a huge lecture hall. My hostess was just about to introduce me when one of them exclaimed: "We so much enjoyed your lecture!" Now, I have no illusions, I would perhaps say the same to somebody I was introduced to. But they went on talking about the lecture and the images I had shown and how interesting it was. I asked the student whether she had considered doing a masters in children's literature, and she had. So I may have recruited a student in passing. Otherwise it was a pleasure talking to them, and it was half past ten before I noticed (I had told Staffan that I would be home early). This is Cambridge to me.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 15 – Your dreams

I am not sure whether the heading refers to dreams as when you are asleep or dreams as in aspirations. My sleeping dreams are vivid, colourful, emotional, sometimes aggressive. I still fly in my dreams. The most recurrent dream, that I have heard many people tell of, is that I find a spare room in my house, wondering why we haven't been using it all the time. The house is sometimes real, sometimes completely imaginary. The room is mostly empty, but occasionally on the contrary crammed with things. I also dream that I am on a train or boat and have to get off soon, but all my luggage, especially the children's toys are scattered all over. When I dream about the children, they are always small and only two: Sergej and Anton merge into one symbolic Son.

Dreams as in aspirations have mostly been fulfilled. I used to dream of having a house, preferably with a fireplace, and a beautiful garden. I used to dream of driving a car. I used to dream of travelling to London (now that I can do it seven times a week it doesn't feel like much of a dream come true). I used to dream of becoming a writer. I used to dream of becoming famous. I used to dream of being able to buy any book I wanted (this was in a country when getting hold of any book was a problem) and to see all movies. I used to dream of true love. I used to dream of having children. When Sergej was born I dreamed of waltzing with him while I was still young enough to do so. I did at my doctoral ball in Stockholm City Hall. I used to dream of being a wise old teacher sitting under a tree surrounded by disciples (I once did teach a class under a tree in San Diego when it was too hot to stay inside). Three years ago I dreamed of having a research centre in children's literature.

Most of my dreams have been fulfilled ten times over. Is there nothing left for me to dream of? How frustrating. Maybe at my age, you no longer have those big dreams, but small ones. I dream of next spring when the garden will come alive again. I dream of seeing a total sun eclipse. I dream of an eccentric rich lady who will give my centre a million pounds to use on student scholarships (now, that was a big one!). I dream of going skiing with my grandchildren in March. I dream of winning a prize for my latest book. Not too bad. Still plenty of dreams to come true.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 14 : What you wore today

I don't know whether the repetition of this subject is intentional, but surely it makes a difference since last time it was on the weekend, and today is a working day. My working uniform is, most days, black pants, a top or shirt, jacket and a scarf. Highly unimaginative academic clothes. I like pants because I can wear sensible shoes and do not have to think about tights, which I am always anxious will get a ladder in a most conspicuous place. So it's much safer with pants. Black pants go with almost anything, and I have a variety of jackets, but I don't have to think about wearing different clothes every day. This was a pain in my old-old country, where you had to invent something new each time you went to work, which in my case was no more than twice a week, but even with a huge wardrobe you soon ran out of options. That's why it was so popular to trade clothes with your friends.

My current solution is wearing the same clothes and taking the risk of being extremely boring for the students. I am sure they say after the class: “Did you notice? She is wearing that old top again”. I know they at least make mental notes, because I do with other people. Especially if you have to watch them for two hours.

I have only recently developed a taste for scarves and learned the various ways of wearing them. Today's scarf is a present from an Oriental guest and makes a huge difference against a dark jacket. Wait a minute, I didn't wear a jacket at all today! It's one of my jacketless days when I feel a bit more relaxed and allow myself a jersey instead.

Tonight I am going to a formal dinner, and the invitation says “casual smart”. I have already written two blog posts on this particular dress code, so I won't do it again.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 13: This week

This is a very busy week. On Monday I worked from home. I hoped to be able to do some work of my own, but just for once the students who were supposed to submit their drafts actually did, so I read and commented on those because it's only a week and a half before the essays are due, and they were eager to get feedback. I also wrote a reference for a grant for British Academy and an abstract for a conference on Shakespeare adaptations. After that, I allowed myself a break, and Staffan and I watched one of those amazing BBC nature films.

On Tuesday, that's yesterday, I had an extraordinary meeting with professors at the Faculty to discuss the financial crisis. I pointed that the costs of printing readers and handbooks could be minimised by putting everything online. It seems that a whole studentship can be gained this way. Aren't I clever? Then there was another meeting, and I won another point, so I was very pleased with myself. In the meantime I replied to a million of emails, ordered catering for an event next week and wrote three recommendation letters. Then I went to a lecture on the unpromising topic “Education and international development”. I went because it was at the College and dedicated to the memory of a Homertonian whom I had never met so I thought it was my duty to be educated. But guess what – it was brilliant! Followed by Formal Hall with nice conversation to the left, to the right and across the table.

Today, Wednesday, I had two supervisions in the morning, did all kinds of paperwork in the afternoon, then met my dear friend Jean Webb who came from Worcester to give a talk. Excellent talk, good discussion, wine and nibbles afterwards, and then we all went to our place for dinner. Staffan had made a stew – ok, a gulash – and I had made a veggie stew for the veggie friends, and this morning before I left I had set the table really nice in the dining room so it was all ready when we came. Jean and her student are staying over. We put up the student in a folding bed in the dining room. I hope she is fine there.

Tomorrow we are going to the Faculty for a seminar where our students will meet the Worcester students and share their current work. One of my students will show picturebooks on iPad. I am looking forward to it. Then I have more supervisions and meetings. But in the evening I am going to Formal Hall at Jesus. I've never been there before. The invitation says: “No tickets or gowns necessary”. So disappointing.

On Friday I have the Examination Board. It's one of those meetings where you have to apply to the Vice Chancellor if you cannot attend. Where you actually sign students' grades.

I have no plans for the weekend. Probably I will bake some gingerbread.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 12 – What’s in your bag

I don't have a bag, but I hope a backpack counts. I stopped carrying bags many years ago after I read about how a bag gets your body off balance. Even a set of keys in your pocket is harmful. So I have a sensible canvas black backpack that goes with everything. My only requirement is that an A4 folder can be fit into it. In the main compartment I have my diary, books (for some reason, I always carry books to and from work and between buildings at work) and my wallet. In the inner pocket I have my mobile phone – always switched off! - compact powder, lipstick, comb, USB stick and a field pharmacy. In the outer pocket, I have my keys, university card, a fancy Oriental business card holder (a present of course) and an assortment of pens. I am horrible with pens. No idea giving me an expensive Parker, I'll lose it just as easy as a promotion ballpoint. I am very careful about putting everything in the right compartment because if I don't I'll never find it. Every now and then I panic because I cannot find my keys or my card. Almost every time I have put it in the wrong place.

Tonight I went to Formal Hall, and I don't want to carry more than absolutely necessary with me. Fortunately, I can put my car key into the sleeve of my gown!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 11: Your siblings

That's easy. I don't have any. But that would be too easy. When I was a child, I had an imaginary sister called Galya. I talked to her all the time, asked her advice on all important issues, made room for her beside me in my bed. I truly cannot remember when and how she disappeared.

My best friend Alyona – see my earlier blog post – and I pretended we were sisters; she was an only child too. It was a big, big secret that we were sisters, and I don't remember when we stopped either.

More important, in Russian, there is no difference in words for siblings and cousins. A male cousin is a “second brother”. A female cousin is a “second sister”. A second cousin is a “third” brother or sister. Normally you drop “second” and “third” (just as with cousins in English) and just say brother and sister. In this way I have loads of siblings. One brother is four years older than I, and he used to live with my maternal parents. When I visited and stayed overnight, we were allowed to have a pillow fight. Four years is a huge difference when you are very young, so his was my big, strong, clever brother. My other cousin is four years younger than I, and when I visited we played polar expeditions and border control. He had all those wonderful boy toys that I never had and would never dare to ask for.

Then I have my cousin Nina, twelve years younger. She was just a baby until she suddenly, about twenty years ago, was more or less the same age. We are good friends and talk on Skype every now and then. She is Anton's godmother.

I also have a second or perhaps third cousin – brother as it were – my age whom I mostly met on Christmas Eve. We were the only children and had fun together. I lost touch with him years ago.

Because of weird generation shifts I also have a third cousin twice removed who is almost my age. That is, when I was a child she was almost grown-up, but now we are the same age, give or take.

Some years ago I had a phone call from a “brother” in Germany. We managed to figure out how we were related. Without in-laws, just blood relatives, I probably have fifty siblings that I know of.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 10: What you wore today

When Marilyn Monroe was asked what she wore in bed she said: “Chanel no 5”. I do not wear perfume specifically in bed, but I wear perfume, and my favourite is Anaïs Anaïs.

I wear two rings on my left ring finger. One is a plain gold ring which is my wedding ring. When I announced my engagement to my workmates thirty plus years ago in Russia, they said: “Is your fiancé stingy? Why didn't he give you a more solid one?” But I wanted a plain, slender one. I wear it on my left ring finger because such is the Swedish custom. In Russia I would have worn it on my right hand. If I wore it on my left hand I would be either widowed or divorced. That's basic semiotics. My other ring is my doctoral ring and has a pattern of laurel leaves. The uninformed perhaps think it's an engagement ring or something like that. But with the knowledge of the semiotic code, you can read my ring as the sign of a doctoral degree in humanities from Stockholm University. So I wear my dignity day and night.

Otherwise, since it is Sunday, I am wearing gray tracksuit pants and a gray hoodie, warm gray socks and Ecco sandals.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 09: Your beliefs

I believe that all human beings are born good. I believe that there will always be people who for various reasons choose evil before good.

I believe that we are here for a purpose, but I am nor prepared to say what the purpose might be.

I believe that we only have one life and that there is no reward and no punishment on the other side.

I believe that no child should come to this world unwanted.

I believe that there is a biological difference between men and women and that there is no point denying it. I believe that a woman's ultimate purpose is to have children, but I know that life is more complex than that.

I believe that reading books, looking at works of art and listening to music makes us better human beings. I also believe that there will always be people trying to use art for evil purposes.

I believe that walking in a forest or watching ocean waves makes us better human beings.

I believe in treating others like you want them to treat you.

I believe in honesty, loyalty and justice.

I believe that states and governments should take care of those who cannot cope on their own. I also believe that everybody should take their responsibility toward themselves and other people.

I believe that there are many things in this world that we do not understand.

I believe that the only way toward immortality is through your children and grandchildren.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Our moments

My daughter has also written about her moment.

Blog challenge Day 8: A moment

Five in the morning. I wake my husband and tell him it's time. He panics. We have planned it so carefully, and now we don't know what to do. We are visiting my grandparents, we are far away from the hospital where I am supposed to go. He calls the ambulance. I am taken to another hospital – the one where I was born, where my father was born. A serendipity. They ask me when the labour started and tell me cheerfully that I could have waited until evening. While paperwork is done, I crouch on a hard bench. There are other women in the same predicament around me. Nobody really cares. One woman screams: “I am dying, please do something!” A nurse looks at her with contempt: “You should have thought about it when you f-d”. Finally somebody comes to look at me, and suddenly it is very urgent. The nurse gets scolded. I have just about had my baby on the tiled floor of the waiting room. 

Blogg challenge: Day 7: Your best friend

Me and my Alyona in school, 1967.

At least I don't have to think about it. Alyona and I have been friends since we were two. Of course we were then the kind of friends that parents take to visit each other saying: “Now run and play”. We would also be sent to run and play under our nannies' care. The nannies gossiped, we played. Gulliver's travels was out favourite make-believe. We went to school together, and because we had known each other before school and because we lived in the same house we become officially best friends. We had secrets, we had imaginary countries and our private language. At some point my mother decided that Alyona was bad influence for me and forbade me to play with her. But children at that time had more freedom than now. We all played in the backyards and streets and squares, nobody could control us. Then she came into grace with my mother again, and we were allowed to go home to each other and play. Yet oftentimes she made me jealous because she played with someone else and wouldn't let me join.

In summer, Alyona went to summer camps, and I was sent to the country with my granny. I was tremendously envious. Some years ago she confessed that she had been tremendously envious of me who didn't have to go to camps. One summer, which as I realise now must have just been a couple of weeks, I was allowed to visit Alyona at her granny's country house. It was my happiest summer ever. Her father allowed us to read in bed, eating biscuits! Who wouldn't be envious of such a father.

We became more detached during our teens, with new networks and interests. Alyona was popular with boys. I wasn't. We almost lost touch in university, but got close again after our first broken marriages. When I moved to Sweden I realised after a few years how much I missed her. The first time she visited me in Stockholm, Staffan got very upset. Alyona and I were talking all the time, and Staffan complained that he understood every word, but had no idea what we were talking about. He felt we only uttered every third sentence. He was right. We knew each other so well that everything didn't have to be said.

Some time ago we started travelling together every now and then. First time I let her choose the destination, and that's why I know every little obscure museum in London: she made me do some serious sightseeing. The next time I managed to take her through check-in and security at the airport without her knowing where we were going. Each time we meet we have tons of things to talk about. We know things about each other that nobody else knows, not even other significant others. A whole life shared.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Blogg challenge Day 6: Your day

All my days start with the cat urging me to get up. She has already had her first breakfast, but she hopes I don't know and will give her more. Unless I am in a hurry I stroke her for a while – they say it keeps your blood pressure down. Then I do a quick Asian self-massage, which is basically patting yourself all over. It's amazing what a difference it makes. Staffan prepares breakfast while I take a shower. We eat in the kitchen and drink coffee in the living room. I dress and make up my face. Before leaving, I sit down with a three-minute hourglass.

The traffic was really slow this morning, but I don't mind. I listen to Classic FM. I have been training for a long time to actually listen and not let my thoughts stray away. It is harder than you can imagine.

I had several activities planned for the day. This is a family joke. Some years ago one of our granddaughters went to a two-day camp and was very excited because they had had five activities before lunch. My first activity today was a Formative Talk. This is the part of my job that I like least. It implies talking to my research group members and telling them that they must work harder and Comrade Napoleon is always right.* I have to report to Director of Research that we are all working as hard as we can. Actually, the Formative Talk turned out to be quite pleasant. We went to Combination Room for a cup of coffee and talked about all kinds of things, mostly related to working harder. I had another Formative Talk later on that also went well (more coffee in Combination Room). Before that, I sent my secretary abstracts for two research seminars, and since she is so amazingly efficient she had put them on the web almost before I sent them. There were about three million urgent emails to respond to, three student essay drafts, one (only one today!) recommendation letter, one masters application, two visiting scholar applications and a few inquiries from overseas students. I also managed to write to the College Principal and the Faculty Head asking for money for my research centre and explaining why this should be their highest priority. Every morning I write a list of urgent things to do on a piece of paper. I do have a proper planner in my computer, but it is never just as satisfactory as ticking off something on paper. Today I never even got halfway through my list.

During lunch I had to explain to a colleague who had not heard it before what I did for a living. As soon as I mentioned children's literature he started asking me what he should read for his two-year-old and was clearly disappointed when he realised that it wasn't what my work was about. Some people had seen my BBC interview about President Obama's children's book and made caustic comments.

I had a brief supervision session with a student, and then I taught a class. It is my favourite class: first introduction to picturebooks. It's always a revelation. The students have these preconceived ideas that picturebooks are for babies and get a shock when I start discussing the complexities. By the time I got through my slide show they were awed. Then I told them to pick a book each from a pile on my desk and spend the last hour of the class looking at it. At the end of the hour they felt they had just begun. Which was exactly my intention.

I took a brief look at my email before I turned off the computer to make sure that nobody had given me the Nobel Prize today either. There were loads of messages which I will deal with tomorrow.

Staffan made a delicious stew for dinner, and the cat is getting better. It was a very satisfactory day with many activities, and I am very, very tired. I am going to bed and read a non-work-related book. If there is such a thing.

* quoting Boxer in Animal Farm

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Blogg challenge Day 5 Your definition of love

From the vantage point of my age love is completely different from how I would have defined it what I was young. And even then, how do you define love? It is even more difficult than defining children's literature: everyone know what it is, but try to define it, and you are lost.

I have been reading some cognitive psychology recently. Human emotions are results of chemical processes in our brain caused by the degree of achievements of our goals through our actions. Happiness is a basic emotion that occurs when our individual goals are successfully achieved. Love is a social emotion based on interaction with other individuals. Love is the desire to have your own goals incorporated with the goals of another person. This sounds very dry, but if you consider what it means, you wish someone else to be happy together with you, on equal conditions. If you don't care about the other person's well-being, it's not love. If your emotion is self-destructive it's not love either. This makes much better sense to me now than it would do when I was young. My love for my partner implies a balance of our well-being, which is extremely difficult to achieve, even after many years of training. My love for my children implies that I wish them well without necessarily sacrificing myself for their sake (of course I would in an extreme situation). Love is hard work rather than a gift from heaven. But I wouldn't have believed this when I was young.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 4: What you ate today

A few years ago my GP decided I needed to lose weight and sent me to a group (not Weightwatchers). The first assignment was to write down – honestly – what you ate during a day. Looking at my list, the nurse said: “But this is a perfect diet, what's your problem?” I wasn't on a diet, we just eat healthily. (My problem was hypothyroidism).

I have had the same breakfast for years. A glass of freshly pressed orange juice, two slices of ham or sausage (preferably of two different kinds, for the sake of taste), a boiled egg, fresh cucumber, tomato and paprika. Occasionally some cottage cheese. And a cup of coffee with frothed milk. When I want variation I make scrambled eggs, and on Sundays we always have eggs Benedict, without toast. But today it was plain hard-boiled egg. 

At half past ten I had another cup of coffee with a slice of cheese. 

I normally have proper hot lunch in the Great Hall in college on weekdays. There is no such thing as a free lunch, so my lunches come with strings attached. The idea is that you take you time, talk to your colleagues and hatch great ideas. This is how all the Nobel Prizes at Cambridge were born.

But today I stayed at home in the morning because we were collecting out cat from the vet. Then I was in a hurry and gobbled up two slices of cold roast beef and a tomato, and off I went. No wonder I was famished when I came home. Staffan made oven-baked hamburgers (much tastier than grilled) and I made courgette sauce with onion and tomato. Staffan had wine with his meal, but I didn't. I had a peach. Now we are sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea each and watch the cat stretch her paws. 

Yes, you've guessed right: we are LCHF.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Blog challenge Day 3: Your parents

My parents were very young when they had me, and they were married because they were having me. Abortions were illegal, and they got money from their parents to go to a reliable doctor, but instead they went to an ice cream parlour. I guess I should be glad for otherwise I wouldn't have been here to tell the story.

They were still at university, and they lived with granny and grandpa because a young family could not get a home of their own at that time and in that country, and also because my granny took care of me, together with great-granny and a maid. My parents loved parties, and in summers they would go on exciting travels while I was left in the country with granny. I was brought up with hard rules and was often spanked by my mother. I was forced to eat up my porridge and the hateful beet soup. My mother sew my clothes, and although I now realise that they were really pretty, I hated them because they were different from everybody else's. My mother also used to punish me by not talking to me. She would pass me without looking at me or talking to me for weeks. Then suddenly she would be as usual.

Nonetheless I always admired my mother, and she was my role model. She gave me the right books to read and took me to museums and concerts. When she got her PhD at the age of 36, which was late by all standards, she said she expected me to beat her. I didn't, I also got my PhD at 36, but it was after two interrupted PhDs, so I hope she wasn't too disappointed.

My father was a heavy drinker and a genius and lived in his ivory tower. When I was a teenager we spent our summers in an artists' colony in Karelia, and he and I would go fishing and mushroom picking. I would hear his music growing out of our walks. I was proud of him at performances. He was never angry with me, but he was detached. I only realised how much I loved him after it was too late.

When I started to have boyfriends, my mother developed the typical evil stepmother syndrome and ruined every relationship I had. I realised it many years later, but of course a daughter of marriageable age implied that she was over the hill while she was still young enough to be the prettiest of them all. It is hard to imagine not being loved by one's mother, and it took me years to get free of her deadly grip on me. Even now I sometimes feel that she can get at me if she cared enough. Luckily, she pretends I don't exist. Nobody has hurt me as much as she did, and yet I am grateful for everything she did for me. I am not like her, but almost everything I am is her doing. Despite and not because.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

We are responsible for those we have tamed

So why am I pretending it hasn't happened? Perhaps now, with the imminent danger over, I can articulate the experience of the past 20 hours. I came home early yesterday, after a day of back-to-back meetings that had all been satisfactory, and I was cheerful. I had had a very late and substantial business lunch so I wasn't as famished as I usually am when I came home, and it was Friday, so I sat down in a comfortable armchair with a glass of blush wine. Miso came and jumped onto my lap. Well, she didn't quite jump, rather crawled, but I took no notice because cats are like that. Only five minutes later it was obvisouly very, very wrong. I cannot explain it, but she felt like a piece of dead skin, and she didn't purr, and she hadn't groomed herself. We sat there for a while, and Staffan held her for a while, and I held her again, and then I heard Staffan call someone, and for some reason I thought he was calling Julia who knows all about cats and would know what to do. In fact, Staffan called the 24-hour veterinary service which just happened to be two streets from us here in Milton. We had driven past it at least twice a day the past eighteen months, with unuttered hope that we would never need it.

I knew Miso was really bad because she didn't even try to escape, and she lay dead still on the examination table, but she screamed with pain when the doctor squeezed her. She had bad wounds that I hadn't seen, and bruises, and, X-ray showed, broken ribs. And, blood test showed, kidney failure.

We don't know how old Miso is because we took her from a home, but she is at least twelve. Cats can live longer than that, but of course I have been thinking about how much longer she will be with us. When I see the agility with which she jumps through a half-open window I hope she will live many years. I am such a fatalist that I keep telling myself that we can't really know who of us goes first. So I shouldn't say I wasn't prepared. But I wasn't.When Staffan tried to hold my hand I had to brush it away not to burst into tears there and then. I guess the veterinary people have seen this happen over and over again.

They kept her overnight, and we came back to a silent, empty house, looking at her bowls and her blanket and stumbling over a tin of cat food in the fridge. We went to bed without a purring bundle of fur on my hip. We got up without a hungry scream in the kitchen. Nobody came to demand a lick of frothed milk from my coffee. The morning was very, very long. In my mind, I was digging a little grave at the bottom of the garden, behind the conifers. Staffan and I kept talking about irrelevant things.

Then we called the veterinary and heard that Miso was eating and doing fine. We could come and see her in the afternoon. We did. She was tired, but who wouldn't be after such a night. She had a tube attached to her little paw; half her back had been shaven to clean the wounds. But she was glad to see us, she sat up, she purred, she ate some food, just so show us (I know I am being silly now). The nurse praised her for patience and good behaviour.

With some luck, we can take her home tomorrow. Her kidneys will never be ok, but we can keep her going with the right kind of food and some medication. Maybe a month, maybe a year, maybe several years.

Blog challenge Day 2: Your first love

In Turgenev's novelette First Love, one of the characters says: "I never had a first love, I started direct with the second". I did, however, have a first love. I was eight, and he was in my class. One of the most popular boys. I did the classic thing, described in so many literary works and private stories: I wrote a letter, decorated with hearts, and put it on his desk. The teacher intercepted it, but not before all classmates had seen it. If I had been bullied before it got ten times worth. But I had my reward. We got "engaged", Tom Sawyer style, exchanged homemade rings, and we were both firm that we would get married when we grew up. Then I discovered that my fiance was in the same manner engaged to another girl, a close friend. I told her that it was silly to be engaged and advised her to break up. I don't remember whether she followed my advice, but I remained engaged for a while before it wore out. We were in same class for the rest of school.

Ugh, that was boring! I could have invented something much more exciting.

Blog challenge Day 1: Introduce yourself

I am a displaced hedgehog. I am a nomadic subject. I don't belong anywhere. There isn't a place about which I can say: This is where I come from. I haven't thought much about it, but I started doing so recently, not least because my husband keeps going back to Sweden and accidentally on purpose takes a detour to his home town. Where would I go? To the little town of Pyatigorsk in Northern Caucasus where my grandmother was born and grew up? I gew up in Moscow of course, but I don't feel I belong there. Can you belong in a big city? Maybe.

I am a mother. I am also a stepmother, which always makes me wince when I discuss fairy tales with my students. Since fairy-tale stepmothers are merely circumscriptions of biological mothers I actually have no problems with that.

I am a grandmother. It makes me very old. When I was young I could imagine being a mother, but being a grandmother was way beyond imagination. I don't mind being old as such, but it comes with a lot of physical changes which implies that you can never trust your body anymore. When you were young and fell ill you knew it would be over. Nowadays any silly malady can be the beginning of the end.

I am a wife and life partner. Having said that, I realise that I very seldom contemplate this role because it is so self-evident. But it isn't. We should all think more often about it.

I am a daughter, but it's a chapter I don't want to elaborate on. Let's say I used to be a daugher. I used to be a granddaughter too, but it is much less painful.

I am a teacher. When I took my first degree and started thinking about what I might do with it, the only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want to be a teacher. I think I am a good teacher, and there is no better reward than seeing your students successful. In my imagination, I am sitting under a tree with a circle of pupils around me. In my imigination, they will remember me when I am gone.

I am a scholar with world reputation. It's immodest to say so, but I am proud of it. I can even prove it, because I am one of the twelve scholars in my field who have received an award in recognition of their lifetime achievement.

I am a friend. When I left Russia thirty years ago I was convinced that I would never make any new friends. But I have made lots of friends since then, and I mean friends in the Russian sense of the word, not merely someone you know. Some of these became friends successively over many years and are much closer now than some friends I once thought would be close. But my best friend is still the one I have known since we were two.

I am a reader. Mostly professional reader, but also passionate reader at large. Not omnivorous through. I guess I have quite an elitistic taste in books. 

What else? Can I call myself a gardener, a skier, a potter, a dollhouse maker? No, but I can say that I like gardening, skiing, throwing, making miniatures, as well as star gazing, watching waves on a beach, listening to classic music, movies, theatre (but not opera), birdwatching and just walking around in the nature.

Something I think about often these days is that although there are many things I am or have been, there are fewer and fewer things I can become.

Blog challenge

My daughter Julia participates in a blog marathon in Sweden. An exciting idea, so I am joining it. The point is to write every day on a particular topic, which are:

Day 01 – Introduce yourself
Day 02 – Your first love
Day 03 – Your parents
Day 04 – What you ate today
Day 05 – Your definition of love
Day 06 – Your day
Day 07 – Your best friend
Day 08 – A moment
Day 09 – Your beliefs
Day 10 – What you wore today
Day 11 – Your siblings
Day 12 – What’s in your bag
Day 13 – This week
Day 14 – What you wore today
Day 15 – Your dreams
Day 16 – Your first kiss
Day 17 – Your favorite memory
Day 18 – Your favorite birthday
Day 19 – Something you regret
Day 20 – This month
Day 21 – Another moment
Day 22 – Something that upsets you
Day 23 – Something that makes you feel better
Day 24 – Something that makes you cry
Day 25 – A first
Day 26 – Your fears
Day 27 – Your favorite place
Day 28 – Something that you miss
Day 29 – Your aspirations
Day 30 – One last moment

I am two days behind, so I am starting now to catch up.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Ecclesiastic feline

Exeter has a magnificent cathedral. I only have a hour before I must take my train so I almost miss the most interesting detail. Right under the medieval clock there is a little, inconspicuous wooden door with a round hole. I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't read the guide folder. It's a cat flap! From the 16th century, the guide says. Mice were attracted by the lard used to lubricate the ropes inside the clock. Yes, exactly: Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock!

Always new things you learn when you go to conferences.