audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

September’s end

 

autumn-tree-leaves-red-63614
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com  

 

A breeze blows still, cooler and sharper than summer’s soft sigh, an edged whisper stealing beneath my ill-advised layers of silk. I should wear a sweater, perhaps. It’s almost time, but I cling to the dying summer as a drowning man cradles the last hopeful flotsam to his chest. It’s not enough, in the end. But it will do for now.

Vibrant spring greens gave way to lively grass greens. Varied hues fade in sunlight that promises much from behind a window, but delivers less than wanted in reality. Here and there, wine red blushes leaves while others flicker orange and yellow, a final bonfire of colour to warm the season’s end. The green of life retreats to its source. We know the dark is coming.

Not today though. Today energetic clouds bustle in cool blue. Scarlet fruits bob and sway. Nature keeps her promises in generous bounty. And in the imperceptibly shrinking day another voice hides. Now you see me, then you won’t. But the world turns, and brings another, harsher time. Gather in while you may.

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

A Black Woman Goes Shopping

shopping bags_rawpixel
rawpixel via pixabay (edited)

listen: 

The automatic doors spring open for me, the only welcome on this chilly grey morning. Hot air blows briefly through my hair and I blink in the harsh lights of low-end retail, piled high, never mind the quality. Price is king. I’m not here for anything fancy. I have a specific task in mind.

Get in, get it done, get out clean.

Taking off my gloves, I flex my fingers and let the warmth seep into my fingertips. Cold hands lack feeling, and I need to discern every change in texture, weight and balance point as I seek my target. I’m not sure where to find it. Time to roam the ground floor.

I think he’s seen me.

I wander, apparently aimless but in fact with a definite route in mind. Back to bathroom goods, along the rear wall to soft furnishings, over towards the tills and retrace my steps. I pause next to lighting.

He’s still there.

No need to panic. I belong here, just walk like I belong here. I do belong here, I do. But he’s following me, upstairs to kitchenware, past textiles. I hide in the furthest corner, flipping through pictures. Maybe when I turn — no, I see him slipping between the shelves.

When I approach the till and the tired operator asks me if I found everything today, I nod and smile and hand over my debit card. No worries about the trifling amount for a laundry hamper. I dreamed of this day, when prices wouldn’t worry me. A nightmare dogs my steps all the same, even though I’m in the black.

Or because of it.

The security guard watches me exit the store today, just like every other day I visit, keeping a close eye on people like me. I want to shove the receipt in his face and scream.

He didn’t see me.

The automatic doors spring open for me, a cold machine welcome. I’m in another store, a giant halogen-bright temple to consumerism. I have a specific target in mind.

Get in, get it done, get out clean.

These salespeople are bright, smart, and cheerful. They want to help, and commission is a great motivator. I am faced with many options to replace my ageing bed. I look around, but it seems everyone is busy, helping someone else, earning commission somewhere else.

They haven’t seen me.

No need to worry yet. I definitely belong here; my bank balance says so. I do belong here, I do. Black Friday deals everywhere, now if I could only get some assistance with all these different sizes, fabric colours and delivery dates. It’s a high-end store with beautiful room sets and lots of empty space. Price matters, but quality matters more.

I’m not here for anything cheap.

I linger by a truly regal bed, its headboard glamorous buttoned purple velvet. Maybe in another colour, it could be the one. Thirty percent off in the sale ends tomorrow. This is the cue. I’ve stopped walking, I’m ready to be sold something.

Ready, willing, able.

I pick up a brochure on my way out. No one asks me if I found what I wanted today.

In the black. Invisible.

 

originally published by Those People on Medium September 11 2018

blog, writing process

Remove crutch words to make your prose stronger

muscles-lineart_OpenClipart-Vectors
OpenClipart-Vectors via pixabay

When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.

When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.

Filler words in speech

• Well
• So
• Actually
• Honestly
• Really
• Definitely
• Anyway

In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.

A word frequency counter like this one  identifies which words appear most often in your writing. Try it with a piece of your writing from one or two years ago.

You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.

Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.

Overused words

• Certainly
• Probably
• Basically
• Virtually
• Slightly
• Rather
• Quite
• Very
• A bit
• Almost
• Just
• As though
• Somehow
• Seems/seemed
• Shrugged
• Smiled
• Laughed
• Looked
• Started to
• Began to

Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.

  • But
  • And

You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.

On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”

blog

Thank goodness for the dog

I can forget about student loans for a minute

boy hugging yellow labrador dog
veroturg via pixabay

My son just moved into shared accommodation and there’s a friendly dog living next door. I’m grateful for that.

The whole children thing goes on and on, doesn’t it? Infancy gives way to childhood and then stormy adolescence finally mellows into kidulthood. They might grow up but they don’t move out and parenting is never done.

Although I have little time for the whole Millennial bashing thing, it is certainly true that the old rules about being an adult have changed. There’s even a new term for it — adulting.

 Adulting represents appearing adult while retaining the wide-eyed naiveté and barely suppressed panic of a child doing a grown-up’s job. The kidult is neither fish nor fowl. The law says she is grown, but she knows she is an impostor, playing games and shuffling in her mother’s too-large shoes. She also knows she may never acquire all the accepted trappings of adulthood. The deck is stacked against her and the house always wins.

Me, an adult? In this economy?

In 1978 a US student could work one minimum wage job and graduate college debt free. A 3 bedroom, 1.5 bath ranch home in Ohio cost $24,500. Average house price was $54,800.

In 1978 a UK student could get a means-tested government grant to live on while attending university without fees, work in the summer, and graduate debt free. Average house price was around twice average annual salary. Now the average home outside London costs eight times average salary.

Chained to debt

Young people start life burdened with debt. They are encouraged to get a degree with the promise of a better paying job. Once upon a time not so long ago, that made sense.

On average, UK students graduated in 2017 with £50,000 of debt, more if they were from poorer backgrounds or had longer courses and took larger loans. Interest rolls up from day one of the course, at rates up to 6.1% at a time when base rate is just 0.75% and mortgages can cost 1.5%. Student debt is being packaged for sale to investors, which can only mean ever higher charges.

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 12.39.19

 

In the US, the average student loan debt for 2018 is $32,371 (source). Unlike the UK, debt is not forgiven after 30 years (subject to earning less than £21,000, a figure which has been frozen since 2012).

Just get a job – ?

All the jobs I did to support myself at university have disappeared. Clerical jobs and factory jobs alike are now done by machines. My son has worked at events where adults with index linked pensions and big houses treat the wait staff like servants. It’s not enough to repay his overdraft.

And only a small proportion of graduates will earn big salaries. Most will start at around £20,000 and expect to see little growth, in line with pay generally.

 Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 12.43.07

I try to encourage him to save, but it seems pointless to him. How long will he have to save for a deposit to buy a house? Eight years, saving 15% of salary. Ten years if he wants to live in London.

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 12.44.59

He might as well blow his salary (assuming he can get a decent job) on cars and holidays and whatever fun he can get. He knows he’ll have to work into his seventies and there’s no guaranteed pension pot at the end of the rainbow.

In my day…

Children are still taught to get educated, get a job, get a house, get married, have children. These are the aspirations of previous generations, but the world has changed. New adults are encouraged to mortgage their futures before they have one. Opportunities to build the assets now held by older generations are out of reach for many.

Is it any wonder that young people look at the disparity between the future they were promised in school and the reality, and find the older generation’s attitude wanting? They are not lazy or entitled. But they feel cheated.

Thank goodness for the dog

My son starts a paid internship this week. For once he will have a little money in his pocket and know some of the freedom that I remember, in exchange for his time and labour of course. There are so many years of toil and responsibility ahead, and I don’t expect him to follow my path in a world that’s so different.

A friendly two year old labrador lives next door to his shared house. She will help him miss our dog less, and to forget that the world has its hand in his wallet, even before there’s anything to take.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How young do you want to be today?

play is serious business

swing-child-blue_elton800
elton800 via pixabay

They say age is just a number.

You’re only as old as you feel. I don’t know about you, but on any given day that number ranges from 25 to 100. There’s an unfortunate skew towards the top end of that range.

My daughter went to a festival recently with her friend. She returned home tired, dusty, and hoarse from singing along. As she said, when your favourite singer tells you to scream, you scream.

Festivals were never my thing. But last month I went to a concert, stood in 42*C heat at the barricade alongside fans less than half my age, and sang along till I was hoarse. Yes, I could have been seated rather than in the pit, but where’s the fun in that?

In an experiment, viral video brand CUT drew a hopscotch board on the street in downtown Seattle and set up hidden cameras nearby. In ten hours, 129 people hopped, skipped and jumped down the sidewalk, while 1058 walked on. That’s just under 11% of adults who (a) took a moment to connect with their inner child and (b) took another moment to silence their inner critic and have some fun. In public.

Watch the video here. It can’t fail to make you smile.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw

Play is a serious business

We take ourselves so seriously as the years roll on. Childlike curiosity and creativity is squashed in favour of sitting still, paying attention and not messing about. We watch depressing news programmes and listen to earnest classical music and jazz that you can’t sing along with. We read prize-winning novels and worthy self-improvement. All this is good and important and adult. But it can’t be the entirety of experience.

If you wait outside a school, especially on a day where it rained at break time and children could not go outdoors, you will witness something amazing. After a day of being not-children, kids explode out of the school gates like a fizzy drink that’s been shaken and uncorked. They run, skip, call to each other, smile and laugh for no reason other than the joy of being set free.

We lose that purity of being on the way to growing up.

Grown-ups need play too

Someone (but probably not Einstein) said creativity is intelligence having fun.
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that intelligence is more than a simple IQ score. He proposed nine types of intelligence.

image by Adioma

 

It follows then, that we all find our creativity and fun in different things. I’m good with numbers but sudoku bores me rigid. It feels too much like work. Crosswords and music are much more appealing to me. Your mileage may vary, but the theory helps us understand what we enjoy and are good at – not always the same thing.

Find your fun

The thing is to find your fun, and engage in it without censoring yourself. Allow yourself to play, to be an amateur, to fail. Without these, none of us would learn to walk, to talk, to do anything well. The reward is in the doing, not the result.

Don’t worry that the person next to you is only twenty, or whether you ought to be doing it at your age. That kind of ossified thinking is a sure route to being old, whatever your number.

The serious adult world will always be there. After a good play session you can return to it energised, with a skip in your step and a smile on your face.

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.
Michael Jordan

 

blog, writing process

Choosing the best

vegetable market_raggio5
raggio5 via pixabay

 

How do you choose a picture for a blog post?

We live in an age of abundance. We expect a wide range of choices in all areas of our lives, whether choosing a tomato or a house or a college course. But who has not stood in front of a supermarket shelf, tired and hungry, overwhelmed by the range of choices presented?

The ability to choose is finite, no matter the size of the choice. Following the example of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, we can cut down the number to make each day by wearing the same clothes, for example. This leaves more brainpower to spend on the hustle that is your real focus.

More is not always better

Researchers have shown that too many choices can lead to less satisfaction. They divided people into maximizers – who need to investigate all possible choices, or as many as possible
and satisficers – who make a choice that best fits their needs, then stop looking.

These two styles are incompatible when shopping. The maximizer always wants to try one more store because the perfect item is out there. The satisficer has a definite idea in mind, but will buy an item that comes close to their ideal. Perhaps you can recall a shopping trip where you are one type and your companion is the other. It can be a miserable experience.

Maximizers also tend to rely on external sources of validation. Their car meets their needs but it must also be validated by a car comparison website. In an age of internet searches and five star ratings, it has never been easier to search endlessly for the perfect deal.

Come off the fence

Finding a suitable photo for a blog post is vital. The choice on sites such as Pixabay and Unsplash is truly mind-boggling. But time is short.

The trick is to set parameters for your search, especially if you tend to be a maximizer.

  • search key words such as couple or beach
  • consider narrowing the colour choices
  • decide on a number of pages to search; these do not have to be sequential
  • go with your gut feeling; the right image may be on page one
  • have a time limit

The filters above applied to Pixabay results in 379 images spread over four pages. Searching more sites simply takes time that is better spent writing.

Not set in stone

Learning to choose effectively is a key time management skill. For writers that might be a name, a picture, or a title. In fact most of these choices are not final, yet they can derail a writing session. Pick something and move on. Don’t let maximizing hide your procrastination. Remember done is better than perfect.

 

 

blog

All by myself

the joy of travelling alone

JESHOOTScom woman in airport via pixabay
JESHOOTScom via pixabay

My very first trip abroad was to the United Arab Emirates, back when the glitziness of modern Dubai was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye. I was a solo traveller and everything about my journey was new and exciting.

Fast forward several years. Travel had to be planned with military precision, necessary to ensure the safety and comfort of two children plus myself and spouse. Other people needed things and I provided them, whether an acceptable snack or a favourite toy. My needs sat at the bottom of the list.

As the kids grew, I took them further afield; America, Morocco, Mexico, Australia. There were places I wanted to see, and people tend to disapprove of leaving your kids home alone. So I brought them along, visited zoos and aquaria and water parks, and compromised on the cultural bit I enjoyed because kids get bored. Bored kids are a particular nightmare abroad, cooped up in a single hotel room.

Going solo seemed an impossible dream in a future too far away. But the future has a habit of appearing suddenly, here in the present.

My recent trip to the US was my first solo longhaul journey in a long time. Despite the irksome immigration formalities I wrote about here, I was excited to go. When you become a mother, you lose yourself as an individual. All is submerged in the identity of family.

No matter how you fight against it, the world sees you as mother first and last. Western society is hardly child-friendly, and you are responsible for making sure that nobody suffers just because you have offspring.

Can’t you stop that baby crying?
Please control your child, his running around like that is annoying me.
You shouldn’t feed them that.
Video games all the time, no good for developing brains. What’s wrong with books?
In my day…

I did my time, got the T shirt, and now I can sympathise while parents struggle to deal with children who are just being children. Yes, babies cry on take-off. They aren’t able to knock back a couple drinks or a Xanax to take the edge off like you did. Yes, the parent would stop them if they could. I won’t add to the disapproving glances that only multiply the stress of family travel.

Managing your children plus the expectations of everyone around you is exhausting. But staying home for eighteen years was not an option. As a bonus, my (grown) children are well travelled and able to cope with the inevitable hiccups of delays and missed connections. They are equipped for their own adventures.

All by myself

Now I can wander round shops if I want, read a whole novel, go to the restroom alone. At my destination, I can stay up and write during a jetlagged night, visit museums and gardens and art galleries. I can take off on a whim in an Uber without deferring to the majority vote. I never have to visit another water park.

It’s a process, seeing my freedom to decide as pleasing myself rather than being selfish. But it was so liberating that I’m already planning my next solo trip.

There is much joy in visiting Roman ruins with someone who really wants to see them; me, myself and I.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Coming to America

when security makes you feel insecure

airport_Skitterphoto
Skitterphoto via pixabay

I’m travelling to the US, for the first time in over a decade. And travelling there alone, for the first time in much longer. The America we see now from news and tweets is a confusing and worrying place. While I know rationally that things will be fine, that the friends and family I will see are good people, that most people are good people, I cannot help but feel a prickle of anxiety. I also know that bad things happen even when you follow the rules.

Enhanced security at airports is annoying but routine now. We know the drill; liquids, laptop, shoes, belts. Everything is organised and moves efficiently. It’s hard to remember when it was any different.

I travelled back from the US with my family a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Security was a ramped up, disorganised mess of extra screening for suitcases and lines that were hours long. We arrived in good time but still had to be pulled from the line because our flight to London was about to close. Two hours standing with increasingly fractious young children, and increasingly anxious passengers all around. Uncertainty hung thick in the air like smoke. Fear settled in the pit of my stomach and took root there. But we got home safe.

The next year, we took a short internal flight from San Diego to LA, for a connecting flight. The timing was tight. My husband, travelling on an Irish passport, was singled out for a random check. The first time, it was a surprise. I went through security with my children without a hitch.

He was asked to step to the side, remove his belt and shoes, go through the scanner again. He was frisked. His carry-on was searched thoroughly. When I lingered I was told brusquely to get on the plane, ma’am. Time was ticking away, the little plane was waiting. I got on and held my children close. I assured them that Daddy would be right there, and the plane would wait for him, and it would be fine. My voice shook and I smiled a lie to soothe my anxious daughter. I willed them to release him and I didn’t know if they would, or what I would do if they closed the doors.

For the first time, I was afraid.

He made it with minutes to spare. We were both shaken, but we got used to it when it happened again, and again. Repetition does that. The thing we fear loses its sting with repeated exposure, until it’s mere annoyance and then finally, we become indifferent.

This time, security checks go smoothly. I empty the water bottle in my carry-on. I have my ESTA. I expect biometrics and customs forms. I have my destination address memorised. I exhale and try not to sweat despite the heat and the fact it’s three a.m. London time and I’ve been awake twenty hours straight and I’m a bit low on blood sugar and I have done nothing wrong.

Rationally, I know everything is fine. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m suspect, not really welcome anymore.