Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Food in Bowls

Some parents hold their children's good grades as a priority above all others, while others just want their kids to have loads of friends. For some Mums and Dads, good parenting is about reading lots of books, or encouraging a love of football or music. Above anything else, my parents were super keen on good table manners: I was encouraged in maths, taken to music concerts, did endless after-school activities and had lots of fun playing with cousins and neighbours, but, to them, none of that mattered if you couldn't be polite at the dinner table.

Etiquette has continued to interest me since leaving home. I worked at Bettys tea rooms in York during my first two years at University, and took great pride in my duties as a Manager's Assistant, handing out bread rolls, dabbling in silver service, trying my best (though not always succeeding) not to drop tomato chutney in customers' laps. Then there was France, with the wonders of the cheese course and the culture of aperitifs and social nibbling. I sat amongst teachers in the school canteen sipping red wine before 2pm, enjoying a starter, mains and  dessert as part of the two-hour lunch break in the middle of the day, designed specifically for the purpose of eating, talking and drinking, all for pleasure. In France I learned about the daintiness of artichoke tips, homemade mayonnaise, and the importance of napkins. I gulped it up, lived and breathed this celebration of etiquette, and tried my best to bring some of it back to the UK with me when I returned.

My standards of social worth are built around the attribute of gastronomical good behaviour: it doesn't matter how intelligent, kind, funny or interesting you are, if you can't behave reasonably while eating, well, then I don't want to eat with you. That's that. There is nothing more likely to repulse me than sitting near someone who is talking with a mouth full of food, holding their fork like a shovel or slouching over their plate as if they can't bear to be there. And there is nothing more insulting than to serve a meal to a guest to have them push it around their plate, dip it in some sort of bottled condiment, or leave their knife and fork askew over the plate upon finishing.

So far there has been only one caveat to this standard implanted in me since birth. While reporting back to my Mum about my first date with Daniel, imagine her horror when I summarised the evening with the phrase "well I must have liked him; he had the most awful table manners and it didn't even bother me!". Luckily, with patience and stern criticism, most of the problems I noted that evening have now been fixed.

And I don't believe that good manners should be limited to mealtimes with guests, restaurants, or family dinners. Even when I lived on my own I took pride in my dinner table etiquette, always using a knife and fork (and never a spoon, unless the food in question is soup), setting them to ten-past-two at the end of every meal, eating from a plate/pasta bowl/soup bowl as appropriate, never eating in my pyjamas, and never ever ever eating in front of the TV (not having a TV helped this cause, I must say). But then I reached the depths of my MA, and things began to slip. I wanted comfort food, I wanted my pyjamas, I wanted quick and easy meals that could be concocted out of only store cupboard ingredients. And so I created 'rice bowl' (more commonly known as pilaf): a sticky, squidgy, tasty heap of rice and canned/frozen vegetables, best served in a bowl with only a fork on hand, and enjoyed in the comfort of your favourite pyjamas.

I would look forward to rice bowl every week, for its ease, for its sheer quantity of goodness, and for the debauched manner in which I would allow myself to eat it. I even named the dish after its slovenly characteristics, such was the pleasure of this fact. Rice bowl has made its way into our current lifestyle, albeit a rare treat when we need a cheap and easy meal. We always eat it in bowls, never using a knife, and always in pyjamas. Until recently it was a one-off meal in our repertoire, a bit like homemade pizza in the way that our eyes would twinkle suggestively whenever one of us would propose eating it that week. But then I bought a slowcooker. Everything has unravelled alarmingly quickly: now everything is in bowls, a sludgy heap of chopped leftover vegetables mixed with spices and a tin of pulses. We slurp the stewy goodness up like fiends, swapping the lone fork for a spoon halfway through the meal so that the juice isn't left to the end as an afterthought. Our evening meals are getting later and later, increasingly often we eat in pyjamas, ladling out the random concoctions with sheer greed (yesterday I had three full bowls of broccoli and potato slop, I just couldn't hold back).

I can feel myself coming undone, forgetting everything I ever knew as I give way - part in pleasure, part in time-saving necessity - to this new device in my kitchen. Cooking is no longer cooking, but more like bleary-eyed chopping in the early morning and throwing it all haplessly into the black pot of wonder. I am giving way to the lure of convenience, and my love for all things etiquette is sliding swiftly down with it. Watch this space: my University Challenge scores might well be hampered as I manoeuvre myself off the couch to get some ketchup, or as I wipe my chin on the sleeve of my dressing gown.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Marathon Training: Week 1

After my first ever marathon experience at Windermere last May I knew it was likely that I'd be signing up again this year (though I do have a hazy memory of swearing to myself that I'd never put myself through it again at around mile 20...oh well), so just before Christmas I joined the Vegetarian Cycling and AC and took advantage of the earlybird entries offer for the marathon - bargain! The marathon is put on by the Brathay Trust, and starts and finishes in the grounds of the wonderful Brathay Hall by Lake Windermere in the Lake District; in my view there is no better place on Earth to experience the utter agony and self-doubt of the marathon runner. Everything was in place for a steady trek upwards to the necessary fitness levels, until I was advised by my doctor just after Christmas to take six weeks' rest from my running schedule, with a rather tortuous prescription of no more than 10 miles a week. That's a third of the running fun I normally aim for!

But finally, after 6 weeks of drastically reduced running, I've started training for the big race on May 19th, and have set a 13-week schedule to get me around the 26.2 mile course as comfortably as possible. I'm not too fussed about improving on last year's time (though sub 4:30 would be a nice-to-have) but I really want a more comfortable experience this time - I want to feel a bit less broken at mile 24 if nothing else!

Surprisingly, I've had absolutely no problem getting back into the swing of things, helped in part by an ache that has grown steadily since early January with every passing runner I see. Last Sunday I was eager to get back out there, and though I felt heavy and tired it was more heavenly than I even remember it being. I've missed running, and my enthusiasm in the first week of marathon training couldn't have been higher!

I've made a few changes to my schedule from last year, and am giving myself one extra day off in the week where I'm taking a resistance class in the gym instead (regular squats and lunges have improved my PB almost effortlessly - I'm all up for more of the same). To make up the miles I'm trying a new approach, as suggested by my super speedy colleagues at Up & Running, whereby I do a speed session in the morning and then a more gentle run in the evening, thus increasing distance while also allowing me to have a bit more rest - perfect!

My total mileage for this week was supposed to be 33 miles, but came in at 38 thanks to a spontaneous running date with Daniel on Friday evening. I did two resistance classes (one of which involved a 'team game' (ha!) to see who could hold the plank the longest. I WON out of all the 12 women there!), one interval session and one hill session. My long run on Sunday was a nice muddy affair, taking in York's surrounding countryside which seemed to be empty of all humankind: I love feeling like the only person on the Earth when I'm out on a running adventure. It was only a 9-miler to ease me back into distance running, but I felt it big time, probably due in part to the drinking I'd been doing the night before - fun but not clever.

One week in and I'm loving it, and I can't wait for my 15-miler tomorrow morning though I'm sure it will be tough after such a long break. The last 15-miler I did was on 27th December with my Dad, and it was freezing and quite unpleasant in those last few miles. I have no doubt that tomorrow will be similar. One thing I'd forgotten from last year is what hungry work running is: a few hours after breakfast and I feel as if I've started to digest my brain, my blood feels starved of sugar from my eyeballs to my toenails, and I raid the kitchen like a madwoman trying to find something - anything - that will satisfy my cravings. So I've filled this week's virtual shopping trolley with yogurt, milk, granola, malt loaf and bags and bags of fruit to try and combat these sudden hunger breakdowns with a healthy feast rather than a sugar-packed bowl of kid's cereals. I'd prefer it if crashing and burning weren't par for the course, but at the same time I have a rather lovely white dress to wear in September, and the last thing I want to be doing is dieting before the big day. As my friend and running partner Jess observed on our Tuesday run, rather than running to eat, why not eat to run?!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Finding That Space

I mentioned in my last post that I experimented with working from home last week. This was an attempt to see how I would manage my time without the restriction of a set routine, and now I'm surprised to find myself struggling to face my old routine again. It's already Thursday and I've been sitting at this same desk in my study upstairs all week, writing and reading and drinking as much tea as I could care for. It's been a little better than I had expected...

Postgraduates in the humanities at York are lucky enough to have the wondrous Berrick Saul Building as a study space, which houses the Humanities Research Centre and a buzzing community of like-minded, tea-and-cake-fuelled individuals all enduring and revelling in the accepted highs and lows of postgraduate research. Since October I have mostly been working at my desk on the first floor of this glorious building, getting in between 8 and 9am each morning, stopping for lunch with the other linguists at 12:30, and leaving between 4 and 6pm each evening. The routine of the situation is all well and good, but I found myself bound by it, frustrated by my inability to focus after 3pm and leaving too early without having done much because of this lack of focus: somehow it wasn't working for me, so I had a test-drive of a routine-free week of working from home.

Well, it was glorious. I mentioned in my last post that I'd start work at 6am: this is when I'm at my peak, pre-breakfast, pre-dressed, pre-caffeinated. I sat in my dressing gown with my hot lemon (part of my pre-wedding beauty regime) and wrote, passing an hour of pure, uncomplicated writing without looking up from the computer screen. The words would just fall right out of my head and onto the page, not constipated by any thought or pressure. I'd break for breakfast, then come back up to my study with a second cup of tea and check my emails. Once my brain had been exhausted for the morning I'd take a brisk walk (to make up for the lack of movement since I wasn't walking to campus) and then have lunch, before getting back to my desk for some more work. My afternoon slump was completely avoided with a run or some housework, and then back to the desk again for some final work before the end of the day.

I realised in that week that this is how I do it to my best ability: distraction isn't my issue, but energy is, and once my intellectual energies run dry I am culpable of browsing Twitter and Facebook for 'inspiration' (aren't we all?). As with everything, working to strengths and acknowledging weaknesses is key, and for me that involves taking advantage of the fact that I'm living that dream schedule of no 9-5, no set workplace, no boss watching over what I do.

But there are, of course, some downsides. Somehow I feel guilty, like working in my own space (which we painted ready for such purposes) is a bit of a taboo, especially when there's a lovely space to work on campus. And there's the characterisation of the lone doctoral student, plugging away at a desk piled high with books and papers, ears ringing from the silence, social skills curdling gently next to the mug of cold tea. And I miss the linguist lunches, the company of people who in such a short space of time have become friends; it's so easy to miss out on things when you don't fill a space in people's days. I have misanthropic tendencies and I'm aware that I could be accused of harbouring these more fiercely when I work from home, but a class at the gym or a guest lecture on campus soon reminds me that other people do exist, and actually they're good to have around.

My brainstorming blackboard
So I don't know whether I'll keep this up or not, whether I'll succumb to the misplaced guilt and start making packed lunches (oh my I hate making packed lunches) every day and towing myself off to campus as early as I can bare each morning. Or whether this will become my routine, the silence in my ears and the extra caffeine hits maybe providing the boost that I need to get me through the next 30 months. All I know is that when I imagine the 'grown up' me, whoever she is, she's working hard in her study upstairs, surrounded by empty mugs and piles of books, sheets of paper strewn over the floor. Apart from the laundry that is drying on the rack behind me, this scene right here is eerily similar, and I'm thinking that maybe this is the only chance I have to be that woman upstairs, scribbling away frantically as the day gets dark outside, then stumbling down to the kitchen in a wordy haze, ears ringing from silence, finally ready to shut down for the day.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

A Free Man in Stockholm

Last week made a welcome change, with a resounding positivity as the backdrop to each day, and a productivity that absorbed me completely. I worked from home, starting before 7am every morning and looking up a minute later to find it was past lunch time. I'm finally finding a routine and a method of working that suits me, which is helping me to get really 'stuck in', finally. I wrote a methodology, developed a complicated calculation system for making phonological comparisons, submitted an abstract to the WILD conference (fingers crossed!), submitted a paper to a journal (toes crossed!) and did plenty of reading. So I was in a rather intense state of euphoria by Thursday evening, and about to close down my computer ready to teach some piano before celebrating our anniversary when my phone whistled out as a new email came into my inbox. I checked back to my account to find that an application I'd rushed through just before everyone closed for Christmas had been accepted: I had received a generous grant to study as a visiting student at the University of Stockholm in April!

I wasn't expecting to hear back for another couple of weeks, and had put the idea of going to the back of my mind; as much as I've been wanting to study abroad during my PhD (I spent a semester in Germany during my BA and loved it), the idea of being away from home at this intense period of my life became a bit too much for me to negotiate mentally! I spent a week in Stockholm in November, and fell instantly in love with the city. The people, the food, the thick coffee, the woodlands and colourful architecture: it's a wonderland of a place, and while I was there I could think only of finding a way to live there one day.

So now my wish has come true. My plane tickets are booked and I'll be flying out just before Easter until the end of April. I'll be carrying out an experiment in the fantastic Linguistics department at the University, learning on the job with some of the PhD students there who really know their stuff. This also means that I'll be doing almost all of my marathon training in Stockholm, and with an expected weekly mileage of around 45-60 miles there's no doubt that I'll get to know the city very well over the course of the month!

I'm looking forward most of all to being removed completely from any routine, and being able to temporarily construct a life that doesn't need to pay any attention to how I do things here and now. Outside the time I spend working on my experiment I plan to explore the city in my running shoes, catch up on years of lost sleep, and get the writing done that I never seem to have time for in my current existence. For one month only I get to be completely solitary, and the suppressed loner within is dancing with joy. Some things work better when you're anonymous in a big city: Joni Mitchell was a free man in Paris, after all, and as a free man in Stockholm I hope to catch up with myself ready for all the amazing things that await me when I return to York.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


I think this is the first photo of us together. Drunk at a wedding, June 2009.

Four years ago today: flapjack, red wine and the most awkward first kiss. A good friend advised me not to be put off by a bad first kiss, and what relief that I listened to her advice. Four years on and we've bought our wedding rings, booked our honeymoon, started thinking about our vows. My last Valentine's Day as a single woman, our last anniversary as a fanciful young couple. There's never been any doubt about a future spent together but now it's completely real and more exciting than I thought it could be. The promise of lifelong friendship, the hope of endless romance, the security of being part of something bigger than I am.

We're spending our four year anniversary tucked away at home, with sticky toffee pudding and maybe even this BBC Four documentary. Life being as it is at the moment, with the rushing and the planning and preparing, there is nothing I want more than to curl up in my pyjamas with my husband-to-be and a bowl of pudding. To me that is home at its finest.

Monday, 11 February 2013


It's been a long time coming, but finally I have re-branded this blog of mine to something which at least resembles who I am now, as oppose to who I was six years ago. I even went all professional and put a page up about 'my work', not least because I hope that having it up there for real people to click on might prompt me to fill it out a little. Things are in progress: watch this space!

I feel sad to let Jumbleberry Orchard fall into the empty void of discarded webspace, but it had to happen. At least now I can promote my musings without feeling slightly awkward about my blog title: Jumbleberry Orchard was decided in one quick minute after assembling two lovely food-related words together into some euphoric fusion of meaninglessness. Meaningless is not how I want to appear to the world.

So 'Words For Sale.' it is, decided today during a lunchtime stroll along the riverside. It sounds appropriate, it meets my aims, it doesn't dissolve on the tongue like a sherbet lemon. It won't only be about words, mind. I love to do plenty of other things, not just word-related, and my love for all things food and fresh air will hopefully stay constant in the bloggy themes that I throw around. I do have two marathons on the cards this year, after all, as well as the most awesome wedding that will ever happen (mine).

Words, nevertheless, is the central theme of my life as it stands. I'm finding myself less inclined to do the things I should probably be doing (training for above-mentioned marathons and getting dressed being two of these things) because I'm just too absorbed with wordcraft. This is pretty much the best thing ever, it has to be said.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Quotative Be Like.

"Quotative be like": one of my favourite sociolinguistic phenomena, whereby we talk about, like, something that was, like, awesome that happened to us, like, five times yesterday. This post isn't about this, indeed it isn't about linguistics at all, but I couldn't resist the rather tenuous reference between the subject of this blog post and what is, like, a really quite observant description of modern speech. I digress.

And to digress just a little further, the observance of research never fails to amaze me. How we can find new things to study even though they're not new at all. Observance is surely one of the prerequisites to creativity? It's certainly one of the reasons I like to write. Observance in action. (Is observance even a word*? It is now**.)

Today has been one of the utmost incredible days where I am blessed with a feeling that leaves me like a bee in an envelope, and turns up around once every three weeks or so. It's that feeling of being able to do anything I want, be everything I want while also just being plain old me. The feeling tends to appear out of nowhere, on days when I am completely on my own and stuck in my own head, drinking coffee (because on normal days I don't drink coffee) and then forgetting to have my lunch because no one is around to prompt me. These days are my favourite, but if they were to come about more often than they do I'd probably struggle to cope with their intensity, and it would certainly compromise all forms of friendship that I have managed to gather together in the past few months.

Because currently, in every sphere but possibly most sharply in academia (and in publishing and probably other jobs with lots of eager young beavers fresh out of university) there is a pressure, or even a necessity, to be incredible. I always see it as hurdling over friends to take the opportunities, to be the everything that you just have to be to get the secure job and the balanced lifestyle. Middle-ground isn't enough; no one is enough, and you have to do everything and be everyone - all at once - if you want a chance of getting where you want to be.

I feel it, I'm sure we all do: someone else is doing something better than I am, someone else has written more, is doing more, has more experience in PowerPoint than I do. It's so easy to fall into that way of thinking, and it's potent in the corridors of the study areas on campus, where notice boards are spilling out with opportunities and keen young folk are signing up to everything with that dreaded CV at the forefront of their minds. One after the other we check the boxes, just to ensure that we'll have something to say when we are finally summoned to our fate.

Now one of my ultimate pet hates is naval gazing, I can't stand the term itself, but the actual process of deciding how we are as if we're one static entity that exists in the world but not with it, well it just doesn't work for me. We're chaotic, existing in a chaotic world: this time last year I did yoga nearly every day, now I thrive on not having a moment to be still, the adrenaline is pushing me through and keeping me going. If I didn't allow myself to change and shape myself around the changes that will inevitably happen in my life then I simply wouldn't cope; surely determining who we are in that strange, introspective and highly limiting way is just halting our progress and our ability to cope with life? But naval gazing in its least grimy sense probably does have a role, I think. I'm certain that, in order to succeed in this competitive and highly-structured existence you have to have some self-awareness, otherwise there's a danger of going through the motions, ticking off the boxes and sleeping with your arms wrapped lovingly around your CV, secure in the knowledge that one day soon your time will come.

Thinking about who I am as a researcher, as an (dare I use the word?) academic, really helps me to cope with the fact that I'm actually not that much of an all-rounder. Thinking about what I want to achieve and where I'm going, regardless of anyone else, sets the blinkers in place and lets me focus on exactly what I want to focus on. I recommend it to anyone, because I'm sure that we're all guilty of putting ourselves down at the hands of others' achievements, possibly if not probably on a regular basis.

This PhD is helping me learn some really interesting things about myself. At the risk of doing some naval gazing of my own, I see now that my strength doesn't lie in spoken communication, that I like time to reflect on ideas before making any comment. I see that I'm not very organised, that I work well with numbers and I love logic and puzzles more than I realised. I always knew that my enthusiasm was a real strength, but I see how it could also be a weakness and I have to make sure that I don't appear flippant or slightly ridiculous (I'd rather be ridiculous than flippant, it has to be said). I'm celebrating the fact that I can't label myself as a perfectionist, and my ability to let my mind loose over ideas and thoughts is how I create; the havoc that comes with it is wonderful, and tidying up afterwards helps me get back to a more methodological state of mind. Akin to putting twisted, messy bed sheets back into place after a glorious Sunday morning lie in (read into that what you will).

Like anything, it's taking some time to ease into all of this, and my feet are not often solidly on the ground - my last blog post just shows how up and down everything is. So I realise that I need to work out how I am (not who I am), stop worrying about those boxes that I so loathe and the world that comes with them. I don't feel so much on a ladder or even a path as just being me and doing what is right for me. When I look back to this time last year, when I couldn't have been further from myself if I'd had wings or flippers, it is really quite excellent to say that. Life has turned around and I'm even making something of the pieces that came off during the storm (more on that soon, maybe). And I got to find out for myself that miracles don't exist: you can actually make stuff happen if you try hard enough.

* Yes it is, but not [usually] with the meaning I intend here.
**Another thing I love about language: its limits. 'Observation' just doesn't fit what I want to convey in this context.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

"No one talks about frustration"

It's true. No one told me that I'd be sitting here, frustrated with myself and the reading and waiting for it to really start. They told me I'd have ups and downs, they talked about the 'journey' that I was embarking on, they told me it'd demoralise me more than it'd elate me, that it'd ooze in to every part of my being and eventually break me. And, you know, I'm ready for all that, I was ready when I started my PhD back in October.

I'm ok with being demoralised if it means an occasional on-top-of-the-worldness thanks to my very own hard work. My life is already ups and downs, with pretty much no middle ground, and so it seems me and a PhD are the perfect match on that level. And I want it to ooze; I want to lie awake at night thanks to sheer excitement about my work, I want ideas to take me over and pull me out of bed to write notes or find one last piece of evidence. I want to wake up too early on a weekend and write like crazy because my chilled out mind can finally let some thinking in. I want to be broken, even, because I like to be broken both at work and at play, and I like basking in my own brokenness wearing compression socks and holding a mug of sweet tea and wondering why on earth I like it so much.

But in order to get there I am working out for myself that there is a long tightrope of working out what to do and where to start and who to talk to. Finding answers might not be easy, but finding questions is probably even harder, and if there's one unspoken rule about all of this it's that those questions have to come from within. I'm looking in-between every word I read, scouring names and people and watching lectures, in awe of those who are just like what I want to be, hoping that it won't be long before I can stop pretending. I want my head and heart to be full, utterly absorbed in the task at hand. But until there is a task I have to settle with a half-distracted stream of thoughts, half reading the words on the page, quarter wondering how this might be relevant, quarter wishing that I were done with the reading, searching and analysing, and onto the sleeplessness and disorientation of complete absorption.

When I think of a PhD I think of stacks of books (check), empty plates and stained mugs and a desk scattered with crumbs (check), the sound of frantic typing from upstairs (check) and endless self-absorbed conversations about one subject, one idea, one obsession (check).

So maybe this is one of the downs that I mentioned above; is this really the dream I was so obsessed with for so long?