Category Archives: Attitude

Knitting reduces stress…and don’t call me a goddess

Two links for you today. On the front page of CNN, an article that will surprise no one who knits, or does any kind craft work: Crafting can help those who suffer from anxiety, depression or chronic pain, experts say. My own non-scientific self-study shows this is true. Had I not picked up my knitting needles at the end of 2010, I’m not sure I could have gotten through 2011 without turning to scotch. Sometimes I joke with friends who ask why I knit so much, “Knitting saved my life,” but the truth is, it kind of did. 🙂

Then a spot-on blog post I stumbled upon yesterday, written by blogger and author Kim Werker, former editor of Interweave Crochet, where she says and I quote: “My pet peeve is this: woo-woo rhetoric in the context of business advice for women. It seems like everywhere I look, someone is selling an ebook, course or seminar on some or another topic that involves the words goddesssoulfulness, or spirituality. Or some variation or combination of words like that.” It was one of those posts I wish I’d written because the mashup of business education and feminized woo-woo claptrap annoys the stuffing out of me. Full disclosure: I teach a class for freelance writers of either gender designed to help them develop ideas for magazine articles, but they find no talk about spirituality, inner goddesses, or discovering their souls although I do urge students to write about topics that speak to their interests. Practical advice, not potions!

The snowstorm we were supposed to get fizzled into nothing, which is fine with me … no complaints. It is, however, quite windy and cold. I’ve been standing in the kitchen window with my hot cups of coffee, watching the birds feed outside our garage. O and I are getting better at bird identification. So far, we’ve spotted male and female cardinals, tufted titmouses (titmice?), hairy woodpeckers, female blue jays, juncos, and chickadees. Oh yes, and a very naughty squirrel who climbs down our garage roof and onto the birdfeeder, draping himself over it like a blanket to nibble the black oil sunflower seeds upside down. It’s so funny to watch that it’s hard to get mad at him. Next time I see him out there, I’ll get a picture or video through our kitchen window.

How is your week going?

Book Review and Giveaway! Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor

ETA: I’ll be closing the comments section on this post at 5 p.m. ET on January 13

Here stateside many of us are eagerly counting the hours to the premiere of Downton Abbey’s second season on PBS (Sunday at 9 p.m; check your local station to confirm). The word from the UK is that this season is a bit of a dud, but I’ll still be watching simply because I love the cast of characters and am willing to give the anachronisms a pass.

Anyway, earlier this week I was contacted by Penguin Books to see if there was any interest in an autobiography they were reprinting called Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor. Written by Rosina Harrison, Lady Astor’s lady-maid of decades, it details what it was like to work “in service” during a bygone era of British aristocracy.* Since Rose grew up in the village of Ripon, which figures in Downton Abbey, Penguin wondered if I would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book. But of course!

Last night I crawled into bed early with my book, intending to skim a few pages, but I ended up reading a full three chapters. This simply written story starts by detailing Rose’s upbringing in a loving working-class family and how she knew from an early age her career would be working in service for her social superiors.

I was drawn in by the descriptions of Rose’s childhood and the expectations her parents — nay society — had for her. Children worked and worked hard at the turn of the 20th century. Almost as soon as Rose could walk, she was helping her mother with the backbreaking work of washing clothes (her mother, a laundress, took in the neighborhood aristocrats’ laundry). She was also responsible for polishing the stove each week (again, another grueling chore especially when you remember stoves back then ran on wood or coal) and helping her parents take care of their younger children. There’s no hint of complaint in her recollections, although she remarks:

“People have often said to me how lucky I was to be brought up in a village in the beautiful countryside with the freedom of the fields and lanes, the simplicity of life among animals and above all in peace. It sounds lyrical as I write it and perhaps in a way it was, but most people forget and sometimes I do that for the most part life was continual hard work even as a young child.”

She later writes that people often dismiss the struggle and low wages as relics of a different era, but she wrote:

“Things were different. There was no National Insurance, so there was the constant fear of getting ill, of being out of work, of growing old without a family to look after you and being buried in a pauper’s grave. There was no electricity, no sewerage, no running water, no refrigeration; fruit and vegetables came and went with the seasons.”

It’s clear that Rose is a smart girl, which serves her well in service. Her parents scrimp and save so she can be tutored in French and acquire finer sewing skills to become a proper lady’s maid, which will afford her the chance to travel and see the world, something Rose desperately wants to do. As a knitter myself, I giggled at her complaint of having to knit her father’s socks, which seemed to go on forever, round and round, but seemed to get done as she kept him in new socks for years. I got as far as Rose’s first placement, a lady’s maid to two daughters of a wealthy London family. Her experience here gives her insight into her role as a servant to the upper classes. She describes her relationship with one of the daughters:

“We weren’t friends, though if she was asked today she might well deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us any loser [sic]; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at that time. That was the accepted way of things.”

I thought that was a fascinating illustration of how times have changed, especially with those words “miss it at that time.” Today, such chilly separation between employer and employee would be unbearable, don’t you think?

Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor was first published in 1975 and is being re-published by Penguin this month. Along with my copy, Penguin has send another copy for me to give away to a lucky Hail Britannia reader. All you have to do is comment below, making sure you add your e-mail address to the appropriate field — it will not appear on the site! — so I can contact you should you win the book. I’d also love to hear whether you’ll be tuning into Downton Abbey this Sunday — or, if you’ve already seen it, what you thought of the 2nd season. I’ll be picking a winner a random next Friday (lucky Friday the 13th!) and yes, the contest is open to anyone no matter where you live, although if you’re overseas it may take some time for the book to show up. Just can’t wait? Order the book on Amazon.

I am counting the hours until bedtime so I continue reading this treasure of a book. I’m eager to find out more about the relationship between Rose and her witty, yet often tempestuous, mistress.

* An interesting note. Lady Astor, whose birth name was Nancy Langhorne, was a spirited American lass who moved to England in the early 1900s after a disastrous marriage to a fellow American. In England, she met Waldorf Astor, also born in America but resettled in England, and married him, thus becoming Lady Astor. Later, Lady Astor became the first female member of Parliament. Which just goes to show, with enough money, even an American can stand in Parliament.

All hark the Bloggernacle Choir

I’ve always been fascinated with religions. Throughout my family tree there are many missionaries and ministers; my maternal great-grandfather, who from many accounts sounded like a cold-hearted bastard, traveled across the United States at the turn of the 20th century, evangelizing and founding Lutheran churches clear out to Seattle. My father’s great-grandfather, on the other hand, was a much beloved Presbyterian minister in Nova Scotia, whose funeral brought the city to a standstill. My own religious background is a bit muddled. My staunchly Roman Catholic grandmother took it upon herself to have me baptized when I was three months old during a local Mass … without my parents’ knowledge. When I went to her house, she’d drag me off to Mass at churches with names like St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart, and then when I was at my paternal grandparents, we’d go to services at the local Episcopal church: Catholic “lite.” My mother dabbled in religions after her divorce from my father: there was a relapse into Catholicism, a couple months of services with a mainstream Protestant denomination I can’t quite recall, and the strangest of all, a long, long embarrassing affair with a Southern Baptist church with long, overheated Sunday services I loathed.

Remember in the 80s how the religious right was convinced that rock and roll was filled with satanic messages? Well, my mother dragged me, my brother and one of my cousins to a teen revival at this Southern Baptist church where they had a backmasking expert play songs backward from Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Prince, and Pink Floyd and suggest to us there were messages they’d put in there like, “God is dead” or “Jesus wears pink tutus” or “Kill your mother for taking you to this stupid teen revival.” That sort of nonsense. Then after all this, the minister asked all the teens to come up to the altar and vow to give up rock and roll. I may have muttered, “Yeah right” under my breath. Every kid went up there, except for me. I refused to budge from my seat. My mother, embarrassed, kept pushing me, begging me to go, but I held my ground. “Going up there would be hypocritical,” I whispered. “Do you really think I’m going to part with Tattoo You or that David’s never going to listen to Led Zeppelin 4 again? Haa!” So I held my head high and left the church with all the adults glowering at me, and I don’t think I — or my mother — ever went back there.

But I digress. The Church of Latter Day Saints fascinates me, and not just because of Big Love. In fact, polygamy and the church’s history with polygamy is only mildly interesting to me. It’s more the culture of LDS and that anyone I’ve met who’s been a Mormon has been so damn nice. And successful. And if they had kids, the kids were all really nice and successful, too, ALL of them, and well-dressed, never a hair out of place. On top of this? They don’t drink caffeinated drinks or alcohol. I have to admit, that’s what I find most fascinating. How can Mormon moms be so damn efficient and raise such nice kids without at least three cups of coffee before 8 a.m. or a cocktail at 3 p.m.? A life without Earl Grey. The mind boggles.

My interest in all-things-LDS has extended into my blog reading. Until today, I’ve been a little embarrassed by my predilection for Mormon mom blogs. I get a little thrill every time Katy at No Big Dill posts a new tutorial for making girls’ clothing (she has five daughters. Me? Zero daughters. What the heck?) Then there’s Stephanie Nielson at the Nie Nie Dialogues. I was reading her blog before she was seriously injured in a plane crash and thrust onto the national stage by Oprah. Through these blogs and other Mormon blogs, I’ve discovered places like Shabby Apple, an online store that sells dresses that you’d never see Britney Spears wearing. That’s a compliment, folks. I like to wear clothes that keep my apples covered.

But today? Today I read this article, which appeared in Salon back in January, that informed me I’m not the only one who’s harking to the Bloggernacle Choir. Mormon mom blogs are hot reading among secular feminists and mothers. I forwarded the link to one of my editors, who also shares my interest in all things LDS, and she said it was refreshing to read about the positive when so many blogs are filled with snark and angst. I have to agree. I love how these blogs celebrate parenthood and crafts and loving your spouse and being happy with what you have and that they’re not embarrassed to share their enthusiasm with the world.

They kind of make Mormonism … cool. What do you think? Are you a secret reader of Mormon mom blogs too?

How old are you?

Last week my son and I were making the rounds of our new neighborhood. After yet another introduction, O growled as we walked away, “How come it’s okay for adults to ask me how old I am, but it’s rude if I ask how old they are?”

Good observation, my boy!

Part of the reason, I explained, is that many adults are often at a loss making conversation with kids. They don’t have young children or they’re not in tune with what’s going on in Kid World, so rather than ask if you’re planning to see Cars II, they fall back on what I call “numbers questions”: “What grade are you in?” “How long have you been out of school?” “How old are you?” Even people who do have children ask this because they’re trying to figure out if their kid is the same age. A more polite way of asking the question would be indirectly, such as, “You look to be the same age as my 10-year-old son.” O agreed this was the more civilized, respectful approach.

Flash forward to two nights ago. O and I were at the cash register at Savers, a chain thrift store. The cashier, who looked to be all of 20 years old, asks me, “Are you 55 or older?” I wasn’t sure I heard her right and said, “Excuse me?” She giggles and says a little more loudly, “Are you 55 or older?” By now there must have been a shocked look on my face because she adds, “I’m sorry … it’s a store policy. I have to ask everyone that question because we give a discount to seniors.”

“You ask that of everyone?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Unless they look like a teenager.”

“So you’ve managed to insult a customer twice in less than 30 seconds,” I responded. “Well done.”

She didn’t know what to make of my comment — perhaps the math in my sentence confused her — and after I paid I lingered at bit at a display to hear how she rang out the people behind me, a couple that definitely didn’t look like fans of Justin Bieber. Nope, they didn’t get asked if they were 55+.

When I got home I sent an e-mail to Savers’ customer service, asking if it was their policy to ask customers for their ages because IMO, it’s a pretty stupid policy. First of all, because it’s Savers, a freaking thrift shop. Customers are already getting a pretty good discount! Second, because no matter what your age — 22, 30, 46, 65, 82 — do you really want to hear that you look like you could be over 55, especially when all you’re trying to do is buy two pairs of boys’ shorts, a paperback book, and a bag of Matchbox cars for a grand total of $11? I just want to pay and get out of there, not have to answer questions about my age or whatever — it’s none of their freaking business. And third, if you’ve ever shopped with someone who is eligible for a senior discount, you know they’ll let the cashier know pronto they’re entitled to it.

This exchange left such a bad taste in my mouth, I don’t plan to ever shop at Savers again. If I want someone to ask me my age, I can visit my doctor’s office. Or go to a bar.

US vs. UK on BBC Radio Scotland

Mike Harling (an American in Britain, and author of Postcards From Across The Pond, which I happened to blurb) and Toni Hargis (a Briton in America, and author of Rules, Britannia: An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom) squared off yesterday on which country is better — the US or the UK —  on BBC Radio Scotland. The interview starts about 1 hour and 12 minutes into the broadcast — you can move the pointer to that spot.

Toni wrote on her blog that she didn’t say Americans had zero sense of humor as the host claimed (Toni, I loved your Labrador puppy line!). And I think Mike is turning into a Brit because he never interrupted and he wasn’t all rah-rah-America, but calmly and humorously defended his homeland. Who won? Well, poor Mike was outnumbered and being an American myself … come on, of course America rules! Do we really have to debate this?

I liked the discussion about the difference between US and UK humor. Hargis said she dumped her sarcastic sense of humor years ago because Americans don’t get it — we take everything literally. Hmm. To some degree this is true, especially if you’re kidding around with a Midwesterner or Southerner. But in the Northeast — places like the outer boroughs of NYC, south Boston, or northern New England — sarcasm, irony, and black humor are the gold standards for humor. Indeed, Mike — from upstate New York — gave Britons a little taste of this with his comment about guns being the efficacious way to kill someone, versus stomping on them or lighting them afire as they typically do in the gun-wary UK. And I had to tone down my ironic commentary when I married my husband, an earnest corn-fed boy from Michigan who, along with his family, takes everything at face value.

Nevertheless, I give the British the edge on their collective sense of humor, as well as their conversational skills. And it’s not just because I love the way they sound, I swear.

Anyway, it’s a fun listen and both Toni and Mike spoke their sides very well.

Did civility doom Britons on the Titanic?

According to research conducted by the Univerisity of Zurich, American passengers on the doomed Titanic were 15 percent more likely to survive the sinking than were British passengers. Beyond nationality, the study looks at survivability statistics according to class, age, and sex.

In an article in the Daily Mail, the lead researcher Bruno S. Frey surmises, “The British were much more aware of the social norms at the time. They would have been more likely to stand in a queue and wait their turn for boarding the lifeboats than Americans.” That is, Americans were probably pushing and shoving to the front of the line.

Reading this makes me reconsider ever saying to my kid, “Would it kill you to wait your turn?”

Download an abstract of the study here. Interesting stuff.

Last Chance Harvey

Wow, the New York Times gave a grudgingly good review to the romantic comedy Last Chance Harvey, starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson as the unlikely lovers. From watching the trailers, I think this film will be an Anglophile’s dream with its UK setting and script, as evidenced in the clip above.

Last Chance Harvey wasn’t on my radar screen this movie season, but now it looks like there’s something at the theatre I might be able to get my husband to in the next couple weeks. He has yet to forgive me for The English Patient. My penance was agreeing for the rest of our married life to sit through every Star Trek sequel without complaint.

Top 10 most annoying Americanisms

Yesterday’s Telegraph ran a piece by its US editor, presumably a Brit living here in the U.S., listing his top 10 most annoying American phrases, phrases that “infuriate” him.

I realize this is a tongue-in-cheek piece in honor of the great holiday Festivus, but “You’re welcome?” Seriously? “Uh huh” is the usual response I receive when I say “Thank you” to a store clerk or anyone under the age of 21. I’d keel over to hear “You’re welcome.”

And in my many (we won’t say how many) years of living in the U.S., I’ve never ever heard someone say, “Let’s visit with each other.” Have you? What Americans tend to say when saying goodbye to a friend or family member whose company they’ve enjoyed, “We should get together soon” or “Let’s meet up again.” It’s shorthand for, “I’d like to do this again, but I’m too tired to dig into my purse for my planner.” Plus, you’d come across as too eager and desperate to reschedule another visit on the spot. If you don’t like someone’s company, you might say something like, “Nice seeing you again” and leave it at that.

As for “Happy Holidays” … Here in the northeastern part of the U.S., I live amongst many Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, so it would feel totally inappropriate for me to blindly wish folks, “Merry Christmas!” Maybe if I lived in a more homogeneous part of the country it would be okay, but for now I’ll stick with my p.c. “Happy holidays!” and risk pissing off a cranky Brit here or there.

Here’s my pet peeve Americanism, something I’ve only noticed here in America in the land of chain restaurants, establishments my unapologetic middlebrow husband likes to frequent. When a server comes over to take our order, he’ll *sit down in our booth* and then say, “My name is Mike and I’ll be your server. How are you guys today? Great! Have you been to Longhorn Steakhouse before? Terrific! Can I start you off with drinks?” This is always delivered with saddlebags filled with mock cheer. America and its damned democratic ideals at their worst! Everyone’s got to be equal. I’m sorry, but when I sit down at Longhorn Steakhouse, I want the waiter to take my orders and bring me my food, not plop down at my table and pretend he’s a friend who actually cares.

I’m always tempted to ask for a bucket in these circumstances, but to preserve marital accord, I zip it.

What Americanisms and Britishisms bug you? Add yours to the comments below.