This afternoon, struggling with my son to remove the packaging from a yoga mat my husband had just got me (classes start on Monday, heaven help me), I said to him, ‘oh by the way, I don’t know whether you’re interested, but I happened to notice on the internet news that Playstation 3s and…’ ‘…and Xbox 360s are coming down in price due to the credit crunch,’ my son said. ‘Yes, Dad told me in the car. Sorry, I already knew so there’s no need to finish your little speech.’ I was entertained and aghast in equal measure. ‘Is that how I sound?’ I asked my husband. ‘Do I do nothing but give little speeches?’ My husband shrugged. ‘It’s terrible the things children reflect back to their parents,’ he said, philosophically. But of course, I knew it was quite true. I do talk in little speeches, just as I think in paragraphs and write in finished arguments. It’s awful what twenty years of unbroken academia will do to you.
Earlier in the week I’d conducted my first ever group session. I had just got started when, abruptly, the phone in my rooms began to ring. I was astounded; it was the first time in about three years that it had done so in my presence. In the end, I asked one of the students to pull the plug, as I don’t think it’s possible to talk sensibly over a ring tone. ‘What if it was an emergency call?’ one of the students asked, wide-eyed and teasing. ‘What if someone was ringing you up because they needed learning support, immediately, right now, because they were completely desperate.’ ‘I haven’t quite turned into the flying doctor yet,’ I told them, laughing. But we were all imagining, from our differing perspectives, the possibility of a student calling up because they had got very, very stuck on an essay. I guess it’s a matter of time.
I try to do my best for you in finding amusing posts, but sometimes my courage fails me. The newsletter from the writing group I’ve attended a couple of times arrived in the post last week. It’s the only stamped, hand-addressed envelope I receive these days, and I am always inordinately full of expectations and then resigned when I realize what it is. Under the grand heading ‘Successes’, someone had sent in the triumphant news that a piece they had read out in a meeting had gone on to form the body of a letter published in the local newspaper. Call me a writing snob if you wish, but that’s not what I would classify as a major step forward. Anyway, I digress. The first announcement concerned the January social, a little party, in other words. Knowing that you have found my missives from this group entertaining in the past, I wondered whether I had enough spirit to brave a whole evening of my life in such a dreaded social situation. Tentatively, I emailed the group’s secretary and asked whether it was the kind of event that I could drop in on for a brief while. He replied that nothing would surely be lovelier for me than to have a voluble, rapid conversation with his French wife. Well, that made up my mind. No way was I going. If you are rendered highly anxious by the prospect of making small talk in your mother tongue, you can imagine all the horror evoked by the prospect of doing so in a second language. I’ll go to another meeting, but I have to write something in order to do that, hence the delay.
My son is an extremely private person. He’ll happily chat about everyday matters, but try to get him to talk about something that matters in a deep, emotional way and he will raise defenses worthy of a nuclear bunker. So we were astonished a week or so ago to hear him complain quite virulently about one of his classes. It was so unprecedented that we contacted the school, asking if we could come in to school for a quiet chat with his form tutor. She wrote back breezily, ‘sure, don’t worry, my kids complained to me about everything’. And then she added, ‘I’ll have a word with him, shall I?’ Before we could reply to say: no, she had already done so. My son came in from school none too pleased. ‘She said I probably knew all about it,’ he said, fixing us with an inquisitorial glare, ‘and I didn’t.’ At which point he clammed up completely about the problem that was bothering him and refused to say anything other than ‘I’m fine.’ I was furious. I can’t remember the last time I was so angry. I think it was because I exercise enormous restraint with my son, trying not to pry into his life, not to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. This one time when I really did want to get to the bottom of something, and really needed to find the exact right moment to discuss it, I’d been thwarted and made to look like an idiot. The next day I wrote an email that expressed my displeasure in terms of glacial politeness. It wasn’t a solution, alas, for all that will happen is the teacher will hate me for the rest of the year, but I don’t care. Bring on parents’ evening.
I’m reading an awful lot of books. John Updike’s Rabbit Run, which began slowly and made me wonder whether I’d like it, but which has stealthily grown into something exquisite; Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, an Australian woman’s guide to Parisian culture shock after she ends up moving in with her holiday romance, which is good, but kind of like a series of extended magazine articles; Inside Lives, a guide to the growth of personality by therapist Margaret Waddell, which is making me feel terrible retrospective guilt towards my son for not doing all the things she says babies need to have done for them; Seulement l’amour by Philippe Ségur, in which a neurophysicist learns how to travel back in time (think Audrey Niffenegger in French); and Passionate Minds, a collection of essays on women writers by Claudia Roth Peirpont, a witty, sharp-tongued Madame whose sentence structure sounds delightful by the second time I read it. I’ve got The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov waiting in the wings and I must also dig out my copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry for the Slaves discussion on 31st January. Oh and wasn’t I reading a little something by William Gaddis a while back? What is it about that book that makes it resistant to easy, repeated dipping in? Is it just the sheer size of the thing? It’s a very good book to write about, though, so I must get back into (or rather, create) a routine. So far, January seems to have been busy and eventful; on the whole that’s good – it brings the spring a little closer.