Close Encounters with Woodworking

Several years ago now, when Mr Litlove was first getting serious about his furniture making, I remember he was sitting propped up against the pillows one night, leafing through a woodworking magazine. As I got into bed, I noticed the full page advert on the back cover which had the caption ‘You Can’t Rock This Joint!’

‘Good grief,’ I said. ‘I think I’ve just aged thirty years.’

All I needed was a cup of cocoa and my knitting to complete the picture. And so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that these first couple of months of Mr Litlove pursing his furniture making interests have left me with the oddest sensation of being retired. We have left the rat race and all its concerns far behind us without yet achieving the state of a cottage industry. Mr Litlove is now spending his days engaged in physical activity, and he’s been delighted to be able to reinstigate his favourite meal – teatime – into an already packed programme of refreshments. So he has been in and out of his workshop and I have been essentially a short order chef, keeping him fuelled. It’s pretty much full-time work.

The first couple of weeks Mr Litlove dedicated to primping up the garage. He insulated the walls, hung up over the doors the old floor to ceiling curtains that not only lived in our sitting room for years but were donated to us by my parents, and after that, he turned his attention to the lighting. With the result that when I stand at the kitchen window after dusk, looking down the garden, I think I’m about to have a close encounter of the third kind.

Then he bought a very large, shiny green box which is apparently an air filter and is now attached high up on the garage ceiling. He wears the remote control for it on a cord around his neck, and it looks for all the world like a panic button. I’m not quite sure what new roles we’re playing; Darby and Joan, on the one hand, Wallace and Gromit on the other.

But since then, furniture has been made. Mr Litlove finds himself into chairs at the moment, and Sheraton chairs in particular. Thomas Sheraton is an interesting character, the last of the great English designers and cabinet makers who flourished in the eighteenth century. He followed on the end of an illustrious line after Chippendale (hard to get the image out of one’s head of polished pecs and too much hairspray, but try), Heppelwhite and Robert Adam. Unlike his predecessors, however, fame and fortune did not smile upon him. He was born poor and only ever scraped a living from his furniture, even forced later in life to make the sort of popular French Empire style pieces (frilly, fussy) that he disliked. In our day, furniture makers have come to view Sheraton as the greatest of that pack of stylists, the most elegant of line and proportion, but during his lifetime his shyness and sensitivity, his introspection, made him a bad spokesperson and salesman for his craft. After his death in 1806, fashions changed, and the sort of furniture he loved has only relatively recently been appreciated again.

IMG_20151113_192538 This is the first Sheraton chair Mr Litlove made, which is waiting for its upholstered seat. We thought about striking a deal with one of the local upholsterers but now Mr Litlove has decided instead to do an upholstery course in the new year. I am very pleased about this as I am working hard in what I hope is a surreptitious way towards the idea of the chaise longue, which is a piece of furniture I love. I could put up with a chaise longue around the house, if I had to.

IMG_20151120_145832Then, interested in a variation, Mr Litlove embarked on the other one, which as you can see is still a work in progress. He wanted to try a lighter wood, and to do something different from the carving. So he has given the chair darker wood booties (at the bottom of the front legs) and pin stripes on the back splats. The first chair he finished with glossy shellac, but I’m not sure what he intends to do with this one.

IMG_20151120_145740He’s been doing really well, considering that he’s worked in offices and factories for the rest of his career, always surrounded by lots of other people. I thought it would take him a while to adapt, but it’s been swift so far. Occasionally he wobbles, when something reminds him of the old capitalist regime and makes him feel he should be paying serious attention to money (we have plenty to live on; he needn’t worry). Back in summer, he came across an essay on the web that affected him. It was a piece about Jung’s ideas of personal development. Jung said that the first half of our lives we spend fighting for status on the world’s terms. We do what we can to succeed in the public sphere, and use whichever talents we possess that are culturally validated. In the second half of our lives, though, the focus shifts. Now it’s about our unexplored potential. It’s about developing ourselves on our own terms, following the dreams that have personal significance. And you never know how that’s going to turn out. We all want to be Chippendales, but we may end up as Sheratons. The Jung essay was startling as I think we both related very strongly to it, having worked hard on our careers, and now finding ourselves following paths that are much trickier in some ways, but more rewarding in others. I love seeing him make beautiful things, and all that matters to me is that he has plenty of time to explore and refine his skills.

I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

In Which I Learn More About Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

This year has not been good for chronic fatigue; I’ve been low in energy for most of it, apart from a brief spell over the summer during which I crammed in as much writing as I could, probably not the wisest idea. About three weeks ago, I was so annoyed by this extended period of low quality health that I started looking about on the internet for information. I hadn’t done this in a long while and it occurred to me that research might have moved on.

I was, in fact, surprised, shocked and motivated by what I found out. The information I’m about to pass on comes from two main places: the website of Dr Sue Myhill who seems to have devoted her research to CFS, and the Optimum Health Clinic, who have been dealing solely with CFS/ME/Fibromyalgia sufferers since 2004.

Both places argue that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by mitochondrial failure. If we compare the body to a car engine, ‘mitochondria are the engines of our cells – they supply the energy necessary for all cellular processes to take place’. Whilst we might have all kinds of different cells, they all gain energy by the same means: the supply of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). As we use energy, ATP converts to ADP and back again, but when we stress the body, demanding more energy than we are creating, this convertion happens faster than we can recycle ADP back into ATP. So ADP builds up and converts to AMP – a ‘metabolic disaster’, because it is lost in urine. So, our ATP levels drop, meaning energy is supplied more and more slowly, and now the body is struggling to create new ATP, a very slow and complex process.

It’s one of those great corporeal wobbles; once the body is out of balance, it’s difficult to get back on track again, and since all our cells are running on low speed, we clock up other forms of damage to the body: our immune systems are poor, hormone production is compromised, brain function suffers. Essentially, the heart (which is nothing more than a big muscle) is impaired, which is why CFSers really badly want to lie down. Standing up, we may be in borderline heart and organ failure. But the problem doesn’t show up on an ECG. I remember reading on a website several years ago that ‘fatigue’ is so much the wrong word for what we are feeling, and that ‘prostration’ would be better. CFSers feel so ill they are prostrated, and this is why; the imperative to protect our heart function is overwhelming.

It’s serious stuff this, and more problematic because the way medical authorities have treated CFS has not been helpful. Graded exercise and anti-depressants have no impact whatsoever on the root cause. What does make a difference? Well, you’ve got to cure your mitochondrial function, which means most importantly, not to make more energetic demands on the body than it can cope with. You’ve got to live at the level of ATP you are managing to produce. Then you need to sleep really well, and eat really well and supplement any deficiencies in magnesium, B3, B12, Co-enzyme Q10, and acetyl L-carnitine. Detox helps, oh and by now you’ll probably have a host of other issues in your liver, immune system, hormone glands and digestion that also need fixing. All of which will challenge your ability to eat and sleep well, never mind anything else. It’s hard to know where to begin.

I have to say this chimes perfectly with my experience.

And when we do finally get back to better health again, the chances are that we will trip our systems once more. The clinic (which supplied me with a very informative brochure) argues that CFS comes about as a combination of physical weakness with personality type. There are four personality types pre-disposed to CFS because of their tendency to maladaptive stress response – a bodily ‘high alert’ in the face of chronic stress. They are ‘helper’ types, who put the needs of others above their own, ‘achiever’ types, who push themselves and are perfectionists, anxiety types, which is self-explanatory, and finally those who have experienced trauma. Oh good news! I tick ALL FOUR boxes. And the experience of CFS itself tends to exacerbate the high alert response that causes all the trouble. The whole thing is like a big vicious circle.

Let’s talk briefly about adrenal glands. Adrenaline has obvious functions in stress, sport and all sorts of performing, but it’s essential every day. Adrenaline gets you through when a busy day is followed by an evening event. Adrenaline also acts as a buffer to anything that’s in the least stressful – which is why CFSers jump a mile when the telephone rings. Without enough adrenaline in our systems we end up hypersensitised, everything is much more stressful to do, and has a greater impact. And if you have properly fried your adrenals, it takes on average TWO years to heal them.

So, you might be wondering how I felt, as someone who’s had CFS on and off, mostly on, for the past 18 years. I felt: YIKES. I felt it was time to get myself in order. I suppose I have always been persuaded by the idea that CFS was no big deal, that it was a silliness on my part, my own fault for being a stressy sort of person, and that I really needed to keep working whenever I could. But to think I am doing long-term damage to my cells is not comfortable. Mitochondrial production goes down with age – I have effectively aged my body too fast. It’s a scary thought. And what about my poor toasted adrenal glands? No wonder I’m anxious about ordinary things; I’m wringing those poor old glands and barely a drop of adrenaline comes out.

I told all of this to my reiki practitioner, who has a wonderfully pithy way of summing things up. ‘So do you understand now that you are not weak or oversensitive, but there is a biochemical basis to your illness that has to be healed?’ Well, I said, if you put it like that. ‘And are you able to forgive yourself for not meeting your impossibly high, fear-fuelled standards?’ she continued. Hmm, trickier. I only like myself as a helper and an achiever. Now they tell me I have to be selfish, underachieving and calm about it?

When I was discussing this with Mr Litlove, the cat barged through the door, flopped down between us with his paws up for some fussing, and then fixed us with the deathstare that says: you’ve got hands, don’t you? Why aren’t you putting food in my bowl? ‘There’s your role model,’ said Mr Litlove.

So I have to live like a cat. Well, a cat that can read and cook, at any rate. We’ll see how that goes.


This Was Exciting Six Weeks Ago

Way back in the mists of time, which is to say the very end of July, Mr Litlove rang me early one morning to say he’d just learned his job was coming to an end. The reason was ostensibly reorganisation of the company, and indeed there is going to be a lot of that, none of which would have done Mr Litlove any good. But there were also probably deeper, darker reasons between him and his boss which I will leave alone for now. Suffice to say that the very evening before this happened, I had asked Mr Litlove just how long he thought he was going to manage to hold out in his job, and whether he was ever going to fulfill his long-held interest in furniture making.

So even though the news was a bit of a shock, it didn’t take us long to figure out that now his company was actually going to pay him to leave – before a great deal of confusion and chaos took place – and give him a very welcome boost to his life as a fine woodworker.

At the time this was terrifically exciting and alarming and new. There were weeks when all we did every evening was make plans. What kind of furniture would he make? Were we going to covert the garage to a workshop? What sort of budget could we live on? We began to sketch out a timeframe in which Mr Litlove could experiment and also stockpiled ideas for adjunct businesses that might bring in useful income, like running a workshop, giving woodworking demonstrations in schools, designing plans for pieces of furniture, and so on. I promised to run the social media side of things, and will start a blog later in the autumn – which should be interesting as what I know about woodwork would fit on the back of a postage stamp.

And then we eased from this state into one of waiting. I couldn’t say anything on this blog until an official announcement had been made, and it’s taken this long finally to reach that point. We put a whiteboard up in the kitchen and added any ideas to it that occurred to us. We totted up finances lots of times, and I had one day when I sat at my desk thinking, no income for a while and no stable income for much longer, crikey. So like all gambles, we put a limit on it and decided that a couple of years should show Mr Litlove whether he was really suited to a craftsman’s way of life, and he could rethink at any point.

And still we waited. It’s become, I suppose, a familiar daydream now and although it is actually going to happen, it feels unreal. But we do hope this will be Mr Litlove’s last week in the office and from next week onwards, we can finally start. I say ‘we’ cavalierly as no one in their right minds would put a chisel in my hands. But I will do my research-marketing-publicity bit and act as a general encourager. Something that Mr Litlove is very worried about. ‘I love all of you apart from your Puritan work ethic,’ he told me, and I must say I was rather thrilled at the thought of having a strong, healthy person to exert my plans for productivity upon, when that work ethic has had to make do with a chronic-fatigued me for so many years. ‘I’m going to be very vulnerable to workplace bullying at first,’ said Mr Litlove making a sad face. ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘But all I….’ ‘And you,’ he continued, ‘are going to be vulnerable to sexual harrassment in the workplace. Let’s face it, there’s going to be a tough couple of months ahead and it’s not always going to look professional.’

It’s certainly not going to be life as we’ve known it, but I’m ready now for it to begin.