Litlove and the UFO

A couple of domestic incidents in fact, as quirk and whimsy seem essential qualities to balance out what’s going on in the world right now. You may remember a while back I wrote about my cats using next door’s delightful garden as the litter tray from Harrods? Well the campaign of intimidation continues. When the cats come sauntering into the kitchen with a particular look in their eyes we ask them where they’ve been, and they reply, ‘Oh just next door to do a poo,’ and wink at each other. Knowing full well that they annoy our elderly neighbours, they are doing what cats do and upping the ante.

About a week ago, Mr Litlove was just closing up the house for the night when he received an emergency text from our neighbour. Could he go round because Deedee was somewhere in their house and they couldn’t find her? Mr Litlove put his shoes back on and went round. Deedee had made the first stupid move by deciding to explore next door’s kitchen uninvited, and then our neighbour had compounded the stupidity by trying to chase her out. The result was a small black cat in a big dark house, coordinates uncertain. Mr Litlove hunted about to no avail, with our neighbour expressing disappointment that Deedee didn’t come when he called (as if!). And eventually they gave it up for the night, hoping she had left the building while they looked.

But by breakfast the next morning, Deedee had not returned home so Mr Litlove waited for the inevitable call about our miscreant child, which came about 9.30. Deedee had been found preening herself behind the dining room curtains and was now in the kitchen, and they couldn’t get her our. Mr Litlove went round again and was successful, for Deedee came rushing breathlessly into the kitchen, telling us excitedly that she had had a big adventure and been very, very brave, and maybe just a little bit stoopid. Then she wolfed a huge breakfast and rolled around in her favourite places until she calmed down. Mr Litlove returned having had to do a lot of apologising. and in need ot pretty much the same kind of therapy. ‘She kept making such strange noises,’ our neighbours had complained. Well, Deedee IS quite a chatty cat but she’s only really mastered the imperative (‘Stroke me!’ ‘Feed me!’ ‘Clear my path to the cat flap!’) so I suppose she probably was hard to understand. Mr Litlove looked grimly at Dexter and said that Deedee had gone one better than him, and what was he going to do about that? Dexter didn’t reply but in his eyes there was a faraway look. We live in mild dread.

As it turns out (and this will probably surprise no one) I live in a permanent state of mild-to-medium dread. Fed up with the perfect storm caused by perimenopause and CFS, I started working with the OHC, a clinic in London that specialises in ME/CFS, and I have finally had some tests. My big anomaly lies with my cortisol level, which is off the charts in places. What was really annoying was that I felt quite good on the day I did the tests and was of the opinion that they would come back fine. But high cortisol over a long stretch of time accounts for most of my symptoms. How to solve this problem? Well, that’s the million dollar question: it’s not easy. Diet, meditation, maximum rest and peace and quiet that sort of thing. I need to gain the sort of serenity I’ve never really possessed. Suggestions on postcards, please.

I’m working with a nutritionist who is okay but a bit scatty. Before our first interview I filled in a 16-page questionnaire and wrote a medical and personal history worthy of a Pulitzer. In our first skype call it was clear she had read neither. When I told Mr Litlove he said, ‘You should have asked her if she’d like to take a moment to read through the papers.’ I stared at him and told him that was brilliant and it had never occurred to me. He said modestly that he had learned one or two little things in his 25 years of conducting meetings. The nutritionist and I are at a bit of an impasse as we must move to the next level of tests but are undecided as to what they should be. I think my hormones are all to blame and want to have my estrogen metabolism checked; the nutritionist is longing for me to have parasites (I so do not). I am supposed to get arbitration from my GP who, as a matter of professional dignity, will undoubtedly disagree with both of us. It’s too hot for any of it.

But like the good girl I am, I go to bed nice and early and lie there listening to audio books, summoning inner calm. A couple of nights ago, as I was doing just this, the most extraordinary noise suddenly erupted directly above my head. It sounded like the extractor fan had gone berserk, or an old strimmer in the loft had leapt to ghostly new life. It was the kind of noise that propelled me off the bed, exclaiming, what the hell is that? I called for Mr Litlove who normally has short shrift for the strange noises I hear, but even he found this one disturbing. He went up in the loft, where all was quiet, and then moved towards the back of the house, feeling the ceilings as the noise carried on in staccato bursts. I had just asked him if he thought it came from outside, and he had said no, when there was a knock on the door.

Mr Litlove went down and opened it and all I could hear was some guy saying he was so very, very sorry. And then Mr Litlove went for his shoes again. He called up to me as he went past – there was a father and son on our doorstep apologising because their drone had got stuck on our roof. Who could have guessed that? Apparently they’d been fitting it with new batteries when it had come to life, completely out of control, and flown madly away down the street. It was lodged on our roof and Mr Litlove offered our stepladder. He said the first time was amusing, the second time he would be shorter with them and if there was a third time, it was staying there. The father hastily promised we would never see it again. The next morning, they came back with a bottle of wine as an apology, which was very sweet and as I said, entirely unnecessary. I told them I fully intended to dine out on the story for weeks to come. It’s so 21st century to have someone at your door saying, please may we have our drone back.

Yesterday we were in the garden, trying to brush Deedee (don’t ask) when we heard the strange noise again. I looked up and high in the sky above us, twinkling in the brilliance of the sunlight, was the oddest contraption I’d ever seen, a fine metal cat’s cradle flitting about. We stood up and waved at it while it hovered uncertainly over our garden. And then it flew away.

 

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Of Workshops and Kittens

So ages ago, I promised you the saga of Mr Litlove’s new workshop and now that he is finally in and preparing for Open Studios once again, I think it’s safe to employ hindsight. In the last episode of Tales From Litlovia, we had decided not to move house but to extend the single garage where Mr Litlove works. We found an architect in the village who drew us up a plan and said he knew a builder who was semi-retired but liked this kind of groundwork job. Let us call him Dave. We were now in, ooh let me see, early November? And Dave apparently had no trouble working over Christmas, in fact he loved to work over Christmas! So, terrific. I had fantasies of calling Dave in from the garden to have a spot of Christmas dinner and Mr Litlove, with great reluctance, started emptying the contents of his garage in readiness.

Never before had I understood the extent to which my husband is a pack rat. I mean no disrespect, after all, I myself have a handful of books about the place. But the amount of stuff that came out of that single garage was mind-blowing. Mr Litlove filled the entire conservatory to eye level and still it kept coming. Every stray piece of wood or metal that had ever passed below Mr Litlove’s pretty little nose had been squirreled away ‘just in case’ and we were looking at the fruits (or nuts) of twenty-one years of dedicated squirreling. The wood piled up on the lawn and was propped in great stacks against the garage wall. Mr Litlove was even surprising himself. But eventually the flow steadied and ceased and December came and the garage was empty and ready, and of course there were no builders.

Dave turned out to like working over Christmas so much that he went on a long and lovely Mediterranean holiday until a few days into the New Year. And then January came and went while they were working on a tricky job elsewhere. To look back now and think we were fussing about whether or not he’d ordered the steel in January. Ha! Finally towards the end of February the builders arrived, just as we were looking into the possibility of finding someone else to do the work. The first day they came there were three of them, likely lads one and all, but by the end of the first day they were reduced to two. Apparently, one had been sent home for having ‘too many opinions’ which was quite fascinating. Was it really the quantity of opinions that was the problem, or their content? I would have loved Mr Litlove to find out, but Dave was a talker and Mr Litlove was already drowning under a tide of anecdote. They went through Dave’s complicated romantic and medical histories and moved seamlessly into a chapter on Great Exploits. This featured, for instance, a story about Dave seeing off a burglar with stealth and one of his collection of sword sticks. I was admittedly cynical. But at least when I lay in my bath in the morning and heard the dulcet tones of Dave’s voice floating over the garden towards me, I knew it was a good day because the builders had turned up.

Because of course, they hardly ever did. See you Wednesday! Dave would say cheerily, by which he really meant, see you next Monday. Maybe. And when they were here, I had never before seen a wall rise so slowly. Dave placed a brick at a time as if arranging jewellery in a shop window. The plants in the garden were growing quicker. Where are Polish builders when you need them? I would wail, and then amuse myself by sending emails to friends in America, telling them I’d found the perfect crew to build that Mexican wall of theirs. March came and went.

Now March was an interesting month on many levels. I think it was the first ever month of my life in which I had to enforce a news blackout because watching it was beyond painful. i did some stockpiling, mostly the heavy duty eye gels that get me through the day, all of which come from Europe. of course. But also tinned tomatoes and sardines and loo roll because Annabel said it was a good idea. Little did I know then that it was all a rehearsal for next October. Brexit seems to me to be a problem caused by insufficient reality checks, and the inevitable outcome of trying to push through a bad idea whilst pretending it is a good one. You know when you were a kid and you told a lie to get out of a tight spot? Only the lie just made the situation worse and worse until you knew the truth was going to come out and then you really didn’t want it to? Well, that’s pretty much where our politicians are now. The overinflated fantasy of Brexit is going to run around on the uncompromising rocks of reality at some point, and there’s a scale from bad to apocalyptic along which it might land. Well, my friends, reason and compassion are the only things that can save us in this life. However much people might love their outrage and anger and hatred, they get us precisely nowhere.

But on a brighter note, we did find one solution to a vexing problem.  You may remember that we had new kittens last spring? Dexter and Deedee. Well, last summer Deedee developed an alarming health issue.  She began to scratch great wounds in her fur and to develop odd swellings – in her eyelid, on her cheekbone or a paw. The two seemed to be related but we weren’t sure how and at first there were all sorts of frightening diseases that might have been its cause. When she was old enough we sent her for blood tests, and these fortunately came back clear. There is always amusement to be had even in worrying situations. I will never forget the moment when the vet rang up and, on Mr Litlove answering the call, asked cheerily, ‘Am I talking to Deedee’s daddy?’ This threw Mr Litlove somewhat, but once over the first shock of paternity, he took to the role quite willingly.

Deedee the fearless adventurer

So after all this, we understood that the problem was an allergy of some kind, but what it was we couldn’t discover, and regularly Deedee would puff up with what the vet called her ‘comedy leg’. Well, finally at the end of winter we made her a ruinously expensive appointment with the consultants at the vet school in Cambridge. They initially prescribed a special diet – kibble made of pea and venison, if you please which had Mr Litlove shaking his head in disbelief. In Mr Litlove’s cat philosophy, Whiskers is the food of the devil but any other cheapo options really ought to be fine. Now of course the cats adore this kibble and refuse anything else. But that didn’t do the trick. Finally, Deedee had a course of steroids, and these cleared the problem up immediately and – I am touching wood fervently here – so far she hasn’t had it back. Will we ever understand what happened during those ten months? I doubt it, but I can’t tell you the relief to see her fully-furred and normal shaped again. She is such a darling little cat.

And so, thus distracted, the workshop crawled towards completion. Finally over Easter towards the end of April, Mr Litlove could get the electrician in and, the great moment he’d been waiting for, his new machines arrived. This turned into a lovely party, as the lorry driver’s tail gate bust and he had to hang out with Mr Litlove and the electrician all morning until his brother turned up to fix it. The lorry driver had voted Brexit but was going to live in Thailand later that year with his Thai wife. I just mention this in passing. Finally by the end of April Mr Litlove had his new workshop and was very pleased with his expanded space. In fact, I fully expect curtains to appear at the windows and a little plaque with the number ’10A’ upon it. Oh, but of course there was one more thing – the new bi-fold doors that are to go on the front. Mr Litlove swore blind to me that there was no way he could order them until he had the exact measurements to send. He finally got around to doing that in May.

We’re still waiting for the doors.

 

So Where Were We?

Goodness, how time passes! The last update I wrote on this blog, we were putting our house on the market and were all set to start a new venture somewhere that we could have a bigger workshop for Mr Litlove and possibly some sort of writing retreat or artists studios for me to run, yes?

Well, none of that happened.

So let’s go back to where we were last summer, with an unnaturally tidy house (‘Did you stash it all in the car?’ the estate agent who came to take photos asked us. ‘That’s where most people put their stuff.’) a grand plan and, in actual fact, a criminal bear in the boot of my car. In retrospect, August probably wasn’t the best time to put the house on the market, and an August in the run up to Brexit was even less promising. We did have some people come and look, but for the most part they were what Mr Litlove termed ‘tyre kickers’. Showing your house to strangers is an awful business, and we also had two new kittens who were brim-full of curiosity and wanted to do the showing for us. This problem was summed up in the moment when I was making small talk with one woman while Dexter edged in and started to lick her toes. How cute, I thought, until I saw the woman’s face and had to drop kick the kitten gently into the garden. I was having a bad day that day in any case. I’d managed to chat gaily about my son having thrown over his chemistry degree in favour of training as a counsellor to licked-toes woman’s husband, who turned out to have been a chemistry professor all his life. But for me the epitome of house viewing awfulness was the elderly Chinese man who came in complaining about the road outside our house. We live opposite the village green, and the main road through the village passes in front of us. We have a queue of cars at the lights at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening, and the buses to town go through, but it’s just a village, and so mostly it’s quiet enough that children from the school and ducks from the pond wander across it. Anyhow, this man came in saying how busy and loud it was and weren’t we bothered by the noise? As we were standing inside the house in my study, I asked how loud the noise seemed to him. At which point he threw his hands in the air. He was hard of hearing, he told me, how should he know?

So August rolled into September and the estate agents said, ah now the market will pick up again after the summer holidays. But what happened was the complete opposite. We had no viewings whatsoever in September. And it didn’t seem to be just us – the same story was happening across our region. First houses were selling, and houses over the million mark. But all of us four-beds in the middle of the market were stagnating in the economic uncertainty. By now we had had too long to think about the house we’d been wanting to buy. Mr Litlove was very unsure about it, and there was no certainty we’d get planning permission for either his workshop or my retreats. By the middle of October, we’d only had one more viewing, and by a family who thought they ought to downsize but didn’t really want to. We were starting to feel very uncomfortable with the process. Neither of us could get on and do any work because we seemed to be waiting all the time for this miracle to happen, a buyer to arrive, and there was no sign that one would.

One day I said to Mr Litlove, why don’t you have the car port? If we incorporated the car port into the garage, you’d have double the workshop space you have now. So we got an architect in to discuss it, and it seemed viable and the thought of being out of the range of the circling dementors of a stagnant housing market was so tempting. Plus, it was killing Mr Litlove to be that tidy all the time. With many a mixed emotion, we took the house off the market, and the saga of building the workshop extension began.

But you’ll be wanting to know what happened to Big Beery, right? Well to begin with I kept forgetting that he was in the boot of the car, until I popped the trunk to put the supermarket shopping away. Then there he lay in all his disreputableness, as other shoppers wheeling their carts past threw us strange looks. So I moved him into the back seat of the car, which was nicer than the boot, but increasingly cold as winter approached. When Mr Litlove and I got into the car together, we kept having the same old argument. I’d say, couldn’t we move Big Beery back into the house for a bit? It seemed such a shame to leave an old bear out here in the damp and the cold. But Mr Litlove was adamant. ‘We were only supposed to be housing him while he got back on his feet,’ he’d say. ‘If you let him back in we’ll never get rid of him’ I’d protest that it was hard for him, when even the charity shops wouldn’t take him. Then Mr Litlove would complain that he wasn’t even trying and all he did all day was sit drinking cans of Stella from the Co-op in the village. About this point in the conversation Big Beery would often attempt to defend himself with his own brand of lobbying, and Mr Litlove would reply that wherever we were going, we could go past the council tip on the way there. That would shut us all up.

As I write this, Big Beery remains in the back seat of the car. If you listen carefully, you can probably hear him belch.

Also I don’t think I’ve told you about our new kittens, Dexter and Deedee. They came from different litters but they might as well have come from different planets. Dexter is a big, fat, fluffy bundle of schnuggles, a laze in the sun cat, a beautiful tabby with kohl-rimmed eyes but oh so dumb. Deedee is a whippetty black ninja with crazy golden bat eyes and relentless curiosity. They are very bound to one another but in an odd, mismatched sort of way. Now the days are lengthening they love the early evening hours when they head out on cat business in the neighbourhood together. Deedee scampers ahead, gesturing wildly and talking nineteen to the dozen about tactics and strategies, while Dexter plods alongside her, saying every now and then, ‘But Deedee, I don’t want to fight him.’

However, it’s not just Pogo, the big marmalade tom, whose animosity has been aroused. Our next door neighbours, who professed their pleasure that we were staying, are probably changing their minds now, as unfortunately, the cats have taken to using their garden as a toilet. It’s a lovely garden and if I were obliged to go outside, I’d probably choose it too. But our elderly neighbour was incensed when, having risen at five one morning, he looked out of his windows only to see Dexter squatting serenely in the middle of his vegetable patch. Just the other day he came to fetch Mr Litlove to complain to him about an especially awkward discovery. I remember that he’d paid quite a lot to have his driveway gravelled in such a way that the little stones are thinly glued to the surface, providing an easy upkeep version of a raked zen garden. Well, one of the cats had done a poo smack in the middle of the driveway and had evidently been surprised while scratching to find that the gravel did not shift to cover it as they expected. Mr Litlove said that he did feel a bit guilty about that one. We’ve provided earthy areas and shady areas in our own garden for the cats, but if you’ve ever owned one, you’ll know that they do not take instruction well. Personally I think our neighbour has missed a trick by letting the cats know that he is so displeased. Disapproval is, for them, an open invitation to ever more provocative acts of defecation. The only thing he could do is, I think, to beam appreciation on them and tell them they are behaving exactly as he wishes. That can sometimes cause a u-turn in feline policy.

Well, look at me rambling on. This post is already too long and I haven’t told you half the news. And the next one must be a review I have promised.  I will cross my fingers that my eyes hold up well enough for me to post a bit over the summer. In the meantime, if you’re reading something really good (that’s available on audiobook), do let me know.

I Will Embrace Self-Help, I Will

When the kind publicity assistant sent me a copy of Physical Intelligence by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, she probably had no idea she was sending it to two of the sorriest specimens for self-help you could imagine. I was really keen to read the book, which claims that ‘the active management of our physiology – the ability to detect and strategically influence the balance of chemicals in our bodies and brains’ is within our grasp. This sounded like good news to me. The approach of menopause has hit me hard and my CFS has been back to the level of nuisance it was a decade or so ago. I’m clearly doing something wrong. In fact, my dry eye syndrome has been so awful that I had to ask Mr Litlove to read the book to me, and Mr Litlove and self-help… well it’s not the most obvious combination. Mr Litlove is fit and healthy and if a parallel universe existed in which he sang karaoke, he’d be up at the mike belting out Gloria Gaynor’s immortal line, ‘I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses.’ So the two of us together would have every experienced teacher rolling her eyeballs – one student eager but hopeless, and the other competent but deeply resistant. Would the book be equal to the challenge?

The book’s basic premise is that our responses to daily life are governed by a cocktail of eight chemicals, each of which has a signature feeling. We’d probably all recognise adrenaline and its feeling of excitement or fear, testosterone’s feelings of power and control, serotonin’s happiness. But there are others that are equally important and less well-known – oxytocin, for instance, which gives us a feeling of belonging, DHEA which governs vitality, and cortisol which creates the feeling of anxiety. The authors argue that the right combination of diet, exercise and CBT can be used to manage these chemicals as they ebb and flow according to the situations we find ourselves in.

The book is organised into four sections – strength, flexibility, resilience and endurance – with all kinds of different exercises designed to promote these vital qualities. So for instance, in the section on flexibility, there’s an exercise called ‘Relationshift’ which frankly every person in the UK ought to be made to undertake before we have to hear another thing about Brexit. Where this kind of loggerheads conflict occurs, the kind that has coagulated into a battle of wills, it’s important for both parties to be able to see the other side – such a shift reduces the sense of threat that has immediately been triggered, and sets in motion the chemistry of trust which can heal the breach. Name your emotions, the authors suggest, and be specific about the physical feelings that accompany them, breathe to stabilize emotion, and then consider what exactly is under threat here (they suggest possible threats to control, ownership, achievement, harmony, security, certainty, freedom, creativity or status, which is the sort of list one ought to carry around all the time because it explains a great deal). Then shift your perspective and imagine standing alongside the person with the opposing viewpoint and see how it looks. From this point of view, you might be able to come up with solutions or suggestions that benefit you both and meet the different needs. It’s not as touchy-feely as you may think, because thinking through a problem like this actively reduces cortisol (threat) and increases oxytocin (belonging). Minds, bodies and behaviours are all tightly linked.

So you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, there was much I struggled with. In the strength section, the authors suggested cheerfully that crunches, planks and squats were all you needed, which are the kind of exercises that even when I was in full health I would have considered a form of sanctioned masochism (one of the authors is a dancer and choreographer and yeah, proper dancers love that sort of stuff). And the exercise that I was hilariously bad at – in Mr Litlove’s estimation – was one called the ‘winner pose’. where you stand with arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. Apparently this builds confidence and power and should be used after any achievement to prevent the chemical high sort of collapsing in on itself. Well, I just can’t seem to manage it. I could do a sort of jazz-hands-by-my-face thing, but anything more brought about a feeling of such intense absurdity that I couldn’t keep it up. Mr Litlove, who has way more testosterone than any one person needs, would throw himself into winner pose every single time our paths crossed in the house, yelling ‘C’mon, Litlove!’ I pointed out that the authors of this book did not envisage their exercises being used by husbands to taunt their wives, but alas that did not prevent him from telling our son when he visited over Easter. And our son, who is training to be a therapist, immediately began asking why it was that I should feel silly? And did feeling silly matter? There’s nothing quite like one’s family piling in with the advice to make the appeal of self-help grow stronger. Some things are best done alone.

Some people, however, cannot be helped. I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove did not see the light. He read the section on procrastination out loud – and goodness knows he could use some advice here – while mentally singing la la la la la. I could see him doing it. You know that fur men grow in their ears as they age? I’m coming to think of it as a kind of enchanted forest designed to prevent any alternative point of view from entering. But the authors of the book had evidently seen us coming. They sensibly suggest that you should devote a month to each section of the book, picking out a few of the tips and exercises and ‘habit-stacking’ them, or trying to attach them to other habits you regularly practice.  And even Mr Litlove found one exercise at which he nodded approval and said it was really good. This is an exercise for when something dreadful and undesirable gets thrown at you. You begin by feeling the force of your resistance and saying – shouting if you want, punching the air – I won’t! I won’t have this! I don’t want it! And when that energy is worn out, then you start saying, I will take this on. I will handle it. Could there possibly be an allegory in this for Mr Litlove’s relationship to self-help? Ah well, time will tell. But I will definitely be keeping the book within easy access as there was much intelligent support to be found in its pages.