Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )

By Posted on Location: 7 min read
TEFL
The centre of Murica.
Río Segura, Murica, Spain, May 2019

No message.

There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.

“Yo soy aqui”

I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.

In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car

She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.

If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.

Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.

This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.

Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport

I will have to open my mouth and speak.

Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.

He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.

I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish

Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.

Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.

And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.

You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’

Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.

Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r

But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.

From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.

We take speaking for granted

When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.

When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?

But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language

We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.

My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.

As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it

Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.

Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.

French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.

Learning German was not a success

Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.

When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules

You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.

I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.

As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English

Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.

While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.

And the best students ask, “Why?”

At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.

At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.

After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”

Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.

The English grammar experts were all around me

They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.

But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.

Most native speakers don’t speak standard English

I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.

It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.

When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.

It’s not infrequent that I screw up

And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.

“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”

But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask

I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.

If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.

I love beautiful language

Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.

It all depends on faith.

Learning to see

An experiment in collaboration: this post was written by the Mother.

bee
I felt this post ought to be accompanied by a picture of a bee in the circumstances.
Lacock Abbey, May 2014.

Today there was a large bee trapped in the greenhouse. Well, he wasn’t exactly trapped as he could have left. The window and the greenhouse door were wide open. However, the bee kept going around in circles and hitting itself against the glass becoming angrier and more frustrated, unaware that it was so close to freedom. It just couldn’t see the way out.

When I first had glasses, I hated them

My daughters bought me a chain to hang them around my neck when I didn’t need to wear them (there had been a few tense occasions when I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere). I have never used the chain. It seemed like something an elderly spinster would use working in a dusty library, taking her glasses off temporarily to give a disapproving look to someone who made a slight noise.

I had a feeling that using them would make me age without even having a birthday. Nor did I want a constant reminder of the need to wear glasses.

Now, of course, I need to wear the glasses all the time

Seeing clearly can become quite tricky when I don’t have them on. For example when I am doing yoga. In my class, when someone waves to me from the other side of the room, I wave back in acknowledgement, not certain who the blurry face belongs to.

But of course, just getting a pair of glasses doesn’t mean that you can really see.

Sometimes you need a process to help you

Meditation has been described as ‘polishing the lens’ through which you see life.1 The intention being to gain clarity whilst also understanding that thoughts and feelings that you see are just that – thoughts and feelings. You then have a little space in which (hopefully) you can respond rather than react. In addition, over time, you start to see that there are choices and perspectives.

This process can happen not just to individuals, but also to societies

When I was at school and studying history a student in the year above lent me a book called something like “The Elizabethan world view”. The book set out the changes that had occurred during the reign of Elizabeth the first and the understanding and perspectives the people in England had about the world and their place in it. Things were changing. The world was a lot bigger and different than they previously thought.

I was reminded of the book again this week

I listened as my daughter explained that to her, travelling is about seeing the world, experiencing other cultures and connecting with other lives. Gaining both a view of the world and a world view. What she sees is reflected in her writing and her art.

Learning to really see can take time and effort but sometimes seeing the way forward may be so much closer than you think.

The exhausted bee finally lay down on the shelf in the greenhouse

I carefully scooped him into an empty plant pot and carried him outside, laying him down by some plants. Later, I checked, and he had flown away.

1. Headspace, Andy Puddicombe

Words Copyright The Mother, used with permission.

Cultivating focus (and moving towards craftmanship)

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Narrowing the focus
Narrowing the focus.
Asolo, Italy, May 2018.

When you listen to teachers talking, in low desperate voices, it’s often about the inability of children to focus. There is a palatable fear of the children who are, at this moment, entering primary school. They are the children who had access to mobile phones and tablets as babies. Giving a toddler a video to watch in a restaurant might keep them quiet, but what is it teaching them about paying attention? Maybe this is scaremongering. The ridiculous idea that the next generation is always worse, whatever.

It’s easy to switch into a blame game, but it’s all of us who face a challenge here. Teachers struggle to get students to focus on the lesson at hand. They also struggle to focus themselves on their endless marking in the crowded distractive den of the staff-room.

For me, cultivating focus has become a bit of an obsession

Or, to be more truthful, the obsession is how I’m not focused. I keep finding myself sabotaging my attempts to concentrate. I want to concentrate because I’m pretty sure an ability to concentrate is essential to doing great work. However, sometimes my mind feels very fluttery. I do think that I am improving but it’s a slow process.

Some factors have a significant impact on my concentration.

First, I know I need a tidy environment

What you’ll find, if you enter my room today, are two suitcases heaped high, paperwork scattered across the surfaces and precarious stacks of books. Hence, I cannot work with any efficiency in my room.

Second, I know I need a routine

And yet, should you look at my calendar, I seem to be doing something different every day. I had this week scheduled as the week to get back on task, and instead found myself on a trip to the Chilean Embassy in London. This took three days.

Third, I know I need to be well-rested and yet I am not

Instead, I’m grumpy, achy and wasting time curbing my desire to whinge. Some people drink a strong coffee and then power through, I am not one of these people. Take away my sleep and I’m like the toddler who’s had YouTube snatched from their claws.

My desire for focus comes from a desire for craftsmanship

To me, craftsmanship is a beautiful word because it immediately brings to mind the engraving of a master carpenter, the smell of sawdust scattered on the floor, dark barns and intricate design. Or mighty wrought-iron gates, their bars entwined and the how flames in which they were born. Then the smell of oil paints drifting through an open window, the grain of a canvas and glistening colours dabbed on a wooden palette. But more than that, time and effort, brought together, create something to be proud of. Craftmanship.

This is not so far from something I noticed when I was tutoring

Having listened to a teenager talk about her schoolwork, week after week, I recognised that projects which took a lot of steady time created a genuine pride. Perhaps because they’re more personal. It’s your creativity showing through. And, it’s easier to share engender enthusiasm about a project from your parents, than another test on irregular verbs.

Pride matters.

After all, I too want to have a life of things I’m proud of

I don’t want slap-dash success or in at the last-minute signs of relief. I want to step back from my work, look at is as something whole and complete and feel something from deep inside me that says it was worth every minute.

So, I need to tidy my space, sort out my routine and get some sleep

And then, once I’ve worked out how to do it myself, I shall return to the question that haunts teachers. How do you teach a child to work?

I somehow feel that scrumpled homework and a cram-for-the-exam attitude fails.

Can you focus well? And if so, how did you learn to do it?

What do I want from a friendship?

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Walk with friends
Exploring the Portuguese countryside with friends.
More or less near Porto, Portugal, November 2018.

Sometimes friends apologise for not staying better in touch. Perhaps this is because of some sociata idea of what it means to be friends. Sometimes, when they say this, I want to instead thank them for not being too much in touch. If every friend I had wanted to know about the minutiae of my life I’d not have any stories to tell. I’d spend my life glued to my phone and miss out on what’s in front of me. I find myself thinking, please don’t say that you’re sorry when it’s unnecessary and don’t do something because friends ‘are supposed to’. See me from time to time. Smile when you do and share some laughter. Take occasional moments to show me you love me, as I love you.

Yes, it’s true that I’m like anyone else and sometimes fear missing out. Sometimes I hear about a group of my friends meeting up and doing something together. I contemplate for a moment, how, if only I had taken a different path, I could have been there too. Nostalgia grips tight and I shake it off, like a dog shaking off the water after climbing out of a muddy lake. We can’t live all the lives laid out in front of us and I’ve chosen this travel-focused one. It’s pretty sweet. The dog still smells but you can hose it down later. Its tail is wagging.

Each friendship, of course, is different. The nature of some involves more frequent conversation than others. Some friendships work well though instant messages – the conversation is vibrant, funny and natural. Others seem to me to never quite get flowing through on a phone screen and yet, face-to-face they glide, effortless. Some in-person conversations leave me feeling rejuvenated. Some take some time to process. Most though are a mixture of both: a flood of warm feeling towards the other person, the delight of connection, followed by a readiness again for my own space.

As much as I fear missing out, I don’t need to know everything about my friends’ lives. I prefer to know what is devastating them or what they are celebrating. The extremes at both ends. And I prefer to be told direct, rather than through some other person in passing, although I’d also prefer to know than not know at all. I like long walks and conversation. I like sharing good food and bouncing thoughts and ideas back and forth. I like exploring somewhere new: a monument, a mountain, a bookshop or an idea. I like art galleries and museums and slow meanders through airy rooms where conversation flits back and forth in low voices: yes, history, politics, art, philosophy, but gently so.

I like people making me laugh. Hysterical giggling and hula hooping.

I like friendships that look forward more so that backwards. People who suggest places to visit next year and things meanwhile I could read this year, because they saw it, read it, and thought of me. I like seeing photos of job offer emails and chickens.

I love gifts, like hand-knitted socks.

But most of all I love when I can be with someone and feel comfortable being neither more nor less than me.

You all know who you are and I’m grateful for you all.

Without a room of one’s own (but writing anyway)

By Posted on Location: 6 min read
If you’re going to work, work; if you’re going to play, play.
Padova, May, 2018.

If you want something done, ask a busy person.

Or, in the case of Anders Ericsson, who needed subjects to stick with his gruelling number memorisation scheme and test his hypothesis about deliberate practice, choose people who have learnt to stick with hard-work.

… I made it a point to recruit only subjects who had trained extensively as athletes, dancers, musicians, or singers. None of them ever quit on me.

Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

A focused work ethic isn’t something you can turn on with mere good intention. It takes skill to persist and skills must be developed.

As I write, I’m stationed in the Mother’s study

It’s a Saturday morning and I’ve told my family I’m going to be writing here from 10 until 12. My family are generous, including in their support for my writing, and agreed, with enthusiasm, to allow me this time, alone, in the quiet, to write.

In theory at least

My sister has come to visit and is writing a letter to her plumber. Our enthusiastic Mother is supporting her with suggestions of wording, advice (always make sure you are specific about what preparation means) and scheduling. They grab the calendar and start working out when the plumber would be best installing the bathtub.

The letter requires a template, because letter writing is not a run of the mill activity, and then printing, signing, scanning and sending. Therefore, it is twenty past ten by the time I have chased the Mother out of the room.

I look at the screen and take a calming breath

It’s not a situation unique to me. Finding time to concentrate and work on those things requiring deliberate practice, like playing the piano, is difficult. Especially when you live with other people. Routine and closed doors help, but since I live out of a suitcase, they can be difficult to come by.

We can complain about distractions

Pigeons flutter across the field opposite. However, I’m not sure the real problem is the distractions themselves. I am not a helpless child waiting until my family are asleep to have quiet to do her homework. My problem is the absence of ferociousness when it comes to dedicating, and protecting, the time I set aside for my work. I’m the one who’s responsible.

Yes, I’m at risk of sounding lecture-y, as my sister would say.

Perhaps my voice here gives away my insecurity

I want to be dedicated to the few things that matter most to me, but sometimes it’s hard to dispel the distractions. I can put my phone in a drawer and hide from social media. My phone is a tool. People present a trickier challenge. What can I do about my mother popping in to ask if I can take her to her appointment next Wednesday? Or popping into the study to tell my sister (who’s now working at the father’s desk) our father is on his way home? They’re going to brew some beer together.

When my mother is happy and smiling, she uses her sweet little sing-song voice and adds a sugary sorry to each interruption.  How is it possible to be angry with her when she’s being adorable? How can I muster up my ferociousness and declare that I need quiet when I’m sitting in her chair, at her desk, with a tummy full of her cooking? It’s impossible.

I roll my eyes and smile; I must keep trying.

I find thinking about deliberate practice as a mindset helps

For me, it comes down to deliberate choice. Am I reacting to the many factors around me? Is the urgency of a few tasks dominating my mind? Or am I making careful choices about how I spend my time? If I let myself roll with my surroundings, if I forget to pause and prioritise, then discover I haven’t painted or written anything in a while.

What’s more, I end up tired. This spirals: I sleep too few hours, don’t run or cycle, forget to meditate and find I can no longer touch my toes because I haven’t been doing yoga. The excuses roll in, I say I’ve been too busy but this reality is I haven’t been ferocious enough about protecting my priorities.

I used to object to time plans

The rigidity goes against my nature. I was much more comfortable with imagining I’d get things done in a gentle spontaneous manner. This was a convenient lie to tell myself. My getting things done looked like a deadline and a mighty rush. It did not feel good and often left me feeling unsatisfied with the work I had accomplished.

I could do it, because I could rely on my quick brains to solve any last-minute issues and, my tongue, if necessary, to talk me out of problems. This is like people who don’t sleep much saying they can function with less sleep between yawns. Progress might get made but how do we feel about it?

Furthermore, I used to think planning took too much effort

And as it was inevitable the plans would fail, they were pretty much pointless.

But I got frustrated by my lack of good feeling about my achievement. Not planning was resulting in an erratic output of work which runs contrary to my belief that consistency is essential. You can’t run a marathon if you only run when you’re in the mood. And you cannot complete a novel if you’re not sitting down to write when the house is silent.

In my schedule, I marked off the hours already committed to something or other with coloured pencils and then looked at what was left.  What I noticed about my plans was how little time I had to write. Furthermore, once I started looking at the time set aside to writing, I realised most of it was spent doing random admin tasks. Useful things to be sure, but not what I had intended.

At which point, I took a Sunday and I marked out a whole long stretch for writing

I designed the day to support my writing rather than trying to fit the writing around what was already in my day. And it was like falling in love with the art all over again. So I edited work I’d been doing and found I had the time to think about the wording. I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t contemplating the bus timetable or my to-do list. Instead, I’d submerged in the activity I wanted most to be doing and was loving it. I felt I could even do it well.

Which is why I read about Anders Ericsson’s research

He’s fascinated by people who excel, and I’d like to excel.

I’m trying to build my routines through awareness of what I’ve now learnt. People excel through conscious determination. They need a willingness to keep at the minute details. Not in a half-minded way, but with the honed skill of keeping at it. Ericsson thinks of this essential commitment as a skill, something it takes time to develop. It’s a skill found in athletes and serious musicians and, I hope, to be developing in me.

Oh and it’s all a lie anyway. I have a room of my own here; I just don’t have a chair.

A quarter of the way around the world

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
It’s quite the distance to Chile from here.
Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire, July 2017.

Very soon I am going to fly a quarter of the way around the world to Chile, where, for the next year I shall be teaching English. I am, if we are being mild with our words, overwhelmed. It’s not going to Chile that’s overwhelming. Nor is it the idea of teaching. Culture shock I’m sure is awaiting me at passport control but I’ve taught English before and this isn’t my first time living abroad. No, what’s got me overwhelmed this time is the haste with which I’ve been living this last two months.

It’s the travel up and down the country and the suddenness at which things seem to happen. Then, add to this, seeing people I haven’t seen in a long while and trying ever so hard to make those moments count, maybe too hard sometimes. How inevitable it is that my brain feels like mashed potato.

I was going to spend this week being calm, writing, reading and painting. That didn’t quite work out because with less than 48 hours of notice I had an appointment in London on the seventh floor of the Chilean Embassy. The lift was broken. They play Classic FM in the lobby where you wait for your documents to be processed. A couple of Americans were also waiting for their documents. At one point, the young man sat upright in his chair with a suddenness that made the rest of the room turn.

The Chilean Embassy.
London, July 2019

“Is that… Is that our national anthem?” he asked.

The woman beside him frowned and shook her head.

I thought no, that’s the music to Indiana Jones.

I walked away with an inky thumb, a visa and a selection of important-looking documents. I crossed the road and lay down on the green grass of St James’ Park with my packed lunch.

There was a black swan with tiny cygnets in the water, which seems a bit late to me, but I’m no swan breeding expert. I thought back to the pheasant who visits us at home, sadly she’s lost all her babies, and to the cygnets that we used to count every time we walked around the lake near the house where I once used to live when I was smaller and more naïve. It’s these wandering, winding thoughts that I feel have been absent from my mind recently. Perhaps I’ve been focused on what needs to get done and lacking in time spent staring, watching the world around me flutter by.

I guess I’m stressed, but saying I’m stressed feels like an excuse. I keep hearing myself implore that I’m tired. I am tired but whenever I hear the words escape my mouth, I find myself thinking back to the predictable conversation in the office kitchen, back in that distant past when I had a desk job.

How are you?

Tired. Yourself?

The same.

I’m not that sort of tired. I’m not tired of my day to day, nor the people in my life. I’m not lacking enthusiasm. No. I guess it’s more like my fans are overheating. Is there a word for that?

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

By Posted on Location: 5 min read
Some well-behaved calves between Malham Cove and Malham Tarn. Keep scrolling to see ‘the cow’.
North Yorkshire, July 2019.

For many years, I considered cows to be kind of docile, boring creatures. They lacked the elegance of horses. They were scarier to meet in a field than sheep. However, I consider myself educated. According to the radio the other day, they like opera. According to a nature-loving friend, they also exhibit a great deal of curiosity.

So long as you don’t spook them.

The cow on the mind of everyone here is called Lionel

This is not what his owner calls him, but it’s the name I have given him, now we have become close-acquaintances. He’s a beautiful cow (although you could argue he’s not a cow at all, being as he’s a boy). He has a strong, muscular build and satin-like shiny black fur.

For one reason or another, the electric fence, which keeps Lionel and his buddies in the field opposite our house, stopped functioning. I blame Lionel. The father says it’s because one of the posts has snapped.

Whatever the cause, the wire no longer curbs Lionel’s curiosity, and as such, the other day he discovered himself free to adventure.

First, he investigated the river at the bottom of his field

It’s a shallow stream. Part of the river is where Lionel and his mates drink. They appear at the top of the hill and gallop down with such heavy footing I’m forced to take on a new respect for the strength of their legs. It’s a steep hill, the cows descend without fear, throwing their entire bulk forward. To my eyes, it looks as impossible that they will make it to the bottom of the hill without snapping a foreleg as it looks reasonable for a plane to fly.

Lionel leads the troops.

So, although it was a new section of the river to investigate, it wasn’t enough to sate his curiosity.

At this point, he climbed up the other side of the bank

He did not understand the Mother owns this land and he is not welcome.

The Mother said, “Catherine, there’s a cow by our fence.”

I said, “Dear cow, you are not welcome here, this is my Mother’s garden, please go away.”

Lionel scratched his head against a small bush, taking out the bush. Once the bush had been destroyed though, he did decide to return to his field.

Being naive, I said, “Let’s call him Lionel.”

I took his photo and sent it to the Father and considered it all quite jolly.

The next morning, I was waking up when the Mother shouted at me

“Catherine, the cow is in the garden.”

Now I wasn’t a witness to the incident

Lionel had made yet another excursion to our side of the river and somehow moved through the fence into our garden. I cannot quite work out how this occurred, as enough of the fence was left standing that Lionel now found himself trapped in our garden.
Not one to leave the Mother being distressed without immediate assistance, I ran outside in my dressing-gown. A couple of friends who were staying the weekend were prancing around talking to Lionel. Someone closed the gate to the road.

The fence was going to prove a problem

My parents are fans of doing a proper quality job when they do something and the fence, I believe, is supposed to outlast them. It wasn’t designed to be taken apart by me in my dressing-gown on a Friday morning.

As we were trying to create an escape route for Lionel, ward him away from the fruit trees and gooseberry bushes and keep him well clear of the greenhouse, he started getting a bit agitated. I didn’t fancy our chances against a distressed cow. The Mother called every possible place we could think of to get help with a cow problem, but nowhere had a phone line open before 9 am.
Nine o’clock seemed a long way away.

Lionel started to experience his first travel woes

And his pals, like all good friends, wanted to provide support. Before we knew it more cows were crossing the river and climbing the steep and dangerous bank to get to Lionel.

They didn’t want to climb the precarious bank but, out of loyalty, they would. These cows couldn’t, however, navigate through a fence.

My visitors and Lionel continued to prance around the garden, the Mother shut herself in the house and I got dressed.

Somehow, the fence was broken

It took a long time and left us with a further problem. We had to let Lionel out of the garden without inviting his gang in. I went through the fence and asked the cows to leave. There were a thud and a splash and, for a second, I thought a foreleg must have snapped as a large lump of cow plummeted into the stream. It didn’t.

Lionel hopped up from the drive onto the lawn and moved, with hesitation, towards the opened fence. One of my friends jolted forward and Lionel turned in panic. Adrenaline must have been flowing through the blood of both men.

“Slow down,” I said, talking to cow and man

Lionel looked at me with distrust and turned back towards the opened fence. The moment he was through another friend swung the remains of the fence back in place. From here Lionel could find his way down to the river and reconnect with his fellow cows.
Determined not to have any further cow incursions, we barricaded the fence shut with some logs and went inside for breakfast. After some time splashing around in the stream, the cows returned up the hill for theirs.

The Mother was still fuming; she is not a fan of Lionel

But I have respect for him. Curiosity is a precious skill. It’s an ability many people don’t think about strengthening. They repeat themselves in the same safe loops. They stay in their fields only heading into the river when someone else has gone there first.

Lionel, July 2019.

Learning to outline (and evaluate that outline)

By Posted on 4 min read
Results or excuses: getting up early as planned
Results or excuses: I had to plan ahead and set the alarm to get up early enough to have a final glimpse of Murcia. I wandered through the city for an hour before going to have breakfast at one of the earlier opening bakeries.
May, 2019.

Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”

And Blaise Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which translates as, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

And various other people at various other times said something similar. And it’s all bullshit.

It’s an excuse.

What it means is that the writers leapt right in

They felt rushed and therefore didn’t pause to think about what it was they were going to write before they wrote it. Long-winded writing (which is something I excel at) comes from poor planning.

I have been studying writing now for a while, and the biggest factor contributing to long-windedness, without doubt, is in how well I outline. In this brief article, I will write about my outlining review process, which does assume I have already created an outline.

Why do I care so much about avoiding bloated articles?

When I was voicing my distress at my article length getting out of hand someone asked why this was a problem. There are benefits to long articles, such as in appearing in search results, and many people find putting together a short article much easier than writing a long one. All this is irrelevant to me, I want to be able to sit down with the intention of writing 800 words, outline those 800 words, and come out with 800 words.

I want to be able to predict how much I need to write and how much time that’s going to take and get the prediction right.

So, when I’m outlining, I review my outline against my prediction

The question I first ask is have I chosen the right word count for the subject matter? If the outline suggests that the article is going to be too long, which is a frequent occurrence for me, I split the article into separate outlines there and then. Before I’ve written a sentence.

A quick look through an outline can give a good sense of whether it’s about to spiral out of control. If the points I’ve outlined are vague, it’s going to spiral. If I’m too emotional about what I’m writing, it’s going to spiral. If it’s a topic I lack confidence on, it’s going to spiral.

But how does one stop an article spiralling across too many pages?

The question I ask myself is whether each point marked out in the outline is going to require more than one paragraph to explain. An ideal paragraph contains a single idea which you develop within that paragraph. If my idea will overflow my paragraph, then I need to break that idea down into its respective points at the outlining stage.

If you’ve got readers on mobile devices, then you might feel compelled to create super short paragraphs

Personally, I love long sentences and long paragraphs (assuming they are eloquently punctuated). I love beautiful writing. But on my phone, lengthy blocks of text are more challenging to consume. To keep my paragraphs short, I break-up some of the longer paragraphs and excessive sentences during my edit.

You’ll learn from practice how long your paragraphs tend to be. And from this, you can approximate how many paragraphs you need for your desired word count.

Outlines might feel restrictive – you may instead believe writing should be a free activity

Ideas should pop out at great, fabled moments of inspiration. Words should fly from your fingertips in a natural progression. I don’t disagree. This is exactly how I write my diary, it’s how I write when I’m doing writing-therapy, it’s how I first put story ideas to paper. Some of my best ideas and phrases come like this. But the gods forbid that I edit these ideas as they appeared in their raw form on the page. I’d lose days to it. I have lost days to it. Free-writing is great when you don’t have to then edit.

But what I’m trying to do it learn how to create consistent, strong content

One of the Mother’s phrases that she walloped into my head is that in life you have a choice between results and excuses. Not having enough time to write a short letter (i.e. not planning what it is you want to say) is an excuse.

It’s also inconsiderate to the reader. We’re all under constant information bombardment as it is. If you have something to say that’s worth someone else taking their precious time to listen to, presumably it’s also worth planning.

After all, if we´re being honest, to plan and write a short letter takes a whole lot less time than to write and edit a long one.

Working with your hands (Even if you’re not very good at it)

By Posted on Location: 4 min read
Doing physical labour on a farm in France
Misty sunrise and time for work.
Fields in France, October 2016.

“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks

Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.

I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all the vegetables growing there.

Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen

Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’ at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the hillside.

Then I’d go and join Grandpère

By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day, and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.

I learnt to love stacking logs

There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the ache is part of the harmony.

After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta

I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too. I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving diggers.

Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees

Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.

I fell in love with it.

And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me when I was working in an office.

Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of choice

I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.

When the time came, I could take a flight to my next destination and go try something else.

But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn something.

Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page, chooses to make swords

Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat. The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.

Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.


From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.

‘Adulting’ (Is that even a word?)

By Posted on Location: 5 min read
When she had grown-up, I took the Midget travelling. As you can see by the date, this was a long time ago.
The Dragon Bridge Ljubljana, 2014.

My little sister, the Midget, put three loads of washing on, one after the other, pinned them out on the washing line which stretches the length of her back-garden and commented on how, with the wind and the sun, it was perfect drying weather.

I rolled my eyes a little because she sounded just like the Mother, adult-like.

A little while later we headed out of the house and went for a walk

It rained.

However, as we were walking, she mentioned how being an adult still surprises her. Like being an adult was something as peculiar as being a fairy. Something unnatural and kind of weird.

Of course, I was curious about what she meant by the term she used, ‘adulting’, and being grown-up. After all, my little sister is a house owner with a stone carrying ring on her finger. I might be the one without the regular job and traditional lifestyle, but I’m not ‘adulting’, I’m an adult.

I dug a little deeper wondering what all of this meant.

The other night one of her colleagues came to visit

We played the board game Carcassonne and I cooked dinner. Early in the evening, the Midget sighed, declared it was time for some ‘adulting’ and disappeared out to the shop. Her colleague shook his head with bemusement. He finds her comments about growing-up funny and totally out of character as her supposed incompetence is in sharp contrast to her behaviour at work, which he described as confident.

So, on our walk, I asked my sister about how she feels at work and if she feels like she’s ‘adulting’ when she’s there. The look she gave me said no before she even opened her mouth.

At work, she said, she just felt inexperienced. There was so much more knowledge to acquire. At work, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s learning what’s required for the next step in her career.

I moved the conversation onto sport.

Sport has always been a big part of her life

She’s not doing quite as much as she’d like to right now perhaps, but for the last however long, she’s been in and out of physiotherapy after being taken off a pitch on a backboard and in a neck-brace.

For a few months, I could lift heavier boxes than she could. It was incredible. But, in general, I’ve become used to the idea that she’s fitter and stronger than me. At one stage I could beat her on a long-distance run, but I’m not so sure now.

But because of the injuries, she’s feeling unfit. She might be unfit, but she knows what she’s doing. She’s got the first-aid kits, the tape, the punch bag and the tackle pad. When it comes to sport, she feels like an adult. She’s an adult who’s training to be faster and stronger.

So where is all this ‘adulting’ happening?

I pinned it down to right here in the house. What my sister seems to mean by ‘adulting’ is form filling and kitchen floor sweeping.

It takes time to learn to do these ‘adulting’ tasks

I think the real issue here is she hasn’t accepted the learning process and expects perfection from the get-go. She’s so good at almost everything that she believes something so ordinary and everyday as writing a supermarket shopping list should come easily. And then it doesn’t.

I’m reminded of my Great-Nonna’s housekeeping book

The one where she systematically made a tiny amount of money feed and clothe the whole family. The difference between the challenge facing my sister and the challenge my Great-Nonna faced is vast. My little sister, confident and capable at work, respected and admired within her sporting circles, doesn’t have to worry about looking after the individual pennies. She just needs to get enough food in the fridge to eat during the week.

The Great-Nonna had to treat budgeting like an art form. It demanded time, patience and took time to learn.

I think this is the step my sister is missing. Her to-do list doesn’t include ‘learn to write a shopping list’.

And I think the Midget is doing herself an injustice with her terminology

She’s not playing at being an adult, she is one. Her theory is she makes too many comparisons to other people. Not to me, because I’m ‘unconventional’, but to other people who seem to manage to keep their kitchens clean and refrigerators stocked.

Well, one of the many things I love about my sister is how she is not the same as everyone else. I love how she has priorities and she’s fierce about putting them first. You can’t prioritise everything, so some things fall to second place. If we run out of food, the supermarket is probably open 24 hours. It really is not a big deal.

But comparison is a hard-to-break habit.

The other week we watched a chunk of a home video

In the video, my sister was a cooing baby and I was toddling around bashing things. Our parents were the age we are now but seemed to look younger.

Except it’s all perspective, and how old we look tends to relate more to a context than anything else. Children can’t guess the age of adults without clues like grey hair and such a clue is less viable when so many people dye their hair. At work, I’m often assumed to be younger than I am. I doubt this would be the case if I was in a different job, but many language assistants tend to be just post-university age. Not all, I know a fair number who are the Mother’s age, but many.

What’s more, I’d look quite different wearing a formal jacket, my nails manicured, and my hair styled. Or if you could also see a photograph of me ten years ago.

I look in the mirror and see my grey hairs and contemplate that I am getting older

Meanwhile, whilst the Midget fusses about ‘adulting’, the Mother is ageing backwards. Having got the art of ‘adulting’ pretty much perfected, she’s likely to be found running around the garden in her welly-boots, swinging on her wooden garden swing, or trying to hula-hoop on one leg.

Truly, my family are the best.


As a side note here, this post came about because I asked the Midget what she wanted me to write about and she said herself. If you have something you particularly want me to write about, let me know.