A Positive Tuesday

imageI had an immensely positive day yesterday, and I just wanted to briefly share my experiences with you.

As some of you may know, I’ve been tutoring a Korean student in English for a while now. Just before Christmas, she had an unexpected death in the family, and I didn’t see her for a while. However, we’re back into the swing of things now, and yesterday we had a lesson I’ll remember for a while.

In the previous lesson, my student had been explaining some Korean Christmas and New Year traditions to me, which included some board games. So this week, she brought some games along, and explained them to me. Then, she pulled out a long piece of looped string to show me something. I could tell what she was going for, and I took it from her hands and started the game that a lot of people have unknowingly stored in their minds, Cat’s Cradle. My student was totally shocked that I knew how to do it. But then, a library staff member came over and commented how she had played it as a child, and joined in! So we had a Korean, a Brit, and an Italian American sharing an almost-forgotten childhood game that requires no words. It was a really lovely moment.

But after that, my student said she wanted to speak about the aforementioned family death, as she was now ready to talk about it without getting emotional. I won’t share the details, but she spent over an hour speaking about what happened, and I was incredibly happy to listen and make the occasional comment. She mentioned how she was so happy to have me to speak to, because she doesn’t have too many friends out in California. It was a very moving experience, and I feel very lucky to be a willing pair of ears to this wonderful woman.

And if that wasn’t enough, I didn’t have to correct her English once. She didn’t stumble, she knew what she wanted to say, took her time, and was confident. That was especially rewarding for me, as it seems I’m not a terrible tutor!

Volunteering was something I rarely did in the UK. There isn’t really much of a system that enables people to do it easily. But thanks to fantastic sites like Volunteer Match, I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences of my life in the last few months. I’m not saying it’s something that everyone should do, I’ve just really enjoyed my time helping others. I’m sorry I didn’t make the time for it before.

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“You’re Not That Far”

I turned 32 this week. I used to joke when I was very young (and stupid), that I was going to die in a plane crash when I was 27. Spoiler alert – that didn’t happen. Little did I know when I was spurting that little nugget of bullshit that my life wouldn’t be completely awesome until I reached my thirties.

Being 31 was probably the best year of my life so far. But that’s how it should be, right? Surely every year should just get better and better? Anyway, 31 was the age when I got married to the love of my life, took the trip of a lifetime to Maui, and moved to a part of the world many people would kill to visit. The pressure is on 32. You’d better deliver the goods!

My birthday weekend was great. Will and I met up with my friend Karen and her husband, Corey, on Friday. I hadn’t met Corey before, and I’m pleased to report he is an absolute delight. Turns out, he’s a bit of an Anglophile, and one of the highlights of the night was singing the theme tune to The Young Ones with him. Very weird, but absolutely hilarious.

On Sunday, Will and I visited Santa Cruz, which is about an hour’s drive away from us. We’d visited Santa Cruz a couple of years ago, when we did our PCH road-trip, and there was a mini golf score to settle. We went on a few rides on the Beach Boardwalk (if you’re a fan of being thrown around, and would like an authentic feeling of impending death, I can highly recommend The Giant Dipper). Then we played mini golf, which Will unfortunately won. Here’s a picture of him offering you his ball.  Then we spent some time Downtown, as I wanted to visit Bookshop Santa Cruz, which is an absolutely amazing bookstore. Their graphic novel section is unbelievably good, and they offer quite a lot of used books too. Surprisingly, I didn’t buy anything, as I’m currently working through my ever-growing pile of library books. But still, I am never happier than when I’m surrounded by books.

Then on my actual birthday, I did a great deal of chilling out, and then went for drinks with more friends. We went to First Street Alehouse in Livermore, which has the best waiting staff ever, hands down. Not only did one of our favorite servers buy me a drink, it came with a candle in it. Amazing. Look at my happy little face. You can’t buy that kind of joy (you probably can, quite cheaply).

Will bought me some awesome things, the highlight of which is an amazing hummingbird feeder called, wait for it… 
Amazing. Hummingbirds are quite common in Livermore, but I’m still absolutely fascinated by them. So I’m very happy Will gave me the means to start my own hummingbird army.

So turns out my first birthday in California wasn’t too dissimilar to the ones I had in Manchester. Booze, friends, fun, all the good stuff. I’m very, very happy out here.

Volunteering

I’m proud to have clocked up quite a lot of hours volunteering in the few months that I’ve been here. It’s enjoyable, but extremely humbling. I treasure my time with my Korean student; she tells me some amazing stories and is absolutely hilarious. Her English is already showing signs of improvement.

Working at the thrift store is fantastic. The people I “work” with are great, and the store has recently employed a new manager who is making some really positive changes to the place. But I am often reminded how fortunate I am, as some customers HAVE to shop there, as they can’t afford to buy new things. It will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but I’m incredibly nice to everyone, and I’ve already got some favorite customers. I also get a lot of comments on my “exotic” accent.

But I suppose the most humbling volunteering I do is my position with Incarcerated Voices. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about prison inmates, which I’m sure I was guilty of before I actively sought to change this. Every week, I hear from fiercely intelligent and articulate inmates, speaking about topics that they have in-depth knowledge of. Their opinions and insights are extremely valuable, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to expand my knowledge and understanding of the world through them.

And before you start assuming I’m having some kind of mental breakdown and am a “pen-pal” to these people, take a minute to have a look at the valuable work Incarcerated Voices does. I’ve found the whole thing incredibly rewarding, and if this sounds like something that appeals to you, I highly encourage you to get involved. It’s not scary in the slightest.

https://www.incarceratedvoices.com

More September Stuff

It’s been a bit of a mad week. I’m starting to settle into my routine, now that all my volunteer positions for the rest of the year have been sorted.

I’ve officially started as a literacy tutor at Livermore Library, which is great. I get to spend a couple of hours with my student each Monday, essentially having a chat, and occasionally correcting their grammar. We’ve set a few goals, so it will be great to see how much progress is made over the next few months. I’m already finding it to be extremely rewarding, and we’ve only had a couple of sessions.

I also did another shift at the thrift store, and did a few hours working on stuff for Incarcerated Voices (which continues to be very interesting and fulfilling). I also had a (successful) interview about another, more involved volunteer position next year, which requires over 60 hours of training. So that’s another new adventure coming up in 2016.

Over the weekend Will and I went to see Between Riverside and Crazy, the latest, Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It was our first visit to ACT’s Geary Theater, which is a beautiful building. The play was wonderful; I intend on doing a full review at some point this week.

We also went to a huge book sale at Fort Mason, organised by the Friends of the San Francisco Library. I didn’t go too mad, and only picked up four books (The Leftovers, We Were the Mulvaneys, and a couple of play scripts. Four dollars in total, thank you very much).

One of the plays I’d never heard of, but took a punt because I liked the name (The Nerd, by Larry Shue). However, reading the opening notes, I was reminded of Manchester. The play premiered in the early 80s in Milwaukee, but guess where it ended up next? 

Madness.

On Sunday, we were invited by two wonderful friends to go and tour some wineries with them in a lovely little place called Murphys. There were basically more wineries than people. Amazing. All three places we went to were lovely. Links are below if you fancy a nosey.

La Folia

Four Winds

Mineral Wines

I also had a little moment of joy on Friday (pre-booze) that I thought was worth sharing. Will and I were walking out of our apartment complex, and I felt something catch the back of my shoe. I turned around expecting Will to be crouched behind me, trying to make off with my Converse, but I was greeted by a gorgeous little tiny puppy who just wanted to say hello. And possibly steal my shoe. I don’t know. But it was such an unexpected sight, and a pleasant one, that it made my heart swell. If I see that dog again, it’s going to mysteriously disappear into my handbag.

Getting on with Stuff

Volunteering

I started my second volunteering stint this week. However, I’m not entirely sure how much I’m allowed to say about it. So, I’m just going to point you in the direction of this website, and leave it at that.

Volunteering seems a lot more organised in the US. And as a result, it’s just something people do. I’ve spoken to people with full-time jobs and families who still manage to dedicate time to their community. The most valuable tool I’ll discovered so far as Volunteer Match. You can select your causes, give your location, and they’ll give you a   few suitable options. They also have virtual volunteering positions.

Walking

This weekend, Will and I went for a hike at the lovely Lake Chabot. Seriously, look at how beautiful this place is.

We managed just over ten miles, which was pretty great going for a Sunday. Then, of course, we went and had a beer. Or three. Our current pub of choice is Tap 25, which serves loads of different beers, and the menu changes every day. Here’s Will with a drink that I definitely don’t like the smell of.

 

Driving

Regular readers of my blog will remember that I passed my UK driving tests years ago, and then didn’t bother driving. However, this week, I had my first US driving lesson, and it went great. My instructor was an former truck driver, who looked like an aged version of this chap:

He also had “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles. He was awesome. And not the kind of chap you’d expect to find in a BSM car. So after such a positive experience, I’ve booked my driving test in soon. I’ll have another couple of lessons first, but I’m so relieved to be behind the wheel again. I’ve got an idea where my driving anxiety comes from, which I won’t go into here, but there is absolutely no real reason why I thought I wouldn’t be capable. Will’s been super supportive too, which he always is.

Comics

For several reasons, I’ve been on a real comic book/graphic novel kick this past couple of weeks. The first is the unbelievably amazing Suicide Squad trailer.

I’ve never read any Suicide Squad comics, so I checked out Kicked in the Teeth, which is available from Amazon for an entirely reasonable 49p. It’s pretty good, and gives a bit of background on Harley Quinn’s character. If anyone knows any better SS comics, give me a shout.

I’ve also been reading the newly-revived Invader Zim (hurray), Joe Hill’s Locke and Key series (okay, but not as good as his literary fiction), and a book called Eustace by Steven Harris. It’s a collection of wonderful pencil drawings telling the story of young Eustace, who is confined to his bed due to illness. Things start to go a little bit mad when he discovers one of his uncles hiding under the bed.

It’s a couple of years old, but it was just sitting in the graphic novels section of the library. Glad I picked it up.

Actual Books
It’s been a bit like Tracey’s miserable book club this week, as I finished a couple of particularly harrowing novels.  
As I finally neared the end of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I had a box of tissues waiting on the table. To be honest, tragedy and upset were spread throughout the book’s hundreds of pages, but the bond I had formed with the characters would make the ending especially difficult. Now that the book is over, I feel the same sense of loss I felt at the end of Breaking Bad. And this morning I found out it has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize AND the Guardian’s Not the Booker. Seriously, you need to read this book.

I probably should have moved onto something lighter after being put through the emotional wringer, but no. I went straight into David Vann’s Aquarium. Not as harrowing as A Little Life, but still pretty disturbing. After school, while waiting for her single mother to finish work, Caitlin spends a couple of hours at the aquarium. She begins speaking to an old man, who she regularly sees amongst the fish tanks. His identity unravels a hidden family secret, which will threaten to tear Caitlin’s tiny family apart.

I raced through this book; it was a fantastic read. The themes of water and marine life provide a great contrast to the darkness of Caitlin’s life. It’s strangely beautiful. But again, it’s pretty disturbing.

So now I’m onto something slightly lighter, Primates of Park Avenue. Written to Wednesday Martin (really), it’s an account of her time as a parent amongst the evil mothers of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s pretty light, but the content so far has made me want to avoid having children if it means regressing back to a high school clique mentality to “survive”.

Oh, and the postie brought me this pile of loveliness to work through too. Yay!

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!

My life in California is very different from my old life in the UK in a lot of ways. Some of it is due to location, but I think it’s partly due to getting older, and not really being arsed about tiny things anymore.

Work

While I can’t say I miss working (because I’m not an idiot), it does feel a little weird not having to go and sit in an office for a good eight hours every day. I guess you could argue that a job should give you “purpose”, but I don’t feel like I was defined by my past career in Higher Education. There were times when I loved it, and times when it was unbearable, but it was never a crusade for me. I guess the only times when I’ve felt what I was doing had a purpose was when I “worked” in arts journalism. Reviewing and promoting theater, and music before that, I felt like it was something worth doing. In a small way, I helped people achieve their dreams, and enabled them to continue doing what they loved. Plus, free tickets to stuff, and getting to speak to some of my idols didn’t exactly hurt either; I’m not completely altruistic.

So, with this new-found luxury of free time, I’ve started volunteering. This week, I began my training to become a Literary Tutor at Livermore Library. This will basically entail spending a couple of hours a week with an adult learner, helping them to achieve whatever literary goals they may have, whether that be enabling them to help their kids with homework, passing their high school equivalency exam, or just generally giving them more confidence with the written word. During the training, we’ve been faced with some pretty scary statistics regarding adult literacy in the US. Apparently one in four young adults drop out of high school. Madness. So I’m happy to be doing my bit. Plus, I’ve met some lovely people from the local area, who I will hopefully stay in touch with.

Make-Up

In Manchester, it would just be part of my daily routine to shove a bit of eyeliner on before even contemplating leaving the house. Here, I just don’t bother painting my face on. Okay, I’ll make a bit of an effort if we’re going out drinking, but otherwise, I don’t really feel the need (apart from drawing my eyebrows on. I don’t want to scare children). Plus, I have some pretty awesome freckle action going on.

And you know what? The world hasn’t crumbled, I don’t get abused on the streets, MAC hasn’t gone out of business, and Will hasn’t left me. I know there’s a certain sense of self-confidence that comes with “looking your best”, but if you’re at your best all the time, doesn’t that then just become normal?

Saying that, my barnet is in desperate need of attention.

Mental Health

For various reasons, my mental health suffered in the few months before we left the UK. It was a very stressful time, and given the pace at which I had been both living and working for the past couple of years, something had to give.

Out here, my mind isn’t exactly quiet, it’s just filled with good stuff. I’m not really worrying about the tiny minutiae of conversations I have or have not had, nor letting out my valuable headspace to negative people. Instead, it’s been replaced with thoughts about writing, the books I’m reading, what I want to do with my time, and all the other exciting stuff Will and I have to look forward to.

I’ve also taken to going on daily walks, which feels fantastic. I’ve found a nice route in the park near where we live, and do just over three miles a day. I’m slowly working my way up to running, but let’s not go mad.

Reading

Ah, time to read! It’s brilliant. I’ve gone a bit mad. Here’s what I’m on at the moment:

A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara) – Still working my way through this one (it’s a whopper). It’s brilliant though, and the characters are amazing. But it’s so harrowing. Just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does. But it’s incredibly gripping. Can someone else read it so we can talk about it, please?

Locke and Key (Joe Hill) – Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he’s a brilliant author (I constantly recommend his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, and N0S4R2 is fantastic as well). Locke and Key is his graphic novel series, with illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez. I’ve just read the first book, and really enjoyed it. Really creepy.

Armada (Ernest Cline) – Ready Player One is my jam, I absolutely love that book. Armada is Cline’s second novel, and I started reading it as soon as it landed on my Kindle app yesterday. I’m three chapters in and I’m already in love. If you’ve never read Ready Player One, just do it now. It’s fantastic. Then pick this one up.

Love, Nina (Nina Stibbe) – £1.99 in the amazing Amazon Kindle summer sale. I’ve been wanting to read this one for ages, and it hasn’t disappointed. The book consists of letters from Nina that she sent home to her sister while she was working as a nanny in London in her twenties. Alan Bennett pops up in it quite a lot. It’s hilarious.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke) – I was absolutely gutted to miss this when it was on TV, as we left the UK after the first two episodes. No doubt I’ll see it at some point (the blu-ray comes out over here next month), but I’ve had this book sitting in my Audible account for literally years, so thought I’d make a start while I’m on my walks.

I did also start David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but wasn’t giving it the attention it deserved, so I’ll come back to that one. Although there was a great line:

“I’ve never met a Tracy I didn’t like.”

I can forgive the misspelling of Tracey as the intent is quite lovely.

Livermore

We’re home! We’ve graduated from hotel living (which had its perks) to Chardonnay Garden apartments in beautiful Livermore, which we will be calling home for the next year.

I start my first volunteering opportunity on Monday, as a Literary Tutor at Livermore Public Library which is luckily just across the street from where we live. It basically entails helping those whose first language isn’t English with their reading and writing skills. I have a few days training, and then hopefully I’ll be able to dive in. I’ve already visited the library and it’s an absolutely gorgeous (and evidently very well-funded) building.

Given that driving is such a huge way of life in California, we’ve got a lovely car (2014 VW Beetle, if you’re interested in that kind of thing). We also had our first DMV experience, which wasn’t as hellish as we’d been led to believe. We’ve both passed our written tests, and I’ve booked myself some driving lessons to try and remember how to drive. For those who don’t know, I passed my test (first time) about five years ago, and NEVER DROVE AGAIN. Not the best idea, I wouldn’t recommend it. But I’m fixing it.

Actual photo of me at the DMV
I took my first walk to downtown Livermore today. On my way, I saw a group of men approaching me, and braced myself to flash my “sorry, I’m British, please don’t harrass me” card. One of them spoke to me, but I didn’t hear him, so I popped my earphones out. Then came some of the best words in the English language:

“Excuse me, is the library this way?”

My heart soared! Yes, yes it bloody is. And it’s brilliant. You should go. I’ll come with you.

Cultural Highlights of the Week

Film – Love and Mercy 

A great little film about Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame (and a strange hero of mine, not entirely sure why. Probably because he dedicated all that time to lying in bed), starring John Cusack as older Wilson, and Paul Dano as younger Wilson. The film switches between Wilson’s early life, starting after the Beach Boys’ initial wave of success, around when Pet Sounds was recorded, to when Wilson met his wife Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks) in the late 80s.

I had the honor of seeing Brian Wilson at the Bridgewater Hall a few years ago, and it was a strange experience. He didn’t seem real; he looked and moved more like something from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop. The voice was kind of still there, but Wilson’s son did most of the vocal graft (which wasn’t too bad, because he sounded exactly like his father).

I was always under the illusion that the husk of a man Wilson had become was due to a life of indulgence in questionable substances, but it turns out this isn’t necessarily the case. Not only was Wilson’s father a hugely abusive man, but Wilson was a man who was almost constantly taken advantage of, by people like his psychotherapist, Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti in the world’s worst wig). A unique talent, but a troubled one, people must have seen Wilson as a very easy target. The first scene of the movie has a young Wilson playing the classic ‘God Only Knows’ for his father, who is completely indifferent, and Wilson is understandably upset. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

“No, it just crawled up there and died. I don’t want to touch it.”
Even if you’re not a fan of the Beach Boys, it’s still a very interesting film. Elizabeth Banks and Paul Dano are especially great.

Book – A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness 

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, and found a hardback copy at the aforementioned Livermore library. I’m not exagerating (and Will will back this up), when I say that I had a mini breakdown when I finished this book.

It’s a YA novel about teenager Conor, who is struggling to cope with his mother’s cancer. He is visited by a monster, who will tell him three stories. Conor must tell the monster a fourth story, or the monster will eat him alive. As well as coping with the cancer, and the looming threat of digestion, Conor has to navigate the tricky world of high school, frustrating family members, and learning who he really is.

Apparently, the idea for this book came from Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died before finishing the book, and Ness was asked to complete the tale. It really is a wonderful book, with some fantastic messages about the nature of being a human being, regardless of age. There are also some wonderful illustrations by Jim Kay. I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone; it’s just brilliant.