Once upon a time there were six little girls

Wedding photo of David Taylor and Celia Twyneham
Wedding photo of David Taylor and Celia Twyneham

Once upon a time there were six little girls
(all my stories start that way)
and we all lived happily giggling and squabbling
and jumping and wriggling
and running wild and running free
or hiding away in a hedge or a tree.
And our Daddy David was a country vicar
and he always said “Be kind”
and he was kind, he was always kind.
Now from the grave our dear dead Daddy
still reminds us to be kind
and we try, we do our best, we try.
As for mother Celia, every day
she pushed us out the door and whispered
“Go on! Have an adventure! Go!”
and decades dead she still says that
and we obey, it’s easy, it’s OK.
Six old women on the same seesaw
have a primer for life with just two rules
one to be and one to do
and when things start getting out of whack
the sing-song say-so of our parents
can ease us up or down or back.
I need my mother, I need my father
I am my mother, I am my father now.


PS I’m interested to know which lines resonate with you, if any. Maybe you are thinking about your own parents, and the messages that still ring in your ears…

Image and poem and voice by Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 2.0: that means feel free to share them, but always attribute them to me. Thanks!

Long Song Of The Unyoung

Cartoon of worried people looking at an old person with walking sticks

What’s it all about?

This is the story of you, as you are now
or as you will be one day: unyoung.
It looks like the story of me
as I tackle the shock of me being old right now
and watch the spooky movie of me getting even older
sliding every day towards the ranks of the oldest old
as I windsurf over the silver wave and on to the golden tide
of the super-old and stay there barrelling on and on
until I flip and tumble off, in other words I die.
It looks like the story of me as I think
about what that means for now today this minute
and for the future. But no, I’m not the subject
and this is not a memoir. This is the story of you.

About the Long Song Of The Unyoung

I’ve launched into a read-aloud book about ageing, ranging from childhood experiences to the labours of Hercules and my boot camp for the bonus years. I want it to speak directly to your fears and hopes and happies, if you are aware that you have joined the ranks of the unyoung, or will do so one day. And yes, it’s in loose verse so it looks funny but I promise it will be very easy to understand. Not your enigmatic, intellectual poetry but more like the words to a song: a long song, but a simple song, romping along at quite a pace.

The bits I post on my blog will not be in order, so you won’t get the story or the structure of the eventual book. But you’ll get the flavour, and each part will make sense on its own.

Text and terrible drawing by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0. Share freely, please do, as long as you say I’m the writer.

The power of names and nicknames

child sitting on a ram in front of an old army tent
Robin the tomboy about to become Rachel the ewe lamb: the summer before high school

To name a child is brave,
or foolhardy; even now it shakes me.
Lauris Edmond

How many names and nicknames have you had? Have they stuck, do they still work for you? I had a baby nickname, a kid nickname, a couple nickname, and a wife nickname. I’m wondering whether they still hold some truths, some messages for me as I blunder towards the void. If I talk about these nicknames, maybe you’ll be thinking about your own…

But when I think about them, one inescapable truth astonishes me: all my names and nicknames were given to me by other people. None of my names or nicknames were actively chosen by me or even endorsed by me, except for adopting and keeping my husband’s surname, and even those were default decisions. A name plays a powerful part in building your identity, especially when the name-callers have strong opinions about the kind of person they believe or want you to be.

Who am I—a person who accepts and conforms with barely a twitch? Looking back, I think maybe so.

Baby Jigger jigs on forever

As a new baby I was Jigger, so-called by my big sister Jill, because I never stopped jigging and jumping. My mother pinned me into a sleeping bag and pinned the sleeping bag to the mattress of the pram, and still I jumped right out of the pram at the ripe old age of three weeks. Does Jigger still work as a nickname for me today at seventy-eight? Possibly, when I go prancing and even jumping around the dance floor. And possibly not, as I am lazy for much of the day.

Robin a-bobbin’—wistful hint of a former self

This nickname was discarded for Robin, and so I was Robin Taylor all through primary school. Why? The story goes that I could not be a Rachel, because a Rachel was mature, a grown-up woman. They said I was a tomboy, running wild, up trees and in creeks, grubby and fearless and happy outside. (All this is relative, of course—I had my partners in crime.) I was forever making huts up trees, under hedges or in the fowl house.

How does Robin work today for me? Robin Taylor is a delightful name, round and cheerful and honest, don’t you think? And the South Island robin is very cute and it hops around your feet as you walk through the forest stirring up insects—a wild bird that poses as tame for the sake of dinner. I love little Robin Taylor but I think of her as someone from my past.

I carried on making huts and homes in unsuitable places for much of my adult life, but today I look through windows at Wellington’s Green Belt from within the solid enclosure of an apartment. I do love a brisk walk to the top of a hill, but I prefer a strong roof  that does not leak. Nobody would call me a tomboy today, although perhaps I have remnants of rebellion.

As a child I rejected the very idea of being a woman, I wasn’t having a bar of it, and when the symptoms appeared, I was wracked with horror. (Some years later I grew into my destiny as a woman, even embracing it with a certain glee.)

A dignified first name is imposed on an unsuitable child

B&W photo of 11-year-old Rachel in Christchurch Girls High School uniform
Hair cut, school uniform: the day Robin became Rachel. Mission: get some dignity!

My parents believed that I wasn’t dignified enough for a Rachel. When I was about to start secondary school, my godmother stepped in. “Why do you call her Robin? She has her own name, a fine name, and that’s what she should be called.” She, whose own name was Phyllis, won the battle. I was not consulted.

So I had to stop being my own self and become somebody else’s construct of me. The new me had her long blond plaits cut off, wore an ugly gym tunic, spent her days scuttling around a scary corridors full of tall strangers, and had to answer to a spiky new name.

What sort of a person was a Rachel? I was a grubby talky precocious little blonde kid and the only other Rachel in my entire world was a tall Plymouth Brethren girl at school, with a heavy black plait roping down her back: a quiet, calm, grown-up woman who was always clean and tidy. In other words, an alien. And this was to be my role model? Apparently Rachel meant a ewe lamb: luckily I could identify with that instead—running around sheep paddocks was normal behaviour. Baa!

So Rachel was my grown-up name: I had to grow into it. That’s odd, isn’t it? Usually a name grows around a child and the two become one. But Rachel still didn’t fit, apparently, because at university my future husband’s friends called me Tosh, while he called me Pud. Tosh was half of Mac ’n’ Tosh, and Pud was—perhaps my shape, perhaps my cooking? I quite enjoyed these marks of affection at the time. Do they still apply to me? Not on your Nelly.

To the rest of the world I have been Rachel McAlpine ever since.

Switching from patronymic to maritonymic

What? McAlpine? In 1959 a bride’s identity was swallowed by her husband’s: we took their surnames at the altar without blinking. When Grant and I got divorced twenty years later, I looked aghast at that custom. If only I had remained one of the Taylor girls, or renamed myself McTaylor, or Taypine, or Celia!

Too late. By D-day I had been McAlpine for more than half my life, and my four children were McAlpines, and my first three books of poems had been published—as an author I was already Rachel McAlpine. It all seemed far too complicated so I chose to keep my married name forever. I’ve put my mark on McAlpine: I’ve earned it. I know I’m Rachel McAlpine and I’ve grown to like the balance and pointiness of these two words.

Many years later, the role that I’m resisting is that of an old person who happens to be a woman. Another round of forcible growing up is in process. So maybe I need a new name for this phase; how about Griselda Old?

Too old to write another book?

pass-solitude-768-sm.jpg

Writer’s block, Part 1

I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my next book. Unconcerned as always about the quality or even the topic, because a first draft is just that. (Significantly, the chapter was called I didn’t want to write this book.)

Months have passed since I wrote that first chapter. I’d never stopped “working on it”, and my office is overflowing with books, links, and notebooks real and virtual. I kept writing on my blog now and then— and yet curiously, I hadn’t written another word of the book.

Is old age the cause of my writer’s block?

This nasty question is a variation on a mantra that rings and rings, like an automated fraud call from India: “Your current problem is an inevitable, insoluble, bloody awful consequence of advancing age. Get used to it.” Too often that thought springs to mind automatically.

Resist, refine, reframe! Make a list—that might help.

  1. First let’s clean out the pejoratives and make it a genuine question: Is this non-typical (of me) procrastination at least partly a consequence of old age? (Now we’re in business.)
  2. If so, what can I do about it?
  3. If not, what else might be causing the problem?
  4. OK, how can I solve the problem?

Because I’m 78 I have to take this question seriously: is it a sign of old age, that I, who have loved the act of writing all my life, cannot get started on this particular book?

True, my short-term memory does seem to be changing. It’s mobile, it feels like layers of misty muslin, shimmering and distorting with digressions and flourishes. But I believe it was ever thus.

Is my ageing short-term memory to blame?

Half asleep one morning, I constructed half a chapter in my mind, just the way I used to do for every book I’ve ever written. But at my desk later, I couldn’t remember the gist. That delicious creative hypnogogic creative flash was gone, puff, into the void. Like we all do, one day.

So what does it mean, that I forgot two pages of “thought”? As I learned recently[1], our memories are dynamically recreated with each recall. Our brains do not store complete memories but dedicate perhaps a single neuron to remembering something highly specific, freeing most of our brain resources to work on constructing meaning. Remembering and perceiving use the same mental process. When we try to remember something, we’re not just fishing in a pool of complete memories, a pool that grows bigger and bigger as we age, we’re working to make sense of something.

So if I can’t remember what I was going to write, too bad. Why waste time reconstructing a reconstruction when I could use the same resources to construct meaning from scratch, to start from the same point (namely forgetting what I’d decided to write) and think a new thought? The old thoughts were not wasted just because they got forgotten.

Instant write-up trumps instant recall

Fortunately I remembered something else: After thinking a scene or a chapter, I used to write it down immediately, without delay. Interrupting the flow is wasteful, damaging, an insult to the muse. To re-establish contact, I would need to tweak my morning routine—again.

Writing a book requires a functioning brain and a functioning body: all of these eventually degrade—but right now mine are functioning, and that’s all I ask.

Writing a book requires energy and stamina

It also requires intense, sustained, consistent bursts of energy. For us old people, loss of energy can be a problem. I commiserate with my friends but I tend not to admit to it personally. However, at this moment, as I type, nobody’s reading these words, so I will admit that torpor features in most of my days. Catch me after lunch. Sometimes, happily reading, sometimes doing pointless Sudoku. Never dozing! It’s just that I often wake from not-dozing with quite a jolt. Sometimes I debate whether to have a little lie down, but by then it’s too late.

Nevertheless, for many hours of the day I have a familiar level of energy, and my days are my own, I’m in charge of the way I spend my time. No job, no business, and an almost manageable set of commitments. In the last two years I’ve kicked two major stressors out of the way: first my business, then the thankless role of body corporate chair. I am free to reshape my days.

Rejected: old age as a barrier to writing

And so, here and now, I forbid myself to blame the physiology of old age as a legitimate cause of my mysterious procrastination.

Surely now I’ll be able to unpick the true cause or causes of an unfortunate case of writer’s block.

[1] Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Interview with Ginger Campbell, MD. Brain Science Episode 141

Illustration from Old Book Illustrations, public domain, by Peter Newell in Hunting of the Snark

Keeping up with selected blogs your way: follow and fix WordPress settings

Screenshot of WordPress with Settings for notifications
When you follow a blog, set your email preferences at the same time.

Once there were RSS feeds, and I had one on my blog. For months it shuffled people to the wrong URL—my fault, and what a waste.

Some people still prefer RSS feeds, and who am I to suggest a change? Changing online habits is such a pain, and I myself resist it with a little question: how does this improve my own life or others’?

Nevertheless I can’t resist whispering a word of unsolicited advice. O ye bloggers and readers, one tiny new habit can save you rather a lot of time, in the long run.

Follow other blogs without pain or penalty

The immense size, the richness of the WordPress blogging community is both thrilling and overwhelming. After a certain point you need a strategy or you will go crazy!

  • Never miss a post from your favourite bloggers.
  • Never feel overwhelmed by blogs you like but want to read only occasionally.

Each time you follow a new blog by hitting the Follow button (top right of the screenshot above), pause for a second. By activating the Settings icon immediately below, you get some options. First, do you want to be told by WordPress when a new post appears on the blog you’ve decided to follow? It’s not mandatory, it’s a choice. Second, do you want an email with that information? If so, would you like instant updates? Daily updates? Weekly updates?

  • Maybe you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere and don’t want to miss a thing: then you’ll opt for instant updates by email as well as notices in your personalised WordPress Reader.
  • Maybe you have only got about 15 minutes per week to read blogs: then you’ll want updates from just a few key people, and catch up on others on vacation.
  • Maybe you follow 1,000 blogs, but only need to read posts on specific topics. Then you might get weekly updates on specialist blogs, and skim the others with Reader: Search.

 Skim in Reader to select before you read

Using email notifications is a great way to follow your hot favourites, and never miss a post. But you’re sure to follow other blogs as well, blogs that delight you now and then. You’ll want to see a headline before you open that blog. What is this post about? You need a signpost and a summary.

You get that on WordPress Reader facility. For skimming in advance, it is a beauty, on a screen of any size.

So you see, you can probably do everything you need as a reader without exiting the WordPress system. Which saves time.

Still want me to add an RSS Feed? I might. I might not.

Walking back home: joy of serendipitous pavement art

It’s not a long walk home from aerobic dance class, just five small blocks, and I’ve walked that route hundreds of times. But it’s still full of beautiful surprises. Walk home with me now and I’ll show you what I saw tonight.

  1. Small bunch of grapes, elegantly squashed.
Small bunch of green grapes squashed on the footpath
Squashed grapes: a sweet bouquet with a juicy shadow

2. A question mark on the footpath.

Question mark on footpath
Huh? Just what I was wondering…

3. A gloriously decorated parking spot.

Number 23 on footpath with yellow and white squiggles
Carpark no. 23 comes with mysterious runes

4. A tree with a splendid pair of antennae

Tree with street lamps apparently growing from its crown
Is it a tree or a very large insect?

5. Ngaio tree growing in the gutter: good luck, darling.

Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter
Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter. So far so good.

6. Road cones are a beautiful sight if you’re waiting for fibre-optic cable to reach your property.

Road cones in Queen Street
Road cones in Queen Street: progress

7. Before installing cable, workers put squiggles everywhere. But I don’t like the look of this one.

Workers' notes painted in purple on pavement: Dunk
Purple prose: but what are they going to dunk?

8. Nearly home, and it’s crab-apples and lichen: cute, ay?

Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath
Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath

As my friend Dale says, ain’t life grand? If we are lucky enough to be able to walk, such visual delights are just around the corner. If our luck stretches to a smartphone, there’s a bonus.

I tend to notice very small things, and take pleasure in them. And I’ve got a theory about why this is so. I believe that’s an echo of a Japanese aesthetic, and I thank my time in Kyoto for this extra layer of delight.

Are you a search engine or a filing cabinet?

Spectacles on a small filing cabinet that reveals untidy files.
A folder for everything: nice idea, shame about the execution thereof

On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.

By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.

Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web

But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.

(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)

Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.

DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.

Who are you?

search engines vs. filing

  1. Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
  2. Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day.  On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
  3. Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.

All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods

In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.

On WordPress, for example…

  • Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
  • Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
  • We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
  • WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
  • WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
  • WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.

All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.

In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.

  • To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
  • To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
  • To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.

Search engine technology permeates all our work

all-apps-use-search

Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.

Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).

Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.

Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff

Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.

I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.

I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.

What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?

It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.

So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.

I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.

I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.

I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but  … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.