Slightly Odd Tales from the 90s: A Snail Does Something Entirely Sensible

07 September 2017

Poppy seed cases and flowering crocosmia

One of the major sources of entertainment and interest for my sister and me when we were children was the flora and fauna of the garden. Our garden didn't have anything particularly out of the ordinary in it, but we were quite easily entertained, and not very fussy, which are useful qualities for a village upbringing.

When I was eight I used to spend days mashing up different plants in jars of water, to see which made the best colours (results: elderberries for purple, and goosegrass for a good bright green, FYI) and I thought the mosquito larvae that turned up in some of my unused jars of water were bloody amazing. The way they breathed air through a tube sticking out of their arse, hanging upside down on the surface to do it until startled, and then swimming off by flicking their whole bodies one way and then the other was like no other animal I had ever seen.

I kept a small menagerie of them at the bottom of the garden, made sure their water was topped up and clean, and sometimes sorted them by size and life-cycle stage into different jars. Before they became adults and flew off (probably to come and bite me in the night), they went through a pupal stage in which they were comma-shaped and had two little horns instead of arse-tubes to breathe through and this was all really really interesting because I got to observe it happening, wondered what the hell was going on and eventually found a book that explained it. Properly retro, or as we didn't call it in those days, The Only Way You Could Actively Find Things Out Without Just Asking An Adult Who Might Not Even Know Anyway But Possibly Wouldn't Admit it and Could Very Well Just Make Something Up.

So far, so kind-of-a-bit-gross. I would like to clarify at this point: I grew out of this. A long time ago. I no longer deliberately cultivate larvae of any kind*. (I did take A-level biology, later, though. We studied really thin slices of beetroot under microscopes for an entire term, and this may have got something out of my system, although I'm not sure what.)

Some years later my sister developed an interest in snails. I have to say she had rather better taste in garden wildlife than me, at the very least because snails don't ultimately turn into winged disease-carrying biting things. As far as we observed, anyway. For a month or so one summer, there was an old fish tank in the garden into which she'd collected loads of snails. We provided them with water, fresh food every day, shelter, whatever else it said in the books about snails that you should include when observing them, the works.

They were eventually all released back to the wild, but while they were with us we got to see something which was not in any of the books. And - not that I've asked everyone I've ever met, because it doesn't come up in conversation that often - nobody else seems to have heard of it happening. I also can't find any reference to it on the internet anywhere. But it wasn't a dream because I have a co-witness, and it happened.

One of the snails my sister found had a small hole in its shell - about 4mm across. We were concerned about this snail, and wondered if we could help it. Books said that snail shells were formed with the aid of calcium, which came from limestone that occurred in the soil. They didn't explain the mechanism by which the snail shells were created from the limestone, so we weren't sure if getting some limestone and putting it near a snail would actually work in this case. But we thought it might be worth a go.

If you went out of our front door, crossed the road and went a little way up the track that went out round the field, on a clear day you could see the Uffington White Horse marked out in chalk on the hill in the distance. Some weekends my family would go up there for a walk. It was the best place for a walk - as well as the hill where the horse itself was, there were tracks around woodlands and across hillsides along the Ridgeway, and even when it was raining it was still brilliant because it had really interesting mud. It was beige, for a start. Beige can no longer be called boring when it's mud that's doing the being-beige**. The texture was like clay: the puddles were like the slip we mixed up for sticking bits of clay pots together in art lessons, and the thick mud at the edges almost like the clay we used. But beige.

The light beige colour, of course, came from all the naturally occurring limestone mixed in with the clay soil -- limestone-filled trenches being what the horse was constructed from on the hillside. Sometimes you could find whole lumps of it lying at edge of the woodland track. And so the weekend after we found the holey snail, we made it our mission to find a good chunk of the stuff, bring it home to the snail, and see if anything happened.

A lump of limestone was duly captured, and when we got back we located the injured snail in the tank, and put it directly onto the limestone. It was inside its shell, but after a minute or so it emerged. And then it started work: we saw a bit of radula action going on as it examined what it was now situated on, and then as we watched we saw it bring its head inside its shell, put its mouth on the edge of the hole, and spit out what was presumably a mix of snail slime and chewed up limestone. Then it stuck its head back out, did some more chomping, then went back in and spat out some more on the edge of the hole. And within an hour, they was a thin membrane covering the entirety of the hole in the snail's shell. It knew exactly what to do, immediately. It was all a lot more straightforward than we were expecting.

It was one of those things that you find out when you're young, and are just like, "Huh, ok, that's how that thing works", and accept it and carry on learning more new stuff -- except that after that I never heard of it or saw it ever again, and realised about 15 years later how cool and weird it was to have seen something like that.

It is possible that that particular snail was just amazingly intelligent and innovative. But I'm not about to go around puncturing any snails in order to replicate the process, because a) it's mean, b) I have more pressing matters to attend to and c) I don't live near a source of limestone anymore. But presumably a normal stick of chalk would also work. So. Just in case anyone reading this needs to know what to do next time they come across a holey snail: let it eat chalk. And this time, given that it's not 1996, if it Does The Thing, make a video of it so we have proof, because there's none of this on YouTube and there's kind of still the possibility that it was a collective hallucination after spending too long hanging around Wayland's Smithy.

*Not even human larvae

**Well, I mean, it can, but I'll just argue that you have no taste in mud and can't appreciate a decent interesting example when you see it

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Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.

No Waiting

22 August 2017

Poppy growing out of concrete I've never used the word "bad-ass" before but I would like my first and potentially only use of it to be applied to this poppy. Because it is growing in, like, nothing

Round the back of Durham railway station in the pick-up area there is a lamp post bearing a large friendly sign that says 'No Waiting'. I'm 99.9% sure it is aimed solely at vehicles. Obviously, as a pedestrian awaiting a lift from the station, it is the irresistable choice of lamp post to lean against nonchalantly for the duration.

I was doing this the other day, and two sixty-something men came past and I could see them looking at me in a slightly amused way, and their mouths twitching a bit as if wanting to say something but not quite being sure whether they should. I am extrapolating that they couldn't determine whether I was doing it on purpose and would be glad they'd got the joke (ooh! and maybe we could've had "banter"), or whether I wasn't aware of it and if they were to jokingly say, "You can't stand there! It says "no waiting" on that one, pet!' I'd think they were serious and get upset or have an argument with them or something.

In the end they didn't say anything, which was at once rather refreshing, because strange-men-not-saying-predictable-unsolicited-things-to-women-in-street = overall setting a good example and it is good and considerate to be cautious in such circumstances, but also a bit disappointing, because I didn't get to say, "Yeah, but I'm a rebel." I actually had some banter prepared. (Obviously there is no pleasing me.) But I did sort of raise an eyebrow ever so slightly and I think they saw, so I'm hoping the joke has been received and understood, but in a subtle and understated way, without requiring any more interaction than small twitches of the face.

In Which I Apparently Deal With Unruly Children Effectively

06 August 2017

Our next-door neighbours have nine grandchildren. Fortunately they do not usually all visit them at once, but there is a fairly steady stream of twos and threes. As far as I can perceive, these children have two settings: absent, or yelling. (So, basically, one setting: yelling. Just not always near me. Thankfully.)

Our garden is small, and the neighbours' garden is much larger. The part of their garden which is furthest away from ours has grass, a set of swings, and a summerhouse filled with percussion instruments. The part of their garden which is closest to ours is made of tarmac infested with mare's tail, and on it are piles of DIY detritus and bits of firewood, so it is obviously where the childen prefer playing. And yelling.

Today we were putting up scaffolding in our garden when two small boys arrived in next-door's garden and began the yelling. I'm sort of used to this by now so was ignoring it as usual, but couldn't help noticing after a while that part of the yelling sounded a bit like a word. And the word was "motherfuckers". On repeat. We smirked for a bit, wondering how long this was going to continue before grandma came outside and told them off for swearing. But she didn't. The larger boy continued to yell "hey motherfuckers" at the top of his voice, and his younger brother valiantly added an occasional "hey mudderfudder" in support. Gradually it dawned on me that they were talking to us. Because after a while it was interspersed with "what you doing up there?" and "he's looking at us!"

Since neither of us generally answers to "motherfucker" or even "mudderfudder", we ignored them for a bit. At one point it seemed like they'd got bored and given up, but then they came back, and came right up to where there's a hole in the fence that you can look through from our garden to theirs and vice versa (which is there for reasons too complex and irrelevant to go into here). They could see our apple tree, it seemed. So they started saying "ooh, apples, look at the apples" very loudly. I began to get that horrible sinking-stomach feeling. They weren't going to give up without a reaction. They were going to make their loudest noise ever, as close to us as possible, for eternity. I was going to have to interact with them. Which meant deciding on what reaction to, like, do.

In 2013 when I apparently lost the ability and/or motivation to write much in the way of words for a few years, I tried keeping a visual diary for a while. It contained this:

Grown woman imagining herself to be six years old, and a small child to be a mean teenager

It's kind of a problem.

My mind briefly plotted a cunning counter-strategy in which I grabbed a field recorder from inside the house, recorded a few bits of "mudderfudder" and similar, played it back to them and then said, "Now, how about we go and play this to Nanna and Grandad?" But then I remembered that I am thirty-six years old and thus probably looked exactly like an adult as far as they were concerned, and so just possibly didn't have to do anything that clever. Because adult.

So I went over to the hole in the fence and looked at them through it. I said, "Hello" in a very calm and measured and assertive voice which is definitely not mine. They looked at me with small blank child-faces and didn't say anything. They were completely silent. "You are being very noisy," I explained, while being very not-cross, and not mentioning that they had called me a motherfucker quite a lot of times just now. I like to think that we had a tacit understanding that I was Shania Twain, and the words at the end of this verse were, "So you know a swear? THAT DON'T IMPRESS ME MUCH".
"Would you like to go and play somewhere else?" I said.
The older one, quite sincerely and politely, said, "Would you like a chocolate cake?"
I said, "No thank you." And then they went away and played somewhere else, a lot more quietly, and stopped calling us motherfuckers.

Which was weird.

Apparently (of course!) they just wanted their existence acknowledged.

Unless they had somehow got the idea that the word "motherfuckers" means "totally cool people to whom we would like to give chocolate cake". That would explain everything.

Do You Want To Punctuate Something With Me.

24 July 2017

There's this thing that's developed within the ways people write questions over the last few years. Well, really it's two things. The first thing belongs to educated layers-of-irony Twitterati types, and it is the omission of the question mark from the end of a particular flavour of rhetorical question. A full stop is used instead. This may have originated from and is still most prevalent in the use of "What." As in, for example, "I just got home from work and found that Mr Blobby had broken into my house and was sitting on the sofa watching Titanic on VHS. What."

Obviously the person writing this wants to mention a noteworthy occurrence and their own surprise about it, but it is most likely that nobody reading it can possibly explain how it might have happened, so no exaplanatory response is actually required. The "What." is an expression of disbelief, but in a tired, low-key sort of way because things of approximately this ilk happen all the time, but it is still kind of irritating. Just not out of the ordinary enough to warrant a "What?" or even a "WHAT?!" because that would be expressing too much emotion and drawing attention to oneself over something trivial.

I have also seen a smattering of the deliberate statement/questions, "What shall I have for dinner.", "WHERE ARE MY KEYS." etc. .

I think this could theoretically be quite a useful way to actively distinguish rhetorical questions from Actually Asking the Internet Something if it became accepted as such, although I don't know if that was ever a conscious decision on the part of the people who first started doing it, because I think it began as an irony-signaller (but who knows? I am not quite up to speed on the current nuances of cool-Twitter-speak). And I don't know if it currently works as a defence mechanism against e.g. mansplaining. Probably all too subtle.

But what has happened to all those displaced question marks left floating about unused in the ether.

The answer is that they have been put on the end of statements? And it's really annoying? And sometimes seems really accusatory and rude?

For example, let us suppose I have a website that sells things. (Because I do, so that's easy.) If a customer was to email me and say, "I tried to add something to my shopping cart on your website but it just takes me straight to PayPal. Is there something wrong with it, or am I doing something incorrectly?" that would be fine and I would be a little concerned and look into it and work out whether there was a problem and email them back with instructions and options and it would all be sorted out.

BUT if a customer was to email me and say, "I tried to add something to my shopping cart on your website but it just takes me straight to PayPal?" I would be extremely irritated with that person. I would still take the aforementioned actions, but really resentfully. Because it sounds whiny and like they know they want to ask me something but they can't be bothered to even figure out what their own question is so they're leaving me to do that for them while providing minimal information about what the problem is and what they want me to do about it. Or, if you can imagine it being part of some dialogue in a book, it sounds like the prelude to something aggressive:

"I tried to add something to my shopping cart on your website but it just takes me straight to PayPal?" exclaimed Ethel in disbelief. "What a ridiculous way to behave! Can't you get a shopping cart that WORKS for ME as I EXPECT IT TO? You pathetic excuse for a web-vendor!"

And maybe I'm a bit over-sensitive about punctuation, and perhaps have an over-active extrapolation reflex, and they probably have no idea that it comes across like this, but surely this is not the way to induce Friendly and Helpful Customer Service.

I think I will add, "Please don't place inappropriate question marks on the ends of statements when emailing" to my contact page to see if it makes a difference.

(p.s. It's okay, literalists, I'm not really going to do that. Please don't worry about me so much.)

That Thing We Used to Make

21 July 2017

This evening I knew I wanted to cook something -- I mean really cook, not just assemble some food out of necessity. I wasn't sure what, but I had a nagging half-craving for something, something with rice and vegetables and creaminess but not-a-risotto, because it definitely had some spices in it somewhere around the onion, and risottos generally don't.

It took me a while to realise that what I was craving was That Thing We Used to Make. I shouldn't have been craving it, because That Thing We Used to Make wasn't that nice, really. It was exactly as I say: an onion, fried, a bunch of whatever other vegetables were available in whoever's student kitchen, also fried, and then a big pile of rice and stock and some whim-selected, sometimes even unknown spices added (which was incorrect, as the spices should have been fried, and was probably part of why it wasn't that nice) and sometimes some equally unstandardised herbs too, and the whole lot cooked up until the rice was soft and it could be served up in goopy globs. It never quite tasted cohesive.

Sarah and I started making it in her shared kitchen on campus after a band rehearsal one evening and had some wine with it. Somehow this process came to be repeated with more and more people on what became a weekly basis so that it evolved into a first-year undergraduate version of a dinner party. Everyone who came to them brought a bottle of wine; there was never any wine left at the end. Then we usually went to the bar. And this is probably part of why the exact recipe and preferred herbs and spices were never consolidated.

I almost put it down to the idea that I was just craving those kitchens and those people and those days in some kind of tiny nostalgia hiccup -- but: not really. I don't miss those aesthetically hostile glarey-strip-light hall-of-residence kitchens much. Most of the people who came to the dinner-parties have since become adults with lives that diverged from mine significantly enough that we've mostly lost touch. (They probably have real dinner parties now.) As kitchens and food-gatherings go, I'm rather more attached to the memories of some of the later ones when we'd started mostly eating chickpeas, in our lovely dingy, cramped and shabbily cushioned living rooms in the student houses of second and third year and all the subsequent years during which I continued to pretend to myself that I was still a student. I miss my sprightly nineteen-year-old liver that could apparently process a bottle of wine's worth of acetaldehyde overnight with barely a whimper, of course, but that's about it.

And anyway, if I was to nostalgia-trip on York uni campus aesthetics from 1999-2000, it would be so many other things instead. Like slightly dry vegeburgers and chips (with plenty of compensatory mayo) from Derwent College bar, which tasted entirely and uniformly of the smell of Derwent College bar. Watching three films back-to-back on Derwent film night and getting an extra vegeburger for sustenance after the second one (and forever after not quite remembering which characters and which scenes were from which film). The loud, sticky Langwith bar quiz nights, back when the decor was properly, respectably scuzzy, and when student bar quizzes were about real things like Greek mythology and Bob Dylan, not the price of the cheapest spaghetti at different supermarkets like they are these days. Vanbrugh when it was all dusty pink threadbare velour and full of music students being kept awake mid-lecture by machine-coffee and chocolate tiffin, or cramming in as much post-rehearsal booze as possible before closing time.

And there was the comfortable old smell of wet-washing mixed with stale cooking in the corridors of David's block in Langwith, and leaving it at 1.09am to walk through the bit outside the bar where you never noticed how loud the mains hum from the vending machines was during the day, and then along the covered way in the strange quiet and night-cold with no-one else there, hearing every footstep, with automatic doors opening just for me, and all the different machine-hums in the different bits of Vanbrugh foyer, tapping in the doorcode next to the Porters' lodge, and then the subtly different wet-washing-stale-cooking smell of my block and my floor, and then my tiny room with all the batik hangings and postcards and photos covering the walls because that's how I could find comfort and sleep in this strange blank boxy new place.

That Thing We Used to Make wasn't so specifically attached to being a first year living on campus. It came camping with us via a little gas stove when the band made our album while staying in a tent near the recording studio for four days and got sunburnt and had an argument; and I made a huge vat of it at Whitby festival which we ate heated-up for several nights after getting back from the ceilidh; sometimes I even amused my parents by making it at their house. But at some point, after a few years, I stopped making it. The reason was that I had learned to make risotto properly. I think it was because of a passing comment of Jane's, that making food with fewer ingredients often rendered better results. So now I just use brown rice, onion, garlic, mushrooms, maybe some courgette, with stock and white wine, basil, oregano, bay and thyme, a bit of cheese at the end. I usually require a friend present to help quality-test the wine throughout the long cooking process. I'm quite confidently good at risotto now. But this evening I didn't want that sort of risotto.

I took to the internet, and looked for "mixed vegetable risotto" and then "+spices" and eventually the internet turned up the secret. What I wanted was paella. That Thing We Used to Make, I realised, was a bastardised and incorrectly constructed risotto-paella that didn't know its own ancestry. I'd traced the risotto side of the family back several generations (not to any real degree of purity, though; my risotto is decidedly not Correct, I'm sure) but remained entirely ignorant of the other side.

So I did a bit of Wikipedia - Felicity Cloake - Jamie Oliver (his was apparently scandalous) triangulation, and made a definitely inauthentic paella (yes, I replaced the seafood with red lentils. Deal with it.) but I think along the right seasoning-and-technique lines, because it tasted like a real one I had a bit of once. It was pretty good, actually.

And it was a bit like the episode of Voyager in which B'Elanna Torres is split into her human and Klingon halves as two whole separate people, but in this case it was the positive resolution, rather than the terrible accident at the beginning of the plot. (Also it was with rice and vegetables rather than a person, which is always less stressful.) And whereas B'Elanna, re-united in one body by the end, came to sit more comfortably with herself through the experience, That Thing We Used to Make - though we learned a lot from it and it got us through some times and soaked up a lot of cheap wine - was never meant to be itself forever. Now it is separated into its constituent identities, it is free, and at peace. And there's some of one of them left in the fridge.

tl;dr I made paella.

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