Friday, September 28, 2007

My First Week at Hogwarts

from Jacqueline

I bet more than a few of you are having a grand old time at Bouchercon! Patty and Cornelia, remember me as you’re raising those glasses, won’t you?

I’ve been having a different kind of week, though quite exciting, in its way – I went back to school. Seriously – back to school to embark upon work on a graduate degree in the sort of subject that, had I chosen it at eighteen my parents would have told me I’d never get a job with a degree like that: Mythology and Depth Psychology. Someone at the orientation said that instead of trying to describe the degree, just tell people you’re studying at Hogwarts. So, here I am, embarking on an intense course of study at Hogwarts at a stage in my life when it I can quite easily spend an hour looking for my car keys. Can’t wait to get my broomstick!

Seriously, it was pretty exhausting, though I loved every minute of it. There’s the challenge of having to read and digest academic texts critically again – the previous experience was over thirty years ago – along with the mind-numbing process of so much information being dumped into my un-nimble brain in one fell swoop. Phew. Frankly, even though I am a writer who is desk-bound for a personal minimum of 1500 words a day, I had forgotten what it was like to sit down for so long without moving – I was half-asleep by the first afternoon! Clearly things have changed since that first ever day at school ....

But it’s been interesting, hearing the sort of comments received when I’ve told people I’m going back to school. Most are supportive, excited, and say such things such as:

“Wow, that’s so brave.!”
“Good for you!”
“That’s so amazing.”

Then there’s the:

“What the bloody hell do you want to do that for?”
“At your age?”
“If you’re that interested in mythology, why don’t you just read a book on it?”


“That’s remarkable!”

Which brings me to my next point in this post today: The way we use words without thinking about what we say. We all do it, and I am always so aware and often embarrassed when I’ve said something dramatic without thinking. For example, me going back to school is not brave or remarkable. The young woman in my class who’s a single parent with three kids and a full-time job is the remarkable one. And it’s not brave – putting on your camouflage and your Kevlar vest, picking up your rifle and ammo and going out on patrol in Baghdad or Afghanistan is brave.

Perhaps someone will correct me and tell me it’s all relative.

I remember seeing Jane Fonda being interviewed at the height of her feel-the-burn aerobic dance phenomenon days, when the interviewer told her she was an amazing woman. She became rather serious and bluntly said, “Let me tell you what amazing is – amazing is a single parent with two kids who’s working two jobs and going to school at night to try to make life better for all of them – that’s amazing. Not me.” Even though I have never been a big fan, I remember thinking, “Good for you, Jane.”

I thought about my own flippant use of language at the weekend. I was entered in a small dressage show close to my home – nothing huge, but I haven’t really competed before (love the training, but I am sick with nerves before events, so have shied away from the show arena – if you’ll forgive the pun). In the warm-up ring, I was at once beset with misgivings, and said to my trainer, “I don’t know if I’ve the courage for this.” She naturally told me not to be so stupid, of course I could do it, however, I took myself to task for my use of language. Courage? Who did I think I was – courage to ride a horse in a little competition on a Sunday afternoon? I don’t think so. What Jim does takes courage. Firefighters have courage, as do so many people in the arena of public service. The kids with disabilities who clamber on horses and compete at the highest levels are brave. And they’re remarkable and amazing – all of those people who demonstrate the magnificence of the human spirit.

Who was it who said, “Freedom is a word I seldom use without thinking.” (Might have been Joan Baez). There’s another word that’s subject to frequent abuse.

So, here’s a question – what do you hear yourself or others say that makes you wonder if any thought has gone into the comment? What overly dramatic misuse of words irks you when you hear it?

Once again, have a lovely weekend. On Monday I’m off to London and France for just over a week (specifically the Somme Valley - research for another Maisie Dobbs novel), so if I can twist his arm, I’m hoping that the one and only James Grippando can sub for me next week.

And just so you have an idea of where I’m going, the photos below show The Sunken Lane near Beaumont-Hamel in the Somme Valley. The first photo shows the men from the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers waiting to go over the top on 1 July 1916. The second photo is the lane today.

See you all in a couple of weeks!


  1. Jackie,
    I'm chuckling at my desk thinking, I'd never get on ahorse and do the things you do.

    That's courage.

    My dad used to love when golf anouncers used the term courageous or exhausting in relation to a round of golf on TV. He was a golfer and loved the sport but he saw the limits of the danger.


  2. from Jacqueline

    Lovely to hear from you, Jim - and for sharing the story about your Dad. Don't we love those big dramatic words? Awesome is one suffering an ENORMOUS case of overuse at the present time.

  3. Oh Jackie, there are so many of those automatic and hyperbolic words out there today. Some in casual conversation but many on the nightly news.

    • Celebrity
    • Awesome
    • Fabulous
    • Astounding
    • Amazing
    • Breaking News
    • Terror
    • Freedom
    • Genius
    • Masterpiece

    Have a fabulous, awesome, amazing trip my friend.

  4. Jackie, kudos for you for becoming a fellow "non-traditional" (translation: old) student just like me!

    On my first day of grad school, I was asked if was there "visiting my daughter?" Through gritted teeth I told them, No, I'm a student!

    At the campus library I get asked all the time: Faculty or staff?


    But it's worthwhile. I'm halfway through my master's degree in forensics, and having that degree will open up a world of opportunities. No doubt, your degree will do the same for you.

    Best of luck with the homework and paper!

  5. I always wince when a novelist talks about what hard work writing a novel is. Well, it's rather hard to tell whether you're doing a good job, but...

    I've washed pots and pans fulltime for a few months. It was hot and tiring work.

    I analyzed chromosomes at a microscope for 8 hours a day for years. It was boring work that made my eyes hurt and my back and shoulders hurt, but I'm not sure it was hard.

    Being a soldier in a war zone is hard work. Working construction is hard work. Being a single parent is hard work. Loading things onto the back of a truck is hard work. My father-in-law was a truck driver and I think that was, most of the time, hard work. Cleaning septic tanks--hard.

    Novelist? Um, papercuts are my biggest worry.

  6. Brava, Jacqueline! Incredibly insightful post. See, the new schooling is working already. :-D Nah. You've always had a gifted way with words. As we often forget, words have power - it's our fault if we ignore that today for an 'instant drama queen/king moment' when trying to think of something profound to say.

    Surprisingly, I've found that my usual vocabulary has somewhat shrivelled since I've been in America and subjected to periodic blasts of media exposure. :-D

    Just returned from London last night with suitcases full of secondhand 'Ladybird Book' 'finds', and several others that appealed to me because of content and english writing. Ooh, I could have spent so much more! Sigh.

    Travelled the southern part of England: saw Torquay and didn't quite get to traipse the Agatha Christie trail; visted ancient Cockington Village for enormously satisfactory research and history digging mission - loved the 1000 year old church; visted the much younger Buckfast Abbey and bought - Jam; took another train from London to Seaford and Eastbourne in the other direction and witnessed that the white cliffs of Dover are actually - white. Brilliant. Lots of photos and notes. Went to worship the Turner paintings at the Tate and stuck my nose into Murder One bookstore on Charing Cross road - just so I could tell you lot that I did. :-D

    Gad, I'm tired. Good to be back. Have a fun and muchly profitable research trip, Jacqueline - I'll be thinking of you. :-D


  7. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Love that list, Lousie, and it's bang on the money in terms of overused words. And Mark, your comment shows a real appreciation of what I'm talking about. It's a humbling experience when you consider the way others have to work -- and you don't have to go far beyond your own family for starters.

    Josephine - congratulations to you! Thank you so much for telling us about your "mature student" experiences - I was so relieved upon identifying a few other oldies in the lecture room with me.

    Marianne - sounds like you had a great time in the UK. Welcome home and thanks for your comments. I'll be going to the Imperial War Museum again, and also have tickets for the wonderful new costume exhibit at the V&A, as well as the Lee Miller photographic exhibit.

  8. I was thinking of the many words that are used too much for too little.
    BUT I do think it's courageous to do something anyway in spite of your fear.
    I do think it's "brave" to stand up when it's easier not to.
    There are so many things to compare myself, my accomplishments, my life to and come up short.
    Words, as encouragement, may be overused but they have a heart behind them.
    Well, except "breaking news" and "celebrity". LOL.

  9. Hate... that's a word that most folks use without any real thought. Hate should be reserved for things that are truly hate-worthy... not just visible panty lines and mornings.

  10. Pat, you've hit a good one there - yes, hate is a word so often used without thinking. In fact, I remember, when I was a kid, we weren't allowed to use that word - my mother would take us to task, usually saying, "Find another word - hate leads to wars."

    Jennifer, you make a good point. I remember watching that show, "Kung Fu" when I was a teenager - it was pretty corny, what with the Grasshopper business - but on one episode, the old master said to the David Carradine character, "We say we are brave when we know the coward is also within us" (or something like that). Anyway, it speaks to your point - overcoming something that scares us, whether to make a point or to climb a mountain, takes a certain personal bravery.

  11. Hero is the word that seems overused these days.

    Yay for Hogwarts! You'll never regret this move, Our J. We missed you in Anchorage.

  12. "Awesome" is already taken, but I'm tired of it anyway--the young are just too easily awed these days, it seems.

    "Courage" is many things to many people (did I REALLY say that?), and getting on a horse takes courage, if only for the potential danger--like driving on the freeways.

    As an ex-college teacher I can tell you I (and many of my colleagues)welcomed the "mature" student (defined as anyone who had been out of high school more than three years). They were serious students who knew the value of the education they were seeking, whereas many (NOT ALL)just out of high school were simply taking the next step--they knew higher education was valuable, but, not having been on their own yet, did not fully comprehend just how valuable/necessary it was.

    Best to you, Lady!

    Tom, T.O.

  13. I love your books and actually just re-read the whole batch in order to psych myself up for the next one.

    When will it be out? Please don't keep us waiting too much longer!