Category Archives: Relationships

The cat that walked by himself

Last weekend I was having a “deep and meaningful” with a buddy. You can’t really put the two of us together without this happening. Though there’s something about both of us that means a D&M rarely gets too heavy (unless copious amounts of red wine are involved and then nothing’s sacred and no-one’s safe.)

At some point I mentioned how confusing I find it to know who my people are … what sort of ‘milieu’ I belong to.

Who cares?

Well, if you’re dating this gets VERY confusing. But if ever I blog about dating please shoot me, so let’s leave it at that.

In reply to my identify confusion, my good friend replied,

“But, it’s obvious! You’re the cat that walked by himself”

“I am?”

“You are.”

At which point I lost her for a bit as she frenetically googled on her iPhone looking for the source of her reference … the story that led her
to say this …while I sat there sipping my latte pleased that there appeared to be a well-documented report on my condition, involving a cat no

The point of her point was to congratulate me on my independence even if it does cost me a sense of belonging. Had she simply used these words
there’s no doubt I’d have felt far less consoled than I did when I learnt that I am a cat. A cat written of in legends!

So if ever you want to cheer someone up that they’re not just a stray or a freak or an outcast, I highly recommend sending them The Cat That Walked By Himself.

Thanks to my friend for giving me this story.
“The Cat That Walked By Himself” is from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Here are the lines my friend had in mind, a 5 minute video of extracts from the story and the full Kipling text.

… and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone



Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Relationships, States of mind, Words

I love my friends but … (2)

So there have been 6 of us here at the shore and today we welcome our 7th member ( whose been on maternity leave from us but has come down from Oxford for a day of writing.

The 6 in the house include:
One Ace Couple
One Swedish Barista
The person we regard as an Editorial Wizard
A man called Joss.
And Me.

If you want to know more about us, Dave, our podcaster in residence is recording a special WG (writers group) edition of his show GBA ( I’ll send the link whenever the show gets produced but highly recommend you check out Dave’s series before then.

Back to the activities of our group these past few days ….

The evening we arrived (Wednesday) we set up home and ate a big meal together and since then it’s been a full-on schedule of writerly pursuits — hearty chunks of the solid solitude that makes writing possible followed by evenings fuelled by drink and debate as we critique each other’s work.

There are 6 types of writing spots found throughout our cottage.

1/ the conservatory table
2/ the conservatory’s soft furnishings
3/the dining room
4/the sitting room
5/the bedrooms
6/the back yard

All six give us access to an ocean view. And except for the bedrooms all give us access to each other.

Typically two people have taken the conservatory (often the Swedish Barista on the sofa and either me or the Editorial Wizard at the table.) Increasingly Dave’s been in the back yard overlooking the ocean or up in his room with his ukulele working on his song. The other half of the ACE Couple (
works at a small desk that’s technically in the sitting room but feels like it’s in the conservatory thanks to the huge pane of glass that separates the two.

During the writing day Joss ( stays in his room. Unless he’s reading the paper or on a food break. Or yelling from the kitchen, “this sink is stupid!” as he’s just done now.

The rest of us are spend the day working within ear shot of other people’s keyboard pitter-patter. The odd chair shuffle or a sneeze reminds you you’re not alone but surrounded by other tormented writers some of whom are entering that state of grace known as Being on a Roll. There are offers of tea for those on their way to the kitchen, but other than that there’s an unspoken group committment to considerate noise levels and gentle separateness.

Pajama-wearing is not only acceptable, it goes unnoticed. It’s possible that I’ve never spent such an extended period of time embracing my most scruffy self without self-consciousness… at least not surrounded by 5 others who aren’t family.

This is also the first time my clock has been in sync with the collective clock of a group of people sharing an experience.

We’ve been waking, sleeping, eating, writing, reading, fighting and playing exactly when I’ve been most ready to wake, sleep, eat, write, read, fight and play.

The looseness but togetherness of our individual daily habits combined with our group’s evening rituals has made this possible.

And that’s been possible because more than a group of hand-picked friends, we are a group of group-picked writers. And that gives us, despite all sorts of personality variations, a shared temperment. It gives us a natural right-working-ness.

It might even make us a team and not a group at all. Or, maybe, as one of us said during our GBA recording session, a group of people who share a writing friendship.


Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships

I love my friends but …(1)

We’ve lost internet access here at Lattern Cottage on our writers retreat …but through dogged determination my antique blackberry has pulled through and will permit me to post bite-sized updates to Panic Station.

Now – there is more to say about boredom. Who knew there was so much philosophical debate on the topic. Never mind a nifty framework or two. But we’re taking a break from exploring this state of mind (and its finer cousins which I promised to mention) so that I can report live from the retreat. Where boredom hasn’t stood a chance.

Since arriving here I’ve learnt something new about spending time with groups of people.

Here it goes:

The best groups to hang out with are not necessarily those full of people you’ve hand-picked as friends.

Sometimes the best groups to hang out with are those who’ve hand-picked you.

I mean no offence to all my lovely hand-picked friends. But it turns out I do love you more separately than all bunched together for days at a time.

More on this to follow … If you’re still talking to me

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Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships

A talk with a stranger

Ok I’m a little bit proud of myself. Here’s why.

Striking up chat with strangers is so far away from my forte that some people might buy me a magnet that reads “Do I look like a f**king People Person?”

I do own that magnet and yes it was a gift from someone who knows me too well.

Not because I am not a people person (I am) but because I do not LOOK like one.

I look like a person in a tunnel of task who has no time for you. And mostly I don’t. Have time for you. Unless you respect I’m quite introverted and that I need advance notice that we’re about to engage in chat. Then, I’m good. I swear. I’m not task but the present — which is listening to you.

But the long and the short of it is that I do not give off an aura of openness. My body language doesn’t say “hey, come talk to me.” Ask anyone I went to high school with, ask my work colleagues, follow me around for about 5 minutes. My body language says, “I am Busy.”

So I was particularly proud of myself last night when I engaged a stranger in a full on tête-à-tête

The scene — I was on my way home. It had been a hard week and I’d a stack of reading and writing to catch up on, so I stopped for food at a place where the set-up is conducive to eating alone while working. [This is a subject onto itself … just how often I prefer to be alone while surrounded by people in a lively spot. I have haunts around the City where the staff take care of me and give me my usual tucked away spot so that I can do exactly this.]

I sat at this long bar-like table on the corner stool pictured in this photo. The room was dark and the place was packed. I ordered my tapas and opened my folder.

Across from me sat another lone eater. This can sometimes pose a problem. Especially when the other lone eater is doing something I would never dream of doing — eating alone with nothing to do but eat alone. He hadn’t a book or a newspaper or a folder of work. But he seemed contained. He wasn’t going to intrude on my comfort. The bread and chorizo and cheese that he ordered, however, did. My folder was getting squished and my own food hadn’t even arrived. But I pressed on.

My salad and patatas bravas showed up just as he finished his chorizo and the dance of plates surrounding my work space worked for a while. But then something happened. I got tired of working even though I wasn’t finished my meal and I started to consider my lone eater more carefully.

I envied how comfortable he looked sitting in a loud tapas bar on his own. Men can do this. Especially older men. And he was older (I hate to say, but maybe late 50’s to mid 60’s.) He wore a striped dress shirt, he had a nice watch, his face was tanned and rugged. I wondered if he was foreign. I’d overheard him saying something to the waitress about whether she was Hungarian. So I sat there for a few minutes daring myself to talk to him. I could ask him if he’s Hungarian! And then what? Even if he was, I had nothing ready to say about Hungary. My mind went blank which is what always happens whenever I try to compose small talk in my head. I am just not built for it.

I stared out the window and got lost mulling over just how useless I am, when a couple seated under the window drew my attention. It was clear that she was trying to squeeze past her dinner date to get free of the table to go to the ladies room but what I hadn’t expected is that this well-dressed, suited up business woman would swing her knee deep into the crotch of her companion to pull off the manoeuvre. I arched a brow and at the right second made eye contact with my lone diner who’d observed the same interaction.  We both smiled.

And that’s when he spoke to me. Who knows what he said. It was about what we’d just witnessed which then somehow lead to our favourite travel destinations, what’s wrong with the corporate world and how people always tell you what you want to hear, about being “hungry” enough to do what you really want to do with your life, about how Sarah’s Key was a brilliant movie no matter how many stories of the Holocaust have been told before.

The man had been killing time, waiting to collect his grandson. His grandson is a munchkin. Actually the lead munchkin — Marmaduke, with lines and everything. His stint on stage for last night’s Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium was due to finish at 8pm but in the preceding half hour I met an interesting person and he gave me some very good advice. “It’s all about eye contact,” he said.  That’s the secret to skipping the small talk and going straight to the good stuff.

And this the subject of this weekend’s blog — the ways we connect and disconnect from the strangers all around us.


Filed under London, Random idea, Relationships

The Outsider

Home is where you don’t have to explain where you’re from — which means for some people home is an entire country but for more and more of us it’s a much smaller place.

There was a time in my life when that place was my grandparent’s kitchen. Anywhere and everywhere else involved having to answer this question.

While I think Fred is right and that the issue of being Dual more often reflects other people’s confusion than our own, their questioning cost me more than it did them. They were just having a conversation and forming an opinion. I was busy being accepted or rejected.

In my mind when people ask: So … do you feel more American or more Irish? it’s always a trick question.

Whatever my personal truth may be, this is the sort of interrogation that crops up at first introductions or fresh acquaintanceship and it’s a thin veil for

“I’ll decide if I like you depending on how you answer this.”

There is, of course, only one correct answer.

People want us to admit that we are exactly what we seem on the outside — which in my case is what I sound like. Because I want to be liked, I’ll reply, “Well, obviously I am an American.” To which there is a visible relaxing of my questioner’s brow.

But I mean really, isn’t it better to ask personal questions where what the other person thinks of themselves might actually be the answer?

I don’t know why I’m obviously an American. It can’t be at that at 5 minutes into my life I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin (though it sounds like a nice place to be from.) Zero to two years old is no time to be learning to act like a local.

And it isn’t because America is where I call home, otherwise I wouldn’t have left and made my home in other places.

What makes me American is the way I think and the way that I talk. Not my family history. Or my sense of where I belong.

But what used to really get on my nerves is I swear that I think and talk the way I do because I’m me! And I hated it when everything that I might be got brushed aside with the cursory “Sure, but you are American.” I suppose a lot of us think we are who we are because we’re individuals when all the evidence suggests that’s half the story at best.

America isn’t just a nationality — it’s an idea. It always has been. First a series of outposts for pioneers and religious outsiders, later an invitation to the rejected of the world to come to a place where hard work would save you and now a flailing Super Power at the heart of any international debate about morality. So it’s not like people are stating a simple random demographic fact when they decide you must be from that land.

Fortunately for me, I’ve grown up just enough to become a lot less sensitive to all the things that other people tell me I may be. But, no kidding, it used to really, really piss me off.


Filed under Identity, Relationships

Get better acquainted

In the 2nd part of today’s 9/11 post, a few words about fiction and community.

On fiction — many have commented that there’s been no “definitive” 9/11 novel and are asking themselves why. Fiction often helps us understand and process what reportage and facts fail to deliver. In this brief 5 minute conversation several authors talk about 9/11 fiction. Listen here 

And if you’re out and about and unable to tune in, here’s an interesting article on 9/11 fiction from 

On community — late last night I received an emailed announcement that took me by surprise. It was from the co-founder of

If you haven’t participated in a meet-up, check out the site. If you’re in London you could sign up to online marketing and social media events, “healing” nights, laughing clubs and impromptu gatherings of improving Spanish speakers — all taking place in the next couple of weeks. If you’re stuck working in a foreign city, meet-up’s are a brilliant idea.

I never knew that meet-up is a “9/11 baby” — born of a desire to get people talking to their neighbours again. The idea was to use the internet to get people off their computers and back out into the real world — spending time with like-minded souls and building off-line, in-the-flesh communities. Scroll down to read the email I received.

On getting better acquainted with other people — as squirmy as it feels to promote an hour of streaming Nat, since it’s just been published it would be weirder not to. And anyway, if you’re my Facebook friend you’ve already been bombarded with it earlier this week. So to wrap up on a weekend of podcast recommendations, this one involves getting better acquainted with me.

Brought to us by Dave-of-frequent-mention here at Panic Station, GBA (Getting Better Acquainted) is a weekly show about Dave getting better acquainted with someone. In this case — that person is me.
Listen to it here.

I’d also highly recommend getting better acquainted with Dave himself — Listen here for a very amusing collection of personal stories which he’s captured in the opening GBA podcast. Or if you’re short on time, start with this GBA sampler

Till next weekend, over & out — have a great week!

* * *

Email from Meetup Co-founder

To: Nathalie Hourihan
Subject: 9/11 & us

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is
special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many
people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles
from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought
local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet
and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I
hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors
in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to
neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally
ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each
other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring
people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and
grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a
crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make
people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months
after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s
working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups,
Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of
100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to
neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.
They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and
motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find
other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace
together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s
powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks
to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it
weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to
strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new
community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started
with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)
Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup
New York City
September 2011

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Current affairs, Not in London, Podcasts, Relationships, Self-help

One-space, two-space, three-space

Six summers ago I travelled from Italy to Switzerland. I took a train from Perugia to Florence and then one from Florence to Milan, where after a traumatic wait in a large, loud, dirty and steaming hot station, I took another train to Visp and then I caught my final connection from Visp to Zermatt — home of the Matterhorn.

The train from Visp to Zermatt was the most scenic train journey of my life to date and made up for a long day of heart-racing connections lugging around killer luggage without much time to stop for food or water.

Having been in Perugia for a family christening, I went to Zermatt at the invitation of my friend Dr. Edy who was spending a couple of weeks enjoying the summertime Alps with a group of her friends.

During my brief stay Edy and I took a long hike through the mountains over the course of which she told me about one-space, two-space, three-space. I’d never heard of this theory and while I’ve never forgotten it, I’ve also never managed to track down its source. I don’t know if it’s philosophical or sociological or architectural or psychological.

I don’t know if it’s an Edy-Original or whether she was relaying stuff she learnt on her travels or studies. But here’s what she told me:

  • One-space refers to time alone — without one-space there is no reflection or wisdom
  • Two-space refers to time with another — without two-space there is no intimacy or deep bonding
  • Three-space refers to time amongst several (three & more) — without three-space there are no possibilities or new ideas about how to solve age-old problems.

The first two bullets speak for themselves (in my mind), but it hadn’t occurred to me before this chat with Edy, to reflect on the exact nature of the pleasure I experience around a table of friends or at a dinner party of acquaintances (i.e., three-space.)

Groups (in my case, small groups) are enjoyable because whatever is lost in terms of time for personal reflection or intimate têteàtête‘s, there’s so much more random stimulation. Also I find it extremely relaxing to dilute the intensity of keeping the attention of just one other person (which is how I spend much more of my social time — with one friend at a time.)

One-space, two-space, three-space nourishes us in different ways, each of us have different preferences (which can shift with age or circumstance) for how much we need of each type of space — each of us also have different talents in each of these spaces. I’m often the listener (in two-space) and the harmonizer (in three-space).

The challenge is knowing ourselves well enough and finding the balance. Hence today’s final card comes from the Tarot.  The Temperance card shows an angel balancing one foot in the water and one on land as she mixes her wine with some water.

At the most literal level the card represents moderation and balance, but this card also promises the benefits that accompany these two elements: health, harmony & healing. I suspect these are the real gifts of getting our one-space, two-space, three-space right.

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