Thursday, July 03, 2008

Stranger Things

I finished my degree in 1997 and lost touch with the friends I made during my time at college not long after. This didn't happen all at once, but I am not good at keeping in touch and nostalgia does little for me, so I do just let things drift when it comes to friendships sometimes. However, the reunion does appear to be happening all at once.

When FriendsReunited (or Friends Untied as we call it here) doubled their subscription charge I flat out refused to pay, even though one of my 'university' friends was on there and I did want to contact her. I suppose with the popularity of the other big networking sites FriendsReunited saw sense and went free, so I was finally able to send a message. That was over a month ago.

Four days ago she replied and by strange quirk of fate #1 we are both doing the same job in different schools - something neither of us ever imagined ourselves doing in all the time we were studying together. We're busy catching up and arranging to meet in the summer.

As for quirk of fate #2: a student who is also a fellow musician and I, cutting a long, winding tale to the chase, discovered today that his aunty was another of the group of five of us who wasted far too much time and money in the college cafe all those years ago. I've spent an hour or so on the phone getting the latest on her life and achievements.

Googling another friend from the group I found that her unusual name makes it easy to find her. On top of this (quirk of fate #3) her occupation means she also has a contact phone number.

That's only one more to go and we're on for a full reunion in a few weeks' time. I've suggested we go to the one and only pub that any of us were ever thrown out of. Just for old times sake. After all these curious happenings it has to mean that the landlord will recognise us and kick us out again.

Funny how thing go sometimes.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Absolute is Relative

I was shockingly bad at geography at school, not just for a top set student either. In tests and exams I was always positioned way below the rest of my class, which has allowed me the illustration that I am so awful at the subject that I came thirty-third in a class of thirty-two. That's probably an overly generous interpretation of my achievement, although in my defence the vast majority of what we studied was to do with reading maps and locating countries on an atlas or involved so many new terms that I just didn't get it.

The latter of these difficulties is related to the way I learned to read - something I could do when I was three years old. I followed the print as it was narrated to me and memorised it, then matched sounds to shapes of words, not to letters. Thus I have always found pronunciation and meaning without context or example virtually impossible.

I also remain pretty inept when it comes way-finding, be that reading maps, giving directions, plotting co-ordinates, or even finding my own way somewhere without any of these specialist devices that are allegedly helpful in the process of getting from A to B. Again there seems to be a bit of cognitive processing amiss, as demonstrated by the two hours it took for me to arrive at my sister's flat on a major, well sign-posted road that was only twenty minutes journeying away.

Had things been different I doubt very much I'd be a social scientist: my childhood fascination with dinosaurs endures; my interest in astronomy continues to grow; even archeology intrigues me to some degree, although I have yet to manage a whole episode of Time Team whilst awake.

Not withstanding the soporific effects of Tony Robinson, who was very good, if not over-reliant on the one-liner, as Baldrick, or the fact that most of what is discovered in Britain has something to do with The Romans, archeology may very well have been my career of choice. Being as I didn't get geography at all that didn't happen and my career path since further shows up my navigation skills for what they are.

Retrospectively, I'd have chosen astronomy, or more likely cosmology, although my utter stupidity when it comes to the natural sciences was a double whammy there. Right now I'm trying to comprehend the white hole theory of the creation of the universe, part of which led me to completing a BBC Bitesize activity on waves last night. It didn't go particularly well.

I know all this is to do with my requirement to understand everything there is to know about life, the universe and, well, everything. The problem is that the concepts really do float right over my head. I read a Wikipedia entry on white holes (they eject matter and then some other science stuff) which led me to another entry on Hawking radiation (it comes from black holes) and on to quantum mechanics (quantum is measurement, I get that bit), finally landing at Einstein's theory of relativity (no idea).

After an hour or so my head caved in and I went to bed to eat tiramisu and watch a programme about how life on earth may have arrived via comet dust. These natural science sorts are very positive, to the extent that I have more than once had to hold my own on the matter of whether social science can rightfully refer to itself as a science, being as it is not absolute, objective or concrete.

Just hold on now. Absolute? Objective? Concrete? I appreciate that there is much still to discover about the universe (universes, multiverse) and probably most scientists in this area acknowledge that their discipline is by and large theoretical in nature, for want of a better term.

So far I have managed to glean this much: the big bang theory might be right, or it might be that the universe spewed forth from the reverse side of a black hole, if the reverse side of a black hole is a white hole. Hawking radiation may leak from a black hole, although none has yet been measured. The universe may be expanding, or it may be infinite and we can't see that far.

It may be this; it might be that. At some point I fully expect some eminent professor of some scientific discipline or other to state with absolute certainty that life on earth popped up all of a sudden in a lovely garden with an apple tree. Of course, it will be called something like the Eden Event Horizon Theory and will involve subatomic anti-particles that are held together in a serpent-like shape by dark matter.

I'm up for keeping an open mind and I like theories. They give me something to think about, but to all those natural scientists out there: the next time you're giving the fields of social science or theology a dressing down, you might want to fill in the holes in your own backyard first.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Just one more thing ma'am...

Daytime telly. What are they thinking, other than "we get paid slightly more than the night-time telly schedulers to do this, so we best make a reasonable fist of it". Or something along those lines. Not that I'm complaining really - I remember being off school once or twice (as a pupil) in the days when there were only just four channels, some of the time, and the best that daytime TV had to offer was 'The Sullivans' and 'Crown Court'. However, I've had my fill of Time Team, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and romcoms and due to a clash in the sleep / TV schedule, I missed the only screening of Columbo I could find all week.

Then there's the guilt complex. I just phoned my line manager to see if there was even the slightest possibility of some support in getting off lightly tomorrow at work. Of course it's not that I don't appreciate the three and a half months of sick pay they have already generously paid me; nor am I trying to shirk my responsibilities to my employer. Indeed, the only reasons I am returning to work are A Level exams and horrific guilt for being off for the second time in an academic year. Are all jobs like this? I'm led to believe that it is not unknown for people to be sacked for sickness, so perhaps they are somewhat less tolerant in other professions than education, but I imagine the burden of guilt is proportionate to the boss's sympathy.

And one more thing: I watched the finale of Derren Brown's latest series last night and it's left me feeling kind of let down. I don't watch his shows religiously, but when I do watch them I find them incredibly intriguing. Some of his trickery seems straightforward enough (to a viewer at least), yet sometimes I, like others, am left scratching my head and wondering 'how the hell...?'. It's allowed me to place Derren Brown on the scarcely populated pedestal I have for TV superstars: clever, unusual, entertaining and not often predictable. Last night's show proved him to be entirely unpredictable, as for the first time ever I witnessed his attitudes and behaviour being influenced by one of his guests, one David Tennant.

Derren made no secret of his thoughts on Mr. Tennant in a previous episode, but at the end of the thirty minutes of Skinnerian scuttling endured by his guests, Derren declared that only David was doubtful of the association between their actions and subsequent score, which was in actuality randomly generated by a goldfish behind the scenes. Obviously that explains why at one point David Tennant was to be seen looking up at the score board with an apple clenched between his teeth and both hands occupied by other fruits. Now I like David Tennant myself and don't like to think of him as the sort of chap to be easily swayed by clever stunts, not even those performed by Derren Brown, but there is no escaping the truth that he was.

For now they can both keep their place on my pedestal, along with Peter Faulk, Patrick Stewart, Tom Baker, Tom de Lancy, Brent Spiner and Jeremy Paxman. I'm sure there are a few others up there, throwing about their intellect and talent, but it's been a week of TV overload, so I'll stop there - my programme's about to start!

Friday, May 30, 2008

I want to be a thunder storm novelist

See, now this is what happens when that humid, overcast, really heavy late May / early June weather comes to play.

I hate JK Rowling. Or I don't, I wish I did. As a reader rather than a watcher I was sold by the excellent marketing that placed the Harry Potter series smack bang in the centre of every summer holiday psyche. It means that days with that imminent thunder storm tingle instantly spark the desire to read (or write) an easily digestible, feel-good ending novel.

So well done to the publisher or agent or whoever it was that picked up on how simply marvellous it was that Harry, Ron and Hermione were engaged in the annual ritual of preparing to return for another year in school and delivered it in timely fashion to their readership. It means we all have something to do once Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy are done spending their summer vacation rambling through mystical caves conveniently located beyond floral meadows and glossy woodlands.

Of course I realise that these are children's stories, which should never be allowed to detract from how clever both novelists are. In both cases characters are caught up in plotlines that require them to be courageous and 'grown up', but still they remain children and maybe that's why many adults continue to read Blyton and Rowling. There is a nostalgia relishing the chase and adventure as we run, carefree, through hidden corridors of imaginary boarding schools and abandoned manor houses. We are immediately thrown back in time and place, becoming the children we were, lying on beds or carpets, clutching the humid-damped paperback, the darkening skies hanging outside our windows, at the three week fulcrum of our own summer holidays.

Children's novels aren't to everyone's tastes and it's actually a very long time since I read any Enid Blyton. In fact, the last time I flicked through 'The Folk of the Faraway Tree' it struck me as snobbish, discriminatory and not a lot like the place I wished was real when I was ten years old. This is to be expected, considering it was first published in 1946, but my dismay on seeing a Disney Channel trailer for some Famous Five programme or other suggests that I perceive Enid Blyton's creations to be much more precious than JK Rowling's as I take no issue with the Harry Potter movies, or perhaps again this is simply due to the passage of time.

Now, if the Enid Blyton Wikipedia page is correct, she averaged 20 books a year, so success based on number of publications alone leaves Rowling lagging way behind. That said, individually, Blyton's books wouldn't prop open the door of an empty post-war larder, whereas even 'The Philosopher's Stone' is voluminous enough to stave off the odd curse or two. Having said that, Blyton has delivered several sets of characters aside from the Famous Five - something Rowling hasn't yet achieved.

This isn't intended as a comparison review, or even a review. It is merely to demonstrate that there is a definite magic to these fine literary works which creates a certain kind of reading experience and goes beyond the stretches of even the most elaborate marketing. Having considered the stories that prompt this sensation, or are called to mind when the weather turns, the formula is apparent and yet others have tried and failed to imbibe their novels with that incredible power that sucks us into another reality. It is to do with the sensation of reading the book, not the story itself and yet it must come from the story to begin with.

I don't know what it is, but I want to, not so I can be a children's author. Dear me, no. That would be a terrible bind. Nor is it to emulate the publishing successes of those mentioned, as that can mostly be accredited to extensive marketing. No, I want to know so that at the very least if I am alone in charting this experience then others will understand exactly what I mean when they read my stories. That's why I want to be a thunder storm novelist.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Faces Spited 1: Authorship Aspirations 0

It occurred to me today that, consciously or otherwise, I may have suppressed the urge to write in order to arm myself with the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. Whilst not entirely convinced of the truth of this, there have been moments when I have wished to write and not done so, as once again it has been butted down the list of priorities by various other endeavours and commitments I must fulfil.

Last week I was enraged to the point of devastation by an email message I received which detailed (with pictures) the disgraceful Italian artist who starved a stray dog to death by means of an exhibition. Research indicates this information was correct and granted the opportunity I will, no shadow of doubt, ensure the individual in question gets precisely what he deserves - if someone else doesn't first. The heartless lunatics who visited the exhibition are quite possibly so low in morality as to not be worthy of mention, let alone vengeful reaction.

The consequence of my self-imposed silence results in one scathing paragraph rather than the full 1500 word rant status it might have attained had I put fingers to keyboard before now, and there are genuine obstacles facing my writing career, but none so big that I should have done this to myself.

I'm unsure whether the day job is causing me to re-assimilate or to fight harder but it's somehow getting easier to live with. I don't know if it really takes three weeks to build a subscription based streaming service. I imagine that walking the dogs, going to the gym, visiting family and friends (yes, I have left the house a few times of late) do not have the temporal requirements I have afforded them and all the while the one and only thing left for me to need in this life drifts further and further away, along with all that is associated with it.

Today is the last day of ScriptFrenzy, which, like National Novel Writing Month, requires the writing of a piece of work within the calendar month. I failed, with irritated dissonance and not an ounce of sorrow. I remind myself that once upon a time I said I was a script-writer, not a novelist. Self-preservation, with some meagre supporting evidence, indicates otherwise.

If by next Monday I don't have ten articles on Suite 101 I will no longer be one of their authors. Now I could, at a very big push and ignoring the total count of zero articles so far, achieve this. It would also mean going into some kind of isolation chamber where no other jobs can come my way, no meals require cooking and all the other excuses that have littered this post so far lose their grasp on my current and entirely self-destructive, anti-writing stance.

There. I've done it. I've written something and, paradoxically, admitted failure in this regard. It serves me right for naive beliefs in the possibility of it all to begin with. Maybe. I hope not.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bubble perms and Bros

I'm sure Bros is supposed to be prefixed or suffixed with some kind of punctuation, you know, like Wham! were, although I'm also beginning to wonder if my memory failures when it comes to The Eighties aren't altogether to do with how terribly tasteless a decade it was.

When we reminisce a particular era it is generally the one when we were in our teens, hence it comes with a focus on fashion, music and not much else. I can noteably boast that I was indeed born in the 'Summer of 69', was therefore ten and a half years old at the start of the 1980s and already owned a severe musical fixation on Queen. The girls at school arrived with scented erasers and other unnecessarily pastel-shaded accessories, stuffed into Duran Duran pencil cases, to be unpacked and repackaged into some other artists' 'merch' the following week. I was kind of envious, I suppose, but it wasn't enough to turn me away from rock music.

I don't dislike Eighties synth. pop. Far from it. I still quite like to listen to Depeche Mode or The Smiths from time to time. No, only the first part of that statement is true - amongst my fellow Eighties reminiscers it is somewhat more respectable to claim to have listened to The Smiths, but if I'm honest I used to think Morrissey was a pretentious twit and he hasn't done a whole lot to change my opinion since. I have at least grown up enough to recognise the quality of his work and I don't have to like him to like the music.

So, 1982 was the year I became a teenager, although I can't say I was one in the social sense until 1985, by which point my kind of music was becoming more popular. Yes, yes, I too was devastated when Wham! called it a day and have never quite recovered from George Michael's 'shock revelation'. We laugh about it now, but seriously. How were we to know in The Eighties? It took most of us about a year to figure out Boy George's gender, so we had no hope when it came to sexual orientation.

Apart from the Athena man. Did anyone honestly believe he could have engaged in an act that would conceive the baby he carried? I doubt it, but it was a lovely poster, if you like that kind of thing. Myself, I opted for a couple of slightly more political posters, which I am as embarassed to describe as anyone else reading this will be when they register the thought: 'Oh God! I had that poster!'.

One was a painting of a mushroom cloud, with the words 'When Will They Ever Learn?' emblazoned across the bottom. I was especially proud of it, I assume, as I had it on the outside of my door. On the outside? What was I thinking? Well, I was probably thinking that at least out there I won't have to look at it.

The other poster was a photo of the tail of a humpback whale, again snappily sloganned 'He roams the seas in freedom with no enemy save man'. What can I say? I'm an old hippie who buys posters. Besides which the alternative was a girl scratching her bottom with a tennis ball.

Right, anyway, I had the posters, I got along respectably with the music, I had a wedge hair cut for a bit, then that whole permed on top, straight at the back hairstyle took over, so I had one of those, then the Big Hair bands entered the charts and I abandoned the pretence of being Phil Oakey's backing singer in pursuit of the status of rock chick.

Now at this point, being as there's not a whole heap of evidence to the contrary, I could claim that I grew my hair, permed and styled it in a large, wavy, fringed rocking out kind of style, had a tassled leather jacket and so on. I did have the perm and the fringe, but what these youngsters don't realise as they start up again on the 'perms are good' fad is that perms are very, very bad. How bad? Have another 'very' and we're getting there.

First off, if you comb or dry your hair it frizzes into something resembling what hamsters sleep in. If you don't comb it you look like Kevin Keagan - that's how he looks now, not then. Then there's the notion of 'letting it drop' a bit, which whilst it's 'dropping' means that your shoulder length hair is now sprung up round your ears, and then it finally drops somewhere around the time that an inch of straight-haired regrowth is sprouting out of your head.

Perms strip the colour (my grandmother's claims I had dyed it red were unfounded, but she declared it all better when I dyed it black again and I'm still dying it now), split ends abound and finally when it's over you get to look back and, if you're very lucky, be extraordinarily grateful that there's not a whole heap of evidence of how ridiculous you looked with your bubble hair.

As if perms weren't degrading enough, I tried white shoes, photo-print t-shirts and all the other stuff we thought was great, but I'm a perennial scruff, so never could carry it off convincingly. In 1987 I finally settled into Converse boots, scrunched-up socks, leggings and big baggy jumpers and that's pretty much where I stayed for the last three years of 'the decade that taste forgot'. Even taking inflation into consideration, Converse boots were a damn sight cheaper then (my grandmother had much to say about these too, none of it particularly complimentary), which was as well, considering they lasted approximately four weeks, before the rubber fell to pieces, taking the canvas with it.

I shall own up to a dalliance with pop at the end of The Eighties, in the sense that I bought cassettes released by Bros, Wet Wet Wet and Bobby Brown (and went to a couple of concerts by the latter - he was very good, by the way). I even had some of those famed MC Hammer big droopy pants, in shiny metallic blue. I thought they were 'boss', because things were 'boss' globally then, not just in Liverpool.

Perhaps it is merely the act of passing out of one's teens and into one's twenties, although for me this coincided almost exactly with the end of The Eighties, so I can't be sure, but I left behind all the transience of youth and settled on 'a look'. No more fashion silliness for me, I'm sure I must have consciously decided at some point. I also found myself watching 'Top of the Pops' with the idea of later buying anything of value, then the thought would slip away and it became another 'album I must get round to buying'.

"Eventually", said my mother-in-law, "You get so far behind that you just give up."

Balls. She was right about that, although I'm not done yet, or at least not with the music. I'm pleased to say that I've not allowed my musical tastes to be pigeon-holed and will still listen to anything, including Wham! and Bros, with or without decorative punctuation; at heart I will always favour rock music, especially that cheese we loved back in the day. However, as much as I may hanker after a youth that was not spent as a sexy, big-haired rock chick, the rest you can keep - the pastel fashions, perms and stilettoes were not really my look, and as for those MC Hammer pants...

Is it any wonder I only wear black these days?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

No. She's deadly serious...

Interesting that I should find myself getting in on this debate. I always have a lot to say about everything although generally choose not to, or at most may engage in a private rant and then let it drop. However, I was asked for an opinion, thus I am giving it.

'Single Girl In The City' wrote an enpassioned response to Penelope Trunk's Boston Globe article: 'Want to have a baby? Now's the time' and I don't blame her, not just because her experience of men would lead most women to a nunnery.

It reminds me of the articles I used to read in the Femail section of The Daily Mail, penned by the likes of Melanie Phillips and Linda Lee Potter, that would have me throwing my notepad and a fair few expletives around. I recall with special fondness a paper (published under the guise of academia) which suggested working women's fight for equal pay was stealing the family wage from their male counterparts, because working women are single and working men aren't. Apparently. It's not the 1950s, love. Take off your pinny and stop smiling at your bloody washing machine.

And so to Ms. Trunk, who is entitled to her point of view, especially as she's clearly making a decent living out of having one. In case you haven't been and read her article, she states that women who want a family and a career should do the family bit first and put their career on hold. She says a lot more besides, so it's worth a read - only to put in context what follows and also what 'Single Girl In The City' has to say.

It is a biological reality that for women WHO WANT TO HAVE CHILDREN, this is best planned for and achieved well before the age of 35. To conceive later in adulthood poses various risks to both the mother and child, including increased incidence of Down's Syndrome, SpinaBifida etc. for the child and Pre-eclampsia and other complications of pregnancy for the mother. Early onset of menopause may bring lapses in ovulation and prolonged use of contraception can also impact negatively on fertility.

We know this already. It's what makes it perfectly acceptable for the old yet virile Michael Douglas to wed and bed Catherine Zeta Jones whilst the equivalent female with accompanying toy boy is frowned upon. Curiously in a species that has by and large managed to bypass or control most base instincts we still cling to the conventional wisdom that the ability to procreate is paramount to whether a sexual relationship attains social acceptability. This continues to extend to our treatment of gay and lesbian relationships.

Tying childbirth and / or parenthood to long-term partnerships is fundamentally unnecessary in contemporary western culture, where increasing acceptance is given to the notion of choosing a single life or indeed choosing to join a pre-existing family unit, regardless of the sexual orientation of the individuals concerned. Putting aside the technology that allows for women to conceive without men, rearing a child can be achieved in the absence of one or even both biological parents - all children need is a stable and consistent emotional bond. With whom they form that bond is of no consequence.

In summary then, it's obvious that if a woman wants to have a baby of her own then she's best doing this earlier in adulthood. If a man wants to father a baby then he needs to meet a like-minded woman and fully commit not just to the deed, but the aftermath also. Women undoubtedly have far greater freedom to choose to parent in the absence of a partner. However, that freedom comes at a cost.

To even imply that women can have both a successful career and a family is nonsense, generally. Accepted: there are exceptions to this, but they are very few and far between. For almost every woman, the decision to start a family is one that is made knowing that from there onwards they are parent first, professional woman second. The career becomes the means to provide for the family. The family is not created to be a backdrop to the career.

The underlying issue is not about that ticking biological clock; it's about the fact that the world of work still refuses to acknowledge it. For women, the choice is family or career and it's not a choice men are faced with. Placating women with token gestures of paternity leave is not enough, because ultimately there is a game of sexual politics afoot and it goes something like this.

Women have one means to control and dominate men: their sexuality. The woman who gives off the 'one day I want a baby' vibe is terrifying, for she is implicitly stating to her male superiors that a) she is going to need time off; b) she is going to need to trap a man in the process and it might be one of them and c) she is an actively sexual being. On the other hand, there are the women who climb that ladder successfully because either they emulate men to such an extent that they are essentially men, or they exude a certain air of 'will suck cock for promotion' and men understand that this is as far as it goes, if it does get that far at all. Either way they are asexual beings (the former having given up their female sexuality, the latter prepared to sell it) and therefore not a threat.

A woman's career proceeds in a man's world, where equality does exist, but only if certain sacrifices are made. As long as this is the case, successful career women will remain largely despicable creatures, barren and devoid of maternal or other nurturing instinct, because those are the unwritten terms and conditions they accepted.

Alas the psychological research that suggests women will gain more satisfaction from finding a partner than having a good job, if it exists, is worth nothing. Firstly finding a partner and becoming a mother are entirely separate pursuits: one may engage in either independently of the other. Secondly the daily hassles associated with living with a partner and caring for a family are far more significant factors in long-term stress and ill-health than any possible counter-action caused by the happiness of securing a husband or a good job. The big things come, but then they go again and it's the little things that wear us down. And there really is a wealth of research to demonstrate this.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Ankle Deep and Rising

I am ashamed to admit that when Boston Legal character Alan Shore first exhibited a disorder called 'Word Salad' I'd never heard of it. And me a scholar of Psychology too. However, in such a capacity I discover that the correct term for the disorder is 'schizophasia', something that can be brought on by stress, as depicted in the show, but is more likely to be associated with the disorganised thinking common in people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

As far as my own disabilities in vocabular vocalising are concerned, I'd make a pretty meagre salad - more like a salad drawer just before a trip to the supermarket in fact.

So far I've established that my issue with losing half my words is quite possibly related to caffeine consumption. It first started at university, generally when I was engaged in wading through a significant workload and it seemed the more I had to do the worse the word drought became. Ironically (if caffeine is indeed to blame) the first symptom was that I couldn't find the right combination of phonemes to request a cup of coffee. Fortunately my non-verbal communication skills remained largely unaffected and, thanks to the beautiful thing that is advertising, I was able to rattle a fist up and down and get the message across.

My acceptance since that the problem was not related to the workload is because there was a clear correlation between the amount of caffeine I consumed and the amount of work I had to do. Since then the episodes of aphasia have recurred during other times when I have been working hard on something requiring extensive thought processes, be they creative or otherwise. Again this is when I am drinking more coffee.

Now then, I didn't start this post with the intention of presenting a pseudo-scientific analysis of the effects of caffeine on language cognition, but I will say that the evidence for a link between tip of the tongue phenomena and excessive caffeine intake is compelling. My purpose was to point out that even though I am currently drinking far less coffee than I have for months I have started to experience brief (yet infuriating) periods of aphasia that leave me grasping for simple, common words, whilst my extended vocabulary remains in tact.

I surmise therefore that it is not the caffeine, but only because it pleases me to do so. After all life without coffee would be no life at all, much like a life without words, which strikes me as a bit of a paradox - if I'm wrong. The only conclusion that is acceptable is that it is more to do with having too many neural resources committed to the symbolic representation of language on the page - a very different cognitive process from deciding on meaningful combinations of sounds.

Hence my reasoning is thus: either I am overdosing on caffeine or thinking and this is a vent. It is a means to an end only; the end being that I will have written something and therefore cease worrying about not writing something, thereby freeing up mental resources. Consider it a lock on the canal of the mind and nothing more and you won't leave feeling disappointed or cheated.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Driven and Committed, Need Not Apply

Driven: determined; ambitious; motivated; impelled; compulsive; goaded; involuntary.

Committed: pledged; sworn; bespoken; affianced; attached; loving; wrapped up; bound.

There is a point at which derived meanings become less synonymous with the original terms, where the ambitiously driven are no longer afforded prestige. What we value as most virtuous becomes obsession, to be admonished instead of rewarded.

Sometimes I consider the people I am acquainted with who are overtly ambitious, those who will stamp on heads to ascend mere inches. Yet it has occurred to me that this level of drive toward personal success could be condemned as some kind of involuntary compulsion. That said, I don't expect it to be included in DSM-V.

A very small part of me retains envious admiration for such individuals, for on occasion I have attempted to set myself on a blinkered route towards some end goal, planning out how I will thwart those who step in my way, packed ropes and hooks and carabinas for surmounting the impossible obstacles that may block the road to my destiny. The problem, as I see it, is that it is only on occasion and it turns out it's not my destiny after all.

If this implies I am not proud of my achievements, then it becomes all the more clear that it is a lie, a prophecy of false idols. If we wash our hands once, it is because they are dirty; we wash them six times in quick succession and we enter the domain of the obsessively, compulsively disordered. The distinction between being driven and compelled is as fine as that of commitment versus addiction. At some point choice ceased to have meaning. Perhaps pity rather than admiration is an appropriate response.

I spent half an hour or so talking to a total stranger last night - a freedom that comes courtesy of instant and essentially anonymous messaging. Taken at face (or text) value, here was a young man engaged in a desperate battle: on one side his brother's and his own mental health, on the other academic achievement. Not knowing how much truth there was to his account, or anything more about him than that stated above, I offered forth the generic, unbranded motivational remarks I reserve for students I don't know. We must keep trying to achieve what we want, for ourselves and not others, although sometimes it's difficult to establish whether we should hold on or let go.

Ridicule me if you will, but I absolutely believe this about drive and commitment: all of us have one thing that we must do. Whether we excel in that thing is irrelevant. I had the noteable misfortune of catching Simon Cowell in full swing a couple of days ago, before him a man who couldn't sing at all. Maybe he understood this for himself, or was convinced that Cowell was lying. It doesn't matter either way, for in his eyes was the glint of ambition and it denied the truth. This was something he had to do.

To students I have often declared that we are all good at something, a statement that may need re-qualifying. We all believe we are good at something, even if that belief only visits us from time to time. Often it takes a while to work out what it is that we must do and because we are compelled to do it, well, practice makes perfect, allegedly. Very few of us are granted a fully-fledged gift outright by the deity of our choosing, but in time (and with measured doses of drive and commitment) we improve. There is no option not to.

Way back at the start of my mammouth sick leave my GP offered me the following words of wisdom: it is acceptable to be off with stress for a month, maybe six weeks, but no longer than that. From this I gather that the four months it has taken for me to reach as near to full recovery as I'm going to get is unacceptable. To whom? Employers? Society at large? When he said it, I registered the thought that I didn't care. I would resign and give up material well-being for good if it guaranteed I'd retain my sanity.

Within this there is the implicit assumption that my commitment to my career is such that somehow I can shake off the difficulties and 'pull myself together'. This is the kind of magic the government believe in too, when they tell us that we must reskill ourselves as frequently as is required in an ever-changing employment market. Good grief! It took me long enough to happen upon one conventional career that pays a decent wage and do the necessary to get into it.

Certainly being absent for almost half of the academic year does not bode well when it comes to seeking alternative employment, be that in teaching or elsewhere. I imagined last September that once I did 'pull myself together' I would be more concerned about this and still I simply can not manufacture sufficient motivation for venturing further into hell, even if there are places where they've managed to install thermostats or air-conditioning and 'it's not so bad'.

I haven't given up on a career in teaching. It is an intent that I have always lacked, although I'm told I am a good teacher, an asset to the school. If I am supposed to be motivated by these kind words, then my apologies for feeling only sadness that they couldn't make my time there more tolerable. If they had I could have continued indefinitely, believing that it was the thing I must do.

The lesson that is learned from all of this is that we do not fail simply because we give up, for it indicates we do not suffer from OCD, manifest in those driven by blind ambition. Going after that one thing we want most is all well and good, encourageable even. Latching on to anything else is to chase our own tails, hardly a desirable behaviour, in dogs or humans.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And it only cost me a pound!

Like most topics that crop up in this blog, I vowed I wouldn't write about my weight and now here I am doing it, even though I could be anything from the width of a stick to the side of a house and it wouldn't matter as far as my internet presence is concerned. However, as this has been a significant preoccupation for all of my adult life (and most of my adolescence), it's remarkable that I've failed to mention it at all.

By medical and social definition I am obese, not quite 'morbidly obese', but with a sufficiently disproportionate height to weight ratio for that incredibly ugly word to apply. Honestly, I'd rather be called fat, chubby, tubby, lardy, pudgy, chunky, cuddly or anything than 'obese'.

I've experienced many phases of 'obesity': first there was the puppy fat stage, which coincided with puberty and in retrospect is somewhat more than coincidence, in that every epochal change in my weight has occurred at the same time as a significant hormonal event. Being a social scientist is not a good thing when it comes to trying to explain these changes. Adolescence is a trying time for almost everyone and mine was not exactly a smooth transition into adulthood, to say the very least. In other words it might have been the hormones but there are too many other factors that may account for my weight in stones matching my age from 12 to 16.

The next change came in the form of a pregnancy that ended at thirteen weeks. Again, my activities were such that I was walking a mile or two a day, hardly eating at all, so hormones alone can not be thanked for the sudden decrease in weight - 3 stone in two months this time. By the end of this phase I was 11 stone, my lowest weight since childhood and, eye witnesses tell me, rather gaunt-looking. Some sensible adjustments in diet put me back up between 12 and a half and 13 stone, which was where my weight stayed until after the birth of my first daughter.

There's not much can be done to control appetite and diet when caught between breast-feeding and pregnancy, so I tried once (appetite suppressants prescribed by one GP and later condemned by another GP in the same practice) then gave up. My second daughter was born, my weight was 16 and a half stone and stable - until the hysterectomy.

Bear in mind I was mid-degree study, consuming vast amounts of college canteen cappuccinos and quick meals. It wasn't that I didn't notice my weight increasing; I chose to ignore it. No scales in my house or anywhere else I frequented, so it was easy done, other than my discarded clothes poking me vengefully every time I shuffled them across to fit in the next size up.

Finally, after expanding from UK size 16 to size 26 over seven years, several factors worked together to cajole me into doing something about it. I was losing hours of sleep due to backache, Nigel had lost his fitness due to illness and a colleague asked me if my ankles were swollen. Well, yes, they were - with fat. I went to a fitness centre, weighed in at 19 stone 4 and decided it was time to gain control.

There are many bizarre rituals that I share with my fellow travellers on this terrible journey. I recall with much amusement (now it's so long ago) a time when my mum and I were dieting. It was serious starvation of the body at 750 calories a day, drawn from dry salad, brown rice, pasta and low calorie bread. One evening we jogged from home to the town centre, bought chips, went to the pub where my dad worked, had a drink and got the bus back home. I think that might have been the end of that diet, although my loathing of most things wholemeal and boring, bare salad harps back to that time.

Another thing we do to ration the calories is miss meals, usually breakfast, which any dietician / nutritionist will tell you is one of the most likely ways of failing to lose weight at all. Breakfast gets the metabolism going and stops severe bingeing later in the day. Us fatties, however, often see it as the one meal we can forego because it occurs when we are least hungry and therefore we can save the calories so we can have a decent meal fit for more than a rabbit at teatime. Eating breakfast pretty much every day was one of the 3 big changes I made to my lifestyle six years ago.

'Shape Up And Dance' with Felicity Kendal. Oh, what profound hatred I have for that poor woman because of this particular ritual. We've all done it - one of my colleagues uses a DVD that requires her to be aerobic with Patsy Palmer and she despises her too. The theory, I imagine, is that with just a little investment in one of these products we can fit a decent workout into our daily routines without too much effort. The reality is yet another piece of abandoned clutter in our fat-fighting lives, with the added bonus that we get to dust it and feel guilty at the same time.

I said that 6 years ago I decided I had to get in control of this weight issue, but this is not necessarily about losing weight and it's most certainly not about being the ideal weight for my height, which by all accounts is between 7 and a half and 9 and a half stone. At my lowest weight of 11 stone I was, by all official measures, still 'overweight'. I would be more than happy to be 11 stone again. My family would worry about me if I was though, as they did last time.

What I needed to control was the total obsession with my weight - not easy when every medical professional deems it necessary to pass negative, usually threat-loaded comment. Then there's the fact that clothes' shops don't stock my size, people commenting with a smile of encouragement when it looks like I might have lost some weight. I was sick to the back teeth of all of it. Being overweight makes you feel guilty about eating, causes you to judge other overweight people when they're eating, destroys your self confidence and leaves you convinced you're a failure.

When I had sinus surgery a couple of years ago I was the fittest I'd ever been in my life. OK, I was still about 16 stone, but my pulse rate was normal and when I told the nurse who took it that I had been working out, changed my diet etc. and lost 3+ stone. The response? Nothing. Hooray!

It's a work in progress, which is a wonderful freedom. I have this thing with the house that if it looks half-decorated then that is far better than in need of decorating. I'm doing something about it, getting there slowly. I'm still fat, but I'm not over-eating and I'm exercising regularly.

And I know I'm not over-eating because I signed up to a free online calorie counting service two weeks ago, more to check that this was true than to get all fixated on how many calories are in the things I want to eat. Amazingly, even with the pizza, kebabs and lager I've consumed during that time I've still stayed at 2000 calories or less a day.

Having lost only a pathetic, singular pound in the past week (with concerted effort on the exercise front) I am a little miffed that things aren't progressing faster, but I will not allow this aspect of my life to be the thing that controls everything else. It did so for far too long. I know that I, like all abnormally thin or fat people, will never be free from monitoring my weight, diet and exercise levels. There are many who are lucky that they will never understand how difficult this is to live with.

Perhaps a little truth can be found in the old adage that inside every fat person there's a thin person sometimes striving, often giving up on the possibility of ever getting out. I for one do not want to be thin. It's just not right for me.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Anyone who has ever posted to Blogger will know that above the textarea for the main body is a place to add the title. I have always started from a title, as my posts are never entirely pre-planned: I have something I want to say but there's no concrete destination in mind when I begin. My title provides a succinct frame of reference, keeping me focused in some direction or other.

Today a title eludes me, although I don't quite know why. At 7.30am I was set on getting straight down to some novel editing, just as soon as I reached a suitable place to leave the book I am reading ('Barking' by Tom Holt). Then my concentration drifted and I lost interest, not because the book is bad. It offers Tom Holt's usual blend of off-the-cuff fantasy with chuckles and I've read enough of his books to feel qualified to say that, in my opinion, it may not be one of the best novels he's penned, but it's certainly not one of the worst.

So I dragged myself into the world, feeling somewhat weary in spite of an early night, which involved missing half of Star Trek. I'm thoroughly aware that as of a week on Monday, Bravo's scheduling of The Next Generation at 11pm will be far too late for me to enjoy it without suffering the consequences severly at 6.40 the following morning. It is a minor, yet acutely experienced, inconvenience - a symptom if you like. Like I can predict where Tom Holt's narrative will take me next, or second-guess the character reactions of the crew of The USS Enterprise D/E, I know that this is my Level 1 stress response kicking in.

A momentary digression into the wonders of spelling: why does 'took' use a double 'o', when 'stuck' does not? It was 'struck' that 'strook' me before - the realisation that I think in words, and in the same way as I occasionally lapse when writing and get stuck on 'stuck' if I think too hard about it, I did the same in my thoughts. In fact I got so caught up in the spelling I forget now what I had been 'strook' by. However, grammatically I am certainly stricken.

Back to the issue of a title for this post: it seems that when I ponder what it should be I develop either a twitch in my right eye, or an awareness of it. Both are appropriate to the meaning of 'stress' - emphasis, tension, focus, force, accent. It's a good, concise term that has the privilege of being one of those words unlikely to suffer ambiguity even out of context.

Every person experiences the effects of stress in a very different and unique way. For me it is mostly this sense of total exhaustion and disengagement. If that doesn't boot the stressor into touch it's followed up by some pretty brutal abdominal pain, physically real enough for me to have long since abandoned my appendix. On the plus side, knowing one's stress responses can be an effective means of tackling the issue head on. Unfortunately this also assumes that something can be done about it when in actuality we are rendered powerless, if only by the stress itself.

Passive use of the verb 'render' in the previous paragraph is intentional, hypothetically no less so than the Wachowski brothers' presentation of pure Foucauldian hell that is The Matrix Trilogy. We carry those little pills in our pockets, moving them from one garment to the next with loose change and receipts. If we ever notice they are there, we do so knowing that we can take neither. The only free will we possess is bound to those pills remaining in our possession.

I loved parts 1 and 2 of The Matrix Trilogy and I possibly don't need to explain why, considering that the above examples of my interests in fiction depict alternate realitites that are far better than this. 'Revolutions' killed the hopes built in 'The Matrix' and 'Reloaded'; Messrs Wachowski must bear this responsibility to their graves. Even when we have the power to create the illusion of a free universe it is beyond us. We remain constrained by the discursive binds we tied ourselves and merely tighten the knots when we struggle against them.

Only Rodenberry managed to produce a vaguely utopic vision that endures, with a blatant disregard for the efforts of his successors to deconstruct or even destroy it. The further he ventured away from mainstream US culture, the harder it became to maintain those counter ideals in the face of increasing awareness and acceptance of diversity. It gives me hope, not that the future will be a place driven by self betterment instead of accumulation of wealth, although that would be nice, as would the required eradication of poverty and disease, not to mention a military presence rightfully bestowed with pride and honour. No, my hopes are not so grand or naive.

Returning to my own education was a head-on collision with something introduced to me as 'the sociological imagination'. I've since grasped that it's just a case of opening the curtains and looking out of the window rather than walking away. Ideologies aside, a quick glance will tell us that this is not the place we believed it to be. It's much better and yet much worse than that all at once.

I foresee my own narrative heading into post-modern apathy - the lack of title assures it. There will be no revolution, bloody or otherwise, not out there, I thought. All your grand theories are just keys jangling from the jailer's belt. Then I held onto that moment and let it turn to introspection. Where do I go now? What do I mean by 'out there'? If I follow where I lead then the freedom of which I write is that created by the mind, in the mind, hopes and dreams cast in ink or light and thrown to the void.

And I turned to Ginsberg's ghost and said 'I am beat!' and he took my hand and pulled me to my feet and replied 'Yes you are.'

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The costs of living in a bubble

Yesterday I endured the same old question-answer routine that I have for the past seven years.

"So, you're a teacher?"


"What do you teach?"



Inquisitor makes some backward movement to ward off evil mind-reading powers.

Actually, it can go one of two ways at that point: either the person with whom I am conversing develops a sudden terrible fear of the seer status they themselves ascribed to me, or they mumble some regret about psychology not being on the curriculum when they were at school.

And really, as I've written a lot more than I've taught over the past four months, my defining occupation is that of writer, by choice and reality. Alas it occupies but still doesn't pay, and it's not going to get me corporate rate membership at the local sports and fitness centre.

By now it is custom in this type of scenario for me to demystify the magic of my discipline, such as it is mine at all. We are all mind-readers, or else we would make little sense of this world. So, I said, yes, I do know what you're thinking, but not because I have special abilities, but because your face is in my direction but the rest of you is off down the corridor. With that he trundled off to get a form he'd forgotten the first time, amazed that I could know such a thing.

Elsewhere this week, life has progressed in mundane fashion, other than the absurd ups and downs of prices and interest rates. I'm sure when I was younger if the interest rate went up it did so because inflation was on the rise, and prices increased accordingly and indeed universally. So there I am, in 'The Asda', staring at the shelves of the bread aisles with around six of my fellow shoppers, trying to make sense of £1.53 for a loaf and I'm in danger of heavily quoting Victor Meldrew. Even the value / smart price / betterbuy loaves are 37p. It's like cardboard that stuff; it possibly is cardboard, and it's twice the price it was two years ago, but my mortgage has gone down again.

I don't follow, but I'll tell you what, Mr. Beveridge, it looks like we'll all be doing without bread and cakes. Even the cheap flour is now 36p, where it was 12p and I know that this has something to do with wheat crops because people have been telling me this for a few months. In the baking aisle, there was just one box of yeast left, which suggests anyone else with the potential know-how thought 'sod that for a game of soldiers' and decided to bake their own bread.

Last year I had to shop around for the best deal on coffee: now all of the supermarkets are selling it at less than they have for quite some time. My brother-in-law said they were on the Douwe Egberts at the moment, as they are coffee whores and buy whatever is cheapest that week. We're all coffee whores - that's why it's all a lot less costly than it was. Well, that and maybe something to do with bumper bean harvests.

On the way home I bought diesel - £1.07 a litre and that was the best price I could find locally. Any of you free market economists want to give me an insight into that one? We're driving more than ever before, so where's your self regulating price mechanism in all of this?

You may read all this and think 'Well duh! Nothing new there and the reasons are obvious.'. To a social scientist the possible explanations number so many that either your head explodes or you find yourself a nice bubble away from reality and peer out occasionally to utter 'What the hell...?'.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mills & Boo

Who the hell were they anyway?

This is what I imagine so far:

Miss Elizabeth Mills (Betsy to her friends) was a fifty odd year old spinster (actually make that an odd fifty year old spinster), who met another lovely middle-aged spinster, Edith Boon, one day in the publisher's office. Both had achieved limited success as writers of tame, fairytale style, romantic fiction - love stories for discerning ladies of leisure. You know the sort I mean: wives with empty nests who have nothing to fill the void but paperback consumption.

"We are very good at this." said Miss Mills.

"Indeed we are." replied Miss Boon.

"Let's set up on our own." suggested Miss Mills.

"What a simply splendid idea." responded Miss Boon.

And so they did, buying the novellas of other like-minded souls and casting them out into the ever yearning world.

To be perfectly honest, I don't care how Mills & Boon started or became the leviathon in bulk publishing that it is. The reality is that writing a fifty thousand word story of wishy washy romantic adventure, no, not even adventure, is no easy feat. Or maybe it is if this is the kind of thing one likes as a reader (and it's most certainly not).

However, I firstly owe it to the company to point out that as they've been making a decent living out of this for a century, there are evidently enough people out there who do like this kind of thing. What worries me is that I don't and as a consequence I'm not really writing the sort of story that would enthral the average M&B reader (professional women in their 20s and 30s, according to an article by Julie Bindel of The Guardian).

Nor do I want to be writing the kind of story where the heroine abandons her strength and independence to submit to a man. That kind of occupation isn't for everybody and definitely isn't one I can endorse.

Curses to my setting out of goals to be achieved. I've got to write it now, whether I want to or not.

The Wikipedia entry for Mills & Boon probably presents a more accurate account of the origins of the company than I do here.

I believe that the most accurate description of this blog posting is procrastination.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Elementary, My Dear Reader

It was windy last night, so windy in fact that our milkman was delayed in his deliveries, or at least I assume that's why the milk was late arriving. I imagine battery powered, open-backed vehicles with a maximum speed of about 15MPH don't fair well in weather like that. Still, he got here in the end. Unfortunately the empties had taken flight at 4am, but they've regrouped, ready for tomorrow.

And it's a 'Green Day': the local council's day for collecting all recyclable household waste. Again, due to the severe winds during the night, it would seem that the vast majority of the crescent's plastic bottles, cans and whatnot ended up in our front garden. Why, when our own rubbish stays firmly where it's put does everyone else's erupt into a bouncing merry-go-round echoing through the night and keeping me awake? Because the buggers don't 'rinse and crush' as directed and empty vessels, noise etc.

So that's air for you. Water - well - first there was the issue of a blocked washing machine filter, resulting in my newly washed jeans and Turbie Towel smelling like they'd spent the week camping in the Lake District. They're back in the wash as I write. Then there was a bit of a problem with the handle on my bucket breaking whilst said bucket was filled with disinfectant and water.

I've no doubt mentioned before that I like to visualise myself tending to a large holding in the country, as each morning I set the dogs free in the garden and clear their, erm, stuff. I sluice it down, all the while imagining that this is my farmyard and I am somehow free of suburban career slavery. Alas, I got halfway across the kitchen with the 2 gallon bucket, filled to the brim incidentally, and lost half the contents over the kitchen floor and myself.

All in all, it's taken two hours to get from the shower to here, just in time for the sun to gather enough strength to make my computer screen barely visible, although certainly not enough to dry up the muddy mess that was once my garden.

An interesting start to the day. I also managed to volunteer to knit mittens before I'd even got out of bed, so I guess I'm off to buy wool next, not that I even know whether I still own a pair of matching knitting needles, seeing as I haven't knitted anything since my eldest daughter was a baby.

Oh well, must crack on - things to achieve, yarn to buy and all that.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Picking up the Breeze

If I could sit here a moment longer,
The wind drifting over my head,
Dust clouding my view,
I'd have a vision.

If I could wait a second more,
The gust lifting my collar,
Howling in my ears,
I would find a voice.

If I could walk a mile further,
The gale pushing me onward,
My hair in my face,
I might find a way.

If I could take a day over,
The breeze capturing my thoughts,
Lifting my dreams,
I will find them outside.