Monthly Archives: May 2012

Exploring – Local Wonders and Futher Afield

This week I’ve been meaning to revise. I have an exam on Thursday, for heaven’s sake, I ought to be at least reading a book. It is paramount that I stay in my room despite the utterly glorious week-long Californian paradise-weather we’ve been having and study, study, study. It’s for exactly that reason, then, that I’ve been out of the house this week more than usual.

It’s not just the sun. I don’t normally care much for the sun. I don’t tan. I don’t burn easily either, for that matter, I just get somehow even paler and if I’m not careful my arms get a little itchy from heat-rash but ultimately hot weather does nothing except provoke me to change shirts in the middle of the day. But good weather makes being indoors suck. It’s usually warmer than it is outside – stuffier, too. My laptop, already quite old and prone to overheating, is like a hot water bottle under my hands. My window faces the sun most of the day and so if I dare try and use the computer between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon the sun will glint off the laptop screen and blind me. Good weather makes you feel like you really ought to be outside. It reminds you how much time you spend indoors and it reaffirms the old adage of the agoraphobic, Internet-bound nerd.

This week I’ve been exploring a few places. A friend of mine and his lovely fiancée invited me to explore some woods on the other side of Canterbury and I happily took up the chance to shirk my student responsibilities. We wandered around the gorgeous forest and, like children, explored the local wonders. We watched anthills slowly consume all the debris around them and we watched some strange grub-like creatures bumble about the clovers. We saw a delightful little woodland clearing where the grass was as green as it comes. We found a caterpillar hanging from a high tree branch at head-height in the centre of the path and watched it dance around like one of those acrobats hanging from the ceiling by long silk strips. I was also subject to an explosion of scribbly death when it turned out that the strange, fuzzy black lump by the roadside was animal droppings covered in flies who burst out like shrapnel when I got too close. I also bet my friend he wouldn’t lick an aphid on his arm for a pound just to see if he’d do it. I am now one pound poorer.

Today I went with the same friend (sans fiancée) and walked around the fields behind the university. We found a bunker, presumably from the 1940s, abandoned in the hedgerows. Canterbury is one of the largest cities closest to then-occupied France and was none-too-far from Dover Castle where a lot of the defence against potential Nazi invasion was orchestrated. We discussed the secret plans to defend Britain conjured up by Churchill and the other heads of state in the event of a land invasion of England. There were certain towns, those with historical moats and castle walls, which were planned to destroy the bridges leading across said moats and hold out against the invaders with enough supplies to last five years. 

Standing there, peering into that long-forgotten concrete pillbox, I mused on how terrifyingly close we came to being occupied or at least invaded by the German army back then. Living in Canterbury must have been a stressful thing – so few miles separating its citizens from a French coastline where, I like to imagine, Hitler stood, watching the cliffs of Dover, shaking an impetuous fist. Now the bunker, no longer needed, lies forgotten and overgrown in the hedgerow behind a university where many of the students are German, English, French and from futher afield. 

I’m reading the papers these days and wondering what the big guys sitting in Downing Street or Élysée Palace or the Bundeskanzleramt are going to do about the Eurozone. I’m reading lots of opinions and lots of predictions and I don’t know enough to be able to say here what I really think about all of it but nevertheless when I look at the last century of European history I can’t help but marvel at how far we’ve come. At the start of the century we were baying at each other’s throats, in the middle we were split down the middle and pointing weapons at each other – weapons that could wipe life off the face of the earth several times over. Now some might say we’re baying at each other’s throats again – this time over how much money should be going where and what we’re supposed to be doing as a Eurozone. But when I look at the crumbling bunker in the Canterbury fields I realise that we’re nowhere near the hatred and fear we once held for each other. We’re closer than we’ve ever been before. 

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Football – Caring About Things I Don’t Care About

Football is boring. Maybe not to you – and I’m happy that you enjoy it – but to me it’s indescribably dull. Players are encouraged to fall over at the slightest provocation, the rules allow for mindless passing of the ball back-and-forth to deny the opposition possession (as opposed to the far more entertaining rules of passing in Rugby that make moving forward a necessity) and generally I find it hard to relate to the teams or the supporters or the clubs in any measurable way that might conclude my enjoyment of the sport.

So imagine my sup rise when I find myself watching the Champions’ League Final between Munich and Chelsea this week. Sitting in a bar with good friends whilst slightly-tipsy supporters around us cheer and clap at random intervals to try and break up the monotony of the majority of the game wherein no goals were scored. I kid you not when I say by the pool table opposite us there was a large group of guys who seemed to get ridiculously excited whenever anyone of either side got hold of the ball and/or made an attempt at the goal. They could barely contain their enthusiasm at the penalty shoot-out.

My friends had bet on it being a draw up until it went into extra time. They had fifty pounds in potential winnings and right up until the end, with it being 0-0 throughout, it looked like a done deal. We were bored with the game and chatting between ourselves. Then someone, I forget who and care not to remind myself, scored. Suddenly and transformatively we were fixed on the game. When the other team scored and brought it back up to a tie I actually yelled and pumped my fist in the air. It didn’t take much – it wasn’t even me who had the bet to win, it was my friends – but I was suddenly invested in the game. Right up until the last minute of the game proper I was anxious of every potential kick of the ball that might upset the perfect balance that would ensure my friends their win. 

So I guess I don’t find football all that boring in reality. The passing of the ball between mindless millionaire number one and brainless billionaire number two wasn’t all that tedious once I had some reason to care who won and how. I don’t much care for gambling myself and I doubt I would ever bring myself to put down a sum of money worthy of worrying over if I did. But the anticipation of my friends being jubilantly victorious or frustratingly defeated was enough to excite me and make me want to see the game conclude. 

I’m reminded of whenever my dad and younger brother went to go see the games of our local rugby team – the Northampton Saints. I love watching the saints and rugby’s a great game that I can actually enjoy watching for the sake of watching but my dad and brother are on a whole ‘nother level. They’re season-ticket holders. Diehard fans. They sit in that bit of the stands where everyone’s such a regular face to the point of knowing each other and chatting in the half-time. Whenever dad and brother went to go see a game I would hope for a saints win. Not just because I support the saints but also because I knew that if they lost dad would come back in a foul mood. Dad’s bad mood has a unique way of spreading out and putting me and everyone else in a bad mood as well so it was always in my interests that the saints won

So I suppose the old adage is false – it’s not the taking part that counts : people care about the winning. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing but from what I can tell it’s the real thing

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Where I’ve Been – Something that Scares Me

This week I was making this – a short blog entirely in Russian. I have no idea if the Russian is good – I don’t even know if it’s comprehensible for native speakers without the subtitles on. All I know is that it put me back into my Russian-studying game after a cold had knocked all the motivation out of me and vastly improved my vocabulary. Benny Lewis of Fluentin3months has always maintained that speaking is the number-one priority to learning a language that most bookworms tend to neglect and that we should make videos in our languages to encourage us to get used to both speaking and dealing with an audience.

It also ties in with another big part of my adventure-seeking mentality – doing one thing each day that scares you.

I quote that line directly from the bizarre but inspiring message of the video below.

It’s called Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreenand was adapted into song by Baz Luhrmann from an article written by Mary Schmich back in the 90s. It contains nearly every little piece of advice everyone knows but no-one acts on and can easily work up a man to convince himself to change his life entirely for the few minutes following hearing the song for the first time. Of course this wears off and people sink back into the hum-drum but it’s a good rabble-rouser none the less.

I first heard this song-poem-thing when it was played to us by our head of Sixth Form (a higher level of pre-University education in Britain) for the sole purpose of outfitting us with such advice as is found in the lyrics. Ever since then, though I remember most of the message, there was one line that stuck out to me personally and has come back to me in recent months as I look in my life more and more for adventure. “Do one thing each day that scares you“.

At the start of this year’s Lent I had just discovered that in Lent you don’t have to just give up things you like – you can also take on things you’d like to accomplish. A second New Year’s Resolution, I was told. Regardless of the theological validity of such a notion I decided to put myself into a small “yes-man” situation à la Danny Wallace and accept any and all offers that came my way. I soon discovered that in reality there aren’t all that many amazingly exciting opportunities we let pass by in the first place – my life didn’t change all that profoundly. But I was still thinking about doing one thing each day that scared me and, combined with my search for things to say yes to, I found myself in a situation where though my day-to-day actions were not much changed my attitude was very much altered. I found myself looking at the world around me – looking for things to do and exciting opportunities to take the world up on. I felt like I had opened my eyes, to quote a cliché, and seen for the first time all I could possibly do. I feel healthier for feeling so less constrained by what I was “supposed” to do. Knowing I had the willpower and ability to randomly go running through the streets made deciding to walk down them in a normal and leisurely manner feel like a freedom rather than a societal expectation.

My point, however rambling, is that it’s healthy to realise our potential and it makes your life that much better to just say “to hell with it” and do things. There’s a fad going around young girls in particular at the moment called YOLOYou Only Live Once. It’s a philosophy of sorts that suggests that since we only have one life we should do what we want with it. I agree with the idea but the problem with these YOLOers is that they don’t do anything. They sit there with this wonderful little phrase that says “the world is my oyster – I can do anything and be anything” and then they just end up getting drunk and doing the same thing they do every night. To know that the world is your oyster and the just settle for a cheap hamburger instead is all-too-great a shame. You Only Live Once – do something special.

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The West Wing – Optimism Feels Good

So I’ve not written anything in the past few days. My previous entry would tell you that I had a cold and, being a man with said cold, I immediately contracted what we call “man-flu” and felt very sorry for myself and vastly overexaggerated the severity of my sickness.

In any case my Russian adventure and my less-fun-but-still-interesting attempts at revising for upcoming History exams were put on hold as I found myself far too sick to want to bother working. It’s important to make work fun and it’s a lot easier to do when it’s fun,yes, but it’s difficult to convince yourself to do work in all situations…especially when you’re so eager to give yourself a sicknote and goof off. I spent my evenings (and continue to spend them) plowing through the not-instubtantial bulk of that most wonderful of television series – the West Wing.

The West Wing is a drama about the lives and situations of the President of the United States (Martin Sheen) and his various staffers. It’s sublimely written, politically in-tune and informative, at times hilarious and others tragic and nearly all the time wildly idealistic and far too idealised to be a reality in world politics. 

I was first introduced to West Wing by a wonderful politics (or “political science”) teacher named Doctor Carter. Once a week we would sit down and watch an episode of the show that dealt with the issue or governmental function we were learning about that week. We all came to love the West Wing as a drama just as much as we loved it as a wonderful insight into American politics. I remained enamoured with President Bartlet, American politics and above all the so-very-rare idea that politicians aren’t all evil or out to ruin our lives and that politics isn’t a waste of time.

It’s very popular to think these days that all politicians (but especially the famous ones) are evil, hypocritical, selfish, self-serving, without principles or some fiendish combination thereof. It’s also very hard to argue against that – being as it is so many politicians are out of touch – products of a sheltered system that creates politicians rather than, as it should be, allowing for politicians to rise out of any and all backgrounds as according to their passion in tackling issues personal to them and their constituents. But there are some fundamental truths that many political pragmatists tend to overlook that doom them to be cynics rather than realists.

Firstly it’s very hard to say that most politicians come into the job with dollar signs rolling around where their eyes should be like some fat-cat cartoon. The sheer amount of media exposure, public scrutiny, outright hatred and stress the average politician puts him or herself through is nowhere near the paycheck that they recieve for their work. When you consider the money they could be making in other jobs with nowhere near the same amount of ire drawn from the general public nor the privacy-invading assaults by the media you come to realise the only reason many people come into politics is because they want to make a difference, paycheck be damned. The annual salary of an MP in the House of Commons is £65,000-ish. The average paycheck of a partner in a law firm, a likely alternate line of work for a politician, comes in at around £100,000. The Prime Minster makes just over that at $145,000, true, but the Lord Chief Justice can make nearly $240,000. These are not random high-salary jobs. These are lines of work your average career politician would be well-suited for, to say nothing of business or economy jobs.

Secondly consider just how many politicians you can name. There are 650 MPs as of the 2010 election and there are 535 congressmen and 100 senators in the United States. When you say they are all corrupt, incompetent or out of touch – how many of them are you considering? At least a handful of MPs, certainly, all of whom are likely cabinet ministers or only temporarily on your mind because of whatever latest scandal is rocking the nation. Speaking of cabinet ministers – who are they all? Name them. You might know half of them. These are the people running the country. They are the executive body and I’m willing to bet the average person doesn’t know all of their names. I certainly don’t. Who on earth is Lansley? Never heard of him. Tarring everyone with the same brush is the kind of irritating thing foolish politicians do on a regular basis. To quote a man musing philosophical on the merits of Captain America, “maybe some of them are earnest but uninspiring personalities, maybe some others have made less than inspiring votes lately…but to pin all one’s hopes to an inspiring leader, to hope too hard for a hero, is a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take an inspiring leader if we can get one…but in the meantime, simply voting for the people less likely to betray [our] fundamental principles and to make the world a much worse place to live is not just enough: it’s enough to get excited about,”

Finally I find it personally hard to loathe politicians, never mind politics, because I just find it all too damned depressing to think like that. Many of these people, though I admit not all, are putting themselves up to the monumental task of attempting to fix problems beyond the comprehension or scope of the majority of the people in this nation. Whether they are the best people for the job we don’t know – though we should. What matters is that we as a national unit voted them into power and now we wait for them to not make a single mistake. And I don’t say that sarcastically – we earnestly want and require that they not make a single mistake. And these people do this willingly. They actually practically beg for us to chose them to do it and not some other, indistinguishable man in a suit with vague, pandering opinions and a winning smile. 

It feels good to think the best in people. West Wing taught me that. It applies to everything in my life – I find myself happiest when I believe, truly, that humans are fundamentally good, that all our decisions are done with the best of interests in mind. There have been scant few people in history who have been evil for the sake of being evil. Nearly every dictator or murderer in the history of mankind, however deluded, believed they were doing something for the good of mankind and wanted to do something good for mankind. They did it in terrible, horribly incorrect manners that were not at all good but you see my point in that no-one really goes about to deliberately make evil in this world.

And yes – many, many times I am proved wrong. Many times humans do awful things to themselves, one another and the planet. Many times politicians are sleazy wastes of space. Many times decisions are founded on ego and hubris rather than a benevolant commonality. So many times my fundamental belief in the good of humanity is shaken. But still I hold onto it. Why? Because I see so many times the anger and dissapointment in the eyes of cynics, of practical people, of realists and those who have given up on labels altogether. They see the world as an angry, horrible place where people do evil things and the majority of good people are torn down and apart by evil, powerful men with evil, powerful bankrolls. So many times their fundamental philosophies are justified. But they’re never happy to know this. To know that they’re right – that the world is a terrible place or just a moderately dissapointing one – saddens them. To believe in the good of all the things around you is naive and childish and you must be prepared to accept however many times you might be wrong, yes, but when you’re right, when youre fundamental philosphy is justified and you know you’re right – you know the world is a wonderful, beautiful place – nothing beats that. Nothing beats knowing the world is a wonderful place to live in. Optimism just feels good. West Wing taught me that. 

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Illness – Enjoying Being Normal

So today I was planning to write at some point about how some very dear friends of mine are now engaged and how I’ve just got in from an evening hanging out with friends and doing that most important of activities – having a good time. 

The Danish have an utterly awesome word in the shape of “Hyggelig” which, though untranslatable, can be roughly described as the warm, comforting happiness experienced when being with near and dear ones and having a good time. Think long summer evenings relaxing with your closest friends with your favourite drink and a beautiful sunset. 

Unfortunately as I come in from this evening’s hyggelig I come to realise I have a runny nose and a raging cold. I had a headache earlier today and I’ve had a sore, rough throat all day but I didn’t expect it to turn into a cold. As soon as I sat down to write these words my nose began to run and now I sit here with a tissue bunged up my nose feeling very sorry for myself.

I’m reminded in times of illness just how great it is to feel normal. People spend so much of their lives trying to achieve greater highs and greater emotional euphoria but we forget how pleasant it is to wake up and be healthy and functioning until those things are taken away from us. Illness reminds us how great health is. Part of the pain of illness is the impatience to return to that wonderful, tantilisingly-close feeling of normalcy in one’s body and mind. The knowledge that I will wake up tomorrow with a blocked nose and a head stuffy enough to drown me is almost worse than the feeling of my head-cold right now. 

But normalcy is great in other ways, too. For example – tonight’s evening with friends was little more than sitting around, having a meal out together, chatting in a bar and walking around the campus at night chatting and enjoying the warm breeze. There was nothing special, nothing especially notable nor rememberable and certainly nothing exciting or novel. And yet that in itself contributed to the perfectness of the evening – it was just all of us, relaxing and unwinding in each other’s company and enjoying the things we enjoy. 

Being ill is a spanner in the works. It bogs me down with helplessness and fatigue. I was meant to try and get a lot of Russian done today and further progress that linguistic adventure but now I sit here, sneezing and sniffing, having done no work and yet not caring. I just want to go to bed. Misery is me.

And yet from this I know that there will come a day not far from now when I will wake up and my health will be restored. I will be jubilant in my return to normalcy and to productivity. In the meantime, though, all I can do is wait for the cold to leave my body. It always helps, I find, to think of things linearly. Though I am ill now I will not be by this time next week. Though I may be exhausted from climbing this mountain now I know that by tonight I will be tucked up in bed. Though I may be stressing over exams or interviews I know that whatever happens I will not have cause to stress in a day or so. Things that matter now don’t matter later – for better or worse. 

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Adventure – the Battle against Boredom

So here I sit in my little bubble of myself. This small room, my university accommodation, is my little capsule wherein everything is geared towards me and no-one else. It is the only space on earth where I permit myself and where I am permitted by others to do absolutely anything I want and use my time however I wish. It’s almost depressing, then, how many of those hours of absolute freedom are spent on timewasters such as YouTube.

I love YouTube. It has replaced television for me – being of a greater variety and greater cohesion to my own interests than mainstream television networks ever could be. But YouTube, like so much of the internet, is a stopgap – a temporary plug in the space of nothingness that fills the inbetweens of our lives when we have nothing to do. Life is as much as battle against boredom as it is against starvation, disease and other basic needs. Even the most downtrodden of impoverished people still look for brief moments of entertainment – perhaps moreso than the overcomfortable minority of the “first world”. YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and, for the more knowledge-thirsty, Wikipedia – they all exist as plugs in the great big gaping hole of boredom that can envelope our lives when we have no direction or goal at that moment. It’s a drug that tricks your brain into thinking it’s doing something when in actuality there’s very little outwardly that can distinguish a bored person from one browsing the internet. Like the channel-surfers of old, the internet is this generation’s timefiller between work and real fun.

This is my third term of university and at Kent they have the near-infuriating practice of not doing anything in that third of a year. This is infuriating threefold as my family are paying for this waste of a term, I’m meant to be revising for exams for which I am receiving no support or even the scantest of information and finally I am bored. So very, very bored.

Which is why I crave adventure. Anything. Even the minor thrill of meeting a new person or going for a walk. Adventure in all its shades is nothing more than the endless fight back against boredom and ennui. Today the first thing I did after breakfast was walk to the library, find a seat left abandoned amongst the rows of bookcases and sit down. The book nearest my face was a brief history of Islam and I spent a happy near-hour flicking through a biography of Mohammad’s achievements and actions. I might have been sitting in a stuffy, ridiculously-warm-for-the-time-of-year library in drizzly south England, true, but I was also standing amidst the merchant-folk of Mecca as I joined Mohammad in considering ‘Uzza, Lat and Manah all those thousand-so years ago. Adventure is as much of the mind as it is of the body. You don’t need to jump off a cliff or wrestle a baboon to have an enriching experience out of life. 

There is a wonderful program avaliable for Chrome called StayFocused which allowed you to “blacklist” certain sites and assign a universal time limit which counts down for however long you spend on such sites. I’ve not yet been in a situation where my need to work has been strong enough to warrant sticking to a strict diet of time-wasting internet fodder but more and more these past few days I begin to see a more interesting side to the StayFocused ideology – that of forcing me to ween myself off of the internet as a battleground against boredom and into the ‘real’ world where adventure is as unpredictable as it is enriching. Even if it’s just meeting up with friends or admiring a view – humans are built from the ground up, whether you consider yourself creationist, evolutionist or otherwise, to act and react within a real world and not an online database. If you have fun on the internet you don’t necessarily have fun in real life. So go out there. Turn off the computer screen. Have an adventure.

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Leaving Home – The Joys of Solitary Living

These past few weeks I’ve been back living with my family whilst University was shut for easter. Tomorrow (in exactly 12 hours) I’ll be catching a ride back down to Olde Canterbury to wrap up the last, this-time-much shorter term of my first year reading History at the University of Kent.

Having been back for a few weeks I’ve had ample time to think over my two lives – that of the eldest son living at home with siblings and parents in middle-class suburbia and that of the young, fun-seeking university student living on his own in a city full of friends. I acknowledge the comfort and convinience of living in a house where food is ample, leisure is less of a dent in the budget and most commodities are handled by people other than myself but, when I think of the marked difference in my mood here and at university I can safely say I’ve already mentally flown the coop if not yet physically.

Living at home subjects me to less emotional personal space than at university . Also, being family and not housemates, I am more emotionally invested in the behaviour of people at home. Thus I find my mood to be much more affected by outside influences at home than at university and, accordingly, I am much easier put in a foul mood at home than I think is even possible in Kent. The annoying habits of my family cling to me and frustrate me more than the most annoying habits of my most annoying friends ever could. Having experienced the intellectual and emotional maturity of (some, not all) university students it feels like I’ve been hobbled or regressed to return to the bickering of younger siblings or the arguments of family members. 

Living in my little room in the University of Kent I was ablaze with motivation. I began and kept up the practice of writing down each night five things I wished to have accomplished by the same time the following night. Not only that – I put myself to learn a new, interesting word and a new, interesting historical fact each day and for several weeks I kept to this little self-sustaining schedule and became such a productive taskforce that I finished all my essays a week before they were due and spent the final seven days of the term relaxing with friends and enjoying life rather than fixating on words on a screen. I was learning and doing and self-improving almost every day. I picked up a copy of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and read it just because I felt I ought to. In terms of my capacity to improve myself and expand my horizons I felt limitless.

But there is a downside to university – to all universities – and that is the passing of an era. It occured to me then and now that there were so many of my classmates at my leavers’ prom or on results day whom I would very likely never see again. Moreso than that – many of my closest friends have moved to other universities across the British Isles and I see them so little now as compared to before in our schooldays. I have friends in university, true, but there’s nothing to compare to old childhood friends. 

I look now at a picture on my wall. It is of the Pleiades – a cluster of stars hanging in space so very, very far away from us. They burn a bright blue, such is their heat, and it brings to mind a certain physical phenomenon that has long-fascinated me. It is called Blueshift. The idea is that as objects moving towards us at incredibly fast speeds, near the speed of light, the light between us and them begins to become bluer and bluer in colour. The opposite of this is Redshift, where things moving away from us get redder and redder. When we see those wonderful pictures of galaxies and nebula and we see the red and blue colours we can see those that are moving away from us and those that are moving towards us.

The reason I mention this is because it was the first metaphor I thought to use when attempting to explain this sensation of “drifting apart” I notice between myself and former schoolmates. Not my friends, of course, but classmates. At school we were not close by any stretch but we knew each others names and would greet each other in passing. In these weeks I’ve been home I’ve walked past quite a few of my former classmate and we’ve either not acknowledged each other or smiled nervously in a horrid state of not being close enough to even warrant a friendly “hello” anymore but not far enough to warrant ignoring. It was a bizarre moment. I feel when I look at these people I see them as redshifted – moving further and further away from me with each passing moment and with nothing to stop the motion. It does not sadden me, for they were never my friends, but I think it odd that in a few years I will remember so few of their names  and maybe I will have forgotten a face or two. I was never the best with names in the first place – I dread to think how few I will remember down the years. 

But the opposite is also true. There are people out there who are to me blueshifted. They are moving closer to me all the time and with each passing day our friendship grows stronger. Beyond them there are people whom I have not even met yet – people I might not know for dozens of years if not decades – who are gradually nearing me over the course of our lives. Perhaps we will know each other for only a few minutes, perhaps for the rest of our lives. Perhaps we will love, be friends or fight with each other. I don’t know. But they will near me and maybe one day after that they will redshift and move away from me again and I will watch them grow distant and faint. Who can tell. The only fixed points in our lives are the stars above our heads and even they are fleeting in the long run. Things might not last forever – maybe we should appreciate them more whilst they’re here. Living on my own is a joy. Living with my family is something I ought to appreciate whilst I have it. 

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Gainful Employment – Too Little Lettuce

Today was my first day working at Subway.

Well, I say working. It’s a summer job.

Well, I say job. I was on a trial day. 

Well, I say day. It was two hours.

In complete honesty I did two hour’s work roughly approximate to what I would be doing were I employed by the almighty, all-benevolent Subway franchise. 

I’ve come upon that unhappy point in every person’s life where they realise money is both desirable and fleeting. My lifestyle is hardly lavish and in actuality I tend to be far too concerned with the idea of spending money to be much of a spendthrift. However being at university generates additional costs that I must meet and make good on. Hence employment.

I don’t have any particular soft spot for Subway. They are the only “fast food” place I would willingly step foot in but I wouldn’t call myself a fan nor an addict. I’m happy to report, though, that seeing the workings behind the shopfront has not damaged my willingness to eat their food.

The thing I found strangest about standing on the wrong side of that ranked-up plethora of meats and salads was how I was actually less stressed than when I’m the customer. When I go into a shop that requires input from me beyond “I’ll have this” I tend to freak out. I suddenly need to make decisions and I’m immediately made aware of the queue behind me and the bored, impatient look hiding behind the friendly eyes of the guy making my food and that’s exactly when I forget what I wanted or how to talk to people in a declarative, clear, non-mumbly intelligible manner. 

“Hello, sir! What would you like?”

“Uh, the…uh…mumgblle,”

“The what, sorry?”

“Fleumble”

I have no idea why but this only happens in customer situations. Even though I’m well aware of the consumer mentality of our society which demands our shop people be malleable and eternally agreeable in order to appease us I still live in constant dread of somehow being an incompetent customer and wasting everyone’s time. When I stand in queues for the local corner shop I spend a good part of the queue recounting my loose change over and over again to make sure I definately have enough money. I’m well aware that if I didn’t have the correct change (despite counting five times and praying the queue would slow down so I could recount a sixth) the person would say “I need such-and-such more,” and I’d look a tad silly. However there’s no way you can remind me of this in the queue leading up the checkout. No. I’m adamant that the ferocious monster on the other side of the counter will glance snidely at my proffered pennies and snort in a booming, daemonic tone “Wretched mortal! Thou hast coinage too little! Thou’st offended me!” and then they’d backhand me and I’d go to jail.

Subway’s even worse. I have to chose the bread and the meat and whether I’d like it toasted or not or with cheese or not or half or a footlong and then “What salad would you like?” Ack! They must have every vegetable on the planet here! Which ones do I pick to ensure the subway artist won’t bite off my head? It’s like the letters-on-the-floor puzzle of Indiana Jones and the Last Cruasade. If I pick gerkin the sneeze-guard will grow teeth and eat me and I’ll be turned into slices of bacon for the next unwitting customer. 

So it was my relief when suddenly the decision is put into the other guy’s hands. All I have to do is correctly and quickly relay his decisions and pick the right sauce. I was slow, true, and I didn’t know where anything was and I tended to be too scant in my application of lettuce but it didn’t matter because I didn’t have to worry about which things to pick! It was bliss. Now I know why Subway people always look so happy when you enter their building. “Thank God!” they think, “I hadn’t the foggiest what I was doing. Now this customer will tell me exactly what to do!

I get a phonecall (or don’t) in a few weeks. This appears to be the only job in my hometown and if I don’t get it I have no idea what I’ll do for money for the summer. Seriously. I signed up for a job-searching site which contained a cookie which occasionally filled adspace on the internet with job postings from said site. Northampton (my hometown) had one job – a door to door salesman in the town ten miles away from my house. The ad is meant to rotate between all the possible jobs in your area. Thusly it sadly and pitifully spun around on the spot showing the same miserable excuse for employment over and over again like the one wrinkly apple left in the fruitbowl because it’s still edible but not desirable enough to have been eaten yet. Northampton – the wrinkly apple of English job prospects.

Also there’s an absolutely wonderful BBC documentary called After Life all about the sciences of decay and mould and decomposition and it’s wonderfully interesting and yes I’m aware being fascinated by rotting things is a little creepy. But rotting things are fascinating – it’s why I follow Piers Morgan’s career. Ho!

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Discovering Things and Losing Them

You see this man? His name is Ivan Rebroff and yes, he looked like that ALL THE TIME.

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I can’t help but wonder if that hat is actually his hair. Perish the thought.

I mention him and his fantastic choice in headgear because I only discovered him today. He’s a German singer (born Hans-Rolf Rippert) who claimed Russian descent and made a name for himself singing foreign songs – particularly French and Russian – as well as playing the part in Fiddler on the Roof that sung “If I were a Rich Man (diddle-diddle-diddle)” and he’s particularly famous firstly for his bizarre Russianesque fashion sense and also his incredible singing range. The average human can reach one-and-a-half whole octaves if he or she pushes themselves. A trained singer can hit two octaves reliably. Good opera singers can hit three octaves (but their parts often don’t go much beyond two octaves anyway). Mr. Rebroff, however, could sing four and a half octaves. That’s all the way from a Bass register up to Soprano. The guy was insane.

What makes this guy more amazing is that I’d never heard of him before. Many of you might read this and roll your eyes. The guy’s a legend! I hear you cry. Well – I’d never heard of him and now I’ve been listening to his amazing voice all evening whilst going about my online business. I was looking at Russian songs on youtube when I found him. I started learning Russian because I loved the sound of Russian and its beautiful singing so this guy was right up my alley.

But then when I checked his Wikipedia page to find out who the hell he was I found that he had died in early 2008. I can’t say I wasn’t suprised – the guy looked fairly old in the videos I’d seen of him that looked to have been filmed in the eighties or something. But I experienced that all-too-odd feeling you only really get with famous people. Famous people have that knack of hanging around after they’ve died – you can still see their faces and their words all over the place. So it can be odd when someone seems to be alive – they’re singing and speaking on videos you watch and writing on pages you look at – and then you find out they’ve been dead for nearly half a decade. You realise all you’ve ever known about that person and all you can ever hope to know is just a shadow – a footprint left in the soil.

Part of my love for History is the thrill of imaging “being there“. The idea that, years later when people are studying those events in classrooms or whispering of them with awe in hushed places, you can sit back and say “I remember it. I was there“. This can range from revolutions to raves, concerts to calamities. We all remember where we were when 9/11 came around – we all remember those historical moments we were part of, however small. But then there are the ones we miss. Things like the Egyptian Revolution which one of my dearest friends was caught right in the middle of. It can’t be said I would have enjoyed being in that enviornment but at the same time imagine being there as history was made. That’s something special.

Which is why as I look on the imprint Ivan Rebroff has left on planet earth I’m reminded of all the important things around us that one day won’t be here anymore. I have a sudden urge to attend a Stephen Hawking lecture just so I can say I saw the man with my own eyes. He was “supposed” to die in his twenties. He’s seventy now. Even without his condition he’s fairly old and one day he won’t be with us anymore. One day the Queen will die – one day they’ll actually close off Machu Picchu for good (the soil erosion is damaging the ruins, after all). We need to see these things and so much more before they go.

This sounds morbid but actually it’s quite the opposite. We need to live. We need to see as many places, do as many things, meet as many people and be part of as many events as humanly possible. Have as many adventures as you can as many times as you can. Because they only come round once. Because you only come round once.

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Chance Encounters – Sticky People

By nature of humans being social creatures living all together in huge communities we often happen upon people we’ve never met before. Most of the time we meet for a few seconds, a minute maybe, before ricocheting off away from each other back into the crowd – never to see nor recognise each other ever again. Sometimes, though, people stick

Last night I was on a language-learning forum with regards to my earlier post about the Russian Language. I had written a post not dissimilar to the one on here concerning my succesful conversation with Vladimir – another one of those random encounters in life – and I was browsing the front page in a bored daze. 

The website in question, one of my favourite language-learning communities created by my favourite language-learner, Benny Lewis, has a chat function. Think Facebook Chat and you’re not far off. Any user online can instigate a conversation with any other user online. I looked at the chat and saw two people were on. One was a chap I knew but hadn’t talked to. The other was a peculiar name – clearly not their own but rather a handle – and beyond that little name I had no idea who this person was, where he or she was from, what languages (if any) they were learning or if they had any desire to speak to me.

It was the smallest adventure I could possibly have. It was the littlest thing I could have done. I don’t know who this person is, how they might better my life and how I could possibly better theirs. The fear of the unknown. I clicked.

But even so – clicking on that name on a whim and engaging the delightful stranger on the other end has already opened doors for me. You see, it turns out she’s Russian. What’s more – she’s a Russian who has already helped friends learn Russian in exchange for having her English improved. We had a little chat, nothing major, and then I said goodbye and we parted ways. No biggie, right? Well, she was one of those people who stick. I get a message through today on the very same forum from her. She proffers up a suggestion of a two-hour English-Russian skype language exchange. I have taken her up on said suggestion.

I am reminded of two of my closest friends at University. Neither were housemates of mine in the typical first-year situation in England of sharing University accomodation with fellow students. Both of them were friends brought in from the outside that I met through association and thereafter stuck to me. 

What’s the point of my ramblings in nostalgia? Well the “people who stick” analogy bears a very important lesson. You see – connections are made when people stick. Ergo, should one wish to make connetions – be adhesive.

Go out, meet people, do as much as possible. Try everything. Throw yourself against metaphorical walls. See what sticks

You never know – you might have fun.

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