Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The rut and how to get out of it.

I bought some socks today. I know, hold the front page. I don't write anything for over a week and when I do, it's all about the hosiery action. I'm like Hemingway with toe seams, me.

These were not ordinary socks. Oh, dearie me no. I went to a specialist for them. Not one of those back-street sock merchants, you understand. Those shady characters who entice you in, get you going on real wool and silk, then when you're hooked, raise the price until you're in a spiral of depression and darning.

I'm being silly now. Sorry.

I went to a place I hadn't been for a very long time,Go Outdoors. You may recall I spent a little time at this place last year. And no small amount of disposable income, come to think of it. I was ordered there by She Who Must Be Obeyed, who wanted some socks for walking. As opposed to the socks she has in which she's not allowed to walk.

As I entered the store, I realised that I hadn't been in since last year. Last year, when I could be regularly found stepping out across the country. Up hill and down dale. Once someone explained what a 'dale' was, of course.

I walked past the serried ranks of waterproofs, the settlement of tents, the army of boots marching across the far wall. I regarded the socks, with the traditional cry of: "Christ on a bike! You could get five pairs of normal ones for that much."

And I realised that I missed this. I missed being out on Pipers Hill near Bromsgrove, looking down from the church while my lungs ached from the climb. I missed Dodderhill Common, dodging the suicidal sheep. I missed stopping at the edge of a farmer's field to glug Gatorade from a bottle before carrying on. I even missed the relentless trudge along the canal towpaths. Rain or no rain.

This last few months has been hellishly busy.As a result, the walking has gone for a burton. My rear end has become too accustomed to sofaville, with the result that it can now be seen from orbit.

It's not just my leg muscles that have lacked what I laughingly call a workout. The one in my head has gone a bit flabby, too. I've been pushing words around on a screen at work for months, so I haven't really felt like doing the same when I got home. The two of you who are still reading have probably noticed this.

(Although I did write something a little different the other day that I'm actually quite proud of. Go have a look, if you like.)

When I went to pay for my superannuated socks, the cashier rang them through and asked for my Go Outdoors loyalty card.

"This is about to expire," she said, "do you want to renew for another year?"

There's a thought. Do I want to halt the downwards slide? Shall I let things hang, not move forwards? Or shall I pull myself out of the rut?

"Renew it, please. I think I'll be using it this next year."

Here's hoping.

Monday, 21 March 2011

10 alternatives for the missing census question

There's been a fair amount of comment on the 2011 Census as the A4 envelopes have thudded onto doormats the length and breadth of the country. But it's what's not on the form that has got the most attention.

There's been more than the usual degree of "I'm not filling this in," this time from people who wouldn't normally harbour anything more rebellious than lieing-in past nine on a Sunday morning. I've heard "How dare they ask for all this information?" more than once. Typically from people who think nothing of having their entire life open to all-comers on an unprotected Facebook profile.

But on the form itself, it's question 17 that has caused most confusion. It says: "This question is left intentionally blank. Go to 18." Apparently it's something to do with the Welsh language version of the form, but I'm afraid that's way too sensible an answer. So I've come up with some alternative questions that the Man might like to ask us instead:

17) How do most people refer to you?
a) the space cowboy
b) the gangster of love
c) Maurice

17) Are you one of the droids we're looking for? Yes/No

17) What suddenly appears, every time you are near?
a) birds
b) goats
c) fish
d) Police officers

17) Who won the FA Cup in 1958?

17) Have you seen the remote control for the telly?

17) Who do you think would win in a fight between the following?
a) A weasel and a pike (water optional)
b) A jellyfish and a coat hanger
c) A Jack Russell terrier and ex-England cricket player Jack Russell

17) Out of the following, what have you taken away from a hotel room? (tick all that apply)
( ) towels
( ) items from the minibar
( ) the minibar
( ) bedding
( ) toiletries
( ) a sense of foreboding

17) If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I paint you?
a) Because you have no discernible talent.
b) Because existence is essentially a false construct and attempting to record it is futile
c) Because you're holding the brush from the wrong end, you pillock

17) Seriously, have you seen the remote control anywhere?
a) I told you last time, no.
b) Jesus, do I have to find everything in this house?
c) Oh, hang on, I'm sitting on it.

17) does my bum look big in this?
a) No
b) No

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Me and Mr O'Rourke

A few months ago I might have let it slip that I'd put a collection of ramblings together for publishing, which was available at your favourite web-based retailer that is named after a South American river.

Did I mention it? I must have done. Even my mother knows, and the internet is a closed book to her. A Sodding Great Big closed book, but a closed book nevertheless.

She may even have said: "That's nice, dear," in that faintly bemused way characteristic of mothers the world over. If there isn't a printed book for her to show the neighbours, then it probably doesn't count.

Since then, things have gone from strength to strength. Well, as long as the first "strength" is "zero book sales" and the second one is "a few book sales". I'm not planning on retiring on the proceeds any day soon. Well, not unless I can give up luxuries like food and living in a house.

So I was a little flummoxed when I saw this today (click to see it full-size):

That's my book on an Amazon bestseller list, featured alongside the likes of P J O'Rourke and Dave Barry. Further down the list was Roseanne Barr. I am above Roseanne. I don't quite know what to do with this information.

OK, so this is the bestseller list for humorous essay collections available as eBooks. Let's be honest, the barriers to entry aren't exactly high. One more sale would get me into the top ten, probably.

So this is what I'm doing for the rest of March. I'm donating 25p to Comic Relief for each copy of Little Things purchased through Amazon until the end of the month. That's roughly what Amazon would pay me, once they and the US Internal Revenue Service have their cut. So I'm not making anything from this, honest. listing. listing.

Sorry once again for the self-promotion. But if I can get above P J O'Rourke on a bestseller list, it's a surefire sign that the world can still use a little oddness.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

My brave struggle against the odds

Recently I thought I was on the brink of a life-threatening medical condition. By the end of the day I was turning it to my advantage.

It began on Wednesday morning, when after a heavy sleep I got out of bed and found I couldn't see properly. I could do the whole 'light and dark, shapes and colours' bit, but I was having difficulty with the concept of focusing. Which is a pretty integral part of being able to see, according to experts in this field.

After performing a few complex actions to resolve the situation (opening my eyes wider, shutting them again, blinking rapidly) I found that things were not improving. It was still a little blurry, but I had at least narrowed the problem down to one eye.

I still went to work, of course. Well, I have to. Sight or no sight, I need to retain my ability to buy socks. And other things, I suppose.

Walking from the car park to the office I tried the get my right eye to stop playing up, until I realised that it looked like I was winking uncontrollably at that pretty girl from Human Resources. Considering that there was probably a policy about that sort of thing, I stopped.

It was while I was sitting at my desk that I allowed my mind to wander. Pressing my right eye socket with a thumb brought about a dull ache. That's it, I thought to myself. There's something malignant there for sure. I allowed myself a brief moment of self-pity and concern before another thought hove into view.

What a great opportunity.

If life gives you lemons, they say, make lemonade. Substitute 'lemons' for 'life-changing medical condition' and 'make lemonade' with 'write something bloody awesome' and you get the general idea.

It says something about me that I'd look upon my  impending mortality as subject matter. And I'm not proud of it. But on the other hand, well, look, we're halfway through March and I've written sod-all. The three people that still read this are impatient for content.

I thought on, allowing the vital spreadsheet-based tasks in front of me to wait a little longer.

It could be the beginnings of one of those life-affirming tales. My struggle against the odds. Inspirational and wise, but shot through with home-spun humour. I'd already got the first chapter forming in my mind. My doctor would be a genius, I imagined. He'd be a little stand-offish, maybe he'd walk with the use of a stick. In the inevitable film adaptation I'd have him played by an American actor doing an eerily accurate English accent. Just to restore the balance, you see.

My story would have to have other characters. Katie would need to play a part, of course. I could imagine her. She'd be supportive, naturally, but grounded. She wouldn't stand any nonsense. "Never mind about the bloody Pulitzer people," she'd say, "there's still this laundry to be done, you know."

I think that's a part she was born to play.

The day progressed and my right eye continued to pound away. Every time I jabbed it with my thumb, another stabbing pain seemed to validate the impending medical emergency/Booker Prize potential. How exciting!

I came home, my mind filled with all sorts of possibilities. I spent a restless night imagining prognoses and plot lines.

On Thursday morning I got out of bed. My vision was perfectly clear, my eye untroubled by any nagging pain. I seemed to be completely cured. Apparently, it seems you can send your vision temporarily wonky by sleeping heavily on your face. I can't see this making the bestseller lists, to be honest.


Sunday, 6 March 2011

Time travel and teenagers

"When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity."
Albert Einstein came up with that, it is said. And if anyone knew about time and how it goes by, it was Albert. Not too much knowledgeable about personal grooming techniques, but a bit of an expert on time.

He was right, though. Time never passes at the same rate. And even if you're not comparing the onwards rush you get when you're, ahem, courting to the treacle-slow pace when there's a backside:cinder interface going down, time doesn't always take its time. But it's not just pleasure and pain that makes the distinction. It depends on your own point of view, too.

This has been brought home to me recently when regarding the teenage son of our friends. (Actually, that's scary, I've become the person who has friends with teenage sons. God I'm old.) Anyway, the individual in question is a splendid chap and has every chance of growing up to become a well-rounded, well-mannered young man. Essentially, he's the complete opposite of every Daily Mail reference to 'teenager' you could find.

Of course, it's easy for me to say this as I don't have to live with him. For all I know there could be untold tales of bedrooms last tidied around the fall of the Roman Empire and conversations that are 50% conveyed by guttural noises.

I know none of this. Although I'm guessing that his parents are at this moment nodding their heads ruefully.

Back to the time perception thing, though. Recently, the teenager in question (let's call him 'A') has entered that exciting time in anyone's life when, on the border between child and adult, you start to come across a number of milestones. Amongst other things, he's quite keen to get mobile - to drive, to get a car, to be that bit more independent.

It's been apparent for a while this is an over-riding aim for A. Every waking moment is spent dreaming of motorised mobility. As is the modern way, we can see this through the beauty of social networking. Oh yes, you don't just have your friends on Facebook, you get to see their kids, too. You see their status updates, feel their building excitement and sense their impatience.

And it's abundantly clear from those conversations not held in fluent Wookiee, and from a succession of Facebook wall posts, that time is going very, very slowly for our A.

He did well to keep the date of his driving test fairly secret. But we all knew that time was a-dragging. Then it was put back a few days. These probably felt like months. Then the day arrived. Sadly, due to an almost-too-close encounter with a Travel West Midlands bus, A did not prevail.

There is absolutely no comfort for A if I tell him that on my first test I performed a perfect emergency stop, but failed as I'd had to do it to prevent myself mowing down an innocent old lady on a pelican crossing. My re-telling of the 'seven-point-turn' story will butter no parsnips, I'm sure.

The re-test will come around soon enough, but to A it will feel like a decade. As he takes in the outrageous numbers being quoted by various insurance companies to cover him once he does get his wings (wheels?), A's dreams of car-ownership probably seem like a distant blip on the horizon right now.

And we all know exactly how he feels. When you're that age, time flows at a glacial pace. For me, August 1989 took about six months to pass, I recall. The slowness of time, the aching, it drives every decision, every emotion. But it gets better.

In my 40-years-old-fartiness state I looked at the calendar today and went: "Holy Crap. March? Really? Surely it was Boxing Day only last week?" My mother sees time shooting by, interrupted only by visits to buy more pink things for my niece. And my grandmother? Well, if you're still deftly going about things in your tenth decade, you're not exactly going to be troubled by mere weeks and months, are you?

So there's really no point in saying "Be patient" to the A's of this world. There's nothing to be gained in telling them their time will come. Reassuring them that it was the same, or worse, when you were their age? You might as well try teaching your dog to speak Swahili. There would almost certainly be no point in asking them to read some blog post written by a friend. A blog? That's so 2007. I'm too busy being downcast, thank you very much.

It's this perceived slow pace of time that drives everything, though. Bad times are going to be with you forever, it seems. The world is a crappy place. Everyone else is having way more fun.

But everyone's time comes, sooner or later, faster or slower. We just haven't yet found a way of actually speeding it up. But just as I spent the distant eighties watching time go by like it was wearing lead boots, A will, when he's 40-odd, be scratching his head as the birthdays rapidly pass. I've no doubt he'll be driving a very nice car, too.

After all, the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. That's another one from Albert. Wish I'd come up with it myself.


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