Monday, May 31, 2004

Listening in

One of the great advantages of speaking other languages is the ability to eavesdrop on conversations that aren't terribly well concealed - usually because the speakers don't fathom that anyone else can understand them.

Over the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to hear a lot of Russians on the Tube and on the street - it's an unmistakable language and an unmistakably soft tone compared to other Eastern European languages. Sometimes, I'll twitch to someone speaking Ukranian or Romanian, Byelorussian or Polish, but I've always found pleasure in simply listening to the musicality behind well-spoken Russian.

It was with some surprise, then, that I realised I could perfectly well understand two men who sat opposite me on the Tube today. Looking at them, one could easily be forgiven thoughts of mortality. They would have been 6'5-ish and looked like they might have been cobbled together from several nightclub bouncers a-la Frankenstein's monster. Fists like small puppies rested on thighs that scraped the armrests of the seats. Squeezed into these British-sized surroundings, they looked like Vikings stripped of their armour and given jogging gear and a mobile phone as compensation. They were evidently uncomfortable.

So it came as a gentle shock to hear them speak in the poetic manner of the well-educated Russian. English is my main language, but if I want to hear something that stirs the soul, I have to read something in Russian or Polish. The environment is weaved through descriptions so that a sight is linked to a colour whose vibrancy is tied to the taste of something enjoyed long-ago or a smell triggers the memory of a food and it's texture on the tongue is brought to mind. A true sensualists delight.

I especially like the way some words are softened, given almost childlike affectation when used in an affectionate or familiar manner - for example a mother may give her child a pair of shorts (or 'shorty') to wear and tell him to put on his 'shortiki'. I'm not sure if I can describe it exactly as I'm no linguist, besides saying that I like it so much.

I strained to hear the two over the rattle of the carriage and inane announcements at each stop and was sorry that they departed, leaving me to my English-language book and wistful memories of travelling in St Petersburg.

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All your £121 are belong to us

For those of you who don’t live in the UK, you may be interested in the phenomenon that is the TV License – I was truly surprised by it a year ago. Essentially, if you have a TV or receiving equipment, you are obliged to pay the government £121 per year to view the BBC channels.

Don’t watch the BBC? I’m afraid that TV Licensing doesn’t believe you. EVERYONE who owns an operational set must watch the BBC. They're compelled to. There’s something in the water.

TV Licensing ‘Enquiry Officers’ also seem to get a hoot out of slapping £1000 fines onto anyone within spitting distance. If you click on this link then go to:

Detection and Penalties > Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

– you will find a section of the site that describes some of the ‘hilarious’ situations they’ve found themselves in. I don’t know why these people think that roving around neighborhoods harassing people is like a skit from a comedy show.

I don't have a TV. My TV tuner card is gathering dust on a shelf. I have no way to receive the crud pumped out daily - I promise.

Nevertheless, this is the tone of one of the letters I have received. (May I note that it was bordered in we're-going-to-repossess-your-firstborn-red)

Here's the gist:

____________________

Dear Occupier, (These people don’t know my name, yet are willing to put me in shackles for life because of all the ‘other’ knowledge that they’ve somehow accumulated. Interesting.)

WE’VE WRITTEN TWICE TO YOU ALREADY. (No, you haven’t. While I can accept that one letter might go missing in the postal system, I can’t accept two – which means you’re lying.)

WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! (Yes. Yes you do. That's why I'm holding the letter from you. You do not, however, know who the hell I am. Mail spamming has these kinds of drawbacks.)

WE KNOW YOU'RE DEFRAUDING THE GOVERNMENT YOU DISGUSTING TERMITE! (I....I don't have a TV....)

OUR INSPECTOR IS COMING TO YOUR ADDRESS. HE WILL HAVE A TRUNCHEON AND A BUCKET OF LUBRICANT. (errr...guys?...I really don't have a TV…)

NOT HAVING A LICENSE IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE, LIKE KILLING SOMEONE BUT MUCH WORSER (I think these guys actually watch British programming....)

FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH THE BORG COLLECTIVE WILL NET YOU A ONE THOUSAND POUND FINE. (Yeah, I gathered that from the ‘Big Brother is watching you, we know you don’t pay your license – you will be assimilated’ posters all over the underground, the shop windows and in the press. Thanks.)

WE HAVE VANS THAT CRUISE THE STREETS AND DETECT TV SIGNALS (Ahhh, kinda like the Death Star but without the latex uniforms?)

By the way, if you don’t have a TV, don’t worry. All you have to do is take the time out of your day to write to us and tell us and WE WILL BE IN CONTACT WITH YOU IN DUE COURSE. (OK…..why will you be in contact with me? I say I don’t have a TV, that means I don’t need a license – burden of proof is on you, buddy. Oops…sorry, forgot that for the purpose of TV license searches, courts pretty much automatically issue warrants. I guess I’ll just bend over, shall I?)

Brits give FAR too many of their rights away without a peep.

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der Anfang

After months of threatening it, I have finally started a blog.

I suspect that this announcement will be met with many shrugged shoulders and expressions of :

“Congratulations, babe, do you know how many people have blogs? My postman has a blog. My mother has a freakin’ blog – where have you BEEN the last couple of years?”

Yes, yes, I understand that this is not a wholly new phenomenon for the world at large, but it’s a new one for ME, which is what really counts here. Me, my reactions to the world, my reactions to you and whilst we’re at it - please don’t call me ‘babe’. Thank you.

Anyhow, the reason it’s taken me so long to get one of these contraptions is that I set rather high standards – for myself and for others. I read other’s blogs and I know what annoys me. Namely, people not posting often enough and/or not posting things of quality.

Now, I don’t mind people posting once a week or couple of weeks if that post is worth reading – Colin Gregory Palmer does that all the time – and I know that I have to wait a while between doses, so I don’t check daily and gnash my teeth in frustration.

It’s those that start off well, at a consistent pace, get you used to reading their musings and rantings daily or every couple of days….then….abruptly….take a week’s hiatus only to return with a post of such poor quality, you wish they just hadn’t bothered.

Belle de Jour pulled that kind of a swifty and I’m none too impressed. Her early writings were interesting, salacious and *cough* instructive. Nowadays, it seems that she thinks people are interested in anything she writes because she wrote it. Not me, not anymore.

Having a good arm for throwing bricks, I wanted to ensure I didn’t reside in a glass blog – so I had to ensure that I could commit to some sort of schedule and some sort of quality. And here’s my blog all shiny and new – which means I’ve decided that there’s some chance of me keeping it interesting and posting every couple of days.

I’ve gathered bits and pieces from my orkut scrapbook and a couple of things written a while ago and posted them over the last couple of days so that this blog doesn’t look too anorexic.

Nothing quite like a one-post:

“Well, here I am world!” *Looks around* “Erm, yeah – I have a blog now…welcome….pull up a….oh, hold on, no chairs yet”…affair.

The post below re: the London Road Race was specially written for the start of the blog. In fact, it was written DURING the run to keep my mind from it’s “What the hell am I DOING here?” thoughts. Think of it as a commemorative post.

Oh, and before I forget – welcome!

Monica

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Running in circles

A few months ago, Matthew emailed me with the news that his firm was entering the Mayor of London’s 3.5 mile Road Run – and he was one of the runners. In a moment of ‘Gee honey, I love spending time with you, so why don’t I share this activity too?’ I told him I was going to run as well.

So far, so bland you may think.

Lemme give you a little background on my athletic non-career. Flash back to being several heads taller than any of the boys in my grade in primary school and being rather pudgy. Flash forward a little to the tortures of high school as a very tall, awkward and fat teen. Flash forward even further to waddling my way through my university degree.

Step into the DeLorian and zoom toward last Thursday when I stood in amongst 6000 of the fittest people in London waiting to be let out of the corral for a 3.5 mile run.

I have shed the worst of the excess girth and have been running for close to 9 months now – but just as much as a run itself is a balance between physical and mental fitness, one’s self image is a balance between what one can see in the mirror and one’s self-perception. I had the distinct image that I wasn’t one of these people. I wasn’t one of these lithe athletes limbering up and shimmying in frustration at being penned in like livestock.

Then I caught sight of my reflection in the glass of an office building and I stopped. Taller than most people and definitely curvy – but a feminine set of curves, not those of a butterball. In short, it no longer looked like a litter of puppies wanted to desperately be freed from under my clothes every time I moved.

I wound my way through the crowd, conspicuously not wearing a law or finance firm t-shirt but bearing a runner’s number which allowed me past security. I found Matthew easily – 6’6” and sporting a mane of copper hair – the man is a veritable beacon in a crowd. We wished each-other luck even though neither of us believes in such frippery and eased toward the front of the crowd to get a better start whilst someone brought an old Olympic medal winner onto the stage.

You can generally gauge how important an event is by the token celebrity hauled out to attend. In this case, the ‘celebrity’ must have been aired out for a few days to get rid of that mothbally smell. It mustn’t have been too important a race if they could only muster up a bronze medal winner from the mid 70’s. A ripple of impatience surged through the crowd at this hideously boring and unnecessary fluff. From my vantage point, it reminded me of watching wildlife documentaries and the way alarm registers in a herd of gazelles as a wave of almost imperceptible muscle movement starting at one end and going through each animal.

It seemed they were ready to release us and I realised just how tense I was by my reaction to the brass band. Yes, brass band, folks. A dozen men in tails playing the kind of music that must have inspired our chaps during the Boer War. I found it terribly hard to stop giggling, the music was simply preposterous, especially after Britney had so entertained us in the warm-up.

Before I knew it, we were moving. Shuffling at first – then some heads in front of me began to bob in the familiar rhythm of a jog. It was soon my turn and I began to run.

I was just beginning to get used to the strange sensation of running in a massive group of people when I registered the roar of a crowd. Looking up, I saw spectators crammed along the closed off streets, hanging out of second and third storey windows, poking their heads out of pubs. Of all the things I had imagined might happen along the route (death from dehydration, collapsing in exhaustion, tripping and flailing around before becoming a lumpy speedbump) being cheered by a crowd was really never really on the list.

And so we ran. Onward and around corners, down ancient alleyways of the Square Mile, past buildings of varying ages that had seen some of the bloodiest and most fascinating history in the world unfold, on top of the ancient Roman ruins that had founded Londinium. As we made our way across Blackfriar’s bridge, I thought I’d had it. I started to resign myself to the ‘fact’ that I was right to doubt myself in the first place – this was sheer madness, I couldn’t do it. Then another thought entered my mind, I imagined facing Matthew at the end of the race and telling him I had not finished. I imagined going home on the tube and what I would think of myself. Somehow, my feet managed to keep pounding cobblestone and pavement.

One of the other things that kept me going were the spectators that (to my amazement) didn’t peter out after the first few hundred metres. They were everywhere, fresh oglers around every corner. It wasn’t the fact that people were watching that made me keep going – it was the type of people watching, the looks they gave, and the silent body language some of them gave off.

I remember two distinctly.

One was a man in a suit, beer gut pulling his shirt taut, standing on the closed road outside a pub, holding a glass of beer. The setting sun hit the glass so that the fluid glowed amber and the rim of the glass glittered. I remember running towards the glass before having to suddenly whip to the side and change direction right in front of him. Just before I did, I made eye contact with the man. I did, he didn’t. He was watching me, watching the others, watching the race with the glazed-eye that one reserves for the second hour of TV. We weren’t really there for him as people, we weren’t the same species separated by a few metres of pavement – we were entertainment, something else, something ‘other’, something that he had resigned himself to not being.

The other was a man walking out of a stairwell to be faced with a wall of runners. He was very well dressed and with a woman. There was something about the way he looked on, it seemed to be almost a longing to be a part of it. Then he turned to the woman and made a witty comment, she laughed and he turned to the racers once again, this time with a haughty, derisive look just as I was running past.

The reason that they stuck in my mind for so long after I had seen them is that they – like the hundreds peering out of pubs, lining the route, casually glancing up from a meal – were where I was not so very long ago. It was as if I had crossed an invisible barrier between the unfit and the fit. Moreover, I was willing to do something that few dare – I was running a race in public – I was willing to stick my neck out to say ‘I can do this’ and be humiliated if I were wrong.

Looking around at those running with me, I realised that here were the ones who chose the salad, here were the ones who didn’t have a second helping, here were the ones who drank in moderation, here were the ones who pushed themselves on a daily run, here were the ones who valued the wonderful feeling of a functioning body brimming with energy. Here were the ones, then, amongst whom I most definitely belonged.

Near the end, a girl ran past me with a t-shirt whose back bore the words:

Chance of finishing: 76.9%
Chance of not trying: 0%
Resignation is nothing.


You know, there was a time when I would have made some cynical comment or snide remark – but not that day and not in that context. I read it a few times whilst she was in front of me and it reminded me of the determination required to be one of those in the moving stream rather than those on the sidewalk.

So now the race is over, the results in (Matthew had the best time of anyone in his firm, it caused a few ripples amongst the gym-junkies that someone so casual about his exercise could whip them so nicely). I’ve had a couple of days of wearing the dual high of finishing and finishing with a pretty good time.

Now there’s only an itch left. The itch of the next challenge – I wonder what it will be? :)


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Saturday, May 29, 2004

a la carte

I can’t eat wheat or milk. This means that I actually have a rather varied diet including other grains, various animal parts and lots of fruit and veg.

People’s reactions to my lunch at an office never cease to amaze me.

>Me: *opens lunchbox*

>Coworker: “What’s THAT!?!” (as if I’ve brought in a WMD, or I have a small hamster nestled in the salad)

>Me: *looks down* “My lunch” *starts munching indifferently*

>Coworker: *Takes a swig of Diet Engine Degreaser and a bite of something that was deep fried in oil first used during the second world war* “Yes, but what IS it?”

>Me: “Rocket leaves, spinach leaves, avocado, tomato, capers, pickled jalapeno peppers and mackerel.”

>Coworker: “And you made that yourself?”

>Me: (not sure how to take this, decides on sarcasm) “No, I find these kinds of things all over the house most mornings. I choose the one I want then throw the others away. Damned elves.”

>Coworker: *completely misses the humor* “So why do you eat weird things like that?” *starts munching on turkey substitute, limp lettuce and plastic-cheese-slice roll*


….and here’s where I usually give the spiel on my food sensitivities.

This is getting tiring, so I thought I’d come up with some far more interesting reasons for why I eat ‘weird’ foods:

1. The coven was a little disappointed with the ‘clarity’ of my blood last week, I’m trying to work on it.

2. It’ll be easier for the aliens to take my soul when The Time Comes.

3. I’m ethically opposed to those nasty vegetarians who deny the cow, goat, dolphin, tuna, sheep, pig and monkey their natural fate – to be sandwich filling.

4. I’m campaigning to be a new character in Dilbert cartoons. This is my angle.

5. Marks & Spencer was out of egg salad so I thought I’d just fend for myself at the ‘Pets Paradise’ next door.

6. As an android, I don’t actually have to eat. When I choose to eat, I like to experiment a little. Can I borrow your stapler?

7. I’m not actually eating this. I’m chewing it for my young and will be ‘feeding’ them later this afternoon.

8. I was told by Zorg Snuflar that this is what humans do.

9. I’m consciously not supporting the imperialistic enslavement of simpering 14 year old girls with greasy hair in lunch bars. I also find the fact that you would drink out of a can made of the metal product supporting the American military-industrial complex highly offensive. Whilst we're at it, how dare you mutilate an apple like that?


I think you’ll agree with me that this beats a lecture on the intricacies of my diet anytime.

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They just spring out at you...

...don't they?

On the street, in shopping centres (malls, for you Americans), at the most innocuous gathering.

I am talking, of course, about Jesus Freaks and their Eternal Caravan of Conversion.

I'm actually quite rude to them - I don't believe in discrimination, so I treat them like I would anyone else.

Rory Blyth, unfortunately, has a few religious nutters reading his blog...so that when he laughs off an attack of the biblically inclined, he gets comments galore as to his gall.

I particularly like his point (nestled in amongst the bristling hairs of the offended christian commentary) - that:

"I also get tired of the notion that it's OK for people to approach and push others to accept a religion, but that it *isn't* OK to react negatively to the pushers."

Indeed.

It's fine to curse those who don't believe in your particular little fantasy or proclaim a jihad at the top of your lungs - but heaven help those who stand up to the religious with as much strength and vehemence as the religious utilize themselves.

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Company adventure wildlife shooting-something boo-yah adrenaline extreme! trips

Every year, companies send their executives to do things like slither bumpily down rapids in a rubber tube or throw themselves off cliffs aided only with colourful ropes and last night's buzz.

I really do wonder about the value of this kind of activity. Bottom-line, measurable value.

To this end, here are some associated thoughts:
__________________________

Things I *don't* see happening:

-two execs hanging on to a cliff for dear life-

>John: 'You know, Corey, hanging off this here cliff, I had a blindingly brilliant flash of inspiration that will forever change the company's strategy in this fast paced industry.'

>Corey: 'Wow, you know, me too! This experience has fundamentally shifted the way in which I plan to account for wastage in the rubber chicken factory.'


Things I *do* see happening:

-two execs hanging on to a cliff for dear life-

>John: 'You know, Corey, hanging off this here cliff, I realised how short life can be. I think I'll ask my PA out on a date, screw the intra-company relationships policy.'

>Corey: 'I hear you.'

_________________________

Sometimes, they just release you into the wilds with paintball guns. This frightens me for the following reasons:

Guns and marketing department people.

Marketing department people and guns.

Marketing department people and sharpened pencils.

Oh hell, marketing department people and anything more deadly than a pointy cushion.

My logic here is: Do we *really* want the spiky-haired, tight-suited, loose-lipped, dubious-vocabularied morons who can write off coloured crayons as a ‘tool of the trade’ knowing that there’s an end to a gun other than the “loud, deadly, goes-bang-end”?

I think not.

________________________

So why do companies spend thousands sending people off on these ridiculous boozy jaunts through the countryside?

I really think the answer is in the great Western tradition of the quick fix: If you don't know any better, it seems so much easier to throw money at a problem a couple of times a year rather than work on it every day.

If you don't believe that people can be this foolish, recount how many friends you have with a gym membership they never use but renew every spring when they try on their bikini for summer. Rationally, everyone knows that to get the summer bikini bod, autumn, winter and spring should have been used in constant training. This doesn't stop people from trying to cram 9 month's worth of body reshaping into a few weeks.

In the same way, most managers know that building a strong and effective culture is the constant work of years. Constant in that it is a part of every decision made - hiring, firing, restructuring, rewards, appropriate language & behavior, office norms. It means having integrity the year round. It means championing an ideal and occasionally being unpopular.

Given the choice between constant performance and occasional token efforts, the Dilbertian manager will always choose the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, that path is usually muddy and leads to a cliff edge. Bon voyage.

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The art of being a good wife

Many women will simper their way down the aisle for that magical talisman - the wedding ring - then forget that the wedding isn't so much the end of a courtship as it is the beginning of a marriage.

So what does it mean to be a wife? Is just existing next to your husband enough? What's the difference between a mediocre wife and a great one? (Let's not pretend that there's no scale here, no way of measuring. Some women are wonderful partners, some are shrews.)

How about looking to someone who was, by all accounts, an exceptional wife. Glennis Yeager, wife of Chuck Yeager, had to contend with the daily fear that her husband may not come home alive. She is the subject of an article by Leanne Bell:

"But what makes her a great woman and an even greater wife was not that she was willing to sacrifice her husband to something grander and more important than either of them; what made her great was the fact that she loved her husband enough to allow him to pursue his own passion in life, regardless of how it affected her. She respected and admired him enough to know that a marriage vow didn't mean he was shackled to her wishes for life, and that if he chose to do something she found frightening or difficult, she wouldn't impose those fears on him. When asked whether she ever considered asking him not to fly again, particularly after a flight in which ejecting to save his life had badly burned the side of his face, she replied that she wouldn't have dared, it would have been like asking him to cut off his arm." Read Entire Article

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Friday, May 28, 2004

Leicester Square

Leicester Square was filled with humanity today - and not really the kind that I like.

Essex girls out for the night in white stiletto thigh high boots and belts masquerading as skirts. A cigarette loosely held in one hand and matching shiny white leatherette handbag in the other is the added touch that shows them for what they really are - unpaid hookers.

The 'boys', the 'yobs', the 'blokes' who think that yelling out 'oi! nice tits!' and 'ey! ey! ey! *whistle*' will make me swoon. I wish that there were enough time and silence on the street for me to verbally strip these children down to their football printed jocks, alas there never is.

The men hanging around theatres with long coats, shifty eyes and gravelly voices repeating the mantra: 'cheap tikkits'. I always feel like I've just been offered an ounce of coke rather than scalped entry to the latest rehashed boy-meets-girl storyline set to muzak.

30-something slags who think they deserve a man just because they're there, dammit...and because the latest self-help book they skimmed on the morning's tube ride told them in no uncertain terms that they were worthwhile human beings. Being so drunk you can barely stand is apparently evidence of their newly empowered/enlightened state.

There is some humanity I do like though - the people I was with. Their companionship, joviality and conversation made the aforementioned crowd seem to be merely a colourful backdrop to a great night out.

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Simpsons V Futurama

Same creators, similar drawing style, similar humour. But not the same, not the same.

You see, I've observed that whilst the Simpsons made fun of white trash very effectively, it was white trash that loved it. Look at the popularity, look at the goddamned merchandise. Who the hell else buys talking figurines, themed lunchboxes and t-shirts with overused slogans?

The Simpsons was okayish as far as TV went for a while, then it became predictable & formulaic. Ho hum.

Futurama, on the other hand, never lost the edge. It had more of an edge to go on in the first place. The humour was intelligent, the characters fully (and partially) functioning adults. The themes dark.

Futurama episodes scooted over the heads of most Simpsons watchers like so many ambitiously thrown frisbees.

Popularity contests aren't always worth winning.

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Today's fortune

Today's orkut fortune:
Our first and last love is.. self-love.

I hear harps, I really do.

Sad thing is that this is probably the best but the most tongue-in-cheek fortune out there.

It's OK to love anyone or anything bar oneself in this society, isn't it? You can obsess over any sport, any trifle, you can announce to the world that you'd plunge yourself into a fireball for your one and only - but mention that you value yourself and you are the most contemptible human that there is.

Ba-friggin'-humbug to the lot of you self-haters.

...and of course to anyone reading this that agrees with me...welcome to my blog....tea? muffin?

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Cultural conundrum

I like to try all the local stuff when in a new country. I've eaten all kinds of parts from all kinds of animals and so far, nothing has really put me off.

It's eating the rather regular parts from rather regular animals ... but cooked in a special, special way that is making me all afeared. The great British tradition of The Greasy Spoon.

I've seen these establishtments, filled with extras from Eastenders in aprons and with fags hanging out of their mouths as they vigorously chop into something sinuous and patently inedible. Moreover, I've smelt them. Egads. There's a particularly offensive one in Walthamstow selling jellied eels amongst it's other treats.

Thing is, everyone of non-isle descent that I have spoken to about said cuisine describes it with the same aversion and horror that they might a root canal procedure. Some even make faces and hacking, choking noises.

*sigh* what to do.

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