Playing with my food

I seem to recall, from the long lost days of my (chronological) childhood, that this was considered a terrible crime.  I don’t recall precisely why, though I feel it may have been part of a Manichean attempt to partition the world into things that were, and were not, suitable objects of play (in its transitive verb form).

After the passage of many years and my transition into (notional) adulthood (and actual antiquity), I have come to realise that despite my parents exhortations I am still playing with my food.  The nature of my play may have changed but I am still very clearly playing.

GofaDM has previously described the transmutation of the Fish Supper into the Frankenlunch: though, in many ways, this relates to the before-times when I wanted to leave my evenings free to go to gigs and other cultural delights with other people.  For the moment, my evenings are all too free and my culture largely delivered through a screen – but I have hopes that the days of face-to-face culture will return again before I become too decrepit to enjoy them.

While they lasted, the Frankenlunches provided the excuse to play with all manner of new recipe ideas with the pretext of providing others with a somewhat more elaborate meal than is either my, or their, typical fare.  As the host (and/or a terrible show-off: you decide), I also felt the need to provide some sort of entertainment as I was cooking and this was most easily accomplished as part of the cooking process itself.  Part of this ‘entertainment’ was an extension of my normal habit of commentating on my life but I did extend it to incorporate the live creation of fresh pasta via the mangle-like mechanism of my Imperia machine.

However, in our current world of short attention spans, a mere pasta machine was never going to be able to continue to command attention when an audience can so easily click-away to more compelling content.  It was thinking in this vein that I used to justify to myself the purchase of a new toy – a cook’s blowtorch – to up-the-ante for the second (in the official numbering) Frankenlunch. This was used in the making of crème brûlée, which could be made perfectly satisfactorily, if more slowly and less theatrically, using a grill – but where’s the fun and danger in that?  Being in possession of a blow torch, I try to get as much use from it as possible and now use it in lieu of matches when in need of a flame.

For Frankenlunch #3, I further increased the risk by actually setting fire to a banana (and the caramel sauce in which it was reclining) using rum and another new toy: a short wand that produces a flame at its tip.  This purchase was predicated on a health-and-safety brief as, with my new toy, my body would be slightly further away from the fire and so at reduced risk of being flambéd along with the banana.  In this it was a success, though I would have to admit that a couple of tablespoons of rum (even doubled or re-doubled) is unlikely to create the sort of conflagration that the more alarmist flambé recipes I read seemed to anticipate and was never likely to need the bucket of wet sand some advocated.

At this stage, lockdown began and it seemed that the Frankenlunch would have to be abandoned until it was permitted (and safe) for 4 or more people to gather around a small dining table to enjoy good food, copious alcohol and silly conversation.  However, people seemed unexpectedly keen to continue holding Frankenlunches on a distributed basis and so was born the Quaranstein.

For a Quaranstein, I prepare a menu of four courses that can be prepared using minimal exotic kitchen gadgetry (and in this context, a whisk has, so far, been considered exotic) and with ingedients that seem to be readily available in our depleted supermarkets.  The menu is circulated in advance to allow everyone to acquire the necessary elements of the meal and work out any necessary substitutions (for the avoidance of doubt, wine gums make a poor substitute for most ingredients).   On show day, we cook each course at the same time – using Zoom – with me providing some sort of leadership as a nominal ‘head chef’ (or at least somewhere for any excess of buck to come to rest): though generally with less swearing and throwing of things than that might suggest.  Having cooked each course, we can then eat together again using the power of video conferencing.  At the most recent Quaranstein, I included a wide-angle view of most of my flat to provide some context to my fellow chef-diners and the sight of a man sitting down alone to eat a meal with only a laptop for company is rather a haunting and, frankly, depressing one: and so, naturally generated much hilarity.

At the first Quaranstein, I took my role as the Keith Floyd de nos jour a little too seriously and become a little tipsy by course four (I wish to stress that I could still lie on the floor without holding on).  This did lead to a rather unfortunate loss of control of the multiple cameras I was Zooming to provide decent coverage of the process.  Different versions of me ended up tesseracted across time with each camera showing me at a different stage in my past (or future, depending on which was the ‘real’ me).  This took a while to resolve as I largely failed to work out which PC was currently hosting and could be used to restore a semblance of control: eventually, I had to change T-shirt so I could work out which was the ‘current’ me.  For the second Quaranstein, I was more careful to manage my ‘glugging’ and went for a simpler AV set-up which seemed to work rather better.

To my surprise, the Quaransteins have worked rather well with all participants managing to sit down to eat each course at roughly the same time, and each remotely produced course has come out pretty consistently (and not as a series of variations on amorphous forms of carbon).  This is despite me encouraging flambéing at the first Quaranstein and the use of blowtorches at the second: I’m not at all sure I have the public liability insurance necessary to cover this level risk.  Lucikly, injuries have only been minor: so far…

I find Quaransteins more stressful than Frankenlunches: so many more variables and so much less control are added to the widely held expectation that I have the faintest idea what I’m doing (rather than winging it as usual).  Nonetheless, they still very much count as me playing with my (and now other people’s) food and have been oddly rewarding.  Quaransteiners (myself included) have started adding courses ‘discovered’ during one of the lunches to their standard repertoire of meals…

It will soon be time to start planning for the June Quaranstein: how can I add some entirely spurious risk – perhaps an explosion – to at least one dessert?  Can I think of a starter that does not use halloumi?  Only time (or possibly a rare non-COVID related news headline) will tell…

Channelling Gogol: The Riddler takes charge…

It would appear that we are in week 8 of lockdown and I seem to have blacked out, or just forgotten, a couple of weeks of confinement.  I had already come to realise that my short-term memory was entirely shot but I thought once information had moved into long-term storage it was relatively secure…

As of Wednesday (I think – but don’t quite me on that), the lockdown has been somewhat eased using a set of rules which makes Dungeons and Dragons look easy and which seem to have been developed by one Edward Nash (sometime resident of Gotham City).  I must say I was expecting at least one of the clauses to start “My first is in pandemic but not in virus” but assume this approach was rejected as lacking sufficient challenge.  Luckily, as a devotee of Only Connect and master of utility regulation, I believe that, given time, I may be able to prepare some York Notes to help members of the government get to grips with the current “do’s and don’ts”.  Logicians who had previously been needed only when trying to ship a bag of grain, hen and fox across an inland waterway using only a rather modestly sized boat are presumably now on speed dial.  Families across England are desperately trying to work out the minimum number of visits to the park which would allow two grandparents to meet both of their grandchildren (from a safe 2m) without breaking the law.  More challenging variants of the problem consider the situation where the whippersnappers issued from different parents and, for very advanced students, are both members of step families.  I can’t help feeling that those who spent the lockdown building up reserves of yeast, toilet roll and hand sanitiser are now wishing they had spent their time stockpiling qubits….

My own grandparents were well ahead of the game, working as cleaner and gardener for families in Epsom as early as the 1970s.  Even had they not passed to their eternal reward some years ago (allowing me to visit them at any time and get up as -up-close-and-personal as I wish) they would not now be pondering NP-complete problems and wishing their only grandson had been slightly less useless at his 3rd year degree module “Combinatorial optimisation”.

Talking of our more aged citizens, I can’t help wondering if the prioritised re-opening of garden centres and golf clubs is an admission by the government that their care home policy has not done enough to defuse the pensions time-bomb and old people need to be pro-actively increasing their risk profile.  As a society, we can no longer rely on our pensionsers being sent to their doom, we need to encourage them to actively seek it out!  From a certain point of view, it is oddly public spirited of a political party to throw so many of its own supporters under the bus…

Still, that’s probably enough about the new legal substrate on which we must now seek to accrete the epitaxial layers of our lives.  The new films of my own life continue to be laid down pretty much as before though I feel the existing modes of divertissment are losing some of their efficacy through over-use.  Nevertheless, I find it best not to cast my thoughts too far into the future.  What will be left of the world we knew and its culture when, or if, this is some day over does not comfortably bear detailed contemplation.

I have acquired an upgraded webcam on the basis of the amount of time I now spend being seen only via a distant view screen.  While this does have a number of advantages and means I can use my work desktop for video calls, its improved image resolution has proven rather horrific when I am forced – as seems to be the case with most video conferencing apps – to stare at my own crumbling features and the strictly monotonically increasing glint of madness in my eyes (and who’d of thought the latter was possible?).   Still, I suppose the horror may represent the long delayed beginning of wisdom, if one is to believe something carved into a wall of a pronaos in Delphi (probably still more reliable than most of what one reads online).

The other big news since my last post, and indeed since yesterday, is that I have hung upside-down from gymnastic rings for the first time in more than two months.  Returning my bicycle to its recently re-opened lock-up after my morning constitutional (ignoring any relativistic effects in my 2m distancing while in a moving frame of reference), I realised that the newly reinforced roof provided beams from which I could hang my rings (not a euphemism).    Unusually, I did not wait for even a single decade to pass before actually hanging my rings from this longed-for source of support and trying them out.  The environment is exceedingly dusty and should I fall I will strike a concrete floor, mediated only by a now very dusty yoga mat, but it is good to be hanging around again.   I have skinned my first cat and flown my first squirrel in what feels like an eternity.  I started gently today in order to give my shoulders (and the rest of me) time to grow accustomed once again to the experience of being used in this rather extreme manner.  So far, so good: I think I may make a fuller attempt at the back lever before the weekend is out. (BTW: Should I meet my maker by falling, inverted, from height onto a solid concrete floor, I would like it to be recorded as a COVID-19 related fatality from someone who clearly should have been in a care home.)

Still, I feel we’ve moved well past the stage of having ‘printed’ all that news that’s fit to ‘print’, it is time that I returned to my slow descent into madness: that abyss is going to have to stare back one day…

Channelling Gogol: Lockdown Lessons from a Lunatic

As we enter week 5 (6? Some n∈N?) of the lockdown, I thought that, as an important influencer, it was incumbent on me to share the important pearls of wisdom that have accreted around the grit of my incarceration…

tumbleweed

OK, with that out of the way we can now resume normal GofaDM service.

I suspect I am not alone in finding being locked-down less easy to cope with as time goes by rather than familiarity breeding greater ease, if not downright contempt.  I do not seem to be adapting to the current situation as I’d hoped, despite modelling much of my personality on the Borg: well, my primary purpose has for some time been the attempt to assimilate everything.  I suppose I do form a somewhat stripped back, even minimal, Collective in my frustratingly singular state: though I suspect the existence of more of me would be far, far worse (for all of us).  While social media and video conferencing are splendid things, and I wouldn’t want to be without them, spending time with people in the flesh, or at the very least ‘near the flesh’, scratches a psychological itch that technology is unable to reach.

The lack of actual social contact seems to be having an increasing impact on my mental state, with it seeming (as viewed from the inside, or at least by “sources close to…”) to have become increasingly bipolar as the usual dampeners seem to have been lost.  The situation still appears manageable but I do feel I am becoming increasingly manic on these occasions when I’m participating in what currently passes for social contact.  I’m blaming this on my mental state but I suppose it could just be an attempt to bridge the gap between reality and desire by force of personality: a doomed project if ever there was one.

The locked-down world does offer up some modest benefits (to me, at least) in partial weregild for all the inconvenience, pain and suffering it is causing to so many.  In these quieter times, I am really noticing the birds singing and spring is a particularly good time of year for this as our feathered friends are all keen to be at it like knives as a prelude to bringing forth the next generation.  As a bonus, my current chronic insomnia does mean that I am regularly in the audience for the dawn (and pre-dawn) chorus which this morning appeared to include a duck: though I may have imagined that (une mallard imaginaire, as Molière might have put it).

In the before-times, I received much of my exercise by going about my business briskly on foot or using safety bicycle.  As this is no longer the case, I now found myself planning excursions to gain my State-authorised daily cardiovascular stimulation.  I have generally spent this on my bicycle (a) to take advantage of the much quieter roads and (b) to enjoy the much easier social distancing achievable when awheel.  If avoid popular parks and beauty spots, especially those proximate to car parking, it is much easier to keep well away from others on a bicycle than when riding Shanks’s pony.  To maintain interest in these outings, I have been exploring new areas of the city and its surroundings every few days and continue to be amazed at how green Southampton is (and how hilly!) and how short the distance one has to travel to be out in the countryside. I’ve mostly been heading north as that direction seems to take me away from traffic and people the quickest and have now visited the municipal golf course, the Lords wood, Chilworth, North Baddesley and Rownhams using only the power of my own limbs.  My mountain bike has finally been properly off-road: though often the surface off-road is superior to that provided by the local roads for which my bike was purchased.  It has only taken me almost seven years and a global pandemic to properly explore where I live and finally being to understand its geography and how suprisingly close to each other some places are.  I have had a lot of fun lowering the tone of some of the wealthiest, and leafiest, enclaves of the city as I pass through checking out how the ‘other half’ live and critiquing their taste in building, colour-choice and gardens.

Talking of my bicycle, yesterday was a very exciting day for me and my faithful stead.  On 15 January 2018, the bike store where it was stabled was temporarily closed as it had been discovered to be ‘unsafe’ in some unspecified way.  I liked to imagine it had been built over a hellmouth.  So, for the last two and a bit years, my bike has been housed in a rather distant bike store: far enough away that I can use a bus to get there (albeit only travelling one stop) but relatively safe from demonic assault.  As the lock-down began, workmen were finishing off complete replacement of the roof of the store – which it now seems may have been the cause of the safety issue, though I shall be keeping a Slayer on speed-dial just in case – and yesterday it finally re-opened!  Callooh!  Callay!

With normal live culture off-the-cards, I have been enjoying a wider range of culturing offerings with a great geographical spread than might normally be the case.  This definitely seems to work better in modest doses: I don’t seem to have the powers of concentration to sit through a 2+hour play at home but up to an hour or so seems to lie within my mental grasp for now.  I’ve really been enjoying a range of contemporary dance on-line, but my highlight is probably the translation to the miniature stage of the ‘Hat’ trilogy by Jon Klassen being produced for the Little Angel Theatre.  These incredible works of puppet theatre are being created in isolation, by a small group of people that I know a little (which is how I discovered their work) as they used to be based at the NST in Southampton.  They are an absolute joy to watch with so many brilliant little details and leave me quite astounded at what talented people can create at home using very limited materials.  They also serve to highlight the serious risks involved in pursuing a life of larceny directed towards the milliner’s art: don’t say you haven’t been warned!  Watching the latest instalment on Sunday, I found myself reminded of Smallfilms and I can think of few high accolades I could offer.

Otherwise, life continues in broadly the same rut and I continue to look for pretexts to bring friends together on-line.  The latest attempt was for four absolute beginners to attempt to simultaneously get to grips with both Dungeons and Dragons and Roll20: the latter as a way to play the game together while apart.  This was an almost total failure thanks, in large part, to the total impenetrability of the UI for Roll20: it is the least intuitive platform I have ever come into contact with.  We spent most of four hours just trying to start a pre-prepared game with very limited success and we are all intelligent IT-literate people (well the other three are).  Still, it worked in its role as pretext and we had some silly fun and learned a number of important lessons.  For our next session, I think we will use D&D in its off-line form with old-fashioned pen and paper: perhaps aided by a webcam so that all can see the relevant information.  We might also attempt a simpler adventure designed to test out the main elements of game play as I spent most of Sunday attempting to get to grips with even the basic rules (having already read them once to get an overview).  These made understanding the rules of the Belgian electricity market (written in French) look positively easy: my work skills proved less transferable than I’d hoped.  Still, in theory at least, I have plenty of time on my hands (despite the more frequent and intense washing they are being subjected to) if rather limited mental capacity…

Still, like Syd Rumpo, I’ve rambled enough and I should finish before I risk screeving my cordwangle…

Channelling Gogol: What even is time?

I seem to have become detached from my temporal moorings and have drifted free of traditional societal definitions of time.  The sun continues to rise and fall (or rather the earth continues to spin at roughly its wonted speed) and so days are still happening but otherwise the usual markers of the hour or day have largely been rendered (temporarily) obsolete.  I am fortunate to still have some work to keep me somewhat occupied with external stimuli and a few times each week this offers up a conference call scheduled for a specific time: oh the excitement of a timed appointment!  I am forced to admit that my digestive system and its rapacious need for new input, despite my – in theory – reduced energy expenditure also provides a solid indication of the passage of time.

I believe we are now well into week four of lockdown, which means that it is more than four weeks since I last felt the touch of another human being (or indeed mammal, or to be frank, member of phylum Chordata).  I have not yet reached the stage of laying on my own arm until it loses feeling to simulate the experience of being touched by another but, as this sentence demonstrates, the thought has crossed my mind.  On three occasions, when out acquiring victuals, I have encountered someone I know and have had a brief conversation at a range of a few metres.  Otherwise, almost all my interactions with other members of my species have been via a screen or phone.

While I think we all want to try and spend time with friends on-line, none of us have actually done very much from which to build the metaphorical champagne bottle which would launch a conversation: frankly, it’s a struggle to generate so much as a conversational micro-Helen.  To this end, it has been important to come up with pretexts to get together that can automatically generate the seeds of conversation that the presence of good company will germinate.  For the last three weeks, a bunch of habitués of the Guide Dog, fuelled in many cases by take-out from the aforementioned Guide Dog, have been using Monday night as Quiz night.  This week it was my turn to act as Inquisitor and set the questions.

My quiz had six rounds, with the first three based very loosely on categories in Trivial Pursuit: Science and Nature, Geography and Art and Literature.  On occasions like this, it is brought forcibly to my attention that what I consider to be general knowledge held by the vast majority of the populace is, in fact, just random crap that I have unusually both encountered and contrived to remember whereas most people probably won’t have even bumped into it, let alone committed it to the fleshy tablets of their mind.

Round four was a picture round, six pictures of local bands in local venues which I sourced from my very extensive camera roll of examples.  Preparing this round frittered away most of last Saturday morning as I simultaneously cheered and depressed myself remembering all the fun I’ve had at gigs over the last few years.

Round five, the Music Round, was very much my own innovation.  I found a free portion of the piano score on-line (generally the first page) for four well-known popular songs in a relatively tractable key (C, G or F Major) which I deliberately did not practice (very easily achieved).  For the round, I played each tune by sight-reading the score live (both hands and one pedal!) in front of an audience with the challenge for them to guess what I was musically massacring.  I played most tunes a couple of times in an attempt to maximise the portions of the music where the right notes were played in roughly the right order at least once.  I will admit that alcohol had been taken in order to give me the necessary Dutch courage to follow through with my own idiotic idea and it would appear that I tend to provide a live commentary (some of it only vocalisations) of my process.  I am told that this was by far the best round of the quiz and I believe was found very funny by those not playing the piano.  For me, it was somewhat traumatic at the time – I well remember half the audience (most of whom are far more skilled musicians than I and one of whom is my piano teacher) shouting B-flat when I’d played a natural during a piece in F Major – but I feel that one of my few useful functions at this (or any other) time is to bring some silliness into people’s lives.  Since I have mostly out-lived my shame, I am more than happy to sacrifice what passes for my dignity in this cause.  For my next quiz, could it be time for the recorder to take to the stage?

The final round was Ditloid Movie Night – I shall leave researching the word puzzle that is the Ditloid to the reader – which I thought was impossibly difficult but was found to be relatively easy by most of my victims.

I greatly enjoyed my time as Quizmaster and between the quiz and post-quiz drinking, the Zoom chat kept going until past midnight: no last orders when drinking from home!

The previous weekend, I had the idea to make use of my copy of Cards Against Humanity to play a game with friends.  This had a few challenges as only I possessed a copy of the all-important cards and while you can download a file to allow the cards to be printed, my friends do not have a printer.  Luckily, they are both developers and so the more talented half of the (N)YTMG team was able to knock up a card dealer in the (N)YTMG test environment from a spreadsheet I created from the Response cards.   We had to make some minor modifications to the standard rules of the game, replacing the Card Tsar with a more democratic selection of the winner of each round: a protocol I feel is a much better option all-round.  I am proud to say that we were able to achieve the move from Tsar to democracy without a single execution, very limited terror and almost no Purges.  I read out the Prompt cards with each player being able to use their acting skills to help sell their chosen Response(s).  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable, filthy and entirely unsafe-for-work evening of alcohol-fuelled silliness and can be heartily recommended, assuming any of your surviving maiden aunts are sufficiently broad-minded.

This weekend, I am going to attempt to stage a Frankenlunch – renamed Quaranstein – across Zoom: lunch is entering the cloud!  The idea is that everyone will cook the same dishes together in real-time, with me playing the part of Delia Smith and shouting drunken encouragement at half-time.  Excitingly, the opportunity exists to burn down multiple properties in southern England as we will all be playing with fire!  I am currently channelling my inner Cecil B DeMille to work out how to obtain sufficient camera coverage of my process without damaging any of the “cameras” (laptops) via heat, steam, fire or ingress of ingredients.  I feel quite certain that a report on proceedings will follow in due course through this august document of record.

Other than the foolishness described above, I continue to make it through lockdown more successfully than expected, by me at least.  I’d expected to be carted off in a wicker basket to spend the duration in a secure facility long before now.  Like everyone else, I feel low at times but mostly I seem to bounce back pretty quickly with the aid of live streamed culture and planning or participating in on-line idiocy with friends: I am a lucky chap!  Work has also been helpful in providing time away from my terrible flatmate and, somewhat to my surprise, Radio 3 has proven very successfully at starting each day with a positive vibe – and barely a mention of the C-word!

Today has also seen a major boost in morale on the home front.  The relatively flattering (i.e. dim) light above the bathroom mirror failed nearly three weeks ago and I have been forced to use the “big” light ever since.  At 54, morale is not improved by the sight of my crumbling visage being well lit: so many il/de-lusions have been shattered.  However, today, my heroic postman has delivered a replacement fluorescent tube and this morning’s ablutions could return to being performed in a state of tenebrous grace!

Anyway, I must away to consult with my DOP for tomorrow and prepare my dungeon for next weekend: further reports will follow…

Channelling Gogol: Weak Too

The release of this post into the wild indicates that the author has survived a second week of being locked-down. So far as I can tell, my tenuous grasp on sanity has not suffered to any significant degree.  Or perhaps I am locked in some sort of fugue state, hallucinating the writing of this post.  If so, I trust that my jacket is securely fastened at the back and that I am located in a room with nice soft, sound-proof walls.

In fact, for the seven days that my cold took to run through its main-sequence course, I only left the flat once for the very short walk to the dustbin: otherwise, at no stage did my feet touch the ground (for the avoidance of doubt, they did touch the floor of my flat as I have yet to master hovering – or, some would say, hoovering).   Prior to the last fortnight, I would have assumed that being trapped in the flat for a whole week with only myself (and briefly a wasp) for company would have had a seriously deleterious effect on my mental health: not so much pushing me over the edge, as firing me over it with the aid of some serious rocketry.  It would seem that my hastily cobbled-together coping mechanisms have been an unexpected triumph (or at least a disciplined strategic retreat).

I will admit that alcohol has played its role, with some very fine local beers helping to allow the evenings so pass more (subjectively) swiftly.  It also helps that for most evenings I am attending, albeit without leaving the flat, multiple gigs which provides a degree of continuity with my previous life.  I think I am also becoming better at attending virtually, nattering with friends in the Comments field (where permitted) definitely boosts the experience of being “there” together.  The music gigs I attended at the end of last week had a proper live feel of friends coming together to have a good time, despite being separated in space.

I’ve also enjoyed to a couple of storytelling gigs via Zoom which worked really well as the host can see the audience reaction and again I really feel part of a shared experience.

Since we can’t actually spend time “with” friends and family any more – though, there is some hope that one day the current period of physical isolation will end – I find we are all making more of an effort to come together in both dodgy sound and glorious technicolor [sic] through a variety of video conferencing platforms.  None of these are ideal, but they are better than both nothing and anything that has gone before and I fear that holodeck technology still lies some way in the future.  Plus, it must be noted, that holodecks do not have the best safety record: I fear that the powers of the Health and Safety Executive have become rather seriously eroded by the 24th Century.

As previously noted, a video conference can serve as a virtual pub and forum for jigsaw critique: subject, number of pieces and ‘playa’ style were all up for debate.  On Monday, some friends and I participated in our own virtual pub quiz which was a very silly and drunken success: Tuesday was something of a write-off as a result as lockdown seems to intensify the strength and impact of a hangover (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).  This is due to become a regular feature of Monday’s (meaning the quiz, but I strongly suspect that the foolish- and drunken-ness may be entangled at the quantum level) and in a couple of weeks I shall be Quizmaster.  I need to start channelling my inner Waley-Cohen and/or McGaughey to devise some suitably fiendish questions.  I should possibly also prepare some suggestive opening or closing remarks involving Michael Portillo, or an alternative, slightly improbable, celebrity of my own choosing.  Following my quiz-based excess, I did ‘enjoy’ my first dry day of the lockdown which I seem to have survived without major issues.  It seems I can, if absolutely necessary, function without the psychological crutch of alcohol: though I would not recommend it!

Communal music playing is still proving a challenge, though the Steam Town acoustic session has moved online with a degree of success.  I have even been encouraged (virtually bullied) to massacre a piece on the piano in each of the last two weeks.  While my pool playing does improve after a couple of pints, I don’t think we can say the same for my ability at the piano: I suspect knowing there is an audience may also adversely impact my stress levels which are already somewhat elevated by the current circumstances and my chronic insomnia.  In a fit of insanity, I have just agreed to take part in a recital on Monday with two work colleagues using a Hangouts Meet: I believe one of them is rather a good pianist, so my Easter weekend may be (certainly should be) spent in a feverish whirl of practice!

Virtually, I have been able to join in on the guitar when someone else is playing as long as my microphone is muted: this avoids the issues of latency which otherwise bedevil the dispersed band of musicians.  It also removes the embarrassment that arises when I “guess” the wrong chord from the usual folk/pop choices of I, IV or V: you’d think I’d have a one-in-three chance of being right (higher if I stick with I) but this theory does not seem to hold in the real world.  Musician friends still have hope that the right app and a direct Ethernet connection might make a proper session or gig a reality but I have my doubts and success would expose my secret incompetence.

To add to my hand-balancing in the lounge and occasional excursions into the terrifying wasteland of “the outside” for victuals, I have added skipping into my fitness regime.  I did start this before the cold but managed to break my old skipping rope in the first five minutes.  A new skipping rope has now been delivered and I have started skipping in the little garden area behind the flat.  I am not one of nature’s natural skippers and my style is decidedly pedestrian (or, to be more accurate, clumsy).  Despite my lack of style, it does raise the heart-rate while allowing me to remain suitably distant from others: if they get too close, they receive a skipping rope in the mazzard!  Yesterday, I managed 300 skips and so today my calves are taking their revenge for this maltreatment.  I think I need to re-learn how to skip as I don’t recall these issues at primary school, then again I was somewhat lighter back then…

The foolishness of friends on-line has also been regular source of filips to the old mental health: as has creating my own foolishness to share.  I would particular recommend the rather odd, daily Bring Out Your Dead updates from Here in Spirit (which also provides some very fine fiddle tunes and some liquor) for a few minutes of diversion in your day: “May the blessings of Bob, and all in this house, be upon you“.  You may need to watch them at least somewhat in sequence to follow the narrative arc…

Some days do prove more difficult than others – last night in particular the long-term lack of physical contact with others (which had just hit three weeks) became something of a challenge: I had the inexplicable desire to hug a particular friend who I have never hugged and it would definitely be weird were we ever to hug as we are neither of us natural huggers, though do both regularly find ourselves the object of the verb to hug (in its transitive guise).  However, the writing of this post seems to have boosted morale (well, it’s boosted mine, I can offer no warranty – express or implied – for its impact on yours) and there is fun stuff to look forward to later in the day.  I still find myself mildly frustrated by my lack of productivity – I am yet to become an acrobat, professional musician or even the possessor of a clean and tidy home – but I have the impression that everyone (bar a few outliers, or nutjobs as I shall call then) is in a broadly similar ocean-going vessel, so I shall try and cut myself some slack.  I should note that I am ‘the boss of me’ both literally and metaphorically, but have yet to seriously consider either furloughing myself or letting myself go: well, I have somewhat let myself go, I haven’t worn trousers for more than a fortnight but I do still dress for the day and shave regularly.  We will see whether I can still make this boast in my next post…

 

Channelling Gogol: Week the First

So, I have now been confined to my tiny home for just over a week with only rare excursions to acquire essentials: food and alcohol.  Not necessarily in that order and I am certainly not wasting the alcohol on my hands: I am cleansing from within.

So far as I can tell, and as there are no independent witnesses this diagnosis has larger error-bars than usual, I have yet to go clinically insane as a result of my reduced physical horizons (some would say that I should have been diagnosed and sectioned before this whole incident began).  My screen time has increased rather dramatically, as this is now my only way to attend gigs.  I believe last night, I managed to spend time at five gigs by local (or once local) artists and had also managed to slot in a talk and another gig at lunchtime.  So, in some ways, business as usual or even slightly ramped up as I no longer have to physically move between gigs.  It would seem that as long as I can stream, there seems to be no shortage of entertainment available to me and little pressure to resume my subscription to Netflix to obtain my fix.

I do miss actual physical contact with people, but video calling is not too dreadful a substitute and one that even a few years ago wouldn’t have been a possibility.  Taking advantage of this, I spent Wednesday night in a virtual pub (Stream Town, given that we couldn’t go to Steam Town) where matters grew suitably silly.  While the physical distance makes some forms of lunacy more difficult, others suddenly become possible as all participants are drinking in the privacy of their own home.  At one stage on Wednesday, for reasons I feel unable to explain at this remove, the face of one attendee was sketched onto the foot (the base) of another attendee by an artistic third.  Clearly the artist and the foot were physically co-located: though I feel in a world where telesurgery is possible, this need not be a hard constraint.  Could now be the time to start a Raspberry Pi/Arduino project so that our modern day sole artist can ply her trade without breaching the lockdown?  If nothing else, this foolishness demonstrated the heeling [sic] power of art: laughter burst forth across quite a span of south Hampshire.

With all of this extreme social distancing and frequent hand-washing (the flesh of my hands now has more of the feel of a thorny devil than of a middle-aged man), I found myself thinking on Wednesday morning that I should at least be spared my usual Spring cold.  Truly, we are the playthings of the gods for, before the sun had set, I found myself struck down with all the symptoms of a Spring cold.  There is approximately a 20% chance that I do have a, if not the, coronavirus: though I suppose I could have the more newsworthy variant, albeit in a mild and rather atypical form.  Just to be on the safe side, I have imprisoned myself in my tower and have not even let my hair down to allow a prince to ascend and ‘rescue’ me.  To be fair, given the current length of my hair, it will be several weeks before it will be sufficient to allow any minor royalty to use it to gain access to my garret: though with a haircut a distant dream, this may yet happen.

Luckily, the larder is fairly well stocked, though, annoyingly, the acquisition of the common cold seems to have significantly restored my appetite (I guess I’m now eating for two) and so food stocks are being depleted more rapidly than had been the case.  By the middle of next week,  I may have to send someone healthy out for provisions, just in case I’m at risk of spreading something more serious than some minor sniffles.

Being stuck at home, I fear I am degenerating in some ways.  I am now into my third day without socks and yesterday (a work day) I had a pint of Red Cat Mosaic Pale ale with my lunch.  At his rate, I could be giving Eliogabalus a run for his money before we are allowed to touch other people again…

With my renewed appetite, it is just as well that I can carry out a pretty complete hand-balancing work-out in the 6′ x 7′ space I can clear in my living room: sadly, I have yet to find any suitable point from which to hang my rings (oh-er!).  On Thursday morning, I even managed to have a full (and exhausting) PT session in the lounge via Zoom: I am now both working and working-out from home!  So, I feel there is some hope that, when this is all over, I will not have to be winched out through my massive front windows having grown too large to use the more modestly sized door.  In re-arranging the lounge to make retaining some degree of physical fitness feasible, I have accidentally stumbled upon a much better lighting and hifi solution for the room: something which has only taken almost seven years!

To spend some time away from a screen, I have been making good progress on my current, fascinating, read The Secret World by Christopher Andrew.  This is a huge tome and offers an alternative lens through which to view some major historical events.  It is subtitled ‘A History of Intelligence’ but Mr A could equally have gone with ‘A History of Stupidity’.  I can thoroughly recommend it and at some 760 pages of small print (I have to use my reading glasses) could prove a very handy companion in the days ahead.

In this locked-down world, the weekends are the hardest to manage.  During the week, the day is, if not filled, then at least regularly interrupted by work which provides a certain backbone of structure to the day.  At the weekend, I have to make my own fun which, in a life already far too self-directed, is not necessarily a boon.  Still, I shall muddle through.  This weekend, I shall be attempting to learn the skills required of a Dungeon Master with the hope that I can bring these skills to bear at the next Stream Town: I suppose the virtuality of the pub setting will allow us to more accurately capture the soft-porn-and-large-lizards vibe of Game of Thrones without risk of ejection or arrest, should we so choose…

Busy doing nothing…

Having overcome my earlier ennui, brought on by the lack of live culture and increased social distance, I feel I should be wildly productive by this stage.  This is especially true given all the nominally free time of which I now find myself possessed.  I regret to report that this is not case: if anything, without the pressure of the deadlines set by gig start times I have become less productive.  It would seem that my sense of urgency has socially-isolated itself from the rest of me…

Nevertheless, I have made some progress to moving my life onto a pandemic-footing.  You will be pleased to hear that I am now up-to-date with my filing and have finally managed to throw out some junk that I’ve been holding onto for at least 6.5 years.

I have also developed a compact hand-balancing routine (or indeed, small suite thereof) which I can perform in my tiny garret without excessive danger of injury either to myself or my furnishings: I just have to shuffle the dining “room” into the kitchen.  OK, I did have some help in the development process.  OK, yes, Freeflow Therapy did all the development, I just (mostly) managed not to forget the instructions (can’t a chap get away with some minor stretching of the truth?  I studied topology and the truth and any stretched versions are basically the same thing).  Having put the routine into practice, I seem to have discovered that working out at home is much more exhausting that at the gym: I have yet to decide if this is purely psychosomatic.  To be honest, as I am now training at altitude (the first floor) I was expecting to see my personal bests come tumbling but there is little evidence to support this theory as yet…  Still, the reduced space is, allegedly, allowing me to work on my finesse – so you may see me emerge from the current unpleasantness as a more graceful creature, but I wouldn’t raise your hopes too far.

Using the magic of video conferencing, late yesterday afternoon I did manage to constitute a virtual pub with a friend.  We each acquired a beer take-out from a local hostelry and then did exactly what we would normally do in a pub – drink beer and attempt to come up with stupid ideas – despite being separated by half-a-dozen miles.  There is a degree of latency, which in a less virtual pub session doesn’t usually kick in until quite a few pints have voyaged to their inevitable doom, but it seems an entirely practical reaction to the need to both be social distant and remain fully connected.   Ideas and foolishness always flow more readily when two or more are gathered together (in anyone’s name) and this continues to work in the virtual realm.  I find myself wondering if I can get a cloth backdrop printed (or embroidery or tapestry-work would be fine) which recreates the look of the Doghouse at the Guide Dog to minimise the disruptive feel of increased time at home?

My feeling is that the latency that exists on video conferencing means that musical sessions are not really feasible: although one of last night’s activities did give me some hope.  Prior to this last week, I was only attempting to attend as many gigs in Southampton and its immediate areas as I could.  Musicians (and others) seem to have responded to the enforced downtime and, in many cases, catastrophic loss of income, by staging gigs online.  As a result, I am slowly working out how to “attend” live broadcasts on Facebook and Instagram (and I suspect other platforms yet to be explored: I’ve been hearing more about Zoom lately than at any time since 1982 when Fat Larry’s Band were riding high in the charts.  However, without the need to be physically present there are even more gigs to “attend” than ever.  Luckily, you can attend them for a period of time after broadcast: still, not sure precisely how long so am trying to “catch-up” within 24 hours just-in-case.  Last night’s “gig” was the film made by Manu Delago of his album Parasol Peak where he and six other musicians ascended a mountain in the Alps, playing (and recording) tracks at various altitudes carrying their instruments on their backs in between.  Some of the tracks involved clinging onto perilous rock ledges while using a cello or piano accordion (to name but two of the instruments I would be unwilling to climb a mountain while carrying).  At times, they clearly couldn’t hear each other so he composed pieces for which this wouldn’t an issue: there was also some system of hand signals to maintain broad synchronisation.  I have also definitely seen experimental music where each player chooses when to move onto the next section.  I’m wondering if these approaches could allow a style of beat-free music to be played together via video conference?

However, the primary skills I have been acquiring this week will serve me best in the fields of larceny and espionage.  I am becoming adept at carrying out a growing range of tasks without leaving a single fingerprint: avoiding DNA residue is still a work-in-progress.  When away from the house, without recourse to gloves (a cheat’s way out and likely to rouse suspicion), I hardly need my hands to make contact with any foreign body: even if they ask nicely.  I am also becoming good at reaching a supermarket being observed by the fewest people and at all times to maximise the distance between myself and those people.  It’s only to be expected that these skills would come naturally to me, as any readers of Baroness Orczy will know, as the Scarlet Pimpernel was aided by a Ffoulkes (one Sir Andrew): so these skills clearly run in the family!

A less obviously transferable skill I’m gaining is greater knowledge of where my hands are and, in particular, if they are en route to my face.  Prior to this week, they appeared to operate on the principle that any minute left without checking my face was still there could lead to disaster: without constant monitoring, my face would probably wander off on its own (or perhaps just fall off).  I think we have now established that my face is fairly solidly bolted on and such checks can be reduced to a minimum.

So while I may not have achieved that much of use in the last few days, I do seem to have avoided going stark staring bonkers: so I’m viewing my adaptation to the change of circumstances as a triumph!