May you receive what you want

The title sounds like I’m being nice, but I do wonder if it is more of a curse – along the lines of “may you live in interesting times”.

Our consumer-driven society is always telling us that we should want more things; bigger things; better things.  It also likes to suggest that we shouldn’t have to wait – easy (or really quite hard) credit is always available.  Long ago, in a Puffin book of jokes (the exact title eludes me) I remember a cartoon strip of  boy who wanted a big cat (lion or tiger – his want was specific, my recollection isn’t).  After much badgering of his parents (though no sign of TB), they relented and the cat was duly granted – at which point it ate the foolish child.  Not obviously a joke in my retelling: more a morality tale to beware getting that for which you have wished.  Whilst receiving the things we want doesn’t usually results in our own consumption, it does often lead to disappointment and some small erosion of the soul (or its secular, humanist equivalent).

I also recall an aphorism that said that “experience is what you get if you don’t get what you want”.  This does seem to suggest that if experience is your goal, you will never leave empty-handed – though this may not be the intended message.  However, I have found that many of the best things in life come not through instant (or near-instant) gratification of a consumer-focused want – though that can happen with a nice glass of something or a slice of decent cake – but from a more unexpected event or a long-striven for outcome.  I would not wish to suggest that something unearned is unappreciated (I do try and avoid anyone leaving this blog with a moral education), but sometimes waiting does add savour to things.  Even planned things can also be unexpected and so particularly pleasing – a night of fringe theatre often does it for me.

Last night, following a rather busy period at work and in some of the more work-like aspects of my home life, I went out for the evening – to an event booked several weeks ago.  The evening proved to be exactly what I needed, though if I was satisfying a want, it was not one I knew I had.

The event was a concert of piano music played by Piotr Anderszewski, though not the one I’d expected due to a late programme change.  For once, it was briefly dry enough for me to cycle up to Turner Sims which is always a good start to a night out (though, the Uni-Link bus service is also excellent for times of more Biblical weather).  I arrived a little early and so there was time for a beer (I feel it is important to support arts venues any way you can, so very much a selfless pint) – better than just beer, they could offer me a bottle of Old Peculiar (which you don’t often see this far south, or at all).  With this inside me, the first half of Bach and Schumann saw all my stress just drift away on a wave of divine music.  After a tub of rum-and-raisin ice cream, the second half was some glorious Beethoven.  I thought it was a really good concert, but I make no great claims for my musicality even without a pint of OP inside.  However, it would seem it was objectively a good concert as today’s Guardian gave it a five star review.

I wish I could claim credit for having selected such a great concert, but my picking involved the fact that it was near home and involved a piano.  The best I can say is that I allowed the possibility to exist and was then lucky.  I was fortunate to obtain something I needed (but had not sought), though I’ll admit as needs go it was quite near the top of Maslow’s famous pyramid.

So, perhaps I should hope that you all get what you need – also perhaps a two-edged hope, but one with less malice is involved.  I should also work on wanting less and leaving more space for life to deliver me some “experience”.  I also really need to put in some practise at the ole 88-string guitar: one day I’d like to make it to exercise 3 in Mr Hanon’s book of 60 exercises for the virtuoso pianist.  Nonetheless, even if I live to be 1000 I don’t reckon Piotr has anything to worry about, competition-wise.  Still, I am enjoying the journey: slow though it may be!

Getting my leg over

I like to think that I am in pretty good physical shape (I’d make no similar claims about my mental state) for a man of my age, after all I am shortly to reach the milestone age of 30 (and I’m doing it in hex which is definitely tougher than decimal.  Pleasingly, given my name, I am currently 2F!).  However, my day job is essentially sedentary requiring many hours to be spent hunched over a laptop.  This does have a deleterious effect on my posture and especially on my flexibility in some modes of movement.  I’m not even single-jointed, let alone double-jointed.

This inflexibility manifests in a number of ways as I go about my soi-disant life.  I find it quite tricky to look behind me when driving especially when reversing (luckily something I do very rarely) and I also find it hard to get my leg over my bike when I come to mount my metal steed – I normally try and use a kerb (or similar raised area) to gain a few inches.

Having somewhat successfully tackled my fear of heights, I decided this lack should also be tackled and so since the end of last year have been taking regular personal training to try and make myself more lithe.  This has meant the folk at Brightside PT have been making me do things while out-of-balance and often on one leg in an attempt to make me a tad more mobile.  This has been a slightly disturbing process, at least partly because the left and right sides of my body seem to belong to entirely different people: my body does seem to have been built from two previously written-off bodies in a surgical cut-and-shut operation (which does explain quite a lot, if I’m honest).  However, it is having results and I can now mount my velocipede without any difficulty (even when the rear panniers are full!).  Still, there is some way to go before I can consider myself as lissom as I would like.

As a some-time project manager, I know the importance of setting objectives – which should be SMART (readers will have to check for themselves what the mnemonic means as I have forgotten: suggesting it is rather a poor tribute to Mnemosyne).  Most folk when training set objectives based on increasing the weight lifted, the number of ‘reps” performed or the speed or distance one can cover in a particular sporting activity (or poor simulation thereof).  But, I am not “most folk” and this approach struck me as boring and so I decided to set some more interesting targets to achieve.  So after a little work with a search engine, I came across a number of objectives which I thought it would be amusing to achieve (not to mention, providing me with some unexpected and impressive capabilities for a man in his very early thirties to be able to showcase).  I produced a fairly decent shortlist in the hope that at least one of them might be achievable.  All the exercises would be considered functional, good for flexibility and my core – so meet my general requirements – though even I had my doubts about the achievability of the “human flag”.  My teachers, however, seem confident that I should be able to achieve three of my targets in time for the summer (subject to its availability) which should, in turn, act as a good basis to move on to more difficult manoeuvers.

So, by Wimbledon you can look forward to me performing one armed press-ups, one-armed pull-ups and pistol squats at any and every opportunity.  Just try and stop me!

This will all be great preparation for my future career as a rather tall and elderly gymnast and, in conjunction with my climbing, opens the door to a life in parkour.  I will also be in a strong position should I misplace any single limb – despite my avoidance of quasi-military organisations as a child, I always feel that it as well to “be prepared!”.

Who am I?

Fear not, I am not going to get all existential “on yo ass” (a much less successful restaurant concept than the superficially similar Yo! Sushi).  This is largely down to the extreme superficiality of my knowledge of the subject, not so much a veneer as a monomolecular layer laid down through some form of knowledge-based epitaxy.

Nor shall I dwell for too long on the flaws in the whole concept of identity which neuroscience seems to feel duty-bound to expose.  I have read a fair bit of neuroscience (as opposed to no Kierkegaard whatsoever), but feel they rather miss the target when attacking either the sense of self or of free will.  The seem to demolish places where I had never believed either of these things resided, as even a moment’s self-reflection should surely have made obvious (without the need for surrounding folk with incredibly powerful magnets to excite some cranial hydrogen atoms before watching them being slowly overcome by boredom once more).

No,  I shall – very much in keeping with the raison d’être of this blog (now on its 450th post) – stick to more trivial matters.

The nature of identity does seem to obsess both those who govern us (or would like to) and those who bring us the soi-disant news.  There have been two major areas of identity-based uncertainty that I have noticed in recent weeks – those of being British and being a man.  As I can personally tick both boxes, I felt at least somewhat qualified to comment – though, frankly neither of these particular areas of identity have ever caused me the slightest anxiety.

Our politicos do seem very keen to define what it means to be British – which I often feel is more of an attempt to define what isn’t so that those lacking this apparently vital essence can be blamed, disparaged or deported (preferably at enormous cost).  It does seem to be very much of a piece with the Manichean nature of so much public discourse – everything is either good or bad, left or right wing, causes or cures cancer (to name but three examples).  I’m pretty convinced life isn’t like this.  I like to think that all my qualities, both good and ill, at best exist somewhere on a scale between their best and worst possibilities – and, worse, move around on that scale over time.  Whilst I am clearly generalising from a sample of one, I suspect other people are much the same.  I’m sure we all have elements of Britishness – wheresoe’er we might happen to hale from – and elements of things not British.  This is probably true for almost any even remotely sensible definition of what it is to be British – not that a government is ever likely to produce such a definition.

The need to define being British seems to have gained additional zest with the potential departure of the Scots from the union of 1707.  So far as I know, I lack any Scottish roots and so no-one will ask me – which is just as well as I have no real idea which option is the better.  I suspect disentangling a union which has persisted for 307 years will be an extremely non-trivial (and so expensive and painful) exercise – but merely because something is tricky does not mean it should not be attempted if it is the right thing to do.  On the other hand, I suspect more local government is a good thing – if only from the frustrating experience of working for a vast multinational where the seat of “government” seems impossibly remote from my day-to-day working life.  Still, this blog is not trying to persuade folk north of the border to vote one way or the other.  Our politicians, of course, do not take this approach and campaign with some vigour either for or against divorce.  Living a long way south of the border, I tend to see significantly more of the NO campaign – which does seem to have been successfully infiltrated by the YES campaign and is basically doing their work for them.  Certainly, if I were Scottish I would find the work of the NO campaign a pretty convincing reason to leave.  I like to imagine that the YES campaign has a similar impact on boosting the desire to stay.  If so, perhaps both campaigns could agree to shut-up and save their money and allow people to make their own decisions.  Or perhaps the money could be invested in an independent body which would dispassionately lay out the pros and cons of leaving in the hope of producing a better informed electorate.  I believe flying pigs are very good at this sort of analysis.

There also seems to be a continuing debate about what it means to be a man.  Apparently, my fellow holders of a Y-chromosome are suffering an identity crisis.  It would seem that treating women slightly less disgracefully than heretofore cuts right to the heart of masculinity.  Or maybe it’s the ready availability of power steering and parking sensors?  I’ve never really felt defined by my ability to treat those of the distaff gender as second class citizens and I certainly hope I’m not defined by my ability to parallel park (as this ability, if it ever existed, has almost totally atrophied – actually, I did once do it astonishingly well but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke as it was more than 20 years ago and has never been repeated).  Then again, I may not be great example of manhood: I have very limited interest in sport, regularly cry in public (though, fortunately, usually in conditions of poor lighting) and have eaten (and enjoyed) quiche.  Still, I am pretty clearly a man – biologically speaking at least.  For example, I can count to 21 when naked (though these days I do need my glasses to make accurate use of my toes) – so I reckon how I live must be at least one representation of masculinity.  So, if any possessors of a Y-chromosome are reading this post in a state of gender crisis I am more than happy to share my tips on how to be a man in 2014.  They are also welcome to read this post’s 449 siblings for some evidence of my life as a man in the early 21st century – though this does create the worrying prospect of my mimetic clones slowly spreading through the population.

Talking of clones, on Friday night I went to the Nuffield Theatre to see A Number by Caryl Churchill.  An interesting and pleasingly brief play about cloning and what it might mean to have genetic copies of yourself wandering around.  The protagonists seemed to find this quite a disturbing prospect – but I would relish meeting a clone (of myself, obviously): (A) to see how path-dependent this version of me is and, much more importantly, (B) to find someone who would understand and laugh at my jokes.

So, send in the clones!

Roots

As a (mostly) vegetarian who tries to source as much of his food from the UK as possible, this time of the year offers rather slim pickings.  This was, of course, true for our ancestors as Ruth Goodman et al have made clear over recent years – though they (the ancestors) didn’t have the option of buying strawberries flown in from countries as yet undiscovered by Europeans.

Fruit is more-or-less limited to cooking apples, with an occasional and very welcome sighting of forced rhubarb arriving from candle-lit sheds in the shadow of the M62.  For vegetables, you can find brassicas though I refuse to eat sprouts and find cabbage too insipid in both flavour and colour to buy (oddly, as a child I also rejected cabbage but then for its excess of undesirable flavour).  Kale is available and has both taste and colour, but has become rather fashionable of late – and I do try and avoid soi-disant super-foods (or foods as I call them) as a matter of principle (obviously, any food clad only in lycra and sporting a cape would be an exception – especially if it were also airborne).  This only really leaves root vegetables as a local option in a normal year.  This year, being far from normal, I can still obtain locally grown peppers, courgettes and aubergines as they have yet to face a real frost – which makes for a rare treat (or is this a taste of climatic things to come?).

Generally, in this country the root vegetable is considered (at best) as a side dish and  often good only to feed to animals – though admittedly, even I have yet to try a mangel wurzel in my home cooking (not that I’m not tempted, I just don’t know where to source one).  I have made some use of carrots, parsnips and even celeriac over recent years, though usually only in modest amounts – but it is only recently that I have perfected the luxurious dish for which I believe they were born (grown?  bred?).  This is my take on a winter ratatouille – inspired by 10 Greek Street followed up by significant web research and a lot of experimentation in my underground bunker.

Please tell us this wonder recipe, I hear you cry (or was that just the voices in my head, as per usual?).  Well, as you asked so nicely, and it’s been a while since the last recipe published on GofaDM, here goes:

Take selection  of root vegetables (I used carrots, parsnips, celeriac and swede) and slice or dice them into smallish chunks.  My experience is that the swede should be in the smallest chunks – or it can remain stubbornly hard after cooking.  Coat in oil and roast for a while – at least 30 minutes and perhaps a little more (yesterday they had nearer 50) – at a high temperature (I used 200°C).  Once your root vegetables have roasted, roughly chop a clove (or two) of garlic and an onion (I used a red one) and gently fry in oil (I used rapeseed) for a few minutes to soften.  Then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, the roasted vegetables and seasoning to the pan and cook through for a few minutes to let all the flavours suffuse.  Meanwhile, grill some slices of a rinded goat’s cheese (I’ve been using Kidderton Ash).  Serve the ratatouille garnished with the grilled cheese and prepare your taste buds for the time of their lives!  Well, I really like it, frankly it almost makes winter worthwhile on its own.

It is also a dish made of pretty cheap ingredients – which must be a boon in these austere times.  It reminds me of advice I was given by the redoubtable Katherine Whitehorn when I started university (in a book you understand, she was not my personal advisor when I was a student – if only).  She wrote then that if meat was 70p/lb it was cheap while if vegetables were 70p/lb they were expensive: so eat more vegetables (I paraphrase).  Whilst the prices (and units) may have changed somewhat since the mid-80s, I think the advice is still essentially sound.