Being Me

I feel that given the chronic (rather than merely acute) nature of the current global crisis (soon to have company from a domestically manufactured crisis), it is time to drop the Channelling Gogol title that I’ve been using since March. Clearly, this blog will continue to chart my descent (ascent?) into madness but will do so without reference to the moustachioed Russian dramatist.

So, back to the title. It would appear that someone is required to play the role of me, at least for the time being, and, despite the use of headhunters, I have been unable to find any candidate (suitable or otherwise) willing to take on the burden. In consequence, it would seem that we are all stuck with me for the foreseeable future (which I think currently stretches nearly as far as lunchtime).

The onset of the pandemic did rather pull the tablecloth out from under the delicately poised bone china tea service of my life. I was anticipating a pretty rapid move to the higher entropy, and lower gravitational potential energy, state of shards. To my surprise, while I think most of the china is now unsupported by either cloth or table, its fall to the ground has been largely arrested for more than five months.

However, winter is coming (and also going), which is always the case (away from the Equator) on a planet with its rotational axis tilted relative to the plane of its orbit, and I fear several of the techniques I’ve been using to keep the delicate porcelain of my mind in one piece are going to become rather less effective. The chronodyne completing my Key to Time is degrading and Zeos may be in trouble,

As with many, engaging more with the natural world – in my case, visited on my bike – had been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping things together since March. However, August is already presaging the turning of the seasons with storms and very high winds making the bike an unwise travel option: it seems best to avoid lightning or winds gusting above 40mph. The former opinion is based on an internet search while the latter draws on personal experience and the issues with keeping in lane, or on the road at all, if a Gale or Strong Gale force wind suddenly grabs you and your steed. Such conditions are also probably not ideal for visiting a tree-filled forest as, unlike Weebles, trees do fall down.

Nevertheless, I shall try and keep regular bike rides – or failing that, drives and hikes – into nature going through the winter. I have decent boots and waterproofs (all those childhood holidays in North Wales did not occur in vain) and so I should be fine if often damp.

I have also just invested in a decent pair of binoculars which, unlike their predecessors, make things significantly larger and clearer than my eyes alone. I tested them on the one (mostly and briefly) clear night since they arrived and a whole panoply of extra stars – hidden from my unaided sight – were revealed to me: the sky is full of the shy buggers! With more darkness available every night, I plan to try and fit in some serious star gazing and, in the declining daylight will try and fit in some bird watching.

The re-opening of the pubs has been a boost, and it has been a joy to see friends in both the flesh and familiar surrounds of the Guide Dog. I worry how long this will last but shall enjoy it while it does. I have even taken part in socially distant sessions with my rusty guitar skills. There have even been a few live gigs in the great outdoors, making musical hay while the sun still (sometimes) shines, which have been a joy.

For the last couple of weeks, I have also been able to return to Boulder Shack to practice my hand-balancing and related skills without fear of breaking either myself or my furniture (or both). It has been so liberating: I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed being able to train properly and to move more than two feet in any direction before running out of space. I must admit that the small flat, long (inept) body combination is not ideal in a home training scenario. By visiting early or late, I generally have loads of room to myself and so my additional risk exposure has been very small. My old skills are returning (though my pull-up ability has declined dramatically without any ability to practise) and my current skills are progressing much more rapidly. I am also dpending more time aching thanks to my over-enthusiastic embracing of my new freedom: still, I think it is “good” aching.

During lockdown, I’ve found myself participating in, or creating ex nihilo, a series of activities that I can perform with friends via Zoom. As an aside, my decision to buy Zoom for a whole year at a discount is looking increasingly prescient: the Germans seem to be extending their furlough scheme out to 24 months and Angela seems to have more of clue than our own governing shambles. Planning and creating materials for the Quaranstein and trips to Generic Fantasy Landia consumes an increasing amount of time each week and gives my brain something to do rather than stew in its own juices. This last week, I have been working on two-point perspective which has worked reasonable well, but only really with box shapes: the view of buildings does not go all the way to the top as I have yet to master the pitched roof. I also carried out an initial experiment into stop-motion animation which showed promise. I have a suitable camera and light, but my tripod is rather too tiny to be practical: I need to see if I can jury rig something more effective. With a little practice, and further enhancements in my drawing ability, I could become the SmallFilms de nos jours! I am, after all, now the proud possessor of a Swannee whistle!

I think I created these activities as a pretext for friends to come together, and particular for those who were no longer living locally. However, it may be equally true that I created them to give me something to do and to force me to interact with other folk. I no longer know if selflessness or self-interest was the primary driver: I have had to way too long to rationalise…

Since lockdown began, I have only once left Southampton or its surroundings I can reach by bike. A couple of weeks ago, I drove back to East Sussex and see my dad for the first time since Christmas. It was odd being away – but good to see (but not touch) my family. It did mean that I had to use the car, which required the AA to revive it after spending so long motionless. This proved quite handy (if mildly expensive) as it revealed that it has had the wrong battery for the whole time I’ve owned it (and through two services by a Ford main dealer: grrr!). With the correct, much larger battery, I have discovered that the car has Auto Stop-Start! When I took it in to have its broken wing mirror replaced and its aircon repaired (just in time for the heat wave to end: timing is a gift you know), I was hoping to stop at traffic lights just to watch the revs drop to zero. Given this desire, for the first time in human history a car journey of more than a mile across Southampton, through multiple four-way traffic lights, was accomplished without ever stopping for long enough for the Stop-Start to engage. With winter nipping at my heels, I think the car may prove to be a real boon (or it may just be neglected as usual).

It struck me, forcibly, yesterday evening that I have literally no plans for fun future activities: beyond the generic and the standard Monday night quiz and Sunday night excursion to Generic Fantasy Landia plus impromptu visits to the pub or gym. Whilst this seems quite Zen, I’m not convinced it is an entirely mentally-healthy way to live. I think I need to have fun plans and probably plans that involve being more than 15 miles from my flat (a hinterland which is now fairly extensively explored) to create some features in the otherwise rather flat topographical progression of my days.

I have not really proved able to settle down to watch television: though, a few days ago I did manage to watch an entire film! Inspired by (N)YTMG moving from React.js to Vue.js I watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou: it proved at least as good as I remember from 20 years ago, probably better, and had clearly made a surprising strong impression on the younger me. However, my television viewing over the last 5+ months amounts to fewer than half-a-dozen BBC4 documentaries, probably totalling scarcely an hour per month. I have watched some live-streamed music and dance and managed to knock through a few books, but have struggled to settle down to much else. My piano and guitar playing have also not advanced as one might have hoped given the time at my disposal.

So, I find myself in need of a new fun project (or projects or activities) to see me through the winter, which are robust to rather variable levels of energy and concentration and can occur in a small flat or in public outdoors (I suppose they probably also ought to be broadly legal). Of late, I find that I am basically dead by 2pm: though I have found that an afternoon bike ride of a 90 minutes or so does usually bring me back to life into the evening (though, as noted above, this may become more problematic and I may have to revert to a jolt through the electrodes!). This reminds me that I do need to prepare my Last Will and Testament (there is a non-zero risk that I am not in fact immortal), though I’ll probably dodge the traditional reference to being of sound mind. I don’t really have any descendants to which to leave my billions, and don’t think I entirely approve of inherited wealth, so I need to find a suitably on-brand destination for my wealth once I no longer have use of it (assuming I don’t manage to dispose of it all before I finally obtain a decent night’s sleep: albeit one without a subsequent dawn). Any ideas of projects or institutions that might survive me and could use the money gratefully considered…

However, I’m not sure that setting my mortal affairs in order necessarily counts as fun (though Jake Thackeray made a decent effort in song): I could add all manner of amusing conditions and requirements, I suppose. You don’t hear much about tontines these days and it it would be entertaining if my demise were to launch a spate of fiscally-motivated murders. Nevertheless, I think the hunt for suitable winter project(s) must continue with an increasing sense of urgency…

The race is not to the swift

The alternative title (or one of them) was uncomfortably numb.  Isn’t that always the case? The tricky choice between Ecclesiastes and Pink Floyd.

I like to think I am leading the tortoise to become over-confident and fall into the same trap that befell the hare.  Others might say that I have turned procrastination into a lifestyle.  Nevertheless, I do (usually) get there eventually.

For example, in a post from the archive (Lucky Numbers for any completists) I mentioned having seen a young pianist called Julien Cohen and suggested I would pay to hear him play.  Well, back in October I made good on this threat!  He was once again playing in Cambridge and I snuck away from the world of work for a brief interlude to hear him perform at West Road.  My faith in the chap was amply rewarded and while I was in Cambridge I also managed to take in a chunk of the Film Festival.  Paying one’s blog-based pseudo-debts seems to lead to good things (although I’ll admit I’m extrapolating from an anecdotal sample of one, which is not good form).

Equally in this blog I have made pie-crust promises to make greater use of my car and cease its long-running neglect.  On this front I did rather less well, so earlier in the year I passed the car on to a better home where it receives regular exercise.  No longer does it languish a kilometre away with its battery slowly draining, but is now kept within easy spitting distance of its owner’s home (though I trust she is not spitting at it).  I realise this does sound rather like the stories people tell children that a much loved pet has “gone to live on a farm”, but this really did happen – I am not just trying to spare your feelings.

However, the longest running unfinished business in my life (if we ignore the whole lack of a partner or offspring thing) was the guitar.  I was bought an acoustic guitar by a grateful team back in 1995: I think they were pleased to have worked with me rather than that this would imminently no longer be the case (and I’d like to keep that illusion, if you don’t mind).  The guitar is now old enough to be served liquor in any bar in the US of A and so it was becoming embarrassing that I still couldn’t play it.  I decided to do something about it and leapt into action.

Time passed…

More time passed…

And then, after a period of mere months (shorter than calendar months), this very morn I had my first guitar lesson!  OK, not technically my first, Mr Owen (my then English teacher) did provide some tuition back in the late 1970s, before he “went to Gravesend” (not a euphemism).  However, I think we can safely assume that any knowledge imparted at that time has been well and truly lost beyond any hope of recall (though I am willing to munch my way through a madeleine, or several, if people think it would help).

I gave my guitar teacher a somewhat vague brief of some long term goals from my tuition: basically Jake Thackeray, Bach harpsichord transcriptions or Latin American classical guitar.  Neverthless he was not put-off and so I spent the latter part of this morning learning the basic chords and finger picking for Lah-di-Dah.  I am also having to come to grips with tablature which I’m pretty sure did not trouble my pre-teen head back in the seventies.  Still, I think an auspicious start was made: I may even have the merest morsel of natural talent.

The primary takeaway from this morning’s lesson, though, was that the finger tips on my left hand now exist in a weird superposition (I’m assuming classical rather than quantum) of numbness and exquisite pain.  They are going to have toughen up in the coming days if I am to fit in some practise before my next lesson and practoce is needed.  The next lesson has been booked a mere handful of days hence: self-discipline is all well and good but it does work better with a looming external examination.

Surely, tt can only be a matter of time – and mastery of the Yorkshire accent – before I can start my new career as Southampton’s premier Jake Thackeray tribute act.  I’m assuming “Fake Thackeray” has already been taken so I shall spend some of the time while I wait for feeling to return to my distal phalanges coming up with a name for the act.

On again! On again!

Slow learner

GofaDM is often used as a platform to berate the author for his idiocy.  A few readers, those who are almost suicidally charitable by nature, may still doubt whether this degree of censure is fully justified.  I think with just a couple of examples from the last few days, I can place the general contention beyond any reasonable doubt.

We will start with my fridge.  For the last few weeks, I have noticed that my single and pouring cream seemed to be going off with more than usual frequency.  The same entropic decay then started to affect strawberries.  I idly mused that perhaps the supermarkets of Southampton were employing a just-in-time system so that my purchases were already perilously near their expiration dates at the time of purchase.  This half-baked conspiracy theory managed to forestall any action on my part for some weeks, but eventually the thought struck me that perhaps my fridge might, in some part, be culpable.  More days passed whilst this arrant thought struggled to gain any serious attention from the higher powers that hold court between my ears.  Finally, I glanced at the temperature control in the fridge and observed that it had been accidentally knocked (or been subject to deliberate sabotage) and was at its lowest possible setting.  Since correcting this, the amount of fridge-based spoilage has returned to its historic, and very low, level.

I have noted before my very low usage of my car and despite promises to do better, little has changed.  These long periods of standing are not good for the battery, and I have worked out that my car last moved relative to the Earth on Boxing Day (2014).  It will shortly have to move in order to gain a fresh MOT certificate (in commemoration of the long dead Ministry of Transport) and so I wandered to its distant nesting place with only a few dregs of hope cluttering my stony heart.  As expected, the battery had less charge left in it than the Light Brigade after the Battle of Balaclava.  Last time this happened I carried the battery the mile(ish) to my home to be re-charged – and coincidentally fixed some minor back pain I had been suffering.  At the present moment (and tempting Fate), my vertebral region is pain-free – and I worry that further portage of a lead-acid pile may restore the original issue.  So, I have invested in a folding trolley so that my battery can be commuted to and from its distant charger in comfort (mine rather than its).

I comfort myself with the idea that this trolley can also be used to transfer books from their expensive languishing in storage to my garret if I ever arrange to have some shelves fitted to hold the returning exiles.  At least, so far, my stupidity has only affected one person (viz myself) – nevertheless, I really must try and do better.

Carfax

My interest in the motor car is only modest (at best) and my interest in the hosting of a comedy show about them almost non-existent.  I do find the engineering used in some fascinating and the aesthetics of most puzzling.  Homo sapiens has (occasionally) demonstrated that it is perfectly capable of designing an aesthetically pleasing car, but mostly (apparently) choses not to.  I struggle to believe that paying the designer(s) makes up a major element of the cost of our vehicles – so can only assume that there is some strategic reason to make cars so ugly: maybe it encourages faster replacement or helps to keep the aspirations of we proles suitably low?

Anyway, yesterday I found myself (and my bike) stopped behind a largish Mazda – which in addition to the usual collection of semi-random alphanumeric characters which identify the model to the cognoscenti also boasted something called SkyActiv Technology.  The car looked perfectly normal to me, so my mind raced as to what amazing features this technology might provide.  Would the car convert into a plane on pressing a button on the dash?  Could the driver confidently state that “where we’re going we don’t need roads” before taking-off vertically and disappearing into the aether?  Did the car offer Satellite TV?  Upon my return home, I used the power of the internet to discover the true nature of SkyActiv Technology: readers should prepare themselves for the disappointment I have already experienced.  Apparently, the technology means that the engine has a compression ratio of 14:1 – which, if Mazda are to be believed, is quite high.  What this has to with the sky or even the partial word activ is beyond me – it doesn’t even seem to be an anagram of something more plausible.  It would seem that in addition to an inability to correctly use the apostrophe (as shown on the SkyActiv portion of their website) Mazda have jumped the product-naming shark.

In other recent car-related news, I understand that the Driving Test is to be changed.  Despite my age, I am no dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist bemoaning every change to a much loved institution – for a start, I never loved the Driving Test, merely endured a brace of them in Herne Bay back in the mid-80s, nor am I all that keen on wool.  However, the change being proposed is to drop the three point turn (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is not a turn in a very small font) – I believe on the basis that it is out-dated.  Even as a chap who tries to leave the reverse gear on his car untouched, I have had to perform the odd three point turn – though I cannot ever remember having to reverse round a corner.  More importantly, rare is a trip out of my garret where I do not encounter someone performing the n-point turn (for suitable n≥3).  Even with it forming part of the Driving Test, the average turner is really not very competent and appears to have little concern about the appropriateness of their chosen location or the inconvenience caused to other road users.  I really don’t see that dropping it is going to help matters.  If you want to drop a now largely unused skill from the driving test, might I suggest indicating?  Given the huge effort required in moving a finger a centimetre-or-two, most motorists have already abandoned this particular skill – so its loss from the examination would go largely unnoticed.

Car tales

The more obsessive reader may recall that, early in the summer, I decided to release my car from its bonded servitude (or some form of hire purchase as the finance company would prefer I call it) by making the soi-disant balloon payment (sadly, no balloon was forthcoming).  At this point it became mine (all mine!) and I promised the GofaDM reader that I would start to use it on a more regular basis, i.e. more than twice per year.

I am sorry to report that I find myself to be a liar – since making that rash promise, the car has not moved so much as an inch (relative to the surface of the earth).  I will try and blame Edinburgh and volume of work (and work-related travel) for my failure – but would have to admit that I didn’t have any real need to use the poor, neglected vehicle and failed to generate such a need.  I have used the car so little for so long, that I have almost completely lost the habit for driving – and struggle to remember why “normal” people do so.  The traffic in Southampton and dire state of its roads may also act as a disincentive.  The city is oddly traffic-bound for a place so relatively hostile to both pedestrians and cyclists.  I feel it should try and satisfy at least one travelling constituency – and I would suggest that those on two wheels or none would be by far the cheapest and would also require much less wholesale demolition of the city (the Germans did their best during the last unpleasantness and town planners tried to finish what they had begun, but still the traffic-hardened arteries of the city can probably only be eased by a major bombing campaign – which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not advocating).

I have learned at least one thing from this lack of vehicular movement: I am unable to successfully identify a lime tree.  Unter den Linden always sounds a wonderfully exciting boulevard in Berlin (immortalised both in song and the Kontakte TV series from which I learned my rather limited German) but it would be no place to park your car.  After a mere week or two, my normally red car is rendered almost black – though even this colour is somewhat concealed by the compost-heap of vegetative debris shed by the aforementioned arboreal menace.  In my defence, I would say that I have parked the car under at least three different trees – which to my eyes appeared markedly difference in both leaf and more general form – but all swiftly coated my car in gunk.  I am starting to wonder if the linden is a shape-changing tree – able to camouflage itself to fox the unwary.  Or has the lime been unfairly singled out and, in fact, many trees share its unwanted habits?

Anyway, yesterday my guilt finally overcame my apathy and I took the car out for a little drive.  As a treat, I took it over to Southampton’s main (so far as I know) household waste recycling centre (or the “tip” as I will continue to call it).  This was to dispose of some junk that has been awaiting this trip for a little over twelve of your earth months – it’s best not to hurry such things.  The tip proved functional, though rather poorly labelled compared to my previous experiences in South Cambs – most containers were unlabelled so you have to guess what might belong in them (or ask a tip-man).  It is also right down at the docks – if you go any further you have to join a very long line of container lorries – and not very well signposted (by the time you find a signpost you have arrived – it also helps to know the acronym HWRC is going to be important to your excursion).  Still, my task was a success.  Excitingly, after a mere 39 months the car has finally travelled a total of 2000 miles.  Yay!

Actually, before the drive I had to take the car to be washed to enable me to see out – which kept a band of our eastern European brethren busy with soap and power washers for quite some time.  Still, my car has once again been restored to its rubicund best.  Before the trip, I did a little cycle-based reconnaissance and believe I have found a tree-free location to re-park the old IQ where it is now ensconced.  Passing it on my bike earlier today (after 24 hours), I could see that it remained clean and detritus free – so far, so good.

I should also re-make my oath to use the car more often, declarations made in public (or in front of the modest readership of GofaDM) are supposed to be more binding psychologically – and with winter coming (though, hopefully, without ice-based zombies) there should be more excuses to go for a drive.  If nothing else, it will keep the battery charged and help me to avoid finding out whether petrol has a “best before” date.