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…

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…