Weddings and babies

Big shouts out to my homies Frank and Matt. Frank got married in December and is going to be get babied up in March; and Matt gave birth on Hogmanay. Well, I suppose technically it was his wife, but I’m sure Matt was really supportive and shared her pain.

Welcome to the parenting club, guys. I’d suggest we get T-shirts, but the little ones would only be sick over them and obscure the cool logos.

Categorized as Personal

The coming of winter

The clocks changed at the weekend. The days have been getting noticeably shorter for some time, and it is full dark now when I leave work in the evenings. Edinburgh is at latitude 55°N (ish), which puts us about 1200km (760 miles) away from the Arctic circle. That might sound like a lot, but it means we only get about seven hours of daylight at midwinter.

Trying to look on the bright side of this, going to work in in the mornings, with the sun rising after 8 o’clock, can be extraordinarily beautiful. We live on the South side of the city, which, on a clear morning, gives us a lovely view of dawn breaking over the Pentland Hills. And it’s a curious but fortuitous feature of Edinburgh’s micro-climate that even when the day turns out dreich, the mornings often start off crisp and clear.

In November of last year I was cycling to work in Dalkeith just a few miles away, and I regularly found myself stopping by the side of the road to watch the raking light spread over frosty fields. There was a particular spot that I loved, on the bridge over the river Jewel, where ghostly whirls of mist drifted lazily over the water’s surface. Craggy trees lined the banks, their trunks still in the shade, but their branches glowing like molten gold. With cars whizzing by right next to me, looking down on this was like staring into a magical other world.

I treasured that beauty throughout each day. It was my Happy Place when things got bad.

With George Bush in the White House for a second term of office, we will surely see a winter of a different sort descend on the US. For us foreigners it is easy to question and curse the stupidity of a country capable of electing such a leader. But it is also easy to forget that approximately half the population of the US is just as–if not more–strongly opposed to his policies and hegemonic rule as the rest of the civilized world.

We must not forget that the US is a nation of many different states, and hundreds of millions of individuals. The Republican Party may be its current political figurehead, but when we visit the place called “America”, we don’t visit the country as a whole: we visit California, or Massachusetts, or New York. When we talk to “Americans” in everyday life, we’re not talking to members of a brainwashed clone army: we’re talking to friends, family, Bob at the office, or Carol behind the counter at Starbucks. Individuals with hugely diverse opinions and desires, even though they may belong to the same political party.

If you need a Happy Place to see you through the darker days of the next four years, think of an American individual you like, love, admire, or respect. Then think of five more. Then a dozen, or a hundred. Then realize: these people are not just Americans, they are America.

I’m not suggesting that Bush’s opponents and critics, both at home and abroad, should just shrug, and try to make the best of a bad result. Not at all. But the opposite reaction–turning away in disgust from the apparent futility of political engagement, or losing faith in the cognitive abilities of the American electorate–is a much more certain road to further defeats two, four, ten years further down the line. To carry on the fight, you have to remember what you’re fighting for.

On an even more positive note, here are three reasons why a Bush victory might well be a good thing:

  • The Bush presidency has had a unifying effect on Europe: he’s a hate-figure to rally around. With ten new countries in the Union, and the new European Constitution just agreed, but not yet ratified, we’re going to need all the unity we can get in the next few years.
  • Here in Britain, Tony Blair is going to take a political knock from his closeness to the Bush administration, and from his failure to endorse Kerry. With a general election expected some time next year, it would be pretty sweet if this would pull enough of the rug from under the Labour party to force a coalition government.
  • The US dollar is going to head even further down the toilet. For us Europeans planning holidays in America, exchange rates are going to rock!

Gadget Fever

It started at the end of last week with a mild desire to lift my old Mission 750 speakers out of the garage and plug them into my PC for an improved sound experience. The simplest way to hook them up to my PC is through an amp, but the amp I’ve got doesn’t fit on my desk. So on Saturday when Alex and I were in town, we stopped by Richer Sounds to see if they had any amps with a smaller footprint.

No such luck. What they did have, however, was a portable DVD player (Yamada PDV520) for a mere £120. Yowza! Just a couple of years ago, you’d pay a grand for those things.

That price got me thinking about our upcoming trip to the US. One of our planned strategies for keeping Alex amused on the 11-hour plane trip is to buy him a GameBoy. We have mentioned this to him, and he is now quite keen on the idea that he is going to get a GameBoy when he gets to California.

That’s interesting, see. He thinks he’s going to get it when he gets there–not on the trip over. So I was wondering if I could get the portable DVD player for the trip, and then postpone further hand-held buying until after 21st November, at which point the Nintendo DS will be available. I mean, really. Why buy a GBA just days before the next generation of hardware is being released?

Richer Sounds also had an iRiver H140 on display. It was the first time I’d seen one in real life. Mmmm. Definitely not as sexy as an iPod, but it has a radio, which is a must for me. It is making me wonder about the benefits of the H340, though. What do you get for an extra £130? It has a colour screen, it can recharge from a USB cable rather than from a separate adapter, it can act as a USH host device (for transferring photos from a camera, for example), it record directly to MP3 from the radio and from other line-in devices. Hmm. Nifty features, but would I really use them enough to justify the cost?

Right now I’m not sure if I’d use any portable music player enough to justify the cost. And I’m pretty sure that a portable DVD player would only ever get dusted off for long plane flights and car journeys. A GameBoy or NDS will keep Alex amused for a while, but I doubt if it would become his favourite toy. (And would I really want it to be?)

The problem with gadget fever is that it isn’t rational. It’s not real hunger…it’s just an appetite.

And as soon as I start feeding it, more and more new toys push themselves into sight. Our Olympus C-3000 camera is four years old. It’s a lovely camera, but it’s not exactly new and shiny any more. The Canon EOS 300D and Nikon D70 SLRs, on the other hand, are very new and shiny and pretty and I wants one, preciousss. Even though I know bog all about f-stops and shutter speeds. Even though I know it won’t make me a better photographer. But especially with the pound’s current strength against the dollar. ($1.82! I suppose it’s one thing to be grateful to president Bush for!)

And I’d better not get started on flat-panel monitors. The problem with these suckers is that I’m so used to a resolution of 1600 x 1200 that I don’t want to settle for anything less, and LCDs with that kind of resolution haven’t seen the same price crash that lower-res versions have seen over the last year. Plus, there’s no way I’ll be able to afford an Apple 30″ super-wonga 2560 x 1600 cinema display. In the face of that kind of pixel envy…is there really any point in trying?

(And once I start thinking Apple, I start thinking PowerBooks, and I have to pinch myself.)

For this week, though, I think I’ll try to satisfy myself with a simple audio cable. I think there’s a way I can mount my old amp vertically just to the side of my desk. I’d have to child-proof it somehow, but if that can satisfy my cravings for the moment, I’ll be a happy bunny.

Writing without end

Paul Graham’s recent essay, “The Age of the Essay” struck a chord with me. The kind of essay writing he describes, a more free-flowing exploration of ideas than the traditionally structured “taking a position and defending it” essay, is exactly how I write.

Writing makes me think better. By putting words down on the page, my thoughts take better form. And the more thoughts I write down, the more ideas arrive. It’s like letting them out makes space for new and better ones.

I never learned how to write a “standard” essay at school, like most of my British and American contemporaries did. It wasn’t until after we were out of university and married that Abi told me about the technique of “say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you just said.” This came as a revelation to me, and has always struck me as a deeply uninteresting way to put an argument.

We did have writing exercises at school in the Netherlands, but we were never restricted to writing just essays. In every writing assignment, up to and including our final exams, there was always at least one topic choice that was open to a fictional approach. No matter how bizarre the topic, I always chose this option.

All our Dutch teachers warned us (and me especially, as a persistent offender) of the danger of sticking to fiction for these assignments. Stories are harder for teachers (and external examiners) to grade, and so they generally get judged more critically, and end up with lower average grades than essays. It was always deemed easier to write a competent essay than a competent story.

I’m sure that my contrary nature contributed to my insistence upon always choosing the story option, but mostly I just enjoyed writing fiction. And at school I always wrote stories the way Paul Graham describes “real” essay writing: I started with an idea, and then I developed it. If I didn’t find myself excited and surprised by the road the story took as it flowed out of me, then that was an indication that my readers would bored, too.

At school, I don’t think I ever knew where a story was going to end when I sat down and started it.

Looking back on it, this is probably what I used to enjoy most about writing fiction.

It is certainly what I enjoy most about blogging. When I get a-rambling, I rarely start off with a well-defined idea of where I want to go with the thought that prompted me to start a new entry. I rarely start off having done all the research (if any is needed) to back up what I say. If I start an entry in a new Firefox window, then chances are I’ll have about twenty or thirty tabs open in it by the time I come to press “save”, and I’ll always have learned something new on the way.

Coming back to fiction: it has been about a year since I last tried to write any, and probably three since I actually finished a story. So why did I stop?

Until now, I probably would have mumbled something about not having enough time, or not having anything really interesting to say, both of which reasons are thoroughly nixed by the existence of this blog. I think I realise now that the real reason is: I stopped enjoying writing fiction.

So, digging deeper: what made me stop enjoying it?

Plot. Endings. Structure. At some point in the mid-nineties I started being more concerned about these things. It started to worry me that I usually had no idea where a story was going. (Although this was a perfect jumping-off point for the “Best Openings” contest in the IMPs writers’ group on Compuserve.) I got into the mindset that I had to have an outline before starting a story. I started to feel inhibited about writing without an ending in mind. And guess what? Pretty soon the ideas just dried up. Without ideas, I couldn’t come up with endings, and so I stopped creating beginnings. Catch-22.

One of the things I have started admitting to myself is that I don’t persist with things I don’t really enjoy doing. I started taking Tae Kwan Do lessons earlier this year, but stopped stopped going after a month or two. At first I tried to rationalise away the reasons for not going to the classes (family demands, injured shoulder, etc.), but the deep down real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had hoped I would. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons I could trot out for selling my drum kit earlier this year, but the real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying playing as much as I used to.

The other side of this coin is that if I find myself persisting with something, that’s a way for me to know that I really enjoy it. Blogging, for instance. I’ve been doing this since 2000, without much sign of stopping. Ergo, I must enjoy doing it. Likewise golf. I don’t play very often these days, but I do still play.

(Curiously, I feel like this piece of self-knowledge is related to my realisation that a personal music player must have an FM radio built in for me to actually keep using it regularly. It has the same sensation of lifting the veil of self-delusion, and drawing the sting of unfulfilled desire.)

In summary, the only way I will ever write fiction regularly (and consistently) again is if I find myself actively enjoying it. And I to enjoy it again, I must stop worrying about outlines and endings, and just let it flow. I have to start surprising myself again. I have to start writing to please myself before I can even think about sending stuff out into the big wide world again.

That’s certainly what I do here with this blog. Some posts are for the benefit of family and friends, to let them know what I’m up to. Some posts are pointers to, or snippets of information about things I find interesting (like the Movable Type tutorials I’ve written). And some posts are just for myself: me thinking things through out loud, talking to myself in public. You might find them interesting, or you might not. If you take away something of value from the post, that’s cool, but it’s a fringe benefit. I’m no pundit, and I’m not trying to generate an audience for my ramblings.

I’ve had some story ideas brewing for a while now. We’ll see if this new self-knowledge helps to turn them into something tangible, or if it’s just another layer of writer’s block to hide behind.

Games Day

Richard B. has started up a new blog. In his first (well, almost) entry, he covers the games day we had at the weekend. It was another good one, even though my self-imposed low-carbiness meant that I couldn’t eat any crisps, chocolate muffins, potato wedges, pizza, or…well, anything, really.

Except for the CHICKEN WINGS!!

Mad props to the Rosslyn Deli for being able to rush me another bulk order of special wing sauce (Frank and Teressa’s original Anchor Bar variety) by overnight delivery. As well as the “hotter” sauce, I got some of the “blazing hot” sauce, too. I think this might be the same as the “suicide” sauce they show on their web site, but it may be a subtle variation. Either way, it was hot.

Oh, and Burnout 3? Possibly the best racing game ever.

Falling off the Atkins wagon

I weighed in at 74.5kg this morning, 2.5kg (about 5lb) down from my starting point last Monday. Instead of feeling delighted at losing so much weight in such a short time, I felt miserable. The last couple of days have been awful.

I have had no energy, no appetite, no joy. My concentration is shot to hell. Food that I would normally savour, like mature cheese, bacon, or roast beef, has tasted dry and dead in my mouth. The very thought of having to eat something has made me nauseous. Despite drinking litres of water, my mouth and tongue have felt dry and thick, to the point where I have been having trouble speaking.

On the positive side, I tried on my kilt again after weighing myself, and found that it fit comfortably again, albeit with the buckles at their loosest notches.

So today I was struggling with the question: what was really my goal with this quick diet? To fit into my kilt in time for the wedding on Saturday, or to lose as much weight as possible in time for the wedding? That is to say, should I carry on with the low-carb torture for another three or four days, or should I consider my mission accomplished?

The course of the day decided it for me. I couldn’t face having any breakfast at all, and at lunch all I managed to eat was a small packet of pecan nuts. By late afternoon I knew I couldn’t face another three days of this. It’s over.

Earlier today, Abi and I did a bit of calculating to see how much the various bits and pieces of my soul weigh:

Order of departure Item Mass
1st Joie de vivre 200 g
2nd Good humour 1,800 g
3rd Appetite 500 g

Dinner this evening was chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and baked beans, my favourite food. My mood picked up even as I was cooking it, and actually sitting down and shoveling mashed potato into my mouth was…glorious. By the end of the meal I felt giddy from the carb rush.

If I ever talk about doing a low carb diet again, will someone please stop me? Yes, it’s effective, but it’s not worth it. Having been through Atkins once before, I knew it was going to sap my will to live. I had thought that foreknowledge and a fixed end date would make the diet easier to bear, but they didn’t.

Curiously, this time round I didn’t have the same monster bread cravings I had last year. I didn’t even mind the absence of chocolate. Instead, I found myself lusting after bananas, marmalade, muesli, and the simple pleasure of a glass of cold milk. Not that I wouldn’t have killed for a slice of toast…but I might have been gentle about it.