Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Seasonal Procrastination

Today, I am in the office. I am looking at the telephone, putting off a call. I don't know what I expect to happen in the time provided by my delay in picking up the phone, but so far nothing has. The call is to book some business travel for a trip I really would rather avoid. I wonder perhaps if, during my procrastination, some event may intercede and obviate my requirement to be on an aeroplane for a stupid number of hours, cramped into an inhumanly small space for one with such an extensive frame.
I sit and look a the phone. I intend to pick it up and make the call, but somehow, I just don't. Some unseen but strongly felt inertia prevents me. I look to see the nature of this inertia. Is is chemical? I try coffee in the hope that the known benefits of caffeine may somehow stimulate my neurons and galvanise them into decisive action.
It does not.

The phone just sits there, impassive and yet somehow judgmental. "Go on you lazy bastard! Pick me up!" I don't.
I notice my apple. It looks so red and green and enticing. Possibly, at another time, it would just be an apple and its appeal would be merely calorific. But now, it is a welcome distraction. How long can I take to eat an apple I wonder? About two minutes it would seem.

Like a pudding, a lumpen stodgy collection of atoms who by common agreement, decide to assemble themselves together for a few decades to form me, I sit here. And so does the phone.
Dumped into my chair, like a formless sack of human indolence, like a man made from mud, I raise my reluctant eyes to the screen to see I have an email. I wonder if it will be interesting. I open it. It is not.
I type a quick reply and go back to being an apathetic blob. The phone seems more insistent somehow
Unable to put it off any longer, I reach for the damn thing. Somehow, gravity in the vacinity of my arms is higher than usual today. Taking my hand to the keypad takes an enormous effort. I force through it.

I pick up the phone. I am in a queue. Oh well, perhaps I will hang up and call back later.
A small, celebratory helium ballon floats past on the wind outside my window, perhaps a hundred feet up. I try to believe it had belonged to some forty-something lady, with a birthday and a bunch of lilies, who will not unduly notice its loss, rather than a now distraught and tearstained toddler seeing its favourite object of the day receding into the distance (where perhaps it may discover my lost motivation).
I don't succeed and my urge to go and find the poor mite and buy it another balloon to ameliorate its agitation, momentarily provides a spark of desire to do something other than sit and vegetate.
I watch the balloon dwindle to a dot. My empathy for the unkown, hypothetical toddler and his small personal tragedy subsides a little. I look back at the phone. Gravity increases again on my forearms. But I pick up the phone with reluctance.
And eventually I do the deed. Trip booked. Tedious details arranged. I am committed to my disagreeable journey.

So, why don't I feel better for having done that? Because I don't want to go. Why did my desire to not travel cause so much inertia? Surely, the unappealing nature of my unwanted odyssey is the same if I booked it immediately as it would be if I dithered. This is so. But we are not rational.

Is it perhaps a function of the season? Would it have been easier on a bright and sunny day in May? hard to say. But perhaps the greyness of November does something to the human spirit that makes everything more arduous. At a time when the nights are dark, the days barely brighter than twilight, when those small spirits of woodland and hedgerow, steal in from creeping unseen between the legs of the sheep in the field and into our houses to steal our sherry and hide our keys, is it more difficult to rouse oneself to action? I feel it is. Perhaps it is the desire to hibernate in a modern incarnation. Maybe metabolisms slow down to preserve energy till Summer and the return of times of plenty, impeding commensurately our brains and predisposing us to prevarication and sloth.

Or maybe I am just a lazy git who ought to just get off his arse and get on with it. Well, either way, I think I deserve another coffee and a kitkat now.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


George Bush reputedly has an IQ of 120. This is not dim by any stretch of the imagination. In fact it is quite a bit higher than average. But people who met him were struck by his incurious nature. I believe his speechwriter David Frum once remarked something along those lines.

Personally, I cannot comment on the former president's intelligence or lack of since I have no knowledge other than that reported to me via the flawed and unreliable news media.
But it does make me think about something that has been niggling away at me for a long time: Some people have an insatiable, driving curiosity and some, though obviously intelligent, do not.

I was moved to put fingers to keyboard over this idea by a conversation I attempted to have with someone who was obviously bright, but seemed to have no spark about them at all. The conversation I attempted to have stemmed from some research that I found fascinating enough to delve deeper into. I had mistakenly believed, given the background of the person I was talking to that he might find it mildly interesting. So I volunteered what I thought might be seeds of an interesting discourse.

The article said that neanderthals tended to be ambush hunters as their spears were not designed for throwing but more for thrusting. It went on to further say that most adult neanderthal skeletons that had been found showed many trauma injuries such as broken and re-set bones.

When positing the reason for this, one orthopaedic expert said that the only analogue in the modern world for such a pattern of injury is a rodeo rider. Hence it is likely that the standard neanderthal approach to hunting was most likely to jump out of a bush, jab a stout spear into a buffalo or similar, and to hold on for dear life until it collapsed from blood loss or sheer disbelief.

Now, to me, the thought of our muscular hero holding grimly around the neck of an irate ungulate, his brow set in firm determination his eyes pointing in different directions as hooves and horns battered and gored his formidable form, is mildly humorous to say the least. I find this line of thinking interesting and in my imagination and my research, feel therefore compelled to learn a little bit more about the assumptions and facts upon which it all rests.

Not so my companion. He merely replied, when I concluded my hopeful two-paragraph monologue, with "uh.. yeah..." and commented about how gloomy the weather is today.

Conversely, I read an article about how the organism toxoplasmosis gondii may be responsible for road deaths in countries where it is prevalent, as its reproductive cycle is usually concluded in a cat, after incubation in a rat. Hence, the rat is compelled by its parasite to engage in risky behaviours.
Since humans catch it too and have, in this respect similar physiology to a rat, it would seem likely that humans also exhibit risky behaviour. This was borne out by the graph showing correlation of road deaths per capita with incidence of T. Gondii infection.

When I mentioned this to a lady acquaintance at a dance, it sparked a look of intense curiosity and a series of very interesting questions which precipitated an hour's discussion. Now, I know this nasty little creature is quite fascinating, making it's way, as it does to the brain of its host and secreting chemicals that interefere with dopamine production, but who would have thought it would spark an evening's conversation with an absolute stranger?

So, why the difference in response? Why do some people wish to know more about things whereas others are happy to think about no more than that which is immediately pertinent to their lives?
Of course we know most human attributes vary with a standard distribution, but does curiosity? Can you learn curiosity or is there a set of genes for it? Ever since my astonishing conversation in a Cypriot supermarket, I have been dogged by this question.

Well, since we are all here, writing and reading material that nobody forces us to, I think I can safely make the assumption that our population here comprises more than the average number of curious souls. And for that I give praise and remark again to myself that time spent tapping on here is absolutely not time wasted.

And now I am off to see what is in the fridge as it feels like tea time. I wonder how my bread turned out.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Glorious Autumn

To see a dragonfly in November is very ususual. On Sunday, my dear wife and I found ourselves at a loose end and looked for somewhere picturesque in the locality to go for a perambulation. Perusing the "Walks in Gloucestershire" web page, we settled upon Woodchester mansion, which though local, was somewhere I have never ventured. So, we hopped in the van and off we went up to Nympsfield, where do lie many reminders of neolithic and bronze age habitation in the form of longbarrows, presumably so sited to give a lovely view over the Severn and thence Wales.

There is a long track down to the mansion itself. This photo looks as if I have taken it on an angle but actually the perspectives are a bit wonky in the valley itself. The valley is full of Welsh Black cattle who are sturdy little blighters and reputedly even more tasty than (and in their belted form, easily mistaken for) the belted Galloway with which our freezer is currently stuffed. The cows are good because they attract the flies that the rare bats in the belfry feed upon.The house was never finished. I don't know why. Probably the builders got distracted by a more lucrative client, or somebody died or something. It stands, unfinished, stark and beautiful, in the middle of the valley, a home to Greater Horseshoe bats and reputedly several spectral occupants which regular seances will put you in touch with. Personally, I find the gargoyles to be the most interesting feature. Bats are cool but ghosts never fail to disappoint.

There are a series of lakes, man-made by some Victorian landscaper, and it was here I saw an emperor dragonfly and another red one the name of which escapes me. It seems odd that with Christmas decorations in the shops, dragonflies are still to be seen. The elongation of both seasons seems to have brought together these two unlikely contemporaries. I tried to get a photo but they were too quick for me.
On the second lake is the boathouse. It is so very twee and you can just imagine atmospheric Summer trysts here, as the soft rain falls and Her Ladyship, freed of her crinolines, stares dreamily out of the window at the lake as the gamekeeper languishes, spent and disbelieving of his good fortune, on a pile of old horse blankets thinking socialist thoughts.
I think it is rather a lovely idea to have a boat parked under your floor. I wonder if there was a trapdoor, Thunderbirds style, through which one could drop down into a small dinghy for a quick getaway to the other end of the valley and the cover of the woods.
It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm at perhaps 18C, but a breeze had been following us down the valley as we descended. The surface of the lake was initially covered in ripples until, suddenly, the wind dropped and...
I got a chance for an artistic shot of reflections and beech leaves. The sudden stillness was a bit spooky initially but once I got used to it, the place seemed full of peacefulness and I could happily have sat there all day, staring into the water. It was the middle of nowhere, remote, beautiful. The world surely could not intrude here.

After all these years of driving right on past this hidden treasure, I could not believe how extensive a place could be enclosed by the roads so familiar to me. There just didn't seem to be enough space.
Anyway, after a few moments of introspection, the rumbling of my stomach became too obtrusive to ignore and we headed back up the long valley to the van for a cup of tea and a kit kat. I confess that few things give me the feeling of peace as sitting in my van in a beautiful place, in the back of my van, with a cup of tea. Everyone needs a van or its equivalent, for peace of mind and mobile solitude. I have said it many times before but I love my van.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Atavistic Hibernation Instincts and Soup

I intended to write something profound today, not that such an intention, though common, ever bears fruit. But after a long walk in some glorious English beech woodland, I am afraid a glass of this years excellent plum wine and some winter vegetables seem to have captured my attention instead. I don't know why the shortening of the days and the long dark nights make me want to curl up till April in a huge ball of chewed up newspaper and crave thick wholesome soups made from root vegetables, but they do.

I can't imagine that there is an atavistic mechanism for hibernation because although we most likely do have rodent ancestors back in the creataceous, most of our subsequent evolution seems to have been around equatorial Africa where it would seem there is little requirement to hibernate.
So, I suppose, I am just lazy.

Leek & potato soup? Possibly. Or perhaps the more exotic stilton and brocolli. I will have another glass of wine and think about it.

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Useful Method to Remember Names

After my recent post about faces, I seem to have touched a nerve. However, it appears that people have more trouble remembering the names to attach to faces than they do remembering if they have seen the face before. I would therefore like to share with you a peculiar method I stumbled upon, which is probably very common, but which I developed out of sheer necessity some years ago: Mnemonics.

"Well", I hear some of you say "This is not new!" and indeed that may be so, but given the number of those who confess to being "terrible at remembering names" I feel it may be of use for me to articulate just how I personally employ this technique (and it may well be that this only works for my own peculiar brain-architecture, in which case, you will have to find you own method, but at least this may be a start).

It first came to me that it was most frustrating to not be able to have a name to put to a face when I was discussing, of all things, Tetley tea adverts in the 1980s. I could not remember the name of the character who did the staunchly Yorkshire voiceover for the Tetley Tea folk. I cannot remember why I particularly needed this name at that time, but having no internet to refer to then, I just had to wait till he came on the telly, acting in something and then examine the credits. This was difficult without freeze frame as we had no video yet.
And so, I discovered he was called Brian Glover (now sadly deceased). So, to remind myself of this, I imagined an enormous sheepskin mitten being slid over his shiny domed pate, him being not at all crowned with any hair. And it stuck. To this day, I remember his name.

When I started dancing, many years ago now, the format of the class was such that, being more or less equally-matched for gender (though I note there are usually about 15% more ladies than men and I wonder what the problem is with my gender if they are too slothful to drag themselves off the sofa to hold a lady in their arms for the evening), we formed lines with each man facing a lady. Then after a small part of the lesson, maybe five minutes, the ladies (usually) were moved on to the next man.
So, every five minutes, a new lady would appear in front of me, usually of a different size, shape and demeanour, which in itself assists in many aspects of the overall education that learning to dance provides. And each would introduce herself, and I would say my name and instantly forget hers.

After a period of time, they would return to you for a second time and it became increasingly embarrassing to keep asking their names, especially if they had remembered yours.
Then one day, a lady called Pam appeared in front of me, and into my mind came a picture of a time of Ye Olde Oake Ham from an advert in the 70s. Ghastly stuff as I remember, fatty and packed in salty gelatin. And I, in my mind's eye, imagined atop her head, a rotating tin of ham, like some advertising object on top of a building going round and round to catch your attention and make you buy... well, ham. And goodness me! I never forgot her name again. Each time she would appear I would say "Hello Pam!" and she would be astonished.
And so I expanded the idea. A particularly voluptuous but taciturn young lady called Nicola would always have her jeans hanging rather too low, thereby showing the majority of some very small and absolutely gorgeous pants, usually from Marks and Spencers, or occasionally Agent Provocateur (not that I paid that much attention of course.) Hence, it was easy for me to remember her as Knicker-la. Are you getting the hang of it now?
And so, it got easier. A lady called Diana strolled up one night to ask me to dance and I addressed her cheerily "Hello Diana!" and she replied abashed "How did you remember my name?" and I chuckled "Because of the bow and arrow!" which utterly mystified her. (I find it odd that someone should not have any idea of the origin of their own name, but the Huntress was a concept that she had never before encountered.) The image of her in my head was tagged with her in a chariot shooting arrows from a golden bow at some creature not included in my mental tableau.
Similarly, a nice lady called Helen took her turn to stand in front of me and when I remembered her name she asked how. "Oh, its easy!" I laughed "You have a ship on your head!"
Again the Greek myths provided me with the perfect attachment to remember her name by. Others followed: Gill had a pair of flappy ears behind which there were fish-gills, Vic has a biro behind her ear (no reason for the preponderance of ears), and Elaine has marmalade in her hair (complex synesthetic reason I shall not go into in this post. Names for me always have a synesthetic attachment. For Elaine, it is the taste, stickiness and colour of dark marmalade. I have no idea why). And all of theses "tags" accompany the face as it swims into view in the gloom of the Bath Pavillion. You would be amazed at how happy it makes someone to remember their name. Their confidence swells and they smile in the most gratifying way and it somehow makes the subsequent dance so much more personal.

So, I urge you: If you have trouble remembering names, add something relevent and silly to the image in your head of the face of that person. The more bizarre the better. Soon, you will be bringing smiles to aquaintances at every meeting!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

In a Sea of Faces

Pareidolia is the name given to that phenomenon that forces us to see faces in clouds, wood grain, the hills on Mars. So important is it to us that we recognise faces that vast amounts of our neural equipment is given over to the processing of facial recognition. Indeed, we even have a special brain area (which is interestingly non-functional in some people with a condition called prosopagnosia or "face blindness where they cannot recognise even close members of family).
It seems astonishing that in general, a face we have seen only briefly before will "ring a bell" even in a huge crowd of other faces. Scanning quickly across a group of people, generally we know those we have seen before and those who are new to us. We are good at faces.

And even when it is a face we have not seen for a number of years, some clever "morphing algorithm" seems to add in offsets for wrinkles, the continuing growth of nose length or the lack of hair. A face from school can suddenly leap out at us from within the aged features of a seeming stranger with such clarity that you are moved beyond the fear of embarrassment to ask "Excuse me, but are you....?". Usually, I find this to be quite reliable and only rarely do I come up with a false match. In those cases, strangely, interesting conversations usually result anyway and so I find it usually best to put oversensitivity to one side and just ask.

Today though, I had a different experience. Having had a rather heavy time of it lately with much travel on aeroplanes and when here, many late nights due to dinner with customers, I decided to take it a bit easy. A sudden desire for indolence overtook me and so, after chacking email for pressing issues and reassuring myself that the world can happily manage without me for a bit, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to listen to the wonderful Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time.

Well, "working from Home" is all very well, but as I have described previously in a rather rambling piece, after a few hours, I start to talk to the furniture. So, after a curious exchange with the new coffee table, where I berated it for its inherent lack of stability, I decided it was time I took a wander up the High Street, possibly to buy a cake or a newspaper, and hopefully, I thought, I might enter into conversation with someone a little more animate.

Well, the usual pleasantries took place during my stroll but none notable enough to describe here. I wandered up to the splendidly sarcastic greengrocers to see if they had anything that took my fancy. Looking up from a fascinating display of Pink Lady apples, I espied a face that seemed somehow familiar. Male pattern baldness and gravity had taken its toll on the pallid features, but buried amongst them was the face, barely distinguishable, of that of a boy that in my mind's eye I could see only fresh-faced and clear-eyed by a cricket pitch in 1979.
At least, I thought it was. I didn't want to appear to be paying too much attention, but my curiosity and a smug satisfaction that if indeed it was him, then time had been far kinder to me, kept me serruptitiously sneaking glances.
And then he spoke, and all doubt was removed.

Never having been particularly fond of this character and not wishing to say hello and to then have the embarrassing situation of having no further avenues of conversation, I refrained form addressing him. After a while, slothlike and world-weary, his middle-aged frame receded down towards the clocktower clutching a cucumber and a 5lb bag of King Edwards.

Now, smugness aside, a thought struck me, a rather worrisome thought if I am honest: There comes a point at which the morphing algorithm seems no longer to be able to to compensate for intervening time. A face i remembered scribbling vast armies of cartoon stick men at primary school, in the back of his exercise book, was only just recognisable to me over thirty years later.
Up until a few years ago, faces from school rarely went unrecognised, but somehow in the last few years, another stage has been reached.

A face seems to retain its inherent features from fourteen or so, when the adult form initially takes shape and you can see how someone will appear for the majority of their adult lives. But at mid forties, it seems it passes on to another stage, which my brain cannot rectify into the previous familiar character. Most seem to get rounder and develop jowls. Hair recedes or disappears (in men mostly. Ladies often get more, at least in some facial areas) and a face becomes something completely different in justa few years.
It struck me that on a daily basis now, I may be passing old friends in the street who, because of the ravages of time, I may not notice. Something about middle-age distorts our features to a new form and a bosom buddy at ten might be addressing you in a queue about how the post office needs more counters, and you would not even know that we had shared hours of idle conversation sat in a tree in the churchyard in 1976.

As I wandered, pondering this, back down towards the bike shop, I saw a lady come out of a shop. She was my age, I know she was because I recognised her. At 15 she had been a notable beauty, one of those feted for her favours. That happens to the beautiful, I have noticed.
I remember the arrogance that beauty seemed to permit: How she replied to a small hopeful friend of mine that "No! I wouldn't go out with you if you were the last boy in the world!" crushing the lad's self-esteem possibly to this day.
eeing this mousy-haired, plump, plain lady of 45 or so, it occurred to me once more how we are all just passing through. We place so much value on appearance and yet it is so subject to change.

I said hello to her with my warmest winning smile and saw her momentarily cheered by the attention. I wondered if she remembered the long-haired ragamuffin from all those decades ago and his crestfallen friend and could translate, herself, his features onto this man who passed her in the street. I don't think so.

It is not something that concerns me unduly: The passage of time and its effect upon my face. Laughter and smiles made small deltas appear at the corners of my eyes. Frowns of concentration have furrowed my increasingly hirsuite singular eyebrow.
My wrinkles tell more about me, I hope, than the symmetry of my features or the length of my (several times broken) nose.
And I am happy with that, whether I am recognisable or not.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Autumnal Atmospheres

Waking strangely early on a Sunday morning, and feeling no ill-effects upon my physical or mental state from last nights tipple, I sit pensively in the dining room and contemplate the garden. In Summer, it is a welcoming place of different vantage points where one can take a different view of what is actually a relatively small space. From the top patio, it is possible to peruse the whole of the tichy garden, to see wriggling frogs in the pond or the mother wren popping in and out of the ivy teaching her young brood, bodies no larger than a 10p piece, to fly with insistent but encouraging ones. In Summer, the garden is a room where one can wander in and out of without a change of clothing.
Suddenly, in the space of a month, it looks a bit sad. Ok, the bamboo retains its verdant foliage and the hawthorn hedge has yet to lose its leaves. But in my laziness, I have yet to clear away the tomato plants which now black and withered, still hold some red fruits, and the birch trees have deposited hundreds of leaves on the lawn almost obscuring the grass in places (which still needs cutting. How strange for November!).

It seems the once comfortable space must now be yielded up to Winter. Soon, it may be underneath a layer of snow and not only will it be a place I do not step into for months, but also something which will not even enter into my consciousness except when occasionally I look through the transparent but isolating barrier of the patio doors with their large panes of insulating double glazing.
And yet, the garden is the same place. It hasn't moved! (Well, technically, on a cosmic scale, it has: To a place further from the Sun, but this is not evident from the placing of the penstemons or the alignment of the clematis.
So, the same place, with different temperatures, different light, different moisture levels, is a different place. Where we sat and drank wine on hot days as late as early October (and it was hot too! 29C on the first weekend), now one would look quite eccentric to sit upon the damp wood of the bench with anything other than a steaming mug of tea and a big coat.

Sometimes, I just can't reconcile standing in the same place and being overpowered by how different it feels in two different seasons.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Inconsistent capabilities strike again (verbose and possibly tedious)

Oh, look at all these people! All shapes and sizes, all going somewhere. Some in excited anticipation: The reward of a year or more's saving up for that dream holiday somewhere exotic or warm. Others, Like me, in the more indifferent anticipation of a meeting in some distant faceless conference room.

Once again, I find myself in an airport awaiting a delayed flight. It is not onerous, or even boring. I have plenty to do. But it has rathere scuppered my plans for a four o'clock meeting in Augsburg. I doubt now that I wil actually make it to my destination before my customer goes home for the day.

I sit on one of the many serried ranks of adequate chairs provided (as they are not always in airports) and do the dull thing of getting out a laptop. Only, i am not working. I am writing this which I feel is a much worthier passtime than looking through some dull presentation on the predicted storage market for 2012.
I do however refuse to conform to the usual businessman stereotype of dull or pinstripe suit, preferring, between the months of April and November (if the temperature is above 15C) to wear my "travelling suit", much as you see in my profile picture. I find it much more comfortable to travel in linen, even if it is as crumbled as an old elephants arse by the time I arrive. I can always change. Usually something more corporate is called for, unless I am poking about inside a computer or something.

Sitting opposite is a young girl, dressed also comfortably, but pretty as a bag of dolly-mixtures in what I perceive to be a rather individual and lovely 1940s style dress with make-up to match. We smile politely and then we write each other out of our indivisual universes. At least, she writes me out of hers.
I watch as tourists, travellers and air crew go by. I remark to myself that I could never have been an airline pilot, even had I possessed the requisite skills, as I cannot grow stubble in the appropriate facial areas.

Since I now have an hour I did not expect, I feel it is a reasonable idea to go and find some sustenance. Pret a Porter is not a place I would normally be seen starving at. There is too much packaging waste for a start. But hey, I am not paying and there doesnt appear to be anything else that appeals. A ham and mustard toastie will do just perfectly.

Next to me in the queue is a distinguished chap of probably late 60s. Bald and dapper with a look of bright intelligence, he inquires of the smiley girl behind the counter if they still serve food on aeroplanes or if he would be well advised to buy some now.
It seems that to ask a purveyor of food whether or not one should purchase some seems likely to elicit an obvious response but she possibly does not have enough vested interest to be anything other than honest.

Standing there looking like a hatless Man from Del Monte, only today without the tin opener, I remark to him that usually you have to purchase a drink and food, but that some airlines still offer a complimentary cotton-wool sandwich and a cup of tea. it seems, I continue, that even after purchasing breakfast air-side, it still feels incumbent upon us to eat what is given gratis lest we appear ungrateful.
We pass a few other lively and interesting pleasantries and go our separate ways.

Now, in this exchange, something struck me: I found the conversation easy to hold and reasonably insightful comments seemed to appear quite unbidden in forefront of my brain in preparation to be uttered. It flowed neatly and conversationally and lit up a small part of the day for both of us, i think. It was a nimble little exchange and the social interaction felt good.

So, strangely, I felt this contrasted with an experience I had on Saturday night in a pub in Burton on Trent which left me briefly disquieted.
This particular town seems to be very friendly compared to where I come from. Bristol appears to have become minor suburb of London in recent years with much of the cultural angst that accompanies large populations of aspirational people.

Converation in my area seems to be fraught with discomfort. Hesitant encounters with contemporaries seem dogged by anxiety (on their part, not mine) in case your car is "superior" to theirs or your child is doing better at school than theirs or in case something they let slip shows them to be your social or material inferior. Their angst is palpable and uncomfortable and makes me not want to talk to them. I find this deeply sad and not a little disturbing when the implications for social cohesion are taken into account.
Anyway, I digress.

In the pub in Burton, everyone was in fancy dress, what with it being the nearest Saturday to Halloween. My own outfit conssited of a khaki shirt and shorts, a pith helmet and an actual arrow sticking out of my chest, the technical construction of which I shall spare you.
Various revellers, in their own outfits, would wander up to me and initiate conversations, which I was pleasantly surprised to find.
And yet, I could find no replies! Me, who, sitting in restaurants all over the world has to make small talk with people of all nationalities in the name of business, could think of nothing to say! Why not? Was there a cat lurking behind a curtain somewhere in the establishment playing with my disembodied tongue? Had some vital part of my brain been deactivated during the previous day by too much wine or not enough sleep? What was going on? I couldn't think of anything to say!
Abashed, I stumbled clumsily through some pleasantries and one by one, small micro-expressions of boredom and disappointment flashing across their faces, they made their excuses and wandered off with their drinks to more fertile interpersonal encounters, leaving me feeling thick and socially inept. Words felt like glue in my mouth and my brain felt like it was made of plasticene which had been kept in the fridge for a few days. I determined to keep myself to myself and watch the band.

And yet, standing in Pret a Manger in Birmingham airport, dressed for another world, words appear by magic in my speech-buffer, awaiting the unconscious signal to express them to a receptive fellow traveller. How does this happen? How can one person with the same kilo and half of interesting cranial lard be so different under such different circumstances?

It seems to me that we mostly seem consistent to ourselves, at least from the inside. But really, circumstance, tiredness an especially company enable different aspects of us. feeling a bit of a stranger in a Burton pub, some kind of automatic mechanism seems to have been invoked to unconsciously take stock of my unfamiliar surroundings (and alas, pubs are becoming unfamiliar to me now beer is over £3 a pint). This leaves less mental bandwidth for spurious conversation of a witty manner.

In the familiar surroundings of an airport departure lounge, and having in my head that I am being sent to meet people purely on account of my knowledge and intellect (ha! I hope they feel they get value for money!), I suppose I felt more at ease with myself and my smooth-talking module was loaded into memory.

So, it would appear we are nowhere near as consistent as we think and it is only when we examine ourselves or our capabilities from a disembodied standpoint that it becomes apparent to us. But how is it that when talking to one person under one set of conditions we can be eloquent and sparkling with words aplenty and unusual angles on everyday concepts popping into our heads to adorn our conversation with a memorable quality, when under other circumstances we feel leaden of wit and hopelessly inarticulate? What makes the difference? Do the "people make the party" as seems to be becoming increasingly clear to me in other aspects of human endeavour? Or is it just us being a bit dim on some days? I favour the former hypothesis and wonder then what it implies for being the person we most enjoy being.

So, if only I could be verbally eloquent upon demand and not based upon where I am or who I am talking to. That would be useful! But how to do it.... Aye, there's the rub!

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Unintended Recipients

Today, my hunter-gatherer brain is struggling with the modernity of the tasks it is forrced to deal with. Given the capabilites it developed for stone-age survivial, it is very good at directing me where to throw a rock in order to anticipate the location of a fleeing and edible animal and excellent at judging whether the other human I have encountered is well disposed towards me or is likely to club me to the ground with a blunt object and boil my head as a belt adornment. We are generally good at things that help us avoid being genetic cul de sacs.

What mine is not good at however, is juggling the many pieces of information that pass rapidly through my attention, requiring adapting, redacting, interpretation and disseminiation to a particular audience.
Similarly, it was never designed to deal with the proliferation of material objects in a modern house and their distribution to their various correct places in the home. This is why the credit card bill gets discovered in the fridge and my keys end up in the microwave.

Today, a number of very technical or political emails need writing and sending to the correct people. Try as I might, I cannot escape that feeling after I have pressed send, that I have dispatched the wrong email to unintended recipients. I read and reread the headers, scanning the To: fields and the CC: fields, knowing full well that these are the people I need to send this information to.Prompted by the knowledge that a small moan about someone would be at least embarrassing to go to the wrong audience, I peer suspiciously at the email addresses and finding no mistakes, I send the message. And yet, not trusting myself, I keep checking the "sent items" to make sure that in my renowned dippyness, I have not created a howler that will bite me painfully upon receipt.

I am reminded of a particularly arrogant sales rep once who wrote a scathing email about a customer being childish and unreasonable on a certain point and then promptly sent it to them, instead of to his boss as he had intended. That is sphincter-clenchingly embarrassing.

And today,in my head, my communication commitments all go round and round as a big cloud of information, waiting to be sifted into knowledge and fired off to be read by someone who will discern its significance.
Only somehow, I feel there is too much of it and like a tornado in a midwest trailer park, a maelstrom of stuff is circulating incoherently in my head, only instead of pants, small surprised dogs and minor household items, it is ideas, concepts and data that swirl around to be snatched wriggling and unwieldy from the confusion, and stuffed into the appropriate place. What if I accidentally send the sensitive financial stuff to a big distribution list of hard-bargaining customers? Imagine if the arcane technical secrets of particularly clever accomplishments are received by a customer with leaky allegiances instead of one of our own techies? It could be the end of me!

Like some scatterbrained postman, that delivers The Greenpeace membership package to Grumpy Daily Mail reader ar number 29, Mrs Wossname's Ann Summers toys to the crusty dowager at Rose Cottage and the Slipknot CD and Knock-off viagra to the evangelicals at the Old Rectory, who knows how much consternation my own disorganisation might cause.

All around is a vast sea of information which at the touch of a button, could bring about a disaster through accidental, careless or haphazard misdirection.
And most days, I feel this can all be routed happily and safely to the right places.
But somehow, today, confusion reigns and i just know that at some point, I am going to hit send and someone somewhere is going to cough coffee all over their screen in shock or outrage. Today, my poor paleolithinc brain is just not up to it. I am going to do something epically stupid.

I think I had best go for a walk, get a haircut, buy some digestive biscuits and see if I can get a grip on my errant attention before I do something to get me fired.