Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Is Santa Appropriate for Our Time?

Lying in my bed this morning, pondering the universe, I got to thinking about the fact that the whole Santa thing just doesn’t really work in this day and age. Oh sure, he epitomises the whole consumerist culture that drives Western economies, but socially he’s a danger to our children.

The idea of a complete stranger coming into our houses would have most of us dialling the police or reaching for our firearms (depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on).

Even worse is the idea of an old man giving presents to our children, especially when he is not known to us. If one of our children came home and said this old geezer tried to give him or her a present, most of us would, once again, be dialling the police or reaching for our firearms (depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on), while asking our child if they had screamed loudly, kicked the old bastard hard in the nuts, bent back his little finger until it snapped and poked him in the eye before running away, just as we’d taught them to do if they were approached by strangers.

When I was little, there was an old man in the village called Harold who kept a pile of boiled sweets in his jacket pocket. Whenever he saw a small child he would reach into his pocket and find a sweetie for them. I guess he was harmless enough, and just enjoyed making little kids smile. Certainly my parents never seemed worried about him. These days, however, he’d be reported to the police as a suspected paedophile.

In our separate lives, where we don’t live as part of the tribe, clan, or extended family, where “a sense of community” is something our parents talk about as something they used to experience, we live out independent lives where we can rely on no one but ourselves.

We house ourselves, feed ourselves, protect ourselves, provide our own entertainment, sort out our own security arrangements, raise our children on our own: in other words, everything humans would originally have shared with their tribe we now have to provide ourselves. We have to go out and work long hours to gain the money to live completely independently.

Previously, the threat from a stranger came from outside the clan, and the rest of the clan were there to help protect you. These days that clan only extends as far as the 4 walls and front door of your house, so everyone is a stranger and therefore a potential threat.

The more independent we become, the more we don’t need to rely on anyone else, the more insular and paranoid we turn out to be. The fear of everyone else is becoming more and more exaggerated. Strangers are potential muggers, paedophiles or suicide bombers.

These days, the guy dressed as Santa at the shopping mall has to follow very strict guidelines about not holding or touching the children that visit his grotto. “Come and sit on my knee little girl/boy” is a phrase riddled with sexual paranoia and fear.

In our culture of independence and self-reliance, there is little room for the acceptance of the stranger. How much longer will the Father Christmas myth last in today’s society?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Christmas!

Some other time I may relate to you the tale of a couple of years back when we very nearly didn't celebrate consumerism in the name of a god we don't believe in, but for now I would like to wish all my regular readers, and anyone who stumbles across this blog by accident, a very...

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Truth About Father Christmas – Warning: Do not read this if you are under 14 years of age!

How did I get myself into this situation?

Is it possible for a 10 year old not to know that Santa doesn’t exist? The problem is that I don’t know if my son knows or not. If he still believes then I’d like him to enjoy at least one more year of the fantasy, for once we have eaten of the fruit of knowledge we can never go back. But at the same time, I’d hate for him to suddenly find out at school and suffer that awful, gut churning embarrassment by being teased mercilessly.

What is the parental role here? At what age am I supposed to sit down and have a heart to heart talk with my son and explain the reality of Father Christmas? And how am I supposed to break the news without it shattering not only the enjoyment of the fantasy, but his confidence in the honesty of his parents? If your parents can lie to you about Santa, then how can you trust them about anything important ever again?

I’ve tried dropping hints to see if he suspects anything, but he has utterly failed to respond. On Saturday I went for my biggest shot yet, when the two of us went into Dumfries to get a bit of Xmas shopping. After fighting our way through heaving crowds and getting completely disorientated in only a handful of shops, we felt we deserved a break. We headed off to a café for a hot chocolate and to create a more viable plan of action.

We discussed what he wanted to buy and then I said he could help me look out for wee presents for his mum, as I liked to create a Christmas stocking for her. Did he flinch? No. Did his eyebrows knot ever so slightly? No. Did his eyes narrow? No. “OK then” he said without the slightest flicker of concern.

So I’m still left wondering whether he’s known for years and long since come to terms with it, or whether he thinks that because he’s a kid it doesn’t apply to him – Santa only delivers to children after all.

I mean, he’s an intelligent lad. Haven’t all the logical inconsistencies of the Santa story occurred to him yet? But at the same time, when we let slip about the tooth fairy last year, he was devastated.

We have friends who completely refused to indulge their children in the Santa fantasy: they were not going to lie to their kids and were very principled about it.

I don’t know. The fantasy seemed like a great idea at the time. And my 7-year-old daughter absolutely loves it. She got as excited as could be when she saw Santa in the supermarket the other day and got her photo taken with him.

Being caught up in the fantasy is great. Having known the truth for a while is fine. But it’s that transition between that’s the killer, and I’ve not found the bit in the parenting manual that explains how I guide my son through.

Still, as it’s only 5 days to go, I guess I can put off the decision until next year...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Time Travel and Weight Loss

There was a time, between the ages of 20 and 25, when I used to regularly go to Dark Ages Re-enactment weekends six to eight times a year. For the couple of days we would all dress up in the 9th Century clothing of Celts, Saxons and Vikings, fight with swords, spears and shields, then get blind drunk at a banquet. For the duration we would call each other by period names, raise ludicrous toasts and make wild exaggerations about our battlefield and sexual prowess. A fine time was indeed had by all.

People were drawn to it for a variety of reasons. For some, the act of creating and wearing authentic costumes and weaponry gave you a far better insight into the history and culture of the time. For others it was a break from the daily grind of office and work, and they could briefly imagine themselves to be warriors. Some, undoubtedly, were there because it was a good excuse for a piss up, and for a few it was an alternative to dressing up as a Klingon.

When I moved to Scotland it became trickier to carry on going, as these weekends were invariably held in the South of England, some 400+ miles away. I continued to go for a couple of years, but eventually I drifted away and the last time I attended one was over 12 years ago.

A couple of years ago, I re-established contact with an old friend from the society and I was invited down to the Yule Banquet which was held this weekend. I’d been looking for an excuse to head down to that corner of the country for a while in order to catch up with my brother and sister, who I’ve not seen since my mother’s funeral nearly 3 years ago, so agreed to go.

Needless to say the people who make up the group have varied over the years and there were only 3 or 4 people who knew me from before. However, I was quite shocked when they unanimously declared that I’d barely changed a bit. My hair was shorter (with a few grey strands) and one or two lines on my face were more deeply etched, but that was about it.

The reason I was so surprised is that this year I have been through the most dramatic physical change of my life for such a short period of time, having lost over five stone (70 pounds) in the last 10 months. So for me the idea that I haven’t changed is inconceivable. It took me a few minutes to realise that I’m now actually down to the same kind of weight I was about 14 years ago, consequently, for them, any changes are negligible!

Weird.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

ClacksNet and The Calor Scottish Community Awards 2005

Nearly 7 years ago, I was sitting in the bath when I had a Eureka moment. I had taught myself how to build a website for my first business and realised that it was not as difficult as the web designers would have you believe. I had also started running an “Intro to Philosophy” evening class and was using the Internet to post up the notes and interesting links for my students.

As I was lying there in the tub, belly sticking up out of the water, it suddenly occurred to me that local community groups would really benefit from using this new technology known as the World Wide Web. They would be able to link up with other groups, share ideas, publicise events, and recruit volunteers; it didn’t just have to be a few university geeks and businesses that could profit from the Internet.

We could recruit volunteers who wanted to learn web design, or people who already knew how to do it but wanted to create a portfolio, and team them up with local groups and organisations who wanted to embrace the technology.

Ideas were racing around my head and I couldn’t write them down fast enough. Back at the beginning of 1999 no one was doing anything like this. I knew I could teach people how to build basic-but-functional websites, but I didn’t understand enough about community group structures, so I got in contact with a guy called Des Gallagher from Clackmannanshire Council who was excited by the idea and had all the contacts.

Over the next few months Des assembled a small team of key players in the community and we gave shape to the idea of ClacksNet.

We faced many problems over the coming years, which were mostly based around resources – time and money. Although we had a few very dedicated and committed volunteers, such and Brian Young and Tricia Stevenson, there was a limit to how much time anyone was able to give to the project. And as for money, well despite countless requests and submissions to all sorts of funders, we never got anything like the amount we needed to really move it forward at the rate it should have developed.

It didn’t help either that we’d clearly spooked someone high up in the local council, who decided that when they launched their new Council Website, they would call it ClacksWeb and throw countless thousands at it in a big marketing splash. It nearly squashed us completely, but we were a hardy bunch and kept on going.

At the end of last year we were nominated for the Calor Scottish Community Award. A few of us went along to the award ceremony, and although we didn’t win, we did get a first rate lunch out of it.

As I was moving away from the area, I stepped down as Chairman and handed over to George MacLeod who, with a great deal more technical ability than me, has since made considerable improvements to the website and ClacksNet has once again been nominated. I was asked if I would like to attend, and never one to refuse a free lunch (even if it is costing the petrol and train fair, plus a full day away) I decided to go.

The Awards are being held in Edinburgh today, so I'm off in 15 minutes. When I get home I'll post whether we won anything.

UPDATE

Well, we didn't win. But we were shortlisted, and we were given a commendation. And lunch wasn't too bad either.

Mind you, lunch was a close call as the train to Edinburgh was 45 minutes late. However, I just made it in time for the first course!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the Odeon Cinema Automated Telephone Enquiry Line

A trip up to the Central Belt of Scotland is always a good excuse to go to the cinema, as the nearest one, in Dumfries, is so dire that I have sworn never to go back. Consequently I only get to visit the cinema if we go to a different part of the country.

Cineworld in Falkirk is a multiplex that I used to go to before we moved, so as we were going up that way for the day on Friday, and as the new Harry Potter film was out, which my 10 year old son was desperate to see, it seemed like a good tie-in. I checked the Cineworld website and we timed the rest of the day around the fact that there was a 12.50pm showing every day this week except Thursday. However, when we arrived at 12.45pm, the cinema was closed. We eventually found a wee sign that said that it didn’t open until 2pm from Monday to Friday, so the first showing we could attend wouldn’t be until 3pm.

I could have coped with waiting another hour, but two hours would have thrown the whole day’s timetable out, so I phoned the Dunfermline Odeon cinema (a little over half an hour away) and got put onto their automated telephone enquiry line.

Now my mobile phone service plan gives me 500 free minutes per month, but this does not include non-geographic numbers (beginning with 0845, 0870 etc), which are charged as extra. The Odeon Enquiry Line is one of these.

As well as making money from the actual phone call, Odeon also save money by having an automated service instead of a call operator. So instead of a 20 second call through to someone who can tell me what time the next Harry Potter showing was, I had to go through several minutes of unnecessary, time-wasting preamble, options and confirmations.

First I had to put up with their welcome message where they spent 30 seconds telling me why they are fanatical about film and customer service, then I was asked to say the name of the cinema I wish to enquire about.

“Dunfermline” I sighed. I really hate these systems.

“Did you say…” pause for a couple of seconds, “…Dumfries?

“No!”

“Please state the name of the cinema you wish to enquire about”

“Dunfermline” I said as clearly as possible.

“Did you say…” pause for a couple of seconds, “…Dunfermline?

“YES!”

“Please wait while we connect you to …Dunfermline.

Pause

It then proceeded to tell me all about the fact that I could buy gift vouchers for friends and family as an ideal Xmas present. When it finished there was a long pause, and just when I was beginning to think that the system was about to crash, or that I’d been disconnected and would have to start again, it said “Would you like to hear more?”

“Yes!” I said, thinking that if I’d answered no the call would come to an abrupt end. However, it turned out that I’d just said yes to hearing more about the gift vouchers! For the next 2 minutes I was yelling, “Stop! No! Cease! Finish! No! Stop! I don’t want to hear about your bloody voucher scheme! Stop!” while it blathered on, oblivious to my protestations, all the time running up my phone bill.

Eventually it completed its advert-at-my-expense before moving on to all the options of whether I was wanting to enquire about corporate offers, competitions, particular films, employment opportunities or showing times. Once I’d selected the right option it then proceeded to tell me a bit about the film “Doom” before asking if I was interested in seeing it.

“NO!” I yelled into the handset.

“Please speak the name of the film you wish to see…”

“HARRY POTTER!” I screech.

“Did you say…” pause for a couple of seconds, “…In Her Shoes?

“NO!” I shouted, going red in the face.

“Please speak the name of the film you wish to see…”

“Harry Potter!” I was trying to un-constrict my throat so that my voice would be understood, but by now my son had tears rolling down his cheeks – not because he feared he wouldn’t see the film, but because he thought this was hysterically funny.

“Did you say…” pause for a couple of seconds, “…Harry Potter?

“Yes,” I sobbed with relief, hoping that I was finally getting somewhere.

I was then subjected to another 45-second ramble about the fact that it was a 12A certificate where some scenes may be unsuitable for younger children, before I was asked if I would like more details on the nature of the film.

A quick “No!” and I was into the final stretch. I was informed that there were a further eleven showings of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that I could book tickets over the phone if I wished – as if I was going to waste another half an hour of frustration doing that!

Finally it started listing all the show times and I discovered there was one at 2pm, so I disconnected and we set off.

Total time taken for what should have been a 20 second call: 7 minutes.

However, I blame Cineworld (which from experience I know has just as an annoying enquiry line) for subjecting me to all this by not being open when it should have been. So this morning I sent them a very snotty e-mail about setting up their customers with false promises. If I get a reply I’ll post it here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Real Musicians

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to two folk sessions in Castle Douglas, and one in Kirkcudbright, run by the same guy. At the last one, I heard tell of a session every couple of weeks in the pub in Corsock (a remote village so small that the pub is also a post office), but it carried a warning.

“They’re a bit hardcore up there,” said the mandolin player supping his Guinness next to me. I have noticed that there seem to be an excessive amount of mandolin players at these sessions – by excessive, I mean more than one and/or when they outnumber the guitarists. Time was I would get an extra level of respect turning up with a mandolin, and it allowed me to avoid the heavy competitiveness that goes along with playing a guitar - mandolins were rare but guitarists were always three-a-penny.

“Hardcore?” I raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“Real musicians” he replied, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “play a lot of Irish music. No singers…”

I let out a long slow breath; not quite a whistle. “Intimidating?” I asked, although it was a statement more than a question. He nodded.

Meanwhile the fiddle player had struck up another tune so we returned to the music and nothing more was said.

At the folk sessions I’ve been attending, while there are some traditional fast-fiddle type pieces, there are also a fair amount of songs, both traditional and some composed by people who attend. The advantage of song-focused folk music is that the mandolin is then an accompanying instrument. You can either join the guitarists in playing the chords (rarely more than 3 or 4 in any song), which is easy stuff, of you can follow the tune of the singer, which is unlikely to be anything too complicated.

But with instrumental folk music, the fiddle is usually playing complicated fast twiddly stuff and the mandolin is expected to keep up!

It is here that I start to feel like a bit of a fake. I came to the mandolin from the guitar, and always listened to rock, heavy metal, punk and the odd bit of blues; I have no folk history. When I first got my mandolin I used to listen to some of my wife’s folk tapes and played along, but I never bothered to learn the names.

Think of it this way: some games, like chess for example, are far more fun to play than to watch unless you are a real aficionado. For me, folk music has always been very similar in that respect. It’s great sitting in amongst a group of folk musicians playing live, joining in where possible, but I don’t have CDs full of the stuff to listen to when I’m driving.

So I knew I was letting myself in for it by heading up to Corsock last night, and as I walked into the bar with the mandolin over my shoulder, there was a voice screaming in my head, “Turn around now! Get back in the car! Don’t be so stupid, you’re just going to make a complete fool of yourself. Leave now before you embarrass yourself and everyone here.” However, the reality is that any folk session can only survive if new blood comes in, and as long as I wasn’t so crap that I actually interfered with the ability of the other players to concentrate, then it was unlikely I’d be snubbed.

As it turned out they were warm and welcoming, although they were all vastly superior players. Several of them actually have a Ceilidh band together, so had a huge repertoire of tunes that they all knew, and I didn’t.

Once or twice across the evening I led with one of the half a dozen tunes or so that I can play without making a fool of myself and everyone else joined in. When asked afterwards what the tune was called, I had to confess that I had no idea, but had just picked it up somewhere. They were kind enough not to snigger.

While I was relieved that there were no other mandolin players, one guy did turn up with an Octave Mandola, which is like a larger mandolin, but tuned an octave lower. He let me have a go: it was a beautifully crafted instrument, with a fantastic resonate sound that vibrated in my chest as I played.

When I praised it he proceeded to tell me that is was built by Spinoza or Spiro-Agnew, or some such name, and then looked at me with an expectation that I should be really impressed. My lack of credentials meant that I had never heard of the name before (and as you can see, the name didn’t stick in my head either), but to get the point across he continued that it had cost “two-two” when he bought it three years ago. I guess at this point he meant £2,200 (about $4,000), so I made sure that I had the appropriate respectful and impressed expression on my face.

As I went up to the bar to buy myself drink, another fiddle player walked in. At this point the landlord leaned forward and said, with reverence in his voice, “That’s Nigel…” and at this point I cannot recall the surname but, once again, I was evidently supposed to be impressed. I contorted my face into what I hope was a expression of deferential surprise. When Nigel Whatisname played, I wasn’t aware that he was necessarily better than the other fiddle players there, but he had an air of self-assurance that suggested he didn’t feel like a fake.

Did I feel out of my depth? Yes. Did I feel like a fake? Yes. Would I go back? Yes.

Ultimately, if I keep going, I will learn the tunes and my playing will improve, and several of them did seem like genuinely friendly people. When Maggie and I decided to change our lives and move here, one of the things we wanted to do was meet more creative people, and this seems like a good way of going about it.

Eventually I hope I'll stop feeling a fake.
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