Friday, March 30, 2007

The Thinking Blogger Awards

I’ve been tagged by Pendullum to hand out 5 Thinking Blogger Awards – links to blogs that make you think, basically. Her own posts are always very thoughtful and beautifully written, so it comes as no surprise that several bloggers awarded her, though given her extensive blogroll, I've yet to work out why she included these ramblings in her illustrious list. Clearly I have more thinking to do on the subject.

I’ve participated in a couple of memes before, such as the 7 things meme and the 6 Weird Things meme, and I even spent several weeks putting together one of those 101 things about me, but what I like about this one is it give me the chance to point you to some of the blogs that I find inspiring.

So, without further ado…

1. Mystic Traveller
El Branden Brazil is an old family friend. His parents were friendly with my parents and when we were kids and they came to visit we would play with my Lego together. He’s been based in Japan for most of the past decade and has been on a spiritual quest for many years. He’s travelled widely throughout the world and taken stunning photographs, which can be seen on his sister site, Spirit. He’s not always regular with his posts, but when he does write it’s always worth reading. His was the first blog I ever read, so if it hadn’t been for El Branden I wouldn’t have gotten into blogging in the first place.

2. Cape to Rio
Dr Maroon has a knack for making you feel that you’re in an elite club of two. He’ll make comments or quips or references that you know only you, out of his entire readership, properly understand. And yet he manages this trick with everyone. All his regulars believe that they are his secret favoured one. I’m still trying to work out how he does it.

3. Restaurant Gal
I was delighted earlier this month to guest post on Restaurant Gal’s site. Based around the customers, the staff, the expectations of her to perform miracles on a nightly basis while still keeping a professional smile on her face, RG draws you into her world. You’ll never be tight with tips again.

4. El Guapo
How could anyone fail to love El Guapo in DC, the Guatemalan with his fabulous mustache.

5. Resident Alien
Mary is new to blogging, but not to writing. She lives in the same corner of Britain as me, although we’ve not met in person. We met online after we both entered and failed to get anywhere in a local Flash Fiction competition, but had enjoyed each other’s entries. An American living in Scotland after many years in Japan she has a wonderfully engaging style that keeps you going back for more.

When looking for new and engaging blogs to read, you could do far worse than visit any and all of these.


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For the origin of this meme, click on the banner

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UPDATE
Not content with me pushing his book (see sidebar - no, a bit lower down - just below The Japing Ape), giving him contributor status to Blunt Cogs and voting for him every week at the Love to Lead competition I gave up on after 2 weeks because I didn't win, Dr Joseph McCrumble, Celebrity Parasitologist is now making me feel guilty at not including him in these awards.

Therefore I would like to point out that just because I didn't list him here in no way implies that he is not a thinking blogger.

And I guess that applies to everyone else I've linked to, and the handful I keep meaning to link to but haven't got around to it yet.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

This isn’t just any chocolate cake...

The deep, dark, rich smells filling the house betray the emergence of chocolate sponge from a warm oven. Soon it will be filled with thick, creamy chocolate icing, with even more coating the outside and dripping down from the upper surface of the cake. Given the proximity to the forthcoming ancient Spring festival, mini chocolate Easter-eggs will adorn the top.

This isn’t just any chocolate cake, this is a sumptuous, scrumptious, velvety, heavenly, melt-in-the-mouth, Maggie’s home-baked chocolate cake, created specially for the last evening class of the Intro to Moral Philosophy course I’ve been running since January.

It’s the only reason some of them have stuck with it over the past few months.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Spring

Everything these days is over hyped, so it’s not surprising we become so easily jaded and cynical when the newest and latest blah-de-blah is announced. And if anything seemed over hyped to me this past month, it’s been the arrival of Spring.

A few days ago was the first “official” day of Spring, although the way they’ve been pushing its imminent arrival since last October, I was more than sceptical. So the clocks went forward an hour last night; big deal. Oh sure, we’ve had daffodils pretty much since the beginning of the month and the crocuses were out even earlier than usual, but I’m not one to fall for things that easily.

And yet, and yet…

Meg’s had quite a bad bout of tonsillitis recently and today was the first day we felt it would probably be OK for her to leave the house, if she was suitably wrapped up, of course. I’ve felt rather housebound myself for a few days so the 2 of us went for a walk in Laurieston Wood, a few miles from here, to get a breath of fresh air.

It was wonderful.

It was still early enough in the year for the midges to be absent, and late enough in the afternoon for the dog-walkers to have gone home, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The sun was shining through the trees, the temperature was up into double figures, and the smells; oh the smells. Woody smells of pine trees, damp fallen branches, lichens, moss and undergrowth. And the sounds of the wind in the treetops, the birds singing and the stream running over the rocks.

It tapped into something quite primeval; a part of the soul that responds to the changing seasons; where the caress of the sun on the skin is like the re-acquaintance of an old and missed friend.

I’ve always struggled with winter, with its long dark nights, cold wind and incessant rain. After a few months its easy to forget its possible to have days where you don’t have to stick an extra layer on under the coat before leaving the house or have the heating in the car set as high as the dial will allow.

Today was my first day of Spring, and I nearly wept.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Clothes

Every morning when I climb out of bed, I stretch my arms above my head until they almost click, then glance down at my belly where, from this angle, and for as far back as I can remember, the large round mound of flesh has dominated my vision.

These days it’s not as big. In fact I still get surprised when I catch sight of myself side on in a mirror by how much less is there. Yes my belly still protrudes; I am still an overweight man; but it’s not vast; it’s not as huge as it used to be.

With the exception of new 10 inches less round the waist jeans, I now live in a world of excessively baggy clothing. The chest pocket on every shirt sits much further down my torso; the sleeves are all too long; and the collars are far too wide, which has led to me becoming very aware of my neck. I probably don’t have a particularly long neck, but it’s definitely narrower than my head these days; it clearly separates my ears from my shoulders in a way that continually catches me by surprise.

The fleece I wear like an old cardigan in my study, so I don’t get cold when I’m writing in the only room in the house without central heating, was big when I bought it: XXXL from a company that was generous with it’s measurements to begin with. I was determined to own at least one item of clothing that wasn’t too tight and threatening to burst at the seams when I did it up. But now it’s quite ridiculous: I can fasten the zip with Maggie and me both in it together. Yesterday morning I turned round to see Meg wearing it, giggling at the way it went down to her shins while the sleeves dragged on the floor. She looked like she was wearing a small fleecy tent.

Last month I had to look smart(ish) for a meeting for the first time in over 2 years. My old business suits were all tailored for a man nearly 100lbs heavier, so were completely un-suit-able (sorry) for the purpose. We went to M&S where I was able to buy a jacket off the peg, which not only fitted, but wasn’t even their largest size. I still haven’t really got my head around that. I also bought a shirt with a collar size 4 inches narrower than I used to buy, but my body is still clearly mismatched with standard sizes. The sleeves were too long and the buttons bulged and stretched around my belly. I have never figured out why designers seem to believe you can judge a man’s shape purely by the size of his collar. Unless I tensed my stomach, the tighter fitting shirt seemed to accentuate my bulges and I found myself yearning for my ultra-baggy clothing again. I seem to have become comfortable living half-lost in large swathes of material.

At some point I would like a whole new wardrobe but, quite apart from the fact that we cannot afford it, I have absolutely no idea what would suit me these days. When I was last this size, big hair and shoulder pads were all the rage. I wonder if they’ll be coming back into fashion soon?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

What do you want to watch?

“Because I’m not in the mood to watch something I really want to watch.”

“Well what choice does that leave us then, if you don’t want to watch something you don’t want to watch, and you don’t want to watch something you do want to watch?”

“You know what I mean.”

“How can I possibly know what you mean?”

In fact I’m being unfair. I do know what exactly she means; I’m just being awkward because I can’t decide what to watch either.

Some films you want to save up as a special treat for the right moment. If you watch them in the wrong frame of mind it’s like having a bag of your favourite sweeties after you’ve had a big dinner and are full up. It’s a waste.

With Rogan away we could watch any DVD we want without worrying that it’s unsuitable for an 11 year old, or that we can only start watching it after he’s gone to bed. So here’s a rare opportunity to just sit down and watch something where it’s still early enough in the evening for there to be a good chance we’ll both be awake at the end of it.

“You still haven’t seen House of the Flying Daggers yet, which I know you’ll enjoy. Or what about Goodbye Lenin, which you got me for Christmas? We still haven’t seen that yet.”

“I can’t face anything with subtitles tonight, sorry.”

“So what do you want?”

“Something light”

“We don’t have anything light. You always want something light, so anything light gets watched right away.”

“Don’t we have anything recorded from the TV during the week?”

“Only heavy documentaries about global terrorism, conspiracy theories and that thing on the First World War I haven’t seen yet. Oh, and that drama about the guy who suffers a complete personality change after an accident and his wife struggles to cope, but that has no appeal right now.”

“Well what would you watch if I wasn’t here?”

“Some mindless action adventure thing, or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly which is still in the cellophane wrapper from my birthday because there’s never a good time to watch it.”

“I don’t fancy that.”

“I know you don’t. So what are you wanting to watch?” I scan the videos and DVDs on the shelf again, desperately hoping something will present itself. “What about Manhattan? You love Woody Allen and you’ve been itching to watch it again.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing it again, but just not tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not in the mood to watch something I really want to watch.”

Friday, March 16, 2007

An emptier house

There’s a particular cold, pre-dawn, early morning smell to the world outside that is flavoured by lack of sleep from excitement and nervousness. It’s a smell that taps into the experience of every holiday, every school trip and every journey that required a bag to be packed the night before. Only this time I’m not going anywhere.

My eleven-year-old son, Rogan, on the other hand, set off on a school skiing trip to the French Alps this morning. It’s the first time he’s ever stayed away from us for more than 2 nights, and in a couple of hours it will be the first time he’s ever been on a plane.

By saving birthday and pocket money, going without various treats and mugging everyone for the coppers in their pockets, he has actually managed to contribute a third of the cost of this trip himself. We’re very proud of him.

Standing in the car park with other anxious parents, I managed to force a reluctant hug out of him before handing his bag to the driver to stow in the base of the coach while he climbed on board to sit next to his best mate.

Despite his fears during the rush this morning, we weren’t the last ones to arrive at the pick-up point; there was one more to come who turned up ten minutes later. Some of the parents had been standing in the cold for at least half an hour, periodically waving at their kid and wishing they’d put an extra layer on.

When the coach finally pulled away there was a collective sigh of relief followed by a mad dash to the cars, as everyone was desperate to get back home to warmth and breakfast.

It’s going to be extremely quiet without the lad in the house for a week.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chalk Lines

My post “We are the authors of our own story” is the briefest of outlines of an idea that’s been playing on my mind for the past week or so and is primarily to do with how much freedom we have to create our own narrative, if we but realise it.

Of course there are physical laws that prevent us from walking through walls or leaping off tall buildings with any hope of survival, but I’m not challenging these. What I am challenging are the assumptions so many of us make about our lives – about the way we have to live and the kind of person we have to be.

From the youngest age we are presented with a model, a narrative, of who we are and what it is to be a human being. We are eager to learn how to make our way in the world and we look for the clues and cues everywhere. Some things we are taught overtly – rules and regulations, lectures from parents, ministers, teachers – but a great deal more is much less obvious. We copy behaviour, we unconsciously read body language, we absorb the messages of our culture from TV, books, posters, newspapers, magazines, the clothes people wear around us. This mass of information works its way into our minds and we adopt narratives, stories, frameworks, which help us make sense of it all and learn survival techniques.

The problem is, so much of what we absorb and come to believe as true, is nothing more than someone drawing a chalk line around us and declaring there will be terrible consequences should we overstep it. We move around within the boundaries, never straying too close to the edge for fear of what might happen. Eventually the chalk lines are washed and blown away, but by then we have internalised them. There are no chalk lines to be seen and we have consciously forgotten they were ever there. We think we can wander somewhere else whenever we want to, and so believe ourselves to be free, but subconsciously they are now engrained.

If we accidentally stray close to where the lines used to be, we start to feel uncomfortable and wander back again. We don’t analyse our behaviour unless it is specifically brought to our attention; we just react on autopilot. Even though the chalk lines have long since gone, we still don’t cross the boundaries of where they were, and we don’t even realise we’re constrained.

Despite the fact that these lines are nothing more than man made constructs, usually created to serve the purposes of someone else, we come to believe they have an authoritative truth to them, thus we are even less likely to question them.

Of course, some lines, some rules, are beneficial – they help us live together in relative safety, but many of them are placed there not for our benefit, but for the benefit of someone else who doesn’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. Every time we are told to buy this gadget, consume that product, use this service, vote that way, we are having chalk lines drawn around us. We are always told they are for our benefit, but the ones who benefit most are those who are selling us the product, service or message.

Once we begin to truly realise we are constantly moving in an internalised world of chalk lines, then this gives us a powerful tool to detect them, understand our own behaviour and constraints, and start writing a new narrative for ourselves.

I daresay there will be more blog posts to follow on this topic as I organise my thoughts.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Red Nose Day Blog Book

I will get round to expanding on my previous post (and answering the comments) when I've got a spare moment, but in the meantime we interupt this broadcast to bring you news of importance...

With Red Nose Day this coming Friday, one blogger has decided to to assemble and publish a paperback anthology of blog writing, that can be sold to raise funds for the charity. The book will be called - Shaggy Blog Stories: a collection of amusing tales from the UK blogosphere.

If you're based in the UK then you can support the project by submitting a humourous blog, but where ever in the world you are you can support the project by buying the book next Friday

Follow this link for more details

http://troubled-diva.com/labels/rednoseday.html

Friday, March 09, 2007

We are the authors of our own story

The first worlds I moved in were entirely created by other people. In fact, I had no concept they had been created at all: they just were. The world of my parents, the world of the classroom, the world of the playground, all existed as places to discover the rules that made survival possible. The quicker these rules were learned, the less pain and humiliation followed.

Then there came a time when I began to realise I could influence these worlds in minute ways, that I could mould small parts of these worlds around me. In some places I could create a Kim-shaped dent.

Gradually I moved from shaping other people’s worlds to creating my own. Granted they were still within the confines of existing ones, but I realised there was space to build worlds that would not have existed had I not been there.

Finally it has dawned on me that I am free to create any world I like. The constraints around me are all human constructs with no great Truth or Authority behind them. Knowingly or unknowingly they are built by other people and we are expected to conform to the rules they lay down, even though they are nothing more than words and chalk lines.

Because we are trained to follow; to trust those who speak loudly or confidently enough; to assume that other people know what they are doing and that we are the only people in the world who are clueless; to live in fear that one day we will be found to be lacking; we believe these words and chalk lines to be high walls with guards and electric fences. We internalise these beliefs to the point where we don’t even attempt to step across what are nothing more than chalk lines in a playground.

But now I know, now I finally understand, that if I draw my chalk lines and speak with enough confidence then I can create whatever world I want and it will be as real as any other. I can be the hero of my own story, and I can create any story I please.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Blog upgrade

Having been hijacked into switching to New-Blogger a few weeks back, I’d been toying with the idea of upgrading to their new template system. The draw had been the “Labels” option, which wasn’t available on Old Blogger.

My blog has always been a rather eclectic mix of posts and different visitors tend to be looking for different things. I have those who relate to the Down’s Syndrome posts, others who like the fatherhood stuff, some who respond much more to my struggles to figure out my existence in the universe and others who just have a fetish for an English accent and get excited when I do an audio blog.

A while back I thought I would respond to this by categorising my blog posts and using drop-down menus for people to find something of interest. However, in order to update the menus I had to periodically go into the template and get my hands dirty in the HTML and the whole thing was messy and time consuming.

New-Blogger’s Labels system puts an end to all that. I can label each post as I write it and it will automatically get added to the appropriate category on the sidebar. However, in order to gain this useful function for my site I first had to choose a new template to customise. Five-minute job, I thought. 2 hours later I finally had it looking the way I wanted.

The problem with choosing a new template is you lose anything you’ve done to customise your site, and in my case, this was rather a lot. In fact I had little idea just how much customising I’d done over the last 18 months or so until I had to rebuild the site.

My page is wider than the standard template, for example, and of course I created my own header. I had my links ordered in a particular way and extras like Sitemeter, Technorati and award banners added to the sidebar. I’d also changed the link colours and put in Google Ads in the vague hope of generating a few pennies (about $11 in 16 months at the last count).

Each bit took longer and was harder to change than I’d expected, but I think you’ll see the results speak for themselves…

Which of course they don’t. I’ve ended up putting in hours of work to make the blog look essentially the same as it did before I upgraded it.

Anyway, the one change I wanted is now there. If you look over to the right you’ll see a section in the sidebar called “Find your favourite topics”. I doubt whether it will be used much but it does give new visitors an at-a-glance idea of what my blog is about to help them decide whether it’s worth investigating further or just clicking on to Next Blog

Monday, March 05, 2007

Spreading my seed

I’ve never been asked to guest post on someone else’s blog before, so to be approached by Restaurant Gal for my first time was a real honour. I’ve been enjoying her writings and observations for many months and love the way she draws us into her world where dramatic operas are played out - full of heroes, villains and sidekicks all vying for her emotional energy against a backdrop of chairs and tables.

After the initial ego boost and smugness however, I was suddenly overcome with self-doubt. On my own blog I can write whatever crap I want, but writing for someone else ups the pressure level. It’s like moving from masturbation to lovemaking: suddenly you have to take someone else into consideration and feelings of inadequacy can threaten to overwhelm.

Restaurant Gal has her own set of readers, very few of which overlap with this blog. What if her regular readers think, “Who’s this prat? I come to this blog to read about my favourite waitress and maître d', not the ramblings of some bearded fella with a funny accent and a girl’s name.”

However, if it works, perhaps it opens up the possibility of doing other guest posts and inviting some of my favourite bloggers to guest post here. I’m not sure why, but that idea gives me a bit of a thrill.

Keeping with the theme of her blog, I have written about my own experience of restaurants and how my attitude to them has changed over the years (http://www.restaurantgal.com/?p=207).

So while I extend my thanks to Restaurant Gal for devirginalising (now why isn’t that word in the dictionary?) me, do head over to her blog - http://restaurantgal.com/ - introduce yourself, and have a look around. You might just find yourself adding her to your blogroll.
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Friday, March 02, 2007

The Toffee Shop Window, Castle Douglas

“Good grief, that’s huge! You don’t suppose it’s solid, do you?”

“When was the last time you came across a solid chocolate Easter egg?”

“But it says on the box it weighs 4.5kg.”

“You realise that’s over twenty-two and a half thousand calories?”

“My God, it would last all evening.”
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