Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Reader: I married him

Hank and I finally got hitched this weekend in a park in Maryland on a beautiful autumnal day. Absent friends notwithstanding, it was perfect and we washed down the wedding port with a few slices of pizza back at our house.

So this explains - I hear you cry! - why your favourite blogger has been silent for two weeks.  Yes, the visa arrived quickly, when it finally arrived, and then my brilliant boss released me early from the London office and allowed me to work for him from the DC office, but on a UK contract.  Since I'm not yet permitted to work for any company on a US contract, all in all, things could not have worked out better.  I still get paid, I make work contacts in DC, am not breaking the law and ... I am here in my real home with Hank.

By complete coincidence, at the London team meeting today our Director played a short video to remind us that sometimes life throws us a bitter pill to swallow - a lesson which ultimately proves that we are more resilient and creative than we ever knew possible.  Never have I heard a clearer message that I must follow my heart wherever it takes me ... and finally my heart has taken me to my wonderful Hank, our lovely home and a great, new professional network.

It wouldn't be fair to leave you hanging there, would it?  So here it is, the 2005 Stanford commencement speech by the late Steve Jobs - and I encourage you all to heed his words about how to deal with life's painful detours:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect the dots looking back.   So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.... 
Believing that the dots will connect somewhere down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart and that will make all the difference."  

Monday, 19 September 2011

One rat, to go?

There's been a problem with rats on our street in Capitol Hill.  Hank was approached by a neighbour asking him to pick up the pears which fall daily from the tree in our front garden.  She claimed to have seen a few fallen pears with bite marks and was worried the rats were feasting on them.  He was surprised by this but told her he would see what he could do.

Once the neighbour was gone, Hank began searching the garden for pears and to his surprise discovered a small rat under a bush. The rat appeared to be injured and did not run away.  Donning a pair of gardening gloves, Hank reached under the bush and picked the rat up by its tail.  It was bleeding from the head and appeared dazed.

Standing in the middle of our front garden, holding the rat by the tail, Hank wondered what he should do with the animal.  He looked around for inspiration.  Should he kill it?  How?

Just at that moment a lady walking past on the street called out to him:  "Excuse me?"

Embarrassed, Hank looked up, still holding the rat by its tail.  "Yes?"

"Can I have that?" she said.

Hank was caught off guard. "Erm .... Why?"

"Because I'm not sure what you're planning to do with it.  I want to make sure Animal Control are made aware of it and can help it get better."

At this point it was probably all Hank could do not to burst out laughing.  Stifling his belief that Animal Control were not interested in rehabilitating rats, he offered to put the rat in a box and hand it over to the nice lady.

And she agreed.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I caught this new Tomas Alfredson film on its opening night in the UK.  Receiving rave reviews for Gary Oldman's role as John Le Carre's much-loved spy, George Smiley, this one was indeed well worth watching.

Now, for a book which took the BBC some seven hours to serialise back in 1979 when Sir Alec Guinness was Smiley, one wonders how Alfredson managed to cram so much into just two hours for the big screen.  Moreover, having chosen to cut so much out of the cold war thriller, some of Alfredson's "additions" do seem quite odd.  Was it really necessary to reinvent Peter Guillam as gay?  For any reason other than to shock and suck up to the reader, whose clever "reading between the lines" deduced his sexual orientation where presumably many a thick viewer would have failed?   And why, then, downplay the sexual ambiguity in Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux's relationship?  Was it necessary to make it so obvious who shot Haydon, when the book remains unclear? And why was Irina shot dead in front of Prideaux during his interrogation?  A slightly gratuitous concession to the modern viewer, at a point when the film was a little low on action, perhaps...?

I am NOT, let me be clear, knocking this film; you must see it.  The acting is great - and there's an all star cast including King George V - yes Mr D'Arcy from Pride & Prejudice (and indeed Bridget Jones), plus Mr Knightley from Emma and both Ollivander & Sirius Black from Harry Potter.  Oh and let's not forget that weird paedophile chap from Atonement.  Everyone's a winner.

Go out and see it before your friends spoil it by yelling out the name of the Russian mole.  And if you can get your hands on it, I thoroughly recommend the BBC Radio 4 version of the Complete Smiley. It is even better - and you can listen to it on your iPod on your way to work!

Saturday, 17 September 2011

A male single friend

Me: So tell me, are there any attractive young ladies on the horizon?

Single friend: Oh yes, definitely on the horizon.  But the restraining order prevents me from getting any closer.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

New Jane Eyre movie. Reader; fill in the gaps

Jane Eyre is a long book. Which is why it easily fails in the 120-minute format of the big screen.  Cary Fukunaga's recent adaptation of the Bronte novel - which I saw this weekend - is astonishingly brief and bits of the story are, frankly, missing.

I happen to have a bit of insider gossip on this film and was relieved to hear from a close friend that Cary Fukunaga had intended to include some of the following conspicuously absent scenes:

1.  The relationship between Jane and Miss Temple, the kindly Lowood teacher.  Even in the movie, this teacher was clearly meant to befriend our Jane because otherwise why would Miss Temple have been so good-looking in a sea of ugly school ma'ams?  Cutting Miss Temple completely from the story makes no sense.  At all.

2. Grace Poole, the booze-loving guardian of Rochester's deranged wife Bertha, only appears once: during Bertha's big reveal.  So much for the gin-swilling scape goat Jane should have blamed for Bertha's bumps in the night.

3. Big, bad Bertha.  Rochester's first, secret wife, the madwoman in the attic has often been a magnet for feminist critics of Bronte's novel, asking quite rightly why the poor loon doesn't get a more sympathetic write-up in the novel.  In Fukunaga's rendering, Bertha  - and indeed her entire family and the critical events in Jamaica - get just a few minutes screen coverage.  Poor form, indeed.

4. And if you thought Jamaica was downplayed .... how about events in Madeira, the source of the fortune Jane inherits from from her wealthy, childless uncle?  This is a crucial part of the story - enabling Jane to return to Rochester as his financial equal, overcoming a major social obstacle to the love they already share as intellectual equals - but all we see is Jane running from St John's marriage proposal in a school teacher's clothes one minute, then she's in a carriage wearing a posh frock the next.  Reader; fill in the gaps.

It wasn't a dire film, though and is well worth watching if you're a fan of period dramas. Mia Wasikowka (of Alice in Wonderland) makes a suitably doe-eyed yet impertinent Jane. Michael Fassbender does well as Rochester but Judi Dench (the housekeeper Mrs Fairfax) steals the show with just two lines when she greets Jane in the burnt-out ruins of Thornfield Hall.  The cinematography is a nod to Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice (the Keira Knightley version) complete with will-they-won't-they sexual tension, framed by the long, slanting rays of Derbyshire evening sunshine.  The script is well-balanced with enough comedy to lighten the darkest corners of Bronte's Yorkshire.  And how nice to have some local accents...

One to watch on DVD, I'd say. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

The spider drops a sprog

Ok ... Take a deep breath, fellow arachnophobes.

I made an error.

A serious error.

After mum put the tropical spider outside (see an illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka) I moved upstairs to my bedroom the bag which it had stowed away in.  Today I came home from work to find that my mum's cleaner had tidied up my room (embarrassing at my age - I wish mum'd warn me when the cleaner's coming so I could pretend to be a normal, tidy adult)....  I got changed into my pajamas and threw myself onto the beautifully-smoothed covers.  Then I froze.

A tiny bundle of grey cotton appeared to be curled up on the bed next to me, about the size of a nail head.   The voice of Reason (read: desperation) said this is a ball of grey, stripy cotton, from a grey, stripy item of clothing.  I have no grey, stripy clothing, but let's ignore that for now, Reason says.  My instinct said: this is a small, stripy tropical spider.  

And so (trusting what I have been learning about empathy) I blew gently on the small ball of grey stripes, and it opened out into the unmistakeable form of a baby spider.  The spider appeared to be emerging from some kind of grey blob.  

I used the trap technique learned from my mother, humanely putting the baby outside to die of exposure.  But I can't help but think this intruder won't be the last of his bloodline. 

I think I'm in trouble.

Maybe it is just a coincidence. Surely some British spiders are grey and stripy?  And who says all Sri Lankan spiders are dangerous just because they aren't from round here?  I mean, that's RACIST!

Ok, look, does anyone have any advice?

And does anyone else's "voice of Reason" turn into a self-preservational sense of delusion at the first sign of danger? 

(Just me, then.)

Thursday, 8 September 2011

My Jedi Mind Powers

I am reading a book called the Power of Empathy by Arthur P Ciaramicoli.  

It's not a bad "read", actually, for a self-help book.  It's free from a lot of the trite aphorisms of other self-help texts, partly because it argues that a key part of empathy is recognising and respecting other people's individuality - so it couldn't very well start generalising about the human condition, I suppose.

I am reading about empathy because I suffer an at times astonishing lack of it.  This, apparently, is a core hallmark of a psychopath, but I'm not letting that minor detail worry me.   Because I am going to CHANGE.  


Because apparently we humans can use empathy to get stuff.  Awesome!  In the wrong hands, the power of empathy can be used for EVIL, mwa-ha-ha-HA!

Actually, though, I've known this for some time.

About five years ago I was at work the day before a national holiday.  At around 1.30pm the boss came over and was hovering around my desk like he wanted something but wasn't sure how to ask.  All I could think about was how hard I'd been working that day and wouldn't it be great to get away a little early for the holiday.

I looked my boss deep in the eye and said in a low, calm voice: "half day, everyone,"  holding his gaze for about two seconds before looking away.  Immediately, he turned silently away from me and addressed the wider team, announcing in exactly the same tone of voice: "half day, everyone."

Jedi mind powers, people!  You can only use them a few times in your life, so be sure to use your powers for Good - or at least to GET something good.  

Hmmm, maybe I've missed the point of the Power of Empathy.  Pardon me while I revisit Chapter 2...

Monday, 5 September 2011

A substitute Hank

I confess that sometimes at night I cuddle my pillow and pretend it's Hank.

So imagine my delight to read in the Huffington Post about the hearth-throb pillow, custom-printed with your sweetheart's image....

Now, if that were available online, I would buy one.  Just as long as Hank laid off the deputy dawg moustache.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

An illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka hid in my baggage

And I only spotted him when I got home from work today.

It was 9.30pm.  As I closed the front door behind me, I called out to mum who didn't respond.  She was clearly sleeping upstairs.  Let the poor darling rest, I thought.  She must be jet-lagged from Sri Lanka.

I switched the hallway light on and there he was, standing by my hand luggage, the bag lying unzipped  by the stairs.  He was a giant.  So foreign he didn't even recognise the need to be afraid; he didn't run and hide.  He just stood there sizing me up with his eight eyes, waiting to charge at me with his eight legs.  He must have been four inches across.

"MUM! WAKE UP!....  MUM!  Can you get down here?!"

Eventually mum appeared on the landing, wiping the sleep from her eyes and wrestling her glasses onto her face.  "What's the matter?"

"There is a MASSIVE spider down here. It's the biggest one I've ever seen"

"Don't be ridiculous," she muttered, by now the only sensible woman of the house, descending the stairs in her robe and bare feet.  "How big can a spider be?"

Mum is scared of absolutely no bugs found in the UK.  She grew up with scorpions and cobras, so British creepy crawlies stand no chance of intimidating her.  As a youngster, this had been one of the awesomest things about my mother.  I'd relied on her superpower infinitely during my scaredy-cat childhood (and, frankly, well into my adult life).  

As mum got down to the stairs she stopped and looked at the spider.  I sensed a slight fear in her hesitation. "Wow, that is big."

When she asked where the ridiculous long-armed spider-catching gadgety thing was, I knew we were in trouble.  Because I also knew that gadget was broken and, with my mother's own mother in her sick bed this week, there was no way my buddhist mum was going to kill ANY living thing.

Odd images flashed through my mind.  Could we make it work?  Could the three of us live together in harmony, the spider doing odd jobs around the house?   Maybe we could let the spider have my sister's room?  He could weave us some new crochet table cloths! 

No. I cursed my ridiculous hippy ideas.  Without the gadgety spider catchy, he would have to be killed. Snuffed out by a shoe thrown from a safe distance.

Mum had other plans. With astonishing dexterity for a woman of her age, she threw an upturned tupperware container over the spider.  Then she slid a piece of cardboard below the tupperware and carried the entire "trap" out of the house.

"It doesn't matter where you live now" she said gently as she released the spider into the flower bed, "just don't come back in our house."

Her natural affection for all living things at that moment made me ashamed for even considering killing that thing.  I'd been acting out of a totally irrational fear.  Could anything that passive and small really have hurt an intelligent human adult?  

True, we were not exactly saving the spider's life.  Released into the British summer, our refugee would surely freeze to death in a few days anyway.    Perhaps for the best, if it were poisonous.

But so what?  Mum had done what she could to prolong a life.  

Her conscience is clear.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The difficult side of ex-pat life

Have you survived any natural disasters today?

This is the question I ask Hank now, every time I speak to him.  So far this week: just one hurricane and an earthquake.  But he - and our house - are fortunately still standing.   Hank has dealt with these things on his own, like a trooper.  

As for me, I just got back from a week in Sri Lanka - but not the swaying-palm-trees-pina-colada-on-the-beach kind, sadly.  My grandmother has been ill and my mother was advised to come to pay her last respects.  We, like other ex-pats of my mother's family, flew out the very next day, half expecting bad news by the time we landed.  We stayed with a kind aunt whose daughters plied us with sweet, milky tea and papaya from their garden, and her husband drove us to grandmother's house every day.   Perhaps the sight of so many family members buoyed my grandmother's health; she did perk up a bit for a while.  But we left her with heavy hearts yesterday, knowing she cannot survive much longer.

We call her "Archi." She has had a long and eventful life.  I enjoyed hearing stories from my relatives about their childhood in a country so far away from where I grew up.  My mother's awesome style of parenting clearly originated in what she learnt about child-rearing from Archi - keep 'em too busy to get into trouble, and always be just a little fearsome.   For my grandmother, a mother of twelve, raising the family was no mean feat.  I learnt how she and her husband had defended their children to the Police after a grumpy neighbour accused them of breaking windows which had simply expanded in the heat, then the same neighbour stole mangos from Archi's prize tree, and jealously put nails, spike-up, in shared parking spaces.  I heard how one of Archi's daughters was asked every Sunday at buddhism school by the monks if she had "performed any good deeds", and she relayed a list of ants she had saved from drowning.  The list became so predictable the exasperated monk soon stopped asking her.  Some would call this aunt cheeky but I think she was great; she -  not one of her brothers -  was the first of her generation to leave Sri Lanka for a job overseas, arriving in the UK in the 60s with a few pounds in her pocket, having never been to the west before.  She was not even 20 years old and had never seen snow.  She knew no-one.  No Lonely Planet guidebooks, no websites to prepare her.  The intrepid audacity of that woman is inspirational.  Now tragically she - and one other sister- are too unwell to travel to Sri Lanka to bid their mother farewell.  I guess in some cruel ways, an international lifestyle punishes the brave.       

Last week, Archi's children held an all-night pirith (blessings chanted by monks for family and friends) and a dhane (chanting and alms giving), to honour the 20th anniversary of my grandfather's death.  One of Archi's sons made a pilgrimage to Anuradhapura. There is little left to do now but keep Archi clean, nourished and close to her family and religion.  This burden falls solely to those in Colombo, to my own mother's great sadness.  I think of these aunts, uncles and cousins with respect and pride; we will be forever indebted to them.

My mum is getting old herself and is afraid of traveling alone.  She therefore returned with me to London when my job dictated.  We've visited Sri Lanka many times but have recently left bigger gaps between trips; this time over seven years.  And this time I really, really did not want to leave there.  It wasn't just because we were sad to leave Archi and our wonderful family.  Colombo has become a truly compelling place.  For years, whenever I went there I struggled to deal with the failing infrastructure - why were the roads in such a state, why didn't the government repair the buildings which had faces blown off by insurgents, and why didn't people have dependable water supplies and proper street cleansing services?  It annoyed me to see paramilitaries policing every municipal building and at regular checkpoints to always to have to show "papers" which I, a war novice, constantly forgot to carry.  I always blamed the war but was never sure it was really the heart of the problem.  I secretly worried that maybe that was just how Sri Lanka was. 

I was wrong.   How long has it been since the war ended?  Maybe three years?  Under a very right-wing, nationalist government [a fact which I'm ignoring for my sanity] the capital city is already unrecognisable.  I'm starting to think that I'm missing out!   The things which drew my mum to the UK in the 60s - the excitement and economic growth of a nation rebuilding itself after a war -  these things are evident in Sri Lanka right now.  It is an appealing environment in which to start a business. 

On my last evening in Colombo, a kind uncle took me in a tuk-tuk to Galle Face beach where kids traditionally fly kites in the sea breeze every summer, parents pack picnics and stalls display fried seafood treats.  It was busy but peaceful, immaculately clean and really magical.  It reminded me of the National Mall in DC, just with browner folks and curlier hair.  It was wonderful to see so many people enjoying themselves.  Were it not for my darling Hank, I believe I could happily move there tomorrow.

As I left Archi's house for the last time, the kind uncle gave me a small gift of 1000 rupees, just totally out of the blue.  To spend next time I come here, he said.  

His gentle and kind message was unspoken: don't leave it so long next time.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Came back on the red-eye from DC this morning after a wonderful weekend with Hank and two UK friends, Jake and Ian, who popped in en route to the Bahamas.

Hank is still so handsome that his face is prohibited under the Public Order Act in 13 states, and he has got decidedly buff from running Tock twice a day and doing chin ups in his spare time.   He has fixed up our home even more, painted walls, hung pictures, constructed raised flower beds on the patio and built me a craft storage cabinet for my cratefuls of art materials aka "macaroni necklaces".  He has been working hard and everything looks amazing.  The dog is behaving really well and is calm and friendly to other dogs now.  Maybe I should go away more often!

No..... Just a few more months and I will be able to join them all stateside.  Poor Hank has been alone for 3.5 months now.  So, I'm just waiting for my current employer to backfill my post before I can move on.  I still have no idea what to do with myself when I finally get out there.   If you have any inspired ideas, please do share ...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Believe in young people

I am leaving London.  Just for the weekend, though.  Gonna try and sneak into DC for a few days to see my lovely Hank.

If I had my way, I'd not be coming back.  But, I will return to the Lord of the Flies streets of London on Wednesday.

Ok, ok, some sanity has returned to the streets of England.  And amongst the middle-class dinner table debates about Broken Britain and how the crack-stunted offspring of single parents are destroying the planet one evil Tweet at a time, Hank sent me this link to an uplifting story about a child changing the world

Half the world is under 25.  I must find ways to keep alive my hopes for the younger generation  And if you are interested in getting younger people to take a more active role in developing the world around them, there are plenty of good causes out there.  Restless Development is pretty popular with my work colleagues right now, because in addition to getting youngsters to develop themselves and each other, the organisation also gets young people to advocate for each other, to spread the message of how poverty is a reality for children all around the world, and to put pressure on politicians and philanthropists to keep investing in development, whatever the economic climate.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Multicultural harmony - now everyone is rioting together!

The Olympic torching of London is now passing from the hands of young black men in the capital city to young men and women of all ethnicities across the UK.  As the situation in town appears to be calming down [GOLDEN RULE: Do NOT, I repeat, NOT, annoy the six bazillion angry coppers have been forced back to work today, with their holidays cancelled] Manchester and Nottingham have found themselves drawn into the mire.

The prime targets remain electrical goods stores, sports clothing outlets and alcohol and booze vendors.  All legitimate political targets because they are ... er ... glass-fronted?

The looters will feel the full weight of the law, Prime Minister Cameron says.  So, they'll be forced to do a whole week of community service.  And even that can only happen if they are thick enough not to say "oh yeah I did have that TV in my hands as I walked out of the shop but I left it at the end of the road when a grown up told me that stealing is illegal ... Someone else must have walked off with it after that."

It's all just good news really!

At least one brave granny had the right idea as looters ran amok in her local high street (and let's forgive her REALLY bad language - she's angry).

Monday, 8 August 2011

Black kids in London need a new hero - the "elegant hardcore"

Holy cow! I'm not in Kansas anymore!  This is London in 2011. 

More than 215 arrests, 27 people charged, and the Mayor and Home Secretary have both cancelled their holidays to deal with the mess in London.

Around the world people are asking where all this craziness has come from?   And what can be done about it? And just how safe WILL it be to visit the London Olympics after those bloody tickets were so hard to get hold of!!!

Here's the Cliff Notes:

According to reports in the press, 29-yr old Mark Duggan, a criminal known to carry a firearm, was shot dead by Met Police officers on Thursday after he opened fire, striking one officer who was saved only because his radio slowed the bullet down.  Officers from a Met unit which specialises in preventing and detecting black-on-black gun crime in London had reportedly had Duggan under surveillance, fearing he was about to avenge the killing of his 23-yr old cousin, rapper Kevin Easton.  

Almost immediately statements started to appear which contradicted early reports about the shooting.  Eye witnesses describe Duggan being dragged out of a vehicle and being shot in the head in the street.  And in recent days, rumours have emerged of a police ballistics report which indicates that Duggan's weapon had not discharged any shots at all on the day he was killed.  Some are even saying the handgun was a replica. 

On Saturday morning a group of Duggan's friends, family and sympathisers gathered outside Tottenham Police station, demanding answers from the Met.  The latter had reportedly not assigned a Family Liaison Officer to keep the Duggans apprised of developments in the enquiry involving the deceased father or four.  If that is true, it means the Met may have failed to meet their obligations under the Macpherson Report  - and that report was itself commissioned after the callous and unhelpful treatment of the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.  

Faced with police silence, the crowd of Duggan supporters grew angry and attacked two empty patrol vehicles nearby.  And then a rampage began which has led to arson, criminal destruction, looting, muggings and assault;  homes damaged with families inside desperately pleading with the rioters not to destroy their property;  apartment buildings burnt to the ground and others left as charred ruins; five girls were spotted smashing a shop window and walking off with armfuls of designer handbags;  Firemen were attacked while doing their job.  Clearly, none of this can have anything to do with justice.

Overnight the riots spread to other areas of London, including Brixton, scene of the terrible riots of 1981 and 1985

But this is not the 80s!  The riots are an odd throw-back to the Thatcher era, a weird anachronism but with a strangely modern twist; this time the violence has a cutting-edge scapegoat.... Twitter.  

Sound the alarm! Twitter is out there, fueling the riots!  Sure, it's unsurprising that those who turn so readily to violence also prefer to keep their press releases to fewer than 140 characters.  But what is more surprising is that society apparently holds the internet to blame for its own abuse.  Poor old Twitter, once lauded for its role in the Arab Spring, has now taken on a reputation to rival the satellite phones that single-handedly brought an American BlackHawk down in Mogadishu in 1993, no weapons required, right?!! Remember that? 

Today the press proudly declares that Twitter communication brings about evil!  The problem is Twitter.  The problem is not most definitely NOT us.  Repeat after the mass media: what we do NOT need is young people communicating!

[Blackberry's BBN is apparently also to blame.  Part of me finds it amusing to think of the hooded yoof frantically checking their blackberries under fire and cursing their slow Outlook synching connection....  "Really must save my pocket money and upgrade my data package"]  

But mostly, I just find this whole state of unrest WRONG.

The ballistics report will be released tomorrow. It wouldn't surprise me if the Met Police shut down the entire mobile phone network in the riot zones, a quite common public order tactic.  Which will certainly slow Twitter in its evil tracks.  But let's just hope that nobody trapped in a burning building is also trying to get a message to the authorities....

I'm gonna go against the grain here.  What I think London actually needs right now is better and more meaningful communication, and with people who the yoof trust.  And clearly that rules out politicians who have feathered their nests with our taxes and cut education spending;  cops who are selling our phone numbers to journalists at the bottom and wining and dining the most abhorrent power-mongers on the planet at the top;  a Church which has allowed children to be abused; businessmen who have preferred cheap foreign manufacturing to creating jobs for this generation of Brits, and bankers whose collective arrogance has destroyed our economy and our job prospects.  [Oh and Civil Servants might as well just give up and go home.  The yoof ain't interested, bruv - you bastards have got stable jobs!]

Who will the angry mob listen to?

Tell me the truth. Did you stop feeling sympathy for Mark Duggan when I told you his cousin was a murdered rapper?  Did you write him off as a tragic cliche?  I think I've written off some young people because they look up to people I despise, like musicians who produce criminal records faster than hits singles, and artists who promote guns and treat women as cheap objects.  

I've got an awful feeling that those precise role models are the ones who need to be telling rioters to stop - and you and I have no influence over them.  I'm sure that none of us could pull off a command to rioters to retreat as effectively as a respected underground musician could right now.   So, are the popular gangster rappers of today getting together and writing a press release?  Are they broadcasting their grief?  Or are they just laughing at the chaos?  

Frankly, I don't kid myself that role models admired for their anti-social behaviour are ever going to be viable harbingers of peace. 

Well then.  

Of the righteous, who should step up?  

Get ready, you are not going to expect this.....   



... It's Grandma

Anyone who had the privilege of an older, black aunty or granny growing up will remember acutely the power of that generation of women, who took absolutely no s@%! from their sons.  In their youth these women had seen their families damaged irreparably by war, then packed up their bags, unbowed, and crossed oceans to start a new life in a hostile nation. They survived racism - REAL, BRUTAL, SHAMELESS RACISM, survived "informal" segregation in the 50s and appalling housing conditions in the 60s. In the 70s they lived through inflation we can't comprehend, on the lowest of wages while their husbands were laid off.  These women are an untapped example of the "elegant hardcore".  We need old, black grannies to get their handbags out and hit adolescent boys with them until those young men feel shame like they did as children.  Proper, old-fashioned SHAME!  Ladies, dust off your switches and show this generation of mothers where we went wrong!  I'm serious!  Because I can only see two, more formative influences if granny doesn't beat these boys into shape : the de-humanising impact of a police water canon or the equally undesirable normalisation of an utterly unacceptable gangster code.  

Friday, 5 August 2011

Gun control v2.0

After the recent killing of more than 70 people in Norway, the debate about gun control has hit Europe again.  Some commentators have suggested that the young Labour Party supporters at the Utoya camp could have been better protected if they - or their security guard - had been permitted to bear arms. 
Weirdly, the subject of firearms then forced its way back into my life a few days ago as I walked home late at night on my own.

A few streets from my house, I noticed a red laser scoping light was being pointed at my head by someone who was hiding themselves out of sight.  I could tell from the angle of projection that they were at a fixed point, probably in the window of one of the upper floor rooms of a nearby house.   They had waited until I had passed in front of them so that they could aim at my head from behind.  

The person targeting me did not have great aim but my first instinct was to dodge out of the line of fire.  Then I remembered I was in the UK.  There was absolutely no way that the person shining that light would have an automatic rifle.  NO WAY.  

So instead of giving some bored teenager with a laser pen the pleasure they clearly coveted of seeing an adult run away in fear, I flipped them the bird over my shoulder and carried on walking.  The light went out as soon as the recipient recognised this universal gesture of good will.   

I continued walking home, both amused and annoyed by what had just occurred.  Then I remembered the young British man who was recently stabbed to death in Greece after he allegedly shone a similar light at a local taxi driver's head in the small hours of the morning.  When I'd first read his story in the news I'd been astonished that a taxi driver could even propose that the shining of a laser light might be a justification for stabbing someone.  Now, walking home in the dark on my own, I found myself wondering if I would have attempted to kill someone if I genuinely thought they had aimed a firearm at my head.  The anger still seething inside me from the recent cowardly, faceless transaction told me very clearly that I would gladly have had a go, given the chance.  

So, thank you Gun Control.  As long as certain brainless members of the population lack a sense of decency, it is very fortunate that these same dullards also lack ready access to firearms.  Fortunate for me - and I think also for them.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A monkey waiting to find its talents

Say cheese: The monkeys were intrigued by their reflection in the camera lens This macaque monkey stole a tourist's camera and took his own picture with it in a national park in Indonesia.  Perhaps this monkey is in the wrong job? 

Perhaps a lot of us are in the wrong job.

I've been thinking today about something so personal and - frankly-  dark  I find it hard to talk about it in all but the most public of forums.  So it falls to my private online memoirs - this here blog - to explore this in depth.

You see, I've been nursing a growing feeling that I might not actually be very good at things.  

This suspicion stems from several unforced errors I've made in the workplace recently: an e-invite sent to the wrong person here; a phone number mis-transcribed there.  Two or three times a day.  Is it just me who makes mistakes this frequently?

In my new job I send up to 60 emails a day, often completing over 50 transactions, across two computer monitors, and covering up to three team-members' inboxes in addition to my own.  So perhaps that's why I'm making more mistakes.  Perhaps that's all it is: tiredness.


But maybe ... well...  maybe humans aren't supposed to be in a job where we are required to be 100% accurate 100% of the time in such a relentlessly busy role?  Or perhaps only certain humans are.  Like, ones who care...?

Hmmm, this will subject require more thought, monkey features.   Hold that pose!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Networking for the jobless

I just found this BusinessWeek article about what not to do when networking. I thought I was dire at networking until reading these really basic errors.  The article reminds me of a funny story from one of the most respected professionals I know, who shall remain anonymous for her own sanity.

Picture a small but mind-numbingly dull internal meeting (you know the type).  When pushed for her (non-existent) opinion on a communications matter,  she said: "Well I think we should invite Emma from Comms to these meetings in the future."

She was greeted with an awkward silence.

Emma from Comms was not only in the meeting, but was sitting right next to her.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

365 days until London hosts .... more planned engineering work on the tube

The 2012 Olympics are exactly a year away today and the Olympic Committee are all smiles and sunshine. 

London's archaic transport system, meanwhile, is still creaking and groaning under the pressure of normal, peak-time commutes.  How will this city ever cope with the extra traffic of thousands of tourists, press, athletes and sponsors?

The answer to our capacity issues it seems lies in planned engineering works, weekend improvement work being carried out on the tube over the past five or six years (and ongoing...) which will strengthen this glorious capital city and provide a more reliable service to its over-charged commuters.  Or so we were told.... 

Planned engineering works (which, it transpires do not even have to be planned: planned works were once declared on the Hammersmith line when an engineering problem was detected on a Monday morning which they could not fix before opening for service)  have long been the bane of every suburban Londoner's social calendar.  And now those critical infrastructure-boosting engineering works will be put on hold for four weeks during the Olympics. Wait, hold on.  Wasn't this all being done for the Olympics?  

The annoying thing about planned engineering work is that it gets Transport for London out of their obligations under the Customer Charter which requires them to refund tickets for journeys delayed by more than 15 minutes.   TFL used to have to provide costly, dedicated replacement bus services for customers affected by tube route closures but those have themselves been replaced by posters telling you which alternative existing bus routes you can take - and advising you to leave an extra 45mins for your journey. Closing down half the tube at weekends also conveniently prevents TFL from having to pay tube drivers overtime.  Call me a cynic but I'm starting to wonder what motivates TFL to provide a service at weekends at all.   

I'm not just grumpy because I've got no tickets to see the Olympics.  I am grumpy because my Council Tax went up in 2009 to fund the Olympics; I foot a huge bill for a dire London transport service; I won't get to drive in traffic lanes, now designated for Olympic officials, which my taxes paid for; and I STILL didn't get priority for tickets!

I'm not saying I should be asked to carry the Olympic torch for my suffering.  I just want the disturbance to normal Londoners to be recognised;  it is not all happy, clappy Olympics, you know! Let's not forget that July 7th, the day London was announced to have won the Olympics back in 2006 was also the day of the first successful Al Qaeda attack in England.  I am not exactly thrilled at the idea of an increased terrorist risk on my doorstep even if the value of my flat will go up thanks to its proximity to the Olympic stadium.  

I bet by now you're wondering why I should even care? By 2012 I'll be hiding out in DC, right? Well  I suppose that deep down I just really, really hope that London will get its act together in time to ensure that the 2012 Games do not become a tourist trap at the expense of those of you who have lived and worked here, and have actually paid for the Olympics.  

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Walmart for Brits - it ain't no Asda.

Thanks to Hank for this link he spotted on the Huff Post pages.  These two witty Scottish boys sum up my simultaneous awe and vague disbelief at the mind-blowing convenience of American living, as experienced in WALMART.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

30th birthdays; milestone or millstone?

A few of my friends turn 30 this year and it reminds me how anxious I had felt at that stage of my life.   Turning 30 is such a common cause for anxiety that even eHow.com has an entry on how to survive that particular birthday.

I remember the big 3-0 being difficult for a few reasons:

1.  We cruise through 16, 18 and 21.  30 is the first milestone birthday that's no longer a rite of passage into adulthood.  In the UK the only exception is our 27th birthday when we lose our Young Person's Railcard discount and cry because we're then forced to take the bus until we get a decent-paying job.

2.  30 is the age by which most of us thought we would be married and own our own home.

3.  30 is a natural place to pause and reflect on our careers.  Right in the middle of a recession.

Around the time of my 30th birthday I was still an entrance grade Civil Servant, earning just £24,000 a year, single and living at home with my mother.  I had a Master's degree, was fluent in two foreign languages and had more than seven years of international work experience.  But there I was, on the cusp of 30 with absolutely no idea how to climb the career ladder.  Promotions seemed to slide right past me, without even a nod in my direction.  I was stuck in a rut.

I was not the only 29-year old in that position.  Several fellow graduates had joined the Civil Service the same year as me, many of us with good work experience already under our belt - but it was our youth, not our skills, that seemed to be continually remarked upon.  We expected our hard work to be noticed and promotion to be suggested by our managers.  It didn't happen.  We started dropping hints.  We were told we were not ready.  With the big THREE-OH on the horizon and my first Director General's Commendation under my belt, it was becoming harder to continue seeing myself as an average entrance-grade employee.  So I did something crazy.

Faced with the impending prospect of entrance-grade-at-thirty status, for the first time in my life I started using my network.  I began showing friends my draft job application forms, getting interview practice and reading books about recruitment and selection centres.  I smartened up my appearance, stopped politely agreeing to make the tea in meetings and I started telling people everywhere that I was ready for the next stage.  I sensed an immediate difference from my managers, who were really supportive.  Maybe they just wanted to get rid of me, I don't know, but they staged mock interviews and offered excellent advice on getting ahead.  I discovered a huge network I'd been growing informally for seven years and never drawn upon.

Around the time of my 30th birthday, I was offered two promotions and received a second commendation from the Director General.   I bought my first home with my sister.  And I met Hank.

My relationship with Hank is in no small part due to a crazy decision I made when a now-deceased friend introduced me to Danny Wallace's The Yes Man. This book describes the author's quest to say yes to everything for a year and it inspired me to see out my twenties with a bang.  In the run-up to my 30th birthday, I said "yes" to every (respectable) invitation for five whole months.    This may also explain why my managers liked me so much. [I'm afraid I did not start dating Hank because I "couldn't say no" - however funny a story that would be! - Hank came along some months later...]

I had a great time just going crazy during those months.  It was not all wild partying, although of course there was a lot of that.  I said yes to attending a bachelor weekend, where the boys stuck a fake moustache to my top lip during the clay pigeon shooting and we had a blast.  I drank at swanky or cheap bars indiscriminately, ordered pizza delivery to the office at lunchtime, went alone to parties where I knew only the host, attended cozy parties and lavish balls and crossed London multiple times in a single evening to attend event after event.  The more I turned up, the more I got invited along to.  I gained a terrible reputation for arriving late and leaving parties early because of another engagement which I literally had not been able to turn down.  It was wonderful.

At around this time I started to realise that my nearly-30 life was actually pretty darned good.  I also realised that I could afford to buy a home if I went in with my favourite person in the world, my sister.   After getting promoted, I thought about adopting as a single parent and was ready to do it soon.  I really did not need a boyfriend.  So that, of course, is when Hank came along.

Being thirty turned out not to be as scary as turning thirty.   Don't we gain a perspective in our thirties which we lack in our twenties?  For one, I've stopped saying "I'm never drinking that much again" and started confessing: "I just can't drink like I used to".   Nowadays, the idea of two people sleeping in a single dorm bed seems a ridiculous economy, while forking out $300 to attend a friend's wedding seems like a bargain.  And, of course, many of the weddings I attended in my twenties have not led to happy-ever-after love stories in our thirties, confirming for me that we must not hurry the important issue of "the rest of our lives".

Our twenties are ugly.  Let's face it.  As a wide-eyed 21-year old, I put up with nonsense from boyfriends because I feared that every attractive man interested in me might be the last.  It really is good to leave all that behind.  I'm not saying my thirties are about deluding myself that I'm irresistible.  It's much more that the extra years have given me the perspective not to care whether or not I am.  And that saves me a lot of time, money and heartache.  (I think Hank would say I should care a little bit more because I spend too much time in sweatpants, but apart from that it has been a change for the better. )

So, Jake, Tanya, Elise (and everyone else hitting the big 3-0 this year)...

Thirty.  It's not that bad.  Because, kids, the best is definitely yet to come...

Monday, 25 July 2011

A well-balanced child: caught between armpit & ankle biter

Kids Playing Rock, Paper, Scissors - Royalty Free Clipart Picture
FACT: My big brother once
made me lick a live power cable
and snort black pepper.
Today's UK headlines included an exceptionally un-newsworthy story about Prime Minister David Cameron growing up "in the shadow of" his uber-successful older brother, fellow Eton-educated criminal lawyer, 47-year old Alex Cameron.  

This utterly pointless story did get me thinking about long-standing stereotypes about older, younger and middle children.

I've long been led to believe that middle children like me are supposed to be attention-starved, limelight hogs.  Mind you, it was mainly my older brother and younger sister who told me that.  

Perhaps I deserved it; in one desperate attempt to solicit my older brother's attention, I locked us both in a room and threw the key out of the window so he couldn't escape.  I'd like to say that I was about 7 years old at the time... but that might be a lie...  

You know what?  The worst thing about that situation was the way my brother calmly explained the situation to my little sister through the locked door and off she went scampering into the garden to scoop up the key.  Curse those siblings with their deep connection to each other -  secure and comfortable in their "oldest" or "youngest" status, conspiring to free each other from the bi-polar behaviour of the (admittedly, faintly psycho) older/younger sister.

Poor Hank has also suffered.  He has had to learn to answer the phone calmly when faced with my train station-style announcements for "Attention! Attention!" and we have even re-purposed the term "Attention Deficit Disorder" to describe what happens on days when I am home alone for too long.  

So imagine my relief to read today about a book which claims that middle child-ness might actually give you an advantage in the professional world!  The Dalai Lama, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln and many other over-achievers were middle children, it transpires.  There is hope for me yet!

Few of us will ever have three children, so I guess the playground psychology of sibling precedence is pretty irrelevant to our family planning strategies.  Still, if it makes middle children of my generation feel better (for the first time ever!) about how you grew up -  face sandwiched in the armpit of an older brother whilst your kid sister bit your ankles - please do enjoy reading about how well-balanced you are.

And for readers who are not a middle child, you can play an important role in the healing of a middle child! 


Every hit on this blog is like a hat pin shoved in the voodoo doll of my attention-starved youth.  

I can't thank you enough Classic Yellow Smiley Face Clip art picture.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Job update

Got a few things to fill you in on, buddy.

Let's start with the certificate from the Japanese embassy.  Remember this was the FINAL, agonising thing obstructing my fiance visa and I was told it would take 1-3 months to arrive?  So I was considering my options ....  Then a recruitment agency I'd casually registered with (back in May) called me out of the blue to say they had an opportunity with a large philanthropic organisation based in the USA, which has just opened a small office in London.  Was I interested in a four month contract in the UK?

They interviewed me twice and then offered me a really good rate and it was too much for me and Hank to consider turning down.  I started the four month contract and then, on day two on the job, I got a call from the Japanese Embassy telling me the certificate was ready.


So here I am, stuck in the UK now VOLUNTARILY!

At least I have a job, am making great contacts in the DC office, earning decent money and trying out a completely different line of work.   And, unlike my husky, I'm not melting in the 45 degree heat (that's 113 F to you Americans) of DC right now.   Silver lining?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Home alone 7

Mum has headed off on her summer hols, leaving me home alone for seven days.  I spent last night at my sister's flat in north London then struggled home this evening on the cramped tube and grimaced my way through miserable rain to a cold and empty house.  Walking into the kitchen I was pleasantly surprised to find someone had left the heating on ... in just the kitchen?  Wait, wait .... Oh no!

Oh yes, I had left the one of the burners on the gas stove top switched on for 2 WHOLE DAYS and on top of the burner was a FRYING PAN.  Fortunately the pan contained only a few crumbs (I'm good at that first part of the process, the "take food out of pan, insert into greedy face" part - in fact that was probably what distracted me from the second part: "switch burner off, remove pan").

I recall that on Tues morning a cautious little voice in my head had said: "Pssst! Check you've switched the oven off since you are going away overnight."  I had laughed that off on my way out the door, the "sensible" voice in my head reasoning: "don't be silly!  Why would you have left the oven on?  You haven't even been into the kitchen in the past 24 hours!"


Monday, 18 July 2011

I've been waiting for you.

I haven't written on my blog for nearly a month and some of you are understandably wondering what's going on.  

Well, living at my mum's and being unemployed was always going to diminish blog content.  You knew that much.  

And then things got worse :(

In my desperation to find something amusing to publish on here, I wrote to a university friend; the coolest, funniest person I could think of to ask.  A few days later he sent me a link to the Youtube video below.  Before I could even open his email, he died.  

It's not an exaggeration to say that this has changed everything.

Once, the "rest of my life" had seemed like it would be a long time, stretching ahead with enough headroom for visas to be considered and comfortably approved; space for ranting on blogs and tweets; learning what the hell those things actually are; room for relationships to be challenged and rebuilt; for things to go wrong then come right; and for all of us to stumble and still reach our full potential.  There would be time to be apart from loved ones and chances to be reunited.  But nobody ever told me that it was possible to run out of time at the age of 34.  That just wasn't thinkable.

My friend was brilliant.  I mean UTTERLY genius, and he just died quietly in his sleep in his mid-thirties.  He slipped out of life the way he would have silently left a noisy party.  

At times I have surprised myself by being unable to mourn his loss.  I guess this is because he has not lost anything; he just ran out of time.  It's those left behind who have lost something we can never, ever replace.  It's self pity that motivates my grief - and I feel bad about that because a man like him had no time for wallowing.

My friend, if I ever make it to the place where you are, after what will seem like an eternity without you, I know you'll give me an awkward hug, smile your wry smile and say in your slightly northern accent: 

"Where have you been?  I've been waiting for you for so long."  

 It's a northern thing.

Monday, 20 June 2011

That sinking feeling

I'm running low on enthusiasm right now so I make no apology for the blog-destroying 18 days since I last wrote.  Trust me, I was doing you a favour.  My life was so dull that you'd have resented the mediocrity.

Things became more interesting last week; I had my interview at the US Embassy AND jumped out of a plane.  Of these events the parachute jump will probably interest you the most.  I'll keep you on tenterhooks about the visa for now...

Jumping out of a fully-functioning aircraft was not my idea.  The decision came after I booked the tandem parachute jump my sister requested for her last birthday at the ill-named North London Parachute Centre.  [Let's be quite clear, this place is NOT in London. It's about a 75-minute train ride from London's most northerly train terminal and then a ten minute taxi ride from the local station.]

As soon as speed-junkie Hank heard about my sister's tandem plans he wanted to jump too, so I hooked him up and then ... well the two of them couldn't really go without me.  We first tried to jump last October but were hampered by the great British weather.  So while Hank was in London for my sister's wedding last week we rescheduled the jump.  At no point was I really looking forward to the skydiving but I figured all I had to do was strap myself in and, once up in the air, not say no.  

And.  I was right. 

On a clear June day (yes, THE clear June day) I watched my precious Hank fall out of a gap in the side of an aircraft, powering through the sky way above the clouds.  I was to be last to exit the plane and my stomach churned as my sister and her instructor shuffled forward, edging on their heels toward the doorway.  I put Plan A into action: accept my own imminent death.    

I shut my eyes the minute my sister and her instructor's hulking silhouette filled the door of the plane.  I didn't see her jump.  I didn't want to.

My instructor had made a casual comment to my sister's instructor on the way up about how he had used the wrong "rig".   Jeeez, what the heck did that mean?  Why would I want to see what was going to happen?!?!?  As for my own jump, the lurching, falling sensation as I exited the plane would surely be worse if my eyes were struggling to fix on the ground thousands of feet below me.  Sure, it was embarrassing shuffling towards the door with my eyes closed - I wished I'd chosen the mildly less shameful option of removing my contact lenses so I physically couldn't see and would therefore appear utterly fearless - but I had calculated on wanting to see the view at some point.   Just not at such a high-up point.

My instructor, a very laid-back chap who'd scoffed a slice of pizza before the jump at 10:30am and was wearing yellow surfer shorts under his flightsuit, was probably smiling at my eyes clamped so firmly shut as I assumed the position we'd been taught in training.  Sitting in the open doorway, the noise of the plane and the rushing air was utterly deafening as I gripped my shoulder straps tightly, curled my legs around to hug the underside of the plane and pushed my head back onto my instructor's shoulder.  It seemed an eternity before he finally launched us out. 

The first sensation was the unpleasant lurching of an incredible vertical drop.  I think we were in free fall for about five seconds and may have flipped over completely before the instructor tapped my shoulder, the non-verbal signal which I had been taught meant "open out into the flying position", arms bent into right angles extended out to the side and forward.  Of course, I was so scared that I didn't notice that tap on my shoulder the first time, or the second and it was only when the instructor grabbed my arms and pulled them out to the side that I remembered that I was supposed to be contributing here.  

Realising that I had annoyed the guy in charge of my safety finally made me open my eyes and I noticed that the falling feeling had abated, presumably because air resistance was slowing our acceleration.  We were breaking through the cloud level by this point and my contact-lensed eyes could soon discern other specks in the sky; Hank and my sister's parachutes.  I was quite comfortable except for a mild popping in my ears and the air blowing my face so hard I had to open my mouth to relax my cheek muscles.  Pretty soon the instructor advised me that he was going to open the parachute, there was a mild judder and I felt myself jolted into a seated position.  And then we were just gliding over the beautiful fens of Cambridgeshire.   Conversation was possible at this speed and altitude and after a few minutes the instructor pointed out the airfield below, where Hank was landing safely. He then angled my chute towards my sister's and she was descending so close to me that we could talk to each other without raising our voices, drifting like ships in a gentle breeze.  

I always thought parachuting was for adrenaline junkies on a thrill quest.  It turns out the great pleasure of parachuting for me was gliding downwards over a patchwork of English countryside.  How strangely silent and solitary it all felt, considering there was a surfer dude strapped to my back.   

I landed awkwardly, as I had suspected I would, but hurt neither myself nor my instructor.  It had been expensive and was over pretty quickly; we can't have been descending for longer than four minutes.  But what a great four minutes.

The skydive was the perfect antidote to the bad news from the US Embassy.  I had not obtained the Police certificate the US apparently requires from the Japanese Police to prove that I committed no crimes when I taught English there.  This certificate, sealed by the National Police and the Ministry of Justice in Japan can take two or three months to arrive - and that's in a year in which there has not also been a devastating earthquake in Japan.   I am doing everything in my power to get the certificate back faster, writing a begging letter to the Japanese Embassy and even using BIG EYES but the absolute best I can hope for is to get back to DC by the end of July.   

Once I get the Japanese certificate, I am told that the fiance visa will be approved unconditionally.  The timescales, however, are now out of my control.  

So I'm stuck in limbo for a little longer.  Who'd have thought that would turn out to be worse than jumping out of a plane?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Salad FINALLY recognised as deadly

"And then I'm gonna launch a virtual
attack on the US government intranet"
- Chinese cucumber

I have long suspected that salad could kill me.  Now I know for sure and I look smugly at my mother, a former nurse, every time the BBC flashes up it's grizzly headlines.  1500 people have been infected with cucumber e-coli in Europe.  And cases of cucumber death can be passed on through close contact.  So do NOT under any circumstances make contact with a cucumber.   Especially if it's foreign.

No more salad for me, no sir!  Even the Russian government is banning EU cucumbers.  The Russians are above petty posturing towards the West, so this must indeed be serious.

But there is some good news from East of the pond.  I have an interview at the US Embassy for my visa!  At this rate I'll be back in DC by the end of June.

We have, I can also confirm, a lodger!  She is a young graduate, interning at the Senate this summer.  Hank likes her and she does seem utterly adorable (on skype, at least).  I hope she will find a job and be able to stay with us into the winter.  The presence of a lodger will ease the financial situation of course but she should also provide some good company for Hank and Tock while I am away.   I am looking forward to meeting her.

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