Monday, 30 March 2009

Just a Great Big, Forty-Six Year-Old Child

My other half and I went to the supermarket today and, amongst all the usual stuff, picked up four packs of over-the-counter painkillers. No, we're not some kind of tablet-munching hypochondriacs, by the way: we both happen to like a different type of painkiller and both like to have a pack handy at work and at home, so that's four, Ok, OK?.

Anyway, we got to the checkout, only to be told that we could not buy all four packs at once as the store was not allowed to sell more than two packs at once to any one customer.

"But there are two of us," my other half protested, "So that's four packs, which we have got here." Do you ever have one of those times when you just know that you are not going to win, but you just have to put up a feeble struggle anyway for the look of the thing? Well, this was one of those times.

The checkout assistant, however, was apologetic but unwavering.

She rang through two of the packs and put the other two next to the cash register. The rest of our shopping flowed through uncensored, I'm happy to say - not so much as a raised eyebrow at what was surely a life-threatening amount of chewing-gum (5 packs). Then, right at the end, after we'd packed and paid, the assistant asked us if we still wanted the other two packets of tablets. Slightly baffled, we said we did.

So she rang them up and we paid for them.

"It's OK," she said by way of explanation, "This is a separate transaction so I can sell them to you now."

Just exactly what was the store trying to achieve by limiting the number of packs of painkillers that can be purchased in one go in the first place? I'm assuming the idea is to stop people buying enough pills at one time to do themselves harm.

Now, I don't know about you, but if I was having a sufficiently bad time of it to contemplate doing myself in with headache pills, I don't think the minor inconvenience of having to buy them in a couple of separate transactions instead of just one is really going to stop me.

Can you imagine it: a suicidal customer turns up at the till with his four packs of paracetamol. The cashier tells him he can only have two. "Oh, right," he says, "Well, I was going to kill myself with them, but I guess I just can't be bothered now. Just give me the razorblades and the drain cleaner then."

It's not as if we even had to go out of the store and come back in again, half an hour later, heavily disguised: we were able to buy the second lot right there and then!

And if supermarkets are so damn keen on looking after the health of their customers, why on earth did they allow that obnoxious, scruffy bloke and his morbidly obese wife just in front of us to waddle out of the store with a trolley crammed full of junk food and alcohol? There was no "I'm sorry, only one case of beer per customer allowed" then, was there?

OK, I'm being disingenuous: I know perfectly well it's not the supermarket's fault: they're just following the Government's edicts.

Now, this is a government that's perfectly happy to engage in wars of extremely dubious legality, that is happy to hand out billions of pounds to prop up the businesses of incompetent and greedy bankers, that has allowed our once fine National Health Service to go to rack and ruin (Oh dear, I'm ranting again), but is apparently so concerned that I might kill myself with headache tablets that it insists I have to spend five more minutes than necessary buying them!

Perhaps I'm being childish but then, you see, I'm obviously just a great big forty-six year-old child.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Today's Rant Has Been Cancelled

Good afternoon, passengers, this is your conductor speaking.

The 14:30 Express Rant from Stress Central to Angrytown has been cancelled.

This is due to our driver contracting a case of ThingsCouldBeWorseitis after hearing the story of a little local girl.

This little girl is only five years old and was born with Down's Syndrome. She then went on to develop Leukaemia. This requires around two years' worth of brutal chemotherapy (with all the attendant hair-loss, nausea, etc.), which she completed a few weeks ago. However, because her immune system was compromised, she then caught pneumonia and had to be re-admitted to hospital. Fortunately, she has recovered from this and went home from hospital yesterday.

Just how much trouble does one little life have to bear?

We would to take this opportunity to apologise to all our passengers for any inconvenience caused, and would like to assure you that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there

I occasionally like to look back through my old diaries and other scribblings, and I really do get the feeling that they must have been written by someone else. Take this poem, for instance:

The Werewolf's Tale

A pale silver moon
Calls me to this night's howling.
Like a cold, lidless eye
It stares me out of my skin.

The ice-cold moonbeams
Plunge their stiletto blades into my brain
And the pain of the change
Whirls my waking mind away.

The world has become a monochrome hell
Of silver and shadow
The fear of it, and the hunger
Drive me to where the warm things lie sleeping.

Only the red, red blood
Can drive out the silver and the black.
Only the warm, warm flesh
Can drive out the cold and the pain.

And when the lidless eye closes at last
And the dawn brings news of untimely death,
A howl of a much more human sort
Goes up to the warming sun.

For I must live my human life as well
Away from the moon's mad eye.
Greeting the dawn with blood under my nails
And a heart that is slowly breaking.


It was originally written in November 1989 and I'm pretty certain it was inspired by Sting's Moon Over Bourbon Street.

I hadn't looked at it for years until this morning. Parts of it are better than I remember, others are not so good. At the time I wrote it, I must have liked it just the way it was, but not now.

I have tweaked it a bit and am happier with it.

This begs the question: should I have messed with the poem or just left it in its original state? It's not quite the same poem now as the one I wrote originally, but then I guess I'm not the same person.

I have this mad fantasy of hopping into a time-machine and going back to give my younger clueless self a good beating for wasting so much time and not making the most of opportunities offered. But, assuming my younger self could make any sense at all of being assaulted out of the blue by a crazed, overweight forty-something, she would probably not be changed by the experience in the way I want (it certainly wouldn't fix the gnawing lack of self-confidence I've lived with all my life!). As any Sci-Fi fan can tell you, you mustn't change the past or you change the present in unpredictable ways.

The road to here may have been far from perfect but, when all's said and done, it is my road and I'm more or less at peace with it.

Mind you, I'm not so in love with my self as I am now that I'm not on the lookout for a baseball-bat wielding old-age pensioner with a mad glint in her eye!

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Artist Whistler and the Babycakes Challenge

Last year, as part of a "Secret Santa" thing at work, I was given a trivia calendar. I'm a great lover of all things triv., so it was very welcome.

One of the questions was: Why was the artist James McNeil Whistler kicked out of Military Academy? The answer was a little story that I just love and have to share....

As part of his engineering training, Whistler was instructed to make a drawing of a bridge. This he duly did, but added two little boys fishing from it. The instructor looked at it and promptly ordered Whistler to re-do the drawing without the boys on the bridge.

Whistler complied but this time, however, he drew the two little boys fishing from the riverbank instead. Annoyed, the instructor ordered him to re-do the drawing for a third time and there were to be absolutely no little boys fishing this time.

The third drawing was the one that got him kicked out: the bridge was there alright, but on the riverbank, Whistler had drawn two little tombstones.

I just LOVE the subtle defiance here. OK, the story may well be apocryphal, but who cares?

Anyway, in a similar spirit of subtle defiance against rigid-mindedness and the death-force of the workaday world, my team-mates and I once had the "Babycakes Challenge". The idea here was to introduce an unusual word (babycakes, in this case) into a conversation with someone important like a client or boss (that's the challenge part, it has to be someone who could get you in trouble). It's a fun game for all the team to play.

In yet another daring move one day, we twinned our little pod of desks with the Principality of Liechtenstein.

Then there was Pirate day where everyone was meant to talk like a Pirate (i.e. in a really crap West Country accent, me hearties). Others have also done this - there's even a website (Check it out) and a special day for it, but it remains pretty popular to this day.

There was also Truth day, where only the absolute honest truth was allowed to be spoken - it was abandoned after five minutes as the atmosphere rapidly became chilly enough to freeze a side of beef.

It's all good clean fun until someone loses an eye and it's definitely kudos to Mr W and viva la revolucion!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Little Mole Who Knew it was None of His Business

The above is the title of what is probably the most bizarre children's book I have ever come across.

This engaging little narrative features a charmingly-drawn little mole who wakes up one morning, pops his head out of his mole-hole and is immediately pooped on by person or persons unknown.

Our hero then sets out to discover the identity of the pooper and, in what makes up the bulk of the story, conducts a series of interviews with the various farm animals round about. These interviews invariably go along the lines of:

MOLE: Did you poop on my head?
FAMYARD ANIMAL: No, I didn't poop on your head. My poop looks like this. (And we are treated to an illustration of the aforementioned scat).

Eventually, the identity of the culprit is discovered (it's Basil the farm dog, in case you were wondering) and Mole takes his revenge by turning from poopee to pooper, crowning the dog as he lies sleeping.

A quick look at customer reviews for this book on Amazon reveals that opinion is very much divided – you either love it or hate it. Some people were offended, others thought it unsuitable for kids and others thought is was the funniest thing they had ever read.

Me, I was completely bemused by it. Was it meant to be funny? It didn't make me laugh and I laugh at just about anything. Was it meant to teach some kind of lesson? If so, there seem to be two possibilities.

1) The book is a guide to the identification of animals from their faeces (not sure what value this would be in an urban setting: we all know what dog-doo looks like and we're not likely to encounter much else)

2) It's a moral lesson: if you get crapped on, find out who did it and then crap on them right back.

The best thing that can be said for this book is that it comes with a little stuffed toy mole, complete with stuffed toy poo on his head.

A friend of mine, whose kids had been bought the book by their maternal grandmother (why?), brought it into work to show us and was going to chuck away both the book and the toy. I rescued the latter and he has been a mascot on my desk ever since.

Now, whenever I feel that I'm being hard done to, all I have to do is look at that little chap, doomed forever to spend his days with a turd on his head and, well, things could be worse....

P.S. Whenever I travel abroad, Mr Mole goes with me. The picture is of him at the Great Wall of China in 2004. Apologies for the lousy quality: it was my first ever phone camera.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Bus-ride to Lemmingsville

All these cars look the same in the next lane. It goes beyond the basic necessary confrmity to the laws of aerodynamics. there's real lack of imagination in play. Why do they have to be shiney metal. Why not fur-covered or sequined?

In that red one there's a couple. I think they're arguing: she's waving her hands around animatedly and he looks grim as he grips the wheel. It's a silent movie though, as there are two layers of glass between me and them.

The young blonde girl in this silver car must be listening to music – or else her rhythmic head-bobbing betokens some bizarre neurological disorder. I hope it's music.

He looks bored. His car is dull brown with matching mud-coloured interior. No wonder he's bored. That's a car which states that nothing interesting is going to happen - ever! Did someone actually deliberately set out to design a sleeping-pill on wheels?

Oh, hello, the red couple are alongside again. She's the grim one now with her arms folded tightly, hugging her anger to herself in case it gets away and she has to make up with him.

I've been told that people in cars forget that, although they are in a little box of their own, the box has glass walls. Must remember that in case I ever get the urge to do a little nose-mining.

From somewhere nearby, I can feel the thump-thump of someone's car stereo going full-blast. Oh, there he is, over there with his windows wound down to let the sound out. I guess if he didn't do that, it would turn his brains to mush. Oh, wait... Right

All these cars look the same.

Is this bus ever going to get there?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Shopping for God

With apologies and grateful thanks to the Buddha of Hollywood (the excellent "God Concepts" series) and William Cooney ("Living Without god")...

SCENE: A shop, the shelves are crammed with statues and figurines of gods. The door opens and in comes a customer.

ASSISTANT - Good Morning, sir. May I help you?

CUSTOMER - Er, yes. I'd like a god please.

ASSISTANT - Well, you've certainly come to the right place, what do you have in mind?

CUSTOMER - Er, well, I'm not sure, really. All my friends seem to have a god, so I just thought I should probably get one too.

ASSISTANT - I see. Well, we have gods to suit all tastes and pockets. How much do you plan to invest in your god?

CUSTOMER - Well, I don't have a lot of money...

ASSISTANT - Not to worry, sir. Although many of our gods require money, there are plenty that don't. This one over here, for example (indicates a fearsome-looking crocodile-headed god), requires nothing but an offering of flesh once a month.

CUSTOMER - Flesh? As in meat?

ASSISTANT - A heart, actually.

CUSTOMER - A heart? What sort of heart? Would an animal heart do?

ASSISTANT - Er, no. Anyway, moving on, this god here requires only regular offerings of food and drink.

CUSTOMER - That's not so bad, I could afford an extra meal once a month.

ASSISTANT - Once a day, actually.

CUSTOMER - Sounds messy. Do you have any gods that can get by on more, oh, I don't know, spiritual food?

ASSISTANT - Yes, indeed. This god here only requires that you acknowledge him as supreme deity, live by his laws, abide by his dietary rules and pray to him several times a day.

CUSTOMER - That sounds a bit more like it. I think I could do that. What are the laws like, anyway?

ASSISTANT - Well, they're quite, shall we say, strict and by today's standards rather old-fashioned. Punishment for violating them is quite severe, involving, but not limited to, amputation, stoning, beheading, that sort of thing.

CUSTOMER - Oooh, that seems a bit harsh. What about the dietary laws?

ASSISTANT - They're a fairly standard mix of dos and don'ts, most of which would only really make sense if you were a desert nomad without access to refrigeration. Some people find them a bit onerous these days, but they are a classic add-on for this type of god and still very popular.

CUSTOMER - Do I get an afterlife with this one?

ASSISTANT - Oh yes, if you're martyred in his name – very popular for some reason just now, that particular add-on.

CUSTOMER - Not sure I fancy that, myself. This god seems a bit too high-maintenance for me, what else do you have?

ASSISTANT - Well, if it's low-maintenance you're after, I've got a nice range of divine sources, great spirits, all-beings and life-forces. They just basically bring everything into being and then leave well alone. Very popular amongst the new-agers these are.

CUSTOMER - Hmm, sounds a bit impersonal. I think I'm looking for something I can relate to a bit, you know?

ASSISTANT - Yes, I understand. Over here, we have a large range of gods – each with different traits, I'm sure there's something here that would suit. We have gods of wisdom, nature, love, war, poetry, hunting, feasting, victory, medicine, the sea... You name it...

CUSTOMER - So I'd have to have something to do with whatever my chosen god is actually god of, wouldn't I? Sounds a bit limited to me. Also, would the god be interested in me as a person? Could I have a relationship of sorts with it?

ASSISTANT - I hear what you're saying, sir. These gods come with a rather unsophisticated interface, I'm afraid. Basically, you provide the worship and they provide the not smiting you with a thunderbolt or turning you into a beast for lack of piety.

CUSTOMER - Do people still go in for these?

ASSISTANT - Not so much these days, but they are relatively easy to operate and inexpensive to own. They're not a bad choice for the first time buyer.

CUSTOMER - They're a bit "single-purpose" for me. I'm looking for something a bit more, you know, universal.

ASSISTANT - OK, well, over here is one of our best-selling gods. He's personal, omnipresent, so you'll never have to worry that you've left him on the train, ha-ha. He's equipped with infinite knowledge – a kind of divine Wikipedia, if you will. He also comes with absolute power and a very sophisticated range of worship options.

CUSTOMER - Sounds interesting, can you tell me about them?

ASSISTANT - Sure. Options range from the hatch-match-and-despatch rental option for people who want a god but only for special occasions. like weddings, funerals and so on. Then there's the only-on-a-Sunday interface for the slightly more committed believer – very traditional, that one is. Finally we have a range of full-immersion packages for that truly two-way 24/7 relationship experience. I should point out though that customers opting for one of these should be sure that that's what they want – it's more of a lifestyle than anything else.

CUSTOMER - That sounds interesting. So is this god actually interested in me?

ASSISTANT - Oh, yes, sir, that's one of his biggest selling-points. You can actually talk to him and get something back.

CUSTOMER - So I could make my very own unique relationship with him?

ASSISTANT - Yes, provided that it's within the parameters of one of the many pre-set configurations that are supplied.

CUSTOMER - So I can't do my own thing?

ASSISTANT - We-e-e-e-ll, not really, no. But there are so very many established worship configurations, you'd be bound to find one you fitted into and, besides, creating your own worship configuration tends to be frowned upon by users of the standard setups. It's a Mac vs PC-type of thing, you know?

CUSTOMER - They'd be that bothered?

ASSISTANT - You'd hardly believe this, but wars have been fought over it.

CUSTOMER - No way!

ASSISTANT - (Shakes his head sadly) It's true.

CUSTOMER - And this god lets that kind of thing happen?

ASSISTANT - Well, if you look in the user guide (hands over a huge leather-bound book), you'll see that in places it seems to be encouraged, whilst in others, forbidden. If I'm honest, that's one of the drawbacks with this model...

CUSTOMER - What is?

ASSISTANT - The instructions are more ambiguous than the ones you get with a cheap Korean video-recorder. Mind you, some users like that as it they feel it gives them flexibility – so long as they stay within one of the factory pre-sets, of course.

CUSTOMER - Does this one come with an afterlife?

ASSISTANT - Oh, yes. There are two options here: an eternity of bliss and the other one.

CUSTOMER - The other one?

ASSISTANT - Yes. You might get the other one.

CUSTOMER - What's that one like? Is it nice?

ASSISTANT - Er, no. It's pretty hellish actually.

CUSTOMER - But no-one would choose that, surely?

ASSISTANT - Actually, it's the god who chooses - absolute power, remember?

CUSTOMER - So how do you make sure you don't get "the other" afterlife then?

ASSISTANT - (Smiles) It's all set out in the user guide.

CUSTOMER - I think I'd prefer something a bit more straightforward than that – it is my first time after all.

ASSISTANT - Hmm, well, you've seen pretty much everything we have, sir. Are you sure a god is the thing you need? What were you planning to use it for, anyway?

CUSTOMER - Well, I was hoping it would help me make sense of things and give me a purpose, plus I want to feel that I matter, somehow.

ASSISTANT - I see. Well, there is just one more thing I can show you. We've just taken delivery of some very nice Moral Principles. They're simple to grasp but provide years of rewarding effort to master, they cost nothing and will give you all those things you just talked about.

CUSTOMER - But they're not gods, are they?

ASSISTANT - True, but gods are not guaranteed to give you what you want either – just look around you. (Lowers his voice to a conspiritorial whisper) Between you and me, if these things really worked, there'd be no unhappiness, poverty, sickness, crime or evil of any kind in the world, would there?

CUSTOMER - I suppose not. So what's this Moral Principle thing then?

ASSISTANT - Well, basically, you live by a simple rule: wherever you can, work for the betterment of the world.

CUSTOMER - That's it?

ASSISTANT - Yes. As I said, it's simple to understand, but it'll take a whole lifetime of effort. A very rewarding lifetime, a very meaningful lifetime. It's a purpose and an action-plan all rolled into one. Plus, it's completely configurable by you the user.

CUSTOMER - OK, I'll try it.