Thin Ice

IMG_1011I had breakfast this morning! Now don’t worry, I’m not about to turn this blog into some kind of written version of early Instagram. There won’t be posts entitled, “Look! It is sunny” or, “Someone drew a face in my coffee”. No, I mention the seemingly ordinary fact of my eating breakfast precisely because it is not ordinary. Over the last couple of months I have, basically, stopped eating.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I’ve always liked exercise and keeping in shape, but from time to time this seems to gently warp in my mind, slowly turning into something hugely damaging but still, somehow, masquerading as a desire for well-being. For extended periods I will eat one small meal a day and that’s usually only because someone is there to see me do it. I combine this with attempting to derive the energy that a rounded diet would normally deliver from the sole source of coffee. A few days into this inspired health regime, my brain is flickering on and off like a broken neon light, I’m so sensitive to sound that I flinch if I’m walking near traffic and my concentration is so poor that it takes me half an hour to leave the house because I can barely get dressed without losing the thread of what I was doing. But I’m not hungry. No, of course not. And worse, I’m loving it.

That’s the problem. Or one facet of the problem at least. Part of me manages to consider this behaviour to be a victory of some sort. I’ve spent whole days surfing on a secret wave of near hysteria that hunger is pulsing through my head and actually gone to bed thinking, “Ha! One satsuma all day. And nobody noticed a thing.” In some internal scoreboard I just had a massive negative calorie day, which is apparently good to the new Anti Chris Party government in my head. Of course, people probably did notice, at least indirectly. When I left my job a while ago, I gave them three dice that they could use to replicate my input into discussions after I’d left. The first one told you whether you were talking to “Grumpy Chris” or “Happy Chris” and determined which of the other two to roll next. One of those featured extremely positive and the other negative, responses to any proposal. It was a joke, but there was a truth in it and I don’t think I need to see a graph correlating my food intake to my mood swings to know what was going on.  Which is the strangest thing about it for me. I consider myself reasonably self-aware and certainly scientifically literate enough to understand that I’m doing myself no good. After all, you don’t exactly need a biology Phd to understand that food is kind of useful in your daily life. So where does it come from?

Obviously, there’s a word that I’m avoiding using, which is “denial”. Oh no sorry, “Anorexia”. I’m avoiding using it for a few reasons.  Firstly, it seems like a word that people just throw out there as if it’s one thing that’s the same for everyone, when in fact it must surely be an infinitely complex issue that is sparked by different pressures and manifests itself in different ways, for everyone it affects. The temptation would surely be to think that now I’ve identified it, that’s job done, when there’s so much more behind the word itself to understand. I’m also worried about appearing to trivialise what is for many people a truly destructive problem, something that can ruin lives. I know I am far from being the worst sufferer of Anorexia. I DO eat reasonably for long periods, even though sometimes I can feel a part of my mind calculating how much I’ll have to deny myself later to balance the books. But that moderate strength doesn’t mean I shouldn’t address it. It isn’t trivialising the issue in general to say that my case might often be quite mild, or that I can cope. But it is still ignoring it. Because mostly, I admit, I just don’t want to admit it. I want to hide behind my shield of “fitness” and “discipline”. So I take pride in the fact that I’m still functioning with so little fuel in me, but then at the same time deny that I am deliberately starving myself. This unwillingness to put a name to it is, sadly, probably rooted in the thankfully threatened but still prevalent dominant perception of “manliness”. This is another thing by which I’ve mistakenly assumed I was largely unaffected. I’m not the sort of laddish bloke who’s going to think that eating disorders are for teenaged girls or that men don’t get sick apart from that curiously gender-specific form of flu they often encounter. And yet, it has taken me a long time to edge my way to the conclusion that I have got a real psychological problem, or at the very least an extremely unhealthy relationship with food and self image.

The most insidious thing about this problem is how it can twist itself in my head. I can’t speak for anyone else who’s struggled with this sort of thing, but it doesn’t feel to me like I’m fighting a destructive urge within myself. The internal logic is so complex and complete that I actually feel like I’m doing myself good, when in reality I’m not trying to stay fit, I’m trying to stay thin, because that is what, on some level, I am suddenly using as the single indicator of health. I tell myself that I’m just keeping in shape, fighting the onset of middle-age spread, being responsible even. So any attempt to counteract the idea in my mind meets with accusations that I lack the strength to do what is necessary to make me…whatever it is that I seem to think this process will make me.

My attempted solution so far has been comprised of long and unproductive attempts to rationalise my way out of it and present myself with an argument so compelling that it instantly banishes all doubt from my mind. These determined and analytical efforts have finally produced an insight worthy of the name, which is that the worst person to help me with being stuck in a closed loop in my own head, is me. So this is Plan B. I’m telling everyone about it. Yes, all three people who read this blog! The plan is that maybe, the next time I’m in the office for lunch, I’ll feel like I have to eat something or people might mutter things to each other. The theory is that I’m British enough to be so worried about being the target of frowning and whispers, that I will instantly fall on and conspicuously consume any food nearby, possibly even any people who just aren’t moving much. I freely admit that leveraging the insecurity of a fear of embarrassment to cure an eating problem doesn’t appear to be a completely positive way of addressing the issue, but the one thing that racing round the same thought patterns in your head for a while does do, is give you a handy sense of your own weaknesses. What it doesn’t tend to give you is the tools to fight them. Those you often need to borrow from someone else.






The New Wave

IMG_0835When the Leatherman was lost, a prophecy was made. A husky, ephemeral voice in my head whispered, “mum will buy me a new one for my birthday.” As with all the great prophecies, something just similar enough happened that I was able to conveniently forget anything from the wording that didn’t fit. It was, in fact, my girlfriend and her family that replaced the device, but I decided that that was close enough and cut myself a little soothsayer slack with the Leatherman’s invisible yet very handy “Figure of Speech” tool. After all, if Nostradamus had got even that close with any of his, then books about him might not all be written by people using tinfoil hats to stop the government controlling their minds.

The new Leatherman is the silver version of my old matt black one, The Wave. I wondered initially how the colour would affect my feelings about it. The black version had had an understated, serious air. “Don’t sit looking at me,” it seemed to say, “just get out there and cut shit to pieces.” The silver version seems more showy, despite presumably being closer to the metal’s original, unadorned colour. I performed the new ownership ritual of opening out every device then putting them back again, resisting the temptation to blindfold myself and time the process with a stopwatch. The silver Wave was pretty slick. Its shininess gave a dashing, dramatic feel to all its many tools, even the tiny pointy thing which was still, as with the previous version, of mysterious purpose.

Soon enough, a job came along that not only called for the Leatherman, but confirmed my sense that the new, gleaming Wave was destined for tasks more creative than destructive, in contrast to its predecessor. Having been charged with printing out tickets for a festival-themed hen do, I found myself with sheets of thick paper, each with four copies of the ticket aligned across it. Instantly, I realised that the main blade was the perfect device for cutting them out. I grabbed a chopping board to protect the floor and, evidently feeling that that was quite enough in the way of sensible thinking for one day, took the glass top off a small table in our room and attempted to use it as a straight edge. If anyone had seen me trying to manoeuvre a 3ft long pane of glass to hold a 6 inch ticket in place on top of a 1ft chopping board, I think the one thing that would have occurred to them was a fervent desire that I should not, under any circumstances, be given a sharp knife.

Taking my sharp knife, I ran it along the edge of the pane of glass, attempting to separate one of the tickets from the sheet. The glass seemed not to balance very well on its tiny chopping-board workbench and the line came out wonky. I sat back and considered the problem. I reasoned that either I needed to make both the tickets and chopping board 2.5ft and 2ft longer respectively or, which seemed more likely, I had not really put a lot of effort into finding a straight edge. I can only be thankful that the first thing I saw when I started looking for one wasn’t my own foot. Next I tried the cardboard cover of my notepad and was amazed to find that the knife I was using to cut thick paper was not adequately restrained by a barrier made of slightly thicker paper. Eventually I discovered a tray buried under the sink that would serve the purpose. The new silver Leatherman was quickly learning the disgust at my abilities that I am convinced had caused the previous one to desert me. When I had finally arrived at a setup that would allow it to work, it performed perfectly, even down to trimming the white paper overlap on the edges where I had erred on the side of caution. I recorded the successful configuration on one of the larger remaining notebook fragments and went to finish the job.

When printing the tickets, I had added a piece of text next to the main graphic, to replicate the terms and conditions that you usually find there. In a fit of boredom, I decided that what the tickets really needed for full authenticity was perforation between the picture and what would then become the stub. For an ecstatic moment, I thought that the day had finally come when the tiny point thing would find its purpose. A series of increasingly less ecstatic moments later, tiny pointy thing had mauled one of the tickets into a pulp, giving rise to my latest theory that it’s actually for making wasp nests. I completed the perforation easily with the tip of the main blade, which is clearly the smug superstar of the Leatherman team, a less shiny Cristiano Ronaldo.

When I was finally finished, I sat back to reflect on the satisfaction, not of a job well done, but of a job done with needless complexity and struggle. Deprived of my Leatherman, I had missed the sense of joyous over-confidence and disregard for my own safety that came from owning something that was so cleverly designed to do absolutely anything. Managing to cram that much danger and stupidity into a task that primary school children would have accomplished safely in an arts & crafts session, was surely what owning a Leatherman is all about. My heart, if not my terrified extremities, gave thanks for the prophecy coming true and to those who made it so.










A Tough Job


Job hunting is a famously depressing activity. Nothing drains the light from you quite like spending hours crafting a cover letter, then phoning a company a few days after applying and hearing an HR person sigh as they struggle to locate, in both their mind and their filing system, even the tiniest shred of recognition of your name or existence. But at least that’s a simple problem, with a simple answer. You just keep battering away and improving. It’s all you can do. The real problem, the thing that really bothers me about job hunting, is the language. I can’t read a job description without thinking that someone is trying to hide something or in fact, that someone is trying to hide everything. After some time reading these things, I’ve concluded that what is being hidden is actually the embarrassing fact that there really isn’t that much to say.

Most job descriptions could be reduced to a couple of lines, but someone long ago decided that that doesn’t look professional enough and that the way to get the people you need into your organisation is to launch a giant snowstorm of jargon and see who can navigate it. Presumably the unspoken “key capability” on all job ads is, “you will be able to read this all the way through and not want to shoot yourself”. One job that I’ve done myself was advertised with at least two pages of copy, but could easily have been represented by the following: Angry people will phone to shout at you. Calm them down and try to help them. Use a computer to record whether or not you were successful.

From this it perfectly clear to me what skills are required and what the job will actually involve. I will have to use a computer in some form and have enough patience to suffer the irony of someone saying, “I don’t like to complain” and then doing exactly that for about an hour. The job description never used any of those words of course, preferring instead to demand that I be a, “skilled, multi-directional communicator”, which to me meant nothing more than that I ought to be able to speak and that I must have a neck of normal, human flexibility.

That’s the sort of language that’s everywhere in the job hunting world. I’ve seen roles that require the successful victim to, “support the overall brand communication strategy” or “create sophisticated, event-driven, personalised communications”, which I think broadly translate respectively to, “don’t go thinking up crazy stuff on your own without checking with anyone” and “send out messages when things happen”. But there very rarely seems to be any correlation between the job as advertised and what you actually end up doing, at least in a linguistic sense. Nobody ever turns round to you in the office and says, “Could you please deploy your technical competency and problem-solving positivity to realise caffeine-related goals across all platforms”, they just ask if you could get some drinks. The moment you start work, all the jargon is gone. You can’t remember who you’re supposed to be “liaising with” and who you only “work alongside”. If someone asks you to put together a newsletter about a new product, I’ll lay decent odds that you don’t reply, “Of course, I will immediately design and execute that B2C engagement motivator to ensure the upward curve of our customer dialogue statistics.” You just get on with it.

The sad truth, I suppose, is that the need for obfuscation in job descriptions is entirely necessary. If you told people what they were really in for, you’d never be able to hire anyone. Who would apply for a job which promised that you would sit right through an unproductive three-hour meeting, only to hear someone say to the people already in the room, without apparently joking or actively trying to get punched in the face, “we need to all sit down and talk about this some time soon.” Who would apply if you honestly said, “this job is tough and it will eat your life and the fragile, hard-won joys are rare, but hey, in two years time it’ll look good on your CV, if you can stay sane.” Perhaps if you print them out and hold them up to the light in a certain way, job ads do actually have this secretly coded into them, so that you can’t later say that you weren’t warned. If they don’t, then maybe they should.


The Mystery Bus

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I just travelled the length of a continent with only the occasional delay. I figured out bizarre schedules and nonsensical routes and always arrived, reasonably on schedule, with nothing more than a little weariness. But finally, I find myself faced with a travel challenge that defeats me in its demanding complexity. Wiltshire.

If you look on a map, the places in Wiltshire to which you might wish to travel are quite close together, but what you cannot know is that the entire county is riddled with a kind of reverse wormhole that makes two points much harder to get between than they should be. These anomalies, which appear shaped like buses to the naked eye, bend space and time to make, for example, the 40 minute drive from Devizes to Bath occupy an indeterminable period. If you undertake the entire round trip by public transport, you may arrive home to find that so much time has passed that your grandchildren have paid off your student loan. It might well explain why everyone on the buses is white haired. Some of them are probably centuries old, still travelling to places that have long since ceased to exist, like railway stations perhaps, and now trapped in a dimension in which time has become tangled up in the dense hedgerows and will never pass again.

Clearly the problem is not new. Some archaeologists suggest that local monument Stonehenge is an early attempt to determine where the X72 bus is going to appear next. The route the bus takes is so arcane that it’s perfectly likely that ancient civilisations worshipped its erratic, shining appearances in their landscape. Some of the stones in the megalithic structure may have come from Wales, but this was probably less about the suitability of the rock and more due to the fact that, even then, the rituals of the region required the builders to go all the way to Cardiff in order to get from one small settlement to the one over the hill. Centuries later, the magic was still strong  enough to inspire the planners of the A roads around Devizes to inscribe a giant empty rune upon the land in tarmac, with the town at its centre. Within this symbol, the bus-shaped phenomena weave sacred patterns designed to ward off the souls of dead trains, which still haunt the empty rails of the defunct lines left over from the dangerous era when Wiltshire was briefly connected to the outside world. Bus passengers engaged in the literal rite of passage stare in vacant obedience as, time and again, they approach a turning to Bath and then veer away at the last minute towards a small village, to check if any of its residents are A: not yet dead, and B: making their annual trip to “the city”.

Of course, growing up here I should have been used to all this, but I couldn’t shake the sense of frustration until I realised that the problem was entirely one of perception. I was no longer, “travelling”, I was now just trying to get from one place to another. Tangled routes and lengthy confusion about schedules had been an adventure to me when they involved far-off place names, but now I could only view a diversion through Monkton Farleigh as an irritation. So I relaxed. I told myself to enjoy the rambling roads and treat the places so familiar as something new. I settled into the bus journeys, looking out at rural England like a tourist. I smiled at rose-draped thatched cottages and swayed as the bus made tight turns around sombre war memorials present in even the smallest villages. I picked out the huge chalk white horses on the hills and watched the wind chase silver trails across the gentle green landscape. I learned to love Wiltshire again. Then someone leant me a car. I still love Wiltshire of course, but now I can love it in a straight line that takes me, oddly enough, about the time you’d expect to travel along it. May the ancient gods of Stonehenge forgive me.






Man v Meal


Food on aeroplanes isn’t just a meal, it’s a strategic and logistical conflict that deserves to sit alongside chess in the great allegorical pastimes. The tactical balance of tensions between tiny plastic lids, hot foil, impenetrable sachets and rattling trays, all being played out by a person with their elbows clamped to their ribs, never fails to exhilarate and enlighten me on long haul flights.
The moment that the steward has set the board in front of me, I begin deciding on the order in which I want to eat everything. I survey my pieces slowly and carefully, because it will determine my opening move and the development of the game. While I contemplate that crucial first step I bounce the rectangle of what claims to be cheese thoughtfully off the window with a rhythmic thud. Steve Mcqueen meets Wallace and Gromit, teamed up against the Shallow Blue Tray of British Airways. Hardly, I already sense, a fair match.
I opt to start with the main dish, ignoring the obvious grab for the centre of the board represented by the bread roll. I peel back the foil lid and flip it neatly under the tub. Nicely done. Efficient use of space. Solid opener. Shallow Blue responds by dumping a small pool of condensation from the lid onto the tray in a move so beautifully subtle that I completely fail to notice. Until, that is, I reach for the cellophane packet of cutlery and condiments, tear it open and slide the contents into my hand. A cataclysmic error. As the plane suddenly judders, the spoon disappears between my seat and the one next to me, the knife vanishes completely and a tiny toothpick shoots under a smaller tub on the main tray. A lucky break lands the fork in the chicken, but the sachets of salt and pepper drop neatly into the condensation pool. The trap is sprung. Shallow Blue displays a smug-eyebrowed emoticon. Check in one move.
Recovering the spoon involves me extending one arm down past my knees towards the floor and leaning sideways with my neck at an unnatural angle. The suited man in the seat next to me must think I’ve suddenly fallen in love with his left shoulder, but thankfully he is also British, so he’s unlikely to say anything unless I actually start licking his ear. As I straighten with the spoon in hand, I jog the table and dislodge a small sub-tray from the depression in which it had sat, sending the depression that it contains, a chocolate mousse, leaping into my lap. Thankfully, the lid stays on and I replace the tray, return the spoon to the packet, retrieve the fork from the chicken and sit back to survey the damage. The early exchanges have not gone well. Clearly control has been completely ceded to my opponent who, had they been an actual chess supercomputer, would by now have gone into sleep mode and left a multicoloured, comic sans, “you’re an idiot” banner bouncing lazily around the screen, safe in the knowledge that I am more than capable of losing to myself from here. My position is in fact so poor that I resolve to eat the rest of the meal using only the fork, determinedly crushing butter between the tines and raking up mousse with everything tasting faintly of gravy.
The meal ends in a resounding defeat but, as with chess, great lessons have been learned. Firstly, I realise that I have spent a lot of time looking for spoons recently and I speculate idly about putting some on strings, like mittens. More importantly though, I have learnt, from the assessment of priorities and the careful planning that the meal enforces, a truly fundamental life lesson, which is that I should work harder and make more money so that I can travel first class. I resolve to move slowly forwards towards my goal, knowing that if I get far enough, I will eventually be made king. Then I remember that that’s draughts, not chess and realise that I have clearly learnt nothing. This plan needs work. Thankfully they’re bringing coffee and there’s a bit of the tray perfectly designed for the cup. This one seems almost too easy…

Camping: the price of the outdoors


“Where’s the spoon?”
“Oh, I put it down…somewhere…”
There is a sheety rustling of nylon, some muffled thumps. A weak torch beam spins crazily. Something falls over and spills water everywhere, a flailing foot catches a shoulder. There is a tense silence.
“Are you looking or am I? We can’t both look, there’s no room.”
“I thought you were. I can’t look unless you squish your legs up. Can you see it? I think I’m sitting on it.”
There is a crushed and contorted attempt to get off the ground as far as the six inches of headroom will allow, as if two people have been forced to play Twister in a car boot. It seems impossible that something can be so hard to find in so small a space.
“Just get out of the tent and I’ll find it.”
“I haven’t got shoes on. It’s wet outside. And my only available shoes are also wet. And my feet are wet. And all the food is wet. And the clothes that I wrapped in three plastic bags, in the middle of my waterproof day bag, which had its rain cover on even though there wasn’t a drop of rain….guess what?!”
“Ok, forget the spoon, we’ll just eat soup straight from the pan, lapping at it like cats. How’s that sound?”
“Wait! I have the spoon! It was under the sleeping mat.”
The spoon emerges covered in grass and grime and has, despite being clean when lost only seconds ago, somehow taken on the appearance of an ancient artifact unearthed after centuries. They regard the spoon.
“Biscuits for dinner?”
“Yeah ok.”
This is why I hate camping. The trouble is, depending on your point of view, this demonstrates one of two things. Either that camping is a terrible and ridiculous way to live, or that I’m just not very good at it. A friend of mine takes camping seriously. When his family go away, they turn up and quickly convert an area of the campsite into a small canvas village that would have any passing Romans nodding in appreciation, then probably wondering how to conquer it. It wouldn’t be easily taken either, my friends probably have a North Face collapsible pallisade and a set of stackable boiling oil cauldrons. You know, just in case.
My problem with this though, is that the only sane reason to subject yourself to a life of badly balanced crockery, backache and all-pervasive dampness, is the places it gives you access to. To be so well-equipped means having a car and therefore giving up the freedom to roam on long trails into the mountains, to pause and hear nothing but the air as it moves through the trees, heaves into your lungs and snaps at your clothes. And that’s the bit I love. Like a backwards Dante, the journey is heaven, ending in a sloped and bumpy triangle of hell where souls are condemned to a sleepless eternity of headbutting each other if they attempt to turn over, their screams of torment muffled by the stupid hood of the sleeping bag which, no matter how much they limblessly writhe, is somehow always either covering their faces or achieving nothing.
Camping, for me, is a series of these absurd choices. The face-hugging sleeping bag asks you, “breathe or freeze?”, your waterproofs present you with the option of soaking externally first, from the rain, or internally first, from your own sweat. They do not offer you the option of being actually dry. You can either wear thin gloves that are as thermally effective as thinking hot thoughts, or keep your hands warm and have all the manual dexterity of a drunk penguin. When eating, do you put the plate on the ground and use both knife and fork, hunched over your food like a wolf with exceptional table manners, or do you hold the plate in one hand and jab repeatedly at the unsecured food with the knife in the hope that it might eventually separate?
For all the inconvenience that they imply though, there is a certain release in all of these questions. They provide an underlying acknowledgement that the normal rules are relaxed, that you are free of the usual strictures of society. Dining etiquette? If you can keep it still and free from grass/sand/ashes/dogs, then just get it in there, however you like. Personal hygiene? Getting naked is so far from anybody’s mind and so elasticatedly complex that nobody will ever smell you, so just baby wipe the bits that show and forget about it. These are freedoms that you’ll never experience in day to day life. Try grabbing a handful of salad leaves and stuffing them into your mouth the next time you’re at someone’s house for dinner. Or turning up having gone for a run and not showered. You probably won’t be invited back.                                                   But the most important freedom, the most important question, is quite simply, “indoors or outdoors?” and if camping is the price of being outside, I’ll pay any amount of frozen-fingered washing up, poor sleep and torchlit rummaging to be crunching through forests or climbing ridges to see the world laid out beneath me. I’ll even try and remember what I did with the spoon.