Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Dawn Chorus

I awoke around 4am and knew I would not sleep again. The dim light of dawn crept in through the blinds at the window and I lay flat on my back to listen to the morning. The usual inexplicable taps, creeks and knocks of this old cottage were first to emerge. The quiet sound of my wife’s rhythmic breathing accentuated the warm comfort of the bed and I closed my eyes, pulling the covers up close to my face. Cocky the cockerel was in full cry from across the valley (I gave him that name when we first came here a year and a half ago) and I got up and moved to the window. Peering through the blind the morning looked overcast and damp. As I unlatched the window and opened it, just an inch, the beautiful sound of morning tumbled in.

The Dawn Chorus is a wonderful event here in the Yorkshire Dales; the daily song of countless birds as they call for mates and protect their territory provides a priceless pleasure. Sniffing the cool oxygen of morning awoke my senses and I returned to bed to listen, hoping the noisy birds would not wake my wife. I lay for a while imagining what the morning was like on the fells and hills that surround the village. The crows were the most vocal of all, nesting in the trees outside the cottage; their spooky calls causing me to snuggle deeper into my pillow.

The clock showed 4:44am and the thought of a morning in the hills enticed me out of bed. I dressed quickly, packed a small back pack, put on my boots and headed out. The village was deserted and as I reached the centre the church clock showed 5am; the Union flag atop the tower moving almost imperceptibly in the gentle breeze. Climbing gradually out the back of the village I reached the Common and started my ascent to the foothills of the mountain. The bridleway was steep and my breathing heavy but reaching the top of the first hill provided its reward. I looked back across the village. One or two street lamps were still lit but there was no sign of human life. The sky hung low and heavy over the valley promising rain and the distant hills in the west unfolded in shades of grey and green and faded into mist on the horizon. Looking towards the mountain the murderous crows drifted thick and black like a cape, caught by the breeze, rising and falling, tumbling and turning across landscape. I stood and let the morning wash over me, grateful for the simple pleasure of being alive in this moment.

I suddenly realised that countless sheep were standing looking at me, anticipating my next move. I started back down via a different route in the direction of the river and they scattered instinctively, panicked by a nonexistent danger. I walked through fields of buttercups, all closed now from the cool night and took care not to stand on the many snails along the path, each having their own pattern, size and colour. In the distance I could hear the river. The skies were lighter now with a hint of blue in the east. On reaching the river I followed it back into the village and as I entered I saw the paper boy on his morning round and said a ‘hello’ to a man leaving the village with his dog. The church clock announced 6am.

On reaching home I noticed that the crows in the trees had quietened and I settled down for a hot cup of tea and began writing this blog in the knowledge that I did not have to be at my desk and work for another three hours.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Z is for ZZzzz! (A-Z Challenge)

At last, we come to the end of the A-Z Challenge. I almost didn't take part, but decided I would have a go after seeing so many people doing it and I haven't been disappointed. There seems to have been a pattern going on. There was a strong start and lots of interest from other bloggers coming to visit. I also went out there and made a big effort to visit other sites. Then there was a bit of a lull, before another surge of effort to make the most of the opportunity. And now, towards the end, I have to admit that I found it hard to keep going at times.

The great thing is that I've met lots of new and interesting people out there in the blogosphere, with many viewpoints and stories to tell. I expect I'll continue to visit them from time to time. Another benefit of this challenge has been the act of blogging every day without fail - getting into the habit and making it part of what I do. I'm also happy that I actually had something to say, whether it was in poetry, a quote or just a few words about wellbeing, which is very important to me.

But now it's the end of 26 days of blogging. Thanks to the A-Z Challenge guys who set the whole thing up and thanks to all the people who took the time to visit. I appreciate it. So now it's time to get some Z's - ZZzzzz! Sorry, that's the best I can do with Z!

Until next year, bye for now!


Monday, 29 April 2013

Y is for Yo-Yo (A-Z Challenge)

I bet we've all had a toy Yo-Yo as a child and it seems like such a modern thing to have. But did you know that Yo-Yo's go back a very long way? This picture is of a Greek vase from around 500 BC. It is thought that it shows a boy playing with a Yo-Yo made of terracotta. Other toys were made of wood or metal in those days and some terracotta disks were used for ceremonial reasons. It's amazing what you learn doing the A-Z Challenge! Tomorrow is the final day. Looking forward to Z.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

X is for Scrabble (A-Z Challenge)

I'm pretty poor at Scrabble and almost always get beat by my wife who, let's face it, is pretty smug about that!! My solution is not to play under any circumstances. But I've just done my research and am ready for those times when I'm left, at the end of a game, with with just an X and another letter. Here are some two letter X words that are legal in Scrabble and will impress my wife and I won't feel like such a loser!

Xu - A coin from South Vietnam and a sub unit of a Dong - I kid you not!
Ax - A tool or weapon. You don't need an 'e' on the end - honest!
Ex - A colloquial term - 'Ex-Wife' (if she beats me again at Scrabble).
Ox - As in Cattle!
Xi - The fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.

They are all worth 9 points. Which isn't much use to me as I'm usually about 50 points behind towards the end of a game!

Any other two letter X words out there?

Friday, 26 April 2013

W is for Will Power (A-Z Challenge)

"Willing is not enough, we must do"

This will be a very short post today, as work has been tough today and I need to get in the car and drive for four and a half hours. But where there's a will there's a way! Which brings me to my blog post for today....

Have you ever had a new year's resolution that you've not kept? Of course you have. What about a diet? Yes, I know what you mean. I've come to the conclusion that will power is not enough. Just willing it to happen hardly ever works. When it comes to dieting, for example, your body's urges and needs are far more powerful than any will power you can muster. Those urges are the result of millions of years of evolution and they don't give in easily - thankfully, or our very survival would have been at stake. So willing your way to success is not going to work.

In order to overcome this, it's important that you make whatever you want to achieve part of your lifestyle - make it the norm, gradually at first but moving towards the goal with incremental steps. If it's the gym you want to go to regularly, just turn up at first. Don't worry about the workout. Maybe just take a look at the new gym. Next time, just turn up and do 10 minutes. If it's eating healthier food you are interested in, start with changing breakfast only on one day in the week. Buy enough fruit (for example) for that single day's breakfast. Change that one thing, get used to it and build on it. What I'm saying is, start very simply and make it part of your lifestyle. This is not will power, it's just 'what you do'. This starts to build momentum and small incremental steps take very much less will power than trying to make big changes quickly. Trying to do things in a big way is tempting, but resist this temptation - it's counterproductive. As time passes, your brain will accept that this is normal for you and it will become much easier.

I wouldn't tell you this if I hadn't tried it and made sure it works first. Good luck!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

V is for Verdant Walk (A-Z Challenge)

After completing a long day in my office the sun was still brilliant through my window and I decided upon a walk. Throwing on a light coat and a pair of comfortable walking boots, always ready by the front door, I closed the door of my little cottage behind me and headed down the lane. The evening air had that wonderful cool freshness about it. Breathing it in was like drinking a long cold glass of iced water on a hot day. There was a spring in my step and there was contentment about this simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. I stopped a while overlooking the valley, which dips sharply down towards the river and watched rabbits chasing each other up and down the hill. Beyond, the sheep stood, dotted about a farmer's field. We are well into lambing season, here in the Yorkshire Dales and lambs are everywhere, playing with gay abandon on every hillside. I walked on and soon crossed the old iron bridge, which spans the river. We have had some rain recently and the river was full and fast, its sound like distant thunder, its white froth bubbling and churning. This river runs west towards the sea but first has to flow through many little villages and rolling hillsides to get there. There, the sun was setting; its gold and yellow haze, its gentle warmth on my face. I stopped several times just to stand, eyes closed against the light; the gentle breeze, the bleating of lambs, the song of many birds newly arrived for the spring.

At the halfway point of my walk I turned to look back. The beautiful mountain was bathed in the golden light and its rugged and rocky slopes were accentuated by the low evening sun. This mountain stands behind my village, which nestles in the valley, invisibly from this viewpoint. So I began my return journey via a different route, the mountain peak directly ahead of me, drawing me home. And soon, just around the next bend, the most beautiful and verdant view appeared, as it always does, but still makes me stop and stare. Beyond the dry stone wall, the field, beyond the field a wonderful meadow. Beyond the meadow the rolling hillside dotted with countless sheep. Beyond the hillside, the sky; vivid blue with cotton wool clouds whose edges were pulled by invisible fingers into wispy strands disappearing into the distance.

I stayed at this spot for a while before walking on down the lane towards the valley bottom. Entering my village I was greeted, as usual, by three ponies - two white and one brown - poking their noses through a farmyard gate. Some young people stood feeding them grass and stroking their manes. Almost home I crossed the river again - it is actually two rivers at this point, which join to form the one I crossed earlier. The smoke from the chimneys in the village smelled of wood and sweetness and I climbed up to the village centre near the church on the hill before turning right and back towards the cottage. By now the sun was almost set but I noticed again how much longer the days are now that spring is finally underway. There's an ancient beauty to this place and, as I unlocked my front door, I was reminded again of how lucky I am to be here.

I really enjoyed my verdant walk and just had to tell you about it. I couldn't wait for 'W'.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

U is for Utah Drinking Laws (A-Z Challenge)

When I went to Utah about a year ago I was amazed to find you could not, generally, get a nice cold beer (in the 40 Celcius heat) in any bar/restaurant, unless it accompanied food. This was very strange to me, coming from the UK. I love a nice Bud!

So I was really glad to find a roadside establishment, with great seating outside, getting around the Utah alcohol laws by giving its customers free food if you ordered a beer (or other alcoholic drink). What a lifesaver it was.

What a strange law! A beer is the same with or without a few nachos and dips thrown in for free.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

T is for Technology (A-Z Challenge)

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
(Arthur C. Clarke)

I'm really not that old, honest! But I can remember a world before computers - just. For so many people alive today a world without computers would be unthinkable - unimaginable. For years, as my kids have been growing up, they have, from time to time, thought of me as some sort of idiot if I have spent too long searching for the pause button on the video recorder (or should I say DVD player) or not instinctively known my way around Facebook. They would grab the remote or the mouse from me and complete what I wanted to do in half the time. "There, it's easy. What's the problem?" And in doing so they have believed that they are 'experts' and I'm just some sort of dinosaur!

The truth is, these days, you don't need to actually understand what goes on inside a computer to be able to use is, enjoy it, make it do amazing things and feel like an expert. It might as well be magic. But I remember when you really did have to understand a computer to be able to use it. To put something into a computer took knowledge of something called Machine Code and you had to know what the holes were for on a punched card or tape. In order for two computers to talk to each other you had to know what a modem did and be able to configure all the little dip switches to make it do the right thing. The first computer I ever saw was at senior (high) school and it really did fill a whole room. The gigantic black box would roar away and cooling fans would blow your hair about. There were no screens to look at then, only a terminal that looked like a glorified typewriter - very noisy, with reams of paper spewing onto the floor.

I've made my career in computers. I've installed them, sold them, fixed them and built them. Doing these things took real knowledge and brought a certain satisfaction. When Windows came along (yes, there was a time when Windows did not exist), getting it to work and stay working was no easy task. As long as you didn't have to change anything you would be ok. But buy a new printer or try to install another application and you were in for hours of heartache. You could guarantee that it would not work. Something would go wrong. And you had to know something of what goes on inside a computer to fix it.

What kid today really knows why computers need memory or a hard drive? It's not as straightforward an answer as you might think. Who knows the difference between a bit and a byte? What's a protocol? How does a network actually work? The truth is it's really not magic after all - it's decades of research and development by dedicated and clever people. Today there are still armies of dedicated and clever people making things that to the average person amounts to magic. I'm glad I'm old enough to know how a computer works on the inside and next time my kids grab the mouse and roll their eyes at me, I'll roll my eyes right back and let them have their moment in the sun.

Monday, 22 April 2013

S is for Stress (A-Z Challenge)

“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” 

Ever had one of those days? It's worth listening to the wise words of Steve Maraboli (above).

Saturday, 20 April 2013

R is for Red, White and Blue (A-Z Challenge)

"In America your internationalism can and should be your patriotism" (Christopher Hitchens "On Becoming American", Atlantic Monthly , May 2005)


Is there any depth to which those who hate freedom will not sink in their futile attempt to kill and maim innocent human beings in the name of an ideology, political belief or religion? It's all so sickeningly familiar, isn't it? I almost feel sorry for the sad, intellectually bankrupt individuals and groups who continue to think that atrocity is a means to an end. How ironic that the land of the free is attacked from within by people who are fortunate enough to have been accepted and nurtured by a society built by immigrants. But how wonderful to see the good people of Boston come out onto the streets to celebrate and give thanks as peace was once again restored through blood, sweat and tears. These are the people who know what freedom is; a freedom that will be strengthened and cherished all the more, with every new attempt to destroy it.

Boston, all right-minded people throughout the world will stand with you.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Q is for Quintessentially English (A-Z Challenge)

I could probably go on for hours about what is quintessentially English but I'll have to settle for just a few examples:

Yorkshire Pudding
If you have not tried Yorkshire Pudding you really should. It's basically a batter pudding - a very English pudding typically eaten with Roast Beef. The pudding usually has a well in it, which is great for filling with gravy. Another great dish, usually found in good pubs, is a Yorkshire Pudding filled with sausages (hopefully Cumberland sausages - again, very English) and topped with gravy, hopefully with white onions. Heaven!

Cucumber Sandwiches
More food! This time it's a delicate sandwich, made using fluffy white bread and filled with sliced cucumber. But the most important thing is to remember to cut the crusts off the bread and cut the sandwiches into small triangles. Best to serve them on fine china plates with a nice pot of hot tea.

How could I forget Tea? Now I know that Tea does not originate in England (probably China) but you cannot go anywhere in England without seeing a Tea shop or Tea Room. It still amazes me that there are places dedicated to making and serving tea, usually accompanied by cakes and biscuits of all kinds. I recently visited one of the oldest and most famous tea shops in England and drank from lovely china cups. The room was oak-panelled and across the road, through the leaded windows was an English castle. This was in Northumberland. I wonder if you know which place this was. It was a real taste of England.

Fish and Chips
Fish and Chip shops are plentiful in England. Typically, you buy a fillet of Cod or Haddock coated with a lovely batter and deep fried. With it you have freshly cut chips (fries in the USA), but they need to be thick and crispy, not thin and limp! You might have a dollop of mushy peas with it too. And don't forget to sprinkle with a lot of salt and vinegar and eat the whole thing from the paper it's wrapped in. Enjoy!

Lawn Tennis
Tennis played on grass is typically English. The original game of 'Real Tennis' was quite different from today's game - more like Squash. King Henry VIII helped to make Real Tennis big in England when he built a court in Hampton Court Palace in the year 1530. I remember going there as a child. There was no grass. It was indoors. Today, a visit to Wimbledon for the Lawn Tennis Championships is such a lovely, very English day out. Camping overnight in order to get a ticket for a show court, drinking Pimms and eating strawberries and cream and, oh yes, watching Tennis on grass.

Saint George
St George is the patron Saint of England. The story of how he slew a dragon is famous. He is celebrated in England on 23 April and the flag shown above if the flag of St George. But did you know he was actually Greek?

Thursday, 18 April 2013

P is for Poetry [Sunrise Part II] (A-Z Challenge)

One of my first entries on this blog was a poem called Sunrise. In this entry I have repeated that poem and added to it. It's about a morning on the beach in a place I love. Hope you like it.

Sunrise - a Poem

Triumphant, the sun god rises, blazing light;
A sentinel against the night.
Darkness cowers before his feet,
Fearful of the morn to meet.

Above the lighthouse and in the bay

His radiant warmth will waft the mist away,

Revealing lines of vivid blue,

A brush stroke, swift and clean and new.

In awe I stand upon the sand;

A pilgrim, alone upon this land

Of virgin white, my homage paid,

Awash in preternatural light and shade.

The world's asleep but not for long,

And soon there'll be a mighty throng

Upon the beach and in the town,

Where flesh and din and ice-cream abound.

Now I must leave but long to stay,

I'm ready now to face the day,

When night returns and day is passed

I'll sleep and wait for dawn at last.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

O is for OH NO! No Broadband

Unable to do a proper post today. Broadband is down in this part of the country due to bad storms. Did this via phone network. Very slow!!

Hopefully back tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

N is for Nature (A-Z Challenge)

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, this is what it is to be happy.”
(Sylvia Plath)

You can't be happy all the time. But there are times when happiness just presents itself, unexpectedly. Some of my happiest moments have been when I have been out amongst Nature, usually on a country or mountain walk. One such time I'll always remember was when I visited the USA last year and I was on a walk along the edge of a vast canyon in Canyonlands. It was only a couple of miles to reach a rocky outcrop overlooking the canyon. I climbed as high and as far out to the edge as I could and looked out. I was not prepared for the complete and utter silence encountered there; it seemed to scream in my ears. I could see for miles and miles into the distant haze and the evening sun warmed my face and chest. I just had to sit down at the edge and hope that no-one would disturb the moment. I found it hard to tear myself away, knowing that I would almost certainly never return. It's in moments like this that happiness is a tangible reality, something you can almost touch. And you take it with you when you leave. Most of the time happiness is something you choose. But there are times when it chooses you.

Monday, 15 April 2013

M is for Mother [A Sonnet] (A-Z Challenge)

I wrote this about 7 years ago but thought I would share it with you as part of the A-Z Challenge. I tried to write it in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. I'm sure it's nowhere near right, but it means a lot to me nonetheless. Hope you like it.
A Sonnet

Within a crowd I thought I saw your face;
Your Roman nose, your glinting eyes, your skin,
Your gait, a restless memory; a trace,
Of long lost motherhood, my flesh and kin,
As painful memories are lost in love
And longing, to be with you once again
Is all I crave; a moment from above,
A touch, a glance, communion to attain.
A time to heal, a bridge to build and cross
This endless gulf of space and time, and yet
To grasp and hold and feel what I have lost;
To quench my thirst and feelings of regret,
But when you looked into my face I knew;
Your vacant glance told me it was not you.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

L is for Lifelong Learning (A-Z Challenge)

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.
  Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” 
(Henry Ford)
Lifelong learning is inevitable, in one sense. We can't help it: our five senses make sure of that. Everything we experience must teach us something. But what I'm talking about in this blog is deliberate, purposeful enquiry - more than experience. I love the quotation by Henry Ford (above) because it speaks of one of the many fruits of learning - keeping the mind keen and vibrant. It might mean taking a course or going on a journey, reading a book or having a conversation with friends. But it's not the act itself; it's the attitude and intention with which we do it.

When we are children there are good evolutionary reasons for being credulous but when we attain adulthood we begin to come to our own conclusions about life. And we should take full advantage of our innate capability to experience, to reason and to develop our knowledge in a way that shapes our values and stimulates our minds. And as we get older we will know that it was time well spent. Because of lifelong learning we may become old of body but we will be young of mind.

Friday, 12 April 2013

K is for Knackered (A-Z Challenge)

It had to happen at some time during the A-Z Challenge: I'm Kompletely Knackered and Kannot Kthink of anything to Kommunicate about 'K'.

Back tomorrow to regroup!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

J is for Jargon (A-Z Challenge)

Today's blog is about business JARGON....

Annoying jargon in the workplace to be exact. It's amazing what we will say in the workplace that we wouldn't dream of saying at home. Here are some examples, which annoy me greatly! What about you?

The limit of your ability. "Excuse me darling, do you mind taking the rubbish out today, only I don't have the bandwidth" - I don't think so!!

Boots on the Ground
Referring to employees sent to a location to do project work of some kind. I've heard this so many times in the office, it drives me mad!

Reducing the size of the workforce - redundancy. Say no more.

Making an estimate - "Can you give me a ballpark figure?" I have to admit I use this quite a lot myself, and it annoys me!

A face to face meeting. What's wrong with just MEETING?

Touch Base
Don't you just hate this one? One to be avoided if you have any self respect. Why not just say "I'll contact you". Then you wouldn't sound like a complete and utter t*%£

Blue-sky Thinking
I'm not even going to grace this with an explanation.

Thinking Outside the Box

Muppet Shuffle
My personal favourite - Getting rid of underperforming employees and passing them onto another unsuspecting department!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

I is for Ingleborough (A-Z Challenge)

Ingleborough has become one of my favourite mountains. I walk there often since moving to the Yorkshire Dales about a year and a half ago. This photograph was taken recently, on a lovely spring day on one of the many approaches to it. Winter is still trying to cling on in the UK and you can still see the snow on the mountainside. But spring is certainly in the air now.

Ingleborough is the second highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales, at 723m and one of a trio of mountains known as the 'The Three Peaks'.  The other two are Whernside (736m) and Pen-y-ghent (694m). I've had the pleasure of climbing all three a number of times. These three peaks are climbed regularly, one after the other, as part of the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge: a 24 mile circular walk ending in a little village called Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

Ingleborough is intriguing in that there are visible remains of ruined battlements at the summit and evidence of ancient round houses. I love the thought that people have lived and died on this mountain for so many centuries. One funny story is of a round tower ,or Hospice, which was built close to the summit in 1830. On the day of its opening the celebrations became so raucous and alcohol-fuelled that the tower was pulled down and partly destroyed by the revellers. It was never re-built and the rest was destroyed some time later. Its scattered remains are there to this day.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

H is for Hard (A-Z Challenge)

I came across a Facebook post recently about why English is HARD to learn. This is why:

  1. The bandage was wound around the wound.
  2. The farm was used to produce produce.
  3. The dump was so full it had to refuse more refuse.
  4. We must polish the Polish furniture.
  5. He could lead if he could get the lead out.
  6. The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  7. Since there was no time like the present, he decided to present the present.
  8. A bass was painted on the bass drum.
  9. The dove dove into the bushes.
  10. He did not object to the object.
  11. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  12. There was a row amongst the oarsmen about how to row.
  13. They were too close to the door to close it.
  14. The buck does funny things when the does are present.
  15. A seamstress and a sewer fell into the sewer.
  16. To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
  17. The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
  18. After a number of injections my gum got number.
  19. After seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
  20. I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
  21. How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Monday, 8 April 2013

G is for The Great Gatsby [A Review] (A-Z Challenge)

Some regard The Great Gatsby as F. Scott Fitzgerald's finest novel. I cannot say otherwise, as this was my first exposure to his work. 'Fine', however, is too small a word to describe this novel. I became immersed immediately into the glittering, roaring twenties; the wonderful world of excess, money and ambition.
The story is seen from the viewpoint of Nick Carraway, who finds himself living across the street from Jay Gatsby's Long Island Sound mansion. His narration drew me into Gatsby's world of parties and his decadent lifestyle, wonderfully described using beautifully poetic language. I found myself re-reading whole paragraphs just for the sheer pleasure of it; this is not a book to be rushed.
Nick enters Gatsby's world by invitation and as their relationship develops, so too does the feeling that Nick is always on the outside looking in, never getting close to who Gatsby really is and where he has come from. Gatsby's past remains mysterious to the end and I always felt that whatever he was hiding would never fully come to light. And that's fine because, here, it's the journey that counts and not the destination. Gatsby is a self-made millionaire with a murky past. When he moves to Long Island Sound it is to be close the Daisy; his love of years ago.
Their relationship ended when he went to serve abroad and she ended up marrying a brutal and bullying man - Tom Buchanan. Now Gatsby is once again in pursuit of Daisy, with terrible consequences.
I found the characterisation and description of relationships to be most pleasing about this book: the quality of Fitzgerald's writing brings them to life. I had a similar experience when reading Brideshead Revisited recently. And now I see there is a film about to be released staring Leonardo Dicaprio and I can't wait. The story is simple but rich. I hope the film does it justice. I intend to review the film here in due course.
Do yourself a favour - buy this book, make yourself a coffee and enjoy!

Saturday, 6 April 2013

F is for Facebook [and Aristotle] (A-Z Challenge)

"A friend to all is a friend to none"
Isn't social media an amazing phenomenon? I must admit that I am not a big Facebook user and only started using it as a way of maintaining easy communication with my kids when they started to move away to university. I'm not a big fan of 'technology for technology's sake'; there has to be a purpose or a good use to put it to.
But it seems to me that Facebook is seen by many, particularly the young, as the keystone of their identity: without it they do not exist or they will be excluded, overlooked and on the fringes of all that's good and exciting in the world. Kids are not officially going out with their boyfriend or girlfriend until Facebook states that they are 'in a relationship'; it actually needs to be written down in their profile! Facebook has become so ingrained in society that some young people (not all, of course) measure their self-worth by the number of 'friends' they accumulate and the image they portray in their online space. I wonder how many people have been made to feel somehow inadequate if they do not have hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook?
I know for certain that the quantity of 'friends' on Facebook says nothing about a person's ability to make friends, be sociable or have high self-worth. Isn't social media giving our young people the impression that they have a large circle of friends, while in reality they hardly ever see those people in person or even speak to them on the phone? Are they really friends or was Aristotle right when he said "a friend to all is a friend to none?"
What do you think?

Friday, 5 April 2013

E is for Earth (A-Z Challenge)

I was reading some interesting facts about planet Earth recently. Believe me, there are more interesting facts than you can shake a stick at! That said, I thought I would include just two of them here.

Making More Time
Have you ever wished that there were more hours in the day? The good news is that, some time in the future there will be! The bad news is that you'll have to wait a few million years for it to happen. The fact is that the earth's rotation is slowing down. It is believed that millions of years in the future a day could be as much as 27 hours long. Imagine all the extra ironing you could get done!

Going Places
Without even knowing it we are truely going places we could only ever dream about. In fact, every year the earth travels a distance of approx 580 million miles around the sun, taking us with it. And it travels at a speed of 67,000 miles per hour. If you really think about this for a minute it can blow your mind. Most of us don't go very far in our daily lives. We might drive to the office and back or, at most, go on holiday abroad each year and think we have really travelled. But without even noticing, we are really travelling huge distances. By my calculations, every day we are travelling approx 1.5 million miles. Phew! I'm feeling tired - time for a coffee!

Thursday, 4 April 2013

D is for Diary (A-Z Challenge)

"Memory...is the diary we all carry about with us."
(Oscar Wilde)

Almost 23 years ago I began writing a daily diary or journal, prompted by the birth of my first child. The enormity of my new responsibility as a father felt overwhelming and I wanted somewhere to put down my thoughts and feelings. 23 years later I'm still doing it, maybe not with the same intensity as at the beginning, but doing it nonetheless. I wonder how many of you do the same. If you are into writing and reading blogs there's a good chance you are also the sort of person who would keep a diary. Maybe you would say your blog fulfils this purpose.

There are many benefits to keeping a daily diary/journal. It obviously gives you a written history to look back on when you are old and grey; I find that an attractive proposition. Memories, especially the good ones can remain with us for the rest of our lives - how much better to have a written record to prompt that memory. Maybe, as me, you intend to pass them on to your children (I wonder if this is even a good idea) so that they will also remember all the good times with fondness. Of course, some of us may have had bad times in the past and a place to write about them can really help put them into perspective. A diary is a place to go; a chance to be alone with your thoughts; a friend that will never judge you.

I would love to know how many people out there keep diaries/journals. If you feel inclined, let me know.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

C is for Change (A-Z Challenge)

"If you always do what you've always done,
you're always gonna get what you've always got!"

I have this quotation scribbled on a piece of paper, pinned to my study notice board. It reminds me that change is not something that comes easily. If there is something in our life that we want to be different we might tend to agonize over it, wish for something different, think long and hard about what it might be like once change has happened and sometimes dream of a better future. But in doing this we also tend to carry on the same way that we always have; visit the same places, see the same people, listen to the same radio station, react in the same way to events in our lives.

Imagine you are walking down the street and a neighbour is coming in the opposite direction. You get that embarrassed 'what am I going to say' feeling and maybe, as usual, you say a quick hello and walk on. Your neighbour does the same. You agonize over not talking more to your neighbour and you think of how it could be different next time. But next time you do exactly the same thing - nothing changes. Then maybe one day, instead of walking on you look your neighbour in the eye, stop and say 'hello, how are you?' Ten minutes later you are still there chatting, even if only about the weather. What a  difference a day makes.

Yes, we can dream, think, worry, agonize and hope. But unless we do something different the chances are that nothing will really change. Is there something in your life that you want to change?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

B is for Beauty (A-Z Challenge)

"Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music - the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself." Henry Miller (1891 - 1980)
Have you ever seen the film American Beauty? I have, many times, for its sheer depth and skill in depicting characters. The main character says something like '...it's hard to be mad when there's so much beauty in the world' right at the end of the film.
I know, from experience, that it's very easy to be blind to what's good in life when you are in a low mood. I'm sure those suffering depression will know this all too well. Sometimes we turn inward when we are unhappy and get tied up in our own little world of gloom and everything seems so much worse. But then, have you noticed how much better the world seems when your mood is good? What's changed, the world or just the way you look at the world? Trust me - in most cases the world is exactly as it was yesterday and it's only the way you perceive the world that has changed and that's the reason you feel bad.
Sometimes we need to forget ourselves and look with a different eye at the world around us; a person, place, picture, book, a sunrise, a mountain, the sky. You get the picture! In recent days I've been walking a lot and visiting a special place I love, high up overlooking the sea. And each time I have stood and allowed the cold wind to bite my face and listened to the crashing of the surf against the rocks - a simple pleasure bringing big rewards.

Monday, 1 April 2013

A is for Andy (A-Z Challenge)

So here we go for the first blog of the A to Z Challenge...

A is for Andy - that's me! To ease me into this challenge I thought I would say a few words about myself as a way of introduction. This challenge got me thinking about the origin and meaning of my name. Andrew (but call me Andy), it turns out, is of Greek origin (Andreas). I already know it means Man or Warrior, which I kind of like, and another meaning I came across was Manly, which has given my wife and kids hours of fun at my expense! Andrew was also the first chosen of the twelve apostles, which makes me feel very important and Saint Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and Russia - it just gets better!

My intention is to take the A to Z Challenge's advice and keep my April blog posts short and to the point and am hoping that getting up an hour earlier every day to blog will help get me into a routine that will help me write consistently every day along the way to becoming a published writer. I'm looking forward to 'B' already.

2013 A to Z Challenge

Well, I've been shamed into taking up the 2013 A to Z Challenge. I resisted for as long as I could, but when I saw the very long list of participants I just had to join these good people. It really is quite a challenge: to blog every day of April following the alphabet - A on April 1, B on April 2 etc...

Out of the 1782 participants I am number 1514 and one rule
is to follow the blogger next in line. That means I will be following:

Byzantium Shores

I've already made contact and intend to offer some words of encouragement during the challenge. Thanks to Jak of Cryton Chronicles for his commitment to do the same for me.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Liebster Award Review

Many thanks to the following nominees who have responded to my Liebster Award nominations so far:

Culture Cocktails
A dairy farm born strawberry lover who loves the sea

A Smile a Day
A music lover who wants a tattoo, preferably not on a bus!

You have both inspired me more than you know. Great to see you have sent out your own nominations. I look forward to seeing what comes back.

By the way, I've signed up for the 2013 A to Z Challenge. I wonder if you are interested?

All the best. Keep blogging!

Friday, 29 March 2013

Lucky to be Alive

Have you ever thought how lucky you are to be alive? It seems like such a simple thought, but it's only when you really look at it that it becomes apparent just how lucky (or unlucky, depending upon your perspective) you really are.

When I consider my life, for example, I can remember almost being run down by a car when I was about 8 or 10 years old. I was being cocky and the driver thought he was going to teach me a lesson. As I leapt out of the path of his accelerating vehicle my trailing foot was caught by his front bumper, which almost tripped me up. I don't think I ever told my parents! It's easy to see what could have happened if I had been half a second slower, or he was half a second quicker. Am I being a little melodramatic here? I don't think so; how many kids are killed on our streets each and every year? It happens!

Now think about your parents. What were their lucky escapes? What illnesses did they have to overcome? How many trees did your father nearly fall out of? If he had died in his teens; if your mother had not made it to childbearing age, you simply would never have lived - ever!

What about your grandparents? They will have lived through at least one world war. My father's house was completely bombed out when he was about 8 or 10 years old. But he had been evacuated to Aberystwyth in Wales and my grandparents were in the bomb shelter or somewhere else. They were never able to live there again. If my grandmother had not been able to send her son away, what then? If they had remained at home and taken a chance that day...

But it's this next thought that really blows my mind. Think about the countless generations of your direct ancestors, going way back down the centuries and even many millennia; right back to their dim and distant past - an unbroken line of parentage eventually leading to you. How many lives make up that lineage? What were the chances of just one of those ancestors actually surviving to procreate? How many individuals even survived childbirth all those years ago? Even in relatively recent times life expectancy was pitifully low. How much more so ten thousand years ago? Now let's take a leap back a few millions of years. Your direct ancestor would be very different from you, but would be your ancestor nonetheless; your great, great, great, great etc (you get the point) grandparent. Somewhere out there he or she would be roaming the earth, sometimes barely surviving and on the lookout for predators. But that ancestor made it through another day... and another... and another... and lived long enough to pass on its precious genes to the next generation. The numbers of ways that any of your ancestors could have met their premature end are legion. If even a single one of them had failed, you would never have existed. I hope that the sheer magnitude of that thought makes you pause at the improbability of your existence. But here you are, reading this blog and you are oh so alive.

So what are you going to do today? If you are anything like me you will go to work, eat, sleep, argue with your spouse from time to time; any of the mundane things people do. But maybe you will do it all with a renewed appreciation for just how lucky, literally, you are to be doing it.

For my part, I will get up early tomorrow morning and take a walk down to the beach and breath in the cold, salty, morning air and be thankful that I am alive another day.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Liebster Award

I'm very pleased to announce that I have been nominated for the Liebster Award by Rachael Featherstone. Thank you Rachael.
I have it on good authority (Writer Rachael) that the Liebster Award originates in Germany and is a sort of 'pay it forward' for bloggers; a way to get to know other blogs and, in turn, get them knowing you. Sounds like a win-win to me! It's worth noting that the origins of this award seem to be lost in the mists of time. But, no matter, it's a great way to give recognition to other bloggers out there who have fewer than 200 followers and to spur them on to keep blogging. So here are the rules:
Liebster Award Rules
  1. Post the award on your blog (like I'm doing here)
  2. Remember to thank the blogger who nominated you for the award and display a link back to their blog
  3. Write 11 random facts about yourself (this doesn't always appear in the rules but it's a great idea, so let's go with it!)
  4. Nominate 11 bloggers who you believe deserve the award and who have fewer than 200 followers (again, the number of nominations vary as the nominations get passed around. I saw 5 in one blog and 'fewer than 3000 followers' in another!)
  5. Answer the 11 questions asked of you by the presenter (in your case that's me!)
  6. Ask 11 more questions of your nominees
So here we go.
11 Random Facts about Me
  1. My favourite book is The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  2. I love the colour Green
  3. I can't stand nosey people
  4. I've had the same hairdresser for over 30 years
  5. When I was 5 I cut off our neighbour's prize roses with a pen knife (She forgave me)
  6. I never owned a Chopper bike (boy did I want one!)
  7. If I could be anyone else it would be Roger Federer
  8. My first ever drawing at school was of a spider
  9. My favourite place is by the sea
  10. The sound of rain sends me to sleep
  11. My favourite grape is Tempranillo
Rachael's 11 Questions For Me Where:
Q: How long have you been blogging?
A: Since Monday 14th January 2013
Q: Why do you blog?
A: To keep writing. To be creative. To try to say something.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of to date?
A: Getting through a mid-life crisis.

Q: What is your biggest fear?
A: Being old and alone.

Q: Who is your favourite author?
A: Christopher Hitchens.

Q: What is your favourite food?
A: Anything Italian!

Q: Where do you most want to go on holiday/travel?
A: That's easy - the USA.

Q: What is your favourite sport?
A: Tennis.

Q: What is your worst habit?
A: Checking I've locked the door 10 times!

Q: Are you planning to do the A-Z Blog Challenge and why?
A: I wasn't, but now you mention it I just might. Why? To see if I can.

Q: What do you most want to accomplish over the next 5 years?
A: I want to be a published writer.
My Nominees for the Liebster Award are:

Art Stuffs
Culture Cocktails
Travels of Note
A Smile Each Day
Let Me Be Frank
Nature Mama Narratives
Creative Objective
An Eye Through My Camera
Diary of a Ywhackabond

And my questions for you are:
  1. If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?
  2. What was your biggest mistake?
  3. What was your happiest moment?
  4. What do you dislike most?
  5. Wine or Beer? Why?
  6. What was your favourite subject at school?
  7. Bach or Beatles? Why?
  8. If you won a million, what would you do with it?
  9. What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
  10. Fact or fiction? Why?
  11. If you had one wish for the world, what would it be?
I really look forward to hearing what you have to say. I'll check in on your blogs from time to time. So over to you. I hope you will pay it forward.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Another Food Crisis in the UK? - It's Time To Cook For Ourselves

So here we are in the midst of another food crisis in the UK. This time it seems that we have become victims to an international food scam, where horse meat has been systematically passed off as beef. Both the Food Standards Agency and the government have been caught on the back foot and the bald truth is that we poor consumers cannot be sure of what we have been eating, for how long and from whence it came. I sense that we are seeing merely the tip of the iceberg and have been fascinated and entertained by politicians and officials squirming to justify their existence and giving reasons why someone else is to blame.

But it is one particular part of this story that I would like to discuss here. On Thursday 14 February 2013 Maria Miller, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, speaking on the BBCs Questiontime, talked about the poorest in our society being disproportionately affected by this scandal, presumably because she believes that they are the ones more likely to be buying processed foods like ready meals from the local supermarket. Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but this was the general thrust of her comment. What she said went almost unnoticed as it was tagged onto the very end of her answer on the horsemeat question. And this is not the first time I have heard this argument. I have also heard it in relation to healthy eating and the fact that some processed foods and ready meals contain high levels of salt and fat.

I can only assume that the reason for this argument is that buying a ready meal is deemed cheaper than buying other foods and making meals from scratch at home. The argument may also assume that poorer people cannot cook or are unwilling to do so. This does not ring true to me and is, at least, patronising to the poorer members of our society. No-one is being forced to buy these products; they do so out of choice and there will surely be more than one reason for doing so.

So are ready meals the cheaper option? I decided to try an experiment to find out. I make my own version of Lasagne for my family regularly and I began to wonder whether buying a readymade version would indeed be cheaper. I chose an Asda low calorie Lasagne ready meal (400g) with which to make my comparison, which costs £2.05 at the time of writing this article. On the face of it this does appear to be reasonably cheap, and convenient – just pop in the microwave or oven straight from the fridge. If you are on your own and want a quick and easy meal for one this seems ideal.

I have listed all the fresh ingredients I use to make my homemade Lasagne and noted their cost below. Of course, I need to estimate the cost of most items – cheese for example, as I only use a proportion of the whole pack to make the meal. You will have to trust that I have made my estimations as honestly and accurately as possible. I do not pretend that this is a scientific experiment.

Ingredients (All from ASDA) – Serves 4:                                Cost:

6 x Lasagne Sheets (Asda)                                                        £0.16 (18 sheet pack for 50p)
1 x 500g Pack Extra Lean Minced Beef (Asda)                          £4.00
1 x Large Onion                                                                         £0.30

1 x Red Pepper (Optional)                                                         £0.80
1 x 400g Tin Chopped Tomatoes (Smart Price)(Asda)               £0.31

1 x Heaped Tablespoon Tomato Puree (Asda)                          £0.10 (Approx 20% of 48p Tube)
1 x Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar (Asda)                                  £0.05 (Approx 5% of £1.00 Bottle)

Sprinkle of Oregano (Asda)                                                       Negligible
1 x Tablespoon of Olive Oil (Optional)(Asda)                            Negligible

125g Cheddar Cheese (Grated)(Asda)                                       £0.68 (Approx 25% of £2.75 Block)
¼ Block of Butter (Asda)                                                             £0.25 (Approx 25% of 98p Block)

1 x Heaped Tablespoon Plain Flour (Asda)                               Negligible
¼ Pint Semi-Skimmed Milk (Asda)                                             £0.12 (Approx 25% of 49p Pint)

Pinch of Salt and Black Pepper                                                 Negligible

                                                                      Total                      £6.77


These ingredients make four good portions of Lasagne. Therefore a single portion costs £1.69, which is 36p less than the Lasagne ready meal at £2.05. Each portion can be separated and frozen as an individual meal for future use and easily reheated once completely thawed. I have not chosen the cheapest ingredients here. There are cheaper options out there so this meal can be made for less, but also for much more depending upon the brand of the ingredients used.

It is clear to me that making this meal at home with good ingredients is more cost effective and healthier than buying a boxed meal. However, I will acknowledge that there is a significant cost involved in the initial purchase of the required ingredients - £14.49 in fact (based upon the above scenario). You cannot buy a tablespoon of olive oil, for example. A 250ml bottle of Asda’s own olive oil costs £1.38 but will last a long time and can be used to cook many, many meals. Therefore, once all the necessary ingredients are in your kitchen cupboard you can forget about them. Buy a family of four a boxed Lasagne each on only two occasions and you have already spent more than the total cost of stocking your kitchen cupboard with all the above ingredients. Add to this the health benefits and the sense of achievement in being able to cook for yourself and, in my opinion, there is no contest.

I do not believe that cost can be used as an excuse for not making this Lasagne at home. Maybe some people are just too busy; and that’s fine. Some may prefer the ready meal: that’s fine too. But there are a significant number of people in our country who buy these products simply because they do not know how to cook or cannot be bothered to cook. In either case it is an indictment of our society. We should get back to buying good local produce, support our butchers, markets and grocers and cook food for ourselves. Then we will not have to worry so much about what we are being fed by an international manufacturing machine that is more interested in profit margin than the good of our health.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Sunrise (A Poem)

I wrote this poem in June 2006 and found it again recently while flicking through my old notebooks. The photograph shown was taken in January this year on the beach where the poem was written all those years ago. I return there at least once a year to recharge my batteries. It's a place that has been good to me all of my adult life and never fails to satisfy. This poem is just a small tribute to my favourite place in the world.


Triumphant, the sun god rises, blazing light;
A sentinel against the night.
Darkness cowers before his feet,
Fearful of the morn to meet.

Above the lighthouse and in the bay

His radiant warmth will waft the mist away,

Revealing lines of vivid blue,

A brush stroke, swift and clean and new.

In awe I stand upon the sand;

A pilgrim, alone upon this land

Of virgin white, my homage paid

Awash in preternatural light and shade.