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Friday, 30 October 2015

Mr Demotivated

As I get slowly changed in the gym dressing-room (because the faster you undress the sooner the pain starts), I'm thinking about an article I read over breakfast that imagined aliens trying to understand Earth, by eavesdropping on the Internet. 

"What impression would they get of us humans?" it asked.

The answer they gave was that we spend our time on three activities - playing with cats, watching strangers doing strange things to each other, and getting into pointless arguments with wankers.

There is a fourth. 

Everywhere I look these days, some self-styled guru is trying to motivate me. "Why not go out on a limb?" the guru says. "That's where the fruit is." 

And, "The happiest people don't have the best of everything, they make the best of everything."

And, "What you do today can improve all your tomorrows."

The idea, I'm guessing, is something like this. The alarm sounds loudly, dragging you out of that recurring dream about Marilyn Monroe, three penguins and a tub of tutti frutti. 

Still fuzzy at the edges, you drag your weary body out of bed and open the curtains on a dreich October morning. Your back is stiff, your teeth hurt and a wee guy with a jackhammer is pounding your eyes from the inside. One glance at the bedroom mirror makes you recoil in horror, as a subhuman with six-inch ear hair stares out at you, without a glimmer of intelligence in his bloodshot, bleary eyes.

All you want to do is crawl back under the blankets. But a glance at Twitter bucks you up. "The measure of who we are," it says, "is what we do with what we have." 

That is so true, you say, and your heart lifts. Your tummy flattens. The sun peeps out from the clouds. Sparrows sing in the sycamore. You throw open the window and welcome the bright, new morning with a burst of Italian opera. Postman Jim comes round the corner and sings back up at you: "Nessun dorma. Nessun dorma. Tu pure, o, Principessa."

And damn it, you feel like a princess. 

Down the stairs you bound, eager to get to work on your new novel, about sex and climate-change, provisionally entitled The Windmill Position. 

But you can't resist another motivational hit. So you look at Twitter again. "Aim for the moon," you read. "If you miss you may hit a star." 

That's a bit astronomically illiterate, you think, starting to deflate slightly. You try another one. "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," you read. "The second best time is now." 

Your mood shifts. Instead of simply feeling you begin to think. You start to calculate. If the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time isn't now. Not by a long shot. 

The second best time was 19 years, 11 months, 30 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds ago. Unless it was a February. 

That's a bit of a discrepancy, you say to yourself. If I'm going to be motivated by deep-thinking thinkers I'd like them not to be innumerate. If the buggers can't do the sums why should I trust them with the philosophy?

And just like that your insanely cheerful bubble bursts. The miraculous motivator has lost his magic. It's just you against the world again.

As I get to this point in my thoughts, I reach the top of the gym stairs, spot Al in his usual position by the mirrored wall and walk on over. "Listen," I say and he puts the dumbbells down with a sigh. 

"What now?" he says.

I explain my sums to him then realise the discrepancy is worse than I'd thought. "Because the shortest unit of time is not the second," I tell him. "It's the jiffy. That's the time it takes light to travel the diameter of a proton."

"Really?" he says.

"Trust me, I'm a physicist," I say, doing some fast mental maths. "So what the guru should have said is this: 'The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The 210,240,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th best time is now.'"

Al shakes his head and gives my shoulder a sympathetic pat. "I hate to say this, son, but you need to get out more. It's not advice I'd ever take myself, but ..."  

He stops himself. "No, I can't," he says.

"Go on," I say. "I can take it."

"You need to find yourself a woman," he says, turning to pick up the weights and admire his manly muscles in the mirror again.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Hill Street boots

Photo by Michael Gibb
"Fasten your bootlaces," I tell my son for maybe the hundredth time, as we're wandering back to his flat, after black coffees and a shared plate of salty chips in the Oxford CafĂ©, at the foot of Hill Street, near the Art School.

"Naw," he tells me for maybe the two hundredth time. 

See that's the thing about being a parent. You don't learn that they don't learn from you. They would much rather listen to complete morons who've had sixteen pints and are wearing T-shirts that say, 'Immigrants are like sperm - millions get in but only one works."

Oh sure, for the first coupla years kids pick up some stuff from their mum and dad. Mostly words. Especially if you're well educated. By the time my boys were four years old, according to the expertsthey'd heard 30 million more words than children from less middle class families. (I'm guessing that's about 300 from me.)

All those extra words are a huge advantage in terms of brain development. Which is probably why, after a few years of being a bum, my boy is now a highly capable man. 

Who can't tie his shoelaces. 

"I can," he tells me. "But sometimes I choose not to. You seen the new Ridley Scott, by the way? The Martian? You'd like it. Actually maybe the science would annoy you. High winds on Mars, stuff like that. Good film, though."

He crosses the road to take a look inside a skip and pulls out a long piece of plywood peppered with one-inch nails. "Hmm," he says. "What could I do with that?"

"Sleep on it?" I suggest. "Has The Martian got that Australian nutter in it? You know the one I mean. Scott uses him a lot."

"They're all nutters," he says, tossing the bed of nails back, stepping on his left lace with his right foot and stumbling. 

"See!" I cry. "That's what happens. You nearly fell there. If you'd been crossing the road you could have been hit by a bus."

"Bollocks," he says. "I went like this." He does a tiny stumble then walks on, going, "La, la, la."

I shake my head at the futility of it all. What is the point of decades of hard-won time on Earth if none of it is transferable to your kids? So much for experience, is what I'm thinking. About as useful as a Scottish twenty pound note in a Cornwall clotted-cream shop.

"They're all nutters," he says again. "You know what Australians are, don't you?"

"People from Australia."

"Scotsmen who've been left out in the sun too long."

We reach his flat. "Coming in for coffee?" he says.

"Just had one," I say. "And got to get back to write."

"Why can't you write a blockbuster science fiction film?" he says. "Can't be hard. Bunch of astronauts headed to Mars take a wrong turn, end up in Australia. Meet talking crocodiles. Turns out they're Martians, scouting for an invasion force. Astronauts tell them Ayres Rock is the capital of the world, which they believe because it's identical to Mars. Whole invasion fleet lands there and gets duffed up by Russell Crowe, wearing big boots with the laces undone."

"I'll get on it right away," I say, turning and stumbling over my own feet.

He raises one eyebrow and looks insufferably smug.

"Bugger off," I tell him and head on home.