take one woman with low self esteem, but quite good hair
add one moronic illness
stir in some medication which causes hair to fall out
mix it all up and this is what you get...

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Duracell gym bunny 

Good lord!

The unthinkable has happened. Unthinkable, at least, for me.

I went to the gym and I enjoyed it.

I hadn’t been to a gym for 3 years, and that was only a couple of pathetic attempts on a treadmill during my lunch hour, in a tiny gym housed in the basement of our City office building, back then when I went by a different name, lived in a different town and wrote quite a different style of blog post. Several years earlier, I had gone to an initial induction session at the YMCA in my home borough. I never returned.

My experience with gyms, then, is extremely limited.

To be fair, this gym is not one of these standard issue, huge, modern, flashy cathedrals of fitness, where the truly faithful come to worship several times a week, while the eternally lapsed traipse in, red-faced and dutiful, for the few weeks following New Year.

For a start, this one costs me only £5 per month. This is partly due to the fact that it is housed within the grounds of a school, whose primary purpose purports to be education (though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, so Big tells me) and thus, this limits the times that members of the public can access the facilities.

Equally, the facilities themselves are limited: no sauna, steamroom, or jacuzzi - although there is a swimming pool within the grounds. All in all, it's not the sort of gym to attract the serious gym bunnies and thus a less intimidating atmosphere for a gym amateur.

So, on Sunday morning, around the time that I would otherwise have sloped off reluctantly to running club, I jogged the short distance down the road and up the drive to the gym.

I was surprised. It just felt... well, easy. Admittedly, I stuck to what I knew – cardio – trying out the cross trainer which was something akin to running on a bouncy castle with ski poles in your hands, and the treadmill which was like running, only different. Very different.

The speed showing on the digital display was far faster than I could ever hope to run in "real life". (And yes, I checked several times – it was in mph, not kph). I even tried a different treadmill on my second visit to check that it was not a calibration issue. I could only conclude that running on the treadmill must be considerably easier (in terms of physical effort) than running on the cold, hard, streets. Obviously, the coldness and hardness would make some difference, but surely not *that* much?

In other ways, of course, the treadmill is a more difficult proposition. The boredom, oh the boredom. The never-changing landscape. The concentration required so as not to lose control and end up in a heap on the floor makes it difficult to drift off and think of other things, as I would if I were running outside. I simply had to focus on the LED display and keep running. Luckily, there was no mirror, although there was a window so, on the occasions when I looked up, I was treated to the vague but not-so-delicious sight of my lumbering frame bouncing up and down.

Overall, I must admit that my two trips (so far) to the gym have given me a tremendous boost in my confidence. I realised that I must actually be rather fit - not in the "phwoar" sense, of course, but in terms of pure, physical endurance. I probably outstayed my welcome on those machines, and certainly outlasted most of the people who came and went as I chugged away, and I felt I could have gone on for much longer had the boredom not been a factor. Despite awakening something in my ankles which has obviously been dormant for some time, I left the gym with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I’ll go back.

Although I really must sort out a gym playlist for my iPod.

Whilst in other circumstances I might find the curious juxtaposition of System of a Down and Francis Cabrel mildly amusing, in this context it was just so very wrong.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


"The computer won't recognise it and it's making a funny noise," he whined.

"What shall I do?"

"Reset it," I suggested.

Once he'd worked out which keys to hold down, he tried resetting it and was greeted with a rather unwelcome sight. The sight the iPod owner dreads: the "sad iPod" icon (as above), with the url of Apple support underneath.

A trip to the Apple support website revealed that we would need to try to restore the iPod. First, we had to get it into Disk Mode. A few attempts at this succeeded only in bringing the sad iPod back onto the screen, but with a bit of perseverence, I managed to get a tick on screen, which gave me some hope.

"Quick, plug it into the computer!"

We did. It finally recognised the iPod, but claimed that it appeared to be corrupt. Tantalisingly, the alleged answer to our problems - the "Restore" button - was enabled.

"Right, it's going to wipe the disk, but I think it's the only way,"
"Okay, just do it..."

I clicked on "Restore", and sat back, hoping that we were at least on the home straight.

Almost immediately, a dialogue box informed me that the software was unable to access the required resource to carry out the restore. Meanwhile, the iPod continued to whirr and click alarmingly. We left it to its devices and went to bed, hoping that by draining the battery, it might just sort itself out.

Predictably, it did no such thing. Further attempts to get it into Disk Mode for a restore failed miserably.

"I think you're going to have to get it seen to, love,"

He followed through the Apple support screens and was helpfully informed that the iPod was out of warranty (thanks, we knew that) and that it would cost him (thanks, we knew that). Only after he'd provided endless pages of information did it deign to tell us how much a service would cost, the sight of which prompted him to click immediately on "Cancel" and swear loudly.

"Might as well just buy a new one," he lamented, and sloped off.

Meanwhile, I started Googling, not yet ready to accept that Big's iPod was of no more use than a paperweight. My research showed that numerous people had had the same problem and the same solution was suggested time and time again:

"Reseat the hard disk cable"

All I would need was a guitar pick, some eyes and a degree of dexterity.

"I think I know what I have to do - but I'll need to open it up. Is that okay?" I asked, pick in hand.

"Well, you probably can't make it any worse..." he muttered, seeming to forget about my appalling track record in DIY (remember the bathroom débacle? That was all my fault...).

I followed the instructions on the (unofficial, non-Apple) website. I opened it up, identified the what I thought were the appropriate cables, disconnected and reconnected them, and clicked the cover back on. A few moments' work which it was hard to believe would have made any difference.

I turned the iPod on again, with no great optimism. I saw the Apple icon appear and held it to my ear as it booted up. I heard the whirring sound of a hard disk and awaited the so-called "click of death" which had characterised its recent behaviour. It never came. Instead, I was greeted with the main menu nonchalantly appearing on the screen. I scrolled through the music - it was all there.

Speechless, I walked across the room and handed the iPod to Big.

"You brought my music back!" he beamed. All was well in Big's world once more.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Unwanted attention 

Feeling lonely?

Inbox a bit empty and telephone covered in cobwebs through lack of activity?

Well here's a solution for you.

Sell your car.

Okay, granted, it's not easy to see the connection, so I'll explain.

Within half a day of submitting my advert to a well-known car-selling magazine and website, my inbox was positively bulging with an array of emails from all over the world offering me the full asking price without even wanting to see the car!

Meanwhile, my mobile phone was constantly buzzing with calls from finance companies who had buyers just waiting to buy my car!

I felt all wanted. But only for a split second.

Of all the calls and emails I have received, not one of them has been from a genuine buyer. I'd read the warnings on the website - these were classic scams. Foreign buyer sends fake banker's draft for an amount equal to the price of the car plus shipping costs. I would then send them a cheque back for the balance of the shipping costs. Simple. Meantime, their banker's draft bounces and I'm out of pocket. Nice work for one badly-worded email.

And in order to gain access to these hordes of interested buyers just waiting to give me thousands of pounds, I must of course pay a rather extortionate fee to the finance company. Only then would I find out if these buyers actually exist. Despite the enthusiasm of the finance company operatives (one of whom refused to take no for an answer until I hung up on him), I remained largely unconvinced.

Does anyone want to buy my car?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Running out of steam? 

It was almost four years ago that it started.

I was walking home from a friend’s house late at night, after an evening of jollity. He only lived about a ten-minute walk away, but it was dark and I was scared. One of the reasons I kept my little car when I lived in Southampton (despite being within walking distance of work) was so that I could transport myself around without worrying. I was single at that time and fiercely independent, but ultimately a bit of a scaredy-cat when it came to walking around alone at night.

It had seemed silly to drive to this particular friend’s house, though, so I braved the walk home. About half way, I suddenly decided to start running. I don’t know how far I ran – maybe not even 100 yards – but I just wanted to get home sooner and it was an idea that came into my head.

During those moments, between gasping for breath and mopping my brow, a tiny seed was planted. Over the next couple of weeks, it began to germinate in my mind. One weekend in March, just like that, I stopped smoking. The following weekend, just like that, I started running.

I say running – to begin with, it was more of a stagger. One minute of oafish, purple-faced stumbling followed by one minute of walking, wondering what on earth I had let myself in for. Repeat to fade, or for a mile; whichever came first. It seemed that the minutes of running had been deliberately altered by an evil force so that they were considerably longer than a minute ever should be, whereas the minutes of walking went by in the blink of an eye.

Three times a week, I would set out after getting home from work, gradually increasing the time spent running in relation to the time spent walking. One day, several weeks later, to my astonishment, I ran one mile without stopping. Each time I went out, I would add an extra bit to my run until one day, I ran 3 miles. I had reached my goal: to run the Race for Life, which I duly did in 2003.

But I didn’t stop there.

Since then, I have continued to run at least once a week (except where illness has prevented me - but in any case, I have not gone for more than two weeks without a run). Some weeks, I have managed to cover over twenty miles, others only five. These days, six miles is my “standard” run, thirteen the maximum, three the absolute minimum. I have had highs and lows – some runs have made me cry while others have made me grin from start to finish. Sometimes you feel as light as a feather, while other times your body is like a lead weight. But I have persevered, rain or shine, despite feeling that I’m just not made for it, that I’m not really any good at it, that I’ll never really be fast enough or fit enough.

Just lately, though, I’ve been making excuses not to go out. Only managing a run once a week, and dreading each one, I feel like I'm stagnating. Struggling. Not managing to keep up with people I used to run with quite comfortably, with people I was coaching at the club last year. When, a couple of Sundays ago on a club run, I bailed out early (I never do that), I knew I had to take stock.

Am I losing my running "mojo"? Will there come a time when I just don't manage to drag myself out there for one week, two weeks, three weeks?

Even more reason to start swimming. And who knows, after years of pouring scorn on such places, I might even start going to the gym. By adding variety, I am hoping that this will increase my fitness, improve my running and give me other exercise options.

But I'm not going on the treadmill. Bagsy no returns.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Feet-finding mission 

Being a new starter in an organisation is never easy.

Firstly, you need to suss out the office etiquette.

Can I hang my coat here? How do I turn the lights on? For how many people am I expected to get coffee? How often? What is the vending machine code for a white tea with sugar? To whom do those biscuits belong? Can I have one? What is the biscuit replenishment procedure? How many is it reasonable to take in any one visit to the biscuit tin? Who is that peculiar man? How come some people have flat screens and ergonomic keyboards? How do I get one? I wonder what excuse he used to get internet access... And so on.

Having resolved the important issues, there’s the nasty business of the work itself.

The software I work with is not an off-the-shelf package, it’s in-house written, bespoke business applications. This means that every time I change jobs, I have to learn a whole new tangled web of applications, all written in the same language, but based on different databases with differing standards and conventions and interacting with other unknown applications on other platforms. It always takes a while to acquire an appreciation for the system as a whole and in the meantime, one can feel rather useless, groping around in the dark at detail level without any notion of the so-called "bigger picture".

But what I find the hardest in a new job is the requirement, at least at first, to maintain the façade of being both normal and sensible – neither of which come naturally to me. The rather sincere and heartfelt content of this blog belies the somewhat unconventional behaviour of which I am capable in real life.

In my last job, I’d been there long enough to have reached a point where I felt completely comfortable in my role of "office idiot": making up songs, whistling, impersonating machinery, adopting ridiculous accents, talking to myself, prancing around the office, yawning and stretching in an over-elaborate fashion and generally gibbering. The department was small enough and populated with enough eccentrics to handle my ways and, in some cases, give me a run for my money.

The decline into the surreal must necessarily be a gradual process, so as not to arouse suspicion. First, I must prove that I can do the work – preferably making myself seem indispensable. Then the progressive increase in strange behaviour will be tolerated and, if I’m lucky, eventually considered to be both charming and adorable, which is what happened in my last job.

But for now, I must maintain the façade of dull, corporate automaton, programmed to program.

  1. The photo on this post has not been retouched in any way, simply uploaded from my phone-camera-phone. It must have been infiltrated by an alien. It's the only explanation I can come up with.

  2. The exam seemed fine, but I know from last year not to read anything into this. If I'm still blogging in May, you'll find out how poor my instincts were on this occasion.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Déjà vu 

This coming Tuesday, I will go back there to do this again and hopefully I won't get another one of these.

For those of you who can't be bothered to read the links, or who haven't been reading long enough to know the story, I am planning to become a freelance French-to-English translator. Because I have no experience (although I do actually believe I am capable of it, as unlikely as that may sound coming from me), I am trying to gain a professional qualification at vast expense to myself to help me on my way. I took all three papers of the exam last year, but failed one of them, which was distinctly NOT part of the plan and left me feeling extremely dejected, never having failed an exam in my life and truly believing that this was the one (the only) thing I have ever excelled at.

On Tuesday, then, I shall resit the failed paper (again, at vast expense to myself) and wait around fourteen weeks for the results. If I fail, I will have to wonder whether, once again, I have chosen the wrong path in life as well as wasting several hundred pounds which could otherwise have been spent on stopping our kitchen roof from leaking.

It is hard to know quite how to prepare for an exam when one has no idea why one failed it the first time around - feedback evidently not being part of the extortionate fee. I came out of that exam feeling quite confident and my instincts on these things can normally be trusted. In fact, I think part of the shock of failing was that that trust had been seriously called into question.

I have mostly dusted myself off from last time, though sometimes a speck reappears here or there to remind me of my failure.

Still, I shall try again. I have no alternative, this is my plan and I must stick to it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Spot the deliberate mistakes 

... while excusing the quality of the photography.

Whenever the subject is raised in Blogland, it tends to provoke an extremely polarised response. Normally mild-mannered bloggers can become incandescent with rage when faced with the issue and slanging matches can ensue. So it is with some trepidation that I present a topic which has been troubling me for some time, but especially so since starting to walk to work.

I walk through a park on my way to work. It's the same park where I saw the legendary bootee. It's a park I walk and run through regularly, as it provides a traffic free alternative to getting into and out of town.

At the opposite end of the park, there is a narrow footbridge (there's a clue in the name) which crosses the river at the weir. Where the path narrows towards the footbridge, there is a sign. It shows a picture of a bicycle on a white background in a circle with a red border. If you were in any doubt as to what this sign means, there's a helpful sign underneath, stating "NO CYCLING".

On only one or two occasions (out of probably hundreds) have I seen a cyclist dismount and walk across the bridge. They do not even have the courtesy to use their bell to alert pedestrians on the bridge to their presence. Like I say, it's a narrow bridge, crossing a dangerous stretch of river. This is presumably the reason why someone decided that it was safer for all concerned for cyclists to dismount for this short stretch. Would it really be such a chore to add a few seconds on to their journey?

I remain both puzzled and disgruntled.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Christmas less ordinary 

Christmas Eve 2006 was spent at Salamis, in bright sunshine with a temperature which must have exceeded 20C (70F). We had our picnic lunch in short sleeves, perched on a jetty on a deserted beach overlooking the Eastern Mediterranean, with views to Gazimağusa (a.k.a. Famagusta) to the South and the Karpas peninsula to the North, while a kestrel hovered above on the lookout for its own lunch.

Christmas day itself was a normal working day in North Cyprus, since it is predominately Muslim, as evidenced by the minarets punctuating the landscape and the regular call of the muezzins carrying on the wind. This didn't prevent there being a power cut which lasted around seven hours (a regular occurence, so we were told), but luckily we had planned to have our Christmas meal in a nearby hotel, which (like most sensible businesses in the area) had its own generator. We were also begrudgingly grateful to Big's relatives for insisting on installing their hideous old gas cooker in the brand new kitchen (much to their architect's chagrin) as it meant we could at least have a proper lunch and the odd cup of tea. I was just about to commandeer the gas lamp so that I could apply my make-up when the power lurched back into action just in time for us to put our gladrags on and set out into the colder-than-we'd-envisaged evening.

It was a refreshingly different Christmas, a complete break from the norm and thoroughly relaxing. None of the stressing and rushing about - that had already been done in England, prior to our departure a week earlier. With no television, we spent our evenings playing Nomination Whist or Mah Jong, reading or listening to Turkish radio stations, not understanding a single word.

One of the more surreal moments was watching Big's female relatives dancing to "Enter Sandman" and "Smells like Teen Spirit". Big looked on with something approaching horror.

I satisfied my need for beautiful things, returning with a modest two kilims and the obligatory evil eye talisman. There were many more ceramics and textiles I would have brought home if I hadn't had to consider such mundane matters as baggage allowance. The supermarkets were fabulous, with fresh, local produce, wonderfully fragrant seeded breads and gooey baklava. We enjoyed meeting the numerous cats at Girne harbour, patrolling the al fresco restaurants and charming their patrons in anticipation of a few scraps.

Not having travelled particularly widely, I found it strange and frustrating to be in a country where I could not communicate effectively. Of course, I had learned my pleases and thank yous, and I proudly asked how much something was at the market but, inevitably, I couldn't understand the reply and proffered an appropriately big bank note to disguise my ignorance. On one occasion, I must have managed to say a convincing "merhaba" (hello) in a shop, as the shopkeeper replied with a long stream of incomprehensibility and was most surprised when I interrupted her to explain that I was English. "But you have such dark hair and eyes!" Yes, but haven't you noticed how pale my skin is?

Despite enjoying our time there, I did feel a slight unease. The area we stayed in felt shabby and deprived - almost like a third world country. I felt in some way as if I were intruding on something, though I was not sure what. As I looked at the vast array of concrete edifices being built to provide Western Europeans with their place in the sun, I felt that something was being exploited and that, by being there, I was part of that process. Big's relatives bemoaned the development and showed us photos of how unspoilt it had been just a few years ago. Although their house had been built in an existing village, it was hard not to feel that there was a little hypocrisy in their attitude.

Still, it was generous of them to let us share their new home and to discover a snippet of a culture which has fascinated me for some time.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Weather girl 

As I walked back home through the park with the moon taking the edge off the darkness, I had one of those faintly smug half smiles on my face. I felt a little like the female protagonist of a bittersweet indie movie, where she has been on a journey with its ups and downs and, though she's not exactly where she wants to be yet, she's certainly on her way. Not a saccharine Hollywood ending, but just the glimpse of a new start.

I was on track to get home by 5pm, over an hour before I used to in the old job. I was out in the fresh air - rather fresher than I'd imagined. I made a mental note to take my gloves the following day.

Those years of driving to work have made me somewhat blasé about the prevailing weather conditions, using my car as umbrella, windshield or protection from the heat (though only if you have air con - which I was careful to ensure I did), only aware of the cold or rain for the short dash from house to car, car to office. But 25 minutes is ample time to get very cold, very wet or, in the summer, very sticky if you're walking. Now I must carefully consult the weather forecast before leaving, equipping myself appropriately for likely meteorological eventualities.

Hard to believe that something so simple as being able to walk to work could lighten my mood so effectively, but as I've said on previous occasions, it is simplicity that I crave. I now know exactly how long it will take me to get to work. My journey will no longer be affected by the school run, agricultural vehicles, maniac drivers or those who decide to use their car just because it's raining. I will get fresh air and exercise without really trying. I will no longer pollute the world around me just to go to a job that I don't really like anyway.

My mood was certainly helped further by the knowledge that the latest visit from an electrician had finally resolved our plumbing problems. Electrician, plumbing - yes, I know. Long and frankly rather embarrassing story.

I can't imagine that the work itself will be any less dull, but I get a bit of my life back.

There is another big upside to this job.

Bye bye Lotus Notes, it was "interesting" knowing you.
Hello again, Microsoft Outlook.

Now, I'm not normally a major supporter of Mr Gates' software emporium, but after two years of using the most unintuitive software I've ever come across (even my software is better ;)), I was almost pleased to see that stupid paperclip lurking around my inbox giving me useless tips.

But there is a downside. A big one.

No. Internet. Access.

No gmail chat, no paying of bills, checking of balances, googling of interesting facts or ogling of fabulous items. And this really could leave my blogging "career" hanging in the balance, unless I can come up with some real, business-based justification.

Thinking cap engaged.