Archive for the 'My Family and Other Animals' Category

Watching Television With My Parents

BBC Test card from my childhood.

Television featured large in my childhood and teenage years.  I couldn’t begin to calculate the number of hours I’ve watched with my face a couple of feet from the screen, and lo, my eyes are still round and functional.

I even adored the black and white TV that was carefully tuned using the twin methods of precision dial-turning and of adjusting the foil sail attached to the aerial.  So desperate was I to watch TV, that I have been known to watch snooker on a black and white set.  I would get up early on weekends and wait for the test-card to disappear and the cartoons to start.  Other activities were planned around the next episode of Star Fleet, since there was no way to watch it later.  One of my earliest TV memories is watching enraptured as Boris Becker (a child!) won Wimbledon for the first time.

Visiting family in the USA meant an added bonus of the sheer wealth of television on offer.  One grandmother had only the basic TV, no cable, and even she had upwards of 40 channels.  The other grandmother had a cable package and it was wall-to-wall Jetsons and Flintstones, transitioning to Baseball in the afternoon and episodes of Roseanne in the early evening.  I think she had over a hundred channels and my brother and I would simply flick through using the remote, eyes goggling at the wonder of it all.

I was in heaven for as long as I could fight off my parents’ demands to switch off and go outside.  Somehow, I still managed to fit in plenty of time to partake of reading, and outdoor activities – perhaps because my every waking moment wasn’t taken up with lessons or enforced socialising, or family visits (my extended family were over 3000 miles away in Chicago).  I had so much time I struggled to fill it.

With a wistful sigh, I say those were the days. Now, you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, and too many stations produce 24 hour rolling schedules of constant low-level dribble.  News Tickers make my eyes hurt and are so distracting that focus on the events of the day is impossible.  There is amazing TV out there to watch, for sure, but the activity itself isn’t special and wading through the tripe to find the gem is too much effort.   I hardly ever watch anything at the time it’s broadcast.   Generally, I watch online or  DVDs, or I HD-record and watch later so I can speed through adverts.

At Easter, K-man and I visited my parents.  My parents have become Homeland devotees.  They have no VCR, HD Recorder, unlimited broadband, or patience.  I was informed that when Homeland was on, they would be watching it, and we could do what we wanted but they would be watching Homeland.  This is parental code for AND THERE WILL BE SILENCE.

I was reminded of the fear engendered whenever, as a child, I needed something after bedtime and my parents were watching a programme.   Unless it was a genuine emergency, Televisual Interruptus had better not occur until either an ad break, or the end of the programme.  When my parents were watching something, they were watching it.

Well, I learned that behaviour from them.  I focus absolutely on the programme – think embedded – I need silence from others, and I rarely miss details.  I do not want other people to swan in halfway through and casually enquire as to what is going on.  Who is that and what are they doing?  Fuck off.  K-man’s trick is to fall asleep for ten minutes, wake up suddenly, have no idea what’s happening, and seek an emergency plot précis from yours truly.  Piss off, I tell him, I’m missing this now because of you.  You might think the advent of DVDs and HD-recorder would mean I would simply pause, but that would mean the spell would be broken and enjoyment curtailed.   K-man pauses a two-hour film an average of four times so he can leave the room for whatever reason, and it drives me utterly crazy.

In an odd way, I was looking forward to watching TV with my parents.  I briefed K-man on the rules, advising that even in the event of a rancid fart from someone in the room, noise-making was verboten.

Viewing commenced.  Homeland was OK, as far as I could tell in the first seven minutes.  Seven minutes is the time my father could spend in his chair without needing to perambulate slowly to the kitchen hitting every creaky floorboard on the way, and loudly clatter some pots and pans.  He returned with a bowl of peanuts and then proffered them around with verbal enquiries while plot-points screeched past.

After fifteen minutes, there was an ad break.  My dad sat in his chair and watched four minutes of Eat! This! Buy! This! Watch! This!  

Homeland came back on, and after five minutes, dad got up to go to the bathroom, only to return just in time for another ad-break.  My mother was asleep on the floor.

What. The. Hell?

Someone has abducted my parents and infected them with Hypocrititis before returning them home.  Ingrained teaching runs deep, so in the next ad-break I dared enquire whether they were actually watching the programme, because there was something else I might enjoy on another channel.

Yes, apparently, that is what passes for TV watching these days.  I asked if they recalled what would have happened to my brother or I if we had sneezed during an episode of EastEnders.  This was met with snorts of disbelief and statements along the lines that we kids were always interrupting their television viewing and yet remain alive.  I was accused of being unable to multi-task.   K-man chimed in: you should see her at home – I get yelled at if I even cough during Sons of Anarchy.

ARGH.  It’s not me, it’s you!

Allow Me Just This One

Having proclaimed that I would not write about my in-laws’ recent excessively lengthy visit, I find I am unable to control myself.

How we came to be on Waterloo Bridge on the hottest day of the year arguing about parking restrictions is a long and irrelevant tale, so I’ll move swiftly on to summarise the context.

London parking restrictions are legendary for their inconsistency and poor public notification.  Should you find you have accidentally transgressed an anti-parking rule, there is no way of knowing in advance the precise nature of the penalty that may befall you.  It may be the comparatively palatable £80 fine.  You might return to your vehicle to find a large yellow lump of metal clamped to its wheel.   If you get things really wrong, you might return to find an empty space where your vehicle once was, and scant notification of where it might now be.  If you can track down your vehicle, it is likely to cost you an amount roughly equal to your weekly salary in order to retrieve it from the sweaty hands of a private contractor with no accountability and no conscience.

If you happen upon something that at first sight appears to be a perfect parking space, that is the time to be especially cautious.  Scan the locality for partially or fully concealed signs, or a lamp-post that looks as though it may once have had a sign attached.   Anything that has a symbol on it instead of words will require reference to the internet to decode.   A misjudgment will result, the moment you step away from your vehicle, in a vampiric warden swooping from an alleyway to suck your bank account dry.

So.  Two cars disgorged four adults, two senior citizens, and two fractious children upon Waterloo Bridge on a Sunday.  Sundays are a special subcategory of parking restriction interpretation.  Sometimes, all restrictions are void and you can tap-dance a fandango with joy.  Sometimes they are in full force.  There is unlikely to be a sign telling you which is which.

In our case there was a sign of particular incoherence and apparent internal self-contradiction.  Google revealed the sign have two possible meanings: you may park here, or you may not park here.   An internet forum of disgruntled parking fine recipients gave similarly indeterminate information.

As every Londoner knows, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.   Parking spaces on Waterloo Bridge (in a cycle lane too), just a staircase from the bustling South Bank, definitely fall into the category of Utopia.  I was busily pointing this out to the non-Londoners among us, and while we were debating the relative likelihood that we would descend into the hell of towed vehicles and public transit home with two septagenarians and two tired and unruly children, a car pulled up behind us to park.

Hm, said someone.  Are they assuming we know what we’re doing? 

Maybe, said someone else.  If they are parking here, maybe they know it’s OK.

Maybe, said my mother-in-law, but are they even British?


Holiday-makers to France Do Get Fat

I’ve been in rural France for a week, soaking up some relaxation which was sorely needed after a long visit from my in-laws.  Eight people, one bathroom, one old man who saved up his morning shit until he had left the hotel to come to the house where eight people were trying to use the one bathroom.

After five minutes of soul-searching I decided not to write at length about the visit.  Let me sum it up thus: it was so bad at times that I hid.  I hid, in my own house.  It was so bad that K-man snapped in central London – I won’t go into how we ended up on Waterloo Bridge en masse on the hottest day of the year arguing about parking spaces, but in summary it was because a six year old child said he wanted to go.  Having just spent a week in France with five young children (belonging to our friends), it’s clear that no I wasn’t imaging it, and that yes my niece and nephew lack anything approaching appropriate levels of discipline.  There are reasons for that, and maybe I’ll go into it another time.  It was a bubbling cauldron of horror and I am glad they are gone.  I feel like a shit person about that, because it is not the kids’ fault, but it is hard to spend time with them.

So, France.  We went here:

We drove, which involved going on the Channel Tunnel train.  I’m not especially faint-hearted, but being in my car, on a train, under the sea is something that causes various flutterings in my brain.

The six hour drive only became fractious at one point, where we passed by Le Mans during a cumbersome battle with French toll roads and their national prohibition of clear signposting.  For context, add K-man’s proclivity to embark upon a journey with no map, some vaguely written guidelines, and an optimism that his sense of direction alone will carry us to our destination.  I never remember to buy a proper road-map.

K-man kept wanting to veer into central Le Mans so that he could become a famous racing driver by osmosis.  I kept alerting him to the fact that the directions say not to go into Le Mans and then mysteriously I would find that the car had done exactly what I said not to do.   K-man would raise his voice to tell me that we certainly did not want to go in the other direction towards Paris because we don’t want to go anywhere near Paris.  It turns out – hold the front page! – we did need to temporarily head around Le Mans in the direction of Paris.

But we arrived eventually.

The holiday was blissful.  Not as blissful as it could have been, since we did a fair bit of child-entertaining, but we still found time to read, relax, swim, tan, and most of all to eat.  I apparently didn’t find time to take any photos apart from of one of the children.

After three days in a row of red meat, heavy drinking, and a ton of cheese and bread, I was read to eat vegetables.  Vegetables are not a staple component of French cuisine, and so there was little point in trying to achieve a vitamin intake.  I gave up, and sat on my behind as it inflated.  I began to feel like crap.  Happy, lazy, crap.

We ventured out several times, enabling me to observe the curious French rural old-man gut.  This is a phenomenal sight.  Otherwise swarthy-looking men who have clearly done hard work in the fields their whole lives and from whose rear view you would not identify as overweight, turn sideways and display their protuberant guts.  It looks like they swallowed a beach-ball.  In many cases they would be leaning back slightly, I can only assume to try to readjust their centre of gravity.

I guess that answers the question of where all that duck-fat goes.   But why does it all go to such a defined area?  These are the things that keep me awake at night.

I got back home and immediately commenced the patented Eat Less Move Around More diet.  It has not been easy, and I must wonder when in my life it happened that I had only to indulge for a week and I would pack noticeable poundage on.  But after a week of resumed running and vegetable eating, I am feeling more normal and ready to tackle some writing again.

Speculating to Accumulate

There’s a blot on the horizon of this suburban life the shape of Millie and Phil.  Their arrival is imminent, and they’re here for a week despite being invited for three days.  I’ve been walking around for the last fortnight in a state of advanced dread, with the Darth Vader Theme from Star Wars as my ear-worm.   My defenses are prepped and primed: they include a large bottle of lemon vodka and a plan to simply hide for half an hour if the going gets too rough.

In the meantime, I have overcome a major hurdle.

I hit the Send button on my first ever speculative email asking for a job.   I only have half a job at the moment and even that might very well evaporate altogether in two months.  I would like a job in a narrow field of research and there aren’t many about.

Through the grapevine I heard about a possible opportunity, with a person I briefly met a couple of months ago, and who the Chief Brain knows quite well.  Drop my name, she said, and just write to him.  She was encouraging, pointing out that I have experience and knowledge that should stand me in good stead.

But first I needed to overcome the rising bile I feel at the kind of boastful narcissistic me me me that I believe is implied in such speculative communication.  The first stage was to update my CV, which by now I’m accustomed to doing.

For the next two weeks I sweated.  In my head I drafted and redrafted the email, trying to arrive at a form of words which would stave off the inevitable recipient’s reaction that I was not worthy of polluting their inbox, and which would result in their conclusion that I am an arrogant crackpot weirdo who emails even when there has not been a job advertised.

In the contest for the spot of Worst Case Scenario, it’s a toss-up between being secretly black-balled or openly jeered.  I would simply crumple if I got a snarky response.  I would probably start applying for jobs stacking shelves, and possibly as a prelude sit in the corner of a darkened room for a week rocking gently too and fro.

By the time two weeks had passed, I was hyperventillating at the mere thought of trying to write the email.  K-man raised his voice at me and asked me what I had to lose.

My dignity, my reputation, my chances of being seriously considered for any job ever again?  Apparently, he didn’t see the problem.

I consulted a friend who works in the area, who disclosed that she gets speculative emails all the time and doesn’t think badly of the person for sending them unless they clearly have no relevant experience.  Frankly, she said, I’d think it was weirder if you didn’t send one, given the situation.  For all you know, she pointed out, the Chief Brain has already mentioned it to the recipient and he is expecting an email from you.  He may even be becoming quietly offended that you’re not bothering.

Gah.  Somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea, I located my courage.  So I did it.

Within 24 hours the big cheese had answered saying sadly there was no job at the end of his rainbow, but he would like to discuss my interesting PhD proposal.  He called it interesting.  We’re meeting in late August or early September.  To discuss the proposal I haven’t written yet.   This does mean I have proceeded to PhD Panic Status Amber.

My first ever speculative email might just, with a bit of luck, have resulted in my finding a supervisor.


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