Friday, 7 February 2014

Reasons To Be Thankful - 26/01/2014

Source: MJASmith
It's all too easy to find things to complain about in your life - endless automated menu systems on company phone lines, getting cut up at a roundabout, not getting enough sleep, you know the drill.

It occurred to me recently that the people who have the most positive impact on your life also tend to be the most optimistic, the ones who seem resolutely upbeat and untrammeled by any small inconvenience. So, in an effort to approach things more positively, I decided to look back on the last week and, if I could find five things to feel truly thankful for, I figured I'd be on the right track. When I put my mind to it, it wasn't that hard.

Migraleve and Nurofen

On Wednesday morning I woke up with a dull headache. By the time I'd got to work and fired up my PC it was evident to me that it had become a migraine, in all its nauseating glory. I don't suffer with migraines very often but a couple of years ago I woke up on a Saturday morning with one whilst on a weekend away with M. and the girls in London and I wound up buying some Migraleve from Boots in Canary Wharf which cleared it away really quickly. (Pleased though I was with that, I was shocked at the note on the packet advising that, because of its codeine content, more than three days of use could cause addiction).

Since that day I've always carried that packet of Migraleve in my work bag (as a preemptive measure against a potential migraine, not because I'm now addicted to painkillers). It worked on Wednesday, or well enough to get me through a meeting with my boss and the various conference calls I sat through that day. The well-it-would-be-a-shame-to-leave-a-trickle-in-the-bottle glass of wine that M. poured for me that evening may have been a mistake, or maybe it just took longer to get over the migraine, but I woke up on Thursday with another headache, but a couple of Nurofen took care of that.

I didn't plan to open this post by being thankful for over-the-counter drugs, but nevertheless they really helped this week.


My eldest daughter started Brownies last year, and each Thursday after dutifully completing her homework at school she goes off to our local community centre for a couple of hours. She loves it, and just completed the work for her first badge - the Booklovers badge, appropriately enough, given that at seven she has a reading age well beyond that and goes through novels like they're going out of fashion.

I pick her up from Brownies every week. It's only a two minute drive from the community centre to our house, but it's actually the only two minutes I get to spend alone with her each week. It's always a highlight, especially as she comes out of the hall positively bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm (for context, she's normally very calm and reserved). It's become one of my most cherished moments of the week, even if it means that she doesn't settle down to bed for ages because she's so excited about the fun stuff she's been up to with the group. This week she emerged carrying a shoebox which she'd decorated with a rudimentary decoupage from magazines, wrapping paper, old calendars and so on. I don't think I've ever seen her get as excited about anything else in her life, giving me some small ray of hope that she might always enjoy the simpler things in life.

Beigel Bake, Brick Lane

Every Friday lunchtime, two colleagues of mine and I leave the modern environs of the City and head for the infinitely more interesting Brick Lane, the sole reason for this excursion being to buy bagels from one of the two shops in the stretch of Brick Lane just north of where the old Truman Brewery used to be.

More often than not, I'm just picking up bagels for the following day's lunch, though quite when I got into this habit I don't know. It would be all too easy to pick up a packet of bagels from the supermarket close to home, but those bagels are poor synthetic cousins to the small, chewy rolls that you can only really get from a proper Jewish outlet. Plus at 25p per bagel, I can't think of many other lunches that come cheaper than that.

My colleagues and I started going to the first bagel shop you come to as you walk up Brick Lane from the old brewery. At some point we switched allegiance to Beigel Bake a couple of doors up, where the service is better and the staff friendlier. On our recent excursion I bought a slice of baked cheesecake, which, in all its firm, crumbly glory, was just about the best cheesecake I've ever had. A snip at just 70p. Most Fridays my friend Dan follows up his salt beef bagel with a coffee from Brick Lane Coffee next door, a funky place with a predilection for Lego, Star Wars and risqué posters and mugs with deceptive slogans that you'd never give to your parents if they popped in for a cuppa.

(In the picture above you can see my friend Anthony emerging from the shop; I like to think the smile on his face shows how much we enjoy visiting this place.)

Saturday Mornings

Time was, back when the girls were younger, when I would spend Saturday mornings in a terrible mood. For a while we attributed this to a pair of Mr. Grumpy socks that always seemed to be the next pair at the top of my sock drawer whenever Saturday came around; we now realise that this was a mere coincidence. None of us believe in magic, character-changing socks these days.

The truth was that I just didn't know what I was doing, or had no confidence in my abilities as a father, or both. M. would head off to the gym early Saturday morning, something which I never begrudged her doing after a week of looking after the kids while I went to work, but the mood that prevailed before she left the house may well have been construed as such.

Nowadays things are better. M. still goes to the gym all morning but I'm much more relaxed. This is probably because the girls have grown up a bit and my duties extend to simply putting out bowls for the cereal that they pour themselves or cleaning their teeth before we leave the house. I'm probably no more confident than I was when they were younger (I still can't tie their hair up in ponytails, for example), but things have definitely become easier. I'm still prone to bouts of grumpiness but I'm much more self-aware these days: it's true that you get out what you put in, and you can guarantee that if I'm in a mood then all I'm going to get back is two very grumpy little girls, and grumpy girls are indeed a force to be reckoned with.

My eldest daughter goes to a drama class for most of Saturday morning, leaving me to spend three hours with my youngest daughter. Those three hours have become among the most cherished of the week, something I couldn't have imagined earlier in her life. Our eldest is a daddy's girl through and through but it's fair to say that my relationship with our youngest was always a bit more strained, and I've never had as close a relationship as M. enjoys with her. Perhaps through me being more relaxed, or her growing up a bit more, Saturday mornings have given us a chance to enjoy each other's company and bond a lot more. It's only taken almost six years.

Most Saturday mornings we'll find ourselves running errands, either to a supermarket in Milton Keynes or taking a walk to our local high street shops in Woburn Sands to visit the tiny library we are fortunate enough to have in this small town of ours. We talk about whatever takes our fancy, play I spy, look out for cats, interesting buildings or just make small talk about school, work or sundry other things according to our moods. Just lately I've made a commitment to her that once we've done our chores we'll spend some time doing some sort of craft activity. A couple of weekends ago it was decorating a paper lantern she got for Christmas, while this weekend it was decorating a shoebox just like her sister had done enthusiastically at Brownies earlier in the week.

I've never been a big fan of getting messy, and for a long time we've been happy to outsource that sort of activity to their school teachers but I guess I've reached a point where I think it's fun, and certainly worth it for the happiness it brings my youngest little girl.

For the record, I still have the Mr. Grumpy socks, but they appear to have lost whatever potency they may once have had.

Breaking Bad

I am passionately averse to anything that's hyped. I don't know when this started, but over the years it's just developed into a sort of mantra; I don't mind 'cult' films or books, but such things often attain that cult status because they were roundly ignored when they were first made and achieve plaudits by slowly working their way into people's hearts. Hyped things don't do that; they have an impudent swagger, get five star ratings as soon as some reviewer has watched the opening credits, and get critics sufficiently hot under the collar to deploy billboard-worthy words with a fervent enthusiasm that all seems a bit daft. (I realise that in saying this I'm being somewhat ironic, given that my music reviews are published each month by Clash and I will confess to having deliberately worked up at least one sentence in a review with the sole purpose of seeing it quoted in an advert).

So it was with Breaking Bad: everyone I knew was gushing about it, and so I wanted to avoid it with similar enthusiasm. And then a colleague let me borrow the boxset of the first three series and, despite some initial reticence M. and I were both hooked (aided, in M.'s case by Aaron Paul, the latest in a lengthening line of men she confesses to having a crush on). Sufficiently hooked, I would say, to have found ourselves approaching the end of the third series with an addict's sense of desperation: we'd watched two or three episodes per night for going on three weeks and with series four not in our possession, we had a need for another fix but no real way of knowing where the next hit was going to come from.

I found myself at a kids party with my youngest daughter this past weekend where I spent a comfortable hour extolling the virtues of the show to another dad, who, in wearing a very cool Heisenberg t-shirt, had marked himself out rather prominently as something of a fan.
'Series four is the best,' he mused, perhaps sensing my desperation to get my hands on those episodes. I briefly wondered if he would exchange those episodes for one of my kidneys.

Perhaps I've been wrong about hype all along. I was wrong about The Wire and Girls and many other things. But then I think back to the hours wasted watching Kill Bill, some Oscar-winning ensemble cast film that might have gathered all sorts of risible adjectives or Comedy Central garbage like The Millers or Mike And Molly and reckon I'm not quite ready to slavishly follow the herd just yet.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Celebrity Spotting

My colleagues and I like to play a game of trying to spot famous celebrities, generally whilst travelling. My friend Dan likes to bend the rules slightly by calling out the names of famous actors he's mingled with after theatre productions in the West End, but, whilst there's no denying that spotting Dame Helen Mirren has major kudos, if you spend time with thesps in theatre land, you're quite likely to bump into a major board-treader.

Mike and I have a more purist view of the game: they have to be people spotted in an airport, on a plane or in an airport lounge. Mike's most recent spot was Sarah Ferguson. Mine was Noel Gallagher. My previous spots have included Richard Bacon and Sue Perkins. It's a mildly diverting game.

Outside of travelling, I have seen two major Hollywood celebrities on the street. The first was Kiefer Sutherland, who I saw at approximately 8.30 in the morning wandering through a deserted Covent Garden, dressed in a blue suit, wearing sunglasses, smoking a cigarette and bearing a facial expression that said 'Yes, it's me, and yes, I am way too cool for school.' My family and I had come down to London after our flight to Portugal had been cancelled thanks to that Icelandic ash cloud back in 2010; he, I would later discover from reading a newspaper, was stranded in London for the same reason, only whereas we had spent a civilised night in our Canary Wharf hotel, he had spent the night partying, and evidently whilst we were on our way out to breakfast, he was on his way home.

My personal favourite spot, and the one that prompted this piece, was last May while we were on holiday in New York. This was our second family trip to the Big Apple, and the third for M. and I. Whenever we head to NY I think we're going to be bumping into celebrities on every block, but of course we never do. They hide, evidently.

So it was our first night in Manhattan and we'd gone for a major wander to re-orient ourselves. Our aim was to find a branch of Whole Foods somewhere downtown, but we ended up getting thoroughly lost, and instead found ourselves in Greenwich Village - arguably the most confusing part of the island thanks to its London-esque jumble of streets - and popped into a D'Agostino on Greenwich Street for over-priced supplies.

When we came out, sixty-odd dollars lighter, it had started to drizzle. On the street we saw a big man riding a bike. He looked reasonably familiar, but it was only when he got off the bike and chained it to a lamppost that I realised it was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I think I probably whispered 'Look, that's you-know-who!' to M. in that vaguely star-struck too-loud voice you inevitably use on such occasions, which unintentionally caught his attention.

In response, he just nodded sagely, raised a hand and offered a small, slightly embarrassed smile. Later we found out he lived in that part of town and that he'd just come out of a spell in rehab. In the celeb spotting stakes, an Oscar winner riding a bike after time kicking drugs was up there with the best.

Less than a year later he was dead from a suspected overdose.

Rest in peace PSH.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

In The Early Morning Security Queue, Heathrow

Source: Wikipedia

It's just after five in the morning and I'm fourth in line at the fast track security search queue at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Immediately in front of me is a young girl who is dressed as if she's about to head off to a jungle somewhere - sturdy boots, practical clothes, heavily-laden rucksack. In front of her are two large African-American women with big handbags and scarves and hats.

The security guard is a brusque, efficient, unsmiling Australian woman who has a facial expression that suggests she resents having to work at this early hour. The trays on the conveyor passing through the x-ray are backed up and nothing is moving.

The first African-American lady puts her items into one of the large grey plastic trays when a gap in the conveyor appears and wanders off through the metal detector, swiftly followed by the second woman, only the second woman is wearing what might be boots, but as they're tucked beneath her jeans, it's hard to tell. The Australian guard calls the woman back and asks her, not unpolitely but certainly firmly, if she's wearing boots. The woman grunts something that I can't make out and hands her boots to the guard and then huffs off toward the gate again.

The Australian guard could easily have let it pass, but chooses not to, and says something officious back about rules and regulations that clearly winds the woman up further. She turns back, makes a complaint about why she should even have to take her boots off anyway, just at the point where the guard is lowering the boots into one of the woman's two trays, this one holding her coat. Still complaining, the woman grabs the boots and thrusts them into her other tray, the one containing her ridiculously over-sized handbag, presumably affronted at the way the guard could have dirtied her coat by placing her boots there.

It's clear that the Australian guard is not going to take this lying down and offers a perfunctory retort, bereft of any hesitation or pause for breath.

'Madam if you object to having to take your boots off I suggest you avoid travelling in the future.' It's a perfectly barbed response, but it's evident that this response has no real purpose whatsoever; it's just designed to antagonise, and that's exactly what it does.

The woman responds with some low growl or other and the Australian looks momentarily shocked. I honestly thought she was going to get a burly security guard over and have the woman denied the opportunity to fly, but instead she just responds with a defensive 'My God, it's not even six in the morning and you want to argue,' as if there is an official start time from which one is allowed to enter into disagreements with one another. The woman waddles off through the metal detector and the young girl in front of me mutely and compliantly removes her sturdy boots and places then in a tray.

The Australian guard is evidently not finished with the African-American woman and what she does next is both passive-aggressive and final proof that she absolutely maintains the upper hand in this whole business. I watch as she calmly wanders down to the guards at the other end of the belt, whispers something out of the side of her mouth to one of them and goes back to her station. I may have imagined a small smile on her face as she did so.

Soon, I'm on the other side of the metal detector, waiting for my own tray to descend down the rollers toward me. The jungle trek girl and the two African-American are next to me, and the two women are evidently moaning about what just happened. The first woman's tray emerges from the x-ray and teeters slowly down the rollers toward where she's waiting. When the other woman's bag emerges, it pauses momentarily before being mechanically shoved over onto a separate set of rollers, meaning that the bag is now only accessible to the security guards at this end of the belt.

'Why is my bag that side?' pleads the woman.

The guard responds blankly that it needs to be opened and the contents completely emptied and checked thoroughly. He glances back at the Australian guard who is beaming innocently. It's clear that the woman poses no major terrorist threat and that they'll find nothing remotely unacceptable in her bag, but in thinking she's got the upper hand when dealing with the authorities, she's misplaced where she sits in the pecking order of things, and now she's paying the price.

I wander off to the lounge to get some breakfast, wondering if they'll cart her off to a room nearby for a more comprehensive search for no other reason than to teach her a lesson. I wonder if she'll think twice before answering back next time.