Archived entries for lunatics

From outside toilets to origami

It’s been a busy few months, which for the most part were spent helping to organise a conference and all the associated chaos therein. There were no major disasters, fortunately. The exhibition stand didn’t fall on anyone, nobody got agressive during the debate and there were no paper-cut injuries from delegates rushing to pick up a report still warm from the printer (“My apologies, sir, we’ll get you a bandage; it looks like you’ve cut yourself on ‘Preventing Injuries at Work’.”).

We’ve been settling into our new flat, helped greatly by Zoe’s parents, who came over for a few days and transformed the place from a rather disorganised, space full of boxes and clothes to a welcoming living quarter with pictures on the walls, proper kitchen tools and even homemade curtains.

They’ve even cleaned up the outside toilet on our balcony. Outside toilets have always for me been dark and scary places. I had an outside toilet in the house I grew up in, and I’d regarded it as the sort of unappealing place to which I might go only if I really, really needed to. Even then, shivering from the cold wind blowing all around, it was all but impossible to get anything constructive done. You’d need to go in there with the sort of reckless urgency which is usually followed by a white-knuckled gripping of the toilet seat and at least one return journey.

The toilet on our balcony is now so clean and sparkly, people will be queuing to use it.

Even the spare room is looking warm and inviting, now with curtains and a bookshelf. This is a good start, because in most houses, the spare room often falls into the same category as the outside toilet: one of The Lonely Places. It’s the sort of place you go into, and don’t quite know what to do once you’re in there. You put your bag on the bed, maybe take your jacket off, and then…what? Wander over to the window, perhaps. Look at the bed. Have a peek into the cupboad (“Yep. Empty.”).

Maybe there are a few books in there, but you can almost guarantee that they’re not going to be the thrilling page-turners you’re hoping for. Try as you might, ‘Adventures in Origami’ just doesn’t keep you gripped until the last page. In fact, by the time you get to ‘Crouching Frog’ the book’s back on the shelf, and you’re starting to inspect the cupboard in the manner of the quietly insane.

Then, of course, someone calls you down for tea, or a glass of wine, and you’re reminded once more of what makes a house a home: The smells in the kitchen, the photos, the alarming crashing sound as Grandad trips over the cat again.

We’d like to forget the Forty-Seven Laws of Paper Folding and concentrate on the sort of charm and character that makes places feel like home. We’re getting there.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge in the night

I’ve been experiencing a lack of sleep recently, due to a recent illness. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who, upon confronting a sleepless night, gets up and starts to write rather profound ideas or poetry, inspired by the stillness of the moment or the rare opportunity to delve undisturbed into the depths of the soul.

I need…to discover the very purpose of this fleeting existence, to discover what brings us here and to speculate our ultimate destination.

I need…to put into words what it means to capture a breathtaking view, to experience the fresh scent of a new Summer’s day, or the life-affirming laughter of close friends.

I need…to pee, actually.

I suppose I am, in some respects, doing philosophy late at night. I’m questioning the foundations of knowledge, namely, trying to work out if I really know I need to go.

“Do I really want to go now? Can I wait? Should I wait? It’s cold out there, maybe I don’t need to go at all, and it’s just my body’s way of telling me it’s bored and it would rather be sleeping, thank you very much.”

When he wasn’t pondering the nature of justice, I’m sure Socrates must have asked himself similar questions.

I didn’t spend too much time on these epistemological queries, though; I would have wet the bed. If I’d have tried explaining to my exasperated girlfriend that Socrates made me soak myself, I’d be writing this with a blunt crayon and a special bracelet.

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

In This House…

It’s a time for change once again. Last week I was informed that I had successfully obtained a position as a journalist with The Parliament magazine, which was fantastic news for me because it’s a continuation of similar sort of work to that which I’d been enjoying for the last 5 months at the European Parliament in Brussels. So now that I’ll be getting an income, I was finally able to move flats and have ended up in a place that is very near to where I used to live but is a single appartment rather than a shared house.  Which will be a new experience, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’m imagining myself, three months down the line, with all these little routines that will establish themselves, unhindered by the need to accommodate other people. I might end up, for example, doing the ironing at exactly 6pm in the evening, then when people ring up and ask me out for a quiet Sunday drink it’ll be: “Hate to disappoint you but I’m afraid it’s Ironing Hour.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a fridge stocked in alphabetical order and when asked about the large plant that’s in my room, reply with: “Oh, that’s Horace. He’s quite moody so don’t get him talking about politics.”

Also I have been given about one hundred rules from the landlady. Not just the usual regulations you would expect, for example about keeping the front door locked. No, these are, it seems, rules which are so obscure that it is almost as if they were specifically put in place to be forgotten, and consequently broken. Rules about windowsills, carpets, when to open the curtains. The flat is above a doctor’s practice, and I hope the landlady never finds out that one particular memory that stands out from my previous work in hospitals is the occasion when I set the bank alarm off. For the second time. I just hope that here I don’t unwittingly lock the patients in the waiting room or mistakenly direct an ill person to the downstairs toilet instead of the doctor’s surgery.

Right now I’m being extra careful, making sure that, yes, the windows are shut when I leave and that this time I didn’t wrench the door of the wardrobe off its hinges within my first half-hour; at least with housemates I have the chance to explain that, no, I don’t know how on earth I managed to do it either but would they please just hold this while I look for the missing wall bracket/fuse box/fire extinguisher. This time, I will be shouting at Horace the Plant in exasperated tones, urging him to not just stand there but help me to try and put this back in one piece again….

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)



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