Archive for May, 2012

The comedy dog

When my friend, Lucy, and I moved to Namibia, we went to work on a volunteer-run project that has been going for years. It is a bit strange because, just before you arrive, fresh-faced and excited, the volunteers from before you, worldly-wise and infinitely superior, leave and you just step straight into their shoes. You inherit everything from their life; their home, their friends, their job, their pets….

As so when we turned up with our backpacks as big as ourselves at the door of our new home, we were greeted enthusiastically by a big golden floppy-eared dog called Diaz. It was lovely. I’d only ever had a dog once and that lasted for about a week. (I’ll admit that it’s because I was terrified of it so I think my parents had to return it to the pet shop. As I recall, my brother was having great fun with it.)

She was so funny. Her personality was a cross between a small child and an old lady. Before we had become aware of her peculiarities, she would fall asleep on the floor, her legs twitching in her dreams. We’d be going ‘ah, look, she’s so cute.’ Then she’d urinate. It must have been something about the cold tiled floor or something. She didn’t do it when she slept outside. We’d be reading books in the front room, enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta, perhaps. She’d sneakily fall asleep without us noticing. And she’d do it again. Our mop was well-used, let’s put it that way. I don’t even want to go into the time when she fell asleep on the sofa….

One time, we had been asked to house-sit for a friend who was going out of town for a few days. She had three dogs. We knew Diaz wouldn’t get along with them so we thought we would leave her behind. She was prone to staking out the school where we worked and barking incessantly so we knew we couldn’t let her see where we were going. As she was originally a street dog and adopted by the volunteers at the project a few years before us, she was more than adept at fending for herself. Plus, everyone knew she was the volunteer dog and when they saw her around town, she would get fussed over and sometimes fed better than us! We’d be munching through our fiftieth plate of rice and sweetcorn and Diaz would be getting fed burgers at a restaurant in town.

So anyway, we thought we’d leave her behind. Easier said than done. We shut the door which led down the steps into the garden and started walking down the road. It was only to the end of the road, then up the little hill half way, then a right. Very close. We’d be there in two minutes. We got four steps into our journey and Diaz was there next to us, panting away, her excited eyes asking where we were going.

“No, Diaz,” we told her and opened the door to the garden. She ran in and we locked the door again. We started walking, and again she was next to us. She could jump over the garden wall…. This time, we locked her in the garden and ran for our lives, hoping to get away before she got over the wall. She got over, of course, saw us and came along for the run. This was proving very difficult.

We eventually employed a technique which consisted of throwing sticks and things for her to fetch then ducking around corners and hiding inside porches. We must have walked halfway around the town trying to lose her! We kept on thinking we’d done it, she’d found another dog to play with, we’d get on our way again and then we’d see her rounding a corner in front of us and we’d have to backtrack quickly and hide inside someone’s porch or a shop for a while, waiting for her to pass. Needless to say, we were late to our friend’s house and Diaz found us anyway.

Freedom Art

After Freedom Rules and Freedom Music we now come to Part 3 and Freedom Art. Thanks to Therabbitholez for last week’s comments on areas I’d not had space to include.

Much has been written on the way art embraces or represents freedom. I’m not going down those roads particularly or into the work of individual artists’ (save one) as there just isn’t the space. What I want to do is ask, in the context of our approach to the previous two subjects, should art and artists be governed by any kind of rules? Throughout history there have been many “schools” or groups in art who have sought to “push the boundaries” of taste, decency & style. Here are just some with an example of one who painted in that style: Impressionism (Monet), Fauvism (Matisse), Cubism (Picasso), Surrealism (Magritte), Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock), Pop Art (Warhol) and finally the anarchists of early 20th C Dadaism who challenged the established ways of painting or presenting art. Artists claim they want to have the freedom to paint or draw whatever they want. Should they?

How many of you would, for instance, want a young child to see pictures like those displayed in the 2004 Biennial International Exhibition in Liverpool by Yoko Ono? In the town centre, in the main shopping area, pictures of women’s breasts and crotches were displayed on large posters hanging from lamp posts – one picture, from the local press at the time, shows 10 down the side of just part of one street. Despite many complaints from parents concerned about these images being displayed where the very young could see them the exhibition went ahead. Is this the type of freedom you want? A repressive political regime restricts those under it but, in this case, a town council forced its people to look at images which many did not want to see. (There have been many other examples across the UK.) So what happened? Locals complained; visitors to the city complained; objections were overruled; objectors were vilified as “stick-in-the-muds”, frumps or puritans. Is that freedom or repression? Can you see the problem? Once again we have a situation where people who want one form of freedom override others who want a different sort of freedom.

If we talk about TV, books or exhibitions then the answer is clear – if you’re offended, turn it off or don’t look at or buy them, or don’t go to them. You are not forced to see these things just so you can complain. However, in the Liverpool example, in public streets with so many pictures, it’s difficult to avoid seeing what you’d rather not see!

If we introduce rules to keep “offending” material out of public areas then, providing it is legal, it will be shown at galleries or maybe in private exhibitions. That’s all well and good but are we then creating a kind of underground class of avant-garde arty types? – Do they become the ones who want to accept what the wider society rejects? Of course that division already exists and probably has done for hundreds of years. You can choose to be part of it. You can choose to reject it. At least you have the choice – the freedom to choose! In a public place you don’t.

The website Blurb.com has an interesting book from 2008, entitled Freedom & Art. The look inside preview is excellent and well worth a visit. (I’d be interested in any comments you may have on the individual quotes.) It is “dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and is a fundraiser for Amnesty international. 74 international artists from 27 countries have donated art and written about the synergy of freedom.” (The Burmese pro-democracy leader had been under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 & her release in Nov 2010.) It contains quotes from each of the artists who work is featured in the book. I can’t remember any which particularly acknowledge any responsibility being attached to the perspective on freedom which they espouse. Once again much of it seems to be mostly about the “me-me” view and not about whether my freedom has any effect on yours. It’s dangerous territory! It means that I, as an artist, am entitled to force my work into the public domain and you can’t stop me because then you will be limiting my freedom. Are you ok with being forced to see stuff you don’t really want to see? Is that the price of having a “free” society?

I hope you’ve spotted a key element in each of these lines of thought – offence. Without going too deeply into it – perhaps a topic for further investigation – it’s another difficult area isn’t it? I’m offended by something which you’re not; you’re offended by something which I’m not. Is either of us right? In a democratic society is it the majority that is right? Or do they just get their way because there are more of them? So 51% = right, 49% = wrong?

Just as with freedom in music so we face a similar problem with freedom in art. I suspect you can now see that freedom as a concept is becoming slightly more difficult to define – amorphous even. If freedom were a tree it would have many branches: political, religious, societal, musical, artistic etc. The trouble is these branches do not grow independently outwards and upwards. They are intertwined and, at times, may appear almost symbiotic. Trees, in the natural world, grow by a process called photosynthesis. An outside agent (in that case, the sun) provides the means by which they, and other plant life, grow. Where are we going to find the photosynthetic agent, if there is one, for our freedom tree? How does it or can it grow in the future? And who says whether my freedom tree is better (or more worthy) than yours?
Perhaps we’ve set out on an impossible journey. Perhaps the key is finding out how personal freedom is possible without infringing someone else’s but living within the laws of a society where the rights of the individuals in it are acknowledged and respected. Can those free-thinking inhabitants of “Art-Land” show us the way? Realistically, how can art help us in our quest especially when its practitioners seem to reject the very idea of rules governing what it & they can do?

Here’s a thought from A.P. Herbert (1890-1971):

“As my poor father used to say,
In 1863,
Once people start on all this Art,
Good-bye moralitee!
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.”

The worst manager I’ve ever had

A little while ago, I worked in a shoe shop. It was not a good job. Well, let me qualify that statement. It was an alright studenty job but the manager was… I’m thinking of a polite way to put it. She was just a bit rubbish really.

 

You know when you can’t understand how someone got to the position they did. It was like that with this manager. I was constantly puzzled by her. She was confident and took charge etc. She just didn’t seem to understand things people said. Simple things. And she was quite rude, but I think we call that being ‘a bit rough around the edges’ nowadays.

 

Anyway, I should have sensed all would not be rosy in the world of shoes in my initial interview. You know how, usually, the interviewer will direct questions at you and it’s for you to answer, talk about yourself, your knowledge, sell yourself a bit? Well, in this interview, she talked for probably 60% of the time. Now that’s wrong isn’t it? She already doesn’t get what the interview is for.

 

Almost at the end of the interview came the killer question that should have told me not to accept the job when she called to offer it. She said something along the lines of “Can you tell me about an experience you have had of receiving bad customer service.”

 

And I replied that, since I’ve worked with the public for years, I know that often it’s nothing to do with the actual customer, it’s the one before who annoyed you, or something just happened elsewhere, you just broke a plate, or you’re tired. There are plenty of reasons why someone’s grumpy. So when I go somewhere, if I don’t get good service, I don’t take it personally really.

 

She looked at me, blankly. She didn’t know what I was talking about. So she said to me, in a let-me-slow-this-down-because-you’re-too-thick-to-understand voice, “No darlin, it means when you’ve got bad customer service somewhere else. Not when you’ve given bad customer service.”

 

I wanted to say ‘YEH I KNOW YOU STUPID WOMAN! DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME.’

 

Instead I said, “Yeh, I mean I don’t really remember negative customer experiences because I don’t take it personally. I’ve worked with the public for ages so I know what it’s like and sometimes you don’t give your best customer service and it’s nothing to do with the customer.”

 

“No, okay,” she says, taking a deep breath, “What it means is, you’ve gone somewhere else to buy something and the person doesn’t give you good customer service. Not when you’ve given someone else bad customer service. Do you see what I mean?”

 

It was un-be-liev-able! She was really really talking down to me. I could see her mind ticking away, thinking, ‘how am I going to make this girl understand the question? I was like, I DO! I’M ANSWERING YOUR QUESTION! It’s that YOU don’t understand ME. But, of course, I’m in the interview, I want the job, the only way to explain properly is by being rude to her, which I can’t do. I was about to start my second year of a postgraduate course that was costing me a lot of money so I thought it would help to just have a little extra coming in. It had been advertised as 8 hours a week. Easy peasy.

 

So instead of trying to explain again, as she apparently couldn’t hear (maybe she left her ears at home, maybe that’s the problem), I just went, “No, I don’t remember receiving bad customer service.”

 

I mean, what did she think I thought was happening? Did she really think that I thought she was saying to me, ‘Have you ever given bad customer service?’ and I was going ‘Yes, all the time, because sometimes you have bad days, dont you?’ As if, in an interview, you’d really be asked that! And as if I’d really answer in the positive. When I’m interviewing for a job!

 

She was just plain rude sometimes too. She was fitting a little girl for some school shoes and the girl had hold of the one shoe which was from the shop floor and she was saying to the manager, in her little five year old voice, “But there’s only one of these.” As five year olds do, they don’t understand the ins and outs of how buying shoes works. And the manager, super irritated, snapped at her “Yeh! I’ll get the other one from the stockroom!” At a five year old! Ridiculous.

 

She would also sometimes ‘teach’ me things, to train me. She would ask me how I would usually do something, register a transfer of stock to another store, perhaps. I would tell her my version, which was guesswork as no-one had taught me properly, and it obviously wasn’t right. She’d go, “No, ok, we’re going to start again. What’s the very first thing you do? You’ve got to transfer shoes to the Notting Hill branch. What’s the first thing you do?” I’d say whatever I did, which was wrong. And she’d go “No, what do you do first, before that?” And I didn’t know. So I’d say it again.

 

She wouldn’t stop this and go, ‘Right, well let me show you how to do it properly, then you’ll know.” She just kept saying, “But what do you do before that? First?”

 

Inevitably, during this nonsense version of a training session, a customer would come over needing help, she’d run off and do that and we’d never revisit the problem.

 

When I finally left, six weeks later, the assistant manager said I was their shortest staff member ever. I was shocked, six weeks felt like a lifetime, I didn’t know how all the others coped being there longer.

 

I had asked for a day off the following Monday, which was about a week and a half away. My official days were Tuesday and Wednesday so I was actually doing extra hours that day. Given that it was about nine days away, I thought it was more than enough time for a place which has about twelve members of staff, all pretty flexible. At the end of my shift I approached the manager and said the following Monday would be a problem and would I be able to get it off?

 

“Nope!”

 

I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what to do with that answer. I just kind of stood there. There was no way I could work and even if I could get out of the other thing, I didn’t really want to go to the shoe shop. By this point, I was starting to dread it.

 

“It’s too late notice!” she said. “Can’t do that. No.”

 

The assistant manager, who was standing next to her, tried to be helpful. “Maybe Rachel could do that shift?”

 

“No, Drew. People should be allowed their days off. I can check the rota later,” she said, in her most doubtful voice, “but for now, it’s a no.”

 

I couldn’t believe it. I just kind of nodded and, as it was the end of the shift, got my bag and left. I went home, checked my contract for my notice period, and wrote my letter of resignation straight away, which said something about the ‘inflexibility of the shift patterns’ and that I ‘had not enjoyed my experience of working here as much as I had expected.’ I gave some obligatory nonsense at the end about my school year starting again and too much work but I just put that in for politeness sake.

 

What an awful awful woman. She used to tell me about her and her boyfriend going motorbiking at the weekends and she wore those fit-flop things which are the most hideous things ever.

 

She also called me Lauren the entire time I worked there.

What runs through my head when I’m falling asleep

This is specific to last night –

Gosh I’m tired. I wonder if I remembered to do everything at work today? Bins out? Yes. Lights out? Yes. Yeah, I did everything. O wait, I didn’t leave the air con on! O no. Dammit.

Is my alarm set? What should I make tomorrow? Banana bread probably. Muffins maybe.

Ok, mini self test. Criminal law. Theft. Where’s the definition found? Erm. Erm. Sleepy. Section 1. I think. Section 1 of the Theft Act. 19 something. Brain slowing down. 1968 I think. That’s all it can handle. Self test over.

Just remembered, I did leave the air con on at work. Phew.

I wonder where my trainers are. I haven’t seen them in days.

My phone needs charging. Too lazy to get out of bed and get the charger.

O no. I need a wee. If I go to sleep really quickly, maybe my body will forget then I can just go in the morning. Nope, I still need one. Ignore it.

Did I turn the oven off? I think so. Mmm, dinner was tasty this evening. Salmon. Mmm. I think I’ll do something chickeny tomorrow for dinner.

Should I try and remember something about mortgages? Stack v Dowden. And Tulk v Moxhay. Hmmm. I don’t remember why they’re important though. O well. Sleep time.

You’ll always be a part of me… I’m part of you indefinitelyyyy… Boy don’t you know you can’t escape me… Oo darlin cause you’ll always be me babyyyyy… What on earth? Go away Mariah.

I can’t wait til my exams are finished.

I wonder if it might be sunny tomorrow.

I love cake.

Budgeting in Laos

A few years ago, some friends and I were travelling around South East Asia. We had just crossed the border from Thailand into Laos and were staying in the capital city called Vientiane, on the banks of the Mekong River.

When we first arrived there, I think we had come in by coach and it was quite late in the evening. We just wanted to drop our stuff somewhere and go and eat. We weren’t really big on the whole planning-ahead scene. We loved the carefree nature of just turning up and seeing what we could find. So we hardly ever pre-booked hotels or anything. Sometimes it ended us in some pretty sticky situations but, on the whole, we preferred it. It suited us because we didn’t always know when we would be moving on, or where to.

So this time, we got off the coach, wandered along the front and saw somewhere which looked quite nice (we usually made do with ‘a bit grotty’ but this time we went for ‘quite nice’ because we were too tired to keep looking).

We go in, ask for a room for three and are taken to a really nice, quite plush room with wooden furnishings and a generally lovely ambience. It was a bit pricey but we agreed that we would just stay one night and find somewhere cheaper the next day. We still had a few weeks of travelling left and not a lot of money to do it on.

So the next day, around midday, we packed up our bags again, shouldered our weights (mine was getting ridiculously heavy by this point as I kept collecting books faster than I could read them and pass them on), paid our bill and told the owners we were leaving. As we stepped outside of this lovely comforting enticing hotel, the heavens opened….

We trudged the streets, getting more and more soaked, looking in any hostels, B&Bs or hotels we could find. We walked for maybe an hour and found a hostel with a room for three people which already had five hundred fleas in it, another place with a cockroach in the bath and some other places more expensive than the one we just left. I think we saw a few which just looked quite old and about to fall down. The entire time, it rained.

Fed up and getting quite grumpy by this point, we stopped in a little cafe to dry off and get something to eat. The afternoon was arriving and we hadn’t had anything, having not suspected that finding a room would prove so difficult. We started arguing a little bit with each other. This person needed to stop being so fussy, they were only fleas. And that person needed to relax about the big crack down the wall, what’s the problem, it probably only lets a little draft in. What’s a cockroach in the bath? We won’t bathe then, no big deal. And who cares if the room smells like urine? You’re getting too fussy, we’re on a budget here!

After skirting around the obvious for a long while, we eventually all admitted it. We had nowhere else to go but back to the same hotel we left an hour ago. We’d come full circle in our search and as we left the cafe, we realised that we were just around the corner from the hotel.

Sheepishly, we shuffled around the corner and approached the hotel. We sneaked a look in the front and, sure enough, the same people were at the desk. Earlier, they had asked us why we were leaving and we had explained that we were students on a budget, we needed somewhere more affordable.

We hung around outside for a few minutes, deciding who should lead the walk of shame back to the reception desk. I think I was nominated in the end and we re-entered the hotel, quietly explaining that we would like ‘a room for three, please.’ Of course they recognised us. With huge smiles on their face, they took down a key and lead us back to the exactroom we had left an hour ago and told us to make ourselves at home….

When we left the hotel a few minutes later, desperate to put some distance between ourselves and our shame, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. And it stayed pretty sunny for the rest of our stay in Vientiane at that hotel.

The return of the caterpony

In Z is for… I played around with some animal combinations and the most popular seemed to be the caterpony. (Should I put another ‘t’ in there so it is clear how it should be pronounced? Catterpony?)

So I thought I’d revive the caterpony today and see what I can get from it. Ok, here goes.

 

The beautiful little caterpony was the loveliest creature in the whole forest. He was kind hearted and everybody loved him.

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He was sometimes unhappy, though, as he had such short legs that he couldn’t keep up with the other animals. When they played football, he couldn’t run very fast so often he was not passed the ball even once! He also wasn’t tall enough to reach the tree branches to talk to his friends who lived up there. He felt very left out and small and slow.

He shuffled around, thinking about his dilemma. It made him very tired to think about it for a long time so he decided to have a little sleep. He felt a bit cold so he gathered dry grass and leaves and built a small comfortable room, just big enough for him to fit in.

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Then he got in and had a little rest. Days later, after his friends had been looking and looking for him, extremely worried, he emerged.

But he felt different. The ground didn’t feel so close. He had an urge to leap very high into the air.

And that’s when he looked down and realised what had happened.

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He had turned into a beautiful butterhorse! He went to show his friends and they all wanted him on their side for football. He could run faster than anyone else in the forest with his lovely long legs. He could also see right into the trees and talk to his friends. And sometimes, when he wanted to see his friends who lived further away, near the sea, he could fly there and stay for tea.

THE END.

Asparagus fingers

Blu, Buster and Beckham. These are all names of children in stories in the Chat magazine. Ridiculous. I’m now getting a good idea of who reads these magazines. They name their children Blu and Buster, call the fire brigade when baby gets a toilet seat stuck on his head and they send their stories in to Chat. Maybe you get paid well for your story? That’s why you get nonsense that’s not stories at all. The ’13 day pregnancy’ in this issue wasn’t that at all. It’s just that she found out she was pregnant quite late in the day, and gave birth 13 days later. It’s not really a 13 day pregnancy, is it?

So anyway, I was thinking to myself, maybe I’ll send in a story. I could book myself a nice holiday if it pays well.

Ok, now what could I write about? I need a dramatic title. Erm.

“Death by ravioli!” for example. Or “I found an ear in my cake!” Or maybe a disease? Something obscure and probably not real. Like “Rare disease turns my fingers into asparagus spears.”

Ok, let’s run with that one. I could do a photo of me looking sad…

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“It all started when I was 14,” I could write. “I’ve always loved asparagus. If I’d have known what it was going to do to me, I wouldn’t have eaten a single one.”

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“Then, when I was 20, I started to notice the skin on my hands was changing. I thought it might be because I had recently started to work in a kitchen so my hands were exposed to different temperatures a lot. I thought they might just need moisturising. But it made no difference. In fact, my skin was feeling slightly rubbery so didn’t absorb the moisturiser at all.

“One day, whilst biting my nail, I noticed it had a funny taste. And the texture was different. And that’s when I realised it… My fingers had turned into asparagus!

“I called in sick that day, terrified that I might accidentally cut off one of my own fingers whilst preparing food. I went to A&E with a long sleeved coat on, too embarrassed to show my hands…

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“When the nurses asked me to fill out the form, I tried but couldn’t pick the pen up. I heard a few nurses gasp and there were whispers of “asparagus fingers” and giggles. I felt so ashamed.

“When the doctor saw me, he said I have a rare disease called vegetablefingeritis. It can happen when someone eats a lot of one vegetable. He said I should be grateful I hadn’t chosen to eat carrots, like this poor person…

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“I’ve learned to live with my disease now, and give motivational talks to youngsters about living through adversity and about varying their vegetable intake. Although I struggle to do almost anything which requires the use of hands (most things) I refuse to be defeated by my asparagus fingers and have learned how to do other things which do not require hands. I am extremely adept at turning on the TV using my nose, and watching daytime TV. Rikki Lake is my favourite.”

And at the end there could another photo of me, with a different vegetable, a mushroom perhaps. And the caption could be “Laura stays away from asparagus now!”

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What do you think? Should I send it in? I think it’s got potential.