Categories
Thinking

Through the Storm

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (2002)

Categories
Learning

Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.

Categories
Learning

That Noun-Verb Thing

Many years ago, I started teaching the English language and, as a result, learned much more about my mother tongue than I’d ever picked up at school. The more I learned, the more I fell in love (a novel experience for me – usually, enduring mystery is the clincher), and the more I wanted to know. I embraced all forms of English, welcomed them to the fold, while firmly promoting a standard I held dear. A standard based fairly and squarely on my parents’ and Eric Blair’s.

After a while, I became an examiner. It’s probably the work I enjoyed most. Meeting, and listening to, people from around the world, whilst assessing which exam board profile they fit, was both challenging and frustrating. I tried to be as flexible as possible, within the rules, to accommodate varieties of English which were mutually comprehensible. I have never been a hardliner with language: change ensures survival, and it’s that quality of English which has paid me adequately well over the years. Some colleagues were not so tolerant. An oft-repeated, post-exam, heated discussion was ‘that noun-verb thing’. Colleagues unfamiliar with iTunes would erupt into rage over a candidate using ‘gift’ as a verb.

To be fair, when I’d first encountered it, the American trend for making nouns into verbs had caused me to shudder (occasionally, it still does – ‘to desk’, anyone?). However, as with other changes, I realized that I needed to acknowledge it to deal with it. Ignoring what we don’t like does not make it go away. English is user-led, another secret to its survival and success, so respect for the user shows respect for the dictionaries of the future. A usage is coined, people adopt it, people like it, it endures, it enters the dictionaries.

Yesterday, I reflected on ‘that noun-verb thing’ again. There was a Greek General Election, billed as an opportunity for Greece to rethink itself and its relationship with the outside world. Going the rounds on social media was a Greek cartoon – easily translated and immediately understood. A man at a podium asks the crowd in front of him ‘Who wants change?’ Everyone raises their hand. Then, he asks ‘Who wants to change?’. No-one raises their hand.

This speaks to all of us. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi; if we want change, we have to be that change. Acknowledge it, take ownership of it. The verb activates the noun. Let’s do it!

Categories
Thinking

Optimism

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer
― Albert Camus

Categories
Living

Plain Sailing

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Categories
Living

CSI: The Morning After

You wake up smiling, a really broad grin on your face. Why? You have no recollection of any dreams. You have no recollection of last night from about the time you turned down another drink and said you really had to be going home. Yup, right there. For a while, you lie on your back; grinning, glowing and relaxed. You tentatively allow daylight between your eyelids. You focus with increasing clarity on the ceiling. You’re still smiling. The rationed daylight starts your mind working. The CSI: About Last Night checklist kicks in.

Where are you? Check. Calmly, you move your eyes from the ceiling and, with your head perfectly still, look left to right. Yes, you made it home. You made it into your own bed. You’re even covered with one of your own sheets. Whether or not you did that all on your own leads us to the second point.

Are you alone? Check. For this, you need to wake up a little bit more. You don’t feel touched by the presence of another. Now you have to move. Just a little. Ready? Good. You shift slightly to your side and glance at the floor next to the bed. Nobody. No bodies. Relief, maybe regret. You return to the warm patch you just left and listen up. No, not a sound. Not even from the bathroom. You sniff the air, detect no unfamiliar odours but do notice you smell different. And so, to point number three.

Are you hurt? Check. You’re still grinning inanely, so we’re talking superficial-physical-ok. You move your toes, then your feet and finally stretch your legs. You flex your fingers, hands and arms. So far, so good. You make the decision to sit up…one, two, three, up. That’s it. Head swims slightly: speed of sit up; residual booze; excess (psych) baggage. Who knows? You don’t. Nothing hurts. Good. Though sitting does feel a bit, well, uncomfortable. Not bad, just odd. You stand up. You’re a bit unsteady, but it’s time for point four. Let’s look in the mirror.

Are you marked? Check. No (new) tattoos? What about bruises or cuts? You look, you turn slowly in front of the mirror, alarmed by smudged make up in unexpected places (yours?). Everything seems to be where and how it was 24 hours before. Good. No need to wear unseasonal clothing to cover embarrassing and inexplicable markings. Now, talking of clothing, on to point five.

Where are your clothes from last night? Check. A cursory glance reveals they are folded neatly by your bed/ dropped shabbily on the floor (delete as applicable) as they always are. Relief. You scoop them up and perch on the edge of the bed, instantly reminded of that odd feeling when you sit down. Item by item you examine, hoping at least one will provide a (pleasant) clue as to what happened the night before. You discover where your different smell is coming from and that a motorbike was involved at some point (oil and tyre tread marks). And that’s it.

So, what next? Well, life goes on and so do we. You have to face the world at some point. The sooner the better. You resolve to be low-key for a couple of days. There may be phone calls or awkward encounters with those who were (fully) there. You play it cool. Days pass; there is no comeback, you don’t need the GUM clinic, and you are still none the wiser. From time to time, you reflect wistfully that that might have been the last time you had ‘Good Sex’ and you can’t even remember it. It’s a cold case. You’re still smiling. Move along now, nothing more to see.

Categories
Living

Headfuckers: a Precautionary Tale

Headfuckers are people, places or experiences that mess with your mind. That’s it. The name gives the game away – they are bad news. As a one-off (this is invariably the place or experience variety), they can provide you with a ‘WTF?’ moment and a story to tell your friends. Trust me, this is the best case scenario.

For experiences or places, most times the choice is yours – if, in a perverse way, you enjoy a headfuck, well then you can revisit at your leisure/ pleasure. There are, of course, exceptions to this – such as the workplace, where choice is limited by economic necessity. I have worked in these places, I know. After a while, it is easier to accept headfucking as the norm. That is, until it starts to affect your relationships and life outside work.

People are tricky headfuckers. If you have a gut reaction to someone that says ‘stay the hell away!’ go with it, it works. Whether you’re attracted to that person for friendship or sex, it won’t end well and the path to the end won’t be that much fun, either. Remember, you will never get back those days of your life that they have wasted. Ever. Sitting around waiting for someone to turn up, to give you a straight answer, to respond to your text or email, to call you when they said they would? Don’t. Life’s too short. There are people out there you could be having a good time with now. Yes, you know them – the ones who’ll not let you down, the ones who’ll not give you mixed messages, the ones who’ll not just lurk on Facebook. They do exist.

Maybe, just maybe, you go back to the headfuck because you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt (‘Everyone else says they’re a good person – must be me, let’s try again’). Seriously, don’t waste your time (that’s the headfucker’s job). Go with your instincts and get out with your self-respect intact, not in tatters. If you doubt your instincts (why?), ask yourself: ‘Would I be ashamed to treat another person this way?’ Chances are (unless you’re a headfucker, too) the answer will be ‘Yes’. Get the fuck away from them. Now.

If you find the headfucker sexually attractive and hold out hope for some action this, too, is a waste of your time. These people are all about themselves. The most you can hope for is that you are helping them to jerk off (in whatever miserable way they see fit) – and surely that’s not the best you can have, even if times are lean. It may even be that they are sexually dysfunctional, given that their mind is such a mess. Certainly, you won’t get any satisfaction from a headfucker (though they may well do so, at your expense).

So, what precautions can you take? Here are some simple ones:
1. Maintain your self-esteem (no-one needs to set the bar this low).
2. Trust your instincts. Bad feeling? Keep a distance physically and online.
3. Keep a supply of good chocolate to hand (not candy bars)
4. Keep good friends close. The ones who tell it like it is and who make you laugh out loud.
5. Take B vitamins and/ or eat Marmite daily.
6. Stay busy.
7. Exercise – mentally and physically.
8. Get enough sleep.

Look after yourself, you’re worth it.