Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).

Spend, spend, spend

I’ve always had a slightly unusual (I think) attitude to spending money. I’ve gone through periods when I had none, and periods when I had plenty, but the kind of things I spend it on haven’t changed too much.

After leaving the educational system I spent several years in and out of freelance employment. When I had work I was comfortable enough, but during extended workless periods I had virtually nothing and would often have to stretch my meagre resources until the arrival of the next Jobseeker’s Allowance payment, counting the number of slices of bread I had left (yes, toast is a square meal). Yet strangely I could always find a few quid to buy a cinema ticket.

To be clear, I was never in long-term, unavoidable poverty. I chose my work situation (I was trying to break into the film industry) and at any moment I could have abandoned that strategy and got a proper job. In fact that’s more or less what I ended up doing. The point is I always had options. I wasn’t trapped in poverty.

On those occasions when I got a bit of spare cash I felt a bit weird about spending it on anything unusual. I remember after I got one of my first wage packets thinking “Wow, I could actually buy a CD player with this”. And I did, but it still felt like a big step to spend that much money on one thing.

Even now after two decades of employment I still haven’t got used to spending money on certain things. Clothes, for example, as anyone who’s ever met me will attest. “What, you can spend several hundred Euro on dinner but you can’t buy a new shirt when your old one has a hole in it?” Nope. And for many other items which fall outside of the usual categories I’ll still waver for a while and often decide against it just because it feels weird to spend money on a thing I’ve never had and don’t absolutely need, just because I can.

I think it’s also partly because I’ve never craved objects, with the exception of certain functional ones like books. I’m not much of a gadget freak; I have a camera and computer and phone but I’m not constantly checking out new models and will usually only replace them when they break down. If I spend a large amount of money on anything it tends to be on an experience, whether it’s a meal or travel. Otherwise the big expenses tend to be communal or for other people: the house, the car, things for the kids and their school/activity-related expenses. And to be honest I don’t even need more books, as much as I could afford them. What I need is more time to read the ones I have. What I need is to retire.


By the way, according to the website Global Rich List I’m in the top 0.54% for earnings. Now this may make me sound like some kind of fat cat but even someone earning the average wage in the UK, for example, is comfortably in the world’s top 1%, and the average American wage-earner is in the top 0.5% like me. So all those “We are the 99%” placards you see at demonstrations should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

School run

My kids take the school bus every weekday morning. It picks them up from the end of our road and, traffic permitting, they’re at school 15-20 minutes later. I’d let them go to the bus stop on their own but our youngest is still only 5.

If the weather is too inclement for cycling I then take the metro. There are often children sat around me on the metro making their way to various other schools across town. Most of them spend their time studying or revising for tests; quizzing each other on Flemish or English vocabulary and grammar. I resist the temptation to help them with their English homework.

I attended two different schools as a child. The first was a ten minute walk from home so I managed that on foot alone. From age twelve onwards I attended another school on the other side of town. This involved taking a public bus from the end of my road into the centre of town and then changing there onto another bus to the other side of town to where the school was located. No one else from my school lived in my area so I never saw any classmates on my journey. I don’t remember ever doing homework on the bus. I think I probably just stared out of the window.

There was a recent film about the journey children in different countries across Africa and Asia make in order to get to school. I missed it in the cinema but just found it on YouTube. I’ll show it to the kids one of these days as I’m sure they’d find it interesting.

Clear your plate

An article in the Guardian the other day tackled the thorny subject of the sequence in which you eat the various ingredients of a dish. Which is to say, if you’re eating a selection of items on the same plate, as would be the case with a roast dinner, do you mix them and eat several things with each forkful, alternate between them, or work your way through them in a specific sequence? And if it’s the latter do you eat your favourite thing first, or save it until the end? We occasionally have this conversation with our kids as children are often fussier eaters (as the article notes there’s even a name – brumotactillophobia – for the fear of having different foods touch each other on your plate). Ours tend to eat each ingredient at one time and save their favourite for last. I prefer to mix things up so that I finish everything at more or less the same time. Surely if the ingredients belong together in the same dish they should be eaten together? Otherwise they’d be presented as different courses? The only exception to this rule is that when I have roast beef I save the Yorkshire pudding for last.

I guess this is not an issue (or less of an issue) in cultures where different foods arrive separately and on separate plates (mezze, tapas, etc). But in that case I prefer to finish each individual plate. Maybe it’s the psychological barrier of the separate plates rather than one big one which makes me think that those foods should be kept separate?



Five mugs

A friend recently posted five consecutive photos on five consecutive days on facebook. The photo had to be of a mug and he had to tell the story behind it. As the month draws to its close and I run out of blogging material I present to you here, and not on facebook, my Five Mugs.

The Shakespearean Insult Mug, from the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. I bought this in San Diego. The only mug I own which is worth reading. I keep this one in my office.


The famous Orange Two-handled Mug. I bought it in Den Bosch in 2007. I use it less than I expected to because I’m not so keen on the feel of plastic, as opposed to ceramic, in my mouth.

The “I heart NY” Mug. Bought in Newark airport in order to use up a few remaining dollars before heading home to Yurp. But then of course the sales tax was added on (because Americans don’t like to include that in the display price) bringing the final price to more than the amount of cash I had left, so I had to pay for it with the credit card and so I still had a fistful of dollars afterwards. Obviously I only use this mug when I’m in a New York state of mind.

The Darth Vader Mug. This came free with some kind of confectionery. I rarely use it because it’s surprisingly capacious and I don’t need coffees or teas that big. No good for drinking from if held in the left hand.

The Ball-handled Mug. Bought in a small shop in Genova. The handle is actually less comfortable to hold than a normal one but I just like the way it looks.

Bonus: Anne found a wacky beer mug the other day in a bar in Brussels.

Chauffeur, chaperone

These days I spend a lot of time ferrying my kids back and forth between various activities in the evenings and at weekends. I mind that less than I expected to. For one thing it’s another, brief opportunity to get one of the kids on their own for a chat away from homework, play and tv.

For another it’s often amusing or gratifying to see them engaging in these activities: learning, making new friends, etc.

Or sometimes it just allows me a little ‘me’ time. At the moment I’m spending quite a few evenings sat in the bar of a local cultural centre (yes, drinking alone) reading while I wait for my daughter to finish with tap dancing and singing.

This willingness to drive them around may change in years to come when they’re teens and just need me to pick them up from parties at some ungodly hour of the morning.

Reading aloud

The other day our babysitter told me that when she came to look after our children that evening she would bring some homework with her. Now this is not a teenager but a woman in her 50s so it wasn’t immediately obvious what she meant. It turns out that she’s learning to read the Quran.

Reading the Quran isn’t a surprise either, as she’s a Moroccan muslim, and she’s been able to speak and read Arabic for a while. But I didn’t realise that there was a special technique involved in reading the Quran. According to wikipedia:

“The proper recitation of the Quran is the subject of a separate discipline named Tajwid which determines in detail how the Quran should be recited, how each individual syllable is to be pronounced, the need to pay attention to the places where there should be a pause, to elisions, where the pronunciation should be long or short, where letters should be sounded together and where they should be kept separate, etc. There are two types of recitation: murattal is at a slower pace, used for study and practice. Mujawwad refers to a slow recitation that deploys heightened technical artistry and melodic modulation, as in public performances by trained experts.”

In order to help her with this she’s following a course, and in order to be able to study on her own at home she has a special pen and connected headphones to aid with pronunciation. The pages of the book contain some kind of special invisible code which is then “read” by the electronic pen as it passes over them, triggering a recorded voice reciting that verse.

This is quite clever and got me thinking about whether there were any other possible applications for such a technology. Combining “normal” books with audio books in one edition, so that blind people who don’t read braille can hear it instead? Or encoding music or sound effects which support the text for people who still want to read a paper version instead of listen to an audio book? But that would depend on the pace at which you read, I suppose. Personally I want silence when I read. I guess this is just a specific tool for a very specific purpose.


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