Instant Punk, Instant Life

Yesterday, I noticed a picture of Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes in the paper. She had shaved the sides of her head and this was enough excitement for a newspaper to give the event a headline. Of course, I don’t care or worry about a 16 year old’ shaven head but it made me think about the year she was born.

You see, 1996 was an important year for me. It was then that I went online for the first time. I was 24 and even though we’re talking about something that happened nearly 17 years ago, I still remember to this day the moment I finally got on the net. I sat there, transfixed waiting for the page to load – which took about a good five minutes.

Then red letters spelling Yahoo! appeared in front of me and I was amazed that the internet knew this was my first time online and gave me such a warm welcome as a result. Like a little celebration.
I didn’t have a clue about search engines.

Then on that same day, I ended up having a chat with a woman living in Antwerp, which I thought was totally amazing. I was in Ghent, a whole 60 km away from her!

It is said that 1996 was the year that the internet got commercialised. And, it was also then that my husband, got his first mobile phone, which prompted people to think he was either a pimp or a pusher.

Modern life as we know it now, started that year for me. In fact, I always think about time as the internet and pre-internet era.

But the thing is: I was already 24 when the technological revolution kicked off. Right up to that hot day in August in 1996, I had believed we were already living in modern times. We were after all able to fax a doodle across the world, we danced to electronic music wearing futuristic fly-like sunglasses and most of us were the owner of the most sophisticated communication tool out there: the beeper.

Life up to the mid-nineties felt anything but old-fashioned.

Though, upon reflection, I wonder how we were able to survive these days without so much of a scratch. As, how the hell did we manage without mobile phone or internet? With no option to text someone to say that you’ll be one hour late, adding ‘just wait for me’. And how was it possible that we went on holiday without reading a single hotel review or an air crash statistic page, and with two rolls of film in our travel bag?

It’s also odd to think that back then, we would go weeks without giving any news to each other. Not that we were cold-hearted people, we just assumed there was no need to let people know up to three times a day what we were eating there and then.

Thinking about it, I can’t remember us sending each other letters which read: ‘just had a lemon Calippo. Wowsers!’

Today however, we appear to believe that such important update must be shared with anyone – with photoshopped pictures attached, to give the event even more significance.

Regarding Lourdes and all the other kids of her generation, she was born with the Internet already available for commercial use, mobile phones, and all the other gadgets and possibilities that came later on.

The kids today are part of the millennium generation, also known as Generation Y. They are the ones that can manoeuvre around your Smartphone, better than you can and long before they are able to tie their own shoelaces.

And there was a time that I envied them. Not so much because of their youth (though a crease free face without the option of extra luggage under my eyes would be something I’d sign up for again) but because of the fact that all this modern technology enables them to have everything at a finger tip – as soon as they are born really. Anything they wish for, is there to consume instantly.

I do however wonder what it does to a young person’s brain to have to deal with such an information overload on a daily basis. Surely, they must be able to cook the perfect eggs Benedict or build a bedroom Hadron Collider by the age of four, right?

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Well, maybe not. As, although these children will be exposed to a lot more information than most of us ever will, according to psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, the way we use search engines, changes the way our brains store memories. This is called the Google Effect.

This basically means that having easy access to information via the internet, makes people less likely to remember certain details they believe they can access online.

One result of this phenomenon is that your brain will no longer feel the need to store the information like it used to do as it knows it will be able to find it in seconds if there is a need for it.

As Sparrow quoted: “We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore. But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things’.

Another thought I had is: is it really so much fun if everything is available in a matter of nanoseconds?

If you think about it, many years ago, us humans were hunters. I therefore assume that this trait is still embroidered within our DNA. But the fact is that everything can be found by anyone; does it not take some of the fun away from the experience as a result?

I remember that in my teens, there was one little obscure shop in a rather unsavoury part of town which would sell punk and new wave gear.

If you were into this type of music, you’d know to go there. The thing was: if that shop didn’t have what you wanted, you went to Brussels and if Brussels could not offer you the desired, you went on to hunt through as many vintage shops as you could find. AND, if that did not bring any result, you had no other option than to make the outfit yourself.

Notwithstanding the fact that it could be exhausting too, it was still a lot of fun to search for it and when you found what you were looking for (to sound a little U2-esque), you were pretty chuffed with yourself. You had after all gone ‘all the way’ to find that rare object you had your heart set on.

These days, a kid wanting to go Punk-style, has the possibility to type into the search engine: ‘Punk Fashion Buy’ and the result will be pages of shops offering Punk clothes and accessories. Within a day or two, the whole outfit including the safety pins and reproduced stains, will be delivered to their home address and they’ll be able to roll out the prêt-à-porter-punk, they’ve become overnight.

And if they want the music to go with it, they’ll just look for it, click download, pay or not and it will be on their playlist within the next hour.
Even though I am a huge music fan and download a lot of music, I however think that kids these days, miss out on some of the fun we used to have by going to these small, independent record shops.

Those may have been dark and smoky places but there were always interesting characters lurking around the listening stations. You would end up talking to these music fanatics and it was never boring. The exploration was as much fun as the actual find.

Trying to hunt for things made us appreciate it more I believe. It definitely made us stand out more and although we were perhaps more labelled back then, it created a real underground culture, which I don’t see so much of now.

There are other concerns I have; to name the first: the demand to be constantly available. As since when is it mandatory to be 24/7 people, always having to be on standby – just like a doctor?

At least the generations who have lived the ancient life will every now and then remember to put the: ‘Sorry We’re Closed’, sign up. It just gets too much sometimes. I just hope that these children, having not known anything else than this constant updating and messaging, will do the same.

I am also worried about all this internet trolling as according to the news last week, one in three children has suffered online bullying. At least when we were kids, we could close the door behind us and that was that. Due to the technological wonders we now have, the bullies can bully the victims within their own bedroom walls. It can’t but affect them.

Another worry I have is all this poor communication we get to see these days. Everything must be fast and furious and as such, messages like these: CD9 CYE CYT B4N (parents are around, check your email, see you tomorrow, goodbye for now), may become bog standard.

Incredibly, in New Zealand, SMS lingo is now accepted language during the end of the years exams.
It makes you speculate where all this is leading to and I am wondering whether one day, the publishing houses will be re-releasing classics such as How To Kill A Mockingbird in text language.

But we have to be ready for the reality that the children who have known this technology all their lives, will be joining us in the workplace very soon. There is no doubt in my mind that they’ll be brilliant at their jobs but I do not think that there will be a lot of pleasantries exchanged – at least not face to face. I am sure however, that I will be able to read all their witty updates on my Twitter.

I will be honest, I still envy these children a tiny bit for having everything available to them by a click of the mouse but I also realise that these are potentially the kids who built many trees in Sims City rather than climbing the real ones and whose parents organised a play date with the neighbour’s children via Wifi and Skype, without the need for them to meet. (you never know, little Poppy may be catching Harry’s cold otherwise)

But it’s not all gloom and doom as these kids have after all experienced the high-tech life from the moment their parents built them a Facebook page with an ultra scan image as profile picture. Who knows which great inventions may follow suit.

And of course, there are still plenty of children who don’t have their own website, can spell and have active lives with friends they meet for real and not as an avatar.

They are just like we once were but in what they call ‘the primitive times’.

Same principles yet they have mobiles, we had coins and payphone cards.

To conclude: we live in times where everything is possible and almost anything can be obtained, which is great. But I think that the hunter in us, may be left, just a little bored sometimes. It’s also not certain how we are all going to evolve along this fast growing technology. We’ll have to wait and see.

But I can’t deny that I am very happy that I get to experience life where everything can be Googled, though I am also grateful that for the first 24 years of my life, I got to walk with dinosaurs.

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Rude London Or The Big Post Olympic Depression

Just this morning, when I was wondering whether I should write a piece about how my beloved London has become quite rude in recent times, my thinking process got halted abruptly when I heard a loud thumping on the tube window. It was so loud, the noise went right through the rubber of my earphones and it silenced the great Johnny Cash.

We were at Bank station and some guy, wanting to get on the packed tube, thought it was the right approach to get into the carriage, by knocking like a lunatic on the windows. His eyes nearly popped out of his red face. He then exposed his teeth and exploded in front of the glass:

‘You f*cking C**ts,’ he shouted. ‘For f*cks sake, move, you f*ckers!’

Literally, his exquisite choice of words. He was a man in pinstripes and looked like a thousand other professionals working around Bank. So, he wasn’t your typical ‘chav’, dressed in the latest market edition of Burberry.

This man’s rude manner summed up my thinking of late: London has become rude. It all seemed to have changed so rapidly as well.

Of course, I am not claiming that London was once made out of the same cloth as the Disney town Celebration (FL) which is the idealised version of small town America. And, it wasn’t exactly like people would release 100 peace doves to then burst into happy chanting upon greeting each other at the pub. London, being the robust place it is, has always had a bit of an edge to it and is definitely a city you don’t mess with. That said, since I have arrived here nearly 15 years ago, things have taken a turn for the worse.

London, was, not so long ago, a cool and pleasant city where people minded their own business and were respecting more or less to the unwritten rules you somehow discover when settling here. These are the transport rules; let people off before boarding, to name just one. The society rules: don’t stop at the entrance/exit of shops or any point of interests, do not jump any queues and move about in robot-fashion but have the charm on standby when it is required to switch it on. Also, you never stare.

Now, it appears that some of us living here, have transformed themselves into self-centered individuals who will stand wherever we want if it serves us better, we don’t mind pushing someone to the side to get that last vacant seat, we have become queue jumpers or will give you lip when you bump into them by accident. And more than ever people stare and even if I do that little twirl of the head and glance backwards as if to say: ‘surely you can’t be looking at ME?’ they keep staring. It feels like London has gotten eyes. And teeth.

There are so many instances of boorish behaviour I can recall since the euphoria of the Olympics last summer. I don’t know why I consider the post Olympics time to be the ground zero of this current brutish wave. But everything has a starting point and for me, it looks like it all kicked off after the best time in London ever.

Still, it shouldn’t be the case that, post euphoria. we have to act so rudely. It is a real shame that such great city has become that miserable.

What is it exactly, that causes London to have become so angry and act upon the cliché that this city is rude, as observed by the rest of the world long before London was actually rude for real?

I wonder if this is due to the recession; people being laid off, jobs are now much harder to get and the cost of city life appears to be increasing with every hour passing. Then again, there could be many other factors at hand, I think.

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Could one of the reasons be the current trend of Internet Trolling; the contemporary pass-time of being nasty to strangers whilst hiding, sad and lonely behind a screen? Is this form of bullying now flowing over in real life – no longer content these trolls are with destroying one’s person day by posting cruel comments on one’s Twitter, they now feel tempted to ruin people’s day in real life? And talking about online activities; maybe some of us believe we have become mini-celebrities because we’ve after all got 500 followers and 2300 friends on Facebook? Which makes us Madonna right?

Or is it because the drugs have changed in recent years? I can see things around me when I’m out, the vibe in some places has changed. As where Ecstasy would make everyone love each other and scream out things like: ‘I want to personally thank your mum and dad for making love in the seventies as otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you, you totally amazing stranger ‘, the drugs now available on the market, such as horse-tranquilizers, plant food and paint stripper causes them to act like Urban Barbarians.

Maybe it is simply due to the fact that London is bursting at its seams; with so many more people having entered this city in recent years hoping to exploit the gold rush but what they usually find is bits of tin foil – flown away from a stray kebab wrapping. But who knows, it may just be a Post Olympics Depression we all suffer. A bit like we’ve spent the night with the best lover ever who promised us sunshine days and croissants in bed but then left first thing in the morning, never to be seen again. No wonder we all got a bit miserable.

Yet more reasons spring to mind as I also think that the incessant flow of cold callers/texters wanting to flock you insurance, a credit card or kitchen, are driving us even further up the wall of discontentment. Talking about that phone, I am also sure that all of us being so engrossed in our mobile of late, has made us more introvert than before and as such, we may not interact with people so well as we used to be able to.

Oh of course, I am just guessing here but what I know (and others I’ve consulted) is, that London has changed. It just seems less friendly than it was but having gone through all of the reasons I could think of, I am wondering whether this city has transformed into a grump because of a mixture of all things suggested?

But who knows, it might just be all due to the bad weather we had in the last year. And goodness me, does the weather effect people’s mood here or what!

It would be amazing though if we could go back to the wonderful days of the Olympics or even the times before, where we used to all dance around a camp fire on the grounds of the Tower of London and make each other necklaces out of daisies. Okay, this picture is far-fetched but I miss the ‘old’ days, where we all seem to just flow past without so much aggression, more smiles and definitely less staring, fuming eyes. I love London very much and at present, I love it like a mother would love a very naughty child. You will never give up the love but you will get exasperated at times. Disappointed even.

I am however sure that London is not the only place where the level of rudeness has increased in recent months, years. But the good thing about this city is still that it’s a bloody amazing place, with so much to do and once you get past the sour faces and the pushing and shoving, you’ll have an absolute great time.

The vicious man in the pinstripes’ suit, I saw this morning, I wonder whether at some moment today, he slapped his head and said: ‘god, I just acted like a proper idiot, earlier on’.

But I am afraid that he still thinks it is absolutely acceptable to call people the worst names under the sun, just because he wanted to board the train. Unfortunately, it seems others thought so too as nobody batted an eyelid. Though, that could just be a London thing. We don’t care, we used to not stare ( even if there is more staring going on, we won’t do so if someone acts like a total twit). As, deep inside, we are still these robust London robots – but with a Colgate smile and cute dimples when the situation applies itself to it.

Go on London, smile. We’re on camera!

I Think I Think Too Much, I Think?

Goodness me, don’t we think a lot in a day.

That realisation came again this morning. As, from the moment I woke up, I drowned myself in a flow of thinking. I did so much thinking it made me actually think about thinking.

That thinking mechanism, it kick-starts the moment you open your eyes. If you are a fireman or stuntman (or Prince Charles for that matter) you may think: so which wacky and crazy adventures will one experience today? Or you may wonder if you’re going to wear the clothes you’ve selected the evening before as you are convinced you’ve put on five pounds overnight, or why you dreamed you were on a cruise ship which managed to get all the way to Trafalgar Square to then sink into the tiles in front of an applauding crowd? (Mine two nights ago, still not sure what that was all about)

In my case, this morning, I kept thinking: shall I get up? It is after all 7 am in the morning on a bloody SUNDAY! AND one day I’ll go and bark through the letterbox of the owners of the dog which wakes us every weekend on the dot. So after plotting my revenge for a couple of minutes, I negotiated my way out of bed, wondering how I could spend my time until I had to go out to meet friends for brunch at 2 pm. Shall I clean the house, do the laundry, straighten my hair, paint my nails or do something far more useful such as ‘photoshopping’ new hairstyles on a picture of mine? All these thoughts racing through my mind for 1.5 hours and with my eyes firmly closed as I did not want to advertise to the cat I was wide awake. But she always knows, I can tell by the way she drapes herself around the top of my head whilst her nails knead the pillow around me. So I in the end, I got up, fed the cat, went into the shower, had breakfast and did some thinking on the subject of thinking.

First of all, I realised that I could have decided in five minutes whether to stay in bed or what to do once I got up.

But no, I needed to have a 90 minutes thinking session to deliberate these mundane moves.

According to the National Science Federation, humans have on average between 12.000 and 60.000 thoughts per day.

Such high number seems almost imaginable but I guess this amount of thinking will stretch further than: have we got more milk left for the porridge? There are probably thoughts we can’t even recall we had: how many squeezes of toothpaste? Do I cross now or wait until it is green? If I walk faster, I will be able to get past the snail on stilettos. Damn, these are pretty nice shoes actually. Where would she have bought them? But no, no c’mon, I’ll march like a duck on broken stilts if I’d dare to walk on those. But then again… NO!

And this will be another thinking session getting possibly lost forever in the annals of our 24/7 operating brain.

We think more than we talk, we learn things throughout the day that we need to process, we question situations that happen around us, we may be prone to negative thoughts which may wash on our brain’ shores with regular intervals and as such, we clock up the numbers. All this thinking continues into our sleeps when our thoughts get processed, redistributed or deleted. In fact, whilst we are asleep our brain spurts up its activity and start doing the work which is required for us to be able to perform the new task we learned on that day, it selects whether memories with the greatest emotional value should be enhanced, and simultaneously, those of lesser value may be buried under a pile of other discarded souvenirs.

With so much wonderful work being done inside our head, I can’t but have the following imagery of a Victorian-style factory all rotating wheels and chimneys. Overlooking the mechanics is an ancient little man with a dusty book on his lap. But sometimes, the old little man is not available as he usually takes lunch at the same time as us and you’re left with no other option than to ask the others: what shall I eat today? And you will make others think. Though, even if they wouldn’t have the faintest clue of what it is you fancy at that moment in time, they’ll come up with a wide range of suggestions (more than they’ll be able to find for themselves) – but you decline them all and settle for the initial thought you had.

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I’ve witnessed it many times. I should dislike it but having been on the questioning side too; it would be rude to do so. There is one pet hate I have however regarding thinking: it is people who claim to know what you are thinking.

They may just drop it into a conversation: ‘yeah, I know what you are thinking’ – which drives me a bit mad as I usually don’t even know what I am thinking myself so how do they know? Does my forehead reveal a dot matrix board spelling out my thoughts? The worst ones though are the people who don’t even let you know they are aware of your thoughts and whilst adjusting that knowingly smile on their face, they will say: ‘I agree, I was just thinking the same’.

This, in certain instances at least, does tend to freak me out as I may have been thinking of something rude about the person sitting with us. So if that thought was something like: ‘god, I hate the way she makes that slurping sound when she eats an orange. She resembles a flesh eating plant, it’s just gross!’ – what do I do? Will she expect for me to roll out the not quite delicate subject and throw it on the table?

What if they’ve misread your thought and you’ll end up making an ass of yourself by talking about something the other shouldn’t know about?

I don’t know, it’s just not comfortable.

Years and years ago, if I thought my husband was more quiet than usual I would ask him that one question he dreads even more than ‘does everything including my hair look fat in this?’ – I would ask him: ‘what are you thinking?’

He would always respond with: ‘nothing’.

And that would drive me mad as how can you not think of anything?

“’What do you mean, you’re not thinking of anything? Anything at all?’ I would ask him

‘Yeah’.

“But that is impossible’, I then contested. ‘Everybody thinks – all the time.”

“Are you thinking now?’ he would ask me.

“Yes, I am thinking why you are not thinking.”

“Just think that I’m not thinking’, his conclusive response would be.

To which, I would point out that this was just, well, weird.

He would then call me weirder and I’d tell him he was the weirdest of them all for just sitting there – not thinking!

I now know not to ask that question anymore because I have learned to accept that sometimes we don’t think at all. At least, we think we don’t think but of course we never stop. Then there are times when thinking hurts because of these buried memories crawling up like zombies from their graves or it just hurts because you’re facing a complex situation. Sometimes it hurts in an annoying way, causing your head to almost foam at the top, so hard you have to think. A perfect example: you were about to say something and it is just, poof, gone. You try to get it back but it just doesn’t want to come. And no matter how engaging the conversation you were having, all focus is now on trying to recoup what you’ve lost. You snap your fingers, you mumble some words, and you even claim it was something important but you just cannot remember it. You can almost feel your brain strain whilst trying to search every nook and corner. Sometimes you will retrieve the lost words and the feeling is pretty much similar to that special feeling we all get when we retrieve the mobile we thought we’d lost. Other times, our thought will evaporate forever. There will however be instances where it comes back, usually for me it is when I wake up. Especially if it concerns a songs that I could not remember the day before for it to spring to mind when I wake up in the morning. I may have given up thinking about it but my brain kept working whilst I was asleep, retrieved the file and played it to me upon waking up. Clever. I wish I was that clever

But and despite the incredible machinery of our brain, I believe we think too much. I know I can. UK scientists believe that too much thinking can result in poor memory and depression. I don’t have that problem but I can imagine how all this thinking and rehashing of thoughts may have a negative effect on some of us.

We keep thinking whether we’ve done the right thing, we worry about what the others will think of what we have said or done, we have so many options on offer that it is impossible to decide in 1-2-3 (Shall I go to this party or stick with the original plan to have dinner with my friend, I might upset her otherwise). Sometimes we think for ten years whether to have children or not, marry or not, leave a job or not, buy that overpriced house in zone 47 or to stay put in a rented property in zone 3 – to then do nothing at all. We spend so much time thinking, believing that we are plotting our future, building a way out, but we’ll easily get distracted by a newer, easier thought that barges in, overruling whatever it was you were about to decide on. We think, we re-think. We sometimes come back to the first thought or get a new idea altogether. I understand a little more now how we can get to such high number of thoughts per day.

And it is a fact, that many people think a lot about sex too. Though I refuse to believe that men think of sex every seven seconds. This would imply that sex is on their minds, 8000 times per day. There is no research to back this claim up anyway but let’s be realistic here: if a man would think that much about sex, he’ll probably end up in an asylum.

But even if there are no thousands of thoughts spent on sex, we sure think a hell of a lot. Just now, when my cat came to sit next to me, to stare at me – hard, I was thinking: what is my cat thinking? Is she thinking? Of course she is. Maybe she thinks: ‘you silly woman, you’ve just written about a little old man sitting in the factory in your head’.

I know, I was thinking for her and I got it wrong of course. She just wanted food.

That made me think, what shall I eat?

I really need to think about this. I am not that hungry but maybe I need to think about making some extra to take to work tomorrow. Come to think of it again, I’ll just settle for wine and crisps. Good thinking.

Bloody Valentine

There are questions that I do not like to answer, such as: why do you not have any kids? (none of your business, I don’t ask you why you opted for so many of them when the world is about to collapse under its own weight) or how much do you earn? (so that you can sit back and laugh to your heart’s content whilst going tut and aaah or if you are surviving on scraps, expect me to pay for everything – anyway, none of your business again). Though, there is one question that I don’t mind people asking me and that is: ‘what are you going to do for Valentine?’

My answer could be something totally fantastic like; a a romantic dinner that I organised on top of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral where I will present him with an original Jimi Hendrix’ guitar or at the very minimum a box of chocolates as preferred by TV ambassadors but the reality is that I don’t have anything to give nor to offer. Not on Valentine Day’s anyway.

Which is what I then tell the inquisitor and there have been instances where a silent gasp could be seen expelled from their lips. But I don’t care and I certainly don’t mind them asking me – it is what it is.

The thing is, I dislike Valentine tremendously. At times, I find the whole thing frankly revolting even. The sea of violent red and shocking pink scattered with bears, balloons, hearts and cupids, surrounding us on the far too many days running up to this Commercial Claptrap, I do not like it for one bit. I basically detest the whole concept and as such, that makes me a Valentine Scrooge.

Not that you will see me stomping around London Town, waving a banner above my head, which spells out: I HATE THIS VALENTINE CRAP! Nor have I got a heart resembling a cracked heel lying dormant under my ribs, I only find it rather really annoying this one day celebration. But it’s not what some people like to hear and they may even tell you to lighten up.

If I think about it, it is not exactly like that whenever I have ‘me-time’, I shoot teddy bears clutching a velvet heart and then brew an evil concoction from their exploded, fluffy parts with the eye on global mass destruction – obviously. What it is, since I can remember; I have always had an aversion of all things forced upon me. To give you one random example: I used to be the girl that would be a member of two libraries so that five books could be borrowed from each place, every fortnight. Walking home, I would always start reading a book, it was just too hard to wait. Yet, when we were asked at school, to read a particular book, I would wait until the very last moment to do so. Actually, I wouldn’t even read it, I scanned the book instead for the most notable passages. Then once the book was all ‘essayed’ out at school, I’d read it properly – when I felt like it. I just hated being told what and when to read just like I hate being told how to feel – on a specific day.

That does not mean that I do not care about romance and of course I realise that Valentine is quite a light hearted way to tell someone you care, love or that really, you just want to have a big, fat splash-out meal with lots and lots of alcoholic beverages. And dessert but chocolate is always good too.

So yes, I care about romance and I love giving and receiving presents and I will always find an excuse to go for any type of meal. Still for me, it just doesn’t sit well that it has to be on that day.

That there are a lot of people who celebrate Valentine and still romance each other at random intervals during the year, is something I am completely aware of. Of course. But, it has to be agreed that for all the genuinely loved up couples who let themselves get carried away on the 14th of February, there are quite a few who bank on the red roses, the box of chocolates, the pre-printed card spelling out a love template, the gift, the restaurant of course and hopefully a slightly more exotic tinged grand five minutes finale before they turn their backs to each other again. For yet another year.

We all very well know that the businesses are the winners in all this, seducing us with all that is red, pink and fluffy and we can’t but partake in this not so refined and orchestrated love festival.

When these red and pink tones first hit the shops in early January, I wanted to understand where this bloody Valentine was coming from. So as every modern thinking woman does, I ‘googled’ the answer. I initially got pages full of the band My Bloody Valentine but then I found what I was looking for.

I was surprised to read that its modern day sweet sludge version had in fact some very dark and bloody origins.

Pointing out the start date on the Valentine timeline is hard to do but it may have all kick-started in ancient Rome somewhere early AD. It seems that the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia between the 13th and 15th of February. It was a full on party where the men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped the women with the skin of the animal they had just massacred. Then around 197 AD, a Christian named Valentinus was martyred under the reign of Emperor Aurelian. Being the Bishop of Interamna, he was beheaded because of his religious beliefs and as legend says, he died on the 14th of February.

Coincidentally enough, another Christian, also named Valentine of Rome (the name must have been like what Jack is to every other kid these days) was also martyred. This was under the reign of Emperor Claudius in AD 289. Valentine number two, possibly a priest or a bishop was arrested for handing out aid to prisoners. There are three versions of what happened with this Valentine; it is said that he converted the man who jailed him by healing the sight of his blind daughter – but an over 18 version hints towards Valentine having fallen in love with the jailers’ daughter. It is claimed that he would sent her notes saying ‘From your Valentine’. Then yet another version tells the tale of Valentine being arrested for carrying out weddings when Claudius had banned young men from marrying. The ban would apparently make better soldiers out of them. Like Valentine number one, the second Valentine also died on the 14th of February. So the story goes and St Valentine’s Day was created.

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Of course there is also the defining moment in the 16th century when Valentine made its entrance in popular culture when Shakespeare mentioned it in Hamlet. From the 18th century on, people would create handcrafted love notes they would pass to each other and by the 19th century, such notes became mass produced. It was however in 1913, when manufacturer Hallmark started producing Valentine cards, that Valentine’s Day would turn into the commercial beast we now know.

Valentine’s Day came as such to live due to a sequence of events but it is a fact that Hallmark has enabled a booming industry to grow out of the big endorsement show they started in the early part of the 20th century. Their Valentine card printing business, also coined he expression Hallmark Holiday which basically means: a holiday created with the purpose to sell cards and gifts.

By the fifties, the idea to throw in a gift was added by the savvy advertisement people and if you were celebrating Valentine in the eighties, you’d might have gotten a piece of jewellery as this is what the marketing world started to push when they realised people had more spending money than before.

And so we come to Valentine’s day we now celebrate, which may be simple and sweet or extravagant, luxurious or way over the top. Some people may do it out of love, others out of guilt and some just because it is the thing that is expected from them. Then there will also, always be someone playing the big parade on Facebook; all staged pictures with pouted lips – and every box of chocolate, bunch of flowers, gifts, it can all be viewed in their picture gallery. Some people have 30 plus pictures demonstrating all the paid extras whilst showing every smile or disappointment of the gift exchanging moment.

Naturally, everybody has the right to celebrate the way they want like others can choose not to celebrate at all. Not everyone is in love with Valentine after all, there are still plenty of cynical people out there too. Some may still celebrate ‘a bit of Valentine’ or not at all but like me, they’ll just wish for the 14th to speed by as quickly as possible because even if it means nothing at all, it always feels uncomfortable to be forced fed the unwanted. But then, a couple of days later, they’ll write a funny and sweet little rhyming story on the blackboard in the kitchen for their loved one and on the way home, they’ll pick up a box of cocktail chocolates (as it’s his favourites). And it was done for no particular reason at all. You did it, just like that. It may have been the 17th or 18th of February, a day with nothing to celebrate – for now.

When A Pope Gets His P45

Today we heard that the pope has handed in his notice and only a couple of weeks ago it was announced that Beatrix, Queen of The Netherlands will be throwing in the towel for her son to take over the firm. Having such high profile figures quit these ‘eternal’ positions, makes you realise that a job for life has become a thing of the past.

As a child, I remember seeing these people who looked cracked in the face, their smiles turned upside down and their eyes, opaque due to the shine rubbed off by hands tired of working. Their posture a little hunched, they always appeared to moan about such and such. The good thing nevertheless was or so they believed themselves; they had a job for life.

In the past, this is what you strive for: you came out of school or university, you went into a company, worked yourself up the ladder and stayed there until retirement when the company you worked for, offered you the famous gold plated watch as a ‘now off you go’ present.

For most, this was the desired path to follow: birth, school, work, death. In between, a house may have been bought, a couple of cars, a boat if they were lucky. There could have been kids, dogs or a cat. It could get that exciting as generally speaking, most people would not have steered away from the route they were expected to follow. This meant that they had to drive up and down the same road for 40-odd years, had to endure the same people day in day out, there were the same smells, stories and situations – but that was part and parcel of it and something they accepted upon signing on the dotted line. A job for life would perhaps not guarantee them great success, it would nevertheless secure them financial stability and the reassurance that things would never get so wild, as they would not be able to handle it.

The parents of generation X, like mine, were already suffering the backlash of these golden watch aspiring people as it was by then already much harder to get a job for life. With so many of the older generation glued to their chairs, some working, others making necklaces out of paperclips, it was as such, much harder to get a foot into the door. You had to wait for one to pop their clogs or for another to walk out of the company’s door whilst breathing on that golden watch for extra shine.

Naturally, there were always the ones who went retro on us in the eighties and who managed to bag themselves one of these compensated life sentences. These ‘lifers’ would undoubtedly work hard at times yet the myth grew stronger each day that these people were known for slacking their way through their slow-paced career: shuffling papers around whilst their breath would smell of sherry consumed over lunch as there was after all always tomorrow to get the things done which they were unable to finish last year.

We cursed them, believing them to be lazy yet so many of us wanted to be them; someone with a secure job, a good income and the option to have long lunches.

In this day and age however, aiming for a job for life, is frowned upon. Most people would change their jobs and work place often in order to further their careers. Then there is the latest crisis-factor which sees a lot of people being discarded like some tatty, old rubbish – so even if you wanted to stay on until the very end, the chances are that you would have probably been made redundant before you’ve accumulated a respectable amount of service years.

Change is good, we all know it. We no longer fear change, we encourage it. That said, I know some people who’d love nothing more than to stay where they are now. Even if at some point, they made a snarky remark about their mum and dad working for the same company until they retired. Life within the same organisation becomes so comfortable, work feels like a second home; their surrogate family being Rita from Accounts and Farouk the Customer Service Manager. But it’s a fact that with this recession, job offers are on the thin side and if you have something decent, you want to hold on to it.

In my case, it had been a while that I felt like leaving my job to start afresh. Back in Belgium, when growing up, I had this romantic idea that I would be a nomadic writer, putting things down on paper when I felt inspired. I was a bit naive about some things; I also thought that time travelling was a certified thing long after I had been briefed by a so called friend (who does that, really?) that Father Christmas didn’t exist.

But then you grow up, you increase the level of quality of your personal needs, get slapped with bills bigger than your fist and before you know it, you become static in your choices. And beside this, I also realised that it would be too challenging to start again, with the same salary, at my age. I also did not fancy this theatrical X-Factor audition process that most companies seem to favour these days. I have heard of people going to five interviews to get a job, one woman I know went through seven interviews to then not get the job. For every role, there appear to be hundreds of people queuing up to serenade the prospective employer. Most of them though, would not even get an invitation: as they haven’t got enough experience or worse, far too much experience, to fill the role. In some cases, they’re not fresh enough as they are considered to be molded goods by their potential new employers who are not keen on the ones who’ve shot roots within the same enterprise before trying to approach theirs.

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In my case, in a way, I got lucky as I have been made redundant. I will finish at the end of March. I say ‘lucky, as the decision was made for me. Of course, I worry about being without a job but at the same time, I am looking forward to it because and to keep it simple: a change will do me good. Though these have been good years, I stayed five times longer than I had intended to do. It is somehow reassuring to know that I will after all not become a ‘lifer’. But yes, I had a great time too, I met brilliant people and I got complacent. As such, I had let go of the idea that, out there, the city was dotted with many other companies for me to consider. But I realise now, there is an outside world, I am going to explore it. I might look a little bit like a feral ex- office worker; not sure how the wild city jungle functions these days but I am sure I will manage. I just need to remember how to swing from rope to rope.

And – I wasn’t going to receive that golden watch anyway; these days the best one gets, is a small compensation and a printed certificate to state the number of service years completed. I think my ‘Congratulations, ten years’ service’ certificate got lost when moving desks but that is okay as I can always ask our graphic designer to print another copy out for me when I leave the place.

But it is fact that everything seems to be disposable these days; from relationships to TV’s and washing machines to the friends we have. Everything has an expiration date and we no longer feel the need to nurture or take care of the things we have. It can be so easily replaced. And this flows over into working life: we don’t want to be the one person that is tagged a dinosaur. At least, it has been like this for a long time. Now, we sometimes have no other choice than to take up the label of prehistoric beast if it would secure us our finances because of these unpredictable times. From: ‘I will do two years at the most in one company’, we have become people who will mumble between gritted teeth: ‘It’s not the right time now, let’s ride out the storm’.

So what going on with Pope Benedict XVI ? He is after all, the first pope to resign in 600 years. I totally understand if the man feels too old and more so, too frail to perform to the best of his capabilities but was that not something that was to be expected when he took up the role at 78 years old? What will happen to him now? Is he going to continue work within the religious system? How does that work when he applies for a new role? Would he need to give references and talk about the challenging parts of his past job? Can one give God as a personal reference? Of course, Mr Ratzinger may just want to retire and grow tomatoes in a corner of his third floor balcony.

The news of a pope and a queen resigning must give little Charles some hope, I think. These were ‘lifers’ and they quit! Will he prompt his royal mama to put the crown down for him to scoop it up and run around Westminster, shouting: I am King, I am King, finally! I am King!’

Of course it is possible for the Queen of England to say: ‘stuff this crap, I’ve had enough of all this. Philip, pack the sun lotion and my Corgi-printed sarong, we’re off to Benidorm!’

My idea of potential post-royal plans may be far fetched but there is a chance now for the Queen to leave it all up to her son – who has been studying to become king since successfully passing potty training.

Coming to think of it again: today a pope resigned. It is not something we ever expected to see.

I fully realise that these people, regardless of their positions of grandeur, get older, tired, unwell and that ultimately, everyone has the right to retire. Also queens and popes. At the rate it is currently going, I however believe that all of us will probably end up working until the day we die. Weirdly and not wonderfully, it may just become a vice versa world, with us lot; slightly senile, hunched over our digital desks with arthritis whilst trying to organise a conference call with our boss in America (who always forgets he’s running five hours behind). But whilst we will slave away with rattling bones and dentures, a retired Queen and a Pope will be playing mini-golf in Spain on a well deserved retirement blow-out.

For now, what will happen in the Vatican? As, in one Gothic corner, we’ve got a pope seeking employment or considering to grow tomatoes, in the other corner; the headhunters for one of the most prestigious jobs known to mankind have started their ‘Vatican’s Next Pope’ search. Though, time wasters need not apply.

Althaiophobia = Fear Of Marshmallows Or When Fear Becomes Irrational

Yesterday evening, we discussed briefly our plans to undertake another Blues Trail through the US. We went there in October last year and drove from Chicago to New Orleans. It was an amazing holiday and we are keen to go back. The question is: how will I handle the flight this time?

You see, I hate flying. As a matter of fact, I have a terrible fear of it. Sometimes, I can handle it and I just get more than a little restless. Other times, I am sitting there with a twisted expression on my face, yelping like a puppy whilst grabbing my arm seats so hard, my knuckles turn aspirin white.

Though on the way to the US, it had been bearable;  there was the occasional drumming session, (usually Seven Nation Army), on the cover of my e-book each time the seat belt sign would go on and with regular intervals I would tap on my husband’s shoulder for him to take off his headphones so I could casually ask him whether he also thought we were about to crash. Then I would focus again on the noises of the engine. I must say, I managed pretty well. However, on the way back to London, I completely lost it

I was so scared, I was in  ‘brace’ position for a third of the journey. Now, that plane had to endure a fair bit of turbulence but my reaction to it was way, way over the top.

“Please let me get off,” I shouted out when we were cruising at high altitude over the Atlantic Ocean. To which my ever so calm husband responded: ‘I don’t think this will be an option.’

In the end, the flight attendant came over to me. She kneeled down and arched her eyebrows, then she said to me: “I had no idea you were so scared”.

Her approach took me by surprise. What did she mean by that? Had I looked all hard when I boarded that plane? I couldn’t remember walking into the cabin with a swagger, flicking my fingers going all ‘yo yo yo, ya’ll bitches!’

But she was nice though and offered me a gin & tonic –  which I stupidly declined.

It was definitely one of my worst flight experiences ever but I am sure I can praise myself lucky that I am still able to get on a plane. So many people can’t. There is for instance, Dutch ex-footballer Dennis Bergkamp, who suffers from extreme flying fear; he would travel anywhere by anything as long as it wasn’t a plane.

I know it’s an irrational fear to have and this despite being high up in the sky with no control over your life. Flying is still the safest way of travelling. The chances to drop or getting involved in a mid-air collision are minimal.

The reason I know all this, I must add, is that I watched the last three complete series of Air Crash Investigation, right up to the moment we flew to the States. Which may not have been the best solution to my ever increasing fear of flying. Yet, there was me thinking it would help me if I’d fed myself fear in order to combat the fear. Like with people who are terrified of spiders and are finding themselves petting a big, fat tarantula, as part of their therapy.

Of course, I realise that some ‘phobias’ may just be a particularly strong dislike. As, I do not think that a Belgophobe is someone who gets a panic attack whenever he gets within proximity of a Belgian citizen.

Then there is just the fear we all feel for certain things. Not the extreme kind where your fear is irrational but the type which makes you squeal in cartoon-fashion, the moment you see a spider speeding past the radiator. Then when you have killed it or like me, have scooped it up in a glass to put it outside, you’ve already forgotten you were scared. But the reality is that, a phobia, can result in a fear so intense, it may leave you gasping for breath. In reality, that fear poses little or no danger at all. Yet, that fear, even if most of us realise it is totally illogical, becomes this Wes Craven-like motion picture where you end up playing the starring role.

Now coming back to my main fear; Aviophobia, it is a phobia that is shared by a lot of people and being scared when up in the air, is usually better understood by non-sufferers. You are after all flying at 550 mph in an aluminium tube at an altitude of 35.000 feet. Add to that the fact that you are sitting in a cramped seat within an enclosed space where you are made to breathe in recycled air. But most of all, there is that total loss of control that nobody likes to hand over to another person. Even though we all realise that the pilot also wants to return back to his family after his shift has finished.

Nevertheless, when that phobia takes over, any reasonable thinking goes out of the window. In your mind, you will see that plane crash, explode and collide. Before, during and after the flight.

Other ‘common’  phobias are claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and acrophobia. Like with aviophobia, we grasp why a small, enclosed space, the fast paced outdoors or a certain height may provoke fear in a person. But the ‘unusual’ phobias such as fear for marshmallows, fear of knees  or books are perhaps not so well understood. As where do they originate from? The National Phobics Society explains that these phobias can be triggered because of stress, physical factors, biochemical imbalances, it could also be due to genetic predispositions. Of course, some phobias and fears can result out of a childhood trauma. Sometimes it’s a combination of factors. Other times, there is just no trigger at all.

When I was a child, I had another phobia. A peculiar one: I was afraid of the colour yellow. Whenever I saw the colour, I would panic to the point of getting sick. That seemed to happen especially when coming face to face with ‘yellow-in-motion’;  like a yellow car or a yellow carrousel. I was 5-6 maybe but I remember one instance in particular where a battered yellow car came driving from around the corner, went past my mum and I, and parked in front of our block of flats. I broke out in a sweat and was sick on my shoes. Yellow became the enemy. Luckily, I stopped suffering from xanthophobia after a couple of years.

We never investigated why this happened but thinking about it more and doing my own pocket psychological analysis, I think it may have been due to an accident I was involved with when I was five. I was in the back of my aunt’s car when she slipped and drove into a tree. The car consequently plunged into a small ditch. It was a yellow Fiat. I can’t remember how I felt afterwards but I know I was unhurt. It was also around that time that my grandfather, who I loved very much, died. Still, these two events may have created a bio-chemical reaction in my brain causing me to react with such strong emotions to the colour yellow. I might be wrong but It would make total sense.

Looking at the list of different phobias, it is clear that everyone can get scared of anything, and it is interesting to see that there is always a name for every phobia under the sun – because it is taken seriously. However, it has to be said that the researchers and medical world could have chosen a more suitable name for people who fear long words. You’d think they would have carefully selected a name made out of three, four letters maximum. But no, they settled for hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia . How cruel they were.

Some phobias, can more or less be avoided and for people who are afraid of one of these (or all), they should be okay as the London pavements are not exactly brimming with clowns, horses or toads. As such, life can be managed by the person suffering from this type of phobia. Although it must be added that for some, seeing a spider in a magazine, can also cause them to react violently to it. I know the feeling, I can burst out in hysterical exclamation marks when seeing slugs myself and it doesn’t matter if they’re crawling near my feet or are printed on paper.

Other phobias, prove much harder to control and will interfere with the day to day activities of the sufferers. You may find yourself planning your whole day around the fear for using a public toilet or when you suffer from Chiraptophobia: the fear of being touched. I guess it would be impossible to live in London where an ordinary tube journey during rush hour can make you yearn for an après- cigarette – or a thorough scrub.

Of course a phobia is not a laughing matter but laugh, we can’t help at times. It’s like that moment in the Big Brother house when the late Jade Goody went ballistic when someone squirted a bottle of ketchup at her. She had a ketchup phobia. The thing is, for her that fear was very real, just like it was for that woman who once made the headlines for fleeing restaurants in a panic whenever she saw peas served on a plate.

Yet we laughed, forgetting that most of us will fear one thing or another at some point in our lives.

But I am really looking forward to that blues experience again. So, as always, I’d have to try and get over it. Some measures have been taken already as I no longer watch any air crash programs or read up on plane crash statistics (only when necessary – obviously). I may also go with the G&T option on board. Will it help? Who knows.

To conclude, here is a quote of Franklin Roosevelt who once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. I do not agree with this myself but it is interesting to see that he was describing phobophobia. As, everything can be feared to the extreme:  cars, clowns, dogs, dolls, woods, water, whatever – so in a way, it is re-assuring to know that even fear can be feared.