One year

This week is the week of “one year ago today” for many people.

  • On February 26 last year I arrived home from a short break in Germany, my last trip outside of England.
  • I worked from home on March 11 for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. On that same day we were told not to come in to the office for the foreseeable future. Initially it was a recommendation. Some time later it was an instruction. Eventually it was the law. I haven’t been in since, nor seen any of my colleagues in person.
  • My parents visited from March 12 to March 16. In two days it will be a year since I’ve seen them, and since they’ve seen their grandson.

I didn’t study for this test

A couple of weeks ago I got a letter inviting me to take part in a nationwide study into the prevalence of Covid-19. I had been selected at random from all of those registered with a GP in England. All it required was to complete an online questionnaire about any symptoms I currently have (easy – none!) and to self-administer an at-home test they would send me.

It may sound weird, but I was excited to get this opportunity. I know the test is supposedly unpleasant (ranging from mildly to deeply, when I surveyed some friends). I don’t want to minimise that for the poor folks who have to take them regularly, or who take them in an atmosphere of fear rather than curiosity. But I would have felt like I missed out if we got through this situation and I’d never taken a test. It’s not Woodstock, but it’s an era-defining experience in its own way and I didn’t want to miss out on it.

I got the test in the post on Thursday this week, along with instructions on when and how to administer it. It needs to be returned for analysis quickly after administering, which means I don’t actually do anything with it until the morning of the day when it will be collected. I have my alarm set so I can make sure it’s ready at the start of the courier’s collection window at 8 am.

Along with the instructions was a link to an explanatory video. When I got to the end of that video, the “Thank you for your essential contribution to this important study” part, it felt like part of a science fiction film. Another reminder that none of this is normal.

Is this thing on?

It’s amazing how the dust piles up when you don’t post for a week or two. Or five years.

Last time I posted was the beginning of 2016. That was just before the celebrities started to die off, signalling the beginning of a pretty bad five years for many people. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge how lucky I am that I tend to be relatively isolated from the worst of what goes on in the world, be that economic instability or social upheaval or pandemics. May I never come to think that I ever did anything to earn that privileged position.

My last five years have been dominated by parenthood, which was pretty new to me at the beginning of 2016, but which I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of. It’s mostly about cleaning chocolate off everything and not going out, which prepared me well for 2020.

I somehow conspired to put on a substantial amount of weight while training for and running two marathons, which is an achievement in some sense.

Work continues to be work, though no longer at work these days, and unlikely to be back until deep into the second half of this year. I still try to write code every day, but a lot more of my job happens in emails and documents these days.

I’ve read some books, though never as many as I’d like. I’ve watched a lot of TV, possibly more that I would like. I started playing video games again, having bought a PS4 just before the PS5 came out. I did that on the grounds that everything on it is new to me anyway and should now be substantially cheaper. Spider-Man is good.

I’m still living in the same place, now by far the longest I’ve lived in a single place since I left my parents’ house. Its capacity to accrue clutter has not abated in that time, largely as a consequence of the aforementioned parenthood. We own a lot of Play-Doh.

I traveled a bit, though not recently. Maui was a highlight, for Christmas in 2019 (I nearly wrote “last year” – hah!) Going inside a glacier in Iceland was also pretty neat. These days I’d be lucky to get to an Iceland supermarket, so I’m glad we made memories while we could. Here’s to doing that again soon.

Anyway, that’s me. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of stuff. I might post again soon. I might post again in five years. I might not. I hope you’re well. Here’s to 2021.

Thank you for reading

I didn’t think I was going to make a new year’s resolution this year, but it happens that I noticed something about myself in the last days of the year that I’d really like to change. It is this: I’m often reluctant to accept offers of help, even to the point of ingratitude.

This year, I resolve to gratefully accept offers of help.

Thank you note with smiley face , isolated on white

Here follow some words, probably more than are necessary, to clarify why I’ve chosen this resolution.

A few people I’ve mentioned it to have understandably taken it to mean that I’m in need of more help than I’m willing to ask for or accept. That’s fair enough to assume. I know that many people find that to be the case with them. Most of Facebook is people saying they need to get better at accepting help because they’re overwhelmed by one thing or another and struggling to cope. That is thankfully not the case with me.

My problem isn’t that I need help, it’s that I can be really crap at interpreting offers of help.

I do know what an offer of help really means. It means someone thinks things could be made easier for me and they are willing, possibly at a cost to themselves, to make it so. It could be as simple as I’ve got my hands full so I’m doing something one-handed that would be more straightforward with two, and they don’t want to just sit and watch me while twiddling their thumbs. In fact it’s this sort of small scale situation that tipped me off to the whole issue.

Even though I know what the offer really means, in the moment I often interpret a helping hand as an implication of inability. An accusation that without help I would be unable to do whatever it is I’m doing. Because of this unfounded interpretation, instead of gratitude you may instead be greeted with resentment. Worse if instead of offering you just jump in and start doing things for me. Worse and worse again if in trying to help you inadvertently make things more difficult. Gratitude, if it was ever present, is quickly swept away. The thought counts for little, at least until my rational self talks the rest of me into begrudgingly acknowledging it.

This, clearly, is not how it should be.

It’s well established that emotions are not only the motivators of our actions but they are also a reflection of them. We become happy by acting happy as much as we act happy because we are happy. On that basis, I intend to draw my own attention as much as I can to circumstances in which I should be grateful, and to express it. As much as possible I’ll do that by accepting offers of help, even if I don’t need it. Sometimes that’s not a reasonable thing to do (e.g., there’s nothing the other person can reasonably help with, or the cost/benefit is so out of whack it would be unkind to accept). In such cases all I can do is take the time to give specific and genuine thanks, and an explanation of why I’m not accepting the offer.

Why accept help that isn’t needed? A key insight that I hit upon when considering this resolution is that the primary beneficiary of an offer of help is not always the recipient. Often it’s the person offering who benefits most from the interaction. Humans, given the right circumstances, are a generally altruistic bunch, and we derive pleasure from knowing that we’ve helped someone.

If you help me out of the bus with a buggy you probably haven’t actually made the activity much easier for me. We have a lightweight buggy that I can comfortably lift on and off a bus by myself, and the overhead of coordinating with another person to lift it would probably slow me down. But you’ll very likely feel good about offering, and much more so if I accept. If I thank you for the offer but turn it down — no thanks, I’m fine by myself — it robs you of that simple pleasure.

Moreover, people who aren’t even anywhere nearby can get looped into this whole equation. Imagine you offer to help me off the bus with the buggy and I turn you down. Later you offer to help someone up the steps with their luggage but they don’t need your help. How many times do you need your goodwill turned away — even politely and gratefully — before you stop offering? Eventually you encounter someone who would be delighted for you to lend a hand but the people who came before have spoiled the party for everyone by spurning your help.

That’s why my resolution isn’t limited to cases in which the help is likely to be directly useful. Allowing someone to feel good for helping, and giving myself a chance to appreciate the generosity that is their motivation, and to practice the action of gratitude, is an act of kindness to both of us.

Sober October

I’m taking part in Sober October. This is a fund-raising campaign for Macmillan Cancer Support, which does something worthwhile related to cancer. Curing it probably. Or helping people who have it. Something like that. The idea of the campaign is that you don’t consume alcohol during the month of October, Macmillan’s social media marketing people send you frequent emails implying that skipping the sauce for a few weeks is dreadfully challenging, and then people give money to Macmillan.

Go sober for October

Except in my way of doing this, I’m not especially bothered about nagging my friends for charity money. I assume most of my friends already give to the charities they choose to support, and many will have good reason not to give any more in response to ad hoc requests. Some may not have the extra income. Others are part of gift matching programs that make it more effective to make their donations in a smaller number of larger sums. So I’m not asking for donations, but if you want to donate, you can do so on my profile page.

What I am doing is keeping track of the amount of money I save by not buying alcohol and donating that amount myself.

The bulk of the savings so far have been from a weekend trip to Vienna, where I would have spent quite a lot on wine with dinner on several nights.

My total saving for the month wasn’t as much as it might have been, because for reasons unrelated to Sober October I missed out on two stag parties this month. One was the same weekend as the Vienna trip. The other was the same weekend we moved. The second party completed the London Monopoly pub crawl. I would have loved to be there to witness and participate in such a momentous feat — even not drinking — but it wasn’t to be. I’ve decided to throw a bit more money in for both of these parties anyway.

I was at a Halloween party this weekend, which meant another few beers traded for soft drinks (and made for a pretty smug Rory on Sunday morning). I have an evening of birthday drinks for a friend coming up on the 31st. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m rather hoping for the birthday drinks to last until the stroke of midnight so this beautiful sober stagecoach can turn back into a tipsy pumpkin.

And no, I’m not planning on taking part in Movember.

The times they are a-changin’

It’s a strange thing, moving house. It’s always much more work than you think it’s going to be, even if you take into account that it’s going to be more work than you think it’s going to be. Taking your possessions out of one home to put them in another is like trying to move all the toothpaste from one tube to another. It doesn’t really help all that much that the second tube is a little bit bigger.

Not our new home
Not our new home

This move had an additional wrinkle. We negotiated quite a bit on the rent, and part of the deal was that we accepted the flat unfurnished. We’re likely to buy our own place at some point and now seemed like as good a time as any time to start aquiring some of our own furniture. The day after moving, we spent a few hours in IKEA collecting four large trolleys full of flat-pack furniture. We’ve spent much of the week since then slowly constructing it.

It’s an interesting game of constraints to try to clear enough room to build a storage unit that will house enough of our stuff that we can clear enough room to build… and so on. It’s like one of those sliding picture puzzles in which only one space is ever free to move into. We’re more than half way through the furniture building phase, though the second bedroom looks like an Amazon fulfilment center. We have top men working on unpacking them.

I bet these cubes aren't nearly as heavy as this box of books.
I bet these cubes aren’t nearly as heavy as this box of books.

We haven’t moved far. But as with any major city you don’t need to move far in London to make a significant difference. We’re now on a quiet street off a quiet street, where we were previously on a busy main road that’s used by two bus routes and apparently most of the ambulance service and the Metropolitan Police.

We’re still a very reasonable walking distance from the old flat and all the places we love near it. But we’re also that much closer to some new places: an independent bookshop, one of our favourite cinemas, even a grocery store with an Irish food section for when I’m homesick and craving a rock shandy.

It’s only been a week, and there’s plenty to do before I’ll say we’re properly settled here, but we’re getting there. I no longer get that uncomfortable trespassing feeling when I let myself in after a day at work. The cardboard is receding. And we’ve moved on finally from an inflatable airbed, then briefly a futon, to a proper grown-up king size bed.

I’m looking forward to our time in this new home. Curling up on the giant sofa watching Christmas movies. Seeing the leaves come back to the trees outside the bedroom windows in Spring. Trying to figure out how to turn the heating off in July. I foresee good times ahead.

Now where did I pack the coffee grinder?

Pogopalooza

I spent most of last week working in New York. There was quite a posse of Londoners there, but by Saturday morning the majority had been struck by Bacchus’s arrow and were convalescing in their hotel rooms, leaving me with a bit of time to myself. So I wandered over to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village to have a look at Pogopalooza, the world championship of extreme pogo (Xpogo).

Pogo warmup (Pogopalooza)

I enjoy any activity in the general category of taking children’s games or toys and going bigger or more extreme (I count skateboarding and juggling in this category too). I’d never encountered extreme pogo before, but I knew it would be relevant to my interests.

I arrived before the advertised starting time so the competitors were just warming up, bouncing around and doing the occasional somersault and similar tricks. The paved area of the park had been laid out with large wooden boxes and rails for the competitors to include in their tricks, like a skate park. There was an announcer on a PA system periodically entreating the small crowd to stick around for the main event to see some impressive big-air moves and a series of attempts at breaking world records.

There were sponsor stalls all around selling and giving away samples of various drinks and snacks, and on the far side of the area there were more stalls selling pogo sticks. There was also an area for members of the public to try out some pogoing for themselves.

Saturday in New York was about surface-of-the-sun temperature, so I watched the warm-ups for a short while but then hid out in a shadier part of the park reading my book until the competition was set to start. When I came back 40 minutes later the area was crammed with people.

Pogo world record attempt (Pogopalooza)
Two competitors attempt to break the world record for fewest bounces in a minute.

The first event was one of the world record attempts. Two at a time the ten competitors tried to beat the record for the fewest bounces in a minute. There were adjudicators from Guinness ready to affirm any successes. A few people came close to the current record of 39 bounces, including the current record holder, who missed it by only one bounce, but no-one managed to beat it.

This record-breaking attempt was followed by the first qualifying round of the competition proper. Three bouncers took to the performance area at the same time, and were allowed five minutes to get the attention of the judges, who were judging on variety, inventiveness and difficulty of tricks. There were no penalties for falls, which encouraged the competitors to try their most difficult manoeuvres.

It was clear from this event — if it wasn’t already obvious from how ripped the guys taking part were — how physical this sport is. I expected them to be frantically cramming in as many moves as they could into the allowed time, but no-one went even a full minute without taking a break to rest for and plan his next spectacle. Sometimes this was to allow space for a fellow competitor who wanted to use the same part of the performance area, and a few guys even took time out to re-arrange the boxes and crash mats, but I think it was mostly because bouncing on one of these devices for more than a short while is exhausting.

I decided to try it out for myself so I wandered over to the free jump area. They had all sorts of varieties of sticks, from standard children’s toys to old-fashioned wooden ones that looked like hospital crutches, but I knew which one I wanted to try. After signing my life away on the waiver I immediately sought out one of the big sticks, a Flybar 800, the same one the competitors were using.

This thing was big, and powerful, and as soon as I jumped on for the first time it was clear which of us was going to be in charge of the relationship. When I managed to keep it upright for a few bounces — a feat in itself — it was carrying me around that free jump area like a bull at a rodeo. The slightest deviation from a vertical balance caused it to leap off in random directions like an American football bouncing on grass. It was knackering. My legs threw in the towel after only a few minutes, so I stumbled off to grab a regenerative cup or three of free ice-tea before heading back to my hotel for a very necessary shower.

The finals of the competition were on Sunday in Union Square Park, but sadly I didn’t get a chance to see who made it that far.

Something rocking in the state of Denmark

Last Christmas my brother bought me a poster-sized map of the world covered in that metallic coating they put on lottery scratch cards. The idea is that you scratch off the countries you’ve been to, which reveals a normal map—complete with rivers, mountains and major cities—underneath. It’s a fun way to visualize your travels, and it gives the countries you haven’t been to yet an extra air of mystery.

Unfortunately in my enthusiasm to scratch off all of the places I’ve been, including almost every country in western Europe, my momentum got the best of me. I had revealed about four fifths of Denmark before I realized what I was doing. I’ve never been to four fifths of Denmark. In fact I’ve never been to any amount of Denmark. I had inadvertently lied to my map. So I resolved to fix it in the only way it could be fixed.

Lego shop in Copenhagen, by Esben Jensen

On Thursday, I will be travelling to Copenhagen—or København, which I’ve been enjoying trying to pronounce correctly for the last week or so—for a long weekend. Between the jazz festival that runs until the 15th, the Lego shop (though it’s sadly smaller than the one at the Rockefeller Center in New York), and the admittedly small possibility of getting a seat at the best restaurant in the world, it promises to be fun.

Learning to drive

Last summer I went on holiday with some friends I used to work with back in Dublin (some of whom I’m lucky enough still to work with in London). We rented a villa in Sicily, and a few cars to ferry the 11 of us around the island. It was while being chauffeured around the Italian countryside that I reflected on my inability to repay the favour being paid to me by my friends in the drivers’ seats.

So, despite living in the centre of Europe’s largest metropolis, with a public transport system to rival anywhere else in the world—as well as parking spaces that cost as much as a small apartment to rent—I resolved to finally acquire a licence to drive.

I did start learning when I lived in Ireland, before I moved to Dublin. I passed the theory test, got a provisional licence and had a few paid lessons and a few ad-hoc ones. But when I moved to Dublin I no longer had access to a car. And living five minutes’ walk from my office made it less pressing. Moving from there to London only made me less inclined to get driving.

Now that I’ve been in London for more than two years I’m starting to realize the potential benefits of driving. I’d be less restricted on holidays, like I said. I’d also gain a lot of freedom on work trips—many places, in the USA especially, are pretty hard to survive in without a car. And I could see a lot more of my adoptive home if I wasn’t restricted to places near a train station. In the time I’ve been here I’ve left London by plane far more often than by any other means of transport, and I’ve seen little if any of England outside of the major cities.

So it all added up to a decision that 2012 would be the year I would get my licence. On January 1 I requested the forms I need to apply for a provisional licence. All I need now is a passport size photo and a stretch of four weeks or so during which I won’t need my passport, as I’m required to send that in along with the application. Oh, and then I just have to actually learn, and pass the test.