Music To My Ears

At the moment, the house is peaceful. My family, apart from one of my brothers but including the dog, have gone away to their static caravan in Wales for a few days.

It’s always good to get a break from them. They are too noisy and argue too much even at the best of times. Plus, the nice weather yesterday would have meant that there’d be a lot of grumpiness here. We tend to get like that if we overheat. But I’ve managed to avoid all that, which is excellent.

The other bonus is that without my family being here, I can spend a bit more time than I normally could practicing on the guitar and keyboard, because there are fewer people to annoy. When my brother goes out, I also get a chance to do some singing, something I don’t do enough of any more. Ever since I left for university four years ago, I’ve not been able to sing as much, making me feel like I’ve regressed a lot.

Generally, this is true of all my music playing. I first started playing guitar in 2001, but I feel like my standard of playing hasn’t changed over the last six years. I don’t seem to be adding songs to my repetoire any more, and no matter how hard I try I will never be able to play an electric guitar solo of any quality. Mistake after mistake. Maybe my brain is not cut out to play the guitar.

The only bright light is my keyboard/piano playing, which is so much better than it has ever been, and the more I practice the more it continues to improve. But that is far more frustrating because I still don’t think I play it properly, and if I had the money the first thing I’d do is get me some piano lessons.

The main reason for this post though is an observation I’ve made recently about the decline in my musical creativity. I can ad lib on the keyboard through major pentatonics and it sounds good. But it sounds the same all the time. There are only a limited number of chords. The same is true of my guitar playing. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall. There seems to be no clear way ahead for me to keep improving.

But it gets worse. Between the ages of 16 and 18 I was a prolific song writer. The lyrics were nothing special, but there were a few tunes that I thought were really fantastic. I still have them all, and still have several recordings so I won’t forget them. But I really don’t know what’s happened to my musical creativity. All of a sudden I wrote my “last” song in 2003 (weirdly enough, I’ve just checked and it was exactly five years ago today), and since then I’ve written only two songs. During my creative spell, I notched up at least 40 different songs. About half were crap, but such is the creativity process. Trial and error.

I just don’t know what happened to me from that point onwards. I seemed to lose the ability to write lyrics, and my brain seemed to think “Why bother?”. Which is a good question. It’s not as if they were ever going to make me a career.

The sad explanation for me is that I was obviously inspired during that period of my life to be musical. I must have been living a life which filled me with ideas and determination to use my talents to make something good. But now I feel like I’ve lost all that. I feel like I just can’t be bothered making music any more. Even though I enjoy it. I still improvise, but I never say to myself “Note that down!” or “Write some words to it!”

It’s just all gone. Can I really have lost a talent? Or do I just need shake myself up?

Nah. Again, I get stuck in the usual question of “What’s the point?”. It may be fun, but half (if not more) of the fun of music making is in the performance. And they never will be performed. Maybe if there was an outlet I might feel the inspiration again. Perhaps my younger creativity days were full of a naivety that I could do something with the music and so pushed on regardless. Now… the jaded cynicism of age must have kicked in.

Sigh. Apathy rules, OK?

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Indulgent Pet Posting

I don’t often (ever?) write about the pets that we have here in this house. That’s largely because that kind of blog is what I deliberately set out to avoid. I wouldn’t be interested in hearing about someone else’s cat/dog/goldfish, unless there’s some anecdotal value, for example. I’ve only ever written about our dog when it’s been relevant to my life…

But I have to part with tradition just this one because yesterday, alas, our last guinea pig died. This time last year, our other guinea pig died, so we’ve now lost two beloved pets in the space of a year. All we have left now is the dog, which is increasingly a nuisance.

I was surprised at just how much this loss has hit me. The dearly departed Spud was such an awesome guinea pig. He was happy, lively, excitable and very very placid. Over the years I’ve been used to having pets that have, somehow or other, all been nasty, aggressive and not liked to be handled. Rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, one dog… they’ve all been quite unsociable animals.

This may, however, have been because all our previous pets have always been a little bit older than babies when we’ve bought them, and most of them have not been used to being friendly with humans. And, of course, because me and my siblings were younger, we couldn’t help but torment them just a little, perhaps encouraging them to dislike being picked up…

This time with Spud, though, we had it from really young. The youngest pet we’ve ever bought. And it lived with us for five years. He was probably the best pet we’ve ever had. Friendly, approachable and full of amusing quirks.

Spud

Spud

Our guinea pig that died last year, Spike, was not quite as friendly. In fact, he was a bit of a sulk. It liked to be chased when you were trying to pick it up. But it was still a nice pet, and one of the best we’ve ever had. Especially the way the two guineas interacted with each other. That was always funny to watch.

Spike

Spike

But now both of them have gone. They must have both been about five years old, which is a little disappointing. We thought we’d get about six years out of them, most sources I’ve read seem to suggest they live between four and eight years.

I was so upset about it yesterday. Still am a bit today. But it’s amazing how much your emotions copy other people. I didn’t want to cry about it, sad though I was, but when I saw my mum and sister in floods of tears my brain decided to join in the party.

The poor buggers will be dearly missed. They brought a lot of joy and happiness in the short time they lived with us. So long, dudes.

BA (Hons?)

There is some debate about whether or not people with undergraduate degrees in the UK can legitimately put “(Hons)” after their degree award… largely for the reason that almost all degree courses are honours degree ones, and you only get an “ordinary” degree if you fail a lot of modules in your final year.

I suspect it’s just another part of the general devaluation of everything academic in this country, if not this planet. As I’ve grown up, every qualification I’ve ever received has always been panned by the media at just the time I got it. This is true for GCSEs and A-Levels, and now it is even becoming true of degrees. Great timing, as always. Just when I stop to think “hey, I’ve done all right!” – the world bleats out its usual message of “you haven’t, try again”.

So people have started adding on “Hons” to make it sound better than it actually is. I look at the requirements to get an honours degree in other countries, and thus legitimately call yourself “Hons” but they seem so much harder. But this is where it gets ridiculous because of how low the grading is in the UK for arts based subjects. It virtually impossible to get above 80% (I haven’t heard of it)… whereas this must definitely be possible in Australia. Well, my only source on this is Wikipedia, but still…

The reason why all this is in my mind is because in the past week I’ve had my graduation ceremony. I was up at 6am, and I finally got back at 11:45pm. A very long day, but a memorable one. Me and my parents, plus my sister and my gran came with me. Unfortunately, my grandad couldn’t because he’s not well at the moment, which he was disappointed about. It makes me a little sad too… I know full well that I could have graduated last year had I not took a gap year or did a three year course. Then he could have been there.

Nevertheless, it was still a fairly proud moment. I realised just how few people get first class degrees, so that was a very nice moment. The ceremony wasn’t all good, however, as I was sitting next to two people I didn’t know, but unfortunately, they knew each other – so they spent all the time talking over me. It then got worse when the person sitting next to me kept bugging me to ask what the Chancellor had asked me when we did the little “stop and chat” (to use a Larry David-ism) that only people who get firsts are allowed to do.

It’s nice to get the recognition… but it has also given me pause for even more thought. The Chancellor gave a very good speech in which she said how delighted she was to hear (from her little chats) that so many people with first class degrees were going into teaching. That’s what I told her, cos I didn’t have anything else to say. I didn’t want to say I was drifting aimlessly. But she said how wonderful and noble the profession is and that it will be in safe hands with such high quality graduates.

Then, speaking to my tutors at the reception afterwards, they were all highly approving of my choice to do a PGCE. They believe it’s a very worthwhile occupation.

This is somewhat in contrast to my family. But worse, it is in contrast to most of the teachers I’ve ever spoken to, who take every opportunity to disparage their profession when I talk to them. They often say “You’ve got a first class degree and you want to be a teacher?”. I find this a bit weird.

The most disappointing part of the day, however, was the feeling I got from my gran, and I’ve got from the rest of my family in general. We’re all from very humble origins. I am the first to be a university graduate on both sides of the family. But they don’t seem to realise just how much of an achievement this is. Because my family don’t understand what it means, and a lot of them have a very working class attitude of “we stick together”, some of them think that going to university is just not the done thing for someone from a working class background. I definitely got this attitude to my gran. She has rather bizarre views that won’t let her speak to anyone who isn’t a Labour supporter…

This is all new to them, but they see it all as middle class, elitist and not something the normal workers would do. My gran deliberately went out to thank the people who’d built and were taking down the marquee as we left, (“the world doesn’t run without the workers!”) and told them they should take a bottle of the wine that was left over. It had nothing to do with her, of course.

I agree with her sentiment. But we are all workers. Class is a very sad state of mind, one that is absolutely useless and serves no purpose. But that’s politics, and best left out here…

Overall though, it was a very nice day. I know my mum and dad are proud. But now I’ve really got to get my thoughts into order to make this whole bloody thing worthwhile.

Navigation Resignation

When we go on family excursions, one of us is normally handed the map to guide us on our merry way. Well, when I say “one of us” I generally mean me. It’s a job I enjoy doing, and my mum is hopeless at it so it’s a fair deal.

This time, however, I blotted my copybook in quite a substantial way, and I suspect there will be no way back. I still blame the map for the disaster, but I should have bowed to the prior knowledge of the group (and even myself) but I tried to be too clever.

The situation was fairly simple. My sister has recently passed her driving test (after five attempts, though I’m not saying anything as I’m sure I’ll be that bad if/when I ever do it myself) and so to celebrate we all decided to go together to our family static caravan in North Wales. So we went in two separate cars, and drove up there. So far so good.

However, the next day we decided we were going to go for a little stroll up the hill called Moel Famau. It’s a journey we’ve done many times, and it’s fairly straightforward from our caravan.

A picture of the Jubilee Tower on top of Moel Famau

A picture of the Jubilee Tower on top of Moel Famau

Only this time, I looked at the map and decided that there was a simpler route. It would take us round the other side of the hill, but it would be a shorter route, and it would even provide us with a different wall. The map was pretty clear, this alternative route would take us to a different trail head.

So off we went. It was a breeze for the first 20 minutes. Then we reached the point from which another road was supposed to peel off. A “minor road”. Maps are infamous for being very selective over which roads they include. Sure they have all motorways, A roads and B roads… but they also include lots of other roads which don’t have any distinguishing features. So I had no idea where we were going to find this road. It was one of hundreds of real ones.

Worse, the road signs pointing to villages often included placenames which weren’t even on the map. And the place I was looking did not once appear on the road signs.

Navigating in Wales is bad even at the best of times. But we went round and round on a wild goose chase for this single road I was looking for which allegedly lead up to the trailhead. It was nowhere to be found.

I even got out the car to explore a “village” we had driven through to see if there were any road signs I’d missed. None. I should have known that the trailhead wasn’t signposted at all at any point in the part of land we were. That should have told me that we were looking in the wrong place.

Defeated had to be admitted to… and we went back on ourselves to rejoin the road we’d travelled down and then on to our destination.

This humiliation has meant that I will never be trusted with the map again. It wasn’t all my fault… but I should have stuck with the original plan to go the normal way. I got carried away with my map reading abilities, and was obviously too confident on both the map I had and on the Welsh road network.

Now I have to become a backseat driver all over again. And have to listen to my mum sending us the wrong way again.

Though I should really just stop going on holiday with my family! I’m, what, 23 years old now…

Post-Birthday Blues

I’ve spent a very long time lately trying to work everything out. It seems that everything has come together at just the right moment to make me shake myself up.

First, there was the First. That was unexpected. I have been meaning to write a post for some time now about child prodigies and intelligence in young people. If I had this would all make more sense now, but I will come back to it at a later date.

Suffice it to say that the First has made me think I am reasonably clever after all. I’ve spent many years thinking I’d gone backward and others have caught up with me. It’s probably true to some extent, but I’m still smarter than the average bear. And modest too…

Then there has been my birthday. I’ve suddenly realised that I am actually quite old to be still doing bugger all with my life. Nothing concrete anyway. Most 23 year olds have started work by now. This has made things very complicated for me. I am sick of living off my parents’ back. I want to be of independent means at long last. I got used to it while not living here as a student… but the difference there was that I wasn’t earning the money myself. Mr and Mrs Taxpayer were handing it to me in loans and grants.

Having a taste of that, I want to go further. Plus, I see the sacrifices my mum and dad have made for me. I don’t want to keep asking that of them. I want to give them something back.

I can’t do that while I’m poor. And it’s highly unlikely I’d ever be able to do that as a teacher, either. It’s not a well paid profession unless you become a headteacher. And then you have to put up with government targets, league tables, assessments and inspections in a massively high pressured environment. And then after all that you don’t get to teach any more, which is what most people ostensibly go into the profession for. Not much of a reward, is it.

Suffice it to say that in the past few days I’ve become quite sceptical of the idea of becoming a teacher. This is quite a radical turnaround.

So I’m getting older. I’ve got less time to make a go of life. But I have the tools to do it now. I don’t necessarily need to spend another year doing the teacher training. I really should only do that if I definitely want to be teacher. I had originally thought that it would be good to do it even if I don’t become a teacher, because that way I keep the door open. But after all this time, it might not be sensible for the reasons above. It may not be my life’s ambition after all.

It gets worse when I consider the best plan for leaving this country, if ever I chose to do that. But then it means me making a career choice with emigration in mind. I could probably turn my hand to most things, though… which means that if I want to leave I should choose the career that is the most in demand. Teachers are always in demand. But it’s very difficult to transfer knowledge of one country’s curriculum to another country.

This is serious reflection time. My thoughts on this are all still very muddled. I don’t think I’m quite in a “blues” situation… but I will be if I can’t turn all of this into a logical plan which will stand up to scrutiny. I just know for certain that for a multitide of reasons, not least being fed up with feeling like a drifting, aimless student all the time, I want to reject teaching.

Will it stretch me enough? I don’t know.

I need to get some answers and quick.

23

And so, another year, another birthday. At the ripe old age of 23 now, I am beginning to feel just a little concerned that I am ageing and noticeably so. I look back at old photos of me, even from a couple of years ago, and it is clear that there’s just a certain something different in the way I look now. I can’t quite put my finger on it… is it the eyes? Not so bright now. Has my hairline receded? If it has, it may be a millimetre, no more.

There appears to be more lines on my cheeks when I smile. And my face seems to have a bit more of a drawn-in look. Maybe it’s because I’m comparing myself to a time when I had four kilograms of extra weight. Maybe if I put that back on it would go onto my face and I would look a little healthier again.

But in any event, I am undoubtedly older. The problem I have is that I don’t want to be reminded of this fact any more. So my birthday is now a very, very low-key affair. Yesterday was little more than a mere handful of useful presents (socks, razor blades) and a couple of nice things, like a DVD or two and a book. And then we went out for a pub meal. Nice but dull. And that’s how it’s going to stay.

This is a good moment to reflect on the year gone by. And what is impressive is that I even have my own benchmark to compare against. This time last year I wrote this post which said that I wanted to achieve the following six things during my 22nd year of life:

a) Graduate successfully
b) Apply and get accepted for PGCE
c) Investigate Student Associates. Again
d) Referee course?
e) Plan something for next summer
f) Have fun

A was a roaring success, moreso than I thought it would be. B was also a success. C was a failure, but not one I’m not overly disappointed about. D was also a success. E was a failure, because this summer is a disaster. F? Hmm. I would say on balance that I didn’t succeed in that, partly because of the unforeseen results of poor housemate choice. But there was enough fun to make it liveable.

So with three successes, one of them a massive one, two failures, one of which I’m not bothered about and a separate so-so, I would say that I’ve had a Very Good Year. This is in contrast to last year’s Good Year (though I didn’t have any benchmarks to compare against). Does this mean things are on the up?

It’s very hard to be sure. In the past few days I have become extremely concerned that I’m doing the wrong thing. I absolutely love working with children, but I am wondering if being a teacher is the right way to express it. Could there be another avenue to do it in? I have always preferred being a friend and mentor to children, something which is not particularly compatible with being a teacher.

All of this is very inconvenient considering that I’m about to start a PGCE course. So it is with this current state of flux in mind that I am not giving myself an ambitious target regarding this…

Here is what I would like to achieve this year

(1) a) Complete the PGCE course successfully
OR b) Begin an alternative worthwhile career that will allow me to work with children
OR c) Begin an alternative career with enough free time to work with children as a hobby
OR d) Begin some other form of professional qualification
(2) Get fitter, either through refereeing or taking up a sport
(3) Try to do more with my nephew
(4) Make a serious assessment of life plans, especially considering options to emigrate if it makes sense
(5) Take up a new hobby OR enhance a current hobby (e.g. piano lessons)
(6) Earn some money, somehow!
(7) As always, have fun

In other words, this is quite a serious year on the cards. It’s make your mind up time, dude.

Off we go…

Going Ape

Yesterday I spent my day swinging through the trees. Well, not quite swinging non-stop, but there was swinging involved. And walking across rope bridges and other airborne platforms. And then finishing off with very long zip wires down to the ground.

Me and a couple of friends went to a Go Ape facility. These are aerial assault courses in forests that start with a rope ladder sending you up into the trees, maybe 10-20 metres or so off the ground depending on what part of the course you’re on.

And, you know what, they are bloody good fun. £25 maybe is stretching it a little, maybe £20 would have been a fairer price, but I can’t really argue. That’s just me being stingy as usual. It was three hours of climbing, balancing, swinging and sliding.

It taught me a bit about myself too. I have always been a bit nervous around heights. Or at least, that’s what my brain has always told me. But I’ve never really tested it. Yesterday gave me ample opportunity to do so. I often found myself stopping in the middle of a trapeze or rope bridge just to look down. Or when coming down the giant zip slide at the end. I would purposely look down, and found it somewhat exhilarating. I actually wanted to look down just to see how high I’d got. I would even say things to myself like “Imagine falling now!” and my response was often a laugh. A nervous one, maybe, but mixed with laughing in the face of danger.

So I like to think, anyway. If I was actually afraid of heights, there is no way I would have gone up there. One of my friends actually was afraid, and he struggled to get round parts of the course, particularly the so-called tarzan swing, which was an amazing step of faith. Attach yourself to the harness, and literally just step off the platform. You fall… and crash into a big rope net. In the air. It’s very unnatural – your brain expects you to fall and hit the ground – but it was probably the best bit of the day because of that. Apart from the zip wires, of course. They are amazing, though I didn’t make a single correct landing on them all day. But that’s part of the fun, landing on your arse in a pile of woodchip…

I’ve got to say it was nice to spend a day doing something different. It’s been a bit of a non-summer so far (the weather even held up despite terrible predictions of heavy rain all day) so it was good to get out and about. I’ve now got quite a taste for this, and I suspect it may become a new lifetime’s ambition to go to every single one of the Go Ape venues. Especially the one with the longest zip wire in the UK in Aberfoyle, Scotland.

Here’s to a sense of adventure.

A Family Affair

The past couple of weeks have brought with them the usual summer collection of family gatherings. This time it has been my cousin’s daughter’s christening (apparently that’s a first cousin once removed) and today there will be another christening/birthday celebration for two other cousins.

What always amuses me is that they are, naturally, religious affairs. And yet my family is probably the biggest bunch of heathens going. They don’t go to church, ever. Several of them don’t even consider themselves religious. And yet, they are quite happy to use the Church for their own devices, especially if it means getting them into “a good school”.

So, today we have to go through the rigmarole again. I make no attempt to hide my atheism to my family. Some of them are quite offended by my choice of not believing in all that religious nonsense. But the problem for me is that if I don’t attend the service it will be noted and used against me. I can’t do that. So I have to go to the church and watch.

Then there is a new dilemma. Last time I was in the church, two weeks ago, there were a couple of old duffers sitting behind me. Throughout the christening service they made several attempts to wind me and others up by pointing out that they “hadn’t seen us here before”, and then complaining that no one was joining in with the prayers or singing during the songs because we didn’t know the words.

Now, I know what they’re getting at… because I agree with them, they are sponging off the Church. But at the same time, it would be nice if they had something to say that they either said it to the faces of the people they were insulting or kept it to themselves. I was very close to saying that to them last week as I found it quite offensive.

So I am then caught. Because, I could help avert some of this. I generally know all the words to church services. And as for hymns, I don’t exactly know them all, but they are largely very formulaic pieces of music that it’s very easy to join in with once you get the key and the rhythm. And since I don’t mind singing, I am quite happy to join in. And I know most of the prayers anyway from my time in school.

That means that I find myself having to pretend I’m all holy and religious during the service so that our family look like they’re making some sort of effort to hide what is an unashamed and embarrassing abuse of the Church which they have no intent of repaying.

Because to me, hypocrisy is one of the worst traits in people.

And yet – am I being a hypocrite for actually joining in? Surely it would be more honest of me not to go?

Allegedly, we are all secular now. But it’s still far from easy for those of us who are a little more determined in our secularism. We have to make compromises in life, but these are the ones I always feel very uneasy making.

Anything to keep the family happy…