I wanted my final post in the A to Z Challenge to be something that provided a conclusion to, and summary of, what had gone before it. So, because I'm geeky that way, I made this graph showing how the number of visitors to my blog ebbed and flowed each day during April.
Fittingly, it turned out to be a zigzag – or at least, enough of one for me to be able to claim it as a handy Z title.
So what did I learn from all this? Well, apparently my blog readers are interested in timewasting, quinqueremes and X-ray fish. They're not so keen on vegetarianism, regret or opinions. (Or ugh days, but I can hardly blame them for that.) Which tells me that although I started out wanting to use this challenge as a way of revealing a bit more about myself – being less anonymous – people actually prefer it when I steer clear of the serious subjects and go off on a whimsical tangent instead.
This is all very unscientific, of course, but it got me thinking about what readers really want from blogs. I've visited quite a few new blogs this month (though not as many as I would have liked), and discovered all kinds of interesting bloggers as a result. But I have to admit, my favourite posts haven't been the most informative or the most insightful, but the most entertaining. If I want to find out about something specific then I'll do a search for it. But if I'm looking for a blog to read on a regular basis, it's the sparky ones – the witty, humorous and/or well-written ones – that will keep me coming back, no matter what they're about. Information and insight are an added bonus.
Maybe there's a lesson for all of us in that.
Which blogs have you enjoyed most over the past month? What do you look for in a blog?
Yes, I used to be cute.
When do we stop being young? When do we cross that line?
I wonder about this quite often, mainly because I have a nasty feeling I'm approaching the line in question. Either that, or I've already crossed it and I'm just fooling myself that it's still ahead rather than receding rapidly behind me.
I find that my perception of youth changes as I get older. When I was ten, say, it would never have crossed my mind that a nearly thirty-something adult with a baby on the way could possibly be considered young. In fact I would have laughed at the very idea (assuming you could drag me away from my copy of Lord of the Rings long enough to ask the question). But now, I tend to think of youth as extending right up until around the mid-thirties – you know, far enough to keep myself comfortably in that age bracket. And when I'm forty I'll probably stretch the definition again. In fact, I imagine I'll always use 'young' to mean 'up to and including a few years older than me'.
Of course, there's a more fundamental question here: namely, why does it matter? Why is it so important to me that I'm still young? The answer is depressing in its obviousness: I haven't achieved everything I want to achieve. There are goals I haven't met yet. And until I do, I have to think of myself as young, because that means I still have time to get everything done.
Perhaps when I'm satisfied with the accomplishments of my life, I'll be content to leave being young to my children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren (depending how long it takes me to reach that point). Perhaps then I'll accept that growing older is a good thing, because it means I'll have seen and done much more than I had before. But then again, if there's one thing I've realised it's that most of us are young inside. It's only the surface that ages; underneath we're the same people we've always been.
In which case, maybe that line really is wherever we choose to set it.
Like many children, one of the ways I learned the alphabet was with an A–Z of animals.
Ever since then, whenever the subject of an animal beginning with X has come up (mainly in games like Scattergories), I've always jumped in rather smugly with the X-ray fish. It was only when I came to write this blog that I began to wonder whether it really existed. Turns out it does, though it has a more common, un-X-related name (the Pristella Tetra). The umbrella bird, my other obscure favourite from that childhood A–Z, also exists (even though it sounds made up). Yay. The adults weren't lying to me.
But then I started to wonder: surely the X-ray fish can't be the only animal beginning with X? So I Googled it – and I was amazed. There are loads of animals beginning with X, from Xantus's Murrelet to the Xingu River ray. For many of them it's their Latin name that starts with X rather than their common name, but all the same. There was me thinking I was being clever to know one X animal, when all the time there were dozens more out there to discover. It's like eating nothing but KitKats for thirty years and then finding out there's a whole sweetshop down the road.
The point of this, really, is that learning is a never-ending process. Once we acquire a little knowledge in a given area - whether it's animals beginning with X or, say, writing techniques - we have a tendency to sit back and assume we're done. We know it all. But that's never the case. However much we know, there's always more to discover. Clinging to the 'facts' we have, without admitting the possibility that there might be more or better or different facts available, only leaves us stagnant. To grow, to change and most importantly to improve, we have to allow for the fact that we won't stop learning until we die. And although it's scary to admit our own ignorance, it's also wonderful and exciting.
I still love my X-ray fish. But now I think I'll give the Xerces Blue a try.
My main problem in life is that I have very little willpower.
Take this blog, for instance. I'm writing it with less than an hour to go before midnight. Why? Because although I knew I ought to get it done in good time, I couldn't resist continuing to read my book. I didn't have the willpower to stop.
It's the same with chocolate and cake and various other unhealthy treats. I always tell myself I should only eat a little bit, but then the packet's open and I can't help having a little bit more. I make excuses for myself (I'm tired, I'm stressed, whatever) but really I'm just giving in to my own greed. I'm often thankful that I never took up smoking, because I'm sure I wouldn't have the strength of mind to quit again. And it's lucky for me that I have a fast metabolism, because no matter how often I decide I ought to do more exercise (i.e. some), when it comes down to it I always fail to keep my own resolutions.
The odd thing about all this is that I also hate failing. I would have expected that to give me amazing willpower: a drive to achieve every task I set myself, in order to avoid the ignominy of failure. But maybe the point is that if I don't try, I can't possibly fail. Maybe the thought of doing my best to exercise or eat less chocolate or (shock, horror) keep my house tidy, and then failing anyway, is enough to prevent me from even making the attempt.
On the other hand, maybe I'm just lazy.
What about you? What challenges your willpower the most?
There's a certain well-known dinner-party-based reality TV show that I have been known to watch from time to time. And in it, there's one type of person who's guaranteed to get me yelling at the screen – namely, the euphemistic carnivore. This is the person who loves a juicy steak or a bacon sandwich, but could never eat a rabbit because they're 'too cute'. The person who gets all squeamish about a whole baked fish because the eyes and bones and tail are 'really gross'. The person who thinks nothing of buying sanitised, plasticised packets of meat from a supermarket, but considers the idea of eating roadkill to be 'the most disgusting thing ever'.
The euphemistic carnivore has lost all touch with what eating meat means: the blood and brain and gooey bits that are the inevitable result of killing another animal for food. He or she lives in a world of abstract substances – beef, pork, veal – that have no connection to any living, breathing creature. And I have no patience with that. If you're going to eat meat then that's fine, but at least have the decency to embrace everything it implies. At least have the decency to realise that meat isn't just a miraculous product that appears on your supermarket shelves with a buy one, get one free sticker on it. It's flesh; and if you wouldn't be willing to visit an abattoir or skin and gut a carcass then maybe you should reconsider whether you have any right to eat it.
That's how I see it, anyway. And since I wouldn't be capable of killing an animal, I won't eat one either. I don't necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my logic, but I do think that people should at least have a better relationship with their food and a stronger understanding of where it comes from. Personally, I have been a vegetarian since I was seven years old, and it has become as much a part of me as any of my limbs. I don't even need to think about it any more; it's a fundamental moral choice that's central to how I define myself.
And that reminds me. There's another type of person who probably annoys me even more than the euphemistic carnivore: the person who says, in all seriousness, If I have to cook you a vegetarian meal then it's only fair that you should cook me meat. The sheer illogic of this statement leaves me speechless – it's like insisting on being served alcohol by a teetotaller. Having a preference is not the same as adhering to a principle.
One last thing, while I'm ranting. Quite a few people I know have said things like I understand why you're vegetarian. I just like the taste of meat too much to give it up. That's their choice. But as an argument, it strikes me as being pretty weak: equivalent to I know I should save energy, but I like my gadgets too much or I know I should recycle, but I'm too lazy to sort my rubbish. People are free to make whatever choices they like, but I think they should at least have a reason for them.
Spot the U connection
Today is just one of those days. The kind where my brain appears to be made of cotton wool and thinking even the smallest thought takes a great deal of effort. The kind where repeats of old comedy shows hold a special kind of allure. The kind where my entire being, mind, body and soul, has become one big ugh.
Maybe it's because today is dedicated to the letter U. I've never got on particularly well with U, probably because so many of its words are 'un-' words. Uninspiring, unattractive, unexciting, unfair. I know there are plenty of determined and dauntless 'un-'s out there as well – unshakeable, unwavering, unstoppable. But in general, I'm unimpressed.
Anyway. Given my current useless mental state, I'm not going to attempt to write much more today. Instead, I refer you to my Ugh category of posts, which is dedicated to days like this. Hopefully V will be better. In the meantime, for the first time ever on this blog, here's a vaguely thematic song.
(I'd never seen the video to this song before now. It's actually pretty bad. Great song, though.)
Yes, this is a scene from Disney's Aladdin.
There are many wonderful and varied ways to waste time. If you're looking to spend a few hours faffing about instead of doing what you planned to achieve when you woke up this morning, then look no further! In this post you will find ten suggestions to help you.
1. Read a book. Not a nice new book, which can't really be considered timewasting at all, but one you've read several times before – the trashier the better.
2. Browse the Web. Acceptable activities include, but aren't limited to, Googling your own name; getting into a long and fruitless debate with someone on a forum; reading junk mail; following link after link until you've forgotten what it was you were looking for in the first place.
3. Daydream about how exciting it will be when you publish your first book, what the cover art will look like, how you'll keep in touch with your multitude of fans, and so on and so forth. This is particularly effective if you haven't actually finished writing said book.
4. Enter a room where someone else is watching television. Get sucked into a reality show you have no interest in or a documentary about carpet fitting.
5. Make yourself a snack. Eat the snack. Decide it wasn't enough and make yourself another one. Repeat as necessary.
6. Pick up your games console, telling yourself you'll just play as far as the next level.
8. Try out all the pens on your desk to make sure they still work. (Your autograph is a good test here.)
9. Go and engage someone else in the house in pointless conversation. This is a particularly good option because it enables them to waste time as well.
10. Read my blog ;-)
I hope these ideas have been of some use to you. Please help others by adding your own favourite ways to waste time below.
Some species are happiest in flocks. Herds. Packs. They thrive on regular contact with others of their kind. They can't stand being alone.
Other species like nothing more than to lock themselves away with only a good book and a bar of chocolate for company.
I bet you can guess which category I fall into.
Sometimes I see it as a flaw in my genetic makeup. Other times I'm convinced it's a blessing. If I'm stuck in the house for days on end without anyone to talk to but myself, I don't go mad with boredom.* So that's a good thing. On the other hand, I'm hopeless at keeping in touch with people. And although I sometimes crave social interaction, it doesn't take many hours of company before I'm longing to be alone again. Especially if that company is in my house. (Am I the only one who can't be fully comfortable at home until all the visitors have left? Much as I like having them, I never feel I can relax in their presence.)
The thing about my kind of solitude, though, is that I'm never really by myself. There's my partner, who falls into the tiny category of people I'm happy to be alone with. (And being alone with someone is much more companionable than being alone on your own.) Added to that, no reader or writer is ever truly alone. We spend time with a multitude of other people on a daily basis. They just happen to be fictional.
I suspect there are more of us than is generally realised. People who aren't continuously going to clubs or dinner parties or meeting up with friends, as characters in sitcoms always seem to be doing. People who are happy locked away in the vast and varied expanses of their own imaginations, emerging occasionally to grab a bite to eat and exchange a few words with the rest of the world.
So here's to everyone who enjoys solitude. Strange as it may be to say it, you are not alone.
* As far as I know.
They say there's no point in regretting anything, because every decision you make is based on who you are at the time – so if you went back, you'd just do the same things all over again.
All the same, I have a few regrets.
I regret not taking the opportunity to learn a foreign language to a fluent standard. At various times during my school years I learned French, German and Italian, but none of them well enough to be able to hold a conversation with a native speaker. And since I always feel awkward about going to a country where I can't make some effort to speak the language, vast swathes of the globe are off limits to me. I realise I could still learn now, but my life is full enough as it is. So I wish I'd made more of an effort when I had the chance.
On a similar note, I regret letting some of my hobbies slide. I used to be a reasonable pianist. I used to be quite a good archer. I even used to be an enthusiastic, if not brilliant, dancer. But over the years, I've chosen to focus more and more of my spare time on writing – and now if I went back to those interests, it would be like starting from scratch.
And if I look at my life more generally, there's more. I regret every time I had the chance to do something new and backed out of it, whether through fear or laziness. I regret all the moments I spent fretting about what people would think instead of following my heart. I regret the paths I left untravelled, the half-open doors I turned away from, the invitations I ignored.
Most of all – and this is hard for me to write – I regret not spending more time with my father before he died. We'd never been very close, but once I knew what was coming, I should have made the effort to remedy that situation. I should have crossed the gap between us. But I didn't. And that's the one that lingers like a thorn in my heart. Because the trouble with regret is, by definition, you only recognise it in retrospect. And as the cartoon up there suggests, it's always what you didn't do that hurts much more than what you did.
Until about a minute ago, I didn't know what a quinquereme was. Turns out it's a Roman galley with either five banks of oars to each side or five oarsmen to each bank. Which I guess makes sense, linguistically speaking.
I only know the word from John Masefield's Cargoes, one of the few poems I can vaguely recall from my childhood. I'm sure at the time I must have gathered it was some kind of ship – the context makes it obvious – but somehow I'd remembered it as being one of the cargoes, rather than their transportation. A rare and exotic substance, akin to the ivory and sandalwood and cinnamon of the poem. Funny how memory works – or rather, how it fails to work, leaving all kinds of half-understood snippets and distorted facts lingering in the recesses of the brain.
Cargoes is a beautiful example of how evocative language can be, particularly for a child. Not knowing what all the words meant didn't affect my enjoyment of it in the slightest; it was the sound and the rhythm of them that brought the scenes alive. In fact, if I'd known back then exactly where Nineveh and Palestine and the Isthmus were, I wouldn't have found it nearly as fascinating. Sometimes understanding something takes all the magic out of it.
Of course, that's the beauty of language. It can mystify and enchant. It can make the familiar seem new and the outlandish seem mundane. Well-chosen words can make us laugh, make us cry, make us feel anger or pain or delirious happiness – even if they're only written on a page. Even if the story being told is pure fiction. Even if we've never experienced anything like what is being described. Language is the medium through which every one of us can travel to the furthest corners of the globe and beyond, without ever having to leave our own homes. In short, we each have our very own quinquereme.
Isn't that amazing?