Voice of Defeat

“If you’re going to make a mistake, then make it LOUDLY because then we can correct it and move on.”

That’s what my Dad used to say at choir practice, and it’s what I would come to teach my students in their first lessons with me at school in order to pull them out of their shells and keep them talking. I think it worked too. “Are mistakes good or bad?” I would say as they looked at me dumbfounded, likely scared that whatever they said in reply would be the wrong answer. Eventually they pandered to my little game and a couple of the more confident ones would say “bad,” to which I would reply “nope.”

“Mistakes are GOOD!” I would say, and then I would explain why very simply in English, and the JTE in Japanese, before attempting to build a relationship of trust, and an environment where people would not be afraid to at least try without fear of humiliation from their teacher – something that all the teachers at my old school would practice with alarming regularity, presumably to make them feel better about their own crushing failures in life.

I too have failed, and it wouldn’t be right for me to pretend otherwise but rather, to write it on the Internet for all to see lest I forget my father’s words of wisdom. My mistake lay in the goals I’d set myself for this month. They were, I now admit, a little far-fetched. I was a little high on life at the time and thought that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. But 31 days is a long time. A very long time. No milk, sugar, alcohol, TV, computer games, films, relaxation, or basically, ANYTHING FUN. FOR 31 DAYS?! What the bloody hell was I thinking?! I was obviously MENTAL. However all is not lost. I haven’t just been sitting on my arse playing Mass Effect 2, stuffing my face with Burger King and binging all over London Town… Real changes have been made:

  1. I am eating much more healthily. Granted, I’ve had a couple of Dominos pizzas and a McDonalds but the rest of the time I have stuck to the diet. I have scrambled eggs for breakfast every day, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and beef jerkys for snacks, chicken salads for lunch and meat/fish and vegetables for dinner. I aim to keep this up for the foreseeable future, and I’ll occasionally throw in some junk food for fun.
  2. I am fitter and stronger. More like 3-times-a-week fitter rather than the 5 I promised but it’s a good start. I am running regularly for the first time since school and lifting more weight than I ever have before. I will continue at least 3 times a week (preferably every other day) for the foreseeable future. This is not a short-term thing – I am actually enjoying it.
  3. I’ve cut down on the booze. Only two nights of drinking in 15 days can’t be bad.
  4. I now know 384 kanji. Doesn’t sound a lot, yet consider this one on the right. It means “admonish” and takes 19 strokes to write. Imagine learning that and then doing the same for 383 equally complex kanji varying from “run” to “Decameron” (don’t ask). I’m not trying to impress… Only to try to help you understand the pain I am going through even without a whole 2 hours of study a day.

Oh yeah… That 2 hours thing? There is absolutely no way in hell that I could ever fit in two hours of study every single day. It is impossible. There are simply not enough hours in the day. I know I know, that’s the kind of thing our Dads say but seriously, when we would just go “yeah yeah” and assume they were making up excuses for not putting up that shelf or de-scaling the shower head, they would be running around like a blue-arsed fly, permanently worried that all the things on their to-do lists wouldn’t get done. I could do 2 hours a day if I had a butler but I don’t – partly because I can’t really afford one but mainly because I could never convince one to come and work in Wood Green – so I am forced to forgo the excessive amounts of study in favour of not dying of starvation or wearing the same dirty clothes every day.

My **revised** goals for January then, are very simple: Keep up the diet and the exercise, don’t go overboard on the booze and learn 1000 kanji by the end of the month. Should be doable.

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January Gymathon

If you’re reaaaaally clever, you may have guessed what this month is about from the title, but this ain’t no simple “Pumpin’ Da Iron Seven Times a Week Then Collapse” challenge. January is all about bettering myself. Shedding the fat and looking like Arnie, yes, but we’re also talking about the gym of the mind. Here are the rules:

  • Detox – No alcohol. Too easy? We’ll go one better. Shizuoka Green Tea and water are the only liquids I’ll be drinking this month. No exceptions… Bring it.
  • Eating – No carbs before a gym session. Only complex carbs after. We’re talking brown rice, wholewheat pasta and bread, sweet potatoes, pulses; that sort of thing. What does this mean? It means scrambled eggs and cheese for breakfast every day, protein shakes (made with water) and nuts/seeds for morning and afternoon snacks, chicken salads for lunch and cottage cheese and fruit before bed. “Proper” dinner using whole foods only. No sugar at all, and no milk.
  • Education – 2 hours a day of personal education. What does this mean? Reading up on history, philosophy, sociology, economics, Japanese and anything else that takes my fancy. You get the point.
  • Sleep – 8 and a half hours of sleep every night. No more, no less. Yes this includes weekends, so no lie-ins. I’m not going to have a lot of spare time this month so I’m not going to waste it sleeping.
  • Gym – Every weekday. Yes you heard that right. Weight lifting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and High Intensity Interval Training on Tuesday and Thursday. What’s that? It’s where you sprint for 30 seconds, jog for a couple of minutes, sprint for another 30 seconds, wash, rewind, repeat for about 30 mins.

This is pretty brutal, so I’m going to allow myself some leeway when it comes to my social life. If I go somewhere for the weekend then I can obviously relax some of the rules around eating and education a little bit. Likewise, if there is a one-off event on a certain day during the week that I desperately want to go to I will allow myself to skip the gym and the education. I still want a life, I just want to make more of the spare time I have rather than waste it in front of the TV/laptop. The drinking rule is non-negotiable however.

After all that, any spare time is mine to do with what I will. Games, TV, tiddlywinks, writing blogs, skydiving.

If anyone else thinks they’re hard enough and wants to get involved, let me know. It’d be good to compare progress. For the rest of you, I will of course keep you updated, and if anyone in Japan fancies sending me some green tea supplies they’d be gratefully received!

Challenge Bobbika!

This time last year I was lying on a couch, dying from flu, freezing my arse off and scared to go out in case I broke my neck slipping up on the solid ice sheets lining all the pavements in London. I think back then my excitement for the coming year was dampened by the fact that anything would be better than what I was experiencing at that point:

Get up and walk 10 metres without worrying that the muscles in your legs are going to give way at any moment? 2011 IS AMAZING!

Eat your lunch without puking? 2011 IS AMAZING!

Stop crying for a millisecond? 2011 IS AMAZING!

With short-term goals such as this, you might say that I missed the big picture. While I was concentrating on keeping my food down and wondering how the hell I was going to manage a 12 hour plane journey to Japan in Cattle Class, everyone else was thinking about the year ahead, and all the excitement, joy, sadness, opportunity, love and conflict it would bring. That is what the first of January is for. You think they gave us a bank holiday to go down to Oxford Street and spend the whole day taking off 7 layers of clothing to try on a t-shirt, find it doesn’t fit, put all the layers back on again and walk into another shop, seemingly in competition with the last to see how high they can get their thermometer to go? To spend the whole day standing in queues watching everyone’s miserable faces as they attempt to convince themselves that the £10 they saved was worth it, getting angrier and angrier at the world and cursing every other person there? The banks are on holiday, but your account takes the biggest hammering it’s had since the last time you went abroad and took out €3,000 because you weren’t sure what the exchange rate was and anyway… It’s not real money, is it?

Personally I can’t think of anything worse than getting sucked into the sales, so I’m staying at home, wiping the slate clean and laying out my game plan.

And I’m excited.

“Does that mean you’re going to Singapore?”
“Nope.”
“Eh? I was sure you’d snap that up straight away.”
“I was tempted for a while, but for all the great things I’m sure it would have brought, you have to follow your gut feeling.”
“Scared?”
“Me? Never. It’s just too soon. I got back from Japan in August and spent a great deal of physical and mental effort getting a job and a place to live, settling down and seeing friends and family I haven’t seen for 8 months or more. Every time I see someone else I haven’t had a chance to catch up with, I put another root down into English soil; and I feel better about my decision.”
“Deep.”
“Yeah.”
“So what now? Isn’t this year just going to be 9-5 London living, watching TV, going to the gym, picking up your groceries and paying your taxes like a good little boy?”
“In part, yes, but I’m setting out some serious plans for this year, and I’m actually really excited about them. In fact, January is already in the bag.”
“Go on then.”
“Ok.”

My New Year’s Resolution is to set myself a challenge for every month. This could mental, physical, work-related, personal, serious, fun; whatever. I will try to make them interesting and I’ll note them down on Ramblin’ Man for your amusement along with the usual shits ‘n’ giggles you’ve become accustomed to.

So let’s get on with it!

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

To say I was too busy to post anything in the last couple of months would be kind of a lie. Yeah, work’s been busy, but not that busy. Spending a lot of time in the office is never an excuse for doing nothing with the time you spend outside of it.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve sold my soul to the finance industry and I’m currently supporting an on-line spread betting system for people with so much money they don’t know what to do with it. What’s spread betting? It’s based on normal stock market trading, so if the price of a unit of gold is £10 and you buy 5 of them for £50, then the price of a unit goes up to £15 and you sell what you’ve bought, you’ve made yourself another £25. In spread betting though, you don’t actually buy any gold; you buy a contract that says we will pay you the difference if the price goes up, and you will pay us the difference if the price goes down. Oh and we’ll loan you a load of cash so you only have to pay a percentage of what you buy.

That means that you could buy 1000 units of gold at £10 a unit for only £100 (normally £10,000). We put up the other £9,900 and if the price goes up to £15 a unit then you’ve just made 5 grand! FROM £100! But wait, there’s a catch… If it goes down to £5 a unit then you owe us 5 grand. Not so keen on the idea now are we?

Suffice to say it’s a very complex game with rules, patterns and strategies like any other, but with the potential for going bankrupt. People who do it successfully will sit in front of their 4 widescreen monitors all day looking at hundreds of numbers flashing yellow and red, watching 24 hour market news updates and reading nothing but the business columns of various newspapers and websites while they sip on their lattes, smoke their Davidoff cigarettes and dine on sushi served from gold platters balanced precariously upon the collective breasts of 12 virgins lying naked on the snow-leopard rug in front of the fireplace. I’m a troubleshooter though – the man who puts out the fires and greases the wheels that keep this machine running. I will often pick up the phone to hear some bloke going on about how “there’s no pricing on UK Equities on NextGen. Legacy looks alright but the tick data doesn’t seem to marry up. Can you take a look please?”

“Sure, um, tick data? Let me just… Mmm… No it still looks like it’s still ticking.”

“What? Did you even hear what I said?”

“Yeah man, Equities… Equities… Legacy and shit innit. *long pause* Can I just put you on hold for a minute?”

I am actually getting the hang of it now, which is comforting because I’ve been here for nearly 3 months. The learning curve is massive, the pace is frantic, the atmosphere is professional… It’s a very exciting place to work and I frequently look at my watch at 16:30 only to wonder where on earth the rest of the day has gone.

So you must be wondering what the title is about then. “If he’s happy here then what’s all this about going somewhere?” I hear you ask. Well, my company allows its clients to trade on many of the markets around the world including NZ, Australia, Singapore, Japan, Europe and the US. That means we need to offer 24/7 support as well which, at the moment, means night-shifts once every 4-5 weeks. Very soon after I joined however, my boss announced that they are opening an office in Singapore and would any of us like to go there to live…

My initial reaction was no, definitely not. I’ve only just got back from Japan and got a house, job, mobile phone contract, etc. I’ve been moaning about the lack of sausages and mash for months and now I’m going to throw all that away again!? Yet over that weekend I got to thinking about it. The main reason I came back from Japan when I did was to get into my career and start to take it seriously, but now I’m firmly within my chosen career and they’re offering me the chance to go and live abroad again. Ever since my trip around the world in 2006 I’ve been banging on about how travelling is the holy grail and how it makes you into a better person, and it was in these very pages that I spoke about comfort zones and how important it is to shove ourselves out of it every now and again, so why does my mind just seem to want to buy a rug, a lounge chair and a sideboard, and stack it full of vinyl, vintage memorabilia and lava lamps?

Now, I can see you there, reading this and getting all excited about the prospect of a whole new adventure to read about. You’re probably peering through your hands at the screen barely able to read for fear of what I might say but completely unable to stop, quietly chanting…Whispering… “Go Bobby, go. Do it. Go.”

Probably.

It’s true that from a blogging standpoint, a move to Singapore would be the refresh that Ramblin’ Man needs; the next adventure that stops it from becoming a relic; an archive of all the interesting things I used to do before I bought some long-johns and an egg poacher, but I can hardly go to Singapore just to keep a blog going can I?

Ultimately the decision will have to be based around what is best for my career, and what is best for my happiness, and at the moment, I’m sorry to say, the sausages and mash seem to be winning.

One more week to decide…

House Hunt

I hung up the phone and walked along the road towards the house, running through the usual nonsense in my head. Be charming and funny, I thought to myself, but are they gonna be weirdos? Will I like them? Will they like me? What kind of state will it be in? Will I walk into a room to find them pouring wine from a monkey skull and dancing around a teapot in the dark? As I approached the house itself I saw a figure waiting outside staring solemnly at his phone. He was tall and gangly, with long brown hair and a nervous disposition. As he heard my footsteps approaching, he looked up at me like he’d just been caught masturbating by his mum. He quickly looked the other way as if to make out he was just taking in the surroundings. Is that one of them? I thought. I hoped not. As I got closer I figured it out.

“You’re here for the viewing too are you?” I inquired.

“Yeah. They said 19:00 though so I thought I’d better wait outside.” Sitting on their wall like a weirdo I thought. I looked at my watch; it was 18:58.

“I’m sure they won’t mind,” I said, “let’s ring the bell shall we?” At which point a third man dressed in skinny jeans, pointy shoes, NHS glasses and a beard turned up as well. The door opened, and everyone put on their best Ooh-Look-How-Friendly-I-Am faces.

It’s hard enough to be funny and charming at the best of times but when you arrive at a house occupied by four people you’ve never met before with two people you just met on a doorstep and then attempt to have a meaningful conversation with any of them, it’s all a little bit… well… strange, shall we say? Normally when you go to view a house people will set aside timeslots – half an hour is a safe bet – so that they can actually have a proper chat with their prospective housemates. Occasionally you’ll get someone who just hasn’t thought about it, names a timeframe, and tells everyone to come at some random moment during that timeframe. Chaos ensues.

It was a French guy that opened the door. Nice enough chap; dealt with the situation pretty well. He led us – all three of us – through the hallway and into a kitchen about the size of a skip, stuffed with 4 people cooking, and 3 of the biggest house flies I have ever seen lazily swooping through the air in the same way a tired commuter’s head bobs in and out of consciousness on the tube. They burrowed like moles through the dank, sweaty air as I took in the scene around me. The housemates seemed nice enough and, when led upstairs to view the room I thought it was a good size, but the place as a whole was old, dirty and crowded. I decided there and then that I couldn’t live with 4 other people again – I’m too old and grumpy for all that nonsense. I made my excuses, said thanks very much, and left.

A couple of years ago when I was looking for a house in London it was a piece of cake; there were plenty of rooms going that were of good quality at a low (for London at least) price. In 2007 I was able to get a sizeable double room with an en-suite bathroom in zone two with all bills included for £550 a month. Supply and demand was pretty even back then but now, as I’ve been informed by every newspaper I’ve read in recent weeks, the house-sharing market is saturated with people who have been pushed out of the market by rising rental costs in London. Every estate agent I walked into had a sign on the door saying “CALLING ALL LANDLORDS. PROPERTIES DESPERATELY NEEDED,” and when I went in asking about any 3 bedroom properties that might possibly be available you’re greeted with a tired shake of the head and a look that says “Nor will there be. Ever.”

To increase my chances of ever being able to live in a room in someone else’s house, I raised my limit to £650 per month including bills. This was somewhat galling considering that for the past year I have been living in a 2 bedroom flat on my own; I had my own walk-in wardrobe, I could walk around naked all day (as long as I kept an emergency tracksuit near the front door), and I could have a poo with the toilet door open; all for little over £230 a month.

Increasing my budget made no difference though. Hundreds of people have obviously done the same; competition was still fierce and the situation wasn’t helped by the few adverts that trickled through which contained such gems as “I am quiet, into meditation and have cats.” Just who, exactly, is she trying to attract with this kind of statement? Within a microsecond of digesting this my brain had already constructed a complete and detailed image of a woman with dirty, matted brown hair dressed in an Indian sari, and sat cross-legged in the middle of a living room filled with pictures of elephants, spirit crystals, burning incense, and cats that crap on the antique bureaux in the corner. Of course with me being someone who is a bit noisy, who finds the prospect of emptying my mind for an hour about as enjoyable as sticking pins in my eyes, and who finds cats a little bit annoying, I’m probably more prejudiced than most. I can’t help but think though, that she will attract only those people who are most desperate for a place to stay. Or hippies.

In the end though, it has all worked out beautifully. My new housemate and I have found a delightful maisonette in Wood Green opposite a park, newly refurbished for £450 a month each. It came on the market on Friday – the only 3-bed on the market in all the estate agents around Finsbury Park – we viewed it on Saturday, and told them we’d take it there and then.

After 2 months of searching for jobs and houses, everything is finally coming together. Now that I have a home base I can join a gym, change my diet, meet up with old friends; basically do all the things I felt like I couldn’t do before. I also have a great, challenging, techy job a world away from teaching with a steep learning curve and plenty of opportunities for progression.

Now all I need is to find a decent ramen shop and my life will be fulfilled.

I Predict A Ri… Oh, Too Late

Whoa! England’s going mental! One week back and a man is shot by the police, a peaceful protest is made in reply, a couple of idiots start a riot, and the media causes a bunch of riots over the whole of England for the rest of the week. Oh, no, wait… It wasn’t the media it was the parents. No, wait, it was the government. No, it was society, and actually, we’re not surprised this happened at all.

Hmm.

Everyone’s talking about it and everyone has a point of view. Debates are raging on Facebook statuses and more people have been defriended this week than during any other (complete speculation but probably true judging by some of the heated debates I’ve seen). People seem to think that there are only two, clear-cut points of view on this. There are those who believe that this is the government’s fault for years of alienating the working classes and that, rather than punish the looters, let’s give them a hug and tell them that we all understand why they did it, that we are sorry our society is built on material wealth and they feel they have to keep up, and that if we weren’t all so middle-class and well-off then we’d probably be out there looting with them, side-by-side. Like brothers. Then there are those who believe that this is the fault of the parents and the individuals; that people are responsible for their own actions; that they know stealing is wrong but did it anyway and for this they should have their hands cut off, their eyes gouged out, and be sold to market as drones that roam blindly on their knees, forever scrubbing the pavements of the Big Society with the modified brushes strapped to their stumps.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ might seem like a great idea in the predominantly white middle-class majority that voted him in but, as has been widely suggested in the news, many of the people who were part of the riots probably don’t feel part of ‘the society’ and so feel that they don’t owe that society anything; after all, what has it given them? This would seem to be a logical assumption, but it is just that – an assumption – coming mainly from the liberal middle-class. Or an assertion coming from a bunch of kids in hoodies after the reporter has asked them a question like “Do you think that the rioters feel that they are not part of society and that this is why the riots started?” instead of letting them form their own answers to an open question. “Yeah, definitely,” comes the inevitable answer.

Who really knows what the cause was? I’m willing to bet that most of the looters don’t know themselves. They’ll probably say “oh yeah it’s cos that bloke was shot [innit],” but only because that’s the sequence of events they saw on the news.

Seumas Milne from the Guardian writes:

The London mayor and fellow former Bullingdon Club member Boris Johnson, heckled by hostile Londoners in Clapham Junction, warned that rioters must stop hearing ‘economic and sociological justifications’ (though who was offering them he never explained) for what they were doing.

This just before he launches into a diatribe about how the reason for the riots were due entirely to the economic and sociological failings of the government. Well we know they didn’t hear them from you, Seumas, but I’m pretty sure there are scores of other liberal journalists who have already expressed your point of view far and wide enough for them to hear. Had every reporter on the planet not rushed at once to give their own personal, and often completely unfounded, opinions on the underlying problems with the government or society or parenting or cuts or individual responsibility, then I imagine that the looters would have more trouble coming up with excuses as to why they felt compelled to go out, smash a shop window and steal a bunch of Paul Smith watches.

Home Again

I woke up this morning not to the sound of 1,000 cicadas bent of the destruction of every human eardrum in the vicinity, nor to the paper boy marauding around on his motorbike at 3 in the morning. Nor did I awake to the heat of 12,000 suns bearing down on my flat and threatening to melt the very fan that kept me alive. No. This morning I awoke to the sound of silence, but for gentle birdsong and the whisper of a cool breeze that brushed past the curtains carrying the sweet scent of the country air. “Welcome back,” it said, and I slipped out of bed, made a nice cup of coffee and began to write.

When I came back to England in December it was sincerely worse than Japan. Apart from the few lovely days I had in and around Salisbury, the trip was mainly a disaster; I’d split up with my girlfriend a couple of weeks before, there was snow clogging all the transport systems, it was freezing and dark, my best mate broke his arm and couldn’t come out for drinks, and everyone was grumpy and sick, which subsequently gave me the flu and made me bed-ridden for 5 days. Going back to Japan at the end of it was something of a blessing, and I was rewarded with uninterrupted blue skies for 2 months, a skiing holiday, and a trip to the wonderful city of Sapporo during a snow festival. Life since then has gone from good, to better, to great; I got more involved in the language, more involved with my students and the culture, and met some new Japanese friends separate from the big group of wonderful gaijin friends I already had. I had come to a point in July where there were so many people in Japan who I loved, and things that I cherished, that leaving was both something I simply couldn’t contain my excitement for, and something very sad that I won’t fully understand until it sinks in properly.

And it hasn’t yet. Outside of the comforting bubble that is my father’s house, the world that was once so familiar is now rather surreal. Everyone is white, and as tall or taller than me. It’s unnerving. I can no longer walk around in large crowds without having to stand on tiptoes to see what is ahead which is, let me tell you, a huge advantage when you’re sucked into the myriad of people wandering through Shibuya, or scoping for hot girls in a club. Also, everyone speaks English (stop me if I’m stating the obvious here) which means that I am constantly tuning into other peoples’ banal conversations without any conscious decision to do so. In Japan I had to make a very conscious effort to understand what people were saying to me, and so background conversation was usually just a comforting, somewhat familiar string of syllables used as a backdrop to my English thoughts. Not so here; there I am in Burger King (shh, it’s been over a year) having a meaningful chat with my dad when the young lad behind us proclaims “…well now I feel like shit,” after he finishes his XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger. Now I knew where he was coming from – the “XL” part always seems so right until you’ve finished the thing, then your stomach starts to question whether you really needed a 933 calorie burger, a large fries and enough coke to put out a house fire – I just really didn’t need to hear it. There I was thinking I’d become a better listener this past year and all it really amounted to was the lack of other conversations for my over-excited brain to tune into.

The social differences were always going to be difficult to revert back to, but one thing that has taken no effort in reverting to is the English countryside. England is beautiful, there are no two ways about it. Miles and miles of rolling hills and fields only give way to the occasional village populated with thatched stone cottages, churches, local shops and village greens. Motorways connect towns and cites rather than just run through them, and are bordered on either side by green fields, while in Japan you have the pleasure of staring at a 30ft wall for the duration of your journey. I’m not saying a motorway is a particularly inspiring place in any country but still, anything that makes it more bearable is welcome.

My plans for this week are simple; relax, spend time with the parents, then make my way to London to spend time with my friends. It remains to be seen how much I’ll be affected by the dreaded Reverse Culture Shock, but initial reactions are good. I suspect the coming weeks will be subject to a lot of reflection and adjustment.