The Sunday Lao Tzu: Three Things

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”

I think I’m at my happiest when I’m doing simple things. Reading, writing, cooking. A life lived quietly and without fuss. Today’s teaching strikes me as not just true, but directly applicable to the way I live my life. Simplicity, patience and compassion are all interconnected, and when you start to live with these three things in mind, then you are on your way towards a more contented existence.

I have always been a patient person, to the point where it becomes something of a kink. My favourite part of Christmas is the anticipation. Waiting to see how the dinner will turn out, what gifts are under the tree. As I tend to know what TLC has bought me beforehand (with the exception of The Pot, which came as a genuine, delightful surprise) the wait until I can get my mitts on the new loveliness becomes part of the pleasure of the whole experience. It’s an exquisite torture. See, told you. Kinky.

But patience also comes out of care and preparation. It’s pointless rushing a loaf of bread while it’s proving, or a slow-cooked stew while it bubbles fragrantly on the stove top. Is it a coincidence that my favourite meals are the ones that take a bit of time to prepare and cook, filling the house with delicious smells, allowing the expectancy of the meal to become part of the whole experience? I don’t think so. And of course, the food I like tends to be simple, hearty, rustic fare. I’m not a big fan of fussy over-done stuff. Although Heston Blumenthal always makes me laugh.

Compassion is a no-brainer. If you don’t live a life filled with understanding and empathy towards everyone else, if you lose your patience, then your time on the planet becomes much more complicated. People can be vain, stupid and cruel. That doesn’t mean you have to be. For the most part, getting angry with an obstacle of any kind doesn’t help matters. In fact, it can frequently make things worse. Basil Fawlty thrashing his broken down car with a tree branch is an image that springs to mind. I’ve never seen the boys at Kwik-Ft do that. Treating the people around you with a little patience, understanding and humour works wonders. Call it a charm offensive if you like, but it works a hell of a lot better than yelling and screaming.

Now, I know this is all making me sound like some sort of annoying zen guru, answering questions with yet more questions or gnomic statements, floating smugly through life. That’s not the case. The idiot in the modded Peugeot who cut me up on the way into work yesterday got the finger and a robust curse. I get angry and pissed off. I rush stuff and grumble about it. But I try to remember that simplicity, patience and compassion do work, and that sometimes all you need to do to solve a problem is to take a breath, step back and look at it differently. Sometimes, the answer really can be simpler than you think.

Love And The Pot

Film critic Roger Ebert has one, and loves it so much that he wrote a book about it. My friend Rev Sherlock has one, and claims it’s the heart of his kitchen. After months of whining and pewling from yours truly, TLC caved in and bought me one for Christmas.

I’m talking about rice cookers, Readership. And I think it’s going to radicalise the way I do things in the kitchen.

My proudest new possession is a Tefal, with four functions. (Ebert frowns on this, but I don’t really care). It’s a steamer and slow cooker as well as a rice cooker. It also has a porridge function, which made for the creamiest, most unctuous podge I’ve ever made.

So far, I have steamed broccoli for Xmas lunch and spuds for a fish pie in it. I have made blueberry and cream porridge. I have cooked a full chilli beef stew in it, and the meat was softly giving under light pressure from a spoon. I have even cooked rice in it.

This process has something of the magical about it. Rinsed rice and volume-and-a-half of liquid go into The Pot (after a while, you can’t help but go for the Ebert-style capitalisation). Press the cook rice button. It sits quietly on the counter, venting the occasional polite puff of fragrant steam. After about 15 minutes, it beeps gently. Your rice, sir. It will stay warm in the pot for an hour or so. Fluff it up and get stuck in. No muss, no fuss. The non-stick bowl washes clean in an instant. The simplicity and efficiency of the device has me filled with a profound, calm joy. I want to use this machine every day.

Something of a recipe, as spelled out to me by one of my work oppoes. It’s the perfect restorative after a night out, or indeed a long work day, and will withstand any manner of tweaking.

Tobias Clayton’s Back-From-The-Brink Rice.

Put the rice in The Pot and get it started. While it’s puttering away, finely chop a chili and a green onion. Once the rice has clicked over to stay warm, fluff it up, then throw in a glug of oil and the veg, and clap the lid back on. Give it five minutes. The veg will soften slightly in the heat. When you can’t stand it any more, throw in more soy sauce than you think you’re going to need, lob the whole lot in a bowl and bury your face in it.

If you want to gild the lily, some briefly cooked mushrooms, prawns or chicken would work well. Try flavoured oil stirred through the rice, or cook it in some stock. I’m going to try popping some fish in the steaming basket that comes with the pot next time, just to see how that’ll cook.

All of which sort of jibes with the elegant simplicity of the dish. The salty tang of the soy mixed with the crunch and zap of the chili, all bound with the nutty comforting rice. It’s pure cooking, all about flavour.

Look, I’m sorry, I know I’m gushing here. But this is a transformative moment for me. I’m spending more time than I ought thinking about what to cook in The Pot, and using it makes me grin like a gibbon. As my adventures in domesticity continue, this becomes yet another reason to get home, get comfy and cook.

Now, have I told you about my new pair of slippers?

Talking Balls

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Me, every single time I'm confronted with a football.

In 2006, I made my position absolutely clear about the World Cup. I wasn’t interested. I was aggressively uninterested. I actually walked away from a couple of conversations when they started to vector in towards discussions of Beckham’s metatarsals. I posted a big sign on the door of my suite at work, a long screed in florid prose. I considered myself the geek equivalent of Martin Luther, birthing a new and radical third way through my protest.

The end result was pretty much what you’d expect. People thought that I’d either flipped out, or that this was the first sign of a new anti-football policy at the lab. My sign seemed a little too official for it’s own good. I was approached by several colleagues, concerned that this was the thin edge of a wedge that would cut internet privileges and outside phone calls. I tried to explain that this was my way of protesting about the pervasive nature of the game, and the way it just got into everything. I was told to get a grip, find a spine and stop whining. This was for one month every four years, after all.

My arguments withered on dry ground. I gave up, took down my sign, and in a gesture of goodwill donated a pound to the office sweepstakes. Taking myself down a peg. A little monetary sacrifice.

I drew Italy, and won £50.

A lesser person would have crowed and flaunted this, celebrating the victory of the geek over the footy-loving majority. But I’d made enough of an arsehole of myself by then. I quietly donated the cash to Sport Relief, and walked away from the whole experience, treating it as a lesson learnt. I had been a passive-aggressive jerk, and I got what I deserved.

Consequently, I’m staying quiet this year. I nod and smile at the work conversations on the state of the teams before gently steering them back towards a subject in which I have an opinion. I embrace the cheap beer and grub offers, and remember to stay away from the pubs with the big screen tellys (actually, this is a rule of thumb that works well at all times of year for me).

The World Cup becomes a month-long retreat for people like me. It’s a time to catch up on your reading, on those DVDs you always meant to watch but are still on the shelf in their cellophane. It’s a time to write, to think, to keep the telly off. The choices offered by the mainstream media seem to be either the footie or the chick-flick/reality show equivalent. I do not identify as a World Cup Widow, I’m afraid.

That’s fine, though. I’m happy to be ignored. It just gives me more time to watch, and think, and write.

Coming up: football, fandom and why sports geeks are still geeks.

Zen Gardening

The last time I bought a video camera was in 1999. It was to document our first trip to America, a two centre run round Boston and New York. It was an amazing trip, and one that I won’t forget any time soon. New York in those edgy, pre-millenial days was some place to be, and the red moon I captured rising over 666 Broadway seemed to sum up the weird feeling perfectly. I’d promised that I would cut those shots down to a short film in time for the New Year. Needless to say, those tapes are still in my store at home, untouched in ten years. It’s always going to be a thing to do when I have more time. And don’t get me started about the Australia footage that’s sitting in boxes beside it.

I love that camera. It’s a Sony MiniDV, and it cost us a fortune at the time – getting on for a grand. I blanch at the thought of spending that much dosh even now. But it’s earned it’s keep. It’s been to the States, Oz, Africa and Europe, and still gets used as a back-up camera for interview shoots. It’s small enough to tuck unobtrusively into a corner, and works brilliantly for cutaways and closeups. It’s got a decent lens and a good optical zoom. And the big battery I bought for it still gives nearly 4 hours recording time. And of course, plugged into the Mac it still does the business as a transfer dock for the Super 8 transfers I get done for films like Code Grey and the upcoming Time Out.

But of course it’s been ten years. So I’ve been humming and harring about getting a new camera. Clare’s Panasonic shoots HD video, and that’s fine, but it’s not MY camera. And much as I believe in the “what’s yours is mine” ethos, there are some boundaries that it’s uncomfortable to cross. I don’t touch her laptop, for example. It would be like going through her knicker drawer. There needs to be some respect for privacy. The Panny is hers, and she’s doing great work with it. And video is my field, after all.

I have therefore been mooning around Currys and Comet, eyeing up the camcorders, astonished by the drop in size and price. £350 would seem to get a hand-filling, sexy little number with a decent hard drive that would stow in a bag nicely.

But at the same time… they’re still consumer machines. And I’ve had my head turned by Dom’s lovely Sony cam, a professional piece of kit that he uses for paid gigs. If I ever needed it, he would let me borrow it without question. So really, I have no need of another video camera. The arguments go round and in my head, distilling down to the simple phrase, “Don’t need. WANT.”

Then I came across an Amazon link for the Kodak Zx1, an example of the “good enough” school of basic pick up and play vidcams that have none of the frills or functionality that I was used to. But it shoots HD video to an SD card, runs off a couple of rechargable AA batteries, has stills capability, and is small enough to go in a pocket. It’s the same size as my first-gen iPod. It was on sale.

£50.

Readership, I bought one. I very nearly bought two.

The picture quality is redonkulously good for something of this form factor. It’s fixed lens is sharp and clear. It won’t do macro, and barely has a zoom worth talking about, but so what? It’s the complete opposite to the kind of thing I wanted, and all the better for it. It will be used this summer for a short film mixing HD video and Super 8, and in the meantime for filmlets and squibs that I can shoot, cut and upload while an idea’s still fresh. I’m excited all over again.

Here’s the first fruit of my labours. Clare wanted documentary proof that I’d done the mowing on a day off. So that’s what I did.

The White Event

X&HTowers, busy as everWell, Reading really caught the brunt of the cold weather this time around. X&HTowers is blanketed under about a foot of cold crisp white stuff, and looks more festive than Santa’s new socks. I’ve been really lucky with shift patterns over the festive season, and am happy to report that The Big Freeze, as most unimaginative news outlets are calling it, coincided with three days off. Yes, OK, I have to work this weekend, but I don’t have to work now, which pleases me greatly.

2010 is, I think, the year when Working From Home becomes much more important, especially if the country continues to be caught out by EWEs (Extreme Weather Events, Ⓒ Rob Wickings if no-one’s snagged that term yet). It’s like taking a duvet day without the guilt, or the chance of getting caught out by the boss. With the prelavence of netbooks and smartphones it’s now so easy to Work From Home that you can do it from a cafe. Or if you prefer, the pub. Why pay for all those expensive business premises when you can just bitch about your colleagues and play soduko in the nearest Barstucks? It’s been coming for a while, and all it takes is one more EWE, one company where no-one bothers to come in, business continues as usual and the clients don’t notice and … well, I reckon it’s time to start investing in multi-purpose public spaces. Wave of the future, I’m telling you. Make ’em weatherproof and give ’em free wi-fi and creche facilities, and you’re rocking. Why close libraries, when you could turn them into something like that?

Happy Feet
Happy Feet

I wish I had the option. Sadly, my work still requires a physical presence, which means braving public transport and the train services. I have a bicycle. Buggered if I’m going to use it in this weather. I can walk to Reading Station if I need to, which I have to frequently as buses and taxis evaporate in Reading as soon as the weather takes a turn for the rotten. If you need a workout, nothing beats walking uphill in a snowstorm. It’s that heel-toe action that you have to adopt to prevent the comedy prat-fall and inadvertent face-first snow angel action. It works muscles that you’d forgotten you had. Muscles that have taken the opportunity to remind you of their presence by complaining loudly.

The House Elf Takes The Strain
The House Elf Takes The Strain

The end result of all this has been that I have taken great pleasure in spending the last couple of days with my butt in a chair, laptopping. I have been working hard on a New year treat for you all, which is the first step in what I am calling The Year Rob Makes Contact. I have great hopes for this year, despite all the evidence so far that it’s going to be rubbish. Come on, we’re only a week in. Give the new guy a chance.

In the mean time, here’s a little something. Below is a PDF to a short piece called The Body Politic. It’s excerpted from a longer piece, Under Glass, which I SWEAR will never see the light of day. It was a badly-misjudged piece of erotic writing, and it makes my toes curl in all the wrong ways. Not pretty. The bit I’m sharing has a few merits, though. It’s here as a PDF. I’d appreciate it if you can let me know if you have any problems either reading it, or dumping it onto your hard drive. My reasons for this will become clear soon enough.

Click the arrow to download THE BODY POLITIC

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There Is A Light That Never Goes Out
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

Stay warm, everyone.

One Week Down

Yes, well, sorry about that. Nano has a way of sucking up any and all free time available for blogging. regular members of the Readership should know by now that I have a tendency to disappear at this time of the month, pop my head over the parapet to apologise and complain, and then vanish again for a while. All I can say that the proof that I’m not simply being lazy and neglectful is available for your perusal. Please, check the side bar for the daily updates.

It’s going well, I think. For the first time ever, I had the story fully plotted before I started, which has really helped me to keep things rolling along. There won’t be a moment this year when I have to stop and wonder exactly why I just painted my character into a corner from which there’s no way out.

The shift I’m on now has really helped this year’s word count. I have days off in the week that I can dedicate purely to getting the words cranked out, which is brilliant. in the first three days of November, I’d already had a weeks worth on the page, including a 4000 word day, which is a new personal best. I’m not about to brag, though. There are three people on the Oxfordshire group that I affiliate with that are already at the 50,000 word target. I cannot, would not and shall not match that kind of pace. I’m in a comfortable place now. No need to push the matter.

I’m pleased to see that X&HTeam-mate Simon Aitken has embraced Nano this year, and seems to be, typically for him, taking the challenge in his stride. Read all about his experiences here. He has some interesting points about process and methodology, and I want to talk more about the nuts and bolts of getting words down in a later post, as well as the social aspects of locking oneself in a dark room for a month.

For now… back to it.

Random Thoughts During An Internet Outage

Being offline for a morning (not my fault by the look of it, the cable modem’s flashing where it shouldn’t, and the Virgin Media tech support line is permanently busy) does tend to concentrate the mind on all the other chores I should be doing rather than farting around on the web. But it also tends to concentrate one’s thoughts on the inherent fragility of the online existence.

Take Spotify, as an example. This brilliant music streaming service is being held up by many (including me) as the first step towards a radical new business model for the music business. Pay a tenner a month, and eight million tracks are yours. Up until the point where a workman with a jack-hammer chops a cable in half, killing internet connection. All of a sudden you’re paying for… nothing. Better hope the hard drive you stashed all your music on before eBaying all your CDs still boots.

Actually, let’s think this through. Say, like me, you use Google for a lot of your services, upload text to Google Docs, have online storage with any number of companies. Online banking. Chatting to friends in foreign countries. Online gaming, online shopping. Perhaps even running a business. If you couldn’t get at any of that stuff, then you’re stuffed.

This is, of course, exactly what the government’s proposing to do to alleged file-sharers, as part of their brave new digital strategy thought up in a couple of days flat and sketched out on a napkin by Peter Mandelson, completely superseding the moderate, carefully considered Digital Britain survey on which Labour spent months and millions. If one member of a household is “found guilty” of “excessive file-sharing” (these points are in quote marks as there’s no guidelines as to what either of these terms mean in reality. There’s no mention of any particular up/download limit after which filesharing becomes excessive, and certainly no mention of fair legal process or right to appeal) the whole household suffers.

There’s a school of thought that the Internet should become listed as an essential service, which it already is here at X&HTowers. This becomes more relevant when you consider that the Government is already moving some of it’s services and information onto a purely online basis. I now have to administrate Sick Puppy Films Ltd. through the Companies House website, as they charge me to submit my accounts on paper. This is only set to increase, and it becomes a matter of ever-growing horror and disbelief to me that there is consideration to throttle a vital conduit of services and information on shaky legal and ethical grounds.

See, even now I’m putting off sorting out the flat tyres on my bike in favour of ranting about the internet.

Ooh, look, the modem’s playing nice again. Gotta go. I have YouTubing to catch up on.

A Quiet, Busy Couple Of Weeks

You’ve probably noticed that yet another Update Sunday has gone by with no updates. That is not laziness. It is the problem with any blog that is run as a labour of love rather than as a commercial concern. Life, quite simply, keeps getting in the way.

Allow me to take you through the last couple of weeks. The Great Work takes up all my day-job time and then some, of course. Two weekends ago, we hired a tower and finally tore down the dead ivy that has been disfiguring the side of the house for the last three years. Pics of that mighty task can be found here.

Yes, half of it did come down in one sheet, and yes, it was one of the most satisfying moments of the year. As a sidenote to the endeavour, the new light we’ve put in by the door is so bright that you can see our house from the bottom of the road. Handy for directing cab drivers, although I’m sure we’ll eventually freak one of them out, by pointing them down the road with the cemetery at the end of it and telling them to head towards the light…

Last weekend we were up at the Caravan and Motorhome Show at the NEC in Birmingham, musing on the idea of never paying for a package holiday again and spending some cash on a camper van instead. You can pay silly money of course, and in the midst of the credit crunch it was nice to see the occasional two-bedroom flat on wheels sporting SOLD signs in the windscreen. I think if we’re cautious and do our research, there are bargains to be had. Then of course, there’s all the sights of Britain and continental Europe to be had from our doorway. I for one would be happy never to see the inside of an airport again. And it’s a much greener way of holidaying, of course.

This week has been spent preparing the house for winter. We’ve decorated the main bedroom, shunted round the spare room, got stuff up in the loft, and generally started battening down the hatches, ready for the cold days ahead. That’s a metaphor, by the way. After lugging furniture and slapping paint around all week, I’m at that acceptably knackered stage of proceedings, with just the odd twinge in the lower spine region to tell me maybe putting that last shelf up today might be a bad idea. But the vinyl cubes have arrived, so I can see an enjoyable evening playing with the record deck ahead. Some of the old Husker Du coming out for an airing, I think.

So, in general, adventures in domesticity. I’m content with that. It’s been a very simple week, and I’ve had some time to think and muse, getting in the right frame of mind for Nanowrimo, an open, thoughtful state where ideas can flow freely. I’m really excited about the novel I’ve come up with this year. It’s a fresh new idea that simply landed on me fully formed, and one I feel could go all the way to being properly published. I’m considering putting everything I write for it on the blog as a live experiment. Anyone up for reading unfiltered content?