Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Running and remembering - Still trying to be better than my 18 year old self

On Sunday I ran the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K.  It's the 4th time I've done it, but the first time with Joy. It was really nice to stand around with her at the beginning chatting and feeling happy and being in a good mood, because that stopped me being so curmudgeonly about the warm-up aerobics and the chirpiness of the DJ trying to get everyone in the mood. Often when I stand around on my own, I feel quite grumpy about those things. It was also really nice that the official photographer decided to capture the moment. I sometimes find it hard to be both happy and relaxed at the same time, so it's nice to have some evidence of it.

Sunday was the 4th anniversary of my second date with Joy, when we went to Huddersfield for fruit beer and Mexican food, and so it was nice to spend the anniversary together doing the Abbey Dash.


I still have it in my head that, when I was 18, I ran a 10k in 47 minutes (with Fraser Pike in our school rugby shirts that we had borrowed from school and which we should have already handed back). Unfortunately for us, the 10k route went past the kitchen window of our rugby master's house, and he saw that we were wearing the shirts and asked for them back on the following Monday. I'd like to think that we weren't planning to steal them, but just that we were proud of our school, and of playing rugby for it, and that's why we wore them. In truth, the 47 minutes could be just a fake memory, because there were no timing chips in those days, and all I have is a vague recollection of looking at my watch at the finish and it being less than 50 minutes since we'd set off.

Anyway, I keep thinking that it's possible that my now 50 year old self can still run as fast as my 18 year old self, and each year when I do the Abbey Dash I try. So my ultimate goal is to run it faster than 47 minutes, but I'm working on it in increments, so this year I thought I'd aim for 50 minutes.

In my 3 previous attempts I've done it in 57:42, 51:05 and 51:30.  This year I was slightly outside my 50 minute target as I finished in 50:19. But I decided not to be disappointed with that, because I ran as fast as I could on the day. I didn't keep any effort in reserve. I used it all up.

Some people don't care about how fast they run, but for me it's a big motivating factor. And the fact that Parkrun is measured helps to keep me wanting to improve. For a really long time I couldn't run 5K in less than 24 minutes, but then this year I've done it about 15 times. There could be various reasons why I'm running faster this year, but maybe the most important thing is Persistence. I just keep running. And regularly.

I used to run when I was at school, but mostly only when they made us run cross country 3 times a year, and a few other times in the summer each year before the Rugby Season started but I never ran consistently.  Entering that 10k in April 1986 with Fraser was very much a one-off.

In 1994 I took up running briefly, but as was predicted by my wife at the time, I soon gave up. Again, I started briefly in 2002, but gave up then too.  And until I started Parkrun in 2014 I never ran again.  Now it's a really important part of my life.

Last night I got my 100 Parkruns milestone T-shirt in the post. I'm actually up to 143 but they've had a backlog at sending out the T-shirts. I think the fact that I've done 143 suggests it's not just a flash in the pan.

Two years ago the Abbey Dash was on the 2nd anniversary of my mum dying, and it was after moving back to Leeds in 2014 that I started running in the first place, in order to be doing something active in the time that I wasn't stuck inside my mum's house watching gameshows with her.  Her lungs and knees were knackered by then, and even walking to the car would leave her out of breath, so every time I run, then and now, I remember to value the fact that I'm able to do it. I'm not sure if Forrest Gump ran for any particular reason, or if he just set off, but for me, I run because I can.

Lawnswood Garden of Remembrance - Plot H8 180. 
Yesterday was the 4th Anniversary of my mum dying and I went up the Garden of Remembrance, to see the place where the ashes of both my mum and dad are scattered. I like to go up there on the birthdays and the other anniversaries and special days. It's not exactly that I think that my mum and dad are still there, but it helps to have a place to go, to acknowledge that I still remember them. I felt quite peaceful while I was up there yesterday. I spent some time texting Joy and my brother Phil, to tell them how I was feeling, and I ate a banana.

While I was walking round there yesterday, I did feel sad. But I felt happy too. I felt happy that I grew up in the house that I did, where I always felt loved, and where there was always laughter. We were always able to laugh at things, even sometimes awful things. And at each other.  It was the best gift I got as a child, that ability to not take setbacks too much to heart. Some people are so earnest about everything all the time, so outraged and offended at the slightest thing. We managed things by not being like that. In all the stories the three of us used to tell each other, we chose to mostly only remember the funny bits.  We let the sad parts go.

It's a strange feeling being at the Garden of Remembrance. It almost exists outside Time. I was 50 when I was there yesterday, but I could have been any age. I still felt like the child of my parents. Walking around with a rucksack full of books, I could have still been at school.

The crematorium at Lawnswood, where my parents went to rest, is right next door to the old school playing fields, where I first was made to run cross country. In those days I hated it, but who knew that one day I would do it for fun?  When I started running in 2014, it partly grew out of my experience of being indoors for long periods with my mum who couldn't get out much. Her main leisure activities had always been watching TV, going to the pub or going shopping. Getting outside and exercising only happened incidentally while carrying home bags of shopping. I feel lucky that my life isn't like that. That I have so many opportunities that she didn't.

I'm a student now, at Leeds University. I could have gone to Uni when I was 18, but for reasons that made sense at the time, I didn't. So now aged 50 I'm back at the same place in life I could have been then. In terms of Geographical space, I haven't moved very far in 30 odd years. My University is right next door to the school I used to go to.  I didn't know what the future held then, in 1986, I guess if I had any idea at all, it was that I wanted to be a success at something. I still want that now.

As for running, I still want to be a success at that too.  I don't know if I'll ever beat the mythical time of 47 minutes that my 18 year old self may or may not have run, but even if that time never happened, even if it's a fake memory, it's still good to have something to aim for.



Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Have I learned anything from two years at University?

This is me. Even though most people tell me I don't look it, I'm 50 years old.  And about to start my 3rd Year as a full-time student at University of Leeds.

This is me in 2018
I could have gone to Uni in 1986 when I was 18 but I chose not to, for reasons which made sense at the time, but which I regretted on and off for 30 years. I decided a couple of years ago, in 2016, that 30 years of regret was enough, and so here I am.

I'm studying for a BA in Linguistics and Phonetics and everyone else who started the course at the same time as me is a school leaver.  Although I did have some anxiety about the academic side of things, by far my greatest fears were about adapting to the social side.  I was scared of being stared at for being old and scared of being treated like an oddity. The desire to fit in is not unique to young people. I feel it too. I want to be accepted and valued, just like anyone else.

The first 6 weeks of Year One were the worst. I'm not blaming anyone on my course for that. If I was aged 18 and away from home for the first time, I wouldn't want to make it a top priority to befriend someone the same age as my parents either. At first, when they were all asking each other what halls they were in, and sending each other friend requests on Facebook, they would occasionally catch my eye, but then, unable to process my old face, look away. The few minutes before lectures were the worst, the standing around in the corridor, feeling self-conscious and like I was wearing a massive sign saying ‘I don't belong’, while everyone else seemed to be chatting away.  Although when I looked closer, not everyone was chatting and having fun. There were lots of young people standing around on their own too.

I think the reason it got easier after 6 weeks was that my classmates and I started talking about the subject more and so age wasn't so important. Also, it’s simple adaptation. You get used to things. I got used to the people on my course, and they got used to me. Now I’ve got to know them, I actually really like them, and time spent with them is good fun.  So I’m glad I stuck at it long enough to get to know them.  Looking back, I think the age barrier was a lot bigger problem inside my own head, than it was to any of my classmates. I don't think they ever got in a sweat about it like I used to.

Everyone’s experience of University is unique.  I know that lots of people face really serious challenges to their mental health during University, and I'm not trying to minimise that.  If you suffer from crippling social anxiety or you're in a deep depression, you're not going to just read something for 5 minutes and snap out of it. But maybe at least if you can relate a little bit to my ups and downs, you won't feel so alone at the times when things get on top of you.  

1.     University is not school

This was me in 1980
I loved school. I had a close group of friends who were the same age as me who I pretty much spent the whole week with. I had all my lessons with them, I played rugby with them at weekends and they were my social group outside of school as well. So school was great. At University, I often struggle to see the people on my course more than a couple of times a week. A lot of our lectures are only on Mondays and Tuesdays so after Tuesday I may not see them again till the next week. And most of the academic work I have to do, is just me alone in the library with some books and a computer. There's nothing social about it. Just getting the majority of my work done in that solitary way is very different from school. And the holidays are long. Mostly, the people on my course go home for the holidays and the library becomes empty, and without the structure of lectures, it can be hard to keep a routine and stay on track with revision and assignments. 

2.     It's okay not to have a good time.

Expectation can kill you.

I find birthdays, Christmas and going on holiday all stressful, because of the expectation that I'm supposed to be having a good time. University is like that too. A lot of people, especially young people seem to be told that they're going to have the time of their lives at Uni, which can make the difficult times even harder. I enjoy birthdays more when I tell myself that 'it's okay NOT to have a good time', It takes the pressure off and removes the weight of expectation. If you're not enjoying it, be honest with yourself. Don’t pretend.

3.     Join in but be yourself! And don't get drunk if you don't want to!

Despite initially not speaking to anyone on my course, I was quite pro-active in joining societies. I joined the Japanese Society (because I was interested in Japan) and I also joined the Mature Students' Society (because I'm old) and I also went to a lot of activities organised by the Lifelong Learning Centre. 

At Leeds, as I’m sure is typical of many universities, a lot of the social events revolve around drinking. Going on pub crawls, to clubs etc, mostly late at night. I don’t drink and I don’t like late nights, so these type of events are not for me. So, I don’t go. I don’t want to make my potential social awkwardness worse by being in an environment that makes me feel uncomfortable, so I don’t go. I’m much more likely to be able to hold a conversation if I’m in a place I can relax in. So I look for events in the daytime, or in the early evening (for example Global CafĂ©), events where I can drink coffee or tea instead of beer, and where conversation is possible because I am not surrounded by deafening music. And those are the things I go to. 

And when I do go to social events, I don't wait for people to talk to me. I often talk to them first. I'm open to the possibility that they might be feeling just as awkward as me, I’ve been to some social events where I’ve felt like I was stood around under a big sign saying ‘Awkward Loser’ where I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but on the other hand, I’ve had some brilliant conversations with people from all over the world. Don’t let one bad experience put you off trying again. Just ask people you meet about themselves. And be interested in their responses! They might have completely different life experiences to you or they might inspire you by sharing a passion or enthusiasm for something that you'd never considered could be exciting. They might just teach you something. Be open minded! And listen!

4. Lack of structure and routine can be a problem

Many of the jobs I've had in the past were quite low paid and lacking in any responsibility outside of my set working hours. So, life was very clearly defined into Work Time and Free Time. I wasn't in any doubt which was which. Whereas a lot of Uni is bits and pieces. Lectures occasionally, but a lot of reading, researching, and also a lot of time just mulling things over.  The lack of structure is particularly bad for me in the holidays, and often the times you're supposed to be enjoying yourselves, like Christmas and Easter are when you're bogged down in revision and assignments. From the outside looking in, it seems like you've got lots of time off, but it doesn't work that way.

5.     Don't let yourself go to Extremes

In some ways, University for me has been a mountain top experience.  Sometimes I'm on top of the mountain, and sometimes the mountain is on top of me. But I try not to take either one too seriously.

If you have a bad hour, or a bad day, or a bad week, don't overreact. Similarly, if something goes great, a fantastic result in an assignment or a good exam mark, don't get too carried away. Ups and downs are normal, and sometimes they will feel extreme, but don't dwell on the extremes. Life is usually somewhere in the middle. Try and find a happy medium. Or even a tolerable medium. 

6.     If you need to run away for a while, remember to come back!

I often just wanted to run away, to get off campus, to not be anywhere near the University environment. And sometimes I did run away. For an hour, or for the rest of the day. I still feel like that. Sometimes I just can't stand it. So, if you feel like that, run away! But remember to come back! Just take some time out. Go to a park, or the town centre, or do something outside of Uni life.

7.     Get outside the Uni bubble: It will help give a sense of perspective.

In my first week at Uni, I joined a group called Students into Schools. I spend some time each week volunteering in a primary school, helping children with English and Maths. In the past, I've also volunteered at Conversation groups for old people, and refugees. It's a good thing if your whole life doesn't revolve around University. Don't forget the world outside the campus.

Talking to other people, and more importantly listening, and paying attention to them, can help you get a sense of perspective. Everyone has problems, try not to get bogged down in your own. Try not to obsess over your own anxieties. A lot of the children I work with don't have English as a first language. Some of them come to school on their first day and they don't know a single word of English. Trying to see life from their point of view helps me not to take my own worries so seriously.   I've also spent a lot of time talking to foreign students, who face all the same problems as UK students, except they're also much, much further away from home, in addition to which, they find themselves in a strange cultural environment, among the English, who if you look at them from the outside, do some pretty weird stuff.  Seeing myself reflected through other people and other cultures, stops me thinking that the way I do things is the right and only way.

8.     Facebook and Instagram aren't real

If you use social networking, remember that people mostly only show you the highlights on there. They don't show you 99% of the day to day crap they're going through. Just amazing holiday locations, and pictures of themselves in their best clothes, dressed up for a night out. Try to talk to people in the real world, face to face. It's a lot more real, and a lot more fun.

9.      Get out more

I once read a quote that said 'Despair cannot come to a man who walks'. I don't know if it's true, but I always feel better if I'm outside and moving. Getting some fresh air won't solve any of your problems, but it might make you worry less. I also take part in Parkrun every Saturday, which is another fantastic (and free) way of getting some exercise.

10.    Do some work!

I like having people to talk to, the social side of University, but I’m also here to study. And a lot of the time I have trouble getting my head round what I’m supposed to be learning. But I do apply myself to the work, because of
a)     The Joy of Finding Things Out. I really like learning new things, and particularly seeing patterns in language.
b)     It makes life easier if you understand things. One important step for me when learning is when I start to at least understand things well enough to be able to explain what it is I don’t understand. Actually understanding things comes a lot later if at all. One of my favourite quotations is from Einstein, who said that ‘If you can’t explain things simply, you don’t understand it well enough’. I like trying to understand things to the point where I could explain it to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it.

In terms of work, I found Year One quite hard, and Year Two much harder. In fact, I almost fell apart completely twice during Year Two, but in the end I managed to come out with good results, results which don’t reflect the turmoil I felt much of the time. Despite doing well, I’m nervous about starting Year 3, because it’s a clean slate and I have to do it all again. But I know lots of people now, who I'll be happy to see when I get back.  I’m also excited and enthusiastic about the subject, and hopefully that will help me through.

11.  Be grey, but don't let your grey turn to black

It’s possible that Uni isn’t for everyone. For some people the choice may be very black and white. Quite possibly there are people who love it all the way through. Then again there may be others who start it and then realise it’s all a horrible mistake and are 100% sure of that and give up right away, or alternatively, they don't come in the first place. 

But the people I’m concerned about are the Greys. The people in between like me, who sometimes love it and sometimes hate it, and whose experience could go either way during their time there, but who I wouldn’t want to see give up too soon. Because often things that are really difficult at the time are the things you look back on, and are glad you did them.  It’s those people I’m hoping to encourage to keep going, and not give in. 

12. Don’t stop looking for a place you fit into

The best thing about University is that it’s a big place. With lots of things to do, and thousands of people to meet. There’s something and someone for everyone, so don’t stop looking. Don’t let your insecurities hold you back. Even if it’s painful to keep trying to make connections, try anyway. 

It's difficult to sum up two years in a few minutes, but overall that's what it's been like for me. 

Good luck!

Monday, 19 March 2018

Beware the Ides of March

This is my second attempt at writing this blog post.  The first attempt was exactly 6 years ago today.  The words were different then, but the sentiment is the same.  My life was different then too, but that's not important right now.  Six years ago I'd just watched Airplane the night before.  This is my favourite bit from that film.   airplane iron boot

It's ironic that I was watching Airplane six years ago, because in an alternative version of my life, I'd be on a plane right now.  From Manchester to New York. On a holiday that was booked last Autumn.  But in this version of my life, I broke up in December with the person who booked it, so I'm not going.



Anyway, however I feel about that, I'm not having as bad a day as Julius Caesar had on 15th March 44 BC.  That was the day he got assassinated.  In the Roman calendar of the time, 15th March was known as the Ides of March.  And it's where Shakespeare got the expression 'Beware the Ides of March'.

I read a statistic years ago that said that early Spring is a time when suicides increase, the theory being that people hang on through the grimness of the Winter but then the beginning of Spring gives them just enough energy and impetus to end it all.  It may seem counter-intuitive, however, I have a theory about that.  It's all to do with expectation.  My own view is that psychologically speaking, March is a very difficult month in Britain.  After September, we strap ourselves in for the Autumn, the cold and dark of October and November, and then love it or hate it, we're preoccupied for all of December with the car crash that Christmas can be, and then we also steel ourselves for January and February, knowing that's when the Winter is supposed to be.  But then when we get to March, we think we've almost made it!  And we think it will get better.  But then especially this year, it's like living in Siberia!  I've lost 3 hats this Winter.  For some reason I never lose keys or my wallet, but I often lose hats.  Last Winter was a One Hat Winter, I only lost one hat.  This Winter I've lost three, which indicates its severity.  I'm not buying another one, and yet two thirds of the days in March I haven't been able to feel my face.

I believe it's the expectation that kills us. I'm at University at the moment, and I think part of the problem with being here is also expectation. Especially young people are told they'll have the time of their lives, but then when it turns out to be a giant dog's breakfast it's much worse.  It would be better if people said to them. 'University will be just like the rest of your life.  Sometimes really good, sometimes shit, sometimes both at once'.  I find there's a similar problem with expectation and the cinema too.  Some of the best films I've seen were the ones I saw because I went with someone who really fancied it, and seeing it was easier than arguing.  And some of the worst ones were the ones I chose, and which I really looked forward to, which were a massive let down.

Mothers' Day is in March too.  And that can be just as much of a car crash as Christmas.  It's great if you've got a mum, or if you are a mum, and your relationships are functional, but it's a lot less fun if your mum's dead or she's alive but you don't get on, or if your kids hate you.

I like April though.  Along with May they're the best two months we have in England.  And my birthday is in April, so I'm usually in a good mood for most of the month.  Although I hate the day itself, because like Christmas I put myself under pressure to have a good time, and I think things like 'I haven't enjoyed myself in the last 10 minutes, this is a disaster'.  I need to remember (and so do you) that it's okay to have a terrible birthday, just like it's okay to have a terrible Christmas, and a terrible Mothers' Day.  There are plenty of other days, enjoy some of them instead.

So, anyway, although no-one has ever tried to stab me while I was wearing a toga, I generally hate the period around the middle of March.  I hate it, because it's never as good as I expected.

Six years ago I had been feeling depressed and hopeless in the middle of March, like I have at times this year.  I felt useless and like my life didn't have a point.

But then in the evening I watched Airplane.  And it was as silly as ever.  And I laughed, especially at the end where Robert Stack asks Robert Hays if he knows what it's like to be face down in the mud getting kicked in the head with an iron boot and then he says, of course you don't, no-one does, because it never happens.  And I laughed.  And I realised it's not happening to me either.

airplane iron boot,

I have an analogy I like to use about mental health.  It's like in life we have two buckets.  One bucket is labelled 'Reasons to give up', and the other bucket is labelled 'Reasons to keep going'.  In the Reasons to give up bucket we can put all our sadness and all our regrets, all the people we've lost who we miss, and all the things we used to have which we don't have any more, all the mistakes we've made and all the times we've failed.

And then in the other bucket we put the 'Reasons to keep going'.  People we still love, things we enjoy doing, things that make us feel alive'.  And as long as there is more in the 'Reasons to keep going' bucket we'll be okay.  And if there isn't enough in the 'Reasons to keep going' bucket, we need to look harder.

The aeroplane I could have been on to New York has, while I have been writing this, left the gate.  Because I threw that chance away, I wasn't on it, I was in the library at Leeds University, where I often am these days.  Sometimes I come here just to get warm, and to look for missing hats.  But also because I like learning and trying to understand things.  And 'The Joy of Finding Things Out' is one of the things that is in 'My Reasons to keep going' bucket.  Along with running, and learning Spanish, and seeing good films, and teaching children how to speak English, and going to the football with my brother (even though Leeds United are terrible).  All of that doesn't seem very much at the moment, but for now it will have to be enough.



Thursday, 8 February 2018

Success and Failure - Brother and Sister or Distant Cousins?

I got some exam / assignment results yesterday.  Some were really good, and some were not.

But before I talk about that, here's a clip from the Matrix.

He is the one

Before you get excited, I don't think I am the one.  But if you look at what happens 1 minute 4 in, to me that's what learning is.  You've been fighting with something and staring and staring at it for ages, and then suddenly you get an insight, and it starts to make sense.

I'm currently sitting in the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, a place I spend most of my time these days.  The year is 2018.  In 1986 I got kicked out of this exact same place by Security.  I was at school, doing my A Levels, less than a mile away and I came in for a look round, with my friend Andrew.  The fact that we were wearing ties should have been a clue that we weren't students.  Anyway, they didn't have electronic barriers and keycards then, and I can always remember what the Security Man said to me.  He said 'Get out, you don't belong'. 

I had a similar feeling of not belonging when I missed the UCAS deadline in February 2016, and the Admissions Team here were doubtful about letting me in, because my A Levels were so long ago.  They sat on my application for about 2 months without giving me an answer, and they wanted me to do a Foundation Year Degree instead.  Eventually because I kept pestering them, they offered me a 15 minute Skype interview, to shut me up, but that just annoyed me and I said 'Look, I want to do Linguistics, and I live a mile away.  Either I'm worth seeing in person, or I'm not.  I want to come in and speak to someone in person, and if I'm going to get turned down, at least turn me down in person'.  And that could have gone either way, they could have said 'Get lost', but they saw me, and now I'm here.

Another memory from school.  I used to do Art but I was rubbish at it, too rubbish to even do O Level.  I once drew a picture of a tree and my Art Teacher Mr Gedling said to me 'I've been an Art Teacher for 30 years and that's the worst picture of a tree I've ever seen'. 

The third memory from school.  When I was doing 'O' Level Maths I really struggled with calculus, and by the May half term before the exam I really wasn't getting it, so I brought home a load of past papers and spent most of half term at the kitchen table, doing them over and over again.  And at some point I understood it.  I kept looking and not understanding, but then somewhere in there, I could see the patterns and the rules.

Revising for Syntax a few weeks ago was a lot like trying to understand Calculus.  All I could see was complexity.  But I kept staring and staring, and I thought, if even two years olds can master how to put a sentence together, the rules must be in there somewhere.  And after staring for days and days it started to look a lot simpler.  Things started to connect into patterns and rules and I started to see the structure.  It sort of clicked.  It was the best part of learning, it was the 'Joy of Finding Things out'.

Einstein, who could see patterns no-one else could in the Universe, said that 'If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough'.  And with Syntax that became my goal. To understand it well enough to be able to explain it.  Syntax is also about drawing trees.  And at first my trees were as bad as my terrible Art Tree from 1983.  But the more I practised, the easier they got.  And I realised Mr Gedling, that when you taught me in 1983 it wasn't that I couldn't draw trees, it was that I hadn't found the right kind of tree to draw yet.

And so I did well in my Syntax exam.  I got over 90%.  For a while at least, I was like Neo at the end of the Matrix.  I didn't just see the Matrix, I saw the structure behind it.  And when I feel like that, I know what I'm here for, and I belong.  The problem was, I should have left it longer after getting the good result to look at my other ones, because as near to the top of the class as I was in Syntax, well that was as close to the bottom as I was in some of my others.  So overall, I am fairly average, and therefore not 'the One'.

Sometimes, I wonder why I'm here.  I wonder if University is a colossal waste of time and money, and whether I'm just going to wind up penniless and under a mountain of debt in the future, for no reason.  And that's pretty much how I feel when I get bad results.  But when I stare and stare at the structure of things, and it starts to make sense, I know what I'm here for.

There's no consistency in me.  I feel both those things almost every day.  Both that I'm doing the work I was born to do, and also that I'm wasting my time.  Sometimes I think both those things in the same minute. 

I'm capable of drawing the best trees and the worst. I don't belong and then I do.  I fail and fail and then I pass, and then I fail some more.  I stare and stare at complexity with no idea of what I'm doing, and then occasionally I get a snapshot of the simplicity inside.  I suppose that's what Education is, and also Life too.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Going to the gym - A lot like crawling around on the floor looking for a lost contact lens

I've started going to the gym recently in Leeds.  It was Joy's idea really, I started off just tagging along with her for a free session.

I've been a member of a gym before, but it wasn't too successful.  Although at that time I was allocated a personal trainer, I basically just had one session with him where he worked out a program for me and then after that, if I ever bothered to turn up at all, I would just go and do the workout he'd recommended minus all the boring bits or the bits I didn't like, and then go to the cafe next door and have a slice of cake and a latte with full fat milk, so it didn't really do much good at all.

The new gym I've joined is called Tribe, or at least I think it is.  It has a fancy logo TRIB3, which I think is supposed to spell Tribe, but it may indeed simply be TRIB3.  There is no actual gym there where you can just turn up and do your own thing.  There are only classes.  I've never really known what circuit training is, but I imagine that's what it that I've been doing for the last few weeks.

Generally we start on the treadmills for about 5 minutes and run till we're out of breath and till our heart rates reach their maximum, which is measured based on your weight and age by something you wear round your chest.  This information is relayed to screens all around the gym so you know how close you are all the time.  The ideal is to be in the Red Zone, which is above 90% of your target heart rate.

Then you go and pick up some dumb-bells for about 5 minutes and do various Resistance exercises with them.  It's pretty dark in there and there are 3 sets of dumb-bells; 5kg, 7.5kg and 10kg.  The first time I picked up two out of the dark I could barely lift them so I assumed they were the heavy ones but they were only 5kg.  I've never really attempted to do anything with my upper body.  I naturally have big thighs and a big backside and mostly over the years I've done running or cycling or sports like football and rugby but I was always a lot more interested in cardiovascular fitness than muscle definition or strength.  I've never been any good at stuff like press-ups and so lifting dumb-bells with my two floppy bits of celery that I have instead of arms was hard at first, although it seems to be getting easier.  And although I'm still flabby round the middle, it feels less so than when I started. Working with dumb-bells is very good at keeping me in the moment, because I constantly have to remind myself not to drop them on my foot or my face, and the higher in the air they are, and the more sweaty my hands get, the more afraid I am of doing that.

The third station is called Intensity.  It's very varied.  It can be running around in a little box drawn on the floor, or doing squats or starjumps or jumping about with no bodily coordination whatsoever as if you're a drunken disco dancer or touching hands fingers knees and toes to other body parts.  Or it can be lifting kettle bells or medicine balls and throwing them around (without letting go obviously) Whatever it is, it usually leaves me with legs of jelly.

In an average 45 minute session you usually go round each area 3 times.  Often I finish with Intensity and that means that I generally end each session crawling around on my hands and knees with jelly legs and sweat in my eyes as if I'm looking for a lost contact lens.

The sessions are quite expensive at £15 each, although so far I've had some free sessions and also they have multi-buy offers which make it a bit cheaper.  I don't know if I'll be able to afford it long-term but I've been enjoying it while it lasts.  Although the sessions are demanding, the trainers who run them are really supportive and unless I am a poor judge of character, they don't appear to be sadistic maniacs.  They are really friendly and happy to advise and correct mistakes and seem genuinely interested that we're getting something out of it.

I thought I might be more self-conscious in there because a lot of the time I lack the coordination or the flexibility to do the exercises properly but a) it's dark in there so no-one else can really see you and b) everyone else is in their own world of pain, so they're too busy for sight-seeing.

The changing rooms have free lockers and showers with shampoo and body wash and deodorants and moisturiser all provided, so there's no need to lug around a big bag of toiletries with you when you go.  Also, if you order it in advance you can get a recovery shake for when you finish.  These cost £4 each.  The sessions I've been to so far have generally been early on a Sunday morning, or last week I went to the 6.30 am session on a Wednesday.  Although I don't like the getting out of bed part, once I'm there I get to feel virtuous that I'm doing exercise while lots of people are still asleep.

For me, the main point of the gym is to help improve my fitness for running, and I think that's already happening.  My times are already improving on my regular runs and as well as that it doesn't take as long to get my breathing back to normal when I finish running now.

Overall, even though I just copied this idea off Joy and didn't think of it myself, it's been a good experience.


Saturday, 20 May 2017

Linguistic Determinism and Japanese - Going back in time

I had my Japanese oral exam this week.  I took it in the Liberty Building at the University of Leeds. The Liberty Building was built on top of my old school swimming baths.  I never really liked swimming, it didn't seem like real exercise if you couldn't tell that you were sweating.  I went to Leeds Grammar School between 1979 and 1986, and at that time the school was on Moorland Road on the edge of Woodhouse Moor in Leeds.  It's moved now to a bigger site outside the city and they let girls in now, but when I went there that's where it was.  The buildings that the school used to occupy have been swallowed up by the University, and so I'm effectively back in the same place I was when I left school.

Just next to the Liberty Building used to be the old gymnasium where I took my A Level exams.  So in 31 years I've moved about 50 feet.

I'm studying Linguistics now at the University, and we've been reading about Linguistic Determinism, the idea that the language you know affects how and what you can think.  I've been taking Japanese as a Discovery Module, along with Spanish.

Taking Japanese has been a humbling experience.  I've always been quite good at languages, as long as I could read them.  The mixture of Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana that make up Japanese writing have left me at times feeling like I was 4 again, before I could read English. Certainly in the Japanese exam I took before Christmas I felt illiterate, because I could barely read or write anything.

Usually with languages, it's the speaking part I find the most difficult, but with Japanese it's the other way round, because at least with speaking I don't have to read anything.

As part of my exam last week, I had to do a mini presentation.  I was allowed to take in 3 photographs to help me.

Despite my struggles with Japanese, my teacher Sensei Manami has always been on hand with good advice.  When I told her before Christmas I was really struggling, I expected some sort of soft soap and sympathy approach, but her advice boiled down to just two words: work harder!  It was good advice.  Her advice before the oral exam last week was to realise that we only know a limited amount of Japanese, so the best thing is to construct sentences out of the Japanese we know, rather than trying to translate our English into Japanese.  We just don't know enough to do that.

I chose to do my mini presentation about my Lejog trip of 2014.  Constrained by lingustic determinism this is what I said.

Kore wa shashin san-mai desu.  Kono shashin ni wa watashi no jitensha desu.  Ni-sen ju-yo-nen ni nagai ryoko jitensha de ikimashita

Here are 3 pictures.  In this picture is my bike.  In 2014 I went on a long journey by bike.



Kono murasaki iro no gyo sen-mairu deshita.  sen roppyaku kirometeru.  mainichi hyaku kirometeru. muzakashikatta desu.  kantana dewa arimasen.

This purple line 1000 miles is.  1600 kilometres.  100 kilometres each day.  It was difficult. It was not easy.



Hitori ikimasen deshita.  Issho tomodachi to ikimashita.  Ju-hachi nin deshita.

I did not go alone.  Together with friends I went.  18 people there were.


Kochira wa Erwan san.  Watashi no tomodachi desu.  Mareishia-jin desu.  Isha desu.  Byoin no Sukoterandu de shigoto o shimasu.

Here is Erwan.  My friend.  He is from Malaysia.  He is a doctor.  Works in hospital in Scotland.

Nimotsu wa basu de ikimashita.  Kochira wa untenshu deshita.  Namae wa Chris desu.

Luggage went by bus.  Here is the driver.  Name is Chris.

Ju-nana yobi deshita.  Tenki subarashikatta desu.  Hitobito subarashikatta desu.  Totemo tanoshikatta desu.

17 days it was.  Weather was wonderful.  People were wonderful.  It was a lot of fun.

I was pleased with what I managed to say.  It didn't come anywhere close to describing the experience in full.  For that you can look here   I used my mother tongue for that, and it contains a lot more detail.  Chris was so much more than a driver, for example.  But limited as it was by Linguistic Determinism, it did at least contain some fundamental truths.

I may not have moved very far in 31 years.  On Thursday I was sat doing an exam just next door to where I've taken lots of other exams before.  From my entrance exam in 1979 to my final A Level exam in 1986.  You might say that although in Time I'm going in a straight line, in Space I'm going round in circles.  But at least I'm still learning.  And I'm still trying to describe the world as best I can through the languages I know.





Friday, 4 November 2016

Reasons to love English - Part One

I started a degree in Linguistics a few weeks ago, 30 years later than I originally intended to go to University.  I just couldn't get rid of this nagging feeling of having missed out on my education, so I thought I'd better go now, rather than add to that 30 years of regret.  I keep being told that University is about more than just an education, so amongst other things, I've involved myself in running a language group for some overseas students, who are all from either China, Japan or Korea.  Partly to welcome them to Leeds, and partly to try and explain some of the peculiarities of English to them.

What's written below is something that started out as a lesson plan for this week's session, but then it morphed into more of newsletter type thing.  I'm putting it on here in case anyone else finds it interesting.  Particularly people who I've already struggled to explain things to and who know me through English Steps might enjoy it.  Anyone else, please feel free to skim through it or not read it at all.

Compound nouns are the Cat’s Pyjamas!

Introduction

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. I think Albert Einstein said that, and I agree with him. Even though I’m a native English speaker, I sometimes find it hard to explain English to others in a way that they can understand. Here is my latest attempt.

A bit about me

My name is Jonathan. I grew up in Leeds in the 1970s. It wasn’t easy; all the carpets and curtains had terrible patterns on them and I had to wear a tie for the whole decade. Also, I mostly wore really itchy cardigans made of wool that was the colour of mustard. My mum had bought a massive ball of the stuff and she wouldn’t stop knitting me clothes made out of it. 

To add insult to injury, I was never allowed a haircut until it was at least 3 months overdue, and even then it would be a bad one. 
See above picture for evidence.

In the 70s there were only 3 channels on TV and apart from the news, it was mostly westerns and re-runs of Laurel and Hardy. There was nothing much to do in my spare time except run around and play football. That was great fun and it also helped me not to get overweight. Another plus about running a lot was that it helped me to keep warm. We had no central heating, only a gas fire and for six months of the year our house was freezing. Just to be able to go to bed on a night I needed hot water bottles and electric blankets. If you don’t know what they are, maybe I’ll explain that another time.

In those days, even reading involved exercise, because if I wanted a book, I had to go to the library to get one. And there was no internet, so if you wanted to know something you had to a) ask someone who knew the answer b) look in an encyclopaedia or c) remain ignorant.

But hey, I survived and here I am in good old 2016! And what am I doing now? Well, I’ve just started a degree in Linguistics at Leeds University and for a bit of extra fun I decided to run a language group with the intention of helping some foreign students with their English, and hopefully to make them feel welcome in my hometown of Leeds.

But just to be clear: I’m not an expert... on English or anything else. I’m at the very beginning of University life. The campus is full of people with giant brains who are experts on all sorts of things, so if you need an expert, go find one! But what I am is English. I’ve lived in England for a really long time, and some of that time has been spent ‘noticing things’. Anything you find written in this document is just a result of my observations of my own life. I haven’t fact-checked it with any boffins on high.

What are my aims for this language group?

This language group is only 1 hour a week for 5 weeks, so let’s be realistic. Even if I was a really good teacher, I couldn’t teach anyone the whole of English in 5 hours. But at the very least, and as the title of this newsletter suggests, I want to try and find some ‘Reasons to love English’. I love English myself, and I would just like to try and point out some of the reasons why. 
 
Is English easy or is English hard?

I would say it’s about 50/50.  Lots of things are easy about English. There’s only one article (‘a’ and ‘the’) and no complicated verb endings to learn (only -s for third person singular). But some things are very hard, for example the non-existent link between spelling and pronunciation, word order, stress, prepositions, tenses, phrasal verbs etc.

Some of the difficulty I think is that we have so many little words. For example, we use lots of little multi-word verbs (phrasal verbs) instead of using big words. Like instead of ‘disappoint’ we say ‘let down’ and instead of argue we say ‘fall out’. Knowing the individual meanings of the two separate words doesn’t help, because put them together and they mean something else entirely. And we use lots of prepositions, and we put them all over the place, even using them to end sentences with. Like I just did!

We had an interesting discussion in today’s group about whether academic English or social English is easiest to become competent at. Academic English being a challenge in that it’s quite technical but then it’s also focused in a particular range of vocabulary whereas social situations could demand a very wide range of topics being discussed.

Are English people friendly or unfriendly?

It’s hard to make generalisations, but from my own point of view English people are quite a friendly bunch, and I think Leeds in particular is a friendly place to live. But I’m a local so maybe I’m biased. Leeds is also very cosmopolitan, with a really wide mix of cultures and nationalities. I like to think of it as a smaller, friendlier version of London. However, there were mixed views in the group. Generally, the staff at the university were perceived as being very helpful but in the wider community it was a bit hit and miss.

Nobody calls me chicken!

During today’s language session I warned the students not to worry if they get called things like sweetheart, love, honey, darling, dear, pet, chicken, duck, mate or pal. Although it might seem odd to be called by names that are more appropriate for your partner, or for an animal, I assured them that it’s quite an affectionate thing. I’m glad I explained that because in China especially it would be quite insulting to be called chicken or duck. I promised them that in England no offence is intended!

Here in England, you’ll often be addressed that way by complete strangers in shops and people in the street! But don’t be alarmed! It’s generally meant in an affectionate way. Often these things will be said by older people to younger ones, but it could be anyone to anyone, so watch out!

Is English a boring language or is it fantastically creative and flexible?

Definitely the second one. To me, it’s an amazing source of creative ideas. For example, I love compounding, or word combining. Words like brainstorm, brainchild (one of my all-time favourites) weather bomb, bullshit, wallflower, superstar, feelgood, freestanding, heartbreak, sweetheart, tea bag, sleeping policeman, sugarcoat, speed bump, speed freak, nutcase, nutjob, weatherbeaten, swimming baths, idiot-proof, birthday suit, highlight, lowdown, suitcase, nutcase, headcase, nightmare, meltdown. Just reading that list gives me a warm glow of happiness inside. Those words alone should be enough to make you love English. We had a lot of fun with brainchild, birthday suit and idiot proof in particular in the group.

What I did on Saturday

On Saturday I went out for a meal to an Indian Restaurant in Headingley called the Cat’s Pyjamas. Which got me thinking... And I didn’t stop thinking for quite some time…
I started thinking about animal based idioms and phrases. For example.

He’s the cat’s pyjamas, he’s the bee’s knees. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6s0VeSEVmE
You’ve made a right dog’s breakfast of that. See also pig’s ear.
Why can’t you sit still? Have you got ants in your pants?
Mum’s not speaking to me. I’m in the dog house.

I think English is brilliant at this sort of creativity. But I have a theory that this creativity is partly a substitute for being direct. English people are often hesitant about saying unpleasant or uncomfortable things plainly and straightforwardly. We shy away from talking about death for example, so we say that someone has ‘kicked the bucket’, ‘shuffled off’ or ‘passed away’ instead of just simply ‘died’.

Similarly, many English people don’t like to openly get annoyed, or ‘make a fuss’. We’d rather sit and eat cold soup in a restaurant than speak up and send it back, but then we’ll go home and say to each other ‘Well, I won’t be going back there again’.

Some of this is to do with childhood conditioning. If I ever complained or got angry as a child, I was made fun of and told off by my mum who would say things like ‘Stop whining’ and ‘Ooh, temper, temper!’. So much so that I find it hard to be openly annoyed to this day.

We discussed in the group, the fact that this desire to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ and to avoid confrontation isn’t necessarily compatible with being direct about our wants and needs. Even asking someone to pass the salt in England when you’re eating a meal with them can turn into a pantomime of ‘Would you mind awfully, if it isn’t too much trouble, passing me the salt?’ In the right tone of voice, it’s perfectly fine to say ‘Pass the salt, please’ but we don’t seem to realise this.

It’s one thing that I find refreshing about mixing with non-natives, they do tend to be quite direct and it’s good to hold a mirror up to my Englishness and realise that I find that same directness quite difficult. But, if we’re not careful, by not being clear and stating our real feelings we can easily end up being a bit ‘two-faced’ as we’re eager not to give offence when speaking to someone, but then we might go and have a moan in private afterwards.

Topical news - Halloween and Bonfire Night

On Halloween in Britain (31st October) children (mostly children, some adults too) hollow out pumpkins and put lights inside them and dress up as witches and skeletons and go round knocking on people’s doors saying ‘Trick or treat’ and usually adults give them sweets or money. By the way, trick or treat basically means ‘give me something nice (a treat) or I’ll do something nasty to you (a trick)’. Mostly in England people are tolerant and give out treats and so it rarely gets to the trick stage.

Apparently, this tradition stems from an old Irish folk tale. There once was a man named Stingy Jack (stingy is a word that means mean and ungenerous with money and it’s nothing to do with ‘sting’ like a bee sting). Jack was a pretty horrible person, and one time he played a trick on the Devil. Along with some other very bad behaviour, this eventually resulted in him not being allowed into either Heaven or Hell. As a result, he had to wander for all eternity in the darkness. But the Devil at least threw Jack a burning coal out of hell and so Jack hollowed out a turnip and put the burning coal inside and used it for a light. Over the years, partly I imagine because turnips are almost impossible to carve, and because the legend spread to America where pumpkins were more common than turnips, people started using pumpkins instead.

The story of Bonfire Night however, is based on real historical events from the year 1605. That year, some Catholics tried to plant explosives (gunpowder) underneath the Houses of Parliament in London. They were plotting to kill the Protestant king in an explosion so that they could put a Catholic King back on the throne. This was known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’.

On November 5th the plot was discovered and the plotters were arrested. The man who was going to set off the explosion was called Guy Fawkes. He was charged with the crime of treason and thrown into prison. He was scheduled to be executed in a pretty horrible way so he jumped out of a window and killed himself instead.

Each year in Britain people go to Bonfires (originally this word comes from the words bone and fire as people used to burn animal bones to keep evil spirits away) and set off fireworks. It doesn’t seem to be as common as when I was a child, but people also often make replica ‘Guys’ by stuffing straw and newspaper into old clothes and these guys are thrown on top of the bonfires before they are set alight. Groups of children often make a ‘guy’ together and in the run up to Bonfire Night they take this round asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy’. A bit like ‘Trick or Treat’ people generally give them some money for their efforts.

Because these are traditions that I grew up with, I never really questioned them too much, but I did wonder this week whether they might appear strange to a non-native who encounters them for the first time.

The magic of word stress

English is a stress timed language, and altering the stress on different words in a sentence can change the meaning, even without changing any of the words. For example. Would you like a cup of tea? If you stress different words, it can imply very different things.
Would you like a cup of tea? making it clear which one of a group you’re addressing.
Would you like a cup of tea? Are you even bothered?
Would you like a cup of tea? Or would you prefer a pot?
Would you like a cup of tea? Or would you rather have coffee?

It’s hard for this to make sense written down, but if you say them out loud, you’ll get an idea of the different stresses and what they mean.

Well, that’s the end of week one. Thank you to all the group members for joining in so well and so enthusiastically. Without you it would have been a very dull hour! More exciting stuff next week, I hope.  I may even try some jokes!  Oh no!