enjoying the crab

Okay. So. I’m a futuristic marine, making my way with the rest of the corps through the undergrowth of some hostile alien territory, pointing laser rifles, making ridiculous hand gestures that are supposed to mean clicks or formation or something, who knows. Some of the other marines pass by in a troop carrier like a metal spider with fancy hydraulic legs. It’s impressive to look at but very unsteady. It’d be quicker and safer if they just got out and walked.

Suddenly I come up against a thick perspex screen with an alien behind it. Basically, the alien looks like a giant penis, with a tight fleshy head and a mouth full of crooked, spindly teeth. The alien stares at me for a while, then when it’s sure it has my complete attention, very slowly and deliberately puts a whole crab in its mouth. It crunches it up, maintaining eye contact, as if to say: You’re next. But I’m not convinced. I can see it’s not enjoying the crab.

The dream ends with us all playing football – marines, civilians, aliens – like we’re at a Cosplay convention and just decided to have a kick around in the car park. It’s a nice feeling, but I can’t help being a bit disappointed. Did I go to all that trouble and get dressed up for this?

* * *

There are lots of theories about why we dream. Some people think it’s just a kind of cerebral defrag, a way for the unplugged brain to process and store all the data flying around, and install important updates, so please – don’t wake up yet. The story element is entirely retrospective and incidental, that cute thing humans have been doing for thousands of years to try to make sense of the world. Dreams, lightning, religion – same thing. Others believe it’s your unconscious shooting a movie it hopes you’ll find personally enlightening, using whatever costumes and props it happens to have lying around. (And if you don’t – well, fine – it didn’t cost anything to make, being shot locally and entirely CGI). And then there are whole dictionaries and websites dedicated to listing the meanings behind all the thousands of common dream images (although I’m not sure that my understanding of crab is anything like yours – mine being ME as a ten year old in jelly sandals, turning over stones in a rock pool, and yours being YOU as the first mate of a trawler in the Bering Straits, hauling in a thousand dollars worth of Alaskan King Crab).

The only thing you can say for sure is that everyone dreams. Even the people who say they don’t, because if you watch them whilst they sleep (get them to sign something first) – well, excuse me, but they certainly wave their arms, jerk their legs, shout random things and spookily flick their eyes from side to side like the rest of us dreamers. So I’m guessing the difference is they can’t RECALL those dreams, or have decided it’s simply conversational death to even THINK about describing that dream they had when a bus made of cheese pulled over, the doors opened, and Maisie Williams was the driver, dressed as a cat.

So taking dreams to be your unconscious brain reaching up to your conscious brain, tapping it on the lobe and whispering: Hey! Look at this! THIS is what you REALLY feel about that thing you’ve been worrying about…, what the hell am I supposed to make of my alien dream?

A giant penis eating a crab?

Not enjoying it?

Hmm.

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there’s something about rabbits

I meet Vicky over the woods. I hear her before I see her, singing along to a backing track.
‘I’m trying to get the words down,’ she says, tugging out the ear buds. ‘Concert’s next week.’
She pulls an eek face.
We fall in together, the dogs running on ahead.
Somehow, in the way these conversations go, we get to talking about rabbits.
‘Someone put a dead rabbit on the footbridge.’
‘Why would they do that?’
She shrugs.
‘I dunno. Some kinda cursey magic thing? Or a dog dropped it? Strange it was so carefully laid out on its side like that, though. I threw it in the bushes. At least it was some kind of burial.’
‘I was walking the Ridgeway this one time, and suddenly out of nowhere a big black rabbit leaped out of the bracken – stopped – looked at me – then leapt into the bracken the other side. It was so weird. It was just like it raised its eyebrows and pointed at me.’
‘A black rabbit?’
‘I know! Maybe it was an escaped pet. If it was, it’d come a long way. There weren’t any houses for miles. Anyway, a couple of seconds later a weasel leapt out of the bracken from the exact same spot – stopped – pulled the same what the hell are YOU doing here? expression – then carried on after the rabbit.’
‘If you’d stayed there longer you’d probably have seen a shit load of other animals. Goat. Tiger. Elephant…’
‘Maybe it was a genetic thing. Or maybe it was just filthy.’
We walk in silence for a bit, thinking about rabbits.
‘There’s a strange guy who lives near the pub,’ says Vicky after a while. ‘Half poacher, half crazy. We were sitting there having a drink. He comes wandering past with a big canvas bag on his shoulder, stops, puts the bag on the ground, dives in with both hands, pulls out a dead rabbit, and stands there looking at us. I didn’t know whether he wanted us to make an offer or clap. But then he moved his hands, and he was holding it in such a way that the head was in his right hand and the body in his left. Like some kind of fucked up magician. Then he put the two bits in the planter, picked up his bag again and carried on. The landlord didn’t seem that bothered, though. He came over with a carrier bag, used it as a glove to pick the rabbit up, tied it up, threw it in the bin. Like this was something that happened every week.’
‘There’s definitely something about rabbits…’
‘Totally.’
‘I went to this patient once. He had two long eared house rabbits. Lops I think they’re called. Anyway, he was sitting in his chair with a rabbit on each shoulder, watching Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s a favourite he said. But anything with swords or guns they’re pretty much okay with. He told me how well trained they were. Yeah. It’s perfect. Every night we watch a film together, share a pizza, then they climb down, take my socks off, and we all go to bed.
‘Ew!’ says Vicky. ‘I can’t unhear that.’

entropy & the second law of pizza

There were a hundred reasons not to go to the PigHog poetry slam last night, the biggest one being fear.

I’m not a natural performer. Just about every time I’ve ever waited to go on stage, in a play, or in a band, or a room full of people, I’ve always had the same overwhelming feeling of dread. Not just butterflies, but one giant, robotic butterfly, in mirror shades, who hypnotises me with its gaudy wings as it plunges its proboscis through my chest. Kinda.

I imagine I’d feel just as anxious if I was standing by an open door, back of a plane at 10,000 feet, brave thumbs up, dry smile, waiting for the green light. But in lieu of a generous gift voucher this Christmas (hint, hint) I might never know for sure.

The other reasons not to go were huddled together under that miserable, flapping canvas marked GENERAL MISGIVINGS, being apathy & laziness, fear of change, fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of what other people think – basically fifteen types of fear, all with the same nose and unsettling laugh. The other reasons were harder to identify because they kept moving around and hiding under leaves &c.

All these feelings lumped together into one big feeling of resistance, so strong it felt like a natural principle rather than simply a desire to stay on the sofa and watch TV. So I thought I’d read up about entropy, to see if that might throw some (dark) light on the matter. Or some dark matter on the light.

I’d better come clean here. My understanding of entropy is as miserable as my understanding of physics generally, which is to say, from my point of view, everything pretty much happens by magic. If I make the day without choking, falling over or blinding myself by reaching up to touch the sun, well then, that’s a good day and I’m a fortunate man.

The First Law of Thermodynamics seems to say (and I’m paraphrasing): Energy cannot be created or destroyed but is interchangeable. Which is fine, but it immediately makes me wonder where the original energy came from. The Big Bang I suppose. The kind of scientific idea that would look good in crayon on sugar paper. But the Big Bang couldn’t have come out of nowhere, because – well – see the beginning of this paragraph. So…erm….

Moving on.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics seems to be – BASICALLY – the mechanism by which the universe knows where it’s going (spoiler alert: DOWN). Disorder is the natural state of things, so any ordering that goes on needs energy to initiate and maintain it. Therefore the direction of travel is from disorder to order, and this is Time’s Arrow, which is a nice thing for a universe to have, given the restrictions. But then – wouldn’t it be a bent arrow? Travelling from disorder, to order, back to disorder again?

None of this is easy. In my case it’s just a blatant attempt to draw attention – using inappropriate and ill-considered scientific references – to the effort it took me to go from a disordered sofa state to an orderly appearance at the Pig Hog poetry slam.

Once I forced myself to go, I really enjoyed it. The universe may well be tending towards chaos (it feels like that most days reading the paper), but last night was brilliant. I met some lovely people and heard some great poetry. I’ll certainly be going again – and to other slams – to work on improving my writing and my stage technique.

So up yours, entropy. I’m hanging on to Time’s Arrow by my fingertips and loving it. And I’m absolutely fired up to write a poem about black holes – once I’ve made some pizza and seen if there are any new films on Netflix.

PigHog on Facebook
Thanks to Farnam Street blog for trying to educate me about entropy. (Great blog, btw).

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a game of interviews

Interviews are stressful, artificial, weird. They’re such an inhibited dance around the facts of the case, a performance whose apparent score is the Job Description and the CV, but whose harmonies come from all the things you should and shouldn’t say. All of which is supposed to lead to the big finish: Do they like you or not? Do they think you’ll fit in, last the course, do the job?

Or maybe not a musical performance so much as a nail-biting circus routine, the blindfold knife-throwing act. I wouldn’t mind that so much. You’d be shown into the interview ring, into the spotlight. Applause, perky comments, nervous laughter, a certain amount of brave waving to the audience whilst the clowns ramp-up the tension hilariously by running round in a comedy panic throwing the confetti they’ve made from your CV out of glittery buckets. Meanwhile you’d be strapped spreadeagled to a giant revolving target. Set at a slow spin as the drums roll and the clowns can’t look and the blindfolded interviewers take it in turns to stand up from their desk and throw knives, each one making a horrifying whumping noise as they hit the board around your outstretched arms and legs, into cards that carry keywords, buzzwords, box ticks. And then a bigger, even more shocking whump when they catch you straight in the sternum with a question about where you see yourself in ten years time.

So – yes, I had an interview the other day and yes, it was pretty stressful.

I was applying for a job as a counsellor, with specialist training in CBT. It’s a popular post, having a year’s post-grad training attached, something that would cost you a small fortune to do independently. On paper (and in my head) I was a good match. I have an interest in people (which sounds creepy put like that; what I mean is, I like hearing their stories, how they got where they are, how they live, how they get by), and I have fourteen years experience working in primary healthcare, firstly as an EMT in the ambulance service, lately as an Assistant Practitioner with a hospital avoidance team. Mental health issues of one kind or another have been a significant part of my day-to-day experience, so it’s not simply a theoretical thing for me. I know how these things present in the community, how they play out.

I knew the follow-up questions would be harder to answer though. For example – why, in my ten years on the ambulance, did I not train-up to be a paramedic?

The truth? When I went through the selection procedure, I fluffed one of the answers in the CPR section, got rejected, applied again, got halfway through, and then ducked-out. The whole selection procedure was maddeningly slow, tortuous in a vaguely political way that was starting to make me feel like I was caught in a story by Kafka or Dan Brown at least – the whole scratchy feel of it exacerbated by working nights. I started to have serious doubts about my future in the ambulance service. Retraining as a paramedic would give me extra skills, it was true, but the job would essentially be the same, with the same gruelling working patterns, the same long handovers at the hospital. From the beginning of my service I’d been writing an ambulance blog. Suddenly I was picking up readers. I’d written a book based on the blog and it was selling well on Amazon. I thought: If I died tomorrow, what would I most regret? Not being a paramedic? Or not being a writer? So I decided to treat work simply as a means of supporting the writing. A few years later I thought I’d take a lateral step into a community health role, because the hours were better.

None of this is easy to talk about in an interview, though. There’s no room to say that the chances of me making any money at all from writing are so small, I will probably always need to have a day job. That being the case, I’d rather have a day job that was interesting and socially useful, rather than one that doesn’t mean anything, and saps my spirit, because of course there’s nothing worse than simply turning up to work solely for the cheque.

So I emphasised the physical toll of night work, skated over my failure to retrain as a paramedic, and diplomatically massaged the facts of my experience to make them look as much of a shoe-in for the job as possible.

All things considered, I think I’d rather be strapped to a target.

Whump.

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ghost film walkthrough

Seriously. Why do I watch films like The Innkeepers?

Maybe it’s the same principle as eating a hot chilli. You can’t exactly say you’re enjoying it halfway through. And you sweat a lot. But there’s a sense of achievement when the plate’s clean.

The thing is, I’m an easy target when it comes to ghost stories. I’m the markiest of all marks – the realist / atheist / humanist who blanches to the root when they see the shadow of a dressing gown back of the door.

I’m not saying The Innkeepers was the best spooky film I’ve seen (I’m making a distinction between horror and ghost films, although actually they’re on a sliding-violin scale of shiverity). I thought The Babadook was scarier, probably because there was a feeling the whole thing could have been a psychotic episode. Under the Shadow for the same reason (those two films being good companion pieces – or bad companion pieces, depending if you like the genre or not). TI was more like a mash-up of Clerks and The Conjuring. But this is just bravado of course. I was horrified most of the way through, and when it finished I thought that’s it, I’m not watching another ghost story. Until the next one.

So as a way of marking the event, I thought I’d run through a few points that occurred to me about The Innkeepers, and all the other films like it – more for me than anyone else, to get it clear in my head. Because if I ever found myself in a similar situation, or maybe a hyper-real dream where this sort of thing was going on, I’d instinctively know what to do and when to run (short answer: It’s never too soon to start running.)

  1. Don’t go down the basement.
  2. If ever you’re standing outside an old hotel that’s full of character and charming period detail, and you hear a chuntering soundtrack ease in, and then glissando violins – that’s probably a sign to go AirBnB.
  3. Working night shifts is bad for your mental health. Don’t be persuaded that it’ll give you plenty of time to work on ‘projects’ – especially if that project has anything to do with contacting the dead.
  4. If a retired actress checks in to your hotel, and twenty minutes later gets out a crystal pendulum and says she’s given up acting and moved into spiritualism, thank her politely for all those movies you liked her in and then GO BACK TO THE FRONT DESK.
  5. I’m serious about the basement.
  6. If an old man of few words appears at the front desk and asks to be put in room 323, even though you politely explain that the hotel is in the process of shutting down, that this is its last weekend of trading, and so all the rooms on the third floor are now closed, and the old man insists – really, be very firm on the matter. Say it’s a health & safety issue (which, BTW, it turns out it totally is), offer him a very nice room on the second, and if he still insists, give him the number of a motel on the edge of town run by the Bates family. He’ll fit right in there.
  7. If there’s a camera pointed at a rocking chair, and the lighting is moody, grainy, indigo &c, and the camera slowly moves in… that’s probably a good time to close your eyes and hum High on a hill there’s a lonely goatherd or something.
  8. Side note to point 8. Squinting doesn’t make it any less horrible. You have to shut your eyes the whole way. And sing louder.
  9. Okay. Let’s talk about the basement.
    Basements are and always will be places of terror. It’s just the way it is. Conservatories are hot. Kitchens are busy. Bedrooms are more or less soporific. But basements are reserved for scenes of relentless domestic horror (the fact that some become ‘man caves’ only proves the point). You could design a basement to flood with light the moment you open the door. A disco ball and music start up. You could have a rule no-one is allowed down the basement in parties smaller than twenty, each party to be accompanied by a priest with a semi-automatic crucifix (and not just any priest – it has to be a priest with real-world experience of these things, someone who’s also a fully qualified counsellor, a black belt in Aikido, with a gnarly sense of humour, and crucially, a priest prepared to sacrifice themselves so you can make it back up the goddamn stairs). You could have all that and it’d STILL be the worst room in the house. Especially if there’s a boiler and lots of old junk. (BTW – never keep old junk in the basement. Just burn it or give it away. I mean seriously. It spooks the place up).
    But if there is a basement, and you feel obliged to go down into it, THREE TIMES (even though a spiritualist with a crystal has SPECIFICALLY TOLD YOU NOT TO), don’t be surprised the lights don’t work, and the door slams behind you, and the old guy’s there, and you fall down the stairs, and end up running and stumbling through loads of old basement junk (see what I mean about the junk?), and so on – well, what can I say?
  10. The takeaway from all this: DO NOT GO DOWN THE BASEMENT.

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oz, boz, buzz

You’ll always hear Jenny before you see her.
‘Cecil! No! Don’t! You’ll be sick again and THEN what’ll happen?’
And so on.
Then you’ll see Cecil, a punchy, paunchy, busy little pug who trots bow-legged, snuffling and snorting, wearing an expression like a hedge fund manager who’s been transmuted into a dog and is a little outraged but determined to make the best of it. And Cecil will truffle around the grass, occasionally snapping up a few rabbit droppings, and then Jenny will come striding over, her bobbed hair flying, lavender glasses shining, crying out for the love of God for the pug to stop.
Except today there are two pugs.
‘What are you doing – cloning them?’ I say as she strides towards me.
‘What?’ she says, pushing her glasses back up her nose so positively she almost nails herself in the forehead with her finger.
‘Are you cloning them? The dogs?’
‘No. That’s my friend’s dog, Samuel. I’m looking after him while they’re on holiday…. Cecil! Samuel! For God’s sake will you STOP that?’
She looks at me helplessly.
‘I’m at my wit’s end,’ she says. ‘I can’t take much more. When they get together they’re completely unmanageable. They do what they like.’
I look at them, happily stomping around in the grass.
‘If it’s too much maybe you should think of something else, some other arrangement,’ I say.
‘What do you mean? What other arrangement? There IS no other arrangement. They take Cecil when I go away. I have Samuel when they go away. That’s it. That’s how it works.’
‘But if it’s not working…’
‘They’re brothers!’ she says, as if that clinches it. ‘I mean – honestly! Cecil’s difficult enough on his own, but I don’t know. When they get together something just clicks and they’re – well, they’re absolute hooligans. Cecil! Don’t eat that! Samuel…! Please!’
‘It’s vegetarian, at least.’
‘It’s poison. They’ll be sick all morning and I’m the one who has to clean it up. I don’t know. And I’ve got him for two weeks in August. Two weeks! You know – the police were here the other day.’
‘The police?’
I’m confused. For a minute I think she means they came about the pugs.
‘The kids were back. Setting fire to things. The police walked all the way in through the estate and up through the woods. Although why they came that way I don’t know. So of course by the time they got here the kids were long gone.’
‘That is quite a way.’
‘It’s all getting too much….Cecil! WILL you leave it alone? Samuel!’
She sighs, waves her hand in the air.
‘I’d better go before they kill themselves.’
And she strides off after the dogs. I hear her plaintive cries getting smaller and smaller as she makes her way through the woods.

On the way back up the hill I think about dogs and how difficult it is to train them – or, to be more precise, how difficult it is to accept it’s your behaviour that needs modifying as much as theirs.

I think about Buzz, our first dog, a Patterdale-Lakeland mix (the genetic equivalent of Delusions of Grandeur spliced with Sociopath). His name at the pound was Oz, which we didn’t much like, so we called him Boz instead, because we thought it sounded sufficiently like Oz not to confuse him too much, and if someone asked us where we got the name from, we could prove how literary we were by saying we named him after Sketches by Boz, by Dickens. He was pretty lively, so we signed up for a dog training session over the local park. It was run by a terrifying guy called John who looked like Jason Statham’s tougher brother. He was dressed in black combat trousers and black tight-fitting nylon t-shirt, dark shades, and a shiny bald head he could probably kill you with if his hands were zip-locked. He told us he had seven doberman’s at home that were so dangerous he had to walk them at four in the morning (although Kath had a theory that actually he had a Bichon Frise he called ‘Seven Dobermans’, and they watched rom-coms together, cuddled up on the sofa, sobbing). The very first lesson he misheard us when we introduced him to Boz, calling him Buzz instead, because that was around the time the first Toy Story came out. We were too scared to correct him, so we ended up calling him Buzz, too, which in the end was a better fit. To infinity and beyond was an apt description of how he used to run.
Anyway, the point is, Buzz was always superbly well behaved in John’s lessons.
‘You’ve got a diamond dog there, guys,’ he said, the two of them staring affectionately at each other.
‘Yeah. A very biddable dog. Very biddable.’
Which is the only time I’ve ever heard anyone use the word biddable.

Buzz & ballSo the key thing I took from all the sessions we went to with John over the park was that WE were the ones who were the problem, not Buzz. He was taking his cue from us. When we were keyed up because we thought he’d be scrappy – well, he’d be scrappy as hell. And if we were worried he’d run off, he’d almost certainly run off. The difficulty was in breaking the cycle, which often meant taking him off the lead when that felt like madness to do it, or running the other way when he was pelting off after something. I think we got better at it, although there was always a sense that Buzz was Buzz no matter what, and that meant accepting him for those times when he was grumpy, or distracted, or just plain cussed. And I think he made allowances for us, too. More than some, no doubt. He forgave our sins and we forgave his. And we learned to get along. And he was there when Kath gave birth to Martha, his paws hanging over the side of the bath. And he was there when Jess was crawling around stealing his toys. And he may have been gone these many years now, but we all miss him enormously, the way you do, the way you miss family.

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tempted by the scissors

Jessie is having a graduated bob. I’d been off running some errands, but when I come back she’s nowhere near ready, so I sit down in a high-backed leather chair and flick through a lifestyle magazine, pictures of distressed dressers, chickens, fancy moustaches, antique mirrors, yawning, checking my phone.
‘Did you park alright?’ says the woman minding the front desk.
‘Yeah – it was fine. I found a space in the car park by the health centre. It wasn’t too bad. I know it gets tricky round here sometimes. What about you? What do you do?’
She’s just about to answer when the phone rings. She smiles, holds up an immaculately nailed finger, and answers in a different, professional kind of voice, rushing through the words so they blend into one long, smooth and sleepy sound.
‘Let me just check that for you,’ she says, licking her finger and scooching through a ledger. ‘Yes. We have a cancellation tomorrow, so I can fit you in then.’ She confirms the time and the date, says goodbye, hangs up, and writes the appointment down.
‘We’ve got a computer,’ she says, glancing over at me. ‘But we keep the book just in case.’

When she’s done and settled again, I ask her how she gets to work, and does she get the train in. (It’d make sense. You wouldn’t have to worry about parking, the train station is just down the road, and anyway, I’ve been thinking about trains lately – how it’s such a scandal you can fly to Greece cheaper than you can get a train to London, and how that just about sums up the whole climate emergency situation). But she mishears me.
‘Yes, I did do the training,’ she says. ‘And I quite enjoyed it. But for some reason I never really took it up. I don’t know why. I suppose I was never in the right place, mentally I mean. It does help on reception though. When people ring up I know what they’re talking about. But beyond that – I don’t get involved much. I cut my husband’s hair. Sometimes I’ll go to the old people’s home and do some of them if they want it. But nothing fancy, nothing too difficult. Maybe one day I’ll do a refresher and get back into it properly. It’s a lot of standing about though, isn’t it? You’ve got to want to do it. To be fair, it’s the kind of skill you can take anywhere, though. Like nursing. Or mechanics. What about you? Have you ever been tempted by the scissors?’
I tell her I’m always impressed by anybody with a skill. I like the easy way they kick the chair up and down, that kind of thing.
‘But men’s hair is boring by comparison. We always go for the same thing. Number one on the sides, longer on top. Or have a bit of a tidy-up – that’s always a good one. A bit of a tidy-up.’
‘True!’ she says. ‘And you never make appointments, do you? You just walk in and hope for the best.’
‘The other day I went for a haircut, and the barber was really tired. He didn’t want to talk, which was great, because I find those conversations quite difficult, stuck in front of a mirror like that. I feel really self-conscious. Anyway, at the end, when he went to hold the mirror behind my head – which seems a bit pointless, because you always end up saying the same thing – “Yeah! That’s great! Really great!”, regardless, even if you’re completely bald – but this guy, he was so tired, he picked up his iPad and held that behind me, instead.’

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