Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All about . . .

I met a friend yesterday who, with great parental pride, was telling me how his daughter has been offered a place at Cheltenham University. He's delighted, but I gather that she's a little anxious as to whether the town's genteel image will damage her street cred here in London!

All of which brought back a distant memory . . . have you time for a story that's rather appropriate for Lent?

Somewhere, in the Cotswolds, there must live an elderly (positively ancient) vicar who would be totally amazed to know that his run-of-the-mill Sunday sermon at Cheltenham, twenty years ago, was being recalled and reconsidered in 2009.

The church in question was Cheltenham Parish Church and, if I remember correctly, the vicar was elderly, grey-haired and rather avuncular. It was quite a small congregation and the whole occasion seemed easily forgetable. The vicar started his sermon with the arresting words, "I am not going to talk about God . . . ". This woke me up, it was an unexpected and interesting change. I sat back to listen.

The avuncular vicar went on to say that the person he was going to talk about was a parishioner in his previous parish. She, it seemed, had been a passionate royalist. Everything and anything to do with the Queen that was published or manufactured, she did her best to acquire. She had coronation mugs, souvenir figurines, commemoration issues of newspapers and endless books and magazines. As the vicar said, there was nothing published about the Queen that his parishioner didn't know. BUT - and, as you'll have guessed, this was the nub of his message - she didn't KNOW the Queen. She only knew all ABOUT the Queen.

As I left the church I was very taken by his argument. It struck me that the ardent royalist had no need of all her memorabilia to actually meet the Queen. She might, if she were lucky, come up0n the Queen in Windsor Great Park, or on her estate at Balmoral, without the aid of any of that accumulation. In fact - and this is what struck me forcibly - all those press-cuttings could prove positively detrimental. The Media, and the manufacturers of commemorative memorabilia, could have distorted the true picture so successfully that she wouldn't even recognise the real Queen when she saw her. Not only that, meeting the Queen with so many pre-conceptions might well prove a barrier, not a help.

All right, I'm not going to labour the point. But, you see what I mean? You see what that vicar was getting at all those years ago . . . ?
It seems to me that we all get confused on this issue. We can diligently read about spiritual matters, we can study the Bible with great application - just so long as we don't confuse our readings and our studies with an authentic, personal encounter with God. It's the 'glass darkly' 'face to face' argument, and something tells me that Doubting Thomas would agree with me!

Here finally endeth a twenty-year-old sermon!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

'Beings' or 'doings'?

Please give me a little thought this morning. I need a clear mind . . . a ready understanding of technical jargon . . . a good head for figures . . . an appreciation of the latest advancements in the world of IT.
Does all that sound like me? No, I agree, it doesn't. Which is why I'd really appreciate a little positive thought!

In a few moments I'm off to Regent Street to buy my birthday present. It's not really a luxury as it's something I need, in fact I suspect that I'll only just be in time in making this purchase.
In case you haven't guessed, I'm off to the Apple Store to buy a new laptop.
I feel a thorough traitor to the good friend who has been so tolerant of my errors and abuses over the years. But facts are facts, and there's no doubt that the screen is giving up. It is now constantly split (the top half being considerably darker than the bottom), and sometimes the bottom goes out of function completely and is only restored by a lot of wiggling . . . and much positive thought! I'll be taking it with me in the hope that they can transfer all the files, folders and photos to the new one. I'm also hoping that they'll be able to allay my fears as to how I'm going to connect my printer to the newcomer - the software that came with the printer was lost years ago.

So . . . feeling distinctly disloyal (but secretly a little excited!), I'm off in search of a new friend. If it is half as wonderful, tolerant, hardworking and reliable as its predecessor . . . I'll be very lucky.


Oh dear, all that positive thinking didn't really help the situation. Do you want to know about my adventures at the Apple Store? Read on . . . !

It was just as I feared . . . a computer geek's heaven . . . my hell!
Is it too fanciful to hope that, when going in search of an Apple, you'll find yourself in a tranquil, welcoming orchard? This was no orchard. It was a jungle!
Do you know the Apple Store? There's glass everywhere, even a glass central staircase, and, at ground level, what seem like hundreds of benches beside which AppleMac devotees drool in ecstasy over the latest software. More like an inter-planetary temple than a mere shop, it left me feeling distinctly alien.

I stood by the glass staircase, thoroughly bemused. Finally it dawned on me that all the eager-faced young men in turquoise T shirts were there to help you. Not one of them looked a day older than twenty-five, some had ponytails, some had whispy beards or moustaches, they all had the gleaming eyes of the true devotee.
Seeing me standing there, one of the helpers approached.
"I'd like to buy a White Book," I said (having been briefed by a friend that it's distinctly 'uncool' to use the word laptop).
He looked at me with kindly tolerance, "Do you know what you want?"
"I've had one for years," I replied, a little piqued, "what I need is a new one - and I'd be grateful if you'd transfer the files for me."
He showed me the gleaming, new display laptop. It looked very beautiful. Smaller, slimmer and sturdier than my existing one. I began to feel very disloyal.
"Will you want a carrying-case?" asked my helper.
I told him that I had a carrying-case. Which I had. My National Trust bag makes a perfect carrying case for a laptop.
"I also need help in linking up my printer to the new computer," I explained, "I seem to have lost the software."
"Have you a wirebox?" my helper wanted to know (I think he said wirebox, it was something to do with wire).
I began to feel even more befuddled.
"No . . . "
"You could use an external modem and connect it by . . . "
"No . . . please . . . " I interrupted, I don't understand all that. I just want to connect the printer."
My young helper looked at me with pitying concern, "You could really do with a training session."
Hey, what was this . . . ? I didn't want a training session! I hadn't come for a training session! Events were spinning out of my control.
"I just need a new laptop . . . "
"Stay here," he said, "I'll go and see what I can do."
As one handling a recalcitrant dog, he led me to a pillar and told me firmly to stay put!
I stayed by the pillar for what felt like half-an-hour, and must have looked totally out of my element, for another young man in a turquoise T shirt came up to me.
"Are you all right . . . ?" he enquired.
I told him that one of his colleagues had instructed me to stay by the pillar.
He chuckled, "Well, you'd better stay there. He'll be back!"
And he was. This time he was carrying a box, it was my new laptop.
"Are you paying by credit card?" he asked.
I told him that I was paying by cheque.
"We don't accept cheques," said my helper.
"I can cover it by a credit card?" I insisted.
“I’m sorry, no cheques.”
"All right, then," my fighting spirit had finally ebbed away, "I'll pay by credit card."
"Do you know your PIN number?" he enquired.
This was the last straw!
"Now, look here!" I retorted, recharged by indignation, "I may not know much about computers, but I do know my PIN number!"
A little taken aback by this unexpected outburst, my helper grinned, and apologised - after which, our relationship improved considerably!

It is now three hours later and I am home again . . . reviving my shattered self-belief with the
ministrations of a stiff brandy!
I'll do nothing further today. Tomorrow, who knows, I may take that beautiful new laptop out of its ornate box and see if I can come to terms with its complexity. If I succeed . . . well, that would be marvellous. If I don't . . . . advice and help, please!!!

After today's experience, I've been thinking about this fundamental difference in the way men and women look at computers. And it struck me that it has a lot in common with the way they view cars.
To a man, a car is an object of beauty and power. He values its engine, its capacity, its appearance and its potential.
To a woman, a car is a means of getting somewhere. She values its reliability, its comfort and its durability.
The young man at the Apple Store saw the computers as wondrous creations in their own right. I saw them as a means of producing something.
For men, cars and computers are 'beings'. For women, they are 'doings'.
The male attitude would seem to be the purer, but, or so it seems to me, there's a mighty gap in understanding between the two lines of thought!

Vive la difference? Perhaps! But I'm naming my new hard-drive 'Gemma' in the hope that we girls will stick together!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Burmese Baseball

This is totally trivial - except for Rupert and me - but should you feel in need of a quiet chuckle, then I suggest you read on . . .

Not the least of the problems posed by bad weather, is how to keep Rupert exercised. His energy, alas, can't be switched off just because it's raining. Speaking selfishly, I'm all for encouraging him to sleep, but Rupert is having none of it. To enliven the cold, wet days he has invented a game of such complexity that only he and a chimpanzee could understand the ground rules. But, for the layman such as you and me, let's call it Burmese Baseball.

The playing-field is centred on my lap, the boundaries are the walls of the book-room. Rupert sits upright on my lap. He is facing me, his body tense, his eyes wide and his front paws tense with expectancy.
I have now learned that what I am expected to do is to put a pile of pencils (or ballpoint pens) on the table beside us. Taking one of these pencils, my aim is to poke him in the tummy before he can whip the pencil out of my hand. If you think that sounds easy, think again!
I wiggle the pencil, pretending that I'm approaching from the right, whilst planning a strategic poke from the left. I wiggle the pencil a little faster . . . than strike!
Before the pencil is anywhere near Rupert's tum, a paw whips out, the pencil is lifted out of my hand and . . . whoosh! . . . it flies across the room, scoring a boundary by hitting the far wall.
I take pencil number two, Rupert's expression grows even more eager, I wiggle . . . he tenses . . . I thrust . . . he strikes!
Yet another pencil goes soaring through the air!

Do you get my drift?
After ten minutes of this there are no pencils on the table and I'm left groping around on hands and knees trying to retrieve them from the distant corners of the room!

Do you happen to know of anyone - preferably someone young and athletic - who would welcome a game of Burmese Baseball (or toy mouse) with an inexhaustible cat?!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's all relative . . .

On several occasions recently I've heard you murmur, rather gloomily, that you're getting old. Adding, on an even gloomier note that you’ll soon be sixty.
Now, I've a secret to share with you. It's a wonderful secret, something few people know about.
So, listen very carefully . . .

There are ages in life that everyone dreads - and they all end with a nine. There's twenty-nine, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and so on. Each of these years is noteworthy because it marks the end of a decade. It marks a time of exhaustion, often of disappointment. The decade hasn't fulfilled all its glowing promises, the ten years have been tiring and demanding. It's rather like being in the top class at a Primary School, you are old before your time, carrying responsibilities that you don't feel ready to bear. To make things worse you dread the sense of a new decade. Oh, the horror of being, thirty, or forty, or fifty or - barely to be contemplated - sixty!

Then the dreaded day arrives, when - reluctantly, unwillingly - you step over that unwelcome frontier.
And where do you find yourself?
To your great surprise and amazement . . . it's wonderful!
There you are, a positive babe at the start of a whole new cycle. Stretching out before you, is another decade of promise. Instead of being careworn and sullied, trapped in the past, this decade is new and shining. You are a mere thirty, or forty, or fifty or sixty. You haven't even yet reached the age of sixty-one. You are a new boy in a new club - and, for a day at least, you are the very youngest member of this new club!

So, enjoy it! As the dawn rises on your birthday look out over the clean, promising, wonderful and infinitely challenging landscape of the sixties and realise just how fortunate you are!

I should add that there is one truly sobering and remarkable thing about growing older. No, not the need for glasses and the faltering memory, it’s the undeniable fact that you don't . . . you don't grow older.
Oh yes, your hair starts to grey, your waistline moves in totally unexpected directions, and your hips take on a mind of their own. But, basically, the person who wakes up in the morning is exactly the same person who's greeted the dawn with varying degrees of enthusiasm throughout your life.
In fact, unlikely as it may seem, you’ve possibly grown younger. I was extremely wise in my teens, amazingly worldly in my twenties - perhaps the only wisdom I've acquired over the years is the wisdom to know that I'm not wise, the knowledge to know that I've everything to learn. I sometimes think that it would amaze the average teenager to know that their grandparents are capable of enjoying the same emotional and mental roller-coaster that they do! No, that's not quite true, with a little bit of luck their grandparents will have acquired the talent to laugh at themselves and their follies, and therein lies the difference - the gift of age is the grace-giving ability to see the funny side.

Mind you, I found it hard to see the funny side this morning. On the radio a young man was being interviewed about the popularity of his web-site.
"And tell me," said the interviewer, "is its appeal limited to young people?"
"Oh, no!" said the website designer enthusiastically, "We cover a wide age range. We've even heard from a supporter aged thirty-three!"'

Birthday wishes from your friend in her dotage!