Back To School

Next week is half-term. Why does that matter? Because I’m back in education.

Since last month, I’ve been a student again. Not full-time (I’m not falling for that one again), of course, but I currently spend my Monday evenings studying towards a Certificate in Counselling Skills at Aylesbury College.

Aylesbury College. It's actually quite an attractive building, except in the rain.

It’s actually a qualification I’ve been looking at for several years, but it’s only recently that I’ve lived somewhere even remotely close to somewhere that it’s taught: while there’s a lot of counselling theory that can be learned by distance learning, there’s naturally a lot of hands-on counselling practice that demands a classroom or clinical setting, and for that… you really do need to be within reach of a suitable school.

Not that Aylesbury‘s exactly on my doorstep. It’s not even in the same county as me (it’s just barely over the border, in fact, into Buckinghamshire). And this can make things a little challenging: whereas many of my classmates walk or cycle in, I have a special little dance that I have to do every Monday, in order to make my study possible.

I arrive at work early, so that I can get out of the door by 4:30pm. I then leap onto my bike and pedal furiously through Oxford’s crowded afternoon streets to the East side of the city. There, I lock my bike up and hop into a borrowed car (more about that in another blog post), pick my way out between the growing pre-rush-hour traffic, sprawling 20mph zones, and deathwish cyclists, and hammer along the A418 in order to get to class for its 6pm start.

This is the M40. I don't get to go on this. But that dual carriageway you see going over the top of it? That's one of the few stretches of decent road on my weekly commute to Buckinghamshire.

Three hours of theory and roleplay later (as well as a break to eat a packet sandwich), I’m back on the road. It annoys me more than a little that now that I’m not in a hurry, the roads are usually clear and empty, but it’s a good excuse to crank up the volume on Jack FM and enjoy the ride back through the villages of East Oxfordshire. Back in Oxford, I pick up my bike and cycle home: I’m usually back before 10:30. It’s quite a long day, really.

So what’s it all for? Well: ultimately, if I stick with it, it leads to a Certificate in Counselling, then to a Diploma in Counselling. If you take that and couple it with a stack of distance learning modules, it adds up to… well, this Foundation Degree in Counselling, perhaps.

But that’s not what you wanted to know: what you wanted to know was, “What are you doing, Dan? What’s wrong with the degree and career you’ve already got?”

Well firstly, of course, learning doesn’t have to be about qualifications. This is a field that I’ve been interested in for longer than I’ve been blogging. Plus: I’m sure that my various pieces of emotional support work, like my work with Oxford Friend, will benefit from the experience and learning that I bring to it.

But also, it’s about the idea I’ve always had that a good mid-life crisis ought to benefit from planning: it’s too important to leave to chance. And I’ve been thinking that a career switch might be a great mid-life crisis. The social sciences are fun, and while counselling might not be exactly what I’m looking for, there’s some doors opened by studying it. With less than a decade before I’m 40, and with part-time study being an ever-so-slow way to get things done, I’d better pull my finger out.

Doubtless, I’ll have more to say about my course as it progresses, but for now, I’m just glad that it’s half-term week, which means I get a week in which I don’t spend my Monday running around like a headless chicken… and I get twice as long to finish my homework.

Wake Me Up When September Begins

As a result of a couple of different health issues and the death of my old and much-loved mobile, August wasn’t shaping up to be a very good month already. But the biscuit was really taken this week during what turned into An Unexpectedly Expensive Night Out.

An Unexpectedly Expensive Night Out

It started okay: Ruth and went out for tapas, then for cocktails, and then to the cinema to watch the (pretty disappointing) Cowboys & Aliens. So a good start, getting worse. The food was cheap (hooray for vouchers!), the cocktails were reasonably priced (although we did have… a few of them), and the cinema was aided by Orange Wednesdays, so all seemed to be going pretty well, so far, until we came to going home.

Because when we got back to the cycle racks, my bike wasn’t there. By the look of things, somebody cut through my bike lock and had away with it, rendering me bikeless. Suddenly, it became a far more-expensive night out than I’d planned for.

Here's the kind of lock I was using. Turns out that it's insufficient to stop a determined attacker.

They say that you haven’t lived in Oxford until you’ve had your bike stolen[citation needed]. Well: now I have, and I’ve learned an important lesson about the ineffectiveness of moderate-security cable locks like the Kryptonite HardWire (the lock I was using) when up against thieves who are willing to put in the effort to, for example, bring bolt cutters on a night out.

I spoke to a police officer yesterday who’s going to see if any of the nearby CCTV cameras are going to be of any use in finding the bugger.  But in the meantime, I’ve had enough of August. It’s had highlights, like Liz & Simon’s wedding, but mostly it’s been less-than-great.

Wake me up when September begins.

Beware: Necrophiliac Paramedics!

A conversation I had this morning with JTA, via text message:

I sent:

Boiler update: this is getting silly. The probability-weighted Markov-chain based predictive text system I’m using this morning saw me type “boi” and suggested “Boiler update:”? /sighs/
On the upside, I’ve successfully arranged for the new distributor valve to be installed on Friday, when I’ll be around.

To give a little background, we’re having trouble with the boiler on Earth. You may have observed that it broke last year, and then again this year: well – it’s still broken, really. Nowadays it’ll only produce a little hot water at a time, and makes a noise like that scene in Titanic where the ship begins to tear in two. You know – a bad noise for a boiler to make. Over the last two or three weeks we’ve repeatedly fought to get it repaired, but it’s been challenging: more on that in a different blog post, if JTA doesn’t get there first.

JTA replied:

On the plus side, at least this saga is overriding your phone’s memory of your previous life as a male prostitute. :-)

I was once mistaken for a gay prostitute, actually – by a gay prostitute – but that’s another story, I guess. In any case, I responded:

Until now! you’ve just mentioned that again, which means it’ll be the “last message received” when the paramedics go through my phone if I’m killed on the way to work this morning. And they’ll say, “yeah; I’d pay to have sex with him.”

Quickly followed by:

And his mate will say:
“Now he’s dead, you don’t HAVE to pay.”
If my corpse is raped by a paramedic, I’m blaming you.

To which JTA said:

You’re talking about people who drive blacked out vans full of drugs. I’m pretty sure they never pay.

From prostitution to necrophilia to date rape over the course of only a handful of text messages. What a great start to a Wednesday morning. I do like the image of an ambulance as “a blacked out van full of drugs,” though…

Well-Wishes

I’d just like to say thanks to everybody who, upon hearing about my dad’s injury, passed on their best wishes for his speedy recovery. I spoke to him yesterday, and passed on your thoughts. He’s going to be in surgery this afternoon in an effort to turn him into Wolverine (although I was disappointed to hear that they’ll be installing mere aluminium, and not adamantium, into him). Why not go the whole way: I’m sure he’d suit retractable metal claws!

The Race

Last weekend, I was cycling through Oxford, as I do, enjoying a reasonably leisurely pace. I say leisurely, but it’s been my experience that compared to the cyclists in Aberystwyth, where the city planners decided to build every single road on the side of a hill, the cyclists in Oxford are somewhat… wussy. They’re numerous, certainly, but very few of them actually put their backs into the activity, instead preferring to crawl around at a frankly pedestrian speed along their overcrowded cycle paths.

On several occasions, I’ve routinely seen people get off their bikes and push to get up even mild to moderate slopes like that outside the hospital, around the corner from Earth. The slope is long, certainly, but these people aren’t even giving up half-way… they’re giving up at the bottom! It just makes me want to send them to Aber for a few years to learn what real hills look like.

The hill up to Headington: at it's most-severe, a gentle slope that shouldn't put an experienced cyclist out of breath (and shouldn't require getting off and pushing from anything but a complete beginner).

So there I was, cycling into the city centre, overtaking other cyclists as I went, when another cyclist… overtook me! This was only the second time this had ever happened to me since I moved to Oxford last summer. The other time, like this one, the perpetrator was a fit, lean young man, clad from the neck downwards in skin-tight lycra, donned with a streamlined helmet and riding a bike that just screamed out that it wanted to be raced. It was almost begging me to give it a challenge. So I did.

I raced.

I guess part of me was offended that he happened to have come across me on a day when I was taking it easy. Traveling to and from work, for example, I’ve been pushing myself: the other week, I beat my personal best, making the 2.4 mile journey from the Bodleian‘s bike sheds to my garage door in just a little over seven and a half minutes. How dare this… enthusiast… overtake me when I’m just on a gentle meander in the sun.

I raced.

We were just pulling into high street when he passed me, buzzing past in his fancy orange-and-black cycling shorts like a bumblebee riding a bullet. Ahead, cars and buses were coming to walking pace, backed up as far as I could see as the bank holiday traffic ground what was once a trunk road into little more than a car park. Between the vehicles, cycles picked their way around, darting in and out of the lanes of traffic. This was to be our arena.

My pedals span as I dropped back into a less-comfortable gear, picking up speed and pulling around a police van to get right onto the tail of my opponent. His speed advantage had been reduced by having to evade a taxi cab, and within a few seconds I was able to pull up into the wake of his slipsteam. Ahead, a bus began to pull away from a stop, and he overtook it. Seeing my chance as the bus began to indicate, I went around the inside, pulling almost alongside him as we streaked across the first of the pelican crossings and into the next block of traffic. Car, car, van, car, bus… we passed each one on one side or the other, and I occasionally caught a glimpse of the young man with whom I was competing.

Up ahead, the second pelican crossing switched to red, and we pulled up to the line together. Surprised at having somebody alongside him, I think, he looked across at me, and looked even more surprised when he recognised me as the person he’d overtaken a little while back. He eyed up my bike, as if he were assessing his chances. He seemed confident: and why not – he was riding a lightweight racing bike, designed to make the most of every bit of its rider’s strength to propel it along. I was on a mountain bike, designed to be rugged and durable – multi-purpose, nowadays. Weighed down by mudguards and pannier frames, I didn’t fancy my chances either. But my bike was running very well – I’d recently stripped it down to its component parts, washed and re-greased each, rebuilt it and fine-tuned it – and if ever it was set up to take on this racer, today was the day.

The lights changed, and we were off. He wasn’t holding back, now, and by the time we were half-way to the junction with St. Aldates I was panting, gulping down air to feed to my legs, pumping away beneath me.  Our routes sometimes put us side-by-side or one behind the other, sometimes put us on the other sides of lines of stationary cars, but always kept us in sight of one another. This was going to be close.

The lights at the junction were in our favour, and we both rocketed around into the downhill section at St. Aldates. Buses crawled along the street, but there was plenty of room on the wide, slick surface, so we accelerated as we shot down the centre of the road. Ahead, heat haze made the black surface glisten like oil, and I was suddenly aware of how much I was sweating. Summoning all of my strength, I stood up and leant forwards, searching for just another half a mile an hour to catch up with him; his slender bike and slender body cutting through the headwind and pulling away from me. It worked: by the bottom of the road, I was alongside him again, and we were almost to my destination: the bridge at the bottom.

“My stop!” I called out, holding my arm out to indicate (mostly to him; there were no cars behind us at even close to our speed) where I was to go. I came to a halt, glad that I’d thought to tune up the brakes during my recent maintenance. He pulled alongside me, and for a moment I wondered if he perhaps had the same destination as me.

“Are you in a cycling club?” he asked, and I noticed that he, too, was beginning to get out of breath – although not so badly as I was.

“No,” I replied.

“You should be!” he said, “That kind of speed, on a bike like… that…” He gestured to my bike.

As he sped away and I started to look for a place to lock up my bike, I felt a great sense of satisfaction and pride. I didn’t know that I’d be able to match pace with him, but through sheer grit and determination, I’d managed. And then, just as I was chaining my bike to a conveniently nearby fence, another thought occurred:

I was still holding the letter that I’d meant to post on my way here. The postbox was back at about the beginning of the race… you know; where I was slowing down to begin with.

What I Learned About Democracy, Injury, Packing & Friendship

It’s was a busy weekend; the first of several, I’m sure. Mostly – put briefly – it’s been spent thusly:

Democracy: I’ll be voting “Yes” on Thursday’s referendum, and you should too (unless you’ve already been persuaded or are even helping with the fight). And while I’ve not had as much opportunity to help get this message out as Ruth and JTA have, I’ve tried to do my bit by joining them for a spot of leafleting over the weekend. I’m not entirely in favour of some of the campaign tactics being used (like the separate “Labour Yes” and “Conservative Yes” campaigns which act as if one another don’t exist: to me, whether or not we adopt AV has nothing to do with parties or candidates and everything to do with it just being a better way of representing the opinion of the voters), but I guess that they’re necessary to get the point across to some folks. And this slight spindoctoring quickly pales in the light of some of the lies that the no-to-AV campaigners are telling.

Injury: Not to me, this time, but to my father, who came off his bike while cycling around Scotland this weekend. I’ve not had the chance to talk to him since they pushed back his surgery (he’s broken parts of himself and they want to turn him into a cyborg put a metal plate in him, or something) until later this week. Right now, then, he’s confined to hospital, which I can’t imagine he’s enjoying very much. If they’ve hooked you up with Internet access, dad – get well soon.

Packing: Oh, so much packing. I got started on boxing up all of the board games, the other day, only to find out that there were quite a few more of them than I remembered. I’ve also started on my collection of cables and computer knick-knacks, and discovered that I have no fewer than five male-to-male VGA cables. Why? I’ve no idea. I’ve been gradually cutting down on my spare supplies (do I really need three spare floppy drive cables when I don’t use any floppy disks?), but it’s hard: the very next day after I throw them out, you can guarantee that’ll be the moment I need one of my many AT-to-PS2 keyboard adapters.

Friendship: A couple of weeks ago I met Adrian, an international student from the USA who’s been in Oxford for a year or so for the final year of zer* study. Ze and I ‘clicked’ and formed an immediate connection, instantly getting along remarkably well. We spent a little of this weekend together, and for a moment there, it seemed like there might be the potential for a romantic connection, too. But sadly, by the time we got into gear ze had only two days left in the UK before jetting off back home to the States… and 3,900 miles is a long, long way. We both agreed that we should have met a year ago, but c’est la vie: the world is smaller, these days, thanks to the Internet, so there’s every chance of building an online friendship, punctuated those rare occasions when we happen to be in one another’s country.

I don't have any pictures to-hand from this weekend at all, shockingly. So here's a picture of a strange-looking insect, having just shed its skin (left), on Adrian's hat.

* It’s a gender-neutral pronoun, if you haven’t come across one before (and as I usually only find myself using them in the context of BiCon, you’d be forgiven). Aside from their linguistic benefits in politically-correct society,  they’re often favoured by those whose gender identity is neither male nor female.

The title of this blog post is, of course, a reference to What I Learned About Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce, a fantastic 2001 Goo Goo Dolls compilation album.

The Shark

This morning, I left Earth to go to nearby Headington. This trip was primarily to put money into the back, register with a GP, and get some keys cut for the new lock in the garage door. However, I also took the excuse to re-assemble my bike since the move and get out and about because it occured to me that, through working from home (as I now do), I hadn’t actually been outside at all in several days, and I’d be at risk of some kind of cabin fever if I didn’t get some sunlight once in a while.

Headington’s perfectly nice, and an easy 10-minute cycle away from Earth: there’s an uphill section which I was ashamed to see other cyclists pushing their bikes up, but having spent the last ten years in a hilly Welsh town, there was no such nonesense from me. It’s nice to be living somewhere with cycle lanes pretty much everywhere, and motorists who pay attention to the bicycles that weave amongst them: having cycled along the unlit A44 at night and narrowly avoided being cut down by the speeding lorries that frequent that road, it’s a relief to be somewhere where cyclists are better-protected.

While running my various errands, I also took the time to visit the Headington Shark.

Yes, I now live a short walk away from one of Britain’s most unusual art pieces: a 25-foot fibreglass shark stuck head-first through the roof of a small terraced house in Oxfordshire. It’s supposed to be some kind of protest against nuclear proliferation, and it first appeared on the 41st anniversary of the atomic boming of Nagasaki, but I’m not sure that I “get it”. It is kind-of awesome, though.

In other news: this weekend Ruth, JTA and I will attempt to go to Jen & Nick’s wedding, in Belfast. I say “attempt” because we’ve not had a lot of luck with weddings, recently. Last year, Ruth managed to upset the bride at a wedding that she and I went to. Then, this year, the three of us failed to get to Andy & Siân‘s wedding when we had a series of car-related problems, and then the bride and groom didn’t make it to Adam & Emma’s wedding reception, after they got stuck in the USA when an inconsiderate volcano caused their flight to be cancelled. We’re hopeful that we’re not going to bring our string of bad luck to this wedding, too!

Board Games And Waterfalls

It’s been a fun, full weekend. Highlights include:

A good Troma Night

In case you weren’t following, Troma Night is on Fridays nowadays. We watched the fantastic 1945 film Brief Encounter, which I’d highly recommend, and Lava, which I wouldn’t (although if you do see it, watch ’til the end: it improves, I promise).

Same about the early finish, though. People are such sleepyheads these days.

A lie-in!

Ah, it shouldn’t be such a rarity that it’s noteworthy, but unfortunately it is. I thought I had so little to do on Saturday, so Claire and I lay in and then went for a leisurely brunch… and then is when I remembered all of the things I was supposed to be doing – helping out with the Samaritans stand at the Aber Farmer’s Market, meeting up with a friend for a drink, and meeting my dad and his partner Jenny who were visiting.

Did manage to find time to hack around with some Wiimotes, though. I’ve been doing some fun reverse-engineering of their peripherals. More on that later, little doubt.

An awesome Geek Night

My dad had a little difficulty with Munchkin, but apart from that it was a fast-paced and fun Geek Night. I kicked arse at Gnostica, but only by being a bastard (Claire almost had it at one point, and even got so far as to declare an imminent victory), and also played a hell of a game of Puerto Rico, winning by only a couple of points. It was nice that Jenny was able to win Apples to Apples on the first time she’s played it, despite not being able to “play to the judge” as the rest of us so often do.

And afterwards, most of us lounged around and chatted, in that way that’s sometimes become the end to a Geek Night, and it was fabulous. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard as I did while Jimmy was trying to explain to Elizabeth how variable the consistency of semen can be. You probably had to be there, I’m afraid.

Pushing my dad off

My dad’s visit marked the beginning of his now-annual Aberystwyth to Preston cycle ride (yes, the mad fool rides the 130+ mile journey in a day).

I pushed him the first 5 yards, though, along the prom, so I’ve done my bit. He set off at about 08:30 and got home at about 19:15, so made a run of 10 hours of 45 minutes. And I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have done it without that first 5 yards, so it’s my victory, really.

Hafod estate

Ruth and I decided to make the most of the day, having gotten up early to see my dad off, and so – armed with a Forestry Commission brochure from the hotel where he and Jenny had been staying – we went to go for a walk around the quite-beautiful Hafod Estate, near Devil’s Bridge. It’s a quite beautiful part of the Ystwyth valley, filled with forests and waterfalls.

And yet another Whedon Night

And then a Whedon Night (our weekly Buffy & Angel night) to finish off the weekend. We’ve decided to try to squeeze a couple more of these in over the coming weeks in order to try to finish the final series of Buffy (and the penultimate series of Angel) before Ruth leaves for Oxford at the end of the month.

Photos From Malawi

[this post was lost during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004]

[an image in this post was recovered on Thursday 30th December 2004]

Here’s some photos of my trip to Malawi, as the group have now started uploading photos to me at last!


Dan looks down on Lake Malawi.


Dan on the descent.


Two baboons, at Vwasa National Park.


Livingstonia Hospital: This woman and her baby have both been diagnosed with AIDS
Thanks to ARVs, the woman’s condition is improving. Her baby cannot be treated and will die.


Beautiful waterfall, on a river running from Livingstonia to Lake Malawi.

Will post more when I can be bothered. Meanwhile, photos are continuously being uploaded to Scatmania’s Malawi Album [update: link killed 2006]

Pre-Malawi Update

Here’s the state of play before I leave Aber for awhile, in answer to all the questions that people keep on asking me and that therefore I ought to answer in a centralised manner, here, to save them from doing so (and me from repeatedly having to say the same replies):

Yes, I leave for Malawi on Wednesday the 16th on June, early in the morning. Yes, I realise that this is Claire’s 21st birthday, and for this reason we’ve re-scheduled her birthday for the more convenient Tuesday 15th (meaning that she’ll get one day longer of being 21 than most people get… except for those for whom their 21st falls before February in a leap year, or after February the year before, I suppose).

No, I’m not taking my bike: I’m acquiring one out there. Yes, I’ll be back on the 30th June, string-and-balsa aeroplanes permitting. Yes, I’m aware that (despite now no longer being illegal) long hair on men is still frowned upon in some parts of Malawi, and I’ll be concealing mine tucked-under a hat.

Yes, the side-effects of the lariam have mostly stopped, now. I still have interesting sleep patterns and really, really weird dreams (I haven’t been blogging them because they’ve all either [a] been more disturbing for those who’d read them even than the one about Matt was, or [b] because I’ve only remembered fragments of them).

Right; and on that note – I have things I need to get on with. I’ll post one more update, at least, before I leave for Malawi: other than that, I’ll be quiet on the blog front for the next fortnight.

Oh! You’re Going To Malawi? While You’re There, Pick Me Up Some AA Batteries…

[this post has been partially damaged during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004, and it has been possible to recover only a part of it]

As most of my readers will probably be aware, I’ll later this year be cycling around Malawi as a sponsored stunt with Cycle Tracks: “A Truly Charitable Bike Ride through a Truly Beautiful Country”. In any case; I’d never have thought that our group (11 of us) would be roped into so many other things while we were there.

Our team leader, Alistair, writes:

Eleven is also a fine number for a football team. So maybe at Phoka we could engage the local team in a game. Their handicap is that they are all under 12 and don’t wear boots. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be a walkover as we shall all be totally exhausted from cycling to Phoka and unable to walk never mind kick a ball.

You may be interested to know that we have been offered football strips, boots, footballs, gloves and goodness knows what else for the kids at Phoka. I haven’t figured out how I will get them out to Phoka. They are in 3 kit bags but I don’t know how heavy they might be. Might split it amongst the group for the flights.

Suddenly we’re delivery cyclists, too…

But that’s not all; we’ve got another mission while we’re there: a …

Two Men, Two Bikes, One Wall

After the success of yesterday’s run, today I was exhausted. The weather was horrific, and we found ourselves having to pedal hard to get DOWNhill.

On my account, we had to take several extended breaks, which had us arrive in Stornoway, isle of Lewis, half an hour outside of our target window. I just collasped into bed. In less than 6 hours we’d be on a ferry to Ullapool.

Tried to call Claire, but couldn’t get through. Miss her. Hug her for me, Aberites.

Miles today: 57
Miles total: 170 (+2, wrong turn)

Two Men, Two Bikes, One Wall

You get to your third day of an exercise that your body isn’t used to and you hit the wall: the point at which your body runs out of all it’s immediate sources of energy and has to start the complicated chemical reactions that break down fat into sugars.

You know this has happened because suddenly every muscle in your body starts begging you to curl up into a ball and go to sleep.

For me, this happened half-way up a 700-metre mountain on the island of Harris, on day three. During a hailstorm. And a gale.

Two Men, Two Bikes, Six Islands

Farmer at Berneray warned us that Stornoway, where we’d be tomorrow night, was a bed of sin, with young people drinking at taking drugs (this is a town barely larger, and more isolated, than Aberystwyth). He’d lived his entire life on this tiny island, and knew everybody on it, and it therefore stood to reason that my dad should know everybody in Lancashire. He threw some names of previous guests from Lancs. at him, and asked if he knew them.

Miles today: 72, fast – a good run.
Miles total: 113