Saturday, 28 February 2015

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.

Well, you are wrong, Mr Dwight. It turns out there will be people there to raise your kids in Mars if you wish to leave them in the care of a fellow earthling.

The news that 100 hopefuls (50 men and 40 women) have been shortlisted with the objective of embarking on the first Mars-bound expedition has been met with derision in some quarters, whilst being applauded in others. Suicide mission? Ultimate sacrifice for science? Commercial opportunism? Opinions are divided and I have yet to side with either camp. It is not the mission itself that made me take to my keyboard to knock this post up tonight but a comment made by one of the wannabe Martians.
Enough to make your mind go blank

I can’t remember her name but at 27 (if my memory serves me right) she was one of the younger applicants. She was interviewed on Radio Four’s Today programme and when she was asked if she felt afraid to go to a place no one knew much about and whence she, sadly, might not be able to return, she answered that going to Mars was no different to getting run over by car. She made it sound as if this were like for like. I disagree. The fact that people do get run over by cars and some lose their lives does not mean that cars pose more of a danger to human life but, rather, that they are driven by careless drivers who on many occasions flout the rules imposed by the Highway Code. On the other hand, as explained by Professor Todd Huffman from Oxford University, going to Mars means coming into contact with an ecosystem that has followed a completely different evolutionary from that of planet Earth. The chances of surviving in this environment are slim. It is almost as if the 100 shortlisted applicants to go to the Red Planet were signing their death sentence, or a collective suicide pact.

The one-way Mars One project (the key is in the word “one-way”. No one is expecting the wannabe astronauts to come back) is the apex of human hubris, in my humble opinion. Once more, we are looking up, beyond the skies, and not up to the uppermost part of our body, the brain. We are desperate to find out about the universe but the same funds are not always available to carry out better research into the beautiful and puzzling ways our brain operates. The fact that the mission to Mars will be filmed like a reality show smacks of irresponsible behaviour to me. Big Brother on Mars? Great working title, lousy and predictable ending: everybody dies. Maybe run over by a Martian driving the equivalent of a BMW.

I sympathise with Natalie Bennett. I really do. The Green Party leader suffered a “mind blank” on a live radio interview on LBC when launching her party’s political manifesto. Specifically, she failed to justify her claim that the Greens would be able to provide half a million new council homes.

Whilst I do not wish to rub salt in her wound (I shall leave that to the Daily Hate), I must admit that even if she had backed up her answer with numbers, I still would have found her claim difficult to believe. Purely because it was of the “crossed fingers” type.

Nevertheless, her performance reminded me of the time I also suffered my own “mind blank”. True, I was only eleven and about to move up to secondary school but I had already developed a good reputation as a singer. People - not just relatives - have told me over the years that I had a good voice and I guess that the competitions in which I participated and in which I won a few awards bear witness to my erstwhile talent.

But back to my Year 6’s final show. There I was, pretend mike in hand (it was basically a mike-shaped fist) and the whole school in front of me. They were calling out my name; I was the last one on the bill. One of my Year 6 teachers held me by the hand (I had a pre-pubescent crush on her so my little heart was beating faster than usual), my parents were at the back, my classmates were in a straight line facing me, but I could see heads poking out to either side trying to steal a glance at their fellow pupil on stage. The younger children were sat on our tiled floor. In those days there was no backing track. It was all a capella. I had done the song before, in fact, I had performed it at a festival a few weeks back. I opened my mouth...

And nothing came out.

My mind went blank. I had forgot the words and with it panic kicked in. I began to sweat profusely and to shake. My eleven-year-old self could not understand a word my teacher (the one I had the prepubescent crush on, remember?) was whispering in my ear.

I sympathise with Natalie. Of course, there is a difference between a primary school child attempting to sing in front of the whole school and forgetting the lyrics and a grown-up politician launching her party’s manifesto and being unable to articulate her ideas.

That is why we need to devote more time to study our brain.  Do not look up to Mars; the truth might be closer, as in, in the uppermost part of the human body.

© 2015

Next Post:” Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 4th March at 11:59pm (GMT)

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Let's Talk About...

... Christmas, or rather, let’s talk about the toys your child/nephew/niece/godson/goddaughter was given for Christmas.

Yes, I know that Christmas is now a distant memory, buried in a two-month-old grave only to be resurrected like St Lazarus as early as... September. But, spare a thought for the volume of plastic tat that has already been chucked out.

I have said here before that I did not grow up with Christmas around me. Therefore, I completely missed out on the annual razzmatazz that is present-giving at Christmas. I did get toys on other occasions especially, as also mentioned here previously, on 6th January to celebrate The Three Wise Men (that was down to my late Catholic grandmother). But the 25th December was just another date on the calendar.

That means that I only began to experience the actual phenomenon of Christmas and its ancillary gift-bearing and gif-offering (without any Greeks involved, mind you) pantomime in the last seventeen years. This has given me plenty of time to notice a few changes.

For instance, by the time I got acquainted with the “bearded guy” in the red and white costume, I don’t recall seeing many wind-up toys around. Most of the sets my wife and I bought for my son first and later on for our daughter were battery-powered. They were novelty for some time, until the battery ran out, by which time our toddler(s) had moved on. With wind-up or more rustic-looking toys, on the other hand, we noticed that our children tended to bond more, but their attention was inevitably diverted once another battery-powered Thomas the tank engine arrived on the scene.

Let’s talk about the post-Christmas toy graveyard that seems to spring up around January and February and expand its boundaries every year. Let’s talk also about attention span.

What came before, the chicken or the egg? What came before, short attention span or the visual onslaught of plastic tat on our little ones?

Let’s talk about that moment – dreaded moment as I have found out in recent years – when your little cherub opens the first Christmas present, sits there, mouth agape, heart pumping and broad smile adorning its angelic face. Fifteen presents later and the debris of opened and discarded wrapping paper littering your lounge floor, the same angel has suffered a transformation: she/he is the devil incarnate. The way they tear through the flimsy gift paper, looking for yet another present, the equivalent of a sugar rush (shall we call it Christmas-toy-giving rush?) is enough to want to open a savings account in order to put some money away for the psychologist your little angel will probably end up visiting in years to come.

May I have your attention, please?
Just like a dog is not just for Christmas, a toy should be for longer than two months. But what to do when faced with a gallimaufry of brightly coloured, battery-powered items ensconced away in your child’s bedroom? Meanwhile, she or he is downstairs playing on the iPad bequeathed to them by a generous uncle from... fill in the blanks with the name of the country yourself. And here you are, being winked at by Buzz Lightyear, the lagniappe of a trip to McDonald’s or KFC. Oops, you just pressed his chest by mistake. To infinity... and beyond!

Let’s talk about Christmas toys. Even if they are not of the wind-up type.

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 28th February at 6pm (GMT)


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