2014: My Life

Just realised I forgot to post my regular chart of the year!  As regular readers will know, I give every day of the year a specific grade, then take each month’s average to chart the ebb and flow of my life across the year.  This is the chart 2014 made:

2014 chart

It’s pretty much as I expected.  My Dad’s death in mid January explains the downward curve at the beginning, with February being the first month in negative figures since 2011, while May as ever proved unenjoyable for students everywhere.  The latter half of the year was fairly steady though noticeably a bit below where previous years have been.

Reviewing Modes of Transport [Incomplete]

Having experienced several new modes of transport on my recent holiday to Paris, I thought it’d be worthwhile comparing the different ways humans have invented to get from A to B.  All of these can also be considered pleasurable activities (perhaps some more than others), but the fact we’re not all using the same method of transportation suggests each has their pros and cons.  Why do we choose to travel the way we do?  Here are some of my reasons.

Buses

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who likes buses as much as me.  Most people treat them as a necessary evil to be abandoned by the young as soon as they learn to drive or endured by adults unfortunate enough to be unable to use a car for whatever reason.  I mean, I can’t say I enjoy buses and I certainly wouldn’t ride about them for pleasure; the screeching noise of people packed within layers of metal accompanied by a constant stop-start and eventual motion-sickness is hardly pleasant.  Yet I’ve found buses to be the most useful and cost-effective way of traveling long distances.  And they’re not all bad – if you’re a people-watcher like me you can find the most interesting people on them.  It also entirely depends what sort of landscape you’re traveling across; taking a bus across Shetland is vastly different than across Edinburgh, for instance.   I suppose I could review Edinburgh buses and Shetland buses entirely differently.  On one hand, Shetland buses are generally quieter and pass through the most beautiful scenery; on the other, they’re bumpy, unfit for the topography and so annoyingly infrequent.  I suppose what I’m describing is a love-hate relationship, but I can’t deny that they’re so very handy for my purposes.

8/10

Canoes

I’ve only ridden in a canoe once, up in the Scottish Highlands a few years ago, so I couldn’t call myself an expert on this mode of travel.  An obvious problem is its limitations; there aren’t many places a canoe can take you to.  I suspect they’re too frail to be taken out into open sea for long journeys and lack the storage space for provisions.  I suppose you could travel through canals which would give you access to most major land areas, though you would make slow progress.  No, canoes are primarily used for pleasure.  And for this they are truly excellent – my memories of sliding down meandering rivers beneath overcast trees still fill me with joy.  But for practical purposes, I can’t see them being taken seriously.

5/10

Cars

Oh, cars.  By far the most popular and widely-used mode of transport on this list – there are 32 million cars in the UK alone.  It’s easy to see why.  Cars are undeniably the most practical way of travelling, being able to cover hundreds of miles in a single day without causing severe exhaustion to the driver.  They can be used to drive to work, to travel on holidays or jaunts, to attend events – everywhere except perhaps in the most congested town centre can be arrived at using a car.  Yet, beneath all this, there lurks a dark side to our favourite automobiles.  In environmental terms they’re catastrophic; 30% of US carbon emissions comes from its traffic, while cases of city air pollution are as notorious as they are frequent.  And these millions upon millions of cars are soon to become totally obsolete once we reach peak oil.  Once we’ve transitioned to much more efficient cars (electric cars?  Hydrogen cars?) I’ll have to come back to this review.  They’re also incredibly expensive to operate: from the cost of lessons to insurance to petrol to the car itself, owning a car will set you back many thousands of pounds.  Yes, cars are extraordinarily handy, but come with some heavy costs.

6/10

Cycling
Bicycles are a wonderful thing.  Cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly, they’re growing in popularity among many of the world’s cities.  I’ve never had much opportunity to use them for recreation, firstly due to living in a sparsely-populated rural area and then, when at university in Edinburgh, down to the difficulty I might face when having to travel back and forth from home.  I am beginning to give serious thought to buying a bike to use for traveling around Edinburgh next year for the wonderful positive reasons I’ve listed above, but one thing holds me back: safety.  Cycling remains one of the more dangerous ways to travel.  In a Geography class at high school last year, shortly after accepting my offer to study at Edinburgh, we were using the city as a case study for urban development.  I asked what it was like for cycling, having noticed some cycle lanes near the city, but she replied “I would be terrified to cycle in Edinburgh!”  Given that my cycle route would take me through Princes Street and the High Street – the two busiest streets of the city – I’m inclined to agree.  Cycling should be the unequivocal best way to travel, but poor previsions for cyclists in most cities is sure to put many people off.

7/10

Ferries

Ugh – do I have to talk about ferries?  I do?  Hmph.  Ferries are similar to buses in that they depend entirely on what kind you’re on.  A standard travel ferry is much different to a cruise (I imagine), while the Northlink ferry between Shetland and Aberdeen is much different to the ferry that takes you between the different islands of Shetland itself.  I’ll review ferry journeys like the Northlink ones.  Imagine 12-14 hour slogs across open sea, being entirely bound by the whims of the weather conditions.  Will it be a calm sailing or your shuddering nightmare that refuses to end, minute after minute after minute?  If you have £100 to throw away you can at least hide in a cabin but for common students like myself you have to simply rough it in reclining chairs, ‘sleeping pods’, or anywhere else you can find.  You have to deal with people vomiting around you if the sea is rough – or vomiting yourself – as well as put up with the drunken antics of many rowdy passengers on that poorly-policed ferry.  On my recent trip down I left the Sleeping Pod Lounge ay 2am for fear of a fight breaking out.  And you never sleep, either, causing the agonising journey to drag out even longer.  Yet, it’s not all bad.  If you travel during the summer you have enough light to watch some brilliant views go past through the windows, or it can be quite tranquil just watching the velvet sea.  A lot of ferries allow you to go ‘up top’ to get a better view.  Just be careful you don’t fall off into the sea.

2/10

Horse riding

Horse riding!  Here’s a fun one.  I have a fair bit of experience with this because of the pony stud my Auntie owns.  Well – of pony riding, I suppose.  This can be a very pleasant way to travel as you never feel lonely when with a horse, and can experience the journey in its company.  There’s a very powerful bond you can feel with a horse when you’re riding it.  On the other hand, in today’s age riding horses isn’t a very practical way of traveling at all.  Nowhere is equipped with stables for your horse and they’re far surpassed in speed by most longdistance modes of transport.  I also suffer the unfortunate curse of being allergic to horses – it can make traveling difficult when you can’t see through running eyes.  Horse riding is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable ways of traveling for people who can last a minute without sneezing, but it’s sadly no longer that workable.

5/10

Planes

Airplanes are undoubtedly the Kings and Queens of transport when it comes to long-distance travel.  The idea of traveling between Europe and America, or from Britain to Australia, any way other than by airplanes is unthinkable for all besides the most adventurous.  A journey that would have taken weeks a century ago and months several centuries ago can now be completed within a matter of hours.  What’s more, they’re statistically the safest form of transport.  And yet, I can’t stand them.  A significant part of that is an entirely irrational fear I have, based upon the fact that although I’m much less likely to die in a plane, if I am to die I’d rather drown or be crushed than find myself hurtling to the Earth at multiple metres per second amid burning wreckage.  Sorry, got morbid there.  They also have a terrible impact on the environment, contributing to as much as 9% of anthropocentric climate interference.  There are always news story of various environmentally-friendly forms of aviation, such as solar planes, but these are very far off becoming the norm – or even practical.  Airplanes are a necessary part of our modern globalised world, but like cars they come at a massive cost.

5/10

Dammit, WordPress.  I had another 1,500 words [needlessly] reviewing the remaining forms of transport on this list, clicked ‘publish’, got an error message then found it had all gone.  I don’t have the energy or the will to write it all again, so I’ll leave you with summaries for each one and this video summarising my feelings.

Subway: exciting rabbit warrens, incredibly useful, though the stench of urine and angry shouty people (still don’t know what that Frenchman way saying to me) are two minor negative aspects.  8/10 

Taxis: can be a lifesaver but expensive and not environmentally friendly. 5/10

Trains: I LIKE TRAINS. 9/10

Night trains: These are even better. 9/10

Walking: Fun, good exercise, hippy stuff about experiencing the world around you; but not good for long distances. 9/10

Image credit: By Vince pahkala (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting Stress in Context

I am currently sitting in the university library stressing over an exam I have to sit tomorrow.  In fact, here is proof:

picture066

As I quiver behind the Norton Anthology of English Literature which will lend me no aid tomorrow, and I ponder writing a blog post for the sole purpose of procrastination, I remember the importance of putting into context every stress we face.  This can be done on varying levels.  The most simple, of course, is to convince yourself that your life will continue regardless of the result of the exam.  If I fail tomorrow’s exam I have the possibility of a re-sit.  I’m only in first year so it won’t go towards my final degree.  Even if all fails and I’m forced to drop out of university, I still have my health, my family, my friends, and the opportunity to find employment elsewhere.  And on a deeper level I often remember how tiny a spec I am, inhabiting a marginally larger spec that orbits a still undeniably small spec, unobservable to the mast majority of the known universe.  On this tiny spec alone there are 7 billion people who couldn’t care less whether I pass tomorrow’s exam.

Even on another level, however, I’ve managed to put this stress into perspective, though in a way more difficult to describe.  I stood in front of a mirror yesterday gazing at my face for a number of minutes (yes, this is going somewhere).  In my sleep-deprived state I happened to notice how peculiar many parts of it looked – in particular the eyes.  Maybe it’s just me and my aversion to making eye contact but I’ve never noticed quite how intricate the eye is.  Patterns streak across the iris in a rich array of colours, hazel-blue in my case, like a fiery aurora.  The pupil floats in the centre, a perfect featureless circle showing only my own reflection back through the mirror.  My wonder did not cease here; I noticed, as my eyes twitched to and from the light, the pupil dilating inwards and outwards.  Eager to test this further I shined a torch onto and off the side of my face in slow succession, watching the pupil instinctively react.  It did this like the focusing of a camera lens in a process I could not feel or sense.

What this showed me, beyond a worrying sign of my own vanity, was how amazing it is simple to live.  To be this incredible biological wonder I don’t really understand or even particularly consider on a daily basis.  We’re so absorbed by everyday obsessions – be they work, taxes, socialising, politics and, of course, exams – that I don’t think many people besides biologists and children realise this.  Whatever happens in my exam tomorrow, my mere existence is a true marvel.  This isn’t an excuse to be devoid of motivation or ambition by any means, but I really believe it’s healthy to keep these things in mind.

Okay, stress-fuelled philosophical rambling over.  Back to the textbooks…

How to Help Someone Experiencing Grief

About two and a half months ago I learned that my Dad had died.  The death of a parent, being an occurrence in most peoples’ lives, is the sort of thing you occasionally wonder how you would deal with but never really give serious consideration (not least because that would be unbearably morbid) and certainly isn’t something you can prepare for.  In this instance my Dad’s death was not completely surprising, if still out-of-the-blue, which may have numbed my reaction to it, as well as the fact that I hadn’t had regular face-to-face contact with him for several years – although we’d stayed very much in touch.  Therefore my experience of grief may not be as sharp or overwhelming as that experienced by others who’ve lost a parent, but nevertheless I think I’m in a position to give some advice on the best ways to help someone that is experiencing it.

Because grief isn’t something anyone really knows how to respond to unless you have extensive experience of it.  Our society has quite a strong taboo on the subject of death, I suppose because mortality is scary, and I certainly wouldn’t have known how to respond if one of my friend’s parents had died.  Maybe this is just me but I always felt very awkward whenever someone’s bereavement came up in conversation since I knew I had no way of empathising with their loss.  Then when my Dad did die I suddenly felt as though I could relate to everyone else I know of who’ve experienced similar losses, which I think is an overly simplistic way of looking at it; everyone experiences grief differently.  If you can’t necessarily relate to someone’s individual grief even when you yourself have experienced a loss, no wonder it’s challenging when you haven’t.

That said, the support I received from friends, other family members and university tutors was absolutely incredible, showing me just how many wonderful people I have in my life.  Without their support I’m really not sure how I’d have got through it.  By writing this post I don’t mean at all to suggest the support I received was in any way deficient; my purpose is more to relay the things I’d have liked to know about grief before I experienced it myself (…if that makes sense!).  So, drawing entirely from my own experiences and in the full knowledge that this may not apply to everyone, here are some ways I would suggest you can help someone experiencing grief:

Be there for them.
An obvious one.  I was astonished at how so many of my friends, many of whom I hadn’t even known for very long at all, rallied round to offer me their company, condolences and support.  My initial reaction upon hearing the news was a fear of being on my own – for whatever reason – and, through the kindness of my friends, I didn’t have to spend any time on my own for the next 24 hours, by which time it had begun to sink in.  I often felt incredibly lonely during the weeks which followed but there was always someone willing to meet up for a chat.  There’s no way you can fill the gap the bereaved person has left in your life, but I found surrounding myself with people did ease the overwhelming nature of that gap.  On the other hand, there will also be times when the bereaved person needs time alone, which most people also recognised.  I think the best strategy, is to tell the person that you’re available if they ever need someone to talk to – and make clear you really don’t mind, as our society also seems to discourage asking people for things.  This lets them decide how much company they need without feeling they have no space to grieve privately.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the bereavement.
This could be entirely subjective, but after my Dad died all I wanted to do was talk about him.  I wanted to remember the things I liked about him, bring back long-buried memories… I suppose I wanted to resurrect him in my mind.  I think the initial reaction most people have – it’s certainly how I’ve always reacted – is seeking to avoid the topic for fear of saying the wrong thing.  Again, this could just be me, but in my experience I think it’s very difficult to say the wrong thing.  You don’t even really need to say anything, just listen.  They’ll talk about as much as they feel comfortable discussing.  I think talking is also a way of simply getting your head around this massive event.

Keep in mind grief doesn’t follow a pattern.
I think there’s an assumption that grief is a process which hits extremely hard shortly after the bereavement, perhaps after a brief period of numbness, but gradually improves over time.  This isn’t wrong, but in my experience it definitely hasn’t been that straightforward.  If you were to make a graph of grief, rather than look like this:

grief graph 1

For me, it looked more like this:

grief graph 2

The massive spike in the middle of the second graph is admittedly artificial – my Dad’s cremation – while the relatively subdued nature of the beginning was due to my attempt to block it out while remaining in Edinburgh before returning home, but the point I’m trying to make is that my experience of grief varied extremely rapidly.  Sometimes I’d be fine when I had no right to be fine, such as during the 24 hours after hearing the news, while weeks later I would break down with no apparent trigger.  It’s definitely improving over time as I’m coming to terms with it, but there are still moments when it feels overwhelming.  So what I’m basically saying is that don’t assume the bereaved person is doing better just because time has passed.  I think in most cases the grief actually has to get a lot worse before it gets better.  So when you’re being there for the person, I’d say make sure they know you’re still there if they need to talk or any other support weeks later – though at the same time without smothering them (grief is complicated and weird)…

Try to follow their needs.
Since none of us can read minds I’m aware this is virtually impossible, but what I mean is that the bereaved person may switch between wanting to do something fun as a distraction and then feeling upset and needing company within a matter of minutes.  This is a natural part of how all over the place emotions can be during grief.  I’d say just try to go with what they seem to need at any particular moment.

Remember grief is confusing.
I think the most noticeable reaction to my Dad’s death was the way it messed with my cognitive abilities.  My short-term memory completely broke down – it felt like I just couldn’t keep remember anything –  while my sleeping patterns became slightly erratic.  I wasn’t acting in entirely normal ways; for instance, one day I made a sudden decision to board a train to the countryside somewhere in Fife, with no pre-prepared plans, which anyone who knows me can testify is not the sort of spontaneous action I generally take.  I just felt an irrational need to get out of the city to somewhere peaceful.  I also found it difficult to communicate things to people in the way I always tended, and occasionally felt quite incoherent in my thoughts.  So just bear this in mind also when someone’s been bereaved.

As I said, grief is a different process for each individual person, but hopefully these are some comments which can at least give you a vague idea of how to help someone experiencing it.

2013: My Life

Continuing a practice I established at the end of 2012, here is a chart showing the highs and lows of 2013 for my life!  I created it by giving each day a grade throughout the year and then calculating an average for each month.

my life

Compared to last year this was a real rollercoaster.  Crests appear during February and May, both exam months and both for different reasons – February was extremely stressful while May was extremely boring.  Then a spike in June, as I had fun rehearsing for and performing an awesome play, before falling as I had a somewhat uneventful Summer.  It peaked again significantly when I started university, before becoming quite crazy indeed – I might write a future post explaining these last few months sometime.  I have to say, I prefer it when the chart is a straight, relatively high-up line.  Here’s hoping 2014 is less dramatic!

First Anniversary

There are two pretty big anniversaries covered today, both from a year ago.  The first, which is probably of most relevance to readers, is that this blog is now a year old!  365 days, 220 posts, 10,548 views and 107 followers; it’s not famous yet by any means but has gone much further than I ever expected.  The blog is continuing to go through an unfortunate slump in activity as I continue to get to grips with university (my timekeeping seriously lacks something to be desired) yet I still seem to be getting views.  Views don’t equate to quality, of course, but it’s humbling to think people are even looking at the blog on a daily basis.

views

Although posts may be less frequent, I hope to return to posting about topics which interest me and engage further with the world community of bloggers.  Posts I currently have in mind include ‘What is Anthropology?’ based on my less than favourable impression of this bizarre subject, a look at the ages of world leaders, a fresher’s perspective on career prospects, a review of 2013 at New Year and intensive coverage of voting events ranging from by-elections, the European Parliament elections in May and the exciting Scottish independence referendum in September.  It’s a big year – watch this space!

The other anniversary marks a year of vegetarianism.  Despite the stray gelatine and one unfortunate incident where I tucked into half a chicken pie before thinking, “this doesn’t taste much like soya…” it’s been a remarkable success!  I charted my progress here and here, but even then I never expected to last so long.  “I could stop tomorrow,” I wrote back in December, while in January I admitted “I still believe I’ll eat meat again one day.”  The latter remains entirely possible, of course, although I find it difficult to imagine how it would occur.

So here’s to another productive, meat-free year!  I’ll see you next November 18th.

A Political Day in Edinburgh

Sorry, this is going to be another one of those cobbled together ‘recounted a somewhat interesting day I had’ blog posts.  I promise I’ll try to get a more coherent program of output sometime soon, but for the moment my life’s still rather hectic (university’s utterly mad!).

The first round of excitement was a protest outside the Scottish Parliament I decided to attend, organised by the University of Edinburgh Amnesty International society.  I wasn’t involved in the planning but I gather it had also been put together in less than a week which, given the result, was very impressive indeed!   We were protesting against human rights abuses in Sri Lanka by the government of President Rajapaksa, specifically aimed at convincing David Cameron to raise the issue during an upcoming Commonwealth meeting hosted in Sri Lanka.  This was my first proper protest and I wasn’t disappointed.  We set out a fake beach for people dressed as Cameron and Rajapaksa to lay upon, wearing scarves (this is a Scottish beach), while the rest of held banners and shouted exciting protest chants.  The Amnesty Facebook page has a picture of the event here! (I’m the one in the bright yellow jacket who happens to be blinking at the moment of capture).

Then, even more excitingly, we were joined by some MSPs.  My political hero Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, came out and had some pictures taken with us.  Fellow Green Alison Johnstone was also there, along with Scottish National Party MSP Marco Biagi and Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson.  It was thrilling to see so much support from within the political establishment; we weren’t shouting at a deaf parliament.

So that was all very fun indeed – if ‘fun’ is the right way to refer to a protest – well, it was fun!  My second political event of the day was a debate on Scottish independence hosted by the university.  Speaking in favour of independence was MSP Marco Biagi, whose schedule today appeared to be as busy as mine, and University of Edinburgh rector Peter McColl, representing the Green Party.  Speaking against the motion was a Labour-Conservative partnership, something becoming increasingly common in Scotland, featuring Labour MP Sheila Gilmore* and Conservative MSP Gavin Brown.  Not much new was raised I didn’t know previously, aside from the startling fact that Spain has suggested it would veto an independent Scotland’s membership into the EU purely to quell Catalonian aspirations.  Considering this behaviour, I have every sympathy for Catalonian secessionists.

The voting was very interesting, however.  The initial audience vote turned out to be –

Yes: 17 votes (21.25%)
No: 30 votes (37.5%)
Undecided: 33 votes (41.25%).

Compared to national polls the Yes/No divide was very similar but there were far many more undecided votes than I expected.  Glad most people went into it with an open mind.  Even more interesting was to be the post-debate results:

Yes: 36 votes** (42%)
No: 37 votes (45%)
Undecided: 9 votes (11%)

I certainly didn’t expect the Yes vote to make such progress, which was very interesting.  Of course it’s worth remembering that the room had a significant number of international students in it, who I’d presume would tend to be more positive towards independence (internationalism was a central theme of the debate; I was particularly impressed by Peter McColl’s “I’m not a nationalist; I’m an internationalist” speech).

So, yeah.  I really enjoyed my engagement with politics today and, in a bit of a post-political high, decided to stop putting off something I’ve been considering for a while and finally joined a political party – the Scottish Greens.  I share so many views and aims with the party that it makes sense.

To many more exciting days like this!

*It’s probably a bit unfair to lump Sheila Gilmore together with the Tories, as she seems one of the more principled members of the Labour Party and earned my respect through the debate.
**I somehow got it into my head that the Yes/No final result had been 46/47, but this would have added about 20 people to the audience so I’m assuming I just misheard.  The No result definitely only had a lead of one vote, either way.