Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Celebrity Once Removed ...

... or why I love Nerina Pallot and am angry at Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sometimes I think celebrities have too much influence over our daily lives. Look at how many entertainers are in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential list. And I'm not saying entertainers can't or shouldn't use their visibility. I'm just saying there's little in their professional training that equips them for such a role. Athletes, generally less. And I could write a whole blog post about how politicians probably shouldn't be influential, but I can't be arsed.

Anyway, that's by way of an introduction to today's topic. I know I haven't blogged for ages, so long I don't even remember writing that last post, but I suppose I'm still hoping to inspire some sort of intelligent discussion, so I'll keep trying, every few years or so.

I love Nerina Pallot because she's brought singing and playing music back into my life. And a bit of songwriting. I might have taken the occasional multi-year hiatus from making noise, but I suppose I've never truly stopped singing. But the reason I credit her so highly is because it has become as important to me as breathing and I'm enjoying it now as I never did before.

I am actually classically trained, which sounds more posh than it is. My mother loved to sing, sang at church and in community chorales, went to the opera ... As soon as I was old enough, we started taking voice lessons together. And I learned to do scales and arias and recitatives. Classical music really isn't my bag, but some of the pieces weren't terribly dreadful and occasionally we'd come across a quirky art song and that could be fun. I performed and competed, and I hated it.

I spent a couple of years retraining myself to breathe to cure my chronic asthma, during which time I was afraid to sing for fear my body would think I was hyperventilating. Even now, almost entirely wheeze-free, I sometimes emerge from a practice session with a bit of tightness in my chest. But it goes quickly. Anyway, during that time, I lost most of my high register and a chunk of notes at my passagio. Subsequent attempts to sing were marred by the fact I sounded terrible. But it turned out exercise really was all I needed. At least for the middle notes. I'm resigned that I'm no longer a colloratura soprano but rather a mezzo (but I don't have the rich low notes of an alto).

The fact I didn't enjoy singing didn't temper my love of listening to music, and Nerina has been my go-to singer/songwriter since I discovered her around 2006. She comes to Cornwall every year for concert and we've seen her each time for the last 7 years, I think. But late last year, I was listening to one of her EPs (the specific song, if you're curious, was Eleven) and I had a bit of an epiphany. My definition of an epiphany is when you get hit over the head with an idea that really should have occurred to you decades ago. Part of my classical training, and my nature to be obsessed with getting things right, is to concentrate on technical perfection (which, I think I've established, at this time was nearly nil). I've never naturally connected emotionally to music. Or much else. Animals, always, for good or bad, and if I'm lucky, people, although that is getting way easier as I get older and stop caring so much about whether or not it's appropriate to talk to a complete stranger in a way that reveals your soul. You know, as I'm doing here.

So my epiphany was how much BETTER you can sound when you clearly stop worrying about the technical and start feeling the emotion in a song. That didn't come out quite right. It sounds like I'm saying Nerina doesn't have technique. She has an amazing, beautiful voice and she knows how to use it. But she also has a relaxed approach to singing. She trusts that her voice will do what it needs to do, which is something I never have done, and I still don't trust it not to crack or simply stop for no apparent reason. But I've had to let that go.

Now I know I don't sound technically perfect. I know when I was younger and my voice was in better shape, I sounded more polished. But I'm enjoying singing, enough so that I'm cautiously sharing it with others, even though I still hate "performing." And I've had to learn not to beat myself up when a note comes out in an unexpected way. Or when I forget the words or play the wrong chord. But one of the side effects of choosing songs I am in love with is people do ask me if I sing any happy songs. No. I don't. I don't feel happy. But for now I'll settle for joy.

So why am I upset with Benedict Cumberbatch? What could such a well-spoken, polite, intelligent young man possibly have done to earn my ire? He only bloody reawakened my love for theatre, the git. I thought it was dead and buried after the theatre and I had a rather messy break-up in 1990. We didn't even speak for years after. And until recently I was quite happy that we could see each other VERY occasionally, exchange a few words, and then go our separate ways. I was contented with the less rubbish television and romantic comedies at the cinema. I could cope.

Then HE happened. I'm not going to apologise for appreciating the man's work. But to my peril I enjoy watching him perform so much I'll watch anything he does. The low point was probably the racing. It took me an hour to realise that some of the cars were identical, so the car I was cheering for because I liked it's paint job the best was actually two cars. But bully for me, they came in first and second. Yay, pretty paint! Actually, that probably wasn't the low point. I tried Nathan Barley. I don't "get" that kind of humour. I watched one full episode, then just the few seconds the Batch was on screen. He was great, as always. Probably best he didn't have a larger role or I would have had to watch even more seconds of that ... ahem.

So of course I went to see Frankenstein when the National Theatre rereleased it last year. Both versions. And since then I've seen other NTLive productions. And recently, I saw Birdland live at Royal Court in London. I can feel a lump in my throat just thinking about it. I've got another trip to London coming up and I will see at least one live performance a day. And know that it still will only scratch the surface of what's on offer. And the reason this is a problem is because IT IS NOT ENOUGH. And I think most people have experienced some kind of unrequited love in their lives, and it sucks! Right now, it appears very much as though, even if I have not gotten over the theatre, it has very much moved on and is just fine without me.

I generally strive to be fair, so some of the blame has to be given to Tom Hiddleston for being so brilliant in The Hollow Crown, but that wasn't live theatre. It wasn't even semi-live theatre, like Frankenstein. But it was Shakespeare. And I'll also blame Andrew Scott for being so amazing on stage in Birdland. And Simon Russell Beale for breaking my heart as King Lear.

And it is NOT ENOUGH to watch live theatre from the relative comfort of my local cinema, although I appreciate the fact it is available. It isn't even enough to enjoy increasingly amazing drama on television and in the movies. I'm not sure what will constitute enough. But I have a feeling that, when I find out what that is, I'm going to be too busy to tell you about it.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Don't worry, be happy

I know I haven't posted in a really long time, but today I'd like to share a little story.


Once upon a time there were two brothers. They may have started life the same, but by the time they were adults, they shared only one thing: a dream of finding gold in the mountains in which they lived.

Every morning as the sun touched the tops of the pine trees they got up and carried their tools up the mountain. They dug deep into the earth. They drove their picks into the stone. They panned the water for signs of the treasure waiting upstream.

Jonas enjoyed the feel of dirt between his fingers. He enjoyed the smell of it, and the fresh air around him. He listened to the song of the birds and watched for deer making their way silently through the trees. He enjoyed swinging his pick and he loved the feel of the cold water flowing over his hands.

Thomas set his mind only to the digging, the picking, the panning. He didn't notice much of what went on around him.

As the sun slid below the horizon, Jonas made his way home where his family was waiting. His wife kissed him and asked him how his day went. "Nothing yet," he smiled. "Maybe tomorrow." After dinner, he read aloud until the children were asleep, then he and his wife would sit quietly watching the fire burn to embers.

Thomas went home to an empty cottage. He had never had time for courting. Maybe once he was a successful prospector, he would find a wife and build a family, he told himself.

Day after day followed the same pattern. Days turned into weeks; weeks into months; months into years.

Until one day, they both struck gold. Jonas was delighted and ran home to tell his wife, clutching a chunk of the metal to his chest.

Thomas too was delighted and clutched a chunk of the precious gold to his chest. And he realized that for the first time in his life, he was happy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Life, vicariously

The other day I was talking at work about chocolate (which is becoming more and more common) and one of my compassionate colleagues offered to eat chocolate and tell me about it. Funnily enough, my husband has invented a creature called a Sense Monkey who does the same thing.

Unrelatedly, one of my favourite songwriters was blogging about marrying someone with an advanced work ethic and the fact he wasn't impressed with her industriousness when she managed to both make the bed AND buy the entire series of Grey's Anatomy on DVD in a single day.

So with both of those things in my head, and fantasising (while driving out near Lamorna Cove) about living in the country and also not ever having to leave home, it occurred to me:

The point of artists must be to live life fully and then tell the rest of us how it was.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Are you paying too much for ...... customer service?!?

This will be a relatively short one.

I'm concerned about a growing trend with UK companies. I don't know if this has caught on in the US yet; I certainly hope not.

More and more service companies are switching their toll-free support numbers to premium numbers. These can cost from a under a pound per minute to several pounds.

I'm not naive. I know that there are costs associated with providing customer service. This and other business expenses are normally spread amongst the entire customer base when providers set their fees. So I do know that these costs are ultimately borne by the consumer.

I also understand the benefits of apportioning certain costs only to the customers who use them. For instance, cell phone providers routinely let you choose between paying a set rate for texts, or only paying for the texts you send. I can see why businesses would like to remove every cost possible from their normal running expenses - because then they can advertise a lower rate.

But in this case, the overwhelming reason *against* such premium numbers is that ultimately there is no impetus for businesses to improve their products and services to reduce the consumer's reliance on phone support.

Our phone and internet provider, Toucan, is the most recent we've noticed to move away from toll-free support. Their rates did not reduce, but when our internet went out, we had to pay to phone them - twice - only to find out that the problem was at their end. An exchange had blown. I fail to understand why we had to pay to find out they had technical issues.

It's a problem I've encountered frequently since moving to the UK. UK companies seem to have no sense of customer service. Waitstaff are surly and inattentive, shop assistants seem as though they would rather you shop elsewhere, and the big companies, well, just don't get me started on the big companies. The fact that UK concerns feel it is appropriate to charge customers for the shortcomings of the business just follows on from that.

So if you are shopping for a service provider in the UK, be sure to factor in potential support calls into the cost of doing business with a company. Because if companies won't listen to their customers over the phone, perhaps they will listen to their plummeting sales.

In case companies don't catch on, I would like to do them one better. From now on, I would only like to pay for the portion of their advertising budget I use.

Friday, 2 January 2009

What Women Want

or ... the problem with boys.

For those of you (men) who haven't figured it out yet, please let me explain to you the phases of a relationship.

Phase One: The Education
[lasts from first date through Honeymoon]

The Education Phase is quite simply those months or years of a relationship in which the female shows the male how she wishes to be treated within the relationship long-term. She will often demonstrate the correct preparation of meals, cleaning schedules, and apportioned independence (in the form of "boys' nights out"). Sometimes the male, keen to impress the female, will offer to participate in some of these activities. It is important to take careful note of the female's response, often along the lines of, "Don't worry, honey, I like doing things for you."

Phase Two: The Transition
[lasts from the end of the Honeymoon until the female gets too frustrated to continue]

During this second phase, the female initiates the reversal of the relationship. Signals are given to the man subtly, at first, by asking or suggesting the occasional reversal, for instance, "I've had a really rough day, honey, would you mind heating something up for dinner?" Latitude is granted, as the female knows the man has, until this point, only been observing the desired behavior. However, in line with the "see, do, teach" formula, it is important to gradually increase the opportunities for the man to do things. Only through practice will the man achieve competence in these activities, and in early stages may require supervision and gentle correction. In time the male will be capable of carrying them out without assistance. The female may also begin to exercise her apportioned independence ("girls' nights out" or "pedicures").

Other techniques for initiating the reversal include: assigning chores, trading/withholding sexual favors, and nagging. No studies have confirmed the efficacy of any of these techniques.

Phase Three: Full Reversal
[length of phase varies]

During the third phase, the role reversal completes and the male has been fully trained to treat the female in the appropriate manner. He now seeks domestic duties and, should the female offer to help, the reply is along the lines of "Don't bother yourself, sweetie, you know I like making you dinner. Here's a glass of wine, why don't you go have a nice hot bath?" Whilst less perceptive males would at this point be wondering why the female has become surly, dinners less elaborate and the house less clean, and why the relationship seems to be in a tailspin, the male who has reached Phase Three is content in the knowledge that he has been properly trained to be in the relationship, and is confident that he is doing a good job.

Ideally, Phase Three is of equal length to Phase One. This can vary, however, depending on how smoothly Phase Two progresses. If Phase Two must be repeatedly extended due to the male's resistance to or failure to understand the reversal signals, this is tantamount to the continuation of Phase One. But, theoretically, at least, Phase Three would have a terminus, at which point the relationship moves naturally into Phase Four.

Phase Four: Equilibrium
[you didn't think there would be a phase four, did you?]

In Phase Four, the male has proven himself fully capable of treating the female in the ways he was shown. This qualifies him for promotion, to use a business analogy. Throughout Phase Four, equilibrium is reached through the female resuming some of the activities from Phase One while the male continues all other activities from Phase Three. An organic give-and-take ensues until both the male and the female are sharing the activities equally and without artificial rotas, schedules, gender-based assumptions or "understandings."

Phase Four, in theory, carries on until the death of one or both of the parties. The sad fact is that few relationships survive Phase Two. The most widely accepted theory for this is that males in general seem to misinterpret Phase One as a demonstration of the relationship rather than a mirror of Phase Three. This theory is not without its detractors, however no rival theory better explains why many male subjects have been observed to complain, "I don't understand what she wants." This common complaint clearly illustrates that the male has not correctly identified the instructional nature of the female's behavior.

It is my hope, by making these findings available outside obscure research journals, to increase general understanding of the four phases of a relationship and perhaps even increase opportunities to observe Phase Three behavior.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I couldn't say it better myself

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Too Cool for School

Lately I have been reading a lot of kids' books. Not exactly intentionally, but because they were around. My husband has a small collection, half a dozen books, no more, from the new Doctor Who series and the tenuously related Invisible Detective series (written by former BBC books editor Justin Richards).

I'm no stranger to children's fiction, and I'm not talking about my formative years. Yes, I read several Madeline L'Engle books when I was 9, and two Narnia books at about the same time, but I quickly graduated to the works of James Herriott, Evelyn Waugh, AJ Cronin.

I've probably read more children's books after 30 than before. I've read the Artemis Fowl series, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the first several Harry Potter books (until they got too big to carry with me on trips, plus frankly the movies are just as good), and even one Lemony Snicket. Okay, now that I think about it, I did read more books as a kid, because I read every Nancy Drew I could lay my hands on! But this post isn't meant as a list of favorites. My point is, or may be, get to know any adult, and you will find either a book they read to their kids that they enjoy at least as much as their children do, or, for those who haven't got kids, children's books which allow them to secretly recapture their youth. It's like going to see the newest Disney movie, and nowadays, there's no shame in it. You don't have to borrow a neighbor child to go.

Why the fascination with children's fiction? It isn't just the fountain of youth, at least not in the traditional sense, that warding off of maturity, old age, and eventually death. It's recapturing the innocence of youth, and the fascination of a world which still offers more possibilities than disenchantment. It's an opportunity to throw off the shackles of our jaded adulthood and dance in a world of magic and imagination, a world which, however scary it might be at times, is always ultimately safe, and good will always win.

You can get that in small amounts in adult fiction, so that is not the only appeal. One thing I noticed with these last books I read, once I started I simply could not stop. I read each of the books in two sittings. It seems that children's fiction is faster-paced than its adult contemporaries, with more suspense. As at least one book proved, this can be accomplished side-by-side with thought-provoking issues. None of the books paled in comparison with more mature offerings, with the grittiness, violence, foul language, and awkward sex scenes (does anyone else wish Dan Brown would end his books earlier?) which seem required of adult fiction. They do tend to be shorter works, so the plots may be less intricate, but I've read less substantial bestsellers.

In case you are curious, the books I have just read are Wooden Heart,The Paranormal Puppet Show, and Shining Darkness. Wooden Heart takes a look at the relationship between a Creator and its Creations, Shining Darkness sheds light on what it means to be human and the unpleasantness and danger of racism, and the Paranormal Puppet Show is just unabashed adventure.

But at the end of the day, I'm an adult at heart, so I am also reading The Zahir by my new favorite author Paulo Coelho (simply the next in a long and illustrious line) and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. We'll just have to see if they can keep up with the next generation.