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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Blown out of all proportion

It's hard to know what to say when the first thing a guest encounters, on entering your house, is a white packet in the hall, bearing the words "Inflatable cow pump".

A quizzical eyebrow, a tightening of the lips and a foot wedged firmly in the front door, to prevent its closing, convey her reaction clearly, without words: "You better have a good explanation, son."

As regular readers know, thinking fast is for me practically a superpower. But I take my time over this one. Rejecting my first thought - to lead the way upstairs and show her the inflatable cow standing perkily on the cabinet beside my bed - I decide on a full explanation of how the little chap got there in the first place.

"Why don't you come in, close the door and I'll tell you all about it?" I suggest.

"I'm fine here," she says.

"It's starting to rain."

"I like rain."

I sigh, take a seat on the bottom step of the stairway leading up from the hall, and cast my mind back to yesterday's expedition. "It began when Linda, my son's fiancée, sent us out to buy a bed for my grandson."

"You went out to buy a bed," my guest says, raising the other eyebrow. "And returned with an inflatable cow?"

"It seemed a good idea. My son thought so too. It was a joint decision."

"I haven't met your son. Is he a lot like you?

"Some say so."

"Does Linda have grey hair and a worried expression?"

"No, why would she?"

"Just a thought."

"Well, it wasn't only a cow. We also got a wee book, a hat with a fox's face on, and a plastic telephone with little wheels, so he could zoom around the floor with it."

"But no bed?" she says.

"No bed. The shop had a white one and a black one and we couldn't decide." 

"Was Linda happy with your haul, when you got back?"

"Not happy, exactly. I wouldn't say happy. She wasn't jumping for joy."

"How would you describe her?"

"Tell you the truth I didn't see her. I'm only going by what my son told me later. By the time we got back to the flat he was looking kinda pensive. He said maybe I should go home and take the cow with me, as it might push Linda over the edge. 

"I dunno what edge he meant. But I said I would and that's why it's in my house, where my grandson can play with it, any time he comes to visit."

My guest shakes her head. "It's a good story," she says. "It has the ring of truth to it. But I haven't been here before, so for all I know this inflatable cow is your best friend and you talk to her all the time."

"What if I do?" I say. "Writing is a tough job. Plenty of writers talk to inanimate objects. It helps us concentrate."

She pulls her collar up, takes her foot from the door and turns to leave. "I'm sure it does," she says. "I'm just worried that sometimes the cow talks back to you."

"Of course the cow doesn't talk back to me," I tell her. "That would be nuts."

She gets into her car and, just like that, she is gone. I wander through to the kitchen, make myself a cup of black coffee, climb the stairs to the bedroom, pat the cow on the head and say, "That didn't go well, old girl."

"Never mind, you've still got me," Ermintrude replies. "Would you like some milk in that coffee?"

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Pigs' penises and horse manure

Some pigs' penises look almost human
Those of you with long memories might recall the very first Friendly, inspired by a rant from my son, released in December 2012 for heaven's sake doesn't time fly.*

I enjoy rants. They make me laugh. But since my son got a car, a good degree, a son of his own and a girlfriend - not in that order I suspect - he seems to have mellowed, and the rants come far less frequently than before, forcing me to look further afield for my amusement.

Last weekend on an enjoyable writing workshop in London, a group of us were asked to compose a little rant, in the style of someone we knew, on a topic assigned to each of us randomly. 

I got Organic Food, heard my son's distinctive voice in my head and wrote the following. 

"Well first of all it's a daft name. All life is organic so all food is organic. What would inorganic food look like?

"Welly boots. They're inorganic. A light bulb. That's inorganic. Slabs of sodding concrete. They're inorganic. Try eating any of those pal, and see how long your teeth can take it.

"The whole thing is ridiculous, if you ask me. Organic is just a label for luring gullible, middle-class housewives into Waitrose, to buy carrots shaped like pigs' penises and mushrooms with lumps of horseshit stuck to them." 

The guy running the workshop, a louche writer and actor called Paul Bassett Davies in pink corduroy trousers - I don't know what he's called in jeans - then asked us to reverse the rant, using the same character's voice.

Once again my son, who's capable of arguing either side of a position, and would have made a great politican if he wasn't a human, spoke clearly in my head and his words ran down my arm, through my fingers and onto the page:

"You can't beat organic food. It's packed with vitamins, minerals and big lumps of horseshit. Who wouldn't want to eat carrots shaped like pigs' penises? 

"I've had nothing but organic food for a year now, and just take a look at this body. Feel how hard that muscle is.

"No not that one. Up a bit. That's it. Rock hard isn't it? Well, that's what organic food does for you, pal."

The man in the pink trousers commended me on my sense of humour, but he didn't realise that I don't make this stuff up. It comes straight from my son's brain, usually via his mouth and my ears, but not necessarily, I have just discovered.

So the plan now is to try to tune in to other people's thoughts, and see if they can communicate with me in the same way. Then I'll never have to leave the house again. 

*My favourite ancient Chinese proverb, often attributed to Confucius: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

** Harry Confucius from Auchinleck. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

The physics of big girls

We all have our feminine side, science tells us. Even women, although theirs is often harder to find.

My own was obvious from an early age, when I used to pick wild flowers and take them home to my mum. She loved them. The bigger boys I met on the way home were less impressed. I'm not a fast learner, but eventually even I managed to associate the blossoms in my hand with the lumps on my face, and stayed away from the flowers.

I went further and tried to suppress my whole feminine side. But you know when you push down on a bubble in an omelette, it just pops up somewhere else? I started dressing differently to other boys and soon I was getting gigs as a male model. That's a photo of me on the catwalk in my early twenties.

Soon though I had to choose between fashion and physics and it wasn't hard. You can reconnect with your girly side at any age, but if you don't stuff tensors into your brain when it's young and vibrant, they just won't stick.

Females are in the minority in physics, but physicists are the least sexist people I know. They're more interested in brains than body parts, so my colleagues wouldn't have batted an eyelid, I'm sure, if my feminine side had come out to play with them. But I kinda lost touch with her, over the years, even cracking jokes about her absence.

"I got in touch with my feminine side once," I'd say. "But she didn't like me. Last I heard she was shacked up with a spot-welder in Cowdenbeath."

It made a few folk laugh but it wasn't true. She was still in there, beavering away, if you'll pardon the expression. And in recent years she's been re-asserting herself. I know this because people have been breaking off in the middle of a chat with me to say stuff like, "Don't be such a big girl, Douglas".

I'm thinking this is one of those perspective-dependent epithet situations: I'm assertive. You're pushy. He's a grizzly bear. I'm curvy. You're buxom. She's a hippopotamus. I'm sensitive. You're touchy. He's a big girl.

Maybe I am sensitive, but so were Keats and Shelley and no one accused them of being big girls. Why? Because Keats and Shelley wrote romantic poetry and were young and handsome, that's why. If you have smouldering good looks then it's fine to have a sensitive side. But if your face looks like it's gone well past smouldering and burst into flames, which someone then beat out with an empty fire extinguisher, they call you a big girl. That's my experience anyway.

So by now you're thinking, where's the science? Well, I'll tell you. I took a test recently to see how much of my feminine side had survived, and it was reassuring. Turns out I'm 67% feminine and 78% masculine, which is well above average on both scores. (They don't add to 100%, as you'd expect, because each is a separate percentage.)

Some of my friends have taken the test, but I'd like to encourage all my readers to do so, and post the result in the comments below or on Facebook.

Come on feminine sides. I bet you can't beat mine.

There will be prizes.

Gender role test