No.10 A stag do in Prague (or Herding Cats)

DSC_0713 2I have to say that generally the idea of stag dos fills me with dread. Gangs of marauding young (or not so young) men engaged in a kind of collective tribal rite of passage where you must drink vast amounts of alcohol and exchange male banter and do something suitably embarassing to the groom to be. I don’t really get it.

I did have a stag do but to be honest I just invited my friends male and female and we had a night out – nothing particularly staggy about it.

I think it used to be a simple affair involving a night (yes one night) on the town – a pub crawl perhaps of your favourite haunts. Then cheap air travel to destinations selling cheap beer became a reality and the Stag Weekend was born. Basically you get to do the same thing for a whole weekend and sample some of the (alcoholic) culture of a foreign city.

How did I end up there for a stag do? Well I was invited by a good friend so I couldn’t really refuse. Counting it for the 50 50 project is perhaps a bit of a cheat as I have been to Prague and have been on stag do but never the two together. Taking this to its logical conclusion then there would be endless mundane possibilities for the 50 50 challenge e.g. getting on a bus to…anywhere I haven’t been before etc. However I thought the Prague Stag do was a worthy addition to the challenge.

The weekend had the key ingredient of many stag dos, plenty of cheap beer and this was the dominating theme throughout. Prague centre was full of stag dos on the Friday and Saturday, groups of young men, with stags dressed in costume and supporters in especially printed team T-shirts.

The phrase “herding cats” was repeated several times during the course of the weekend. Trying to keep a group of people together in  a strange place is tricky at the best of times, but when they are drunk and no-one knows where they are going it becomes nigh on impossible. And so it proved to be with umpteen circuits of the town square completed and no kind of destination any closer in sight I threw in the towel and snuck off to my bed. Lightweight, I hear you cry.

To get to the hotel you have to run the gauntlet of “cabaret” ushers dressed in clinical all white or gaudy all red costumes enticing you in to all manner of not so salubroious institutions. Why these colours I have no idea.

Don’t get me wrong. There was culture and as a group of middle aged men we did make perhaps more of an effort to see something of the city than most.  The Castle, Town Square, Jewish Museum, Charles Bridge are all amazing sights and the City is worth spending a good length of time in, but if you are looking for cultural appreciation a stag do is probably not the best way to appreciate it.

 

 

 

No. 9 Ballroom Dancing

I’m coming to learn through this 50 50 challenge that you have to take opportunities as they arise. I can safely say I have never tried Ballroom Dancing in my entire life and therefore when an offer of evening to try it out in aid of charity, there was no way I could resist.

Now Ballroom Dancing brings up images of Strictly, the hugely successful TV show, teaming celebrity newbie dancers with seasoned pros. Some have got it and some don’t which is the inherent entertainment of the show. I’ve never been a great fan of the programme – too glitzy, too showy for me, however I can appreciate the incredible talent which it takes to become a successful dancer.

So I was actually looking forward to giving it a try. I’m quite a kinaesthetic sort of person so the whole thing appeals to me. Cant’t be that difficult I thought to myself. Don’t overthink it , just go with the rhythm and it’ll be a cinch.

The evening started well enough with a Social Foxtrot, straightforward steps, nothing to complicated. The men even got to have a go solo first in what looked to a casual observer like a line dancing routine. We then moved on to doing it with partners. Can’t excatly remember what the steps were but they seemed easy at the time. It was all going swimmingly.

There was another dance (seemed easy also) (can’t remember which one though to be honest).

However as the evening went tiredness started to creep in. After a quick break for tea and cake it was onto the Waltz and by now it was 10pm, I was worn out and unable to tell my left from my right which I came to learn was quite important in this dance. Needless to say I lost the plot completely and was stepping around the room moving in one direction then the other with no idea of where I was supposed to be.

It was a great fun though and very enjoyable.

No. 8: No TV for a week

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Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead? ?” was indeed a 1970s/80s childrens TV programme playing on this common parents refrain.

I have a love-hate relationship with TV. I loath the banality of much of the output, crass fly on the wall documentaries about segments of society different to our own. Endless dull grey crime dramas designed it seems to make you feel as miserable as possible. Over exuberant chat show hosts interview people you have never heard off plugging films you won’t watch. I could go on.

But then there is the good stuff. Clever insightful documentaries from around the world. Compelling drama series, beatifully filmed and acted. And classic comedy which OK is often repeated but is brilliant still the same.

Of course things are somewhat different now in the multi-media world and the concept of “watching telly” is somewhat archaic. You can now consume video media in umpteen different ways – on demand via iplayer, through your phone, tablet etc. In fact you can now watch hundreds of thousands of video clips and extracts, famous and obscure, at your leisure online.

So I hadn’t really appreciated what the “No TV for a week” project actually entailed. Seems easy I thought. Just a bit of will power required. However it is omnipresent throughout the day and night and this combined with the fact that none of the rest of the family are playing this game makes it incredibly difficult to avoid.

So I have to admit that so far I have failed. It is impossible to walk into a room without some device being on. Someone wants to show me a music video or a funny dog on facebook and how can I resist. Then the TV is on playing the radio – does that count? Then I’ll just google a “how to” video on the internet. There is no escape.

The answer of course is a week’s holiday in a remote destination with no internet connection, which might just be on the cards unless I can persuade the rest of the family indeed the world, to disconnect. Would it have been that difficult in the 1970s? I don’t think so. “Just switch off” they said and I would have done it.

 

 

 

No.7 Knitting

“It’s me and you, or me and knitting. Don’t make me choose. Ugh, #love.” Jarod Kintz

Knitting is ubiquitous. It’s has been everywhere throughout my life. I seem to know it intimately yet I don’t know it at all. I never really paid any attention to who knitted and who didn’t. My female relatives, the older ones, aunts, grandmas must have knitted but I never gave it any attention. It was something they did and I didn’t, nor was I expected to. Boys growing up in the 1970s were not expected to knit, that was the end of it.

My wife was taught to knit as a child and still does occasionally. I’ve seen her knit stuff and expressed supportive noises with the progress, but to be honest was I really interested, no.

So, how I did I get from indifference and if I am honest, a slight disdain, for this sendentary and apparaently repetitive task to adding it to my 50 50 list. I am not sure, except that my wife laid down the challenge which was enough. How hard can it be I thought? An ideal one for the 50 50 project.

OK, what shall I do. Something quick and suitable for the beginner. A beanie hat perhaps. Of course an easy choice.

So off I went. Two needles. Always a good start and some wool. A nice purply colour.

Well don’t let them fool you knitting was not easy to pick up for those of us with dodgy spatial awareness.

“So you wind the wool round the needle which way?” I would ask after failing to grasp my wife’s demonstration once again. It seemed to take for ever to learn just the basics and then realising knitting and purling were different so another sequence of wool winding had to be learnt. Then there is casting on and off (never really got the hang of those).

So I get started and then discover that I have 10 inches to knit of the same pattern, knit 2 purl 2 and repeat. Progress was extremely slow and I thought I would never get there but several months (yes months) I finally got to the 10 inches and had to pay attention to the pattern again. This moved on to knitting two stitiches together to finish the top of the hat. Anyway things got faster then and several mistakes later  I was there with the finished article (see below). And yes it fits believe it or not. I have a surprising sense of achievement as well. OK it is probably not the height of fashion but I am wearing it with pride anyway!

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So knitting conquered, what’s next?

No.6 Houses of Parliament

20160319_141321We’ll call her Harriet, I can’t remember her real name,  so we will call her Harriet. Harriet has, some might say, the uneviable task of showing groups of tourists and visitors around the Houses of Parliament, no doubt many times a day. She is efficient, courteous, knows a thing or too, and has a school teacher like supremacy over the group, herding, cajoling and reprimanding the tour as she goes.

It was our pleasure to be shown around this national insitution by Harriet. The House of Commons is probably one of the most famous rooms in Britain if not in the world so when it was suggested that a good idea for the 50 50 project would be a tour of the place I jumped at the chance. Not a comfort zone stretcher perhaps in the traditional sense but at something a bit different none the less. So I managed to persuade 17, yes 17 people to come with me, for this experience which can be booked on Saturdays and holidays when Parliament isn’t sitting.

Before we had reached the start of the tour, there was the security to get through, airport style security screening of bags and people and police everywhere.

Once safely through then things relaxed slightly and there was time for a quick photoshoot looking up to Big Ben.

We then entered Westminster Hall, a stunningly impressive space, but if truth be told a but draughty and chilly and a cold March morning. And then it was onto Harriet’s tour. First off , there were the rules, no eating, no drinking, no photos (unless in Westminster or St Stephens Hall) , no sitting down (unless specifically permitted) and no touching. Yes, just like being back school, you may well say. “The Houses of Parliament is a Grade 1 Listed Building” was the reason given for most of these rules combined with the equally sobering thought that if anything needs replacing then “you” as in the British public will pay.

The tour lasted almost 2 hours and took in a number of extremely ornate and decorative parts of the building (rooms whose names escape me for now). The level of detail and design that went into this neo-Gothic structure is jaw dropping in places and normally scene on TV. Coverage is normally restricted to the Commons which is an impressive but by comparison plain room and sometimes the Lords which is more elaborate.

I could go on about it’s history but to be honest you can look that up for yourself. The tour experience itself is worth recounting and Harriet’s in depth and enthusiastic delivery combined with a ruthless efficiency to get us round in good time and without breaking anything. A sharp reubuke was issued to a member of the party for touching Jeremy Hunt’s Pigeon Hole. I bet that’s a phrase you don’t hear to often. And whatever you do don’t sit on the leather benches in the Commons or the Lords or you’ll be off to the Tower of London and not as a visitor!

Well worth the visit and worthy of the 50 list!

 

No. 5: A night at the Opera

So this was my first experience of Opera in the flesh. Opera is one of those cultural staples that we are all aware of from an early age. It is ever present, gracing TV advertisements, world cup themes etc. We’re even familiar with its stars, Luciano Pavorotti, Katherine Jenkins etc, who hold a similar status to pop stars. Yet I have never really been that inspired to go and watch it in the flesh. So as part of the 50 50 project I decided to give it a go. But what to go and see, that was the question. I am completely ignorant on the subject. Anyway after a bit of googling and some basic advice from friends I settled on Tosca by Puccini. It’s one of the classics I was assured. I managed to round a few souls to accompany me and off we went to New Theatre in Oxford.

So, obviously the first thing about an Italian Opera is it’s sung in Italian and therefore unless you are fortunate enough to speak the lingo, you are going to struggle. Surtitles are the answer (initially I thought that was a misspelling!) but no surtitles are like subtitles but at the top of the stage. That’s a bit weird to be honest continually having to look up to find about what is really going on, but after a while I got the hang of it, and also there is often a slight delay between the singing and words, but it was all good.

Now, the story of Tosca can be summed up in five words Love, Passion, Lust, Jealousy and Death. Not one for the faint hearted I hear you say, indeed not. See Tosca is a bit of a Diva, in fact she is a Diva, admired by all. Her lover (Cavaradossi) is besotted and so is she. An escaped prisoner, Angelotti throws the initial spanner in the works by turning up and asking for help from Cavaradossi who obliges providng him with food and assistance. The chief of Police, Scarpia is on his tail. Tosca, who knows nothing is suspicous of her lover’s activities. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Scarpia turns out to be a thoroughly bad sort, with lustful desires on Tosca. He captures and imprisons Cavaradossi for helping the prisoner, proceeds to torture him (physically) and Tosca (emotionally). If truth be told he is nasty, seedy character with evil intentions on the young woman. Anyway he tricks Tosca into pretending he has gone soft, setting up a supposed fake execution, where C can escape. In fact it’s all a lie and C is shot and dies. Tosca is beside herself and puts the knife into Scarpia, about time too, the audience cries! She then appears to do a runner at the end but I understand she is committing suicide which is no surprise really given the scenario.

That about sums it, although if you are looking for accuracy, don’t rely on the above.

Anyway, it was quite enjoyable, although I do now appreciate where the phrase “soap opera” comes from. It could have so easily be a story line in Eastenders.

My conclusion about Opera – Don’t take it too seriously and you’ll have a good time! They can sing pretty well too.

Roll on the next challenge, Ballet has been suggested

Nos 3 and 4: Lebanese Cookery (and Belly Dancing)

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“How about a cookery course?” I said to my wife throwing ideas into the pot for a 50th Birthday Present for myself. Thinking about it I have never actually been on a cookery course of any kind before. However I do like experimenting with food and so Italian, French, Indian-  none of them really appealed – all far too familiar. Now Lebanese that sounded interesting and I signed us up immediately.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Middle Eastern I thought to myself, perhaps some stuffed vine leaves and a bit of humuus, that sort of thing.

Anyway the course was organised by Vaughan’s Kitchen and was lead by the fantastically enthusiastic Wafaa Powell who’a two passions are..you guessed it, lebanese cookery and belly dancing.

The course was a fascinating insight into Lebanese food and the culture surrounding it, as Wafaa’s own cultural shocks and adjustments when coming to the UK. We learnt a few things..how to crush garlic without a garlic crusher and cooked three interesting dishes none of which I have ever come across before:

Adas bhamod (Spinach Soup)

Dfeen (bulgur wheat with chicken and chickpeas), and

Halawet el Jibin (made from semolina, mozzarella and cream)

The ever effervescent Wafaa had dropped hints about the whole belly dancing thing through the evening. “We might have time for a bit of belly dancing at the end”. So whilst enjoying the lovely lebanese cuisine it was with some trepidation we awaited this moment, secretly  hoping that entusiastic and chatty Wafaa might forget. But no she didn’t.

First off I would like to make it abundantly clear that Belly Dancing is for WOMEN. I had, naturally, always assumed this to be the case and Wafaa made it clear that historically and culturally this was true. Myself and the other male participant on the course were off the hook I thought. Free to watch from the sidelines. But then came the killer line “On social occasions however the men will often join in for a bit of fun”. Oh no I thought there is no escaping.

I disappeared to the loo hoping they would get started and forget about me but to no avail. I was presented with a strange scarf like thing to go around my middle and we were off. Actually it wasn’t too bad, she was very gentle with us and we were all as clueless as each other. It bit of random covorting and it was all over!

What’s more I got to kill two 50 50s’s in one go!

 

No. 2 A sugar free fortnight

I cannot recall a day in my life prior to the last 2 weeks when I have not gone without sugar. I am a sucker for biscuits, cakes, chocolate, sweets and have always justified my consumption on the basis that I exercise regularly. Surely it all gets burnt off I say to myself.

However I there has always been this black cloud hanging over me that sugar is bad, evil in fact, the devils food and therefore I should steer clear of the stuff. So with that I mind I decided that as I had never done it before, how about giving up sugar for, well, let’s start with a week I said to myself. Definitely outside my comfort zone I thought.

Now there are two types of sugars, the ones that occur naturally in fresh fruit and milk and the “free”sugars which are added to food, drink or are found naturally in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It is the “free sugars” that are the problem and excessive consumtpion can lead to weight gain, obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

According to the NHS Choices Website:

“The government recommends that free or added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day. That’s a maximum of 30g of added sugar a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.”

Who needs to bother with any though I thought. So there I was on my first day, thinking this will be straightforward – just take sugar off the menu, easy peasy.

Sugar I have discovered is added to pretty much everything. Obsessive reading of ingredients labels has confirmed this. Aside from your obvious sugar highs – cakes, biscuits, fizzy drinks etc the sweet stuff (or variously described as glucose syrup, fructose etc) can be found in numerous savoury foods (soups, bread, savoury biscuits, ready meals, crisps). And as for cereals, well I scoured the supermarket for a product which did not contain any sugar and well with the exception of porridge oats, there are none.

And there is the thorny (or wrinkly) issue of dried fruits. It’s fruit I thought surely that’s a safe bet as I sprinkled some sultanas onto my otherwise barren porridge oats. When fruit is dried sugars are released and therefore consuming dried fruit, which can of course stick to your teeth is sure bet for upping your free sugars as well as tooth decay. Fresh fruit is ideal however as the sugars are held in the structure of the fruit. So dried fruit are off!

Don’t be fooled by drinks described as “Lite”. Lucozade Lite Sports Drinks contain sugar, admittedly not as much as the not so Lite variety.

Finally  then, artificial sweeteners, surely I was OK with my diet Coke (other brands are available). One thing is clear, there is no sugar in them. Whilst the NHS choices errs generally on the positive side for sweeteners, there is a view that sweeteners in replicating the taste of sugar increase the desire for it and therefore are BAD. So Diet Coke is off now too replaced by Mineral Water (where’s the fun in that I ask myself).

And finally, ah yes, sorry a second finally, Alcohol. Well it’s not all bad. There is considerable variation. Drier drinks such as white wine and champagne contain relatively little sugar whereas beer and cocktails contain substantially more and obviously if you sugary mixers to your favourite tipple then that increases it again.

So what does that leave you with. Well, nuts, lots of nuts. I ate lots of nuts (unsalted if possible). And dairy, milk, cheese and yoghurt (natural of course).  Now you might argue about the fat content on some of these things but my no fat week was for another day.

The cravings got better after the first week but are still there. I can resist the biscuits and the cakes mostly but every now and then I get this urge to rip open the box of chocolates and eat the lot. My wife claimed increased irritability on my part during the first week, but I like to think that’s a small price to pay for a healthier husband.

The two weeks are done and have relaxed a little now but still managing to avoid the endless biscuit snacking all day and have pretty much cut out cake. Let’s see how long I can keep it up.

No.1 Donating my organs

 

So here’s the first one. It maybe a bit of a cheat but it least it gets me started.

I have to confess that this one only just scrapes into the 50 list. It’s an easy one to do. Indeed I am still not entirely sure that I might have done it before but just to be doubly sure I’ve signed up again.

However, it does require you to make a conscious decision about what will happen after your death, which is even for me slightly uncomfortable territory. Ultimately however if I can be helpful to someone once I’ve passed on then surely it has to be a good thing.

All you need to know about becoming an organ donor can be found on the NHS organ donation site . Put simply there are plenty of people who need organs or tissues to save lives or greatly improve their lives.

The process of signing is quick and takes a few minutes online. It’s that easy.

Inspired by taking this step I also signed up to give blood again, after a gap of 30 odd years. I used to do it when I was a student. Again all you need to know is at https://www.blood.co.uk/ Blood Doning.

To help someone with blood cancer or a blood disorder you can also donate Stem Cells http://www.anthonynolan.org/8-ways-you-could-save-life/donate-your-stem-cells. Sadly for me though this isn’t possible as there is 16-30 age limit.

50 ways to leave your comfort zone in your 50th year: My 50 50 Project

Once upon a time I was born then some stuff happened and now I am fifty. Yes 50, Five-Zero, a half century. Now a birthday is just another day I know but for me there is something significant about this one.

50 years old. In Led Zeppelin terms, that’s halfway up the stairway to heaven.

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As end of decades go turning fifty seems like a big deal. 20 passed in a flash sandwiched between 18 and 21. At 30 I decided I was properly grown up and at 40 I was so busy with a family and a career that I didn’t have time to stop and think properly.

50, though is different, the kids are more independent, I have more time on my hands, more time to reflect and as I keep saying to myself I have been alive for half a whole century! That’s a long time after all.

And I’ve noticed that 50 is that age when people start offering you things which are branded for the over 50s. Whether it’s over 50 insurance, over 50 exercise classes or over 50s properties, suddenly someone wants my attention for, yes, being 50. How weird is that?

So what should I do to mark this momentus occasion! I’ve always been keen to try new things, different activities to push myself although sometimes my comfort zone holds me back.

So then I began to wonder. How about doing 50 new things to mark my 50th year? This would be a challenge I thought to myself. Admittedly picking an earlier decade might have made the task slightly easier. 20 would have been a cinch after all.

Anyway seems like a good idea I thought to myself. Can’t be that difficult. I need some criteria so here we go.

  1. It must be at least slightly outside my comfort zone. Everyone’s comfort zone is different so forgive me if you think “That’s a doddle it doesn’t count”. It must at least score slightly on my “Discomfortometer”. For more on the science of leaving your comfort zone read this Life Hacker article.
  2. It musn’t be illegal or immoral! Just need to clear that one up before your imagination runs away with you.
  3. It must be achievable within my 50th year. My Birthday is 15th December but I’ll give myself until the end of December 2016. So learning speak fluent arabic/mandarin or even French is out, as is competing in the olympics, becoming Prime Minister etc.

So with the above in mind I have consulted friends and family (many of whom have ignored the above criteria anyway to be honest, but that was to be expected) and and am putting together a list.

The working 50-50 list can be found here. I’ll keep updating it as I go.

Of course one of my 50 is to keep a blog of the whole thing, recording my thoughts on each one as I go. Wish me luck!

Just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed” Charles Schulz