Saturday, 30 June 2007

When The Left Brain Doesn't Know What The Right Brain Is Doing

I just finished reading a very disturbing book. A Scanner Darkly is set in the near future but it's not really a science fiction novel.

What it is, is a dark and surreal chronicle of a drug user's descent into a permanent state of psychosis. Bob Arctor is an undercover policeman investigating the traffic in an illegal drug called Substance D. To get information he poses as a dealer himself, and ends up being a user. Since Substance D is lovingly nicknamed Slow Death by its users, that's an ominuous situation.

What follows is a remorseless progression into brain function decay. One of the effects of D is that it hampers cooperation between the brain's hemispheres. The result is paranoia, delusion, hallucinatory episodes, amnesia and, ultimately, loss of self-awareness. If that sounds scary, reading the actual book is frankly terrifying. The writer, Philip K. Dick, has drawn on his own experiences as a drug user in the early 1970s. As he recounts in his poignant notes at the end of the book, many of his friends and fellow drug users either died or suffered permanent damage as a result of their habits.

But there is more to the book than a depressing description of a guy going downhill fast. The book really shines in the fleeting episodes where the world of the addicts collides with that of the 'straights'. The straights are portrayed as being every bit as irrational as the addicts and have equally perverted perceptions of what is real. In one memorable incident a straight girl asks Bob to help her kill a dangerous-looking insect. When Bob explains that it is harmless, she replies (without any intent to be ironic) "If I knew it was that harmless, I would have killed it myself".

In the end, reading this book is like watching a train wreck. It's unpleasant but hard to tear away from. It frequently reminds you that bad things happen. It suggests that good things are desirable precisely because they are fleeting. It offers no morals, promises no happy endings.

It's a brilliant book, but one that's only safe to read if you're in a good mood.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

So Much To See. So Little Time.

I saw the coolest thing on A Bend in the Lane. It was a map that shows you all the countries that you've been to. As someone who loves vacation travel (as opposed to the business kind), I got really excited. I wanted to make my own map, and gloat over all the wonderful places I'd been to.

Boy, was I disappointed.

create your own visited countries map

In case you're wondering, the white swathe that covers most of the map is all the places that I have not yet been to. I just look at that gigantuan expanse of unexplored lands and I think to myself "Can I possibly hope to see more than a fraction of all there is to see in the world?"

Thankfully I am pathologically incapable of staying depressed for long, so I've decided to cheer myself up by recalling some of the brilliant travel experiences that I have had. Let's see...

There was the bar in Kobe where I got to play with a sewing machine and feed live penguins.

There was the wonderful old man in a train in Japan who saw me reading a book. He complimented me on my English skills. Speaking in flawless English himself, he apologized for his own poor command of the language and announced that he had decided to give up his attempt to master English. After sixty years of trying.

There were the Scotsmen who brightened up and became my new best friends just because I said Scotland was so much nicer than England.

There was Stonehenge, so much smaller than I had expected, so much more enigmatic than I had imagined.

There was Angkor Vat, and Ta Phrom, and the Bayon, and all the other wonderful, mysterious, beautiful, peaceful and utterly unforgettable temples in Cambodia.

There was the stranger I met in Hong Kong who treated me to the most amazing recitation of Shakespeare and Tolkien.

There was Trinidad, home of Calypso, steel bands, and one heck of a Carnival.

There was...

Hmm. I feel much better already. There's still many miles to go, many lands to see, many things to do, many moments to sieze. But right now I can snuggle back in my sofa, enjoy the feel of home, and know that I've not done too badly so far.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

I'm The One Who Looks Like Ketchup

In response to vox populi, I've posted these pictures to show what's become of me after my latest adventure with hair color.

This has been quite the week for me to mess about with pictures. I'd returned from my New Zealand vacation back in March with about a thousand photographs. It's taken the better part of the subsequent three months to get rid of the trash and touch up the really nice ones. I finally got through the whole lot and last night I uploaded a selection of the very best images on to Picasa.

In case you're interested, have a look at my New Zealand vacation pictures. (I recommend watching as a slideshow.) Some of them are so amazing I can hardly believe that it was RJ and I who took them.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Hello, Bluey

One of my earliest memories is also one of my most unpleasant ones. I was two years old and I was getting my hair cut for the first time. More precisely, and in accordance with tradition, I was getting my hair shaved. While I bawled inconsolably, a brutish barber took a razor to my locks (I might add that they were rich, curly, shoulder-length locks). Ever since then I've taken a very dubious view of haircuts. In fact, that first experience was so traumatic that I think it passed into genetic memory. Now every time my son gets his hair cut he yells as if we were tickling him with a red-hot poker.

But as much as I dislike getting my hair cut, I quite enjoy getting it coloured. I've been doing it for a few years now, and in that time I've slowly upped the redness quotient. Shortly before I first started this blog, I had got it done in a mahogany colour, hence the pseudonym that I chose for myself. This weekend I decided it was finally time to go all the way. So I sauntered across to the salon and nonchalantly told the hairdresser to pick me a shade of red. Carine suggested a particularly vivid shade. She looked at me apprehensively to see what my reaction would be. But we agreed that the whole point of hair color is for it to be visible. From that point there was no turning back.

I'll admit to slight misgivings when I saw the color mix that they were going to apply. It was somewhere between bubblegum pink and a sickly turn on watermelon red. But I decided to trust the professional and see what that led to.

Two hours and a shampoo-and-rinse later it was time for the grand unveiling. I'd done it! I was now a redhead! Carine was quite pleased with her handywork too, and celebrated by giving me the longest haircut I've ever had.

When my wife RJ saw what I'd done she was not pleased. At the best of times she is sceptical about hair color. And when it comes to my experiments, her scepticism usually turns into outright dismay. So it was no surprise that she thought this time I'd gone off my rocker. Luckily for her she was leaving town for a week so she'd have some time to get used to the idea that she was now married to a carrot.

Meanwhile, reaction from friends and colleagues has been interesting. It's ranged from appreciative (from people who have good taste or are scared of me or both) to stunned (from Philistines who think that you're only well-groomed if you blend into the wallpaper) to clueless (like my friend who did not even realize that I was looking any different from the day before).

That last one reminded me of a guy I used to know in college. I met him one day after one of my annual haircuts, where I started with hair below my shoulders and ended with it above my ears. He stared at me for several seconds and then in a plaintive voice he asked "I don't know why, but you look different today. Have you shaved your beard?" As it happened, I had shaved my beard. But that was really besides the point.

At any rate, I have now completed my journey to redness. Next stop: purple highlights.