Friday, January 30, 2004

I've got a little book on my desk. It's something my parents brought back for me from their recent trip to Washington: 'Office Zen' by Stephanie JT Russell. One of those things you might find by the checkout, next to the little book of calm or 101 great text messages.

It's all very cutesy. Take for example:

"Honor the space in small ways that reflect the vastness of your inner self: a fig tree in the staff room? a mini Zen garden on your desk? an abstract painting over the time clock?

Your calming attitude alone will dignify the atmosphere in ways you might not even see."

Or how about...

"See that guy? Over there in accounting? Cyril something. You know him. Stuffs mean little memos into your in-box about a spreadsheet that's not due till the next quarter.

Yeah, he's your guru, all right.

Old Cyril represents everything you don't like or accept about people, about work, about your very self. So grant the guy, and yourself, some respect."

And the final little gem for today:

"Your network has crashed. The coffee station's a mess. The elevator's out. Your boss is in a heavyweight snit. The whole day is just one big fat...


You heard me - a gift.

The perfect chance for you to exercise all those hard-earned spiritual muscles. To prove to yourself that no matter what you get on your plate, you will make a nourishing meal of it."

And, you know, for all my English irony and detatchment, I like this book. It's good stuff. How many times over the last year and a half have I let my day drift by, irritated by the little work I don't want to do, turning off to the people, the tasks, the organisation around me?

I don't feel this job's for me. Too many bureacratic processes and not enough freedom, and at the end of the day I'm just not convinced enough by the end goal. OK. But what bothers me about leaving is that it allows me to dismiss it all. Sometimes, when I've had another bad day and I think it's OK because in a week or two I'm out of here, it feels too much like running away from everything I don't like or accept about people or really about my very self.

Rationally I know that when I come back from my seemingly more grandiose activities in Israel and India and finally return to the world of work, my future jobs will also be a challenge to my powers of equanimity and concentration. And whether I learn from them or die a spiritual death will, at the end of the day, be down to noone but myself.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

40 minutes of snow-fall, amounting to maybe one and a half inches of slush and ice, led to shut down on ooh 80% of the tube system and an evening of gridlock on London roads. I'm not usually one to moan, but isn't there something wrong with a capital city so damn ill-prepared to cope with what must be an expected occurence?

I mean, mildly bad weather in London?

Surely not. Whoever heard of such a thing?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And now I would like to give a special mention to my friend Jon Freedman, someone who also works in the Department for Education and Skills but who I happened to know before I joined, through RSY-Netzer. We have lunch together about 3 times a week and have become a lot more friendly over the last two years. We both love Homestar Runner. Jon is from Southport and is a very, very jolly person.

Jon is currently the most avid (only?) reader of my blog and is, I know, a little offended that he has not yet received a mention.

So, my ever-growing readership (hi Ben), meet Jon, to whom today's posts are dedicated.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

One broken sofa arm

£220 (plus VAT)

Still, it beats paying rent.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Spurs were on the BBC this Sunday lunchtime. Ben Overlander, who was in particularly fine form, came round to the rubble-laden house to watch the match with me and Sam. The Tottenham performance in the first half almost put us off our bagels.

Mid-way through that dismal first 45, chilled not only by the way things were panning out, I climbed up on the sofa to close the window at the top. As I jumped down I heard something crack. The arm of the leather sofa seemed to have deflated. I quickly worked out I must have snapped the wood under the leather. I sat there doubly depressed. It was one big pathetic fallacy - Spurs shit, sofa broken.

Ben told me to snap out of it and in the second half Spurs ran out a completely different team. Our midfield controlled the game, all our flicks up front were coming off. We got our equaliser and could certainly have won it. In the end we had to settle for the draw and a replay.

I told Ben in an email today that I was about to call an upholsterers (who apparently are the correct professionals for such jobs ... now you know who to call if you ever deflate the arm of your leather sofa) and he replied: "I can't help feeling that the future of your sofa is inextricably linked to Spurs' cup run!"

So things were looking up for Tottenham when the upholsterers told me they do these sort of jobs all the time. Thing is, we've since drawn Man Utd away in the 5th round. I have come to the conclusion: the sofa doesn't stand a chance.

Friday, January 23, 2004

(Another warning: spoliers for Lord of the Rings - Return of the King)

At last I see the final Lord of the Rings film. Laura Hersch and I meet Thursday evening, get some great luminous yellow butternut pumpkin curry at Busaba Eathai and then take our seats in the inordinately expensive (£10.50!), inordinately large (biggest in cinema in Europe, baby) Odeon Leicester Square.

Nu? Not a disappointment. Better than #2 but probably not as good as #1 (which is lusher, lighter and faster moving).

I'd have liked to refresh myself on the story-so-far before last night. As I expected, there were lots of things going on that I just couldn't place. E.g. at the end: where the fuck did Liv Tyler just come from? I got the impression before that she was supposed to be dying. In particular, I'd like to rewatch the opening sequence of #1, just so I get the narrative of Middle Earth's myth and remember what the rings are all about.

But after a while you stop worrying about all that because, despite all the different strands, it all boils down to the following: there's an evil force and there's a good force. Mannichean. But what's nice is that within such a black-and-white good-bad split there are all sorts of characters who waver, well-intentioned but misguided or once-enlightened but now lost and self-alienated. Parochial power and internal division gets in the way.

I kept thinking, what does it mean? If I watch a fantasy film like this one I want to get to the heart of its universe. I want to find its 'theology', if you like. OK, there's no mention of God really - although Gandalf goes off on one about the afterlife and how death is a doorway to a new beginning. But there's definitely a mysticism I can relate to in the sense you get that petty squabbles and personal interests are just so much blind illusion and that all the life-loving creatures of Middle Earth are really one. Sure, evil is a problem here, but then in what self-respecting theology isn't it?

Most of all, I seized on two similar speeches, first from Golem then from Frodo. They recognise that the ring and their attachment to it has made them forget the feel of the breeze, the touch of stone, the sound of grass. In other words, they have forgotten how to live. When we obssess so much on one goal, one object, our own fetish, our personal idol of choice, we stop living. We become alienated from Reality, the living God.

But it's more complicated than that, because at the same time Frodo says at the end: we all tell our part of the tale and then we must pass with the telling. In other words, all that matters is the task.

The worst thing about the film: a full half an hour of afterword!! Having said that, the film is so intense, so exhausting, you probably need that amount of time to recover. It's like decompression: you need it otherwise you gonna have the bends. I can just imagine if the movie ended right after the volcano explodes or Frodo and Sam are rescued. 'Right there you are, punters. They've done their job, story's over. Off you go.' We'd leave the cinema shaken zombies, not fit for human interaction, bright lights or sudden noises.

As it is, I'd like to see someone try to watch all three movies back-to-back. They'd probably drop down dead at the end.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

(Warning: this post contains spoilers for Lost in Translation)

Marilyn and I went to see Lost in Translation last night. I love going to a cinema with a really big screen, especially when the film is shot as beautifully as this one. I got a feeling I was going to like it, right from the start. Lots of memories of Japan: the surrealism of Tokyo, Japanese TV, trying to make head or tail of restaurant menus, navigating the subway system, the overwhelming noise of pachinko and the arcades, and the scary seriousness of the ubertrendies working the games for all they're worth...

But what I loved most of all was the movie's delicate poise, the sense of two people struggling to find themselves. Bill Murray playing the actor, always playing other people. Scarlett Johansson as the recent graduate, looking for what she's supposed to be. There is nothing stable in the film. Everything is relational - place seen through the prism of personality, personality only apprehended through context and locale. "We should never come back here," says Johansson's character, "because it'll never be as much fun." But the same could be said about the two characters - how could they meet somewhere else, some time else, without defiling the purity of their Tokyo experience?

It reminded me that sometimes you don't need to scratch the itch. Feel the moment for what it is. Kiss the joy as it flies.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Rachel called me at last. We met up last night and went for a drink in Bar Room Bar in Hampstead. She looked good and conversation was easy. We seem very similar in some ways. But there doesn't seem to be anything there. I get the feeling my imminent departure is a problem. At least that's what I like to think - because otherwise I have to admit the possibility that she may not fancy me.

This afternoon, hiking down from the top of a Welsh mountain, Chris and I dropped off behind the girls and talked about the education of children of indigenous peoples (now so often 'sub-cultures'). We started with Australia, for which I trotted out the line that it was a sensible educational goal to get more Aborigine kids into schools to give them the skills and qualifications to play a fuller role in Australian society and raise the affluence of their social sphere. Chris, who's got a BA and Masters in anthropology and just spent a while working with Aborigines in Australia, pointed out how deeply problematic that is. Schooling imparts not only skills and qualifications but also values and ideology. Chris seemed to endorse some more dynamic ideas that I haven't come across in my work on the Australian system: curricula which give Aborigines literacy and life-skills for 'business' but also proper time for education according to their own societies' value-systems. So some days might involve being outside with community leaders, learning agricultural techniques for example. In the end he had to admit that minorities are going to be affected by the dominant system, whether they like it or not, so it's better that they learn the rules of the game. Otherwise they are a sitting target. Still, the figures who take on the resbonsibility of representing their people's interests are subjected to a huge amount of pressure, a tension between espousing the values of the system and remaining true to their background.

The conversation, which continued down the muddy hill (overlooking miles and miles of countryside valleys, buffeted by the wind) turned somehow towards work. Chris articulated the Ishmael-like idea that the concept of work has not been particularly constructive. On a level, I agree with him. Work is partly about needing to impose an order, because we perceive the world as hostile or chaotic or threatening. But why does it need taming? Why do we think God made it incomplete, flawed, and it's our job to perfect the job? But I felt I needed to save the idea of work. I tried to distinguish between work as maintenance and work as growth. Maintenance is stuff like building shelter, catching or growing enough food to survive - not a new idea and I know we're not about to revert to a hunter-gatherer society. But I don't think I believe in the utility of the boundless tide of progress and development.

What's more interesting is that I was motivated to identify a useful concept of work because of the Jewish religious texts I've read (particularly in this year's Limmud chevrutah project) and of course the centrality of Shabbat. I talked about it with Chris (not Jewish) and he said he thought the sabbath was a very important institution given the way we think about work. In other words, in an ideal world we wouldn't need Shabbat and all its social binding and personally revitalising effects. But we don't live in an ideal world, so Shabbat is necessary. I'm not sure, but I think there's a Jewish text somewhere which talks about how, when the Messiah comes, there'll be a constant Shabbat.

Chris asked if all rites are allowed on Shabbat, because Aboriginal communities have started calling tribal ritual "business". It's an interesting question - why isn't prayer considered 'work for God'? I suspect it's something to do with a perception that, say, lighting a candle is a more physical i.e. non-spiritual act than offering words and song.

It also got me thinking how I could do a Burning Man session on 'the meaning of Shabbat on the playa'. I could even extend it and do a whole series on Jewish law and custom and its meaning in a Burning Man context. I think it would be really interesting to see halacha's effect in such a different society. Burning Man as a Jewish petri dish.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Yesterday afternoon I finally got confirmation that I can take special leave for my travels to Israel and India. I went into action right away, telling Marie, telling the rest of my team, calling Donny in Jerusalem to say I'll take the flat.

Marie said she could put in a good word for me on my return to get me a job with the European Union Presidency team. That would be more my own game, she said, something I could own. I could see myself getting sucked back in by the promise that it would all be different. On the other hand, I also had a twenty-minute phone conversation with Marc Soloway, about his rabbinic plans and the pros and cons of Judaism on the West Coast and in America as a whole. You pick up on that sense of mission, the reality of the world in which he's moving, and I think that's really important.

It's gratifying to know I've already taken steps to make me more free. I told everyone I was leaving, revelled in the centre of attention and went home for a long weekend. I felt on the tube that already my choices were wider and my world more open.

I'm looking forward to this weekend, going up to Abi's cottage in Wales with a smattering of the book club. I meant to wake up earlier today to finish off the Forster but instead I exploited the luxury of not having to go to work. I suppose I should go and shower and get dressed and pack.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

A bit of my dream from last night:

Marilyn was round, as were some friends of Mum and Dad's (maybe the Spungins). We were sitting in the living room (in its pre-reconstruction state) when someone looked out into the garden and noticed a baby elephant, no bigger than a large sheep-dog. I went round to the kitchen-side to get a better look and sure enough there it was, a bit docile and poorly from the cold. Knowing how excited Marilyn would be, I went back to the living room to inform everyone. In fact they'd already let it in through the French windows and it was now sleeping on the living room floor, just stirring its trunk every so often.

I remember registering only the slightest surprise that infant elephants now regularly wandered the gardens of Belsize Park. I mean, it's just a logical step up from the seagulls we now get every summer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

They got me right. The description more than the film.

Sleep has been a problem the last two nights. I've not had insomnia for months before this, so what is it? Could be the tension before I leave work (now just a matter of weeks). Then again, more likely it's messing around on damned computers right before going to bed, trying to sort out stupid things like getting a diary online.

I also think it could have something to do with the way I've said the Shema the last two nights. This isn't as nuts as it sounds. I want to say it before I go to sleep because I think taking care to follow the traditional guidelines sanctifies the moment. Of course, every moment can be sanctified and is holy but, as mere mortals, most of us can't walk around with this awareness 100% of the time and still get on with our lives. I like saying the Shema first thing in the morning and last thing at night because it envelopes my life, serving as a brief reminder that everything is one.

It's this sort of thing I've been trying to concentrate on before going to sleep, yesterday and the day before. I've watched myself very closely, seeing if I can say it without distraction, if I can give my whole self to the moment and the action. The problem is I watch myself too closely. The observer inside insists on being a critic too - 'is this it? is THIS it? how about this?' So I repeat and repeat the first line, maybe concentrating on my breath or the sound and sensation of saying the words, until I feel satisfied or have broken through some kind of barrier. It takes a while and can get intense: probably not the best preparation for nodding off!

Think I need to find a practice a tad more ... sedative.

I only recently thought of starting a blog. I didn't even know I could until Thursday 18 December, when I saw the British blog awards in the Guardian online. To tell you the truth, that's the first time I knew what a blog was. I clicked on two, maybe three, of the winners, including this one, which got second place in the design category.

That evening I went to a party underneath a tiny Moroccan place in Camden Town. I was only there because I'm on an email list for Europeans stupid, open-minded or rich enough to go to Burning Man. Pretty much the first conversation I had was with this guy called Paul. I don't even know why I mentioned the blog awards ... maybe because he mentioned his new job as a creative with Saatchi. Anyway, it turns out he'd woken up that very morning to the news that he'd come second in the design category...

He said his hitcount went up that day, from the usual dozen or so to something more like 10,000. God knows if this will ever see the light of day, really. He also said I too could start a weblog.

The other reason I'm here is my friend, Dave Marr. He linked me to his online diary a few months back but I never really got reading until today. So, Dave, you pushed me over the edge. Because I found your diary an inspiration.