Sunday 29 December 2013

Goodbye 2013

2013 is almost over and it has become a tradition to dust off an old meme that summarises the previous year.

Please feel free to steal it yourself. I won’t tell if you don’t.

As usual, this is quite a long post so just in case you get bored, I will wish you all a Happy New Year right at the start, and I hope that 2014 brings all of your dreams to fruition.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. What did you do in 2013 that you'd never done before?

I fulfilled a travel ambition this year. I finally visited a country that I have always wanted to visit: Japan.

I am currently part way through a travelogue on my experiences there – and believe me there are a lot of them. I plan to sum them up in a series of posts in the coming months.

All I can say is that I absolutely loved the place – so much so that we plan to return in a few years’ time.

As well as visiting Japan, I also visited two new countries. Mrs PM and I visited Budapest in Hungary for a long weekend and I enjoyed three trips to Muscat in Oman (when I say “enjoyed” I mean that I endured the work aspect but enjoyed the rest).

Here are some snaps from Japan:

Busiest crossing in Tokyo

An attempt to fry my brain at the Robot Restaurant

The Japanese Plastic Mancunian

Mount Fuji

Half a bullet train

Thousands of torii in Kyoto

2. Did you keep your New Years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

Yes and no. Here are last year’s resolutions:

(a) At least TRY to write that elusive book.

I was going to try writing a novel in November but work commitments made that impossible. 

However I am writing a travelogue for Japan and have produced another “volume” of blog posts from this very blog. I am now up to five volumes and producing volume six as I type. 

Next year? I hope to complete the travelogue and, work permitting, have another go at writing a novel in November. 

(b) Learn Spanish to the point where I can talk to Spaniards without a dictionary.

My Spanish has improved a fair amount and I am thinking about actually enrolling in a proper course. I can vaguely understand some written Spanish and need to keep plugging away. I am enjoying it.

(c) Cycle to work at least twice a week (when the weather improves).

I have failed miserably on this promise but I did dig out the bike for a couple of trips around the local area. This is something I simply must do this year.

(d) And this year? 

I will attempt to strengthen the three resolutions above but I have another planned that I will reveal in future posts if I succeed. Watch this space.

3. How will you be spending New Year's Eve?

We will be heading for this pub in West Didsbury:

The Metropolitan

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Thankfully nobody close died this year.

5. What countries did you visit?

I visited Spain, Oman, Hong Kong, Japan, Hungary and Turkey.

6. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?

I have kind of identified something but I don’t really want to reveal it on this blog – just yet anyway. That’s part of my secret resolution.

Of course, I still want to defeat the lingering stubborn procrastination that haunts me continually as well as somehow managing to correctly predict the winning lottery numbers.

Usual stuff really.

7. What date from 2013 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

No single dates stand out this year.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Visiting Japan without a doubt. I have wanted to travel there since I started exploring the planet and I finally made it. 

9. What was your biggest failure?

Failing to ride a bike to work.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

I suffered quite a nasty cold last month that lasted for about three weeks. For some reason I couldn’t shake the bloody thing. I wasn’t the only one though. It travelled around my workplace like wildfire and we had a month or so of constant coughing and sneezing.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Being a geek I wanted a tablet – even though I didn’t really need one. Rather than splashing out on an iPad, I opted for a Nexus 7, smaller and more compact. 

However, I find now that I can’t really live without it. It was a constant companion on my travels, acting as an entertainment device in Oman allowing me to watch movies in my hotel room after a long days’ work as well as providing me with a portable phrase book and guide book in Japan.

I would recommend one as a lightweight portable computer, book and media device, particularly if you travel a lot.

12. Where did most of your money go?

My kids tend to demand money and so does the house. Nothing changed in that respect in 2013.

13. What song will always remind you of 2013?

2013 was a fantastic year for music and once again I bought a fist full of wonderful CDs. Here are my favourite songs from my top five albums of the year.

I regard Joe Satriani as the greatest guitar player in the world and each album release is a major event for me. His new album is, as usual, a superb collection of songs. This particular one is a classic driving song and all I can think of when listening to it is driving across America in a convertible on a beautiful sunny day with the wind running through my hair and a huge grin on my face. If you like good classic feelgood rock songs, follow the link.

I saw the Black Spiders a couple of years ago, supporting Airbourne and from the first notes of the first song I loved them. They play no nonsense hard rock music that is extremely catchy. I have seen them twice as a support act and both times they have challenged their hosts. Balls is from their second album and I expect great things from them in years to come. 

Follow the link if you like good driving catchy hard rock.

Dream Theater are masters of progressive metal and their albums feature songs that are typically over ten minutes long and are genuine masterpieces. Their new album is the usual high standard and while it features mostly shorter songs (of the order of six minutes) there is an opus that is 22 minutes long. Fear not – the link takes you to a song that is just over six minutes. If you like heavy progressive metal then follow the link.

Trent Reznor is an Oscar winning genius. He won an Oscar for the soundtrack to the film “The Social Network” and, thankfully, this year he has returned to doing what he does best – Nine Inch Nails – electronic music with a dark edge. Hesitation Marks is a triumph and in the month or two since I have had it, it has barely left my playlist. I have been witnessed driving my car listening to this song bopping away in the front seat and singing loudly without a care about who else sees me and laughs.

If you like electronic music with a hint of rock guitar then follow the link.

The album of the year is a progressive masterpiece from Steven Wilson and this is the best song on the album. It is a truly sad song about a man who lost his wife in a car accident and is so totally tormented with guilt that he cannot get over his wife’s death. The theme of the album is ghosts and in this case, the man’s dead wife intervenes from beyond the grave. The song is simply beautiful and brings a tear to my eye each time I hear it. If you follow the link, you will not only hear a truly emotional song but also see a very poignant accompanying video. The song is right up there with my favourites of all time.

14. What do you wish you'd done more of?

I wish I’d written more blog posts. This year I have averaged a post a week and as far as the blog is concerned it has been my least productive year so far. I will try to change that next year. 

15. What do you wish you'd done less of?

I wish I had wasted less time doing mundane boring things. I really should make more of an effort sometimes.

16. What was your favourite TV program?

Once again, TV has been great this year. Here are a few to mention:

The Walking Dead, Dexter, True Blood, Game of Thrones, 
Falling Skies, Warehouse 13, Revolution, The Tunnel, The Following, Sleepy Hollow, Under the Dome and many more.

A special mention has to go to the 50th anniversary of Dr Who and the demise of Matt Smith as the Doctor on Christmas Day. Two absolutely brilliant episodes.

17. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?

There are people who have annoyed me, sure – but “hate” is too strong a word.

18. What was the best book you read?

I’m going to name two books, one the sequel to the other:

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I look forward to reading two more sequels this year.

I just have to say, though, that I am quite sad at the passing of Iain Banks. I love his science fiction novels.

19. What was your greatest musical discovery?

No new bands have crossed my radar this year.

20. What was your favourite film of this year?

I enjoyed Man of Steel and World War Z but my favourite movie was Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Well what do you expect from a closet Trekker?

21. What did you do on your birthday?

Nothing special. I went to work and then had a nice meal with Mrs PM.

22. What kept you sane?

I’ve had an extremely busy year at work but, as usual, I haven’t actually allowed it to get the better of me. I would once again like to thank the usual suspects: Mrs PM, blogging, beer, food, music and travelling to Japan for de-stressing me.

23. Who did you miss?

Nobody leaps to mind.

24. Who was the most interesting new person you met?

Probably the drunk Japanese gentleman who bought Mrs PM and I, what he regarded as the best piece of sushi in Kyoto. He spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese so communication was fun. He tried to persuade us to go on a bar crawl around his city but we had a bullet train to catch. 

25. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2013.

It is almost impossible to take a photograph of a Japanese Bullet Train roaring full speed through a station.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Meaning of Life - Don't Worry - Be Happy!

Some people think that I am a grumpy old man and there is evidence that supports that fact.

 I have a tendency to moan about certain aspects of life, usually involving absurdity, stupidity, injustice and the bizarre obsessions of certain groups of people who try to enforce their views and lifestyle choices on me.

However, beneath that grumpy fa├žade, lies an extremely happy middle-aged man who has used his experience to construct a reasonable existence. Life has tried its best to deflect me from a path to happiness and contentment but I have recovered enough to find myself in a good place.

I find that having a positive view on life helps.

There have been occasions when it has been difficult and I have learned to try to discover the positive aspects of such experiences. It doesn’t always work but most of the time it does.

I can spend my time moaning about my job for example, but in the end it has enabled me to travel and it pays the bills.

Like most people, life has had its turbulent moments for me but I try to remember the good times in the past rather than dwelling on those negative moments. I love chatting about past experiences with friends and family. Reminiscing about past events is therapeutic if you don’t start wondering what would have happened if things had been different. Another way to travel to the past is through music. Music plays a huge part in my life and songs can behave like a time machine to whisk me back into the past to a moment of pleasure.

Music is a personal thing for me and on those occasions when I do start feeling a little bit down, I can select a suitable song and immediately lighten my mood.

For example, here’s a song that reminds me of working in Hong Kong with Mrs PM:

Here’s a song that reminds me of university:

This is one of the main reasons I refuse to discard old CD’s. To me they are as valuable as the TARDIS is to Dr Who.

As long as there is music, there is happiness.

I also love to experience life and for me travelling fulfils a burning need within me. Mr Motivator (the businessman who wants to be the best of the best of the best) will tell you that the way to happiness is through material possessions, a huge house, an enormous car and a high powered position in the rat race, working as many hours in the day as possible.

While that may be true for him, I find that I enjoy living in a modest house with a modest car but the ability to spend my money on trips to Japan, America, Australia and as many other parts of the world as I can. I gain more pleasure thinking about strolling around Red Square in Moscow in the middle of winter than watching the latest films on a 73 inch TV in a huge room in the back of my huge house.

I would rather spend £12000 on a round the world trip than splash out on a brand new car.

Sorry Mr Motivator – but that’s a fact.

Nevertheless, if Mr Motivator is happiest filling his enormous house with trinkets and gadgets then that's okay with me. I don’t think any less of him (as long as he doesn’t try to impose his doctrine on me) and as long as he is happy then I am happy too.

In other words, seeing other people being happy gives me a buzz, even if I am not directly responsible for their happiness. The greatest happiness for me is seeing Mrs PM laughing and smiling and my two lads enjoying life with huge grins on their faces.

Generally they are all as content as I am. My boys share the same outlook on life as me, with slightly different likes and dislikes of course and Mrs PM and I are kindred spirits (if you discount her dreadful taste in music of course).

And with Christmas fast approaching, I feel more content than ever. Yes, I will moan about shops being full, the miserable weather, the Queen’s speech, the cost of everything and having to eat too much. I will almost certainly curse the enforced diet I have to endure in January when my overstuffed and bloated body resembles a massive turkey.

Nevertheless, Christmas really does open a new door to happiness: lots of gatherings, parties and joy all around.

I may end up slobbed out on the sofa, trying to stay awake for the Dr Who Christmas special, resembling a bizarre caricature of Father Christmas as I eat another mince pie and quaff another can of beer – but I will have a huge smile on my face.

Finally, here are a couple more upbeat songs that help put me in a good mood.

Here is a guilty pleasure from two guys who like so much like me they could be my brothers. It sums up how I try to approach life.

If I don’t post again before Christmas (which is likely) I’d like to wish all readers, whether you are a regular visitor or just happened to stumble of this post, a very Happy and Merry Christmas.

I hope that Father Christmas brings you everything you want.

Friday 13 December 2013

The Meaning of Life - The Grim Reaper

The fourth part of my mini-series on the meaning of life was going to cover happiness, leaving death until the end. However, Christmas is approaching faster than a speeding Santa so happiness is a fitting topic to finish on.

Sadly this means I have to discuss death now.

Death is a nasty part of life – which is kind of weird really because death means the end of life. Some people become preoccupied with death in the later stages of life and become obsessed with it.

I hope that doesn’t happen to me.

I have faced death in a major way, as regular readers may know, when I watched my father die at the tender age of 44. Obviously that was a traumatic event which time helped to cure. The problem was that because his death was so unexpected and so sudden that it planted a seed of anxiety that lay dormant until I approached the same age.

Reason was cast aside and for a whole year, a part of me expected my own life to come to an abrupt and meaningless end. The feeling was totally irrational and while it didn’t dominate my life, I found my thoughts drifting towards the Grim Reaper more times than I would have hoped for.

My 45th birthday was a great day because to me it meant the end of what I described as the year of death. I felt like I had reached the finish line of a great race.

Looking back now, some seven years later, I have no such fears and I can’t believe the thought ever crossed my mind. Furthermore, I really ought to be worrying about it more because I am older and, realistically, closer to the day when the Grim Reaper comes knocking to collect me.

And I can’t help but wonder why that is.

Death is the inescapable conclusion to life and, unless you have discovered the secret of immortality or are a vampire, it will happen to you.

Why worry about it?

There is no reason.

Life is great and when the time comes, it will come; there is nothing you can do about it.

What’s more, death may not be the end. The premise of most religions is that death is merely a transition to a higher plane of existence – or possibly even the chance to pop back to Earth as another person or another creature.

As a Catholic, I have been indoctrinated by the premise that when I die, I will be judged and, having been a naughty boy (and I have been a naughty boy), I will suffer the consequences in Purgatory before joining the legions of the dead in Heaven in eternal happiness.

I could go to Hell of course and spend the rest of eternity being tortured and tormented by demonic forces. My punishment would almost certainly involve being locked in a cell with Piers Morgan with diabolical pop music blaring out of speakers at a high volume.

Reincarnation seems a reasonable option – if options are available. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be born again as another person and live another life? Of course, it might already have happened and I may have been a slave in Pompeii, or a jester in the court of Henry VIII or an explorer sailing towards America with Christopher Columbus.

Apparently it is possible to be hypnotised and drift back through your past lives. I am tempted to have a go at this but I am too sceptical and realistically I imagine my “past life” will come from a historical novel I have read or a blockbuster movie.

Other options exist; what about the science fiction concept that death is just a way of entering a new plane of existence? When we shuffle off this mortal coil, do we shed our old bodies and float off into space in an alternative reality?

Or the idea that we all drift off and continue to prevail in death? In the Necroscope series of books, when people die, they exist in a different form and continue their life’s work in death.

Apart from Hell with Piers Morgan, most of the alternatives sound appealing in one way or another.

And being a positive person, I would like to think that there is something more. The scientist within me is very sceptical and informs me that we will simply cease to be. After all, we don’t remember anything from before we were born do we?

I have no memory of anything before October 1962, my birth month. I suspect the reality is that I will return to that emptiness.

But I may be wrong.

Death could be the beginning of a brand new adventure.

Finally, please excuse the morbid tone of this post but people can’t talk about death without some negative overtones.

To cheer you up a bit, here are a couple of funny videos relating to death:

Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Meaning of Life - Sector 7-G

Some people work to live; others live to work.

I am definitely in the “work to live” camp for the simple reason that to me, work is more like a punishment. I have been in my chosen career for almost thirty years and while interesting, fascinating and captivating at first, my job has become a major chore.

As I get older, I want more freedom. Some people want that freedom when they are younger which is why they delay leaping into the rat race for year or so to go travelling and explore the world. I did a little bit of travelling as a student but now I simply have an almost overwhelming desire to pack in my job and simply leave on a huge trip of exploration and self-discovery.

While I may curse my chosen career, I can’t deny that my job has encouraged me to do this.


Because my job involves travelling the world – not all of the time – but enough to give me a small taste of freedom.

In fact, I am off on my travels again this weekend, my third visit to Oman this year.

You may think that I am a hypocrite; I have a job that allows me to visit other countries and cultures. I love travelling - so why the bloody hell am I moaning?

Allow me to explain.

First of all, I work in IT – basically I spend my entire day sparring with technology. And I am bored with it.

Second, the majority of my life is spent sitting at a desk in front of a laptop surrounded by people who are equally disillusioned and frustrated and at the mercy of decisions and developments governed by Mr Motivation as he does his best to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.

Finally, while I may get the option to travel to wonderful and interesting countries, I am effectively limited to trips between the hotel and the office with very little chance to explore and only tantalising glimpses of what I could be doing if I were free of the shackles.

I am in a Catch 22 situation; I need money to fulfill my desires – and I need to work to get the money – and the work stops me from fulfilling my desires.

And this is true of most people.

The solution is simple; find a career that you enjoy, a career that makes you smile with glee when you wake up and anticipate the joy of work.  It seems to be too late for me now.

Some people may suggest that it is not too late but to those people I ask this: how can I change career when I can’t really do anything else?

I am risk averse and simply giving up what many people would consider to be a thriving, interesting and beneficial career in search of something else that will give me freedom and enjoyment, but with the same financial clout, would be absolute folly.

So I appear to be in a rut – and I can’t escape.

Outside work, I am very content and happy; when I am at work my life becomes a jumble of confusion, chaos and irritation. There are times when I get a buzz out of work but such times are becoming more infrequent.

And it would be just the same if I were to seek another job in IT in another company. At least the one I am in offers some form of sanctuary with occasional trips abroad. That’s what keeps me there.

Through my job I have visited places like Holland, the Caribbean, the United States, Canada, China, South Africa, Russia, Switzerland, Singapore and Hong Kong. I have become so enamoured with travel that I have visited many other varied and interesting places under my own volition, places such as Japan, Thailand, most of Europe and Australia.

If it weren't for my job, I would never have got together with Mrs PM in Hong Kong. I have a lot to be grateful for.

And it is now that I know what my ideal job would be; a travel writer.

There are drawbacks with that career, it has to be said.

First of all I have to be a good writer – I’m not.

Second I have to be able to fund numerous trips abroad – I can’t.

If I could see my time again, I would change my career choice and become a writer, training to actually improve the words I spill onto a page so that they make pleasurable and interesting reading instead of the inane twaddle that finds its way onto this blog.

The problem is that when you are young, you don’t know what you want; I alluded to this in a post about my schooldays last month.

Of course, another option is to work out a way to beat the system and win the lottery. The problem is that I have a logical, mathematical mind with a degree in computational and statistical science – and I know that the chances of my winning the lottery are about as close to zero as you can get.

You can’t plan a career on the off chance that you might win the lottery – despite what the lottery organisers tell you.

So, unless you know what you want to do and are passionate about doing it at an early age, when you can be trained and steered in the right direction before it’s too late, you will end up just like me, stuck in a rut in a stagnating career that provides money to live and perhaps give you a little enjoyment with a tiny taste of what your career might have been had you made the right choices as a kid.

That sounds depressing doesn’t it? And it makes me sound unhappy as well.

However, I’m not unhappy really – on the contrary – I am delighted with life.

I am also an optimist – I can’t help it – and I am still clinging onto the dream that one day circumstances might change in such a way that I can alter my vocation and wake up full of elation because I am going to work.

Anyway, I will discuss happiness in the next post to give you an insight on why I am happy despite moaning about my academic and occupational choices in life.

One day you might see a book on a shelf in your local bookstore with a picture of a grinning Plastic Mancunian called: The World Through My Eyes.

I can dream - can't I?

Don’t hold your breath though.

How about you dear reader?

Are you happy in your chosen career? 

Do you want to do something else?

Do you think it is too late for me to leave the rat race and unleash myself onto the world?

Any tips for doing just that?