Archive for the ‘Lessons’ Category

Just a month ago I was reeling under a triple whammy of family and friends succumbing to debilitating ill-health. I’m delighted to report that things are brighter (if not fully resolved). It’s a wonderful manifestation of the human capacity for recovery, for mental and physical strength, and (sort of paraphrasing BUPA’s long-running ad campaigns) how f***ing amazing we can be.

The scan results are clear…

To continue my referencing of advertising in popular culture, Carlsberg don’t do phonecalls, but if they did…

The surgeon’s fears after removing Dad’s cancerous bladder were without foundation. Dad is booked in for a follow-up scan in 6 months, but otherwise the prognosis is very good. Even better, he’s feeling and looking fitter than he has done in a long time. The lost weight has gone back on, he’s (probably doing too much) back in the garden and even talking about going swimming again, for the first time this year. All the little things that became apparent while he was ill seem to have faded away, and he’s well. And I won’t take that for granted any more.

Solid Food…

My younger work colleague isn’t quite so recovered, but after months of delays, transfers and confusion, he finally has a diagnosis. And this week he ate his first real meal of solid food in more than 2 months. He is on his way to getting a medical plan of how to manage his condition which finally has a name.

Similarly, my other friend seems to be coping well with her chemotherapy. I can’t comment on what that actually means, but she’s cheerful, resilient and refusing to become defined by the disease.

No promises…

Of course, none of us live with the misplaced beliefs that everything will all be all right on the road to recovery. All three of these people have endured setbacks even getting this far, but their spirit has been inspiring. I hope and trust I can call on such strength if ever I need it.


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During my Best Man’s speech at my brother’s wedding, I referred to a selfie he had taken as a teenager (always ahead of his time!), in which the album cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ is clearly visible, remarking that this was an almost compulsory purchase for any intellectual, white, middle-class teenage boy in the late 1980s. Of course I had a copy: I was there right from the start.

Peter Gabriel So Album

So is Peter Gabriel’s most commercial album, and propelled him from the arthouse audience he had enjoyed since leaving Genesis into the mainstream, driven by stunningly inventive videos and the heyday of MTV. As a white middle-class angsty teenager, it was very important to me in the late 1980s, and I still love it today.

I come to you, defences down, with the trust of a child…

For all its commercial gloss, slick songwriting and laser-sharp production from Daniel Lanois, So is an intensely intimate album. The opening track, Red Rain, recounts a vivid dream to the constant shimmering of cymbals and restless, always moving drumbeats. By the end of the song, the vocals collapse as if exhausted.

The insistent rhythms of percussion and bass are important throughout the album, driven by Manu Katché’s fabulous work, creating a tone that’s sometimes mystical (Mercy Street), sometimes unsettling (That Voice Again), sometimes soothing, like resting on a partner’s chest listening to their heartbeat (Don’t Give Up)…

This is the new stuff…

Sledgehammer is one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s. Its groundbreaking video featured fabulous stop-motion animation from the then-fledgling Aardman Studios and became the most-played video ever on MTV. It’s a massive departure from Gabriel’s earlier singles, a joyous, innuendo-laden homage to Otis Redding that opens with bamboo flutes but is dominated by an in-your-face horn section. This ends with a bang, not a whimper. Perhaps less successful, Big Time also takes an unapologetically straightforward approach to satirising Gabriel’s own success, although it feature terrific guitar work from Nile Rodgers.

We’re proud of who you are…

Don’t Give Up follows Sledgehammer on the album, and couldn’t be more different. From an assertion of sexual machismo, we’re brought down to earth in this limpid duet between Gabriel and Kate Bush. Apparently inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photos of a woman and her family during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this is less a traditional duet and more a conversation between a man and a woman. He’s been battered by unemployment and the recession of the 1980s, and clinging on by his fingernails.

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother Don't Give Up Peter Gabriel

Kate Bush is simply perfect in this song, providing the counterpoint to Gabriels’ damaged masculinity. Just  a couple of years later she’d write and sing (for me) one of the greatest and most heart-wrenching songs about femininity, This Woman’s Work.

Wear your inside out…

Amongst the singles, there’s still the more artsy, eclectic songs, of which Mercy Street is clearly my favourite. Breathy vocals, a throbbing bass and ethereal Fairlight sampling make this a thing of great beauty. We do What We’re Told and This is the Picture are more experiments in tone than anything else. They always felt like a slightly weak end to the album to me, a judgement I’ve only slightly amended with time.

But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are…

On the original (vinyl) album In Your Eyes was the first song on side 2, even though Gabriel wanted it to close the album. Apparently this was because its heavy bass rhythms could cause the needle to jump in the tighter grooves in the centre of a disc (historic trivia that you young kids won’t understand…!).

Perhaps that contributed to my underwhelming sensation as the album ended, because I Reckon that In Your Eyes is one of the best love songs ever written, and a brilliant end to any collection of songs. It’s a brilliant consolidation of everything I like about So: a terrifically catchy chorus, fabulous percussion and rhythms throughout, wonderful vocals from Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour, and lyrics that never fail to move me, despite how familiar they have become to me since I first heard them as an angsty teen in 1986.

Love, I get so lost sometimes.
Days pass, and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away, I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go I come back to the place you are…

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I’ve thought long and hard about writing this piece, because I recognise that it uncovers all sorts of contradictions and tensions, almost even hypocrisies in my feelings. But then, as a Bleeding-Heart Liberal, I suppose I should just get used to them, and I hope, dear readers, that you have too. If you’re still here, then thanks.

I was educated at a state (public) primary school, then won a scholarship to a nearby independent private school from 11-18. My parents entered me for the scholarship/entrance exams because (among other reasons) they and some of their friends perceived that, at the local state comprehensive school, “bright children do well despite the school, not because of it.”  I was a bright child, one of the top in my class.

My elder daughter Hannah is a bright child, one of the top in her class, despite being one of the youngest in her year-group. She’s got a vocabulary that sometimes seems to baffle her friends as well as grown-ups and she reads voraciously. Her concentration span varies from the excellent to the non-existent, and she gets bored/distracted quite easily, always on the lookout for new ideas.

I know, I know, how could any child of mine be like that?!

Anyway, we recently entered Hannah for the 11+ exams for entry into a local Grammar School. Everyone we knew seemed to think Hannah would get through easily, she seems to have a natural head for the problem-solving types of questions, she’s bright (etc etc). We bought some practice papers and exercises to help her practise the question techniques, and over a couple of months her efforts in timed practice papers at home were encouraging. But she didn’t achieve the required standard in the actual tests, and so won’t be considered by the Grammar School.

We were disappointed. I’m a bit of an academic snob (being bright and all), and I thought she was bright enough to go to the best academic school in the area. But after a bit of reflection (and post-rationalisation!), we’re pleased she can go to the local comprehensive school. It’s less than a mile from our house, so she can walk there and back with her friends. It’s a relatively small school, so it’s pretty friendly and many of the children there live locally. We were very impressed with the Head Teacher and many of the facilities (especially for the Performing Arts), and while it’s not had a great reputation, it’s definitely improving.

What has become clear to me in the past few weeks and months, is that we were in a distinct minority, as we didn’t have Hannah tutored for the tests, and indeed only started to practise with her at home a few months beforehand. There is an impressive (but to me, pretty depressing) website that seems to have everything you need to know about these tests…

If you have found this site at the end of Year 4 or the start of Year 5 it is the ideal time to begin your 11+ DIY “campaign” through with home tutoring…

I’m either naive or stupid for not treating this whole process like a military campaign, like a project with timelines and deadlines. I actually thought this was about whether my child was bright enough and had the right problem-solving abilities, vocabulary, verbal reasoning skills. But it turns out it’s all about teaching for the test.

That same website has a detailed questionnaire that has received over 9,000 responses (more like 6,000 for the financial questions I refer to).
Among the respondents…

  • Just under 2/3 admitted to using a private tutor
  • On average, they started preparing their children for the 11+ just under a year in advance, with 37% starting more than a year before the tests (when their child was still in Year 4, probably aged 9)
  • Those who did use a private tutor spent over £20/hour on average, and over £1,000 in total on tuition

All this makes the 11+ more about teaching and preparation than anything else. Certainly the children have to be bright to pass the exam, but as Michael Rosen so rightly remarks, multiple choice tests are not really about knowledge, or curiosity, or exploration. They are about focus and technique more than discovery and interpretation.

What’s more at the heart of multiple choice tests there is a question of technique. Teachers will teach the exam-taking knowledge to a) bomb on through the test, don’t linger. b) if you don’t know the answer, guess – you’ll have a one in four chance of being right. This last point will almost certainly win you extra marks over the person who is not doing that and has absolutely nothing to do with the syllabus knowledge and everything to do with exam-technique knowledge.

At the last election we were promised less testing and more teaching. I’ve not seen much proof of that, as new single tests for phonics and reading have been introduced for my younger daughter’s year, aged just 6, despite a wealth of evidence suggesting there is certainly no one way of learning to read that suits every child. The pressure of school league table results has been brought to the fore with a recent furore over GCSE marks. These league tables are useful ways to track comparative performance, but are increasingly seen as the be-all-and-end-all. I tend to agree more with this thoughtful article that advocates teaching to stimulate independent thought (wow! controversial, apparently…)

I don’t feel cheated. I do feel disappointed in the system. I don’t blame our friends who did have their children tutored. Not all of them succeeded, but I don’t know anyone who (like us) didn’t employ a tutor whose child passed the tests. It’s a shame that Grammar Schools attract the most able children as that has a knock-on effect on the local comprehensives. It’s a shame the Grammar Schools are so unevenly distributed, as that can affect some areas/schools (like ours) disproportionately. It’s a shame that the 11+ has evolved into something that seems to demand or require private tutoring, which means 9 & 10 year-olds are having hours of tuition after school every week for a year or more. Hannah already has piano lessons, used to go to Tae-Kwan-Do class, and has acted in a junior Am-Dram production. How much more do we expect of them? It’s a shame that this system seems to favour those who can afford £1,000 or more for tuition. It’s a shame that some people have reacted to our news with shock, have assumed that will ‘appeal’, and seem to think that this will blight my daughter’s future prospects.

Most of all, I’ve been upset, frustrated and angry at the way this whole thing has made me feel: like I’m not trying hard enough for my daughter’s education, that in not appealing I don’t care enough, that a few hundred pounds is an investment in her future and by not spending it I’ve failed her. It’s taken me a few weeks, but I Reckon that’s all boll*cks. My only mistake was not playing the system. But I don’t want to play the system: it’s not a level playing-field. I’d rather listen to Hannah playing pop songs by ear on the piano or watch a film with her than sit her down for more homework. She’s 10. And maybe that’s naive. Whatever.

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A quote I wanted to use for this piece illustrates its entire theme beautifully. My local and brilliant independent bookshop (of which more later) posted a line attributed to Albert Einstein:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.

In order to check its authenticity I started hunting around the interweb, and found this much more evocative version..

A concerned mother once visited Albert Einstein to get his counsel on how to help her son become really good in maths. Exactly what was she to read for him to help him evolve into a prominent scientist?
“Folk tales,” said Einstein.
“Okay,” said the mother, “and after that?”
“More folk tales,” said Einstein.
“And after that?” the mother asked again.
“Still more folk tales,” answered Einstein

Turning the sentiment into a story makes a world of difference. Introducing a concerned mother raises the stakes significantly, we become invested in what wisdom Einstein will bestow on her, and it makes his advice all the more surprising (and as such, more impactful).

I Reckon storytelling is a priceless skill that is essential to our humanity. From centuries of oral history to court jesters, from eyewitness news to inspirational orators, stories are crucial to our understanding of ourselves, our history and our origins. In recent weeks this has been brought home to me really clearly.

The Twits Roald Dahl Quentin Blake

It’s squishy spaghetti…

A couple of days ago I went into my younger daughter’s class (5-7 year-olds) to read to them. They usually have “storytime” every day, where they gather round to listen to someone reading aloud. As is typical in many UK primary schools, the vast majority of teaching staff and assistants are female, so they only very rarely (if ever) hear a male voice. So this week the school invited Dads to come in.

I’ve always loved Roald Dahl stories. The mix of surreal fantasy, inventive wordplay, genuine excitement, threat and darkness is brilliant. So I was delighted to be reading The Twits. I love reading fantastical stories like this, as I can unleash my repertoire of silly voices and accents. We have a wonderful audio version of The Twits read brilliantly by Simon Callow, and my own interpretation borrows heavily from him.

It was fantastic to go to town on this, shrieking and cackling in front of a class of children, most of whom I didn’t know, and watch them respond with laughter and gasps, giggles and shouts. I read practically the whole thing, and have secretly hoped ever since that they went home asking their own parents to “do funny voices like Eleanor’s Daddy…”

Last weekend I was given a tremendous Father’s Day treat by my lovely wife and children to go to an intimate performance by The Bookshop Band. Part of a summer ‘festival’ organised by the wonderful, fabulous and profoundly brilliant Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, this was a fantastic 90 minutes, during which I was privileged to watch three brilliant musicians tell stories, and bring stories to life. The band’s songs are all inspired by books, usually key moments or characters, and they are beautifully crafted, shot through with humour, moving, and inventively arranged with all sorts of instruments and striking vocal harmony.

This what I mean…

or this…

I love everything about the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop’s ethos about trying to connect people with books, their stories and their writers. It’s always a pleasure to browse their shop and talk about books with the great staff and other customers. If they haven’t got something in, they can usually get it within 48 hours. They are everything that is human and vital about books that Kindles and e-readers can never be.

I love reading stories to my children. I love hearing them make up stories and role-playing with their Lego, or when they create their own books and illustrations. I love that Hannah has been inspired by Harry Potter and Inkheart and Jacqueline Wilson and Mr Gum. Stories fire our imagination, they help expand our concept of what could be possible, they enrich us.

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I’ve written before about how much I love This American Life, living proof that public broadcasting is a very good idea. Every week I download the podcast introduced by Ira Glass and its eclectic, insightful, human stories of life in all its forms.

In January 2012 TAL broadcast a monologue by Mike Daisey, a long-established and successful writer and performer. The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was a compelling and powerful piece about Daisey’s experiences in China, when he visited factories used by Apple to produce their iPhones and iPads. His performance is extraordinary, relating meetings with people poisoned by industrial chemicals, with underage workers, with a man whose hand has been ‘ruined’ by machinery, with armed guards at the factory gates.

Mike Daisey is a great storyteller. That episode of TAL has been downloaded or streamed over 1 million times. He has become an unofficial spokesman for the campaigners seeking to expose industrial conditions in American companies’ plants in China and elsewhere. He has been all over American news channels. His monologue is extremely moving in many different ways. Most importantly, I believed that he had seen and experienced all these things, and it made me care about what’s behind the beautiful Apple touchscreens.

apple logo

Last week TAL retracted their broadcast of his story; not because it’s all made up, because it’s not. Many of the stories he reports are true, well-reported and documented, often by Apple themselves. Their episode in which they explore the allegations against Apple and other suppliers makes for sometimes bleak listening. The scale of this industrial production is astonishing. Hundreds of thousands of workers fleeing rural poverty has elements of the 19th century about it. But as the programme explains…

There were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that, instead of exporting that standard of life, which is in our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.

It is right that people raise these issues. We deserve to at least understand what is done to produce these wondrous devices.

But, and this is a blindingly tough challenge for the bleeding-heart liberal, how far should the truth be manipulated to create a more powerful, more compelling narrative?

Mike Daisey accepts that his monologue is not a factual, historical document of his experiences in China. TAL contacted his translator after a simple Google search despite Daisey claiming he could no longer reach her. She says many of the things in his performance didn’t happen. He attributes conversations to her that didn’t happen. He told TAL producers that her name isn’t Cathy (but it is, for professional purposes at least). He never met a worker whom he actually verified was 12 years old, but in his monologue he says he did.

There are countless inconsistencies in his account. But why should that be a problem if the wider story he is telling is true, and if his methods are getting that story to a wider audience?

I Reckon that the truth should get in the way of a good story, when that story attempts to challenge the status quo, expose hypocrisy or double-standards, and crusades against the the System. A challenge to the vested interests or the established wisdom has to stand up to scrutiny. Scientific research that challenges the existing paradigms, that uncovers anomalies in the way we understand the world, has to be peer-reviewed before it can become the new reality, the new way of explaining the way things are.

Mike Daisey claims that his performance doesn’t need to live up to noraml journalistic standards of accuracy, that he can hide behind the smokescreen of theatrical licence. He claims to be exposing a wider context of truths, and as such his only mistake has been to allow TAL (which takes its journalistic standards very seriously) to broadcast his story.

But I Reckon he is kidding himself. Mike Daisey seems to believe his only mistake has been to allow TAL to broadcast his performance. So lying to their team of producers about the facts and accuracy of his story was their fault?

I Reckon that deep down he knows he has run fast and loose with the facts in a bad way. Noone with his experience writes a piece called The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs without thinking, expecting, hoping that it will become news. He wants to expose the reality of the manufacturing process of the iconic products of the 21st century, but instead of his recent interviews being about those realities, they’ve focused on questioning his integrity. TV & press journalists have been challenging his standards (yes, really…). He has become the story. But he isn’t the story. He’s just a messenger, and he’s become a distraction. The TAL team believed his performance was a reflection of what actually happened to him. I believed it. He wants us to believe it.

I Reckon he should apologise, tell the truth about his performance, but keep performing.

Meanwhile, Apple has reported that in the first launch weekend, it has sold 3 million units of the new iPad3.

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At the start of 2011 I made a rash declaration, that I would lose 25lbs by Easter. I failed.

Although I did lose 15lbs in the first few months of the year, it was as though I then plateaued, with no means or will to reach the summit. I felt healthier and happier, my clothes fitted better, what was the problem?

Then I had a health check at our local surgery, where they genuinely seemed quite impressed. My stats were much improved from the start of the year – more lean muscle mass, less fat, lower blood pressure, better aerobic capacity, and so on. But my cholesterol remained stubbornly high. If anything, it was higher than a couple of years ago. Apparently it’s not enough to put me into any kind of risk category, but it still concerned me. My Dad and indeed Rachel’s Dad both have a history of heart disease, and this figure of 7.1 was the slowly-increasing blot on an otherwise clean bill of health.

And all the while in recent times I’ve been feeling my age. First my Achilles and then this year my 42-year-old hip told me that any lingering ambitions towards running should be seriously reined in. My hamstrings and hips frequently ache, usually not much more than a dull background stiffness, but sometimes quite a bit more. Every time I see cosmetic ads about the visible signs of aging, I can only think that the invisible signs are the ones we need to worry about…

A couple of months ago, Rachel and a couple of friends decided they wanted to take collective charge of their own fitness and health. Rather than pouring money into clubs like Weight Watchers or Slimming World, they started using a free fitness/diet website. Multiple studies have indicated that the simple act of keeping an honest and comprehensive (admittedly two very crucial descriptors) food diary significantly improves weight loss over and above any other initiatives. This website and its very usable mobile version has kept them focused.

Record all your food (calories in) and your exercise/activity (calories out). And if you consistently eat fewer calories than your body burns off by just doing stuff, you will lose weight. Rachel and her friends meet every week for a chat and put a couple of pounds into their communal jar. They each know the others’ goals (weight loss, fitness etc) and as such can ‘reward’ themselves when they achieve their goals.

I’ve become a sort-of unofficial member of this club, and since October I’ve lost a further 10lbs. Portions have got smaller. I consciously park further from my office, so that I have a steep hill to climb when I go back to my car at the end of the day, and go to the gym two or three times each week. There’s no complicated diet plans involved, just eating less and moving more, most days. As 2o11 comes to an end, I have lost 25lbs, and it feels terrific. People have commented. I fasten my belts two notches tighter, shirts that hung loose are now tucked in, trousers that were uncomfortable now feel loose. I need some new clothes.

Belt, notches,

A visual history...

I’ll be honest, in the last week or so the inevitable Christmas period of gourmet family gatherings have taken their toll. I like cheese and spiced ham and bread sauce and cheese and roast potatoes and cheese, sometimes on the same plate with a large glass of three of wine. At the same time as this gluttony, I’ve been pretty inactive: the most challenging activity has been carrying piles of plates and food from the kitchen to the table.

But I’ve started this weight gain from a far lower base. I still weigh 2olbs lighter than 12 months ago, and I feel confident I can lose this additional Christmas weight. Importantly, I’ve put on weight through ‘abnormal’ behaviour, rather than the other way around. In 2011 my ‘normal’ lifestyle has evolved into something that includes regular exercise and smaller portions at mealtimes. Our everyday diet still includes cheese, eggs, meat and fish. It doesn’t feel like I’m depriving myself. I still enjoy a good blow-out dinner party, or a takeaway, or a few pints. I know that I have to make an effort to be healthy, because I’m worth it.

The visible signs of aging that matter aren’t wrinkles around the eyes. I can make some difference to them with a good diet, plenty of water, exercise and sleep. More important was my bulging waistline, the silent creep into larger sizes, a long-term acceptance that I can’t move like I used to.

Forgive me for shoe-horning the wonderful Matilda! musical into everything, but there are lines that make so much sense…

…just because you find that life’s not fair it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it,
If you always take it on the chin and wear it nothing will change…

Don’t make a rubbish resolution next weekend that won’t make a difference. Last year I tried to be bold, and only partially succeeded. But because my resolution was about things that really matter, my health, well-being and self-esteem, I didn’t shrug off the failure.


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I’ve often reflected on the small things, the coincidences that may not seem important at the time, but can unutterably alter the future course of a life. Obviously this reflection tends to happen when I’m not quite as busy as I have been in recent weeks, as I’ve barely been able to keep up with this blog. I have themes and ideas backed up, if only I could work out when or how to commit time and energy to the writing.

When I was 13, my parents returned from a routine meeting with my teachers, with the suggestion from my music teacher that I might like to take up an instrument, for example, the French Horn. That conversation changed everything. I did take up the Horn, it did become a major part of my university social life, I do still play today, and I met Rachel in the university orchestra.

When I was 18 I failed to get into Oxford University. At a loss to know what to do next (I hadn’t failed very often up to that point) I ended up on an exchange scheme, on which I went to High School in Princeton in the US for a semester. There I truly blossomed, coming out of my intellectual, angst-ridden, insecure teenage self into a new environment where noone knew me except for who I was right there and then, with no baggage. This huge boost in confidence shaped me for my life at university and beyond.

Before I left for the US at the start of January, I was awaiting offers from other universities. My 2nd choice after Oxford was Durham, who wrote to say that they wanted to interview me (despite already having achieved 3 Grade ‘A’s). My 3rd choice was Exeter, who offered me a place without any interview. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to schlep 450 miles round-trip to Durham, just days before leaving for America for 8 months. Almost on a petulant whim, I declined their ‘offer’ of an interview and accepted Exeter: job done.

In the first months of my final year at Exeter, I was feeling bad. I’d enjoyed and then suffered a very brief, fairly intense relationship (my first for 2 years), I was putting a good deal of pressure on myself in my studies, while Britain was entering a recession in which the job prospects for graduates were pretty bleak. And then my father’s mother died. She had been very ill following a stroke for a long time, but it still hit me a lot harder than I cared to admit. My housemates were all due to travel up to Oxford for a party with friends who had graduated the previous year, but because of the timing of the funeral, I didn’t go with them. I was in Exeter alone, and fed up. So I hosted a dinner party (my first) for friends from the orchestra. We ate and drank and went onto The Lemon Grove, semi-legendary and mostly tacky student night club on campus.

And it was there, on Saturday 23rd November 1991, 20 years ago last month, that I first met Rachel; on a night out that by all normal expectations would not have happened, but for the seemingly random event of my grandmother’s death. We talked and I walked her back to her rooms – she was a 1st Year. We drank coffee and laughed a long time about Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It wasn’t all completely plain sailing after that, but my life since that weekend has been different, in a very, very good way.

The title of this post was taken from the writings of Frederick Buechner, an American theologian.

The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.

Every Christmas Rachel and I like to watch the Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Not because of the carol-singing at the end, not because Clarence gets his wings, but because of its wonderful life-affirming message. Good people who treat other people kindly matter. They do make a difference. The film goes through a lot of darkness before emerging into the light: don’t forget George Bailey tries to kill himself in the opening moments. There’s frustration and disappointment aplenty before the bell finally rings.

Some things, events, decisions in our lives barely register at the time but can have amazing consequences. Other things feel like the whole world has exploded or been ripped from under you (like almost everything when you’re 17), but in the end don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, it all matters, but often in ways we cannot predict.

I try not to spend too much time reflecting on the what-might-have-beens, as I can’t change them now, and I’m glad of that. But I often remind myself to be grateful for the coincidences and chances that brought me here.

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