More Testing Times

May 14, 2014

So I finally got around to getting my eyes tested today after walking round every opticians in Bigtown with my poor out-of-fashion tractor-crushed glasses asking if they had anything like them in stock and booking myself in at the only place where they didn’t look at me as if I was some sort of a weirdo for wanting the sort of glasses I wanted to wear as opposed to wanting the sort of glasses the powers that be have deemed people should wear. So I actually ended up at the place where I got my eyes tested the last time and was avoiding because their lenses tend to be a lot more expensive than the bigger chains – never mind the frames, just replacing the high index lenses (essential for moles like me who don’t want to end up peering through a pair of milk bottle-bottoms) ended up costing almost as much as a new bike. But they were the ones who said, ‘certainly, we can order something like that’, rather than ‘they no longer make glasses like that; we’re sick of telling people there’s no call for them’ so I decided it was worth the expense.

squished glasses

They also have a very nice optician who explains what she’s doing when she’s testing your eyes so the whole eye examination felt more like a consultation and less like a series of trick questions. It turns out my eyes as well as being extremely short sighted are also quite variable – my astigmatism has mysteriously got better in one eye, but shifted in orientation, while my other eye has decided to develop astigmatism and both have got more short sighted. And while my close vision is still pretty good, the stronger prescription will mean that I will now start to do the thing where you want to take your glasses off to read small print, after which its only a short hop skip and jump towards needing longer arms, followed by the dreaded varifocals. ‘You’re not quite there yet,’ she said sympathetically. ‘But the time will come…’

After that, it was just a question of choosing some frames. As expected, they didn’t have anything in stock but they did know where to look on the internet and with a cry of triumph one of the assistants unearthed a couple of pairs they could order in for me to try on approval that only cost an arm or so, rather than an arm and a leg. And when I with trepidation asked about the lenses themselves, I got some more good news: not only had the prices gone down (from ‘how much?!’ to ‘ouch’) but if I waited until next week there would be a sale with 30% off the complete package, bringing it all the way down to almost reasonable. I can’t help but feel that they don’t let you know about little things like that in Specsavers…


Bring Back my Bonny to me, to me

May 10, 2014

I went into Bigtown on one of my biennial shoe shopping trips and found rather more than I had bargained for

shoes representing missing schoolgirls

More than 200 pairs of girls’ and womens’ shoes, placed there in solidarity with the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. You were supposed to take a selfie, I think, and tweet it or facebook it, but I stuck to photographing the shoes and talking to a few of the folk who were doing the organising.

I’m not 100% sure what I think of these sorts of campaigns – taking a selfie and sending a tweet doesn’t seem calculated to acheive much of anything except making ourselves feel a bit better about something, rather than helpless (you could say the same about pedalling on Parliament) and ‘trending on Twitter’ is not the same as ‘actually liberating 200+ schoolgirls from a horrible fate’. But then again, I do find it encouraging that people in Bigtown are taking time to act in solidarity with women in Nigeria. It’s not the most diverse of places, and it’s good to see it turn its gaze outwards once in a while. Long may it last, after the caravan of media attention has moved on.

Later, after the rain had returned, the shoes were gathered up and taken away, leaving only ghostly footprints which were if anything more moving

footprints in the rain

Meanwhile (to lower the tone somewhat) I have bought my first pair of Doc Martens since the last century. Obviously these days I channel ‘granny biker’ rather than ‘bovver girl’ (and they’re way more comfortable out of the box than they ever used to be) but it feels a bit like an act of solidarity with my 20-something self. Bouncing soles…

new shoes


Strange Bedfellows

April 10, 2014

I was settling down today to a productive morning of not completing my second novel, dashing out to rescue the laundry from the rain, forgetting to take the sausages out of the freezer and sending the occasional tweet about the loss of my tweed cap when another tweet alerted me to the fact that my name was included in this.

And for those of you who don’t wish to wade through a long PDF, the short version is that Pedal on Parliament in general (and for some reason myself in particular) have been included in a list of 100 campaigns that are changing the world – alongside Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Fish Fight, Malala Yousafzi and Pussy Riot. Which will make today the first (and I suspect the last) time my name has ever been found alongside such hallowed company. We’ve also therefore been longlisted for the Change Opinion Awards 2014, which I very much doubt we will win, although if we do make it as far as the awards ceremony and Hugh Fearnley-Washingup does too then I shall start an additional personal campaign to get him to not start every sentence of his recipies with the words ‘In another bowl/pan/dish…’

Meanwhile, my hat is still missing, feared lost, possibly on Monday’s epic ride (or rather in the pub afterwards). With ASBO buzzard season almost upon us, this could prove fatal to any campaign for safer cycling in Scotland…


Ruled by a Tomato

February 10, 2014

Bleurgh. I’ve been a bit busy recently, doing the sort of concentrated heads-down at-a-computer type work that earns money but doesn’t really provide much in the way of blogging material unless you want to know just how stiff my neck and shoulders are (I even had to skip yoga last week). But as a result, I have been seriously using the Pomodoro Technique, as the best way of maintaining my concentration and basically getting the work done without endlessly frittering away my time on twitter. I’ve dabbled with it in the past and found it quite effective but not transformative but this time I actually went to the effort of downloading an app for my phone (there are tons of them) and doing it properly. As a result I’ve managed to do way more work than I’ve ever managed in the past, despite the fact that in essence as a technique it’s almost insultingly simple: you work for 25 minutes and then you take a short break, and then you start again. There’s something faintly ridiculous in the idea that I have to have my phone to tell me when to work and when to take a break, and yet at the same time there’s something very compelling about having a timer count down the seconds till you can take a break – and then imperiously ringing you back to work once your break is over.

And amazingly I’ve found that with the thing on I actually can resist the temptation of just quickly checking what that email is, because after all it’s only another 7 minutes and 38 seconds before I can legitimately read it and respond. Nor do I find that a quick glance at what’s going on in Twitter results in me looking up slightly dazed some time later and discovering I’ve spent the last 30 minutes looking at websites offering donkeys for sale (this really happened, although fortunately I don’t appear to have bought any donkeys). In fact, I’ve got better all round at concentrating on what I’m doing even when I don’t have the tomato ticking away in the background, although I can’t promise that substantial chunks of my time aren’t occasionally lost down internet rabbitholes. In fact the only unexpected side effect is that I’m drinking more coffee because the symbol it uses for a ‘break’ is a picture of a cup of coffee and so suggestible am I, I obediently put the kettle on…

I don’t know whether the whole Pomodoro thing is built on some actual brain science that shows that 25 minutes is the optimum time for concentrating on a task – or whether it’s just that I’ve subconsciously decided that having downloaded the thing I’m going to make it work for me. I suspect it’s a bit of both. We humans are really quite irrational creatures and apparently sometimes it makes sense to hand over some of your autonomy to a piece of software on a phone that’s pretending to be an Italian kitchen timer that’s pretending to be a tomato. At some point – probably when I need it most – my brain will rebel and I’ll stop paying attention to its commands and I’ll have to find some other technique which will work for a while in its stead. Until that day, I’ll just keep it ticking away…


Shortcut to Happiness

January 14, 2014

I’m currently reading The Happy City by Charles Montgomery about how we can make ourselves happier (and greener and healthier) by redesigning our cities. It ticks all sorts of boxes for me: from a cameo appearance by Enrique Penalosa on a bike to plenty of love for the sort of mixed human-scale urbanism so eloquently championed by Jane Jacobs, as well as putting into words some of the things I find a bit disturbing about visiting Colorado, however bright and glorious the winter weather.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, but one thing did stand out in the chapter on what makes humans happy. One of the key ingredients of happiness, apparently, is the feeling that you can trust the people around you and happiness researchers measure it by asking people what they think the likelihood is that their wallet would be returned to them by a stranger if they dropped it where they lived.

Now, as it happens, most people massively underestimate the chances of getting their wallet back – what the question really measures, indirectly, is how well they know their neighbours and how often they interact positively with the people around them. Improving people’s happiness, therefore, includes basically re-engineering the way we live so that we can have lots of friendly interactions with other people, which means doing things like getting rid of sprawl, shortening commutes, creating green spaces in cities and rolling back the dominance of the car – all brilliant and worthwhile things but a) a bit long term and b) unlikely when you have a government whose transport policy consists of building dual carriageways between every town in Scotland and then when they are finished with that possibly thinking about some cycle paths (I really wish I was making this up).

Obviously, I will continue to campaign for such a re-imagining of our cities and towns but fortunately there is a shortcut for those of us wishing to be happy in our lifetimes – you can be me, and just leave your wallet and other assorted valuables in a trail behind you wherever you go, and discover first hand the honesty of the people around you. It’s a slightly high-risk strategy, perhaps, but imagine your surprise and delight at getting a letter in the post informing you that your wallet which disappeared on the train on the way to the US over Christmas, has turned up in a lost property depot in Huddersfield. This means I shall soon be reunited with not just my (by now cancelled – I’m optimistic, not completely naive) bank cards, but my driver’s licence (I think I have a use for it; it will come to me eventually…), WWT membership card, Advanced Open Water diver’s qualification (may come in handy if it keeps raining) and, most important of all, every library card I’ve ever been issued… 


A Seat at the Table

December 29, 2013

Our trip is slowly drawing to a close – by Monday we’ll be embarking on what looks like being two days of torture-by-travel, complete with an oh-god-hundred hour start, a six hour layover in Salt Lake City followed by an overnight flight to Manchester via Paris (and who even knew you could fly direct from Utah to Paris…) and then home by train on New Year’s Eve with whatever the weather gods have left to throw at us after all the that’s been going on in the last fortnight.

Today we made the most of the time we had left, getting out for one last day in the mountains. On the way back, taking the scenic route, stopped by Bishop’s Castle, which is basically a castle built single-handedly by one man who – when he’s not building castles – apparently fills in the time writing signs.

bishops castle bishops castle2

We were going to explore further but, frankly, the tide of crazy (I missed out the sign which proved conclusively that the constitution meant you didn’t need a driver’s license because I was getting a bit worried about the guy in front of us in full camo muttering ‘Amen’ as he slowly read each sign) just sort of pushed us back into the car.

laminated photos

Then tonight we decided to fortify ourselves and headed off to one of the approximately 17,000 Mexican restaurants in Pueblo for some decent Mexican food.* We drove down to Jorge’s Sombrero, and were promptly seated at a booth for four where the table was covered in laminated photographs of some event or other which we didn’t pay much attention to because the chips and salsa arrived promptly and there were menus to peruse (and in my case desperately try and remember the difference between a taco and a tostada and a fajita and a burrito and which one wasn’t going to end up blowing my head off). At least until the other half peered a little closer and said ‘isn’t that Barack Obama’ and lo and behold it was.

Barack Obama

For we weren’t just in any booth – we were at the President’s table. It seems he stopped by for a quiet family meal with just Michelle, Sasha, Malia and the assembled press corps during the 2008 election. This kind of surprised us as Colorado comes across as a pretty conservative place where about 90% of the billboards are advertising gun shows (the other 10% urge us to ‘put Christ back into Christmas) and the mall has to have a sign on the door saying ‘no weapons’ -although, thinking about it, the 17,000 Mexican restaurants might have been something of a clue that the demographics aren’t entirely 100% redneck. But it turns out that more than half of Coloradoans voted Democrat in 2008 – including much of Pueblo county

Although I’m guessing the creator of Bishop’s Castle wasn’t among them.

* note to any British readers – if you have only ever eaten Mexican food in some sort of themed joint where tequila shots are semi compulsory, and 98% of the clientele are stag and/or hen nights and the food is, frankly, irrelevant, then you haven’t actually eaten Mexican food. Come to Pueblo (or, at a pinch, Mexico) and find out for yourselves.


Committing Pedestrianism

December 20, 2013

I suppose in the interests of strict accuracy, I should report that it’s not always blue skies and gloriously sunny weather here – while yesterday we had lunch sitting in the sun before going on a 3-hour bike ride, today the temperature barely crept above freezing, and we decided it might be time for some of those car-based errands we’d been putting off while the weather was so gorgeous, like going to the grocery store and the giant bookshop and other shops surrounded by acres of parking. And hunting down the mysterious pop-up baklava shop that had no website and appeared to be in an abandoned used car lot, if Google Streetview was anything to go by…

We decided that we’d better do something a little bit active as well, especially if we did find that baklava shop, so we headed down to the riverwalk where you can walk a mile, sponsored by Toyota (the river was actually diverted away from the city centre after it flooded the whole place, but when they wanted to create somewhere for people to walk, they diverted some of it back as long as it promised to behave).

toyota_mile toyota_mile_2

For those who find walking sedately around a glorified duck pond a bit tame, you can always try sprinting across the roads instead…

downtown street

It’s fortunate the drivers around here are mostly pretty patient, but there’s no doubt that round here the car is king. Outside of a tiny historic downtown area, and the mall of course, even parking and walking from shop to shop just feels, well, wrong. Not illegal or anything, but wrong. Well, maybe a little bit illegal if you don’t cross in the crosswalks. If you want to walk and not get funny looks, get a dog. Or stick to the Toyota mile…

Oh and the baklava? We found it in the abandoned used car lot as promised, and it proved absolutely delicious if a little calorific. Looks like we’ll need to do a few more circuits of that riverwalk pretty soon….


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