25 November 2011

Giving the gift of giftlessness

"The greatest gift is a portion of thyself."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today is Black Friday, when shops open at dawn (or even midnight) to kickstart the holiday shopping season.

This to help consumers get at all the stylish and cutting-edge gifts chockful of trendiness, coated in a veneer of desirability and packaged and shipped to the retail outlet near you. As much fun as getting gifts can be, Black Friday can bring out the worst in people (especially if they own pepper spray).

Some people prefer to celebrate Buy Nothing Day on 25 November and opt out of the orgy of consumerism. Great! I'm all about that, but I still need to get something amazing for the sister-in-law who got me a Kindle last year?

Herein lies the problem. You can't celebrate Buy Nothing Month and show up at Christmas empty-handed, unless you're a total prick - which you're hopefully not.

So what's an Occupy-sympathizing, sensible person who would like to stay out of Christmas debt to do?

Many years ago, as an irresponsible amateur actor, professional barista and part-time unfocused university dropout, I handmade (with help from friends) sock puppets for my whole family. They were my Christmas gift. Each one was unique and cute, with button eyes and felt tongues or neckties or whatnot. They had personality, and my whole family had fun pretending to enjoy them.

Of course, when you're the only one playing homemade Christmas gifts, it can be rather humiliating. But I'd still say my meagre Christmas budget was better spent on craft supplies than a trip to the dollar store.

The good news is that this year we're making a collective move into a Christmas that's more sustainable, thoughtful and probably a little closer to the true meaning of Christmas (whatever that is).

We're chiming in with Leo Babauta over on Zen Habits, who has issued the No New Gifts Holiday Challenge.

In my family we're not going quite the level of austerity suggested by Leo - at least not this year. But we are mixing a mandate for charitable donations, shared experience and homemade gifts into our financially-constrained-by-mutual-consent gift-giving.

It's something that's worth thinking about pitching to your family - not just storebought gifts exchanged out of a shared sense of seasonal obligation, but thoughtful, one-of-a-kind meaningful presents. Do this and you're also automatically giving them the gift of less stressful month. So text them and suggest it. If they're in the lineup at Best Buy waiting to arm wrestle a stranger for some Dr. Dre headphones they'll probably be willing to listen.

And if you need to slowly introduce the idea, that's good too. Start now.

Save money. Have more fun. Be more thoughtful. Learn a new crafty skill. Drink eggnog. Help at a charity. Celebrate. Fill your Black Friday (and holidays) with some white light.


24 November 2011

Sandwiches are beautiful


It was just an ordinary evening many years ago. I became, as often happens a bit peckish, and started making myself a sandwich. It began as a quick hunger stopgap - a bagel and some cheese. But upon looking in the fridge another part of myself took over the process, and I got all stone soup on that bagel.

That night I constructed a sandwich of such significance that it ceased to be merely a sandwich... it became an epiphany.

For some idea of how intense that experience was I'll tell you this: I toasted half of the bun. I wanted to experience both fresh bread and toasted, so I just toasted half. I pulled out pickles, salsa, mustard mayonnaise, different types of meats and cheeses. It wasn't an excessively stacked or ornate novelty sandwich, but it was a thing of perfection that grew from humble origins into something powerful and tasty. My reality subdivided as that sandwich was being created; I reassembled my life's goals in accordance with the methodology.

As I pulled almost every condiment jar and sliceable vegetable out of the fridge I realized that it wasn't just the excitement of the impending deliciousness that was getting me giddy; it was the realization that I could pour myself into any task or experience, and the more I did so, the more I'd get out of it - in this case it was a transferable learning about attention and focus into reward and results. And the most beautiful sandwich I've ever eaten.

I've attempted to pour that sandwich-making dedication into other areas of my life, with varying levels of success. But making a sandwich isn't a destination, it's a journey. And that journey continues. It's like life like that. And

There's more though. Nowatimes I'll often find myself eating a delicious one-of-a-kind sandwich in front of my computer, while surfing the net. And, sandwich in one hand, mouse in the other, I can head over to see what kind of innovative definition-busting innovation is going on at Insanewiches, find out how a particular sandwich shop fits on the 'Wich plot at Simply Sandwiches , read as Pete waxes lyrical On Sandwiches, and hear the unified voice of the British Sandwich Association. It's all there, in the palm of my hand.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, don't let the sandwich just go from hand-to-mouth; there's a whole world of delights, culinary, cultural and metaphysical that can be found between two slices of bread.

If you're wondering where the title of the blogpost comes from, don't sleep on this tune:


16 November 2011

Rotate your Owl

If you've got an owl, you've just got to rotate it. I always suspected it, but now know it empirically. Thanks science!


10 November 2011

In Our Happy Place

Last night Marbles Improv teamed up with Horse & Louis to deliver the first of what will definitely be a regular (and regularly awesome) monthly comedy night. It's called Happy Place, and at The Miller last night that's exactly where everybody seemed to be.

Marbles has had a monthly slot at London Improv since April, and it's gone through a few different set-ups. We had The Yak, a chat show (which may make another appearance down the line), and we've hosted some short form improv as well, but what our stated aim had been (to get a variety of comedy acts from the circuit in and put them up with our improv all on one bill) has only now seemed to come together in the way it should.

I'd never met Horse nor Louis before last night, but from first hellos it was clear that they knew what was what. This is really important to me.

I'd also never seen what they do, but seeing them on stage sealed the deal: their hosting skills, musical chops and comedic sensibilities definitely put them in the 'knowing what is what' camp.

And they held the show together brilliantly, getting the audience well and truly on board from the first few moments. They also booked the acts, which were all top-notch (and new to me) Canadian comedic songstress Mae Martin, sketch group Expeditionary Force, and stand-up Tez Ilyas.

The second half was Marbles. And for the first time in a while, Dave and I just had fun. And, playing before a truly warm crowd, our show was fast and loose. We did a shortened set due to a lengthy first half, but still managed to stuff in some nice scenes, curious characters and friendly banter (including a scene involving a hitchhiker and a driver competing for ownership of an array of gestures that Dave called "one of the best things I've ever done improv-wise"). The result? We're all already looking forward to the next one (7 December).

To keep abreast of what's going on I suggest joining the mailing list, which will be a totally non-intrusive yet personal way for us to let you know what will be coming up, so you can come visit your Happy Place. (7th December, The Miller, London Bridge)


09 November 2011

If you like it, do it longer

Jules Munns, Jonathan Monkhouse and Alex Fradera in Cellblock

I have a pretty short attention span. Receiving a YouTube link that approaches the five minute mark gives me pause.

And movies, conferences, books and documents - pretty much anything that doesn't heed the "brevity is the soul of wit" axiom turn me off. But push it to the extreme and I get interested again. And I've recently had a few instances of seriously longform performance.

First there was the London 50 hour improvathon, and more recently I dropped in on Cellblock, the Nursery Festival's 26 hour improv show set in a prison.

Then just a couple days ago I listened in on Pat Thornton's 24 hour stand up set as part of the Dare to Remember. I even chipped in a few jokes (and a few bucks). Feel free to do the same. (Donate here).

All of these events got me thinking about what's engaging about extended-length performance. It's not the calibre of the show itself (I've seen some pretty sloppy improv tailing off towards the end of the marathons, and the jokes from Pat's Dare? Well, there was quality and there was quantity - but not in equal amounts).

I think what's so compelling is the pushing of limits, and pushing through those limits; challenging your endurance levels to see what is truly possible. But that's not it entirely.

Pat Thornton of #pats24hrs

As this recent Guardian article identified in its reference to Cellblock, it's the exploration, and seeing what comes out of a sleep-deprived mind. There's a lot of twisted rantings, but there is also a level of near-genius that comes from being locked into something for so long. When I've joined in those improv marathons I've felt an exhilarating energy from the other performers, working, fighting and surrendering to exhaustion. It's a cool thing.

But I would say that, because I like extreme things in extreme measures - and being part of the action. But what about the people for whom this is all for? Is there something more to be gained from watching an epic piece of theatre, or listening to the entirety of Moby Dick?

I think so. Because at a certain point you stop feeling a like a viewer, and instead become a participant. This is especially true in the case of improv, where the audience has been known to join in during the small hours, and most definitely in the case of Pat's Dare to Remember, where the audience tweet in jokes. Some of my finest contributions here and here.

But even in the case of Moby Dick, it becomes a thing that you are part of. An experience that transcends the watching.

It's not the quality it's the engagement - and the commitment to the duration - from both performers and audience. What happens in the in between time just takes care of itself.


05 November 2011

Guy Fawkes all over again

Everybody loves Guy Fawkes day in the UK. Something to do with fireworks and bonfires. Oh, and celebrating the maintenance of the status quo.

This year it's different. With the spread of the Occupy protests, and the V mask from V for Vendetta (and its association with the Parliament exploding anti-hero) long since having been adopted by protesters, it's all of a sudden the day itself.

In addition to the bonfires and fireworks there are plans to kill Facebook, close accounts at mega-banks, and march on Parliament. And probably some other bespoke pop-up events.

I'm not into mischief, but I like the confluence of the symbolic/historic and the modern zeitgeist. The global spread of dissent using social media coupled with the local in person throwback to a centuries-old act of rebellion.

Considering the failure of the recent G20, and the general nefarious unscruplousness of the banking system in general, and the antiquated dodginess of the City of London in particular, it's reassuring to have something constructive to believe in. Something that belongs to real people, who are working for change.

Tonight I'll be out not causing havoc, but supporting the positivity and creativity that can be born behind a mask.