Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Earth Hour 2010

Green living is all about the little stuff, at the end of the day.

When my father started work in Calcutta at the age of 22, living in his landlady’s windowless box room, he used to boil his breakfast egg and use the same hot water to shave, manfully ignoring its egginess. He may have done it for the wrong reasons—he was a bachelor and couldn’t be bothered to boil a whole other pan—but it was still eco-friendly. An aunt of mine washes clothes in water that she then uses in the garden; though she also washes her hair in four separate steps over three hours, so I’d be careful about her in general. My mother preserves every piece of mail that comes through the door to use as scrap paper, which she can use to write lists on and immediately lose, thereby actually wasting the paper. One of my exes always turned off the tap while he brushed his teeth, a habit that annoyed me less than all the other ones.

It’s no surprise, then, that I am a paragon of green living.

For instance, I’m quite small, so I don’t really need much bathwater. I would gladly use the runoff to water my plants, but I have the sort of nurturing personality that kills living things at fifty paces, so I don’t own any. I don’t roam the world on carbon-spouting business trips except for travel writing assignments, partly because there’s such a thing as Skype and teleconferencing, and partly because nobody invites me to business meetings other than travel writing assignments, seeing as I don’t have a job.

In consequence of this last fact, many of the other green living problems that plague the three hundred people who think about these things, more or less sort themselves out. No expensive toys with disposal-unfriendly batteries, though I do own a laptop, digital camera and iPod. No enormous fuel-guzzling SUV. No fancy wardrobe that changes with the seasons—there’s nothing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt won’t drape over quite adequately, especially if the holes are not embarrassingly placed. No title to any house to clean with planet-hating bleach.

Since I’m mostly at home, pretending to be a freelance writer, I can also throw out the most egregiously unnecessary parts of grooming. Why dye the only evidence that wisdom is accruing to me strand by grey strand? Why use nail polish, which contains carcinogens and dibutyl phthalate, which is not only “a suspected gender-bender” but also causes untold damage to any tongue that attempts to pronounce it? Why pour more detergent than strictly necessary into our choked river systems, when not washing jeans actually makes them last longer?

Food and drink can also be terribly carbon-emitting in terms of all the energy spent growing, processing and transporting steak and wine and so on, so it is with guilt that I continue to consume vast quantities of these items—but what’s the point of living if not to eat, drink and make merry with the few friends I have left who don’t mind my planet-friendly appearance and smell?

I’m only banging on about this because this Saturday, March 27 is Earth Hour. This is the annual event during which everyone, everywhere in the world is supposed to turn off their lights for one hour at 8.30pm local time, in a fabulous display of selflessness, and the planet is supposed to forgive us our trespasses for all the other 8,766 hours in the year (8,784 in a leap year).

I’m no environmental slouch, so I’m going to participate with enthusiasm. It’s my chance, after all, to make up for the fact that I refuse to use CFL bulbs because I prefer the warm yellow light of a regular bulb.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Apple a day

I have almost had several coronaries watching my mother use her laptop.

For one thing, her fingers continue to behave as if she’s working on a typewriter—they hit hard and recoil hard, which, given the shallowness of computer keys, is a waste of effort on the downswing and a waste of time on the upswing. I’m no stranger to inefficiency, but this makes me grit my teeth.

Secondly, she hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that her thumb can be used to speed up the trackball-and-click moves. She will move the trackball with her index finger, and then move the same index finger down to the clickpad. However, since the trackball is old and useless it tends to drift, so by the time she’s ready to click she usually has to return her index to the task of correcting course. By the time the digit has begun its stately swing back to the clickpad, the trackball is veering wildly again, and so are my eyes.

Thirdly, her computer is a wonderfully portable piece of junk, which means that she can carry her troubles everywhere. A couple of keys have come off completely from the keyboard, but that’s the least of it. I have frequently found her hunched over her screen with her eyes completely glazed over, sometimes looking in slightly different directions, because the pixelation is so horrible that she has to try to connect the dots. She has done much of her ageing waiting for a document to open. If you’re opening a webpage, you have time for a small snack. And if you should get impatient and click on anything again, the whole system grinds to a horrified halt, and you may as well push off on a short vacation.

She says things like: “I went into the net but it’s not coming down.” She calls documents articles, folders documents, and drives folders. Her telephone book habits—the plumber’s number under ‘T’ for ‘That chap recommended by Gita’—have migrated to her laptop filing system, with the result that she has no idea where she can find anything, or which of six file versions might be the most recent. Her desktop display is reminiscent of the professor’s room in the movie A Beautiful Mind. She’s been using computers for at least ten years but did not know, until two days ago, that sometimes just restarting your machine will persuade it that there really isn’t a paper jam in the printer.

I’ve spent a vast amount of time arguing that swapping this beastly machine for an Apple laptop would be beneficial because a laptop is supposed to help, not hinder work, and because Apple’s machines are built for technophobes. My brother tried to help by loading Ubuntu onto her machine, which only unleashed a new tidal wave of confusion.

This week, after struggling for months to write an article and work with the editor on Google Docs to no avail, she finally caved in. We’re supposed to go off to the Apple store one of these days and return with something she can actually use, but she’s terrified of the process of watching a professional technician transfer her data, so I’m not holding my breath.

There’s a video being passed around on Facebook, of a woman back at work after thirty years. It’s four seconds long: she’s sitting at a computer terminal, typing. She gets to the end of her line, automatically reaches out with her left hand, and sweeps the monitor right off the desk. It makes you laugh until you cry, but that’s better than starting off in tears.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The great depression

My friends and family know me to be an accomplished depressive, but a few days ago I hit a new low. I was so fantastically low that you could not possibly, on this whole benighted planet, be lower. And I had a big fat smile on my face.

This was because I was floating in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is so much more depressed than me, on account of being 422 metres below sea level, and also perhaps on account of instantly killing all living things and getting called ‘Killer Sea’ and ‘Devil’s Sea’ and ‘Stinking Lake’, that I felt duty-bound to try and cheer it up.

But mostly I was smiling because it’s just so much fun. The water’s deadly salt content may mean curtains for fish, but its unusual buoyancy means that you simply bob about on the surface like a cork. You’d have to be a gene pool-purifying, Darwin Award winner to drown.

Google some images of people floating in the Dead Sea. You’ll see them reading newspapers, with their drinks obligingly standing on the surface next to them. I yearn to be this cool but I’m really not, plus I didn’t have a newspaper or a drink, so I just linked my hands behind my head, shoulders clear of the water, and lay back, trying to look as if I did this all the time instead of like some thrilled hypersalinity virgin.

It was exactly like reclining in a deck chair positioned just under the surface—I actually crossed my legs. I tried a tiny little swim, but just ended up flapping at the surface of the water like a bedraggled bird, which is even less cool. The idea is not to swim. The idea is to hang out and converse with other half-naked floaters as if you’re having a chat on the beach.

I couldn’t really do that either because the people I was travelling with actually were having a chat on the beach, so I just floated, smiling like a lunatic, with the Holiday Inn beach in Jordan a few metres to my right, and to my left, across several kilometres of water, Palestine.

Getting into the water means negotiating the famously therapeutic mud at the bottom of the Dead Sea, which is squelchy, foot-sucky stuff that you sink into with each step. I took my time and was extremely careful not to splash, not then and not when I was trying to force my legs down from float to stand. The Holy Land is forever ringing with the screams of people who weren’t extremely careful not to get extremely salty water in their eyes.

Floating, screaming people are the only kind of life form in the water, if you don’t count bacteria and algae. Any fish that foolishly chokes up from the Jordan River inflow or one of the freshwater feeders instantly expires and wash up on the shores coated in salt. But humans get all sorts of bonus points for being there: fewer UV rays, more oxygen, and mineral-rich mud wraps.

This last involves being smeared from head to toe with clingy black mud until you look like a monster, and letting it dry out before hosing the stuff off. Hey presto: the new you, mineralised, tightened, psoriasis-less, endlessly youthful. King David, Herod the Great and Cleopatra all knew this, and now so do I.

The Dead Sea is only going to get more depressed. Not only is it sinking by a further metre a year due to evaporation and weakened inflow from the Jordan river; but it isn’t even the saltiest water on earth (drumroll for Lake Assal in Djibouti, apparently). But being there is guaranteed to cheer you up no end. If only by comparison.


For all its mayhem and terror, the unpromising twenty-first century has also given us one of the best, most satisfying neologisms in the English language.

The last couple of decades have seen a surfeit of words mothered by technological necessity. They’re often innovative, but they don’t wear all that well; either they’re cute in the same way that vomit is cute (‘tweeting’) or plain inelegant (‘Facebooking’ or ‘friending’). Either way they seem to be afflicted with a tiresome wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality.

This word so beautifully captures a universal human experience that there’s really nothing to do but sit back and admire it.

This word is ‘earworm’.

An earworm is a song, or a fragment of music, that gets stuck in your head and plays incessantly. It could be a whole song, or a verse. It could be a set of lyrics, or instrumental. It could be just one musical bar. It will attach itself to your auditory cortex, which is apparently active not just when you’re actually listening to a song but also when you imagine listening to that song; it will stay there; and it will, sooner rather than later, drive you around the bend.

The word ‘earworm’ (from the German ‘Ohrwurm’) has been around for a while, but I suspect that it hasn’t gotten the play, so to speak, that it deserves. Fewer people seem aware of its existence than should be, considering how wonderfully cathartic it is to be able to exactly describe a very specific form of psychic torture—particularly vicious because it’s both self-inflicted and completely out of your control.

Earworms begin by being just dandy. After all it’s the catchiness of the melody or the bar that insinuated it into your head in the first place. All is happiness. But pretty soon things begin to unravel. First it’s merely uncomfortable when the drone takes the shine off the happiness. Then, when you find yourself unable to think of anything else, it’s annoying. Things shade into frustration when you realise with a sinking feeling that you cannot get rid of it. Pretty soon you’re beating your cranium repeatedly against the wall trying to concuss the damn thing out of your system, until finally you end up in the emergency room shouting “Got this feeling! That tonight’s gonna be a good night! That tonight’s gonna be a good, good ni-i-ght!” over and over again, while the doctors back away slowly.

The genius of the word lies in the multiple connotations of the word ‘worm’. The experience is indeed quite a lot like having a maggot kind of worm crawling around making your head itch. It’s quite a lot like having a computer virus kind of worm reduce the hard drive of your auditory memory to jelly. It’s quite a lot like getting sucked through a cosmic kind of wormhole into a universe where you’ll be stuck for eternity without a sandwich in sight.

I haven’t been afflicted by the worst earworm you can get (anything by Celine Dionne or Whitney Houston) but I’ve had Joan Baez, which is pretty rough. Sadly, my chances of being plagued by these things is doubly high because I not only have a neurotic obsessive-compulsive nature, but am also female, both of which raise my predisposition. At the moment I have John Mayer’s Who Says I Can’t Get Stoned, but I’m still enjoying it because it’s newish.

They say that the only weapon against an earworm is an ‘eraser tune’ which might help displace it. But there’s little hope that the eraser tune won’t get bitten in the neck by the earworm and simply replace it. On the other hand, who says I can’t just get stoned?