Lights, satsumas…baubles!

Christmas!

I’m a big fan of Christmas and am also one of those sad people who has a ‘number of sleeps to Christmas’ app on my phone (24 sleeps at the time of writing, if you didn’t know and were vaguely curious). Anyway, this year I have decided to be proactive – hence why I am writing this on the first day in December – and try to make my Christmas experience even better by following these guidelines (although a good start would probably be to stop using words like ‘proactive’):

1) Stop mocking town Christmas lights:

Ok, so they usually never change and there is always something wrong with them. For instance, in the town where my grandparents lived, the same decorations were wheeled out for about 20 years running and unfortunately, but most memorably, the characters depicted (Santa, a snowman, a choirboy etc) all looked like they were being hanged. Where I live now, the lights have just gone up and the illuminated sprigs of holly and berries have a worryingly phallic shape to them (especially when they move up and down). But we shouldn’t mock. After all, England is a grey and wet old place and anything that goes some way to making a branch of Wilkinsons look pretty should probably be celebrated instead.

2) Don’t get ‘affected’ by the John Lewis advert.

They do it every year and we all know the formula, but it still works every time: Classic 80s song given a slow, piano-based makeover and sung in a cutesy female voice. A sad/happy storyline that involves a family growing up together or a cute child revelling in the joy of Christmas. This year, we have the surreal (and slightly pagan) tale of a snowman somehow travelling up and down the country to buy the perfect gift for Mrs. Snowman, sound-tracked to a mellow version of ‘The Power of Love’. That lump in my throat was just a large piece of toast, honestly…you’re a bunch of bastards, John Lewis marketing department.

3) Learn to wrap presents:

I am very envious of my wife. Creative sort that she is, the presents that she wraps are always beautifully symmetrical, decorated with ribbons and bows and they look so good that it is almost a shame to open them. Mine, on the other hand, usually consist of a 50/50 ratio between wrapping paper and sticky tape, whilst even the simplest shapes are so ineptly packaged that it looks like I have been involved in a fight to the death with whatever happens to be inside.

4) Take ownership (or at least 50%) of tree-decorating:

My involvement in the Christmas tree process typically extends to buying it, carrying it home and plonking it in the designated place in our living room. Decorating, however, has become the sole domain of Mrs.D. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, in fact it was one of my favourite Christmas activities in years gone by. Recently though, I’ve found that the fun goes out of it when you are being relentlessly project-managed and all your decorations are removed and repositioned (“there are too many baubles in that corner!”) This year though, I am determined that I will not be relegated to just putting Slade on in the background (I probably will).

5) Buy a Christmas jumper:

Yes, a PROPER Christmas jumper. One that contains 75% of all the colours known to man, has at least 4 reindeer on it and a couple of flashing lights (usually positioned around the nipple areas). I know they used to be tacky and the stuff of nightmares that would be knitted by your gran, but last year they appeared to make a surprising comeback in the fashion stakes. Of course, as it was last year, I may well have missed that particular bandwagon and will instead look like a gormless idiot, given that I am 34 years old and not a skinny hipster from Shoreditch. But hey, it’s Christmas.

6) Make Eggnog:

Truthfully, I don’t actually know what this is and, given the fact that it looks like it belongs in a fertility clinic, I’m not 100% convinced I want to drink it either. However, it appears to be a Christmas institution and is supposed to be incredibly potent, which is good enough for me. Besides, this is the only time of year where you can consume things that are utterly revolting in the name of tradition (Brussels Sprouts, anyone?)

7) Stop trying to do the Irish accent whilst singing along to ‘Fairytale of New York’:

This is self-explanatory, really. I love this song but my warbling is dreadful enough without also adopting an inconsistent blend of Irish, Scottish and Welsh with a hint of Jamaican thrown in.

8) Be more imaginative with buying Christmas presents.

This is to any members of my family who end up receiving a Christmas candle/ basket of bath soaps/condiments for cheese/anything from Millets: I AM VERY SORRY.

9) Remember what Christingle is:

Every year I have to ask my wife to tell me what it actually symbolises and I seem to forget pretty much straight away. The only thing I can recall is that it has something to do with a candle and an orange (will a satsuma do?) This probably sounds laughably pathetic, but at least it’s an improvement from last year, when I still thought it was a character from ‘Emmerdale’.

10) Be thankful:

I am usually a pessimistic person and tend to focus on and worry about the negatives, rather than concentrate on all the positives. This year though, I will try my hardest to do the opposite. After all, I have a lovely wife (when she’s not decorating the tree, anyway), a loving family and a fantastic group of friends. I am a lucky man and it’s only right that I remember that as we head into December. Happy holidays, everyone 🙂

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Rubbed up the wrong way

There are often events in life that turn out to be the exact opposite of what you’d expect. This can work both ways. A night out that you thought you were too tired for can turn into a fantastic catch-up that lasts until the early hours. On the flipside, an interview for a job that you thought you were perfect for can sometimes turn into a disaster that you can’t escape from soon enough. I think we’ve all been there.

One such occasion occurred a few weekends ago, when my wife and I had booked ourselves onto a massage course in London. At this point, I should probably point out that it was massaging in a ‘sports therapy’ sense rather than anything more erotic. If you were reading this post expecting the latter, then I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed, ’50 Shades of Grey’ this isn’t.

Anyhow, these massage courses are not cheap and we had booked ours at a discount through Groupon. For anyone not familiar with Groupon, it basically sells a vast number of deals at a heavily discounted price. These deals can be anything from beauty treatments and short breaks to meals and days out. I’ve bought a few things from Groupon in the past and it is, one the whole, a pretty good website, providing you don’t object to receiving 2-3 emails every single day, usually sent around 3am.

The course was to be held at one of the city’s universities and so, armed with our 75% discount, Mrs.D and I headed towards North London.

However, the alarm bells went off initially when we arrived at the venue. The tutor was nowhere to be seen and there appeared to be a lot of people waiting around, all looking vaguely bemused and somewhat uncomfortable. The security guard at the front desk was unhelpful and had the look of a man who was badly hung-over and in desperate need of a bacon sandwich and some Alka-Seltzer.

When the tutor did arrive, 20 minutes late, we were ushered to an upstairs room that was part gymnasium and part hospital ward, where we all sat down for a further 10 minutes whilst the tutor rummaged in his bag in silence. The feeling of discomfort increased further as it slowly dawned on everyone that there were only 6 massage benches and surrounding curtains, but a good 30 or so people had turned up for the course which was roughly double the number that was expected. The slight panic was emphasised by the first words that our tutor spoke to us. ‘Are you all supposed to be here’, he said. It was a great start and it quickly dawned on us that our tutor (let’s call him Joe) hadn’t been doing this for long. He was in his early twenties and quite shy for a man built like a professional athlete. As he explained to us, he was only trained at a basic level and was still a student. This did not bode well and already I could see people looking around as if to say ‘would it be rude if we left now?’

However, nobody had the bravery to do so. So there we were all sat round the room, waiting for Joe to begin. He proceeded to the door, head down, turned around and proceeded to ask everyone why they were here, what they wanted to learn and how experienced they were. This would have been much more effective with a smaller group. Whilst initially amused at the schoolboy humour of people saying ‘I’ve received but I’m not good at giving’, any cheap laughs were firmly gone by the time everyone in the room basically repeated what had been said before.

Having got these ‘pleasantries’ out of the way, Joe then started to read, very slowly, out of a massage guidebook. He talked about eight different techniques, repeating them constantly as it became apparent he was also trying to teach himself as he went on. It was like Jackanory with essential oils. Even if some of this was potentially useful, there was no handout or accompaniment, so people typed away on phones and scribbled notes on random bits of paper they’d stolen from the room’s printer tray.

After the painful dictation, it was now time for the demonstration. This was always going to ramp up the awkwardness to epic levels, especially as Joe asked for a volunteer. Eyes were raised to the ceiling, down to the floor and anywhere that wasn’t near the bench he was gesturing towards. Eventually, a voice from the side of the room piped up and our volunteer turned out to be a rather ‘heavy-set’ gentleman of a certain age. Everyone seemed relieved but also rather embarrassed, mainly because the volunteer was happy to whip his shirt off without the aid of a curtain and then lay down on the bench like a beached whale.

Anyhow, the towel went on the whale and Joe proceeded to work his magic. Of course, by ‘magic’ I mean he repeated himself numerous times, kept stopping and starting to ask for help from the group to remember the key phrases he had tried to drum into us in the first place and general looked rather dismayed that he was rubbing a old bloke. This went on for a good 90 minutes, during which time somebody actually fell asleep (not the volunteer) and a few others secretly checked their phones for the nearest train times. Truth be told, I did feel a bit sorry for Joe, as the poor devil was out of his depth and this had clearly been dumped on him by bad organisation somewhere between Groupon and the university.

Fortunately, lunchtime arrived and just before we were dismissed for 30 minutes, Joe promised us that the afternoon would feature a colleague of his who was a specialist in Indian massaging techniques. This proved to be crucial as some people who were initially ready to rush out of the door, individually decided they would hang around. After all, everyone else appeared to be leaving so that would mean that onset of chronic boredom and the limited number of beds wouldn’t be a problem, right?

Wrong. Lunchtime came and went, but nobody left. People were hanging their hopes on Joe’s colleague who, relative to Joe at least, had to be an expert.

I shall call the expert Marco.

Marco was a small, Mediterranean gentleman with facial hair straight out of a Victorian novel and the cold, dead eyes of a serial killer. Fortunately for the group’s second volunteer, who was thankfully not the same person as before, Marco had been a massage therapist for about 30 years, which is a lot of time spent in the company of lavender. Despite his outward appearance, he was a skilled man of the oil.

So, to another 90 minutes, but this time it was a lot better. Even so, Joe would pipe up every so often with phrases like ‘remember I told you this before’, as if he was somehow the brains behind the whole thing, except more in the manner of a man who had just been prodded awake at the end of a long train journey.

Anyhow, after Marco’s demonstration, we were collectively re-invigorated and ready to try out some Indian massaging techniques. Or so we would have been had Joe not walked towards the bench to demonstrate again. This time, it was even more stilted, with him basically trying to copy Marco’s moves without success, relying again on participation from the group in the manner of a really bad pantomime.

Any energy had been sapped from the group by the time it eventually came for us to try the techniques out ourselves. Of course, the limited number of beds was still a major problem. Joe ‘solved’ this by suggesting that couples combined to make groups of four, thus each having use of a bench. At this point, if awkwardness had an alert, there would have been a huge red light flashing in the corner of the room, telling us to evacuate the building. Sadly there wasn’t. So, in a bid to escape the awkwardness, Mrs.D and I told our designated other couple that they could have the bench first and we would have our turn afterwards.

Joe was circling the room like a vaguely depressed shark and appeared strangely perplexed that Mrs.D and I chose to wait our turn rather than join in massaging random people we had only briefly met that morning. It made me wonder what he does with his weekends.

Anyway, half and hour later, our ‘turn’ arrived and we walked behind the curtain whereby my wife said that I should be the masseur first.

So, it began. I grabbed her foot and started trying to remember the sequence the Marco had talked us through. What I ended up doing was not as Marco had demonstrated but, in all honesty, I was pretty confused as I attempted to pick out the relevant bits from watching hours of massaging, tried to remember the order of the hand movements as well as decipher the auto-corrected notes that Mrs.D had made on her iPhone. What I needed to do was just take some time and work through it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t going to happen.

For the most part, my wife and I make a really good team. However, in occasional moments of uncertainty and awkwardness, it is fair to say that we are not always at our best. In a nutshell, Mrs.D tends to get controlling and bossy, whereas I tend to get flustered and stubborn. It’s a not a good combination. So, what followed was not 15 minutes of massaging brilliance, but 15 minutes of hushed arguing behind a curtain. Imagine, if you will, that I am shaking my wife’s ankle as if I am trying to remove the last bit of ketchup from a bottle. The accompanying conversation went something like this:

Mrs.D: You’re doing it wrong.
Me: I’m just trying to remember what he said. Hang on a second.
Mrs.D (gesturing): It was supposed to be like this.
Me: I know. Can you just let me get on with it?
Mrs.D: But it’s wrong. I knew you couldn’t see during the demonstration. You should have moved.
Me: I could see perfectly fine, but there was a lot to take in and I’m also trying to look at your notes. I’m working my way through it.
Mrs.D You obviously can’t remember and couldn’t see.
Me: I could see, just let me get on with it.
Mrs.D: If you were interested, you should have moved so that you could see.
Me: For the last time, I COULD see. Just keep quiet and let me concentrate!
Mrs.D: But you’re doing it WRONG!
Me: Look, we’ve been here long enough already and this isn’t working. Can we just go?

This exchange was repeated, on loop, a number of times before my flustered stubbornness took hold. When it came to my turn to be massaged, I refused and decided it was time to leave. Needless to say, there was not a great deal of talking on the train home except for the odd repeat of the conversation above.

So, having parted with a decent amount of cash (despite the discount) to get up at the crack of dawn in order to travel to North London, we had spent virtually an entire Saturday feeling very awkward and uncomfortable – and then had an argument to top it off.

Despite all this, I still maintain that Groupon deals are still very good value (unless they are over-subscribed). A massage course is still a nice idea as something for a couple to do together. Plus, I realised that despite what your expectations are at the start, certain things tend to work better when you relax and don’t think about it too much. Unfortunately though, I still haven’t got a clue what essential oils are.

Don’t bet on it

There’s a reason I’m not much of a betting man. That reason being that I’m crap at it, despite my instincts telling me otherwise. Every so often, my theories about sporting events come true and, afterwards, I usually curse myself for not placing just a small amount of money on the outcome.

The most recent example of this came at the end of February. One of my oldest and closest friends invited me along to watch the Arsenal vs Tottenham game. He supports the home side, whereas I am a Tottenham fan. Before, the game, we sat down for a bite to eat and noticed that, laid out before us, were the strategically placed betting sheets for the match. Checking out the odds (and pretending I was seasoned at this sort of thing), I noticed that the Tottenham striker, Louis Saha, was 7/1 to score the first goal. I was pretty confident going into the game about my side’s chances and Saha had been in decent scoring form since he joined, so I was very tempted. However, in between mouthfuls of roast pork (the food at the Emirates Stadium is very good by the way), I missed my chance but convinced myself that I had saved myself the princely sum of £5 in the process.

So, the inevitable happened and, after just four minutes after kick-off, Saha turned in the Arsenal penalty area and his deflected shot went into the back of the net. The emotions were overwhelmingly contradictory. I was delighted that my side had scored but couldn’t celebrate as I was surrounded by Arsenal fans – so I stayed in my seat, happy but wearing a rueful smile that comes from the knowledge I could have been £40 to the good. In the end, Arsenal came back to rout Tottenham 5-2 so my team and I had both lost out.

For the remainder of this story, I lay the blame squarely at my iPhone (and Rupert Murdoch). One of the apps I look at most regularly is the Sky Sports app and, a couple of weeks ago, they had a banner over the home page advertising a free £10 bet with Sky Bet, the betting site linked to Sky Sports. I pondered this and decided that by signing up and receiving a £10 free bet, I had nothing to lose. So, when the next Tottenham game came around – against our other London rivals Chelsea – I went for a ‘scorecast’ bet, with Tottenham striker Emmanuel Adebayor to score first and the game to end 2-2. The odds on this were 250/1 so I looked forward to the considerable winnings that my free £10 bet would provide. Needless to say, the match didn’t turn out that way. It was a draw, but 0-0. Adebayor didn’t play too well either.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but with a bit of time on my hands in the evenings last week when I was away on business, I decided to have a bit of a flutter on the US Masters golf tournament. I had previous in golf predictions, correctly predicting Phil Mickleson to win the Masters in 2004, and Greg Norman to win the Open Championship in 1993. Of course, I hadn’t bet on either of these possibilities – but I was just 15 in 1993 so you’d be concerned if I had.

Anyhow, this time out I sacrificed the princely sum of £5 again (you’ll have gathered I’m not a huge risk-taker) and, having been an avid follower of the Masters, split my £5 on two bets: £2.50 on K.J.Choi to win and £2.50 on Jason Day to win. Choi has a good record in the Masters and Day is a good young golfer who was runner-up in 2011. So, what happened? Choi missed the cut (9 over par after 36 holes) whilst Day withdrew after the first round.

I should have heeded the warning signs before even downloading the Sky Bet app. A couple of weeks beforehand, my wife and I had been out to Wimbledon greyhound stadium with another good friend of mine. Mrs.D and I studied the form book for each race, looking at previous results, class, running type and all the other information – in the hope that our £2 bets each time would at least pay for the admission, beer and questionable burgers. We both struck out completely, winning not a penny.  My friend, however, won some money on most of the races that she put money on. Her secret? “I just picked the names I liked”, she said.

So, I shall be deleting the Sky Bet app and not put my precious £5 sums of cash at risk. When my instincts kick in when the next Tottenham match or golf tournament comes around, I shall just keep my predictions quiet. And then kick myself afterwards when they come true.