Thursday, 13 December 2007

To me, aged thirteen

Rob C invited me to provide a bit of advice to the thirteen year old But Why?

By special request, here is my missive to myself.

Hello. HELLO...

Look, just put the bloody book down and pay attention, will you? Thanks. And by the way, your tearing-the-margins-off-the-books-you-read-and-eating-them-behaviour is probably a sign that there's something lacking in your diet. I'll not suggest that you get it checked out cos you'd ignore me anyway, and frankly seeing as you've found your own solution to the problem, there's no immediate need for additional action. Pay attention to that remark, as there's a clue there for your future... And may I say how very proud I am of the fact that you're choosing to ignore me. You're thirteen. It's exactly what you should be doing. So I'll just put these words here on the off chance that you ever get sick of the books, the music or the football, and don't bury yourself in the affairs of the day or fighting whatever new cause has gripped your imagination, and pick up this letter. Oh, and note that it wouldn't hurt to not re-read books. The storyline isn't going to change.

I do wish you'd read this epistle, but I know you didn't, cos I didn't, and I'm you, so these words will go unheeded. And hence, it doesn't matter if I give the plot away a little. By the way, you're not stubborn, you're just deeply idealistic and also enjoy winning. This is fantastic. Unfortunately, people are right when they say you'll grow out of the idealism one day. Yes, I know you don't believe me, and on reflection, I wouldn't want you to believe this. Forget I mentioned it. Other than that, nothing bad happens in the next fifteen years. Temporary setbacks rear their head now and again, but you do make it to the ripe old age of 28 in one piece, albeit with a few scars and arguably a little wiser from the odd experience which didn't seem too great at the time.

So, back to this advice that you're going to ignore and re-dispense to your younger self in fifteen years' time. Where shall I start? How about health? You're a bit reckless with yours. You'll break your arm shortly, perhaps next year, at the start of a footie training day. That cracking noise you'll hear is your radius snapping cleanly in two pieces. It's not something you imagined. Strapping the wrist up and playing outfield for another four hours will not be the smartest plan you've ever hatched and it'll hurt. A lot. But, regardless, you'll carry on playing football for the rest of the day. It's perhaps an early indication that later in your life when you discover rowing, you'll really enjoy being in control of the pain of training.

Grandad Why?'ll get sick in a couple of years' time. You won't notice, as you hardly ever see him and haven't got enough familiarity with him to spot the trend. Your dad will, and he'll ask you to take a couple of pictures of the two of them outside your home. Grandad Why? dies shortly afterwards and they will be the last pictures you'll have of him. So try to hold the bloody camera still - my memories of him are blurry enough as it is... In later years, you'll wonder why you never sat down with him and asked him about his war experiences, his memories of his parents, or of the Kindertransport. Or even how he managed to grow such huge marrows/carrots/cauliflowers/beans/etc. You missed a chance there, kid.

You'll go through a year or two when you give all the outward signs of thinking that the purpose of a Friday and Saturday is to drink until you throw up, have a haggis throwing competition, have to find an impromptu ladies' loo somewhere along the route home, or all of the above. The people you do all these things with are good friends now and in the future, and (though I'm not sure I understand why) you really enjoy this at the time. Fortunately, you'll have plenty photos and an abundance of anecdotal evidence in lieu of the memories you obliterated in beer on a mercifully small number of occasions.

You'll have a year off after finishing school and it'll be the best thing you do for a long while (I have to keep reminding myself that you think a year is a long time). Just in case you are reading this, I implore you not to go white water rafting, or if you do, try not to inhale large quantities of the Zambezi. It's a bad plan and will affect you for a long, long time. You'll also get a really horrible infection in your head. If you could remember to de-gunk as much pus as possible before getting on the bus from Dar Es Salaam to Lilongwe, it'll prevent you from projectile pus-ing onto the lady on the seat in front when you rub your tired eyes. Failing that, if you could practise the Swahili to explain the situation before it occurs, it might make things a little more pleasant for the rest of the journey. At the time of writing, the infection does not appear to have done you any lasting harm.

You go to uni. You have a fantastic time, but you'll spend the first year not realising that far from struggling with the material, you're a damned good chemist, so there's really no need for the first year blues. Having said that, you emerge from your first year older, wiser and with a distinction, a scholarship and a posher gown. You then spend too much time rowing and in the company of gentlemen for a scholar, and a year later, you're not a scholar anymore. So my advice would be to not buy the gown and concentrate on the rowing and relationships. So you actually did pretty well there. Oh, I almost forgot. You'll play cricket and finally come to appreciate something of the game. Perhaps I should have advised you earlier to take an interest in cricket. It is a superb way to pass a Sunday....

You do a PhD. You love the research, but not the human environment. It makes you realise that the people you work with are more important to you than the work you do. You hadn't noticed this before because you had the amazing good fortune to be surrounded by extremely lovely, able, intelligent and socially ept people. Another three years of being a student is an expensive way to learn this. It'd be far better from that point of view had you have read this letter I'm writing and avoided the frustration and pain, but you'll have a wonderful love affair with lasers and optical phenomena, and you subsequently appreciate nature differently, such that in the years to come when you're no longer working in science, every glimpse of fog, the iridescence of a butterfly, reflections in puddles or barcode scanner will tighten the strings of nostalgia. Sometimes you stare at the reflections in the Thames in awe, and you still think it's kind of neat how the sky is blue.

You also watch the 2005 Ashes series with your Dad. Surprised? I bet. You didn't think he'd make it to fifty, did you? Oh ye of little faith. Oh, and yes, you are still an atheist and fiercely proud of it. What else? Oh yes - you really should have bought a digital camera before you went to Japan. You're a muppet, sometimes...

So now you're a consultant, but today you've spent the entire day sitting in a meeting taking minutes. Easy money, yes. Professionally satisfying and good news for the public purse? No. It's days like this more than any other which make me suspect that you'll... no, let me correct that - I'll return to science again. For the time being, then, you/I work in the public sector, interact with civil servants and lay some foundations for a career in case we need one. I don't love the work, but my colleagues are a fantastic bunch, and it nicely covers the bills. For a while, I lived with small people who suggested I should blog, and I did, because my instincts are still to try everything at least once, and usually twice, even if I hate it the first time, because that might have been a fluke and I might otherwise be missing out on something. I'm glad that bit of you is still alive and kicking in me... By the way, that same desire to not miss out also means that I didn't always get as much sleep as I should have done - that recklessness with health is sadly also still alive and kicking. I should get a grip on that some day, though I suspect it wont be until I've done some serious and irreparable damage.

A blog buddy recently suggested that I write a letter to you, despite knowing full well that the thirteen year old me will never read it (you and I didn't have t'internet back then...) That what this was: a letter from me to you about the transition between us.

It's only as I finish the letter that I realise it would have been a good idea and perhaps the more valuable exercise had you have written from your idealistic, thirteen year old self to me now.


Post Script Writing this reminded me of a journal entry I made sitting on a large rock in Tanzania when I was 18, where I pondered what I would be doing in ten years' time. I really ought to read it now...


Pixie said...

ueeww pus coming out of your eyes!
I was enjoying it till that point.

Obviously it's lead to a lifetime of sensitivity with facial protroberences, can i spell that???


But Why? said...


No, no, no! Rubbing my tired eyes caused pus to be ejected from the hole in my head that a passing mossie (or similar) caused. No. Eeew, pus from eyes would have been terribly horrible and yukky! How could you think I would do such a thing??!?!

It did actually leave a lasting sensitivity - once sufficient pus had been degunked, I was able to again feel the bony parts of my forehead. Checking that my forehead is indeed bony is something I find remarkably reassuring(!)

Rob Clack said...

Just a bit late to read the whole of this, but it's fantastic. Thank you so much for picking up the tag. I'll have to leave reading it until tomorrow evening, and even then might not have time to comment.

Really looking forward to eruptions of pus from the orbits. Sounds really juicy!

(Sorry, just been watching Jerry wossname on the NHS and I can't quite get out of hospital mode!)

Casdok said...

Love it!

DJ Kirkby said...

What a completly amamzing letter. It is so intresting how diffrent we have all written them.

Andy F said...

Wow. That was the most well-written thing I have read in some time. I laughed and cried - both literally. Really literally, not the 'literally' where you mean 'not literally'.

Very cool.

But Why? said...

Thanks for the tag - I rather got carried away with the letter. That particular infection was a decidedly grim thing. And it was extremely juicy - I think on one day I must have degunked a good half pint or more... Antibiotics are superb and wonderful things. Even the out-of-date ones which had made their way to the clinic I attended.

Thankyou. I assume someone will have tagged you already; if not, please consider yourself tagged for when you run out of other things to write about(!)

Mmm, I'm loving all these letters which are cropping up all over the place - I guess we must all be very different people or have been very different thirteen year olds. I think I must just be very verbose...

Mr F,
Really? I know some good books if you're struggling for a decent read. Glad to have made you laugh. Sorry for making you cry (unless it was as a result of the laughing...?)

trousers said...

By turns funny, engaging and poignant (the part about Grandad Why? being the latter).

Great stuff, and I wonder was it difficult to write? Cathartic? Or did it just flow?

I ask out of curiosity, because whether it was any, all or none of the above, it's as well-written as anything else you've posted.

But Why? said...

Writing this was definitely fun, and yes, it did flow. I wouldn't have described it as cathartic, though. Whilst I touched on a couple of near regrets (one I might regret not doing and the other I regret doing); in the case of Zambezi inhalation, nothing will ever be so cathartic as the hour in which I must have coughed up close on my body weight in soft, gooey phlegm of the most disgusting deep olive colour, and in the case of Grandad Why? I think the net result of not asking the questions was positive.

Grandad Why? didn't have much time for the "Perhaps you'd like to talk about it?" approach, and by the time I was old enough to realise that even people of Grandad Why?'s age had parents at some point in their life, I was also old enough to be aware that Grandad Why? probably didn't want to talk about his memories of his parents or his experiences growing up in and fleeing Nazi Germany.

So neither of these things are particularly painful for me, they're just prominent features of my last fifteen years. If they weren't as they are, I'd have to find something else to ponder upon when contemplating my navel.