Saturday, 23 May 2009

"Open The Door"...

...Were the words I had been dreading reaching my ears for some time now. When I did finally hear them, gruffly shouted from somewhere behind me by a bearded man in his sixties, I was not as horrified as I had imagined.

This particular moment had been swirling around in the back of my mind since the dark days of winter, when I was sat in my cosy room, idly looking around for some form of escape from the pending essay sat before me on my laptop. Nothing on tv, the world of social networking had nothing left for Well, no, always a silly option left only for the very tedious work exercises. That's when I remembered, the little red card that had been sat on my desk since my birthday - my 21st birthday to be exact. It was a present from my stepmother, a voucher for the Virgin 'Red Letter Days'. It was worth quite a lot of money - she had bought it in the hope that I would book the same experience she had done a few months before; diving in a tank full of rather large sharks, with two trained divers beside you. While I'm sure this was great, and you are assured the sharks have been recently fed, what could the instructors do if they fancied my hand as a snack? I mean, even after the biggest dinner, I could always probably manage a KitKat...

So, I had a look on the website and browsed the different options that were available for the value of my voucher. Spa treatments...could be nice, but perhaps a little boring, car racing...I can barely control my Ford KA...that's when I saw it - on limited special offer for restricted time only - tandem skydiving!! It was perfect, it was exciting, dramatic, and got me away from those bloody sharks! When should I book it for? Well, lets see, I will have given in all of my work by May 18th, so how about the weekend after that? It's not for months, that seems perfect. And so, it was done.

All of those months passed an awful lot quicker than I was anticipating, however, and before I knew it, I was struggling to roll myself out of bed on that sunny Saturday morning. I think I had managed a grand total of an hour's sleep the night before. For one reason and another I found myself in the car with an audience of my mother, my auntie and my nan, all of whom cried out and nudged me whenever a plane flew overhead, or we drove past a sign for Swindon (where the airfield was.) This did not help my nerves.

After a few minor direction malfunctions we found ourselves pulling up at the airfield, which consisted of a field - oddly enough - a huge open sided shelter littered with parachutes being rolled back up and nervous 'students' wandering around, a mobile greasy-spoon cafe, and an array of picnic benches. We especially thanked the good weather after it transpired we had to wait for several hours on these picnic benches.

I went through the obligatory training, sitting in a circle with other pale-looking parachutists-to-be, it was like some kind of cockney-man-yoga to the angry sound of propellors rather than calming, twinkly background music. It all seemed quite simple in theory, but seeing my nan in the distance continually winking at me made it a little difficult to concentrate, clearly she had taken a shine to the instructor. Once this was done, I was ready, the nerves were gone and I was ready to DO THIS! But unfortunately, due to large numbers of people I had to wait four hours. For me, they were somewhat uneventful so I won't plague you with them. Let's skip to...

...I heard my name being shouted across the crowd of picnicers by a stocky man, probably in his thirties, with the top half of his jumpsuit trailing around his waist, the arms dancing as he walked. I had seen him do a jump with a girl who's family had been sitting behind me, at least she had come back in one piece. My instructor, Ash, introduced me to my jumpsuit - I had been hoping for one of the garish multi-colour pieces that were hanging on a clothes rail, the ones that must have been based on an eighties shellsuit. No such luck, I had to settle for black, with some nice red and yellow racing stripes down the side - I would've been cool if I were a car. We walked through the long grass towards the plane - it didn't look much bigger than those I've seen teenage boys flying with remote controls. This pilot, however, was no teenager, and certainly no gentleman. As soon as I had reached within speaking distance he shouted over to me, 'Well, you can tell she's got a big arse!' (I was the only 'she' in the group, so there was no mistaking it). After a good sixty years of existence, how does he not get that you just don't say that to a female?!

Anyway, since he was the man in charge when I was at 10,000ft, I decided to let it slide. We all climbed inside the aircraft, the space inside was no bigger than the inside of a van. As there were seven of us - and all, apart from me, quite large men, there is only one arrangement of bodies that works - in between each other's legs. Bodily contact is certainly not shied away from in the parachuting business.

It took around twenty-five minutes for the plane to climb to the desired height, and I was strangely calm. I looked out at the views of the English countryside, admired how the fields looked like a patchwork quilt of various greens and yellows, watched with wonder as we passed effortlessly through the clouds. I was less panicked in this tiny, rickety plane than on a commercial passenger jet.

This is when those words came.

I was told to pull down my goggles as the door was slid open, and a wealth of noise and air flooded the inside. Two parachutists who were jumping alone went before me - the first literally shuffled to the edge and rolled out on his side. By this point, yes, I was rather terrified, but there was nothing I could do as my instructor began to move himself, and therefore me, towards the door. I remembered the training; as he reached the door I had to swing my legs out and hook them underneath the plane, hold onto my shoulder straps, and lean my head back - at least I couldn't see the ground outside. I don't remember falling out.

On rollercoaster rides, I always remember the sickening, stomach-flipping feeling that comes from falling a long way - I had been expecting to experience this for the thirty seconds I would be falling, but it never came. The speed made the air become some kind of buffer beneath me, and instead of falling at 120mph, I just felt like I was lying down in a very very windy place. The noise was literally deafening, and when the parachute was inflated the silence that followed was almost ghostly. It was only once we had slowed down that I could sort of comprehend what had just happened, and realise that I had done the scariest part. I had done it!

I think I laughed all the way back down to earth as I reminded myself of this, with the late afternoon sun beating on my face, and the air rushing through the few strands of hair that had come loose in the fall. I can't go into much more detail of the experience itself; like I have heard so many people say, somewhat irritatingly, it is simply indescribable. Only doing it yourself would allow an understanding of what it is like, and after the day I have had today, I would strongly recommend that you do.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

And It's All Over

Well, as of yesterday I officially finished and gave in my last pieces of work for my degree. It's done, I made it, now I just have to wait for it to be marked (hopefully generously) and I'll have some form of a degree! Somehow I managed to choose my modules wisely and wriggled out of doing an exam; it's quite a sore point with my housemates, some of whom have three or four to revise for...I'm quite hated, but now I have absolutely no idea what to do - with the next couple of weeks before everyone finishes exams and can party, with the summer,! I would have thought I'd be the most excited girl around, being free to watch all the films I put off when I was working, read books, draw stuff...but already I have itchy feet and it has only been a day! This wasn't helped by the fact that I need to start emptying my room of stuff as it's going to take a few trips to get it all home (where it's going to go is another matter...perhaps for another time) and placing all my books and things into boxes just reminded me of how excited I was three years ago in halls, taking them out, finding somewhere for them to go, making a space for myself.

Perhaps this is what I'm most scared of - losing independence. It's been a little daunting sometimes the amount I've had at uni, but, it's great! I can do the living-without-my-parents thing! And I don't know how it will work going from this to sharing a room with my sister again. Obviously I've had to do it over the holidays, but I think there's a different mindset when you know that it's only temporary. Hmm. 

The English Department (legends that they are) organised a talk for us finalists after the last pieces of work had been given in, and it was lovely (despite my needing the toilet for the duration) as they outlined what we had all achieved in our time on the course. I had never really thought about it, but I have worked bloody hard at this - most of the time - and I couldn't help but feel proud that I'd seen it through to the end, and so far done a pretty decent job. What did not help, however, was everyone around me raising their hands when asked 'Who has solid plans for when they leave?' I'd like a plan. The free wine following the talk helped make me forget about this for a while though, which was nice. Especially as it was poured by my lecturers (one of which I think may have made a start on the wine beforehand, she's great! I seem to like brackets in this post.)

This was another thing that hit me - it's just typical that, unlike secondary school which I got so bored of, couldn't wait to leave, and unfortunately run into people that went there all the time, I have to leave university after a much shorter time, where I have loved being, met some amazing people, and finally just about feel like I know what I'm doing...what's up with that?! Oh well, if I try to put a good spin on it all I suppose I've been so lucky in experiencing any of this at all, and I can stay in touch with the people that matter once it's all done. Yes, I like that thinking.

For now though, I will try and take advantage of my freedom watching some crappy TV whilst doodling whatever comes into my head, as I miss it. After that, I guess I should spend some time thinking up one of these plan things that everyone else seems to have...I wonder what I was doing when they were all thinking of theirs?

Friday, 8 May 2009

For this award, I'd like to thank...

As my title suggests, I have recently won an award! How very exciting. Unfortunately, an acceptance speech thanking my parents, my friends, my neighbour's cat etc for their support was not necessary as I'm not that important that people want to listen to me ramble and cry on stage, but, hell, I got an award! What for what for I imagine you are crying at your screens? Well, I'll tell you. 

Last night I attended a university ceremony for the EVAs, aka the Excellence in Volunteering Awards, organised in recognition of all the hard work people in the university have put into running societies, events, and raising money for charity. The latter category is where I came in, as I have been part of the university RAG committee for the 08/09 season, and got awarded an honour for my efforts. I received an email a couple of weeks ago to say I'd been nominated, I never found out who by, but I'm very grateful! I've never won anything like this before, I suppose because I've never really done anything before that might deserve it. Even though a new committee has been elected now, and I'll be leaving soon, I'd really love to continue volunteering - and not just because everyone tells you to do it for the sake of your CV. Like I said, I've never really done anything like this before, when people told me they ran for a charity/helped out at a charity shop for free/visited old people's homes, I thought it was nice of them, but, didn't feel enthused to give up my own time for it. With RAG, the main aim was to raise money, by any means we could think of, so that we could give it to the various charities we were supporting. We organised a Christmas Ball, a community day (which Desmond Tutu came to - the man is a legend and has the best laugh...ever!) and sometimes just plain, old-fashioned stood in the street with a bucket. Oddly, the latter is the volunteering effort I think I will always remember and feel really good about. 
I'll set the scene.

It was a cold Saturday morning in December. I had to race eager, already angry, shoppers to one of the last parking spaces town had to offer. I couldn't wear a proper coat, because I had to wear a bright pink 'Cancer Research' t-shirt, with a bright pink bucket to match (which, by the way, I wasn't allowed to shake...apparently bucket shaking is deemed to be aggressive. who knew?) and follow busy people on their way to overcrowded shops, laden with shopping bags, and ask - even though we had all just been told we were in a recession and people were spending more than they would at any other time of year - for money. But, instead of strongly worded versions of 'go away', they happily parted with their cash - coppers, pounds, sometimes notes. I was surprised to say the least. When we had been there for about 3 hours and were starting to lose feeling in our fingers, a middle aged couple came up to us and gave some money. They began to walk off when the woman approached myself and a fellow collector, she had tears in her eyes and told us we were doing a great job, and that she was currently suffering with cancer herself, and was so grateful that people were trying to help others like her. We didn't know what to say. I felt awful for how much I'd been complaining that I was bored, cold and hungry all morning - none of that mattered any more because we had come face to face with the real reason we were there. And I think after that I would have stayed all day and all night trying to help that woman. So, I guess what I'm saying is that volunteering isn't just something that helps get you a job, or something that only greenpeace hippies do - it can make a difference. And the little award I got just makes me remember that I did...which is particularly useful when you're in the university 'bubble', separated from the real world and wondering what the point is in writing yet another essay!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

I have been wanting to read this book for the better part of two years now, but haven't allowed myself until I was free from reading the many, many, many course books for uni. Over easter, however, I finally took the plunge. And I think it quite possibly shot it's way up the list to definitely being one of my favorite books of all time - with all the hype surrounding it I was so pleased that the book itself was not a let down. 

It is Audrey Niffenegger's first novel - I can't wait for more! - following the unique lives of Clare and Henry, a couple destined to be together when that is the one thing they cannot be, as Henry has a genetic condition which causes him to randomly time travel. Niffenegger has cleverly structured the book so that it jumps backwards and forwards in time, exploring memories and giving a slow release of information whilst mirroring what Henry's life is like, as he constantly finds himself in different times too. 

The themes of destiny and fate are explored, as although Henry can travel through time, he cannot change anything from happening unless it has already happened. He meets Clare when she is six, and visits her as a middle aged man throughout her childhood. He does not meet her, however, until he is in his twenties when she finds him in her real time and they are the same age. It takes a while to get your head around sometimes, but that, for me, makes it even better.

The characterisation and description throughout the book are wonderful; the likeablility of the characters makes their difficult situation even more heartbreaking, along with the fact that they simply couldn't be with anyone else. 

Niffenegger's references to music and art enrich the writing and give the different times a sense of authenticity - Henry is young and wild, and often gets to relive, the time in Chicago at the time of the New York Dolls and The Talking Heads, when punk was truly alive. 

The significance of the book's title does not really come into focus until the end. Although narration is split between Henry and Clare, as a reader the interest tends to fall on Henry - he is the one who is 'special', who experiences the extraordinary, who encounters danger. Clare is just normal, who stays at home, waiting for him. As a time traveler's wife, though, that seems to be all one can do, and the realisation of this, for Clare and the reader, is heartbreaking.

As with any popular book at the moment, there is going to be a film released soon. I suppose my curiosity is going to force me to see it, but already I am a little sceptical. Firstly, because the leading roles of Clare and Henry are going to be played by Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana - both perfectly fine actors - but I always had someone resembling Cate Blanchett in my head when I was reading it, so already she doesn't look right! And how can 'The Hulk' be Henry?! But anyway, I shouldn't dismiss it before I've seen it, so I shall just wait patiently, and hope that the director has done justice to this wonderful book.

The Time Traveler's Wife - 5/5