Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sufficiency and The Monster (a short story)

We live in a secluded white house that rests on the border of a slumberous lake. My wife runs her own business, a recycling company. She turns used cardboard boxes into more cardboard boxes and sells them – don't ask me to explain the intricacies. I help design light installations for companies which need lots of light at low cost. You've never seen such economically-lit boxes as in my wife's warehouse.

Our home is open plan, laminated flooring and ceramic worktops - you know the type. I built it especially for us almost twelve years ago. The sun blasts through our open kitchen with force, it's been perfectly contoured to support organic illumination wherever possible. We have a family car, but no family, and a small row-boat, though I've never been on the lake. Why, you ask? Well, that’s what this story is all about.

You see, something lives in our lake, I’m convinced. It's the sudden stillness in the afternoon -- the loud silence in the night. Our lake bares an absence of disturbance that just begs to be questioned. Or maybe, as my wife suggests, my mental health is all that I need question. Whether it houses a great demon or not, a simple risk-assessment on my part has ensured I won't soon venture out onto our vast pond.

My wife, Gloria, is an impressive woman. Talented and independent and fun. And radiant, in her middle age. She’s certainly not the stuffy box lady people expect. I often wonder if she didn’t choose the profession only to eschew the preconceptions of others. (A peculiar notion I won't deny, but I also believe a gigantic cyclops serpent sleeps beside my house; absurdity has long since occupied a villa in my mind.) She’s also very brave, though I know it comes in many forms, but she encompasses all of them. Truly.

Sometimes I wonder if I am brave too.

* * *

It was weekend night in the middle of July and we were having a party at the house. Gloria fluttered between guests, sprinkling them with fairy dust as she flew, instantly bringing them to life. There were people from her work, and people from my work. And those people from other people’s work who only show up at parties. It didn’t matter, Gloria befriends all new people, regardless of who they are or where she is. I pretend it bothers me, I roll my eyes when she’s acting particularly exuberant (as indeed she was tonight) but I merely feign intolerance. Gloria's desire to make others happy is my single favourite part of her. Indeed, of life.

She continued to dance, often literally, between company, revivifying half-filled glasses in swirls of good-humor and love, never forgetting to cast me the occasional glance of sham exhaustion. I knew she was not tired of course, Gloria was in her element. But her expression was telling me a silent secret, “you see the real me, Stan,” she was saying. “This look is only for you.”    

The night rolled on, loud and exhausting to none but myself. I noticed Gloria was talking to a gentleman I was still yet to meet. He was taller than me, and younger. And more handsome, if you like that sort of thing. I wandered over to introduce myself; the guy was loud and Gloria laughed at everything he said. He caught me waiting to be included and rested his arm patronisingly on my shoulder.

“So, what’s up buddy?” He asked.

“Yeah, what’s up, Stan?” Gloria repeated. Before I had a chance to answer she was introducing me as her husband. The man offered a transparent “nice party” sentiment and shook my hand before continuing to focus his attention on Gloria. They resumed their conversation entwined, at times gazing into one another with weights for eyes. He was aggressive, treading the lines of appropriateness with heavy feet. Gloria was gleefully in tow.  

I didn’t feel particularly good about the interaction, but it was innocent. (I think.) It was just a drunk guy having some fun. (I told myself.) I slipped away to the kitchen unnoticed and unmissed. Gloria followed soon after and stood at the doorway with eyes of disappointment.

“Everything all right?” I inquired.

“He was flirting with me Stan, wasn't that obvious?” Maybe it was. Maybe it was patently obvious. Or maybe it was just two people laughing at a party and I was feeling sensitive. Either way, why did it matter to her?

“Well, what's wrong with a bit of harmless flirting?” I said whimsically, trying to defuse the bomb.

“He was making me uncomfortable.”

“You didn't seem uncomfortable? You seemed to be chatting just fine. Why were you standing with him?” I felt her anger was misplaced.

“Stan, why do you always act so oblivious?”

“What's wrong? I'm not mad, I don't care if he flirted with you, I'm not afraid you're going to abandon me for some random guy at a party.” I said this in all sincerity. While I don’t care for being a third-wheel to my wife and a drunken charade, I knew that the result was the same whether it bothered me or not. The man was a distraction in a designer shirt. Night-time candy.   

She rolled her eyes. “Sometimes... I just wish you weren't so passive, you know?”

“You want me to fight the guy?” I laughed.

“Maybe? I don't know, just say something back to him. Make fun of him. Even pretend
you don't want him talking to me that way.”

I was confused and insulted. “I can't believe this. You flirt with another guy in front of me and I'm in trouble...”

“You're not in trouble Stan, don't be so pathetic.” She muttered. I looked at her bemused; colour trickled into my black and white vision. New. Red. Potent.

“I just wish you were a bit more of a man sometimes, that's all.” She said, before returning to the party.

More of a man... she wishes I was more of a man? Gloria’s words had sliced me in half. How can anybody be any more or less than what they are? I meant what I had told her, even if she was flirting, it posed no great threat to myself. It didn’t feel particularly good, sure, but this guy was an idiot and I knew, through all of her perfume laughter, that Gloria thought he was an idiot too. So what was I missing? What is this thing that real men have that Gloria required from me? Would a real man have caused conflict? Are real men funnier and more attractive than me? Is a real man more brave? My mind was a market jewellery box - messy, and disappointing at every turn; I spent the rest of the evening rummaging through it amid pushes and shoves. Gloria didn’t talk much to young handsome Johnny Maverick again. Or myself, until 5am.

...of course I brought the subject back up.

“Next time, I'll just tell the guy to shut up to his face.” I started, as she returned from the bathroom.

“Good.” She replied, bluntly.

“And I'll make everything weird.”


“Why is that something you want?” I asked.

“It's not Stan, it's fine, just sit back and accept whatever happens to you in life, that's
what we're all supposed to do isn't it? How you ended up managing a team of people I do not know.”

“I just pick my battles. This didn't seem like a battle I needed to fight.”

“You just pick the battles you know you can win. What do they call you at work, 'safe hands'?”

“Yeah, because I'm reliable and good at what I do.” I quickly retorted.

“Well, I can certainly rely on you to play it safe that's for sure” She said, with pleasure.

My next question was inevitable: “what exactly did you mean when you said I needed to be more of a man?”

She sighed, “don’t you know what that is?” Came the reply, soft and painful.  

I didn’t stick around. I had barely pulled on my jacket as I stormed out of the back door and down towards the lake edge. I unravelled the thick rope securing the boat and stumbled into it. You don't need to do this, I thought. Rowing out onto a lake isn’t going to prove how manly you are. Go back inside, you fool.

I looked towards the house, Gloria was nowhere to be seen. Go home Stan and just... you know... be a bit more gruff in future. Try not to be so polite all the time. Maybe you could fight this guy? At your next party? As long as he didn't end up in hospital, it might be just the ticket?

It was at this point, as I began fantasizing about how to almost hospitalize a complete stranger, that the decision was made. I grasped the oars with determined fists and started for the lake center. My pride was taking my terror to task, something was being proven tonight, this was important. I'm not defeatist, the man at the party posed no threat to me, but this damn lake forever has.

And tonight, I'm going to face its monster.

* * *

It was characteristically calm, the moon looked like it did in the movies. No suggestion of an impending confrontation, but I was unbearably sick. Every imaginary murmur shocked me like a shrill needle. I pulled gasps of pristine air through my lungs trying to calm the waves in my body, each stroke pushed me further from dry land and deeper into my own labile thoughts. I pressed on towards the heart of the pool carrying a growing ache of sadness.

Arriving at the epicentre, or as close as I could estimate, I breathed with intent. Not looking left nor right, but down into my boat. Looking down into my little rocking boat, I breathed. The heat dissipated and I became a beautiful cool - a crouched hero applauded by an audience of trickles and drips. My anxiety subsided, no shoreline immediately in reach, my house barely in view, I was triumphant, for all intents and purposes. But my celebrations would have to wait, there was one thing left I had to prove and God knows I’d waited a long time to prove it...

As if peering over the edge of a cliff, I held tight to the wood and inspected the murky waters in search of life. There was nothing to be seen. Too dark perhaps, Stan? No, not too dark. Just nothing to be seen.

But then again, maybe there was something. I squinted, I held my hand to cover the moon's torch. Fear was colliding fractions of myth and reality; the picture just didn't seem right. My heart began knocking at the door as I inspected the darkness. The water looks so shallow here, I’m sure I can see the bottom. Just a few feet away. Just a few feet…

I swung back inside the boat, rigid. My blood was ablaze; fumes of alarm intoxicated my limbs. It's too dark. You can't see a blasted thing, it's just a pool of water for heaven's sake. Pinned to the deck I listened intently for any minute motion – the lake was a chorus of motion. What had I seen? What great mass lay just beneath the surface?

You're a grown man. You've lived here for years. You've never gathered any hard evidence of a lake monster. You're mad. Lifting myself gently, I scanned my intimidatingly empty lake. Row back fast, Stan.

Taking the oars once more, and with deliberate movements, I began a most professional journey towards home. I peered over my shoulder, our cruel house had ran a further mile away. I returned to face forward in slow motion and with immediate regret.

A dozen hollow eyes crept out of the collapsing black water ahead; prison bar teeth accepted the shiny liquid. A battalion of veins scarred an emerging mutant skull. (My principle thought was how wrong I had been about the beast's number of eyes.) The fabled lake monster was rising before me with an inflated leather torso which climbed like a hot-air balloon. Then arrived two arms. Then two more. Then there were at least fifty. Fifty towering limbs latched to their coriaceous mother with a mesh of corkscrew sinew, culminating at a grid of nashers, sunken nostrils and pus-filled eyes. The head nearly as big as the body. The body almost half the size of each limb. Each limb twice as tall as our house.

I was furious. How foolish to for a moment consider that the quiet nights and calm evenings were not masking a terrific demon. How senseless to let my pride trick me into such danger. The tormented form’s eyes flickered, then argued amongst themselves before deciding upon me - my trembling was near enough to unlock my bones and throw them out my mouth.

I glided my oars through the water, pushing myself back. I moved as if a viper sat between my legs, like I wasn't moving at all, making a shaky getaway. I held my breath and waited for response, but the beast didn't move. I repeated the procedure. The monster stared me down like a beer-filled local at a noticeably suburban trespasser. A third time, I pulled at the oars and drifted a few feet closer to home. Tantalising tentacles motioned gently. Backwards again for a fourth - the beast was content to watch.

I began to row more naturally, but not hurriedly, and despairingly glanced two-dozen great limbs sift subsurface. Now I was racing, thrashing my arms in panicked derangement. The monster’s upper-body remained in position, but I could feel its troop of tentacles swimming like giant eels beneath me.

Then the water began to move differently.

I was slowing down, my boat was free from restraint but trapped in a vortex - it felt like the whole lake had just been unplugged. I was struggling in place battling a hidden vacuum. What the hell is happening? With horror twisted and black, the answer crawled towards me: the monster is creating a funnel.

Cascading swirls of pillowy foam began suffocating down towards the demon; its ghastly face descended from the sky back to water level with mechanical precision, like the dying moments of a carnival ride. And what disturbed me most of all was to witness a mouth so uneager, a mouth waiting so expectantly. Its lack of appetite for the meal hurt me most of all. I was nothing, gristle on the breakfast plate, the fat farmer, already distended, stuffing remains into his mouth just to see it gone.

I dragged my wearying arms through ever-thickening water. How futile a plea to the monster would be, for it appeared to care so little whether I suffered or not, and with this truth, I would suffer. Its widest beastly tentacles crashed at the sides of the pool, rocking waves together and pushing me into the air where they met, I was not to be spoiled, not to be defeated with one weighty blow. I could see at least a twenty truncheon arms silhouetted in the sky - they were just for drama, for fear's sake. Dead-eyed and dumb-brained it drank, water gushing past an open mouth too fast to gulp and returning faster.

I began sliding down through a half-pipe water system towards bloated spiderspawn eyes and the open mouth which would see me snuffed out. Please, may my death be swift, not swallowed whole, left broken boned in the blighted recesses of your boiling, acidulous belly. Don't burn me. Don't burn me. Drown me, please, but don't burn me. Or better yet clobber me and let my unconscious body drift harmlessly through the heavenly gates between your jaws.

I considered tossing myself overboard, but if I were to jump I could not guarantee I would drown - could not turn out my lights quick enough! Oh what misery, such a pitiable end. The monster’s mouth never opened further nor closed narrower, it just waited, while vicious limbs spun a whirlpool around my boat.

Gloria! Fix this for me. Save me. I know you can. Wake from your slumber and tell me, what should I do? As my boat sank closer and closer to the dark abyss, Gloria was who I thought of. Quitting is something on tonight of all nights she would not permit. But it is this night, of all the nights, that I cannot rely on her to protect me - to coach me through, as she always did. What would she do? Sitting on a sinking ship, confronted by her worst fear. Her worst enemy. What would she do?

Nothing came to me. It’s useless, the situation is too far removed, it’s unthinkable, really. Gloria doesn't have enemies...

I breathed an empty sigh of almost relief. Well, my dear, I guess that settles it.

Dropping the oars, I searched the back of the boat and my hands came to rest on a small wooden box. I bust it open, and pulled out a slender bottle of 1964 Glenlivet, my victory malt, placed almost a decade earlier and reserved for the most special of occasions. I was to sip this on the day I finally rowed upon our beautiful lake, with my beautiful wife beside me.

“I'm sorry it couldn't be with you, Gloria” I whispered, unscrewing the cap. In your spirit, I shall cast aside my preconceptions, and drink with my new friend. I took a hearty swig, I was half mad. Gloria would befriend all new company, I thought, as I approached the gaping mouth. I'm sure she could even win you around...

Disregard what you think you know of those who you have never drank with at the close of a trying day. I offered the thirsty beast a kind share, pouring the golden liquor down the throat I sailed towards. To new friends, I toasted.

At first, a disgruntled gurgling slid out through the grate of teeth with a near flesh-melting odour, followed quickly by eruption of hot yellow innards.

Goodness... I've poisoned the poor beggar! I gave it but a drop!

I braced as the beast-guts splattered against my ship, a volley of bile shot across me like a sludgy cannonball as the leviathan moaned - now nothing but a giant sad puppy sagging in the slag. I held my breath and hunkered down, riding the mustard wave back to shore as the choking demon convulsed in splutters of softfish gravy.

I don't regret being brought to this monster on this frightful night, I thought, as I drifted in mind and body. I regret that I have not been brought here sooner. Few are permitted such grand opportunity to duel with their lake monster. To be free to sail into uncharted waters and say “I am brave! I am enough!”

I reached the pebbles of the shore as daylight was seeping over the surrounding trees. Tattered, I crawled up the beach towards the car, a renewed sense of worth clung to my tired body like tar.

Gloria trotted outside wearing a pink dressing gown and bunny rabbit slippers. I looked up at her wearing a seaweed wig. “What are you doing down there, Stan?” She said, mystified.

“Gloria, you won't believe what has happened, I did it... I beat it...I...” I pointed towards the lake but it looked curiously undisturbed.

“Well, I woke up and you weren't in the house and I was worried, so thanks for scaring me half to death while you were out here playing in the sand” She snapped, before scurrying back into the house.

What did she even think I was doing?

*  *  *

I’m not sure that I’ll ever be what it means to be a real man - I don’t even know what that is. How does anybody be any more or less than what they are? I can boast to Gloria about how I slayed the demon which had haunted me for a decade - would that victory be enough to convince her? Perhaps I could fight monsters and men at parties for the rest of my life and still fall short.

In the months that followed that night on the lake, I never told Gloria about what had happened, and I doubt I ever will. Did I run from the real threat that evening, and instead face up to a fallacy? Or was the deep end of the pool truly housing the greatest demon? I guess it’s not important.

I’m not sure that I will ever be what it is to be a man and I’m not sure I’ll ever meet Gloria’s expectations. I’m not sure if I am somebody who she can be proud of, if I am the person she would choose if provided the opportunity to choose any other, and I certainly don’t know if I am any better or worse than any other man on this earth.

But I know I am brave... and I know I am kind...

And I know I am enough...

With, or without, my monsters.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Sink fast

I recently moved to Berlin, and while escaping to a foreign land may sound like a stressful process, for me the logistics have been fairly simple. 

My friend had arranged the flights and accommodation for the first part of our trip, and once we arrived he took responsibility for getting us around and dealing with the local people (his German is very good, you see). Everybody speaks English in Berlin, as it happens, so I could have gotten by. All the same, I was nestled comfortably under his wing. 

It wasn't long before I began looking for work as an English language teacher, and I planned to go out alone to visit employers in person with my CVs. I wrote the address and contact information of every language school I could find, and used Google Maps to plot the point of each one. I then took a snapshot of the routes between them and uploaded it to my phone. 

I would be able to see the location and street name of every destination I was going to visit, along with the fastest route to them. I estimated the whole journey would take roughly two and a half hours. I would wake up early. I was totally prepared...

It was two o'clock by time I escaped my apartment. Using an ingenious pulley system, I was able to slide beneath the shutter covering our front door without the use of our lone front door key, which had been taken by my room-mate. (Our apartment was once a bakery, in case you were wondering.)

A minor hiccough, I thought, but if I stick to the schedule I'd still have more than enough time to complete my rounds. 

First stop, the questionably named “Copy Con” to print my CVs. According to Google Maps' traffic indicators the trip should have taken a mere seven minutes had I left on the night I researched it.

It took 90 minutes. What a difference a day makes.

I produced ten washed-out CVs. The gentleman at the counter told me the cost of my printing in English (which he guessed was my mother tongue, based on all the English I was speaking). His friend laughed at him. The cashier looked at me and said “'one euro fifty,' that's how you say it in English, right?”

I said “perfecto”. This wasn't English. Maybe I was jealous that he could speak a foreign language and I wanted to throw him a curve ball? Maybe I thought I was speaking German?

Maybe it was 4pm and I wanted to do a little bit of a cry somewhere? 

I carried on. Reaching my next destination took no time at all, I was there within fifteen minutes. Now we're cooking!

However, instead of gazing up at the grandieur... the spectacle... of ExploreEnglish's cutting edge language building... I was in fact looking at a man selling nuts from a cart.

No problem, I'll just give them a quick call and make sure I have the right address.

They had no address. ExploreEnglish was one guy, giving English lessons, from his apartment, in Düsseldorf.  

I felt a sincere temptation to become mildly frustrated and dare I say, disappointed by my experiences...

I had spent all of my money on flights and accommodation and food. I had only one friend in Berlin. I was living in an apartment that only received WiFi in two rooms, one which my friend had won in a coin toss when we got the place, and the other (which I am typing this in right now) is a hallway. I had to re-watch several episodes of MacGyver just to let myself out of the front door. 

I was sleeping on a mattress in a dining room.

I was cold every night. 

Our apartment had no spoons.

But, somehow, I wasn't disappointed. Or frustrated. I wasn't angry or upset.

I was happy. I was almost blissfully happy. 

I had been stressed, I was exhausted and sweating. I had been uncomfortable and embarrassed talking to blank faces in broken German, asking why they could only print in Schwarz und Weiss.

But it was invigorating. I learned more vocabulary on this one day than any other - that's the honest truth. I learned bus routes and where I could buy tickets. I learned how to ask for food to take away. I learned to make sure the job I wanted definitely was available and definitely wasn't in Düsseldorf. I learned a whole bunch of stuff that I never would have learned if I hadn't have braved it alone. 

I didn't hand out any CVs. I didn't visit eight language schools. I visited one old man, struggling to stay conscious while selling salted almonds in the sun. But after this embarrassing mistake, where I found myself on Berlin's Gaza Strip dressed like a lawyer, I called the other offices which I had planned to visit - something I should have done hours previously. None of my prospective employers were willing to see me on that day. However, a few were interested in me... they said I should maybe stop by next week... have a chat.

Even if I screw it up again next time. Even if I lose my way and feel embarrassed. Even if, even if, even if...

I discovered more in one rough, lonely, lost day, than two weeks in my bubble. I can live with screwing up again.

You will always remain in the shallow end of the pool if your feet never leave the ground. The sooner you sink - the sooner you'll swim.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Moon Bears or Such Magnificent Cruelty

I recently found out about something that I wish I hadn't.

Even at my lowest, I can usually convince myself of how important difficult life experiences are. How that it is only through my struggles that I can come to understand my fortunate existence, and how they deepen my subsequent happiness.

On this occasion, the clouds stretch far too wide, and the sunlight is far too faint for my hopeful eyes to see a silver lining.

I recently found out about something that I wish I hadn't.

Now I'm going to tell you what it is...

The Asian Black Bear - also known as the Moon Bear after the milky, crest-shaped tuft of fur on its chest - is a species of bear native to eastern Asia. Moon bears are tree climbers, living in hilly or mountainous regions and are capable of balancing on two feet, like us.

Here is a picture of a moon bear:

Standing Moon Bear

Unfortunately for moon bears, they naturally produce a type of stomach bile that is very valuable in Asia, most commonly used in Chinese medicines. There are dozens of synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile (many cheaper and more effective), nonetheless it is a highly prized commodity and sourced in a number of areas across China and Vietnam. The practice is known as bile farming.

To extract bear bile, one of the following methods is employed:
[These are taken directly from the journal of Chinese medicine website.] 

1. Latex catheter
A narrow rubber pipe is embedded under the skin, and surgically attached to the gall bladder. The farmer then extracts the bile through the pipe which exits the skin at the top of the bear's thigh.

These "old-fashioned" latex catheters were largely phased-out in the mid-80s, as the catheter became easily clogged and it was therefore not an effective extraction method. Subsequent modification to this technique saw the introduction of the metal jacket.

2. Metal jacket
A rubber pipe is connected to a fluid bag inside a metal box, which is attached to a metal ‘jacket’ tightly holding the box in place under the bear's abdomen. The bile drained through the rubber pipe is emptied every two weeks by the farmer.

In addition to even greater levels of discomfort and pain, the metal jackets – which weigh over 10 kilos – also cause massive hair loss and painful irritation over the bears' bodies, as they are never removed. Designed to restrain the bears, sharp metal spikes poke into the bears’ necks to stop them bending their heads, and straps and strips of metal restrict their limb movements.

Metal pins, hooks, and any and all makeshift devices are crudely inserted directly into the gall bladder to hold the catheter in place. This is almost always done by unqualified people in conditions ripe for infection.

3. Metal catheter
Varying in length from 5 to 7.5 inches, a catheter is surgically implanted into the bears' gall bladder, allowing the farmers to milk the bears daily. During milking, the bears are enticed to lie flat on the bottom of the cage in order to feed from a low tray, thereby allowing the farmer easy access to the bear's abdomen and catheter.

Often, a metal "crush" (a metal grille) is lowered on top of the bears to force them to remain flat until the farmer has finished the procedure. In many cases, the farmers have never bothered to raise the crush bar, and Animals Asia has rescued many bears in cages with crushes rusted permanently into the lowered position, pinning the bears flat to the bottom of the cage for what is, evidently, many years.

4. “Free-dripping" technique
In recent years, Chinese bear farmers have introduced a new, so-called humane, "free-dripping" method of bile extraction. This method uses no catheter, but sees a permanent hole, or fistula, carved into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile drips freely out.

During this type of bile extraction, the bears are tempted by food or honey water to lie on the bottom of the cage, while the farmer forces an insanitary tube into the gall bladder; this breaks the membrane that has grown over the hole, and allows bile to flow directly into a bowl beneath.

The damage caused by bile leaking back into the abdomen, together with infection from the permanently open hole is as bad, if not worse, than the older style methods and subsequently there is still a high mortality rate on the farms.

5. "Fake-free dripping" technique
In 2005, Animals Asia discovered a new technique of bile extraction being tested out on the bears - "fake free-dripping". Rather than a fistula, or ‘hole’, in the abdomen, the farmers now insert a permanent, perspex catheter into the fistula, which is almost impossible to see unless the abdomen is shaved and examined close-up. This new technique is against China's current regulations on bear farming.

Due to all the various procedures they are subjected to, the farmed bears’ livers and gallbladders become severely diseased, and the bile collected contaminated with pus, blood, urine and faeces.

Bears in Vietnam are subjected to a range of procedures. All are caged, but unlike bears on China’s farms which are ‘tapped’ for the bile, in Vietnam bears undergo crude surgery to remove bile from their gall bladders every few months, leaving infected wounds, which often lead to death after three or four such operations.

Today, the bears usually have their gall bladders punctured with long needles, which then "siphon" off the bile via a pump into a bottle. In this method, the bears are sedated - usually with ketamine - restrained with ropes, and have their abdomens jabbed repeatedly with four-inch needles until the gallbladder is located. Continuous puncturing of the gall bladder often leads to bile leakage, and a slow and painful death from peritonitis.

Caged Moon Bear

Thus the typical moon bear life sees them confined to a coffin while their stomachs slowly bleed and infest, or are repeatedly stabbed (often both). Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated, and suffer from multiple fatal diseases and malignant tumours. Their heads swell. Their limbs deteriorate. Their mental state becomes fractured from their inability to move, their aching open wounds, and their loss of a natural environment and family. They chew their paws in pain and distress. (If their paws even remain - many bears lose limbs when they are originally snared). When a moon bear is no longer useful for bile extraction, it is either left to die, or slaughtered for its paws and gallbladder.

Some bears are imprisoned in cages as cubs and never released.

They cry, naturally.

Before I continue, I would like to take a brief, but ultimately necessary detour to review the conditions of battery hens:
[This has been edited for length from Wesleyan Animal Rights Movement]

Battery hens are kept in windowless sheds, cramped in long rows of stacked cages containing an area less than half the size of a sheet of A4 paper. They have a wingspan of nearly 3 sheets of A4.  Battery cages have sloping wire floors that prevent a hen from sitting, sometimes causing their feet to grow around the bars leaving them immobile and starving to death. They also have wire walls in which hens often get their head stuck, leading to the same fate.

Male chicks, who are of no value to the egg industry, are immediately killed. They are either tossed into garbage bags, left to suffocate or to be crushed, or are macerated in high-speed grinders. For the female chicks, after birth they are kept in out buildings for about 20 weeks until they enter their cage where they remain, without exception, until they are a year old when they are killed. They are often kept in the dark except at feeding times.

Battery hens are housed in flocks up to 1,000 times their natural size, and are unable to establish a social hierarchy normal to free flocks. The size and nature of the cages prevents hens from spreading or stretching their wings. They are prohibited the basic natural instincts of perching, scratching, roosting, dust-bathing, and nesting quietly. They are thus caused to become aggressive and attack other hens.

To reduce cannibalism among frustrated hens, a blade or laser is used to remove up to two-thirds of their beak. Some hens die from shock; others may feel lifelong pain or suffer from a permanent reduction in feeding. Evidence suggests phantom limb pain, and tumours form in the damaged tissue of the amputated beak stump. 

Battery hens suffer from feather-loss, blisters, tumours, foot and leg deformities, osteoporosis, Fatty Liver Syndrome, Swollen Head Syndrome, heat stress, mash, mould toxins, mouth ulcers and many other diseases. Veterinary care is non-existent, as individual hens are considered cheap and expendable. Critically ill birds are thrown onto "dead piles."

I am so utterly incapable of effectively conveying the degree to which these practices upset me. Animals are starved, slaughtered, tortured, suffocated, crushed, dismembered, and castrated because they can produce a profit. Because their skin looks nice. Because they taste good.

How curious it is that the word humane, to be human, is used to describe kind acts, when human beings are the only species capable of such magnificent cruelty.
What you do with this knowledge is up to you. Should bile farming ever come to a close, the moon bears will not realise that we have saved them; we will never receive thanks. One day, something somewhere will cease being tortured. And that's about all.

Despite my belief that this disturbing issue is impossible to ignore, the fact that the practice even exists tells me that I'm wrong - I already know most people reading won't give it a second thought.

If nothing else, though, I'd like you to tell a friend about it. Just tell another person about bile farming. I think somebody might like to know.

One last thought.

Battery hens are kept in their torturous conditions for an average of 42 weeks.

Every second, of every day, for 42 weeks.

42 weeks... 

Moon Bears are caged for up to 20 years.

Tortured Moon Bear


Monday, 10 February 2014

Charity awards event

LGBT symbol

After helping out a local charity over the last few months, I was kindly invited to an awards ceremony they were holding at St James's Park. 

It was a formal evening event, arranged as a way of saying thanks to the hardworking volunteers and employees involved. It was also entirely free - something which spoke to the all-encompassing good nature of the charity's organisers. (On this night their goal was not to make money, only to celebrate the generosity of their supporters)

Grateful to spend an evening amongst others who I admired, I had no trouble ignoring grief from the hostess as I arrived. (I was happy to hear that the free cocktail was non-alcoholic - not sure I deserved to be put down.) I expected to meet some very interesting people, it being a charity event and all, but what I didn't predict was quite how offbeat some of the volunteers appeared to be, not just the victims being supported.

I was informed that one girl, Jane, had recently completed a bungee jump to raise money for the charity. Jane was a lovely but quiet girl, hidden in plain view like the last bag of bread on the shelf. A lady introduced herself to Jane and inquired about the aforementioned fundraising activity, but Jane said she didn't know what they were talking about.

It seemed as if Jane was so afraid of having to talk about herself, that her subconscious mind had actually prevented her from recalling the memory! It wasn't until another volunteer caught her out by saying, "yes, you did, you wally... you jumped off a bridge," that she was forced into owning up.

Jane was evidently a brave and giving woman, and I hoped her perceived shyness was not the result of her peers' repeated disinterest in her. I bet she was fascinating, really. (As a side note, I also overheard her say that the event had only made a pittance on account of her friends being "very stingy." I think she meant very imaginary...)

After dinner the awards ceremony started and our host Carl was introduced. (I'm not sure what his affiliation was with the charity but apparently he had done "this sort of thing" before.) It was during his warm up speech, while provoking us to "make some noise," that the microphone cut-out, leaving his mouse-like voice in the corner of the room.

It was a shame, yes, but these were only momentary silences, no more than four seconds long. Just before the interval, however, I became troubled by something I'd heard earlier; rumour had it that there was to be a surprise performance. I hoped it was a mime act...

No sooner had this occurred to me than local singer KJ was being beckoned to the stage.

I'd heard KJ sing before, as it happens, and his voice is sensational. He's a complete professional, too. Surely he'd brought his own equipment, and some roadies, to help carry off this special performance?

Nope, he was using the same banged up sound system as everyone else.

Delighted to be at the show, KJ announced he would be opening with Skyfall, a certain crowd-pleaser and perfect for displaying his sultry voice. I felt a sickness I'd not felt since my first girlfriend told me she "kinda" wanted to "bang this other dude."

"Is the introduction always this long?" I thought, and when he finally eased in with the opening line, "this is the end," a part of me wanted to take him at his word, ushering him off before things turned sour.

I can't have been alone in my anxiety, the whole room had been hearing the same problems all night long. Maybe he had, too? He'd realised the issue stemmed from a volumetric overload and was planning to tailor his style to fit? Yes! You wonderful man, KJ! I can relax my twisted body and feel safe in your capable hands...

A triumphant "let-the-sskk" was greeted instantly with silence, followed closely by an elderly woman's half-arsed moan, as if discovering her grandchild had dropped an ice lolly. I measured the tables around me, people were hiding on their phones and inside their wine glasses as KJ struggled on. I did the same, I tried to escape, far away from the ceaseless conflict of performers and audience and expectations. Maybe we didn't want him to know we were watching him, or could hear him (which, to be fair, we regularly couldn't), so we tried to make ourselves disappear, like a thoughtful but shy girl at a charity dinner.

It didn't feel right and I soon altered my approach. For the remainder of his set I gave him my full attention, trying to convey how fantastic he really was and how this was out of his control. During which time the projector behind displayed intimate holiday snaps as the organiser's laptop drifted through sleep. It was such a bizarre mix of talent and disaster - we were watching Winona Ryder loot a department store, and it was making everybody uncomfortable.

KJ finished his plagued three-song set and apologised for the technical hiccups. It pained me that this great singer had suffered such trouble, while Michael Bublé's interval music had never faltered. (Not that Bublé isn't a great singer, just that his songs are the product of a careful and costly recording procedure, rather than that of a humble charity event, and a humble man's spare time.)

Alas the show must go on, and an undeterred Carl returned to short circuit the microphone until the end of the ceremony, when the highly anticipated raffle commenced.

Let down by my lazy bladder once again, I returned from the bathroom having missed the first few winners. As I was taking my seat, the gentleman across the table was quizzing the girl next to me with an almost accusatory tone.

"Is that all you've won?!" He asked.

The lady was staring down at a packet of Maynard's Wine Gums resting on the table. She solemnly looked from bag to man and said "yes." 

But just when I thought the prizes couldn't get any better, I heard the announcement that one "lucky" winner was "taking home a copy of the Lorraine Kelly book." Well, I'm surprised they made it back to their seat in one piece! Kelly's book had been eyed up all night, I'd thrown good money after bad on those tickets just for a chance at it...

Of course, I am only playing for laughs, here. I have not forgotten that this was a wonderfully kind evening, and one which I felt privileged to be a part of. Truthfully, it mattered not that the prizes seemed as if they had been selected from a bin bag beside a bowling alley because IT WAS A FREE CHARITY EVENT!

I love that it had been patched together by a few generous people without any selfish agenda. What did some of those who were rolling their eyes expect? They should have laughed at the shortcomings. It was endearing; it was "homemade." When the host said there was still some great prizes to be won, including "a trilogy of novels," everybody should have just played along with the banter. (At least I hope it was banter...)

The charity were celebrating support through an Oscars style awards ceremony. It was not a "fundraiser", the only form of donation was an optional raffle, and one man told me he thought the whole evening had been "crap."

What an entitled fool.

Talented singers, charitable adolescents and tireless employees had given their time and energy in the support of an important cause. Who cares that the evening had its problems? Don't we all?

Monday, 30 December 2013

Image'ing all the people

Social media marketing is becoming an ever more visual creature. While the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat provide a terrific outlet for agencies to create unique and imaginative content, consumers are also hard at work on their behalf, sometimes without even knowing it. 

Images uploaded to social media sites can declare a person's interest in a product, similar to the way likes, tweets and comments can. Snapping selfies with your favourite brand of ginger biscuits isn't just providing a visual treat for your admirers, it's supplying a business with a nice free endorsement. What if the PR professionals could measure and analyse visual data, such as who is discussing what picture of which brand, as effectively as they can measure text?

Enter Curalate, the "only marketing and analytics suite for Pinterest and Instagram." Like other analytics tools, Curalate allows users to discover, track and measure engagement with their products and services. The twist here is that instead of crawling through URLs, keywords and hashtags, Curalate can automatically discover which people are posting about a product, even where the product is not explicitly mentioned.

Sure, there are other analytics tools for Pinterest, but Curalate is touting an unparalleled "pixel level" of visual identification (i.e. it can spot a "pin" in a haystack) and has gone to great lengths to ensure interaction with consumers is as intuitive as possible. 

Marketing agencies currently making use of Instagram and Pinterest are likely to be familiar with the almighty power of consumer engagement. Thankfully, the Curalate dashboard allows companies to dive straight into their fans' conversations and start interacting. This is a business win/win: The punter receives a lovely, personalised message from their favourite T-shirt designer, and their friends can see how cool and hip Hertfordshire Skull Apparel Ltd really are! (Though, if they existed, appearing "cool and hip" might be a big ask!) 

The PR and marketing implications of this tool are huge. Social media "scientist" Dan Zarrella argues that Facebook photos create more comments, likes and shares, than videos, links and text do. Combine this with Shareaholic's blog that states Pinterest "outpaced Google Plus, LinkedIn and YouTube combined" for share of referral traffic for businesses in February, (and beat Twitter in a straight head to head) and it seems that understanding the target market in this visual sphere will become invaluable to marketing agencies in the future.

The power of the written word is waning. A mere declaration of fondness is incomparable to the marketing effectiveness that a humble smartphone shot can hold. Is the writing on the wall for, er... writing?

Probably not. But shared images are becoming valuable currency, and Curalate can count what is being spent. And, if nothing else, it's providing businesses with yet another way to "cu-relate" to their consumers.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

SEO is bigger than SEO

Process of SEO

When prominent search engine resource SEOmoz retired their name, it struck me as a sign of the times. Moz, as they are now known, had built their reputation around the importance of SEO techniques and analysis. So why did they amend their title?

Though a number of reasons have been cited, the association of 'search engine optimisation' with a narrow set of ageing practices is clearly something they wanted to avoid.

The times they are a-changin' (sang Dylan, on the subject of online marketing. He was so progressive...) and it's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high web-ranking, or at least high end-user engagement, based on traditional link building alone.

The SEO practices of old are still viable, to some extent. (Although search engines have curbed blatant exploitation of their algorithms, they are yet to safeguard against lack of integrity.) I suspect there are countless examples of articles created solely to boost search rankings that offer more interesting content than those without such an intention. But how long can we continue in this vein?

As of the last few years, ranking factors have come to be less concerned with keyword, domain and link data and more with "offline data potential". "User and usage data". "Brand and social graph signals".

Search engines are forever becoming more sophisticated. All the keywords, tags and headings that were once oh-so-important can lose value against our will. This is the transformative landscape marketing agencies stand upon. To survive this evolution, marketing and PR companies are having to rely less on keyword research, and more on audience research.

Ask yourself "who is our market?" And "where are they consuming content?" Target your material at them and their influencers with more than just links and text alone. Produce webinars, podcasts and videos. Offer free tools and resources. Create appealing content which will attract an authentic audience, and then connect with that audience. Generate the kind of material that consumers want to link and share organically.

The (admittedly brief) content marketing ideas outlined above are easier to suggest than to implement, and will not befit all businesses or marketing strategies. Tried and tested SEO remains a foundation that should not be overlooked. But as time moves on, it is growing more important that this remains a foundation, and not an end goal.

Moz weren't casting aside SEO when they removed it from their name as much as they were accepting it as part of a larger set of practices. "SEO is bigger than SEO", they said. It's just one aspect of effective online marketing that now encompasses a whole range of services. Services which can escape the clutches of restricting engine algorithms.

Change is coming, and the result of this inevitable development of the search engine will be greater writing, higher customer satisfaction, and more traffic to creative businesses. Change is coming, but why wait for it?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Embarrassment on the bus

It began when my ten pound note was blown off the driver's dish and onto the floor...

I exclaimed "shoot" and it sounded a bit like "s***". An old woman gasped. (It might have been a hiccup, but it occurred curiously close to my supposed profanity.)

I sat at the front. There was a bottle rolling along the floor. The scene looked something like this:

Bottle on a bus

The bottle hit a young girl and she pretended it wasn't there. "Just pick it up," I thought. It continued its journey and bounced against my foot with a perceivable thud. I followed the girl's hollow lead.

I've actually never been on a bus that swayed quite like this one, it was smoothly tilting left and right. The tricky Dr Pepper bottle tumbled forward against an old man's sandal. He looked down at a forty five degree angle. That was all.

I couldn't get it off my mind. Why did I care? Why did I care so much about this damn bottle?

It's weird, I think it's just because it was litter. It was litter on a bus, and litter should be picked up. Everybody could see it, choosing victims, but nobody wanted to be a hero. Who was next in line to be humiliated by a mischievous bottle clinging to their boot?

Me, obviously. I was the one panicking and it had sensed it the little git. I could feel passengers staring down the bus as it lay next to me. The scene looked something like this:

I thought a woman said "are you gonna' pick that up, son?" but she actually said, "yeah, it was a big gash down his arm" to her friend.

Dr Pepper travelled on towards a tough looking woman - face like a burst soufflé. It didn't even get close, she practically jumped off her seat to pick it up and put it in the 'take your free newspaper' basket.

Problem solved? Not exactly. How was I going to enjoy the rest of my journey knowing there was a Dr Pepper bottle in a basket designed for newspapers?

"You know what, Scott? Don't worry about it," I thought, beginning to see sense. "Someone is going to get off one stop early today..."