Thursday, 30 September 2010

On Rachel Maddow and Ed Miliband, only not really

I had an epiphany a couple of weeks ago, while I was standing on the side of a busy road with a sleep-deprivation headache, and heavy bags full of grammar books, waiting for a lift from one of my students. It came to me as a question: Do I still want to be doing this when I'm 35?

And then, before I'd had a chance really to even contemplate what exactly I meant by this, I heard myself saying, out loud, but I am 35. Well, not that far off 35.

The this might have been the dependence on other people. Or the hours of public transport in any given day. (Five, on that particular day.) Granted, this could be resolved by the purchase of a car (and a few driving lessons), but I have no money for that kind of thing - which itself may be part of the this.

But the this goes deeper than that. Let me explain.

Just a couple of days after this standing-on-the-side-of-the-road moment, I was listening to the Rachel Maddow show, as is my political-junkie wont, and they mentioned her age: she's in her thirties.

I'm in my thirties.

Then Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership contest. (He's half-Belgian, by the way, a fact which has not been mentioned often enough, or in fact ever). He's forty.

That's only eight years more than me.

Where will I be in eight years' time? And my worry is this: shouldn't I be on my way there already?

I am frustrated. I know that I have the ability to excel at something. That if I could single-mindedly set my course, I could still get there, albeit a decade or two behind Rachel or Ed.

Wherever there is. And that's the nub of the problem. Single-mindedness is, by its very definition, exclusive. It takes, apparently, 10,000 hours to master a skill; that's 10,000 hours not spent doing something else. And I'm one of those people with "too many passions to pick just one": desperate to excel, yet trapped in what feels like mediocrity by the paralysis of choice.

Every week, it seems, a new dream job occurs to me: White House correspondant for the Guardian! Literary Agent! Manager of Social Media for a US Senator! The list goes on, and on.
And I just can't seem to choose one to the exclusion of all the others.

Besides, it's too late, isn't it? It's too late for unpaid internships and three more years of study and depending on the goodwill of people in London or New York or DC to house me for minimal rent. That moment was in my twenties, and I've missed it.

So I feel deeply dissatisfied. Purposeless. And frustrated because I feel like I could do so much more, be so much more, and I worry that I'm wasting my life and my abilities and just getting by.

I'd love to have a great, rousing, optimistic conclusion for you. I feel, though, that this post is just going to fizzle out. Sometimes I worry that my potential is going to do the same. I hope not. I hope that writing really is going to be it, in the end, whether that's journalism or fiction or both.

And the great thing about writing - aside from the excuse to spend a lot of money on funky stationery - is that it can encompass all your other passions. (There's a reason the hero in my novel has curly hair and dimples, and a reason why the heroine, who used to teach languages, and loves books, lives in DC and is a Senator fighting for better childcare laws.)

I loved the novel One Day, partly, I suspect, because Emma could be me. She has a good degree from a reputable university but is adrift in a sea of vague possibilities, never quite settling on what to do with her life, dabbling in teaching before realising in her early thirties that all she has ever wanted to do is write.

And maybe I'm being too impatient. Maybe writing is it for me, the thing in which I will excel, the way I will make my mark on the world. Maybe writing is my this. Maybe I just need to put in those 10,000 hours. But I'm standing at the bottom of my mountain, thinking that sounds like a lot. Looking at the Rachel Maddows and Ed Milibands who have been climbing since they could toddle, and getting discouraged at all the catching-up I have to do. Running to the foot of another mountain and then another and wondering if this one or that one would be more fun, more profitable, more me.

And while I'm running from mountain to mountain, wishing I had the right equipment to climb, time is slipping away, and I am becoming increasingly frustrated.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Belgian English: the top ten mistakes

1. Actually

Actuellement is translated currently. Actually simply means en fait, and rarely adds anything to the sentence.

2. Availabilities

Availability is always singular in English, as in: what is your availability?

3. Interesting

If you mean that something is a good price, then it is a good deal, or a bargain. A book or a film or an idea is interesting if it is something you want to think about.

4. Please

In English, you only use please when you are asking for something.

If you are giving something to someone, then you say here you are, although you often don't say anything.

If you are responding to thank you, you say that's okay, or you're welcome.

If you are saying you don't understand something, you say sorry? or could you repeat that?

5. I live in Brussels since two years

An action that starts in the past and continues to have an effect in the present is expressed in the present perfect. I have lived in Brussels...

Since - with date: I have lived in Brussels since 2008.

For - with length: I have lived in Brussels for two years.

6. Thank you for correcting my English

In English, this construction means "You have corrected me, and I am thanking you for something you have already done". If what you mean is "please correct me", you should say it would be great if you could correct my English, or would you mind correcting my English?

7. Open days

Open day means journée portes ouvertes. We call Monday-Friday business days.

8. Are you there already?

Already is much more narrow in its application than deja. It means "sooner than I expected". So "are you there already?" means "I was not ready for you to arrive yet, and I am panicking."

9. Tea

To a British person, tea is what you call "black tea". Any other form of tea - mint tea, green tea, chamomile tea, fruit tea - is called herbal tea. If you offer us tea, we expect tea! (Yes, probably with milk.)

10. British food is very bad.

While grammatically there is nothing wrong with this sentence, please understand: British food was very bad in the past. Now it's very, very good. We have learned a lot from other nations, especially Mediterranean ones, and we even have a new word - foodie - which describes a person who knows and understands food.

Belgian dog owners...

Is there anyone out there who owns a dog and lives in Belgium, or has done so in the past?

Newsweek has declared Belgium to be the best place to live for dog owners, and I'm writing a piece about it. I'd love to speak to/tweet with/exchange emails/buy you coffee this week if you have any insights or views as to why this might be!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Spiritual lessons from the West Wing: in this White House?

The first episode of The West Wing I ever watched was the one in my flatmate's laptop when I borrowed it one evening: it. happened to be the one where Ainsley Hayes starts work at the White House. Ainsley in intelligent and beautiful (blonde, of course) and fiercely ambitious - perfect in the way that only TV charcters can be. She's also a Republican.

When she's offered a job by Leo, she babbles incoherently (in iambic pentameter, because she's being written by Aaron Sorkin) where the rest of us might be speechless. "Ainsley," he says, "don't you want to work at the White House?"

"Only since I was three," she replies. "It has to be this White House?"

In other words, wow. This is my dream. I just didn't think it would look like this.

And now I'm being offered this position, and it's exactly what I want, but it's exactly not what I want, all at the same time, and so I'm confused.

I think many of us can relate to that. Take me, for example.

Claire, asks God gently, don't you want to be in leadership?

Oh, only all of my adult like.

I just didn't think it woud look like this.

Really? In this White House?

Not married to a Church leader who grew up being discipled by David Stroud and going to Stoneleigh Bible Week? Not married at all, in fact, not with three kids, the fourth on the way, maybe even twins?

Not in a Newfrontiers Church where I'm clear on the vision and embrace the values, where I know what is meant by "church", where I'm comfortable with the way things are done, where I understand what is expected of me and roughly how I should be going about it?

Yes. In this White House. In this capital city. In this Church. At this time in history.

"Appeal to her sense of duty," the President tells Leo. In other words, remind her that what unites us is bigger and deeper than what differenciates us. We all long for great things for our nation.

Ainsley, of course, takes the job. Sadly, Aaron Sorkin then forgets about her and she wastes away in the Steam Pipe Distribution Venue, to be replaced later by the very dishy Joe Quincy, played by none other than Matthew Perry, but I digress.

Since my life is not being written by Aaron Sorkin, I need not worry that such a fate awaits me. I am called by God, here and now, for such a time as this. And while the way my new Church does things is not the same as what I grew up with, while it is not always what I would choose, it is also not as radical a departure from my values as Ainsley Hayes' serving under a Democratic President. And what unites us is far, far deeper than what differentiates us.

Yes, Claire, really. In this White House.

I serve at the pleasure of the King.