Winter of Post-Discontent, or: How I Learned to Stop Griping and Just Chill with the Killer Chill…

IMG_0704

Into the winter wonderland woods…

Oh, snow way! Yes way. Everything went white and the temperature turned subzero. Winter came and my neighbourhood transformed into something resembling Narnia or an Ice King freakout. It’s really, really cold. Even prior to the snowfall it’d been nippy and, to be honest, pretty glum weather-wise most of the time (you probably know what they say about rain and Manchester). It’s winter, so all the green things are dead and now all those dead plants are symbolically buried beneath several inches of snow.

I tend to associate winter with death. I’m a summer sun child, somewhat afflicted by SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and I’m uncomfortable if the temperature dips below 15°c. I’m charged by solar energy and I feel best when I’m wearing only one layer of clothing. My natural temperament is entirely at odds with the winter and, to put it simply, winter kind of kills my buzz. (And in the UK, if winter takes up roughly 2/3rds of the year, then I’m at odds with the season most of the time when I’m here.)

Thus, musing on death happens more often in the bleak midwinter. All the trees are dead. All the flowers are dead. By 4.30pm daylight is dead. All my summer spirit is dead (or, at least, it’s ebbed away). And what’s more, in the real world, great famous people keep on dying and the news reads as a list of obituary notices and posthumous tributes. There is much mourning. It’s dark and cold. Chilly shivers course through my marrow, and then I go to the movies to watch dark, violent films about people dying in unforgiving winter conditions (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight).

And then I take all of this death, darkness and dreariness and I dash out into the snow, slide around a bit and say to myself “Hey, you morbid drippy bitch! Smile! You’re alive and life is beautiful!” And I am smiling and I am alive and life is beautiful (it always is, in spite of it all). Good news! Somewhere along the way I seem to have found a way to co-exist with winter and reconfigure the whole experience as something that’s actually pretty cool (cool as in ‘good’ good and not ‘mildly cold’). Somehow I managed to significantly downgrade my level of SAD and I did it without resorting to indoor hibernation and death by tea, heavy metal and hot water bottle burns (my usual survival remedies for the season).

I’m not sure how this happened, and all I can conclude is that I just acquired a more enlightened and upbeat attitude. I also probably got bored of being freaking hostile to forces far beyond my control (keeping up constant bitterness and antagonism is wearying, y’know). Winter has to happen so I may as well just accept it and enjoy it as best as I can. I operate in this fashion in the summer months – soaking up as much sun as possible while others hide in the shade because I know that the heat of the moment will pass. Winter shall also pass and the cold won’t linger forever (this isn’t Narnia or Hoth). Neither will the fleeting flakes of winter magic that I’ve noticed when I’m not too busy muttering: “Damn, it’s too bloody cold!

Simple pleasures like knitwear, hot showers and steaming teapots after a day out in the cold make winter alright. I’ve also found tremendous beauty in the season this past week. Those aforementioned films showed me humans (and horses) suffering in extreme winter conditions, but they also reminded me – through film artistry and the language of cinema – just how beautiful winter can be. Winter isn’t a war on nature or on me or the pretty precious little flowers and suchlike – it’s a part of the grand cycle of life and has a wonder of its own.

(I apologise for turning into Captain Obvious here. Try and appreciate that this is written by an over-sensitive, simple soul with poor circulation and he’s only recently come out of the cave and cast off his snow-blinds. You may take this stuff for granted but, for me, it’s a psychological breakthrough and personal psychological breakthroughs deserve a “woohoo!“)

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn...

Yonder lies Manchester at the break of dawn…

When I emerged from the cinema having watched The Hateful Eight this weekend, I discovered that light snow was falling. Frost had been on the ground when I entered but now little floaty motes of white were lighting up the early evening dark. It felt a bit magical, and I wandered around Manchester city centre marvelling at the sight, well-aware that I’m about to leave this place for few months. I stuck my tongue out to catch snowdrops. I idled around in neon-lit Chinatown a while, just watching snow fall on the Chinese Arch. Then I got on a train home and, arriving in my neighbourhood, found that the Saturday snow was even thicker up here.

Sunday morning it was thicker still. I woke before dawn and went out on a trek through white stuff at sunrise just to appreciate the winter wonderland that had occurred. I made my way to a vantage point and gazed across the landscape, from Winter Hill right across to the redlights atop Beetham Tower. It struck me that Greater Manchester and the moors of Lancashire in my relative backyard have never looked so beautiful to me. I felt connected to my homeland, and that was the work of winter.

Walking onward, the world woke up and I started encountering people – some walking excitable dogs, some clearing driveways and de-icing cars while kids built snowmen and played around with sledges. Little birds bounced around the frosty branches overhanging the footpaths and all the familiar roads looked so picturesque and clean coated with snow. So much for death and dreariness – there’s life, energy and pleasure in winter.

I’ve made peace with the season and had a profound moment the past week that helps me appreciate home all the more before I head off to foreign climes (and those climes aren’t much warmer than Northern England right now). I’m now going to head out for a walk in the snow and enjoy it while I still can. The moral of this winter’s tale, then? Acceptance; living in the moment; appreciation of natural magic and the beauty in all things; opening your mind and venturing outside of your comfort zones (though be sure that you have a hot shower and a cup of tea ready for the aftermath.)

Brrrrr, it’s so pretty…

There's Winter Hill in, erm, winter...

There’s Winter Hill in, erm, winter…

Four Things I Learned on a Four Week Course to Become a Better English Teacher…

Remember when Antarctic explorer Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates said “I am just going outside and may be some time” and didn’t come back? Well, I said similar things around a month-and-a-half ago but, hey! I came back!

(Note: I’ve got doubts about Titus Oates’ death. They never found his body. Personally, I like to believe that Oates encountered Shoggoths outside and that they took him to the resting vaults of the Elder Things. There he discovered incredible extraterrestrial technology which he used to increase his longevity and radically alter his physical form. Neo-Oates is now 135-years-young and reigns over a subterranean krill kingdom beneath the South Pole. He will eventually come back – supported by his devout crustacean subjects – and you will know him by the whistling of his gills. Yes. Absolutely.)

Way back just a shade over a month-and-a-half ago I shut everything down and stepped outside because I had a mission. That mission: go through an intensive course to gain a CELTA qualification. Progress through and successfully pass a CELTA course and you acquire special skills and fresh status as an especially qualified, quite-excellent Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. I can break that down into an appealing, easy-to-understand 16-bit format: CELTA is like the power-up Super Leaf that transforms you from regular Mario to Tanooki-Suit Super Mario. Then you have a funky weaponised tail and the power to fly and with that ability you can reach the secret bonus areas hidden in the clouds and the roofs of the haunted castles of the Mushroom Kingdom.

In total, it was an intense month of giddily bouncing about on a quest to become a better teacher and sometimes it felt like Super Mario Bros. 3. (It was nothing like Super Mario Bros. 3. but I wanted to drag out the crap analogy for cohesion. Yeah, that wasn’t great. One thing I’m better at thanks to the course is necessary self-evaluation and I acknowledge that crap analogies are a weakness and I will strive to improve in this area.) I learned a lot about teaching English and mastered double-sided photocopying but I’m not going to regurgitate it all here. Instead, I’m putting down four particularly significant things I (re)learned over the four weeks for posterity. 1-2-3-4! Let’s go…

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox... *awestruck smile...*

I really like full classes and I love teaching in a classroom possessed by the spirit of Professor Brian Cox… *awestruck smile…*

#1. Teaching is brilliant

I love teaching. Getting back to teaching action and returning to the classroom re-affirmed this and reminded me that I’m pretty good at it and have a lot of fun doing it. Give me a chance to craft lesson plans, create extra materials and assault a whiteboard and I will go all out and be a happy guy. What’s more, the other people in the room will have an engaging, stimulating experience and may even learn something. (I’ve failed if they don’t.)

To be involved in learning, to share knowledge and to actively play a role in other human beings’ developments is a beautiful thing and a privilege. Teaching is hard work, but it’s enjoyable and rewarding. Teaching a language is even more rewarding because you’re helping people to communicate, enhance a whole set of practical skills and potentially bridging cultural gaps (among many other things). I had a good time with the international ensemble of students during my teaching practice sessions and I’m psyched to get back teaching real students again as soon as possible. (Self-promo-moment: “I can help you with your English, whatever your needs are! For personalised assistance and tuition from a qualified and experienced mother tongue speaker, call now!” *thumbs up, cheesy smile*.)

I'm all about pizza and grammar lessons...

I’m all about pizza and grammar lessons…

#2. The English language is brilliant

The English language is rich, beautiful and endlessly fascinating. It is vast, dynamic and it can be played with and creatively handled to infinite ends. I knew that, but over the past few months I’ve been getting down to the nitty gritty and focusing on the fundamental mechanics of the language – not the fancy stuff I can do with all these words, words, words. I’m talking grammar, guys, and grammar is groovy. (*struts and clicks fingers at the beat of the drop of that full stop*)

I’ve been expanding my language awareness and will continue to study this stuff because it’s important and actually really interesting. It may be that I’m a bit affected after a lot of hardcore study. I mean, it’s been an intense period and there were moments where – deep in the cut-and-thrust of lesson planning – I started getting very (too) excited about pure modals, collocations and the Second Conditional. I realised that things were getting serious during a ‘conversation’ with a relative in which my contribution to the dialogue was nothing more than “Y’know, it’s interesting that you’re using the First and Second Conditional a lot.” And then there was another time – once upon a daydream – where I was musing on word classes and became aware that the word ‘adjective’ is in fact a noun. That must be a terrible identity crisis, poor thing. Imagine if your entire existence was built around the purpose of defining something that you are not and could never be. Only verbal nouns can be happy and free in this Universe, ordered as it is.

Yeah. Absolutely. But seriously, English is brilliant. I get high off studying it and have high times fighting with online dictionaries when they don’t agree with my Northern pronunciation.

It's the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow...

It’s the Zippy from Rainbow dressed as Electro-Santa Christmas market lightshow…

#3. Manchester is brilliant

By ‘eck, I love Manchester, I do. This one I didn’t really, truly know, and it sort of blindsided me. Being in Manchester city centre every day and being in a open and reflective state of mind I had a ‘seeing what was under my nose all along’ epiphany. Manchester is the best city in Britain (yes it is) and I’m happy that it’s my hood.

It’s also easier to appreciate how excellent your hometown is when you’re meeting outsiders from all corners of the globe telling you just how happy they are to be here. (Especially true of asylum seekers freshly arrived from Sudan after a month in transit.) All the foreign students I engaged with liked Manchester and it was only the weather that was a downer. In truth, it’s only bad weather and an increasingly unacceptable homeless crisis that bring Manchester down. Otherwise, Manchester is wonderful and it’s even more wonderful in the build-up to Christmas. Yay for Manchester’s Christmas markets!

I’m now resolved that, whenever the opportunity arises, I will harp on about how great Manchester is where once I was a bit indifferent and ambivalent. In brief, this place has got pretty much everything – Manchester’s an idiosyncratic mix of tradition and modernism, gothic industrialism married to shiny 21st century style. It’s gloriously cosmopolitan, is full of distinctive character and has a youthful spirit. It’s always moving forward but it knows its roots. Plus, the population are friendly, good-humoured people and the sound of the city is Northern accents. In total, eeyy-aaaah, Manchester’s aaaalriiiiight.

#4. Disconnecting from social media is brilliant

Titus Oates was never on Twitter, but when it came to starting the course I realised that it would be best to channel his spirit with regard to social media. I needed to concentrate. I needed to cut out distractions. I needed to focus on what was really important, get on with the work and devote all my energies and attention to the mission. Thus, I uninstalled all the social media apps on my phone and abstained from Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for over a month. (I also didn’t go to the cinema and watch TV. I basically just did the course and in downtime spoke to my family and watched the news. I told you: give me something to do and I will go all-out and method actor-ish on the task.)

What did I miss? Aside from keeping in touch with distant friends and being in the loop with some news, nothing really. I also – in spite of the heavy workload and all-consuming rush of the course – felt more relaxed when I wasn’t hooked up to social media. My mind wasn’t as cluttered with trivial stuff, irritations and constant noise. I also found that I was, actually, more aware of the wider world because I was reading the news rather than reading reactions to the news (or just reading unfiltered, self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness ramblings or memes).

I had such a pleasant time being offline that I turned it into a lesson for my teaching pratice on the CELTA course (inspired by this article on a Danish study of people taking a break from Facebook). Now, having finished the course, I’m back connected and it’s good to be in touch with lovely people again but I feel a change. I intend to be less attached to these cyberspaces so I can reap the rediscovered benefits.

Those then, are things I learned and relearned on an excellent course that levelled me up as an educator, galvanished me and made me a happy Mancunian. On to the next quest… (possibly trying to find the Lost Kingdom of Neo-Oates, Lord of the Krill.)