Category Archives: Words

The cat that walked by himself

Last weekend I was having a “deep and meaningful” with a buddy. You can’t really put the two of us together without this happening. Though there’s something about both of us that means a D&M rarely gets too heavy (unless copious amounts of red wine are involved and then nothing’s sacred and no-one’s safe.)

At some point I mentioned how confusing I find it to know who my people are … what sort of ‘milieu’ I belong to.

Who cares?

Well, if you’re dating this gets VERY confusing. But if ever I blog about dating please shoot me, so let’s leave it at that.

In reply to my identify confusion, my good friend replied,

“But, it’s obvious! You’re the cat that walked by himself”

“I am?”

“You are.”

At which point I lost her for a bit as she frenetically googled on her iPhone looking for the source of her reference … the story that led her
to say this …while I sat there sipping my latte pleased that there appeared to be a well-documented report on my condition, involving a cat no

The point of her point was to congratulate me on my independence even if it does cost me a sense of belonging. Had she simply used these words
there’s no doubt I’d have felt far less consoled than I did when I learnt that I am a cat. A cat written of in legends!

So if ever you want to cheer someone up that they’re not just a stray or a freak or an outcast, I highly recommend sending them The Cat That Walked By Himself.

Thanks to my friend for giving me this story.
“The Cat That Walked By Himself” is from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Here are the lines my friend had in mind, a 5 minute video of extracts from the story and the full Kipling text.

… and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone



Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Relationships, States of mind, Words

Postcard from Zapallar

Given that it never takes more than 20 minutes, it’s crossed my mind that my daily run over the course of the past week has been more ritual than work-out.

But that’s OK, I’ve got to start somewhere.

For all of 2011 I never got close to reaching any sort of stamina for running — at least not the level I’d mastered only a couple of years prior.

Finding myself, at the start of 2012, in a location of mind-stopping natural beauty for a 10-day break, I decided this was a motivational opportunity too good to ignore. I said to myself that all I had to do each morning was follow the trail from the house along the road to the cemetery, down the cliffs and onto the rocky beach path which leads back up to the house. A perfect loop with unnaturally spectacular views. If I had to walk part of it, or even all of it, that was fine as long as long as I tried to run it. Daily. Without fail.

And as of Day 7, I have.

Two things inspired me to kick-start my running again. Something I read and something around me.

The something I read was an article posted by my fellow blogger, Ruben. It tells the story of a guy who claims he needs help getting motivated to go to the gym. The author replied that motivation wasn’t the issue. The problem was follow-through.

Each attempt to “motivate” himself will only increase his stress and guilt as it widens the gap between his motivation and his follow-through, between how badly he wants to work out and his failure to do so. We have a misconception that if we only cared enough about something, we would do something about it. But that’s not true.

Having become the Queen of exactly this sort of guilt-stress over the course of 2011 regarding my inability to stick with running, I read on…

Motivation is in the mind; follow-through is in the practice. Motivation is conceptual; follow-through is practical. In fact, the solution to a motivation problem is the exact opposite of the solution to a follow through problem. The mind is essential to motivation. But with follow through, it’s the mind that gets in the way.

Here’s the key: if you want to follow through on something, stop thinking.

Thinking about whether I’ll start running again or maybe try something new — that’s fine. But once I make the decision that I’m going to run and that I’m going to run tomorrow when I wake up here on my holidays in Chile — from that moment on any “thinking about it” turns to excuse-making self-sabotage.

It really is as simple as the Nike advert says.

Something around me
While I believe that most in things in life can be solved by the right words at the right moment in time (in books or conversation), words fix the mind whereas nature (wordless as it is) cures the soul.

So on top of the pep talk brought to me by Ruben, what really inspired me to get moving this week was the call of the wild. Not just the views: savage waves smashing against a shore of rock, a string of 10 pelicans gliding by on their coastal patrol, the sight of the sun creeping down and then falling below the perfect line of a horizon — but the soundtrack accompanying the scene. This is the loudest water I’ve ever faced.

As soon as I arrived the gutsy performance raging just beneath the perch of our house seemed to lay down the gauntlet … ‘come run with ME!” … and how often do I get that chance? in my everyday non-coastal life?

The path from Cementeria de Papudo back to our house at Las Perdices

Even if it is only 20 minutes each day, the sharp descents and rocky paths and collapsed stone walls are a challenge. Though not as heart-stopping as the one-eyed German shepherd that sleeps in the shade of the bushes at the entrance of Cementeria de Papudo.

I’m sure I appear demented as I slow my pace when I come to the part of my run where the dozing canine crosses my path. Each day my aim is to assure him that it’s not fear he smells, I swear. I slow down, get closer, even hold out my hand (oh god …) while telling him I MEAN YOU NO HARM I’M JUST TRYING TO GET FIT. As the days pass, the expression on the dog’s face is becoming increasingly perplexed. I suppose he worries about my mental health. He probably thinks I’m an axe murderer. I used to think this of runners too.

Anyway, once past the cemetery beast …. my obstacle course along this small stretch of the Pacific Ocean is getting easier by the day. I’ve learned to trip faster down this or that path, not stop at the top of the next one and to keep very low as I get to the end and face the steep and tricky climb up to the house.

If I was here for another week I’d have to graduate to some next level – maybe a double loop?

I’m hoping that my 10 days working this circuit has done the trick and that I’ll remember Zapallar the next time I lie in my bed on a wintry London morning and tell myself that it’s raining and too slippery or that more sleep would do more good than a run.

Perhaps I’ll ask the dog to wish me luck before I go.


Filed under Not in London, Sport, States of mind, Words

When is a factoid a lie?


Just recently a few of us from work were out to dinner at an Indian restaurant when someone (me probably) mentioned the word “factoid”. The man on my left is full of them. And I think I was re-counting the best factoids he’d ever passed along to me when he said, “you do know that factoids are not mini-facts or trivia, but pieces of mis-information?”

No I did not know that. I’ve been mis-using the word forever. And from the reaction from the rest of the table everyone else had as well. And so it was with pleasure that today I discovered that a renowned linguists also mis-uses it. (Not that I hate to be wrong by myself, but because it’s more interesting when lots of people are wrong all together.) On the subject of this weekend’s blog, I was flicking through one of the most influential books on the subject of what peers and school have to do with the nature-nuture debate (more on that tomorrow), when I stumbled upon the word-crime in question. There it was in the opening few pages of the book within the foreword  written by Steven Pinker. This Harvard Professor in linguistics made the following statement:

A strange factoid in our True-but-Inconvenient file is that children always end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents

And so Pinker, like me and many others, confuses the real meaning of the world. If the file he refers to contains actual truths, then they cannot be factoids.

Yes, factoids are bit of trivia, but the point is that they aren’t true, they are just believed to be true because they’ve been repeated so many times.

Here’s what wiki had to say on the matter

factoid is a questionable or spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement presented as a fact, but with no veracity. The word can also be used to describe a particularly insignificant or novel fact, in the absence of much relevant context.[1] The word is defined by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact”.[2]

Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. Mailer described a factoid as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper”,[3] and created the word by combining the word fact and the ending -oid to mean “similar but not the same”. The Washington Timesdescribed Mailer’s new word as referring to “something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but in fact is not a fact”.[4]

Factoids may give rise to, or arise from, common misconceptions and urban legends.

And the fact that so many of us mis-use the word makes it a meme as well! Which I wouldn’t have known had I not checked out memes during last weekend’s blog of confusing terms.

Until tomorrow, when we return to the issue of how school experiences shape our personalities.

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Filed under Random idea, Words

Commissioned vs Non-commissioned Officers

Before I call it quits on this weekend’s investigation into words I’ve never properly understood, it is with shame that I mention that whenever I come across a reference to a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer, I think to myself that I must look up the difference. But I haven’t ’till now.

The shame …
Having spent most of my history degree studying wars, you’d think I’d have NCOs and COs clear in my head, but I don’t. I had forgotten. It reminds me of when I was a kid and about 90 minutes into The Eagle has Landed I’d double check with my dad to make sure I knew which ones were the Germans.

Strange coincidence …
In the past couple of weeks I’ve bumped into COs and NCOs on 3 different occasions of fiction which is weird because I don’t read a lot of fiction. It’s also weird in an on-time way because it was Remembrance Day this week … even if the anniversary of the end of  the First World War had zero to do with my recent choice in fiction.

3 different fictions …
I bumped into NCOs and COs in Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and O’Brien’s The Things they Carry.  

I cannot recommend O’Brien’s story enough. It’s short and it’s stunning. The back-drop is Vietnam, but the experience is Any War. If you haven’t done anything else to remember the military this week, please read this. You can download it here.

I also loved Cutting for Stone. Based mostly in Ethiopia in the second part of 21st century, we get to see some military action though the main focus of this addictive saga is the world of medicine and the fate of twin brothers born to an English surgeon and an Indian nun. Coincidentally, fellow blogger Aliceson posted a review of the book a few days ago.

As for Murakami’s Wind-up Bird, not so much my cup of tea. I loved his memoir on running, but this fiction left me cold. With one big fact exception. At a book club this past week we discussed this story and where we could all agree is that the best part of this 600 page book came about 100 pages in with Lieutenant Mamiya’s Long Story Part I and II, an account from the Japanese-Soviet  border fighting in Mongolia during World War II. The extract of this tale (complete in and of itself without needing to read the rest of Wind-Up) is also available online, here.

But back to the question … what’s the difference between a commissioned and a non-commisioned officer?

While it varies from country to country and across different parts of the armed forces, the former went to officer training school whereas the latter worked their way up through the ranks. Beyond that, it’s better explained by NCOs and COs themselves …. here are some of the best explanations I found online:

this is a difficult one to grasp and it varies by branch, ill try explaining it as a Marine. Commissioned Officers are managers. They all have formal schooling prior to joining. Their job is to oversee an office of Marines (who have been trained at specific tasks: motor repair, fuel, photography, computer networks.)

Non-commissioned (NCO’s) are enlisted Marines who have risen through the ranks. They are tasked with taking the officers plan and helping figure out how best to use the Marines to get it done. The NCO is responsible for training new Marines and
keeping them on task to complete the officer’s mission.

An officer will make general plans without specific knowledge of what the capabilities or restrictions of their Marines are. The NCO and Staff NCO (gunnery sergeant or staff sergeant) take those broad ideas and turn them into achievable goals for their junior Marines and then keep driving those Marines to get the job done.

Hope this helps, msg me if you still have a question.

Active duty Marine — NCO

* * *

I have been both an officer and an NCO. I was nine years enlisted before going to Officer Candidate School (OCS). It is not so much “which is better”… both are extremely important to the military… both jobs take skill and intelligence.An officer who has enlisted experience ( a “Mustang”) makes a better troop leader … but his chances of succeeding in the higher ranks is limited for several reasons (“ring knocker” clicks; right type of education, etc). As for the “@ss kissing” that goes on at all levels not just the officer ranks … the politics of personality is pervasive. You get paid more as an officer because you have more responsibility…your career can be destroyed in the slash of a pen. As an enlisted man I had nine article 15’s and a court martial…and still made E-8. As an officer I told my rating officer he was a “f_cking liar” in front of his boss and lost my career….. (never said I was smart.)

Airborne Ranger Green Beret, Cpt (retired)


I enlisted with plans of going to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. Got deployed to Iraq the first time and decided I would rather be an NCO. Now I am kind of regretting it somewhat – seeing guys with less experience, same education, having a great impact. Now on my 2nd deployment I wish I had of went to OCS.


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Filed under Books etc., Identity, Words, Work

To meme or not to meme

That would be the question if I only I could be as certain as others seem to be about what a meme is. I never use the word — not because I don’t know one when I see one. I do. But because I have no idea what sort of things are NOT memes. Isn’t everything a meme?

Unless that something is extinct — then yes, it appears so.

For starters, a disclaimer on today’s title: a meme is a noun, not a verb — though by the end of this post I’d like to suggest we start using it as a verb too. As in, “that’s so cool, I’m meme-ing that” or “brilliant idea – go forth and meme” or “hey wait a second, that’s my idea, don’t meme me!”

While I’ve been hearing about memes for a good few years now, the first person I remember talking about them was my friend Remy who reads the New Scientist like an addict — ever-mindful that there’s a new weekly edition waiting for his consumption as he furtively stows last week’s rolled up copy inside in his trenchcoat.

It’s just like a New Scientist reader to walk around talking about memes — the word was given to us by none other than Richard Dawkins as far back as 1976 with his book The Selfish Gene.  According to Richard,

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

 So far, so good. I get what they are, but not what they aren’t.

While the word comes from the Greek ‘mimeme’ (to imitate), Richard was making a point about how they evolve and pass along and mutate by having the word rythme with “gene”. Susan Blackmore, who studies memes, helps clarify my question by reminding us that the exact defintion is “that which is imitated”.

Which means EVERYTHING that sticks is a meme.

  • Things like manbags and reality TV shows
  • Ideas like crackberry and consumerist society
  • Practices like joggers running with their prams (I sincerely hope this meme dies off) or dressing our pets in costumes (also good to go) or inserting emoticons in our emails (ditto) or walking into meetings carrying a Venti skinny extra shot latte (am OK with)
  • And symbols … like 😉

And if you hadn’t noticed, blogging is definitely a meme.

My list could have read very differently. I might have mentioned things like indoor toilets, ideas like marrying for love, practices like throwing people in prison and symbols like the peace sign. But because we’ve become used to these, there are not what most people mean when they use the word meme — what they really mean is NEW human behaviour, new trends, new quirks that are catching on. 

Susan Blackmore shares a funny example with us in her TED Talk on the subject*

What makes memes special is that apparently only humans pass things along culturally. I find this hard to believe, I can just imagine one cat teaching another cat how to break into a micro-chipped cat flap and then more cats cottoning on … but maybe that’s just me ….

All living organisms have genes but only us humans also got memes.

The most obvious meme to me is the use of the word itself.

I mean memes have been around forever and have been labelled as such and talked about since 1976 — soon that’ll be almost 50 years ago! so how come the word finally went viral and is close now to becoming mainstream? I don’t know … I suppose it might have something to do with Richard writing more books and getting more press, something to do with the internet and Facebook and Twitter and the rise of socially contagious media (all forms of which are memes in and of themselves).

But that’s the subject of this weekend’s blog – things I don’t know about. In particular words and phrases that come up all the time that make me stop and think and then realize I’m a bit confused. Well, not anymore – because I’ll be digging into some of these semi-mysteries to see if I can’t figure out what’s going on.  Stay tuned!

*Blackmore’s TED talk is like most TED talks — worth watching, even though she is a little bit annoying.


Filed under Social psychology, Words