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Here I sit in 21st century clothes: A creature forged and shaped through millennia of wielding donkeys' femurs in defence of my cave and tearing flesh from still warm deer to feed me and my own. And yet, across the millennia, forces of cooperation have honed a set of communication skills that allow collaboration and social interaction. These latter I offer now, on the understanding that the former are still very much influences in all our behaviour, not just mine. If you wish I can discuss Iambic pentameter, the role of cortisol in the developing foetus or how best to skin a rabbit. How wondrous a swiss-army-knife of a creature is a human! At least that is how it feels to me. And that is what I hope to portray in my verbal stumblings: Musings on sentience, because it still baffles and delights me.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Profound Nature of Attention

1969, Lees Hill Playgroup, Kingswood, Bristol. A group of about twenty children are sat around in small chairs in a circle as an authoritative lady of indeterminate age sits on a bigger chair as part of the circle. We all sing, at her lead:
"Ten currant buns in a baker's shop
Big and round with a cherry on top"

I could almost taste the cherry. My mind's fingers were sticky with sugar and crumbs.

"Along came.."

Please let it be me!

"Jenny with a penny one day"

Deep disappointment. It wasn't me.

"Bought a currant bun and took it away"

Gradually, each of the ten buns was purchased by one of our number until none were left. I remained bun-less. Despite the imaginary nature of the buns, I was hungry and I also felt something else: "overlooked", "unnoticed", less interesting and important as those who had popped along to this hypothetical baker's shop, handed over their abstract pennies and smugly left with a fanciful confectionery in their worthy little hands.
Why wasn't it me?

My great-grandfather ran an "informal" betting ring for th' Osses! We lived with him in a single room in his council house during the grim austere greyness of the late 1960s, myself, my teenage parents and latterly, my baby sister. It was grubby, shabby and the flagstones in the hall and kitchen were cold on my feet in the mornings. A stream of old gentlemen in long grey raincoats would trickle in and out all morning, handing over piles of ten-bob coins wrapped in white pieces of paper, upon which the names of the horses were written. I don't really know what happened then. It was all very confusing to a small child of three or four. I remember they smelled funny: Of rolling tobacco and woodsmoke from their open fires.
Each one would raise a kindly hand to my little curly blond head and pat me affectionately as I sat observing the parade of gargoyles who came and went. And often they would give me sweets ( to the extent my milk teeth went rotten and had to be taken out). My great grandfather would stroke my head and in a wheezy voice forged in the smoke of a million Woodbines, gurgle proudly "Yes! He's my little buuy!" (He had a very strange dialect seldom heard today even in the more remote areas around Oldland Common.) And he would chortle in glee, wrinkle a smile at me and I would feel the proudest boy on Earth.

A large hall, dimly lit by flashing coloured lights, full of music of a tolerable volume and people dancing, somewhere in the West of England, 2014. The atmosphere is heady with the scent of enjoyment and occasional excitement. The edges of the hall are lined with people sitting, mostly ladies, arms folded in defence of their self-esteem. Each seems hopeful, expectant, but a little disappointed. A man walks over to one of the ladies.
"Would you like to dance?"
She accepts and suddenly her demeanour goes from bored resignation to radiant happiness. The dance unfolds until its end, with perhaps a little banter, flirting, or perhaps little interaction beyond that of lead and follower. The lady, happy for a moment, acknowledges her partner and his gallantry (or chooses to ignore his enthusiastic contortions), a smile is exchanged and she goes to sit down again, perhaps not to dance for the rest of the evening.

So, what it is it about attention that feeds us so? Why do we need the regard of others (and few can say truthfully they do not) to blossom of feel whole? Someone we know vaguely, remembers our name when we pass them in a shop, thinking previously that they were unaware of even our existence. Our day is made. A lady smiles at me as I hold the door open for her. I am lifted and I feel I am more than I was moments before.
Conversely, we fear that strangers may regard us in a lesser way because we have ventured out without make-up, dressed drably on a night out, gone to the DIY shop in our decorating clothes and bumped into that lovely teacher our kids had five years ago.  The regard of others is so important to us. No regard is a famine for the soul.
And it doesn't have to be positive regard: It is well known that children will play up to inattentive parents because censure is at least attention. Adults do this too, but in more sophisticated ways (in most cases) than climbing on the furniture or writing on the walls.

It seems to me that a lot of people are quite unhappy because they feel the world overlooks them. In fact, perhaps it does. It could be that many people go through life without a compliment, smile or friendly act directed their way for most of the time. And surely this cannot make for a happy world.

Ok, there are huge injustices, agonies of tragedy in places where law and order do not exist. We are by and large (at least those of us here, looking at blogs from the comfort of whatever safe environment we find ourselves in, I hope) not in such situations.

But wouldn't it be a nice place if we just decided to be a bit kinder to each other? As long as the appreciative comment about a dress is not taken inaccurately as a sign of romantic intent, or a comment about someone's healthy glow is not regarded as irony (the right kinds of smile should prevent such misunderstandings), taking the time to connect with people can only make us all feel a little bit more appreciated.
So, I am off up the High Street now to smile at some people and spread a little sunshine on a day when meteorologically, the isn't much of the other kind.

Here: Have a bun!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Posts that write themselves in our heads

This morning, I rode my bicycle the twelve miles to the office and everything was suddenly right with the world. There was the scent of woodsmoke in the air, reminiscent of so many evocative memories that they merge into a mass of good-feeling in my chest. The birds were happy in the hedges and I swallowed my first flies of the year. All was good and my mind felt free to roam and reflect without any undue direction from me.

So, suddenly, it seems, two years have passed and I feel fully recovered finally. Just after the second anniversary of my neurological mishap, I find my sleep patterns have returned to normal, implying that mechanical healing is now probably finished and I no longer need the system to be down for so long to accomplish all the repairs to be undertaken. Finally, I can awake, as I did before, at a reasonably early hour, have a cup of tea and then do my half hour or so of yoga in the mornings, watching the long-tailed tits and goldfinches fussing about in the birch trees in the garden.

It is a joyous time of year. The cherry blossoms invite pauses on my ride to the office, just for the sheer wonderment of beholding such a beautiful sight, free-of-charge and readily available, for this short time only, at the side of the road. The world is filled with a kind of potential which now being whole again, I can approach in a spirit of exploration and with no fear of being mentally overwhelmed.
I find myself deeply enthused by such simple things as baking sourdough bread and brewing beer from the sacks of malted barley that reside in my wardrobe (for want of a better place to store them). The departure of both my offspring to university hundreds of miles away, no longer requiring my assistance or attention and seemingly self-sufficient in their everyday lives (apart from my substantial financial contribution) leaves a space which I feel quite happy about filling.
Life is pretty good.

Someone recently asked me if I would rather my haemorrhage hadn't happened. Would I have preferred that that two years ago a tiny bleed had not rearranged my brain? Though small, barely discernible in the scans in fact, on a functional level, a physiological level it was so profound as to be  absolutely devastating both mentally, and for a shorter time, physically.
The answers is no. that it happened has brought profound positive insights, as often brushes with one's mortality do. The experiences I have had have changed me forever for the better. Perspectives were dislodged and replaced by better ones. Lost capabilities were painstakingly rebuilt, and the implications noticed and built upon, allowing for new skills to be developed. I learned to dance tango, which arguably, I wouldn't have done otherwise. I went to Istanbul. I developed memory strategies to overcome the difficulties I still to some extent have with the conceptual routes to certain memory functions. So much is better now.

I feel entirely recovered. And somehow augmented. Lucky me!

And that shall be an end to it. Now is time to get on and live the substantial remainder of a life I almost lost.I feel like writing again. There will be more. But not about this subject. That chapter, though bookmarked, is closed.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The World is your Lobster!

As I look out at the January landscape, the sky white/grey upon which the contrast of dark twigs and branches is stark with clarity, I am enthused with the potential of the world. I may be sat at my desk amongst grey corporate uniformity but it is warm and dry and I am not breaking my back to earn enough to live a meagre existence. I can see the world out there and feel what it might have to offer. My mind can roam about freely there, even if I am physically stuck at a desk in my office.
When the life I am forced to inhabit gets too dull and lacklustre, I just think about driving off into the world in my van and suddenly everything seems a lot more exciting.
There are beaches to walk along and woods to explore, fires to be lit, clay ovens to build and fire up. There are welders and glue-guns and self-adhesive velcro. There is wood and fabric and metal to make things from.  There are friends old, new and yet to be discovered with which the world can be explored and there is food to share and enjoy, bread to bake and beer to brew, dancing to be done! Spring is coming and vegetable seeds need to be sown. And there are songs to learn for thrashing out on the guitar or banjo round camp fires.
How splendid is modern life here without plague or barbarians or famine! How full the possibilities for fulfillment. There is no time to waste! Ok, there is the tiresome problem of having to earn a living and there is some minimal level of housework to be done. And when children are younger and more in need of supervision, that can be a limitation. But a magnifying glass and  book describing local insects can provide quite the basis for an adventure. Or some sticks and string to make bows and arrows.
I didn't used to like Winter. I seemed to be the time when real life had to close down as we hibernated in front of the telly. Well, last weekend, I decided to ignore the temperatures and head down to Exmoor in my van. I have a wonderful new thing called a  Frontier Stove which is a small portable woodburner on legs that packs up about the size of  a small holdall such as one might take to the gym with your daps in.
My Frontier Stove. Portable heat for cooking and comfort. And You don't end up smelling like a kipper on account of the long chimney
Ok it was about minus five degrees by bedtime. But the fire gave out some lovely heat and with a few layers of warm clothing, it was quite bearable. Fun even. 
Now, I understand that some people would find this a dreadful proposition: Sitting outside in the Great Outdoors in January in sub-zero temperatures WITH NO TELLY! But actually, that was precisely it's allure for me. It was an adventure! Somewhere I had never explored. Somewhere beautiful, where little tracks headed off into woods to who-knows-where! How can a night in by the telly even compare with that?

At other times, I feel drawn to the city. My home town of Bristol, with all its maritime heritage, has been developed with great thought and inventiveness.
The view from Mud Dock Cafe at Bristol waterside where I had the best burger of my entire life amongst a profusion of interesting bicycles
It really is a lovely city to visit now. As with all major cities, there is culture on offer. The city has a buzz underneath its bustle. Stop and perhaps you may hear it. It is the hum of people doing stuff. Some nights I go to a small hall or sometimes a dark, poky cellar bar,and dance tango with a group of like minded people. It gets me out of the house.
Dancing is much better than telly! Even with HD and surround sound. 
 And sometimes I stay at home. But sitting still isn't my thing so I find myself often in the kitchen. Recently, I did a bread making course with the splendid Clive from Shipton Mill. I have to say I learned some astonishing and dismaying things about the bread-making industry (like the way they add gluten to bread to improve its structure because they need it to rise quickly for productivity reasons so they put too much yeast in it which makes the structure all wrong. Dreadful!). Now, I make so much bread that I barely have to put the central heating on, such is the heat from the oven. 
I made all this bread, Making bread is cathartic. I have to say, the Chelsea buns were gorgeous beyond even my powers to describe. The secret is lots of butter and loads of dried fruit: But no candied peel because candied peel is Satan's droppings.

Making beer is existentially satisfying. Drinking it, even more so.
And beer. I make a lot of beer. Which is quite an involved process but seems to make one very popular. I may describe the process in another post because it is actually quite fascinating. But you don't have to read that one if you don't want to. Or this one in fact.

So, I suppose what I am saying is that we live in an age where the opportunity to do and see amazing things is all around us as never before. The allure of inertia - to sit in the warm comfort of our arm chairs and be entertained by electronic media - can be overwhelming. But look! Look! the world is full of opportunity. Time passes and routine can be reassuring. But how many days are there passed in stultifying unremarkability? That's your life passing by that is! 
The days and weeks will pass anyway. It seems better to punctuate them with little points of light and memories that make you smile. Do stuff that makes you alive, makes you think, puts points of interest on the map of your past life! Don't wait for fate to give you that warning to make better use of your days. In the words of a manager I once knew (but in a far more enlightened context): JFDI!

Monday, 6 January 2014

It's all tangents these days.

Back at my desk, in the office which consists of mainly grey, corporate "furniture" of a uniformity that is utterly stultifying, the noise suddenly strikes me. They moved us from a building initially designed as a production environment (with commensurate noise-damping surfaces and high ceilings) to an open-plan office in which you can hear a colleague fart twenty desks away. Each phone conversation, often participated in by those who have complete obliviousness to the volume level of their voices, can be heard word for word forty feet away. I feel occasionally like wandering round to explain this before realising that perhaps I am the same: Perhaps my discussions, enunciated carefully and clearly for customers who I know well and for whom English is a foreign language (albeit one which most of them manage better than many of my British colleagues) are equally loud and irritating.
It leaves little room for thought. My reconstructed brain has regained almost all of its original functionality. But if I was a little ADHD before, I am a positive flibberdigibbet now. Some mechanism pertaining to attention (never a strength of mine) is yet to mend and perhaps now never will. Hence, every person wandering by, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, causes a "non-maskable interrupt" (a computer programming term for the insistence of a process that it must have the processor's undivided attention and no, will not take "I am busy!" for an answer). A turn of the head in each case and a requirement then to appraise the situation before returning to what was I doing, each stage of which takes a finite amount of task-switching time. Most disruptive.

So, the conversations intrude and my mind is filled with other peoples' imperatives and requests and observations. And all my own thoughts are roughly jostled out of the way, some of them falling into an abyss of forgetfulness, never to be rediscovered. And the greyness of the environment makes the appearance of new and interesting thoughts in my addled bonce increasingly unlikely. Most frustrating.

Being a bit creative is often required in most jobs. But it's surprising what saps the creative energies, leaving nothing left for that which we would like to create. Well, this piece of drivel is one example: This is the result of a sincere intention to write something entirely different, the gist of which I have no recollection of now. The bottom of that abyss must be a really interesting place, with all those fragments of forgotten concepts and insistent thoughts that must surely lie broken at the bottom. Perhaps down there they kind of decompose like a layer of mental compost from which one day a great and glorious tree of inspiration will emerge.
I do hope so because I have a surfeit of words all clamouring to be expressed and nothing much to apply them to.

Anyway, (and a complete non-sequitur here) I have decided that although it is not a resolution as such, 2014 is to be my Year of Friends. This year, it is time to reach out in every way possible, and touch the world and the people in it. It has been a long time of looking inward (mostly to see what is still working and what needs yet to be fixed).
But no more: Time to come out of the shell and venture some invitations, suggestions and general connections.
And I also intend to learn foxtrot. A chap needs a project and the Argentine Tango is all very well, but I have kind of got the hang of it now and it wasn't what I expected.

Happy 2014. How on Earth did I get here?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Hats and Prejudice

So, here I am once again in an aeroplane seat high above the clouds. It is another one of the seemingly crazy thirty hour trips necessary for the personal touch derived from meeting customers face-to-face: five hours flying, ten hours driving, several hours of meetings followed by a good-natured and rather enjoyable dinner with the lively conversation of intelligent and amiable people. And somewhere in there snatching a few hours' sleep.  It's probably very bad for me but I have been doing it for over twenty years so the toll would most likely be visible by now (or perhaps this might be the reason I am prematurely starting to resemble a tortoise in less favourable light conditions)

So, I board the plane, take my aisle seat and close my eyes for a bit of peace.  This is not achieved: bags bang me on the head.  Coats brush my face and buttocks graze my right shoulder or bicep. Intrusive, though some buttocks are obviously more welcome visitors than others.

British Airways provides free newspapers: the rather skinny "I" which is a reduced version of the Independent, and the Dailt Mail.
I do not sully my hands or mind with this latter spiteful, judgemental sop to the bigoted and Hard-of-thinking. It disgusts me for reasons I hope I do not have to articulate to anyone who has ever read it. It is divisive and nasty and panders to the seeds of hatred that already lie dormant in some peoples' minds.

However, in the enforced boredom that waiting for our take-off slot entails, I found   my eyes being drawn to some of its rabid, spittle-flecked headlines as others thumbed through it, thankfully quickly. Almost without exception the articles express outrage at some minority group who have the misfortune to fall into the "them" category instead of the "us" group.
Indefensible prejudices spew angrily and self-righteously from the pages to reinforce the biases of those unimaginative souls uncritical enough to believe without examination. And I wonder at how they get away with it really, such is the vehemence of the nastiness I can see.
As you have probably gathered: I am not a fan. But many are and this terrifies me.

It made me suddenly contemplate my own inbuilt biases and whether I even know what they are. We all have them and we are all, regardless of how clever and self-aware we think ourselves,  at their mercy. This is because they are usually unconscious and so by definition invible to our conscious thought processes. I am sure were we aware of some of the less charitable ones, we would do our best to eradicate their influences. I like to think so, anyway.

I had an insight into this recently as I cycled to work one blustery morning.
A chap was walking towards me down a long and open path. He was, I suppose, in his mid seventies, tall, well dressed in a suit and long raincoat. He had a full but neatly trimmed beard and glasses. All in all he was the very epitome of dapper.
He also had a hat.
Now from a distance,  I assumed it to be a flat cap. As a result, my instaneous appraisal of what "type" of fellow he was had a conservative well-to-do and erudite quality to it. The unconscious summing-up of his character that spontaneously took place in my mind concluded he might be well-read, though somewhat conventional in his attitudes but a decent, if rather quiet chap.

However (and this is what startled me) as I got closer I could see it was not a flat cap but a beret upon his head. Suddenly his character took on a different aspect!  Now, he seemed much less conventional.  His demeanour now seemed  somehow more gauche, more bohemian and I now imagined his bookshelf to contain works by Sartre rather than Frederick Forsythe, his walls to be adorned with portraits of artful nudes or Picasso prints rather than pastoral landscapes or paintings of spitfires.
In this momentary set of snap judgements,  assumptions almost certainly all incorrect, one imagined impression of this fellow had appeared unbidden in my mind to be rapidly supplanted by another by dint of one small feature. He became a different man, all because of a hat.
But where do these notions come from? How can two barely different hats cause me to infer, completely unjustifiably,  two divergent versions of this man's personality?
I suppose clues in his dress and demeanour may have some basis in reality. Being well-turned-out implies a certain self-discipline. That is one small cue. But it is small and says really very little about him.
But the rest of it, the characteristics my imagination imbued this man with, where did they spring from? And had I engaged him in conversation I would probably have done so based on my updated idea of him, my opening comment directed by my idea of how he might view the world and relate to it.

Strange. And a warning perhaps.

What other assumptions and biases affect how I approach and treat people every day? And how can I be more aware of them? Accent? Dress? Tidiness? Body type?
If the appearance of a hat can turn a man from benignly conservative in my unconscious view to an elderly and sparky free-spirit,  how much more can outraged diatribes about the behaviour of immigrants or the disabled influence public attitudes?

For someone less questioning: How much more fearfully and less charitably might they treat people if they allow the likes of the Daily Mail to feed their pre-existing prejudices? Is it not somehow immoral to feed bigotry in order to stir up a political mood? Doesn't that make for a worse world for all of us?

Perhaps we should all try to be a bit kinder perhaps, if we aren't already.