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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.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

And then Suddenly.....!

Some days, for reasons I could only speculate upon, it is as if a brisk breeze has blown through the mind, flinging open the doors to every room contained therein. It flings around Papers of Significance and blows the dust off seemingly sepia-tinted memories, restoring them to Kodachrome brilliance. And best of all, it whips the covers off Piles of Possibility in overlooked chambers, where ideas and inspirations have been covered up for later perusal and subsequently forgotten as the detritus of daily life gets piled on top. "Is today such a day?" I fail to hear you ask. Yes it is and it feels good to be 100% in possession of one's mind.

I suppose in a mechanism as squishy and inconstant as the human brain, with all its various concentrations of neurotransmitters, hormones and nutrients, it is no surprise that the experience of being conscious can vary so greatly. Given the rudimentary nature of my own cognition over Christmas and New Year, the contrast is somewhat remarkable (inasmuch as I am actually remarking on it here). What could be responsible for such wild swings in the brain's emotional and intellectual performance?

Could it be perhaps the ingestion of lots of fermented vegetables which I am told will "repair" damaged gut fauna after a dose of rather brutal but necessary antibiotics? I confess, this is my latest nutritional discovery and I am impressed with how much tastier vegetables are if you shred them, add spices and leave them in a bowl for the  various bacteria to do their magic. It's an odd thing to be evangelising about but after a couple of weeks, I confess, subjectively that I do feel different, though well-known human heuristics make an objective judgement impossible of course.

Perhaps it is the disciplined resumption of my gym regime, necessary because a chap of my advancing years cannot be too careful, what with testosterone levels dropping year by year and muscle mass declining commensurately. Well not with me, Age, my dear adversary! Not yet anyway. I have dancing to do; Tango in dimly lit bars and elsewhere, energetic lifts to perform with ladies whose weight I must appear to bear without strain or complaint.
Expressing joy through the medium of dance, by flinging someone about.

Or perhaps the Earth, the Galaxy, the Universe, as it rotates, passes through wisps of some kind of field which induces in us inspiration and sprightly spirits? Could that be it perhaps?

Or maybe it is simply that I discovered Pinterest and have subsequently been amassing pallets in my shed in order to construct projects. Indeed, last night I made a beer crate out of planks and it gave me an inordinate amount of satisfaction. A Small thing, but mine own. Next: Pallet Patio Furniture for Summer evenings! Making things seems existentially satisfying.
I made this and I am deeply satisfied as a result.
 Whatever it is, I like it and I wish I could work out what it is so that I could firstly, reproduce it at will on days when the mind is cloudy and slow, and secondly, I could suggest it to others who profess to their own low spirits (recognising that not everyone works the same of course, but knowing some things are almost universally helpful, like chocolate or Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now").

With all the misery and tragedy in the world, societal and personal, perhaps a moment's thought about what lifts us to happier places is something worth trying every now and again. I saw crocuses today.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Being lesser versions of ourselves

It's difficult to know what put the damper on the Christmas break the most, having flu and associated opportunistic bacterial secondary infections for pretty much the whole month of December, or the absence from all those daily sources of tangential thought. Life can get very convergent in the same environment for two weeks whilst the office languishes unpopulated and unheated.
Sometimes, it feels as if someone is going through the rooms in your head, turning the lights off one by one and closing the doors as they go.
By January 2nd, I was a lacklustre shell of my usual self, with dull eyes,  slack jaw hanging open continuously and mind devoid of anything but the most rudimentary of thoughts (mostly regarding discomfort from the furniture and going to the toilet. Lack of appetite meant even hunger was absent and I couldn't drink on account of the antibiotics). This is not the fault of those around me throughout that time in any other respect than I know them so very well and so responses tend to be familiar. And it is the unexpected and unfamiliar that seems to inspire the sudden opening up of new avenues of thought with the attendant reward of that little squish of dopamine.
The most exciting thing that happened in my Street this Christmas

It was only a visit to Bristol where, in restaurant that things started to improve. Pondering the inordinate delay to our order as I contemplated eating the tablecloth as my now returned appetite intruded forcefully upon all other thoughts, a wall made of, basically, wooden crates caused some of the annexes of my mind to reopen and the light to go on. For some reason, my curiosity, an animal with its own opinions on where I should direct my attention and how quickly action must subsequently follow, sent me over to have a look at how they were constructed so perhaps I could make some myself form the huge pile of acquired pallets I am currently dismantling in my garage (they have such useful wood on them and once planed are useful for many projects. Like beer crates for instance. In fact, I have made two now and most satisfying it was too!)

Then on Friday, a visit to the Waterside provided excellent 1920s Jazz music and exhausting dancing. This somehow reignited the sparks so that by my return to the office on Monday, most of the rooms in my mind were open with a neat little fire burning warmly in the hearth and the windows thrown open allowing a healthy breeze to blow away all the cobwebs that had accumulated during their closure. Just in time for my return to work. Yes....

I wonder what it is that switches us on as opposed to shutting us down. I am surely not alone in this feeling that a large portion of our mental faculties are somehow put out of action or beyond our reach by circumstances. Sometimes, a period of comfortable but numbing low-stimulus leaves  me an intellectual and spiritual zombie. Other times, some small thing sparks a train of thought, seemingly from nowhere,  and the mind lights up like a country with heavily populated cities photographed at night from space.

This is not just me, is it?

So, how can we prevent the former and encourage the latter? I really don't know: It seems that the stimuli which fire up the brain can be so very unexpected in nature and yet difficult to identify that making them available adequately to keep ourselves recognisable as the people we enjoy being is a real challenge.

But it must be done as I really hate being that other dullard and it feels a waste of time being such rudimentary versions of ourselves when we know so much more is possible.

Ooh! I feel a bit more like my usual self again. Writing this must have helped!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What was. And what remains.

Writing is hard. I recognise this. It didn't use to be. But now it is. This white rectangle here, the one which seems to be inviting text, it is intimidating. Somehow judgemental. I look at it for a long time before I feel able to make marks on it, for fear that the words which subsequently appear there do not do it justice. I fear whatever software that provides the space may disapprove if the words and their combination are not satisfactory.

Really I suppose, it is I who I fear the judgement of. I used to write better. A day passed when everything changed and things are no longer as they were. Oh, they are an approximation of what was, but the response of the system is different. Frustratingly so.

Time was, a ride on my bike, a walk round a town, even washing up, would elicit ideas which craved expression. A cascade of concepts would demand interpretation and exploration and then some level of eloquent translation of what was within to the world without would be made.

Now, these ideas are reluctant to appear. And when they do, communication of them into phrases is so much more difficult. "Oh, we all get this!" and "It's age! It happens to us all!" are common retorts. But this changed instantaneously. The change was sudden, subtle, but discernible. And I resent it. Words lie outside of my grasp; Not because I lack vocabulary. No, it's a conceptual thing. I fail to explain to myself what it is I am trying to describe. Once I know, the word is easily arrived at.
No, I am often aware that a word exists to describe some nebulous notion. But understanding the notion is the challenge. And this is a shame because the putting-into-words is the process by which the notion becomes not-nebulous. We can refine ideas by forcing ourselves to commit them to words. But the words are so often out of reach now.

However, I shall not admit defeat. Perhaps this can be regained, like all those other damaged abilities I have painstakingly rebuilt. If I keep trying, perhaps fluidity of thought will return and with it, fluidity of expression.

You have no idea how much hard work these few paragraphs were to articulate. From a miasma of inner frustration and confusion, it feels like adequate coherence has emerged. For the first time in a long time, I feel satisfied that something says exactly what I wanted it to.

Progress, then. Onward and upward!

Friday, 28 November 2014

How we thought we would feel (But didn't)

I love this picture. I don't know where it originated and if the original owner sees it and objects, I will remove it. But if that should be the case, may I say that it is a beautiful picture and it, and pictures like it have inspired me to do undertake some wonderful explorations into dance.

Oddly, however, a question arises in my mind to vex me. Allow me to elaborate:
When I saw pictures like this in the past, obviously my first thought was "Wow! That is an amazing thing to do! I bet those people people feel really cool doing that!" And I suppose my innate empathy attempted to inform me of perhaps what they actually were feeling. Looking at that picture, I supposed they would be feeling some kind of moment of artistic and interpersonal stillness and connection, coupled with a general sense of artistry and accomplishment. Inside me, I had some projection of their supposed feelings. And I wanted, on some level, to be those people.

Well, after a few years of Argentine Tango and some diligent practice, I can say with a level of confidence that I can perform a reasonable approximation of what the picture depicts, along with a lot of other almost-cool stuff.
And yet, when doing that, it doesn't feel like how I expected it to feel. It feels less cool, less exotic, more enacted if you like. Oh, the stillness and artistry is there (at least, it feels like it from the inside. An informed observer may disagree, and possibly rightly so). But the "coolness" is somehow not.

I don't say this to discourage anyone from dancing as a passtime, or as a disincentive to activity in general; only to illustrate that when we look at someone doing something we admire, we often think "That must feel...!" (add in your relevant positive adjective here)
But when we find ourselves in that position, somehow, it doesn't feel like we expected it to.

Are we so bad at anticipating our feelings?

A more childlike example: When I was about seven, my mother took me on a bus to Bristol. Two young lads in their teens got on and fished in their pockets for change to pay the conductor. Observing this, I felt that to have uncounted, unspecified amounts of loose change languishing in one's pocket must feel so grown up and louche. I longed to be in a position to rummage about in search of payment in a pocketful of coins. The casual way in which money could be kept in your trousers in unknown quantities instead of in a money box, carefully counted, or seemingly unreachably in a post-office account, seemed unbelievable cool. I wanted to have adequate money that I could jingle a pocketful of change without knowing exactly how much was in there or even really caring, and in a laid-back way, fling a few coppers and shillings over to pay for something with barely a thought. The thought fascinated me. I still remember how I thought this would feel.
Right now, I have change in my pocket. I paid for my lunch with a quantity of it and I couldn't tell you how much is in there now. A few quid perhaps. But gathering a handful of 20p and 50p pieces from the depths of my jeans pocket and handing it over absent-mindedly did not make me feel anything really, except perhaps grateful that I had enough to pay for my soup. It did not feel as my childlike mind thought it would when seeing these lads pay for their bus fare. It felt completely different.

Things rarely feel like you expect. Would winning the lottery similarly disappoint? Would a defined limit on my lifespan delivered from an authoritative doctor be less devastating then we think?(Actually, I can answer that one: Being faced with what I believed at the time to be my imminent death did not feel like I had anticipated at all. There was no fear. Only sadness at leaving people I loved and not doing things I had hoped I would. Like learning Tango and going to Istanbul, for instance).

I think perhaps this might lend a cautionary note to our endeavours: Not to strive for a particular experience, but to approach it, accepting that we probably should be open to accept whatever it delivers us without disappointment or surprise. Or conversely, not to fear something because of how we expect it to affect us. Your prediction will undoubtedly be incorrect.

Or perhaps it is just me. Perhaps the couple in the picture did feel as good as they looked and went home feeling utterly satisfied that they had achieved a moment of connection as profound as it was photogenic. Perhaps when I am a better dancer, I too will feel as cool as they did. We'll wait and see, shall we?

Friday, 14 November 2014

All adventures are really on the inside

There is a place where pinnacles of rock jut out of the sea, guarded by sea birds and hung with vines of ivy. Jagged and green-topped, they can only be viewed from a boat. Once past the breakwater, and into open sea, it feels as if you are now at the mercy of fickle Poseidon. With a whim, he could fling you to injury or death on the rocks. Or merely capsize you with a wave of his hand to drown or drift off as your body heat warms the mass of the sea imperceptibly. When this looks likely, it is best not to taunt him.

On days when the swell is small and playful, one can paddle out and circumnavigate these tiny islands where sea birds, alarmed by the proximity of this unexpected visitor, rush to the defence of their homes with well-aimed  regurgitations of fish. Best not to approach too close then perhaps if one is not to go home smelling like anchovy paste.
But so beautiful are these rocks that a kind of enchantment takes over and bobbing erratically, it is hard not to sit, string at the strata and tenacious vegetation in wonder. The roll of the kayak and the instinctive response of my hips lend a dreamy feel to the place. It is difficult not to feel like an explorer in some strange and exotic land, gazing upon some new habitat where tiny sharp-toothed dinosaurs regard one boldly from atop precarious crags. But it is "only" Devon, a mere two hour's drive from home.

But this misses the point: What kindles the sense of awe and mystery is not the rugged geology or environment of this rocky outcrop. No, it is the feeling inside that resonates - a feeling that I find is always there waiting to alight upon some place or idea and imbue it with a sense of adventure. it looks constantly for new and interesting perspectives, perhaps on the mundane, or in this case, on the difficult to reach and beautiful.

This feeling is one not reserved for places or situations. It prompts internal exploration too. The places and experiences we can imagine can be similarly exciting. Oh, we don't need to venture to inaccessible and dangerous places. No, we can explore the limits of our minds too. There is plenty in there to play with and examine.

This brain works differently to my old one. Not profoundly, but more like when you have had an operating system upgrade and the buttons and widgets are in diferent places to where they were before. And perhaps there are new buttons and some old, obsolete ones have gone.
I don't really know what it is capable of yet. I am still learning, exploring. What has become clear to me though is that there are places and capabilities we tend to overlook due to our focus on our external search for stimulating experiences.

In the last two years, I have rebuilt the broken parts and improved upon that which was here previously. To do this, one needs to approach capability with an open-minded curiosity and no self-reproach or timidity. I have learned to fairly adequately dance Argentine Tango, I have improved my memory immeasurably by exploration of memory techniques such as method of loci. The unicycle I bought I confess still defeats me but I will master it. And with each of the things I have examined, learned and assimilated, I have been delighted to observe the learning process in terms of the action of the neural machinery rebuilding itself into new configurations.

This is exciting. The possibilities, given a finite lifespan are essentially endless. Every day is now an adventure of what new faculties can be discovered and played with. There are languages that can be learned, dance steps to master, skills such as accuracy in woodwork, cooking, brewing. New abilities can be developed and old ones improved dramatically with a bit of application.

This brings joy.

So, don't be down! The world is full of interesting passtimes and activities. Go on youtube and learn how to juggle, get a book on how to improve your memory, dance in your socks in the kitchen and learn Charleston steps. All this is available to you, assuming a standard set of human specifications.

Or, if you would rather, go to the coast and, weather permitting, get in a small boat and explore a beach you can only reach via the sea.

But live! Use your mind and you body and all they offer to live a richer life, as much as your circumstances permit.
Which will be more than you imagined, I promise you.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Observations at Lunchtime

I have not been writing much at all of late. The Muse deserts me regularly and I suppose I just don't have very much to say now. A lack of turbulence in life's ocean means fewer nutrients being brought up from the depth and less flotsam and jetsam being washed up on the mind's shore.Things have been becalmed for so long now, I think I have forgotten how to perform the process of sifting through the ideas and pulling some closer for examination, which is what I used to do here mostly. Whilst a lack of storms means a quieter life, it also means that one has a tendency to drift in no direction at all due to lack of wind to fill the sails. It's been a while since any interesting new continents have drifted into view to stimulate that feeling of needing to explore and find adventure.

All is calm. Life continues largely uneventfully. I make beer, I bake bread, I dance sometimes. And the ripples draw away to who knows where. Nowhere probably. I go to work. There will be travel required again soon, now that Summer is over. But the terminal decline of the small empire which has provided employment for me for so long is evident and sooner or later, decisions will have to be made about the future: What to do next? Not write, that's for sure!

The workplace cafeteria is a lot emptier these days. We lost a substantial proportion of local employees in the last year in waves of redundancies. Subsequently the ones-and-twos who you suddenly realise have disappeared only when you walk past where they sat and observe their empty desk or when someone mentions them and it suddenly occurs to you that you haven't seen them for a few months.

Sitting alone at a table accommodating ten, I look around at the faces remaining. Seemingly random strokes of a pen, or more like deletions of cells on a spreadsheet, determined the worth-keeping and the let-go. Only the most deluded are now able to maintain a striding self-importance now that so many talented and useful people have been pruned from the organisational tree. We all are painfully aware of our disposable nature. No pretence of usefulness will help us now. The indiscriminate snips of the corporate secateurs lop off whole branches with no regard for how many productive leaves and promising buds they may have contained.

But some cliques continue to exist. I have always wondered at the tendency of people to cluster into groups. Oh, the grouping itself does not interest me in itself: "Like us" or "not like us" is fairly well understood. No, what intrigues me is the tendency to eschew members of other cliques even when one is alone. I sit at my table-for-ten alone and people I talk to every day, have conversations with in corridors, hold the door open for as I enter the building, walk straight past me, thousand-yard-stare alighting on some point in the distance which excludes me from their field of vision (though not the discomfort of their awareness, I can tell). Past me they walk to sit alone and in palpably uncomfortable solitude on another empty table. Well, perhaps they wanted to be alone. Who am I to know?

With the departure of so many good friends, I now have no people to go to lunch with. I have no direct colleagues here, being the sole representative of my team in the UK. The friends of 25 years I shared lunch with most days were made redundant in October last year, which I confess was a shock for me as much as them. I am a social animal. This is dispiriting for me.

So, I generally take tea breaks and lunch alone. Unless that is, I espy someone who I vaguely know who, surprised at my intrusion, will generally accede to my request to sit with them for lunch and will often, after a hesitant start, converse quite happily, making it plain my presence was not ultimately unwelcome. I often join unsuspecting acquaintances on spec. But almost never does anyone come to ask me if they can sit with me. Perhaps I smell or spray crumbs when I eat. Or am too blunt in my opinions.
When next I am sitting alone, past they will wander and alone they will sit, gazing into space as they contemplate their food or surroundings or life. Yes, I must be difficult to be with. That must be it.

To eat alone feels like failure. I don't know why. Perhaps the act of eating has such a social dimension that to eat antisocially alone feels wrong. So, we sit alone with our soup, our chicken stir fry or our sandwiches. We look anywhere but at others, lest our shame be observed and witnessed.

So, I sit, and I tune the conversations in an out of my consciousness with a control that I delight in (having not been able to for such a long time). And I let my gaze wander unashamedly at the groups of people and individuals and as they pass to dispose of their trays, I acknowledge them with a nod and a smile.
And I wonder how long before they or I will no longer be gracing a seat here.
Who will we lunch with then and who will we talk to? Lots more people I hope.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

3 a.m

They have taken to switching off the streetlights at midnight. By day, the cul de sac looks very boring: A middle England street of almost identical houses, middle-price cars, a strip of grass opposite, some trees and a few metres down, a small stream. Nothing unremarkable there.

By night, it is dark. Without the streetlights, and with everyone gone to bed, it is nighttime middle-of-the-countryside dark. Well, it's not suburban here. It's a very small country small town and we live on the edge of it, where fairly wild countryside abuts onto the edge of civilisation. Nevertheless, the absence of light seems to throw a deserted, impersonal, almost hostile feel to that which in the day is relatively benign.

I rather like it. Darkness feels like a refuge. I know that all these houses contain people, but there is not a sign of that. I might as well be the only person alive, everyone else vanished somehow, the power stations perhaps all long having fallen into disrepair and the primeval dark once again ruling the night. Animals roam. I see foxes. And I hear hedgehogs. But they don't assuage the loneliness of 3 a.m. solitude. There is no evidence of humanity out there beyond the glass of the windows.

It is 3:17 a.m. Sleep is as elusive as ever and I feel wide awake. What do do...? Well, I could clear up the kitchen, left at 11:30 when we all traipsed up the wooden hills, thinking sleep was imminent. But I would wake the other members of the household.
I could step through into the adjoining garage and do some work on one of my projects: I do have a small electrical junction box I am constructing for the solar panel and charger on my van. But similarly, it would be difficult to do quietly and I risk the wrath of my wife who would surely be woken

And all my reading material is by the bed, unreachable quietly.

So, I suppose I will sit here and press the orange "publish" button to send these words out into the virtual space where we venture sometimes to be another version of ourselves. Tonight, unusually, it is the insomniac. An infrequent persona. One I would happily forego. But, well, here he is. Good morning. It's 3:26.