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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.

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.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Our Words are our Babies.

Today, I look out at foliage which, yesterday in the sunshine was lush and verdant, celebratory of all the fecundity and joy that this season is capable of instilling in us. However, through the rivulets of rain rolling sullenly down the window, it looks merely drab today against the grey sky.
Well, we know that May can be fickle but what strikes me is how different our moods can be based entirely upon atmospheric conditions. And how it colours our perception of our situation.

The hopefulness of yesterday has diminished to a mere plaintive murmur somewhere deep down and in its place has emerged a kind of mild despair and tendency to look at the disadvantageous implications of circumstance.

Things are, to continue to allude, albeit tenuously, to an atmospheric metaphor, Up in the Air. The ever-present spectre of redundancy hangs around us all, prodding our fears and insecurities with a kind of imperative to do the things that perhaps might improve our chances of not being one of the unlucky ones. And of course, the rain rains on the just and the unjust, so no level of diligence is likely to increase the probability of continued employment. This is, of course, not an uncommon position to be in. It is a permanent feature of the employment landscape these days for must of us who work for a company and not for ourselves. Such Is Life.

I haven't been writing here much. The reason for this is kind-of linked to the above: Children effectively grown-up and flown the nest and work tailing off, I find a new, more "authentic" (and ain't that the word of the moment!) approach to life beckons. Quite what that is, I am unsure. But I know it does not involve a corporate environment.
So, what is one to do?

Well, these words seem to be flowing rather well here, and this is encouraging: So, flowing words coupled with some kind of compelling topic means a need for a more self-expressive creative project. To this end, I am finally giving in to those of my friends who have suggested, cajoled and nagged me (and you know who you are!) over recent years to write a book. And that is where most of my words have been finding their way of late. It will be about something I know a tremendous amount about and which sounds rather banal when I see it written down: Home Wine making. Ok. No big deal there. But writing it has brought me an existential pleasure of accomplishing something and even if nobody ever sees it but me, a kind of personal satisfaction will have been achieved.

Well, I looked around at all the books on this topic and generally I believe a lot of them are pretty poor, the good ones being written generations ago and much science and economics having moved swiftly on since then. I made my first wine, apple, when I was 12 about thirty mumble years ago. And it was so good I was enthused and soon had many gallons on the go. I must have made hundreds of gallons of it since then. I am, by popular agreement, quite good at it. 
On the left, my very popular P3 Porter and on the right, last year's elderberry.

My damson is to die for and my ginger and banana, (though seemingly an odd combination) when accompanying cake, will make your tastebuds fair sing with delight.
So I know what I am talking about.
The next book will be about the mysterious process of beer making, from grain, in a home kitchen, something I also seem to be good at, by universal consensus. Niche, I know. But I truly believe there is a need for such works.
My all-grain English Pale Ale: 4.4%, golden, fragrant, nutty. Just like me.
But this is not about that. This is about a strange aspect of the process of writing which initially troubled me but now merely intrigues.

Ok, we come here to offer our words freely and often tentatively, and they are of ourselves: A window into our inner workings. The things we do, the idle thoughts that crave expression and find their way into text, appear here. And sometimes people will comment, usually positively about what we have written. And that's all very nice and all.

So, I wrote a few chapters and submitted them to literary friends for perusal and consistency checks and feedback was forthcoming. And I found a remarkable response bubbled up in me!

Our words are chosen and combined in ways which we use to represent ourselves. They are our words. So, when changes are suggested, no matter how well-meaning and sensible they seem, it causes the strangest feeling of protectiveness. Is this just me?

A suggestion for rewording feels like a comment about the curious shape of my nose or the way my teeth have chosen to assemble themselves in my smile. How much does changing what I have written (beyond spelling or grammar mistakes) change the essence of myself I have put into the construction of the piece?

A most odd train of thought and one which I am going to need to go away and think about. Ultimately, I can assess the "corrections" and suggestions on their merit, try them out and see if they flow better or represent what I am trying to say more accurately or not. And then i can accept or reject them.

I never realised how personal the whole thing was!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Lessons from a Broken Phone

So, once again, I am up in an aeroplane, from Hanover to Heathrow as so often used to be the case when things were busier and I was more inclined to travel. So, here I am, high above the clouds and the irksome worries of everyday life. One cannot be troubled by what is left behind down there, or what awaits upon landing, when trapped in a seat at 35000 feet without communications with the rest of one’s life. Well, I suppose it is possible, but it is not really to be advised on the grounds it would be an exercise in futility, unless some firm resolution could be arrived at in the “thinking time” provided by such periods of enforced introspection.

I decided actually to eschew my usual colourful internal contemplation in favour of sitting with my eyes closed and allowing the sounds of the plane and the people it contained to percolate uncommented upon, into my consciousness. It is quite an interesting exercise to do this and it is surprising just what a variety of sounds exist which we usually don’t allow ourselves to be aware of. From the hum of the engines and the thrum of beat frequencies produced by the minor differences in their pitch, to the enthusiastic conversation of the Middle Eastern gentleman, in joyous tones, conversing with a previously po-faced Hanoverian lady who now appears to have come out of her shell in a wonderfully animated and liberated way in response.
Then there are the various crinkling of plastic wrappers of biscuits and crisps and the rushing white-noise of the air conditioning. None of this is interesting, per se, but the act of noticing it where I hadn’t before is quite fascinating.
And while I was sitting, just registering the sounds without opinion in a dispassionate manner, I remembered suddenly that I had broken my mobile phone: Dropped and smashed accidentally upon the tiled floor of a bar in Paderborn yesterday evening after a moment’s inattention. My shiny South Korean Small Object of Desire sending fragments across the room and dooming me to radio silence for the foreseeable future. All in a split second of carelessness.
How tiresome.  But  how liberating. Nobody can call me and ask for help with diagnosing technical issues or request me to go and give a presentation in some part of the world I have no wish to visit. Of course, my friends also  cannot invite me to parties or ask advice on the construction of clay pizza ovens or how many grammes of raisins they should put in their parsnip wine. But in general, the loss of this lifeline to the world of other-people-beyond-my-immediate-vicinity feels like a kind of opportunity.
I wandered, after my phone smashing incident, back through Paderborn to my hotel  with the strangest feeling of bereavement almost, and I wondered how it had happened that I had become so dependent upon this small device.
So, I meandered through the streets, looking in shop windows, my vague melancholy displaced as I went about admiring paintings and being amused by this particular tapestry that was on display for all to see, despite being rather gratuitously explicit.  
These people are not fretting about their investment portfolio.
It seems in antiquity, there were, amongst all the tuberculosis and religious repression, still good times to be had by those determined and limber enough to pursue them. Had I merely rushed  past on the phone, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this tableau and its depiction of enthusiastic debauchery. Immediate benefits, you see?
An odd sense of liberation began to dawn, a removal of the compulsion to be “in contact”.
I wonder briefly if perhaps I should build in contingency to my travel for such occasions: How would I, for instance call to rearrange my flight had I got stuck on the autobahn? I would be pretty stuck, yes. Maybe I could purchase a phone card for credit on payphones. Do they still exist? You know, I can’t recall seeing one for years. But perhaps, like the hum of the engines, I wouldn’t notice until I brought my attention to bear on the subject.
I think that in the twenty years or more I have had a mobile phone for business travel, this is the first time I have been without the services of one. Ok, the first ones required considerable wrist strength to hold any lengthy conversation but there was always a link to the world of friends, loved ones and support back at the office. And now, here I am with no phone. Is it worth contingency for such rare incidences? I suppose it is one of those calculations we perform, based upon our inherent “risk thermostat”: What situations might arise, what seriousness do they present and how much trouble are we prepared to go to in order to prevent such circumstances being more than a minor inconvenience?
It’s a question of general interest I suppose, affecting such things as insurance and disease prevention, self-defence and smoking. What risks are we prepared to accept in the name of convenience or enjoyment and what do feel an imperative urge to plan contingency for?
I didn’t miss my flight. I might have some issues with getting my car when I arrive at the airport as I use the parking chap who takes it away and brings it back when I land (presumably washing his hands due to the filthy, elderly and knackered state of my old Skoda, so different from the shiny BMWs left by other, more image-conscious and wealthy business travelers).
In general then, perhaps we distress ourselves too much with imaginings. Somehow, sitting here regarding the sounds around me, I feel that this must be the case and resolve to bring the same detached  observation to whatever troublesome thoughts appear to attempt to ruffle the mellow spiritual creaminess in which I attempt to live my life.

Let’s see if it works with in flight turbulence, shall we?