Monday, 6 October 2008

siezed

In the echoing hall that is the inside of my head, there is a darkened corridor. I can't see where it goes, but I see many doors off to the sides. Some have locked handles and from within I hear muffled sounds of frustration as something struggles to get out. Other doors open freely, but the rooms inside, though lit amply, show no contents.
Most rooms seem to contain useful bits and pieces: Here a pile of files strewn carelessly across the floor, half read but easy to reference, though harder to file in any kind of order. There, some spanners, a dremel, a universal screwdriver set with a few of the more useful bits obviously missing from the case. And a desk with scientific instruments, well used and oiled to a comfortable action, all ready for use. They are in a state of disarray but look serviceable enough.

In another, a polished wooden floor is set for dancing, but there is no music. The floor looks slippery but an expeditionary foot will find that spinning is labourious and slides stop before they gain any momentum. And though footprints are visible in the chalky dust, it seems as though they have been there a while and not retraced recently.

In a more distant room, there is a small curly haired blond boy playing with lego. I push the door open a small amount and he hears it creak and looks up at me. I want to walk in and play with it too, but something stops me. Maybe it is his private concentration that I feel I cannot intrude upon.
I close the door, but as I pull it to, acting on a second thought, I push it slightly ajar again.

I walk back to the room with the files. The pile seems bigger. I resume reading.

Monday, 29 September 2008

an unexpected neighbour

Not a breath of wind stirs the remaining leaves on the alder trees by the river bank but the huge drops of water, coalesced from the leaden mist drip with a broken rhythm into the sluggishly moving water, and of course on me. A man in suit comes out of his front door and barely glancing around him, climbs into his tiny mazda sports car. His surroundings are now plastic, metal and the inane jabbering of a fool on FM and his chosen music.
Thumping a bass beat, the car zooms off down the road, scattering cats into the bushes as he turns the bend at the end of the road.

Disgruntled birds sit on branches over torpid fish as they float weaving in the flow. The air smells of something indescribable but elemental on this day of half-light.


In the river bank, a small hole can be seen and from within, tapping and chuckling. If one were to look closer, a gleaming pair of eyes might be barely visible in the dark of the river bank, squinting in concentration. Tap, tap, tap.... a pair of tiny hands is fashioning something. As yet it is impossible to see but a hammer, its head no bigger than thumbnail, beats out a rhythm on a piece of previously discarded metal. As he taps, the tiny fellow sings a song. It is an ancient song with words that he recognises as ancestors of his own words, but nevertheless as old as the bedrock that makes the land, before the time when the upstart men started making their presence felt in the forests. The tapping stops and a grunt of approval can be heard from the tiny cavern. Emerging, distractedly into the light is a tiny man, no more than a handwidth high. He wears a collection of strange garments, some seemingly woven from grass or other vegetation, but some shimmering and light like some ethereal material never before spun. On his feet, incongruously, a pair of tiny wellington boots, the tops turned over to reveal a band of grey.


He holds a miniscule flute in his wizened hands which he brings to his bearded lips and blows.

The scale he plays is strange, not quite any that might grace a music room in our world but somehow with unexpected intervals that make the ear listen more keenly. Then he begins to play. The notes do not carry far in the damp, heavy air but pitched like the chirping of some magical bird, they pierce the mist and mingle with the birdsong, to be heard only by one aware initially of their presence.

And through the grass, something comes rustling: a bank vole. It pauses briefly and then, myopically but obediently stumbles over the small clearing in the undergrowth to where he tiny man is standing, now smiling. Nodding in a satisfied manner, he climbs up on to the bank vole's back and, sheathing his flute in his belt, he urges the creature down into the water. Silently, it swims upstream, the soothing murmurings of the little man coaxing it on.
They are both quickly dissolved into the distance as the mist hides their passage.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Perfect Moment

Oh, how wondrous it is to be alive and sentient in the 21st century! A passing remembrance from my callow youth happened to send me to youtube where, unashamedly, I sought out Yes, "Gates of Delerium"; one of my fave bands at 17 and a taste for which I make no apology.
This piece of music was a revelation for me. Its 24mins of pompous prog rock brillance sounded like a troupe of chimpanzees in a music shop initially, its chaos making no sense at all and apearing really as just a "bloody row!".
But when I was 17 i had a girlfriend who was a talented musician, and having no musical education myself (although I am actually very good banjo play for which I also make no apology) I didnt really understand music. But upon listening to it she said "Wow! Thats clever stuff!" and explained to me all about syncopation and counterpoint; concepts hitherto unknown to me.
Suddenly, it unfolded into a beautiful, if slightly chaotic masterpiece proving that a little education can reveal a huge huge cultural experience to one.
so, I looked it up on youtube, as you do.
And there it was! Ok, live and not a great example, but still recognisable as that hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck raising masterpiece.
And whilst listening and looking out of the window (instead of emailing the Norwegians as i should have been), just as the final triumphant guitar solo of part 3 ("Soon the light") swelled, a lost helium balloon drifted by above the trees, its string dangling, presumably lost by some now distraught child for whm my heart does twang a little in empathy.
But it drifted so gracefully over the trees and the soundtrack was so fitting that a little tear of joy welled up and my forearms were all a-goosebumpy.

I just thought I would share that with you.

:-)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Insidious messages

Advertising
I didn't ask to see it. I gave no permission. The handsome, twinkly-eyed aspirational man on the billboard picture looks down at me, causing a vague sensation of self-discontent. Suddenly I am painfully aware that my teeth are slghtly crooked, that my battered old nose is a little askew, that my blond hair combines with these to conspire to prevent me aspiring to the desired "tall dark and handsome" ideal.
I am 43 and though extremely fit due to my activity levels, I am not anywhere near as taut as this honed body which imposes itself on my retina and hence my consciousness at some level. I did not ask to have this image thrust into my view and mind. My equilibrium is suddenly upset and the happy place that is the inside of my head is gatecrashed by an unwelcome image.

Aware of the tacit dishonesty of this picture, I am even so suddenly struck by a feeling of guilt, a pang of inadequacy.
I am slim, I can cycle 10 miles in half an hour or sometimes under. I do yoga most mornings. I go to the gym reglarly because I enjoy the space away from intellectual demands.
And yet, a picture on the front of a magazine makes me feel instantly lesser. The knowledge that the man in the depiction of this "ideal" does not exist as shown, does not help.
He may actually be lean, but we don’t see that he is not as sculpted as what we are shown. For their purposes, he must appear to represent perfection. Technology has been used to "enhance" the image: his shape and definition modified to fit parameters that evolution has installed in our brains for dominance, fertility, good genes.

And even if he does faithfully approximate this godlike physique, he is a model. He inhabits a world where superficiality is the driver. He does not have to stand all day at lathe or slob out tied to a desk, immobile for nine hours a day. His job is to jump in and out of taxis, whipping his shirt off for the camera, living on lean tuna and mineral water.
When I was that thin (due to being too poor to buy enough food to fuel my necessarily active lifestyle) I felt shit: I was run down, tired all time and had a permanent cold. Some fat is healthy.

But he doesn't need to do that. He just works out, tailors his diet to his abs and gets photographed.
And we see him in the newsagent, on the cover of “mens health” or similar and in our heads, expectations and inadequacies result.

Women have had this for years, exacerbating eating disorders and now it has reached men.
You would have thought we would have learned! All those anorexic waifs and bulimic daughters suffering from the expectations set by Cosmo, Vogue, Sex and the City. All the guilt!

And now men too. The second wrong failing to make the right. How do immunise my son? I can explain but how to tackle the pervasive influence? Be how you want my son! As with my daughter: You are beautiful! Don’t believe them!

I try to counteract the propaganda whilst being unable to entirely shake it off myself.

And so, I have another beer, savouring the taste. I look out approvingly at my non-aspirational old skoda octavia (60mpg if driven boringly) before heading to the kitchen wherein lies a marvellous stilton, olives and some home made bread.

And my abs may have a covering, indicating my love of good food and beer during those happy evenings when with friends, I praise the quality of the cheddar, bread and Old Speckled Hen.

But you know, I really do feel very good. Its not real, you know: people won't like you more if you are a sculpted Adonis, that shiny BMW won't make me cool and happy.

But what of appearance as a commodity?

If we could all choose exactly how we looked, what would we look like?
As one of the few people, or so it would seem, few, who has always been pretty happy with his appearance, I wonder often at the power exerted by our appearance: actual on others and perceived upon ourselves.
There is no doubt that appearance affects how people treat us and how well disposed, or otherwise, they are to us. Attractive people, judged on contemporary standards, earn more, are healthier than ugly people. Many studies have shown the benefits of being attractive.
Neither is attractiveness necessarily culturally defined. Much evidence points to certain criteria, such as facial symmetry, being hardwired in our brains. The tendencies of babies to smile more at pictures of symmetrical faces is just one study I could name.
The evolutionary basis of these seemingly innate parameters is cause for speculation, but such prejudices definitely can be seen to exist.
So, then, imagine if you will, a world where by some unspecified and risk free technique, we could all look exactly as we would like.
Would uniformity ensue? Symmetry, certainly would be seen as desirable, whether consciously or not. Would all women opt for long shapely legs, all men for big chests and biceps?
I suspect many would.
That being the case, how far would variability disappear? And if everyone tended toward a standard ideal, what would be the differences that we find to love; those characteristics that make us unique and lovable?
I wonder then, if this would be subject to the vagaries of fashion. Once every person had a chieved a “look”, would there then be pressure to look different in a new and innovative way? Would the common herd, with their perfect looks, be so passe and to be eschewed? Or is there an ideal which would be reached where everyone would happily remain. The former I think.

But its all about what other people think. As social animals, most of us care about this. Some actually don’t, but often they are oblivious to social cues and tend to spend a lot of time alone or in a tribe-of-no-tribe where everyone else is similarly oblivious.

So, given all of this, it is not surprising that advertising gets to us, moulds us to its will. Using carefully honed and cleverly tested approaches to inserting suggestions into our poor stone-age minds, it tells us what we need. And most of us are powerless to even question its presuppositions.

As I told my son, aged three when he said “We have to buy X washing powder! It gets your clothes really clean!”
“Do you think that is true or do you think they just want our money?”
A realisation occurred visibly in his little face which has persisted.
I may have created a cynic, but it’s a question worth asking frequently.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

variability and consistency

How inconstant is the human brain? Actually, I am not sure it is. Just
over a litre in capacity, it contains a complex and mysterious
cocktail of hormones, neurotransmitters, electrolytes and lipids, all
bound up in, well, basically as far as I can tell, something akin to
lard. (actually, my memories of my great-granny feeding me brawn on
toast seem to reinforce this, nasty, pasty goo that it was).

So, given that the concentrations of these very active compounds can vary depending upon died, depletion, exercise, how amazing it is that we even manage to remain recognizably the same personality from day to day let alone can expect a reasonably uniform performance from it.
The morning after a major alcohol binge, where lungs release fragrantly the ethanol excesses from the bloodstream to the air, the chemistry of the brain must be in chaos, surely.

Ok, I must confess I am no neurochemist, but reading the figures for the miniscule changes in concentration of testosterone needed to turn me from the sexual equivalent of a docile herbivore to a ravening lustful maniac when the right stimulus appears, I realise the profound effect that a small chemical change can have upon behaviour and perception. Indeed, I have observed during a monthly cycle the prodound effects of a change in concentration of a chemical which results in the sweetest and most demure of ladies turning into absolute demons for no discernable reason.
I do wonder then that soaking my neurons in alcohol doesn't turn me into some kind of stupor-encased zombie, all process deadened with the resulting functionality degraded commensurately.

So, the vagaries of "mood" aside, which I confess, I find difficult to rationalise as it seems to be both chemical and situational, it seems we are far more consistent in mental weather than our inconsistent chemistry would cause us to believe.

And yet.. Writing this is arguably more difficult than other episodes of writing. Over the last month, certain privations in my experiential landscape, that is the absence of certain characters who provide unusual perspectives and unexpected stimuli, results in what feels like a dumbing down of my faculties.
Oddly, the lack of these inputs has resulted in a much dimmer me and several more astute aquaintances have commented that my "spark"appears to be missing. I concur because its feels so on the inside also words are harder to find, vocabulary is elusive or even absent.
The cascade of concepts which usually results from a single thought given free range to roam and ricochet off others just doesn't seem to be happening.
So how does this happen? Is this too chemical somehow? Or organisational?
How can a brain or rather, its function, atrophy so just from the want of particular exercise? I suppose we are used to the idea of this happening with muscles. But the brain is not a muscle so we can draw no logical inference of there being an equivalent process of atrophy for it.
So where is my brain? What can I use to jump-start the processes of spurious chaotic thought that I so enjoy?
Interestingly, although it took me ironically ten minutes of (enforced due to the "fasten seatbelt" Sign illuminating for landing) contemplation to locate the word "elusive", I have found the very act of writing this to have awoken areas of my brain which I had not consciously missed until now. Perhaps this is the key: if one just uses it, the rusty wheels, feared forever immobile, might creak into motion and before long, greased by the lubricants of musing and whimsy, run free on bearings of curiosity, wonder and humour.
And so spinning with frictionless ease, the machinery of the mind turns out nonsense by the page.

So, given the amazing electrical and chemical complexity of the machine that is the human brain, i continue to marvel at the reliability, misplced car keys aside, of this incredible machanism.

And now, i am going to see if I can affect it with a pot of tea.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Inertia

Sitting, thinking about doing. But not doing. Its a scourge, isnt it! How powerful a well of gravity there appears to be in the continuing state of inactivity.
It is a rainy evening and I have done little all day. I could go to the gym. I could go out for a run. But somehow the situation holds me in a grasp of apathy. I sit. I put the telly on. I have a beer. Well, after alcohol, no point in thinking about the gym or running, is there?

I sit in the office. I need to write an email about some stuff or other that requires a bit of research but somehow, moving from this grey equilibrium of comfortable stupor seems an insurmountable obstacle. I need to get up and walk across the building to talk to an engineer about some device or other. But It means stopping my music halfway through a track and oh, why don't i just have mooch through my inbox for a bit longer, or look up the weather forecast?

And so it goes on: Why don't I join a dance class. Yes I will! On Tuesday, i will go down to the Pavillion i Bath and dance. And Tuesday comes and, oh, its been a long day, I am too tired. Maybe I will just read the paper for a bit. Oh look, its too late to go now. Oh well, never mind.

Only I did join that dance class. I do go on tuesday evenings and it is bloody marvellous.

I think inertia is the main force that stops us doing things. What is it abou the current state one finds oeself in, assuming it is not too uncomfortable, that prevents us from rising from it and doing something more stimulating? Laziness? Indolence?
But it happens and it is pervasive, pernicious.

So, I am going to get up off my arse and go to my yoga class.
Yes.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Cornwall

You would have thought that in the course of two weeks in August, the sun would shine reliably and warmth would be available for at least a couple of days, wouldn't you? It seem not in Cornwall. A week and a half has brought rain, cool temperatures, and now gusty winds that move the clouds skidding across the sky like they are hurrying somewhere to drop their load of rain on some other poor unfortunates.
Only, on their way, they are dropping quite a lot of it here.
It was very busy on the roads yesterday. We popped to Bodmin to shop in Siansbury's, it being the only supermarket we can buy food in where there isnt "May contain traces of nuts" on absolutely everything, including flour, fizzy water and porridge.
The roads were pretty choked and i wonder at how the locals cope with this. It would drive me mad. I know that economically, tourism and farming seem to be the mainstays, but having the road outside your front door full of bike-bedecked people carriers all day must be a bit of a drag.
And so it continues to rain. What to do? Well, the Camel trail was lovely, but after a while the mud built up so thickly between the mudguard and wheels that they wouldn't really go round.
But what a beautiful trail! Makes the Bath/Bristol path look positively suburban.
And the sea! Oh, I had forgotten just how clear the water is here compared to further up towards Bristol. The blue translucence allows the sea bed to be seen until quite a long way out.
The weever fish was a bit of a surprise. I had not realised that British waters held such a nasty little surprise. I have been bitten by adders and this was more painful that that.
I did let loose every expletive i could muster which actually, does help. swearing does have a slight analgesic effect which is not to be underestimated as a source of relief.
I wil always, henceforth, wear something on my feet when paddling, to avoid experiencing the sting of the weever fish.
And so, as the wind howls arounf the nrodic lodge which is home for two weeks, threatening to distribute the plastic outdoor furniture across the cornish countryside, I consider what today may bring. What does one do in a place where outdoors is the value proporistion, and outdoors is uninviting due to inclement weather?
Bugger it! I am going in the sea anyway!

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Mental weather

I write. I cant help it. It clears the decks and makes space to get on with things.
When thought overwhelms me, I write it down. A tangle of confusion becomes a coherent (to me anyway) thread. I am not good at thinking. I never learned formally. But at least I learned informally. To arrive at a conclusion from information, albeit necessarily provisional, is a process I have at least a dim understanding of and in a rudimentary way, can put into practise.

What I find harder to put into words is the confusion that fills my head. To liken it to a cloud of static is the best I can manage.
When a situation has multiple aspects which interact, my grip on one is shaken loose immediately by all the others and my mental fingers seem coated with some slick, slippery substance that allows the grasp of any of it impossble. The thoughts and pieces of relevent information swirl around me and I cnnot grab hold of any of them long enough to slot them into somewhere where they will fit with all the other pieces.

And so it is that I remain bewildered and frustrated by complex issues. Planning becomes impossible as each thing I try to list wriggles away from my pen before I can get it down to the business end and onto paper.

Well meaning friends and colleagues suggest mindmaps, thinking that the "creative" nature of the process may somehow help. It doesn't. I just stall on pictures not words, wondering where to put things that belong to several branches or if I have put items in the right places.

And yet, writing is soothing. The funnel that takes some of the components, allows a single thread to be followed, ok, ignoring all the others and leaving them still floating, but quieter. But coherence is approximated.

And phases happen, like weather; there are storms that arrive, filling my head with lightning and howling gales, blowing everything around and causing the mental landscape to be as thay refer to in the forecast as "unsettled". This is not unpleasant. In fact it is very fertile and I enjoy it.

Then there are the warm, sunny periods where indolence is induced and the only thoughts are idle and whimsical. Thoughts may hint at themselves, as distant sounds from faraway activity does in the garden ona hot summer’s day (remember those? Although its shaping up nice today)

Other days are like thick fog on an oily sea where nothing moves. Thoughts lie there just below the surface, but to lift them above the surface would be like hoisting a submerged suitcase, still filled with its load of water, heavy, unwieldy and all just too much trouble really. On such days, there is no echo inside as the sounds of thoughts is absorbed by the deadening aspect of the vapour that fills the spaces.

Lately, it is pleasantly warm but overcast with barely a breeze to rustle the foliage. Vague feelings float about like cabbage whites in the allotment. They make themselves mildly troublesome but overall do not really impinge on consciousness. Occasionally, a red admiral of a thought or a painted lady whim might flutter past, but, somehow I am not inclined to chase them to see where they go. The faint buzzing of flies on the compost heap of daily banality are all I can hear and it does not produce anything much of value. Except a sort of psychic compost in which, at least maintenance of foliage is possible, if not small growth.
Of all of these, I think I enjoy the storms best. I dislike stability and order and find chaos exciting and fertile. I know others find it unsettling and sometimes regard it as a nuisance or problem, but chaos has so much more going for it.

But words seem to flow given any chance. Writing about nothing calls forth an internal dialogue on the nature or experience of nothing. There are always words, even on rainy days.

People whip up the breeze. Not all people, but some. A static and dull mental vista can be set into exhilarating motion by a stimulating coversation, or even a passing comment. It is this that keeps me ever hopeful that dullness will never become the status quo.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

A sense of place

Spaces produce feeelings. The arragement of objects in relation to each other can influence how a space creates its atmosphere. This is implicit in interior design and gardening.

In a garden, for I know something of that, as opposed to nothing about interior design, borrowing the landscape behind your garden can make the garden seem bigger. Indeed even painting your fence green or brown behind the shrubs can imply extra spaciousness. Strategically placed trees or bushes can imply some extra room behind, creating a sense of curiosity as to "what is back there then? I wonder what is through there."
It constantly surprises me the effect a place can exert by dint of its configuration.

Temperature and climate and time of day can make the same place feel different; a forest in sunshine of the afternoon with all the birds chirping can make it easy to see the figure of a dryad draped around a majestic tree, her smile inviting mischief and promising sensuality with her lithe feminine form.
But that same wood at dusk can seem filled with flitting spirits, intent upon deceiving the eye with swift flitting movements between the trees. Fireflies, such as I have seen in special places really can take on the occluded forms of Oberon, Puck, Peaseblossom and the fairy horde. You can easily see how such legendary creatures took shape in human culture.

Take that wood at midnight, however, on a cloudy moonlit night and threat lurks everywhere. Our primal fears of the Wolf in the darkness, come to eat us up after his eyes, yellow and luminous in the dark, have appraised us hungrily and unseen fron the cover of the undergrowth.
How places play upon us seems very much to be determined by our own sensitivity and awareness. It is much easier to view the forest as a benign mystery full of mischevious sprites if we are feeling poetic and have the wit to imagine them.

Our wolves may take many forms, although Our dryad could be fashioned from a real object of desire, possibly painted green for artisic effect and most alluring in her arboreal intertwining, the place of fear inside us from where the wolf springs has a common source from our ancient past.
Some of this we choose imagine and have consciousness of. Other feeings such as oppression can be involuntary and influenced by such simple things as a badly placed doorway, tasteless wallpaper or ghastly intrusive curtains.

And how did we, creatures of the savanna and forest, come to have this influence of place upon our psyches? What is is about a maroon and mahogany study that calms and comforts to creatures who only devised these things in the last evolutionary eyeblink?

Wolves in the forest are an old feeling, spirits of rocks and trees ans water also it is easy to imagine being with us since before we even clothed ourselves as species.
But yellow three piece suites, spacious kitchens of stainless steel and plumped up pink boudoirs seem odd things to feed our sense of place.

I have more to expand on this, but as usual, so little time. And the plane is landing so I have to switch off, as so often.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Oslo

I am 35000 feet above the North Sea en route to Oslo. Somehow, I got booked business class, which is was an unexpected treat, not, seemingly because of legroom: the arbitrary curtain the marks the boundary between expensive and cheaper seats can apparenty be placed anywhere.

No, the good thing is DINNER. Dinner was very good and catching on quickly, I indulged myself with a glass of champagne. I am aware that champagne is often seen for its own sake as the height of decadence: us proles in years gone by would raise our glasses loftily and appreciatively to our uncultured lips and feel we were partaking temporarily in an elevated social ritual where the drinking of champagne made us momentarily equal with those rich and priveliged sophisticates who could be glimpsed on telly at expensive receptions. We felt we must certainly be improved by this action and maybe have absorbed a small but significant increment of poshness by the act.

Anyway, I digress, as so often.

A twenty year old muscle injury in my hamstring starts to trouble me with pings of sharp pain and so I self-medicate with a gin and tonic. This is not a drink which I feel entirely comfortable with as it has certai iffeminate connotations which the invoking of the idea of colonial gentlemen in pale suits cannot dispel.

Staring out of the window, I am struck by a thought I often have but which I rarely articulate: the irregularity and randomness of natural phenomena such as clouds and the shimmering of the sun on the waves that I saw earlier, actually seems to have a pattern to it.

The clouds are all different shapes and spaced irregularly below us. But if eyes are allowed to lose focus, they apear to have a regularity about their spacing. Like a shoal of synchronised seahorses, they cross the sky in a coordinated formation.

It seems to me that the universe is lumpy. This is why space has lots of, well, space, with galaxies peppered throughout, and buses always come three at a time. Probabilities seem to hold to this too, with events clustered together less randomly than might be expected. Or maybe its just me. Humans bein creatures that like to spot patterns, even when there are none.

Looking down npw, a strange optical/atmospheric effect creates a column of light that appears to link the sea with the sun.

This is physics: a way of looking at things such that phenomena are seen and appreciated and a cause wondered at. And how we discover springs from there. It doesn't have to be about equations or research, just about noticing and wondering why.

Always woner why. All the time. That way, you will never be bored and, though you may elicit odd looks when you wonder out loud, you will never be boring.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Hungarian beer blog

Hello
I had a few beers and, when I used to write on myspace, the feedback was always that my foreign beer blogs were the most enjoyable. So I thought I would resume the tradition. I have had a few Leffes and this being my favourite beer, the effects are probably disproportionate.

I am in Hungary. (and this is not just for the hungarians reading ;-) i like it here. The people are really cheerful and friendly. It makes me reflect on the default nature of us Brits:
"How are you?!"
"Oh, mustnt grumble i spose.."
So why then do we? Is it the weather? Enthusiasm is so infectious. It leaves us feeling so happy and glad we encountered it. Sometimes we don't even know why.
Maybe it is the weather.
We drove here from Vienna. its the nearest international airport. Oh! And what a storm! I have never seen such! Two or more hours of gradually darkening hungarian sky lit every few seconds by a blinding flash that was momentarily brighter than day. Over and over again for hours.
And rain! Huge rain! Bug hot drops like pure passion from the sky.
Is this part of what makes the people?
Too tired tonight. Small devils of tiredness and fatigue are playing around the inside of my cranium. The vagaries of dealing with different cultures has depleted the reserves of my intellect.
Goodnight

Thursday, 29 May 2008

badly fitting environment

The schedule of my life is determined by demands that come to me via a screen or a disembodied voice on a telephone. Where I go, what I do, what time is available for me to do those things i need to or love, these are specified by demands that reach me from an electronic medium.

Many times I have written, alluding to the animal within the human. We evolved. This is clear. Those that allowed us to steer the hazardous course that got us here, with all the predators, disease and constraints of diet and shelter, they left in us the mechanisms that succeeded. And thesea re powerful mechanism which still are sometimes useful.

This body and brain which we are bequeathed, has evrything necessary to survive in a wild environment, assisted by peers with whom we cooperate. The basis and templates for the cooperation are also coded into the machines that we are.

And so, here we are in the 21st century, bombarded by unnatural stimuli that the equipment nature provided us with has to deal with. Some of the ways in the information comes to us is shaped by the needs and requirements of the systems within us which we have subverted to new uses.

But I took off two working days and returned to work to several hundred unread emails. My savannah and seashore honed brain has no inbuilt strategy with which to deal with this amount of information in the timeframe allocated by the requirements of those who depend on the function of my job. How am I to scan and distill this and prioritise what to do first? And the calls berating me for unresponsiveness, how am I to point out that "Yes, I know yu sent an email but I havent got to it yet!" in a way that is acceptable.

And so to a wider perspective on this, to get away from my personal axe-grinding to more porsaic concern: How do we continue to function healthily in this enviroment?
Eyes, binocular for discerning distance and movement to prey and threat, are tied to a two-dimensional screen for a huge proportion of the day. Brain firmware ready to engage and interact with a three dimensional dynaamic world, is expected to stare all day at a basically unchanging flat screen and assimilate a mental picture of threat and opportunity from what it sees. And I, quite frankly am struggling with this on an existential level.
A friend gave me the sentence "I didn't say that you stole them" as an exaple of something very important. Try in you head to run through this sentence several times, stressing a different word each time. You will find the emphasis subtly but significantly changed by how each word is said.
Similarly, inside each of us, if we are working correctly, is a set of mechanisms and protocols for interacting. Initiall developed to enable cooperation and ensure therefore, improved individual chances of survival, we are primed to recognise facial expression, gesture, intonation, body language.
And now we have the rudimentary ASCII character set with which to convey and infer meaning. It is wofully inadequate for this and hence misunderstandings are inevitable. And what of the machinery for face-to-face neraction? Without practise, does it atrophy? Or in some, maybe the playstation generatio, does it not develop at all (evidence shows this actually the case, which I find a bit horrifying really)?

And so, the demands increase their pressure and this little escape into personal self-expression, stolen from a a busy day, is all i can indulge myself with at the moment.
Words are useful, we can do much with them (as I hope you see)
But sometimes, we need a physical landscape and some faces, conversations, gestures or whither humanity?

Monday, 19 May 2008

Moments of pleasure potentially lost

The intellect is a curiosity. It brings so much value and obiously over the course of human evolution, has conveyed such advantage as to have become arguably the mostly highly developed weapon in the arms race that is natural selection.

It outstrips big muscles, speed of movement, sharp pointy teeth and claws in its ability to provide food and protection for its owner an most aspects of human activity seem to benefit to some extent from the application of a bit of intellectual input. A combination of empathy and intellect appears to be the defining feature of people we enjoy being around, spending time with or having relationships with.
Strange then that it should be such a hindrance to certain more natural processes like enjoyment.

This is a topic that vexes me inordinately in a daily and prosaic struggle, and I have written of it before, so forgive me if I appear to repeat myself. I am still no closer to understanding this conundrum than in my more confused, pre-renaissance days.

Consider, if you will, the opportnity for a small but precious moment of pleasure: an example I have spoken of in person with some who may read this, is the foil on a coffee jar lid, but it could equally apply to a crème brulee or anything promising an instant of pleasure. I don't drink much coffee these days, even less instant coffee, but the sight upon the initial unscrewing of the lid, is of a pristine, flat, virgin expanse of gold coloured foil. It is asking to be pierced, at least, that is what it makes me feel.

My dilemma is: how do I pierce it I order to fully extract and experience the most pleasure? Should I poke my thumbnail slowly in at the edge, savouring the scratch-pleasure as my nail penetrates it, then more as I run my nail, tin-opener-like around the rim of the glass until a complete disk of foil is liberated? Or do I push the point of a teaspoon through it and cut the seal into sectios to be peeled individually off the top of the jar?
Or do I drum the back of the spoon in the middle, savouring the tension and the small percussive sound, until, increasing the force a little at a time, I break through the now distorted and stretched foil?

And this may seem a strange conversation to have with oneself, but pleasure is not to be squandered, even minor pleasure.
If I had used one of the aforemntioed methods, I would surely have enjoyed it, but how do iknow I got the most pleasure I could? Perhaps I missed out because one of the other methods would have been more satisfying?

And so, the thinking about this simple action has introduced an unnecessary component of disappointment.
Often, I'm my more angst-ridden days, I would be given the joy of sunset to observe and savour, standing, looking at it, I would feel the most overwhelming sense of anxiety and futily as I tried so hard to appreciate it to its full. To attempt to mentally photograph it, I would stare at it intently, trying to see all its hues and patterns. And in my striving, I would somehow miss the moment.

My life history is littered with such small tragedies and each added to an overall feeling of inability to enjoy that it was literally almost my undoing. What point life if pleasure is always out of reach? This intereference by the intellect in matters it should not really concern itself with on a practical level, is actually an existentialist threat, if I may be so overly dramitic.

Luckily, through a long process of incremental discoveries, I have found it is possible to just "be" and not to "do". And suddenly the internal commentary and dialogue that happens about the experience is no longer the main focus of my mind.

And so, enjoyment is at last unrestricted. It is no longer obstructed by the distraction of the scrutiny of the process of perception.
And damn! Does the world look good!

I would like to wite more on this, but unfortunately, time is a huge constraint at the moment, and though this does not seem to sap the creative enrgies required to generate the ideas that cause me to ponder, it does severly limit my ablity to write them down. Hence, we probably have not seen the last of this topic here.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Fertility Symbols



My Green Man looks wistfully out from behind a cotoneaster in my garden. He is not a traditional Green Man, rather more contemporary. He has ivy leaves for his hair and looks rather more human and less elemental. Nevertheless, as embodiments go, he is looks the part.

I don't really have a supernatural dimension in my Universe. I don't really need one mostly.
But my Green Man is a reminder. Anthropomorphically, i get the sense of a character, a personality there. I sense him, when I am walking down a leafy street and find myself, despite all my sophisticated social conditioning, completely captivated by a nicely turned ankle, female bottom or some healthy lustrous head of female hair, I sense that he is there, in the undergrowth, unseen but smiling as if to say "You think yourself so civilised and removed from your animal nature but my handiwork is still driving you and it always will"
And this conceptual person, present conspicuously in every forest, behind every tree, and less conspicuously pushing bindweed up through your carefully weeded and tended veg patch, this character, he mocks us and chides us. I hear him laughing very often at my folly and pretension.

At this time when nature is so fecund, when the pressure of reproduction forces growth and greenery, it is hard not to feel that same force oneself. At least I find it so. All around us in the air, tree-sperm is flying about, making some people's life a misery. The whole of nature is saying "Breed! Breed!".
I have done all the breeding I intend to do. But the imperative is still a keen motivation somehow.

So, my Green Man is there to remind me to be aware of the legacy that millennia of natural selection has left us. Inside each of us it the programming that tells us what is a good bet with which to mingle our chromosomes. Can you deny it? Does it not cajole and wheedle away at you on the inside in a voice impossible to ignore?

Be it Goddess or Woodland spirit, allow yourself your own tip of the hat to Nature and fertility.
And now I am going to go out, give him a wink and tell him that for all his roguishness, he gets my respect and regard.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Life to a soundtrack

My bike has a bell. Its law now that all new bikes should have them. I undertand the logic. Many of the cycle paths are shared with pedestrians and I have no issue with this. Except perhaps for the unaware stroller with a dog on a 30ft lead.
I ring my bell quite often, not insistently, I hope. I don't want intrude, intimidate or assert. Merely to inform.
Quite often, there is no response from the pedestrian I have slowed down to avoid. Perhaps they are deaf. This is possible and allowances should be made accordingly.
Usually though, the tell-tale white hearphones are the reason. The tweeting and chirping of the birds is replaced by whatever musical choice the wearer chooses that day.
Experience is a plastic thing, infinitely variable and subject to many influences: Mood, toothache, a full bladder, what happened last night. Or music.
Who hasnt turned up some loud, rousing music as they accelerate from the slip road on the motorway, feeling the compliment of the sounds to the thrill of the speed? I know I do, and on the autobahn where acceleration is more freely available and longer, it is quite a heady mix, I can tell you.
So, when we do things, go places, experience, we can modify that by the soundtrack we choose.
And it can completely alter how we perceive the moment. Imagine, if you will, wlaking through a crowded christmas shopping centre listening to Motorhead, "Ace of Spades". Now imagine the same with the funny little tune from the end of the Benny Hill show. I think the two experiences would be very different.
And so it is on the inside. I don't have an iPod. I do have a crappy mp3 player bought for 15 quid online and it is adequate for my purposes: I use it to uplift me when running. Let me tell you that the right music makes a big difference. Once when someone I knew died. I went for a run and on came "Don't fear the reaper" by B.O.C and I ran so fast and defiantly, telling, in my mind, death that it had better bloody look out because I was chasing it, not vice versa. I was very cross with it. And when I am running, it can become a dance, to the right tune. It can move me so much that brain chemistry hits the end stop and I have been seen running headlong, singing, wild eyed and enraptured. t these times, every nerve ending is on fire with joy and I am invincible. That is a high and all natural.
But a soundtrack is always there. I get up to do my bit at a presentation and in my head, so loud I fear it must surely be audible, are the opening violin bars of "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge. It lifts me, corrects my posture, makes me more noble and commanding in bearing.
Right now, I have the heavy beat of "The blood is love" by Queens of the Stone age. As I walk about th eoffoce conducting my business, its beat saturates my mind with its heaviness and drives me with purpose to get all those things done that need attention. I feel like (and have done before actually) stopping people, putting my head next to theirs and saying "Listen! Can you hear it too?" for surely, it is so note perfect and loud in here, it must be audible to people nearby.
And so, the psychotropic effect of music linger in my head and become somehow a tool for modifying mood.
You know, I really like my brain. It is such fun. It surprises me all the time. Have a play with yours. You will be amazed what you find to keep you amused.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Wonder

Who wonders? This thought has been on my mind a bit. At this time of year, the colours are so vivid and spring so beautiful that it feels like my eyes have been upgraded from a 1MP crappy phone camera to a Canon EOS450. The saturation of colur and clarity of what I see is breathtaking.

But I see it. It impresses itself on my perception and I find myself looking so long and appreciatively at the deliciousness of it that people look at me strangely.

And I say "Can you see it? Isn't it beautiful!" of a cherry tree, a hawthorn bush, a lawn, a dandelion.
And they reply "Yes. Pretty, isn't it." and I think to myself "No, you don't see it, do you! You say you do, maybe even think you do. But your mind is on other things and whilst you are dimly aware of it, you are nt really seeing it."

But occasionally, I stumble across another who takes that moment to really look and appreciate.
Imagine, if you will, that for years your eyesight was fading: That you had all but lost your vision and all you could see, if anythig at all, was dim, grey outlines.
And then one day someone says: "Hey! We now have cure for that! Let's cure you!"
And suddenly your sight is restored. How ecstatic would you be! What use you wouyld suddenly find for your eyes and how precious every image you took in with them, from daisies to rainclouds.

So, I try to live with that situation in mind. And all that I see is fresh and delicious.

And then there is ants:
I have written of this before. If someone made a toy, about say, September, and it was a small robotic device that was little larger than a pinhead but which moved around using some seemingly arbitrary but autonomous decision making criteria, then by Christmas, it would be all the rage and everyone would want one.
Lift up a stone, anywhere in Summer and there you will find such a thing. Ok, not man made (is that the deciding factor I wonder?). I had one on my desk. It fascinated me for ages until I actually had to do some work for a change.

Take a moment to really look. And look at the exquisite features of an ant or a beetle. Its something really impressive and worth examination.
Small joys are not really small.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The best £300 I ever spent.



I made a discovery quite late in the day, but thankfully not too late.
There are things that make you completely alive. Most of the time, we are scattered, not mindful. We have a dozen processes of thought of differing levels of consciousness going on at the same time for most of our waking moments and we are not really paying attention to being alive.

I went to a lecture at work by the lovely Baroness greenfield on consciousness. It was really quite profound. Her contention was that consciousness is an emergent property of circuits of neurons working. The more neurons involved in the dominant circuit, the more conscious we feel at that moment.

She used a picture of a man leaving the platform for a bungee jump to illustrate the peak of consciousness with the comment: "this man is not worrying about his mortgage."
i concur, based on my own experience. I am very scatty by admission and reputation. Much internal dialogue happens continuosly And hence I am not really fully conscious much of the time.

And then I discovered surf.

I don't really get moved by standing-up surfing. I tried it and it was ok. You get most leverage standing and can manage tighter turns.
Body boarding is also fun and can be quite exhilarating in big seas if you go out far enough an get the right waves. Fins are a must though.

But then I bought my kayak. Well, I say kayak but that is usually an enclosed boat with a spraydeck. This one is really a "hybrid waveski" But quite a big one because I am heavy.

Sitting out beyond the break, maybe 200m out, the sea is calm with a healthy swell. Inshore, waves break every six to ten seconds. Out here, waves are more sparse, but bigger, cleaner, more enduring.
I wait, the boat bobbing languidly in the swell. Out to sea, the surface is grey-green with small-scale perturbations, I continue to wait.
Suddenly 100m away, a strip of sea changes consistency, more opaque, paler, as the angle of the water changes, reflecting the sky differently.
A Hope grows: This is MY wave and it promises much. I paddle forward until I am where I think I need to be to take off on the wave.

Neck craning behind me, excitement building, I see it growing as it approaches, calmly rolling toward me as it seems to grow to the size of a house. When it is ten metres behind me, I start to paddle furiously at an angle oblique to the travel of the wave, attempting to match its speed when it reaches me. My stomach tingles inside as I feel the back of the boat rise up and I heave myself forward.
Momentarily, I feel as if the wave will leave me behind as I lag behind its rising peak. But with every ounce of my strength, I dig in my paddle, the water hard and unyielding as I force it behind me, and I lever myself and the boat over the top onto the smooth downward face of the wave.
Now I am looking down a slope, a small water hill maybe ten feet high, but a hill that is gathering pace towards the beach, and now bearing me with it. I throw myself backwards until I am practically lying along the boat, to stop the nose digging in and the “take-off” begins.

The boat accelerates and now I am starting down its face going what feels like a hundred miles an hour.
I lean in and try a turn to my right. With a dip of the paddle, the boat responds and I am now travelling at 45 degrees to the motion of the wave. Behind me, it has started to break, curling over its peak in a point of white chaos. The point follows me just behind the boat.

And suddenly all is still. Aquaplaning on the flat hull, there is a sudden moment where everything joins in absolute perfection. There is a sound, like that of a scoop through sorbet and everything is in perfect balance. I have no thought. I just am.

The moment lasts for that odd period of time which is both instantaneous and an eternity. My mind holds nothing. All thought stops. Pure joy and euphoria suddenly fill the space where the chattering thoughts usually reside. I don't know how long this lasts but it is perfection and the moment I live for. My mind is empty of thought but saturated with sensation. I don't have to think about how to direct the boat: It's all instinct and a dip of the paddle here and touch into the face of the wave there and the ride seemingly carries on without conscious direction from me. There is calm and there is exultation, normally improbable bed-fellows. But in this instant of time, I am an empty vessel being filled with the perfection of the moment.

Another point of breaking wave is fast approaching from the other direction, squeezing the clean peak smaller and smaller. When it seems barely the length of the kayak, I dig harder into the right and hop neatly through the remnant of clean unbroken wave. The two points of turbulence close behind me, turning the wave to boiling white soup and using the clear slope of the back of the wave, I paddle furiously to get myself back to my starting point, to wait again for my wave.

Many waves and two hours later, which feels like ten minutes, I drag myself and my boat back up the beach. I lie in the foam of the margin, exhausted.
Above me, the towering hill is so green and crystal clear in my eyes that it might have been engraved upon my cornea. The gorse is so yellow that I can almost taste it. The clarity is like I have never had eyes before. It is like life up to this point, except for similar such moments, was lived with a dirty windscreen and suddenly the screenwash has been filled and the screen cleaned properly at last. It is so VIVID!

In my mind, there is no sound. The voices have all silenced for a while. Like the cacophony on the shortwave bands has suddenly been silenced by a worldwide power cut. There is just a gentle "shushing" inside, like small waves lapping the beach on a windless, surfless day.
I float on the untroubled surface of my mind.
That is enlightenment. The clamour has gone and I am properly calm.

© Pete Earlam 2007

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Trade shows

I am in Seville, writing this in between customer inundations. Trade shows do amuse me. Mostly, people are interesting, because, I suppose, they have all come from far away, out of curiosity. This implies that a. they are quite intelligent and b. they have the drive to go finding things out. Some of the questions have even taken me to the realms of the quantum mechanical level: Not something you expect at a computer industry trade show.
I rather like it. I do however find great amusements at the response of people to my giveaways. I wont say what they are but they are worth about two quid and are actually pretty cool. But the furtiveness or brazenness of the approach is really very funny.

I draw giggles from the girls conscripted as always at these things, for the fact that I cannot stop dancing. I do this when i am bored, restless or happy. It is a cross between salsa steps and tap. I can't help it. I suppose this is what keeps me thin.

It seems odd that, once, my academic performance was hit hard by my preference for going busking with my banjo, to the extent I pretty much failed my first year and so couldnt get a degree.
And here I am all those years later, busking, just in a different way (for all you kids reading: This is not an exhortation to muck about and not get your qualifications. I was just very very lucky with how things turned out).

And so, here comes another wave of jovial, affable punters. I suppose I had better open another box of freebies and earm my crust.
Tap dancing shoes on again.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

what happened to wonder?

"I paid business class for this seat!" said the stroppy german passenger in front of me, when told he had to pay for his drink. I turned to the flight attendent and smiling said "of course: its your fault9? She was very good though and without a flicker of indignation, smilingly pretended concerned interest in his ticket stub. Havng thus been duly listened to, he settled back into the same cramped seat that I and the rest of the thirty or so other passengers are occupying on this ten foot wide flying aluminium tube. Subsequent passings of the cabin crew elicited twinkling, barely perceptible smiles to me. He was, as far as I could tell, a sarcastic arrogant ingrate, but then who am I to judge?
The large formless posterior of am american Edna Everidge was then thrust unwittingly into my face by its owner, exhibiting a huge degree of unawareness of personal space. It wasn't a very nice bottom, but nonetheless I was momentarily overcome with the urge to sink my teeth into it. Tossed between the two horms of revulsion and humour, I averted my gaze.
Outside the window, the blue of the sky exerts some kind of profound calming wistfulness in me. Something about the shade of blue of the cloudless sky goes into the brain directly, triggering some mechanism in the deepest oldest part of my humanity.perhaps it was from the association of idle musing in my earliest recollections as a pre school child on siston common as my grandparents slept a very English afternoon sleep (the only other kind of such sleep being that on a rainy saturday afternoon when BBC2 would show black and white melodramas and unwatched by my sleeping guardians, I would light little illicit fires in the grate).
I love the way that up here at, 35000 feet (as we were just told) the blue fades so seamlessly into the band of white and subsequent grey below.
On!y when I see a plane below, dteaking along at the same speed in the opposite direction, do I realise how fast we are going. 500 mph or so is about usual, so combined, our relative speeds are just on the edge of my comprehension. Walking to work wold take over two hours. By bike 30 mins. By car 16 on a good day. At 1000 mph, 36 seconds. It just about fits in my head.
And hpow we take this for granted! To the extent that old Grumpy Business-class-fool can stand up here in our fantastic machine and moan about the price of his ticket.
Wonder is so fragile. Time to land.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

I love my van



I love my van
I am sitting at kemble Airfield where the boy bids me to bring him in order to race his RC car. An assemblage of characters, all male and aged anywhere seemingly between 14 and 65, are watching intently as scale models of fast-looking cars are zipping around a small track. There is serious intensity of concentration as levers are twiddled and either near-silent, or irate-bee-sounding cars career in their miniature competition. Electric motors or nitro-methanol (internal combustion engines that would fit in your hand: Beautiful pieces of engineering) send these tiny objects of expenditure and devotion at outrageous speeds, into bends and along straits. I wonder at the enthusiasm. I remember toy cars as a boy; Imagining the tiny drivers in their adventures as I sent them to places only existing in my own mind.

But this is something different; A possibly almost exclusively male fascination with specific area of human endeavour.
And being bitterly cold, snow still clinging to the northern sides of the trees, I sit in my van, where it is warm and I can make tea and eat ghastly noodles from the Chinese supermarket, quickly reconstituted in a bowl.

I love my van. It used to belong to my father and I bought it off him for £1000 when his alcoholism made it no longer possible for him to drive. I have two photos of him on the wall in here, in homage to him not because I am a great ancestor worshipper or sentimentalist although there is a part of that, I grudgingly admit. No, mostly, it because I am grateful to him for his handiwork.
For it was he who took a standard 1992 semi-hi-top long wheelbase ford transit, and saw its potential. And using materials, mostly stolen, sometimes gathered and when no alternative means of sourcing was possible, bought, he turned it into the most significant form of escape ever.

The walls are of tongue and groove pine, covering the sides and the ceiling and giving the feel somewhere between a sauna and a cabin in a 19th century passenger ship. There are two beds in which all the means to live an indefinitely comfortable nomadic existence can be stored. They can be arranged as two single or a double bed and the bedding - a king sized duvet, sheets, covers and pillows, all sourced from my favourite german surprise emporium - lives permanently under one. Two mattresses purloined from a certain west-country budget holiday camp years ago, grace the tops. They are very comfortable and regularly hoovered, scrupulously cleaned and freshened with fabreze.

And here is where i shelter from the biting North wind, with the sun streaming through the windowns, thoughtfully fitted at quite some expenditure. A newly purchased leisure battery and an inverter provides my 240VAC for this laptop and could even power hair straighteners, a telly (god forbid!) or a soldering iron for those little home-improvement jobs needed from time to time.

Thus equipped, it is always ready for a getaway. Indeed, in 2006, i arrived home one evening and said to the family "C'mon! Pack! we are going to Cornwall!" And off we went, bikes on the back, boats on the roof, to Bossinney where we stayed for two and a half weeks of glorious carefree unplanned holiday. Whilst other campers sat in their tents and boiled up quick-cook rice and pasta with jars of sauce, I pulled out my big cooking pot from under the bed and made beef stew with beer, puy lentils and chorizo cassoulet and lamb korma.

On a day when there is surf, I look at eyeball surf-check to see the North Devon webcams and if I am so inclined, off I go with any rare friends brave enough, to Putsborough or Saunton to catch some waves. The kayaks, boards, wetsuits, all the other paraphernalia, goes into the back or on the roof, and within hours we are in the sea, and later, blue and thawing drinking steaming mugs of hot, sweet tea in the comfort of my van, looking at the breakers and feeling the wind rock the bodywork, we sit snug and mellow inside.

Or when the boys have a race for Greenpower (www.greenpower.co.uk) we put the racing car in the back and off we go to Goodwood or Darley Moor or Castle Combe where the team use the van as a base for tea, bacon sandwiches or a quick snooze, or as a workshop to affect mechanical repairs to our racing car.

And always, I am looking at my old dad's crap carpentry and reminded of how his lovable just-good-enough pragmatism left his character clearly displayed for anyone who knew him to see and smile at: Crooked lines of screws, poorly hammered and bent-over nails, wonky shelves full of mugs. Sometimes, when it is raining, I go outside and sit in my van, under the guise of repairing something, and I just listen to the rain, and I talk to my old dad and tell him what's been happening. Then I can hear his wry laugh and his almost-useless but well-meant advice and I can feel like he is there again.

But still, with probably only a year or so of life left in my van,i look to improve and refine the design of this mobile toy box. My addition of the rear seats, folding table, cargo nets on the ceiling for clothes, the big framed poster of the sea, these are all things that, in the original spirit of its construction, go to make this portable living space more comfortable. Thoughts occur on planes, in traffic, on aeroplanes. Improvements are always suggesting themselves. Such improvements give me an inordinate and possibly disproportionate sense of self-satisfaction on a deep existentialist level. My indescribable sense of a source-of-potential (which I shall paradoxically attempt to describe more fully at a later date) is invoked.

The wonderful and empowering thing is that in my mind, I always know that if the corporate life grinds me down just that little bit too far, i can come home and just go, for a day, a weekend, two weeks, or maybe for an odyssey across the world.
And that feels good.

Some have their RC cars, some do train spotting, and I have my van. And when it fails its last MOT, i shall get another one.
We all need our escapes.
And now I shall put the kettle on.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

My Favourite german import

No, not a car, not a beer, but a supermarket chain!

Now, some might find this difficult to undestand, this particular supermarket brand seeming to be at the lower quality end of the market (A point I dispute). But I am a great fan of Lidl. Firstly, you always know where yu are with a Lidl. Anywhere in the world you go, the layout, brands and stock are exactly the same. If it is gardening stuff in Southmead, it is gardening stuff in Amsterdam. If it is skiing equipment in Munich, so is it in Madrid.

I cannot go into a Lidl without spending at least twenty quid I had not intended.
Its cheerful germanic enthusiasm and misplaced happy pragmatism is a universal constant, like G or the speed of light. I always want to speak german in there and indeed, frequently do. And polish sometimes too. Oddly, I do seem to meet a lot of germans in there and this is strange since i didnt know there were that many around here. Its good for the practise and the looks on their faces when you address them in your best Hochdeutsch.

Over the years i have bought many splendid things there:
Wetsuits
an inflatable kayak (very good actually unless there is surf)
A spade with a handle LONG enough!
Lebkuchen at Christmas (Oh joy! How germanically festive)
Cycling stuff galore (its very good, especially the SPD shoes)
Underwear! (yes! Really! And I can attest that it is VERY supportive!)
A blood pressure monitor and heart rate monitor (ten quid each!!!!)
A Dremel copy for 20 quid (fantastic!!)
A mini-greenhouse for my chillies (afermentioned in previous scribble)
oh, i could go on all day!

Oh a vast array of stuff have I purchased and NONE of it have i been disapointed with (although the fishing sonar for detecting fish apparently always registers the same four fish at 2m down).

I have two local Lidl's: one is a mile from home and one is in Bad Lippspringe near paderborn, Nordrhein Westfalia where i seem to find myself too often. The stock is exactly the same, the only difference being our prices are pounds where theirs is the same in euros.
But everywhere I go, if I see a lidl, I head for the middle aisle of undiscovered delights and always come away with something that really cheers me up. Retail therapy actually does work.

So, if you want good tools at prices which other shops only offer tools with the cosnsistency of Cheddar cheese, if you want real German sausages or a splendid stylish pair of shoes (well, alright, maybe i do get carried away a bit), some perfume reminscent of that which elderly female relatives gave away at long forgotten christmases, big thongs or a wakeboard (??), you know where to go.

Oh, and the prunes are really good, really cheap and bring perfect germanic regularity, if you get my drift.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Atmospheres

When I arrive home from work, my house feels a certain way. If I come home via a different route. It feels like different place. If I come home from holiday, it feels like somewhere else again. If my mother visits, I have a party or its 2 a.m and I am alone, it provides a different set of impressions completely.

These, i suppose are what I would term "atmospheres": how a place feels to you.

And yet, we have no vocabulary for such feelings. The atmosphere of my dining room on christmas day, during lunch, has a flavour, a scent, some kind of set of sensations it engenders inside my mind. But there are no words for it. Ok, there is cosy and homely and comfortable, but nothing with which to describe the components of thses impressions.
Do we all have them? I am supposing we do. All of us feel spaces differently, i suspect, but we all feel them, of this i am certain.
But why no words? Is it such an elusive, personal feeling each time that we could not fit words to such an abstract concept? Why not? We have many other named abstract concepts.
And why are these sensations, engendered as they are by places and spaces, not really discussed the way that say, flavours are, or colours, or flowers?

For instance, as a boy, catching sight of a wooded, rocky hillsde would engender a sense of adventure; I would want to explore, build dens, make bows and arrows, just adventure! ANd as an adult, I feel the echo of this looking at exciting wild places, I just don't know why anymore.
Consider a set of hills in the foreground, on a summers eve at twilight. The wistful feeling it produces inside. We must surely have all felt something of this. How do we describe it?

I will be thinking of this when I move from place to place. Some description must surely be possible.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The dangers of Gardening in Middle England

Today it was not raining. There was a little hail, but no inclemency of significance.
That being the case, i decided it would be a good day to go up the allotment and do all those jobs I have been thinking about.
On the sideboard was a bag of neglected potatoes ready to go in, so my second and third beds of first earlies were were my main task.

After digging several beds, in preparation, I became completely absorbed in the task, except...
What passes for completely absorbed with most people? I really have no idea as i only know me. Inside my head, when I do a manual task that requires no intellectual input, whatever small idea or notion was in there to start with starts to bounce around and gain detritus. It might be a line from a television program or a comment made to me. And it gets bigger and bigger and more annoying.
I have heard people say that digging or some such task, clears the mind. Swimming also: "Oh, after a while I go into a kind of trance state".
This seems quite nice, but i have never experienced it. My head gets noisier and noisier.
So, does this mean that some people find tranquility whereas others just end up with a menagerie of irritating notions pestering them inside their heads?

For instance, i went for a run and earlier that week, a friend had made a comment about me being irritating due to my lack of focus and tendency to get distracted easily by my surroundings.
After 40 minutes of running this comment had acquired, in my own mnd, all the force of a damning personal attack. I was so angry with this person and was thinking of all kinds of hurtful ripostes! Now this is never right, is it!

So, there I am digging, to the extent that when I close my eyes, I now see couch grass roots, and after doing lots of productive stuff, planting spuds and onions, turning compost, making my mini greenhouse (£15 from Lidl. Outstanding value!) i feel somehow deeply satisfied.
It is a good sense of satisfaction and one of those feelings of "simple stuff is good for the soul" that is oft trumpeted by harkers-back-to-past times, zen Buddhists and spade-callers.
And yes, somehow, a mellowness has descended.
Except.... I find my world somehow smaller, my horizons not so interesting. I am sure that were I to read the daily Mail right now, i might even find myself nodding (horror of horrors!!!) in some semblance of self-righteous indignation. I find that agility of thought is degraded and for want of a better term, my "spark" somehow dimmed.

And so, my feeling is that whilst doing good toil with the soil is a wholesome endeavour bringing the solid feeling of having done a Good Day's Work, I am actually in some ways the worse for it!

And so here i am, attempting to renew my global perspective; Taking my mind beyond the parish boundary and opening my brain back up in an attempt to make it the fun, capricious plaything I know it to be most of the time.

And frankly, i am a little bit confused now. The plight of Darfur and Iraq seems suddenly a lot less important than the fight against the impending Waitrose and accompanying 350 houses. The chavs zooming down the street in tiny cars with huge exhausts seem far more heinous than some distant vague concept of suicide bombers and terrorists.
I must get back to the World! Is this what Middle England and gardening does for you?
Ye gods! No wonder the RHS members are always falling out with each other! How can I prevent this insularity?

Cripes! I am off to watch the news!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

taters

Well, not JUST taters. More: Vegetables in general. It is that time of year when my thoughts turn to my allotment. Oh, how it gives me balance when I look down from an aeroplane at 37000 feet, in that artificial world of plastic, aluminium and superficiality, to think of the soil in my garden.
I am a believer that many of the world's problems could be helped with compost. So much is thrown away that could rot down to something lovely and useful. Compost fascinates me.
And sub saharan soils could so benefit from this, instead of goats eating everything and the dung being dried and burned as fuel. No wonder the topsoil blows away! I saw this program where they went to an African village and the whole village dug a series of beds 10 by 4 feet (as all mne are) and taking out all the soil, they put in leaves and paper and any dung they could find, anything that would rot or hold mositure. And growing beans the first year (for crop rotation really is essential. I remembered that from history and Turnip Townsend) to cope with the reduction in nitrogen than carbon breakdown initially brings, they grew wondrous crops for ever more, as long as they put good stuff back in the soil.

And here too, ploughing will change, i think, as people realise it isnt the best way to maintain good soil structure.

I am not organic. I use glyphosphate and slug pellets, as 20 years of gardening has shown me that the methods espoused by more idealistic gardeners just plain don't work. You can't dig up bindweed or marestails (which have after all been around since the jurassic so they are survivors). Slugs sneer at beer traps, hedgehogs and toads do no have sufficient work ethic and so, yes, I use some chemicals.
Organic farming, anyway, is not the same as sustainable agriculture. The two are very different.

That said, i do get marvellous crops on which I never use sprays, just mesh to keep the pests off. Even so, leek moth has been doing for my alliums and I have had decimated onion beds for four years in a row now, despite my best efforts. It is very disheartening sometimes.

But taters: Now that must surely be the nearest thing to magic! You dig a hole take a tuber and, as I made my wife laugh with in my earliest gardening attempts by saying "you bury it in some mud", or rather plant it in the soil. Then you come back a few weeks later and dig it up and lo! A small clump of the most beautiful white egg-sized potatoes. All from soil and air!!! From ground to plate in 20 mins and no food could be finer.

And how much pleasure is that? How much did it cost? Evaluating pleasure, I think this is a disproportionate return on investment. You can keep your xboxes and your plasma tellies and all the other detritus of modern life that we are told we really, really need in order to be valuable and happy human members of society.

As me old grandad said (and he was admittedly not given to feats of intelligence so this nugget was retained): A rich man has the same pleasure sensors as you in his brain. It just costs him more to tickle them.

Yes. Indeed.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The NHS: God bless her and all who sail in her!

Hi Peeps, I just got back from the hospital where yesterday, Huge Son had three hours surgery to remove bits of homemade explosive device from his face and corneas. Two boxes worth of match heads and a small length of steel tubing, soldered up, went very bang in his face. It was well researched and extremely effective.
Seems fun when you are 15.

I have to say, I cannot express (nope! Not even with the HUGE eloquence available to me) my admiration and gratitude for all the medical staff of the Bristol Healthcare Trust. What fine folks and what excellent service. I cannot heap enough praise upon them all.

Sons are such a worry. That Y chromosome seems to code for the fascination with things that go bang. I think he is chastened.
But it was a constant source of fascination to me that there was such a gender divide: "So, tell me how this happened"
And I explain and all the female recipients of the story shudder before looking vaguely confused, whereas all the male recipients' eyes gleam with a "Oh! Yeah, well, we've all done it, havent we!"
I am not usually one to stereotype. This was just an observation.

Anyway, a not too unhappy ending to a shocking and dramatic week. anyway, back to the hospital with clean underwear and talking books.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

All seen in just one week's commute by bike


"Child on board" - Toyota avensis "I am texting at the wheel"
"Child on board" - BMW 5 series "I am on the phone at a roundabout, steering with my knee whilst changing gear"
"Child on board" - mazda6, "I cut up cyclist because they are i my way"
"Child on board" - Jeep Cherokee "I am reading my post as I drive"
"Child on board" - Peugot 106 "I am perusing a Freemans catalog on the steering wheel of my car"
"Child on board" - "I want you to take note of those I care about and afford them consideration even though I actually don't gie a shit about you or your safety.

"Child on board" - "I drive like an idiot"

Friday, 7 March 2008

Another aeroplane scribble

Written a couple of months ago on one of the far-too-many aeroplanes I travel on. I seem to be much vexed by the notion of civilisation of late. Hobbyhorses arrive in my head half formed, demanding analysis and completion. I think I am not quite there with how I want to express this to myself. Soon, I hope it will be coherent.

------------------------------------------

My plane is unusually empty, presumeably because this is a Tuesday and nobody wants to go to Stuttgart much on Tuesdays. Two portly lasses with a slightly irritated air are wheeling a trolley up and down the aisle, dispensing what seem like expensive sandwiches and ghastly coffee. I don't have to pay because for some reason I was given a voucher at check-in entitling me to a free feed in the "Sky-Deli". A grandiose name for two aluminium trolleys stocked with ready made sandwiches and instant brown stuff masquerading as coffee. Had I paid I would have felt somewhat swindled.

My sandwich is handed to me along with a cardboard cup of Gold Blend. Presumeably, silver or bronze blend would be even less appetising, probably suitable for removing rusted wheel nuts on trucks.
My sandwhich is apparently made by a man called "Brian Turner" who is some kind of TV chef, so I am told. (Presumeably) his picture beams at me from the wrapper: A man in his fifties, honest-looking enough to make one feel this is a wholesome morsel, produced personally by this man of solid integrity, using reliable, good quality ingredients. His twinkly-eyes engaging smile also present, informs us that he also has a sense of humour in his sandwich making. The label informs me it was "made specailly for you!". I doubt it. Brian certainly has no idea of my existence and even if he did, I am sure he is far too busy to make his own sandwiches. More accurately it would read "Made cheerfully but indifferently by Vaclav Podolski, for minimum wage in Birmingham, who is an amiable, hard-working music graduate from Gdansk." Truth rarely sells, although, in this case, had I actually bought, it might have swayed me more than Brian's stolid charm.
It tastes of cotton wool and something vaguely tangy and I struggle to find enough saliva to assist the descent of the bread.

The clouds are not a solid floor to us today, but tiny blobs of brilliant white, irregular in shape and distribution but somehow still regular in their irregularity, as chaos tends to produce. Like a lot of huge white sea-horses, they scud across the sky in their ad-hoc shoals, calm and stately in their passage.

Below now, is a huge city. I guess it must be London. Housing estates spread unfeasably far across the landscape. In patterns designed to maximise density, thousands upon thousands of houses snake around curly closes, like fingerprints on a grand scale. The red brick monster eats the countryside for as far as I can see. Such an enormous concentration of humanity, with its trappings of cars and consumer items, its voracious appetite for food, water, electricity, dwarfs the limited comprehension my finite mind can bring to bear.
The scale of requirement for these essential nutrients of civilisation dawns on me only vaguely.
The delivery of these vital commodities must be such a huge and constant undertaking, each consumer unaware of the scale of the infrastructure bringing them clean water, heat, light, ginger, tea-bags and macdonalds.
Just imagine the precariousness: A fuel protest for a couple of days saw the beginnings of the breakdown of the machine. Buffers depleted, larders grew empty. Imagine a sustained cessation of the turning of all the cogs of the machine, or even a few critical ones.
And how few acknowledge the precariousness of existence. To grow food is hard. Few know how to do it on even a personal level. To grow enough to grace the Sunday dinner tables of Surrey with roast potatoes, chicken, beef.

A few years ago, a pulse of charged particles from the SUn caused the electrical infrastructure of Canada to completely fail. Canada is on a large block of granite, a superb insulator. Currents induced in the overhead cables tripped out their grid and the electricity stopped.
Similarly stricken, most cities are only a day away from anarchy.

And from up here, it all seems so precarious and the universe so indifferent.
The gentle curve of the horizon is just discernable. The layer of gas separating earth from sky, is miraculously held here by gravity, an oasis in a universe of rocks and hydrogen clouds.

And some of the atmosphere conspires now to roughen our passage. Seatbelt signs illuminate as soft and fluffy turn hard and bumpy
.
And alas, I must end for now.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Your Pliocene legacy translated.

At 30000 feet, it all looks very half-hearted, like a childs attempt at a town with wooden blocks on a huge landscape, humouring the caprice of mankind to control his world.
Whiteness has now engulfed the plane with a brilliance that causes me to squint.
Contravening thermodynamics, in a universe of clouds of dust and gas, accreted rocks, here there is a kind of order. Water vapour coalesces into clouds, decreasing in disorder.
Rocks once crushed together to make our Earth until the hot, heavy stuff mostly sank to the middle. But it's home. Solid ground. Against all the odds, we walk on it, or fly above it.

What would the painters of Lascaux make of this. A body and brain of the same pattern as theirs, sat in an aluminium tube so high up that the craft is a mere silver splinter in the sky, powered by inconceivable and invisible forces.
I sit and type on a tablet of solidified oil residues, formed from 200 million year old equisetums and melted and solidified sand.

And yet, i do what they did: I express, I define my concepts in a form to pass on to others who may see them and similarly understand.

A body honed by the need to gather berries, kill the occasional animal, fight, mate, survive in the wilderness, finds itself easily suited to "civilisation". This is no surprise, I suppose, since we designed it around ourselves.
And yet... it is so very different from the environment in which our form was developed. How do we operate here? In clothes, in boxes made of stone, on highways of unfathomable speed.
All with minds and bodies made to hide in bushes, chase antelope, run away from lions.
So suitable yet so different.
And how did civilisation change us? I mean, on the inside, in our brains?

Generations of men no longer needing to be big to provide, aggressive to survive. generations of women no longer needing to carry enough resources on hips and bellies to produce and feed babies.
And yet..
We prize muscles even now. We seek fertility without realising. The drivers are still there.
But what of our mental life? Are we changed? Was a set of characteristics bred that differed from those required to live in African bush 100,000 years ago? Has civilisation changed what we seek in a mate on a psycological level?
"Oh, i like a nice sense of humour" she says, looking at a pert male bottom.
Was a funny man so attractive when he was required to catch and butcher a buffalo? Or was Ug the chest beater more appealing when such tasks were necessary?

About to land now. I have to end here.

Friday, 29 February 2008

Earliest hints of Spring

As the post-viral effects wane and I no longer find myself totally exhausted by the exertions of my ride to the office, I am able to see the tentative appearance of nettles, cow-parsley and hawthorn buds in the hedgerows. (telling me that I am behind in my own seed sowing for the allotment!)

It is so easy to be anthopomorphic about this and see behind it tiny elemental creatures helping spring on its way. From under the translucently skeletal oak leaves, poke first little elbows, followed by little tanned wrists which shake in released tension as a small, langourous high-pitched yawn is heard.
The snowdrops, having passed their prime, are left to their own dull green devices as the little fellows turn their attentions to other, more topical matters.
The energy in the ground is palpable. The force behind the bursting forth of the buds from formerly lifeless brown twigs is a tangible thing and, you know, I feel it too! Like the smallest green shoot, poking up inside my chest, the life-force of spring winds its way up through my kidneys, past my breastbone and up towards my trachea. I FEEL different. And rationally, I know it is just a diurnal thing with the lengthening days and the barely perceptable temperature rise.
But its so much more interesting to feel small hands present and responsible in the progressing fecundity all around. It is so tempting to take the slowly emerging feelings of vitality inside to be the manifestation of some vital life force, than the effects of hormonal and limbic action; The sudden pang of excitement, largely sexual i find, in the scent of the first cut grass of the year.
And really, that's what most of it is about isnt it. Soon it will be easter and fertility will be implied all around and I will be walking around mostly distracted with a stupid, dazed expression on my face. The same forces that drive the frogs in my pond to burp and croak so loudly all night is present in me, and quite properly too (I would miss it were it absent). And though the influence of this in me does not cause me, as it does with the fogs, to bellow "Choose ME!!! I am the best! I make good babies! I have good genes! Look how big and healthy I am!"
I wonder to what extent, we still signal some similar message in ways only barely consciously detectable, whilst unconsciously screaming out to those around us.

But before that, complacency must be tempered: Snow could yet happen, frost will almost certainly claim some of the frogspawn in my pond. My pumpkins could, like in 2004, be cruelly nipped in their youth by a late frost in April and my potatoes blackened in their hopeful foliar enthusiasm.
But me, I feel Summer coming inexorably, and i sense that, somehow, we are only really alive in Summer and winter, for all its stark glory, is a time we unwittingly shut down large parts of ourselves.
So, I rejoice in the approach of the warmer seasons, wink in response to the knowing gaze of my terracotta Green Man on my wall here, and stand aside as a tiny wizened figure carrying a daffodil bulb, scurries past my ankles.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Appearances

I did an experiment once, just out of interest, on a myspace clone site, a pretty poor one actually, where much use of "lol", "nite" and "wkd" seem to imply a lack of respect for spelling and grammar. Sorry, i am an old pedant, but I do think language has precision and nuance for a reason.

So, anyway, on this site, amongst the honest-desperate, the tattoed male biceps and ladies who should know better in pvc nurses uniforms, I put up two identical profiles. One with the pic of dear Oddbod which currently graces my profile, and one actually of me, looking, dare I say it, quite artistic and buff.

Oddly, though worded the same the latter profile got a massive response, whereas the former got no views; A bit like the few I have now which I suppose must be out of curiosity.
Further, I wrote various, fairly light-hearted but eloquent unsolicited messages to random people and again, poor old Oddbod was really persona non grata, whereas, shiny archery bloke in nothing but leaves got very favourable responses.
Both profiles are now defunct, alas impossible to delete, but effectively abandoned.
Ok, now as an anthropological study, it is hardly conclusive. But I do think it tell us a lot about first impressions.
Now, it is largely irrelevent what I look like as I am not really looking for sexual partners or dalliances and even if i was, this is not how I would go about it.
But it seems odd that "attractiveness" is the main driver for whether we find someone interesting enough to contact or not. Are we humans so shallow?
And so, as I stood in the garage yesterday, awaiting my turn to pay for my diesel, I noticed there was a monitor above me which showed the next person to pay, in this case myself, observed from some hidden video camera.

And i was aghast to discover that the easy going smile I was certain I was projecting onto my face, being of a generally amenable humour, was in fact a rather stony faced almost-scowl. I was horrified! How grumpy I must seem!

So, I turned up the gain on the smile amplifier until it was a recognisable happy face but before that point where it becomes a gormless gurn.
And the smile-intention seems to have to be a lot stronger than I thought to actually register as something approachable.
And this lesson I have taken to heart, to see if people become more well disposed to me in my everday life.
I think the main message i take from this is: What we think we are, or what we intend to be, is probably not what we actually are. The result is pretty much always something else, while we don't actually know his.

And so, how therefore can we actually let the world know we are cheerful souls who would happily engage in a conversation given the chance?
I suppose we have to take our cues from the people we interact with.

But this Oddbod, will, in future, be using his smile muscles a lot more forcefully.
And don't even ask me about the Frankfurt Smiling Experiment...!

Friday, 1 February 2008

tyranny of feelings?

A woodsaw through the heart, cotton wool in your mind, sunshine in your stomach, a heavy cloud over the oily, indolent sea of your motivation.These things appear and we are in thrall to them. Or so it seems.
What can we actually do about feelings. Thoughts we can redirect o happier, more constructive places, but when emotion are involved, they seem to be able to have their way with us, regardless of our wishes.
I remember the days when a vast grey cloud would come rolling in from nowhere, when gravity exerted a tangible and inhibitory force on my will and everything seemed full of despair.
I remember also, the lightness of the spirit, when some action or prospect caused the Sun to shine inside my chest. A euphoria so powerful I would want to leap, and indeed, often still do so, for sheer delight at being alive.
And how to get from the former to the latter? Do we have a say in this.

I would like to say a resounding "Yes!" because that would seem the more hopeful perspective. But really, I am not sure.
Feelings seem to come unbidden. Sometimes there is an obvious trigger; seeing a friend who cheers us, an unanticipated smile from an attractive person of the opposite sex (for me). Oh many things.

Conversely, the appearance of the greyness often seemed unanticipated. Often, I could sense I had not-quite-consciously stumbled into a thought that had upset me, but it was beyond reach of analysis and therefor, could not be tackled.
And, I think my provisional conclusion must be that, to engineer our mood, we must necessarily choose which lines of thought that lead us there.
We seem, at least I and those I have discussed it with, seem, to be unable to control feelings; they will have their way. But thoughts are within our control, mostly, except at times, as I know, when some circumstance or condition takes over your brain and leads you to dark places.

The other thing that strikes me, and I don't know if this is universal, or even common, but I feel different emotions in different parts of my body.
Joy, euphoria and happiness I feel just inside my breastbone. Rage is in my back, beteen the lower reaches of my shoulder blades. frivolity and a sense of mischief, I feel in my outer calf muscles and impatience in my forearms.

So, maybe this works in reverse? Perhaps if i think of my lower legs, I can engender frivolity and silliness. I will try this out for a while and let you know.
And now, I must do some work, so which part of me do I move my consciousness to in order to be productive?