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

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.