Sunday, 4 October 2009

Elegant forms and complexity

I am sitting in my van in glorious Autumnal sunshine at Kemble airfield where young Sir comes to race his RC car. Apparently this track is world class and champions come here to practice and race their high spec model cars. I watch them briefly zipping round the smooth tarmac loop, with its chicanes and curves and it strikes me just how fast they go and how beautifully they seem to grip the surface as they traverse the hairpins. They appear to be subject to an additional gravitational force, keeping them held down low and preventing skidding or spinning out of control. Considering the light but powerful batteries these 45cm vehicles carry and the incredible power generated by their relatively tiny motors, they really are rather impressive. The smoothness and speed of them in their straight sprints and negotiatiation of sudden direction changes is quite fascinating to watch, though the level of fascination exhibited by No1 son and his very “focused” peers is something that I will never and don’ t really wish to attain.

Sitting here comfortably at my table in the van, I can hear little but the assertive whine of small electric motors propelling the cars on the track, and the hum of the fan on my inverter which is powering my laptop here.

Being a working airfield, there is the periodic drone of an aeroplane taking off and even the occasional roar of a jet engine, muted by the trees which screen the runway. Once here, I saw a mustang P51 take off and perform some aerial manoeuvers , its Rolls Royce merlin, also used in the later spitfires, making that distinctive throaty sound, causing me to instantly turn my head to look. I felt a rather unexpected ostalgia for a time I have never known which puzzles me to this day.

Along the runway are also a line of Hawker Hunters, some of which are used for some flight school, I believe and others which enthusiasts are renovating, just for the sheer fun of it. They are very sleek, cold-war designs which appear a little dated when compared to the more recent and somewhat more angular Typhoon and F-16 designs. Nevertheless, their beautiful lines are incredibly pleasing to look at and something about their shape resonates with the eye, causing an appreciation of something well-designed yet visually appealing. Indeed, the nature of aerodynamics and fluid mechanics is such that this slippery shape is necessary for correct and efficient function of these machines. Similarly, across the way here, not 50 feet from me is an old Brittania.

Its four propeller driven engines all aligned at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock. Its shape says more “aeroplane” to me than the jets, being more reminiscent of the forms I was familiar with as a child, from war films and adventure movies so prevalent on BBC2 Sunday afternoon schedules. It has a stately grace which is almost colonial in grandeur and, leaving aside the inherent design flaws that saw several tragedies as a result, I do admire the elegance of it. And this causes me to reflect on the nature of beauty versus form: The two most beautiful machines I have ever seen up close are the Spitfire and Concorde.

I was lucky enough to work near the hanger where the latter was stored in the 1980s and often went to look at it is during lunchtimes in the hangar in FIlton. Also, a spitfire came in regularly for its engine to be services so we had a close up view of it and were often treated to a small and ostentatious display after it had had its routine maintence. Few machines ever devised by humanity will match these for sheer aesthetic appeal. Ok, a few cars are quite pleasing to behold too, but cars don’t really do it for me and I have to take the word of others when they tell me a car is gorgeous. But given that we are not specifically developed to find such advanced workings of man to be visually attractive, I wonder why it is it should be so. There is no survival benefit for a primate to gain pleasure from looking at such an object. And yet we do.

Streamlining it seems, just appeals to the eye – Just not when it’s on a fish. It is at this point that even my huge supply of nouns becomes a little depleted: “grace”, “beauty” and “aesthetic appeal” can only be used so many times and yet, they are so relevant. But this is only one part of the allure for me. Within these machines is hidden huge complexity. For a plane to get airborne, it requires the conversion of fuel into enormous amounts of thrust, if gravity is to be temporarily overruled. In order to do this, people have devised ever more complicated engines from simple ones like in early cars, through rotary and the rather humourously named Wankel engines, to jets and rockets. Though the principles of how these operate are in effect simple, relying as they do in the conversion of a small volume of fuel to a larger volume of exhaust, the implementation of the principles in a controlled manner that doesn’t blow the whole thing to bits, is actually rather complicated. Add to that, huge amounts of instrumentation, safety apparatus, control mechanisms and life-support systems and you have one hell of a complicated beastie.

In fact, these are some of the most sophisticated and intricate machines ever devised. All enclosed in a sleek, streamlined, deceptively simple shape. So, we see these shapes and the bewildering array of systems within are hidden from us. We see merely an aeroplane, miraculously, sometimes hundreds of tons of metal taking off, and even more miraculously in my view, landing on tiny wheels at hundreds of miles an hour. This is, to me, almost magic, or would be if I didn’t understand the physics involved. Nevertheless, travelling, as I do regularly, on large passenger jets, I cannot help but feel a small sense of panic on occasion when we come hurtling out of the clouds to see the ground a mere thousand feet or so below and at 300mph, we have to rejoin that unyielding surface with our extreme momentum. In this case, a knowledge of the physics involved actually does not help and the nerd in me begins to calculate the amount of kinetic energy that is turned to heat in the brakes of the tiny wheels, such as one might see on a bus (only better engineered and more prolific, obviously) So, simplicity of form can hide complexity of function.

And this I find fascinating. I try to picture all the functionality inside as I watch an A340, a 757 or an embraer taking off. But I can only see the form and it movement. And this is probably a good thing. It is easier with a plane with propellers as I can see something moving to push the air backwards, but even here, it is still remarkable and slightly unfeasible that a lump of metal, obviously heavy, manages to get airborne.

Similarly, the human body holds a similar fascination for me.
It is a collection of systems that together make a person. Leaving aside the mind for now, the interconnections of muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments, all fed by tubes supplying that which nourishes and moves it, is all encased in a form which is, on the face of it, rather elegant in its simplicity. Skin stretched over it all makes it hard to see the gooey, squelchy wet contents that makes it all work, and for this, I am actually quite grateful. I am content to look at human bodies and see at most the movement of muscles below the surface, retaining ignorance of the circulation of blood and secretion of bile and all manner of other substances that are needed to sustain our animation. And it has always been my belief that all human bodies are marvels of engineering and development. Even the most obese, corpulent carcasses and whippet-like ectomomorphic waifs do what one expects a body to do functionally, to some greater and occasionally lesser degree. The reliability of this machine is incredible with it mostly working in trouble free operation for decades, sometimes over a century. Ok, whilst some bodies are nicer to look at than others and indeed, I occasionally have to avert my horrified gaze in the sauna or gym changing rooms (and elsewhere avert my eyes for different reasons that are not to do with repulsion!) all of them are incredible machines which are due admiration and wonder. Despite their squishy composition of more than 60% water, most bodies are appreciated by someone, and this is how it should be. So, I do hope I have not caused subsequent undue discomfort or reflection at how these complex systems are regarded. It would pain me to think that after reading this, you now regard human bodies as skins full of rather unpleasant fluids, levers and pulleys, or that you now regard aeroplanes as somehow less mechanically trustworthy as a result of contemplating the mind-boggling intricacy of what comprises the contents of that sleek aluminium skin. Where there is beauty, I believe it is an inexpensive pleasure to gaze upon it and appreciate it without unnecessary or troublesome internal dialogue. But I implore you to take a moment next time, to observe the aerodynamic beauty of that plane or appraise that shapely bottom and make no comment to yourself but “Gosh! Isnt that lovely!”

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Entropy, Chaos and getting things done

This week, I have been most vexed . On the surface of my frustration is the simple fact that, as the saying goes, I could not organise a piss-up in a brewery. This itself is a sufficiently demoralising self-admission, but underlying it, and based upon the same chaotic principle that makes this true, is a deeper question: Why are some people organised and others messy in their thinking and doing?

I include a picture of the workbench in my garage, partly because it is a significant example of the spaces in which I live my life, but mostly because that most significant of indicators, my desk, is probably covered in items which should not, for commercial reasons, be displayed in a public place. This may or may not be so, and I assure you my desk is every bit as slovenly as my workbench (though I have some help in messing up the latter). Of course, like the Ministry of Defence or many other public bodies charged with the safe keeping of information, I am certain at some point to leave my scribbled notebook on a train or an aeroplane. (Luckily, my writing is so bad that this poses no risk of the escape of embarrassing or sensitive information).

But I digress, as so often, and perhaps this is the nub of the problem. It goes a bit like this:

“Hmm.. I must pay the credit card bill. I wonder where it is? Oh yes, pinned to the fridge with a magnet. Right! Go get it! I wonder what’s in the fridge? Oh! we are out of milk, I must go and get some. Yes. Ok, where is my wallet? Oh, I haven’t lost it again, have I maybe its in the car. I will look. Gosh! The boot is full of all those clothes from the weekend. I was after that shirt. I must take that in and..”

And so it goes. I am sure this chain of unfinished events is not uncommon to many of you.

So how does this lead to a cluttered desk? Well, its about information. Each new piece of information coming to light in the environment is its own “branching off point”. This could be a phone call distracting from a task, or just a fly buzzing in the window. For instance: I started writing this and had a wonderful idea for a beautifully articulated point, even down to the vocabulary and the rhythm of the words. But at that point I chose to upload the photo. And that took ages. And in the meantime, the words and in fact the whole idea had evaporated. It is doubtful it will reappear.

Consequently, this type of “way of being” means that once set on a task at work, for instance, there is no guarantee that the task, regardless of how well defined and clear the steps are, will get finished accurately or even at all. Often, something else, not necessarily more interesting, will distract attention and the original thread is lost. Upon resuming it, the details of where and what are lost and this is where the wrong file gets added to a document, my phone gets put in the fridge or the milk gets put back in the microwave.

At school, I remember my writing, a mess of scribbles, crossings out, smudges. I would look upon those beautifully written pieces of work by the rest of the class: neat tidy writing, legible, well-formed and feel that whatever the expectation of the teacher, I would always disappoint with my presentation. But I just kept getting things wrong!! No matter how hard i tried, my mind would wander and the spider-scrawl would diverge from the lines and the wrong words would have interjected themselves in otherwise sensible sentences. I just couldn’t get it right! And it remains thus.

In some ways, this small collection of words is an apology to all those people who suffer frustration, delays and inconvenience as a result of my inability to concentrate. I am not doing it on purpose: I really cant help it. The spreadsheets with the mixed up product numbers, the emails with the wrong attachments, over and over again despite my best attempts at accuracy and coherence, these are symptoms of the chaos within.

And I thank those of you who help me. With pinpoint accuracy, your poke your attention right at where the problem is and untangle the whole sorry mess into order. How do you do that? How are you so structured that you can take a series of events and arrange them into the right way for things to happen efficiently? To me, in my poor sorry head, there is just a cloud of happenings that, like a loony tunes brawl, exists as a cloud of dust, disorder and confusion with the odd limb appearing simultaneously at random intervals.

I spend my life in confusion. It is a relatively happy confusion and much is thrown spuriously into my consciousness which interests me and cascades into other trains of thought, many that you will find written in various places, the locations of which, of course, i have mostly forgotten.

But please bear with me. I do try. I know that I will never be organised, that my work will be messy and my life a cheerful mash of eclectic items and activities. But, I hope there is some consolation in this for those who deal with such pathologically disordered thinkers as myself, who, no matter how hard they try just cannot be organised. I hope we offer some kind of unpredictability that whilst being infuriating, also has some endearingly bonkers quality.

And if not. Sorry for all the mess.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Collective unconscious labour

I am sure that in a corporate setting, the following could be made into a parable of teamwork. I do not dabble in such superficialities and so I convey to you, hopefully, merely the wonder of a phenomenon observed.

Collective labour
People who know me even remotely well through any of my online spoutings know about my continuing fascination with and admiration for ants.
Each one is such a perfect little mechanism, so tiny and yet so autonomously capable. If someone came out with a micro machine for the christmas toy market that was 5mm long and navigated itself around a tabletop, it would sell like hot cakes, or by a more contemporary standard, Greggs hot cheese pasties.
And yet, here they are in abundance! Of course, it is the abundance that makes them mundane and obscures their true incredible marvellousness. Many times I have taken an ant, (or occasionally a woodlouse, but they are more stupid) and put in on a surface with many obstacles to see what it does. What is the programming in an ant? If I put a pencil sharpener here, what will it do when it encounters it? It goes left. Why left? Ok, now my rubber, it goes left again. Is it always left? No, at the pencil it went right. It seems arbitrary, or perhaps it’s a field of vision or scent thing. I can’t say.
But how amazing! How many bytes of programming is there in an ant? How many lines of code? And can it learn? See what wonder there is to be had from simple, ubiquitous things?
So, on Cyprus, there were really tiny ants. I gave them crumbs of feta and it was very interesting to see what happened. One ant found it, waved its antennae and went off to find a colleague. They both then returned to the cheese and took a lump each in their mandibles. Then suddenly, a whole host of ants appear from a crack in the masonry and stream in a line to the feta. How did they KNOW???
Suddenly, there are a hundred ants under a 7mm long lump of feta cheese and they are together carrying towards the crack in the masonry. Now that is cooperation! Like that Tom & Jerry episode where the picnic is carried off to military music by a column of ants, drum drum drumming along, the food is borne away by a hundred tiny bodies. How cool is that! So many questions arise in my mind at this behaviour: How did word get around? How do they work in unison? What coordinates it all?
Around the pool flew several large and colourful, if slightly confused dragonflies. They were looking for a reed, I surmised, from which to deposit their eggs into the water, not realising the chlorine would kill them immediately. Dragonflies, as adults are ephemeral. They live at most a few days after an aquatic childhood as a voracious “nymph” – a strange term for such a fearsome predator. It seems a strange way to go about an existence but I am sure they have their reasons and are dimly happy with the arrangement.
So it was no surprise to see one dead one morning, (presumably of “old age”) as we were going out to look at some archaeology. It was about 7cm long and bright scarlet. And obviously dead.
The ants had already found it and laid their claim as salvage. But their lair was up the wall about 20cm. What would they do? Well, with enough ants, maybe a thousand? They had carried it to the wall and were trying to get it vertically up to the crack which served as their entrance. The crack was tiny so what they would have done when they got there, I don’t know.
Around that corner they went and started upward, all toiling together.
But gravity was not playing. So more ants came. And then gravity conceded. And up the wall the ants heaved the mighty dragonfly carcass. I was astounded and marveled at the sum of the tiny attractive forces of thousands of tiny ant feet as they shuffled up the wall with their burden.
It would fall, and then more ants would come and the vertical march would resume.
We had to go out then, though I could have watched for longer. The dragonfly was not there at tea-time. I wonder what happened. Maybe they gave up and hollowed it out, and then dismantled it. They couldn’t have know that the climb was futile due to the crack being far smaller than the dragonfly. Ant intelligence only extends to cooperation and not to foresight, it seems.
But I do think ants are amazing and am puzzled by the organisation that appears to happen simultaneously with a huge number of individuals. How does it happen? Is is pheromonal? Who knows? All I know Is: I never get tired of watching it.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Just a typical tale of everyday travel

I am awakened from my improbable sleep by the clacking of false teeth from behind me. Before take-off, I had done my usual going-on-standby trick and before the wheels had retracted into the fuselage of the plane, I was fast asleep.
And now the trolley had passed me by and the cabin attendent was way down the aisle, handing out little bags containing a mini bounty bar and a sandwich seemingly made from cork table mats and yellow rubber sheeting by someone visually impaired.
The mastication of these morsels was what had awoken me, despite my being inured to the considerably intrusive engine noise.
I smiled what I perceive to be my winning smile at the attendent as she passed by on the way back to her little secret cubby-hole down the front. Probably this smile is nothing of the kind and most likely resembles the gurn of baby about to disgorge its most recent feed.
However, regardless of its appearance, my smile elicited a perfunctory frosty smile in return and a small paper bag of nosh which was gartefully received.
I have not travelled in a while - some months in fact - and I have not missed it one bit. Apart from my voluntary four hour incarceration on a Thompson holiday flight to and from Cyprus with my family (now amazed at my endurance to "do that every week???"), I have not been on a plane for nine weeks.
And what joy it was being grounded!
Now here I am once more eating cardboard food and listening the the ghastly hawking of phlegm from the trachea of the old chap behind me while his wife continues her ersatz-dental assault on the renegade strands of dessicated coconut still trapped in her plate.
I think my tolerance is waning. I have had fifteen years of jumping on and off planes, pretending to be interested in whatever new product I am supposed to be presenting in glowing terms or nodding sagely and sympathetically while tales of technical woe are descried to me for diagnosis and cure. And frankly, I am struggling to continue to impart significance to it. Its hardly furthering the progress of humanity towards compassion or equality is it?
And so as the conurbations of Dusseldorf heave into sight through the windows of the plane, I resolve slowly but firmly to investigate alternatives. What do I want to do and what skills do I have to offer, besides my verbosity and questionable grasp of French and German?
I don’t know but if anyone has any ideas, do please let me know.

I caught the train no problem. The station at Dusseldorf Flughafen was unmanned but the automated ticket machine was very helpful in English, and step by step, enabled me to purchase my outbound and return tickets to Paderborn Hauptbahnhof. Alas, a person would have been of help in order for me to ascertain if it was straight through or if I had to change. A man on the train said it was “direkt!”
But it wasn’t and now I am in Hamm (westf) on a deserted platform at 9:45 awaiting the connection after twigging that when the train didn’t move for ten minutes, it had reached the end of its journey.
And so here I sit. I hadnt eaten since lunchtime and was beginning to fade, when I remembered some vestiges of leftover holiday change! Aha! All shrapnel, indeed, but the vending machine takes it! One euro and about 87cents. A coin falls and rolls under the machine to be lost forever. It looked like 20c. I wonder if that will be significant later. I have a peanut brittle thingy, a kind of waffle and a small 200ml sachet of capri sun, absolute nectar.
But no! My mini-feast savoured slowly, I espy the sign WC and head over to relieve myself since my full bladder is becoming inisistent. But oh no! Its 60c for a pee! I wish I had that 20c!

So I am stranded in the middle of Germany, in a dark deserted railway station, awaiting some indeterminate train connection, with not even enough money for a piss! Travel is exciting, isnt it….
And now the train is here! I know it’s the right one because it says so. Aha! I have a 1st class ticket and though small there is a separate comparment up one end with a 1 on it. Good: Power for my laptop at last!
No luggage. What ? No luggage? Bugger that! The comparment is empty save a late middle-aged couple. I sit down, putting my case under the table and realise there is that silent outrage in their demeanor that I am so familiar with. Yes! I DO have a first class ticket, even if I might appear a bit scruffy by local standards!
So often here, people, especially of that generation, seem to suddenly take on an air of intense disapproval, indeed like there is a kind of suppressed almost-apoplexy at some rule or custom that I have unwittingly contravened. And I never know what it is.
They stare. I stare back. What? WHAT????? They break eye contact. I am still none the wiser as to what they are upset about. They bristle a bit but eventually settle down. And now trhe train is moving. Halleluja!! I wonder if there is a toilet on here.
I try to make some phone calls, just to remind myself by that tenuous connection that the world is still out there beyond that dark countryside. But no, the connection is just too tenuous and each call drops out after 10 seconds, leaving me not realising and rabbiting on my plight to the empty ether.
I slump back in my seat and gaze apathetically out of the window thinking of nothing in particular.

Later, I arrive by taxi at my hotel. Ahh, such comfort! There are consolations. It is a very nice hotel and very welcome now. I drop my bags in my rather plush room and head to the bar where two older fat ladies are smoking cigars and watching indulgently as people come in and out.
I order a beer and three quarters of it go down very easily, but I labour over the last quarter and decide there has been enough Wednesday for today. I head to my room.

Flicking through the channels, I am unimpressed. There appears to be a host of pseudo-ducumentaries following police as they hassle tramps or chat shows of overly enthusiastic perfectly scrubbed members of the German populace discussing currrent events. And of course there is the porn.
In latter years there appears to have been a move towards showing home-grown ladies of the “girl next door” variety, going about their chores smoochily whilst removing clothing for the camera. The expressions and demeanour range from poorly attempted coquettish pout to self-conscious eyes-darting discomfort. A cute lady of about about 35 stretches across a worktop in just a black thong and stockings and I find myself stifling a yawn. She feebly and unconvincingly waves a duster at some mugs and the banality of the scene is complete.
Odd, isnt it: A few years ago, I would have been agog! The sight of a stocking top could once leave me immobile for some minutes of silent introspection, (and in some contexts still holds disproportionate allure, I confess) but now, I seem somehow immune to any appeal this tableau might ever have possessed. I wonder why this is. Am I merely getting old, or is this display of the trappings of sexuality so devoid of any personal reference that it no longer holds any fascination for me?
I am still wondering this as I nod off to sleep, remote in hand. My last thought is guilt as I hit standby with the last vestiges of the days motivation, knowing I should really get up and hit the proper off button.
I leave my unconscious to assimilate the days happenings and bid Wednesday the 5th of August 2009 adieu.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

I aint carrying no handbag!

It started with the realisation that I could not read the map. In the dim light of the car interior, the tiny font was competely indecipherable, leaving us stranded looking for some unnamed street in the suburbs of Pafos.
My shorts have two pockets on the legs. In one I keep my wallet, in the other my phone. On holiday, I have the dilemma of where to put a camera but mercifully, the camera has a case which has a belt loop atttached and so, with quick draw photography a definite bonus in a location where lizards and butterflies are apt to appear and disappear with little announcement, I keep it there, uncool though it might appear.
But suddenly there was the possibilitiy, nay the necessity, of reading glasses. Where would they live and how would I ensure I did not lose them?
The realisation of their necessity had already been made apparent six months earlier as I attempted to read the map I had printed to guide my way in Munich. On a layby on the A3 one foggy January day, I found myself unable to discern the number of the autobahn from the google maps offering of the area. Was that 83? 93? 98? Oh! This wouldn’t do! I have to sort this out. And had I? No. Pride stopped me: and the belief that immortality, freedom from bodily degredation was mine, not like everyone else who had previously and erroneously believed it. I actually was suffering none of the age-related decline that afflicted lesser mortals.
Except now I couldn’t read the bloody map whereas, a year ago I could have!
The trip to the opticians had confirmed it: +0.75 in each eye where before it was perfect. Reading glasses they said would become necessary but I didn’t have to do it now (though the eager demeanor of the lad in Specsavers idicated he would be most disappointed if I didn’t).
And so, his get-out accepted, the denial continued. My eyesight was still ok as long as the light levels remained reasonable. After all., who can read in poor light?
But here I was frustrated and slightly ashamed in the municipal car park in Pafos, having to call the owner of the vila for directions because I had been hitherto too proud to get myself the reading glasses I knew deep down were necessary, despite the implications for my own sudenly apparent ordinary mortality.
But, and returning to my original point, where does one keep glasses? In the course of a day’s activity, a wallet can be accommodated. A passport even. A phone, obviously. But where to keep glasses?
In Hong Kong a few years ago, a more enlightened colleague had persuaded me to purchase a “manbag”. Exquisitely stiched from quality leather and ultimately incorporated economically into the transaction of purchasing a wheely suitcase that became ultimately required on that trip, the bag was seemingly an astute purchase in Hong Kong.
But, home in South Goucestershire, it suddenly seemed a bit pretentious and even a bit camp and despite its obvious usefulness with regards to loose change and the other apparatus of 21st century living, it was relegated to, initally a receptacle for IT related cables for travelling and ultimately to the bottom of my wardrobe in shameful neglect.
This is a shame. Ladies always carry handbags. It would seem from the turnover of such objects that the search for the ideal is never at an end. But at any one time, there is a place in which all the useful and useless paraphernalia of life can be accommodated.
The mystery of the handbag can never be fathomed. From looking into my mother’s handbag for the doorkey on evenings whan I wanted to return home early from some event, I knew there was something deep and unfathomable about this bastion of feminine practicality. Amongst the compacts, receipts, breath mints, dental floss and unidentifiable feminine hygeine products to be found, was an unapproachability that led me to find that key and get out.
But how useful that containment!
So why suddenly when I had the chance to have my own handy repository of useful things, am I suddenly so self-conscious? Just think of al lthe things I could have in there in addition to the requisite objects of the 21st Century lifestyle! String, superglue, a swiss-army knife, adjustable spanner, cable ties!!! oh there is no end to the usefulness I could carry around with me!
But no. I cannot. Even I who snorts at convention, who thumbs his nose at dispproval without just cause, even I cannot bring myself to carry around my shiny brown leather practical solution to modern clutter.
And so, where do I keep my specs? The question remains. And so, I shall continue to squint in denial.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

exploration and clinging to the familiar

I am writing this from Cyprus. We have a small villa in the town of Kato Paphos. This seems to be the maritime area of the larger town of paphos, conurbated by higgledy-piggledy developments of houses, kiosks and seemingly waste ground populated by old dead trucks (with not a spot of rust despite their obviously hard working life).
Mostly, it seems the people are local. But also one sees the odd leathery retired British ex-pat couple in their white hats, ill-fitting shorts, shoes and socks. Attesting to the presence of a sizeable population of British ex-pats, there is a Bingo hall where one can play every night if one so chooses.
Delightedly, we found 200m along seemingly the longest road without traffic lights (as indicated by the souped up corsas and clios that are finally freed to enjoy their whole range of revs, despite the pedestrians who amble across the road without a care), a supermarket which in upper case greek letters is a “Eurofruitaria” (I failed to find the Greek font here on this new laptop.). Within its delicious air-conditioned confines, locals crowd to buy the best quality and variety of fruit and vegetables I have ever seen: Even better than those provincial markets one finds in France.
It was whilst contemplating a water melon bigger than any human head I have ever seen, indeed, the size perhaps of a horse’s head, that I was approached by a verging-on-obese ex-midlands pensioner, who said in her staunchly retained black country accent “You should go to the the OTHER supermarket, the one by Debenhams on the sea front!” (yes, there is a Debenhams, selling standard middle-of-the-road British fashions for those who want to maintain their suburban look in the mediterranean sun.) with eyes closed as she volunteered her monologue, whe continued:
“Yeah, down there they are MUCH cheaper and you can buy all the proper food like Iceland frozen meals.” And on she went, following me doggedly around the shop explaining the cornucopia of crap that she found so comfortingly available in the town.
Given her rotund physique, this was obviously her chosen diet.
I was frozen into complete speechlessness (rare, I know) by the unfolding tale of utter lack of life of the imagination. I found myself only able to grin in what must have seemed like vague agreement, though since she continued to harangue me with her eyes closed (why do people do that??), she would not have assumed such.

Finally escaping her uninvited monologue, the way one shakes an amourous terrier from one’s ankle, I fled behind a stand of local oranges and tomatoes. This abundance of beautiful food seemed to have escaped her attention, or rather, was perhaps too troublesome and unappetising to contemplate.
In my smug middle class way, I bought olives, garlic, fresh dates, aubergines and all manner of vegetables, and some fresh whole fish, the name of which I shall proably never know. This made a fine dinner that evening as the air cooled to a temperature my northern European metabolism could now cope with.
But a question had formed in my mind: Here in this sunshine near-paradise (though a bit barren in places due to the low rainfall), people come to live. They accept the climate, and who wouldn’t when considering the grey, cold British summers of later years. They have enough adventure to leave and come here, but then that seems to be the extent of it. Sunshine and warmth is enough of a draw.
And yet, that seems to be where the acceptance ends. So, whereas some see novel foods, vegetables and fruits as something to explore and experience, others seem mildly intimidated and shun such foreign muck in favour of Sunday roast, full English breakfast and steak and chips. Why? And to what other aspects of the culture does it apply?

It is not class: My father was brought up in a very poor family where nobody had ever owned a car or even books. There was almost no education, even at primary level as his parents didn’t really care.
He remained working class to the end, working as a truck driver and later in a rubbish dump. And yet when I persuaded him to overcome his fear of the actual organisation of a foreign holiday, and we got him to Brittany, he absolutely came alive. He enthusiastically wandered markets marvelling at the quality of the shallots, bought armfulls of veg by bartering wordlessly but animatedly with toothless farmers in the fields and cooked up the most gorgeous meals in the back of his van every night, washing it down with rather more local wine than was healthy.
So, if a rubbish-tip attendant from Bristol can embrace foreign culture, why not retired site managers from Solihull?

Perhaps there is a divergence in people. Maybe there are explorers and settlers; people who seek new and interesting experiences and then there are those who cling to the familiar. Perhaps this is genetic as it would appear not to be cultural. Walking along the sea front promenade, the stereotypes are sadly fulfilled: The lobster coloured Brits with beer bellies, shaven heads and tattoos, the lithe Cypriot youths and their rather more portly elders, the pale haired Dutch, long of limb and seemingly healthier than the anglo-saxons who left to settle in England 1400 years ago to ultimately invent chips.
All of this might sound a little judgmental and snobby and I guess to some extent it is. But at the heart of it is the earnest question of what makes people approach experience differently.
We had a cat once called Possum. Possum was a very intelligent silver tabby and inevitably got impregnated whilst our vigilance faltered one Summer’s evening in the late 80s. She had three kittens that after some observation we tentatively named “Ugly”, “Explorer” and “Wimp”.
From birth, wimp, hid and would not wander far from his mother, mewling pitifully if he found himself alone and separated from the familiar. Ugly was just a bit of a blob really and though large and affable, didn’t really seem to care much at all as long as he was fed. But Explorer was always wandering off and getting into things. (She was taken off secretly by Possum for extra feeds by Possum who knew where her genetic investment was best placed).
These character traits persisted into adulthood, indeed, Explorer, renamed “Poppy” once hitched a lift in a stranger’s car to a town ten miles away, but found her way back.
And maybe people are the same. Some will be Wimps and some will be Explorers. And so the market for Iceland frozen bubble and squeak will always exist alongside that for magnificent vegetables.
And now all this typing in the hot Cypriot sun has exhausted me, time for a cold Carling, straight from the fridge!

Monday, 22 June 2009

waiting again.

Once again an ancestor is nearing his end. In fact, my sole surviving male ancestor.
My grandfather has hours or days to live and is in hospital fading. Its life. Its how the cycle ends. A long life with little tragedy and many many descendents. One can't really complain about a life lived long and which gave rise to 4 children, 17 grandchildren and countless great grandchildren.
But its still sad.

He left in the ambulance on Saturday to go to the hospice. I thought that the leaving of one's home for the last time must have a significance, but he barely cast a glance as the doors were closed. Perhaps he was past caring. Or perhaps this significance is one I have in my head and is not shared by all.
Many of the family were present, for support and for their own understandable needs. He must have seen the concern and hopefully realises the affection and regard in which he is held.

To see someone who was once energetic, funny, intelligent, reduced in functionality to a husk which, though still sentient, is too tired or weak to express themselves, is quite tragic and it makes you realise that the accepted functional form of a human is actually quite a fragile state, though we mostly enjoy good health and faculties.

Holding his hand, a man for whom emotion was never a comfortable companion and affection rarely accepted with anything other than an aloof "Oh, Right-o!", i see the wastage that happens with such an illness. My own hand looks almost plump and opulent in comparison and I realise that one day, probably, my hand will look as his, and someone will be holding it in theirs and looking down at me and feeling helpless as to what to say or do.
Imminent death has that creamy, rancid butter smell about it. I am familiar with it now and how it hangs around people near their end. I hadnt realised it was so distinctive. The nurse's "Is that your father? I can see a resemblance!" seemed an odd thing to say given the gaunt state of the poor old chap, but maybe I do need a few more hearty dinners.
"No, he is my grandfather." I reply. "He started very young."
She smiles sympathetically and wanders off with her pillowcase stuffing still in process.
He did start young. He was 35 when I was born. Dark haired, deceptively dopey-seeming but astoundingly pragmatic. His childhood memory of the blitz in one of the more heavily bombed areas of Bristol gave him a stoicism that is evident even now as his strength and capabilities fade.

I don't want to get old. I don't want to die this way: Almost vacant, the object of pity as well as respect. Fading gives times for goodbyes, but how does memory work on the image of the lost loved one? How will we subsequently remember them and be remembered? As we were in our prime or as we were last seen?

But the immobility, the inability to speak or gesture, has struck me like a hammer blow. It is this I take from this most strongly, as a tribute if you like, to my father in his fading, his father, similarly struck down prematurely, and my dear old Granfer now lying in his bed in the hospice.

I have my strength, my limbs, my mind. I have my voice, my hearing and my sight.
And they should be appreciated while they persist. hence, i will dance and sing, and look at the vibrant flowers, smell the honeysuckle and stroke the cheeks of my loved ones. I shall ride my bike and take to the waves. And Every faculty I possess, that I have seen degraded and lost in those who left us, I will rejoice in.

To do less would be a disservice to them and myself.

My thoughts are with you Maurice. Be peaceful.

Friday, 19 June 2009

motivation, or Wanting to do Stuff

I suppose this is really about motivation. Motivation is something I don't really understand. Sometimes you want to do something and sometimes you don't. There are things you yearn to do RIGHT NOW! This could be going on holiday somewhere gloriously warm and sunny, drinking a cool beer on a hot day or rushing off to bed with your lover. There are things which, if they were immediately accessable to you, you would have a hard time resisting.
Then there are other things you would rather not do, in fact, you would avoid if possible. Washing up, cleaning the toilet, perhaps even going to work: Tasks that make your spirit sink when you think of their imminent need for attention.
And in between is a whole spectrum of activities of differing levels of attractiveness.

Somewhere along the line from simple early eukaryote to human, the neural reward system developed. The ubiquitously hailed dopamine became the substance of choice for directing the behaviour of organisms. Oddly, it is required to make us eat, mate, even learn: When we encounter a new fact or experience, we get a tiny but pleasurable squish of dopamine to the receptors that tell us "That was GOOD!". Without it, it appears we would just not bother, which seems strange: Surely we need to eat and surely sex is so pleasurable that we would if we could? Actually, it seems not and this appears to be the reason for the existence of this reward mechanism.

So, on an experiential level, there seems to be a variability. Last weekend, i took my kayak to the sea. For so long have i languished here, in this office or working at my desk at home, dreaming about being in big clean, glassy waves, riding down and along in the salty sunshine and howling with the sheer joy of it. And last weekend, that is precisely what I did. At least for two days.
And on the third day, the surf was still good, but somehow, I just didnt want to any more. So, I went fishing instead.

Appetite, I can understand. I get hungry. I eat. My body produces a hormone called leptin which says " Ok, stop eating now. No need to eat any more. All the digestive buffers are now full to optimum capacity!" At this point, satisfaction is achieved and all is as it should be. (A fortuitous position to be in, I appreciate).

And then there is sex. When i was 14 I was, as gender, hormonal disposition and age dictated, overly preoccupied with sex. Its glory and mystery pevaded all my thoughts and many of my actions and it seemed the most exciting activity one could ever want to participate in.
Then when I was 35, I woke up one morning and found it was no more of interest to me. Admittedly, a huge grey cloud had settled over my mind which would take some years to dislodge fully, but sex was as interesting to me as the study of ancient mesopotamian trumpets, or the lifecycle of the woodworm. Something had happened on a psychological level, which had in turn produced a chemical and hence physiological effect. It was pretty wretched and I missed wanting it. But I didnt want it. I do now. Not quite to the 14 year old level, but still fairly insistently, which I am grateful for, though it frustrates the hell out of me on many many occasions!

Sometimes I dance. I love to dance. I cant wait for Tuesday evening when I can get my dancing shoes on, take to the floor and spin some ladies round and hop and wiggle my hips in time to the music. It gives me sometimes an almost spiritual lift.
But occasionally, I sit at the edge of the dance floor, looking into the melee of mostly in-time bodies, and feel I would rather be elsewhere. The glorious euphoria I know to be possible from this activity, is suddenly absent and it leaves me cold. Somewhere in an instant, the desire to do this evaporated leaving in its place a kind of desolate boredom or even repulsion. How does this happen?

So, what confuses me is, how one moment, one can want to do only one thing to the exclusion of all other passtimes - enthusiasm may overcome one and a kind of hot, happy itch is inside you until you get to do it - and in the next moment, a comment, a thought, an event can puncture the bubble of enthusiasm and all passion is suddenly dispersed, leaving only a flatness.

I pose these questions not particularly because I require immediate answers to them, but because in those moments, I WANT to desire to do those things. The removal of the imperative upsets and depresses me.
The sudden disappearance of motivation leaves me poorer and less happy.

If one could only find the key to what makes one really want to do a certain thing one moment, and then not particularly want to do it the next, how empowering that would be! I could get those tasks done that I put off for ever. I could get good at things I always intended to practise and never really could be bothered to, despite me intense desire for their end result.

Possibly too much introspection on this process is a bad thing. Perhaps it is again "Thinking TOo Much" which I have found to be disruptive, even destructive, in the past. ut when I am sat there feeling sorry for myself and everyone is having a good time gyrating to some groovy tune, I really would like to find some way to rejoin the party.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The wholesome and the stimulating

I had a fantastic weekend: Three days at the beach, two surfing my kayak and one just paddling along the North Devon coast just exploring. The surf was a bit insane on Saturday and what with the injuries sustained by my face and my boat coming together in the boiling chaos of a wave that was way too big for my current capabilities, I decided eventually to forego any further thrills in the surf while my smashed nose stopped bleeding.
But a good time was had and I felt mellow with that radio silence inside my head that I only get after a serious amount of time in the sea. Silence such as this is a welcome relief from the usual clamour of suggestions, arguments, revelry and confusion that characterises the inside of my head most of the time and for a while I like it.
I noticed however that I was a bit distant, though calm and relatively content, for the rest of the weekend after each trip out on the water. Questions would be asked like "Where is the tin opener?" and "What did you do with the mallet?" and I found myself either quiet with amused bafflement at the question or just plain "out to lunch".
It occurs to me that with my small dabblings with meditation that this "quiet" is not actually a good thing from the perspective of imaginative productivity or what I might term, my general "peteness". (People have come to expect a certain liveliness and bouncing around of tempo from me).

Last night, I worked on my allotment, which I have had for a decade or more. I planted up some courgettes that were long overdue for transplanting but which had to wait on account of my other, aforementioned passtimes.
I pottered around and prepared some beds wich had been languishing under black landscape fabric for nearly a year and were consequently lovely and easy to dig.
I left the place partly completed awaiting growth and subsequent harvest and other ground prepared and languishing in the feeling of potential that prepared ground always leaves me with.
It was very satisfying. A good wholesome feed for the soul. And I left feeling quiet and mellow.
And yet, when I came to talk later, I found my head devoid of the usual buffet of tasty conceptual treats, buzzing sparking notions and whimsical trains of thought that I generally enjoy when left to my own devices on an aeroplane or in a dentist's waiting room.
I had, I felt, somehow, lost that "spark" that people comment on and which characterises one of the reasons I enjoy being me.

So, mellow spiritual creaminess: Is it a good thing? It might bring a kind of peace, but after a while, how does it leave us?

And if we are in this state permanently, and feeling fainly content with it, is that a bad thing?

I confess that I see many pallid faces on a daily basis which seem happy to be devoid of any other thinking beyond what is for the next meal, who will win Britain's Got an Excruciating Lack of Embarrassment, or where to go on holiday this year. Is that a bad thing?

I feel it is, for me, a bad thing. So often, it is a joy to let the mind run, like a greyhound kept in a small flat who has been let out on some huge common to bound with delight over the ant hills and over the bracken. Occasionally to race with or frolic with a like minded soul who is released to run, or who live wild and free on the Heath brings a realisation of what is possible. The changes of pace, the sharp turns and twists and the sure-footed grace and speed is exhilarating.Surely you know what I mean with this?

And then, the confinement which seemed mildly comforting such a short time before, suddenly seems a shame, a waste, a minor tragedy of potential.

Radio silence is good for a while. This much is clear. But in moderation.
Wholesome is healthy as long as it is not all there is. To run across the horizon of the mind as fast as one likes can be a release for the soul and allow the full functionality of a personality, but probably done all the time would result in a kind of scatteredness of focus leading to drifting.

And so once again, the most important word in the English language appears to be "balance".
At the moment, the flights of glorious fancy and resultant enjoyable melee are too few and fleeting. Wholesomeness has become the norm and like bran consumed to excess, is beginning to cause an irritation that will need some richness of diet to relieve.
Now where can I find such a morsel?

©Pete Earlam 2009

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A drought or climate change?

There was a time when ideas fair tumbled from my mind. The pressure of all the thoughts and their associated tangents was almost too much to bear. The inside of my head was like some riotous after-show party in a theatre of the absurd and the only way to ease the discomfort was to write them down. To choose one thread and express it, with all is associations and implications, was to make some space where the rest could grow and flourish and the gap thus made was a breathing space of sorts.

It seemed as though there was a never ending spring of inspiration. I didnt know where it came from: Seemingly from some deep down natural source with equal mystery to the endless flows that pop out of the Cotswold hills hereabouts. There seemed no end to it.

And then I noticed the reduction in the rate of flow. There were interruptions and eventual cessation of supply. The space inside became bigger until my mind contained mostly void and a kind of desert of the soul resulted from the lack of irrigation. Where a once lush jungle filled my inner spaces, replete with luscious fruits and brightly coloured fluttering things, now there was only hard baked ground with the odd skeleton of a dead tree standing starkly against the sky to remind me of what once was there.
The dry soil yields enough for subsistence but its not what one would call a flourishing.

So, where did it go? What happened or stopped happening to cause this profusion to shrink to such a meagre harvest? Is there a dam somewhere which may burst? It doesnt feel like it actually. It just feels as if it stopped raining somewhere, as if the damp fecundity of Summer showers or the deluge of welcome monsoons somewhere just over the horizon has ceased due to some inevitable shifting of weather patterns outside of my control.

Certainly, there have been droughts before and they ended after a fashion. But this time it feels different: As if some internal El Nino has been redirected by the course of life and a huge high pressure region has held the course of the winds and rains elsewhere.

The strange thing is, it is not unpleasant. I miss the growth and fertility, certainly, but there is a kind of calm in its place - an undemanding constancy of existence that brings no discomfort. Will it stay this way? I don't know. It has been some time now and it shows no sign really of improving. There is the odd small shower that happens and green and flowers are briefly in evidence. But it rarely stays for long. My fear is that though it is no hardship, the dry winds may blow away all the topsoil; an irreversable process preventing future regrowth.
Were I superstitious, I would pray for rain, rain on the inside. Seeds blown in from elsewhere cannot germinate here without my own fertile soils to allow them to take root. But for now, I will wander, sipping from the odd oasis and trying not to walk in circles in the featurelessness of my own mind.

Friday, 1 May 2009

The consciousness of lobsters

I am in the railway station at Angers, in western France. It is a pretty town and the station is a light and airy place with lots of glass and very little litter. My French reappeared at about lunchtime in the restaurant where I had a salad with foie gras (which I feel I shouldnt like on moral grounds, but actually find utterly irresistable for its delicious richness and sheer opulence). Also on this salad were a couple of L'angustines and some gambas. Crustaceans always seem a little hapless to me. Aquatic relatives of woodlice, showing all too clearly their kinship in the number and design of their legs and carapaces. I find them, frankly, unappetising when the inescapable alienness of their joints are contemplated. Also I find them far too labour intensive for the meagre amount of food you get from them. Dismantling of the cleverly seamless shell is a rather distasteful and fiddly task, I feel.
I gave them to my appreciative companion, having made a mess of the first fumblings with extraction of the edible bits.
The little face staring back at me from the now detached head appeared to have an air of pathos in its expression. Its beady black eyes seemed to implore me to feel ashamed of my choice from the menu. I felt a bit sorry for it. I shall not ever order one again.

But I wondered briefly how much of a sense of self this tiny lobster had. Whilst alive, any threatening stimulus would have had its mechanisms for self-preservation activated in an instant. But would that be merely an invoking of a mechanistic subroutine of programmed behaviour or would there have been a flicker of something resembling true fear in its little cluster of a few dozen million neurons?

I once attended a lecture by the magnificent Susan, now Baroness Greenfield (Baroness always conjures up an image of a large, ample-bosomed lady in a valkyrie outfit wielding her stern expression like an intimidating sword at all who dare to gaze upon her. She is not like this but equally, I feel, formidable in her own intellectual way).
At this lecture she appeared to be saying that the level of consciousness exhibited by any creature with a brain was a function of the number of neurons actively participating in any one single curcuit at that time. As an example, there was a photo of a man taking a step off a bungee-jump platform. He was not, we assume, overly preoccupied at that moment, with the minutiae of life: The mortgage rate, whether he had the right insurance cover, whether his car would pass the MOT or even whether his job was safe. No, his single focus was far more existential at that moment: "I AM GOING TO DIE!! IMMINENTLY! AAARRRGGGHHH!!!"

And it is arguably at these moments, for instance when every single neuron is unable to tear its attention away from the prospect of imminent death, that we feel most alive.
The rest of the time, a myriad of smaller circuits are tying up our neural resources. They chatter away with minor preoccupations and our attention is scattered and hence we feel less "conscious". We have all had that experience of arriving at work in the car having driven perfectly safely on autopilot, whilst having had a number of in-depth conversations with ourselves over various riveting topics. At these times, it seems we are not really all that "conscious".
And so, by implication, if the most profound consciousness can be achieved with the maximum recruitment of neurons to a single task, animals with fewer neurons available are arguably less conscious. A chimpanzee is, for example, less conscious than a human. And a dog, less conscious than a chimp and so on, down to crustaceans and beyond.

Hence my crustacean friend probably had only the dimmest awareness of the surface of the boiling water that signalled its impending end and absolutely no faculty to contemplate its fate.
I suspect therefore that it did not actually feel fear in any sense that we understand it.
Or perhaps my reasoning is not correct. Perhaps dogs are more conscious because they dont end up worrying about their mortgages and are completely "In the moment". Actually, I am not sure there is any answer to this question since it is how to define what we mean by conscious.
But I know subjectively, there are times when I am more "alive" than others. In those times I am more aware of sensations and colours, details of my environment seem more accessable; in fact my surroundings leap out at me and impress themselves upon my consciousness, whereas much of the time, I find I have to make a conscious effort to notice or be.

I think Baroness Greenfield's point stands and is useful: that a convergence of our neurons on a single task - in practical terms, our "attention" - brings the most subjective experience of consciousness.
Indeed, this is one of the aims of most types of meditation. I have never been very good at meditation. The chattering of my brain tends to make the aim of "mindfulness" very difficult. I get bored and need something to occupy my immense sense of curiosity.

But when I have "succeeded" in attaining that point of "awareness with no thought", it is a very clear moment. There is a quietness which is exquisite and can be observed without any narrative. At those moments too, I feel most conscious. But i dont have the time or the awareness to do it regularly and though there are undoubtedly benefits from regular meditation practise, I have other uses for my brain and my time.
Incidentally, research shows that regular meditators have significant growth in the layers of cells (need research here) that appear to deal with compassion and planning. Meditation, then, has physical effects which possibly may bring benefits in mental function.

And so, where does this get us? Well, making the assumption that "feeling really alive" is a good thing to aim for, we can try the approach suggested by the good Lady. Though we don't have to go as far as a bungee jump (not without its risks, or why would anyone do it?) we can do things which use up our whole mental bandwidth with none left over for idle preoccupation.
Activities i have found which do this are climbing, because I don't want to fall off even though i am roped up, dancing and occasionally any water sports involving surf (though not always, I find: If the surf isnt "right" I can end up very dissatisfied.)
But doing those things that fill our entire brain with a single activity can take us near or to the "really alive" stage. At least, it works for me, and anecdotal evidence seems to indicate it does for most people.
Whether it works for prawns, I have no idea.

Friday, 10 April 2009

alternative wildlife

At the end of my small garden is a mixed-native-tree hedge. We planted it about 10 years ago and it contains hawthorn, beech, holly and hornbeam. It has developed into a beautiful good old-fashioned hedge such as surrounded most fields here in Gloucestershire when I was a kid. As such, it provides not only a secure and attractive backdrop to the end of the garden but a haven for wildlife. It might only be 40 feet long but you would be surprised at how many visitors it gets.
The garden also contaons a stand of three closely planted silver birches which by clever design, makes the garden feel more soacious and whose white trunks stand out strikingly againt the backdrop of the rest of the garden.
As a result, the birdlife is very varied. At any time one might see thrushes of various kinds, blackbirds (who at this time of year are shameless in their pursuit of each other for breeding purposes!), flocks of goldfinches and long-tailed-tits and a couple of fat pigeons who may well end up in a pie at some point.
The hedge seems to allow passage of the avian visitors from the nearby common and woods. It seems to be a very welcome sanctuary and causeway linking various other oases of wilderness together.
The hedge stands on a bank: Once a wall marking an ancient field boundary, it is now covered in soil and looks very naturalised.
Often, i work from home here at the dining room table or upstairs in the spare room where I have an office of sorts. Being a sociable creature, I do miss human contact when I work from home. Eventually, I find myself talking to the walls, or to my chilli seedlings on the propagator on the window ledge. I even occasionally, near the end of a long day, get small terse replies. Chillis are not great conversationalists and walls are notoriously tight-lipped.
So, it did not seem strange to find my underfed imagination set to work one day to allow me to see the other inhabitants of the hedge.
At first it was a feeling of being observed. No human could be seen, indeed, the garden and house are not overlooked.
But there was that nagging sense of someone watching me.
Not being a believer in such whimsical notions as any form of "sixth sense" (though five seems inadequate to describe the subjective experiences we have on moment-by-moment basis: What about hunger pangs and "heeby-jeebies"?) I dismissed th enotion.
But it persisted. And one day, glancing up unexpectedly, I saw a tiny green face barely bigger than a 50p piece staring at me from between the hawthorn leaves.
It looked unblinkingly at me for a few moments, a slight smile on its lips, before retreating back into the undergrowth. I blinked a few times before shaking my head and resuming my dull emails.
But gradually, other faces occasionally started to show themselves.
I initially dismissed them as pareidolia: That tendency to see patterns of faces in clouds and wood grain and suchlike that is a quirk of the human brain.
But then one day in Autumn, they finally showed themselves in full. A group of tiny people, about six inches tall, climbed down the retaining boards at the bottom which served initiall to hold the soil back before the roots took hold. They seemed very confident, although they moved quickly, as small creatures often seem to do.
A rag-tag bunch of tiny men, all in brown-green clothes, some with grass capes, others with tiny turned over wellingtons that look like they might once have belonged to action man who was now forced to carry out his missions barefoot. They carried small pointy sticks and had little baskets which contained such things as acorns, ash keys, sycamore "helicopters" and the odd shiny thing which I could not make out. I think they have a penchant for shiny things which is why car keys occasionally go missing.
The looked around showing a prudent vigilance but not in any nervous sense. Down they came to the pond and filled up little skin bags with water, lowering them down on wat appered to be the pudding string I used to keep in the kitchen drawer but which had mysteriously vanished at Christmas when the turkey needed preparing.
A cat appeared suddenly on the fence and looked down at them with what seemed to be mild fear and trepidation and then proceeded after some moments consideration, to clean itself distractedly.
They paid it no heed and carried on with their task.
The one of them, a wizened chap with a beard and tiny flat cap, looked straight at me and winked. I was taken aback and just smiled a gurn of confusion back at him as best I could manage.
Then quickly and with no signal, they hauled up their buckets and glancing about them, trekked back across the lawn where they disappeared into the stems of the bamboo thicket.
I blinked a couple of times and wondered briefly if there had been hallucinagenic bread mould on my sandwiches or similar.
And then, there was the bearded face grinning at me from the bamboo stems, just for a moment, gap toothed and mischevious.
And then it was gone.
I don't see them often, only occasionally. But they leave me presents of crab apples in September, wild garlic and small garlands of daisies, the design of which leads me to suspect feminine hands at work in whatever community they live in.
In return, I leave them food. I know they are fond of stilton. Oddly, they seem to prefer the rind and so this is what I believe is called a "win-win". And sometimes, on days such as the equinox in spring, or winter solstice, i leave them a miniature of port which I purloin from hotel rooms. After that I don't usually see them for a few days.
But in a world of keyboards and GPS, of phone masts and low-emission cars, it is comforting to have my little friends there, just out of sight. I am not sure if others see them. But I do. They brighten up the periphery of my world.
Keep an eye out round where you are. With regional variations, I am sure they must be around.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Rediscovering my words

Hello blog. Its been a while. I am not sure why. I have been mildly busy but not cripplingly so. My time has not been saturated with the need to spend all my days emailing customers, generating presentations, flying all over the lace.

Actually, I am writing this on a plane. It is the first in nearly three months. Not that business is bad or demand dried up for me or my products. No, there just hasn't been any reason to see anyone face to face.

I haven’t missed it particularly. My self-esteem hasn't suffered with the inference that I must no longer be important. I have rather found it very restful. I can have a life were I do regular things like dance and go to the gym, be there every evening for the kids to ask me questions or ignore as the whim takes them.

I have, oddly, missed the space of a couple of hours where I am forced to sit and do nothing in particular. Nobody can email me here or call my pone demanding trivial but labour-intensive tasks be performed. Perhaps that's why I got out of the habit of writing.

I miss writing though. Its as if the chaos and thrash of the inside of my head must remain unexamined and disjointed in my head.

Some thoughts and feelings I need to express. Leaving them in their raw, undefined and vague-sensation form is unsettling at best and almost physically uncomfortable at worst.

Other ideas which float about are merely pleasing to extract and play with. I get great joy from the vague nagging of a concept requesting to be untangled, described and expanded upon.

Its as if there is some kind of box in here which is full of knotted-up threads which once untangled can be woven or sewn into bright colourful tapestries. But in their raw, messy state, they just really clog up the everyday workings of my brain (which is why the milk gets absent-mindedly "put away" in the microwave or the keys get left in the front door when I go to work.

Many ideas are currently circulating in my mind and it would be a shame to let tem languish unexpressed, especially given the disruptive influence they exert over the prosaic business of day-to-day life. To write them down is cathartic and as long ago as I can remember, I have done this as a form of release.

I suppose then, that means I must be by nature a "writer" that is, one who is compelled to write for is own sanity as well as for enjoyment.

And so, there will be more: more thoughts about the many things that preoccupy me when I should be doing something else, which go round and round of their own accord inside my cranium when I am riding my bike to work (though not when I am cycling for fun, strangely. Or perhaps not strangely at all).

I d have some plans to put my eloquence to use, for now I feel entitled to allow myself the conceit that I am in fact eloquent, without so much of the guilt I previously felt at the seeming arrogance of such a claim.

I feel that I can put it to use.

People seem to enjoy reading what I write, or so they tell me. My examination of the mechanisms that inhabit the only being I have any intimate knowledge of, and how they may manifest in others as behaviours, seem to be quite popular.

But having spent fifteen years explaining complicated technical things to people, I feel I may be able to add some value to the world by helping share some of te joy that curiosity about the world gives us: science is a subject I have always found fascinating. Even before I knew it was called science, it added a piquancy to the World to know there were tings I didn't understand, but which gave me a feeling when I looked into them. The feeling was a mild, or I some cases, a powerful feeling of excitement at unpicking the happenings of the world using tools of observation. I later understood this to be the "scientific method" though to me it was still just "finding out".

I shall leave this particular thread for another time, but be assured, it will be often touched upon.

For now, I am happy to have somehow cleared a blockage. The flow is restored and the musings, ramblings and products of Pets mind will be forthcoming more regularly.

And if nobody wants to read them, never mind. I will still be the better for having written them down.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Interpersonal communication

I have been musing a lot about how, considering what social creatures we humans are, we manage to communicate so poorly on the whole. I am not sure why this should be since it seems we have every opportunity to master at least our own language and most of us have at least a modicum of ability to understand the state of mind of other people.
And so, I was reminded recently of this particular internal dialogue I had with myself. I think I understood myself, although I may get the wrong end of my own stick on occasion.
The beauty of text is that one can subsequently revise the words to edit out one's own self-contradictions. Real life, where conversations happen in real-time, mean that we do not have this luxury and here perhaps, I uncover at least one reason why poor communication results.

This was written recently on a trip to Scandinavia where a dull flight afforded many opportunities for observation:
Interpersonal communication is an imprecise art. I am, I like to think, quite articulate. By this I mean that if I have a thought, concept or emotion to describe, I can usually express it precisely and feel I have, if not conveyed it accurately, then at least clarified in my own mind what it was I was trying to say to my own satisfaction.

In addition I feel, though I may mistakenly inflate my own abilites from an observer's perspective, that I am quite astute when it comes to the protocols of conversation: I attempt to listen attentively, giving feedback with nods and "hmm, yes" kinds of backchannels at regular intervals, I make appropriate eye contact and smile in the right places. Years of sales meetings and customer dinners have made this something that comes easily to me without self-consciousness. Or so I flatter myself to believe.

Why, then, are some people easy to talk to but not others? For instance, I was talking to a slovakian lady a while ago on the way out to Hungary. For two hours we traded comments, anecdotes, opinions and replies. And it was lovely! A more interesting couple of hours on a plane I have rarely spent.
And now, across the gangway is a seemingly effervescent swedish lady who, though very personable, seems impossible to talk to for any length of time without awkward silences developing. Somehow, where last week, words came easily and naturaly as things occurred to me to say, or in response to some small story, today, the words sound thick and sticky in my mouth and my voice sounds to me unfamiliar and forced. My comment about northern living in scandinavia being a relatively recent human development and blond(e) hair being only 11000 years old met with a slow blink and puzzlement (usually I only see this in religious zealots who deny the possibility of evolution). I realised that seeding the conversation through facts she might find interesting, was not really working. I asked a few questions of her but even though I constructed "open" questions as my sales training had emphasised (and which surely people do naturally anyway?) the answers seemed to be dead ends.

So, the conversation foundered with what I think I discern as a palpable sense of failure on the part of both parties despite evident willingness from us both. So why the difference? And why was I unable to be my natural self in the former case but not the latter? The recipient? Her reactions or lack thereof? Chemistry? Maybe she just didn't want to talk to me, although I sensed that was not the case from her body language. And I am not being all Dunning Kruger here, I am sure.

Ok, Body language can be misread or even not noticed: On the bus on the way to the plane, a man was talking to (or mostly at) an elderly couple. The conversation seemed consensual, that is, both were seemingly happy to engage in it and neither of the couple seemed to want to disengage from this insensitive largely-transmit-only speaker.
The younger man was explaining to these two complete strangers many aspects of his life and they occasionally, as opportunity permitted, reciprocated with their own little sets of facts and opinions.
But why? Why do people volunteer information like this? (says I, ironically, pouring out words and ideas to unseen readers, if they exist at all.) Why are they driven to tell? And what is it that causes them to choose the particular information they offer?

In a social or mating arena possibly people divulge those thing about themselves that they think will make them appear interesting or attractive and thereby provide increased status: they offer that which will make them seem more desirable. And yet, much conversation is haphazard, some even inane, with seemingly no thought given to content or context.And in general, this is natural and quite enjoyable.

The Swedish lady is now asleep and her traveling companions are engaged in polite but distant (from their body language) conversation. This appears to be ignorantly hopeful on behalf of the man and polite, possibly to the point of defensive on the part of the young lady. And beyond the words, many other messages are unconsciously sent, received or missed. I can see them quite clearly.
He is not going to get her number. Not unless he learns to shut up and listen - to all the messages available.