Thursday, 4 December 2014

What was. And what remains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress, then. Onward and upward!

Friday, 28 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Are we so bad at anticipating our feelings?

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 November 2014

All adventures are really on the inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This brings joy.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Observations at Lunchtime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 June 2014

3 a.m

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 May 2014

Our Words are our Babies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never realised how personal the whole thing was!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Lessons from a Broken Phone

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Profound Nature of Attention

1969, Lees Hill Playgroup, Kingswood, Bristol. A group of about twenty children are sat around in small chairs in a circle as an authoritative lady of indeterminate age sits on a bigger chair as part of the circle. We all sing, at her lead:
"Ten currant buns in a baker's shop
Big and round with a cherry on top"

I could almost taste the cherry. My mind's fingers were sticky with sugar and crumbs.

"Along came.."

Please let it be me!

"Jenny with a penny one day"

Deep disappointment. It wasn't me.

"Bought a currant bun and took it away"

Gradually, each of the ten buns was purchased by one of our number until none were left. I remained bun-less. Despite the imaginary nature of the buns, I was hungry and I also felt something else: "overlooked", "unnoticed", less interesting and important as those who had popped along to this hypothetical baker's shop, handed over their abstract pennies and smugly left with a fanciful confectionery in their worthy little hands.
Why wasn't it me?

My great-grandfather ran an "informal" betting ring for th' Osses! We lived with him in a single room in his council house during the grim austere greyness of the late 1960s, myself, my teenage parents and latterly, my baby sister. It was grubby, shabby and the flagstones in the hall and kitchen were cold on my feet in the mornings. A stream of old gentlemen in long grey raincoats would trickle in and out all morning, handing over piles of ten-bob coins wrapped in white pieces of paper, upon which the names of the horses were written. I don't really know what happened then. It was all very confusing to a small child of three or four. I remember they smelled funny: Of rolling tobacco and woodsmoke from their open fires.
Each one would raise a kindly hand to my little curly blond head and pat me affectionately as I sat observing the parade of gargoyles who came and went. And often they would give me sweets ( to the extent my milk teeth went rotten and had to be taken out). My great grandfather would stroke my head and in a wheezy voice forged in the smoke of a million Woodbines, gurgle proudly "Yes! He's my little buuy!" (He had a very strange dialect seldom heard today even in the more remote areas around Oldland Common.) And he would chortle in glee, wrinkle a smile at me and I would feel the proudest boy on Earth.

A large hall, dimly lit by flashing coloured lights, full of music of a tolerable volume and people dancing, somewhere in the West of England, 2014. The atmosphere is heady with the scent of enjoyment and occasional excitement. The edges of the hall are lined with people sitting, mostly ladies, arms folded in defence of their self-esteem. Each seems hopeful, expectant, but a little disappointed. A man walks over to one of the ladies.
"Would you like to dance?"
She accepts and suddenly her demeanour goes from bored resignation to radiant happiness. The dance unfolds until its end, with perhaps a little banter, flirting, or perhaps little interaction beyond that of lead and follower. The lady, happy for a moment, acknowledges her partner and his gallantry (or chooses to ignore his enthusiastic contortions), a smile is exchanged and she goes to sit down again, perhaps not to dance for the rest of the evening.

So, what it is it about attention that feeds us so? Why do we need the regard of others (and few can say truthfully they do not) to blossom of feel whole? Someone we know vaguely, remembers our name when we pass them in a shop, thinking previously that they were unaware of even our existence. Our day is made. A lady smiles at me as I hold the door open for her. I am lifted and I feel I am more than I was moments before.
Conversely, we fear that strangers may regard us in a lesser way because we have ventured out without make-up, dressed drably on a night out, gone to the DIY shop in our decorating clothes and bumped into that lovely teacher our kids had five years ago.  The regard of others is so important to us. No regard is a famine for the soul.
And it doesn't have to be positive regard: It is well known that children will play up to inattentive parents because censure is at least attention. Adults do this too, but in more sophisticated ways (in most cases) than climbing on the furniture or writing on the walls.

It seems to me that a lot of people are quite unhappy because they feel the world overlooks them. In fact, perhaps it does. It could be that many people go through life without a compliment, smile or friendly act directed their way for most of the time. And surely this cannot make for a happy world.

Ok, there are huge injustices, agonies of tragedy in places where law and order do not exist. We are by and large (at least those of us here, looking at blogs from the comfort of whatever safe environment we find ourselves in, I hope) not in such situations.

But wouldn't it be a nice place if we just decided to be a bit kinder to each other? As long as the appreciative comment about a dress is not taken inaccurately as a sign of romantic intent, or a comment about someone's healthy glow is not regarded as irony (the right kinds of smile should prevent such misunderstandings), taking the time to connect with people can only make us all feel a little bit more appreciated.
So, I am off up the High Street now to smile at some people and spread a little sunshine on a day when meteorologically, the isn't much of the other kind.

Here: Have a bun!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Posts that write themselves in our heads

This morning, I rode my bicycle the twelve miles to the office and everything was suddenly right with the world. There was the scent of woodsmoke in the air, reminiscent of so many evocative memories that they merge into a mass of good-feeling in my chest. The birds were happy in the hedges and I swallowed my first flies of the year. All was good and my mind felt free to roam and reflect without any undue direction from me.

So, suddenly, it seems, two years have passed and I feel fully recovered finally. Just after the second anniversary of my neurological mishap, I find my sleep patterns have returned to normal, implying that mechanical healing is now probably finished and I no longer need the system to be down for so long to accomplish all the repairs to be undertaken. Finally, I can awake, as I did before, at a reasonably early hour, have a cup of tea and then do my half hour or so of yoga in the mornings, watching the long-tailed tits and goldfinches fussing about in the birch trees in the garden.

It is a joyous time of year. The cherry blossoms invite pauses on my ride to the office, just for the sheer wonderment of beholding such a beautiful sight, free-of-charge and readily available, for this short time only, at the side of the road. The world is filled with a kind of potential which now being whole again, I can approach in a spirit of exploration and with no fear of being mentally overwhelmed.
I find myself deeply enthused by such simple things as baking sourdough bread and brewing beer from the sacks of malted barley that reside in my wardrobe (for want of a better place to store them). The departure of both my offspring to university hundreds of miles away, no longer requiring my assistance or attention and seemingly self-sufficient in their everyday lives (apart from my substantial financial contribution) leaves a space which I feel quite happy about filling.
Life is pretty good.

Someone recently asked me if I would rather my haemorrhage hadn't happened. Would I have preferred that that two years ago a tiny bleed had not rearranged my brain? Though small, barely discernible in the scans in fact, on a functional level, a physiological level it was so profound as to be  absolutely devastating both mentally, and for a shorter time, physically.
The answers is no. that it happened has brought profound positive insights, as often brushes with one's mortality do. The experiences I have had have changed me forever for the better. Perspectives were dislodged and replaced by better ones. Lost capabilities were painstakingly rebuilt, and the implications noticed and built upon, allowing for new skills to be developed. I learned to dance tango, which arguably, I wouldn't have done otherwise. I went to Istanbul. I developed memory strategies to overcome the difficulties I still to some extent have with the conceptual routes to certain memory functions. So much is better now.

I feel entirely recovered. And somehow augmented. Lucky me!

And that shall be an end to it. Now is time to get on and live the substantial remainder of a life I almost lost.I feel like writing again. There will be more. But not about this subject. That chapter, though bookmarked, is closed.

Monday, 20 January 2014

The World is your Lobster!

As I look out at the January landscape, the sky white/grey upon which the contrast of dark twigs and branches is stark with clarity, I am enthused with the potential of the world. I may be sat at my desk amongst grey corporate uniformity but it is warm and dry and I am not breaking my back to earn enough to live a meagre existence. I can see the world out there and feel what it might have to offer. My mind can roam about freely there, even if I am physically stuck at a desk in my office.
When the life I am forced to inhabit gets too dull and lacklustre, I just think about driving off into the world in my van and suddenly everything seems a lot more exciting.
There are beaches to walk along and woods to explore, fires to be lit, clay ovens to build and fire up. There are welders and glue-guns and self-adhesive velcro. There is wood and fabric and metal to make things from.  There are friends old, new and yet to be discovered with which the world can be explored and there is food to share and enjoy, bread to bake and beer to brew, dancing to be done! Spring is coming and vegetable seeds need to be sown. And there are songs to learn for thrashing out on the guitar or banjo round camp fires.
How splendid is modern life here without plague or barbarians or famine! How full the possibilities for fulfillment. There is no time to waste! Ok, there is the tiresome problem of having to earn a living and there is some minimal level of housework to be done. And when children are younger and more in need of supervision, that can be a limitation. But a magnifying glass and  book describing local insects can provide quite the basis for an adventure. Or some sticks and string to make bows and arrows.
I didn't used to like Winter. I seemed to be the time when real life had to close down as we hibernated in front of the telly. Well, last weekend, I decided to ignore the temperatures and head down to Exmoor in my van. I have a wonderful new thing called a  Frontier Stove which is a small portable woodburner on legs that packs up about the size of  a small holdall such as one might take to the gym with your daps in.
My Frontier Stove. Portable heat for cooking and comfort. And You don't end up smelling like a kipper on account of the long chimney
Ok it was about minus five degrees by bedtime. But the fire gave out some lovely heat and with a few layers of warm clothing, it was quite bearable. Fun even. 
Now, I understand that some people would find this a dreadful proposition: Sitting outside in the Great Outdoors in January in sub-zero temperatures WITH NO TELLY! But actually, that was precisely it's allure for me. It was an adventure! Somewhere I had never explored. Somewhere beautiful, where little tracks headed off into woods to who-knows-where! How can a night in by the telly even compare with that?

At other times, I feel drawn to the city. My home town of Bristol, with all its maritime heritage, has been developed with great thought and inventiveness.
The view from Mud Dock Cafe at Bristol waterside where I had the best burger of my entire life amongst a profusion of interesting bicycles
It really is a lovely city to visit now. As with all major cities, there is culture on offer. The city has a buzz underneath its bustle. Stop and perhaps you may hear it. It is the hum of people doing stuff. Some nights I go to a small hall or sometimes a dark, poky cellar bar,and dance tango with a group of like minded people. It gets me out of the house.
Dancing is much better than telly! Even with HD and surround sound. 
 And sometimes I stay at home. But sitting still isn't my thing so I find myself often in the kitchen. Recently, I did a bread making course with the splendid Clive from Shipton Mill. I have to say I learned some astonishing and dismaying things about the bread-making industry (like the way they add gluten to bread to improve its structure because they need it to rise quickly for productivity reasons so they put too much yeast in it which makes the structure all wrong. Dreadful!). Now, I make so much bread that I barely have to put the central heating on, such is the heat from the oven. 
I made all this bread, Making bread is cathartic. I have to say, the Chelsea buns were gorgeous beyond even my powers to describe. The secret is lots of butter and loads of dried fruit: But no candied peel because candied peel is Satan's droppings.

Making beer is existentially satisfying. Drinking it, even more so.
And beer. I make a lot of beer. Which is quite an involved process but seems to make one very popular. I may describe the process in another post because it is actually quite fascinating. But you don't have to read that one if you don't want to. Or this one in fact.

So, I suppose what I am saying is that we live in an age where the opportunity to do and see amazing things is all around us as never before. The allure of inertia - to sit in the warm comfort of our arm chairs and be entertained by electronic media - can be overwhelming. But look! Look! the world is full of opportunity. Time passes and routine can be reassuring. But how many days are there passed in stultifying unremarkability? That's your life passing by that is! 
The days and weeks will pass anyway. It seems better to punctuate them with little points of light and memories that make you smile. Do stuff that makes you alive, makes you think, puts points of interest on the map of your past life! Don't wait for fate to give you that warning to make better use of your days. In the words of a manager I once knew (but in a far more enlightened context): JFDI!

Monday, 6 January 2014

It's all tangents these days.

Back at my desk, in the office which consists of mainly grey, corporate "furniture" of a uniformity that is utterly stultifying, the noise suddenly strikes me. They moved us from a building initially designed as a production environment (with commensurate noise-damping surfaces and high ceilings) to an open-plan office in which you can hear a colleague fart twenty desks away. Each phone conversation, often participated in by those who have complete obliviousness to the volume level of their voices, can be heard word for word forty feet away. I feel occasionally like wandering round to explain this before realising that perhaps I am the same: Perhaps my discussions, enunciated carefully and clearly for customers who I know well and for whom English is a foreign language (albeit one which most of them manage better than many of my British colleagues) are equally loud and irritating.
It leaves little room for thought. My reconstructed brain has regained almost all of its original functionality. But if I was a little ADHD before, I am a positive flibberdigibbet now. Some mechanism pertaining to attention (never a strength of mine) is yet to mend and perhaps now never will. Hence, every person wandering by, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, causes a "non-maskable interrupt" (a computer programming term for the insistence of a process that it must have the processor's undivided attention and no, will not take "I am busy!" for an answer). A turn of the head in each case and a requirement then to appraise the situation before returning to what was I doing, each stage of which takes a finite amount of task-switching time. Most disruptive.

So, the conversations intrude and my mind is filled with other peoples' imperatives and requests and observations. And all my own thoughts are roughly jostled out of the way, some of them falling into an abyss of forgetfulness, never to be rediscovered. And the greyness of the environment makes the appearance of new and interesting thoughts in my addled bonce increasingly unlikely. Most frustrating.

Being a bit creative is often required in most jobs. But it's surprising what saps the creative energies, leaving nothing left for that which we would like to create. Well, this piece of drivel is one example: This is the result of a sincere intention to write something entirely different, the gist of which I have no recollection of now. The bottom of that abyss must be a really interesting place, with all those fragments of forgotten concepts and insistent thoughts that must surely lie broken at the bottom. Perhaps down there they kind of decompose like a layer of mental compost from which one day a great and glorious tree of inspiration will emerge.
I do hope so because I have a surfeit of words all clamouring to be expressed and nothing much to apply them to.

Anyway, (and a complete non-sequitur here) I have decided that although it is not a resolution as such, 2014 is to be my Year of Friends. This year, it is time to reach out in every way possible, and touch the world and the people in it. It has been a long time of looking inward (mostly to see what is still working and what needs yet to be fixed).
But no more: Time to come out of the shell and venture some invitations, suggestions and general connections.
And I also intend to learn foxtrot. A chap needs a project and the Argentine Tango is all very well, but I have kind of got the hang of it now and it wasn't what I expected.

Happy 2014. How on Earth did I get here?