Sunday, 13 November 2016

The new inhabitants of my life

I sat this evening in the rather too plentiful dark, looking into my pond with a torch. A few short weeks ago, the area was a thicket of hydrangeas with a small ash tree in the middle. Now it is a half-metre deep pond just larger than a king-sized bed with ledges just visible in in its murky depths and gently sloping beaches of tiny flint pebbles for the creatures to get in an out. It is a popular pond with the birds; An extended family of sparrows bathe in it noisily and fractiously every day and a grey wagtail visits in between their bickering baths. A hedgehog visits nightly for the mealworms which are left as incentive and a frog, narrowly avoiding the tread of my foot, leapt several metres to land in the middle of the water before making his way to the margins.
All of this endorsement of my pond-siting and pond-construction skills pleases me more than I can articulate with mere words. But leaping and whooping might perhaps go some way towards it. More alarmingly but, I suppose quite naturally, there has been a buzzard on the fence at the end of the garden a mere thirty or so metres away and yesterday a thwarted sparrowhawk, having missed his dinner in his assault on the pyracantha bush sat grumpily on a pot a metre from the patio doors. Word has obviously got round amongst the avian community, of a new and interesting garden to visit.

In the damp darkness, unseasonably warm for November, I watched for perhaps twenty minutes. There is no sign of the "supermoon", almost full this evening, due to the heavy blanket of cloud sullenly hanging over the Cotswold scarp. With the plain of the Severn to the South and the brow of the hills rising to the North the skies here can be quite big, with cloudscapes to fill the eyes. Tonight though, it is just inky blackness.

The pond seems to be teeming with life. there are several types of water beetle busying themselves with dragging their buoyant cargoes of air down to the depths, in search of.. what? what do they eat? Not the insect larvae that wiggle and wriggle convulsively just below the surface. And somehow a pond snail has arrived and is floating contentedly (as far as i can tell) upside down as if the underside of the water's surface is a pavement to be traversed. So much life is here, in this thousand or so litres of water.

Perhaps, in the bushes at the end of the garden - a formless and unintentional hedge resulting from neglect for no more than a few years - there are rustlings. It could be the hedgehog but his dense little blob of a body is usually visible as he ambles round the lawn. It is not too difficult to imagine tiny faces peering at me with bemused eyes as they perform their nightly foraging for worms or useful bits of string or anything else that takes their fancy. Did I hear a tiny chuckle as I tripped over a brick I had been using to elevate a fatball for the robin? No, i am sure it was my imagination...

In the quiet of the night, the not-too-distant motorway being less intrusive due to the hour, the noise in my head, appearing as it did at the time of my burst sub-arachnoid blood vessel, is almost deafening. This noise exploded deafeningly into my mind as the blood burst into my brain (albeit, the photos suggest, in rather tiny but still incredibly disruptive amounts) those near-five years ago now and refuses to leave. Mostly, I am not aware of it. But tonight, it is frankly annoying: A whine of such intensity that it competes with the eleven o'clock train to Temple Meads Station. So, i leave the little watchers and go back inside, content that the garden is progressing the right way to attract the wildlife I had hoped would arrive.

Inside the house, i have lit the fire. I didn't need to really as it is quite warm, but it makes me feel less lonely for some reason. The seemingly recent memory of a houseful of family rings in my mind's ear, and treasured though the memory is, my resultant regrets crowd in on me and accentuate my alone-ness in the house.This is not a house for the lone resident. It deserves more people. There are three bedrooms of which two have very infrequent but welcome visitors.
But now, as the heating turns off from the prompting of the thermostat as it is warmed by the heat of the fire, it is as if unseen occupants shift restlessly in the beds and others make their way across the landing in search of the bathroom.
Old ghosts perhaps. How nice that would be. I would invite them to sit with me and we would converse about such things as they have seen, and perhaps they would be equally enthralled at my own experiences, though I suspect theirs might be more enlightening.

But there are no ghosts. None that is, except the ones in my mind: The laughter of children splashing in the sink before bedtime, happily now grown to be admirable adults who indulge their old dad with irregular but welcome visits but who no longer fight over the toothpaste. And the singing of one once so happy in a shared life but now elsewhere doing who-knows-what?

Life is so very different now. Things change, children grow up, parents grow apart, lives are dissolved and reconstructed in ways not better but merely different. The birds still quarrel and the beetles still swim. And probably all is as it should be. Probably.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Words for a Thousand Lunchtimes

A friend died a couple of weeks ago. I am vainly attempting to write a eulogy to deliver at his funeral. I sit looking at my pen, at my keyboard, at the quarrelling sparrows on the lawn and my mind is immobile. It refuses to elicit the first words with which to describe this man. Not because there is nothing to say, because there is an abundance; But because of a sincere desire to do the memory of the man due justice. My fingers hover hesitantly over the keys, paralysed by the multitude of suddenly facile and cliched phrases that suggest themselves in such cases. So, I come here, in order to tangentially, obliquely, begin the task by proxy. Perhaps if I fling enough words onto this white rectangle, something will emerge, like a speck of gold in the vast pile of rubble from a mine in promising ground.

I was surprised to be asked by him to speak just a few days before his predicted but untimely death. He wasn't someone I saw often but he was someone with whom I formed an unlikely connection. You come across people in your travels through life and have no idea mostly what their facades hide. A bland affable exterior might elicit profound wisdom regarding the relevance of millennia-old ideas to your life, a curmudgeonly misanthrope could throw your perspective of them completely off balance by letting slip about their weekends volunteering with autistic children. We often do not wear our identities on our faces or demeanours it seems.

So, a chance observation, after a decade of knowing this previously distant man, sparked an unexpected connection that was to last a decade or more of lunchtime conversations. An observation of an article he was reading in New Scientist, which I had read the previous day, opened up a world of discussion and exchange of ideas which I am told he looked forward to immensely and with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
Our conversations ranged from the seemingly magical behaviour of radio waves within metal computer enclosures (his specialist field and one in which he would have unjustly have declined to describe himself as an expert), through religion and the more popular forms of irrationality to the neural basis of consciousness, as revealed by my own, and others' experiences of cognition with respect to the machine that creates it. A contentious conclusion but one I feel is an unavoidable inevitability. I think this may have been the topic of our very last conversation, in fact.
Ours was a particularly materialist universe, the evidence for this having been carefully and systematically examined, for this is the rigour that characterised his thinking.

So, the grumpy old bugger that refused to suffer fools gladly and would bluntly point out inconsistencies in a particular position, softened and became a man of immense curiosity when given the opportunity discuss his ideas without judgement. People really can surprise you if you give them the chance. No longer scratchy and irritated by imprecise opinions, he became wistful and enthusiastic in his examination of them. Many a lunch hour was taken up this way.

Perhaps, this is a lesson I take from this (and as you know, I always like to extrapolate from the individual experience to the general principle when observation suggests I can): Perhaps the grumpy, the spiky, the vague and the seemingly dull, hide deeper treasures which need careful uncovering. Ok, some are just what they at first glance seem and many a time I have suddenly remembered imaginary appointments to escape tedious expounding of irrelevant facts or a stream of poorly constructed opinions. But maybe it is worth persevering.  Maybe some people hide, for reasons of their own. a world of fascination, imagination or experience.

I would suggest it is worth persevering just in case.

I am still no closer to an opening, but I do feel I have freed up the hinges on the gates of my thought somewhat.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Not really sure why...

I write here. I don't do it very often. Hardly ever now in fact. I read a couple of articles entitled "is blogging dead?". Inevitably it was followed by a flurry of articles stating (somewhat self-persuadingly) "Blogging is not dead!" The consensus appears to be that it lives yet but as our attention spans decrease due to tweeting and snapchat, we no longer have the stamina or inclination to read anything longer than a hundred or so characters
Hmm.. not sure. I know my attention span is infinitesimally small these days. But this is for different reasons. In my new world of understanding the concept of cognitive bandwidth, it seems many of us are occupied with thoughts and worries that may be unconscious and my yet still take up bandwidth in our limited brains. This leaves us less for other activities.

In my case, with my brain still not really recovered, and probably now as good as it is going to get, I find so many quirks in the attention circuits that frankly never worked very well. Yep! On any test I take for ADHD, I am right up there at the top. And that's ok. I probably would have been before. It's just more pronounced now as the general amount of resource in there is reduced. So older, more pernicious problems are exaggerated. Never mind. At least it's not boring.

But I would like to be able to read again for more than a paragraph. Reading is, alas, almost an impossibility for me now in any serious sense. (Though not writing, strangely) It's a bit of a handicap to be honest. But there it is. I don't seem to be able to do anything about it. But at least I know my limitations and their implications.
Also of course, there are the ongoing tribulations: I am currently getting divorced, moving house, changing jobs and dealing with the aftermath of my misanthropic grandmother's death. All presumably take up some bandwidth. Those are a lot of the major life events that one sees in lists of such things as "The Most Stressful Things that Can Happen To A Person."

Whatever. Maybe things will improve after it has all settled down, whenever that is.

What has struck me though is the terrible quality of most training materials. In my transition to my new job, there is a lot of "multi-modal material" that is: Slide shows with simultaneous voice-overs and animations. Research would seem to indicate this is impossible for anyone to successfully follow and absorb. Cognitive overload is an inevitability even for a focussed and healthy brain. And I wonder how it is that people have the production of these materials at the centre of their jobs and are so bad at it. Surely someone responsible for imparting information ought to have a grasp of how brains learn (and how they don't!). An understanding of cognitive processes would benefit everyone I think.

So, last night, I walked in glorious English countryside along the banks of a river in which trout were leaping to gobble up stragglers from the vast clouds of mayflies. And I reflected that amongst all this complexity, this interlocking and interdependent system that is nature, runs quite nicely thank-you-very-much without any thought whatsoever. Nature asserts temporary order, it flourishes and returns to chaos. And so it goes on for now as it has done for a few hundred million years.

In amongst the foliage and undergrowth were the remains of an old mill. I have no idea how old this was. Probably early Industrial Revolution age, maybe two hundred years old or so.

Once a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering, this complex and elaborate machine, built at presumably great expense to harvest energy from nature for the purposes of industry was gradually succumbing to the forces of nature. The iron, so long dug from the ground, smelted, refined, worked, is gradually returning to the soil. There is a touch of Ozymandias about such relics, I always feel. Oh, there was no hubris intended in the construction of the mill, merely a wish to facilitate production of some goods or other and possibly to remove the burden of toil from fragile people with their fatigue and limited strength. But eventually it was no longer profitable or competitive with newer advances and it was left for nature to reclaim, which slowly it is doing.

But in the millpond, now just a feature of the river, the fish continue to jump, as they did when the mill was its owner's pride and joy and the mayflies hatch, ascend, mate and die as they did then.

So, with this reflection,  I decided to stop thinking so much and just go with the flow a bit. And I shall hope there are no unanticipated waterfalls on my route downstream.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Who are the Voices in our heads when Reading?

It would appear now that after my hiatus, brought about by unfavourable circumstance, I can now write again here without fear of sinister consequence. I shall not attempt to explain how it came to be that I needed to lay low for a while, but suffice to say that life is very different now to what it was a year ago. My marriage, my home and much of the trappings of middle-class respectability have vanished. It is indeed a new and often uncomfortable chapter in my life with some resultant and happy consolations.

I have missed writing. It is good exercise for the mind and I confess that without it I have felt lesser. Whether it is true or a matter of internal perspective, I felt less articulate and, well, frankly less effective in my communication. It is also interesting to note that to some extent the medium makes the message. Perhaps this is not to be underestimated.
I was with some people at the weekend, for a lovely if rather drunken celebration and they mostly had what would be deemed "Received Pronunciation" English accents. I do not, hailing as I do from an extremely working-class Bristolian family. My accent might be likened, in fact, to that of the animate scarecrow Worzel Gummidge. We discussed quite briefly the drawbacks and advantages of our respective accents; How they dispose people toward us and how they subsequently respond. I feel, personally, in conclusion that I suffer from more of the former consequences than they do. But to dwell on this is not my point here: To hear me speak, you would think me one type of person or one level of intelligence (perhaps) whilst to read my words you would almost certainly believe me to be something altogether different. My West-country burr might imply a number of character traits and tendencies, for instance a liking for cider (which I confess to), a certain slothfulness (arguably correct) and a lower than average intelligence (which I suspect is unlikely to be the case but certainly must remain a possibility to be entertained). Perhaps you might think I own a tractor or have an affinity with cows. Certainly such perceptions must be the result of innate unconscious biases in our individual interpretations of the communication we hear. My written words have no accent.

But putting aside the prejudices of a listener or reader, it does lead to the interesting question of whether we are "different people" in our different modes of expression. Interestingly, research on bilingual people has shown that using each of their different languages to express a set of opinions or thoughts tends to cause them to actually have differences in those opinions or thoughts. The implications of this are that the thoughts themselves are subject to the constraints and influences of the structures of that language. Our language shapes our thoughts. No surprise there then, except the part about the bilingualism.

So, perhaps then the different voices we use when speaking or writing influences the content of mood of our expression too. Perhaps writing in a "voice" different from that of our usual communication medium allows us to be a character different from our usual selves. Maybe my abstention from writing in this manner has caused me to be the other (the actual? Who is to say what this is?) version of me. And indeed, I suddenly find myself to be altered noticeably from who I was when I was talking to colleagues a few hours ago (and oddly perplexed to find this persona actually significantly more comfortable to adopt.)

So, I do wonder how you feel about this? There are many reasons to write here; Seemingly an exercise (generally) without profit but taking some level of concerted effort. For those of you who write, do you feel yourselves shifted into another person for the duration of your writing and for perhaps some period of time afterwards?  Or do you write how you speak, immediately recognisably you?

Incidentally, as an aside, though possibly this is an associated phenomenon, I often wondered in which voice the words we read appear in our heads. If you listen, it is somehow sub-vocal, as in not actually an embodied vocal entity. But intriguingly, reading various poems which should rhyme but which in some dialects do not, it can be shown that the voices in our heads when we read are, if not our own, then at least in the accent of our daily speech. Isn't that fascinating?

Anyway, here I am back, and seemingly, at least from my inner perspective, the better for it.