Wednesday, June 29, 2005

In the spotlight

The quintessential English wood just wouldn't be complete without foxgloves to grace its sunny glades.

I knew that... 

"Maintaining a busy life is a great way to avoid changing it"

- quoted by Jean Vanhoegaerden in an entertaining presentation last week.

Yup, I can see the truth in that...

Monday, June 27, 2005

It may have been done before, but... 

...when you’re in a garden, with a camera, and the sun is shining, and the bees are buzzing and the flowers are flowering; and in particular, when the flowers are in the sunshine and the bees keep landing on the flowers and it all presents itself to you conveniently at eye level right in front of the camera... well... it just has to be done, doesn’t it?

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Environment colours - sometimes literally - what we see


Perception is bound inextricably to perspective, too:

Only the viewpoint has changed


Deformed? Deviant?
Or just doing what comes naturally?

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Phototherapy, Fred calls it.

To begin with, it was just that my eye happened to be caught by the luminous outline of this backlit Stachys byzantina, a.k.a. lamb’s ears, so-called because of the soft, fine, downy covering to its leaves.

But take a while to look a little closer – just a short while in today’s baking sun, which took the temperatures into the nineties – and detail that gets walked past every day with barely a second glance becomes apparent.

No two flower spikes have quite the same form. Some are conical, some cylindrical, some squat, some are happy to integrate with leaves, others keep themselves apart.

The camera itself is my tutor in this process of deepening study. Zoom in on the detail and a new perspective emerges, with appreciation of a scale that my spectacle-aided eyes have difficulty picking out.

At this scale, the tiny flowers, no more than a few millimetres across, lie in a cotton-wool bed:

The sheer wealth of detail in just one tiny corner of the garden would be enough to distract me for the whole day – nearly has, in fact. But then today is a day for slow, unhurried motion – I hesitate to call it activity, that’s far too hasty a word.

‘tis wond’rous, the variety to behold…

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Enough navel gazing. Simple things like the glow of the sun on this pine yesterday evening can do more for the soul than any amount of solitary introspection.

And I never like leaving a woeful post up as the first thing a visitor here might see.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Trying on ideas... 

This is largely for my benefit, to see the words on the screen looking back at me, so I can get a feel for what these thoughts are that chase themselves round my head. There are no decisions, not really even any plans yet; this is a thought-experiment. I’m trying out ideas, seeing how they fit, what it feels like if I wear them. I might try a different idea tomorrow.

One of my heros may have been leading me astray. Carl Rogers wrote an essay included in his book 'On Becoming a Person' which he titled 'A Therapist’s View of the Good Life: The Fully Functioning Person'. Rogers wasn’t talking about some kind of template; his notion of the fully functioning person was, I think, simply the notion of a person who is fully in touch with their own being, fully aware of the flow of their own experience, of their own feelings. Not that the feeling “should” be this or that, but that whatever response a person has to a situation is accepted and received unfiltered by the lenses of past experience and inner perceptions, and not denied or suppressed or locked away behind defenses. It was that word “good” that misled me; the idea that there was a state to aim for that was “better” than the one I was in.

Elsewhere too in the book he wrote about the stages that people go through in counseling, writing in terms of a progression, as though one way of being is in some way better than, or more advanced, more developed than another. He didn’t put it quite like that, nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, I took away the message that there is some kind of ideal to aim for, and believed that it was “good” to strive towards that goal, that I would be incomplete or failing to realize my potential if I didn’t. But having an idea that one way of being is necessarily “better” than another is not always helpful.

So anyway. I’ve been struggling with non-acceptance by myself of some aspects of the way I live, thinking I “ought” to find ways to express the person I believe I am, trying sometimes to behave differently – but it hasn’t really worked. And through the fog, the idea is slowly materializing: if it doesn’t work, let it go. Choose instead something that works.

This is what hasn’t been working. I have two deeply rooted characteristics whose contradictions produce inevitable conflict. As someone who is sensitive (I can tick nearly all these questions) and empathic, I find I am naturally drawn towards connecting with people. But I’m also afraid to connect. It feels uncomfortable to say so, but essentially I'm quite a shy person. I put this down to the severe stammer I had all through childhood and well into early adulthood (the remnants of which still persist today. I simply never learned the basics of getting close to my peers, remaining always a little aloof, a little apart. I learned to be an island. Unlearning that is a non-trivial exercise, after fifty years. And this is the point: unlearning it wouldn’t necessarily be “right” or “good”. If I choose to stay that way, provided its my choice and I’m happy with it, that’s okay. It is, after all, who I am.

This is the conflict: to begin with, the desire to connect is uppermost, so I’m quite good at building rapport, even with total strangers. I barely notice their outer defenses but see through to the person within, and so we can get fairly deep, fairly quickly. But the closer I get, the more uncomfortable I become, and instead of strengthening the connection I’ll withdraw. It’s like two opposite magnetic poles – bring them too close to each other and there’s an invisible force pushing them apart.

That force can be extraordinarily powerful at times, and I'm sure I confuse and upset people because of it. The conflict can be cruel for both sides: cruel in that the initial connection can generate expectations in people that I don’t fulfill, cruel also in the torture it sometimes gives me. There’s nothing “right” or “good” in having close relationships.

Hell, I don’t know whether I believe that or not…

But that’s part of the logic behind the notion of focusing more on my work. It might be better for me to operate in an environment where close relationships aren’t called for. Open, accepting, friendly: yes, up to a point, but only up to a point.

This is only a trial. Constant whining about the job isn’t serving me at all well. It’s time to piss or get off the pot. Make a go of it or find something else. And since something elses are in short supply, I’ll start with making a go of it.

This is where the talk of stopping blogging came in. I’d got stuck because, taking as a starting point the desire to “be” a writer (or photographer, or whatever) I couldn’t take my job seriously. It just got in the way, was irrelevant, and I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it. So if I’m going to take it seriously, I have to find a different starting point. Maybe by letting go of the idea of writing for a while, whilst I focus on the job, I can pick it up again later but without the conflict, without losing the ability to do a job well. Because it’s a hard fact that to survive I do indeed need to do a job tolerably well. That’s one mountain that’s not going to move. And if I find that taking work seriously and writing (I keep saying writing, but really I’m just using that word as shorthand for the whole creative self-expression thing) don’t go together, then maybe I’ll have to let go of the writing. Not with bitterness, although maybe with some regret – but I am prepared to let go of a dream if that’s what it takes to live without constant inner conflict. Letting go of a dream may be a price worth paying.

Like I say, that’s not a plan, just a thought-experiment…

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

...more from Prufrock

No, that is not it, at all...

Thursday, June 16, 2005


I had to laugh at myself at the irony of this…

When I finished university and stepped out into the big wide world clutching my physics degree, I only had one declared ambition – to avoid getting caught up in the rat race.

So how successful have I been?

I studiously avoided positions of status; kept my feet well away from the rungs of the promotion ladder, tossed aside the juicy benefits package and expertly dodged the sky-rocketing salary - thus at the same time neatly side-stepping the risk of being crushed by under the weight of a fat pension.

Pretty successful track record, eh?

Didn’t win ’em all though, there were some I didn’t manage to escape: I cheerfully shouldered the burden of bureaucracy, learned management new-speak and played every nonsensical corporate game, then drank the poison of cynicism and got drafted into the ranks of armies fighting internecine wars.

And no, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. Just enjoying a bit of dark humour. The good has outweighed the bad; I truly succeeded in my intent; I didn’t get caught up in elements of the rat-race I most despised: I didn’t become a corporate disciple or back-stabbing Judas or a brown-tongued sycophant or a power-crazed megalomaniac. But I didn’t really become much of anything else either, although I like to hope perhaps I turned out a reasonably nice guy.

I wonder if I should have put more thought into setting my goals?

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Extract from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Where to now? 

Oh dear. I’m going through another of those “I’m going to stop blogging” phases. My twisted reasoning goes like this:

My self esteem is pretty crap right now.
It’s crap primarily because I’m feeling guilty about low productivity and lack of commitment at work.
It’ll stay crap until I address the work issue.
So I need to become more committed and more productive at work – in other words, more engaged.
I know from past experience that engagement in work and engagement in writing/blogging are mutually exclusive.
I know that last statement looks as though it ought to be debatable, but trust me – those two represent opposite ends of the scale. At least in this job.
This all sounds uncannily like a post I made maybe 18 months ago, and which led on to starting counselling.
So if this is far as I’ve got, I might as well pack up the counselling too.

Where to go from here? I genuinely wonder if I might be happier just being a regular guy who gives an honest day’s work for a fair day’s pay, takes care of his family, maybe messes about with a camera every now and again, enjoys a moment’s peace through the medium of music, but forgets all about hypothetical notions like self-actualisation.

I dunno…

Monday, June 13, 2005

It’s all relative 

“One to collect, one to deliver”

A smiling delivery driver stood on the doorstep, with a large cardboard box in front of him. I had a matching box parcelled up ready by the door.

“Oh, good… you’re not like normal people” he said cheerfully.

I laughed. “No, no, I’m not normal. You’ve noticed, then?”

He wasn’t phased by the twist I gave to his words.
“Most people wouldn’t be ready like that, they’d still be faffing around packing up.”

The box contained my first-ever eBay purchase. After it had given nearly ten years of sterling service, I’d eventually decided to retire my archaic 120MHz Pentium I Windows 95 PC. I only used this as a second PC for internet browse and email, but without the ability to run a modern browser or Gmail it was becoming less and less useful. I toyed with the idea of putting Win98 on it, but that seemed likely to be like putting new wine in old wineskins, as the Biblical metaphor has it. A brand new PC was out of the question, so it was eBay to the rescue.

eBay is stuffed full of old PCs, and because there are so many they don’t command the crazily high prices that some items seem to go for. Definitely a buyer’s market. This one came from a reseller of ex-corporate PCs - a 600MHz PIII from Fujitsu-Siemens for £60, complete with bona-fide copy of Windows 2000 and a 30-day warranty.

Just one little snag though - the thing didn’t work. No sound of a fan, no hard disc spinning up, no sign of life on the monitor, but taking the side panel off showed a glowing LED on the motherboard, so it wasn’t completely dead – just very sick. I was on the phone to the seller, when with perfect timing there came a load crack – sufficient for him to hear - and a large puff of smoke out of the power supply. I thought that kind of thing only happened in the movies – things don’t really blow up, do they? Not bangs, smoke, and all? There weren’t any flashes though – I suppose that’s where the movies depart from reality.

That warranty turned out to be important. To give the guy his due, he replaced the computer, collected the dud one, with no quibbles whatsoever, within 2 days. He said that in four years of running this business, that was the first time anything like that had happened, and I believe him.

So I’m a very satisfied customer. For £60 – okay, plus £17 delivery and another £10 for an extra 128Mb RAM – I now have a second PC running an up-to-date OS, Office XP and most of the software I use on the main PC (which is an Athlon 1800).

It may have been someone else’s cast-off, but next to the old relic I used to use it’s a giant leap forward.

It’s all relative.

I will admit though to a twinge of sadness at parting with an old friend - its last few years of performing only light duties had been like having an old horse put out to grass. But now, having stripped out its only worthwhile vital organs - the second hard drive and the network card - it's not even fit for the knackers yard. Just a pile of scrap metal and plastic.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

I don't do memes, do I... 

Not until today, anyway. But I’m glad Jean passed this one on to me, even though I’ve sat on it for over a week – there are some patterns to my reading I’d not spotted before, which intrigue me.

Let me own up to something first. I’m not what you’d call a literary type. My bookshelves support a wildly eclectic mix: ancient physics text-books from university days alongside paperback popular science; academically-founded counseling rubbing shoulders with guru-inspired self-help; organizational dynamics; coffee-table art, architecture and photography; a particularly large selection of climbing, mountaineering and travel memoirs; reference books of every kind… But amongst the “classic” sci-fi and handful of novels there do sit some that a taxonomist might put into the class of literature.

Total number of books I’ve owned -

Goodness only knows. I’d guess getting on for a couple of thousand. Right now there are probably over five hundred out on shelves around the place and a couple of hundred more gathering dust in boxes in the attic.
I probably had almost as many books in my late teens as I have now, estimated by the length of shelf space available, but most of those are long since gone. They stayed boxed up in my parents’ house for years, moving with them from one attic to the next, and there they stayed, until my father died and my mother moved into a retirement flat. I had no spare space, so many of them had to go, but I kept those that had special meaning for me, some of which I wrote about in this series of posts.

Last book I bought -

The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek, translated by Cecil Parrott.
This has been on my reading list ever since I browsed it in a Cambridge bookshop when this translation first came out, over 30 years ago. Expert procrastinator, me… I’ve only read the first few pages, so no comments yet.

Last book I read -

Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray, translated by Geoffrey Sutton.
I have many books written by mountaineers, mostly accounts of major expeditions and autobiographical climbing memoirs. I strongly relate to the environments and situations, the desires and struggles and the inner force that drives them on; there’s comfort in the vicarious experience even though I’ll never be able to emulate the more extreme exploits they describe. Terray’s book had been on my list for a while, and when we were away camping at Easter I realized I’d forgotten to take anything with me to read by head-torch-light in the tent in the evenings. I didn’t really expect to find such a relatively obscure title in such an out-of-the-way place as Wasdale Head, yet although it’s just a hamlet, not even big enough to be called a village, it boasts a remarkably well stocked outdoor equipment shop with a better selection of climbing literature than you’ll find in many a large town. And there, on the end of the shelf, was the book I was looking for.

Terray, a French mountain guide, climber and champion skier of the post 2ndWW era, had an exceptional string of successes to his name, including the second ascent of the Eiger North Face and a key role in Maurice Herzog’s expedition that made the first ascent of Annapurna, the first of the “8,000-ers” to be climbed. Yet in spite of the rock-solid (sorry!) self-belief necessary to realise these achievements, he retained a modesty and professionalism that earned him immense respect throughout the climbing world. For many climbers, climbing can be an almost spiritual experience, and although he doesn’t make a big deal of it, time and again throughout the book there are little snippets that reveal Terray’s philosophy, his appreciation of mountain worlds and of the people he met amongst them.

Living doing what one most loves, and in the process testing oneself to the limit, seems to have rewarded Terray with an unusual degree of self-knowledge and fulfillment – unless, that is, cause and effect were round the other way and it was his capacity for self-knowledge that led to him being such a successful climber. Perhaps it’s this that gives his simply-written account such directness and honesty – he knew he was a brilliant climber, yet was able to say so without any hint of arrogance.

Five books that mean a lot to me -

Pincher Martin by William Golding.
Christopher Hadley Martin is a Lieutenant on board a 2ndWW destroyer accompanying the North Atlantic convoys, whose ship is torpedoed. He is washed up alone on a tiny rock in the north Atlantic, and we share his ultimately unsuccessful struggle for survival - an intense, brutal, second-by-second subjective narrative of traumatic human experience.

I balked a little at using that word “brutal”. Stories of human brutality sicken me, especially when the reader is forced to confront every barbaric detail, so I’ll usually avoid such tales. But here it’s the brutality of the elements and of the circumstances of war, and the story is of the struggle – the heroic struggle, you might say – against a brutal but impersonal foe.

The writing is extraordinary; we share Martin’s world in intimate microscopic detail, every event mediated through his shattered senses, felt through the lens of his own exhaustion, determination, desperation, rising panic and ultimately delirium as the struggle turns inwards and his foe becomes himself, his own mind. It’s this aspect – mind at the end of its tether – that fascinates, even as it appalls.

Then of course there’s the twist in the very last line, a twist that forces a complete re-evaluation of everything that has gone before, sending mind back over the narrative, turning it over, seeking clues, forcing me to think, hard, about what Golding was really saying.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
One of those seminal works that doesn’t easily fit into any one category but spans several, making it difficult to know where to find it in a bookshop. It’s a story, but is it filed under fiction? Autobiography? Philosophy? It’s all of those, and more. It appealed to me on so many levels – it is intellectually stimulating and challenging, it has a master storyteller’s sense of dramatic tension, and it’s all held together by a finely observed narrative thread – or rather by two interwoven threads, building to a common climax.

It was the view deep inside the workings of another’s mind that made this book special for me. A rather frightening view though – I could appreciate only too well how Pirsig’s obsession with a philosophical idea – quality – could by degrees lead him further and further out of balance until his mind tipped over an invisible edge, for a while severing connection with the world inhabited by the rest of us, and becoming lost in a nether world populated only by himself and his Idea. It’s not every day you get to see inside the mind of a man who the world, at one point, labeled insane; and thus seeing, to realise that the territory is not so unfamiliar. The back cover review from the Times Literary Supplement sums it up perfectly: “Disturbing, deeply moving, full of insights… this is a wonderful book.”

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Perhaps it was because much of the novel is set in a London that is very familiar to me; perhaps it was because the story comes from the soul of a musician; lots of other perhapses… Whatever; in spite of the enormous differences between Michael, the central character, and myself, I could identify with him so completely that I nearly lost myself inside the novel. It only occurred to me afterwards how contrived some of the elements of the plot were. But isn’t that part of what skill in writing is about – coaxing you to believe the unbelievable?

Jean rightly guesses that photography and the countryside – and especially remote and mountainous landscapes – are two of my passions, but perhaps more enduring than either of these is my love of music. So it was gratifying to see inside the mind and the world of a musician – albeit a fictional one - and find reflections of myself there.

I remember thinking as I read: if I could write, this is the kind of writing I’d like to produce. Vibrant, finely detailed and intensely personal.

South by Sir Ernest Shackleton
“Boy’s Own” stuff: sheer unadulterated adventure, inspired leadership, and stunning photography. I’m thinking here of a very specific edition, edited by Peter King. I think he may have abridged Shackleton’s full account very slightly, but more importantly he has added editor’s notes in the margins giving details from others’ accounts that give an alternative view of events or add details that Shackleton glossed over. Added to this are Frank Hurley’s truly astonishing photographs, taken – and processed - in the most extreme conditions and with equipment unbelievably cumbersome by today’s standards.

It’s clear from reading the editor’s notes that Shackleton’s organization and decisions were far from perfect, yet perhaps what distinguished his remarkable leadership was his ability consistently to rise above his own flaws. Why should I be so fascinated by leadership? I’ve never been in any significant leadership role, like as not never will be, and I have no aspirations in that direction. Only once have I ever served under anyone I’d call a good leader (organisations seem to prefer to appoint effective administrators; leaders make too many waves), yet I have a huge admiration for the human quality of leadership. Perhaps I harbour a secret hope that, should the need ever arise, some latent leadership talent deep within me will surface and save the day…
For scientific discovery give me Scott;
for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen;
but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone,
get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

- attributed to Sir Edmund Hillary

Captain Correlli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
Just a darned good read – by turns joyful, mischievous, harrowing, heart-rending and ultimately uplifting. Reflecting the brightest and the darkest in human nature as well as every shade and blend in between, and all, of course, with the kind of writing that immerses you in the sights and sounds, the touches and even the smells of a beautiful Greek island. Impossible to read without tears on several occasions.

Which five bloggers am I passing this to?

All memes fizzle out at some point, and it was tempting to claim that I’d sat on this one for so long that it was getting well past its sell-by date. But the truth is, I struggled with this part because I realised how I’ve been drifting away from engaging with the community of bloggers – or, to be honest, from any community anywhere. I’ve maintained a few tenuous connections, but stayed rather at arm’s length, so identifying 5 bloggers to pass this on to turned out to be the hardest part of the exercise. Rather than sitting in a quiet corner and almost anonymously throwing words out into the wide blue yonder, I’m faced with standing up and making a direct personal request, which makes me strangely nervous. Story of my life…

Anyway, here goes:
Euan – to help him with his commitment to use his own voice rather more…

Stormwind – I’ve known Stormwind through Personal Tangents almost since I began blogging, yet I’ve no idea what she likes to read…

ntexas99 – because I’d like to give her the offer, if she’d like to take it up, of trying out something for the new direction she was looking for lately.

Fred – Now, Fred’s becoming established as a writer (not to mention broadcaster and photographer), but I don’t know what he reads – all that inspiration must come from somewhere…

Christy – well, if her last post is anything to go by, life is very full of exciting new directions at the moment. So, Christy - the offer’s there, but I won’t be offended if you turn it down.

No obligation - feel free to take it or leave it just as you please - and if you do choose to write something, certainly don’t feel any need to be as verbose as I have ended up being.


Several things struck me in the course of writing this:

Every author I’ve mentioned is male. I’m a little ashamed to admit that the overwhelming majority of books on my shelves were written by men. I don’t think I’m excessively biased towards the masculine; I did an online psychometric test a while back – I think one with a reasonable scientific basis, coming as it did from the BBC - this time to identify masculine or feminine ways of thinking, and the result suggested that I have a good balance– equally strong in both. So I don’t read any particular significance into the male bias in this list; nonetheless, it is curious…

I realize that there is a common thread running through these choices; seeing inside another’s mind and finding there a reflection of my own. Not exactly identifying with the character; I’m certainly no Terray or Pirsig or Christopher Hadley Martin or Michael or Shackleton or Dr Iannis. Yet I see the common ground, I see the character they are, I admire their strengths, forgive their weaknesses and in so doing gain a little more understanding of myself – a little more acknowledgement of my own strengths, a little more tolerance of my own weaknesses.

Making a list of candidates for the five books, for some reason I started putting the approximate year I read them beside the title. Before long a very clear pattern emerged; my reading has been through three distinct cycles. The first peak was in teenage years when I used to read late into the night, then set my alarm early to continue in the morning, as well as sometimes spending whole weekends just reading. Then came a long gap which correlates with getting married, having children and watching them grow up. I did though spend many a truly happy hour reading stories and poems to them; just about every night in fact, often three sessions one after another, one for each child to ensure equal and individual attention. The best of those books undoubtedly deserve to be counted as great literature, managing as they do to touch the soul with such simple, brief language.

The next peak occurred in my early forties when I became interested first in organizational dynamics, then in personal effectiveness, self-help and counseling. For five years or so I was commuting by train, giving one to two hours of dedicated reading time every working day.

The third peak, I’m glad to say, is still ongoing - and I guess I have blogging to thank for that.

Sorry this has taken me so long, Jean, but as you can see by the length of the post, I got rather carried away!

But is it art? 

Okay, I admit this may be taking that cropping process just a little far...

Intriguing result though.
Is it a molecular model? Network map? Printed circuit board? Abstract art?

Ah... embryonic elderberrys.
Pity I'm not into home wine-making; looks as though it'll be a good crop.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Misty Mountains 

Interesting what a bit of judicious cropping can do. This photo, dating from a trip to Scotland a couple of years ago, is nothing special but happens to be one of the hundreds that cycles through my screensaver, courtesy of Webshots.

I must have seen it dozens of times but passed over it as holding little of interest. But then it occured to me: what if I home in on just that centre section?

It's still not exactly stunning, but cropping creates a more interesting, pleasing, meaningful result, don't you think, with the foreground ridge leading the eye on into the distance?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Crepuscular Rays 

Yet another version of the view from bedroom window:

Well... yes... okay, in reality that does represent what I saw - or would have liked to have seen - as opposed to what the camera saw. But only very simple adjustments were applied, to enhance the contrast of the mid-tones and make the rays clearer.

I just couldn't resist...
How about this sky-is-burning version?

Or this alien spaceship descending through the night-time clouds?

Much more striking than reality:

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Visited by an angel... 

A timorous knock at the office door.

“I clean the fridge?”

Hesitant English, questioning smile.

“Yes, of course - come in” I say, smiling back.

It’s very, very quiet in here today; I’m the only one in. It’s been rather lonely, just two phone calls and no visitors, so a spot of human company is welcome. I busy myself on the computer as she gets on with her job behind me, on the other side of the office.

Then the strangest thing... an extraordinary feeling of well-being comes over me. I can’t see what she’s doing, but I sense that although it’s only a simple task, she’s fully engaged, doing it caringly, and finding pleasure in it too. I don’t turn and look for fear it will break the spell.

Time stops for a while as I appreciate the moment.

Eventually though she finishes and leaves and the spell is broken.

I wonder if she’s a Zen student? Or maybe that way of being is just natural for her? Whatever; her simple happiness in her task was strong enough to radiate out across the office, touch me and brighten my afternoon. I wonder if she spreads that same feeling everywhere she goes? Maybe she’s an angel in disguise, sent to bring a moment’s harmony into discordant offices through the mindful cleaning of fridges...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On elephants, anchors and crutches 

I’ve often found it slightly worrying – alarming even – how thoughts and moods, without anything to hold them steady, will often drift unfettered. What you might call horizontal drifting – just aimlessly wandering around the surface of the ocean – seems harmless enough (although not very productive); after all, one set of waves is much like another set; but that’s not really what worries me. It’s vertical drift that bothers me, mood swings up and down. Bubbling up into a place of energy, enthusiasm, peace, joy… or sinking down into the depths of lethargy, resignation, cynicism and victimhood. There are no walls between these extremes, no barriers to cross between one place and the other; it’s quite possible to wander unimpeded, almost without knowing, across the boundary, since the boundary isn’t real, it’s just some point on the scale between extremes. Without something to hold you steady, some kind of anchor, there are no brakes and if momentum builds, in any direction, it’s not easy to stop.

So given such complete freedom, why is it that the direction taken is so often down? Why does it take energy and commitment to keep rising above a status quo that hovers around mediocrity?

Perhaps it’s simply that, by definition, that’s where the mean lies, halfway between the euphoric and the suicidal. That’s where, on average most of us spend most of our time. Sure, there are excursions either way but for Mr or Mrs Average those deviations tend not to be long-lived. And if mediocrity is where we mostly live, that too is where we are most comfortable. So the urge not to rock the boat, not to stand out, not to suffer the tension of being different might be one kind of anchor that keeps us in this grey middle place.

Oh, but I’m assuming something. Well, many things probably, but one thing in particular. Do any of these states – the high, the middle, the low – have any link with reality, whatever that is? Can we really say our mood is a direct product of our circumstances? I suspect that at any time, for any of us, there are plausible reasons why we might be in almost any particular mood state. There are always, as Ian Dury’s song said, reasons to be cheerful, always reasons to be gloomy, and always reasons to ignore both cheer and gloom and just get on with it – whatever it is – regardless. The balance will vary, but we have a degree of choice. So is it all a matter of selective vision – am I just keeping my eyes selectively closed, and all I need do is take a more balanced view? Or maybe a more unbalanced view would give a rosier picture? No absolutes, more drifting…

This line of thought all got sparked off by a line in an email at work. Along with the entire workforce on supervisory grades and above, I’ve been taking part in an ongoing leadership programme. It’s run just over half its course now, so they are seeking feedback – asking in effect “How was it for you?” There was no reason not to reply honestly, so I did just that. Once upon a time, I said, I would have been fired by enthusiasm for such a programme. And to be fair, both to the leaders of the course and to myself, I was thoroughly engaged in the off-site elements off the programme. But it’s made little difference to the way I work; I’ve dropped into a resigned “what’s the point?” attitude towards it. As I said in the feedback, that’s not really like me at all. So why the downwards drift?

Part of it seems to be an eternal tiredness, sometimes verging on exhaustion. But where does that come from? It’s not physical, neither is it really mental; it’s more like a spiritual tiredness. Battles are exhausting and I seem to be forever fighting battles against a whole herd of invisible elephants that fill the room. Yes, I know, it’s a paradox – how can I be fighting something that’s invisible? Well, it’s a paradoxical battle, and that kind is much more exhausting than the real thing. I sense these elephants in the room; they follow me wherever I go, dogging my footsteps, laying their heavy trunks on my shoulders, hiding round corners. I could name some of them…

But I digress.

Where was I? Oh yes - selective visions and reasons to be cheerful… The trouble is, as I was saying, there will always be some reason, or at least some excuse, to feel just about anything from euphoric to suicidal and every nuance in between. Probably all at once. So, as the saying goes, whatever you focus on becomes your reality. Therefore it’s not reality itself that’s the problem. Choose joy or sorrow; pain or pleasure. Here’s the catch: you can choose any of those and there’s nothing – NOTHING – to stop you inadvertently, when you weren’t thinking about it, accidentally choosing another mood and before you know it, there you are, stuck in it. Crazy thing is, it can work both ways, both up and down, yet there seems to be some natural law that says, on balance, there tends to be a downward drift. Kinda ties in with the view that life’s a bitch, then you die. Not a view I subscribe to btw.

BUT but but… it’s not always like that, at least not for everyone. There can be something that restrains, something that stops that unfettered drift of moods. That something can either be preventative, a barrier that stops you going too far either way (yes, sometimes we get stopped – or at least I do – from getting too high), or – and here I’m at last getting to the point – it can be a fixed reference point, somewhere secure to which you can return.

The first kind, the preventative kind of restraint, might be fear – fear of being different, fear of losing control, fear of social or moral or legal consequences. Some interpretations of some kinds of religions work that way too – the rules-based “Thou shalt not” kind. But then fear can be neutralised; take it away and suddenly there’s no stopping and the entire spectrum of being is available. I guess hallucinogenic drugs can give that kind of experience.

But more interesting is the fixed reference point kind of restraint; more of an anchor than a restraint really. It might be all sorts of things; a relationship; a powerful self-belief, or in fact any deeply held unshakeable belief; even a place like a house or a hometown. Or it might be religion. Not the kind that sets rules but the kind that provides a secure anchor for belief. In fact that may be one of the things that matter most about a religion - not whether it’s “true” in any absolute sense, but whether it provides a fixed reference point, an anchor on which lives may be founded; a lighthouse, not to mark the rocks, but to light the safe path back to a place of spiritual security.

Religion may be one of the elephants in my room.

Of course, although I’ve called it an anchor, others would call it a crutch. But maybe those two views aren’t so different; just alternative ways of looking at the same thing - different labels that unfortunately carry very different associations. Anchors being something positive, necessary, good; crutches being only for the weak. It’s easy to get carried away by the pejorative associations of the label and forget the simple function.

Oh, but I digress again. I wasn’t intending to give a treatise on the place of religion in our lives, or its place in my life. I was just noting that, left unchecked, moods can all too easily fall to the level of the lowest common denominator, and the more that fall, the lower that common point sits. And since we all sit there together, nobody notices how low it is. We all think everything is quite normal and as it should be.

I need an anchor to arrest that fall, and take me back to that fixed point; that place of clarity, of understanding, where I say "Ah yes, of course, that's how it is...", and I sometimes find it hard to find one.

Music may be the closest I've found yet. Perhaps more on that anon.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Getting old disgracefully 

So is this what I’ve got in store?

That, and writing posts about wheelie-bins...

(found, with many a chuckle, via Sandhill Trek)

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Elbow room 

A truck made its way down our street the other day, dropping off a huge green wheelie-bin at every house. It seems our local council is finally catching up with the times and expanding its recycling scheme. This bin’s none too fussy about what it eats – just about anything vaguely animal or vegetable goes in – kitchen scraps, garden waste, cardboard – even tree trunks, so it says.

Wonderful! Eco-friendly! Time saving! (Fewer trips down to the communal recycling bins at the local dump). Oh, probably smelly too… Just one snag though - the source of all that rubbish is out the back, but it obviously has to be collected from the front of the house. So? It’s just a bin, on wheels, so what’s the big deal? Just wheel it round.

Well, it took an entire Sunday afternoon to re-arrange the garage (far too valuable a space to waste by keeping a mere car in there) and the area outside the back door to accommodate said wheelie-bin and allow clear passage through from back to front. Now, I’m not complaining – the garage needed a good tidy-up and it means we can be more selective about what goes on the compost heap and in the wormzwork. But I did think rather wistfully of the archetypal American suburban home set in a wide plot with yards of space all round where any such new facility could be accommodated with ease, whilst here we sit in the UK in our little boxes squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, where the smallest addition requires a major reshuffle.

There’s just no elbow-room in England.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Martian devil 

Another one for space-junkies - an amazing sequence of images. Whether or not there has ever been life on Mars, the presence of something as simple as wind is enough to make it feel as though the planet itself is alive.

More details here.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Looking for ripples in spacetime 

Once upon a time I would have called myself an engineer, but I’m in two minds about that epithet now. Although engineering can be useful, I don’t often get excited about it. But then people aren’t creating devices like this every day.

Take two lumps of metal, free-float them in space 3 million miles apart, and measure any changes in the distance between them to an accuracy of one-tenth of the size of an atom. Challenging? You bet.

If you’re at all scientifically inclined, it’s well worth a scan across the many pages of the site describing the project, intended directly to detect ripples in spacetime (a.k.a. gravitational waves, but don't ripples in spacetime sound so much more appealing as objects of study?).

Maybe what I’m most in awe of is that someone, somewhere had the audacity to believe the impossible and then to make it happen.

(Found via APOD)