My democratic write

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UK General Election tomorrow. It is, as they all are, the most important for a generation. There is, as there always will be, 24 hours to save something or other (this time Europe? the NHS?). We face, regardless of the result, an apocalyptic outcome.

Regardless of the hoo-hah, this certainly seems to be the closest election in a very long time, and the result genuinely could determine some fundamental aspects of who we are as a country. Are we to continue as a nuclear state? Will we stay in the European Union?

I feel almost entirely disengaged from it, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for the third time in a row, my vote is almost entirely useless. I live in East Devon where the Conservatives have an unassailable majority and are hard-wired into the rural culture. I’ll vote, but I’ll know that I am merely expressing my view without hope of affecting change.

Secondly, I’m not watching television at the moment, barely listening to the radio and not reading newspapers at all. I’ve caught the election obliquely, as if glanced from the corner of my eye. I think I’ve been sufficiently in touch to know that I haven’t missed anything significant, but nothing has drawn me any closer to the debate that one would hope, in the absence of evidence, has been going on.

Thirdly, what I have caught has seemed utterly depressing and worthy of despair at the level of political discourse we are offered or are able to create. Bloke A looks weird. Bloke B and Woman C might both get enough votes that they can join together and govern in coalition. You should be so frightened of what the other parties might do, especially if they join together to form a huge political transformer robot and smash parliament to smithereens, that you vote for me to make all that scary stuff go away.

I’ve seen friends begin genuine attempts to start detailed discussions of party policies to try to engage and potentially change the minds of their friends and associates, only to be told to keep it down or that trying to influence others is somehow rude.

Politics means ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’. Politicians take us to war, take and spend our taxes, determine the future of the state assets we all own together. And yet, more now than at any time I can remember, we seem unable to look them in the eye, tell them what we think, and demand things of them. In doing so, we let them step right over us. We can’t even, it would seem, find the courage to talk to each other about politics, politicians and all the things they are doing and wish to do to us. Perhaps, after all, we will get the government we deserve.

Counting Up The Days

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chainsI’ve made concerted efforts over the last couple of years to cut out various things that I thought I would be better off without. Simple things like food, football, news and social contact. This year I also made a conscious and structured effort to start some things.

There were things I actively wished I was doing on a regular basis. The sort of things that are easy to think about doing more of, and even easier to push to one side during each busy day. The sort of cans lots of us tend to kick down the road, instead of picking them up and dealing with them.

I was prompted to think carefully about whether I could motivate myself to develop the sort of daily habits I wanted by this Lifehacker post which I read last December.

I confess that the unexpected offer of organisational advice from Jerry Seinfeld was what drew me in, but immediately the foundation of the idea seemed sound, and also a good fit for my stubborn nature. With the New Year just a couple of weeks away, I resolved to give it a try.

The method couldn’t be simpler: Print out a calendar, do whatever it is you want to do every day and when you do, cross out that day. In doing so you start to build up a chain of crosses that becomes harder and harder to break the longer it gets.

When I considered what I wanted to achieve ‘more writing’ was an easy choice but, perhaps swayed by the author of the post, I realised that dedicating some time each day to chip away at household and admin chores would also be beneficial in many ways and that a little exercise, often, might also be a good upgrade.

And it’s worked. On each of the last 365 consecutive days I have done at least 15 minutes of exercise, at least 15 minutes of writing and at least 15 minutes of chores, or thereabouts.

The process is as simple as it sounds and I’ve found it relatively easy to build into my time. Or, put another way, I’ve found the sense of commitment this approach engenders in me sufficiently strong that it has made me make this stuff happen. You may fare differently if you try, but this particular method feels almost precision-tooled to force me into new and seemingly unshakeable habits. Previously, just vaguely hoping I would become more organised and motivated to do constructive things at some point, well, that’s never really cut it.

So, how has it been?

Exercise

It took a while for this one to settle into a manageable set of options. I don’t have a huge amount of spare time, or a gym membership, or an ergometer in my spare room. There are a couple of fixed points in my week that help to break the back of the requirement: I play Ultimate on a Monday lunchtime, and football on a Thursday evening. Weekends are better for finding time to run or ride my bike which mostly left three or four days per week as gaps to fill.

What made this one achievable for me was the Hundred Push-Ups Program. It’s a 6-week program which builds up sets of press-ups, which I’d seen recommended by a friend on social media. Accepting that this is the one place where my timing definitions have slipped – the daily sessions often take less than 15 minutes to complete – these programs were too good not to use as gap-fillers. So, I worked my way through the 100 Push Ups program – I’ve done that four times now this year – and followed it with related regimes for lunges, squats, sit-ups and pull-ups. I doubt that these programs will turn me into Charles Atlas, but I do know that they are fine and perfectly portable ways to meet this commitment wherever you find yourself.

With the exception of this latter exercise (it’s surprising how few places there are in the general environment to do pull-ups, although I did complete one session in a tree outside a party) these are perfect because you can do them anywhere at all. And that’s my major tip for any of these activities. If you are setting out to create a daily habit, then choose something you can do every day, otherwise you’re doomed. Unless you spend every day of your life in exactly the same place, then you are going to need to choose things you can take with you and do more or less wherever you are.

Writing

Doing this has been easy enough. Wondering whether I’m doing the right sort of writing, whatever that is, has been a constant and perhaps integral part of the process. If you’ve ever spent any time reading tips for writers, you’ll be familiar with the advice that you just need to write every day. If you’ve ever tried to write something that needs a lot of time and work, like a novel, then you’ll know in your heart of hearts that the likelihood that the perfect time and space to do this will somehow arrive in your life as if by magic is vanishingly small. So, write a little bit every day, they say. You’ll make progress and you’ll develop a writing habit.

They’re right, and it works. I’ve written (just writing for me, not work, not email, not social media updates) for at least 15 minutes every day for the last year. And for me, that’s great. I’ve produced a huge amount of work, by my standards, which is also great. For me. If you’ve had to read any of it, you may think this has not been such a wonderful development. You may be right.

What I haven’t done is written a novel. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably an extremely good thing. However, the nagging irritation at the end of the year is that, I basically could have done. I have a long piece of writing which is around 8,000 words. It’s no good, but that’s fine for me. I know that if I’d worked excuisively on this it would have been at least 50,000 no-good words by now. That’s as long as the Great Gatsby.

Instead, my approach has been to sit down and write whatever takes my fancy, and I’ve been surprised by what that has turned out to be. For instance, I’ve written more than 40 poems, because I’ve sat down to write and the shape of the words that come into my head, or from my notebook, have lent themselves to poetry. Without an obligation to write a little something each day I never would have developed these lines into anything at all. And I’m glad I did. I’ve barely ever written poetry before and I’ve gained a lot from doing it this year.

Alongside these I have a file stuffed with more than 100 notes, some are lines captured from everyday and developed, others are 500 word scenes or spurges or jeu d’esprits. Writing them quite often helped me to figure something out. Most of them kept me occupied and engaged for at least 15 minutes, and that’s something in itself, believe me.

Some of the writing has been from duty. Last year my posts for Devon Record Club tended to lag behind, usually being bashed out at the last moment, two or three weeks after the meetings they covered. This year, when sitting down to write once each day, if there’s something I have to write, I write it. As a result I often have my posts ready two weeks before each meeting, usually with a further two or three written in reserve.

Add to this another few dozen general blog posts and that’s a reasonable amount of stuff. Very little of it is of any consequence at all, but spending some time putting one word after another gives me pleasure and a sense of wellbeing, as much as any exercise programme.

Writing, of course, is one of the most adaptable of pursuits, and I’ve been able to do it anywhere. There have been days when the only 15 minutes I could carve out meant I had to write something, anything, on the back of an envelope in my car. So I did.

Chores

This started well, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but over the year the definition of a chore has been pushed and stretched close to breaking point. I’ve ended up allowing any job that genuinely needs doing but which I could, if I wish, just put off until another day. Proper daily or weekly chores like doing the washing up, taking rubbish out, making beds etc, don’t count. Those things have to be done, and so giving myself a cross for doing them is letting myself off the hook. I’d be doing them anyway, and the point of this chain is to accomplish things I otherwise wouldn’t. Some close compadres do make it onto the list though. Hoovering, for instance, should be done but doesn’t HAVE to be done. So, running the hoover round the house for 15 minutes is perfect and, as such, our house has been opportunistically cleaned way more than in any previous year.

At the start of the year I stuck fairly closely to doing additional housework or maintenance. Surfaces were cleared and cleaned. Shelves were dusted. Bathrooms were scoured, all 15 minutes at a time, but building up pretty quickly. Some spots in our wonky house are hard to reach unless you’re a bluebottle looking for a place to die. The ladders came out and these were swept. For a couple of months it looked like our house was going to be in a state of perpetual spring cleanliness. And then my definitions began to warp.

First up, I started to include admin. I’m happy that paying bills or balancing accounts absolutely fits my definition above as we are terrible at letting jobs like this drift for weeks at a time. Getting them done on time has made a detectable difference to our background levels of nagging micro-stress and, from the other end of the process, having a few of these jobs stored up to do offers an easy out when I just need something easy to chug through for 15 minutes.

Second up, I started to tackle bigger admin projects. In the Spring I finally started cataloguing my vinyl records, something I’d been meaning to do for a couple of years, and which has needed doing, strictly speaking, for decades. This kept me busy for weeks, filling dozens of 15 minute slots while the kitchen went neglected and the windows un-wiped. I wondered throughout whether this was some sort of displacement activity (if you’re reading this and thinking ‘who else does he think is actually making up the rules here?’ then you’re well ahead of me) but ultimately it was a reasonably important job I’d made no sort of start on, and it’s now been done.

In between all these I set up new phones, backed up photos, upgraded software, connected up stereos, built furniture, hung pictures. All things I should have been doing as I went, but I wasn’t.

In theory this is a pretty portable habit, although it might sound like just the opposite. Look around you now. Unless you’re in solitary confinement or an airlock, there’s probably something in the room that you could be sorting out one way or another. In practice, two things are really helpful in making this one work every single day: a sense of altruism and a smartphone. The first helps you find things to do in other people’s spaces. I’ve cleaned cooker hobs at my Mum’s house, fixed computers for friends and built flat-pack furniture for family. The second means that you can do chores even if the only spare time you have is on a bus, or even at a bus stop, assuming, like me, you never normally get around to deleting rubbish photos, sorting out your contacts or calling that guy you were supposed to call about that thing.

Drawbacks

So, these three are doable, with organisation and a little leeway. I know what you’re thinking: ‘Wow! Doing chores, exercise and pointless writing every day? This guy is living the dream!’ Well, let me tell you, it’s not all as good as I make it sound.

I often find myself working towards a 15 minute limit and then stopping, the obligation met, when of course I could and maybe should have gone on, or at least taken what I was doing to a more natural break point. My writing from this year is littered with pieces that stop when the clock has been satisfied, leaving ideas half-developed and threads dangling that I then find it almost impossible to pick up the next day. Numerous times I’ve been working well and have forced myself to stop and save the next push for tomorrow so I won’t have to look for something else to tackle. When tomorrow comes, the momentum has been left behind. If I’ve already done my chore for the day and I see something else that needs sorting out, I’ll often walk on by, happy that I have a job lined up for tomorrow. And the average length of my exercise sessions is tending towards 15 minutes pretty sharply.

I guess I’d also have to say that quantity and regularity is not the same as quality. I’ve mostly dealt with this through some self-imposed thresholds and standards, but there have still been a few times, and probably only a few, when I’ve been filling one of my 15 minute slots fully aware that what I was doing really was just filler. I’m setting against this the knowledge that each of my three chosen habits can still be productive when you’re going through the motions. Jogging may not be as good for you as running, but it’s okay. Writing dreck is still writing, and you never know when something good will come along. Cleaning down those kitchen surfaces even through they’re pretty clean already still leaves them cleaner than when you started.

Conclusions

If you’ve read this far and think you might tick the way I do, then this can work for you. Here’s the thing though. Use it thoughtfully to form habits you genuinely need, or at least really, really want. Because in order to develop and maintain those habits you will be introducing a constantly ticking, never stopping, low-level stress clock into every single day of your life.

2015

For the record, I’m going to carry on. I either shouldn’t or don’t want to quit any of the three habits I’ve developed. Instead, next year I think I’m going to introduce a couple more and also add in a new musical-wild-card rule.

First up, my reading has collapsed over the last couple of years, so I’m going to have 15 minutes of a book, either in hard copy or audio, every day.

Secondly, I really don’t drink enough water. I know there are differing views as to how much, if any, additional water we should drink each day, but I just don’t drink any, basically, and whole days can go by where I’ve played sport, dashed about doing all sorts of stuff and only drunk two cups of coffee. If I drank more, more regularly, I might feel better, so i’m going to drink a litre of water every day.

Finally, I’d love to set aside some time to practice playing the guitar, but it’s not at all practical as a daily commitment, so I’m going to allow myself to substitute 15 minutes of guitar practice for any one of the above if I feel like it. It makes me feel a little cheaty to do that but, as I think I’m beginning to realise, I’m doing this for my own benefit and I make up the rules, okay?

2014: My music of the year

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When I think back over 2014, I think of albums fleetingly, I think of songs, mostly and, pretty quickly, I think of specific moments. Three audio moments and one video moment in particular.

The sound moments all seemed to emerge from the same genus. They were these:

1. The moment in ‘Digital Witness’ by St Vincent when the chorus kicks in and the gear shift delivers a gentle, but with time unmistakeable, jolt. You feel you’ve been shoved into motion, have received a gentle blow against your inertia.

2. The moment in ‘Queen’ by Perfume Genius when Mike Hardreas gives a ‘WUH!’ as the main refrain hits. You can feel the wind being slammed out of him as the song he has created delivers a belting blow to the solar plexus.

3. The incredible passage in ‘Daughter’ by Wild Beasts, which follows perhaps my favourite lyric of the year. “From the egg / Broke my little girl / Destroyer of worlds”. What happens next is a heady, organic attempt to recreate the wub-wub dubstep drop. It’s a moment both amusing, impressive and, eventually, moving.

In their own ways each of these moments seem like attempts to recreate the feeling of standing too close to the big speaker and suddenly realising that the bass beats are too much for you to handle. Each represents a primarily rock artist delivering a sensation only previously available via the dancefloor. That’s not a particularly noteworthy observation, but it’s all I’ve got.

And speaking of the dancefloor, here’s that video moment again.

[youtube:http://youtu.be/1Ee4bfu_t3c%5D

I wrote about it at length here.

Elsewhere there are more moments, big and small. My music is inexorably becoming more about the song and less about the album, with some notable and important exceptions. For the first time since I got my first CD player and could skip back and forwards without having to hold down a RWD or FWD button, the means by which I listen to music is fundamentally altering the way the music lands and what I go on to make of it.

Because I enjoyed putting together an end of year playlist at the end of 2013, a playlist I listened to over and over again in December and January and which in a slightly pernicious way came to represent the year for me, I started doing the same much earlier this year. And so, much more quickly, my sense of what music has meant and done for me in 2014 has been winnowed down to single tracks to represent albums, artists or larger bodies of work.

Sometimes whole records fell away. I love Liars and I really liked ‘MESS’, the album they released earlier in the year which forced home the steps toward the dark dancefloor they had begun to take on ‘WIXIW’. But almost immediately I decided the track ‘Darkslide’ would go onto my 2014 playlist, and that’s the last time any of the rest of the record got a look in. The blinkered stupidity of this approach is betrayed by the fact that each time I hear that one song, my first thought is ‘I wonder if I chose the right track?’.

Sometimes there is only one piece to choose, for instance ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ by Jamie XX. Released as a stand alone, it encapsulates something perfectly and doesn’t need any supporting body of work to prop it up.

In other cases specific tracks genuinely did force their way out from the crowd. I wasn’t immediately smitten with ‘Present Tense’ the fourth album by Wild Beasts, but it grew and grew on me and now I think it may be their best. But even when that status had been attained, one track continued to grow. ‘Daughter’ caught my attention the first time I listened to the album on headphones. The drop in the middle really is a stunning moment, enough to keep bringing me back to appreciate the exquisite sonics of the rest of the track. Only then did I realise how perfectly the lyrics summation of the feeling of awe, horror and obsolescence that comes as part of parenthood. I think it’s my favourite song released this year.

Other albums felt like single movements and choosing a single track felt like randomly sticking a pin in. Mica Levi’s masterful soundtrack seeps from every alien pore of Jonathan Glazer’s absolutely extraordinary film ‘Under The Skin’ and, once seen and heard together, the music alone is enough to rekindle the dread of the movie, and one track does that as effectively as the whole suite.

‘Atomos’ by A Winged Victory For The Sullen hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s beautiful but, currently, a single indistinguishable piece for which one track can stand as well as almost any.

Meanwhile some records simply couldn’t be picked apart. ‘Everybody Down’ by Kate Tempest and ‘Benji’ by Sun Kil Moon made this year’s strongest arguments for the album as an art form. Tempest’s was a traditional concept album built around a narrative of lust and violence and lifted to the rafters by her lyrics, by turns hilarious and brutal:

Gayle was Pete’s Mum’s new boyfriend’s son
He had a mouth that was too small for his tongue
Teeth like a ladder that was missing a rung
Chin looked like it was trying to run

Meanwhile Mark Kozelek used ‘Benji’ to almost redefine what narrative albums could be. Under the cover of word-of-mouth blank poetry he builds a fractured picture of his life, zooming in on personal details and out to the grand sweep of life, meeting death every time he moves. It feels both matter of fact, as if he had sat down and written it in the time it takes to perform it, and at the same time a delicate, near perfect construction bristling with call-backs, cultural and person references and the laden deathlorn sadness of everyday life.

My musical inputs are now apparently so fatally fractured that albums like ‘Benji’ or Ought’s ‘More Than Any Other Day’ or Swans ‘To Be Kind’, works which demand or somehow earn the right to be listened to in full, are now the exception rather than the rule. I still pick them up and I still listen to them, but I picked up most of my musical leads this year through podcasts or online reviews, and followed them up through Spotify. I still bought a bunch of records, but most were after-the-fact.

I’m not entirely saddened by this, but I have to reflect it. My listening is now much broader than it ever has been, but it is also, necessarily, much shallower.

My song of the year? That might be ‘Lah Di Dah’ by Jake Thackray, but that’s another story.

The Name of a Famous Woman

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I’ve forgotten the name of one of the most famous women in the world. She’s the daughter of the star of ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ whose name I have also forgotten.

I can picture their faces. In fact, I was looking at the daughter’s face through an episode of ‘Arrested Development’ when I realised I’d forgotten her name. That was about 15 minutes ago and it hasn’t come back to me yet, although I have, just this second, remembered Judy Garland.

I can remember that the daughter starred in the screen version of ‘Cabaret’, and I can picture her in that. I can also remember that she was, in recent memory, married to a guy called David Guest who was, I believe, a music producer of some sort, although mainly famous for being married to one of the most famous women in the world. The daughter of Judy Garland and star of ‘Cabaret’ no less.

I’m still writing, and the name is not sneaking in via some back door. What the hell is going on?

I’ve been drawing similar blanks over the last 6 months or so. I usually let them ride and, sure enough, after a little while and some distraction, the missing name, and it always seems to be a name, comes back. This time I haven’t let it ride and it seems only to have compacted the void. I know I can solve it in five seconds by googling, but what will that solve? I have a hard, round hole in the part of my head that used to store the name of Judy Garland’s daughter and I do not seem to be able to think myself back into knowing that single solitary fact.

I have wondered to myself as these lapses come and go whether I’ve simply reached a point where my head is just full. There are too many songs, too many catchphrases from 1980s sitcoms, too many people, too many places, too many memories and so, as new information finds a home, it does so at the expense of an old piece of data that I can probably do without. I’m working hard, immersed in family life and constantly tired. Surely that’s going to take a toll? And perhaps one of the ways it might is to cause unusual gaps in one’s mental rolodex. My wife would tell me that she never remembered that woman’s name in the first place, so I’ve nothing to worry about.

Maybe. But all that sounds to me like self-deception, pure and simple. Even worse, it sounds like exactly the sort of half-baked explanation I came up with when, approximately 7 or 8 years before he died, having suffered terribly with late-onset multiple sclerosis, my father sat me down and told me he was worried because he was forgetting words in certain situations. “Don’t worry Dad,” I told him. “It happens to everyone. It happens to me all the time and I’m 30 years younger than you.”

But what happened to my father does not happen to everyone, and he knew that what was happening was substantial and serious. I read recently about some research suggesting that a significant number of dementia sufferers know they have a problem before they get anywhere near a diagnosis. I think the piece even went so far as to suggest that one of the most effective ways to spot dementia in its very early stages is simply to ask someone if they think they may have early stage dementia.

I say I think the piece suggested that, because I can’t trust my memory, and I am terrified to look it up. And I still can’t remember the fucking name of one of the world’s most famous women.

Update: It just came to me, from out of nowhere, an hour after I started thinking about little else. That’s too long.

I’m a stand up guy

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Standing DeskSitting is the new stupid, it seems.

I’d read a smattering of pieces on Lifehacker or Boing Boing or wherever over the last few years and wondered, in a vague and passing way, how it must feel to stand and use a computer all day. Impossible, in short. Standing for more than an hour or so used to make me feel as if my spine was pile-driving my pelvis through the middle of my knees.

At the same time I’ve known for years that I’m just a terrible sitter. Despite my constant availability, I have not yet been called into a life of crime fighting, elite sportsmanship or sheep herding. It seems, therefore, that I am likely to spend a significant part of my working life, itself possibly stretching ahead for the next 20 or 30 years, working at a desk.

I also find myself, once in a while, expounding without any authority about how we are surely heading for some sort of Office Worker Extinction Event in 20 or 30 years time as a generation pays heavily for having been sedentary for their entire adult lives. I have no idea whether this is a reasonable projection, but I know two things: Firstly, it feels like it could be, and that’s the most important thing and, secondly, despite feeling this fairly strongly, I’d done nothing to change my own behaviour.

For the last 12 months I had a little cartoon of a guy demonstrating the correct way to sit in an office chair set as the desktop image on my work computer. I’ve got rid of him now. I used to nod hello to him every morning as I booted up and then he’d spend the entire day buried beneath a deep stack of windows. I stopped noticing him. I just was’t paying him enough attention, so our days were numbered. Sorry little guy, it was me, not you.

Then, in the Summer, as part of shifting desks in and out of storage to accommodate a new team member, it occurred to me to ask whether there was a standing desk in there. We used to work with a woman who had to be constantly vigilant to keep her back problems at bay and in the course of her time with us she accumulated a wide range of adapted chairs and tables. Her most impressive piece of kit was an electric desk that could be lowered and raised as required, including up to standing height. It must, I thought, be lurking somewhere in storage.

I asked and, in return, I received a dog-eared little table, distinctly non-adjustable but, as it happened, more or less the right height for me to stand at. So, in the spirit of enquiry, I left it by the window and resolved to try it once in a while. I did, bending over my laptop for half an hour here or there. It was novel, but not revelatory. I used it less and less.

In August we moved offices and, without quite enough desks to go around, it seemed as if it might be time to really give the standing desk a proper go. I’d continued to skim pieces about the long-term health problems sitting might cause, and my sitting itself was getting worse, so why not?

I’m not one for easing into changes like this, particularly when they involve giving up something apparently vital to leading a normal life. I’d read that it was important to shift from sitting to standing gradually, but once I’d made the mental switch, the physical shift had to follow unequivocally. So, when we came back from our Summer holiday, I started standing.

I didn’t find the transition difficult to make. I had been led to expect to find myself struggling and having to sit after a couple of hours, slowly building up over a number of weeks until I could do a full day. Instead I haven’t sat down to work at my PC since that first morning, with the exception of making the odd phone call and attending the usual, very odd meetings.

I think it’s been good, although I’m not completely sure of that, and I’m not sure I can quantify the ways. What I can say with some certainty is that in many ways it really doesn’t feel much different. By which I mean, within a few days I was standing to work without actively thinking about it. If that’s the case, half-knowing what I think I know, why not stand?

The pieces extolling the benefits continue to drift beneath my nose and I continue to glance at or listen to them. Like many of the apparently significant lifestyle changes I’ve made over the last few years, this one has been made on a few shreds of hastily digested evidence and forced home through gut instinct and stubbornness. Once a change of this sort has been affected, I find it’s important not to continue to delve deeply into the external rationale. Sometimes the belief that you’re doing yourself some good can be enough. For me, anyway.

I haven’t felt a detectable surge of additional vitality. Perhaps there’s been one but only of sufficient quantity to give me the energy to stand all day. I can’t be certain that I’m more creative or focussed. I can say with some certainty, that I never find myself drifting off into a reverie, pushing away tiredness or the unwelcome advances of sleep as I’m sure most office workers do at some time or another. When you’re standing up, your body seems keen to keep you awake.

I have, however, developed intense paraesthesia in my left arm and hand. That’s pins and needles to you and I. One of the absolutely clear lessons I’ve learned this year, and in hindsight it seems obvious, is that being a poor sitter is no guarantee of being a good stander. For whatever reason, I certainly am not. A couple of weeks after I started standing to work I started to feel intense tingling in my arm when I sat back down. By adjusting my angle I could make it dissipate or, indeed, bring it back. I traced this to an intensely tender spot between my shoulder blades and, after putting up with the effects for 5 or 6 weeks, I finally went the see a physiotherapist.

It turns out i’m not so good at standing as I may have thought. I’d been staying on my feet by locking my knees, hoicking up my pelvis and thus whacking everything above it out of line. Now, under instruction, I’m softening my knees and standing like an orang-utan, or at least that’s how it feels underneath my trousers which are, otherwise, unmoved. I have some stretches to do the lengthen out my nerves, which is a good thing all round. It’s getting better.

So, in conclusion, I can’t claim that this has been a revelation or even feels as if it’s a long-term transition to a better way of working. I can say that it hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it might be, and that I quite like it. Going back to sitting for whole days at a time now feels like a fundamentally weird thing to do. Which, bearing in mind I’ve been doing it for the preceding 37 years, does indeed seem like a profound shift. In that way, at least, it feels like a positive change, even if I can’t put my finger on why.

For the foreseeable future, i’m a stand-up guy.

Tips

Make sure the surface of the desk is at the right height for you. I started out with a table which was about an inch and a half lower than my elbows. Even that was enough to have me subtly hunching and stretching forward to my keyboard and, over the first few weeks, this was a major contributing factor to the problems with my arm. Eventually I stuck a couple of loose abandoned shelves under the feet of the table and now, at just slightly above elbow height, the surface seems about right.

If you use a lot of screen estate, particularly double monitors, consider turning them into portrait orientation (see the picture above). I found that having two widescreen monitors side by side meant I was twisting back and forth quite a lot. In hindsight, having to move about to see everything may have ben a good way to keep my back loosened up, but instead I turned the screens around and that’s been a revelation. Not only is everything within eyeline, but most things I work on, including word and PDF documents, web pages, my email inbox just work much better in this orientation. I can see a whole web or word page without having to scroll up and down. Search results pages in particular are so much easier to scan when all of the results are above the fold.

(An aside from this: If you do turn your screens, particularly if you’re standing, you’ll soon notice visitors either looking at you with confusion, or edging in towards your personal space. That’s because most screens these days have a very narrow viewing angle when looked at from below the normal bottom of the monitor. I my office, colleagues stand to the left of me and when I start pointing at things on the screen, they just see black. They can only see what you see by standing right next to you. I don’t know who you work with, so make your own judgement as to whether you want them sidling up to you.)

Casting About

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‘Serial’ may not be the new frontier that some commentators have claimed, but it has certainly brought many more listeners to podcasts. I listen to lots, and I’ve had a couple of requests for recommendations, so here goes.

These are the podcasts I listen to every week, in alphabetical order:

99% Invisible

It took me a little while to find headspace for 99% Invisible. The first episode I listened to, after a reference from Helen and Olly on ‘Answer Me This’, was about some aspect of industrial design so esoteric that I struggled to grasp what I was supposed to be listening to. It probably didn’t help that  I was doing the washing up at the time. Now it’s a treasure trove, prying into the environmental design that surrounds us every day and uncovering illuminating and surprising stories. All this, and Roman Mars – the most mellifluous voice in podcasting. Radiotopia, which he fronts, threatens to brings a step-change in the quality of the medium.

All Songs Considered (NPR)

Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton bring in mostly new music to inspire and delight each other. Their easy banter is a pleasure and their affection for and wonder at the tracks they are playing is infectious. Like most of the music podcasts I subscribe to, All Songs Considered is a great way to hear music that lies adjacent to my usual choices.

Answer Me This!

Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann answer questions from listeners and rip the piss out of themselves, each other and their correspondents as they go.

The Danny Baker Show (BBC)

It’s rare that I get two hours to listen to the BBC Five Live show as it goes out on a Saturday morning, so the podcast is perfect. Danny’s cavalcade of everyday exuberance is as good as its ever been. He may court an atmosphere of ramshackle piracy but he’s the consummate broadcaster and his callers, expertly shepherded, build up a patchwork of British life that’s hard not to love.

The Bugle

Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver’s weekly satirical podcast is not quite the regular fixture it used to me, mainly because they haven’t been able to keep up a regular schedule for the last 6 months, mainly thanks to Oliver’s new weekly HBO show. Still their dumbfounded take on the week’s news is silly, cutting and infectious and always very, very funny.

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews (BBC)

Or ‘Wittertainment’ as it’s known to acolytes. I listen religiously even though we get to the cinema about twice a year these days. I could cope without the increasingly forced bickering, which is just a little unnecessary, but like ‘Answer Me This’, this is like spending time with friends, again something I do much less of than I’d like.

More Or Less (BBC)

From the BBC Radio Four show, exploring the numbers behind the news. Usually revealing and an important reminder that all is not always as it seems.

Pitch

A recommendation from Pop Culture Happy Hour. Pitch is a short podcast about music which pokes around behind the loose corners of the art, the business and the culture and tries to answer questions you never realised you had. Like, why the hell is dancing illegal in New York bars?

Politics Weekly (Guardian)

From the Guardian. I seem to listen to mainly American podcasts, and I do so mainly in the car, so the Today Programme on Radio 4 has had to make way. Politics Weekly gives me the illusory sense that I am keeping up with events and the entirely factual sense that I am so far behind in my grasp on UK politics that I may as well be hibernating. Warning: regularly features Michael White, the single most irritating contributor to any of the podcasts listed here.

Pop Culture Happy Hour (NPR)

One of the great affordances of podcasts is the opportunity to hang out with people who are like you only just a little bit smarter and more insightful. If you’re interested in books, films, TV or music there’s nowhere better to be than round a table with Linda Holmes, Glen Weldon and Stephen Thompson. If I ever hung out with my real friends, i’d be ripping off PCHH opinions left, right and centre.

Radiolab

One of the iron horses of Podcasting, Radiolab puts out relatively few episodes – just 58 since inception in 2002 – but they are almost always worth an hour of your time. Essentially a collaboration between experimental musician Jad Abumrad and Science Reporter Robert Krulwich that took root, it blends rationalist science with beautiful production values and, in common with the best in the field, a sharp instinct for storytelling. The most recent episode on the concept of ‘Patient Zero’ is a case in point. Frequently jawdropping, moving and enlightening.

Serial

We talked about this.

Snap Judgment (NPR)

Think of it as This American Life without the implied coverage of the national state of being. Snap is an hour of personal stories told straight to the microphone without interviewers or additional editorial content. They are almost always interesting and sometimes absolutely remarkable. As I write they have just re-run an episode with three totally diverse stories loosely around the theme ‘Unrequited’. Any of the three might be the best think you hear this week.

Sound Opinions

Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot present music news and album reviews bookending a longer feature piece which could be a classic album dissection, a genre exploration, a live performance and interview or a consultation with the Rock Doctors. Their opinions veer from the staid to the surprising, but they are good guides and, like most music podcasts, the exposure to unheard stuff is the thing i’m after.

StartUp

Now 7 episodes in, I look forward to StartUp as much as Serial. in it;’s own way it’s a comparable look at an often unheard aspects of a story we think we already know. Alex Blumberg, host of Planet Money and sometime This American Life presenter, is starting his own company. He has no idea how to do this, but he has an idea for the business and he’s recording everything he does.

There are two cute aspects to StartUp. Firstly, Blumberg is starting a podcasting corporation, intent on developing content and platforms to take podcasting to the next level in quality and exposure. When he started, Serial was just a TAL email list and he had to spend a lot of time evangelising for the format. Now the case has been made for him, and his business idea, with the likes of Radiotopia coming up on the rails, is starting to seem less novel as others get there first.

Secondly, as he tells the story of the birth of his business, he is also building advance interest, photo-loyalty and, as the episodes progress, interest from investors. His podcast about the process of building a podcasting business is building his business whilst he podcasts the process.

Meta textual narrative, cunning marketing ploy, or both, StartUp is fascinating, compelling and fun to listen to.

Tech Weekly (Guardian)

From the Guardian. This is my gesture towards keeping up with news in the tech sector. It sort of works, but it’s better at exploring the arena. This year they have been picking away at the dark web, crypto-currencies and Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Thinking Allowed (BBC)

Laurie Taylor’s weekly BBC Radio 4 show covers two recent contributions to the social sciences. That may sound dry, and initially the interviews with academics can seem daunting, but this soon drops away, to leave a series of almost random plunges into the cultural and social forces behind modern life. Professorial in tone, but nontheless accessible and revealing.

This American Life

Goes to places not many others visit, brings back stories not many others do and tells them like no-one else does.

Working (Slate)

A newcomer, just a few weeks old, but interesting and revealing. Each episode spends time discussing the intricacies of the working life of one specific subject. After kicking off with Stephen Colbert, we’ve heard from a medic, a porn star, a waiter and one of the John’s from They Might Be Giants. Not quite as dependent on the job in question as you might imagine, the trick here is the fascination for detail. When this is high, it’s a good listen.

You Are Not So Smart

David McRaney’s long-form exploration of the science of self-delusion and cookies. In each episode he talks at length to an author or researcher on some aspect of the way our brains constantly prove themselves to be unreliable witnesses. His passion for his subjects and their areas of expertise comes through loud and clear and the results are revelatory. They’ll make you think differently about the way you think. And then he bakes and eats a cookie.

And that, surely, is enough for any week?

Serial Killing

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I’ve been trying to write about Serial, the new episodic podcast from the folks behind This American Life, but I can’t get my thoughts into a coherent narrative. I’ve realised that this is for a few reasons.

Firstly, i’m distracted by what I imagine lots and lots of others are saying about it. I have things to say against their views but have the problem that I haven’t read anything they’ve written or listened to anything they’ve said. I’m going to proceed as if this is fine. As if my railing against imagined or assumed opinions will somehow have more truth than a carefully reasoned fisking of each and every blog post I’ve been paging past for the last 5 or 6 weeks. Truth is something i’ll come on to shortly.

Secondly, my thoughts about Serial aren’t coherent, in that I have strong views about some quite distinct aspects of it and the reaction to it, and the rest not so much. Anyway, coherence is over-rated, I hope, and ambiguity reigns. Ambiguity is something i’ll come on to shortly.

Thirdly, my thoughts are much less about what Serial is then they are about what Serial isn’t. And it’s quite possible that everyone else out there agrees with me about what Serial isn’t. I may be stating the obvious and uncovering nothing. The opposite of Serial is something i’ll come on to shortly.

Still, I need something to pin my thoughts to and, as this is a murder story, perhaps bullets will have to do.

    • I think Serial is great. I’m compelled and intrigued by it. It’s a clever, revealing and provocative piece of documentary story-telling.
    • It’s a mistake to think of Serial as a radical new approach to podcasting or, indeed, storytelling. I’d been struggling to explain this until Linda Holmes, the always on-point host of NPR’s ‘Pop Culture Happy Hour’ put it perfectly this week: “If you think Serial is like an HBO show, you’re taking Ira Glass for granted. It’s This American Life – only longer.”
    • And so certainly one of the things that has been irking me is the arrivistes suddenly getting excited, not about the format, audio is audio and all media is now essentially on-demand, but about the content. I recognise fully that this is a distasteful sentiment. I include it here as it’s part of the evidence, even if it looks bad for me.
    • This American Life takes this approach all the time, and it unearths amazing stories and revealing vignettes all the time. It also unearths and pares down and bolts together reports from strange places the news media rarely go. If you’re sceptical, Google ‘Dr Gilmer’ or ‘Carmen Segarra’ and knock yourself out.
    • Much of the debate around Serial seems, from what I can gather, to be around whether or not there will be a conclusion to the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As an aspiration this seems both futile and short-sighted. What Sarah Koenig and her fellow This American Life producers do for a living is take a story, build a heap from its fragments, and then attempt to piece these shards together to create something that looks like it might be a coherent narrative. That’s why they have found this case so perplexing. Had there been a clear cut sense of what had happened, they would have drawn their conclusion very quickly and this might not even have made a single segment for their regular gig. Instead they have not and in chasing down the details of the crime, they have instead traced the outline of the act of murder, only to find that it’s perpetrator is absent.
    • But this approach is perfect for a crime story like this one. As anyone who has been close to the centre of a crime story, most likely as a juror, will know, there are no truths, there are barely facts that can be established without contest. When, after one or two or one hundred days of testimony (let’s not call it ‘evidence’) a jury sit down to deliberate, what they ponder is not the truth, but which version of the events described they find most plausible. I sat as juror on a murder trial once and if you’ve never done that then take my word for it, we were left to piece together an outcome based on our collective notes of what we considered important during the preceding 7 days of testimony. Half the people in the room hadn’t even made any notes, but were happy to sit and defend their gut instinct as to whether the accused was innocent or guilty. The truth bounced between us like a dizzy pinball for 24 hours and then dropped into one of the available gutters and was delivered as our verdict. It was, it had to be, our best guess.
    • Ultimately it’s a mistake to think of this as a crime story. Serial is about ambiguity and the unattainability of truth. The murder of Hae Lee is the stuff it’s made from, but ultimately this is just material to be shifted and sifted and shaped and reshaped. Witnesses and testimonies are contradictory, partial and unresolvable. The point of the story is that you cannot get a single, truthful view through a shattered prism.
    • It’s also pretty short-sighted to describe Serial as a step forward in crime reporting or story-telling. Both crime fiction and non-fiction have been portraying, trading in and pondering stories which conclude in a strangled mess or loose ends for decades. Also, without wishing to sound all prissy there’s something distasteful about commentators queuing up to describe the ‘rich and fully-formed cast of characters’. These are real people, not ciphers to be dragged out and pored over. One of them was murdered.
  • And so finally, anyone expecting resolution within the 12 episodes of a podcast simply hasn’t been thinking. What we’re hearing each week is a thread of the story as they have been able to tease it out so far. These strands are being pulled out from the great mass of material they have collected and sorted and carefully presented. If, in the course of this process, they had come across one thread which was tied around a smoking gun proving that Adnan definitely committed the murder, or a piece of evidence which suggested that he should be exonerated, or indeed some evidence that clearly indicated that some other individual was likely to have been responsible, then they would have had an obligation to act upon it and the story would not have waited for the end of their run. If that had happened, we’d know. Koenig and co may come to a view at the end of all this, but they won’t solve the puzzle. And, essentially, that’s what the justice system does too. It sifts through the story, asks members of the public to come to a view and then coalesces behind this compromise view, its best guess at what most probably happened.

So, Serial. Enjoy it and you will learn things along the way. Principle among these is that there are no final truths. Sometimes all we have are our stories.

Plague people

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Father goes out into the world and the world squeezes its hands together to crush him. He returns, a carrier. Sickened by his encounter he retreats into the hold of his family. He begins to fade then he begins to pale then he begins to fail. The world reaches into his body and begins to unspool it. Without the strength to resist he is turned inside out by the world’s unstoppable desire for death.

His family kneel around his husk and spread their grief down their faces, across their hands, back into their mouths, mingling the salt of their horror with the sweet of his decay. By ingesting they are commemorating and keeping some small parts of him within them, alive.

In Mother, these small parts begins to grow. She feels Father’s sickness moving, making hollow space within her stomach before moving to her lungs, scraping these clean and raw. Soon her body is expelling its cloying fluid in any way it can. She feels herself folding in, becoming a ball of pre-human. As the life within her kneads the life out of her, she wonders what she is being shaped to become. And as she thinks about this she turns in on herself so tightly that she disappears.

Mother’s ball of dough begins to slowly spread itself, next to Father’s husk. There is warmth within it, movement and swelling. There is proving, but it does not rise. Eventually it begins to stretch out again, into its own slick patch.

The child survives them both and then the child simply survives. She is found by her neighbours, the friends and kin of her Mother and Father. Seeing two gone parents and one here child they condemn her as a witch who has wrenched the life out of her father and mother. They hammer closed the doors of the house and leave her to die within. At some stage she will be forced to consider eating the gone meat of her dead and gone parents.

We are an infestation. The world is the bloated corpse we are creating, ready now for collapse.

Reply To All Guy

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So this was him. Reply To All Guy. I’d formed a picture of him by the time I was half way through that dense, almost inhuman first email, and whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this.

I’d assumed no social skills. No-one who could use the formation “me/us” could have anything like a fully enveloped sense of self let alone a mature ability for relationship building. Judging by the way he slung double quotes around the shoulders of almost every other phrase, he seemed incapable of even using the basic language of conversation without defending it with reflexive, second-guessing, presupposing security measures.

It followed that if he was incapable of interacting successfully with other humans, that he must not have spent much time with other humans. He was, she had almost immediately grasped, a hermit. Such was his physical isolation from others, she soon came to suppose, that he led a largely nocturnal, largely indoor life, his face only ever seeing artificial light, blue from his laptop screen, green from the petrol station forecourt, pearl white from the interior of his fridge. His body, denied sunlight, sensory input choked off, external features apparently of little utility with no-one to look upon them, had begun to turn in on itself. He used his hands, his eyes, his mouth and sometimes his feet. Everything else was extraneous surface area and, over the years, his slow instinctual response had been to reduce this exposure by curling, ever so gently, into a loose but nonetheless determined ball.

She knew just what Reply To All Guy looked like. Or so she thought as she pushed open the door to the church hall and gathered herself to join the writing group.

2

So this was her.

She knew that the guy she’d knocked to the floor as she leant through the door was Reply To All Guy straight away. Later she would come to reflect that it had to be. Here they were gathered to share stories, to talk about how plots and characters could plausibly come together, and so stories and plots and characters were sure to collide. Without the promise of these collisions, none of them would be there.

For now, she just knew. Something about the way he’d gone down perhaps. The door had bumped to the left and she’d felt the obstruction lurch away as she forced her way through it. Black clad, he appeared to kneel, taking a gravitationally unnecessary time to get there, then sagged further to the side and lay down fully. All the while his hands were brought up to cover his face rather than held down to break his fall, gentle and lacking impact as that fall might have been.

– I have to apologise!

he said as he took his hands away and reached up, as if he was offering to help her to the floor. She knew it was him even though the more she looked at him, the less he fit her scornful picture. This man had straight legs, straight arms, and now a straight body which, rather than shrink away from her now stood above her. He must have been six seven.

She realised now that she had come so preloaded with contempt for this stranger that when she had knocked him to the floor she had stood above him waiting for him to pick himself up. She had neither offered a word of regret or a hand to help him. Now he stood above her and she could see his face. He was Reply To All Guy, everyone in this group surely already thought he was a fool, and he before they had even exchanged words,  he had moved ahead of her in their esteem.

Setting records

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I just built some new shelves for my records. I spent all evening doing it, my records are now on those shelves and now my records feel like someone else’s records.

I’m scrolling back and remembering the significant record arrangements of my life so far. Most recently, up until this afternoon, my records lived in two remaindered Habitat shelving units which were stacked on top of one another and slotted into an alcove in our dining room with my stereo bits and bobs slung on top. I’m pleased to say that these had become packed to bursting and, since what goes around comes around, are suddenly in high demand for storage in someone else’s room where they will fit rather conveniently, thank you very much.

Prior to this I had them in the same units side-by-side upstairs. And prior to that, I reckon, I had them in the same shelves alongside our bed in our two-up-two-down in South Manchester. My records and the means to play them were, for what now seems like a brief period in sunlit uplands, within arms reach as I slept.

And prior to that? Let’s think. I can’t recall shelving of any variety. Steve and I lived in a flat in Didsbury for a year or so. I can remember little about the layout of my room, but I’m assuming my records were stacked on the floor. I do recall that at one point the heating system began to leak and a pool of water spread from the centre of the flat out to the periphery over the course of a number of weeks, eventually forming a perfect circle of dank, essentially stagnant carpet. I must have moved my records outwards to keep pace with the moist advance.

I have photos of shelves full of CDs from our house in Rusholme. Whilst my records are permanent, undislodgeable features, I have thrown away, or ‘decluttered’ in modern parlance, almost any other relics of my past, including bin bags full of letters and photos. Unsurprisingly, one of the shots I think I opted to keep and which I’m sure, is lurking upstairs still 20 years later, is of bedroom bookshelves shelves full of CDs. I was pretty sure that if we were burgled and they went, no insurer would believe I’d actually had as many as I would inevitably have to claim for. So I took pictures of the shelves, assuming that would be enough. Later that year we were indeed broken into and my collection remained unpilfered. Months later, when we moved house, I realised one of the reasons why. It would have taken 10 men to lift the whole lot.

Prior to that? I was at home briefly having returned from University, where my records were stacked on the floor. In my final year, they extended out next to my bed from the head end. If I woke up on my left side, my eyes would be flicking up and down the row of album spines before I’d fully registered that I was awake.

I’m not sure exactly when they became alphabetised, but I know it was relatively late. Prior to that, there was a topography to the collection, a joy in understanding the terrain of what was ultimately a random ordering. Arriving at one record, I would know what was next and the trail would unfold in my mind’s eye and my finger’s touch. Looking for a specific album I could intuit its position and almost reach in and grab it blindfolded.

Now I have more records, and now I also have more shelves. For the first time in a little while my records have some room to breathe, although not enough in their 13 by 13 compartments, to be properly flicked through. Still, I can now pull them out without having to pinch the spines, and push them back in without having to first pull out three or four neighbouring albums to force back in with them in a brute force attack.

The whole thing looks different once again and seems, somehow, new. In a literal sense, this is a dream come true. Surely all record collectors share that dream of finding that the collection that they thought they owned actually contains hidden subsections, albums by their favourite artists that they’d never heard of and whole new annexes of music to explore at leisure. My collection feels opened up in some way by this rather small change,