Father’s Day

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I played golf today, 21 June 2015. Father’s Day.

My father died in 2005, two days after Christmas. Father’s Day, never something we went big on anyway, became just another stabbing pain nestling in the calendar, another landmark of our loss. For a while the only way I could strike back against it and release some small squab of my compressed emotion was by replying to each of the automated marketing emails I received asking me whether I was ‘ready for Father’s Day’ or whether I knew ‘what every Dad wanted’ with messages saying ‘My father is dead. Please stop emailing to remind me that my father is dead’. These emails went into the void, as did my rage and my sorrow. The emails kept coming and they still come and I still feel pain at every loathesome one of them and my father is still dead.

In early 2013 I became a father. That year, and the one that followed, I still dreaded Father’s Day, as I would dread forced contact with an open wound. Father’s Day, for all the people who still have fathers, is a miserable crutch, a day of excuses and ‘will-this-do?’s. If you love your father, tell him. Tell your mother too, should you be lucky enough to have one. Tell your friends you love them, if you have beloved friends. Tell your children, if you yourself are a parent. If you have love, share it and express it. Sharing is one of the things love is made for.

This year we went away, a surprise organised by my wife and her friend. Although Father’s Day was only the peg on which to hang a weekend in Cornwall, it did afford the opportunity for myself and a fellow father to be given some time to do something ‘for ourselves’. This, it was decided for us, would be golf.

When my dad used to take me golfing as a child it filled me with weird, directionless excitement and, ultimately, a bit of boredom and a sense of duty. Even if I couldn’t properly express it, I knew that it was important to him that I was there, pursuing this thing with him. He poured some significant part of him into the, arguably pointless, game of golf, and as someone who gave 20 years of his life to chasing a frisbee around the sports fields of the Western world, I can relate to that. He started playing, as I recall, when he was in his late-thirties/early-forties. As far as I remember, he didn’t do so for any ulterior motive, to climb some hitherto ungraspable social ladder, or even to carve out some time to hang out with his friends. Instead, he just did it because he thought it might be absorbing. And, having started, he worked hard at it, again something I can relate to. He worried at it until he became fairly good at it. And when it became something he became fairly good at he wanted to bring his two sons along so they could share in it, so they could see him doing this thing he had come to love.

Now. It seems to me that swinging a golf club and trying to hit a little ball as far or as accurately as possible is a challenging, damnably slippery and intrinsically fun thing to spend time doing. That’s a fact, I would say. Meanwhile, the inherent conservatism of capital ‘G’ Golf, the stale, deflated male-ness of golf culture, the sheer destructive, some would say criminal lunacy of irrigating, falsifying and beautifying chunks of the countryside only to economically prevent most people from enjoying them, is horrible. Those are facts, I would say. Some people say that one of the things that defines human psychology is the ability to hold two dissonant beliefs at the same time. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way, golf is pointless and lamentable and I feel an significant sense of calm along with real pleasure when I play it.

Golf is the church where I go once or twice a year to feel a communion with my father.

I feel it in the tight, tough grass beneath my feet, sending spikes down into the earth and receiving a reassuring sense of solidity in return. I feel it in the touch of the contents of a golf bag, the tiny, arbitrarily vital pieces of the jigsaw that is necessary to construct a viable round. Wooden tees, plastic markers, stubby pencils, a bag with pockets with forgotten contents, cards marked with scores you have no recollection of compiling. Scraps of grass which may have fallen from my gear, or maybe still be there from when Dad used to use the bag.

Clubs. I still use my fathers old clubs, mostly. They are a set that came from I don’t know where. I think my brother got Dad’s newer set, which means this set must be at least 25 years old. There, marked on the grips, are the words he would have pondered, the strange topographical markings he would have idly gazed over. There, on the shafts of the clubs is the tape he applied. There, in the wear to the handle of the putter, lie the imprints of his hands. I can slip my different hands into place and feel as if he is holding me in his hands, and holding me suspended in his dream of what the world had to offer, of how time could be used, of what pleasure and satisfaction could feel like, of how a sense of self could be chosen and grown and nurtured and shaped.

It’s there in the scents that seep across and out of the landscape of golf. The bitter dune grasses, the lip-smacking sea fret, the rising particles of a fairway evaporating in the sun, or sinking weight of a mist drifting down to wet a green.

He is there in the rituals, the modes of movement. As I address the ball on the tee, I form angles between my feet and the target, between my knees and my hips, between my arms and my wrists and the shaft of the club. These shapes and alignments are part of an occult semaphore I developed under my father’s direction. Only he and my brother would truly recognise them, but I know they still would. They are as much a signifier of me as my walk, the way I scrunch my eyes when I blink, the hopeless, helpless way I dance.

In constructing and executing my swing, I build and release tension through my shoulders, back and legs as my arms are pitched around by the resultant forced. I feel each time, for around a second, that I have briefly become my father. The golf shot as transubstantiation.

When I was a child golf, like the life of my father it formed a part of, was an alien world I could not interpret. Now, once or twice a year, I want nothing more than to escape back into that alien world and to be able to look around and live within it for a time. The more distant in time my father’s life becomes from my own, and the more similar in shape my own life begins to feel to my father’s, the more familiar and welcoming this place begins to feel.

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Putting my money where my mouth wasn’t

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Yesterday I dashed off a blog post about the General Election, partly because some things about it had been bugging me and partly because I had 15 minutes of writing to get done.

Almost immediately I felt ashamed of it and a couple of hours later thought about whether to delete it. It’s essentially a 15 minute whine about an election I noticed out of the corner of my eye and which didn’t bother to come and knock on my door and make me feel important.

Last night when I heard the exit polls I hoped against hell they were wrong. At 4.30 this morning when I got up to find out, I finally got engaged with the 2015 election through the visceral feeling that the lights were going out for the next five years.

I’ll leave the party politics for a few more paragraphs, but it’s hard not to fear that by the end of this parliament we could have a destroyed United Kingdom, what’s left sitting outside of the European Union, with a Prime Minister Boris Johnson presiding over the wholesale privatisation of our health care and the continued punishment beating of the most disadvantaged people in our society. So yes, I felt sick.

By the time I got to work at 7.30am I was thinking about how best to ignore what was happening.

By 9am I had joined the Labour Party.

I hated the Labour Party for lying to us and then taking us into an illegal war in Iraq. I hated them for selling their souls to Mammon and Murdoch. I hated them for being unable to stop fighting each other long enough to keep the Tories out.

But sitting back and feeling disgusted at the way other people are influencing public life is not good enough.

I’ll spare you my political life story, other than to say that I was born in the North of England and raised when Thatcher was sticking her jackboot into it. I believe that we all have a collective responsibility to care for and support one another. I believe that we should think the best of people, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. I believe that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. I believe that those who do well in the society we build together have a moral obligation to share their good fortune with those who have not. I believe that markets should work for society, rather than society working for the markets. I believe that we should all, as individuals, be willing to dedicate ourselves to the greater good whether that is through paying our taxes or fighting climate change. I really, really believe that we are all in this together.

I am a socialist at heart, even if socialist programs have been failing disastrously all around me for the last 40 years. I don’t see much of anything I like in the parliamentary Labour Party, at least not in what they choose to say to us, the general public. I no longer trust them to have the right instincts, to have good hearts beating beneath their buttoned up suits.

And so I have joined them, because not to join them would be to leave the fate of the left to others and to allow the sinking ship of progressive politics to go under without even lifting a finger to stop it, or to help those people who will go under with it.

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

Standard

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.)