Okay! I Give Up!

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This is my last post on giving things up. For now, I give up.

If I were to pinpoint a time when the person I am now was made, it would be the transition between high school and college, between O-levels and A-levels, between 16 and 17. Deliberately reinventing yourself is, as far as I can see, pretty hard. Consequently I only did it once.

I left school a pasty-faced swot, who had secretly and determinedly rebelled against classroom orthodoxy by refusing to wear his tie with top button undone like all the other kids. They never realised! In your face other kids!

The Smiths, The Fall and Joy Division were already in my life and by the time I was a couple of months into college I had spiky hair, a reclaimed dinner jacket and a sense that I could put stuff like that together and make a new facade, behind which I could become a new person. Let’s be clear, this was no bold striking out for new territory. I’m not even sure I knew it was happening, but happen it did. Nowadays, some 25 years later, I may look more like the 16 year-old swot than the 17-year old punk, but inside I’m still that black-clad weirdo.

Part of this transition, not at all pegged to it but just happening at the same time, had me giving up eating meat, giving up drinking and making some sort of decision never to smoke or try drugs. Whilst vegetarianism was a conscious choice, the others were more instinctive. As a result I was essentially straight edge for 20 years, although I never self-identified as such (hey, I had paracetamol when I had a headache and coffee all the time. SELL OUT!).

I wonder now, looking back through the Giving Up prism, whether the die was cast back then. Ever since that time I have, to some significant extent, defined my sense of who I am by the things I don’t rather than the things I do.

I wanted to write this series of posts to describe the process and experience of giving up specific things I had previously enjoyed.

I wanted to tell you that football might seem important but if you decide it’s meaningless, it pretty soon becomes meaningless.

I wanted to get some stuff off my chest about the way Twitter had started to become toxic to me, and how it felt to remove myself from the global conversation.

I wanted to explain how strange it was to discover that it’s relatively easy to just not eat for extended periods of time and to rebalance your relationship with food.

I specifically didn’t want to write about myself as I didn’t want to bore people and public self-absorption is never less than self-indulgent and tedious, but along the way I’ve started to wonder about that ‘personality disorder’ comment. I’m still wondering.

Am I a refusenik? A curmudgeon? Am I winding down, working my way into nothing, disappearing into thin air? Or just another slow-burning mid-life crisis without the balls to do something truly spectacular?

I think I’m all of these things to come extent. More than these though I think I may just be all-or-nothing, subconsciously aware that I need to do things with complete devotion, or not at all.

That explanation covers both my competitiveness, which I guess can be unhealthy in some circumstances, and also the creeping suspicion that I may be a latent addict, ready to throw myself wholeheartedly into anything I commit to.

When I chose not to drink or take drugs, I was consciously rejecting the temporary loss of control which most users are seeking and of which I was terrified. I think it’s likely that at the same time I was subconsciously rejecting the complete subjugation which could follow. I didn’t know it then but it turns out I’m not a dabbler. In which case, choosing to avoid drink and drugs probably saved my life.

Still, I’m left approaching my mid-forties with a long list of things I don’t do. Nay-saying may be a necessary survival strategy but it inevitably leads to absence rather than presence. What did you do with your life Rob? Nothing!

Time to start, maybe? Maybe not?

Maybe?

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I Give Up: Everything Else

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Football, Twitter and eating every day have gone.

What else?

As I look back over the last couple of years I see a trail of pockmarks, craters and holes where things big and small used to sit in my life. None of these smaller divestments were as sudden or as intentional as the big three, and perhaps not as permanent, but they all involved significant aspects of my milieu.

I can’t believe I just referred to ‘my milieu’. I should give up being a ponce.

Fiction

I’ve been a committed reader of novels since I was 15 or 16. They have shaped my sense of self, drawn me into places and positions I would never have occupied otherwise and essentially formed a central part of what I thought myself to be. I still read, and although the last few years have been a little slower than those which preceded them (less time on my hands, no public transport commute), I still managed to get through 25 books in 2013, which seems like a decent pace, all things considered.

However, I was taken aback to realise in retrospect that none of the books I sat and read this year were fiction. In fact the only two novels I consumed this year were as audiobooks and one of those, The Picture Of Dorian Gray, was a re-read.

I wrote about this here. This seems to represent a shift and I recognise some of the underlying currents, but it’s been largely sub-conscious.

Music

I love music.

Let me restate that. I love music.

Nothing has shaped my sense of who I am more than the music I happened to seize upon as a teenager and the places that music has taken me. I’ve spent many hours and years writing about music, talking about music and every year since I was a school kid listening to music.

I couldn’t give it up. If I say it’s a part of me, that’s not just a tired phrase, it’s a physiological truth. If i’m not actively listening to music (like now) I have songs playing on my Head Radio (currently ‘Sweet Jane’).

Nonetheless, last year when various things were pretty sketchy I had a significant wobble. I found myself needing to hear podcasts and books, specifically to have people speaking about things which would require second-by-second concentration. I wrote a little about it at the time as it crossed over with the 2012 Music Diary Project. At the time I knew it was a form of avoidance. I didn’t want the space that music affords the mind, didn’t want to wander. For several months I found myself deliberately turning away from music, putting on headphones and carefully, worriedly, needily digging for something spoken-word to play.

An aberration then, but even that seemed seismic at the time. 2013 was more balanced. Loads and loads of new music, but also loads of really enjoyable podcasts. There’s a connection here, perhaps, between me giving more time to non-fiction reading and non-fiction listening.

News

I stopped listening to the Today programme every morning at around the same time.

Now, fair enough, there are good reasons to do so. The adversarial he-said-she-said interviews. Even worse, an interviewing approach which seems aimed only at getting the subjects to make or admit to a mistake which they can then be taken to task for, rather than joining with them in search of, you know, the truth. I genuinely believe that the fear of saying the wrong thing on Radio 4 has led directly to a generation of politicians who deliberately, and incredibly irritatingly, say nothing at all. And hey presto! Our political life is broken.

I didn’t cut myself off entirely. I still listen to Five Live around the house, and PM kept me interested for a few months afterwards, but as I fell under the sway of various podcasts, so these came to replace my listening on the way to and from work.

And then I stopped commuting to the news completely, as a deliberate decision. How would it be, I asked myself, if I just decided NOT to engage with these irritating people? These horrible, intractable situations? With the uncontrollable outside world?

It turned out it was fine. I feel guilty for being out of touch, although I’m not sure I am terribly. As with Twitter, I felt a brief concern that I was retreating from our shared reality. And then I got over it and started feeling comfortable in some different realities. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing to do in absolute terms, but it feels like absolutely the right thing for me to do right now and ultimately I have to go with that.

Ultimate

I’ve been an ultimate frisbee player for 20 years now. I started late, which means I’m now hanging on really, really late. Sooner, not later, it will be time to call it a day, and I’ve started thinking about it almost exclusively in those terms. A couple of years ago I wrote about how it feels to know that something, perhaps the only thing, you’ve ever been really good at is coming to an end. I don’t necessarily feel so dramatically about it now, but I sure do wonder whether any other pastime will ever get that time, energy and dedication from me.

Cycling

I have cycled a lot in the past few years and got a great deal from it. I love it, but I don’t do it any more. There are good reasons for this, and it’s not a conscious move away from something, but perhaps mentionable as another thing I thought I couldn’t live without that I’m living without.

Social contact

Now, this sound both dramatic and self-pitying, but over the last ten years I have basically moved from having constant contact with a network of family and friends all within a few miles to having no-one at all, except my wife. The relocation was quite deliberate (it’s a tricky thing to pull off by accident) but the isolation was an unwelcome side-effect. I still feel it, quite intensely at times.

I know lovely people where we live, and spending time with them is great, but we have some way to go. I want this to be different, but there are no easy fixes. In the meantime I could draw a 60 mile radius around my house and it would only contain one person I can call a genuine old friend.

Playing Ultimate gave me semi-regular contact with a big share of my best friends, but that’s going soon. Social media isn’t the same, and even that seems to be going too.

I’m not sure what’s happening. Maybe nothing, maybe something.

I Give Up: Eating

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On 6 August 2012 I watched ‘Horizon: Eat, Fast and Live Longer’, an examination of the science behind the practice of fasting by the BBC’s Michael Mosely.

For the following 24 hours, I ate nothing. Every week since then, I’ve eaten nothing for two of the seven days.

If you’d like to watch the programme, it’s here:

Giving up eating, at least for part of each week, was a revealing and, ultimately, rewarding process. There is a scientific basis to intermittent fasting and there is good evidence for some long-term health benefits. It’s worth checking out. For me there was a more immediate effect, essentially a significant shift in my relationship with food.

I eat a lot. Luckily for my waistline, over the last 20 years I’ve also exercised a lot. I’m also vegetarian and have always blithely assumed that this gives me some sort of head start in maintaining a healthy diet, by significantly reducing the amount of fat I take in incidentally.

Beyond refusing to eat meat (strictly speaking a moral choice rather than a dietary one) I have never controlled my food intake in any way. I’ve always eaten what I like, when I like. I cook a lot, and, with my wife, I usually eat everything I cook. I’ve come to the conclusion that recipes which state ‘serves four’ are calibrated for people half my size.

I snack. I eat crisps by the massive-bag-full (by the way crisp makers, the heart surgeons of this world say ‘thanks’ for super-sizing those bags of yours – once you pop, you can’t stop stuffing your entire recommended daily intake of salt and fat down your neck). I eat chocolate when I need help livening up a cup of coffee. I eat cake and our office is usually full of cake. I’m lucky in that, somehow, I don’t get much bigger.

The day after watching the documentary, I found myself leaving the house without eating breakfast. I then refused the birthday cake I was offered at 10.30am and, by lunchtime, was feeling odd. It only took a couple of weeks to get used to not eating for long periods and, during this time, I don’t think I ever honestly felt ‘hungry’. I just felt weird.

I drank a lot of tea and coffee those first few days. Again, I had a leg up as I take them both black and therefore calorie-free, so can drink as much as I like. Certainly for the first few weeks my liquid intake went up significantly. I felt strongly that I needed to be taking something in, so constant hot drinks seemed my only option. After a while, this dropped off and now I drink the same amount on a fasting day as a regular day, which is to say barely anything apart from constant black coffee.

But it wasn’t just my stomach which felt it needed something in it. My hands were pretty freaked out too, which took me completely by surprise. When lunchtime came around, I felt an overwhelming urge to use them for something. I realised that their muscle memory was telling them to pick up a sandwich and help me to eat it.

Seeing this was a key moment for me. My immediate thought was that this must be how smokers feel when they have to reach for stress toys because their hands, regardless of what their heads are telling them, simply want to be manipulating something, preferably a cigarette and lighter.

I came to see that a fair amount of my eating was habitual, rather than necessary. Indeed, once I’d gone through several weeks of intermittent fasting, my perspective on the need to eat had changed significantly. Surprisingly, my body was already ahead of my mind. By the time I realised that I’d been eating because I could, not because I should, I’d already stopped.

I don’t feel anything like the urge I used to to grab food just to be eating something. Just to be clear, cutting that sort of snacking out is not a stricture of the intermittent fasting approach. So long as you stick to your two fast days per week, you can each as much of whatever you want during the rest of the time. It’s just, in my case, I suddenly didn’t seem to want to. Now, when I eat, I eat less.

As it happens I lost about 7 or 8 kilos in weight. That wasn’t one of my objectives but weighing the same as I did in my early 20s is okay.

So what were my objectives? What could I want so much that I would begin a fasting regime on the strength of a single TV programme?

As far as intermittent fasting and other forms of calorie restriction go, the projected health benefits include significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer and other chronic health problems. Ultimately, reducing the chances of developing these conditions increases the chances of living healthily for longer.

So that’s good, and it has to be said that i’m not the only one who has tried intermittent fasting following that Horizon film, and the publicity and books and website which appeared in its wake. 

I can’t point to huge health benefits, partly because I didn’t have blood tests done before I started, but I do feel a little better. I’d had a nagging stomach pain for some months before I began fasting and that, I realised after a few weeks, seemed to clear up.

However, i’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that part of the attraction for me, perhaps the major part. Here was a regime which promised significant benefits yet did not require me to change what I did at all. It just needed me to stop doing it for defined periods, with no other hassle entailed.

And that, I can do. I give up.

Notes:

When I say I eat ‘a lot’, I mean I eat as much as you do, more than likely.

This post is about me stopping eating, not the specific process of intermittent fasting. But if you’re interested, here are the bare bones of what I do

On Mondays and Thursdays (usually, sometimes I shift the days around) I get up in the morning, make coffee and skip breakfast. I skip lunch too, and don’t snack or eat anything else during the day. By the time I get home in the evening it’s more or less 24 hours since I last ate, the previous evening. I have an evening meal of less than 600 calories and then eat nothing else until breakfast the following day.

And it’s fine. I play sport on both days, and that’s fine too. In fact on the odd occasion i’ve played the same fixtures having eaten through the day, i’ve felt sluggish and tired by comparison.

I Give Up: Twitter

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I joined Twitter in 2008. At that point the only person I knew there was @tomstyles. I didn’t really understand it, so I let it lie.

On 29 July 2012, more than 4,000 tweets laters, I got so fed up with Twitter that I decided to give it up.

In practice it took a little time to get out. Twitter had become my main mode of remote communication. Friends carried on asking me questions which I felt I should answer and on one or two occasions, particularly as the London Olympics continued, I found myself sharing my thoughts almost involuntarily. Eventually however, I left it behind.

It seemed at that time that half the internet was made up of people blogging about how they were giving up social media, whilst the other half was people on social media singularly failing to miss them once they’d gone. I didn’t expect anyone to care whether I was there or not and, indeed, no-one really noticed my absence.

Nonetheless I’ve been meaning to explain ever since, even if only to ask myself whether I did the right thing.

One thing in particular persuaded me of the value of Twitter.

It was the view expressed by Graham Linehan that the service’s value was in the provision of a view of the vast and unknowable internet, perhaps even the vast and unknowable world, filtered, interpreted and brought directly to you by people you specifically selected to trust and follow.

Three things in particular persuaded me it was time to stop.

1. Of all the hundreds of the aforementioned ‘social media break’ blogs, I came across this one, recommended by @katiemoffat, on Twitter of course. It struck a chord.

When I started to get enthusiastic about using Twitter back in 2009 I remember feeling strongly that it could be a rewarding creative outlet, forcing me to think carefully about what I believed and what I wanted to say, opening me up to new people and new topics, allowing me to shape and curate a persona, if I wished. I guess that’s still true, it can be and do those things.

In reality it’s mainly true if your ambition is to be creative in the medium of Twitter. Some people do that really well, and they are fun people to follow.

For some people Twitter becomes the end, rather than the means. Saying something wise, insightful, funny, outrageous, unorthodox, or simply before anyone else, is difficult, but still it’s never enough. The real thrill is the dripping promise of possible approbation from your peers or, whisper it, someone famous. How many Twitter poets can honestly say they don’t spend the ten or fifteen minutes after they post each perfectly-crafted word parcel wondering who will retweet, reply, favourite or just quietly admire it?

Is that healthy? Isn’t it just showing off? Narcissism?

Which brings me to…

2. http://www.ollyfactory.com/polly

It’s a little box you plug into your computer. Every time someone retweets something you’ve posted, it gives you a sweet.

Is that… healthy?

Sure, it’s a novelty widget, but the first time I saw it I felt crystallise something which had been troubling me for a while.

Is this what we are happy to be? To do? To sit in front of our screens sending out words in the hope that someone, anyone, will like them (not necessarily ‘value’ them, or ‘be inspired by’ them or ‘cherish’ them or ‘learn from’ them) enough to retweet them so that we will be rewarded? With a sweet?

3. And then there was Tom and the Troll. Remember that?

Let’s be clear about what happened here. A teenage boy was horrible and abusive to a famous sportsman. Roughly speaking he was about as abusive as most football crowds are to opposition footballers week in week out. Let’s also be clear, he was being horrible, as are they.

If he’d been horrible to Tom Daly in the street, we would never have known and, most likely, nothing would have come of it. But he was horrible to him in a far less personal, far more public arena. And people climbed on his back. My Twitter feed that day, presumably like most Twitter feeds in the UK, was full of people calling this kid all the names under the sun. Being horrible. Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps he didn’t.

And then people started shouting that ‘something must be done’. Because a teenage boy said something horrible.

And then, the next day, the police arrived at his house and arrested him. Arrested a teenage boy for being horrible to someone. How does that work, Twitterers? Should we be arresting every teenage boy who says something horrible? Because it seems to me that’s every teenage boy. It seems to me that’s what teenage boys do. Or do we only arrest those who say something horrible to one of the nation’s darlings?

A kid said something horrible and stupid, and twitter users, who are from all stripes and stances, but who in part pride themselves on being part of a free and open exchange of words and thoughts, who jump to follow and retweet any random revolutionary so long as they live far from where we live, couldn’t cope with it. And the next thing you know, the police are dragging him out of bed.

No. No no no no no.

There were other factors too. Like most frequent users, I became compulsive about checking my feed. Compulsion is the right word here. Particularly once Twitter became hard-wired into smartphones, there grew a palpable, physical urge to keep checking what was being said. It was irritating, but almost irresistible. I came to hate it, and to hate myself for caving in to it several dozen times each day.

Moreover, and more disturbingly, I was looking at my life as a series of things I might tweet about. I was experiencing significant events through some twisted, reflected third person perspective, no longer thinking ‘what did I think about that?’ but ‘how would that sound as a tweet?’ That’s pretty bad.

By Summer 2010 genuinely I found myself thinking in pre-packaged clumps of words. If I’d carried on, I suspect I soon would have been subconsciously counting the characters and ensuring my thoughts were below the 140 limit.

All this. So I gave up.

It’s been fine. Just another lack growing dimmer with time. I can’t honestly say that any spare time I may have accrued since has been filled by hitherto untapped wellsprings of creativity. I can say, fairly certainly, that a post like this would have taken twice as long to write before as I would have been checking Twitter repeatedly and getting distracted often. So maybe, all told, I’ve done more stuff.

I do still believe that Twitter can be a great place. When I think about it (and it’s impossible not to, it’s mentioned everywhere, all the time) I feel like an outsider, kicking about the car park whilst an amazing party is going on inside. The idea of being able to hear from fascinating, funny, thoughtful people, direct and unfiltered, and to communicate with some of them, is still hugely appealing. It’s really an incredible opportunity, a thing of wonder we’ve built in just a few years.

I also miss the playfulness, the jibe-trading, the keeping up with what my friends and colleagues are up to. I live near… no-one. Apart from when I’m in the office I don’t get to immerse myself in inconsequential chatter, which I believe is one of life’s great under-appreciated pleasures. Twitter can help with that.

But not for me. For all the eye-opening, inspirational, fun things it can do, I still can’t get over how it left me feeling in the Summer of 2012. I know I could go back, pick my follows more carefully, put Twitter in its proper place. But no. Not for now. Not for me. I gave it up.

I Give Up

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I’m beginning this on the first day of 2014. It’s a day when many people will be starting periods of stricture, cutting out bad habits, squeezing down their time spent to make space for something else. We’re told often that New Year’s resolutions fail much more than they succeed, and that seems likely. If it’s doing less of something, or doing more of something, there are usually more effective ways to force a habit than going all out from the start of the year.

When it comes to stopping, to cutting things out, New Year’s resolutions tend not to be necessary for me. I’ve come to realise that over the last 3-4 years (and, realistically, going much farther back) I’ve given up a string of things, most of them things which formed at least some significant part of my life. Things like following football, using twitter, even eating to some extent. In every case these were activities I enjoyed, but which I came to realise, or at least to persuade myself, had become detrimental to me in some way. So they went.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that there was a pattern to this (and perhaps there isn’t) until a colleague described it as a ‘personality disorder’ and set me thinking. Is there something else going on here?

I don’t know, but over the next week or so I’m going to write about some of the things I’ve stopped during the last couple of years and see if anything suggests itself.

You might want to give up reading now.