2015 – Done and Undone

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I organised myself to do some additional regular stuff in 2015, as is my wont. I also stopped doing a couple of things in 2015, as is also my wont.

I carried on using the Seinfeld/Chain method for habit-forming to drive the sort of repetitive behaviours I want to have. Here’s what.

Things I did, every day…

As throughout 2014, I wrote for at least 15 minutes of every day of 2015. Sometimes there were prolonged periods of working on one thing, sometimes it felt very scrappy as I scratched around for something I felt like writing. One way or another the words piled up. I wish I’d been a little more focused with some of it but, to give an example of how much is reasonably possible with a little commitment, amongst dozens of blog posts, scraps, poems, bits and bobs, I also wrote 36,000 words of a novel that I had not even conceived this time last year, almost all of it done in sessions of only 15 minutes at a time. I make no claims for the text (seriously, none at all) but at the very least, and possibly the very most, it’s close to half the length of a credible novel and if I keep that up for another year then, sitting amongst the pile of other words may be something that resembles a shoddy first draft of something none of you will ever read, but that I think I may be pleased at least to have written.

I also did 15 minutes of chores of one description or another every day this year. I don’t have a record of what I did, but it feels as if I did much less housework and much more admin. Not sure that’s the balance I’m after, but either way it’s kept things ticking along and kept that nagging swarm of ‘things to do’ mostly shooed away.

Stuff that was different, or new

I switched ‘daily exercise’ for ‘daily exercise OR guitar practice’. Not sure quite how that has worked out. My guitar playing has got better, but is still essentially hopeless. I’ve done enough to realise that just working through Russ Shipton’s books and trying to find easy things to play from Ultimate-Guitar.com does not a virtuoso make. I probably need lessons and if I can ever get organised to do that then the discipline to give 15 minutes practice each day will presumably be just what I need.

Exercise has been fine, but introducing the musical joker card has probably meant I did less cardio work this year than any of the preceding 20. Would like to do more in 2016.

I read every day, which was great. The pile of books I finished isn’t that high, partly because fully 3 months of the year were devoted to chipping away at the 700 pages of ‘The Magic Mountain’, but just doing it was, of course, pleasurable and sustaining, encouraging the sense that I was keeping a flame alive and adding just a little bit more to my life every day.

I drank a litre of tap water every day. This presented more of a physical challenge than I had expected. Without wishing to go into too many of the details, it took me 6-9 months to adapt to be able to handle this sort of increased input and even now, unpredictably, some days I am able to absorb it much better than others…

I’m glad I did it and I’m going to carry on, but I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed any great health benefits. I felt sick as a dog for most of the first 5 or 6 months of the year, which may have obscured any water-related gains, but generally I think I feel the same as before. Just a little moister inside, I guess.

Managing

Overall it became easier to discharge these duties. Now, two years into using this approach it rarely takes a lot of mental effort to remember that I have these fixed things to do. Certainly during the last half of this year the nagging sense that there are things left undone in any given day has started to recede. Getting the five ticked off each day has become much more natural, much less forced. That, I hope, is the feeling of something becoming an ingrained habit, rather than an externally imposed requirement.

Stuff I didn’t do

I like to stop doing things almost as much as I like to do things in the first place. This year my aim was to go through the entire year without buying a single drink in a disposable cup or bottle. I almost achieved it.

Not buying bottled water was pretty easy, although this was largely due to my decision to drink a litre of water each day, which meant I carried a drinking bottle with me almost everywhere I went. If you can get into that habit, then it’s a cinch to take the extra step and just not buy plastic bottles just to recycle of landfill them. As soon as you begin you’ll realise just how many of these pointless, wasteful things you can churn through in a day or week without even thinking about it. So, a whole year went by and I didn’t buy, or have bought for me, a single disposable bottle.

Disposable coffee cups are, somehow, even more annoying. In practice, many are now compostable or recyclable, but I think there’s still something distasteful about them. It has to do with the way they are carried as a soggy status symbol declaring, essentially, ‘look at me, I’ve bought some big brand coffee, and now I have a big cardboard cup, a plastic lid, a corrugated cardboard sleeve and also a couple of napkins and I’m going to bin the whole lot somewhere after ten minutes’ use’. Hurray for you.

So, this year I bought a Joco cup and kept it in my work bag. It’s slightly more onerous to remember than the water bottle, and quite a few times I’ve found myself sitting among other people drinking coffee, unable to join them because I forgot to bring it along, but ultimately that’s no great hardship.

I slipped up three times across the year. Firstly in a sports centre cafe in Plymouth where I ordered a coffee and instead of serving it in one of the china cups they had stacked behind the counter, they brought it out in a paper cup, which is stupid. Secondly when a colleague bought me a coffee for a meeting and I forgot to specify not to get a paper cup, which is my fault. Thirdly when buying a coffee for another colleague and tea for me I got distracted thinking about how crap the coffee there was and forgot to think about what they were making it in.

So, could do better, but by trying I reckon I saved around 50-100 cups from the bin, which sounds like not very much. However, doing this and thinking about the consumption of coffee as I went, really sensitised to how much we waste, to the point where I began to have unkind, santimonious thoughts when I saw passers-by brandishing their big label brew in compressed paper pulp containers.

It does seem to me like disposable cups and bottles are so easily avoided that it’s almost criminal not to do so. A quick google suggests that in the US they use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. Here’s the other thing: water is better for you than almost anything else you’re going to be able to buy in a plastic bottle, and buying water when you can get it for free from the tap is just stupid. I drank 1 litre of water every day this year. Another google tells me that this would have cost me 65p per day if I’d bought Evian from Tesco. Over the course of the year that would have cost me £237.25 and left 365 bottles for recycling or landfill.

I’m not one for proselytising, but come on, buy a reusable bottle and a reusable cup and save a bunch of money and waste.

2016

I’m pretty happy with where I am in terms of these habits, so I’m going to stick with them for the next year. I’d like to focus my writing a little more, so we’ll see how that goes.

There’s only one new thing I’d like to try to introduce and that’s mindfulness meditation. I’ve been meaning to give it a proper sustained go for a couple of years. It does seem as if there’s quite a lot of evidence for it as a stress-reducer, and that’s something I could benefit from. I’m really not sure where I can fit this into my day, particularly not in the ways I squeeze the others in during snatched 15 minutes in the midst of the hurly burly, but I’m going to start by trying to get up 15 minutes earlier and to begin working through the sessions in the Headspace app and see where that gets me.

So that’s me. I hope you have a rewarding 2016 and that you help someone else to have one too.

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I Have Never – Novelists

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I used to feel strangely proud of the cultural monoliths I had bypassed. As a teenager I wrote an excruciating essay about never having read Hemingway (how pleased with myself I was for not knowing something) and every Christmas I felt a small but identifiable tweak when everyone moaned about schedules once again containing ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, ’The Great Escape’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. I hadn’t seen any of them and still haven’t.

I felt as if the moment when I might have reached for most of these touchstones had passed. I was forging into the future, or so I thought, and had no time to reach back into the past. That’s not to say I read, watched or heard only new things. I exhausted Burroughs, Ballard and Vonnegut, hung out in the 70s and early 80s with Woody Allen and Steve Martin and tracked back to the reference points of post-punk. But to me these all felt like counter-points to some cultural orthodoxy I wanted away from, so I avoided some of the brightest guiding stars in the firmament.

Now I have less time and those decisions, made and never brought out for re-examination, seem completely stupid.

In conversation recently with Fiona from 940 Sundays and the foremost authority on Nabokov on the second floor of the building she works in, I suddenly felt faintly embarrassed for never having read him. I know things about him and I’ve read lots of writers who were profoundly influenced by him – almost all of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo – but not Nabokov himself.that particular source.

Perhaps I’ve felt the same way about music in the past. If artist X is the freshest, most radical on the scene, why should I be interested in their influences, when they have presumably progressed from or built upon them? I only reached back to artists who seemed so iconoclastic that no-one had approached them since. Hence I love Dylan, Beefheart, Velvet Underground but care much less for the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Byrds.

I think it’s time to change this. To start doing things instead of not doing things. We’ve talked about this before.

I’m going to start with books. Here’s a list of 10 fiction writers, pulled from thin air, who i’m going to try to read within my next 20 or 30 books.

  • Doris Lessing
  • Saul Bellow
  • Primo Levi
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Henry James
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • VS Naipaul
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky

To my knowledge I’ve read nothing by any of them (with the possible exception of Hemingway – I have a sneaky feeling I’ve read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ – but he needs to stay in the list as a symbol of my arrogance and ignorance). I make no claims for this list, and there are hundreds more who could and, in time, should be included. But it’s something. Perhaps if and when I finish I’ll know whether and how badly I’ve been missing out on all this time.

If you have anything to say about any of these 10, including specific recommendations, then do please comment. And before you scoff and file me under ‘Philistine’ take a little look at your own gap-lists, maybe submit them as comments too if you’re bold enough, and take a long hard look at yourself and your glass house before throwing stones.

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.