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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Death and the dilettante or ‘Why I Hate Ultimate Frisbee, Which I Love’

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I think I may have wasted my life.

Let me put that another way. I have realised that I will only ever be good at one thing, and now that one thing is pretty much over.

When I was a teenager, I did what many teenagers do. I moped about feeling sorry for myself, wondering why the world had it in for me, and when things were going to start happening. Of course, whilst I sulked about nothing ever coming my way, things started to come my way. I discovered the transformative power of wonderful music. I read hundreds of books. I found myself in relationships. I began to write.

Each of these things could have taken my life off in any number of directions. I could have been a novelist, a musician or a Casanova. [Just a note here to prevent those who know me from spraying coffee all over their laptops: I realise that I never could have been any of these things. I claim little or no natural aptitude for them. And yes, i’m really talking specifically about the Casanova one here].

I tried to combine writing and music when I was a teenager, scurrying home from gigs to spend the early hours sweating over a typewriter before posting off my reviews into the void – or the Live Editor’s desk at the NME as I knew it. When I got to University I wrote music reviews for the Leeds Student newspaper, and loved it. When I left I took a binder of those reviews around to the fledgling Big Issue In The North and spent the next 10 or more years writing music, film and TV pieces for them, which again, I loved. And then, in 2005, that stopped.

Rewind to 1993 and Ultimate Frisbee saved my life. Enthused, almost randomly, my best friend and I started Manchester’s first team and, taking ourselves by surprise, started learning how to be good at it. The sport brought me almost all of the dearest friends I have today, it forced upon me a physical fitness which I would almost certainly have avoided otherwise, it took me to places I never would have visited both at home (Leicester!) and overseas. It brought me success within the sphere. I played for Great Britain for the first time in 1997 and for the last in 2008. And finally, in 2009, the team that my friend and I started back in Manchester, became European champions.

You may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hour rule’ which contends that the key to success in any given field is, to a great extent, a matter of practising a specific task for 10,000 hours. I think I may just about have reached my 10,000 hours when it comes to Ultimate and, within the confines of an obscure sport played by only a few thousand people in the UK, i’ve been successful. In fact I was pretty good at it. Now, as I approach my 40th birthday, what use is that? I gave my years of focus and concentration to a sport which I became an expert in, and which I cannot play for much longer at all.

Recently, reading fascinating books by or about Stewart Lee and Chris Morris, I recognised the sheer devotion they have given to their crafts, Lee on stage learning to read the swells and riptides of a live audience, Morris in the editing room, taking the scalpel to anything he could get his hands, ears or eyes on. Both are deeply talented and rather frighteningly intelligent, but still in their stories you’ll feel the rough grain of the 10,000 hours of practice.

I realise that I will never again practice anything for 10,000 hours. Of all the things that I could have worked at, I chose one which could not sustain me forever. Now, as its tide begins to ebb, I’m left high and dry.