Category: Personal Musings

Posts about me

Aims not goals

I’ve already stated that my main resolution for 2020 is to be more mindful when I use social media. My reasoning is that I want to waste less time aimlessly scrolling, to give me more time to do other things that I get more personal value from, things that I know are good for me but which get pushed aside far too easily.

Which begs the question, what are these things I want to do more of? Well, broadly speaking there are three areas I want to focus on, all of which will make me a happier me. So, in the name of accountability, they are (in no particular order):

  1. Writing
  2. Meditating
  3. Exercising

I’m trying to be sensible about this, so I’m setting myself one primary aim for each of these areas whilst allowing for a couple of additional hopes as well; activities I’m hoping to pick up (or do more of) with the time I’m ‘getting back’ by spending less time on social media.

I’m also being very deliberate with my language here, these are not goals I’m setting with specific targets that I may not achieve, these are things I’m aiming to do (with some level of accountability) and which I hope to build new habits for along the way. It also means I’m not being too prescriptive as I want these things to find a natural place in my life, and I’m willing to concede that there will be changes along the way but ultimately the end point should be the same.

The use of language is a subtle but important difference and I’m hoping it reduces/removes my fear of failure.

Writing

Primary aim: Write in my journal every day.
I’m not bothered about the volume of what I write, it doesn’t have to be much, it just has to happen every day*. It’s been useful to me in the past as a way to process thoughts and emotions, and also (more often) as a way of remembering the good things that happened.

Additional hopes:

  • Write two blog posts a week. One fiction (from weekly prompts), plus one other on any topic. This sort of happens already but every time I sit down to write I want to focus on it properly.
  • Write/read/edit the novel I have in progress at least once a week just to keep it alive. Some days I’ll get an idea and sit and write for a couple of hours, others I’ll re-read and edit, move things around. I’m sure there is a finished novel in there somewhere.

Meditating

Primary goal: Meditate for 10 mins every day.
I pay for an app called Calm for this exact reason but the habit fell away in December as varying work hours/holidays kicked in and I didn’t dedicate the time to it.

I got into meditation a couple of years ago, attending some meditation classes after work with my good friend Andi, and it’s stuck with me it just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. I always feel better, lighter, calmer, and more aware of living in the present, when I meditate no matter how long for. I’d like to feel like that more often.

Additional hope:

  • Attend some more meditation classes again, it’s a different experience and I think Andi and I would benefit from making it a regular thing!

Exercising

First things first, I can’t really get moving on the longer goal (be able to run a 5K again**) until I get my crappy knee sorted, but there is plenty I could do until then, but I’m going back to some basics.

Primary aim: Stretch every day.
My intention is to build a morning habit to increase my lower back/hip flexibility. 7-10 mins each more, and I’ll incorporate whatever physio exercises I need to do as well. I sit at a desk most of the day and in the last couple of years, specifically since I stopped going to the gym 3 days a week, I’ve really noticed the difference, feeling much stiffer and sorer than I used to (plus, I’m getting old!).

Additional hope:

  • Walk Dave and listen to podcasts. I’ve stopped listening to Podcasts as I don’t really have an hour to dedicate to them so I’m invariably left part way through and don’t revisit them. So I’ll double up on this one and listen to them whilst walking Dave which is always a good way to get a little exercise!

So there you have it, three areas, some gentle achievable aims and some additional hopes.

The next trick is to make these things habits, time will tell if I succeed.


Caveats
* I’m presuming I’ll be able to hit the primary aims every day but I know that won’t hold true. Life will get in the way at times and that’s ok, I’m just going to go with the flow and see what happens.
** My long-term aim to run 5KM is just that, long-term, it may take me all year, or it might not happen until 2021. I am not putting a time scale on it, but it is where I want to get back to in time.

Same hae meat

Welcome to the year 2020! A new year has arrived and with it a new resolve is found and plans are forged; a time of personal goals and improvements, a time to re-invent, to start over, to become a better you!

To help you in your quest you’ll be pleased to find there are many new methods and approaches that will happily take your money to help you achieve (or at least make a start on) your goals, get that shiny new day planner, or a sumptuous new journal, or perhaps take a look at the myriad of apps to help you better yourself, all for the low low price of a tiny piece of your soul! BUY NOW!

Ohh hark at me, on my high horse already. I apologise, I don’t mean to be so pessimistic but it’s hard to avoid the onslaught of such things, with nary every advert that pops up on every website and in every social media feed proclaiming how you truly are only a 6-step plan away from your new perfection! Sign up now and download our app (only £5.99 per month (billable at a discount of only £70.20 per year!)).

And, of course, I really shouldn’t rant and rave against such things, it’s more than a little hypocritical of me given I’ve already, recently, shared my own resolutions for the year.

I am nothing if not inconsistent.

Yet with all that said and done there does seem to be a subtle shift in the focus of these things, it certainly seems like I’m seeing more goals prompting a focus on mental health, alongside the general view that we need more positivity throughout our lives, and I believe this is very much a good thing.

Regardless of what science tells me (a new year is just another revolution of our little planet around the Sun), it still feels particularly prevalent to focus on messages of love, of self-care, of moderation and tolerance in the month of January as so many people are setting themselves up for new challenges, new goals, new words to live by, and it’s easy to get swept along by the volume of people stating they are trying to change.

So much the better, what does it matter if it’s an arbitrary date change that helps give people a push to try something new? I sincerely hope that if you have made any resolutions this year that you are successful with them, and if you aren’t, I hope that you learn and maybe grow a little because of the experience, just don’t give up, you can try again any time you want!

These days January is no longer only about new gym goers, but is also the haven for those going dry, or vegan (Veganuary) both of which are laudable goals, and one of which I’m already part way into myself.

Last year, around late November, I watched the documentary “The Game Changers”. It’s largely about proving whether or not a plant based diet is a good thing and the bulk of the content focuses on elite athletes (the documentary is also backed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lewis Hamilton and others) and how the ‘eat meat to get protein to build muscle’ is a myth.

Now, I know you are all more than capable of googling facts about the documentary, some of which supports the evidence shown, some of which doesn’t, and for the most part it was just an interesting watch. I found myself watching it with a sense that, sure, if you are an elite athlete and that is your life then adjusting to a plant based diet is just one facet of what you do every day so is certainly more achievable (and measurable). For the rest of us mere mortals, the ones who work in offices and don’t exercise twice a day (twice a week?) just how applicable is it?

Those were the thoughts in my head while I watched, after all this is a production backed by people who likely have some vested interest in furthering a particular view?

And then it got to the section with the New York Firefighters.

Here was a group of 40-something men, mostly over weight, who have a high stress, physical jobs. What would eating a plant-based diet do for them? Measurements were taken at the start of a week long test, and again at the end and one set stood out. Each man who had switched to a plant-based diet lowered their blood pressure, fairly dramatically, in one week.

I have high blood pressure. I’ve been on medication for it for about 10 years. One of the drugs will, eventually, start to damage my liver (so I’m on a second drug to counteract that). It’s been my reality for long enough now that I stopped thinking about it and just accept it’s part of who I am and I’ve let my focus be more around losing weight/fat as that’s what the doctor – when he’s not banging on about leptins – keeps telling me would be the best thing to do; lose weight and lower the dosage of the drugs I take to give my liver a chance.

Watching that section of the documentary made me realise that, whilst I’ve never really been one for diets in a ‘lose weight’ sense, I’ve long known how to eat a balanced diet but I’d never considered it as a specific way to tackle my high blood pressure. It really was a light bulb moment for me.

I live with a vegetarian, she’s been one for a while now and she has a lot of working knowledge on the topic, so we discussed it, and what challenges it might throw up and the next day I decided to give it a shot.

That was 6 weeks ago and, despite the festive season of over-indulgence being slap bang in the middle of that period, I’m happy to say I’ve stuck with it throughout.

My weight has fluctuated a bit, mostly because for the first few weeks I was very focussed on what I was eating and also cut out a lot of snacking, no more sneaky KitKats for me, and so it wasn’t a massive surprise that I also lost weight. That said, I wasn’t really doing much more than that, I was still eating loads, and I was starting to feel the benefit, starting to feel less bogged down and sluggish each day.

More importantly my blood pressure has dropped. Because I’m on medication I take my blood pressure every month and, on average over the past year it’s around the 138/96 mark. After four weeks of eating a mostly plant-based diet it had dropped to 116/84. In other words, it’s dropped from being in the upper regions Mild High Blood Pressure range (and remember this is WITH medication), to the mid regions of the High-Normal range. In less than a month.

A few other things on this then.

  1. I don’t think I’d be vegan. I have switched from cows milk to oat or soya milk, but I still eat eggs occasionally, and have butter on toast most weekends. I’ve never been a big cheese eater anyway so the occasional chunk is about all I’d have anyway.

  2. I take a supplement to make sure I’m getting some of the basic vitamins I might be missing (B12 being the main one) but I did that when I was hitting the gym and lifting weights so that’s not a big deal.

  3. No, I’m not a vegetarian. At least I’m not in my head, it’s more that I’m just unlikely to eat meat again any time soon but I’m doing it primarily for health reasons, not because I think meat is murder. It’s very rare that I buy into one thing so utterly and completely that it becomes canon and I don’t see this being any different.

  4. I don’t like bell peppers (the big red/green/orange/yellow ones). If you don’t either, be sure to check what you are buying if the food is already prepared, they get shoved in a dishes they have no place being.

  5. I am exercising as well, mostly dog walks at the moment (physio on my knee commences tomorrow!) but that has been fairly constant through the last few months so I’m putting the lower blood pressure and weight loss down to the change of eating habits.

I understand this is a hot topic for many people – some people oppose meat eating due to the impact that cattle farming has on the environment (that is part of my thinking as well), others follow the meat is murder mantra – but for me it’s a personal choice, and not something I’ll be crowing about, or nagging anyone else about (yes, I realise I’m writing a post about it).

And, for the complete avoidance of doubt, no I was not made vegetarian by my partner, far from it! She still forgets I’m not eating meat at the moment and points out tasty things in the supermarket or on a menu for me, “Ohhh that chorizo dish looks tasty… oh wait!”

I guess the clearest way to state what I’m currently doing is that I’m making a conscientious decision to eat less meat and have a mostly plant-based diet, with the aim of reducing my biologically high blood pressure enough that I can lower my potentially liver damaging medication intake.

But I guess saying, hey I’m vegetarian at the moment, is a bit simpler.


And for those wondering, post title courtesy of The Selkirk Grace by Robert Burns.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be Thankit!

2020

A new decade lies before us.

And I have a resolution for this coming year (and goals for the next three).

Let’s start with that resolution: I resolve to limit my time on social media.

I acknowledge that I won’t ever be fully off-line but I’m determined to step away from the mindless scrolling and refreshing of feeds that have become a bad habit. It has a time and place, but for me it’s starting to feel like a waste and I can quickly go from a ‘quick check’ to 30 mins of idle nothingness. I know this is exactly what these apps are designed to do, they are built and engineered to keep me locked in, and they are very good at it, so I need to develop some ways of combating that.

I am not against idle nothingness of course, it most certainly has a time and place of its own and I think more people could do with learning how to be idle, or perhaps even bored. It just seems that my own instinct that kicks in to counter those thoughts and emotions, that knee-jerk reaction to reach for my phone has become the norm and that’s what I’m trying to break.

There are plenty of other things I can do with that time and I’ve already proven that they are more beneficial to me;

  • Rather than scrolling through my Twitter feed, I could meditate for 10 mins.
  • Rather than scrolling and reacting to my Facebook feed, I could play the piano for 20 mins.
  • Rather than liking post after post on Instagram, I could do some much needed stretching to better prepare my ailing, stiff, body for going out in the beautiful places in the world so I can take my own photos (to post on Instagram… I realise that one might be a bit self-fulfilling).

I have already experimented with a few gentle barriers, I don’t have any social media icons on the home screen of my iPhone, and both Facebook and Twitter have time limits set against them (a handy iOS feature). Neither of these are insurmountable blockers of course but hopefully they will provide enough friction to at least make me pause and consider what I’m doing.

So what else could I do with my time?

For starters I’m part of a book club, I’ve always enjoyed reading and a couple of years ago I was fully invested, reading 40+ books a year but now I can barely manage half that, and that’s me making an effort! I’d wonder what happened, what was keeping me away from reading books whilst watching yet another Facebook video of people pranking their friends, or dogs falling asleep in funny positions.

And it’s not all about the amount of time I spend on social media. In the week running up to the General Election I largely stayed off Facebook, knowing that the increasingly negative tone that would dominate my feed was something that would impact my own mental health so I opted out.

I also know I get more personal value from spending my time doing something that is absorbing, something that demands my attention, that pulls me towards it, rather than the constant noise that social media offers. There are many good things about Facebook and Twitter and I do find things there that capture my interest but, more often than not, I can spend 20 mins not doing much of anything and I’m increasingly finding that to be a negative experience.

I’ll still be around of course, and those who need to contact me can do so, and I admit it will be interesting to see how my ‘social’ interactions change as my visibility on social media diminishes. Be that what it will.

And yes, I know that the New Year is arbitrary and truth be told I’d already started to cut down on such things over the past few months. I can already see that Instagram will be my preferred ‘feed’ as it provides beauty and connection in a way that Facebook and Twitter don’t, and I’m genuinely curious as to how this year will progress, if I will hold true to my resolution and, if so, what that might mean for my online persona.

Only time will tell.

Walking Dave

Picture the scene.

I’m sitting on the sofa watching TV. There is a small brindle dog lying next to me, gently snoring. At my feet a small black dog lies on a rug, knawing on a chew toy. He stops, stands up, and turns around to face me. He whines pathetically, his bottom lip petted. He needs out.

“OK then,” I say as I stand up, “let’s go”. He steps back and then follows me out into the hall.

I slip on my shoes, pull on my jacket, check I have my keys and some poo bags, and reach for his harness and lead.

He does not like putting his harness on. Honestly you’d think it was full of spikes or something; the second you lift it off the hook, he turns and heads back to the living room only to remembers he needs out, upon which he turns round and walks back into the hall, stopping a few feet away from where I stand.

I beckon him forward. He takes one more step forward and waits.

I reach down and slide the harness over his head, click both fasteners closed, wait for him to do his usual circle around me (no idea why) and open the front door.

All the while, the snoring from the living room continues.

Dave and I step out and head for our first stop. It’s not far, he needs to pee after all, but he’s pulling on the lead. I can sympathise, we’ve all had that feeling when the cool air hits you, so I pick up my pace. After checking there is no-one around, no other dogs at least, I unclip the lead from his harness. He quickly heads off to find a spot and once he has he leans forward, head held aloft, striking a very regal pose for a most unregal activity.

Don’t worry, this is not a post about taking my dog out for a pee.

But it is about the simple joy of being outside, rain or shine, with a faithful companion.

We are lucky that we live where there are a few small parks dotted around nearby. In less than 10 mins we can be in leafy green area where Dave can be let off the lead (after checking we are mostly alone of course) to roam and wander and explore. We also have a larger park near us, big enough to host a Parkrun (5km weekend run), where I occasionally take Dave and, once he realises where we are heading he knows that a tennis ball will feature soon and, once that wonderous yellow orb has made an appearance, it’s all he cares about. I’ve yet to see him distracted for more than a few seconds when there is a tennis ball involved.

But mostly his walks are around the local neighbourhood.

He is well trained and loves loves LOVES being on a walk. He is handsome, has a glossy coat and a ready smile for passers-by and sometimes, if you are lucky, he’ll want to stop and say hello but mostly he is DOING A WALK and can be very single-minded on this so let’s be clear, unless you have treats, he may not care that you think he’s a good boy, or that he’s handsome, or a ‘wee cracker’, because he is DOING A WALK. It’s nothing personal but he ain’t stopping, he has places to go, smells to seek out and who knows, maybe a squirrel friend to make!

You get pretty good at reading the body language of other people when you are walking a dog. I know not everyone likes dogs (aka weirdos) and so if I see someone we are approaching trying to eek out every centimetre of the pavement, hugging the kerb, then I’ll make it obvious that Dave is not able to get anywhere near them. He’s also a very good boy at STOPPING and WAITING if that’s what is gonna be less hassle for everyone else.

There are several places where he gets let off to roam. These parts of the walk are the best and the worst. They are the best as it’s clear Dave loves exploring all the wonderful smells, and they are the worst because I’m constantly scanning around for any possible distractions or anything that might cause an issue – a jogger, another dog, a squirrel (!) – whilst keeping an eye on Dave as he meanders around, following his nose.

All of these places are reasonably enclosed, small parks or areas of grass, and Dave will happily roam around and follow commands if he wanders off too far. He loves to chase birds and squirrels, because he wants to be friends with them, and occasionally that can take him a little too close to a gate or road for comfort. My heart races as I holler his name in the right tone, the one that (so far!) has made him stop dead and turn round.

He really is a good boy.

It’s something I tell him often whilst we are out walking, rain or shine, as he walks on with a dogged determination to get where he is going even if that means sometimes we will both have different ideas of where that is when we get to a particular corner or a crossing, and so you may see me standing with a small black dog leaning all his weight in one direction, whilst I stand pointing in the other direction and suggesting that ‘No Dave, we are going this way’. Some days I let him win, it’s his walk as much as mine.

Dave and I will chat most of the time when we are out on a walk, and whilst it’s a pretty one way conversation – not because he’s rude or anything but he is DOING A WALK and just doesn’t have time for idle chit-chat – I always come home feeling good about myself.

Perhaps it’s because there is such a singular purpose to taking him for a walk, a focus and purity to the activity that I don’t get elsewhere. There is me and Dave and the walk. Nothing else really matters, as long as I keep him safe and he has fun then I’m happy, and somewhere along the way my own mind clears and some days I find myself taking a longer route home just to enjoy my time with him.

Considering he’s only been in my life for about a year it’s safe to say that we’ve bonded pretty well, and whilst the old adage likely holds true – you are only as good as your last walk – and I have to battle for his affections with our dog walker, I still look forward to taking him out.

It also makes me appreciate our corner of this beautiful city we live in all the more, and how many small green places it has, some hidden away in odd corners or dead ends, and on the days the sun is shining and the plants are in full bloom it is utterly glorious. Just me, the fresh air, nature all around us, a small furry black dog who sometimes turns to look at you with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen.

It’s quite simply the best therapy I’ve ever experienced.

We finally get home, and as soon as the door is unlocked and opened Sasha sprints through from the living room to greet us with her usual frantic abandon. She runs in circles, tail wagging madly as I unclip the harness and let Dave wander off to get a drink and rub up and down the sofa to get the feeling of that horrible, terrifying harness off of him.

I’ll grab a glass of water and sit down myself. Sasha will rush over and promptly sit on my lap (to make sure I don’t leave again), and I’ll sit there a while, telling her she’s a good girl whilst I rub her tummy.

Loss

The hurt of loss, the longing of one, the distance from those, the untouchable.

I wrote those words a long time ago.

Time is a great healer yet those who have lost loved ones will know, all too well, that it only takes a tiny moment to bring memories snapping back into vivid view in a heartbeat, all to remind you once again of the gap they have left in your life. It hurts, and while that hurt softens it never leaves you.

I can’t really remember all that much about my Grandpa passing. He’d been ill most of my life, suffering a number of strokes that left him in a wheelchair and able to speak. He remained a presence in the room though, and my earliest memories of him veer from the happiest as he laughed along with the rest of the family, to the darker ones. As he couldn’t express himself verbally he got easily frustrated and would bang the table loudly, it was frightening for a young boy to see.

I was sad when he died, he was still my Grandpa, and that meant something to me, even if I wasn’t sure what.

I was sadder when my Gran died. She looked after my Grandpa for the remaining years of his life, but still had time to look after me on occasion, and she was always happy to spoil her only grandson with ice cream and a toy from the local shopping centre. Towards the end, as she lay in a bed in her room in a local hospice, I would visit and tell her about my day and do my best to make her laugh, I usually managed it and I would leave slightly sad but comfortable that she was in the right place and knew that I cared for her. Her death is still keenly felt and, as my own mother has been in and out of hospital over the past few years, I find myself thinking back to my Gran.

Grief and loss felt very isolating. My approach to grief has been to lock it away from others, almost as if I’m trying to protect it from hurting anyone else, and most definitely because loss is a very personal thing. I know the things that I missed when my Gran died will be different to those the rest of my family felt.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, just as there are no right and wrong emotions when that moment comes. I can remember a sense of relief when my Gran passed; seeing someone you love dearly lying in a bed in a care home in her final days are not how I want to remember my Gran. So in a strange way it was, alongside the sadness, a weight off my mind. Now I was free to remember the Gran I knew as a small boy, spoiling me with ice cream and toys, and in later years as I grew older, telling stories of how she and her friends would dress up in their finest and deliberately wander past where the American soldiers were camped out during the war!

Loss is unique, and overwhelming, and natural, and sad, and an opportunity to remember the good things, and the further we get from the moment of loss itself, the more I find solace in the happy memories, the laughter and love that I still carry in my heart.

Shoes

There is an old joke that goes: “Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes. After that who cares? They’re a mile away and you’ve got their shoes.” Badummtshhh!

It is, of course, a riff on the idiom that is typically stated as “Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes” the idea being that you shouldn’t judge people until you better understand their life experiences, the challenges they carry every day, and how they view the world. It’s about developing empathy and perspective or, to put it another way, it’s about learning to manage your own emotions.

To wit, the shoes in question don’t really matter (history suggests the idiom originates with native Americans so likely they’d be wearing moccasins or some such), so perhaps these days it’s probably fair to say that with the astonishing designs, prices, and sheer volume of the range of shoes available to those who can afford them, it might be a more apt phrase than ever.

The other day, as I left work, I saw a long queue of people waiting outside a store. It’s not a store I’ve ever stepped foot in, but I’m pretty sure it’s a clothes stor… sorry, “fashion boutique”. It’s 4pm and there is a security guard in attendance at the front door, with a long queue already standing in orderly… er.. fashion.. behind a red velvet rope cordon.

It’s not something you see ever day so with my curiosity piqued I altered my route to wander past.

The queue is largely made up of young faces, teenagers and twenty-somethings, their faces lit by the screens they bow to view. As I get closer I peer inside the shop and can see that the red velvet ropes extend into the store, where there are more people waiting in a queue that snakes round one side of the store and up to the rear where there is a tall clear glass display cabinet, spot light in dazzling white, that contains two pairs of trainers set at jaunty angles as they rotate slowly on a pedestal. Each pair look identical in design and only differ in colour; one is a shade of olive, the other a light salmon pink. There are no other discernible factors or uniqueness and, from a distance, they look like they could be any other pair of trainers, render into these colours. In the queue of people waiting inside, most have their phones raised as they capture their latest Instagram, or Snapchat, or TikTok, or [insert latest fad].

I’ll admit that, as I walked past, I made judgements about those people. I judged them based on their age, I judged them based on their clothes, and yes I judged them because they were queuing to buy a pair of trainers at what I could only presume was an exorbitant price or, as I’m sure the designer would suggest, at a ‘premium’.

Part of me feels ashamed at that. I don’t know any of them, I don’t know if this is a purchase for them, if it’s the only thing they are treating themselves to this year, I don’t know if they don’t have any other hobbies and this is part of their social life. The other part of me wonders what on earth the world has come to when people will queue up to buy a pair of, to my eye, fairly non-descript trainers at what I’m presuming is an inflated price and which, again I’m presuming, have been endorsed by a celebrity whom I’ve never heard of.

Wow, listen to me, the out of touch and angry old man, raging against a world he doesn’t understand.

Sometimes it’s hard to gain perspective, or at least hold it, when you are seeing things that fundamentally just don’t seem right and definitely don’t feel relatable to your own world view. Admittedly this is a terrible example to use but the point stands, I only see the world from my own perspective, through my own experiences. I am applying my own morals to others and that isn’t right or fair.

Learning to put all that aside requires a lot of effort but it is possible. Emotional labour, as Hannah Gadsby recently said, is something that many millions of people do, multiple times, every single day. Those people are mostly women, so I think it’s about time that men took a turn.

It can be easy to start too, honestly, you just need to fight a basic urge. The next time you want to voice an opinion, ask yourself this, did the person I’m talking to ask for my opinion in the first place?

Simple. Right?

And it’s from there you realise that un-requested opinions tend to come from one place, with one point of view in mind, one perspective. Moving that view can be hard but it is possible.

Then, when you have walked a mile in another persons shoes, you’ll understand why their feet hurt, how sore their blisters are, and realise that your legs are aching.

‘How on earth did they manage to walk in these things?’ you’ll wonder.

And then you’ll realise.

These aren’t your shoes, and whilst you now have some aches and pains you’ve never had before, you’ll maybe start to appreciate that the way other people walk, and the shoes they were, aren’t wrong, or bad, just different.

Renovation

The title of my blog has been Happily Imperfect for some time now. I’ve written about this before but since then, things have changed.

The name came about because I am, on the whole, happy with who I am, where I am in my life, and where my life is headed. If anything, the past year or so has made me even happier but ‘Happier Imperfect’ doesn’t really scan… and there’s the rub, since I last wrote about this, almost five years ago, I’ve found myself at place that could simply be described as ‘Happy’ but, again, it’s not the best title for a blog…

Yes, I am happy. Happy with my life. Finally. It feels good to have gotten here, after all it’s taken me a long time, but I guess that’s what life is all about, getting through things, learning, growing, and accepting who I am. And I have.

But there is still a part of me that, whilst I can acknowledge how happy I am these days, is always wondering about a tweak here and there. If anything my advancing years are pushing me towards this as well, my health will become increasingly important as I head towards 50 years old (wow that’s so weird to write yet it’s not that far away really) and so I still find myself looking to make small changes and tweaks. I’m also happy that that is also part of who I am.

I’ve always thought this way, I accept that life is what it is, that I’m not perfect and that no-one is, but I don’t ever want to stop trying to make things better for myself as I know that makes things better for my loved ones. A wonderfully virtuous circle, no?

I am happy where I am today, I am at my happiest, my most content, my most comfortable, and it feels like the jigsaw pieces of my life have all neatly slotted into place again. I feel whole and complete.

But life continues to move forward and give us challenges. Yesterday my doctor confirmed that the pain I’ve been experiencing in my lower stomach was a mild Inguinal Hernia, it’s not serious and will heal itself with a little gentle help from me, but it reminds me that my body needs to be taken better care of or such things will become all the more frequent as I head into the next, exciting, decade of my life.

I thought that turning 40 would be the kick in the pants I needed to get my health sorted out and, thinking back, I probably thought the same when I turned 30. Neither happened, and even more recent efforts and dedications at the gym were never fully committed. Looking at this body though, and it’s growing list of aches and pains and I know it’s time to renovate as best I can.

I’m not quite sure what that means just yet, as ever I know the basics but finding the constant commitment is always a balance and it’s here I’m focusing. How can I maintain the effort needed for, say, six months (and why am I starting now, with the decadent indulgence of Christmas ahead of me!)? I don’t know yet but that’s half the fun. Figuring it out.

And it’s much much easier when you are already happy.

So this is not going to be a renovation project of a sad dilapidated body, rather it’s just a few tweaks on what I hope are some good solid foundations.

Fingers crossed.

Childhood

A blue desk, with a flip up lid, painted red in a later life, sitting there looking out through warbled glass.

The smell of a warm wet dog from the back of the car.

Sitting at the top of the stairs whilst my parents and friends talked and laughed late into the night.

My blanket, my panda, my blue horse.

The taste of dog biscuits.

Action Man adventures in the back garden.

The chaos of the primary school playground.

Camping trips and caravans.

The box of old lego at my Gran and Grandpas house.

The click clack of knitting needles, and the rustle of a newspaper.

Walking the nearby woods, chasing the dog.

White bread, green apple slices, butter and sugar; a sandwich for when you weren’t well.

My sister arriving home, swaddled in white cotton.

Cycling home, up the driveway, round the side of the garage, one thump of a front wheel to knock the back gate open.

My old model railroad, roads and grass painted on plywood.

The cupboard under the stairs.

Setting up Hot Wheels running track down both flights of stairs from the top of the house to the bottom.

Visits from family and friends, best behaviours and a smell of polish.

Summer barbeques, juicy slices of melon and marshmallows toasted on sticks.

Winter nights, a crackling fire, roasted chestnuts.

These are the things I chose to remember about my childhood.

All of this and so much more.

All of this to a soundtrack of happiness and laughter.

All of this with a heart full of love.

Wedding party dancing

Family

A couple of months ago, in the midst of my sisters wedding, I looked around the room and took in all the faces there. I saw many familiar faces, some of whom had been at my own wedding, many years ago, and I saw too the gaps of those no longer with us.

It’s been years since she passed, but the face I missed the most that day was my Gran. Ohh how she’d have loved it.

I spent a lot of time with my Gran when I was a child. My Mother’s mother, she looked after me a lot in the pre-sister years, weekends spent in in the big house in Rutherglen, my Uncle’s old warped snooker table in the basement, the living room with a sideboard so large it came in through the window (one floor up), and the front room best know for the tub of sweets that were always the first port of call when we visited.

I didn’t really know my Grandpa, successive strokes robbed him of speech and movement, but he was there with a smile and a laugh. I wish I’d known him better but my visits there were mostly about me and Gran, walking to the local shopping centre, getting a cone from the ice cream parlour, and always getting a toy from the toy shop. She’d stop and chat to people she knew, always a friendly smile.

My Gran loved clothes and was such a frequent visitor to the make-up counters, at one of the more upper-market shops in the Glasgow’s city centre, Frasers, that in her later years when she couldn’t manage to visit in person, they started sending out free samples to her. A wedding would’ve meant a whole new outfit!

I can imagine her at my sisters wedding though, watching and smiling, and sitting with her son and daughter. What a wonderful picture that would have been.

Of course, life isn’t like that and all families go through the same cycles of loss. As it was, many of the faces at my sisters weddings the Aunts and Uncles, the family friends, all brought warmth and happiness to the day. And these are the family moments to remember fondly. The gatherings that happen now and then, that mark the passage of time, the weddings, the christenings, and even the funerals.

It’s at these times that I look at my own extended family; my partner, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law and my niece, and my closest friends who are, and have been, like brothers to me these past 30 years, my ex-wife, and all the connections that they bring.

They say that friends are the family they choose, and maybe I just got lucky because my family was already pretty damn good to begin with. As I danced with cousins and Aunties, and chatted to Uncles and family friends, I saw the same for my sister as her friends once again whisked her onto the dance floor.

I guess I’d reword that old phrase then, friends aren’t the family you chose, it’s the people you love that are the family you have.

Pay no attention

I can still remember the nerves as I sat there, front row, at the school assembly. The main school hall was in the middle of the building, with classrooms off to each side and for assembly it was laid out with row upon row of plastic seats, ready for every pupil in the school to sit and listen to the headmistress. On this day, rather than sitting with the rest of my class, I was sitting up front next to a teacher as I was about to be invited to get up in front of the entire school.

Off to one side at the front of the hall, from where the headmistress was addressing us, was a large black grand piano. Far larger than the upright that took pride of place in my parents front room, or that of my piano teacher, the only two pianos I had played. That grand piano was the largest piano I’d ever seen and as I stared, marvelling at the lustre of that deep shiny black casing and the curves of its acoustic chamber, it seemed to grow larger and larger with every passing second.

Then my name was mentioned and, taking that as my cue, I got up and walked over and sat on the large leather stool, checked my music was at the right page and looked down to be faced with a gargantuan keyboard that was fully 10 feet from end to end (maybe it was 20 feet, or 30? it’s a hazy memory and remember, the piano was still growing with every passing second), each key was the same size as my entire hand, the pedals were large enough for me to stand on. I can’t recall which year I was in, only that it was Primary school, and there I was, a tiny, petrified boy sat in front of a piano that was rapidly taking on gargantuan proportions and proving more and more daunting by the second.

It took all my strength and willpower to push the keys down for the opening notes – I can’t recall the piece I played but I’m betting something by Mozart – and I know I stumbled over a couple of notes midway through but, by and large I have no further memories of the performance. I don’t know if I re-took my seat to deafening applause or stony silence, I don’t know if the headmistress made any further comments, I can’t recall if it was at the start or the end of the day.

What I can still remember, with alarming clarity for someone who has atrocious powers of recall, is how nervous I was before, during, and after the performance. As I sat there waiting to be called up, I was hoping my sweaty palms wouldn’t be an issue, not to mention wondering if people would just start laughing at me and, as the headmistress called my name, I can still feel the lurching drop that occurred in the pit of my stomach as I got up and walked to the piano, knowing all eyes were on me, watching me and nothing else.

These days I can look back on such an event with a smile, safe in the knowledge that I got through it and it was probably a good thing that I was able to do it at all. Such things are character building for a young boy, right? Ahhh the joys of hindsight. However back then the entire experience, the build-up to it, the performance, and the teasing in the playground after the fact, all added up to what was simply a horrifying experience for what I was back then; A young, not very confident, boy who didn’t even really enjoy playing the piano at all. I still don’t know how the entire thing came about, but I’d guess living in the same street as the headmistress had a bearing…

I’m not sure where my dislike of being the centre of attention came from. Perhaps because I was always happiest and most content as a child if I was on my own, lost in my own worlds of imagination. Perhaps that was something I used to block out other things going on around me, and perhaps that was due to my sister not arriving until I was 8 years old with my Mother being in and out of hospital in the intervening years. I honestly don’t remember and I know my childhood was a happy one, and full of love, but most of my most vivid memories only feature me on my own.

So from being the type of child who used to sit at his desk and stare out the window, watching the cars drive round the roundabout so often I could tell from the brake lights which car was which – Ford Sierra, Fiat Panda, Cortina, Astra – to being plonked in front of the entire school to perform was a massive leap. I didn’t enjoy the clamouring Aunts who wanted to hear my play the piano at home, let alone sit in front of all of my classmates and friends.

Horrifying.

Part of that, I realise now, blends into my mental health issues and the inability to take credit for things I have achieved. I don’t dwell on my achievements, I don’t put weight behind them and congratulate myself. At least I never used to, that has started to change but that’s very much a work in progress. With that in mind then, it’s easier to see why being the centre of attention has never sat comfortably, doubly so when it is in any way congratulatory which, given how aggressively competitive I was growing up became a very sharp double-edged sword.

I was in the Boys Brigade for most of my childhood and won every trophy going. In the Juniors I won Best Boy, and repeated it when I moved up to the Company (go 1st Dumbarton!). My squad won Best Squad and Best Squad Games trophies that year too, a clean sweep. Which was great, I lead a group and we were successful and then I had to accept actual trophies in front of a people at an awards ceremony and UGH.

Regardless of where it’s come from I have never liked being the centre of attention, and as a 40-something year old man, I still don’t. So as something which I utterly abhor as a personal experience, I struggle to find the appeal in it for others. Why do you get up on a stage and sing? Why do you write your heart out and then read those self same words out loud as others gawp on (as I did recently).

It’s also why, whilst I have many friends who adore the current… trend? … of drag artists and drag shows, it’s that very extrovert and OTT behaviour that pushes me away from it. You may see makeup that is on fleek (?) and outfits that dazzle and shine, and acres of positive energy and empowerment and acceptance, but beyond that all I see is a clamouring for attention that borders on the desperate? LOOK AT ME, it screams, LOOK AT ME!

Which, to someone who internally is typically screaming STOP LOOKING AT ME, is so far from my comfort zone that I can’t even begin to understand it. Logically I know that there is a lot more behind the power that drag artists get from their performances and that it’s all driven by many other factors and can be a hugely empowering influence for the individuals who take part, and it’s just as likely that they are deliberately pushing things so so far with their extroverted behaviour that it stems from the same place as my deep hatred of being the centre of attention.

Yet it remains so so far from my comfort zone that I can’t empathise with it to the point that I really don’t enjoy watching it and, in my own way of dealing with my emotions that may, occasionally, be externally expressed with a small (teeny tiny) level of sarcasm to those who do enjoy such things, well to those people I apologise. It really REALLY isn’t you and most definitely is me.

For the record I’m not anti-drag artist, it’s just not for me. I’m glad it brings happiness and joy to so many people.

This topic has been on my mind once more as we roll towards the end of October and my annual ‘I hate Halloween and everything that goes with it’ mindset. Friends of mine host a party every year, and every year I publicly moan about ‘having to get dressed up’ and invariably, because I don’t want to let people down and have an innate desire for approval, I end up scrabbling around for a costume at the last minute.

My favourite to date was a printed t-shirt that read “Error 404: Costume Not Found”.

Once again this years invite arrived (via Facebook obv) and I immediately, internally, baulked at the idea of it. I don’t mean I stopped and thought about it and then reacted, I mean it’s like a reflex, the minute I read what it was that knot in my stomach appeared. Now I should stress that my reaction is not about attending the party per se, nor is it about the people who may be attending (well not ALL of them), and it’s not like I haven’t attended Halloween parties held by these gracious hosts before, and hey I’ve even dressed up a few times, but no, it’s the thought of having to get dressed up and walking in and having people turn and look at me.

For a while I used to think it was the dressing up thing specifically. And it’s definitely a large part of it because I tend to struggle to feel comfortable in my own clothes, let alone having to find a costume that fits and doesn’t make me feel more ridiculous that I do on any other given day (I think we can see where this is headed).

Admittedly Halloween is a bit of a double whammy because I also don’t understand why Halloween is so popular, and why so many people revel in the scary, horror side of it so much. Let’s dress up as a zombie, ohhhhh, let’s dress up as a witch, aaahhhhh. But then I don’t enjoy horror movies so the entire genre that is ‘horror/Halloween’ is complete lost on me and I’m really REALLY fine with that. But, I digress.

I know a LOT of people who enjoy dressing up, not just at Halloween, and that makes me wonder what they get from it? Is it actually driven from the same place? A dislike of being ‘seen’? A way to not be the you that you aren’t all that fond of, by pretending to be another? I’m veering heavily into stereotypes here but looking at the continued expanse of the cosplay world, is that a prime area for extroverted introverts? And does that make me an introverted extrovert? (hint: yes I am, mostly).

I have, on more than one occasion, dressed up in fancy dress for a party. But the more I consider it, and the more I look at my natural reaction to being requested to dress up, the more I struggle to put the wishes of the requestee (who are requesting this of everyone, and aren’t singling me out, I know) over my own needs. Given my constant, innate desire for approval, the need to be liked by as many people as possible, I can confirm that, as the kids say, the struggle is real. I want to dress up in the best costume and have everyone at the party turn and stare in awe at how amazing I look and to praise me for it, except I want them to do all that without looking at me. Is that too much to ask?

A lot of this relates to my own body issues. I watched enough Gok Wan back in the day to know that my own internal image likely doesn’t match the reality but I spend every single day aware of my size. I pull my coat closed when it falls open, I adjust my position when I sit at my desk. Given I try and NOT draw attention to myself because I don’t like what I see, is it any surprise that I don’t want other people looking at me? Why would I willingly do something that is entirely designed to make me the centre of peoples attention, that is wholly predicated to make people look at me?

All of this angst lies slap bang in the middle of my inner quandaries, driven by emotions writ when I was a child, which have me simultaneously loathing any form of attention whilst at the same time craving approval and realising that to get the validation I internally crave I have to put myself in the spotlight now and then.

And yes, I’m aware that it isn’t healthy to seek validation from others, I’m much much better at loving myself these days than I have been, the base instinct remains.

So sometimes I go to parties and dress up. And more often than not I end up leaving them early because that simple act is the culmination of several days build up and by the time it arrives, and I’ve spent a couple of hours there, I’m done.

I’m still not fully sure where this is all seated though, and year on year my mood around Halloween seems to sway from indifference, to a mild loathing. It’s the same feelings I get when any mention of “ice-breaker activities” or other such enforced fun are mentioned, the same internal stomach churn, and the same sarcastic comments are issued forth.

I don’t like my reaction to those, nor to Halloween in general. I don’t like my perception of how others see me when I act this way, and I know many people think I’m just permanently grumpy. I’m really not. I’m not a curmudgeon or a grump, I’m typically pretty happy, I like enjoying life, and I do love hanging out with friends and family and having a laugh.

I recently bought myself a piano, a small keyboard, as the mood occasionally takes me to sit down and play again. I was surprised about the memories it brought back and how quickly my fingers remembered what to do, which note was where, and I still sit down every now and then.

Sometimes I’ll see a piano in a hotel bar, or as is more likely in a public space somewhere, and I wonder what it would be like to sit down at it and play something. I know I have the ability, if perhaps not the memory, nor the dedication to practising that it would take to do so, but I don’t. I know it might happen in the future, nothing is fixed, but for now I’m happy knowing that I could if I wanted to, and that I’m choosing not to, even if I’m not happy about the reasons why.

So no, I won’t get dressed up and go to the party like I have done in previous years, and even though I’m not happy about the reasons why, I’m always happy to get the invite and knowing that I could.