Category: Personal Musings

Posts about me

Progress update

At the start of the year I set out some aims for myself and, in the spirit of accountability, here’s how I’m doing with each.

Writing – Write in my journal every day

  • Progress – I have written in my journal everyday for the past 45 days!
  • What’s next? – Get back into writing short fiction pieces.

Meditating – Meditate for 10 mins every day

  • Progress – Managing 10 mins a day, mostly during my lunch time, almost every day.
  • What’s next? – Keep it going!

Exercising – Stretch every day

  • Progress – OK. I’ve not managed to nail the morning routine and I know it helps my mobility.
  • What’s next? – Try and build that stretching routine.

Note: I’ve also been seeing a Physio which has gone VERY well and I’ve just (last night) completed the first session of Couch to 5K so I’m giving myself a break on this one. But it’s probably more important moving forward to get this one sorted.

Thoughts

The real reason to have these aims was to give my brain a focus away from social media. On that front it’s been pretty successful and the best metric is probably the seven books I’ve already read this year.

I’ll write more about all of this throughout the year, largely to keep myself accountable, and I’m already feeling the difference to my mental health from not being on social media so much. I can dip in and out without getting sucked in (and down) into all the noise.

And, most important of all, the balance of all of this feels right.

Why explore?

The full moon glowed, peeking out from behind the racing clouds. Glimpsed through the dark winter branches the surface, in all its mysterious pockmarked glory, seemed visceral, a small step away, a gentle leap into the night sky. As the clouds parted, glittering stars appeared, transporting me to places at the edge of imagination, beyond my reach as I stood rooted on earth with the wind ruffling my coat. I gazed at the heavens and dreamed of looking beyond…

My parents front room went through many iterations, but my most prominent memories were of two tall bookshelves that lined the sides of the bay window. Those shelves held all manner of things; the bottom sections were dedicated to LPs, the next shelves up were devoted to the ornate, and the rest of the shelves that stretched up far beyond my height were given to the many books of differing size and colour that are writ large in my childhood memories; I can recall the maroon, leather bound Readers Digest compendiums, a cook book or two, a copy of War & Peace and next to it a book that was signed by a certain Neil Armstrong, you remember him, right, he’s the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” guy.

Oddly I don’t credit that book with my fascination with space as I don’t think I ever read it. Instead we turn to a different book from the same bookshelf, one without a dust cover, a dark red tome that was heavy in the hand, it’s thousands of pages wafer thin, scattered with tiny words and sentences. Picked out in gold lettering on the spine were the words Selected Works by Arthur C. Clarke and it included The City And The Stars, The Deep Range, A Fall Of Moondust, and Rendevous With Rama. It also held, as it’s opening story, the first science fiction novel I ever read; 2001/A Space Odyssey.

The origin story was written before the moon landings had happened and led to the classic film of the same name, which Kubrick and Clarke wrote together. The novel is an expansion of that story; a sprawling languid story that begins tepidly enough but soon leaps out from the black monolith and into an entirely other world. I reckon I read it some time in the mid to late 80s, just as my early teenage world was expanding to include high school, a time during which I frequently took solace and refuge in the pages of a book. And so it was that I found myself following the journey of Dr. Heywood Floyd as he travelled from Earth to a perfectly imagined moon-base, my attention rapt and imaginative synapses firing like crazy.

I can remember losing myself in that story, consumed by the battle between HAL and Bowman, and whilst later books managed to similarly consume my attention, this was the memorable first. I guess it was partly because I was reading a ‘grown up’ book, one which dealt in both fact and fiction and also managed to tackle various themes along the way; other than the stories we’d been made to study at school, it was the first time I can recall wanting to learn more about something because of a novel.

Equally the subject matter tapped into the sense of wonder that begun when my Dad first pointed out Orions belt, standing there staring into the night sky, picking out stars as they twinkled above us. 2001 added to that fascination, as did the immediately fantastic worlds of Star Wars (not Star Trek*) which I guess is probably a common occurence for those of my generation, the children of the children of the space race.

After reading 2001, and because I was a bookish geek even back then with a cherished set of encyclopaedias given to me by my Grandfather, I started reading about the Apollo missions, tracing back to the first attempts to reach Space (technically achieved by a V-2 rocket by Nazi Germany), on through the Russian successes of Sputnik and Laika and Luna 1, before the USA entered the fray with Explorer 6 and the helter-skelter rush through the early 60s of Ham, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shephard, Valentina Tereshkova, and back round to Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong.

Yet with history only offering a distant impressions, it was the movies that exploded us all into space off the back of the phenomenal success of Star Wars and latterly, as the films started to dwindle, along came the Space Shuttle and once again we turned our gaze to the skies, our hearts and dreams open again to exploring the dark corners of the universe. My gaze has been drawn there ever since.

A few years ago I attend a talk by Commander Chris Hadfield, best known as the astronaut who recorded himself playing Space Oddity during his time on the International Space Station. He is an engaging speaker, intelligent but not boastful, and he retains the sense of wonder of his own achievements that is at once humbling and totally engaging. He spoke of watching the moon landing on TV and how it inspired him, he gave advice to the children in the audience, to aim high and work hard and they too might end up in space. He was ‘just a kid from a farm in Ontario’ but he ended up spending time in zero gravity in command of a space station.

I can remember leaving that talk invigorated to do more with my own life, I know I won’t make it to space, but that wasn’t his point. Very few people become astronauts, but that’s only half of the journey, the rest of it is exploration. Exploration of places and of your own abilities and aptitudes, all of which are a good thing to test and push forward. I can also remember leaving that talk and imagining what it must’ve been like for a child to hear those words, and how I hoped it sparked something in them to be better, to aim higher, in the simple hope that no matter where it takes them, they’d be happier in this world.

I’ve written here, many many times, about my own journey and my own challenges and changes. Some of them have been successful, some not, but that has never really been the point. Rather the point is that I keep trying.

Someone once said to me, why not just accept who you are? And it’s true that I have largely accepted many things about myself. I am bald, my beard is full of grey hairs as is, increasingly, my chest. I will never be slim, I will always cry at movies. I accept these as truths but I don’t accept that they are all of me. There is still more to learn, still more understand, still more to explore.

Looking up at the moon that night, I reflected on where my life is now. I was out with one of our dogs and as he roamed around I stood there, eyes drawn up to the nearest celestial body as it glowed there in the sky. It was a crisp clear night, the craters and valleys were visible to the naked eye, somewhere a landing module remains, the imprint of boots, an unfluttering flag. I wondered what it must have been like to stand up there, just as I wondered what it must’ve been like in those early, terrifying, days of space exploration, when the only thing you could do was keep going, from problem to problem, until the solution presented itself.

Earlier that day, three astronauts had returned to earth from the International Space Station. The usual photos were shown, all happy faces, the shaking of hands, and congratulations all round. But two of the images that stuck in my mind weren’t of the three people safely returned to earth, but of the charred, battered capsule in which they had returned. Why would you put yourself through that?

But then, why don’t I just settle for who I am today. I have a good life, a happy life, I’m very much in love, we have an exciting future ahead of us, and everything else is, as some would say, gravy. Why explore when everything around me, and within me, is good?

Well, in the words of Aaron Sorkin, delivered by Sam Seaborn (aka Rob Lowe):

“Because it’s next. Because we came out of the cave and we looked over the hill and we saw fire and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the West and we took to the sky. The history of man is a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.”***

Just as mankind continues to explore, both this earth and our surrounding universe, so I find myself pushed to continue to explore my own mind, to challenge my own beliefs, and examine how I live, my interactions with the world around me. Because that’s what we should do given the luxury we have around us.

And that’s how things change, how societies evolve, how movements swell and grow, and hopefully how life improves for all. It all starts from exploring my own mind simply because I have the capacity do so.


* For my 21st birthday my parents got me, amongst other things, a small holographic print** of a certain space ship that most certainly was NOT in Star Wars.

** These were a thing for a while, it was a simpler time.

*** Whilst this post was not inspired by it, I did happen to watch an episode of The West Wing and this quote leapt out at 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.