Running to stand still …

Today was one of those special days when the sun came out and shone brightly all day long. Supermarkets were selling BBQ food by the skip load, lawnmowers were purring, the birds were singing and everyone appeared to be in a good mood.

And I had to go for a run. I just had to. There was no freewill involved, this was an executive order issued from upon high, and so I strapped on my lime green running shoes and I ran …

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 15.33.00

Within seconds of starting my run I felt real joy, which sounds a little stupid and Hollywoodesque, but its the most accurate word I can come up with. It was like I was in sync with the world (there I go again). I felt the cool breeze on my skin (stop it), marvelled at the blue sky and cotton white clouds (no really, stop it), smelled the flowers in the fields (oh ffs), heard the birds in the trees (tra-la-la) and felt like an integral part of this sunny day, like I was somehow a piece of the jigsaw, instead of the jigsaw builder (better).

And that’s what running does to me, it’s what running does for me. It makes me feel whole. Running for me is an inclusive experience because it connects the dots and joins up the pieces. Running is the thread that binds me to the world, and for a few moments I stop being the passenger who watches the world go by, instead I become part of the world’s fabric.

I often consider myself a spectator. In a meeting room full of business people, I’m continually scanning the room, trying to work out or second guess people’s back stories, trying to see what lies behind their corporate facade. I’m the same at a party, on the outside looking in, searching for clues, gauging the atmosphere, trying to read between the lines. I float around the edges of conversations, a few feet above my own right shoulder, looking down on and witnessing events, but never really being part of them.

A consequence of such behaviour is a feeling of disengagement. I berate myself for not participating more in meetings, or for not chatting more at parties where everyone else appears so much more involved. Instead my mind appears distracted, in absentia, rarely in the ‘now’, usually to be found trying to guess the future or poring over the past.

Except when I’m running.  When I run I flow within the world (don’t go there). There is no third person at these times and no shoulder to sit on. The world is running with me and I’m running with the world. The world is running within me, not without me (another U2 lyric?).

Running won’t make me rich or make me a better person, but it does give me a sense of connectedness and purpose. Running opens up a brief window into a place where I suspect many luckier people already inhabit – people in meetings, people at parties, many of my friends and family, I suspect they’re all there already.

I wonder if a life can ever be lived wholly in flow.

In the meantime I look out of the window, somewhat disengaged, looking forward to my next run.

IMG_0868 (1).jpg

This post was written on Sunday 9th April, hottest day of the year so far …

Mindfulness & the importance of ‘now’

images

All we ever have is what is in our mind at any given moment. Wherever we are, at whatever time of the day, on any and every day, our mind governs who, what and how we are. Every experience we have, every mood we possess, whether it be a happy one or a sad one, is shaped entirely by our mind.

And there is nothing else.

Most of us, me included, spend the majority of our time pursuing and seeking out happiness. We constantly and consistently want to be happy or satisfied ‘now’. Our actions are chosen for this one specific reason and our days are formed by a series of decisions aimed at maximising happiness and minimising sadness, and yet at every turn we seem to be denied, foiled  and hoisted by our own happiness seeking petards.

A typical moment in a typical day for many of us might play out like this:

I have a headache (pain), so I choose to go for a walk to get some much needed fresh air, yes that will make me feel better (happy). I walk (relaxed), but after a short while I feel too hot, the sun is stronger than I anticipated and I start to feel uncomfortable (sad). I remove my jacket and immediately I feel better (happy), but there’s a cool breeze and after a few moments I feel a chill (cold). I walk faster. This is good (energised), but soon I feel tired, my muscles ache, is that a blister I can feel? (pain). I head for home, this walk has taken longer than I had hoped, I must get back, there’s things to do (anxiety). I get home, I feel good for the walk (accomplishment), but the positive feeling I experience is soon wiped out by guilt of the chores I need to accomplish today (guilt). I chastise myself for wasting time on a walk when I have so much to do (critical). I berate my weakness for procrastination (sad). I crack on with some jobs (productive). I am hungry (empty), I eat a sandwich (fulfilled), but all that the full fat cheese (guilt). I drink black tea, no milk, that’s good (healthy), but what about staining my teeth? (ugly). I want chocolate to round off my lunch (greedy). I eat chocolate (happy), but the guilt reappears (sad). I have a thirst (unpleasant), so I drink water (sated). I need the loo (unpleasant), I go to the loo (relief). I must work!(stress)  I work (productive). I’m bored and I feel tired (fatigue). I take a break and watch some TV (relax), but such mindless garbage on TV! (guilt). There’s nothing in for dinner because I’m working so damned hard (frustrated). It’s Friday, sod it I’ll get a take away, yay! (elation). I work excitedly until I order my curry (excited). I eat my curry, woohoo! (deliriously happy). But wait, I’m so full I think I need surgery (uncomfortable). I’m so stuffed I can’t move (fat). I waddle to bed, I can’t sleep (indigestion). I hate myself for wasting money on the stupid takeaway and now I can’t sleep (very sad).

Many of us live our days like this, constantly leaping from a state of happiness to a state of unhappiness, over and over again, see-sawing from high to low and back again, trying to zero in on happiness and contentment but only ever briefly experiencing it before being boomeranged off to the next trauma or disappointment.

Whilst we can only ever physically live in the ‘now’, our minds seem to live anywhere but there. At every turn we are either regretting a past event or trying to second guess a future one. On a pleasant summer’s walk, instead of delighting in the majesty of nature, we are thinking of getting home (future), of jobs undone (future), conversations planned (future). Or perhaps we are replaying old conversations (past) or reliving failed arguments (past), oblivious to the deep blue sky above (now), the bird wistfully singing in the tree (now), the rabbit running freely in the field (now).

We are, by nature, material seekers. We search out pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, moods. We try and satisfy ourselves intellectually and surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We seek out art, music, fine wine, delicious foods, and yet our pleasures are rarely anything more than fleeting. Like the video game Frogger, we jump from experience to experience in search of happiness, like a hummingbird we stop briefly before moving on to the next, constantly trying to keep boredom and unhappiness at bay.

Yet most of us seem to fail spectacularly. Happiness seems to be at best temporary, and at times elusive, which begs the question – is there actually a true form of happiness? One which doesn’t depend on having 24hr TV, fast food, alcohol, or having loved ones within arm’s reach? Is it actually possible to be happy before anything happens? Before material gratification and in spite of life’s difficulties such as ill health, old age, financial concerns, disease and ultimately death?

Many of us live as though the answer is a resounding ‘no’ – see above – and so we continue to chase and to seek, and yet constantly and consistently fall short.

‘Mindfulness’ shines an exciting light towards a potential path to true happiness that seems to be free of the chase, and thankfully also free of unfounded hype and hope, based firmly in neurology and science. Mindfulness teaches us to live in the now, always and in all ways. And this isn’t at all new. Buddhists and other Eastern religions have known this for thousands of years, yet many of us are only just catching on.

Contrary to popular belief, Mindfulness meditation isn’t at all about thinking, but rather about experience. Mindfulness simply teaches us to live in the ‘now’, teaching us to develop a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in our minds and our physical body – thoughts, sensations, moods – without grasping at the pleasant or fleeing from the unpleasant. With mindfulness we stop the chase, we just ‘are’.

Mindfulness is easy to define but unfortunately very difficult to master. The principal enemy of mindfulness is thought distraction. The problem isn’t thoughts themselves, but rather the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. The pitfall is being lost in thought and thereby once again becoming a slave to the thought, suffering whatever emotion that thought conjures – happy one moment, sad the next.

Mindfulness teaches us to divorce our ‘self’ from our thoughts, placing a distance between us and them, rendering ‘them’ as different to ‘us’, and thereby freeing us from this slavery to emotional thinking.

Imagine that feeling where you’re so immersed in a horror film that you’re living it for real. You might scream with fear as the mad axeman chases the victim through the forest, your fists clenched, your throat dry, paralysed with fear as though you are the hunted, but then suddenly your phone rings and you realise you are sitting on the settee, merely watching a fictional play of plasma light on the wall. You feel immediate relief, suddenly the spell is broken, you are free.

1531

This is mindfulness. Many of us, me included, live most of our days lost in the movies of our own lives, slaves to our emotional thinking. Mindfulness provides us with an alternative, a path to what many refer to as true enlightenment. I’m not there yet, far from it in fact, but I see the way, I see the clearing ahead and I figure it’s worth a try.

 

 

 

A letter to my 17yr old self …

In response to A letter from my 17yr old self.

2016

Dear 17yr old Andy,

Thanks for your letter. Well, here we are. We survived, we are still alive and kicking! The good news is we generally did pretty well. I’m not going to tell you the details as it will spoil it for you, but we get through, so keep on keeping on young man.

What I will say, is that those guilty pleasures of yours – singing in the band, making people laugh – they’re not just lusty and pointless, so don’t keep dismissing them. Those are beacons in the dark, sirens in the quiet still of night. Despite what you might think, they are your soul speaking to you.

I just realised that last sentence might freak you out. Sorry, let me rephrase. Those are the things that make you what you are. Reading your letter brought back many memories for me, how we believed and trusted unerringly in our elders, and by consequence, how we felt anything we experienced that didn’t align with them was somehow incongruous, somewhat deviant and unhealthy.

I remember now, thanks to your letter, how we lived our life by a set of rules devised purely by teachers, parents, lawmakers, guidelines always laid down in tablets of stone. Our success was measured not by happiness, but by how well we stayed on that path of righteousness as prescribed by ‘them’.

If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to stop always looking to others for guidance – instead start to look inwardly at your self, at our self. You know that ‘gut feel’ you get, but always push back if it doesn’t conform to The Book? Well, stop doing that. Stop it now. Immediately. Listen to the voices inside – I bet that spooks you too? Don’t worry, I am sane of mind, I just see life differently, through a less filtered lens.

I don’t mean to suggest you ignore The Book altogether – there’s a lot of great and sound advice out there, advice that’s built on thousands of years of hard earned experience – but complement it with your own thoughts and beliefs. Believe it or not you (we) are unique, and we do have talents that would horrify you if I were to tell you them now.

And so I won’t tell you, for you must find them on your own, because the journey is the biggest part of any experience, not the destination. That obsession of getting somewhere, stop that too. Retune your beliefs, redefine your passions and act accordingly. Most importantly, stop obsessing with trying to define the end point all the time. Instead set the rules (your rules), and let your own moral compass navigate.

By the way – I still don’t get electricity, it just works, and the sooner you get comfortable with the fact that you don’t need to understand everything, the better it will be.

Forget destinations and just enjoy the journey, young man, just make sure it’s your journey and not anyone elses.

Love,

Me (2016)
x

 

A letter from my 17yr old self …

1982

Dear 51 yr old Andy,

I’m sitting here in the common room at Sixth Form college. You remember this place? Defender video machine in the corner, table football, comfy chairs, coffee shop – we even have a radio, pretty cool.

I feel so much more grown here compared to Kendray Oaks Comp. I feel a hell of a lot safer too – there’s no bullying, everyone is here because they want to be (by and large), everyone wants to learn (by and large) – you know what I mean, you remember that don’t you?

Yeah, it’s cool here, I like it, but the work is so hard. A-levels are like ten times harder than O-levels. I’m struggling with Physics – I can’t grasp ‘electricity’ no matter how hard I try – electrons moving along a wire make a bulb light up – are you serious?? Economics is kind of interesting, it’s different, but some of the concepts seem a bit alien and I’m not sure what the point of it is? And maths is maths, just maths, although it’s much harder, much more abstracted than O-level.

That’s the thing about A-levels, it feels all rather ‘disconnected’. At school, working out the price of apples and oranges knowing that John bought 2 apples and 3 oranges for 19p whilst Jenny bought 1 apple and 3 oranges for  17p seems like a worthwhile thing to do. It has practical meaning. However, working out the value of ξ in a Fourier Transform that ranges from minus infinity to plus infinity seems somewhat unnecessary and unimportant to me:

\hat{f}(\xi) = \int_{-\infty}^\infty f(x)\ e^{- 2\pi i x \xi}\,dx,   

Quite frankly, as much as I like Sixth Form (I have a girlfriend!), I’m gutted about my subject choices. Anyway I’ll plod on because Dad said it’s the right thing for me and he’s always right. Besides, what else would I have chosen? The Arts subjects aren’t going to get anyone a job, jobs come from engineering and mathematics. That’s how the world works. People that study the Arts are a bit … well deluded, and silly. How hard can Arts be anyway? Drawing pictures and writing stories – these people will never get a job!

I plan on going to university. I have no idea what subject I will study, but I will go. It’s the thing to do, the teachers said so, and besides what else would I do?

Some friends of mine have formed a band, they play stuff I love and it’s cool, but what about their homework? They practice on school nights! Such a waste, they’ll regret that in later life. Although I am a bit jealous deep down – I’d love to be the singer in the band but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

I also really love The Young Ones – its a new comedy series on TV and Rik Mayall is brilliant. I have all the episodes on VHS tape and I know every word, every joke, every line from every episode. Mum and dad think it’s a bit odd, older people don’t generally like it and so I feel bad about that as older people are almost always right. They call it Alternative Comedy. I watch it when they’ve gone to bed. I’d love to tell jokes like Rik but I have to push that thought deep down inside, it doesn’t help anything.

So how’s life at 51, older me? I feel a bit nervous writing that – how did we do? And do you understand electricity yet!?

Andy, 1982

 

 

 

If I could turn back time …

Slide2

I suspect this is a question which has piqued us all at some point:

If you had one turn in a time machine, where would you set the dial?

What a wonderfully indulgent thought, to be given the opportunity to set the record straight, to right that wrong, to write that book. Would you go back to last week to relive that argument with your best friend? Would you go back to your last job? Your first marriage? Back to school? Even back to the crib? Or as far back as the womb?

I’m tempted to say I would go back to being a baby and do everything again. I’d grow up eating healthy food, I’d pass on the deep fried spam fritters and 1/4 pound bags of kali (northern English word for sherbert) that undoubtedly rotted my teeth beyond redemption. I would have continued running, cross country running was my thing, I was good at it as a kid, as a teenager. I found running easier than walking, and I should have exploited that, not neglected it.

I would have been more confident, less shy. I would have asked girls out at school and I wouldn’t have turned down that kind offer from Jane T. in 1981. I was bright and fairly academic, but I wasted my education. Had I applied myself I would have certainly attained better grades and that in turn would have led to better career choices and more money and … and …

So many choices, how far back do I turn the dial? So many choices! However, university was probably my greatest tragedy – 3 years of drinking beer and very little else, probably the single, greatest downturn in my life, certainly the period I look back on with the most regret, and so that seems to be a good place to return to in my time machine.

But wait, I met my wife at University. The Butterfly Effect, borne out of chaos theory, tells us that infinitesimally small changes can have huge longer term effects. Had I not been a beer monster, I may have turned left into the library rather than turn right into the top bar at Essex University. Had I done that I wouldn’t have seen her, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the girl that rocked my world. We would never have married, and in turn, our children would have never existed, and that’s unthinkable.

If I step into that time machine, whichever point I choose to return to, I risk losing everything I now hold dear. The butterfly effect tells us that anything we do differently during our trip back in time, risks changing everything from thereon in. If I stop eating kali, perhaps I replace it with something else more sinister – I may have nicer teeth on my 2nd attempt, but perhaps I have a more addled brain. If I start running more in my second life, perhaps I end up at a different university, studying a different subject, and most certainly never get to the top bar at Essex University in the spring of ’82, and never actually meet that girl in the green combat trousers.

To imagine, or to wish for a different outcome from our past, is to risk changing everything going forward, including all that one holds dear. I don’t think we can pick and choose, we just act spontaneously and we must therefore live with the consequences of our actions. You pays your money, you takes your choice, and you have to accept all that comes with it.  I might wish I had better teeth and a flatter stomach but would I risk everything for that? To change anything about us is to change ourselves forever, and that has unintended consequences.

On reflection I think I’m OK after all, so I think I’ll pass on the offer of a spin in the time machine, thanks.

In pursuit of rubbishness …

My blog hasn’t gone viral, my blog barely has a runny nose and an imperceptibly mild rash at best, but there are bloggers out there, seemingly ordinary people that blog everyday things, just like me, yet every now and then something they say resonates with their readership and beyond, far beyond – when everything goes a little mental and interstellar.

In this blog which can be found here, Cheri looks at four bloggers, four everyday blogging people who at some point said something remarkable and extraordinary. Cheri sums up what happened to them in her opening paragraph:

You wake up one morning, check your phone, and spit out your coffee. You have thousands of likes on Facebook, hundreds of retweets, and an inbox that has exploded. Your little blog — which normally gets a dozen views per day and has an audience of exactly two, your spouse and mother — has been shared all over the internet, and that post you wrote last night, in your pajamas, has gone viral.

Twelve views would be a good day for me, a fist-pumpingly awesome blogging day in fact, and I have to reluctantly admit to frequently having that gorgeous ‘what-if’ indulgent thought where my imagination runs wild, imagining a parallel world where I wake up to a chirping phone, lit up like the BBC switchboard on comic relief day – a day where my blog goes interstellar.

As a kid I dreamt of scoring a goal at Wembley, as a teenager I was the singer in the band at Wembley (a different Wembley day to the football I hasten to add – even for my egocentric imagination, scoring the winning goal to win the FA Cup and also serenading 100,000 singing Hey Jude, all on the same day, is a little far-fetched). Nowadays I imagine writing a blog that sparks the imagination of people across the world, just like the four bloggers outlined in Cheri’s blog.

They’re all amazing stories of everyday tales from everyday folk. Their blogs haven’t made them rich, but they have made them visible. They all now have a voice, a raised platform, a heightened status, a metaphorical megaphone and a substantial audience which spreads right across their social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They’ve made it!

But then you read their back-stories, and you realise that all isn’t rosy in the garden of blog superstardom. As ever, success seems to come at a price. Suddenly these people are having to deal with trolls – people that write nasty, spiteful, hurtful and personal insults, and in every case they felt a pressure to maintain their newly found and elevated levels of success. Your next blog can never be as good, such a feat can never be repeated and the truth is the only way forward is down. You have peaked. That’s it, you’ve done it now – pressure, anxiety, expectation – these appear to be the new norm, the consequences of your new found popularity.

Whereas me, I can carry on dreaming, hoping, aspiring, sitting cross-legged at the bottom of my hill staring balefully skywards. My blogs can easily get better, I don’t have to try very hard to make improvements, and that’s the beauty of being rubbish. It doesn’t take a lot to cheer me. Even one new follower perks me up, I’m ever so easily pleased down here in my valley of loneliness. Any shard of light – a comment, a like, a new follower – I lap them all up graciously and covet them.

It’s good down here in my sun-starved blog-valley where the light is obscured by the majestic peaks of successful others – great and worthy, epic bloggers.

I pity them, their future looks bleak up there in the bright sunlight, and the truth is it kind of feels OK down here, hidden amongst the gloom, being ever so slightly rubbish. Yes, I like it here.

Yay for me! Yay for my rubbish blog!Slide1

Woe betide the squirrels …

P1010058

George became part of our family in September 2001. We bought him as a young puppy from a farm in Dorset whilst visiting Donna’s parents, and we all remember excitedly driving him home, George sitting in the footwell between Donna’s feet.

He had a tricky arrival due to him contracting a nasty dose of campylobacter down on the farm, but once that cleared up, and once we had cleared up(!), he very quickly became the family dog, from thereon in inextricably linked with the 3 young kids (partners in crime) and mum and dad.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As a young dog he came everywhere with us in our 7-seater people carrier, his preferred position being centre of middle row, in between two kids and resting his chin on the armrest between driver and passenger – prime spot.

Like most dogs he loved the outdoors. When he was young he often came running with me, although when he hit middle age he got wise to recognising the running gear, and took to hiding under the table whenever I put my running shoes on. From that point on we stuck to walks, often long ones where he loved sniffing in the undergrowth, chasing sticks and swimming in the river whenever possible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For the last year or so he hasn’t been able to walk due to a steady decline in his legs/hips – a common affliction in ageing labradors, and in George’s case this was exacerbated by rather bad arthritis along his spine. Nevertheless he continued to enjoy life, albeit a much more sedentary existence which stretched no further than the back garden.

Recently even the garden became difficult. He was struggling to stand up unaided and we often had to wait for a hoarse bark to signal a request for us to lift him so he could stagger outside, but often we were too late …

The best thing about George was his personality – he had an unrelenting warmth and a 100% good soul. From day 1 he had kids climbing on him, sleeping alongside him, pulling him, pushing him, waking him, chasing him, brushing him – yet he never once got cross. He did growl, but only when he had a bone, and only ever as a gentle warning, but never, ever, did he growl or bite or frighten a child in all those 14 years.

He did however have a pathological and irrational hatred of squirrels. He could spot a squirrel on a garden fence from 100 paces, and would always raise his hackles, bark fiercely and run out into the garden to chase them away. He had no problem with pigeons or any other animal for that matter, but squirrels were definitely persona-non-grata, perhaps it was the bushy tail. Even recently, with failing eyesight, he managed to spot a squirrel through the window and his genetically coded vitriol sparked into life – he tried desperately to get up from his cushion, but he just couldn’t manage it. The soul was willing but the body wasn’t.

IMG_0641

Over the last couple of months we have had several family chats about what to do with George – a horrifically difficult family subject to discuss at the best of times, but nevertheless a very important and necessary one, and we finally all agreed that George had reached the point where he no longer seemed happy. He had lost that sparkle, that mischievous charm, that spirit that made him George. Life had become a struggle with very little, if any, upside for him, and so as a family we decided to call the vet to the house, George’s home, to release him from his pain. He was 14, around 98 in human years, and during that time he had lived a perfectly wonderful, happy family life. He had given so much love, pleasure and happiness to our family, and in return he had food, shelter and as much love and attention as a family of 5 could throw his way.

George was as perfect a family dog as you could ever wish for and we will all miss him terribly, but we have to be thankful for the 14 brilliant years he shared with us. We have a huge memory bank of experiences and happy times to fall back on and enjoy recollecting, a treasure trove of George stories that I am certain will continue to be regaled by the family, and by friends, for many years to come.

His favourite ever spot was sitting in the garden where he would follow the sun, keeping watch for bushy tailed rodents. And whilst local Sherington wildlife might now be breathing a sigh of relief, if there are squirrels in dog heaven they had better watch out.

IMG_0064

A letter to my 16 yr old self …

Summer, 1981

Dear Andy,

Hi, it’s you from 2015. Don’t get up off the settee, stay where you are and enjoy the cricket because things are about to change. Let’s cut to the chase – you know that nagging sense of guilt you have right now watching the test match? That sense of guilt you carry around with you and wear like a cloak? Well, it doesn’t ever go away, it continues to follow you around, so try and get used to it. Stop searching for answers as to why it’s there, because you won’t find any, it’s part of your DNA, sorry.

Also, whilst we’re being honest, you’re not that bright. Ouch, sorry, what am I like! How can I put this … you know how you’ve never really worked hard at anything at all whatsoever, but somehow you’ve always got by and done quite well? Well, that changes from hereon in too I’m afraid. You can’t just turn up any more, instead you have to plan and prepare things in advance, you have to invest time and effort in seemingly unpleasant tasks to get the desired outcome, weird as that must sound to you. Fundamentally, you have to earn any merit from now on. I know it’s a difficult concept for you to grasp aged 16, and I know you are struggling with it, so let me explain it a different way.

You know how you want to be a singer like David Coverdale? Well, David had singing lessons as a child when all his mates just wanted to play football.  He started singing in pubs and clubs when he was about your age and he had to lie about his age to sing in bands in clubs in the north of England.  He was booed off stage, had bottles of piss thrown at him, he was chased off stage and was skint for years travelling in a beaten up old transit van up and down and up and down the M1 for what seemed like eternity, long before he ever joined Deep Purple/Whitesnake and sang to thousands of adoring fans and made his fortune. Shocking as it may seem, he didn’t just practice singing in the mirror for a couple of weeks, using his mum’s hairbrush as a microphone, waiting for the phone to ring. Like you he had a dream, but unlike you, he worked hard to get that dream.

You know Kenny Dalglish? When he was your age he didn’t just want to be a footballer who asked his mum and dad for a football kit for Christmas so he could become one. He didn’t score a goal against St Dominics U-11s and decide he was ready to play at Wembley, no, he went outside every day in the wind and the pissing rain and he practiced his skills, kicking a ball up against a wall time after time after time until his toes bled.  He drove his parents and neighbours mad.  He played football against everyone and anyone he could. He played against older blokes who tried to kick seven shades of shit out of him, so he could get stronger and better. He played football at every possible opportunity, often sacrificing lots of other, more enjoyable things in the process.

You see Ian Botham at Headingley on your TV in the 3rd test match of the Ashes? He’s not there, playing the match that incidentally will go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks of all time by accident. He didn’t just arrive on the international cricket scene because he thought it might be cool, he did it because he was driven, he had ambition, had desire and bags of endeavour, as did Coverdale, as did Dalglish.

I know it’s shit 16 yr old Andy, but you can’t dream your way to success, sorry. It won’t just ‘happen’. Nor will you live forever. You’re mortal, dare I say it, and you’ll like this least of all … you’re pretty average. Ouch!

But hey, don’t be maudlin’ young fella mi lad, for there’s some good news! You see, you can actually be anything you want! You can be Coverdale, or Dalglish, or Botham, but, and it’s a big but, you will have to earn the right. You might not appreciate this, and I know you feel like this is a shitty stupid thing only old people say, but you really do have all your life ahead of you. Look at you, you healthy stick insect!

I’m not going to tell you what 50yr old Andy without this letter aged 16 turns out like, but it’s not at all bad, so imagine what 16yr old Andy can do armed with this advice? Get out there and make life happen, don’t let life happen to you. Life really is amazing, but only if you allow it to be. Make tough decisions and seize opportunities when they come your way. Don’t be afraid to stand up and fight for everything you believe in. Above all, and this is the hardest thing for you I know, but don’t worry what others think of you. You have an inherently good soul, so trust in it and wonderful things can and will happen.

Oh and finally, and there’s no easy way to say this, but you never did marry Steph Middleton, that snog at the Xmas disco last year, that was it I’m afraid.  But don’t worry, because someone even better comes along, so just hold tight and hang on in there and amazing things can and will happen, just so long as you work hard.

Yours,

Me, aged 50

coverdaledalglishbotham

Ch-ch-ch-changes …

I would argue that the most common, most fundamental attribute that underpins life, and society as a whole, is change. George Bernard Shaw said many years ago that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.  Charles Darwin is quoted as saying “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”, whereas Ghandi (who always seems to have a quote up his raggedy sleeve) said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.

These are all very inspirational quotes, designed to fire us up, to spur us on. Such quotes are emblazoned on t-shirts, made into posters, and proudly displayed behind glass frames on the walls of boardrooms of power-hungry CEOs. Even schools and universities use such quotes to inspire students. Life coaches build their businesses around them, and many of us reach for Google in times of need, to find a nourishing quote upon which to feed ourselves, to give us strength whenever we’re feeling weak or vulnerable.

All of which suggests change is good, and embracing change is best of all. But what about those in society who are frightened by change? To some, change paralyses and stifles, and rather than thriving they in fact withdraw. Such people see danger in change, not opportunity. For them, change means uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear and foreboding. There are no stylised, inspirational quotes for such people.  You won’t find:
“Change is shit, run away from it”, Socrates – adorning any clothing or hung in any hallway.
“Change sucks, turn your back”, Stephen R Covey” – I don’t think so.
“Resist change! Stay in thy bed!”, Pontius Pilot, Psalm 16 verses 3-4 – hardly.

Regardless of age, gender or social standing, the times they are-a-changing. Political uncertainty, religion, economics, politics, climate change, overpopulation, technology – the reasons are many fold and omnipresent, and whatever life we choose for ourselves, change is difficult to escape.

For Embracers, this is all exciting, this is what makes life worth living. Not knowing what’s around the corner makes such people feel edgy, adrenaline fuelled. They seem to feed on life’s natural uncertainty and thrive, growing stronger, often becoming leaders themselves, further driving through and effecting even more change.

For others, Escapers, they find it all rather daunting and spend much of their time hiding, withdrawing and moving as far away from change as is humanly possible. Unfortunately, change is endemic and stitched into the very fabric of our society, and so whilst hiding and running may bring temporary relief, it usually catches up with us eventually.

Like sexual preference, your default state and tolerance to change, the thing which makes you either an Embracer or an Escaper is, I would argue, in-built, it’s not something you can alter.  As an Escaper, you can work hard at being more Embracing, but you’re always fighting from the position of being an Escaper.  You can wear the t-shirt, rehearse the quotes in a mirror, even preach them from a pedestal, but deep down, you are what you are, facing a constant, daily battle fighting against what comes naturally to you.

And if you’re a natural Embracer? Just be nice and try and find time in your dynamic, ever so busy, thrusting lives to think about those less fortunate.

The School Reunion

It was 34 years ago when I left secondary school, and 32 years since I left sixth form college. As I lost touch with everyone when I headed off to university in 1983, that means it’s been at least 32 years since I saw anyone from my schooldays, and so you can imagine my nervousness as I went to my first reunion last night. Inside the pub there would be a small group of people, all of whom were between 16-18 the last time I saw them, and now were all aged 49 or 50.

I imagined the worst, I always imagine the worst. I worried about whether I would recognise them (although I had prepped by studying Facebook photos), and I worried if they would remember me. I imagined walking in and being met by a dozen blank faces attached to a dozen youthful, slim bodies that had cheated the ravages of time. I imagined in-jokes which I wasn’t privy to, memories and recollections that didn’t involve me, stories that were unknown to me. I imagined chatty, confident, bright sparkly people and I thought of how I would stutter over my words, finding little or nothing to contribute. I imagined being the outsider because part of me always felt that way at school. I wondered if I had repressed bad memories of school, memories that would spring forth the moment I walked through the door. Were there 10 bullies waiting to confront me for one more playground bullying session? Then there was my accent, I had lived ‘down south’ for all the intervening years and my northern brogue was softened at the edges. To southerners I had a northern accent, to northerners I had a southern one, I didn’t fit in linguistically anywhere, but here I was, on home northern turf, on their turf, more proof, if proof were needed, that I was the outsider. Why was I even here? I started to panic as I approached the door and had to muster all my strength and courage not to just walk away. I had lived without these people for 30+ years, I could do it for a few more surely?

As I entered the pub I saw small groups of people gathered at tables and instantly I panicked. I was looking at them and thinking to myself, ‘is that them?’ I flushed, and started to panic some more, but then in the distance I saw the group.  I recognised Dave first, he hadn’t changed much, here goes nothing.

My homework had paid off, I could put names to faces, we shook hands (boys), we hugged (girls). There were only four of them, I was the fifth and in that moment all eyes were on me. I seriously wondered if they were all looking at me and thinking ‘who the fuck is this old bastard?’ but then Dave said “Tha can lose that posh accent nar Andy”. I was in and I headed to the bar for a much needed pint of courage.

They all looked very familiar. Obviously older, but their faces, especially their mannerisms, hadn’t changed. Others arrived and the group grew, and along with it, my confidence.

Some faces were more familiar than others, although all were known to me and it felt nice. As time went on, drink helped melt away any lingering inhibitions and stories unfolded, memories were unearthed as synapses fired in the dark recesses of my brain for the first time in over 30 years. I wanted to chat with everyone, in detail.  I wanted to know where they lived, who they lived with, who they still knew from school. I wanted to know who had kept in touch with whom, and who, like me, hadn’t. People I hadn’t thought of for several decades were mentioned, brought back to life, brought back to my life, all wrapped up in newly found and rediscovered memories.

Best of all was meeting Dave and Andy again. Dave and Andy were in my gang, we did everything together from the age of about 6 to 16. We shared lists of our favourite girls, we went to parties together, we copied each other’s homework, we listened to records together and went to concerts together, we did most things together. And even though that all stopped for over 30 years, within seconds of seeing them it was back, just like it always was. The banter, the in-jokes, the nods and winks, the nudges of familiarity, it was all there just like it always had been.

At the end of the evening, when it was time to say our goodbyes, I felt a real sense of kinship, a bond, not just with Andy and Dave, but with all these people.  It wasn’t a great school, in fact it was pretty grim and shitty if truth be told, but we all got through it and had made something of our lives.  We shared a life as children, and we had a common string of mutual experiences that no-one else knew or understood, and that made us a special group.

All my earlier fears had been unfounded.  It was, in reality, a true and genuine pleasure to meet every single one of them again.  To renew friendships no matter how tenuous.  With 50 yr old heads on our shoulders and a lifetime of experiences behind us, I got the feeling we all felt better for this.  This was like therapy and it felt great.

I can’t wait for the next one now, bring it on.