100 not out … a journey into sobriety

I’ve been a moderate-to-heavy drinker for almost 40 years. Like most kids around my way, I started to explore drinking around the age of 15/16, but didn’t really turn pro until I was 18.

I’ve never been able to say I’m an expert at anything, I’ve always felt like a ‘jack of all trades’, except when it came to drinking. In fact if drinking had been an olympic sport in the early-80s I would have been a shoe-in for the GB team, just ask anyone at my university, especially my lecturers.

It’s not surprising therefore that I messed up at university, and that really should have been a warning sign. When I moved south for my first job, carrying my shoddy, just-scraped-through-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth degree with me, my northernness (the chip on my shoulder, my funny accent) it only served to compound my insecurities, but that was OK as I was good at drinking and I could always fall back on that. And so I did.

I could always hold my beer. I’ve never been a classic drunk, and I would never be ‘outdrunk’ by anyone. I had (and still have) this uncanny knack of knowing precisely how many drinks everyone else had had, and no matter how large the group or how busy the pub, I would be keeping an eye, not letting anyone move ahead of me in the ‘drinks consumed’ column. I was always the last man standing.

But I was always (to borrow a term from those alcoholics over there) ‘high functioning’. I was reliable and would always turn up for work, I never got into trouble with the law, never got into fights, never had blackouts. I was a good drinker and I was defined somewhat by my drinking.

I recently found an old pocket diary of mine from 1987, I was 22, and even back then I used to record Alcohol Free Days by marking the corner of the page with the abbreviation ‘AFD’. It’s interesting to note that I was obviously concerned about my drinking, even way back then, whilst still very young. For the record I recorded just 36 AFDs in the whole 12 months of 1987 and I think that was pretty much the norm.

As I grew older I continued to drink steadily, but with marriage and children came other responsibilities and that helped me to rein in my drinking although I continued to have a rather odd relationship with alcohol. I continued to track AFDs and still had concerns about my intake.

What normal person tracks AFDs over 40 years? What normal person lays awake worrying about how much they drink? Who schedules AFDs into their calendar? Who tracks units consumed and plots graphs over time? How many of us wake up with their first thought being whether or not this would be an AFD?

In short, alcohol was making me sad. I wasn’t depressed and certainly not suicidal, I just felt gloomy and I wanted to find out why. On New Years Eve 2018 I felt tired, I was overweight, I had indigestion, I was sleeping badly, eating badly and I was irritable. And so I stopped.

January felt quite easy, this was a new challenge and I was motivated. I’d done Dry January before, twice in fact, but in both cases, once February came around, I relapsed back into my old ways very quickly, like slipping into an old pair of jeans – drinking became very familiar again, like meeting an old friend.

This time I completed January with few problems. I hadn’t lost any weight, in fact I had gained a little as I think I was eating more to replace the void of alcohol on my evening agenda. My sleep wasn’t much different either, but I did feel mentally better – more alert and less anxious – and so I decided I would continue into February.

Initially, February was difficult. All the Dry January people and accompanying chatter had fallen away. Life returned to normal for normal people – Christmas was forgotten, everyone was back to work and sobriety in February felt quite a struggle. In mid-February however, I realised that for the first time in 40 years, I had managed to go more than 40 days without alcohol. Pathetic in absolute terms, but an achievement in relative terms and this spurred me on to complete my second month. 

During February I noticed my sleep started to improve. I would still wake during the night, but the intervening periods of sleep were deeper and I woke feeling more refreshed. I also felt a lot ‘happier’ – my mood had lifted, my positivity increased and I just felt somehow better equipped to handle life.

March arrived and I felt my habit start to loosen. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting it takes around 66 days to break entrenched habits, and it was around this time that I stopped craving a drink at 6pm and stopped checking off progress on my calendar.

And so here I am, I made it through March and into April. Today is day 100, I am 100 AFDs not out, just like Geoffrey Boycott (I don’t think Geoffrey was a heavy drinker by the way, I just made an awkward segway from booze to cricket for the sake of a lazy ‘100 not out’ analogy). And just like Geoffrey (here I go again), my innings wasn’t always pretty, I was nudging and nurdling singles mainly (taking it day by day) and I got there eventually.

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, I still miss a drink occasionally, and every now then I seem to miss it an awful lot. The feeling comes upon me unexpectedly and in that instant I feel fleetingly sad – a realisation that I can’t just join in with normal people and raise a glass of champagne or down a couple with the lads. But the feeling goes as quickly as it comes and these feelings do get further apart. But these feelings are preventing me from saying I will never drink again. I’m not a born again soberista, I’m not a convert, I’m just a heavy drinker taking a break and trying to break a habit.

And at this point I can almost hear the screams of you normal people wondering why I don’t just moderate! Like a normal person!! Well, I’ve tried moderating many times and it has never worked, for me it has always been a sure fire, slippery slope back to my normal levels of heavy drinking.

But worst of all for me is the mental chatter. The incessant commentary in my head brought about through trying to moderate:
‘just have one drink … don’t have a second … oh no you’ve had a second drink and now you’ve ruined it’
‘today was going to be alcohol free but now I have that dinner party’
‘I feel fed up, perhaps one drink is OK, and maybe a second is OK too? I promise to be good for the rest of the week’
‘Oh God, I overdid it, now I must be alcohol free for the rest of the month’


Ugh … by far the best thing about being alcohol free for me has been the loss of the internal, infernal, incessant monologue going round and round in my head. I have so much free time now to think about other things, better things, bigger things. I have so much more time on my hands and I’m more mentally and physically capable of doing more things with that time too.

To summarise, the best things for me have been:

  1. Sleep – wow, way better. I undoubtedly sleep more deeply, and if I do wake during the night, I fall back to sleep more easily. I’ve lessened that infernal, internal chatter. Best of all I wake in the morning feeling ready instead of feeling half beaten.
  2. Mental health – I’m just so better equipped to deal with the shit life throws my way. With booze it’s easy to hide – to put those problems on hold for a while, but of course that’s all you ever do, put them on hold. The problems are still always there until you deal with them.
  3. Weight – I’ve lost about 6kg, so around a stone. I’ve saved over 40,000 calories through not drinking.
  4. Fitness – no hangovers means better and more regular running, further improved by the weight loss and better sleep.
  5. Diet – way less junk food, less cravings for sugar, more stable portion control, more mindfulness around what I eat and when I eat.

So what now? I honestly have no idea. I’m not a born again teetotaller and I will never preach to others to do the same. Most of you don’t need preaching to, because most of you have a perfectly healthy relationship with alcohol. Our house continues to be full of booze, same as it always was, and guests will always be welcomed with a drink whenever they visit. My wife drinks, my kids drink and my friends drink and that’s absolutely fine with me. For this to work it can’t affect others and that’s my water mark.

This has become an important personal journey for me and I’ve probably opened up here more than I initially planned, but I think I’m OK with that. To quote Gloria Gaynor, I am what I am. Alcohol removed the sharp edges from my life – it might have dulled the pain but it also dampened down the highs. Alcohol isn’t fun for me currently, and until I feel like it is, I’m going to carry on with my sobriety.

Perhaps one day I will drink again, moderately, yes, moderately, without any associated mental baggage and with no risk of sliding back into my old ways. Maybe one day, choosing to have a drink will be like choosing what clothes to wear – a decision I can make in an instant, based purely on instinct instead of flawed logic, an inconsequential decision that I don’t ever need to over-analyse or think about again.

I’m not quite there yet, but I am getting there and I hope that doesn’t come between us. After all I have a shitload of wine under the stairs that won’t drink itself.

Geoff Boycott of England celebrates on the balcony with a glass of champagne which links nicely to Andy’s analogy, see? He’s just completed his 100th Test Match Century on the first day of the 4th Test Match between England and Australia at Headingley in Leeds, 11th August 1977. (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)
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A concept piece in separating the self …

In truth, there’s only ever us, and then there’s life outside of us.

There’s me – my painful knee, my anxiety, my fear of spiders, my dreams, my guilt, my aspirations – and then there’s life out there – the dripping tap, the thunderstorm, Brexit, a spider under the sofa, a garden full of leaves.

These are two very distinct things. I am me, and those things over there are just, well, those things over there.

I control me – I determine my emotional state, my level of well-being, my industriousness, my laziness – and all that is within my control, but I don’t control all the things happening out there – the rain, the wars, the politics, the insects, the plumbing.

And yet, whilst I don’t control any of ‘that’, only ‘this’, I seem to be often held hostage by ‘that’.

Let me give an example …

I see a spider, I feel frightened. Before seeing the spider I might have been quite content with life, but the moment the spider does an 8-legged trot out from beneath the sofa into my line of vision, I become a pissing, gibbering wreck.

Yet I am still me, still the exact same person I was pre-spider – same body, same genes, same blood, same brain, same thought processes.

So what happened? I am now frightened and scared, whereas before I was happy, before that damned spider appeared. Except the spider didn’t appear, the spider was always there, it’s just that I couldn’t see it. What really happened was the spider had a thought, made a decision to walk left, out from beneath the sofa. Had it chosen to stay put, or turn right, I would have remained happy.

Think about that, a neuron fired randomly in a spider’s brain and it spoiled my day. Go figure.

I spill my tea, I cross the road and a car beeps its horn, it’s raining out, the news on the radio is all bad … and yet, in none of these cases could I have affected the outcome. Other people will always piss me off, whatever I do, rain will always fall when it’s ready, earthquakes will always happen, Brexit is Brexit.

Far better surely to live a life where a spider neuron firing doesn’t make or break your day? Far better to live a life where one feels good or bad because of ones own actions?

If, on my way to work, I call in on my elderly neighbour to check if they’re OK and perhaps make them a cup of tea, then surely I deserve to feel good, because there is a genuine cause and a genuine effect, instigated by me.

And more broadly speaking, through such actions can society not be incrementally improved? Whereas when the spider turns left, well, society doesn’t change one iota …

Nor does society change when the lorry driver angrily waves the wanker sign at me as I cross the road and I do the dickhead sign back. What happens is two people become angry, two people’s health suffers and that part of the world becomes a little bleaker, a little angrier.

Let the spider turn left, let the lorry driver wave his chubby, fat, porky, gammon fingers a certain way, let the rain fall. Throughout I can still be me, only ever me, exactly me, before and after.

I think happiness needs to be earned, dictated by the ‘self’, not commandeered by others (such as a spider). Happiness shouldn’t come from pride, but from action – by making a brew for the elderly lady next door, mending that fence, writing that poem, unblocking that drain. These actions make society better and are in turn worthy of happiness.

In a similar vein, nor should we be defined by our jobs or careers. We weren’t born as Accountants, Shopkeepers or Teachers, we became them. But we didn’t change into them, we didn’t switch from being a human being to suddenly being an angry lorry driver – the two things co-exist.  And whilst one is permanent, the other is only ever temporary.

I happen to be a Yorkshireman and I work in Sales. I will always be a Yorkshireman, but I won’t always be working in Sales. At least I fucking hope not.

Our occupations are simply cloaks we wear, uniforms if you like, but the mistake many of us make is that we rarely take them off. Many of us might have been working for so long that we feel like we’ve become someone else, like we’ve shed our original skin and grafted a new one, that of an Accountant, for example.

Think how we often greet strangers:

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”
Me: “Hi, I’m an Accountant”

Time to stop, perhaps. Time for a different tack …

Them: “Hi, what do you do?”

Me: “Hi, I do life”

Them: “Oh. You’re weird, a bit of a dickhead in fact.”

Me: “Look! A spider!”

Hmm, perhaps this ‘concept’ piece needs more work …

Monkey say, monkey do (parallel universes) …

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I find myself all alone, all on my own, by myself, and I get excited by the seemingly endless possibilities of what I can do to fill the glorious void of time and space stretched out before me. Not just content to fill that time and space, but to better myself, to correct past mistakes, to make personal advances – to learn, to grow spiritually, physically and mentally.

Imagine the scene – I wake up one morning, no one is due home until tomorrow. I have no work, it’s a Sunday, say. A just-me Sunday, 24hrs to myself, to do what I want, and my head is spinning and overflowing with thoughts and ideas:

{screen shimmer to a parallel universe where my chimp imagination lives}

I rise early and visit a local market, I’m on my bike, I wave to the postman and stop briefly to chat to a neighbour. At the organic market I buy some fresh, local produce before enjoying a coffee with an old friend I haven’t seen in ages. Before leaving we make a date to catch-up properly over a beer. As I cycle home I plan the meal I’m going to cook for evening supper.

After I’ve unpacked I decide to go for a run – a long, uninterrupted run across the rolling hills within easy distance of my house. I return 72 minutes later (great time), exhausted but fulfilled. I take a long, lazy shower that refreshes. Shortly after I find myself sitting by the french window, mug of green tea in hand, reading my complex, dark and challenging novel, music is playing softly in the background, I think it’s Rachmaninov.

After finishing the novel, wow, I write a short review online. I then call my mum, we chat, we reminisce, we laugh. I do some laundry before I start prepping my evening meal whilst listening to a play on the radio. It’s hilarious, but, being partly educational too, I also learn a lot about the first world war, for it was a historical play. Smart. I catch sight of myself in the reflection from the window and I’m wearing a checked shirt, sporting round glasses with a rogueish haircut. I look ripped.

My meal is ready, I pour myself a solitary glass of wine. I feel relaxed, muscles nicely tired from exercise. I recall the conversation I had at the market with my friend and I smile, ruefully. One glass of wine is enough, so I clear away and once the kitchen is spotless, I sit at an antique desk and write a letter to another dear friend, for I have many. I seal the letter and place it by the door – I’ll post that first thing tomorrow, I tell myself.

I’m tired, I make myself a chamomile tea and repair to my bed where I read a little but soon fall asleep for eight peaceful, slumbering hours. I dream I’m on a European historical and gastronomic touring holiday with many of my close friends, we are having a blast.

{Screen shimmer}

We are back in the room where the real chimp me lives.

I wake with a jolt. I’m absolutely shattered, I slept like shit again. I reach for my phone, I read Twitter for an hour, feel very angry at the world so switch to Facebook. After a few minutes I feel angry at my friends too, so I switch to Instagram. That feels better, nice pictures, though some are a tad boring. I really should get up. I go for a pee but get back into bed, picking up my phone again. I play Candy Crush – level 1470 is a total, complete and utter bastard of a level, as though invented by the devil himself, to be played for eternity in Candy Crush Hell by Candy Crush Sinners. I run out of lives and feel very, very angry with all employees at King, makers and developers of Candy Crush. I check my friends’ Candy Crush progress – bastards, every one of them, they MUST be paying, they MUST be buying levels. What snakes.

Two hours have passed, it’s now mid morning, I really should get up and do something with my day otherwise I’ll feel like shit, so I get up and shower. That’s better, well done me, and so as a treat I check Candy Crush, I have earned back two lives, yay! But I fail to beat level 1470 again … twice. I head to the kitchen for breakfast in a rotten mood.

I should have oats and berries but I’m starving. I spot the leftover takeaway curry in the fridge and smile, moments later I’m tucking into microwave-warmed chicken dhansak, bombay aloo, rice and leftover naan. My plate overfloweth. I leave nothing. I’m feeling really tired now, so I switch on the TV and watch a recorded Match Of The Day that sees me through to lunch. At least I’m clearing space on the TV’s hard drive, I tell myself.

I should go for a run but feel too tired, my belly swollen with curry. There’s a knock on the door, so I hide out of view. I try to read but I’m not in the mood for that either, so I search out a new boxset on Netflix.  It’s shit, so I reach for my smartphone and check social media, burning through the rest of the afternoon as my internal levels of anger and resentment rise like sap within me. The phone rings, I can’t bring myself to answer it, I’m not feeling very sociable.

I suddenly feel inexplicably sad and unfulfilled, but as it starts to get dark I decide it’s OK to have a drink and I start feeling better, so I open a bottle of red wine which makes me peckish. I look in the fridge, nothing, just an empty space where the leftover curry once lived. But then I remember the pizza in the freezer and I’m sorted.  The wine complements the pizza so much that I open a second bottle. The extra large deep dish with cheesy crusts is challenging, but with extra wine for lubrication I manage to complete the circle of dough just as I finish the second bottle of wine. Synchronicity.

I’m wide awake now. It’s soon midnight (how time flies), and a great time to post on social media, I tell myself. I’m feeling very political and tweet ferociously, letting the world (or at least my 172 followers) know exactly how I feel. I’m both political and funny. What a guy, that’ll show my followers and I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up a few more after that tirade. I lose five followers, five idiot followers, so switch dolefully to Facebook where I post one of my funniest jokes ever which earns two likes – most of my friends must be sleeping.

It’s 2am and I’m peckish again. The 1.5 litres of red wine has left a funny taste in my mouth (was the wine ‘off’, I wonder?), so I open a bag of cheesy quavers (86 calories) and pour myself a generous malt whisky (way better than beer), which feels like a masterstroke. Perhaps I should have been a culinary chef/dietician with my own TV channel? My imagination runs wild.

I wake at 5am, I’m fully clothed, laying on my bed, all the lights are on. I’m impressed how my autopilot self manages to do that, to get me home every time, and think I must be special.

Very special indeed.

monkey

Thank you for your smile …

Nothing disarms me quite like a genuine smile.

When someone smiles a truly genuine smile you see into their soul, just for a brief moment. And whatever came before, whatever games are played after, in that instant, you see the spirit, stripped of any pretence.

I’m careful to talk here of genuine smiles, smiles from the heart. Smiles that are spontaneous, unplanned, unrehearsed and unpracticed. These are smiles that can’t be learned, smiles that are truly inimitable fingerprints of their owner. I believe everyone is born with a genuine smile that can never be masked. One can of course practice fake smiles, camera smiles, business smiles, polite smiles, flirtatious smiles, political smiles … but one can never fake, or hide, the genuine smile.

Genuine smiles happen when you are caught off guard. They’re triggered by something that provokes a primeval response, deep within. They catch you unaware, like when you trip or fall and your arms stretch out in front to protect you. You have no control of this reaction, no time to think, it’s purely instinctive, and a genuine smile is exactly the same.

The grown-up name for a genuine smile is a Duchenne smile, a term coined in 1862 by a neurologist called Guillaume Duchenne, who identified that the muscles used in a spontaneous smile are not merely the ones around the mouth – but also the ones around the eyes.

More formally, a Duchenne smile involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes).

duchenne-smile-secondary_275H_JR

Left: a nice man, right: a complete c***

Fortunately, we humans are quite good at spotting the difference, and we’re naturally attracted to Duchenne smiles because they’re unforced and genuine. I believe we are attracted to them because it signals a stronger virtue.

Two celebrities with particularly strong Duchenne smiles are Emma Willis and Robin Williams. When I see a Duchenne smile, I don’t need to think about it, or analyse it, I just react, usually by smiling myself. And I often wonder why I’m drawn to certain people, like Emma and Robin, and I’m sure its because they invoke a positive reaction in me, due in no small part to their generous Duchenne smiles:

And it isn’t entirely to do with beauty. Victoria Beckham has some very striking attributes, yet rarely displays her ‘Duchenne’, opting instead to hide behind a more formal, colder, practiced image – a fake smile with very little, if any, orbicularis oculi stimulation. This is sometimes coined the ‘Pan-Am’ smile, a familiar smile worn by many a tired air hostess. All very well intentioned perhaps, but … well … not for me.

Meh …

Last week I went to the cinema to watch The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, and came away from it feeling wonderfully warm, contented and happy. A truly joyous film, delightfully British – both warm and funny in equal measure, with a superb cast.

‘But didn’t you find the plot a little weak’? A friend asked.

‘No’, I replied ‘but I think I’ve just seen the finest exponent of the Duchenne smile that I have ever seen in my entire life’.

Lily ‘Duchenne’ James

 

When we were young …

This amazing photograph, titled “Kids jumping onto mattresses” was taken by Tish Murtha in 1980, and rather beautifully encapsulates life growing up in urban Britain in the 70s/80s.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick

image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

Notwithstanding the kid in the foreground holding the ventriloquist’s dummy (wtf?), the rest of the scene could have been from any summer in my early youth growing up in  an industrial corner of Yorkshire. We did that kind of thing to entertain ourselves – we climbed trees, rummaged through quarries for pram wheels (with which we would make and then race trolleys), and we played in and around abandoned, or semi-built, houses and burned out cars.

02_Elswick-Kids-SuperMac-1978-840x560

Elswick Kids, image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

How times have changed. No longer would such a derelict house or rusty old car be left so blatantly abandoned and accessible like that. And no responsible, modern day parent would ever dream of letting their children loose, especially unsupervised, in such dangerous environments.

Through modern eyes, and with seemingly ever increasing levels of paranoia, we can see nothing but danger and neglect in these scenes, but with our 70s outlook we can see only fun, excitement, camaraderie and danger.

Back then, we climbed and fell out of trees, we played football on fields laden with broken glass strewn with (white) dog shit. And we jumped out of abandoned or derelict houses onto filthy, disgusting mattresses, before returning home, scruffy, scratched and grazed, starving hungry and totally and completely knackered. If it was Saturday we may have had a bath, otherwise our mums reluctantly washed our faces with a flannel, fed us a jam sandwich and sent us to bed. The next morning we would wake up, hurriedly get dressed and repeat it all over again, for six glorious weeks throughout the summer.

Should we return to those days? Of course not, that’s a bygone age and we have moved on. But looking back, none of us died, yet we did have immense fun and learned ever such a lot about the harsh realities and dangers of life, something I wonder if kids today in their sanitised, indoor, digitised cocoons, will ever get to experience?

 

Petitioning for a better life …

We all have a choice – we can choose the red pill or the blue pill.

When we choose the blue pill …blue pill

These dark, wintry days can get to us and if we’re unsuspecting they can affect our mood. Sadness typically requires very little effort, just passivity. Sit back and let all the bad things wash over you – the weather, the current political landscape, getting old. Focus on all that wasted time, on all those other, more successful people out there, and bingo, life feels overwhelmingly grim.

We can watch the news a certain way too – Brexit, this hapless government, Donald Trump, all the greed, violence, terrorism, food banks, homelessness, death, immigration – wherever you turn it’s bleak, it’s nasty, it’s dystopian. It’s a terrible time to be alive.

We look at ourselves critically. We’re getting older, fatter, we ache more, we sleep worse, we make noises when we bend down all of a sudden, we forget things, books take longer to read, ideas take longer to digest, food takes longer to digest, we increasingly need to wear glasses, we can’t run like we once did, we can’t fit into those trousers any more, our hair has gone thin and grey. Yuk.

And we build our barricades to suit. We choose our friends and colleagues, all our newsfeeds, all our social media timelines raining down on us, echo chambers playing back that which we already feared. It’s true, this is what we have become, a worried, complaining spectator on life. A gloomy, sombre onlooker passing comment, occasionally shaking our soppy fists, but always helpless, entirely hapless and seemingly clueless.

When we choose the red pill … red pill

Yes the days are short in January, it is dark and cold out there, but it needn’t stop us. We can dress for the occasion, both metaphorically and literally. This is England, it’s about as moderate here as anywhere on the planet. It’s sometimes a bit chilly, a tad breezy (nay, blustery even) and quite often damp, but that’s about it. We don’t generally suffer from tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, flooding and bushfires. In fact there’s nothing in any of our weather stopping us gearing up and getting out there and enjoying the world. We grow accustomed to summer being good and winter being bad, but winter needn’t be enduring, it has just as much to offer us as summer. We can stop wishing the winter days away and instead enjoy them now. We can open your eyes instead of closing them, in the same way we can look forward to opening the curtains on a morning, not closing them on an evening. With the red pill we can approach things differently. A winter sky has far more to offer than a summer one if you just look with fresh eyes.

And we can choose instead to properly watch the news and instead of feeling overwhelmed and helpless, we can think of all the things we can change. We can think of the people who could really benefit from our help. We can start locally or we can start small, we can look around us at our neighbours and friends, even strangers. And we can soon realise we’re not the unfortunate homeless ones, we’re not the alcoholic in the park, we’re not unemployed, and despite what our bloated western bellies are telling us, we’re certainly not the hungry ones begging for food. The news can often be grim, but instead of letting it dictate our mood, instead of just sighing and rolling over or turning over, we can dictate the news, we can act and react. We can help make change.

And so what if we are getting old? That’s not news. Nor is it even a choice. It’s just a fact of life, of all our lives. I’m no longer 30 years old, so why strive to be 30? Surely its better to be the best 53 yr old I can be? Time, perhaps, to stop focussing so much on what I was, poring over what I have lost, and instead to focus more on what I have become – older yes, but also wiser, calmer, kinder? Perhaps focussing my energy on how I can grow spiritually, become better. A time maybe to seek out those who could really benefit from my advantages – family, friends and strangers alike. A time to stop taking, a time to give.

Although it often feels easy, we don’t have to complain, we can choose instead to campaign. To petition for a better life, not just for ourselves, but for those around us too. We don’t have to passively watch, we can, instead, actively participate.

Ultimately we are always free to choose the red pill over the blue.

Better lives don’t just arrive and happier lives aren’t searchable on Google. We have to make them happen, through our action and intent. There comes a time when we perhaps need to turn off the TV and the computer, a time to throw those curtains wide and open the front door, to start our campaigns for a better life, starting today, right now in fact, small steps, with a cold, damp, blustery, but beautiful wintry walk. All we need are our coats and sensible footwear …

The choices we make, every moment of every day, are always ours to make … the red pill or the blue pill?

morpheus-red-pill-blue-pill

 

 

Twenty Eighteen …

So here we stand at the start line of a brand new year, a time when we both reflect and look forward. We ask ourselves what went well last year, what made us unhappy, what made us smile, what made us sad?

We plan, we want less of that, but more of this. We all make our own lists, at least in our heads, even if we don’t always write them down. Human nature means we all want a better life, somehow – whether we want to turn ‘bad’ into ‘manageable’, ‘manageable’ into ‘good’, or ‘good’ into ‘very good’, we all want to see some form or progress along our own happiness scale.

And if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s the importance of planning wisely. I’ve learned not to be too ambitious, but most importantly, I’ve learned to stop chasing the wrong things.

I’m never going to write a novel, but I can always write. A marathon is a tough ask that’s fading quickly, but jogging needn’t be a lost hope. Hiking Kilimanjaro takes a lot of time, money and planning – all in short supply – but walking every day takes very little whatosever.

Quitting drink by throwing myself into Dry January hasn’t worked in the past and it’s unlikely to work now. Veganuary is laudable, but is it realistic? Mightn’t it be better instead to just cut down on midweek drinking? To introduce meat-free days into the weekly calendar?

Lofty, worthy, ambitious goals are exciting, but they’re also disheartening when you inevitably fail to climb their long ladders. And that’s why my resolution this year is not to make any grand claims, but rather to focus simply on what’s next. Instead of trying to win the war right now, I’ll just focus on the next battle.

2018 will be about taking small steps, but well intentioned ones. In 2018 I aim to chip away at ambition, but not attack it. Health, financial security, relationships, friendships and general happiness are still as important as ever, but they’re not giants to be slayed. These aims and aspirations should be free to roam unbounded. These dreams, hopes and aspirations are organic, wandering free, sniffing and scratching the earth, interacting, learning, maybe even evolving themselves. There’s nothing wrong with next year’s goals being different to this year’s, so long as we can adapt, so long as we are clear where we are heading.

I don’t believe happiness can ever be conquered. Happiness, contentment, health, financial security – these mighty beasts will never be tamed, they’re simply beacons that should light our way.

All we need is the foresight to see them. And then all we need to do is take small steps.

Happy new year.

Stepping onto the pitch …

There’s total abstinence on one extreme of the axis, hedonistic indulgence on the other, and somewhere in between lies moderation. But exactly where moderation is on that axis is debatable, and that’s always been my problem with it.

Whereas abstinence is ‘0’, and indulgence is ‘1’, moderation is 0.x where ‘x’ is something that can never be defined. There’s no slippery slope with ‘0’ and ‘1’ extremism, no grey area, no line in the sand to keep to one side of, making decision-making very simple.

I stop drinking booze, ergo, I simply don’t drink alcohol. I quit eating meat and I open a vegetarian cookbook. But if I cut down, I still ‘do’, and I’m standing in no-mans land betwixt and between the end zones of abstinence and indulgence. To extremists, moderating your booze means you can still have a drink any-time. If you cut down your dairy intake you can still eat some cheese. Whatever the underlying reasons, be they ethical, moral, health related or financial, to the extremist every time you ‘do’, you fall short of that ‘reason’. You can also no longer measure success or failure in the middle, because in this analogue no-mans land everything is still possible and both failure and success continue to compete for attention, whereas in the digital end-zones of abstinence and excess everything is crystal clear, you either do or you don’t.

This is why I have always tended to operate in the end-zones.  If I choose to run I want to become a total runner. I buy books on running, I download running apps, I listen to running podcasts, I research running shoes to PhD level, I dream about running, I blog about running, I seek out running people, I bore other people with my running and I create pro-running echo chambers on social media. I run every day and I become a true running bore living wholly within the indulgent ‘1’ end-zone – a running legend in my own head and my own lifetime. And then I get injured and I can no longer run, but instead of cutting back I stop running altogether – apps are deleted, podcasts are unsubscribed, running gurus are unfollowed on Twitter – and I gather up my belongings and up sticks to decamp in the opposite ‘0’ running end-zone of total abstinence where I live as a complete non-runner, eschewing all running related facets in my life, mixing with like-minded sedentarists.

And that’s the problem with extremism. End-zone living might be very clear and very simple, but it does come at a cost. Most importantly, it’s extremely difficult to comply with. To never do anything ever again takes remarkable courage and commitment. But worst of all, when you fail, when your toe silently and subtly edges over the end-zone white line it’s over, gone, completely and forever.  You can’t ever be a little bit pregnant in the same way you can never be a vegetarian who eats the occasional chicken nugget, or a teetotaller who enjoys a sherry at Christmas. Extremism is a lifestyle not to be taken lightly, and it’s utterly exhausting.

Extremists eschew moderates, seeing them as weak and ill-disciplined, rudderless, with no rules or signposts for living. Extremists stand in both end zones, arms folded, tutting and sighing at the fickle-natured moderates who smile and giggle their way through life like it’s some kind of light-hearted and flippant game.

Take nutrition as an example. Not wishing to generalise too much but it’s fair to say that, generally speaking, Americans are extremists where the French are moderates. American food is covered in labels telling us they’re ‘sodium-free’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘zero-calorie’, ‘cholesterol lowering’ and so on. French food on the other hand, if it is labelled or packaged at all, is marked ‘cheese’, ‘beef’,  or ‘snail’.

And you don’t need me to tell you who are the healthiest and happiest nation. That’s right, it’s the one that sits out in the middle drinking wine, smoking Gitanes, eating fatty meat and indulging in sugary desserts. Meanwhile the extremists are drinking litre buckets of zero cal sodas through plastic straws and eating foods refined within an inch of their lives (but stripped of all devilish ingredients such as salt and sugar).

And the act of eating itself – a social construct to be enjoyed and shared with moderates, becomes a sin for extremists who hide behind their desk or the wheel of their car (whilst parked up in the end-zone). One is a meal that is also a social occasion lasting a couple of hours, not something sinful you endure for ten guilty minutes in isolation behind closed doors.

And the moderate who enjoyed steak and chips with red wine for lunch, may just have a small cheese dish for supper. He rarely if ever goes off the rails. He drinks most days but never more than a couple of glasses, although it’s perfectly fine to indulge too every now and then. After all life is for living. Everything goes when you’re in the moderate centre, nothing is banned or out of reach, and it is precisely for that reason that things are rarely abused out there in the middle.

The extremists future is by definition dystopian, a field of landmines to be delicately negotiated, whereas the true moderate’s presence is utopian, a busy road to be enjoyed and shared with others. Extremists fear the future, whereas moderates enjoy the present.

I’ve been a life long extremist but it’s time for me to move out of the end-zone and onto the pitch. I’m going to try and mingle, shake hands with some moderates and see what happens.

And I really, really hope I don’t end up in jail, hospital or rehab.

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The best playlist of my life … and maybe yours too?

I’ve always enjoyed compiling music. In the old days it was recording from vinyl onto cassette tapes, or recording songs from the radio where you had to try and stop the recording just after the song ended, but before Tony Blackburn or Simon Bates spoke and spoiled everything.

I used to compile tapes for friends (for friends read girls). They took ages to compile, each track carefully chosen, sometimes with accompanying lyrics handwritten out of sheer love and desire.  I would sometimes have to post the tapes in the mail in the hope she would receive, listen and come running.

It never really worked but it was immense fun. These days it’s much easier with Spotify, Apple Music or any other streaming service where 30-million tracks are just a click away, in high fidelity, with no DJ interruptions. And so it is that old fashioned, analogue compilations have now given way to digital playlists.

I tend to build playlists these days principally for me rather than for girls, but it’s still a great way to gather together certain genres, or composers, or songs from a particular decade, songs for dinner parties, songs for house parties, songs for flying, songs to run along to, songs to cook with, songs to sing along to.

The options are endless, but my most recent playlist has undoubtedly been the most fun to compile, and I wanted share this with you because it’s something you might want to try.  Mine’s called ‘Andy’s life playlist’, but you might want to give yours a different name.

Here’s how it works:

  1. You must add a song to the playlist if, and only if, it was a significant thing for you, at some stage of your life. It might be something you fell in love with, obsessed over, or just something that is so significantly memorable that it transports you back to a very specific place/time/age. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun was the first 45/single I ever bought from Casa Disco. I was 9yrs old and I fell in love with music. I was on the way to becoming me.  So that’s in.
  2. It MIGHT be a song you didn’t particularly like, but which is so strongly associated with a specific life event that it has to go in. When our first child was born, I remember returning to the car bleary eyed and emotionally punch drunk, turning on the radio when ‘Sleeping Satellites’ by Tasmin Archer came on the radio.  That song will forever be associated with my wife and our son, and whenever I hear it I am immediately transported back to Milton Keynes Hospital Car Park in the autumn of 1992. So that’s in too.
  3. You MUST NOT exclude a song because you now find it cheesy, facile, simplistic or juvenile. This is just your 2017 self filtering and tainting your thinking. You loved that song back then when (and because) you were pure, you were untainted by other opinions, politics, self awareness and snobbiness. You just reacted biologically to the words, the beat, the harmonies, the chord changes. It affected the real you, it was you. I remember singing with a hairbrush into my bedroom mirror miming and dancing to ‘I Can Do It’ by The Rubettes. I was Alan Williams, I even had similar hair. So that has to be in, whether I like it or not.
  4. You CANNOT add a song that you like now, but didn’t like at the time, just to try and make yourself look cool. Stop playing these games. Just because you should have liked The Jam doesn’t mean ‘Going Underground’ should be on the playlist.
  5. Certain songs evoke memories of life events like nothing else can, and that’s what you’re trying to capture here. On the first anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, I remember I felt miserable all day. I was working in London and can recall coming home on the train that evening. It was a hot summer’s evening as I stared out of the window feeling bluesy when ‘Warning Signs’ started to play through my headphones. And when Chris Martin said “... and the truth is, I miss you, yeah the truth is, I miss you … so“, I started to cry, and I cried all the way to my car. But I felt happy, I felt connected to Dad somehow. You could be forgiven for not hearing that ‘so’ at the end of that line, but I don’t, and I never will. I don’t understand how all this stuff works but it’s very powerful, and that song evokes memories of my Dad and specifically his loss, like nothing else ever can. I often cry when I hear it now, and whilst Chris probably wrote it about Gwyneth, or some other lover, to me it’s it’s about Dad. It’s between me and him. That’s the kind of stuff that has to go in.
  6. And it doesn’t have to just be old stuff, you CAN add new songs to the playlist. If a song affects you in 2017, it’s just as much a part of your life playlist as the song that affected you in 1973. You might discover a song from ’73 that you hear for the first time in 2017, so that’s fine to go in too, but you CANNOT add a ’73 song you didn’t ever like or have no connection to, but you now wish you had (see point 4 above) – that’s one for your fake public playlist.

Just remember, this playlist is designed to be a musical portfolio for your life, not for anyone else’s. Build it for you. You won’t be able to do it in one go, just keep it running in the background and add to it whenever and wherever you remember a song. There’s no limit, it can be as short or as long as you like.

Also, please note that your playlist must never be shared. Once you know you might share you will start to filter, and it will no longer be your pure playlist, but rather a modified playlist you’d like others to think was yours. This is very important.  I have some right shit on mine, stuff I’ll never admit to in public, but it’s part of me, no one will ever know, it’s my little secret, it’s my life playlist.

And finally, but just as importantly, you must edit the title and append a number to each song title, e.g, ‘Seasons in the sun’ becomes ‘9_Seasons In the Sun’, ‘Hold me now’ becomes ’18_Hold me now’, ‘Linger’ becomes ’28_Linger”, and so on. This number is the age you were (or as close as you can approximate) when you connected with the song.

And this is the special bit. When you now play your playlist where the songs are ordered alphabetically, you now get to listen to the soundtrack of your life.

Belinda

 

Flawed logic and sub-optimal living

In my latest self help article, I look at the important role of logic in solving everyday problems, and examine, through mathematical reasoning, how flawed logic can lead to sub-optimal living.

I learned this the hard way, failure is the best way to learn, so allow me to share my mistakes with you, so you don’t fall into the same ‘unhappiness trap’ as I.

Let’s take the everyday dilemma of choosing an orange from a bowl of oranges to illustrate the point.

This is how my logic navigated me through life (before I achieved enlightenment):

Let’s say I have four oranges in my fruit bowl, three of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, but one orange is on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming. And let’s say I fancy an orange. Which one do you think I eat? I don’t choose at random, I use a form of logic that goes like this – eat the one on the turn because tomorrow it will have gone over and will be ruined, save the healthy ones, they still have a shelf-life.  And so I eat the fourth orange, the one on the turn. I find the experience mediocre at best. Satisfaction 50%

The following day I have three oranges in my fruit bowl, two of which still look fresh, young, zesty and healthy, and one that’s now on the turn, with blemished skin, dark patches and bruises forming … I eat the one on the turn. Satisfaction 50%. The following day I have two oranges, one on the turn, one healthy … Satisfaction 50%. On day four the final orange is looking very shabby, it’s on the turn, logic dictates it won’t last, I’m tired of oranges but I eat it. Satisfaction 30%.

Let’s assume the average orange delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my total enjoyment from my four oranges is 50% x 10 x 3 + 30% x 10 = 18.

This is how an enlightened person applies thinking in his life:

The smart person fancies an orange and discovers he has four in his fruit bowl, three of which are healthy and one that is on the turn. He bins the shitty one and eats the ever-so slightly inferior orange from the remaining three (note that it is still still very healthy and far from the turn). Mmm, it’s delicious, he scores a dizzying 90% satisfaction, harvesting nine enjoyment points in the process.

On day two, he only has two oranges left, but they’re still lush oranges, bursting with life and zingy fruitiness. He chooses the slightly weaker one of the two but it’s still a cracking orange. He scores 70% satisfaction, collecting seven enjoyment points.  On day three, he only has one orange left, the leader of the pack, the SAS of the orange world, the never-say-die alpha male, the king of the hill. He eats it, he derives 70% satisfaction and collects a further seven enjoyment points.

On day four he has no oranges left, but he doesn’t give a shit, he’s sick of oranges anyway and he doesn’t want to turn into a bloody orange!

Total enjoyment points = 9+7+7 = 23

If it were only oranges that would be OK, but sadly this is mirrored all too often through other facets of my life (and maybe yours too), for I also apply similar ‘orange’ logic to other daily challenges – like selecting underpants for example:

I have 10 pairs of underpants in my pants drawer. Three pairs are my absolute faves – comfortable, roomy yet secure, airy, stylish (in case of road traffic accident) – and seven pairs are getting old and a little tired. They’re also slightly tight fitting (I think they must have shrunk in the wash). They look a bit like old man’s pants too, somewhat dated and embarrassing if I’m brutally honest with myself.

So which pair do I choose? I choose one of the seven shitty pairs obviously, my logic dictating it’s best to save the good ones for another day. Satisfaction 20%. On day two, I repeat the aforementioned logic, selecting another pair of ill fitting, moribund Y-fronts, satisfaction 20%. This repeats the entire week, at which point I do some washing so at the beginning of week two I have 10 fresh pairs of pants, three nice pairs and seven shitty pairs.  Week two, by the same logic, I wear shitty pairs all week.

Let’s say the average pair of underpants delivers 10 units of enjoyment, my weekly enjoyment haul from my pants is a measly 2 x 7 = 14*, whereas the superior logician reaps (3 x 10) + (4 x 2) = 38*.

 

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Conclusion – live life every day, like it’s your last. Wear nice pants and eat fresh oranges.

 

 

* assumes only 1 weekly wash of smalls