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

 

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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

 

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 …

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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.

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

A 7-day Intermittent Fasting experiment

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I’ve been interested in Fasting ever since I saw the Michael Moseley Horizon programme in 2012, not just for weight loss reasons, but rather the claimed health benefits – lowering the risk of developing diabetes, dementia and cancer.

Fasting purportedly diverts energy and resources away from food digestion, focussing instead on doing useful housekeeping things like cell repair, reducing insulin levels and generally ridding the body of toxins and other debris. It also re-teaches the body the lost art of deriving energy from fat, as opposed to from the carbs in our belly – a process called Ketosis. Most of us carry enough fat to survive several weeks without food, which is why fasting is safe, and why many people have successfully conducted 21 or 28 day fasts without any harm.  It’s also popular in many religions and spiritual practices – Islam (Ramadan), Buddhism, Bahá’í, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism … the list goes on.

Even outside of religion and spirituality, fasting has been a natural part of human existence for as long as we have been around, primarily because food was scarce and so early man had to eat when he/she could, forced to fast in between hunts and catches. We are therefore designed to cope well with fasting, it’s in our genetic make-up, even if it does feel a little alien to the modern psyche which has been raised on the 3 square meals a day regime (3SMAD). The introduction of 3SMAD has its roots traced back to 19th Century America – it was a symbol of civilisation to sit down with friends and family at fixed times to eat, an attempt to differentiate the ‘civilised’ white man from the indigenous natives. It could therefore be argued that fasting is more natural to us than 3SMAD.

Nevertheless, many people will still argue that 3SMAD is best for us and that fasting is sheer madness. People will claim they feel ‘shaky’ if they miss lunch, and cite this as evidence they need to eat, but there is a counter-argument that your body has just become so dependent on deriving instant energy from food carbs that it’s forgotten the lost art of ketosis which fasting allows.

I therefore decided to give it a go for a week. Instead of the traditional 5:2 diet which I followed for a year or so but found rather difficult, I decided to try just eating one meal a day, every day, limiting my calorie intake to a couple of hours each evening. That means eating nothing whatsoever for 22 hours – no sugar or milk in tea, certainly no snacks or fruit, just water, tea and an occasional black coffee. You could call this the 7:0 diet – a little extreme maybe, but if the theory of ketosis is sound, I figured it wouldn’t be anything more than a psychological challenge. If you want more detail on this, I got the idea from the following video Eating Once a Day.

Important to note I placed no restrictions on what I ate (or drank) in these two hours. I didn’t cap calories or consciously cut out any food groups.  I even allowed alcohol because I know if I had banned it, I would have fallen at the first hurdle. What is interesting, is what happened:

My Diary

Day 1 – not surprisingly this was easy, after all I had a corpulent body full of yesterday’s 3SMAD excess calories to keep me going. I didn’t want any alcohol and just ate a moderate plate of veggie grub.

Day 2- felt good, loved waking up and not having to worry about food all day, a feeling that persisted throughout the week. Interestingly I only had (only wanted, only needed) a light meal, although it was accompanied by a glass of wine. Day 2 was a Friday, and had I banned alcohol in this experiment, I may have felt resentful and rebellious. However, without any alcohol ban I was free to enjoy a glass, and because I felt good about the fasting, I wasn’t tempted to drink any more, ending the evening feeling unusually virtuous and sated.

Day 3 – felt good, went for a long walk during the day (4 miles), had a veg stir-fry for dinner plus two glasses of wine (it was Saturday night). I didn’t really enjoy the second glass of wine – one would have been enough but in a perverse mindfcuked reasoning kind of way that only I could muster, I convinced myself I should have a second glass to prove to myself I wasn’t restricting alcohol.

Day 4 – hard, very hard. Perhaps it was the wine? Who knows, but I had a persistent headache all day, felt tired and sluggish despite sleeping well and craved food throughout, occasionally staring balefully at the cheddar cheese in the fridge. I only just made it through to tea-time, but interestingly didn’t have (or want) any alcohol. Veg Thai green curry (no noodles).

Day 5 – much better. I was busy which helps a lot and I just had a light veg dinner. No alcohol. I definitely felt lighter and I’m definitely sleeping better and eating much healthier food through choice/desire. No cravings whatsoever for junk food (odd for me) and most surprisingly of all, despite not restricting alcohol, I’ve only had 3 glasses of wine in the first 5 days, including a weekend, and anyone that knows me will know that’s quite uncharacteristic.

Day 6 – all went well, seems to get easier. Had a light veg based dinner, no alcohol. Sleep continues to improve. Once again my focus and concentration was immense, far better than usual and my work productivity has undoubtedly increased. Managed a 2.5 mile run.

Day 7 – felt harder. Perhaps knowing this was the last day made me psychologically weak, like I sensed the finish line. But that makes it sounds like it’s been a hard slog and it really hasn’t. I’m only stopping today because I set myself a 7-day target for this experiment and the more I look at it, the more I believe I could continue further. I survived and rounded off the 7-day fast with an oven baked jacket potato and cheese like mama used to make. Enjoyed a 3-mile walk.

In summary

I would say on average I have consumed well under 1,000 calories a day, probably closer to 600-700, and interestingly have eaten smaller portions and higher quality evening meals than I ever did on 3SMAD. I also rarely craved junk food and 3 glasses of wine was well under par for me for a weekly total. I also ate total vegetarian – due in part to a bountiful supply of garden produce, but certainly not a conscious action at the outset of the experiment, perhaps this was pure coincidence.

Of course 600-700 calories a day isn’t sustainable long term, but I guess that’s where ketosis comes in, at least in the short term. I have AMPLE fat stores to draw upon, as do most of us fortunate enough to live in the western world, and so such a challenge over a relatively short period of time is only ever a psychological one I think. This was never going to be, nor ever planned to be, sustainable, I just wanted to check if it was doable, and it was. It’s foolish to draw any firm conclusions, but it has proved to me you don’t have to eat at set meal-times, it’s OK to skip a meal (or two), and in fact it might even be good for you to listen to your body rather than the chimes of the clock.

I have no idea what it has done for (or to) my health, all I can say is I felt better afterwards than I did at the beginning. I felt like I had more energy and my brain was definitely sharper – I could concentrate for longer and didn’t feel sleepy during the day. For the record I lost 3.4kg (7.5lbs) in weight. No doubt much of that will go back on when I return to normal eating, although, and here’s the crux, I’m not entirely sure I will return to my normal 3SMAD eating, but perhaps somewhere in between.

I’m certain many of you will think this was a silly and dangerous thing to have done. All I can say is I survived and as described above I felt better than I did previously. Best of all I believe I now have a much better perspective and handle on my, admittedly rather quirky relationship with food (and maybe also drink).

 

 

Mindfulness & the importance of ‘now’

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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.

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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)
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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

 

 

 

The Zen of running …

I wasn’t going to go for a run today as it was tipping down with rain, or ‘pissing stair-rods’ as they say up north. I usually don’t need much of an excuse to avoid anything, I have a deep seated propensity to do bugger-all if the chance arises, but rather unusually today something inside nudged and cajoled me to get changed and head out.

This is what greeted me – this is the street outside my house, amusingly called Water Lane, and now we know why:

I do love running, and have been an on-off runner most of my life. I was fairly good at it at school, and particularly enjoyed cross-country which put me in a minority group of 1. I always enjoyed running ‘off-piste’, leaving the pavements and roads behind me as soon as I could, finding peace and solitude in whatever fields, footpaths and woodland areas I had access to.

I never consciously sought out the countryside, it just seemed to find me. It was like an instinct – birds fly south in winter, salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs, Andy turns off the road and into the fields as soon as he can. Running like this just feels right, it feels nice, I feel like I fit here. Running along a pavement, along a road, all those cars, all those people, it all feels stressful and that’s probably why I have never enjoyed cycling where you are consigned to the public roads. I can feel myself physically relax once I hop over the style, leaving the noise, pollution and people behind.

Today was muddy, seriously so, and at times it was difficult to stay upright, but it was hugely enjoyable. Within 5 minutes I was soaked through from head to toe and I had mud splattered everywhere and it felt bloody brilliant.

I ran for around an hour, tracing a loop across the fields, slipping and sliding through mud and puddles. I covered just over 5 miles so no records were in danger of being broken but that was fine, I wasn’t running for speed, I was running for running’s sake, running because I can, running because it feels good.

Running makes me feel happy, a pursuit, a hobby like no other in that respect. I love the solitude, the thinking time, the rhythm. It’s almost meditative, some call it ‘flow’, where you lose track of time and focus only on what you’re doing right now. The usual fears, anxieties, worries and concerns prevalent in everyday life are cast aside when you’re in ‘flow’. You hear nothing, you see nothing, you just are, you are 100% in the now, no regrets from the past, no fears for the future.

In flow, I just am.

The rain became heavier, the paths more sodden and boggy, but by now I no longer worried about finding dry spots, I just ran and even waded in parts. Fuck it.

I hadn’t a care in the world now I was in full flow. I didn’t want to stop and felt like I could run forever.

I do a lot of thinking whilst running, I process thoughts, often arriving back after a run with solutions to earlier, seemingly insurmountable problems of the day. They say sleep is the time most people process their thoughts, that’s why we dream, but I’m a poor sleeper, and perhaps running is my place to do the necessary care-taking of my mind’s thoughts? I certainly arrive back from a run feeling better, not just physically, but mentally and dare I say spiritually too.

I love running, running is my thing, my ‘flow’, my Zen. For you it may well be different – perhaps it’s reading, cooking, building model boats out of matchsticks. I don’t think it  matters what ‘it’ is, so long as you find your ‘it’.

For me my ‘it’ is definitely running, and if I’m fit enough to run I feel very lucky.

‘I might go for another run tomorrow, or perhaps the day after’, I think to myself, and so I turn for home before I’m really ready, because I want to do it all again very soon.

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My shoes

 

If I could turn back time …

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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.

Woe betide the squirrels …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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