All Quiet on the Western Front

I’ve just finished reading this book by Erich Maria Remarque, a German writer, writing about the experiences of seven very young German men (boys) who were sent to fight on the Western front line in the First World War.

It’s not just a beautifully written book, it’s also an insight and perspective I hadn’t seen or read about previously – a view of war from the other side.

I grew up and learned about the world wars but always from ‘our’ side. But when you read this, you realise there are no sides, not on the front line, there are just two groups of scared, frightened young men, fighting for something they didn’t understand.  They were all just kids who lived, loved, and laughed just like you and me … but who ultimately sacrificed their lives.

Today we are lucky, yet still we see inequality, unfairness and violence all around us. ‘Im Westen nicht Neues’, written in 1929, is timeless. It’s one of those books that isn’t just beautifully written, it also makes you stop and think just how precious and delicate life is, and how we all need to make the very most of the brief time we have.

If this book tells us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be fighting anyone else’s wars but our own – to live our lives as honourably and as compassionately as we can.

Nomophobia …

mobile-addiction-8

Yesterday evening I did something I’ve never done before, I switched off my smartphone. I’ve had to reboot it in the past, the ‘ctrl-alt-del’ remedy for the modern age, and I often mute it or place it in airplane mode when travelling, but I’ve never actually switched it off and left it. I guess I’ve never really liked the idea of being ‘disconnected’.

And I have to admit it felt a little unsettling at first – what if someone tries to call me? But that feeling quickly dissipated when I realised nobody ever calls me. Phew! That was a close one!

I normally faff about on my smartphone before I go to sleep. I use the term ‘faff’, because it’s mainly whimsical, unimportant stuff I do – an established habit of browsing social media and newsfeeds. Anyway, yesterday, sans smartphone, I set my alarm on my alarm clock (I bought one recently) and read a book. It was that simple. The lack of blue light meant I was soon tired and it wasn’t long before I fell to sleep.

I didn’t sleep that well, waking often, old habits I guess, but as I had no phone to reach for, I had to face the periods of darkness head on. I soon got bored and went back to sleep with little else to fill the void.

This morning I woke to the sound of birdsong (it’s an alarm setting on that clock I was telling you about), but … and this was the most interesting thing … as my phone was in another room, I couldn’t immediately plug myself back into the matrix and inject myself with my normal fix of social media distractions. Normally, upon waking, driven purely by habit rather than need, I reach immediately for my phone and browse shit – checking notifications, checking for missed calls (as if!), checking emails, checking SMS, checking WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and finally Twitter.

The great thing about Twitter is that it’s infinite, you can spend as long on there as you want, clicking links and sinking ever deeper into the online abyss – a procrastinator’s dream. And if I do ever get bored with Twitter, I can always start back at the beginning, rechecking the news, scanning for more emails, any messaging updates, seeing if anyone has updated their social media, and so on.  And as a last resort, if I am really, really desperate to avoid life, there’s always LinkedIn (Hell’s very own social media channel).

But this morning I had little choice. I just had to lay there in the darkness, thinking about my day, all on my lonesome. It was old school and my out of shape mind and imagination quickly got tired of having to think for itself, so I got up and showered, wondering all the time if WWIII had actually happened. When I sat down at my desk, much earlier than usual I have to say, I switched on my phone and only then realised the world hadn’t changed at all – war hadn’t broken out, nobody of any note had died and no catastrophes had ensued.

I might try it again tonight. I’m currently wondering whether to stay with ‘birdsong’ as my wake up theme, or possibly switch to ‘rainfall’?

Decisions, decisions …

Birdsong+16.9+no+text

A more considered life?

The new year has always meant the same thing for as long as I can remember – a new set of one-dimensional, ego driven resolutions. And over the last 30 years or so they have barely changed, always pivoting around the following:

  • lose weight
  • drink less
  • eat less
  • exercise more

Not only are these all vague, dull, unimaginative and boringly predictable, they’re also primarily selfish, vain and egotistical. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they’re also unattainable and therefore ultimately pointless.

Improving oneself shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, it should only be a means to an end, which is why this year I’m going to do things differently.

2020 will see me, for the first time in a very long time, not doing Dry January, not doing Veganuary, not turning vegetarian (again), not setting another exercise timetable, not subscribing to more meditation apps, not buying new self-help books and not starting any new diets. 2020 will hopefully see me living a better life, a more considered one.

Andy’s two-part, 8-step manifesto to a more considered life (v.2020/01)

PART 1 – ME

  1. Everything goes (but in moderation) – what I learned in 2019 when I completely abstained from alcohol, was that deprivation of any kind makes me sad and ultimately leads to failure (and I have years of evidence to back this up). What drove me back to drink was not a craving for alcohol, but a yearning for the ‘occasion’ of drinking. I was sat in a pub in Cornwall with some good friends last year and I wanted to drink a proper drink alongside everyone else, instead of drinking my 0% beer. I know it makes no difference what’s in my glass, but it’s a statement of intent, of camaraderie. I don’t want to become a heavy drinker again and I fully realise the benefits of not drinking, but I do want to be able to have a choice to drink whenever I decide I want one. The pressure of not doing something can be draining and feels like life is being filtered or restricted. It’s like living in black and white.  Similar things happened when I tried veganism (briefly) and vegetarianism (for only a little longer). I fully get the 3D benefits of reduction in meat/dairy (health, moral, environmental) but saying no to meat/dairy altogether, forever, really brings out the gloomy rebel in me. So instead of abstinence, I want to leave all options on the table, but with that comes responsibility and so I must in conjunction …
  2. Be purposeful – do whatever I want, but do it for the right reasons. It needn’t necessarily be worthy, nor wholesome, it just needs to be ‘right’. If I fancy a biscuit, I’ll eat one if, and only if, it feels right to have one. If I’ve just eaten half a packet of biscuits, then eating another is not a right reason. If I am stressed and looking for a sugar distraction, that’s not a right reason either. And if I want a biscuit because I can’t be arsed to cook a nutritious meal, that’s out of bounds too. However, after a wholesome, nutritious meal, a single biscuit to round things off with a cup of tea would be fine. And that glass of red wine with my cheese on a week night? Well, that’s cheeky, but it’s perhaps OK too … if it’s my first and only glass that evening. Purposefulness needs to underpin the ‘everything goes’ mantra to provide a level of control. Furthermore, if that one glass of wine midweek stops me binge drinking at the weekend, then that’s an added benefit too.
  3. Be mindful – when I drink that beer (step 1), for the right reasons (step 2), I need to also try and think just about the beer, study the taste, fully experience the pleasure it’s giving me and think about the occasion that rests behind it (this is step 3). I won’t be distracted, I will be present, because if I do something but spend that moment thinking about the past, the future, or something else, then I may as well not be doing that thing at all. And that’s a waste of a good pint. Live in the now, savour the moments as they happen.
  4. Look after the mind and body – we know that exercise helps both the body and mind stay strong and it also feels really good too. I will do it when I can, but I won’t punish myself when I can’t and I won’t try and do too much, too soon. I know what happens when I do that. Exercise needs to evolve at my pace, not driven by others nor by Strava competitions and league tables.

PART 2 – THE WORLD

  1. Be kind & considerate – Think societally, think of others; think of friends and family, think of those who are struggling, of those less fortunate. But don’t just think about it, do something about it too. Online petitions actioned from your sofa through your smartphone really don’t matter Andy, so don’t hide behind them. Action, not inaction. There’s plenty of room for change here.
  2. Be honest – don’t lie. Lying kills, constant lying is death by a thousand cuts. You despise a lack of integrity in others, don’t be hypocritical. Look at UK/US politics, we need to start being better and it needs to start with us.
  3. Be sociable – engage with real people in the real world. Turn off the computer occasionally and disengage from the internet. Visit the local, talk-don’t-type on the phone, occasionally talk to a stranger (but don’t make a habit of it because that’s weird).
  4. And finally, be nice to animals. A world full of animals is a happier world, and animals need our help now more than ever as we continue to make their life increasingly miserable. A koala bear stopped a cyclist during the bushfires in Australia this week, so desperate was it for water, this is truly heartbreaking. It needn’t be a koala, it could be a hedgehog, for hedgehogs have feelings too.

Living a considered life is to live life well, to experience life to the full. A considered life is a connected life, a compassionate life, a thoughtful life, an outward looking life, one that’s full and rich, one that above all else brings happiness not just to yourself, but to others too. A considered life shines light into the world, a light that acts as a beacon for others, and so we should all be shining our lights in the bravest and brightest ways we can.

Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 17.07.03

 

 

 

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

 

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).