The faint blue glow of friendship

As we declutter our house prior to the big move, it’s been interesting to question what I need in my life. This doesn’t just apply to material stuff, of course, but other kinds of stuff too. For example: how I spend my time (temporal stuff). Unfortunately, it turns out that much of my temporal stuff is expended on digital stuff. So I began to think about whether I could slim down or prioritise my commitments to the internet.

It’s surprising how many people I’ve agreed to ‘follow’, how many marketing emails I’ve neglected to unsubscribe from, how many services I have an account for and have never found useful. Hey, it’s all free. Then, yesterday, I deleted TweetDeck and a shiver went through me. It was a physical feeling of relief.

I have this vague idea that social media is useful but it’s very hard to say how, and what the cost is. It’s usually an open ended and very poorly defined activity, at least the way I use it. Not SMART.

There’s also the mental bandwidth it hogs: the repetitive cycle of posting and checking; the fear of missing out. The impulse to tweet about something as it happens to you is the mental equivalent of having a ‘share this’ button embedded in your experiences. I do want to share some of my experiences but in a form and manner of my choosing. Does being retweeted help me to understand myself and others? Does the new Facebook design help me to be present in the living of my life? Probably not.

I know several people who love Twitter and would say it has changed their lives. Maybe they’re more purposeful and professional in their use of it than I am. Many writers use Twitter to build an audience and find like-minded fellows. When Joe and Hugh and I launched our poetry pamphlet, The Inner Sea, it reached people on Twitter who never would have read it otherwise. That was a really positive thing but the results didn’t really justify the amount of headspace I’ve given over to it.

I have some deeper problems with social media and reactions that take place on a shallow, literal level. It’s not always an advantage to communicate by reflex and so publicly. Experiences take time to change us and to reveal their importance. Independence, the feeling of being out of touch, the sense of time passing slowly, patience, possibly even peace. All these are things of value to someone who writes; all are things that could be gained by losing social media or toning it down.

It’s easy to be enchanted by the faint blue glow of friendship. At its best, social media is an egalitarian echo chamber; at its worst, a squawk box for brands to banter through. If I had the courage of my convictions I suppose I’d close my accounts, let time pass as slowly as possible and miss out on everything.

Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.

Thinking time

When you pause to think about it, time is obviously a measure of change and not a cause of change. Holding my infant son and pacing the bedroom to keep him from screaming, I looked at my wife’s bedside clock and tried to guess when I could reasonably expect to get some shuteye. Maybe it was the cumulative sleep deprivation of the last few weeks but it seemed that the hands were turning around the clockface… and that was all. There was nothing additional going on, no invisible wind blowing between the past and future: only the room, the hectic floral wallpaper, the houseplant sitting in front of the lamp I bought my wife for Christmas a few years ago and the clock hands moving. This was ‘now’ just as it had ever been.

You see the difficulties we have with time in the way we talk about it. When asked where the time goes we can never say. It’s deeply mysterious to us. Perhaps it was never here to begin with. When I talk about a date in the past or future, I’m referring to a configuration of objects and states distant from us by a certain amount of change… most obviously the number of times the Earth has spun on its axis and how far it has rotated around the sun. Maybe all this is trivial but we seem to think of time as though it’s a thing in itself: a location, somewhere we travel to or from. Maybe it is… maybe I should get to bed an hour early tonight.

Nostalgia for the nameless

stream

My parents are leaving the town I did most of my growing up in. Recently, I found myself thinking about the stream that runs through the woods behind my old school, behind retail outlets now boarded up.

As schoolboys, my friends and I were in the habit of building dams. Our method was simple and cheap if not effective. We threw branches and stones and shopping trolleys into the neck of water and watched eagerly to see how it changed. We were captains of industry diverting the flow in tiny unforeseen ways. The after-school light punctured the canopy and gilded the swirling currents as they flowed on through hidden parts of the town.

For some reason, we made great efforts to blockade these hidden brooks and tributaries. It makes me smile to think of our Lord of the Flies sub-society constructing its primitive infrastructure  on the other side of the stream while people parked their cars and shopped for electronic goods.

I’ve had no reason to think of this until now. It’s a place you’ll never know unless you live in that town, and even if you do know of it, you’d never visit it on a busy weekend when you’re back to visit friends. Similarly, there are people I recognise in that town whose names I’ve never known. That makes a place feel like home. I suppose we go on a night out sometimes to bump into acquaintances as much as to be with close friends.

Those were the days. The irony is that these are the days, too. If I remember today at all, it’s likely that I’ll look back on it with warm feelings. I might say ‘I wouldn’t go through that again’ when thinking of an ordeal but when it comes to memories of being in a place, with certain people, at a certain time of year, I become nostalgic. It isn’t that I look back favourably on the past. It’s that I can better appreciate what I had. There is only one regret: to not know what we have when we have it.

Nameless places. Unlocalities. It’s the way we live now that many places are intended only to perform a function. By comparison, even Victorian sewers were more built with more love than many of our public buildings. Despite this, it’s usually possible to find something around you to appreciate. There’s a strange beauty in the unloved: the weeds and dry grass bordering the truck depot; the shabby post office and its decades-old fittings. Places like these have an unassuming charm. They don’t ask to be appreciated. They are what they are. Nobody charges you to see these things. Nobody misses them.

 

Runner’s High

Probably the fittest I’ve been was in my middle teens when we would play tracker in Somers’ park, chasing and fleeing from each other from morning until teatime. Exercise is easy when you don’t even know you’re doing it. We’d run miles in a day and much of this was at a full sprint as we tried to put as many corners between us and the pursuer. I didn’t often hide in the tunnels of bushes or in the large oak (christened the No Rope, No Hope Tree) preferring to have as many escape routes as possible. It was basically fartlekking all day. When we wanted a larger game, we’d move to Uffmoor Woods. Sometimes we wouldn’t see each other for an hour. The chases could go on and on until the runner managed to get out of sight and earshot. I’d stop running when I wanted to and then sprint off without complaint. There was no set route: I took each turn as it came. By day this seemed like the only natural thing to do; in my night thoughts I’d worry that anything could happen to one of us whilst we were separated.

Somewhere along the way running became exercise for me. It was tied to ideas of getting fitter and, lately, of posting better times in organised races. One of the pleasures of the last few years has been running with my friends in an amiable, mild-mannered wolf pack of thirty-somethings. I’m not as fit as I could be and there have been periods when I’ve let it slide but I’ve managed some regular miles every year since.

This year I entered my first races. The first big one was the Edinburgh Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon, running with Dan and Jenny at the start of this year. It was wet and windy but invigorating to have bands playing by the side of the course. The locals were cheering too: I saw a mother and son banging pots and pans on their doorstep in Leith. For most of the race I was trying to catch up to Dan. We’d started (too quickly) together but he began to outpace me. It wasn’t until two thirds of the race in after a portaloo pitstop that I gave up trying to catch sight of him and decided to run (survive) my own race.

As I approached the ‘1 mile to go’ DJ booth, Mr. Brightside started playing. Something about the familiar intro gave me THE SHIVERS as Owen Meany would say. A runner’s high. In Eat and Run, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek describes this as ‘satori’, ‘the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit’. Scott Jurek’s limit is clearly way, way beyond my own. I found this concept the most interesting in his book. Satori means ‘consciousness’ in Japanese… perhaps as if you were experiencing consciousness itself.

What brings on a runner’s high? I’ve only felt it that once while running. It was a kind of elation, hard to describe. Running naturally calls you back to the moment. Even as your mind wanders over the day or what you’re going to eat after you’ve showered, your awareness is brought back to your footing, deciding which turn to take, slowing your pace to conserve energy. This is very similar to the aim of mindfulness meditation: returning your awareness to the present moment by focusing on the breath. When I had my runner’s high in Edinburgh, I’d been keeping a close eye on my breathing and pace. Why that song? Perhaps my body was briefly tricked into thinking I was in my early 20s and dancing in Subculture again. The beat and arpeggio are uplifting. It’d fill the dancefloor at 1am but it’s never been a personal favourite. Even though I’d dance along with everyone else on a night out it’s not something I’d choose to listen to on my own. Maybe the appeal of ‘Mr. Brightside’ at that moment was that it helped me to feel that I was just one of the other runners losing myself in a collective experience. Maybe it was simply the atmosphere of the city and the race. I finished in 1:48.

I ran the Basingstoke half marathon in October. This course is more scenic than most town or city-based courses and the countryside is spectacular and… undulating. It was a hot race. Old ladies manned water stands at the end of their driveways. Kids squirted us with super soakers as we ran through a village. Their dads trained hosepipes on us. All magically refreshing but there was no runner’s high this time. After the category four hill at Farleigh and the big dipper my legs were fairly dead. I tried to capitalise on the last three downhill miles but it was all I could do to keep going. My legs wobbled as soon as I was on the other side of the finish line. I had to sit in a chair for a minute or two. We’d spent several weeks training on the course and had seen deer and kites as the autumn sun went down and we grew increasingly and happily depleted. My time on the day was 1:45.

The half marathon distance appeals to me: long enough to be demanding, requiring training and commitment; short enough to be manageable and inclusive. I’ve signed up to two more and a 20 miler at the start of next year. I’m hoping to improve on my times not by training ridiculously hard – life is busy at the moment – but naturally: by eating a bit better, running regularly and having a bit more race experience. I want to get back to that playful approach to running that I had when I was younger. I’m trying not to worry about times too much, focusing on enjoying the training and the race itself. I have a bit more to say about running and time but I’ll leave that for now.

What to make of all this? I suppose I’m turning towards wholesome pleasures. It should help that I don’t drink as much as I used to, certainly not as much as a 26 year old who’d just started working in academic publishing. Back then I might have left the office on a Friday and drank from 5:30 until the bar staff were putting tables on chairs. Training was consistently inconsistent. I’d run 5k every night at times, then nothing for months. Now we’re all a bit older, we’re more likely to socialise by jogging for a few miles after work or going for dinner and ordering green tea, perhaps a beer or two. That’s usually enough these days… apart from recently at Pete’s wedding where I got blotto on golden ale and smoked a Cuban.