Saturday, 31 December 2016

Convolutions, resolutions and a Roman God.

In a few hours - and fewer hours by the time you get to the end of this procrasti-ramble - it will be another year. 2016 will be in the past and 2017 will open its doors and lie before us. Which is all pretty obvious really. This being 31st December. What perhaps isn't so obvious are the hopes and aspirations we invest in this passing into the New Year. The promises that we wish upon ourselves and that we call resolutions.

Brief intermission in the ramble for a picture of the end of a winter's day

The New Year's Resolution is a gift in the hands of a procrastinator. Hours ... no, days ... spent planning exactly what to pick; which dissatisfaction with oneself to correct; which dream to commit to; which impossible ambition to clamber towards. Note the words dissatisfaction, dream and impossible and call me a cynic. Or a realist. Or a resolution agnostic.

Why do we accede to the annual resolution humiliation?
Where and when did resolution-making start?
Why do I have convolutions and resolutions in this blog's title? And a Roman God?

New Year - new beginning and, as in my title, I'll start with convolutions.

Convolution - definition: complication, entanglement, complexity. Muddling something up or making it more difficult than it needs to be.

In Maths, a convolution involves Fourier transforms; theorems; integral operations; variables in three dimensions; infinite limits;  vectors; proofs; crystallography; a French aristocrat born in 1755 called Parseval; and something referred to as a Gaussian, which arguably is about as convoluted as a definition could possibly be. Thankfully, I am not a Mathematician. I frequently inform people that one plus one equals more than two. Which it does. Sometimes. But ... I will cease this procrasti-ramble and tackle resolutions next. Then attempt to blend convolutions and resolutions ... which is kind of what Fourier did with convolution integrals ... but I am rambling again. Maybe I should resolve to stop rambling?

Resolution - definition: something we promise ourselves; usually aimed at self improvement, but weighed down by self-delusion and unachievable peaks of hope. Frequently abandoned by the end of the first week of the new year. And if not abandoned then reinterpreted, and redefined into a mutant form of its lofty ambition and dropped, smothered with excuses, by the end of January.

Although we've had longer to practice, apparently those of us over 50 are most likely to fail - you'd really think we'd know better. By now. But no. On and on we go. A broken record of promises, of January debuts and January disappointments. Of diets stuffed; abstentions spoiled; early rises snored through; exercises stumbled over and  endless hours of bargaining and deception as if somehow we might turn a blind inner eye to our foibles and our if I do this then that won't count and it's only a little cheat which doesn't mean I've failed. Little cheats become big cheats. And not counting soon snowballs until the not counting no longer matters, because failure is failure is failure. We really need to stop tying ourselves up in convoluted resolutions we can't keep. Or stop making them altogether.

Can we improve the keep-ability of the resolutions we make? Perhaps the history of resolution-making might give us some clues -

Google suggests that the ancient Babylonians made New Year's resolutions - how do we know? And can we assume they were honest in the records they made? Whatever scrap of papyrus or piece of stone those records were written on. We wouldn't write down the promises we made to better ourselves that burned before the end of the month. It would be akin to saying 'look how strong and noble and committed I am,' followed a few days or weeks later by 'oops, you know what I said about being a better, stronger, braver person, well it turns out I'm none of those things; turns out I'm the same fat, lazy, selfish slob that I was last year.' No, we wouldn't record that. The Babylonians probably didn't either. But I'm no historian, perhaps they did. Them and the ancient Romans who apparently did the same. They - the Romans - named January after the god Janus, who being two-faced could simultaneously look forward and backward. On the eve of the New Year, the Romans mimicked Janus by looking back at the year just past and ahead into the year ahead. And made their ancient resolutions - probably to fight with a firmer fist and to love more passionately and to drink less wine and to strive for a fitter physique. Not that different to many resolutions now.

Take a look back at 2016 - how was it for you?

Collectively, it was a nightmare, pinch-yourself-to-check-you're-not-dreaming, car-crash of a year: Syria, Brexit and Trump; Bowie, Prince and Rickman; Sacks, Wogan and Wood; Fisher, Michael and Wilder; Kurdi, Daqneesh and Arbash. The last three names so difficult to find. So hard to remember. So terribly hard to record. All four of them; the two Arbash children being just two of the estimated 50,000 children killed escaping from or in the Syrian conflict. It would be harder to stand with apparent indifference before the people of Syria, if we knew the names and lives of every child and mother and son who died. We grieve for the lives of departed celebrities, as we should, because they touched all our hearts. But we should weep too at the loss of others who remain largely unknown to the world.
But ... but ... but 2016 also saw massive strides taken in the fight against malaria and measles. And a corresponding leap in global life expectancy. And the Olympics in Rio. And coffee was found to be good for you. And Dory was lost then found. And Newt Scamander arrived in New York and introduced us to a new Harry Potter world. And Leo won an Oscar. And Rylance became a Knight. And Andy achieved the Number 1 spot. And Froome won again and again and again. And ratification of the Paris Agreement by enough countries means that it starts the fight against Trump standing. And *add here anything else that was good about 2016*.

What of 2017?
Into what world do we leap at midnight on the 31st December? The Romans believed that the gate of Janus was open at times of war and closed during peace. Will we pass through an open door or knock before pushing open a closed one tonight? Perhaps, like children, we shall peep round the door to check for monsters. I suspect some of the resolutions we make are to prepare us better for meeting those monsters.

If we make our resolutions too complicated - I will get myself an x if I lose y in weight; I will treat myself to an a if I achieve b; if I successfully give up c then I will do d - we risk making convoluted resolutions. And if our convolutions involve too many variables they risk blending as per Fourier and becoming an overlapping mish-mash of too many promises. Too much bridge building across a maze of resolutions that can only be solved mid-January by a box of matches. And a hope that neither of Janus's heads is watching.

Procrastinator that I am and also a Capricorn ... so a two-faced Janian (Janusian?) ... who on the one hand sets out with lashings of disdain to put down the shenanigans of resolution-making, but on the other worries (as per) about what my resolutions should be, not wanting to miss out on the ritual, annual humiliation of breaking them, I will more or less reluctantly make the following resolutions for this year ...  Or a selection of them. Or just the first and last ones ...

spend less on chocolate, or more on good chocolate but less on cheap chocolate or just more on chocolate that is good


... yawn ... lose weight/get fit/learn how to abuse my new fitbit (or should that be abuse myself?)


do something to stretch my teeny brain like learn Italian, or cook more Italian food, or just eat more pasta


aim for a dog walk every day, which might have the side-effect of achieving my second resolution, unless I stuff my pockets with chocolate


fingers crossed ... work less and write more, or turn writing into work, or just write and forget about the work until I run out of pasta and chocolate (see above) and have to do something that actually pays


what about some resolutions I could keep?

give more to charity

phone family more often

drink more water

alter my diet - opt for that Italian, Mediterranean, delicious style of healthy colourful cooking and eat less meat/more chocolate


read, read, read


write, write, write.

What resolutions will you make?

Finally, in this season of recognising what is good, could someone please explain why David Nott wasn't given a knighthood (look him up if you don't know who he is and be prepared to be humbled and awe-struck and give thanks to whatever you believe-in that men and women like him exist).

Ok, so that wasn't quite the final words it suggested it was - this is the final finally - have the Happiest of New Years and a prosperous and safe 2017.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Doing a Kim

Doing a Kim Kardashian will go down in our family annals as a moment when my embarrassment was acute and I managed to make everyone in the room ache with laughter. Proper belly laughs. Holding of sides. Tears running down cheeks. Collapsed back into chairs or rolling on the floor. Yup - proper rocking from side to side rolling. For what felt like minutes but was probably only ... minutes. My face hurt with the intensity of the laughing and burned with all-consuming embarrassment.

Kim Kardashian it said.

The paper scrap I'd drawn from the pot.

Kim. Kardashian.

Describe her in three words. Actions allowed. Ums and ehs and erms all contributing to the three word rule.

A huge dinner was nestling inside my tummy. With rather too many glasses of bubbles, then wine, then pudding and more pudding.

Kim. Kardashian. In three words.


Well - yes; probably.

Unless. Unless. Unless you make the near-fatal mistake of thinking it would be a good idea to stand up and mime the big rear. While bending over. With all those bubbles. Waiting to escape ...


I don't think anyone heard my three words.
Or cared!


Saturday, 24 December 2016

Lists and listing. And being an FCP.

Are you a writer of lists?

I used to be an avid list writer. If pushed, I'll still write one now. I have pads of paper that prompt list writing; my favourite is headed 'This Week ... or next ...' which sums me up perfectly. An average procrastinator will put off the listed activities to another week, another time, another dimension, perhaps. A fully committed procrastinator - or FCP - will put off the writing of the list! I am an FCP ... most of the time - carrying around bits of lists in my head; forgetting to do the things I might have remembered if I had written them down; and, until I am reminded, remaining blissfully ignorant of my many failings. Many failings that are obvious only if categorised and the only way to categorise them would be to write them down. So, as I am not going to list them and I defy anyone else to, perhaps those failings, ultimately undocumented ... or unlisted, can be forgotten. Who, apart from someone with narcissistic tendencies, wants to make lists of their own life and its foibles anyway?

Why dedicate a blog to lists? And what for that matter is a list?

List : noun, definition - a sequence of connected items; usually arranged vertically on a page. Also, verb - to record or chronicle or arrange into a list. And verb - what happens when the mother-ship is overburdened with festive jobs and put-off tasks that can no longer be put off - such as the wrapping of presents - she lists to the side or heels over, usually following the wine glass into a comfy chair.

The making of lists by those of the non-FCP persuasion and very occasionally by a desperate FCP is a fairly benign activity. It is not particularly threatening. Nor particularly interesting. And is definitely of no interest to other list writers. There isn't a tribe of biggest and best list writers. No one will tell you your list sucks. Only you will find that out. For yourself.

Yes, I know, there are collaborative lists. Lists drawn up by committee. Strategy, planning, delegation, in fact management in general, is all about divvying out a list of jobs. Jobs from exciting, potentially life changing, unique opportunities to mind-numbingly repetitive, menial tasks; lists come in different shapes and sizes -

lists of favourites; of friends; of places to visit; of music; of ingredients; of television programs; of names in a class; of books; of shopping; of invitees to a party.

Generally, lists are a declaration of interest or an aide memoire or a pleasurable, harmless, accumulative passtime.

Until you add the words to and do.

Add these to any list and the pleasurable element tends to disappear. It evaporates quicker than you can assemble the list. The list grows into a stick to beat yourself with. Yes' it's still an aide memoire, but it's now one with consequences.
If it is not completed, there will have to be a new list with more severe consequences.
The whole to do listing activity can rapidly escalate until the keeper of multiple unmet lists becomes fearful to make another. Scared into inaction by the fear of failure.
In my hands, to do lists are put-off-doing lists.
The lists of an FCP are lists of dreams not achieved, tasks not completed and self-promises never kept. The put off doing list is a pointless list.

So ... why do I still sometimes write lists?

I am surrounded by successful list keepers. And I say keepers rather than writers deliberately. They keep their lists. Successfully created, nurtured and met. What do I do wrong? Perhaps, mine are too aspirational, too improbable, too long, or too impossible to execute. Although, in the case of execution, scissors or flame or simply crumpling up into a ball destroys them pretty well. And violent execution of a dead to do list is joyous because of the angst expunged. And the removal of any further self-humiliation. But I digress ... still beating myself up at the presents not wrapped; the cake only just iced; the vegetables not yet peeled and the red cabbage not sliced. I list when I have to.

I made a to do list today. 24th December. And drum roll please, I have successfully completed about half of it. If I don't complete the rest, it doesn't matter. Too much. And the after midnight programs on television are usually pretty good when I sit wrapping the presents and Shhh! drinking the big man's tipple.

Have a very happy and restful Christmas.

And come back soon for a pre-New Year blog. And a list of resolutions ...

Monday, 12 December 2016

The giggle-monger, Christmas, many feet and trying to worry enough.

What makes you happy?

What makes me happy?
Finding good words written on a page; discovering adventure in a book and not turning back; laughing and calling my daughter a Giggle-Monger and finding that she liked it and laughing more; shopping for presents; eating too much food in good company; planning Christmas and remembering Christmases past when little hands decorated the tree with a skirt of decorations, all at 1-2 feet above ground level and the top of the tree bare; cooking a feast; sharing the feast; hugs; ice-cream ... always ice-cream; and chocolate; a pale crisp white wine or a fruity beaujolais, and feet. No, not the smelly, hair-sprouting, thick nailed sort. No. Definitely not! The fall of feet - the feet of my children and their friends and our friends and family - as they walk into our home and do a soft-foot-settling-contented-happy shuffle. On my floors.


Feet on floors.

The footfall of passing lives. Here. At home. At Christmas.

But ... but ... but ... warning: this is where light and breezy and a faintly unhinged procrasti-ramble clouds over and shadows fall across faces and brows become heavy ... what of the unheard footfall beyond our homes? The silent sound of thousands of fleeing feet. Of feet running from terror. Of feet hunting for food. Of feet ripping a deep rift across the earth looking for the child whose hand slipped from theirs as bombs fell.

Why can't we hear them? The silent feet; that fall.

What are you worrying about, right now?

What size of turkey to order? Do you have turkey at all, or opt for beef, instead? Or duck? Or goose?How do you cater for the vegetarians joining you for the big day? Have you finally finished your present shopping? Why are crackers legally classified as fireworks? Do you need a Christmas joke? Will you break with tradition and actually remember the punch-line? What about last year's Christmas jumper - will anyone notice if you wear the same one again? Will it fit? Do enough of the family/your guests like sprouts/Christmas pudding to bother with either? Where will everyone sleep? Does it matter if Stir-up Sunday is on 15th December in your house (as it will be in ours); not a Sunday and too late for a fully boozed-up, matured cake on Christmas day; and can last year's cake be dynamited and used to build the foundations of a lego castle?

I worry that everyone will like their presents. I worry that we won't get a dry day and will be prevented from walking Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins. I worry that if I admit here that my pair of faithful companions won't be getting gifts, some of you will judge me mean. They're dogs. Dogs don't need Christmas.

I worry. Most of the time. But ...

I don't worry that my children might go hungry.
I don't worry that I may never see my son again, after all the young men were taken away.
I don't worry that I have no medicine to give my asthmatic child when her throat is sore and she has a fever. And there is no hospital to take her to if she gets worse.
I don't worry that all the doctors have gone and that my neighbour died in childbirth.
I don't worry that I still lie at night dreaming her screams.
I don't worry that I may not wake up.
I don't worry that living may be worse than dying.

I don't worry. Because I am not one of them. And I don't hear their feet.
I don't hear them and I should.

I should worry about nothing else. All my worries are joys. They are privileges; indulgences. Freedom and blinkered selfishness.

I want to worry. About peace. And compassion. And hearing their feet.

I want to worry enough to make a difference. To make time to worry about them.

Think about it: insert the name of your favourite charity here *           * and make a gift. Easy-peasey!

Then stop worrying; worry about nothing for a while and have a happy Christmas. But keep back just enough worry to listen for feet in the New Year.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

#amwriting - a book review. Perfect word mixology and not giving up.

Whisper to the wind, 'This is how to write.'

No, not these inexpertly assembled procrasti-rambles but words discovered in a book that I have been promising myself I would read for many, many months and have now started. My ascent so far has taken me to chapter 4.

What a journey those first chapters have been!

I am daily transported to India.

All its scents, noises, lights, people, traffic, food, grime, poverty, politics, fabrics, fruits, spirits, humanity, hysteria, tragedy, faith, prostitution, drugs, hospitality, bribery, corruption, travel, cosmopolitan enlightenment, tolerances and intolerances in just four chapters; sixty or so pages. A portrait of a place so immersive and with characters so bright that they light up each page with the intense shine of their being. Reality is not merely being created for the reader - this setting and its characters live and breathe (even if some of them are fictional).

What a lesson in how to write!

I don't remember now what took me so long to open this book. And to plunge utterly into it. I last found this sense of wonder at story-telling when I lost myself in Kipling's Kim. Many years ago. Seldom do any stories I read or invent get close to kindling that sense of complete delight. It is like spending a life looking for a memory of a taste; hunting through menus and recipes, sampling foods that are similar but fail to ignite that remembered flame, until one day, you stumble into a kitchen and a rainbow fills your brain, the clouds clear and there on your tongue are the flavours you longed for, and you weep and laugh and don't know why you're crying. And your eyes are swamped with sunlight and music erupts in your ears. Reading this book is like that. But with a hefty lump of awe tossed into the recipe.

The repeated choice of perfect words hints at a mixologist so confident in his language that I feel I have stumbled upon Nirvana and found it humbled beneath the shadow of a genius.

Where did an Australian convict learn this craft? Can you hone such skills in enforced confinement - in a place without the moon and stars (his own description of prison)? Was imprisonment a writing retreat of sorts? Or is his book his redemption?

I need to read more. You need to read it, if you haven't already. This brilliant writer is, I suspect, not a man I would like or warm to. I do not agree with the things he freely admits he has done. I do not condone any part of the drug or people trafficking trades. I despise them and the harm they do. But, as someone who usually abandons books where I struggle to warm to the protagonist, I will continue to feast on his words because his words are just so beautiful. And his characters so very, very real. Phrases leap off every page; quotes that I find myself reading again and again, and going back to, just to check that I have remembered them right and that they are as good on second, third and twentieth reading as they were the first time; quotes I could carry with me beyond this book.

I can't ever hope to emulate his word-smithery. Where do you learn an imagination that lets you describe a face as something carved by a rush of river from volcanic stone, or the emotional vocabulary to admit that you grieved loved ones' memories and lives into your own mind until they became your own life?

Who is he?

My older children know. They discovered him before me. It is one of their fraying and battered paperbacks that lies heavy in my hands. I am almost reluctant to read more, partly because a bit of me doesn't want it to end, but also because I have heard hints of gritty stuff to come. And I prefer my grittiness with rounded edges and happy endings.

So, try this book for yourself - Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. I can recommend the first four chapters. Wholeheartedly.

To myself and my writing friends out there or anyone else worrying about the mountains they dream of climbing and fearing that they don't have the strength or ability to carry on ... do! Carry on. Don't give up. Adjust, reset your goals, but never lose sight of your dream. Check your route. Modify it. Do everything you can to remove the hurdles strewn in your way. Just keep reaching for it. And if you need motivation, try this 'it is hard to fail but worse having never tried to succeed.' Perhaps, when you reach the peak of your mountain, you will look down and see it is more of a hill. Surrounded by other people on smaller hills and some, like Gregory Roberts, on mountains. But you will have got to your summit. And if you're not there yet, keep climbing.

Bertie Baggins and Four-legged-friend have no mountains to climb.

No dreams other than those that make them sleep-bark and twitch as they chase imagined rabbits and deer.
A good life? Hmm ... perhaps.

But I prefer a life with words.