Abnormalising, adulting and The Corollavirus Coming to terms with car ownership in an age of carbon crisis

The last three months have been.

And gone.

The last lockdown in England neatly followed the passing of the financial year, so I thought I would look back and share a little of what happened with Dave in the final quarter of 20/21.

WARNING: STATS AHEAD!

In the last three months, I spent about 50 hours less on my mobile phone than I did the preceding quarter. I also managed to read more, meditate more, do more yoga and a lot more press ups—3,049 more, to be precise.

I spoke to almost exactly the same number of friends at a rate of 2.7 per day. But I also visited 4,000 more unique web pages and spent 90 more hours staring at my computer screen: a whole hour per day more. Urgh.

Looking back over my diary, since the turn of the year, I have played (and lost) ten games of online poker and learned how to skateboard (badly). I also started a new job with Thighs of Steel and said goodbye to Foiled on BBC Radio Wales.

I made three new friends, one I met hula-hooping in the woods, another is the youngest woman to have cycled around the world. I have reached out to twenty-one people and have received some amazing responses.

I volunteered for half a dozen marshalling sessions at my local vaccination centre and am now waiting for my second jab. I learned how to drive a golf buggy.

I’ve been really tired. I got a load of blood tests. A lot of people I speak to have been really tired too. Something’s going around; something I hope will lift with the lifting of restrictions. I feel more alert when I can see over the horizon.

I put up some bunk beds and bought a secondhand car. It’s a Toyota Corolla: see if you can guess its name…

The Corollavirus

I feel bad about the car, actually.

(Side note: I’m not saying that you should feel bad about the car just because I do. We all make deals to get through life. Your deal is your business.)

Until this year, the balance for me was always against owning a car.

They are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They pollute the air we breathe and cause direct harm to landscapes around the world. They are bulky possessions and are an eyesore on the driveway. They can, and frequently do, kill and maim.

It’s ironic, then, that the balance was tipped this year in favour of car ownership by—of all things—my new job as an outdoor instructor.

This job involves getting around fairly remote places and depends on ninety percent of instructors having vehicles to shuttle between campsite and trailhead, or pursue errant schoolkids across the countryside.

(Side note: Even somewhere as suburban as Bracknell Forest counts as ‘fairly remote’—the quickest route by public transport from where I live takes 3 hours 47 minutes and involves two buses and three trains—plus an overnight stay if I want to get there for an 8am start. For comparison, from flat to forest, the drive takes less than 90 minutes by car.)

Depressingly, in this particular job, promoting the unpolluted wonders of nature is only possible with possession of a polluting car.

‘Possession’, really, Dave? Yeah. I borrowed my parents’ car for the expeditions I led last year—saving me from the burden of ownership, but fruitlessly adding a couple of train journeys to the carbon footprint of my work.

Abnormalisation

As a secondhand petrol car owner, I want to be the best secondhand petrol car owner imaginable.

I don’t want to normalise my car ownership. I don’t want to forget that every time I use a car I am striking a deal: my personal convenience (including valuable things like time, opportunity and money) on one side and the environment we share on the other.

(Side note: You might think I’m being unnecessarily severe on myself. As someone who doesn’t fly and who eats little to no dairy or meat, my carbon footprint is lower than the average EU citizen’s. But I can’t dodge the fact that my carbon footprint is rising at a time when everyone else’s is falling. Not a good look.)

To that end, I’m recording each of my car journeys, noting details like mileage and carbon emissions, and reviewing them every week, in the same way that I monitor my finances, my conversations with friends and the number of press ups I complete. These numbers tell me, unequivocally, whether I am the person I like to think I am.

So far, over the course of seven car journeys and 763 miles, I have racked up a 165kg carbon debt compared to taking the same journeys by public transport. (Yes, I exclude from the public transport carbon estimate those journeys I would never have made had I not owned a car.)

But what the heck is 165kg of carbon? Let’s make this real: it’s the average annual carbon sequestration of six or seven mature trees. Six or seven trees. I can picture them. In fact, I have pictured them:

Seven mature trees, West Cliff

(Side note: I’ve been surprised that public transport isn’t as expensive as I’d always assumed. The petrol cost of driving has so far hovered around 75-85 percent of the train fares I could have bought. Of course: that is still scandalous, but it’s not as extreme as I thought.)

Adulting

Perhaps one definition of adulthood is taking responsibility for tough decisions and living with the consequential reality.

As a lapsed historian, I’m well aware that, in my part of the world, my generation has had it easy with tough decisions up to now. Go back a generation or twelve and adults like us were expected to make properly tough decisions:

  • Hey honey, wanna try for another kiddo and risk killing you in childbirth?
  • I’m rather parched from a long day slopping out chamberpots for my lord and master, but I’m also not totally convinced that this Medieval water supply is safe.
  • In Napoleonic warfare, it’s very much blunderbuss or be blunderbussed and—I do declare!—this handsome young French soldier is raising his weapon…

(Side note: I feel like the pandemic has been an exercise in tough decisions: at what point is the risk of transmitting the disease to others outweighed by our personal desire for toilet roll? Many of us haven’t had much practice with such properly tough decisions and the heaviness of day-to-day life has taken its toll.)

But what excites me about adulthood is what comes immediately before we take our tough decision: our imagination. Every tough decision is an act of imagination. Right before we decide, we visualise based our past experience (and usually a huge dollop of misguided optimism). What might our future be like under Scenarios A, B and C?

Owning a car enables a future where I can work as an outdoor leader and help introduce others to the natural world I cherish. But it’s not the only future I can imagine. It’s just Scenario A. Imagining Scenarios B and C are the exciting part.

The onus is on me to imagine a carbon-free scenario for my outdoor work, to take responsibility for making that future a reality—and to acknowledge with grace the incongruous unease I feel during this intermediate transition.

This has been quite a serious article so I’d like to end with some optimistic news.

Between 2005 and 2019, the United Kingdom reduced its territorial emissions by 37 percent, while increasing its GDP by 21 percent.

From Absolute Decoupling of Economic Growth and Emissions in 32 Countries on Breakthrough.org.

You can argue about whether this counts as ‘decoupling’—where are China and India on that chart?—but you can’t argue that it looks optimistic.

p.s.: If you enjoyed seeing the UK performing well on a chart for once, then you’ll also enjoy the latest Greenness of Stimulus Index.

Reach Out Party! Adventures in networking

Yesterday, at exactly 14:27, I sent an email to Alee Denham at CyclingAbout to say thank you for his articles about bicycle aerodynamics and touring weight. The internet is ram-packed with incredible writing that helps me make thousands of daily decisions and occasionally changes the course of my life. It felt good to say thank you.

For the past three weeks, at exactly 14:27 every work day, I have been privileged to be a part of the Reach Out Party, a Zoom room of people encouraging each other to send little gifts to friends, colleagues and total strangers. Total strangers like Alee Denham.

It might not sound particularly exciting, but there is real magic in knowing that almost everyone on planet earth—from your auntie Jean to your head of state—is only an email away.

  • What one question would you ask your first primary school teacher?
  • What is the greatest piece of advice football megastar Megan Rapinoe ever heard?
  • What is the one book that David Attenborough would bury in a time capsule for future generations?

Thanks to email (and social media, the telephone, postal service, etc.), we can—we really can—ask burning questions of the people we most admire. They might not reply, but that’s why the Reach Out Party is based primarily around the idea of giving gifts.

Our email inboxes are frequently little more than ‘a to do list that anyone can add to’, so Molly Beck and Carly Valancy, founders of the Reach Out Party, suggest we premise our reach outs on the following question:

How can I make so-and-so’s inbox a better place?

We have the power to make each other’s inboxes healthier, happier places: let’s use that power.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve sent emails to all kinds of people. As well as thanking Alee Denham, George Monbiot, Lisa Feldman Barrett and Andy Zaltzman, I’ve also emailed and messaged friends, particularly friends I haven’t heard from in a while.

My favourite response so far was actually my first ever reach out. I emailed Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, thanking her for the influence her book had on my career swerve towards outdoor work.

A few hours after sending the email, Florence replied—she replied!—saying that my email had made her day—had made her day!

Although most of these ‘cool reach outs’ to strangers haven’t had a reply (yet!), the past few weeks have shown me that a day with a reach out is better than a day without a reach out. It’s as simple as that.

Rather than typing words with my fingers, I made this video about my reach out experiences during week one of the Party. Enjoy!

The Art of Skateboarding Mild cognitive impairment and the beginner’s mind

Last weekend, I did a marathon. Not all in one go—that would be such hard work—but I did cover 46 kilometers in the 48 hours I granted myself as time off. (Don’t ask me off what?)

There wasn’t any good reason for the Weekend Marathon, aside from a desperate need to spend some time outside the box, doing something active, something new that stands half a chance of standing out in the time swamp.

That’s the same reason why I’m going to cut my own hair later tonight: something needs to change around here and I’ve already reorganised my spice rack.

You see, yesterday marked a year since a remarkable night on Merseyside, when Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Athletico Madrid.

It was remarkable not because of the astonishing number of shots missed by the Reds (32), but because of the 52,267 people crammed into Anfield, including thousands from Madrid only two days before the Spanish government declared a national State of Alarm over this thing we rather quaintly called Wuhan Novel Coronavirus.

The UK government would fatally wait ten days longer to annouce our own lockdown, but I’m not concerned here with their incompetence. I’m concerned with the state of your brain. In the UK, for most of us, it’s a year since our brains were challenged with the everyday normality of negotiating the world.

A year of ‘mild cognitive impairment’

It’s easy to forget how much our brains need normality. It’s easy to forget how much our brains get out of navigating street traffic on the walk to work. It’s easy to forget how much exercise our brains get in awkward social situations. Heck—it’s straight-up easy to forget.

A year on, don’t you feel like you’re ‘walking around with mild cognitive impairment’?

I know I do.

That’s why we’ve spent lockdown frantically picking up new hobbies and hurling ourselves into pointless challenges like my weekend marathon, right? As neuroscientist Mike Yassa says:

Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty.

Everyone’s a runner now and everyone’s got their lockdown thing: knitting, veganism, family history, ukelele, cryptocurrency, kimchi, drawing, baby-making, gardening, podcasting, online poker, online yoga, online dating, online anything, please god, no more online anything.

Whatever you’ve got into over the past year, it’s given you a chance to tap into the beginner’s mind: that healthy headspace where you give yourself permission to fail hard and learn hasty.

And there is no hastier fail curve than slamming your body onto concrete and taking pratfalls in public. I’m talking, of course, about the art of skateboarding.

Skate at 38

You may say that 38 is too old to learn how to skateboard. You may say that my sense of equilibrium is shot, that my bones are too fragile and my courage too frail. And you would be right. But no one forgets a bruise: they are an excellent way of marking the time to unlockdown.

My skateboard came from the back of a cupboard in Dulwich, a relic of flatmates long-gone. When I took it to a skateshop in Boscombe last weekend, the shopkeeper nodded: whoever had owned the board knew how to skate. The nose, the tail beat up in memory of far-off skateparks, the trucks scarred from years of railing.

Time hadn’t been good to the bearings: the wheels barely turned. That wasn’t a bad thing for a beginner, who could never build up enough speed to fall too hard. But I got them replaced anyway, and bought some fatter wheels to give much-needed stability.

Since then, I’ve been skating most days, including a fair few kilometers of that weekend marathon. The slips and falls have become notably less frequent and I’ve started learning to ollie in my kitchen, as I wait for the kettle to boil. (Progress so far: I can almost balance with both feet and all four wheels on the floor.)

Learning in public

Skating is perhaps unique in its possibilities for public embarrassment. Thanks to its well-known California-inspired subculture, people expect skaters to look cool. The British, however, have a highly developed sense of hubris and I suspect most people secretly hope to see something spectacular and exceedingly uncool.

I am usually happy to oblige. It’s okay, I tell myself as I admire once again the sheer speed at which my board can disappear from beneath me, I am Learning In Public.

As well as publicly learning how to fall spectacularly (tip: buy wrist guards), I have also learned how to get the board moving, how to ‘carve’ around gentle corners and obvious obstacles, how to stop without always throwing myself into the undergrowth and how to annoy dogs (that one’s easy: skate). I am yet to learn how to stop crapping myself on even the gentlest of downhills.

Why am I telling you all this? Simply in the hope that it encourages you with the small idea that, even in these slumbrous hours of late-stage pandemic survival, the beginner’s mind can lift our spirits, make our days stand out on stalks, and help lockdown leave its mark in a good way. And also in a bruises way. Rad!

What me and my body learned from 324 days of isolation veganism—including blood tests

Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?

It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.

If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!

Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies

For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.

This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.

Don’t be shy to add protein

Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.

In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.

Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.

It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.

I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.

Eat these superfoods every day

One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.

For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.

Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.

A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.

Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.

Dr Greger’s savoury blend of ten different spices is also worth a mention in the superfoods column. One teaspoon offers a neat little dose of B vitamins, vitamin K and zinc—and will bring the zing to any lifeless snack.

Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.

Vitamin supplements

As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.

More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.

Step Two: What does the blood say?

Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.

Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!

No diabetes, no gout!

I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:

  1. I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
  2. I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
  3. Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.

It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.

Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.

However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.

Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?

It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?

Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.

Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.

One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.

However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!

BREAKING NEWS

I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.

The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.

Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!

B12 with a side of iron: lamb liver, kale and spinach with a lemon dressing—the vitamin C helps with iron absorption, apparently

After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?

B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.

At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.

Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.

~

If you’re curious, I got the Ultimate Performance blood test from Medichecks. It’s usually £200, but often discounted. I got mine for £180, including an appointment with a nurse to take the blood.

Word of the day: Waldumrauscht

The word of the day is Waldumrauscht, a rare German word found in the 1854 dictionary of the Brothers Grimm. Appropriately enough for lexicologists famous for their collection of fairy tales, Waldumrauscht means to be surrounded by a rustling forest.

I learned this word from Heimat by Nora Krug, a graphic memoir about a German family coming to terms with the shame of World War Two. I was surprised to read that the author, now living in New York, still encounters mistrust and prejudice and still feels a strong sense of personal shame.

Whenever I travelled abroad as a teenager, my guilt travelled with me. ‘Just say you’re from the Netherlands,’ my aunt Karin told me before each trip. I should have taken her advice. […] It doesn’t help that […] I am spat at while speaking German with a friend in a Russian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, or that an American fellow student at the school where I study refers to another as a ‘Jewish pig’ behind her back, hoping for my German sympathy.

I was surprised because, when I searched my soul, whatever vestiges of blood guilt that run through the decades have been washed away by more recent history: the compassion shown by German politicians towards refugees since 2015, the drive towards decarbonisation of the world’s fourth largest economy, and of course the overwhelming kindness that I have always received while travelling through the forests of Germany.

Recounting the history of the tragic past is important because it gives us the determination to write happier histories for now, for the future.

Veganaury: Two flash-in-the-pan breads

The Bread for Life that I shared a while ago is still my daily loaf, but here are two very entertaining breads that can be made in a few minutes using your hob.

1. Proper corn tortillas (with thanks to L.H.)

For this recipe you will need:

  • Masa harina (maize flour)
  • Warm water
  • Cling film or greaseproof paper
  • Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
  • Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
  • Frying pan
  • Optional: salt or other spices

Instructions:

  1. Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
  2. Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
  3. Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
  4. Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
  5. Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
  6. Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
  7. Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.

2. Vegan naan bread

I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.

Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

52 things I learned in 2020

I love looking back over time past, especially as a writer, when my follies are etched in permanent print for all to admire. On 3 January this year, for example, I wrote the following:

My 2020 is—absurdly—already mapped out.

I went on to predict that Foiled would be broadcast this summer and that I’d then be cycling off on an epic group bike adventure across Europe, before finishing up in Athens.

So it’ll be deep September before I have time for anything radically new. Already, then, January 2020 is about planning for 2021 and beyond.

Suffice to say that January Dave looks pretty foolish to December Dave. And this is exactly how it should be. Our plans are a starting point from which we always diverge; what counts is how we diverge.

No matter what you’ve been through this year and how many plans you’ve cancelled, replanned and recancelled, you’ve still grown as a human being and learned many new things from many new experiences. Don’t forget that.

As January Dave put it:

It’s easy to miss that we’re constantly putting down bedrock.

… Even when all your plans are scuppered and rescuppered by a global pandemic.

So without any further ado, here’s a list of things that I’ve learned in spite of being totally mugged off by 2020.

LOCKDOWN

  1. I’m incredibly lucky. Astonishingly, unfairly lucky. I’ve had four tests for Covid-19 this year (as part of the Zoe COVID Symptom Study) and have come up clean each time. As a writer who works a lot online anyway, my business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the pandemic. Although my outdoor instructing did take a hit, I was still able to get out in the autumn to help three groups through their Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expeditions. 2020 has been a lot of things for me, but above all it’s been lucky.
  2. Having said that, I don’t deal with the loneliness of isolation very well. Without the release valve of human contact, I gradually get more and more stressed, almost without noticing, until everything has to stop immediately. Good to know.
  3. 2020 was the first year since 2015 that I spent more than 28 days in one place. This came out after asking myself 52 questions before leaving lockdown.
  4. Video calls are great—and I have the data to back it up. Despite a three-month lockdown, despite social distancing and despite the infamous Rule of 6, I’ve had as much contact with friends and family as I would do in a normal year. In fact, looking at my closest friends and family, I’ve actually had significantly more.
  5. I learned how to write four episodes of a BBC Radio sitcom during a pandemic. There’s no real secret: just hours and hours of hard work.

    FOOD

  6. Veganism is totally fine. I was worried that it might be difficult: physically, logistically and socially. It’s not. It’s fine. In fact, it’s a great way to trigger habit change across your whole lifestyle (should you wish!).
  7. I learned how to make kimchi, or rather how to wait for kimchi. I more or less followed this recipe by Emily Han.
  8. I also learned how to make the high fibre, high protein bread of life. Follow the recipe on my website.
  9. Cholesterol is possibly not as demonic as it’s often portrayed. Late night consumption of cholesterol is converted into testosterone in the early hours of the morning and testosterone helps men protect against cognitive decline, increase bone mineral density and fight off depression.
  10. Borborygmus is the technical word for stomach rumbling.

    TREES

  11. Lichen is not one organism, but two.
  12. I learned how to plant a tree—a Victoria plum, to be precise. There was no harvest this year, but come back in a dozen seasons and help yourself at developed.fallen.obviously.
  13. Until the late nineteenth century, the area that is now Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole was a ‘vast, desolate heath’. Read more about the planting of Bournemouth and the health benefits of pinenes on my blog.
  14. Much as we all love trees, sometimes cutting them down is the right thing to do for both biodiversity and carbon capture. Read more about the heathland conversion I’ve been involved with on Brownsea Island.
  15. In a cold, pre-lockdown Oxfordshire woodland, I learned how to build a warm, stormproof shelter from branches and leaf litter. Thanks to Woodland Ways for that.

    THE WONDERS OF NATURE

  16. The famous constellation of the Plough is actually a small part—an asterism—of Ursa Major, the hind quarters of a much bigger beast that rears menacingly over the night. A mother protecting her cub, but only in deep darkness. In most of our lamplit skies, the fearsome monster is reduced to an outmoded piece of farmyard machinery.
  17. Slavonian Grebes can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers.
  18. There is only one ocean. We think of The English Channel as a body of water distinct from, say, the Indian Ocean, but it’s not. It’s merely convenient geographical nomenclature. Convenient, but dangerous. We have only one ocean; let’s look after it. Credit: David Annette-borough.
  19. Hammocks rule. Mainly by facilitating the absorption of low- to mid-range fractal dimensions that coax me into a ‘wakefully relaxed’ brain state.
  20. Spending a minute staring at a tree is surprisingly hard. But committing to spending 30 minutes every day outside in nature can do wonders for your happiness, sense of fascination and even your vitality.
  21. At a certain point in the future, the next thought you have will make your brain melt. (Don’t worry, it’s ages away.)

    POLITICS

  22. The Conservative government is trying to criminalise the currently civil offence of trespass. The difference between criminal and civil law is essentially the difference between the class of crimes that affect the whole of society—things like murder, fraud and sexual assault—and the class of crimes that only affect the rights and property of individuals or organisations—such as divorce, breach of contract and, unless the Conservative landowners get their way, trespass.
  23. TS Eliot was himself a renowned trespasser and advocated the ‘destitution of all property’.
  24. The Jewish word for financial giving is tzedakah—not ‘charity’, but ‘justice’. Read more about giving what we can on my blog.
  25. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the US Airforce than by Allied forces on Germany during the whole of World War II. The locals are still clearing up.
  26. Most chewing gum isn’t biodegradable and local councils spend about £60m a year cleaning it up. We should point the finger, not at litterbugs, but at business. Also: we shouldn’t throw banana skins into the undergrowth.
  27. Two thirds of the 361,000 people who originally came to the UK as asylum seekers have been here longer than the 11.5 million British children under 15. How ‘foreign’ are these asylum seekers, really?
  28. According to the 2020 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) technical report, the UK produces no less than three quarters of the world’s legal cannabis.
  29. The first British people were black. With blue eyes. Also lactose intolerant. Cool.

    BOOKS

  30. Thanks to spending a lot of time cooped up indoors, I’ve read 50 books this year, although that figure does include seven of Hergé’s Tintin comics. Still, one mustn’t ignore the bequiffed one’s fascinating contribution to the public understanding of extreme weather.
  31. Reading a book relieves stress, can help you empathise with others, and builds your vocabulary, which may help you manage your own mental health by giving you a larger palette of emotions. Read more about how awesome books are on my blog—or, better, go and read a book.
  32. David Graeber died.
    But his ideas, which opened the field of political action to millions, will survive. To mark his death, I read Graeber’s book on bureaucracies, The Utopia of Rules, and it changed the way I think about capitalism and the pandemic. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free on The Anarchist Library—but not the footnotes. For that, you’ll need a real book.
  33. After cycling around the coast of southwest England, it was inevitable that several people would suggest I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. I eventually did. Superb.
  34. But no book of nonfiction captured me more this year than Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. If you’re quick, you can still catch Merlin reading excerpts for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
  35. Marcel Proust’s 4,215 page masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, is an absolute banger.

    They buried him, but all through the night of mourning, in the lighted windows, his books arranged three by three kept watch like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.

    You can download the ebook or do as I do and listen to this spellbinding audiobook, read, abridged and even partially translated by Neville Jason.

    PERSONAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT

  36. You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.
  37. People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. As Edith Eger wrote:

    We can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet.

  38. We can accomplish a heck of a lot in nine years. And there’s a lot we can learn from looking back on history—which is why I write these end of year newsletters!

    HIKING AND BIKING

  39. On my cycle around the south coast of Britain, I learned that the people who live here are incredibly generous and talented folk. Thank you!
  40. Bike are horses too!
  41. Everything happens for a reason. Or, at the very least, you can’t deny that everything happens, so you might as well look for any reason that makes sense of it all.
  42. The wilderness is where we go to unbox ourselves. The four Special Areas of Conservation on Dartmoor are a bloody great option.
  43. During the first UK lockdown, Thighs of Steel and Help Refugees joined forces with hundreds of awesome cyclists to attempt to cycle 24,901 miles ‘around the world’ in 40 days. We ended up doing two and half revolutions and raising over £130,000 for refugees across Europe. Thank you to everyone who supported us!

    SCREENS & NEWS

  44. This year, I spent about 2,117 hours on my computer—that’s 88 days straight or about a quarter of my time on earth in 2020. Chuck in another 500 or so on my mobile phone, plus factor in that I sleep about eight hours a night, and the proportion of my waking time spent on screens goes up to about 45 percent. Is that too much? Or is that the famous ‘new normal’?
  45. This year, I visited approximately 64,120 webpages. That’s an 8 percent increase compared to 2019. In my defence, 2019 didn’t have a three-month period where I wasn’t allowed to leave the house.
  46. 2020 was the fourth year of my ‘No News is Good News’ media diet. Excluding sports, this year I read 150 BBC News stories, nearly three times my total for 2019. Half were me trying to find out information about coronavirus. Most of my other visits to the BBC News pages were for research, but I did also read current stories about Black Lives Matter, the campaign against food poverty and, in total, five articles about the US presidential election.
  47. Contrary to popular belief, and thanks to decades of extremely hard work, most bad things are getting better: the number of people living in extreme poverty, the number of young women in education, global life expectancy. However, some things are bad and still getting worse. For example, the number of displaced persons around the world has more than doubled in the last ten years.

    SPORT, EXERCISE & GAMES

  48. I don’t have the perfect media diet: this year I mindlessly clicked on 2,705 BBC Sport stories—mainly because Liverpool FC won the league for the first time in thirty years.
  49. With the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the fight against food poverty, this was the year that footballers got properly political.
  50. Regular press ups help protect my shoulder against dislocations. If I want to keep climbing—or indeed hugging people—I need to keep that habit up!
  51. I learned how to solve the miracle Sudoku. As Ben Orlin says:

    You’re about to spend the next 25 minutes watching a guy solve a Sudoku. Not only that, but it’s going to be the highlight of your day.

    FINALLY: YOU

  52. You lot are great! Seriously. I know you’ve had a hard year, but somehow you’ve found the time to read this newsletter and sometimes send me very kind replies. Your emails always make my day. Some of you have even decided to dip into your pockets and support financially. I can’t thank you enough! Knowing that you good people are out there is honestly what’s kept me going this year. I hope that the words I’ve put down for you have sometimes helped you a bit too.

Still want more?

Really? You’re insatiable!

52 things I was thankful for in 2020

This is a massive list of 52 things that I was thankful for in my newsletters of 2020.

  1. The man in the panic-buying supermarket who, after staring aghast at the empty shelves, turned to the shop assistant and beseeched him: ‘Do you not have any… pistachio oil?’
  2. The refugee in Turkey who emailed my mum, urgently asking whether our family were okay.
  3. The NHS and everyone who took part in the spine-riffling Clap For Carers. I really didn’t think Bournemouth would be much into it, but I could hear claps, cheers, whistles and whoops echoing all around town, from pier to pier, from neighbours near and far.
  4. Fossilisation. On Bournemouth beach (I spent a lot of time marching up and down Bournemouth beach) there is a tree fossil that is 140,000,000 years old. You can see the impression of the bark and the roots and run your hands over another epoch. Puts another twist on time.
  5. Viruses that infect other viruses. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting to know that obnoxious little snotrags like Coronavirus can themselves catch a virus. In fact, this is how all life began. We are nothing but an ecosystem of symbiotic relationships, including fungi, bacteria and, yes, viruses. You’ve heard of the human microbiome, and perhaps even the fact that there are more bacteria in our gut than stars in the galaxy, but now it’s time to learn about the human virome.
  6. Everyone who has had, is having, or will have a birthday during lockdown. This may well be the most contemplative anniversary you’ve celebrated yet. (24 June, thanks for asking — save the date.)
  7. The moon and sun. Hasn’t the moon been spectacular, keeping us company on the bright nights? One of my favourite sights this year was a spectral gibbous moon rising against a cobalt sky. The sun too has played its part, especially with the spring haze that gives soft focus to the horizon and draws the song of the birds closer. It’s like listening with headphones on.
  8. Portugal. In response to the coronavirus, Portugal has given refugees and asylum seekers full citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this liberation will last only until June 30, so rather than full marks perhaps it’s more like a B-. But still: this move shows how easily human lives can be loosed from their imaginary chains, with the merest stroke of a pen.
  9. Everyone who’s found their way up onto a rooftop. Give us a wave!
  10. Usama and Omar. Two kids who were stuck in their school accommodation in Bournemouth during lockdown, making the most of the extra English practice while they wait for flights back to Palestine. Except, of course, there are no airports in Palestine, so they’re waiting for flights back to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt — or pretty much anywhere.
  11. The postal service, which made many of my days this year in both the sending and receiving of gifts Thank you, posties. (And special thanks to the cross-stitchers of this world.)
  12. Rain after a dry spell. Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks go to rain showers for making the trees happy.
  13. Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which sprung some flowers in spring.
  14. Paul Powlesland. The barrister rescued 1,000 oak saplings from a nursery that had to abandon their plans to plant 750,000 of the trees due to a change in government policy and our old friend the coronavirus.
  15. The Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker app. Every day, along with a couple of million other people, I’ve been logging on to the Zoe Covid-19 symptom tracker. The data is fascinating and shows predictions of how the disease is progressing. Every week, the scientists behind the project give a public webinar to explain the science.
  16. Robigus, the Roman God of Wheat Leaf Rust, who could destroy a year’s harvest if displeased. As Salman Rushdie wrote: ‘Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.’ The moment of our conception, the arcane decision-making processes of university exam boards and, not least, governments, but also the diseases that gather on the periphery until the day they strike at our daily lives. The Romans went in for dog sacrifice, but I wonder what offerings we could make to the invisible powers that circle our lives?
  17. The NHS — but not (only) for the obvious reason. Twelve years ago an NHS GP told me that I wasn’t unfit, lazy and bored of life; she told me, rather, that I had an underactive thyroid. It was that NHS GP who first looked at my pathetic jumble of symptoms and recommended a blood test. An NHS phlebotomist took the sample. An NHS lab analysed the results. An NHS endocrinologist lost his trousers with excitement and diagnosed me. And NHS pharmacists have been packaging up prescription drugs for me ever since. Thank you for keeping me alive.
  18. Kimchi. Packed full of enough microorganisms to defeat an invading army, vegans may take my cheese, may take my yoghurt — but they will never take MY KIMCHI!
  19. I’m gonna say it: Zoom. Yeah, I know about the security flaws, but as well as hooking me up with pub quizzes galore, Zoom connected me with family flung out all over the world.
  20. Sensible World of Soccer… 2020. After listening to Quickly Kevin’s interview with game developer Jon Hare, I had to look up to see how teenage timesink Sensible World of Soccer was faring. I wasn’t expecting to find a vibrant community bringing the game, first published in 1994, into the twenties. I can reveal that SWOS is as much of a timesink as it was 26 years ago.
  21. Riding for speed. The long evenings mean I can do a full day’s work, a full afternoon’s reading and still have time for a sundown cycle, riding hard and fast to Sandbanks and back. Buzzing.
  22. My friend Alex King for making a film about conditions in Greek refugee camps under Covid-19.
  23. Thighs of Steel for making the best of a bad show. Instead of cycling from London to Athens, we cycled 2.5 times around the world and raised over £130,000 for Help Refugees. Epic!
  24. Down time. As sleep researcher Sara Mednick explains, an afternoon nap is as restorative as a full night’s sleep. She also proposes that, for our productivity and health, we should not only take every Wednesday afternoon off work, but also take unlimited holiday, ad libitum. I wonder what she thinks of our enforced furlough?
  25. Charities helping refugees beat tech inequality during lockdown. Can you imagine not having the internet right now? Staff and volunteers at Bristol Refugee Rights are calling up to a 100 elderly asylum seekers, single mothers, people with disabilities or mental health issues a week to provide wellbeing services and combat isolation. You can help fund their work.
  26. Better protection for cyclists and pedestrians. The UK government has promised us £2bn to help make cycling and walking—let’s be honest—safe. This includes £250m for emergency protection for cyclists and pedestrians while we still have to observe social distancing regulations.
  27. The Israeli billionaire trying to solve Gaza’s water crisis—say whaaaat?! According to this Times of Israel report, Michael Mirilashvili ‘hopes to deliver enough units to meet the Strip’s daily needs within a year’.
  28. Your second self. Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood introduced me to the concept of the ‘second self’, the notion that our habits are so powerful and so estranged from our executive function that they deserve equal acknowledgement alongside our autobiographical, conscious ‘I’ or ‘ego’.
  29. Khora. Huge shout out to everyone volunteering at Khora, helping deliver thousands of free meals to refugees and other vulnerable lockdowned humans in Athens and beyond—especially in 38 degree heat!
  30. The 2,500 council volunteers in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I helped a man with a gammy leg in Westbourne who needed someone to top up his electricity meter and pop to the shops for him.
  31. The inventors of the bicycle. We’ll never quite know the names of all the inventors who’ve contributed to this near-miraculous feat of engineering, but I thank them all the same. Especially as a bizarre ankle injury meant I couldn’t run for a spell.
  32. Marcel Proust. In Proust’s own words: ‘In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.’ Quoted in How Proust Can Change You Life by Alain de Botton.
  33. Ness Labs, James Somers, John McPhee and, above all, the lexicographer Noah Webster for introducing me to ‘the right dictionary‘.
  34. Protestors. No one would choose the global outbreak of a deadly disease as the ideal moment for a mass civil rights movement, but Covid-19 has certainly brought our disastrous social inequalities to the surface. The effort to protect people from Covid-19 is an extraordinary global collaboration, mustering extraordinary financial, academic and political resources. But where is the extraordinary collaboration, financial, academic and political, to fundamentally change the way this unequal society operates? Is it coming?
  35. The bacteria in my kimchi. The only problem is that, while it takes at least two weeks to ferment one jar of kimchi, I can eat the contents in less than five days.
  36. Lakshmibhai Pathak. Founder of Patak’s—a brand of Indian-inspired cookery foodstuffs. Specifically, Patak’s manufacture an excellent chilli pickle that has been entertaining my tastebuds for the past few months. Pathak was a refugee from Kenya.
  37. Wyclef Jean. Fugees’ 1996 album The Score was the sound of David Charles realising, not only that some people had a very different experience of the world, but that they could put that experience into words and invite the rest of the world in. I never thought of this before, but the clue’s in the name, really: Wyclef Jean was a refugee from Haiti.
  38. M.I.A. Born in the UK to Tamil Sri Lankan refugees, I’ve got to include big thanks to M.I.A. here. Mainly for her song Borders.
  39. George Orwell and the #1984Symposium. On George’s birthday, as usual, Documentally hosted a leisurely picnic of ideas around Orwell’s gravestone. 25 June every year, Sutton Courtenay. Find us on Atlas Obscura.
  40. Mamihlapinatapai. According to Wikipedia, mamihlapinatapai is a Yaghan word meaning: ‘a look shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start’.
  41. Train station staff. After taking my first train in three months and arriving back to the chaos caused by the thousands of holiday-makers who swamped Bournemouth in the summer, I have a new respect for the workers who must deal with the consequences of our government’s, shall we say, leadership.
  42. Old Father Thames. There’s nothing like a river swim. I love the sea, but sometimes I crave the certainty of the river. While tranquil, still the river knows well its direction.
  43. Cows. Relaxing in a cradle of oak roots, reading my book as the sun fed through the leaves, a herd of curious cattle mowed the grass to my feet, where one adventurous soul decided to ruminate on my shoes.
  44. Gifts. It really is the thought that counts. Thanks everyone!
  45. The antischedule. I’ve been using pen and paper more often and my timer is lying in pieces on the desk—I think it knew its time was finally up.
  46. The English language. My current toilet reading is The English Language by David Crystal. Published in 2002, the book traces the history of English from ancient to modern. But contemporary language is volatile. While Crystal clearly relishes sharing the millennial vocabulary of new technology with his readers, when was the last time you called anyone a ‘cybersurfer’, ‘netizen’ or—my personal favourite—‘nethead’?
  47. Cycle lanes. Can we have some more please?
  48. The River Thames and navigation in general. In the summer, I spent a glorious couple of days on a widebeam, slowly cruising down the Thames from Laleham to Windsor. Most river vessels or canal craft, whether barge, narrowboat or widebeam, move scarce more swift than pedestrianism: the ponderous pace of my thoughts. ‘Canal mania’ and the golden age of riverine industrial navigation may have lasted less than a lifetime before surrendering to the locomotive, but its legacy was savoured in the soft drizzle.
  49. Big trees. Cruising along the banks of the Thames, I was constantly awed by the gigantism of the riverbank trees. Perhaps it was because our eyes were at duck level, perhaps it was the fertility of the water, but the sinuous ash, the weeping willow and the London plane loomed quite magnificently.
  50. What if this is happening, not to me, but for me?
  51. Playing Out is a great campaign led by parents who want their kids to be able to play safely out on the streets. Like in olden times. The idea is that communities club together to agree a block of time when they won’t drive on the roads.
  52. And of course, all the people who to everyone who hosted me on my cycle around the south coast of Britain – or simply made me smile.

He’s not the messiah, he’s an ethically ambiguous cut of lab-grown meat

Yesterday, a friend sent me a Guardian article that announced the regulatory authority approval in Singapore of lab-grown meat. It’s news that has been met with cautious optimism.

Unlike livestock, lab-grown meat doesn’t need to be injected with antibiotics, which—quite apart from being healthier for meat-eaters—would also help protect even non-meat-eaters against what the World Health Organisation calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’: antibiotic resistance.

If lab-grown meat replaces animal-grown meat consumption, then it could also reduce the amount of land used to raise livestock and thus remove one of the biggest drivers for land use change, a major contributor to the current climate and biodiversity crises.

Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:

The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.

My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?

Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?

Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?

The study also found that the two biggest drivers of rising global meat consumption are income and rate of urbanisation. Given that the rate of urbanisation is highest in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Laos and Afghanistan, what reason is there to think that these people would have access to expensive lab-meat factories?

The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.

Thought for Food #2: Bread of Life

Egyptians use the same word for bread as they do for life: عيش—‘aish. Bread, quite literally, is life. Street bread in Egypt عش بلدي—‘aish baladi—translates just as well as ‘rustic loaf’ as it does ‘live my country’.

More broadly in Arab culture, عيش وملح—’aish w melh, bread and salt—is used to celebrate an alliance of gratitude between two people. Breaking bread together in any culture is symbolic of friendship. For Salvador Dalí, bread was a subject of fetishism and obsession.

If you like your bread leavened, then you’re at the mercy of burping microbes. This episode of BBC CrowdScience follows the fabulously unlikely story of how humans found yeast that actually tastes good.

Besides walking upright, gripping a hand tool and moaning about the weather, baking bread is the closest modern humanity comes to the lived experience of our Mesolithic ancestors.

If you’re uncertain about your status as a flesh and blood human being, what more direct way of communing with our evolution than to bake and break a loaf of bread?

Perhaps that’s why so many people have turned to their ovens during this pandemic. In a very literal sense, we knead bread.

Now I too have joined the baking legions, with a loaf that might consume your soul, but won’t consume your time. My bread of life recipe doesn’t need any kneading because there’s no gluten and no added yeast. It doesn’t need fancy weighing scales or even a loaf tin. You simply mix up the ingredients, leave it to rest (or don’t) and bake it.

Credit where credit’s due: I pinched the bones of this recipe from the back of Bauckhof’s gluten free, organic, vegan bread mix packets. I have also found this similar recipe by Sarah Britton, which gives a great explanation of how this bread works without the binding gluten of flour, and what kind of substitutions you can play around with.

Bread of Life: Ingredients

  • 155-215g wholemeal rolled oats
  • 185-245g of your favourite whole seeds (not ground). Bauckhof use (in descending order of quantity):
    • Pumpkin
    • Sunflower
    • Linseed (= Flax)
    • Sesame
  • 2 tbsp Chia seeds
  • 3 tbsp Ground psyllium husks (important!)
  • 1 tsp Fine grain sea salt

Play around with the ratio of oats to seeds (or go crazy and add a few nuts) for a total weight of about 430g for all the dry ingredients.

If, like me, you don’t have weighing scales, then simply measure out the dry ingredients using a measuring jug. You want to fill it up to about the 700ml mark.

Please don’t worry too much about precision: you’ll soon be able to tell when you mix the dough with water whether you’ve done too much or too little, whether it’s too wet or too dry.

Bread of Life: Method

  1. Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
  2. Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
  3. Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
  4. Form the dough into a loaf and put onto a greased baking tray. You can also use a well-greased loaf tin if you have one
  5. Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
  6. Bake for 70 minutes at 200C. I use a fan oven, but every oven is different so keep an eye on it. It’s ready when tapping the bottom sounds kinda hollow
  7. Take out of the tin and leave to cool, about 20 minutes

What you’re left with is a nutritious loaf that, per 100g and depending on your ratio of oats (higher carb and fibre) to seeds (higher fat), delivers:

  • 15-17g fat (supermarket wholemeal comparison: 1.8g)
  • 17-21g carbs (37.8g)
  • 12g protein (10g)
  • 8-9g fibre (6.8g)

NOTE: This is not the Chorleywood Process, so forget any notion of airy vapidity. This recipe makes a dense loaf, an equal partner in a meal rather than the merest carbohydrate envelope for your sandwich fillings. Bauckhof note that ‘oat grain fibre contributes to an increase in faecal bulk’—great for happy guts!

Lockdown complete.

Unsponsored Content: Going Rogue

Joe (L) and Maria (R) Granville, Rogue Welsh Cake Company. Credit: Alex Jones

This week your humble writer is brought to you by the Rogue Welsh Cake Company, a mother and son hot-plating duo, flogging morsels of ‘is-it-a-bread-is-it-a-biscuit’ goodness to astonished foodies in the South Wales area.

The menu boasts nine audaciously rogue flavours, from coconut and mixed spice to Marmite and cheese. The young company’s Head of Fancy Dress, Mr Joseph Granville of Penarth, tried to explain what on earth they were thinking to a local newshound:

We’re all massive food lovers, literally everything revolves around food in our house. You know how some people taste with their eyes? We really do taste with our mouths. We care about flavours.

At a time when most people are really struggling, in life, love and laverbread, the Granvilles have become the nation’s undisputed Welsh Cake Barons, the hottest thing in baked goods since Mr Kipling first burnt the icing on his fondant fancies.

But the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s despotic laughter is benevolent: over half term, the company have been doling out free dollops of doughy delights to frazzled families and their offspring.

But, Dave, what is the secret to the Rogue Welsh Cake Company’s meteoric success? I’ll let the company’s Y-chromosome mansplain:

It’s just me exploiting my mum’s talents really.

Now that’s what I call rogue.

If you would like to order some Rogue Welsh Cakes, DM the family on Instagram. Joe will come round your house dressed as a Welsh peasant girl and feed you cake. NOTE: Delivery currently only in the CF area—but they are experimenting with postal deliveries so if you swamp their DMs they’ll have no option. Class.

If you have any heartfelt products or services that you want to share with an audience of discerning and beautifully dressed mammals, then let me know by replying to this email.

Nowstory to history

Welcome to the 311th day of the 5520th year of human recorded history. I know it’s going back a bit, but do you remember, five thousand years ago, the furore surrounding the Pharaonic election of the unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, King Narmer AKA The Raging Catfish?

Phew-ee! I mean, I know the mace-wielding despot brought reliable taxation to the civilisation of the Nile Valley and I know he re-established Egyptian military authority in the Lands of Canaan, but man!

Five gets you ten that there was a forgotten faction, a rival party, shoved to the sidelines in the pomp of Narmer’s coronation, drowned by posterity in the literal column inches of the King’s tomb inscriptions.

Humans have come a long way, baby.

Two questions

What is most important in your life? And where do you actually put your attention? The answers to these two questions, ideally, would be the same. They rarely are.

For example, friends, family, creativity and larking about outside are pretty much the most important things in my life.

But a disproportionate amount of my attention disappears into the screen, indoors, alone, fighting the swell of current events, the course of which I can’t even begin to control.

2011

Without thinking too hard, what are the first things you remember from 2011?

If you’re anything like me, then it’ll be personal events, coloured with the purples of intense emotion:

  • Cycling around the coast of Britain.
  • Spending Easter in Shropshire with my then-girlfriend.
  • Dislocating my shoulder cycling into a dog (the dog was fine).
  • Playing guitar on stage for the first (and last) time.
  • Squatting the Gaddafi family home in West Hampstead.
  • The death and funeral of my nan.

Before doing any deeper interrogation of my memory banks, one major political event surfaced: the so-called riots after the murder of Mark Duggen by police in London. But even this traumatic national memory I saw as through a glass darkly.

Of course, a lot else happened in 2011 and perhaps you remember more than I did without prompts:

  • The UK voted to reject the Alternative Vote electoral system. The campaign put strain on the already uneasy Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (remember them?).
  • The Arab Spring revolutions threw out three dictators: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (with some assistance from British, French and US airstrikes).
  • The Syrian Civil War began, precipitating the flight of more than 13 million people.
  • The News International phone hacking scandal dominated headlines and ended careers, newspapers and the life of one former journalist in a bizarre marquee erection accident.
  • Tony Blair finally appeared before the Chilcot Public Inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq War.
  • The UK severed diplomatic relations with Iran.
  • Barack Obama (remember him?) announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
  • Mobile internet use reached 50 percent of Britons (I waited another five years).
  • The UK enjoyed its second warmest year on record, in its warmest decade, on a globally warming planet. Yay.

From this list, 2011 looks like a disaster. At the time, it probably felt like a disaster. It certainly presaged disaster. And yet, in my own personal memory, it wasn’t so bad.

Experience Spectacles

Human beings see the world through two very different pairs of Experience Spectacles, and we switch between the two depending on whether we are thinking about current events or thinking about past events.

Our current experience spectacles tend to give us laser focus on the bad shit, while blurring out the good stuff. Our past experience spectacles have the opposite effect. They tend to filter out the horror, smooth over the ugly, and focus on the good shit.

We switch between these two very different prescriptions for excellent evolutionary reasons. After all, Bad News Now could imminently threaten our lives and livelihood.

(I won’t labour the obvious point about how modern communications technologies have radically altered the availability and quantity of Bad News Now, but suffice to say that, if we wanted, we could find a different awful thing to think about every minute of our lives. Whether you see that as a healthy contributor to your own experience is none of my business.)

Conversely, there’s not much evolutionary benefit to holding onto Bad News Then because we have, by definition, survived it. That’s why not many of us are still bitter about King Narmer’s Nile Valley power-grab in the fourth millennium BCE.

As with my memories of 2011, we are better off remembering things that make us feel good or continue to offer meaning to our lives: completing my first epic bike ride, a painful shoulder that still pops out on me, the kindness of my grandma.

Correction

The thing is that we all know that our experience of present and past is coloured by these two very different pairs of spectacles, but we could do a lot more to correct their alternately dystopian and utopian lenses.

On the one hand, we would do well to spend more time fishing upstream in the meandering river of history to modulate our Pollyanna memories. Reminding myself of the tribulations of 2011 not only reassures me that even awful events are survivable, but also offers understanding of what was to come, and of what is perhaps still to come.

In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a European Union treaty that was designed to address the on-going eurozone crisis (remember that?). The Conservative party was behind Labour in the polls at the time and this anti-European veto gave him a popular bounce. However, Conservative newspaper The Sunday Telegraph ran an independent survey that found a majority of voters now wanted a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

I’m not alone in my memory of the vote to leave the EU in 2016 being a surprise campaign of disinformation and violence. But five years before Brexit, the drums were already beating.

Equally, we should make much more of an effort to place Bad News Now into a broader historical narrative. We’re so wrapped up in 2020 that we forget everything that’s ever happened and everything that ever will.

The antidote is to check that whatever is important to you is where you’re putting your attention. Stay focussed on your place in history, not your gut reaction to Bad News Now.

2020 is a terrible year. Too many people won’t be here for the future. But, for most, even 2020 is a survivable moment if we stick to what we do best: community. What counts now is not the bad news, but how we help each other through, until our memories do their opiate work of erasure and we can hold hands again.

Thought for Food #1: Making an effort

Making an effort with simple flapjacks, sweetened and bound with dates and banana

If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)

Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.

The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.

So I bought a cookbook: Dirty Vegan by former professional skateboarder Matt Pritchard. (Two series of Dirty Vegan are also available on BBC iPlayer)

One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.

Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.

The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.

The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.

You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.

Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.

Well worth the effort.

Making an effort with breakfast: garlic mushrooms and scrambled tofu—labelled by my collaborator as ‘a triumph’. Recipes by Dirty Vegan (since this photograph, I’ve also made his smokey baked beans and they’re banging)

Swallow the rainbow

In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.

He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’

This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.

The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.

‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’

At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:

We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.

Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.

Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.

Stroke Values

My sister is a speech therapist who works with people who have suffered a stroke. A stroke is what happens when the blood supply to your brain gets cut off, usually by a blood clot but sometimes after the bursting of a blood vessel.

By the way, the etymology of the word ‘stroke’ is completely unrelated to that thing you do to cats. It’s from the same root as ‘strike’: a blow delivered, such as the stroke played by a top order batsman to a half-paced delivery outside offstump. It’s use is metaphorical in the medical case.

Whatever the etymology, being struck by a stroke is not a good thing. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the more extensive the damage to brain cells, damage that can be long-lasting and even permanent.

Hence the international information campaign to improve public recognition of the signs of stroke:

And hence why victims of stroke sometimes need speech therapists like my sister to help them re-wire their damaged brain to cope with the loss of the cells that used to manage language and communication.

What has this got to do with values?

Not a lot, but also everything.

Treating someone who’s had a stroke isn’t like treating someone who’s got frostbite. I’m not one for body-mind dualism, but for most people our brains are a significant contributor to what makes us us. And the importance of correctly parsing and producing language is absolutely ru8gia;;AKL

At a stroke, a stroke can completely transform the person we thought we were. It’s a cataclysm—and an opportunity.

In the three months after a stroke, as the body madly tries to heal itself, the brain enters a period of heightened neuroplasticity. This is when speech therapists do the bulk of their work, which begins by exploring the patient’s values—those invisible through-lines of a human’s psychology and behaviour.

Philosophers, theologians and self-dev gurus are prominently conscious of their values. The rest of us tend to cruise through life with our values in the driving seat, blissfully unaware we’re a passenger until something forces us to take the wheel for a second.

Like when we have a stroke and a meddling psychologist asks us a bunch of damnfool questions in a desperate bid to figure out the kind of brain they’ve been tasked to put back together.

Enter my sister…

There are two ways to look at stroke recovery. It’s an opportunity to change the values you’ve always lived by because they’re not working for you. Or it’s an opportunity to hold onto your old values, as one solid anchor at a time when everything else in your life has been turned upside down.

So my sister starts her sessions with stroke survivors by exploring their values. It’s a deceptively simple task: read through a list of words like ‘courage’, ‘creativity’ and ‘curiosity’ and pick out the ones that resonate with you most.

I say deceptively simple because, as my sister explains, when your language and cognition have been banjaxed by a stroke and you have no understanding of abstract concepts like ‘courage’, picking words from a list is nigh on impossible. It’s the speech therapist’s job to help people communicate across the opening chasm.

But when they’re pinned down, these six words, these six values, give the survivor a foundation on which to build the rest of their post-stroke lives.

As my sister says:

You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.

If Janet decides that one of her values is generosity, then she can apply those values as easily to her post-stroke existence as she did before. Maybe she can’t work any more and can’t afford the big money gifts she used to dole out to friends and to charity—but generosity as a value is independent of wealth. It’s up to Janet to decide what generosity means for her now.

In this way, human beings can find meaning in any situation by foregrounding and following their values instead of focussing on the mental, physical and material capacity they might have lost.

This remains true even if the only value left to them is the ability to bear suffering with fortitude. If you’re dubious, see Viktor Frankl. And if you haven’t had a stroke recently, please don’t check out because…

Ratiocination incoming

As human societies the world over are wracked with The Virus, we’re showing all the signs of a metaphorical stroke. Bear with me.

We can’t do the same things as we could a year ago—we can’t even think the same thoughts. We’ve become estranged from society and alienated from the world. Our future horizon has shrunk unpredictably: tomorrow is another day, but only probably.

Doesn’t it feel, metaphorically speaking, like we’re stumbling around half paralysed, thinking through the sludge of a million dead brain cells? Not really, no. But also: yeah, a bit.

Without downplaying the complementary cataclysms of either stroke or global pandemic, I think there’s something in twisting my sister’s words to the scenario:

You might not be able to play touch rugby, find gainful employment or buy toilet paper during a global pandemic, but you can always live by your values.

~
FWIW: When I went through the Russ Harris values worksheet yesterday, I settled on no less than thirty-one values that were very important to me. It was sweaty work narrowing it down to six, but I ended up with adventure, creativity, curiosity, generosity, intimacy and—the one ring to rule them all—connection.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)

~

P.S.: Fund the NHS!

Hair loss

I’ve cut my hair off!

I started growing my hair long back in the summer of 2011—coincidentally the last time I cycled around Britain. My central reason for donating my hair to make wigs for children with cancer is, as you could guess, guilt.

But it wasn’t guilt felt for the injustice of being a healthy and hair-lthy adult when there thousands of kids undergoing chemotherapy while still in primary school.

No: I felt guilty for taking the piss out of a friend for growing his hair long. It was only after six months of gentle, yet persistent ribbing that he turned to me and said: ‘So what are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?’

Over the past nine years, I’ve donated my golden locks no less than five times. My reason for doing so has morphed from that schoolish guilt into no-brainer logic:

‘My hair is growing anyway, so why the blue blazes would I not donate it to charity, if it’ll do some good in the world?’

Now, sadly, the time has come to hang up my hairbrush and put away the conditioners. I have been advised that my male pattern baldness may have become too extreme to pull off long hair a sixth time.

But, you know, two of my favourite comedians of all time are Andy Zaltzman and Bill Bailey so never say never.

Above: Two handsome style icons.

If you decide that you might as well let your hair grow so that kids can get cancer wigs, then look up the Little Princess Trust. They’d love your long locks, ideally anything upwards of 11 inches. This time around I went out with a record-breaking 16 inches.


Vegan update: Ahead of the curve?

Cycle touring as a vegan is, well, tricky. I didn’t have the heart to ask Debbie for a salad sandwich, for example. I’ll go out of my way to eat vegan when I’m in charge of the food, but there are times when the most gracious thing to do is to eat a bit of cheese—particularly as my reasons for veganism are more straightforward (and selfish) than ethical.

Quite simply: I have the sense that, as a species, we’re moving inexorably towards a meat-free future and I reckon that it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind.

So, during lockdown, I wanted to know whether I could hack a plant-based meal plan (the answer is yes, quite comfortably). Eating vegan makes me more resilient to the future. That’s reassuring.

But when will this meat-free future arrive? Well, it’s already creeping up on us: this Bloomberg article reports how meat production has declined for the second consecutive year for the first time in recorded history.

That’s good news for the planet (and for human survival) so we might as well get ahead of the curve, right?

What if this is happening not to me, but for me?

I’ve been trying to exploit the wisdom of this trite little question this week.

What if this is happening not to me, but for me?

Late on Monday night, driving home from visiting my sister, I missed my motorway exit. The missed junction added ten minutes to an already delayed journey. I hit the steering wheel in frustration and then, somewhat sarcastically, asked myself whether this curséd calamity was instead happening for me.

Once I’d calmed own, I noticed that the rest of the journey would take me through Reading, along a route I first travelled as an eleven year old schoolboy more than two decades ago. Annoyance turned to grateful nostalgia.

I’ve no idea where this ‘for you not to you’ idea came from. I first heard it on a Tim Ferriss podcast, but Jim Carrey puts it well:

And when I say, “Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,” I really don’t know if that’s true. I’m just making a conscious choice to perceive challenges as something beneficial so that I can deal with them in the most productive way. You’ll come up with your own style—that’s part of the fun!

~

UPDATE: When I mentioned this idea to a friend, he nodded calmly and added: ‘Or what if every that happens is happening with you?’ After all, each of us are only superficially different expressions of the same universal consciousness, right?

Stress and the search for the antischedule

The last three weeks of lockdown have been difficult. I know there are people who have been and still are in much worse situations, but Covid-19 gave me 90 straight days without human contact and nothing to do really other than work and exercise—a reliable recipe for stress-related illness.

And for three weeks up to last Wednesday, I delighted in a wide range of symptoms, from wanting to sleep the whole time (and not feeling rested when I did) to brain fog, mouth ulcers, diarrhoea and IBS. Not pleasant.

Luckily, I’ve been able to take the whole week off (birthday week!) and spend time with other human beings, both socially distanced and in a bubble with my parents. The rest has released the pressure, the symptoms have largely disappeared and I feel restored.

This is all good: everyone needs human contact and a break from work every now and again. Ordinarily I might leave the insights there, but lockdown is encouraging me to reexamine the way I do everything.

What if there was a way of working where holidays weren’t medically necessary to cure my mouth of ulcers and clear my body of stress hormones?

The problem

As a freelancer, I’m paid by the hour. Time, sadly, is money. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Dana Carney, workers who have an ‘economic mindset’ about time—i.e. people who are paid by the hour—report higher levels of psychological stress.

One reason for this elevated stress might be because hourly workers spend less time socialising with friends and family. Gutted. If time is money, then we are constantly locked into a (subconscious) hedonic calculus: is seeing my friends for an hour really worth another hour’s work?

The answer is almost always yes, but salaried workers don’t have to answer this question, not even subconsciously.

Orthodox solutions

Look on the internet or in self-help books for how to reduce ‘time-stress’, you’ll read a lot of advice about efficient scheduling.

For example: the Ness Labs newsletter popped into my inbox this week with an article about how to manage stress. Perfect timing! One of her suggestions was, yep, better time management.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s approach is typical of the genre. This is her opener:

Except if we end up inventing time travel, we need to accept the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to achieve our goals, we need to be smart about how we allocate our time to different tasks and activities.

Anne-Laure’s suggestion is ever more precise calendar use, with everything scheduled down to the last hour, including breaks and spending time with friends.

On the face of it: great advice—and I’m sure it works for her. But what if I already have a killer schedule? What then?

My current orthodox solution

My current schedule is managed on two spreadsheets:

  • One acts as my calendar and reminds me about deadlines and such like
  • Another tracks what projects I’m working on and for how long

Here’s how it plays out:

  1. In the evening, I check my calendar and lay out the work I’ll do the next day, building a to do list text file.
  2. In the morning, after yoga and breakfast, I get to work. I set a timer for 90 minutes and begin. Thanks to the timer, I find it very easy to prevent procrastination and slip into work mode, no matter how reluctant I was feeling before the clock started.
  3. When the 90 minutes is up, I write down my hours in my working spreadsheet, which automatically tells me how much work I’ve done and, if it’s hourly paid work, how much I’ve earned.

It sounds like a great system and, for the most part, it is. I get plenty of work done, on time and with minimal fuss.

But if it’s such a great system, why did my body break down with time-stress? What if scheduling by the clock created my time-stress?

I suspect that this is more than an idle what-if question.

Taking on time in an arms race

The orthodoxy posits that the solution to time-stress is ever more precise time-scheduling.

But that sounds to me like an arms race, where there is no end until one side or the other blows up. In this case, I can guarantee that time isn’t the one that’s going to blow up…

My scheduling system probably could be improved with time-management techniques from high achievers on the internet—but I suspect only marginally. I haven’t found any advice online or in self-help books that offer the radical changes that I suspect would materially reduce time-stress.

If we guess that my system is already, say, 80 percent efficient, then the effort needed to eke out the last 20 percent of efficiency gains might only add to my time-stress.

I’d argue that time management in itself can be very stressful, especially as it becomes more and more precise. Time management forces us to think about time with a stressful economic mindset—especially if we are paid by the hour.

Side note on Covid-19

Of course, I’m not the only person who has found the last three months psychologically difficult. The World Economic Forum discovered that the number of people in Belgium at high risk of toxic stress had increased to a quarter of the population during the Covid-19 pandemic, up ten percentage points compared to last year.

I think a lot of my time-stress goes away when I’m able to whinge about stuff to friends. Nothing like a good old whinge. Isolated from these friends thanks to Covid-19, I’m not getting my quota of whinging.

But what kind of a time management system is founded on whinging? Not a very good system, if you ask me. I think we can do better. But how?

I propose a pincer movement:

  1. Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
  2. Introduce activities that expand perception of time

I’ll explore these in reverse order, finishing with the antischedule.

Playing with time perception

Time is immutable, but humans aren’t embodiments of pure physics and we can play around with our perception of time.

Humans have an internal clock that beats ‘time’ throughout the day, but different activities are counted at different paces. Sometimes time crawls, sometimes it flies. When you’re asleep, for example, your time perception goes right out of the window.

Time-stress is what happens when we feel that there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do. Time is real, but we should forget that time-stress is a feeling.

If we do more activities that make us feel like we have oodles of time, then we reduce our sense of time-pressure and so reduce our time-stress.

But what are those activities? They probably vary from person to person. Here are some of mine—a few of which have had their time-expanding properties documented scientifically.

You’ll have your own ideas. What makes you feel like you’ve got endless time?

  • Reading books
  • Taking a bath
  • Chatting to friends
  • Playing games
  • Exercise: walking, swimming, running, cycling (without clock-watching)
  • Sunbathing
  • Taking psychedelics
  • Cooking and eating
  • Spending slow time in nature, especially awesome nature
  • Watching the sun rise or set
  • Walking more slowly

These are ways we can trick our minds into dialling back time-stress. If I’m walking slowly to an appointment, I might arrive 30 seconds later, but I’ll be in a much more restful state of mind.

If you’re not sure you can spare those 30 seconds, that’s a classic symptom of time-stress. I prescribe Relax for the same result by Derek Sivers.

Now we’ve expanded our sense of time, we can try to reintroduce work in a way that doesn’t trigger the economic mindset.

The antischedule

The only article that I found on radical alternatives to the time-management orthodoxy was this piece by Dr Adam Bell.

A typical junior doctor on a tyrannical schedule, Bell found inspiration in a tweet by Naval Ravikant:

The single best productivity hack that everyone should aspire to—don’t keep a schedule.

So Bell stopped tracking time and keeping a schedule. The effect was transformational for him:

My inner tyrant had left his post, and so too had any sense of time pressure. Now there was an abundance of time, rather than a perpetual scarcity of it. And there was no inner voice barking orders anymore.

It’s a terrifying prospect, to work—or live at all—without my calendar, to do list, timer and working diary. How will I stay on track?

But. Wait. What kind of a track am I on? One that gives me mouth ulcers and diarrhoea? What kind of a masochist wants to stay on that track?

Some other ideas

My holiday ends on Sunday: what will I do when I start work again on Monday? I haven’t committed to adopting the antischedule. I’m scared.

Besides chucking out my orthodox scheduling tools wholesale, there are a few other options I could explore.

  • Seven week sabbaticals. This idea from Sean McCabe was one I adopted with relish before Covid-19 struck. The idea is simple: six weeks of scheduled work followed by one week of unscheduled, unstructured time—a mini sabbatical. For some reason, I thought Covid-19 meant I couldn’t take sabbaticals. Stupid.
  • Switch from a countdown timer to a countup timer. Hitting start on a timer is a great way to shortcut procrastination, but there’s no reason why that timer can’t count up instead of down. I’ve started experimenting with SpaceJock’s free TrackAMinute software, designed for freelancers like me but useful in most computer-based lines of work.
  • Sacrifice time-accuracy for reduced time-stress. I have to track my time because I must invoice for my work hourly. But I don’t have to track that time myself: what if I invoiced based on passive time-tracking software like RescueTime? It might be less accurate, but surely a reduction in accuracy is a good sacrifice to make for the sake of my oral and gastric health!
  • Find satisfaction from completing worthwhile projects, rather than from stacking up hours of work. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, tracking the hours I spend on my projects takes out the mystique of creativity and production. I know now that writing a BBC Radio series is simply a matter of showing up and putting in the hours: that’s tremendously liberating. On the other hand, sometimes the hours I put in can get muddled up with whether or not the work is taking me in the direction I want to go.
  • Decide on and stick to my boundaries. When is enough enough? Putting in the hours is all very good, but how do I know when to stop? Should I stop work at 6pm? 4pm? 2pm? I could take weekends off—or only work a half day on Wednesdays. I had some success with this approach a couple of months ago, working for 4 hours or so in the morning and then taking the rest of the day ‘off’.
  • Use technology less. I run everything through my spreadsheets, even my time-expanding activities like reading and exercise. I could use pen and paper much, much more—even if only to add the data in batches at the end of the week.
  • Say no more. Say no more.

~

Have you found a way of avoiding time-stress? Do you use clocks and watches and timers? Are you acutely aware of time—or not? I need help!

Introducing Questionable Meetings

On Thursday 5 June 2014, at Sanford Housing Cooperative, I called what I believe was the first ever Questionable Meeting: a meeting in which participants are only allowed to speak in the interrogative mood.

Questions have a habit of generating unexpected ideas. It is very hard to come up with good ideas if you’re just asked to come up with good ideas, but if you’re asked to come up with good questions, then the ideas flow naturally.

In life there is no such thing as a final answer, only better questions.

Rules of the Game

“All games have rules; it’s what distinguishes them from real life.”
T.P. Ruount

There is only one rule at a Questionable Meeting:

Participants may only speak in the interrogative mood, i.e. they may only ask questions.

There is, of course, one exception that makes the rule:

Participants may also use the exclamatory phrase, “Good question!”

Why?

“A child who is always asking “Why? Why? Why?” shows not their ignorance, but their wisdom.”
Dr Ros Wandkalf

a. Meetings are often charged with “know-it-all” ego-driven solutionising. The truth is that the best answers are very rarely those thought of on the spur of the moment. By removing the possibility of any instant answers to any questions, we remove snap judgements and improve the likelihood of a reasoned, thoughtful, considerate response outside of the meeting.

b. Meetings can be dominated by those who enjoy speaking, showing off how much they know or how important they are. In a Questionable Meeting, no one can speak without donning the cap of humility. To speak, you must concede that you don’t have all the answers. There are no categorically “right” answers in life, so in this meeting, we listen and question.

c. By posing questions without trying to answer them, the subconscious brain is activated. Perhaps, after a good night’s sleep or a week’s quiet rumination, a more creative answer will emerge from the depths of your subconscious. Or perhaps not.

Strategies

“Strategy, after all, is only one strategy.”
The Turquoise Empress, Xiaoling

  • Start each meeting with a period of silence. From the silence, reasonable questions shall emerge.
  • If desired, the meeting can then proceed to setting the Questionable Agenda: ten minutes in which participants can ask broad, thematic questions, which shall form the interrogative basis of the rest of the meeting. Alternatively, a Questionable Meeting could be called to query a specific theme, couched, naturally, as a question. For example: “How can Sanford help other housing cooperatives?”.
  • There are no bad, wrong or stupid questions. If you think there are, then you are either bad, wrong or stupid.
  • After each question, leave a respectful pause. Don’t barrel in with your oh-so-important question.
  • Make sure you are really listening to each question; allow it to sink deep into your subconscious. If in doubt, count to ten in your head.
  • No participant may attempt to provide any answer or solution to a question.
  • No participant should pass judgement on a question. Particularly not using body language, sighing, huffing, etc..
  • The questions shall be recorded, if desired, and Questionable Minutes, consisting solely of a list of questions asked, circulated by a Questionable Secretary.
  • Participants may ask questions about the questions. These cannot be answered, of course.
  • If you would prefer, the question can be written down and put into a Questionable Hat, for minuting by the Questionable Secretary. NOTE: Written notes will not reach the subconscious of other members, only yourself.
  • Think about your questions carefully. Be clear and concise. This respects the brains of the other participants and will inspire better subconscious responses.

Are you ready to leave lockdown?

For most of us, Covid-19 has radically shifted our day-to-day context: our work environment, social milieu, shopping and even our sleeping habits.

I think the most striking change for me has been stability.

I’ve spent the 74 nights of lockdown in Bournemouth. I haven’t stayed in one place for anywhere even close to 74 nights since my records began in July 2015. For those of you (hi) who love the stats, these are my longest sojourns over the past five years:

  • 2019: 22 nights (Bristol)
  • 2018: 23 nights (Bristol)
  • 2017: 23 nights (Peckham)
  • 2016: 27 nights (Edinburgh Festival)
  • 20 July-December 2015: 25 (New Cross)

At least once every four weeks for the last five years I have been on the move, travelling across the country for work or to visit friends, or further afield on overland adventures.

Without lockdown, I don’t think I ever would have realised how much I travel—and the possible advantages of stability.

With a rocksteady context, I’ve been able to build consistent habits like never before. With no interruptions to my developing routines, I’ve seen improvements in both my work and rest.

As I explored with my special content for donors last week, harnessing the almost unimaginable power of our habitual second self can be a tremendous boon to our productivity and our happiness.

So, before we rush headlong out of lockdown, I think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves a few other questions about how our lives have changed and what we might be able to salvage for the future.

52 questions to answer before leaving lockdown

Readers of this newsletter come from all over the world, from extremes of both the World Clock and the Covid-19 infection scale.

It seems like the UK is slowly shaking itself off and starting to pick up old habits. But perhaps you are only now battening down the hatches, perhaps you have already returned to some semblance of work and play.

Wherever you find yourself, the idea of these questions is to build up a picture of your life under lockdown, to reflect on how your context has moulded your behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, to ponder on what and how you would change for the future.

I’ve split the 52 questions into 9 sections:

  • Daily habits
  • Your context
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Work
  • Consumerism
  • Citizenship
  • The future
  • Noticing

I’m not going to even suggest that you sharpen your pencils and set aside three hours; this isn’t an exam. Feel free to let the questions wash over you as you read, and simply notice what bubbles to the surface.

Daily habits

  • How do you start your day? List the first ten things that you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • How do you end your day? List the last ten things you do. Have these changed since lockdown? Can you see any room for change or adaptation?
  • Think about a typical day in lockdown. What are you doing regularly now that you wouldn’t have done before Covid-19? What old habits have fallen away?
  • Is there anything you miss from your old life? Why do you miss these things?
  • What activities have been most important to your mental health over the past three months? Have these become habits? Would you keep them or adapt them?

Your context

  • Where have you been spending most of your time?
  • Name at least three things that you appreciate about where you’ve been staying.
  • Think about your best habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it better supports your best habits?
  • Think about your worst habits. How could you adapt your home environment so that it inhibits your worst habits?
  • What places outside your home have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • How have your travel habits changed? What modes of transport are you using now? Has this made your life better or worse?

Health

  • How’s your physical health? How do you feel in your body?
  • How’s your mental health? How do you feel in your mind?
  • How have you been keeping fit? How would you change your exercise if you could magically do anything, with anyone?
  • How are your sleep patterns? Better or worse? Earlier or later? Regular or irregular? Are you napping? Dreaming?
  • Have your eating habits changed at all? What’s your diet like? Are you eating more, less or the same? Where are you when you eat? What are you doing while eating? What food has been particularly important you over the past three months?
  • How’s your oral hygiene?

Relationships

  • How have your relationships with others changed?
  • Have you formed any new friendships? Or rekindled old friendships?
  • Have you been using any new forms of communication? Would you keep them or adapt them to the new context?
  • How has your relationship to yourself changed?
  • Who are you speaking to the most? Who has been particularly important for your mental health over the last three months?
  • Who have you been neglecting?
  • Is there anyone—you don’t have to know them personally—that you’d like to say thank you to? Or say sorry to?

Work

  • How has work changed for you over the past three months? Are you working more, less or the same?
  • How are your working days organised now? How is that different to before?
  • Has anything changed at work, either in what you’re doing or how you’re doing it? If yes: do you want to keep, adapt or develop these changes?
  • What part of your work or business has disappeared? Do you want or need it back?
  • What is important or essential about your work? Can you uncover or emphasise these elements in the future?
  • Are there any educational opportunities you’d like to arm yourself with for the future?
  • What might your working future be like? In a disaster scenario? And in a perfect world? What can you do to start making those futures a reality?

Consumerism

  • How have your shopping habits changed?
  • Have you bought more or less than you used to? If that’s a hard question to answer, look at the raw numbers: have you spent more or less?
  • Can you remember how you used to shop and spend money? Would you like to go back to those days? Would you rather keep or adapt your new shopping habits?
  • What possessions have been particularly important to you over the past three months?
  • Are there any possessions that you thought were essential, but haven’t even thought of using since lockdown?
  • What clothes have you been wearing most?

Citizenship

  • Do you feel more or less a part of society?
  • What’s most important for the healthy running of our society? What’s the significance of being a citizen in our society? What role does government, both local and national, have to play in our society? How would you like to participate?
  • If you could change one thing about our society, what would that be? Could you take one small step today to help make that change a reality?
  • What have you learned about your neighbours? About your local area? Who are the key workers for you? What are the most important businesses?

The future

  • What’s the first thing you’d do if you were allowed to travel and meet people freely?
  • What’s important to you this coming summer or winter? What are your three highest priorities?
  • What are you most worried about as you emerge from lockdown?
  • Think about how you felt as the news filtered in about the deaths in China, the arrival of Covid-19 in your country and the announcement of lockdown measures. How did your past self feel about all this uncertainty at the time? How do you feel towards your past self now? How do you think your future self will handle future uncertainty?
  • What areas of life do you think you’re handling well during lockdown?
  • What do you think you could have done better? How? Can you think of anyone who you thought managed those problems particularly well? What could you learn from them? If you’re not sure: ask them.
  • Do you feel more or less resilient and ready for the future? No matter what your answer: why do you think you feel this way? What steps could you take to feel more sure-footed?

Noticing

  • What have you noticed about the changing seasons? The weather, the trees, the birds, the plants? The smells, the sounds, the colours, the growth?
  • If you look after household pets or plants: what have you noticed about their lives during lockdown?
  • What scents have been particularly important to you during lockdown? What sights? What sounds? What tastes? What other sensations?
  • What music, art and literature has been particularly important to you during lockdown? Why?

My answers…

Don’t panic, I’m not really going to bore you with my laborious answers to all 52. But I will finish the one I started to answer at the top, about the changes in my immediate environment.

As well as spending 74 consecutive nights in one place, I’ve also taken an equally unheard of zero train journeys.

In the 10 weeks prior to lockdown I took 21 rail journeys, spending a little over £40 and 5 hours on trains every week.

This is remarkably consistent with my travel habits across the whole of 2019, when I took 2.5 journeys and spent £40 on trains for every week I was in the UK.

Nice stats, but what have I learned?

  1. My train travel is a change of context. The way I travel is not like commuting from one familiar context to another; it’s more disruptive than I thought.
  2. Changing context so frequently is harmful to my habits, which thrive in stability. For example: a late train back from London interrupts my evening routine. Interrupted evening habits means worse sleep, which means a less productive morning and a drop in my sense of wellbeing.
  3. I have a new respect for habits. My work habits are the rockbed of my productivity, as my health and fitness habits are of my wellbeing.
  4. Therefore I should be more careful about how and when I travel, particularly when I can’t or don’t want to take a break.

The case for creative stability

There are quite a few things I wouldn’t change about my lockdown life and travelling less frequently is one.

Without long train journeys to disrupt my daily and weekly routines, my second self does all the heavy lifting: automatically preparing for work, systematically feeding, clothing and watering myself, habitually letting my fingers fly over the keyboard for hours on end.

In turn, this easy automation of the second self gives time and space for my executive self to do what he does best: creative direction.

As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology (1890):

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.

With little variation in my 24 hours, a surprising amount of writing work has been possible. Knowing now the benefits of creative stability, I will think twice about how and when I surrender the environment in which my second self thrives best.

Of course, I’ll still travel—if only to slow down time a little. Without changes in context, the days blur into each other and our perception of time condenses forgettably.

Routine might make us more productive and more content, but it sure as hell doesn’t make for great stories!

~

I know that I’ve been very lucky with my lockdown so far, but I hope that you’ve also discovered something interesting about your daily life.

I also hope you’ve found these questions worthwhile and have enjoyed taking a moment to think about where we are now. I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share any of your findings.

Finally, if you know anyone who might also enjoy these questions, feel free to share the post. Thanks!

Introducing Your Second Self

This post was written as a thank you to the generous folk who have donated to my Help Refugees x Thighs of Steel fundraiser. Collectively, we’re riding around the world to raise vital funds for refugees facing COVID-19 in dire conditions.

If you get anything out of this blog, I’d be very grateful if you could chuck us a few quid. Thanks!


I recently finished reading Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and I thought I’d share a little more and introduce you to your own ‘second self’.

‘The world of habit is so self-contained,’ Wood writes, ‘it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.’

The distinction between these two ‘selves’ will be familiar if you’ve ever read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he describes the differences between System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (attention) thinking.

But where Kahneman is resigned to the incorrigibility of human error in System 1, Wendy Wood celebrates the superhuman strengths of our second self and urges us to harmonise our two selves or systems.

This is an idea with a long, if partially forgotten, lineage. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James declared:

‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.’

Both selves have strengths and weaknesses, but Wendy Wood argues that for too long we have ignored or maligned the second self:

‘If our noisy, egotistical consciousness takes all the credit for the actions of our silent habitual self, we’ll never learn how to properly exploit this hidden resource. Habits will be a silent partner, full of potential energy but never asked to perform to their fullest.’

It’s time we got to know our second selves.

Introducing David and Dave

So I have two selves: isn’t this great news? To get away from total confusion, let’s call them Dave and David.

Until now, David has been the all-conquering, egotistical genius taking the praise for everything this body accomplishes. As far as David is concerned, writing these words is an act of sheer will alone – the finely tuned composition and typing habits of Dave have nothing to do with anything. David is the ego-self, or Kahneman’s System 2.

In contrast, Dave goes about his business quickly, quietly and easily – automatically, in fact. Dave is the second self or Kahneman’s System 1.

We know almost too much about David, so forget him for a minute (he’s throwing a strop already). What, according to the science so far, are Dave’s strengths and weaknesses?

Let’s start with the weaknesses because that’ll keep David happy for a second:

Dave’s Weaknesses

  • Unobservant.
  • Completely thoughtless and utterly uncritical.
  • Heavily dependent on familiar cues, he’s a total fish out of water in even a slightly different context.
  • Can’t react to changing events and will carry on executing the same orders, regardless of whether the result is actually useful any more.
  • Can suck the fun out of anything, even the most exquisite romance, by sheer repetition.
  • Can’t set his own conscious goals.

Doesn’t Dave sound like an idiot? Yes he does, but stop judging and let’s look at his strengths for a second.

Dave’s Strengths

  • Can’t be bribed with rewards. Can’t be punished either.
  • Doesn’t need willpower to resist temptation: simply executes. Almost impossible to distract.
  • Utterly committed to delivering relentlessly, effortlessly, day after day after day, through good times and bad.
  • Cheap to run. Doesn’t guzzle calories like profligate David does.
  • Very chilled. Dave doesn’t panic, worry or ever get confused about what to do
  • Actually thrives in times of stress or when the body is tired, hungry, sleep deprived.
  • Incredibly fast – so fast that action comes before even thought (Dave is Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’).
  • Waaaaay tougher, stronger and more resilient than weeny David.
  • Highly skilled. It’s Dave who can play guitar, speak pretty good English, chop vegetables with a sharp knife, and ride a bike (although not all at the same time) (yet). Dave can be trained to do almost anything.
  • Makes life feel meaningful (say what? for real – this is Dave’s domain)
  • Although Dave might not set goals initially, it’s Dave who achieves my goals and, through his repeated actions, ends up deciding what I value. Mind blown.

Dave sounds like a total LEGEND!

Not one, but two of Wendy Wood’s studies (2002, 2005) found that 43 percent of our behaviour is automatic. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, then the sooner David lets Dave strut his stuff, the better it’ll be for both (?) of us (!).

As Wendy Wood concludes in Good Habits, Bad Habits, working in harmony with our second self isn’t only more productive, it’s also ‘a simpler, more integrated way to live your life.’

We all live habitually already. Most of us just aren’t aware of it. And because of that, we’re ignoring a big part of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re also ignoring all the many ways we could be doing things better.

Love is nothing special

Sometimes I forget to breathe. I’ll notice that I haven’t taken a deep breath in the last hour (or week) and, standing by the sink in the kitchen or staring into the pixels of my computer screen, I’ll consciously make the effort.

I’ve spoken to plenty of people who feel the same: we’re shallow breathers. But given how wonderful that first deep breath feels, wouldn’t we love to breathe a little deeper all the time?

After all, the air is right there, waiting for us to swallow it down to the bottom of our lungs. There are deep, inexhaustible breathfuls of air all around us, all the time. And breathing can do wonderful things.

Air doesn’t care whether we clear landmines for a living or make bullets for child soldiers in the Central African Republic. No matter: air is there for us.

Air gives us breath in abundance: we take as much as we please, almost without noticing. And, on the exhale, we pump out that sweet, sweet carbon the trees thrive on.

Breath in, breath out: the atmosphere is kept in balance. It is the base unit of our existence—and the existence of every living being on the planet. Air must be circulated. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down.

This is exactly like love.

Love is nothing special. Love isn’t something that we have to mine from the sweat of our brow. Love isn’t something tangible like fruit or clothing. It’s not even something purely conceptual like war or money.

It’s like the air: almost ludicrously abundant, the fundamental currency of life. Intangible, but real; everywhere, but invisible.

We might not be able to see the air, but we can all feel it: the rustle of the wind in the trees or the almost imperceptible caress of a zephyr on our cheek. At other times, the air is master of our existence: trapped inside a hurricane or in a storm on the high seas.

So too love: if we stop we can usually feel love even on the calmest of days. But love is no less there even when we can’t perceive it, in the same way that the air is no less there because we can’t feel the wind or see the trees swaying.

We don’t need to notice or think about the air in order to breathe. All we need to do is let our autonomic system do its thing.

Like the air, love is always there for us, unconditional. We only need to open our nostrils, throat and lungs and breathe: love in, love out.

Of course, neither air nor love are always entirely wholesome. We have polluted air and we have polluted love. Most people some of the time have moments when they find it hard to breathe—most people some of the time find love hard to feel, detect, receive or return.

But tapping off another living being’s supply of love is akin to standing on the hose that pumps oxygen into the lungs of a ICU patient.

Maybe, I thought one morning as I awoke from an aural dream, maybe I’m worrying too much. Maybe I’m trying too hard. Maybe I don’t have to do anything for love except let my autonomic system do the easy work: breath in, breath out.

The out breath is important. We can’t stockpile air: we’d explode. We can’t stockpile love either. Love is desperate for circulation. Without circulation, the whole system breaks down. So we don’t hold our breath: we breathe out.

My breathing is shallow. Next time I’m standing by the sink or staring into the pixels, I’ll imagine I’m breathing in all the love in the world—wouldn’t I breathe deeply then?

And wouldn’t I breathe out as deeply, because I want to share this carbon with the trees and this love with all living beings.

Isolation Veganism

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)

Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.

Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.

The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.

We are all antifragile

Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.

Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.

In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.

Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.

This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.

It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.

Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.

Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’

‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.

Remind you of any recent events?

This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.

The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.

But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Change your environment, change your behaviour

Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.

Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.

The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.

For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.

But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.

All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.

As NEF put it:

When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.

Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.

Veganism, dairy and the microbiome

I’ve experimented with vegetarianism before, and for the last five years meat hasn’t been a huge part of my diet (barring one spectacularly ill-fated experiment in 2017), so abstaining from flesh was never going to be an issue.

But then there’s dairy.

Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.

A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.

So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.

Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.

I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.

This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.

I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.

It doesn’t have to go any further than that, of course, but there are intriguing case studies of vegan endurance athletes, the vegan diet is currently ranked as the most nutritious, and there is good scientific evidence that a vegan diet imposes a lighter load on the planet (and no I haven’t had an avocado yet).

But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?

We don’t want ‘normal’

Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.

It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.

But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.

Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.

My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.

When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.

But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.

It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.

Smug as

So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.

(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)

The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.

Smug as fuck.

We’ve. Got. Time.

It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.

I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.

But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.

As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.

It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.

My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.

Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.

Over to us

Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.

Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?

My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.

This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.

I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.

Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.

It’s over to us now.

Fine to flounder

Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.

For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably PowerPoint presentations with my dad.

But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.

The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!

And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.

This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.

~

This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:

I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.

Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.

People pleasing RIP

Coronavirus is crap. Isolation is brilliant. I’ve spent approximately thirty-seven and a half years of my life trying to please other people and now I find myself entirely alone.

I know everyone loves bigging up their own particular foibles, but of all the neuroses of humanity people pleasing is surely the most pernicious.

First of all: a definition, my definition.

‘People pleasing’ is what happens when you worry too much about what other people might think of you, your behaviour and your life choices.

People pleasing isn’t merely finding it hard to say ‘no’ or a vague desire for everyone to like you. It goes much, much deeper than that, inveigling its needy little voice into every decision you make.

Your own personal pleaszus

Personally, I hear people pleasing as an internal voice of varying pitch and volume that chirps up before, during and after almost any choice or action.

It applies to thoughts great and small — and even to things over which I have no control, like my skin colour, place of birth and fondness for the word ‘quagmire’.

People pleasing kicks in no matter whether my behaviour materially affects anyone else, and regardless of whether anyone has ever even implied that they’re judging me.

  • ‘I’m a writer’ — what do you think about that, friends?
  • ‘I might buy some oat milk’ — any objections, random stranger?
  • ‘Quagmire’ — is that okay by you, planet earth?

As you can imagine, it’s exhausting.

In my case, people pleasing tends to go alongside that ancient and noble art that counsellors admonish as ‘mindreading’ — I assume that I understand other people’s thought processes without actually asking them.

In other words, rather than double checking that the people I’m trying to ‘please’ actually give a shit, I tie my stomach up in knots trying to take into account whatever I imagine their lofty opinions might be.

You’re very welcome, people.

Please please me

Most of us — I’m including my former self — believe that people pleasing is one of three things. Moving up the scale, we think that people pleasing is either:

  1. A charming and considerate personality trait.
  2. Harmless.
  3. A total waste of time because the people you’re trying to please won’t notice, don’t care or are disfiguringly ungrateful.

People pleasing is none of these things. (It is a waste of time, but not for those reasons.)

It’s taken four weeks of living with myself, with next to zero face-to-face critical feedback or approval, for me to realise that people pleasing is nothing — nothing — but passing the buck.

People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. End of. (It’s not the end of, there’s more — keep reading. Please?)

Mind games, forever

In life, we all have choices — or at least the illusion of choices.

Embedded in every choice is a dollop of responsibility. Some people take responsibility for their own choices and some people don’t. People pleasers fall into the second category.

A concrete example is in order.

Mind 1: People pleasing

Ooh, maybe I should drop everything and become an academic because both of my parents have PhDs and I’m sure they secretly want me to be a professor.

Note how my interior monologue is subtly passing the responsibility for my genuine, if far-fetched, choice over whether to become an academic onto my parents. It’s not really my decision, my little voice says, it’s theirs by proxy.

Worse still, this people pleasing is based on a completely fictitious version of my parents: they’ve never even hinted that they might like me to work in academia.

In this mind, I’m not choosing for myself; I’m trying to second guess what someone else might choose for me.

Mind 2: Non people pleasing

Ooh, maybe I could drop everything and become an academic! Hm. I could ask my parents what they think, particularly my mum, who got her PhD in her fifties. Why did she decide to go back to university? That’d be really helpful to know and might give me a clue as to what I could expect from academia. But we’re different people and, whatever I choose, I will choose for myself, not for her or anyone else.

Isn’t this amazingly rational? After all, there’s nothing wrong in having far-fetched ideas like dropping everything to become an academic. Ultimately, though, the decision-making buck stops with me.

After hearing Mind 2, it seems hard to believe that anyone would think like Mind 1, but believe me it happens. And if the Internet is anything to go by, it happens a lot.

The other side of the mirror

People pleasing is a two person game, although the second player is usually reluctant. The people I am supposed to be ‘pleasing’ must either accept the responsibility I’m trying to subcontract — or they can reject it.

It’s an unwinnable game with only two outcomes:

  1. I’ve not met anyone who can take bear responsibility for another adult human’s choices without buckling under the weight of expectation. The friendship is strained, the work becomes hard and everyone loses.
  2. But if player two chooses to reject the responsibility (as they must eventually), that only hurts the people pleaser — and exacerbates their anxiety to please. It’s back to square one, or it’s game over.

You see, people pleasing isn’t only damaging for the pleaser; it’s also a cruel gift for the people we’re trying to please, usually those we love the most.

This is why I say people pleasing is so pernicious: people pleasers hide behind their ‘niceness’, but in truth it’s a poisoned chalice.

So far, so depressing.

‘And with a single mighty bound, he was free!’

Lockdown has been many things for many people, but for me it has been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sit with myself, almost in hermitage.

One thing I’ve realised is that I really look forward to seeing people — as you would expect for a people pleaser. Quite often I would look at my calendar and fix on some future social event: going for a group run or ride, writing Foiled with my co-writer or going up to Bristol to play Frisbee with friends.

And then I’d just sort of fill time until then.

Yes, I would do some tasks that to the untrained eye might look productive, but often I hadn’t really taken responsibility for those tasks. I would do them competently, but mechanically, worried that someone would be upset if I didn’t.

I would subcontract my responsibility.

But since the middle of March the coronavirus has stripped away all of the things by which I would normally mark time. With the empty months stretching out before me, I faced a stark choice — and one for which no one else could possibly take responsibility because all the people I might hope to please are in lockdown too.

Coronavirus has made people pleasing impossible.

So what on earth does the people pleaser do when he knows he’ll not see another human being for a couple of months?

There’s only one practical choice left: he must take responsibility. And not only for the work that he’s committed to for the next couple of months, but for all the choices he’s made over the past thirty-seven and a half years that have brought him to this point.

This is a tremendously liberating feeling, impossible to overstate, almost impossible to put into words. That inveigling little voice? It’s not mine. It’s an eccentric visitor, a curiosity rather than a compass, like a stock photograph on the wall of a corridor.

Edith Eger is a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. Her book The Choice tipped the first domino of this mindshift. Particularly this passage:

Most of us want a dictator — albeit a benevolent one — so we can pass the buck, so we can say, “You made me do that. It’s not my fault.” But we can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet. A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.

I feel like I have stepped out from under someone else’s umbrella — and this whole time it wasn’t even raining.

Fascination

A fossilised tree, 140 million years old

It may feel like our days are shrinking, that our expansive social and working lives are being stolen away from us.

The reality is that our lives are now being lived in the details, and it is in the details, as any artist or scientist knows, that we find our richest rewards.

~

In Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychologist Viktor Frankl likens human suffering to gas spreading through a chamber:

[M]an’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

The same metaphor, I would argue, could apply to almost any aspect of human experience, including curiosity, fascination and excitement.

But whereas suffering expands to our limits without much effort on our part, I think most of us have to work a little harder for these positive emotions to fill our chamber.

We might feel, since lockdown, that we’ve lost the richness of experience that comes from travelling up to London for the day, cycling into the country on a weekend, or hiking the Peak District for a week.

Some of us might even pang for the forbidden pleasures of formless office meetings, or fondly remember the frustration of traffic jams that held us up, once upon a time, when we had somewhere to go.

It might feel like we’ve lost something to our days and that the nights, though sleepless, can’t come soon enough.

But those lost experiences could only ever have swollen to fill a finite chamber, the finite chamber that is our destined interval of consciousness on earth.

The experiences that Newtonian physics demands must inevitably replace those that are ‘lost’ will, if we only get out of the way of ourselves, swell to fill an identical space in our soul.

The only thing we need is a little fascination for the details.

~

Rather than the broad strokes of outlandish living, rather than the transcontinental love affairs, the nights out on the dancefloor, the boozy Sunday roasts with friends and family, we choose to exist for now on a smaller scale, in among the overlooked details of our lives.

Be like the mycologist, who could happily spend a dozen lifetimes exploring the thousands of fungi that inhabit a handful of soil.

From where I stand at my desk, I can see sun-facing rooftops covered in bright yellow lichen — Xanthoria parietina (‘grows on walls’).

This week, in among the details, buried in books and podcasts and open access science papers, I learnt that lichen is not one organism, but two.

Most lichens are a mutualist symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, a collaboration that dates back hundreds of millions of years.

Long before humans discovered agriculture, fungi learned to farm algae for the energy they generate from photosynthesis.

(Side note: it’s not just agriculture we have in common; fungi are more closely related genetically to humans than they are to the algae they have domesticated — or indeed to any other plant species.)

I also learnt that lichens cover eight percent of the earth’s surface — more than is covered by tropical rainforest.

Without lichens, there might be no life on earth. They mine minerals from sheer rock and form the first soils in otherwise barren ecosystems. Lichen has been found inside lumps of granite.

Lichens have given us antibiotics, Harris tweed and, as black stone flower, garam masala.

I don’t suppose that I’ll look at that rooftop in quite the same way again. Will you?

~

All about us are the tools of enquiry — our senses, our curiosity and vast repositories of knowledge waiting to be dusted off and discovered. (I’m talking about the Internet.)

Has anyone else noticed how quiet the world is now? How ripe for observation?

That photograph at the top of the page, of the 140 million year old fossilised tree: I would never have noticed that staggering lump of palaeontology if it weren’t for the ‘boredom’ of lockdown.

There is an openness to the world right now. In our long days, we have time to notice the things that were once drowned out by the clamour of ‘business as usual’.

Rather than asking, ‘What’s on Netflix?’, we find ourselves asking instead, ‘How does the haze form, that makes this sunset so beautiful?’

Like the lichen on the rooftops opposite, everywhere we look there are questions that could seed many lifetimes of fascination, with each new discovery opening up new tunnels of exploration like the hyphae that forage and fracture to create the mycelium network that breaks up and becomes the soil beneath our feet.

Fascination is built from the combination of curiosity and imagination; given those ingredients, it is boundless. If you’re not sure, check the ingredients list on your garam masala.

~

I’m currently reading Edith Eger’s book The Choice. Like Viktor Frankl, Eger also survived the Holocaust. Like Frankl, Eger also moved to the US, also became a psychologist and also wrote a fascinating book about her experiences.

In April 1944, crammed into a cattle carriage with a hundred other Jews, destined for the gas chambers and smoke stacks of Auschwitz, Eger’s mother told her:

“Just remember, no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

These words sustained Eger during the year of captivity and abuse that almost killed her a dozen times over.

Our self-isolation is nothing remotely like what Eger and Frankl experienced during the Second World War, but Eger’s mother’s message holds true: it’s time to fill our minds.

~

You could do a lot worse over the next few weeks than to fill your mind with either The Choice or Man’s Search for Meaning.

If you want a companion for the latter — or if you fancy a shortcut, then shuffle on over to my website, where I have picked out my favourite passages from Frankl’s book and split them over 28 days of remarkable reading.

Bafflingly, there is no Wikipedia entry for Edith Eger. An isolation activity for someone you know?

Extravagant Enthusiasm

There’s always another way of looking at things.

After finishing an online game of Codenames on Tuesday night, my friends said goodnight, put down the phone and went their separate ways. I was left alone.

The nothingness swept into the emptiness and I had to sit down.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than seeing my friends. So, for the next couple of months, I have nothing to look forward to.

That was my thinking.

I undressed for an early night, hoping for consolation between the sheets of my bed, between pages of a book.

Then the phone rang. I looked at the unknown number, and unexpectedly answered.

It was a good friend I hadn’t spoken to for four, five years and my thinking was thrown on its head.

When life looks loneliest, there are people thinking and caring about you. Sometimes they’ll ring at that precise moment; sometimes they won’t and you’ll never realise unless you look at things in another way.

Sometimes these thoughtful people are friends, old or new; sometimes they’re people you barely knew, who crossed your path but once on the streets of New York, who you know can never find you or call you, but who are thinking about you with a smile, singing a song for you nonetheless.

~

Am I alone? There’s always another way of looking at things.

Here in Bournemouth, hundreds of people are drawn to the seafront. Keeping to the two-metre rule is difficult and demands nimble, if not outright acrobatic footwork.

This could be annoying. It could be an inconvenience. Or it could be the end of perceived isolation. How can I be alone on such a busy beach?

On Wednesday morning, during a half-hour run, I instituted a new rule: say good morning to every person I pass.

Yesterday, I started counting. I ran past 42 people and 32 of them, much surprised, said good morning back, making me fist-pump with pleasure.

(The other 10 mostly had headphones on so probably didn’t notice me.)

Perhaps now the time is ripe for extravagant enthusiasm: for us to go beyond everyday norms and stake out the boundaries of the world we want to see, rather than the world penned by the apparent limits of quarantine.

Extravagant: to wander out of bounds; fantastically absurd, flagrantly excessive behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.

Enthusiasm: possession by a god; inspired greatness; a deifying of terrestrial behaviour. Also: a choice, a way of seeing things.

After all, I’d rather be known as the guy who says good morning to everyone than as the guy who… well, almost anything else, right? Perhaps this is the fourth sign of ageing: a contraction of ambition to the point where being known for decency is the pinnacle of heroism, but still…

A poster has recently been put up on Bournemouth seafront. It’s a crowdfunding campaign to buy a stroller for an elderly dog. The dog, the poster informs us, usually accompanies a man who has picked tonnes of litter from the beach over the years of daily exercise.

I don’t know anything about this man, except that he is known for his prodigious litter picking, for his extravagant enthusiasm for making our world more pleasant.

~

In isolation and loneliness, extravagant enthusiasm is a classic Stoic intervention: working within stringent limitations to explore hidden expanses of freedom.

~

Some ideas for extravagant enthusiasm:

  • Greet everyone. No exceptions. If you’re overtaking, then wait until you’re level or slightly ahead and then turn: most people will look at you.
  • Establish eye contact well in advance. This is not a drive-by; this is a firm, positive connection.
  • Speak up.
  • Smile.
  • It doesn’t have to be ‘good morning’. ‘Alright?’, ‘Beautiful day!’ and similar all work. Vary your game if you get bored.
  • Don’t be intimidated by groups or people in conversation: be confident and cheerful. You’re not interrupting; you’re like the weather: warm, sunny and just there.
  • Maintain eye contact after speaking. People will be surprised and think that you can’t possibly be wishing them well. Disabuse them of this notion.
  • If it gets weird, add a nod or a thumbs up.
  • Thumbs up is the perfect sign language for people wearing headphones and people at a greater distance as well.
  • Feel free to continue the chat at a safe distance.
  • If all else fails, pick litter.

Habit (re)formation in a time of crisis

These moments are rare.

An opportunity to change ourselves forever.

You know why big retailers have loyalty cards, don’t you? Yep — so they can build a picture of your shopping habits and the shopping habits of three generations of humankind and use all this data to sell you more stuff. Cool.

The data these cards collect is a significant revenue stream for supermarkets.

Did you know, for example, that Tesco has its own international data analysis company, Dunhumby? They’re actually a pretty big deal, employing over three thousand people in more than thirty countries worldwide, analysing the habits of over 1.3 billion shoppers.

And their analysis can result in some terrifyingly precise marketing campaigns that exploit ‘downstream-plus-context-change’ interventions.

Your supermarket loyalty card scheme will know when you fall pregnant — sometimes before you’ve told anyone else — and will start bombarding you with advertising in an attempt to change your habits so that you’re more profitable for them.

Companies like Dunhumby know that if they can get you now, when your context is changing, when your life is in turmoil, then they stand a good chance of keeping you after the baby arrives and your shopping habits ossify once again. Cool, huh?

This is what we’re interested in.

There’s nothing sinister about downstream-plus-context-change interventions as such: they’re a powerful tool for breaking and reforming robust habits when changing your intention is no longer enough.

‘Downstream’ simply means that you’re in control of the intervention directly (rather than, say, obeying government policy imposed on you ‘upstream’) and ‘context-change’ represents those times in life when big stuff is happening: when you take a new job, move to a new city, start a family — or freak out during a global pandemic.

These are moments when you are vulnerable to substantial and enduring habit change. An opportunity to change ourselves forever. These moments are rare.

Side story: the same mechanism might be on offer during psychedelic trips. The snow globe of your mind is turned upside down and almost everything is up for grabs.

I’ll mention one hopeful grocery-based example here. Yesterday I ran out of fruit and vegetables, so I cycled along to the greengrocer. On my way there, I passed two-metre-spaced queues snaking out of a customer-restricted Tesco Express (housed, shudderingly, inside a deconsecrated church).

When I got to the greengrocer, the shelves were almost audibly complaining about the weight of colourful stacks of seasonal vegetables. Huge sacks of potatoes and other hearty roots were piled up on the cramped shop floor, as if in mocking defiance of the empty supermarket chains.

After filing up my panniers, I asked the woman at the till whether she was busier than normal. ‘A lot busier,’ she said. ‘Hopefully, after this is all over, they’ll keep coming back.’

Thanks to this context-change intervention of Covid-19, I think there’s a good chance this shopkeeper will be quietly pleased come Autumn.

Switching lanes: what other habits could we loop-the-loop with?

I’m a freelance writer, so — as I mentioned last week — my worklife hasn’t actually changed much. I still don’t go to the office, I still don’t chat to colleagues over a brew, I still don’t meet face-to-face with customers or clients.

I work mostly alone, in isolation, as normal.

What has changed, however, is my social connection. And not for the worse.

Over the past week, I have had twenty-six conversations with friends on the phone. As well as these conversations, I’ve also taken part in a virtual pub quiz with rooms full of friends, played online Codenames and Pictionary, had several massive Zoom video meetups — and, of course, cycled off on a remote Thighsolation group ride with a whole peloton of pals from around the world.

Because I need professional help, I have kept a spreadsheet of every single phone call or face-to-face meeting I’ve had with friends over the past three years. Happily, that means we can compare data.

  • Corona Isolation: 26 conversations
  • 20-26 February 2020: 8 conversations
  • 20-26 January 2020: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2019: 18 conversations
  • 20-26 March 2018: 8 conversations

Three observations:

  1. Weird palindromic pattern in the non-corona numbers.
  2. Ordinarily, I’m pretty isolated, averaging less than two conversations with friends or family per day.
  3. This past week, in contrast, I have had more than three and a half conversations with friends every day.

Obviously, for most people who aren’t freelance WFH writers, this social trend will have been sharply negative. My point isn’t to brag, but to show that change is possible.

If you’re feeling disconnected, then let’s set up a fifteen minute call. What’s to lose? On Tuesday, I had a really nice connection with a friend who got in touch after seeing my Calendly message in last week’s email. Simply book a time slot any day between 6 and 9pm GMT and let’s chat.

There has never been a better time to get into better habits.

We all secretly know this, by the way. It makes me happy to look out of my window and see so many people jogging, cycling and walking past in the sunshine, all discovering what Søren Kierkegaard observed:

Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.

One of the corona-habits I’m pleased to have slammed back into my routine is cold showers. I would write something inspirational about the experience, but James Parker at The Atlantic has done the work for me:

The water hits, and biology asserts itself. You are not a tired balloon of cerebral activity; you are a body, and you are being challenged. You gulp air; your pulse thumps. Your brain, meanwhile, your lovely, furry old brain, goes glacier-blue with shock. Thought is abolished. Personality is abolished. You’re a nameless mammal under a ravening jet of cold water.

How else I would like to change in the crisis?

  • I’d like to smile at strangers more (not in a creepy way). I noticed last week that I was avoiding eye contact, as if eyesight was corona laser beams. It takes some courage to look someone in the eye and smile, but it’s always worthwhile, especially if you’re otherwise avoiding one another, quite literally, like the plague.
  • I’d like to spend three hours outside every day. As this isn’t really possible anymore, I’d like to make the most of the time I can spend outside: suck up the sunshine, the scents and smells.
  • Related: I’d like to do more foraging. Nature’s allotment is overflowing with three-cornered leek and wild garlic at the moment, and a friend taught me last week that the beautiful hawthorn flowers are edible, leaving a delightfully peppery, buttery aftertaste.

How are you changing?

RIP 2010-2019: A New Davecade Begins

Some parts of the Internet don’t seem to age. My website is not one of them. This was DavidCharles.info in June 2010 (courtesy of the Wayback Machine):

There’s something unmistakeably 2010 about this image. It’s hosted on Blogspot, for one. ‘Follow me on Facebook’ and ‘My Flickr PhotoStream’ – I haven’t used these services for six years or more.

I have no idea what ‘The Knowledge’ was. Presumably not a record of my attempt to learn all 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. And the less said about this ‘powerful tool’, the better.

On the other hand, there are some corners of the Internet that don’t date. This ridiculous Gnarls Barkley cover was recorded by Don Ross in 2010 and still sounds as fresh as ever.

This man is 10 years older now and, until a couple of days ago, I’d never heard of him. The Internet, sometimes, is cool. The work we do, sometimes, is timeless.

~

At the start of the last decade, I made the decision to apply for an internship at Amnesty International, and to apply for a place at a housing cooperative in London. I was accepted for both and set off on a course that directed my daily life for most of the next six years, and that still tides the general wash of my existence today, ten years later.

Amnesty didn’t really work out. I get strangely paranoid in large office environments and end up feeling stifled and powerless – even when the work is meaningful.

The International Secretariat remains the last open-plan, filing cabinet-filled, water cooler and canteen office I have worked in.

But Amnesty showed me what I did want work to look like: creativity and the outdoors. In 2010, I wrote my first books, including a tale about hitch-hiking to Scotland, The Soles of My Shoes, which is still on sale.

The 2010s was, for me, a decade of exploration. Sanford housing cooperative gave me that formative freedom to write books, start a theatre company, study English teaching, volunteer with refugees in Calais, and cycle around the country.

It wasn’t always healthy living situation, but a housing cooperative is run for the benefit of its members, not for the profit of its landlord. Everyone had a secure tenancy and a vote on how the cooperative was run, including rent-setting.

At the time, it was one of the few places in London where you could actually cover rent with a part-time job or with housing benefit. The rest of the week, then, was ours – to study, volunteer, travel, or create. It sounds like dream fairyland, but it could be the way we organise all our housing in this country.

Could be.

~

I’m glad I left Sanford, though. What my soul needs at the end of 2019 is not the same as it craved when the decade began.

In a 2015 paper published in Psychological Science, researchers found evidence for the instinctual notion that ‘temporal landmarks’ that signal new beginnings – such as the turning of a year – strengthen our motivation to achieve our goals.

Hence New Year’s Resolutions.

But the researchers also found that the bigger the sense of a fresh start, the bigger the motivation. A fresh start puts distance between our present and our past, imperfect, selves. The fresher the start, the greater the psychological distance, and the greater optimism we feel that we can finally overwhelm our ambition.

In a couple of days, we all have the opportunity to ‘spur goal initiation’ on a scale not seen the noughties clicked over into the teens. This gives a surprising weight to these few days that can otherwise slip between the cracks in the festivities of Christmas and New Year.

Turn-of-the-decade decisions echo long in the body, mind and spirit. Those two decisions that I took in early 2010 – Amnesty and Sanford – put me on a path that I was still exploring six years later and which have given me the life I lead today.

A great wave of momentum is coming, bringing with it the freshest of fresh starts – not merely of a new year, but of a whole new decade.

So, in among the minced pies and the turkey soup leftovers, I’m going to clear some time to make a couple of decisions that will set a new course and help me ride that wave long into the twenties.

What life choices will I look back on in 2029? What can I do today to increase the probability that someone, somewhere will find my work in 2029, surprised that it’s ten years old already?

What fresh start will you make in the twenties?

Above: The earliest photo of me taken this decade that I can unearth.

Trust The Process On writing habits

Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.

I wish I hadn’t.

It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.

One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.

If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.

If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ – and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.

~

What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.

Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to my readers. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!

Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.

As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.

Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do – and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.

Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.

What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.

~

Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:

  • 2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
  • 2015: 392,241     ”           ”       354     “
  • 2016: 327,837     ”           ”       320     “
  • 2017: 248,865     ”           ”       254     “
  • 2018: 292,593     ”           ”       313     “

But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary – less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.

This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?

In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.

Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.

When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.

So don’t miss twice.

~

I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.

My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.

Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:

There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you’re invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner – an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn’t have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.

Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.

Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.


UPDATE 6 January 2021: In 2020, I’m pleased to report that my diary-writing habit bounced back, despite, well, everything. I wrote a total of 319,893 words over 335 days, missing only 8.5 percent of that momentous 366-day leap year.

Leave love letters

What, if anything, makes you fall in love with a person?

I reckon we can climb that fence. Yes!
Here, try this. She hands me a forkful of mozzarella.
At 2 a.m. we are still sitting out on the rocks overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Kindness where kindness is unexpected. What’s mine is yours. Sharing private moments together, even in public. Saying yes. Eye contact, smiles, easy laughter, a light touch. Conversation that burrows deep. Lingering.

There is magic in play and even more in secrets.

My companion on last week’s Neapolitan food tour was a woman from Texas. For the sake of this email, let’s call her Sylia because, quite frankly, that’s her name and it becomes impossible to conceal later on in the story…

I only knew Sylia for the 64 hours it took us to eat our way around Napoli. After our final espresso breakfast, I was travelling back to England via Milan and Paris, and she was flying to Dubrovnik before flipping over the pond back to California.

She told me that she had a layover in Paris too. In fact, less than a week separated my overnight sojourn in the City of Light and hers. We parted.

~

I walked down to the Seine to watch the sunset. I’ve been here before. Crowds milled around Notre Dame, taking selfies in the golden hour.

Below the busy streets, nowhere-steps led down to the river’s edge where a few of us enjoyed a private showing of the day’s final rites.

I sat on a polished stone wall and let the sun soothe my travel-tired face.

Then I had a thought.

Sylia felt like more than a fleeting acquaintance. For 64 hours, we behaved as if destiny played our hand and, as ever when destiny gets involved, much had gone unsaid.

For 64 hours, we had sailed that soft shoreline between the moment now and the future then, saying nothing that might come too close to broaching our pleasure.

But now I wanted to feel my feet on solid ground; and I wanted her to see me standing there too.

So what if I wrote a letter and left it for her, here, in Paris?

~

I had a notebook in my bag, but no pen. I heard an Australian voice a couple of steps down: a middle-aged woman and her Belgian lover sharing a dusky pique-nique of ham and torn bread.

‘Excuse me, do you have a pen I could borrow?

I sit back down and tear a single sheet from my notebook. I promise myself no more than one side of A5. That is surely enough for me to say what I need to say. I’m not a schoolboy any longer.

So I begin, sure that I will find the right words as a rhythm starts to flow.

Sylia – Did you know that your name means ‘If there is…’ in French? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I met you…

I fill one side of A5, but it’s half baked, scatter-brained. I promise myself the second side and turn over.

There are so many things I haven’t said here – and the ones I have, so poorly expressed…

It doesn’t quite happen on this side either. I say some things, I fill the space, but it’s not right. Oh well. My promised time is up.

I origami myself an envelope, write her name on the outside, and fold the whole into a dart of paper. Then I feel the stone walls for a crack that might hide my letter until she arrives.

I look around. Everyone is either on their phone or with their back to me. I slip the letter into the wall and smile.

I return the pen and share a few words of thanks before sitting back down on my wall.

Fuck.

It’s not right. A writer and I never found the words.

‘Sorry, I don’t suppose I could borrow your pen again, could I?’ Mild surprise, mid-mouthful. ‘I’m writing to a friend, and you know when you realise that you haven’t said a word of what you meant to…?’

I unfold the origami envelope. The inside of the envelope is blank: enough room for a dozen lines, no more. The mind is focussed and I write.

p.s…

~

I fold the envelope back over the letter and squeeze it back into the letter box, certain now that someone has seen me and is only waiting for me to leave before tearing open the letter for a laugh. I hope they return it instead of chucking the feeble paper into the softly infinite river.

But I have said almost exactly what I wanted to say to Sylia and the rest is now in the hands of fate.

I brush my hand over the wall where the secret is hidden, casting a spell. We can turn the city into a place of magic so easily. A place of games and play, of secrets and love, that stretch across time and space.

I walk back up the steps and into the gloaming night. The streets are still busy, but now everyone’s clutching at home.

As I walked, Sylia, the person at the heart of the story, became almost irrelevant. I sent her a few photos that I hoped might lead her to the location. Notre Dame in the background. A distinctive piece of graffiti. The crack in the wall. Enough that, if she wanted to find the letter, she could.

I returned to London, and then Wales for a week of writing with friends.

In among the laughter, the work and the dog walks, of course, I didn’t entirely forget about the letter, or the woman; but as time passed, the immediate sensation that we were close enough to touch faded.

I sent her a message on Saturday: Are you in Paris?

She didn’t reply.

But, then, a few days later…

I’ve just landed in LA.

Followed by a photograph…

Croissants for breakfast: Remagicking the world

The other day, I did something described as ‘so silly’.

I was passing through Paris, arriving in the afternoon, and leaving the next morning on an early Eurostar.

The train was due to leave Paris around about the time boulangeries open, and get into London around the time people have breakfast at their office desk.

So I messaged a friend I knew would be working in central London: ‘Fancy croissants for breakfast tomorrow?’

~

‘You’re so silly for doing this.’

~

The world can be a very prosaic place. It is full of offices and commutes and the tiresome effort of staying alive: breathing, eating, sleeping.

There is very little magic, it seems, in day-to-day life. We don’t expect it, so it never comes.

What do I mean by ‘magic’? I mean those moments when the world seems bigger and more connected than it ordinarily does.

Magic imbues the world with meaning where before there was none. And who doesn’t want to live in a world suffused with magic and meaning?

When you notice the size of the moon, when you write someone a letter, when you hand-deliver croissants from Paris.

This is magic.

It’s different for everyone, but you know magic when you feel it. There are other words we could use: ‘romantic’ is another good one, but that gets confused in our heads with sexual objectives.

Young children rarely see much that is unmagical, but for us adults, the world is often stripped bare like the lighting in our most ghastly supermarkets.

The world has been unmagicked. And by whom? All by ourselves.

~

It’s a shame because magic costs so little. As any child will tell you, the only obstacle to magic and the only limitation on your spell-casting is in the vigour of your imagination.

We get out of the habit of casting spells, so our imagination dullens, and we miss the opportunities for magic that are all around us.

What did it cost me to cast the spell of croissants for breakfast? Almost nothing; only the exercise of a little imagination.

The boulangerie was on my way to the train station. I was second in line after it opened. Not knowing how many people my friend worked with, I bought five croissants and paid an extra ten centimes for a sturdier paper bag to protect them on the journey.

Then I caught the Eurostar and fell asleep. I woke up two hours later in London. I picked up my bags and took the Underground two stops.

As I walked the eight minutes to my friend’s office, the rain fell in a drizzle. It was refreshing after a month of continental baking. I arrived at 8.50, ten minutes before my friend was due. I read the last pages of my book.

Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.
― E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

She arrived. I handed over the croissants. She smiled. I walked to catch another train, to catch another few hours’ sleep.

The world desperately needs remagicking, but we forget that we are the magi.

~

Ingredients for spell-casting:

  • It takes practice and a little imagination to spot opportunities for magic, but they are all around, all the time.
  • We need audacity and courage to step outside of the limitations of self-imposed adulthood.
  • Magic is founded on delighted surprise and the joyful unexpected. Or silliness.
  • You’ll need empathy and thoughtfulness so your spell makes the kind of magical connection you want.

~

‘You’re a legend in my office now.’

What can actors can teach us about the good life?

Those of you who follow my thoughts to a frankly intrusive degree, will know of my fondness for Albert Camus.

Not only was he a goalkeeper of some repute (see Monty Python), but as a philosopher he had the flair of a novelist. Or as a novelist he had the flair of a philosopher. I’m not sure which. I’ve asked Jeeves and he doesn’t know either.

In ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, Camus lays out the logic of his practical philosophy. The argument (as pertains this newsletter) goes as follows:

  1. There is no god.
  2. So there is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad.
  3. Therefore the old philosophers’ hunt for ‘the good life’ has been a wild goose chase. It’s impossible to live a good life because there is no good if there is no bad.
  4. So are there no suggestions a jobbing philosopher can offer on how to live? Yes, there are – Camus proposes. To live not better, but more.

By aiming to get the most out of life we are not dependent on outcomes of subjective good and bad. Camus offers up three avenues for most living.

The actor gets the most out of life by playing hundreds of different roles, sometimes covering the entire span of a life from birth to death in a single day – twice if there’s a matinee. This is the archetype of freedom.

The conqueror – whom Camus imagines a kind of soldier – lives constantly in the shadow of death. When you deal in death, life tastes moreish. This the archetype of revolt.

The Don Juan uses romance as the road to most living. Rarely do humans feel more alive than when indulging the fiery emotions of love. This is the archetype of passion.

These are the three archetypes that Camus sketches for us, but it’s easy to imagine myriad sub-types – the paramedic and the mountaineer are sub-types of the conqueror, for example.

The Actor

My primary interest here, of course, is the actor. In fact, most of us are actors already – but perhaps we’re not getting the most out of the masks we wear. Perhaps we try our hardest to apply the same make-up and costume every day.

There are good reasons why we might want to do that. But if there is no good… What harm can come of trying another role today? It’s not forever – the actor melts into another role as easily as night follows day.

So what harm can come of trying another role for ten minutes, in the time it takes you to ride the train two stops?

Expression and Suppression

We seem to have two modes of living (here I deviate from Camus): expression and suppression. I am either expressing something or I am suppressing something.

There are good reasons, again, why I might want to suppress some impulse. And, besides, we can’t express everything all at once: that way mania lies. But the basic distinction is there: either I express or I suppress.

But if there is no good or bad, and our only philosophical position is most living, then there is nothing to be lost from expression.

So why then do we suppress? Personally, it comes down to a fear of rejection by other people. Even when there is no one in earshot, I can feel a weighty oppression from social norms.

Rejection challenges are a great way to turn such obstacles into opportunity. An obstacle isn’t a roadblock if it’s a game.

Games are areas of life around which we draw a boundary of rules. Inside, we play; outside we work. But those boundaries are arbitrary.

There is no reason why – again, given that there is no objective good or bad – that we can’t as individuals draw our boundaries in a wide compass around all of life, and play as the actor plays.

Permissive Characters

Can I give you an example?

In Foiled, Sabrina is a god-awful hairdresser with a penchant for chucking customers out of her salon. One of her favourite lines is ‘No, absolutely no way, come you – out!’ I think Camus would have approved: she says exactly what she wants to say.

It’s a role, of course. But it’s an extraordinary useful role for us in day-to-day life. Sabrina speaks the unspeakable. And she speaks in such heightened language that, with a smile, she helps us say things we could never say.

We put the words into her mouth that we dream of saying to others. And little by little we build our courage until one day some outrage is visited upon me, like I’m served a dodgy cup of tea, and I say those words: ‘No, absolutely no way…’

Sometimes we need permission to express ourselves and, in a world with no good or bad, fictional characters give us that permission. Roles like Sabrina are stepping stones that pick a path through our comfort zone.

We can try a new character on for size, change the cut of our clothes, use new language and tone of voice, take on different mannerisms. Take a peek over the other side of the wall. Try out the priest or the predator.

We have a choice. Expression or suppression, action or inaction, attraction or rejection, stasis or growth, sensitive or resistant, yang or yin.

Empathy

Acting begins with empathy. On stage, you know very quickly whether an actor is engaged empathically with the character and with you, the audience.

If all the world’s a stage, then we players must find the empathy in our roles and with each other. For empathy is the conduit that connects us and allows the plurality of experience that Camus prescribes.

To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them. Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.

Audacity is our only option

My last blog post on audacity got a great response. I particularly enjoyed conversations with Documentally and Beth Granville, both of whom are models of mine for more audacious living.

My call with Documentally was interesting because, as someone often audacious, he was anxious that his audacity could be draining the world of generosity.

What if his asking meant other, more needy people would miss out? And what if everyone went around acting audacious and asking for free cups of tea? What would happen then? Wouldn’t all the tea sellers go bankrupt and leave us bereft of warming beverages?

Documentally also said that he always feels an obligation to reply his debt of gratitude to the people who help him. He’d been expecting me to share the location of the beachside kiosk where I got my free tea last week.

It didn’t even cross my mind. Why not? I have no good answer to that question, and now feel like an ungrateful little swine. 🙂

still.slave.status

In my defence, the thesis of my writing was not about the kiosk – or even about generosity. Generosity is the flip side to audacity, and a story for another day.

I also never imagined that you lovely readers would ever be interested in visiting that particular kiosk, so why would I share its address?

But why ever not? Embedded in my somewhat solipsistic writing was an endorsement of a generous hearted kiosk operator. Why wouldn’t other people want to visit this kindly young man and exploit – sorry, reward his generosity? Especially as I know at least 7 people who visit Bournemouth on the regular.

So, without further analysis, if you ever find yourself in Bournemouth, then the kiosk you absolutely must visit is attached to the Versuvio restaurant on the seafront at Alum Chine. If you’re looking for What3Words, it’s still.slave.status, which is heartbreaking.

The karmic torpedo

We could enjoy an hour or two addressing Documentally’s other concerns, throwing around arguments for and against the karmic repercussions of audacity. But a story Beth told me pretty much torpedoes the whole argument.

You see, something similar happened to Beth the other day – except she really had forgotten her wallet, and really was gasping for a tea.

She was out with a friend, walking the dog, so went into the park cafe and asked if she could have a free cup of tea. The woman behind the counter said yes.

So, while she was there, Beth asked if her friend could have a tea as well – oh and these wafers look good – and how about a doggy treat for Jilly?

Think that’s taking the piss? I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Firstly because Beth offered to come back and pay – and actually did. But secondly, and I think more importantly, because of this story’s torpedo effect on Documentally’s karmic concerns.

What is normal? This is normal

Everyone has a totally different take on what defines normal behaviour. Did Beth think her ask was audacious? Maybe a little, but clearly not to the extent that I did when, knees a-knocking, I asked for my free cuppa.

For Beth this behaviour was, although not an everyday occurrence, at least within the boundaries of normal. And why ever not? She wasn’t coercing the cafe server. She didn’t act entitled (although it has been said that no one is more ready to be famous), she asked.

As long as you stay on the right side of audacity, you should have no worries over the karmic repercussions of asking.

Indeed, I’d go much, much further. I think it is vitally important – for all of us, people and planet – that you act with audacity.

Would the world be a better place if everyone were so audacious? Yes, without question, it would.

Why we need an audacious world

Audacity puts an end to all regrets (and crimes) of omission. It wouldn’t put an end to regret itself – it’s perfectly possible to do something audacious that you later regret. But we regret the things we do far less and far less frequently than we regret the things we never did.

In an audacious world, there would be zero elderly men, nodding by the fire, dreaming what might have been if only they’d asked Mary to the ball in 1953 – zero!

There would be zero working women wondering what might have been if only they’d asked for a raise ten years earlier – zero!

And there would be zero activists wondering what might have been if they’d only done something more than sign a petition – zero!

Because, in an audacious world, they would have asked. It is in our acts of audacity that we improve our lives and the lives of others. In audacity, we don’t hold back; we leave it all out there; we do our best.

Anxiety is the opposite of audacity

I’m not saying that if you ask audaciously you will always receive bounty, of course not.

But the energy we channel into our anxiety over whether we’ll be rejected would be far better spent on dealing with the rejection (if and when it comes) and then asking someone else on a date, looking for a new job, or starting a more ambitious campaign.

The opposite of audacity is not, as you might think, conventional behaviour. The opposite of audacity is anxiety.

No one goes through life thinking purely conventional thoughts. No matter how straight-laced that man you see on his office commute every morning, you can bet your life that he’s fantasised about some pretty audacious behaviour in his time.

And you can bet your afterlife that he beats himself up about his conventional existence every single day. Instead of audacity, he feels anxiety.

Why practise audacity?

Breaking our habits of convention is not easy. We focus on the pain of failure far more often than we dare to imagine success.

Some people, like Beth, are pretty well practised at asking for what they want, but the rest of us can improve by taking on low-stakes audacity challenges where our future (not to mention our fragile pride) doesn’t depend on the outcome.

These training challenges will be different for each of us. For me, it might be taking a guitar out to the beach and playing for passers-by.

For you, it might be sitting down on a park bench and talking to a stranger (wait – that one’s for me too).

For someone else, it might be leaving work unfinished and goofing off for an hour to listen to birdsong (wait – that one’s also for me).

If nothing too bad happens, then screw your courage to the sticking place and try something even more audacious.

Audacity today; audacity tomorrow

Slowly, through this practice, we hope to learn that no matter how audacious, neither our future nor our foolish pride will ever depend on the outcome of one act.

Yes, our actions today will go some way to moulding our tomorrow, but tomorrow will be as ripe for audacity as today ever was. Even if you totally mess up, you have the chance to choose again, and right your course.

So meet tomorrow’s audacious opportunities tomorrow, without looking past those coming ripe today.

The risk is that the alternative to audacity – anxiety – will keep us frozen in place. Do you want to keep on making the same mistakes tomorrow as you did today? That’s one definition of hell.

Far better to take an audacious step – in any direction – than to fall where you stand. Which reminds me of this maxim from psychiatrist Viktor Frankl:

Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

Documentally made some excellent points, and it’s always helpful to stress-test any theory against the pangs of your conscience. But, in truth, we have no worthwhile alternative to audacity.


Before you ask: the cafe Beth audaciously plundered was in Grovelands Park in Winchmore Hill, Enfield. W3W: universally.wisely.woven.

The best things in life are audacious

The best thing that has ever happened to me, has just happened to me.

In the spirit of rejection therapy, I left the house with the intention of sitting out on the clifftops and writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

What’s this got to do with rejection therapy? Well, I didn’t take any money with me.

And yet, here I am, sitting out on the clifftops, writing my newsletter with a nice cup of tea.

There was no queue at the beach kiosk, but I still had to stand and wait while the kiosk guy faffed with the bins, head down. Pop music was playing loudly from an old speaker.

I was just wondering whether I should make some customer-like noise or take this golden opportunity to run away and save my embarrassment, when the kiosk guy lifted his head.

‘What can I do for you, buddy?’

Here we go: ‘This is an absolutely outrageous request, but I’ve come out with no money – I couldn’t have a tea, could I?’

He didn’t answer, just smiled a wry smile, and went to the machine.

‘That’s so kind, thank you. If you give me a receipt, I’ll come back and pay another time.’

‘No, no. I’m not going to make a fuss over a bit of hot water and a teabag – it’s nothing.’

What a legend. I mean, he’s not wrong: a bit of hot water and a teabag is nothing. But still! He didn’t have to do that.

As I walked away, I thought to myself – actually, I said out loud to no one but the gulls, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’

Then I sat down on the clifftops and took a satisfied sip.

Do you think kiosk guy would mind if I went back and asked for one with no milk? No, no – forget it.

On audacity and entitlement

There is a fine line between audacity and entitlement. The distinction, I think, is in the emotions attached.

An audacious move expects rejection. As a result, rejection doesn’t lead to resentment, and acceptance gives you such a buzz of gratitude.

Audacity, somehow, brings people closer together. If you asked me right now, I’d probably give that kiosk guy my spare kidney.

Entitlement, by contrast, leaves both sides cold. Entitlement expects acceptance – or at least acquiescence. The entitled feel no such buzz of gratitude – because they’re only getting the bare minimum they reckon they’re owed by the universe.

Meanwhile, the victim of entitlement can only feel resentment that they have been plonked onto a lower station in the social hierarchy, and exploited. Were the victim to stand up against entitlement, they will face aggression, passive or explicit.

Audacity is the world as an open game of negotiation, engagement, and possibility. Entitlement, by contrast, is the world as a closed system of rules, privacy and hierarchy.

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Hot last weekend, wasn’t it?

Families were streaming to the beach in their thousands. As we pulled up to the cliffs car park, a family were relaxing in deck chairs around their camper, polishing off a barbecue lunch.

Hanging from the night before, one of our party made an audacious move: ‘Smells great, guys. Any chance you’ve got a burger going spare?’

Of course they have. The materfamilias takes delight in splitting a roll and filling it with charred meat and oleaginous relish: but who would dare ask? Who would squeeze the universe into a ball, to roll it toward some overwhelming question?

Do you dare to eat a peach?

Rebellion begins with audacity

Clearly, a burger and a cup of tea are pretty small fry. But you can’t begin by asking for the earth. Not even when you are asking for the earth.

Extinction Rebellion didn’t begin with a blockade of London. I imagine it began the same way as the US civil rights movement, the South African rebellion against Apartheid, the revolution in Egypt, and the English Civil War: with an invitation to a meeting in a small room in a flat.

But the modesty of that first meeting doesn’t mask the audacity of the agenda.

Rebellions begin with audacity. In fact, all change – large and small, public and personal – begins with audacity: the audacity to imagine an alternative.

Asking your future partner out for a coffee for the first time. Negotiating for a job, or a raise. Dropping everything to travel overland to Australia – or buying a £550 Nissan Micra to drive to Siberia (never mind that the interior is carpeted entirely in greengrocer’s astroturf). Replacing commercial advertising billboards with more honest messages. Typing the first words into an empty script.

They say that the best things in life are free; I wouldn’t argue with that. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are audacious.

Training audacity

My audacity at the kiosk was contrived: I knew before I left the flat that I was going to ask for a free tea. I could instead have come out with my wallet and paid for a tea that I can easily afford.

Other people don’t have it so easy. Do you think the kiosk guy would’ve been so generous to a dishevelled man who carries all his worldly goods in two stuffed plastic bags? Maybe, maybe not.

But this was never a test of my privilege. This was a test of my mettle, training my audacity for greater challenges ahead.

By asking for a tea that I didn’t really need, I tested my courage to engage and negotiate so that when I do really need audacity, I have reserves of confidence to call upon.

There are three stages to a rejection therapy challenge:

  1. Aim for rejection. Expect the answer ‘no’, but ask anyway. Don’t worry that the challenge isn’t big or clever enough – if you think you’ll be rejected, that’s plenty big and clever.
  2. Failure is success. You’ve found your limits – for now. Try the same challenge again, with different people, and different approaches.
  3. Success is failure. A cup of tea – as the kiosk guy pointed out – is nothing. Next time, be bolder, push yourself further.

Above all, if other people are involved, be charming. Smile. Be frank about the fact you’re asking something ridiculous and weird. Have a laugh about it and you might just find yourself a co-conspirator.

And when you are rejected – congratulations! – smile again, say thank you, and walk away with the deep satisfaction that you’ve pushed against your horizon of audacity, and – for now – found its limit.

What about you? Is this concept of audacity useful? How could you be more audacious right now?


By the way, the smug photo of me with my free tea was taken by an Iranian MBA student I met on the clifftops.

As well as my wallet, I came out without my camera, so I walked up to this woman and asked if she could take one on her phone and email it to me.

She took four.

She was the third person I asked.

Happy Bicycle Day!

Today might be Good Friday, but it’s also Bicycle Day – the celebration of the first deliberate acid trip.

On 19 April 1943, intrigued by ‘a peculiar presentiment’ and ‘excercising extreme caution’, chemist Albert Hofmann ingested 0.25 mg of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate – ‘the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect’. Or so he thought.

Hofmann recorded the details of his experiment in that day’s lab journal:

4/19/43
16:20: 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.
17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh. Supplement of 4/21: Home by bicycle.

What followed was a remarkable descent into horror and beauty, confronting demons and angels, and finally an experience of death and rebirth. 0.25mg of LSD, it turned out, was a pretty big dose.

The next day, Hofmann writes:

A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created.

For more about the discovery of this remarkable compound, read Hofmann’s autobiography, LSD – My Problem Child, available online, for free. The story of his first self-experiment begins on page 11.

Happy Bicycle Day!

Empathy, society, and a nice cup of tea…

I never drank tea until I went to China when I was 18. There, I had no option. Green tea was served by default at all meals, and there was always a flask by your bedside in guesthouses and hotels.

Ubiquitous doesn’t really do full justice to the omnipresence of tea in China. Although the Chinese only drink something more than a quarter of the quantity that we do in Britain, they are by far and away the largest producers of the precious plant, responsible for a third of global production.

Only after my visit did I fully comprehend the staggering contempt implied by the saying, ‘Not for all the tea in China’.

Clearly not tea, but some sort of paddy field in Yangshuo County, China. As seen from behind a Fujifilm camera in 2001.

My Chinese education explains why I take my tea with neither milk nor sugar.

I dread to imagine the state of my teeth had I starting drinking tea just a few weeks before, when I was in Egypt. In the Nile Valley, the default is tiny glasses of black tea filled halfway with white sugar and, perhaps, a sprig of mint.

It’s got more in common with a Magnum ice cream than the restorative brew I found in China.

I digress.

The point is that, since 2001, I have rarely been without tea. Often green, occasionally black if I need the astringent caffeine hit.

Just as often, though, I’ll have what the French would call a tisane, or what the more pretentious English would call a herbal infusion – a redbush, a chamomile, a peppermint, or some other preparation of dried organic matter.

For me, the point is not the caffeine or even the flavour, but the psychological comfort of having something to do with my hands (behave yourself) between essays at the keyboard.

In days past, writers smoked cigarettes, cigars or cigarillos; many still use alcohol. I used to chew gum and eat biscuits. But tea, I find, offers something else.

Bob Dylan: listlessly creative with a pot of tea (milk, sugar). SOURCE: Famous People Drinking Tea

I’m preaching to the choir, of course. All of my friends, bar one, drink tea in copious quantities. So why bring this up today?

Last weekend, after a day spent working on Foiled, Beth and I went dancing. On the way home, I can’t remember why, Beth was holding forth on the subject of morning tea.

She told me that, whenever she stays over at her parents’ place, her mum creeps up to her room in the morning with a fresh brew. She knocks softly on Beth’s door, lays the tea (milk, no sugar) down on her bedside table, and gently whispers: ‘There’s a tea there if you want it.’

Her mum does this all so lightly that there’s no chance of Beth waking from a deep sleep, but if she’s already drifting to the surface of consciousness, then – lo and behold – the greatest start to a morning imaginable.

How to prepare the perfect morning cuppa, according to the first page, no less, of The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

This vignette led to a discussion on the role of empathy in relationships.

The Golden Rule exhorts us to treat others as we would wish ourselves to be treated. It’s good enough so far as it goes, but in my opinion the Golden Rule does not go even nearly far enough.

Most of us, let’s be honest, treat ourselves like shit. We have such a low opinion of ourselves, that we would never in our wildest dreams imagine anyone else would ever make us a cup of tea in the morning.

If we were to follow the mere Golden Rule for our behaviour, we would likewise never think of making a morning tea for anyone else. And – lo and behold – this is how many relationships pan out.

Yesterday, the same topic came up with another friend – let’s call her Ariadne for no reason whatsoever – who lives with a couple. Ariadne told me how annoyed she was that the boyfriend would never make a morning cuppa for his girlfriend.

‘He’s up at the same time as me. I’m always in a rush; he never is. And yet he never makes her a cup of tea; I do.’

Sometimes Ariadne brings the girlfriend tea when the boyfriend is in bed kissing her goodbye. ‘You’re just shit-stirring now,’ he says.

And of course she is. But if he swallowed his pride for one second and saw how happy that morning tea made his girlfriend, then he’d see that the cognitive cost of doing something for someone else is, quelle horreur!, outweighed a hundred times over by the closer relationships we earn.

Science has shown this. Give someone a warm drink and they feel more warmly towards you – and not just metaphorically:

participants who briefly held a cup of hot (versus iced) coffee judged a target person as having a “warmer” personality (generous, caring)
Source // Guardian write-up

We need a new rule. Perhaps we can baptise it the Astatine Rule, after the rarest naturally-occurring element on earth.

The Astatine Rule says that we should treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated in our wildest fantasies of existence (behave yourself!).

This second part is crucial: unless your life has been an endless waterfall of rainbows and unicorns then there is no point merely repeating the behaviour you’ve learnt thus far.

Imagining a peak existence (or anything) greater than you’ve ever experienced is really hard; that’s why relationships all too often settle down to baseline.

We need inspiration more extraordinarily creative to set our empathic imaginations free and kick start a virtuous cycle of kindness (and cups of tea). Stories help.

The morning after our dance, I woke up before Beth. I crept into the kitchen, past where she was sleeping in the living room, and put the kettle on the hob. I caught the boil just before it whistled, loaded up her mug with black tea and milk, and stirred until it was the colour of caramel chocolate.

Then I tiptoed into the living room and laid the mug down by her bedside. ‘There’s a tea there if you want it,’ I whispered.

Small is Sociable London to Bristol

I am reaching the end of my winter sojourn in Bristol. I have been here, more or less, since October last year, and next week is my last.

Since leaving London permanently at the end of 2017, I have learned one thing beyond doubt: my local habitat plays an incalculably important role in the things I do, the people I see, and how I feel day to day.

Let me begin this piece by saying that I have enjoyed spectacularly wonderful days in London, and look forward to many more in the coming years. I particularly cherish the cacophonous abundance of nations and cultures, and the lush green patchwork of parks and gardens.

However, the accusation often levelled at London, particularly by outsiders who have never lived there, is that it is ‘too big’. After 16 years in the Big Smoke, I think I am at least qualified to agree.

Of course, many people live extraordinary lives of joy and connection in London and have no trouble bounding over its sprawling morass, or simply confining themselves to a more manageable slice of the metropolis.

I was not one of them. And, after a year apart from the old mistress, I think I understand why.

The truth isn’t earth-shattering; in fact, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever spent any time as a human being. In a smaller conurbation, it’s easier to be sociable and that sociability is what makes me happy.

Nowhere worth going in Bristol is more than about 20 minutes by bike from my house. The compact nature of the city has two effects on the population, each reinforced by the other, which I reckon result in a more sociable society.

In Bristol, I know that whomsoever I meet, and wherever I meet them, there’s a decent chance that they’ll live within about 20 minutes’ bike ride of my house. And this makes it likely that I’ll meet them again, either by chance or by appointment.

This likelihood has two consequences. Firstly, I’m less likely to be a dick to strangers because, chances are, our paths will cross either personally or through presently unknown mutual friends. Secondly, I’m more likely to actually meet up with people I do hit it off with, simply because it’s easy.

The second effect of smaller city size is that no one here has a commute time of more than 20 minutes – at least in theory.

Commute time is famously correlated with positive affect, or happiness. If you’re commuting for more than an hour a day, then you’re likely to be miserable. Or at least more tired and less likely to want to meet friends – old or new.

The converse is true. In a city like Bristol where commute times are short, people are more likely to go out after work to socialise and they’re less likely to want to stay in bed all weekend just recovering from work.

As a consequence, they’re more likely to have hobbies, be members of a club, or just have a local drinking haunt.

And what does that mean? You’re more likely to bump into them out and about, you’re both more likely to be feeling positive and open to new encounters, and, thanks to the size of the city, also more likely to meet up again.

In a city with an enormous population, people just don’t matter so much. You’re vanishingly likely to bump into the same stranger twice. When you spot a friend on the tube, you both react like you’ve won a million quid on the lottery.

(In fact, your chances of winning a million quid on the lottery are better. Assuming you only have one friend.)

If you’re confident that you’ll never see Joe Bloggs again, you’re hardly likely to be bursting with social bon homie – or even goddam polite, are you?

I speak primarily for myself, but that’s why we Londoners walk around with our eyes downcast, hidden behind sunglasses, or buried in newspapers and smartphones. What’s the point? Strangers aren’t important because they’re just one in ten million, all too often mere obstacles to circumnavigate on our way through the chaotic city.

In smaller towns, people are more precious. There are still 460,000 people here in Bristol, still plenty of personalities to mesh or clash with, but each one has a distinct value. I’ve bumped into countless people I know here. It happens most days I leave the house – and I’ve only been here for 4 months, remember.

Every interaction here carries higher stakes: we are both on something like our best behaviour because we both know that the social network will, more or less, hold us to account – even if we don’t get on personally.

Of course this close community has its downsides. London’s anonymity is not without its pleasures. You can do anything, be anyone, and reinvent yourself every other Tuesday if you please. But, for me, this luxury is not worth the price I pay in social isolation.

~

Talking of social isolation: here’s an interview with loneliness researcher John Cacioppo.
Talking of leaving London: apparently I’m not the only one.

The day after Valentine’s

If the day after Christmas is nicknamed ‘Boxing’ and the Friday before Easter is supposedly ‘Good’, then what shall we call the day after Saint Valentine’s?

Love is something of an empty word, in that it means so many different things to different people with no one agreeing on much aside from its intrinsic value.

It’s the perfect hook for a marketing campaign.

Even the local British Heart Foundation are leveraging the season to hoick donations from people looking to advertise their love in the shop window on Gloucester Road.

But what I never hear about is the relationship between love and ambition. Bear with me.

You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.

Not only do I disagree with this card filler, but I actually think it is much easier to love someone else than to love yourself.

Do you love yourself? I don’t. Quite a surprising revelation if you’ve never properly entertained the question.

It doesn’t mean that I loathe myself, but I don’t love myself as much as I love other people in this world.

Think of how you feel when a loved one walks into the room.

If you’re anything like me, then you’re absolutely THRILLED. Your face lights up and you feel a ripple of excitement about how the next ten minutes are going to play out.

That is not the feeling I get when I wake up in the morning. ‘Ooh, look – I’m ME again!’

No. My first thought on regaining conscious control of my higher faculties is more along the lines of: ‘Ugh. How can it be morning again already?’

If you do react with unalloyed delight every time you realise that you’re inhabiting your own skull, then all credit to you. That must be a pretty special place to be (if a little disturbing for the rest of us).

The people I love, I love unconditionally. If there’s one thing about love that we all agree on, aside from its enormous marketing potential, it’s that it should be unconditional.

No matter what your loved ones do, you’ll always give them the benefit of the doubt, you’ll always support them, you’ll always think that what they’re doing is awesome and deserves to triumph.

But hold on. Always?

Actually, no. On serious mathematical reflection, I estimate that I unconditionally love my loved ones about 95% of the time (and yes I am aware of the contradiction in that sentence).

But 95% of the time is still pretty amazing, and sufficient that we all use the shorthand ‘love’ to account for such madness.

Madnesses:

  • You wildly exaggerate their positive qualities. In particular, you overestimate their intelligence, sense of humour, beauty and profundity.
  • Pretty much all the time, you can’t see their faults. When unambiguously confronted with their faults, they’re charming – or at least off-set by the fact that they own a Lexus.
  • You unfailingly interpret their intentions as good, even when bad things happen. Again and again.
  • You talk them up to others, who may or may not roll their eyes.
  • You feel completely comfortable around them (this might be a good test for whether a feeling is love or infatuation).
  • You are astonishingly patient with them. So patient are you that you can bear to live with them in the same house. Sometimes even the same room or – in exceptional circumstances – a two-man tent.
  • You are proud of what you see as their stunning achievements. Maybe not always in their presence because no one likes a braggart, but if anyone challenges them on their stunning triumphs, you’ll knock them out.
  • You do shit for them that no one in their right mind would do for another person. You find yourself doing things that you’ve never done for anyone ever before. Like their laundry.
  • You want to be close to them, physically. You miss them when they’re gone. Sometimes this hurts, physically.
  • You believe in their dreams and are pretty confident they’ll get there, unless the universe conspires cruelly against them.

Based on this list, I reckon that I ‘unconditionally’ love myself about 30% of the time.

I definitely overplay my strengths and I’m as susceptible as anyone to the cognitive bias that makes me overlook and excuse my own faults.

I don’t, however, own a Lexus.

I also give myself a much harder time than I do the people I love. I’m less likely to cut myself some slack, trust my good intentions, or even recognise, let alone be proud of my triumphs.

However, where I think our struggle to love ourselves harms us most is in the arena of ambition, life goals or dreams, as you prefer. After all, these are the momentous things that end up changing the world.

It scares me to think of all the dreams and glorious futures that go unrealised because no one ever thought that they were worth believing in. That belief comes from love. It’s called the astronaut test.

The Astronaut Test

Someone comes to you and says: ‘One day, I’m going to become an astronaut.’

If that person is just another Joe, then you’ll say, ‘Really? That’s great. Good luck.’ And in your head you’re probably thinking, ‘As if!’

If that person is someone you love, however, then you’ll probably say something like, ‘YES YOU ARE. THAT SHIT IS AWESOME.’ And give them a massive hug.

In your head, you’re probably thinking, ‘Fucking hell, that’s amazing! I love this human!’

Further back in your head, you might also dimly recall that the last time they got on a plane they had to be stretchered off while it was still on the runway because ‘It was a little bit high up’ – but overcoming such adversity only goes to show how incredible they are.

Now. Which of those two reactions do you show yourself whenever you dream big?

If you’re anything like me, it’s hands-down the first – to such an extent that I mostly keep my dreams buried deep down in the mudflats of my heart where no one can see them, least of all myself.

That seems like a bit of a shame. It’d be cool to get my love-of-self up to more like 50% unconditional and see whether there’s a corresponding rise in ambition.

The Day After Valentine’s Day

This is where we come back to that silly homily: You can’t love someone unless you truly love yourself.

But if it’s easier for me to love another than it is to love myself, then I’d bet it works the other way around too. (Standard exclusions apply.)

Valentine’s Day is all about showing our love to others – and I’m all in favour of that. But today I’d like to dedicate to ourselves.

What dreams and ambitions could we discover and realise if we all took February 15 to recognise and actually acknowledge the love-of-ourselves in the eyes of someone else?

Is there a Saint Narcissus*?


Thanks to the PTA for conversations leading to this. Love ya!

* Narcissus would be a totally inappropriate patron saint of love-of-ourselves. Narcissus was actively disdainful of the love people showed him: the exact opposite of what I want to encourage. But I really needed a flippant sign-off to this post. Sorry.

Tame the Mane

After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.

Picture the scene…

Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.

‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’
Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage.
‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘
Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise!
‘It’s for the BBC.’
Back on track.
‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’
What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that?
‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’

This is a definite no.

She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.

Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.

Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.

But the barb had lodged.

‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’

As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.

Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.

Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.

Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.

Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.

There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.

But she was far wrong about the hippies.

The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’

(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)

Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.

She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.

The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.

With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.

As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…

I believe in Rejection!

It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.

Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.

Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.

This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.

Dave’s Short History of Rejection

My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.

Example 1: Romantic Rejection

It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.

They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.

This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.

Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.

Example 2: Book Rejection

For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).

I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.

I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.

Hilariously, this rejection letter was sent without the correct postage. I had to cycle to my local Royal Mail depot and pay £0.11 in excess postage, plus a £1.00 administration fee.

J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.

It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.

Example 3: Rejection on the Road

Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.

Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.

My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.

In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?

Example 4: Critical Rejection

When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.

The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.

I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.

In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.

We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.

Phew!

Example 5: Reader Rejection

My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.

Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.

After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.

I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.

Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.

Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.

(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)


The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.

What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?

Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.

Tolerance of rejection is the difference between the approach and avoidant mentalities described by Carol Dweck, and these mindsets spread their influence through every domain of our lives.

If we follow the society status quo, it’s pretty easy to feel accepted. But is society perfect as it is? Is the world? Is life?

I don’t think so – as much as my gut screams at me to conform or die.

So, this year, I want to put myself into situations where I am rejected. And I want those rejections to really hurt.

Painful rejections will show me that I’m doing meaningful work, that I’m opening myself up and making myself vulnerable in the places that really matter, deep down.

And, if Jia Jiang’s experiment is anything to go by, this should be fun!


UPDATE: Comedian Emily Winter has written about her own 100 Rejections challenge for the New York Times.

In pursuit of 100 rejections, I put myself forward for opportunities I’d previously thought were for smarter, funnier, cooler people. And sometimes I wasn’t rejected. I wrote for new publications, got a joke-writing gig on my favorite comedian’s radio show and interviewed guests on my podcast who I’d thought wouldn’t waste their time on me.

Emily ended the year with 101 rejections and 39 acceptances.

[O]ur experiments weren’t a magic solution. Andy is still unattached, and I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. But we’ve taken more chances and come closer to getting the things we want. So I don’t regret committing to this masochistic rejection project. It made me feel embarrassed, depressed, overwhelmed and self-indulgent. But I also felt that I was moving forward instead of standing still.

This is not the only Universe

In 17th century Europe, ‘a black swan’ was a by-word for an impossibility. But it took only a single observation of such swans in Australia to undo the presumption forever.

Today, Black Swan theory uses the metaphor to describe any argument or system of thought that can be undone at a single stroke

A psychedelic experience has the potential to be a Black Swan event for the individual.

Brain scans of individuals high on the drug revealed that the chemical allows parts of the cortex to become flooded with signals that are normally filtered out to prevent information overload.

Study shows how LSD interferes with brain’s signalling (The Guardian)

By ‘switching off’ the filtering mechanism of the thalamus, psychedelic compounds can, at a single stroke, help us overturn entire systems of thought that we once presumed not only true for us, but ‘real’ and inviolable.

This might explain the seemingly paradoxical subjective effects often reported in psychedelic-induced altered states of consciousness that are characterized by increased arousal as well as a dreamlike experience, impaired cognition but at the same time reported perceived mental clarity, and psychosis-like effects combined with blissful experiences.

Effective connectivity changes in LSD-induced altered states of consciousness in humans (PNAS)

As Aldous Huxley wrote after his experience with the psychedelic mescaline:

It’s a very salutary thing to realise that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is.

Moksha: Writings on Psychedelics & the Visionary Experience

Thanks to DRL for the inspiration for this little piece.

Transcendental Meditation

Over the course of four days just before Christmas I learnt the Transcendental Meditation® technique.

Transcendental Meditation® is a simple form of meditation that involves sitting with eyes closed while mentally repeating a meaningless mantra for 20 minutes, twice a day.

I was given my mantra in a ceremony that involved incense, a photograph of a dead guru, a single white handkerchief, a Russet, a pineapple and a credit card.

As someone open to experiments with consciousness, I took up regular meditation in March 2018, practising for anything from 2 to 25 minutes a day, every day.

But meditation never quite found a regular habit-making slot in my day. I never even really knew what kind of meditation I would settle on until I’d sat down.

Vipassana? Body scan? Loving-kindness? Mindfulness?

It didn’t really seem to matter because most of the time I was fretting about work anyway. And then fretting about why I couldn’t meditate properly.

Although I didn’t miss a day between March and December, sometimes it was a close-run thing, and often I’d end up cramming in 5 minutes before bed.

All in all, I was left with the faintly unsatisfactory feeling that meditation had more to offer.

So when generous benefactors offered to pay for me to take a Transcendental Meditation® course, I was delighted.

This post is about what I learnt, starting with all the things about Transcendental Meditation® that make me want to throw up…

Those bloody ®s!

Transcendental Meditation® and its promulgators the Maharishi Foundation® seem irritatingly obsessed with protecting their intellectual property.

It’s not only the constant assertion of ®, but we were also made to sign an agreement that promised we wouldn’t tell anyone else about our personal experiences.

They say that this is to reduce expectations of other people coming to the practice, but their whole sales technique is about raising completely unrealistic expectations.

Browse through the Transcendental Meditation® website or brochures and you’ll find promises (scientifically proven!) that the unique Transcendental Meditation® practice will reduce crime, cure Irritable Bowel Syndrome and insomnia, and basically write that film script for you.

This is, essentially, nonsense. So I feel no shame whatsoever in breaking my agreement and telling as many people as will listen about my experience – exactly as I have done for other similar practices like Vipassana and Psychedelic Breathwork.

The science is overstated and crappy

On a more serious note, the scientific evidence for the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® is massively overstated by the Maharishi Foundation®.

This makes things very confusing for people without the inclination to go trawling through the hundreds of publications to see whether there is any merit at all in what the website claims.

Luckily, we don’t have to go trawling because there is a whole chapter on the science of Transcendental Meditation® in Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm’s excellent 2015 book The Buddha Pill.

Farias and Wikholm are academic psychologists used to picking apart research papers, and they found that a lot of the Transcendental Meditation® research suffers from:

  • sampling bias in the selection of participants
  • passive rather than active control groups
  • no placebo comparison
  • no double-blind experimental design, which can cause an expectation effect in both experimenters and participants
  • cherry-picked results that exclude negative or neutral outcomes

Unfortunately, this bad science casts doubt on everything the Maharishi Foundation® claims, and would rightly put off most people from spending their money.

Is it even worth practising Transcendental Meditation® at all?

Amazingly, Farias and Wikholm report one placebo-controlled, double-blind trial that tested the claims of TM.

The 1976 study by Jonathan Smith included an ingenious placebo for Transcendental Meditation® called PSI and compared the two for the treatment of anxiety in college students.

After 6 months of twice daily meditation, Smith concluded that:

the crucial therapeutic component of TM is not the TM exercise.

Psychotherapeutic effects of transcendental meditation with controls for expectation of relief and daily sitting. Smith, Jonathan C. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1976)

In other words, when it comes to reducing anxiety in college students, Transcendental Meditation® works equally as well as sitting quietly in a chair for 20 minutes twice a day.

But, remarkably, it does work: both Transcendental Meditation® and Smith’s placebo PSI led to a significant reduction in anxiety and a more relaxed physiological functioning.

As far as I’m concerned, this paper is great news: a placebo-controlled, double-blind trial shows that Transcendental Meditation® works!

But you will be less than astonished to learn that this paper is not cited anywhere among the hundreds listed on the Transcendental Meditation® website.

Oh, and it’s appallingly authoritarian, exclusively expensive, and essentially amoral

The Maharishi Foundation® seems to promote a very authoritarian, paternalistic view of the world.

On the wall of the room in which I studied was an enormous schematic of the Transcendental Meditation® world view. It runs from the Unified Field of Pure Consciousness right up to the Head of State – who is, of course, a male.

Every head of state can fulfil his parental role of bringing maximum success and happiness to his people, and thereby create unified field based ideal civilization through the application of Maharishi’s Unifield Field Based Integrated Systems of Education, Health, Government, Rehabilitation, Economics, Defense, and Agriculture.

(c) International Association for the Advancement of the Science of Creative Intelligence (1983)

Scary.

Especially as, thanks to its £290 to £590 price tag, Transcendental Meditation® is also very exclusive. Hmm. Not sure I want to be a part of yet another boys club.


Side Bar: PSI

If you want a practice that gives you all the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® without the exorbitant price tag, then try periodic somatic inactivity – the meditation placebo created by Jonathan Smith for the paper cited above.

  1. Twice a day, sit comfortably on a chair, or upright in bed.
  2. Close your eyes for 20 minutes.
  3. Let your mind do whatever it wants. Whatever you do mentally will have little or no impact on the effectiveness of the technique. The important thing is to remain physically inactive. Do not talk, walk around, or change chairs. You may engage in an occasional action such as shifting your position or making yourself more comfortable. And you may scratch.
  4. At the end of the session, open your eyes, breathe deeply a few times, and continue with your everyday activities.

Adapted from The Buddha Pill by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm.


Finally, there is nothing in the initial Transcendental Meditation® training about ethics. Yeah, ethics! It’s all very well connecting to the unified field of pure consciousness for 20 minutes twice a day, but what about the other 23 hours and 20 minutes?

Transcendental Meditation® is Hindu meditation stripped clean of the supporting ethical framework – presumably so it would be more appealing to our godless Western minds – but in throwing out the bathwater, we have also lost the baby.

Nevertheless…

Despite these complaints, I enjoy doing the practice, by and large. It’s a good excuse to sit and becalm myself.

I enjoy doing it in the morning, I enjoy doing it in the middle of the day, I enjoy doing it on public transport, I enjoy doing it before I go to sleep.

As far as I can tell from my experience (and this is supported by the more rigorous studies) the benefits of Transcendental Meditation® are similar if not identical to any form of relaxation.

However, this should not be underestimated (or misunderestimated).

I have never consciously dedicated time to relaxation this regularly ever before in my entire life.

Any practice that can actually convince human beings to switch off for 20 minutes twice a day is doing a fine job.

It doesn’t really matter to me that the Maharishi Foundation® use bad science to mislead: practising Transcendental Meditation® will still make me less stressed, less anxious and lower my blood pressure. (Probably.)

The method of Transcendental Meditation® is simple and structured and, as a result, many people including myself are able to stick to the practice for 20 minutes twice a day.

That is a considerable achievement and for that reason alone I would say that Transcendental Meditation® – if you can afford it, if nothing else seems to stick, if you can look past the bad science, and if you can fill the ethical vacuum – is worth trying.

Just don’t expect miracles.

Tim Ferriss, podcaster and self-help celebrity, also took the Transcendental Meditation® course, and seems to have had a similar experience.

For me, [TM] is what kicked off more than 2 years of consistent meditation. I’m not a fan of everything the TM organization does, but their training is practical and tactical. … The social pressure of having a teacher for 4 consecutive days was exactly the incentive I needed to meditate consistently enough to establish the habit.

Tim Ferriss, Observer

And if you find that Transcendental Meditation® doesn’t work for you, then don’t worry: there are a multitude of ways to find whatever it is that people call transcendence.

Try self-hypnotism, progressive relaxation, roller-blading, walking in nature, breathwork, yoga, a different form of meditation, climbing a mountain or contemplating the ocean, psychedelic trips large and small.

Good luck!


Note: I only learned the technique a month ago and will update this page as I discover more. I might be wrong about the benefits in the long term; I might also be wrong in my criticisms. Who knows, I might even become a patriarchal despot. 🙂

Note 2: Experimental shortcomings are by no means unique to Transcendental Meditation® . A more recent study into the prosocial benefits of meditation co-authored by Miguel Farias concluded the following:

We further found that compassion levels only increased under two conditions: when the teacher in the meditation intervention was a co-author in the published study; and when the study employed a passive (waiting list) control group but not an active one.

The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2018)

Absolutely Gutted

Science is complex. The science of the gut is both complex and young. I’m not a scientist, let alone a gastroenterologist.

At best I am ‘sciencey’, with just enough reading to unwittingly mislead myself and other people on the internet.

And yet here we all are.

So, without further ado, here is what I think I know about the science of the gut, and how I have used it to completely change the food I enjoy and, most significantly, to wean myself off sugar.

Caveat emptor. Also: Caveat bullshitor.

The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis

First up, let’s define some terms.

Your microbiota are the various strains of different bacteria that help you digest your food. Yep, that’s right: there are trillions of microbial organisms living inside your gut right now.

Your gut actually behaves like a second brain of over 100 million nerve cells called the enteric nervous system, which can communicate with your head-brain through the vagus nerve, and also by releasing bacterial metabolites into the bloodstream.

(But remember that I did say that the science is young and, to be honest, no one is 100% sure how this all works, okay?)

This is called the microbiota-gut-brain axis and, quite frankly, I find the whole thing completely mind-blowing. (Or should that be gut-blowing? No, no it shouldn’t.)

For example, there is evidence that the bacteria in your stomach can influence your mood, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even stuff like autism, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

However, for this dollop of sciencey writing, I’m going to limit myself to (what I now think is) the obvious.

The food you put into your mouth also feeds the bacteria that grow in your stomach, who use the microbiota-gut-brain axis to influence the food you crave and thus put into your mouth.

That sounds (fairly) straight-forward, but think of the consequences.

What I’m saying is that you might be able to stop your cravings for chocolate, pasta or steak not in a dieting willpower kind of way, but in a permanent I-simply-don’t-really-like-that-any-more kind of way.

No one can currently say this from a place of scientific confidence because it’s still only a ‘could’ in the couched language of gastroenterology.

But I say this from a place of anecdotal confidence because a couple of years ago I stopped craving sugary snacks and puddings (I think) by killing the bacteria in my stomach that loves those sort of treats.

Without that variety of bacteria (or as many of them) sending pestering requests to my brain, I simply don’t fancy eating cake any more.

I’m not saying that you can definitely do this as well – all bodies and guts are different, and the science is still somewhat alchemical – but you can certainly give it a try.

How it works (maybe)

This is the mechanism, so far as I think I know:

  1. Everyone has a different make up of bacteria in their gut. Some of this biome we’re born with and co-exist with us our whole lives; some we can change by changing our diet and our living environment.
  2. These different strains of bacteria get their energy from different food sources. Some particularly like sugar, some prefer fats. The more sugar or fats these bacteria get, the more they reproduce, and the larger their population grows.
  3. These bacteria influence the communication between your gut-brain and your head-brain, and can (could) influence the cravings that you have for different foods.
  4. The greater the population of a certain type of bacteria in your gut, the ‘louder’ the clamouring for their favourite food becomes in your head-brain.
  5. This is (could be) the source of what feels like unconscious cravings. Why do you reach for the cake tin, even when you know you shouldn’t? Bacteria done it (maybe).
  6. The more you ‘listen’ to these cravings, the more you feed that particular strain of bacteria, the larger their population grows, and the more dominant their ‘voice’ becomes. Congratulations, your gut is out of whack and you can’t stay off the Skittles.

How to kill the bad guys

In 2017 I spent about 3 months not eating anything sweet, including fruit.

Starved of their usual food source, I think I managed to kill off most of my unhealthy sugar-loving bacteria.

I had a few days of headaches, which I like to imagine was the starving bacteria sending increasingly desperate signals for food. Like a cruel despot, I ignored them.

Since then, I haven’t had a problem with sugar. I don’t use willpower to avoid chocolate or biscuits, I just don’t fancy eating them.

I can eat sweet things in moderation. Nothing bad happens when I eat a bit of Christmas pudding. But, in general, I simply find sweet things ‘a bit much’.

This isn’t about me and my personal preferences. This is my gut bacteria dictating to me the foods they need to stay alive. It just happens that I’ve killed all the ones that loved me scoffing six bowls of Christmas pudding and twenty-seven mince pies.

And I don’t think I’m special. I think this approach is available to other people.

Yay optimism

I find gut science to be very optimistic. Every time you put something into your mouth is an opportunity for change.

Your gut biome can respond to changes in diet within hours, not weeks or months. So whatever you eat today directly affects what you will want to eat tomorrow (maybe).

Yes, it might take willpower to make the initial change: the bacteria in your stomach don’t want to be starved to death and will put up a fight, but I think we are mistaken to believe that maintaining our new healthy diet will always need willpower.

After the headaches (which only reassured me that I was doing the right thing), I don’t think I needed willpower to keep to my sugar-free diet for more than a week.

What I think is needed instead is an understanding of how our microbiota, gut and brain work together and how we can use this nascent science to give ourselves the best possible chance of eating the healthy diet we want.

Your mileage will vary.

Perhaps my 3-month sugar fast was excessive or maybe I was lucky and my gut responded better than most would. Who knows? You’ll have to see what works for you.

The Fast and the Curious

A few sugar-fasting rules that worked for me:

  1. No exceptions. Even one biscuit could keep those bad bacteria clinging on for dear life. For me, this included fruit and artificial sweeteners. I wanted that craving gone gone gone.
  2. Trust the science. Vegetables are freakin’ delicious and the more you eat, the more you’ll love them. This works because it’s not ‘you’ who loves them, it’s the bacteria that you’re cultivating. Imagine you’re growing a beautiful garden: you’ve just got to get the soil right, pull up the weeds and keep watering the flowers.
  3. Fast for longer than you feel is necessary. I can’t remember exactly how long I felt that I needed to use willpower, perhaps a week. After that, the rest of the 3-month fast wasn’t difficult at all: I was happily eating the more healthy foods that I and my microbiota now loved.
  4. Replace your sugar intake with the type of food that nourishes the bacteria that you want. Eat at least 30 different types of vegetables every week. Don’t worry about 5-a-day or 7-a-day rules, just make sure your weekly shop involves something from every basket in the greengrocer.
  5. Change your environment. Remove every last piece of sugary-food from your house. Stop going to places where you have a sugar-eating habit. That might mean changing where you shop, the cafes you visit or even the friends you hang out with (for the fasting period, at least!).

Finally: good luck, and let me know how you get on!

Further Reading

  • The Diet Myth by Tim Spector (2015) Tim is Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College London.
  • Gut by Giulia Enders (2015) Giulia is a resident doctor for Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology.
  • The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosley (2017) Michael is a broadcaster who trained as a doctor in the 80s, but apparently never practised.
  • Or anything else by an actual scientist…

Prefer listening? Try this All Hail Kale podcast from the BBC, featuring Tim Spector among others.

More than a crime thriller

How was 2018 for you? Do you look back and remember a year full of bad news, bad news about Brexit, Trump and Russia?

In which case, here’s something to make you feel better:

“[The news] doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence, any more than a crime thriller… But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.”

Tony Gallagher, Daily Mail Editor (2015) [LINK]

As grown-ups, we’re made to feel like it is part of our duty as citizens to ‘stay on top of the news’. But who among us truly believes that what we’re sold as ‘the news’ is actually giving us the tools we need to fulfil our duties?

Academic Jodie Jackson has found that regular news reporting is disempowering, making us feel that our social problems are ‘inevitable and endless, rather than solvable and temporary’.

Cathrine Gyldensted, a masters candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people’s positive affect (something like happiness) fell after reading ‘classical’ news reporting.

If you’re not convinced, then by all means do an audit of your favourite news sources. Does their agenda empower you, inspire you, or make you want to go out and change the world?

Does ‘the news’ give you the tools you need as a citizen who hopes to live a more fulfilled existence in a flourishing world?

If your answer is yes, then fine: keep them.

But if you feel ready to chuck in your usual news sources, I’ve got a few suggestions for replacements:

  • Books and libraries. Set your own long-form agenda. Learn something new and change the future. [Why Everyone Should Watch Less News And Read More Books Instead by Ryan Holiday]
  • Friends – yes, friends! Whether it’s their new baby, a job vacancy at their company, or an invite to a barbecue next weekend, it’s rare that our friends don’t offer news of real, immediate value to our lives.
  • Strangers. Or, as they are sometimes known: fellow citizens. We could all do with hanging out together more often.
  • Community politics. Politics isn’t something that happens out in make-believe world of ‘the news’. It something that happens right now, on the street. Go and say hi. (Okay, so I’m still buzzing that the council recently fixed a faulty street light outside my house, but I do think this is true.)
  • Go for a long walk outside in nature. What’s the news with the starlings, with the streams, or with the sunset?
  • An afternoon nap. Sometimes the best thing you can do is nap.
  • The Future Crunch newsletter. Try their roundup of 2018 for size – tagline: The world didn’t fall apart this year. You were just getting your news from the wrong places.
  • Positive News magazine and/or blog. If you are looking for more positive sources of ‘news’, then this list by Jodie Jackson will help. But honestly: do you need them?

As someone who hasn’t read the news for two years, I promise that you really don’t have to stay on top of everything. Trust that the important stuff will come to you because it’s important.

In the meantime, read a book, phone a friend, talk to a stranger, go for a walk. You’re free now. Relax.

And I wish you a happy news year!

7 things I’m grateful I did in 2018

I can’t quite believe 2018 is already nearly over. More than 31.5 million seconds have tick-tocked, transferring their unfulfilled potential into the secure achievement of the past.

It hasn’t all been easy, but here are seven of the more mind-blowing things that have happened for me in 2018, some of which I’ve written about before:

  • Finding Frisbee, and all the friends I’ve made through Ultimate in London, Bristol and Athens.
  • Travelling overland through Europe to Greece, then volunteering with refugees, eating falafel, and gazing at the stars.
  • Thighs of Steel, both cycling Ljubljana to Sofia in the summer and joining the organising team for 2019.
  • Writing an application for a postgraduate degree course, and another for an adventure internship. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise, but writing applications is a wonderful way of clarifying what I want with skin in the game.
  • Spending time with family and friends: family reunions in Oxon and the Isle of Wight, living with close friends in Bristol, meeting new friends – and new family!
  • Walking in the wilds of Scotland, Wales and Dartmoor, taking my first steps into a new professional sideline.
  • Reading and writing. As you know, I’ve read some spectacular books this year. Writing the second series of Foiled was a blast, and my Happy Friday newsletter has been a constant spring of inspiration.

So what’s next? Here are seven things I’d like to be grateful for in 2019:

  • Starting to earn some of my corn in the G.O.D. (Great Out Doors). Professionally, I’d like to spend less time typing at a computers, in a city, on my own.
  • Growing an audience for whatever it is that I write about, particularly through public speaking and events.
  • More transcendence: more meditation, more psychedelics, more awe in nature.
  • Going on another awesome trip like this summer’s Greece and Thighs of Steel combo.
  • Spending more time with family and friends. You can never get enough of this. It’s important, so I’ve got a spreadsheet.
  • Doing my damnedest to make Thighs of Steel 2019 a success, while growing our network of adventurous and compassionate souls.
  • I’ll leave this last one blank for something unexpected. Maybe series three of Foiled going to TV, maybe finding a more scholarly outlet for my psychology interests, maybe something else totally unforeseen.

2018 has been a year of waking up. Stand by for 2019!

The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 28 'Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.'

Today’s pages (p149-154) commence with the second aspect of Viktor Frankl’s ‘tragic triad’: guilt.

How can we find meaning in our lives in spite of the presence of guilt?

For Frankl, no crime is fully explicable. No crime can be ‘fully traced back to biological, psychological and/or sociological factors’, he writes.

Totally explaining one’s crime would be tantamount to explaining away his or her guilt and to seeing in him or her not a free and responsible human being but a machine to be repaired.

Continue reading The Viktor Frankl 5-a-Day Book Cult: Day 28 ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.’

Gifts Part 1: Life Let's go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I've-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who's just been given a wonderful gift.

I’ll kick off with that last resort of hapless students everywhere: looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. (OED.com, accessible by subscription: your library almost certainly has a subscription that you can use from anywhere. It’s incredible.)

I choose to ignore the etymology – from the Old English gift meaning payment for a wife – and instead zero in on the common definition:

A gift is something, the possession of which is transferred to another without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent.

Point A: I don’t know about you, but my first reaction when I read the bit about without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent was ‘Yeah, nice, but…’ Continue reading Gifts Part 1: Life Let’s go into the weekend with the oh-crap-now-I’ve-got-to-get-them-something mindset of someone who’s just been given a wonderful gift.