I hold strong opinions. Dangerously strong opinions.
The way that the human brain works, strong opinions like mine can lead to political breakdown, financial collapse and even death 💀
Most human beings hold at least a few strong opinions thanks to something called the confirmation bias. Duh, duh, DUH.
Because of, I dunno, evolution or something, our mystical skull goo (or ‘brain’) automagically seeks and celebrates evidence that supports our entrenched beliefs and rubbishes and discards evidence that contradicts them.
Humility is the recognition of your limitations. I always work with a goal, and the goal is to improve as a player and as a person.
This is the same Rafael Nadal who has won an all-time high 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the crowning achievement in tennis. What improvement? What limitations?
So whenever you notice yourself holding the sharp end of a strong opinion, take a minute.
Is the strength of your opinion really justified? Like, really justified.
Or are you just plain dumb?
Now: Be Like The Tree
But strong opinions don’t have to mean inflexible opinions.
If I can use a shitty metaphor that’ll break down in five minutes: imagine a hurricane ripping through your town. Sorry.
A skyscraper has a strong, inflexible opinion. It’s going dowwwwn. But a tree has a strong, but flexible opinion. It’s going to survive the storm by bending with the wind.
So be like the tree.
Strong opinions are fine — good, even — I will strenuously defend my strong opinion about the right of all beings to free movement across the planet. Go on: I dare you!
But strong opinions shouldn’t be like a badly constructed skyscraper in a hurricane. They should be re-examined in the light of new information, contrary viewpoints and changing circumstances. Like a tree.
In the latter pages of Poverty Safari, McGarvey addresses the apparent inability for political parties to work together to solve really important systemic problems like poverty.
McGarvey points the finger squarely at the confirmation bias and our desperate need to be right, no matter what the dire social consequences:
In a global civilisation dogged by political and religious tribalism, occasionally asking ourselves where we may be mistaken becomes a radical political act.
Isn’t it a bit convenient that we, the ‘good guys’, always find ourselves not only on the right side of history but also on the right side of every argument on the right side of history?
In an infinite universe, on a planet that has existed for billions of years, the chances of us being right about everything are slim, surely?
[…] There’s arguably more virtue in admitting you’re mistaken and correcting your course, than there is in stubbornly believing you haven’t been wrong since you were a teenager.
So (finally) here’s a list of:
9 things I once strongly believed and now completely don’t.
9 things I strongly believe today, but suspect I might not in the future.
9 things I strongly believe today, but am actively canvassing for contradiction — help me out, won’t you?
I suspect that sharing these beliefs should come with some sort of a trigger warning so please don’t take them too much to heart.
My point here is more to recognise where I now strongly disagree with my past self. And you can ask yourself the same question.
9 Things I Once Strongly Believed And Now Completely DON’T
Drugs are bad and will lead to addiction, destitution, imprisonment and an early grave. Drug users are, therefore, Bad People to be greatly feared. (Remember: these are opinions that I now strongly disagree with!)
Nation states are a sensible way of organising the different human communities of the world and borders must be protected against illegal intrusion.
The police service is unimpeachable. Police officers know the law and will always enforce it fairly. (Also applies to law courts and politicians.)
Morally and ethically, there is such a thing as Right and Wrong.
There is only one type of intelligence — the one that I’m good at.
When people let me down, turn me down or do me down, it’s probably because I’m in some way an awful person.
Being well-travelled is about how many countries you’ve visited.
Meat and dairy are an essential part of a healthy diet, or at least of a healthy diet for me.
I sleep badly 99.9 percent of the time. (It’s actually 100 percent — nah, only kidding. Compared to some horror stories I hear, I sleep really well. Sorry.)
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Suspect I Might Not In The Future
Everything is relative. Morality, ethics, opinions, abilities, knowledge, whatever — it’s all relative. So back off.
I’m a handsome clever clogs.
I’m in great health and will probably live forever.
I’m crap at music.
I despise potato crisps or any crisp-like appetiser, such as poppadoms or Chinese crackers.
‘Everything is amazing and no one is happy.’ I hope I always believe the first half of that quote and I really hope that, magically, everyone in the whole wide world contradicts me on the second half.
For most people, looking at the weather forecast is a total waste of time. We’re in the UK, you’re going to need a raincoat.
I don’t deserve enduring happiness in my relationships. Because that would be too easy.
9 Things I Strongly Believe Today, But Am Actively Canvassing For Contradiction
Please can everyone stop voting Tory for a second? Thanks.
Authentic connection is the single most important thing we can do for each other and for the planet that we live on. That could mean going for a muddy walk in nature or sharing a ribald laugh with a stranger.
Every second I spend in front of a screen instead of outside in nature is killing me a little bit.
Reading a physical book, however, is probably the best way of building our empathy muscles to help us with #2. Also: books we can read outside.
Going on adventures is a wonderful thing to do and another way to build authentic connection with people and place.
The mind is a body and needs stimulation, touch and movement.
All property should be cooperatively owned. End landlords.
Now, over to you — how wrong am I? And how wrong have you been?!
Thanks to AT for the motivation to turn this nagging thought into a story.
The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.
But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.
And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.
Yes, saunas are wonderful for my health, an excellent place to meet interestingstrangers, and the perfect environment for quiet reflection.
But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.
That sentence deserves its italics.
Busy Is A Decision
Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.
I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.
When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.
Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.
On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.
Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.
This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.
But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.
A Note On Accessibility
Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.
Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.
That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.
Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.
Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂
Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.
My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.
Yesterday I went for a sauna, a serendipitous, super-heated rendezvous with an Italian shamanic healer and, Paulo, a New York-born Italian-Irish dad who takes daily saunas so that he’s ‘mentally and physically ready’ to fight.
Paulo grew up tough. His own grandma would slap him if he chewed his food more than three times — I guess because not gobbling a scarce meal must be ingratitude.
Tough, ya know?
While myself and the shamanic healer sweated on the top deck pine, Paulo paced the tiles below, arms wheeling, trying to figure out how he could have been raised with such hardship and his own children with smartphones.
Winding back the clock, on Monday, I surfed my first proper waves — a 3.5ft primary swell, if that means anything to you.
I say ‘surf’… Apparently, the Bournemouth surf has a notoriously short interval between waves. As the first of a set broke over my board, the second was on top of me, smashing said board into the back of my head.
There’s a good reason why surf schools teach you to protect your head and neck when you come off. Takes practice though!
That night, as I did my yoga, half a cup of seawater flushed out of my nose.
Before all that, last weekend, I hosted my first ever Warmshowers cycle tourers, a pair of wonderful Dutch women doing a loop of southern England, before one cycles on alone to Portugal.
Pam and Laura were full of that energy you can only get from riding a really long way.
I’ve stayed with some incredible Warmshowers hosts all over the UK and Europe and, finally, I now understand the vicarious gratitude that my hosts must have felt.
There is a boundless joy in being able to open my door and offer so easily the solution to every need. A hearty stew on the stove, a couple of dry towels, a capful of washing detergent. A chair, a bed. Peace.
Pam and Laura’s Saturday night out in Bournemouth sounded like a blast: their pragmatic fleeces and practical shoes sharing bar space with a tirade of stag and hen fancy dressers.
Two species eyeing one another over cocktails and cider.
One of the most powerful tools in a Stoic’s mental toolbox is something I call the anxiety archive.
Building your own anxiety archive is a semi-structured, reasonably objective process — a HAZMAT suit and a pair of forceps — that helps you safely hold your fears, raise them to the light, examine them from every angle and see them for what they truly are: allies.
Lurking in the shadows, the nameless monster is most feared.
(Side swerve: it feels like the worst media outlets know and deliberately play on this, right?)
But, if we’re respectful, we can take that nameless monster on a journey of understanding and finish up with a fear that is, not only acknowledged, but accepted and even welcomed as a stir to action.
The journey goes something like this:
Notice anxiety: ‘I feel anxious…’ This is often the hardest part. Practice noticing.
Interrogate anxiety by questioning its supporting emotion or rationale: ‘Why am I anxious about this? Is there good reason to be anxious? Is a deadline approaching? What emotions do I feel besides anxiety? Where do I feel resistance? What do others expect of me?’
Understand anxiety: ‘This isn’t about the Dolomites, this is anxiety about my procrastination. This is the social anxiety of reaching out to cyclists and cycling groups with whom we don’t already have a relationship.’
Empathise with anxiety: ‘I hear you, anxiety. I hear your persistent alarm signal and acknowledge that I should be doing something.’
Act in concert with your anxiety: ‘I’m going to set a timer for ten minutes, find one cyclist or cycling group and tell them about this amazing ride we’re doing in the Dolomites.’
I don’t take my fears on this journey nearly enough, but I want to share two occasions in the past ten years when I have — and what I’ve learned from looking back.
Building My Anxiety Archive
In January 2012, I was inspired by hip-hop superstar Jay-Z to write up my own ‘99 Problems’.
Mine were less about systemic police brutality and racial profiling and more about ‘only having a single bed’ and ‘the mysteries of bicycle brakes’.
And I only got as far as 23 before I dried up.
Isn’t that amazing?
For all the worries that I had in my life at the time — from the laughably ridiculous (‘A lot of my clothes have holes in them’) to the genuinely worrysome (a bully for a housemate, relationships with ‘no flow’ and ‘No regular income’) — in sum of all of this anxiety, I still couldn’t come up with enough problems to pen a half-assed sonnet, let alone an era-defining rap.
(But, yes, if you’re wondering, thanks to my ongoing battle with eczema, the itch was one.)
Six years later, in February 2018, I wrote down another list of everything that was bothering me at the time.
I did little better: 28 anxieties.
Magic #1: Problems Get Boring Fast
Of course, if I really put my mind to it, I could easily bust out a list of 99 — or even 999 problems.
But part of the anxiety archive exercise is to realise that, for me at least, I get bored of worrying long, long before I hit Jay-Z’s 99 problems.
(And I’m not alone: I can only actually count 9 distinct problems in Jay-Z’s famous song.)
As they start to pile up under my pen, a wave of exhaustion overtakes me. Writing down any more starts to feel silly.
Instead, helpful solutions spring to mind, as well as gratitude for the many, many things in my life that aren’t problems.
Looking down at the abstracted, objectified feelings that fill my spreadsheet (natch) gives me a different perspective on my anxiety.
They either look silly (buy some new clothes, Dave) or they become puzzles to figure out (talk to my neighbour or move house).
My mind becomes active rather than reactive. I can put away the archive and get on with my day, lighter.
But the anxiety archive isn’t only of use in the moment. I recommend storing your archives on a computer for posterity so that you can enjoy…
Magic #2: This Too Shall Pass
Browsing through my 2018 anxiety archives from the vantage point of today, I am amazed to find only two remain in full force.
Another eleven are notably quieter for the passage of years, still something I think about from time to time, but now scarcely worth a mention.
That means that more than half of the anxieties on that four-year-old list leave me with nothing more than a wry smile at the memory.
It’s immensely reassuring to recognise that I am, for example, no longer anxious about the state of my arteries or whether or not I’m ‘good enough’ to write entertaining, interesting, useful stuff.
Of course, I could fill this email with a dozen more juicy anxieties that have crept up on me since 2018, but — and here is where the magic is — the strength of building an anxiety archive is that it gives me incontrovertible evidence that ‘this too shall pass’.
From my anxiety archive, I know that there’s a solid chance today’s most pressing anxiety will, given time, become tomorrow’s wry smile.
Unlocking My Anxiety Archive
With the distance of time between us, I can see from both my 2012 and 2018 anxiety archives that the worst rarely happens and, when it does, it is rarely the catastrophe that I foretold.
Indeed — and here is where I invite you to give me a hearty slap in the face — these difficult moments were hidden opportunities for growth.
What we once considered weaknesses, with practice and patience, become strengths.
For example, the breadth of work that I do, meandering across industries and skillsets, was once a great source of anxiety.
For years, I believed that I had no focus, no commitment and no purpose.
The exact same breadth has, since 2018, become a source of strength.
I am a writer: I write this newsletter, as well as comedy with Beth Granville and environmental science journalism.
I’m an outdoor instructor, working weekends with kids as they plan, organise and execute their first overnight expeditions.
This plurality of interests is, well, interesting. My diverse portfolio is, by its nature, more robust to shocks. Much is work that I can do from anywhere, setting my own boundaries.
Most importantly, however, I truly value this work and my enthusiasm carries over into a more positive relationship with myself and the rest of planet.
It took a lot of energy to get here — and anxiety was an integral part of the process.
Anxieties Are Allies
Anxiety doesn’t have to feel like a darkened, locked room; we can choose to feel this emotional force as a powerful motivating ally.
But before we simply let our anxieties pull us along, willy-nilly, we must first harness the energy by noticing, naming, interrogating, understanding and empathising.
As a regular part of our self-driving engine of inspiration, we can also then go back through our anxiety archive to identify and celebrate how we found the strength to grow in years gone by.
You see: buried in our own personal anxiety archive we will find the proof that we already possess everything within ourselves that we need to in order to rise and meet today’s challenges — not in spite of our fears, but thanks to them.
NOTE 1: Anxiety can be devastating. The anxiety archive is intended as a mental health check-up, not an emergency intervention. Don’t hesitate to see a professional counsellor if you think you might need one.
Today I’m going to build on everything that I wrote last week, encorporating as many of your wonderful contributions as I can.
In fact, last Saturday, I got so excited by your responses that I had to make a load of changes to the original article, so please go and read that if you haven’t already.
Then come back for more diaries.
What’s In A Name: Man Sloth Mode? Secondary Carer Sloth Mode? Drive Care / Take Care?
One of the things that surprised me about the comments on last week’s email was how many women said that they had noticed themselves slipping into man sloth mode — to the point where a friend asked if they could drop the ‘man’ bit altogether.
Of course you can — it’s yours!
Before delving into the terminology, it’s worth saying that I don’t necessarily believe these women when they say they go into what I called man sloth mode.
So, while I accept that women (being human) can and do go into some sort of sloth mode, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as common and nowhere near as acute as the male strand that I discussed last week.
Aaaaanyway, that aside, what was particularly interesting was under what circumstances people told me they go into sloth mode.
Just as men tend to sloth mode when a woman is there to take care of all the life admin, so it seems that adults of all genders can easily slip into sloth mode when they go back to their parents’ for the weekend.
Having just spent a week with family, I can relate. But I’m getting better at noticing man sloth mode and acting before it impacts too badly on other people. (And I still think you’re overpraising when I fill the dishwasher, mum 😂)
Fascinatingly, I also got an email from a friend who is part of a two-mum family. They described how one person, who they call the primary carer, often carries the ‘emotional and functional weight’ for everyone in the family unit.
‘Traditionally,’ my friend wrote, ‘it’s the Dad that slips into Man Sloth Mode, but take out those genders and you’re left with secondary carer sloth mode.’
My friend also made a brilliant distinction between what she called ‘drive care’ and ‘take care’ modes — and how she and her partner have bounced back and forth between the two as they’ve matured.
If I’ve understood correctly:
Drive care = someone who sees and actively straightens out the chaos of life: a person who cares
Take care = someone who would rather passively adapt themselves to the chaos of life: a person who receives or benefits from care
I love how this distinction acknowledges that we can find ourselves more or less in one or the other mode at different times and in different contexts in our lives.
As children, naturally, we are take carers. As parents, naturally, we are drive carers.
Within the parental bubble, it is common for one or other of the partners to take the more active primary care role. And I think the same is true for relationships without children: a primary carer emerges. Which sucks.
So: what do you think about dropping the man from man sloth mode? What about my friend’s secondary carer sloth mode and the drive and take care distinction?
Oooh — talking of inspired new terminology. How about this, from the irrepressible M.C.:
Man sloth dodging (noun,verb): Man sloth dodging is when the female partner of one man makes direct contact with the female partner of another man in order to guarantee the successful and timely arrangement of social plans. 🤣
So good. More please!
Utimately, the point here is to develop language that facilitates conversations. Have we done that? Maybe. Can we go further? Definitely.
Psychological Fragility And The Male Response
The response to last week’s newsletter was genuinely wonderful. I loved getting screenshots of when you shared it with friends. 😍
But I couldn’t help noticing that the strongest responses were from women. Largely in the form of: YES, THANK YOU FOR NOTICING.
I feel a bit of fraud, given that ninety percent of the ideas behind man sloth mode were smuggled away from conversations I’ve had with women.
Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to hear that I nailed one of the purposes of the article: to really hear and validate what other people are saying.
Ultimately, however, I wrote this whole thing for men — to help myself and other males take responsibility for the direction of our lives and our relationships — so it’s their reaction and response that I’m most worried about.
The tricky thing here is that men tend to be, in the words of one friend I spoke to last week, ‘psychologically fragile’. After all, that’s why primary carers feel they have to overpraise their male partners and colleagues for the slightest cooperative behaviour.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like we men don’t tend to deal well with our flaws being pointed out, nor with other people providing us with a solution that we haven’t come up with by ourselves (and subsequently been overpraised for our cleverness).
I have essentially dodged this problem by coming up with a solution (man sloth mode) for which I have been acknowledged and praised (again: thank you). This assuages my ego and paves the way for me to be a bit better.
But I want to find an accessible way for everyone to talk about these problems.
A female friend of mine told me that she’d love to send my article to a bunch of the men in her life, but was a little nervous about how it might be received, as a ‘personal slight’ or even ‘man-hating’.
So how do we reach men?
Do you know, I think the answer might be…
The Sweaty Stranger In The Sweaty Sauna
Bear with me.
Last weekend, I shared a sauna with a lovely chap called Ren.
We chatted about this and that: how awkward a sweaty silence can be in a sauna, how nice it is to chat to strangers, even if they’re sweaty, stories of past sweaty sauna escapades, and so on.
Then, because we were two sweaty men sitting on a sweaty bench in eighty degree heat, I decided to broach the topic of last week’s newsletter.
This was the first time I’d chatted to a total stranger about these ideas and I was unsure what to expect from a half-naked sweaty man in his mid-fifties.
Reader, Ren practically slipped off his bench with enthusiasm.
Ren’s father had died when he was very young, so was brought up by his mother. His mother, as it happened, was a feminist and determined to make sure that her son did his share of the housework.
Ren cleaned the toilets, did the dishes and the mopping, as well as the cooking. By the time he was an adult, Ren could actually function as, well, as an adult.
He only realised this was weird when he went to university and all his peers were, to put it bluntly, slobs.
Now happily married with two kids, Ren boasts that he does seventy percent of the housework at home, simply because, having started at such a young age, he’s better at it than his wife.
Ren is living, breathing, sweating proof that boys can learn this stuff, if only we teach them.
‘Kids,’ Ren tells me, ‘pick up on your actions, not your words.’
‘You think you’re doing your kid a favour by not making them do the washing up, but you’re not,’ Ren says, mopping his brow. ‘You’re only saving up problems for them later in life.’
Boys need adult householding skills not only for the bloody obvious reasons like hygeine and diet, but also for the sake of their adult relationships.
Ren was taken aback when he got to university and realised that all the other young men were slobs, but he was delighted to find that his domestic talents were valuable, attractive — sexy even.
Man Sloth Mode ≠ Sexy
Guys: science tells us that men who do the dishes have more sex.
Actually, there’s nuance here and the nuance starts badly.
‘Traditional’ gender conventions have actually been found to increase the amount of sex had by heterosexual couples.
The explanation for this is that traditional ‘sexual scripts’ of ‘male sexual control’ privilege male sexual desire and men, basically, want to have loads of sex. So that’s what happens.
But, as the adults among you have probably noticed by now, there’s a lot more to our ‘sexual scripts’ than this.
So, yes: more egalitarian attitudes to domestic and paid labour leads to a reduction in sexual frequency, through the mechanism of male sexual control.
As I said: boooooo.
But, if you study the model closely, you can see that male sexual control comes at a cost in communication. Weird. The more the male is in command of the sexual situation, the less likely they are to communicate with their partner.
Communication was measured, quite simply, using the following question:
When you have had a particularly difficult or bad day at work or in your daily activities, what is the percent chance that you will tell [PARTNER] about what is going on?
The more egalitarian each partner’s attitude towards work, the more likely they were to report a high percentage and actually discuss their problems, together. Honey, how was your day?
That sounds like a nice thing to have in a relationship. But it’s got nothing to do with sex — or has it? Yes.
Carlson and Soller found that, with higher scores for communication, came higher scores of ‘sexual self-efficacy’ — for both male and female. The more men and women talk to each other, the more sexually self-efficacious they become.
Sexual self-efficacy is sexual empowerment. You can play along at home by (strongly) agreeing or (strongly) disagreeing with these statements:
If my sexual activity is not satisfying, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
I feel that it is difficult to get my [PARTNER] to do what makes me feel good during sex.
If our birth control choice is not satisfactory, there is little I can do to improve the situation.
Now here’s the clever part: as female sexual self-efficacy rises, so does sexual frequency for everyone.
➡️ Egalitarian attitudes towards domestic and paid labour
➡️ Better partner communication between male and female
➡️ Higher women’s sexual self-efficacy
➡️ Higher sexual frequency 🔛
But wait — there’s more!
In a 2015 study of first-time parents (a role that is heavy on household labour), researchers found that more equal division of labour (presumably excluding the actual birth labour) led to greater sexual satisfaction for mothers and greater sense of romance for fathers. Aww…
Frankly, nothing I’ve said here should come as a surprise. Tired, overworked, annoyed women are unlikely to find a sloth man sexually attractive or, for that matter, have the energy or even the free time (which is, incidentally, gendered) for sex.
And yet, at the risk of slapping you in the face with stating-the-bleeding-obvious research one too many times…
In 2017 Swedish researchers found evidence that relationships where there is an unequal division of domestic labour, combined with a general sense of entitlement among men, are — BREAKING NEWS — liable to end in a breakup.
Right. That’s enough now.
Are you a man? Do you enforce and enact traditional sexual scripts of male sexual control to get your rocks off? Okaaay… And how’s that working out for you?
End On A Positive
So what now?
Well, besides a little idea I have for setting up a sweaty sauna men’s group, now I go for a quick walk and then I go to bed.
But before I disappear, one of the most thoughtful responses I got to last week’s email included a ‘not yet fully-formed thought’ about the role of positive self talk in man sloth mode.
My email last week might have made it sound like there was a lot of work to do. And there is. But it’s important to focus on the positive and acknowledge when we are doing our best.
The good news is that every moment we live between now and our death is another moment to do our best. So let’s not beat ourselves up when we slip-slide; let’s just keep on noticing when we do.
I will finish now by repeating my four point, work-in-progress strategy to draw ourselves out of whatever we call this sloth mode of being:
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
Huge, huge thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article and all the conversations that have contributed to this one. Please share your experiences and let’s keep thinking and acting on this!
But none of these scales or inventories helped me understand what was happening.
Stuck In The Mud
On paper, things were going well. I’d just co-written and co-produced a successful Edinburgh show, now commissioned for BBC radio. I’d also been hired to work for The Bike Project, helping them give bikes to refugees in London.
In March, I moved into a lovely houseshare near Burgess Park with my partner. We had a garage for our bikes, tomatoes in the garden and only shared a bathroom with one other couple.
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt like an adult — I even managed to buy us a super king mattress for £10 off a millionaire in Kensington.
Life was totally going my way, but I seemed to be stuck in the mud, somehow unable or unwilling to let it flow.
This feeling of mudiness not only affected my mental wellbeing, but also — not surprisingly — affected my relationship.
Then, as now, I worked from home and found myself, most days, pretty much waiting around for my partner to get back from work. Then, somehow, I thought, my life could begin.
Except, increasingly and understandably, I wasn’t the sort of person she wanted to spend time with. Who wants to hang around that guy?
(Side note: An introductory counselling course should be on the national curriculum in its entirety, but if you only take one counselling technique into your life, take these 12 Blocks To Active Listening.)
This course taught me a lot that I didn’t know about the simplest things. One of those things was the importance of simple observation of your own mental landscape.
That summer, with the help of those psychological instruments, I observed that I didn’t always feel ‘dissatisfied with life’ and that, most often, the balance of my life was toward ‘positive experience’.
It wasn’t difficult, then, to pay closer attention to the moments when I felt most positive.
I’ll give you a second to roll your eyes.
Yep: it was those horribly rare occasions when I got out of the house to spend time with friends.
On 28 October 2017, I spent half an hour building a spreadsheet to keep an eye on how often I was seeing my friends. Then I phoned my parents and met up with an old primary school friend for a stroll along the beach and a Harvester.
I originally set up the spreadsheet as a 30-day experiment in order to, in the words of my diary at the time, ‘see what my social support is like and how we can build and expand and whatnot’.
Over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day.
Why? This newsletter is the answer to that question.
I don’t intend for this to be the final word on masculinity, but more of a provocation. Only by talking about this stuff can we hope to live in a more harmonious, creative and joyful future.
I would LOVE to hear your side of the story: your experiences, observations and coping mechanisms. Thank you.
What Is Man Sloth Mode?
Essentially, man sloth mode is a temporary depressed state of being to which men are particularly susceptible.
I don’t mean depressed in the diagnostic sense — although it can lead to that — I mean low energy, low initiative, low activity, low affect, low arousal.
And it’s worth reiterating that this is a temporary state, usually triggered by specific environmental factors.
It is perfectly possible for a man to miraculously exit man sloth mode when faced with a stimulating environment, such as a table tennis table, a lively speakeasy, or a room that really needs its skirting boards deep cleaned (real life example).
There is one enormous environmental elephant in the room here, which I’ll get onto in a second.
First, however, let’s look more closely at the symptoms of man sloth mode so that we all know what we’re talking about.
Man Sloth Mode: The Symptoms
Man sloth mode has a diverse range of symptoms, covering life at home, work and play.
In fact, it’s actually useful to split them into two strands. Let’s call them social man sloth mode and work man sloth mode.
These are not mutually exclusive, but you might find that you slip more easily into one or the other.
What’s interesting is that, while almost everyone has stories of work man sloth mode, social man sloth mode seems to go under the radar. Which is a big shame because social man sloth mode is quite literally a killer. But more on that later.
First: the symptoms.
1. Social Man Sloth Mode
As we’ve seen, when I was balls deep in man sloth mode, I inexplicably stopped doing the things that make me happy.
In so doing, I effectively outsourced the majority of my social support network to my partner. Not cool.
Here are some more symptoms of social man sloth mode that you might recognise, in yourself or loved ones:
Not seeing your own close friends
Not doing the things that make you happy, or other inexplicable radical change in past-you and now-you
Spending a disproportionate amount of your free time on passive past-times like watching television or scrolling through the internet
Losing your ambition or get-up-and-go in both social and work settings
Piggy-backing on the social plans and activities of other people
Increased dependence on one other person for social support
Never hosting social events
Saying things like, ‘I don’t mind, you decide’ when asked what you want to do
Not introducing other people to your close friends
By the way, I’m not talking here about feeling bored or apathetic when faced with niche social pursuits. I can understand why some people might be less enthusiastic than I am about spreadsheets, word etymologies and bike pannier bags.
This is about switching off from social contact and activities or shifting into auto-pilot when you used to take the initiative.
2. Work Man Sloth Mode
This is the one that a lot of people get proper angry about — and for good reason.
While social man sloth mode tends to be a slow boiler, work man sloth mode has an immediate and disruptive impact on the lives of others.
This is all about the essential admin that goes into basic human functions like eating food, inhabiting a home, wearing clothes, and caring for other humans.
The symptoms of work man sloth mode include, but are not remotely limited to, the following:
Doing shared tasks badly so you’re never asked again
Only doing the fun or exciting bits of shared tasks
Only doing joint activities on your terms: your way, your timeframe, your strengths, your activities
Waiting until instructed on tasks, rather than taking the initiative; requiring micro-management in those tasks
Offering to help someone else in a task and then not moving from the sofa
Neglect of basic self-care: cleaning, cooking, washing, exercise
Tolerating or simply ‘not seeing’ deteriorating living conditions until someone else fixes the problem
Failure to anticipate future problems, especially when they concern other people (and responding to criticism by saying that you’re ‘living in the moment’)
Failure to anticipate the needs of others
Limited expressions of gratitude, including compliments, gift giving and appropriate apologies, creating a sense of entitlement, taking advantage or simply not seeing the work others do to keep the world spinning around
Always having an excuse or shifting the blame: ‘but you enjoy doing X’, ‘you know I’m no good at Y’, ‘I physically can’t see the problem’, ‘I’m just more laid back than you’, ‘you make me feel like a failure’, ‘I can’t multitask’, ‘I’m too tired after work’, ‘yeah, you being so busy has been hard for me too’, ‘you’re not being fair — I do the bins!’
Do you know what I’m talking about? Recognise yourself or any of the men in your life? Can you think of any other symptoms? Please let me know!
The Enormous Environmental Elephant
Yep: the biggest environmental predictor of man sloth mode is the convenient presence in that man’s life of a woman.
Someone to pick up the slack, someone to keep our lives ticking along.
Stop A Second, Dave: Why Do You Hate Men?
I don’t. I write this because I am a man and I love men. I think they’re pretty cool. At least some of the time.
I write this because, when we unwittingly slip into man sloth mode, we’re shooting ourselves in the face.
As a friend said to me only last night: it’s as if the world has moved on and men haven’t noticed.
In the past seventy years, at least in wealthy liberal societies, gender roles and opportunities have changed. Today, all around me, I see inspiring, active women and men struggling to get up to speed.
Real life example: I moved to Bournemouth a couple of years ago and I’ve found it much, much easier to make female friends.
Is this because too many men are stunted by social man sloth mode?
Admittedly there has been a pandemic on, but consider this:
The surfing class that I recently joined is female led and majority female
The off-road cycling club I’ll be riding with tomorrow is female and non-binary led and majority female (tbf, their motto is ‘shred the patriarchy’)
Plus I’m the only man in the room when I train at my local bare-knuckle bloodsports wrestle club
But personally I see far more women than men putting themselves out there, doing epic shit and making the most of life: at home, at work and at play.
What about you? When you think about successful adults in your life, the ones who are totally smashing it out of the park, who comes to mind?
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing
Sometimes, when my female friends talk about what I’m calling man sloth mode, they see an evil, almost Macchiavellian intent behind the behaviour.
Maybe they’re right, but I genuinely think that, most of the time, the lethargy of man sloth mode is unwitting.
We don’t know what we’re doing.
That isn’t an excuse — I just mean that most of us lack the emotional self-awareness to properly understand what we’re doing to ourselves.
If we seriously confronted what we do to ourselves by choosing inaction, then we would see that man sloth mode makes us miserable.
That’s exactly what happened to me. Unconsciously, I was letting a woman do the cognitive and emotional labour of, well, pretty much my entire life.
(Just to be completely clear: man sloth mode was NOT something that my partner did to me. I accidentally choose it for myself, like pulling clothes out of the wardrobe at random and only realising at an important job interview that I was wearing Mickey Mouse pyjamas.)
The Truth Of What We’re Doing To Ourselves
In 2016-17, I was what we can call a functional man sloth.
I still did the basics of cleaning, washing, shopping and whatnot, but I stopped doing anything interesting outside the home and just kind of hung around waiting for my partner to make my life exciting.
(Note 1: The studies referenced above almost universally report these statistically significant effects for social isolation, not necessarily for feelings of loneliness. You may know some people who are perfectly happy when they are alone. Happy, but, statistically speaking, probably not healthy.)
(Note 2: This study of social isolation and gender neatly summarises the differences between the social support networks of men and women: ‘men generally get their emotional needs met by their spouses/partners while women often get their emotional needs met by their female friends’. Boom. That was me: social man sloth.)
Why We Need (The Concept Of) Man Sloth Mode
Despite the shadowy threat of depression, illness, death and suicide, rather than trying to change our behaviour, we men find it easier to deploy a long litany of excuses and finger-pointing to re-write the narrative of what we’re doing so that it sits more comfortably with our sense of self-esteem.
The man sloth imagines a world where other people genuinely enjoy scrubbing the toilet bowl, where other people just need to chill out more and where only we’ve had a hard day at work.
‘Besides,’ the indignant man sloth cries, ‘we do the bins once a fortnight!’
I believe that this inability to accept responsibility is at least partially because we don’t have the language to understand our own predicament.
This makes it very difficult for us to talk about the problem as adults, to address our behaviour without resorting to insults or shame, and to change ourselves for a more just society.
Hence our need for a new concept: man sloth mode.
(Almost inevitably, the term ‘man sloth’ was created by a woman. Thanks G!)
Hang On: What’s Wrong With ‘Selfish Lazy Man Child’?
‘But Dave,’ I hear you cry, ‘we already have the words to describe such a man: we call him a selfish lazy man child.’
It’s a good question. Why (apart from lucrative opportunities for merch) do we need an entirely new term for such age-old behaviour?
Firstly — and I flagged this up earlier, if you remember — man sloth mode is a mode, a temporary state of being, not a fixed character trait.
(By the way, I have thought about removing the ‘man’ and calling it ‘default sloth mode’. Maybe that would not only make it more palatable to our male ego, but also recognise that this is a collection of behaviours that men seem to revert to almost by default when someone else is there to take care of us.)
The problem with terms like ‘selfish’ and ‘lazy’ is that, even when objective rather than accusatory, they come across as fixed character traits. If you’re lazy, then you’re lazy — and always will be.
Terms like these, although often thrown around in bitterness, can actually turn into excuses to protect the status quo: ‘He’ll never change, he’s just lazy’ or ‘You know me, love, I’m a lazy bum’ (said with a forgive-me-twinkle in his eye).
But adult males are more than capable of stepping up into very active roles (in fact, sometimes we all wish they wouldn’t, but that’s another story…)
‘Man child’ is a little better. It at least acknowledges that this is largely a problem with men, rather than ungendered character traits like selfishness.
Man sloth behaviour is also very child-like and friends even tell me that they have to speak to their male partners as if they were children just to get them to function.
This ‘mothering’ seems to happen in at least four ways:
Making deals to the effect of ‘you can watch TV if you do the dishes’
Silently spinning plates and tidying up after them
And the most pernicious: over-praising the accomplishment of basic tasks, like successfully chopping two carrots (real life example)
But we are not children.
Treating us like children is not only degrading for the ‘mother’, a role that friends tell me makes them feel guilty and ‘naggy’, but it also re-enforces infantile behaviour.
It needs to stop.
Real Life Example Of Over-Praising: The Man’s Barbecue
The Man’s Barbecue begins several days before, when The Man’s Partner makes a list, does the shopping and invites guests.
The night before, The Man’s Partner spends a couple of hours preparing salads and marinading the meat.
On the day of The Man’s Barbecue, The Man’s Partner tidies the garden, sets out the table and welcomes the guests.
Meanwhile, The Man cracks open a beer and drags out the barbecue and coals from last summer. With great theatre, the guests gather round to watch The Man light The Man’s Barbecue. He can’t find the matches.
The Man’s Partner finds the matches.
The Man’s Barbecue is officially lit. The Man sits down beside The Man’s Barbecue with a poker and another beer. Two hours later, the meat is still raw. The Man’s Partner finishes it off in the oven.
While The Man’s Partner cleans up in the kitchen, the guests pick through the last of the salads and applaud: ‘Wow, Man, you sure do a great barbecue!’
I Understand Why You Do This, But Please Stop
Treating an adult male as a man child inadvertently enables the status quo.
The tougher reality is that we can do all the adult stuff and, if there’s some stuff we still need to learn, then it’s not the responsibility of anyone but ourselves to act as our trainer.
There is no excuse: the internet is stuffed with detailed instructions on how to do every single adult task required for modern living.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect men to become mind-readers, but they must become able to hear the needs of other people and to teach themselves the necessary skills to respond effectively.
No one likes to think of themselves as selfish, lazy or a man child. When we are told those things, either in words or through actions, we don’t hear needs being expressed. Instead, we re-write the narrative to maintain the coherence of our self-image.
That’s why ‘selfish lazy man child’ doesn’t work and that’s why we need a new term: something that men will actually hear and respond to.
3 Reasons Man Sloth Mode Might Just Work
It acknowledges that there is a problem: sloth behaviour isn’t desirable
It applies to all men: it’s not a personal attack
It’s a temporary state of being, like boredom or anger, that we can shift out of
(While we’re here, a word on #2: A lot of women, when I describe man sloth mode to them, say: ‘But it’s not all men’. Fellas, let’s be honest here: yes it is. We might be susceptible in different ways at different times and perhaps to different degrees, but this is surely universal among men.
I genuinely believe that I’m one of the ‘good guys’, but the whole reason I’m writing this article is because I still need to find reliable ways of levering myself out of man sloth mode.)
Hopefully I’ve done at least a half-assed job at explaining what I’m talking about and convinced you that we men need new language so that we can talk about what’s happening to us when we’re being crap.
Hopefully, too, I haven’t offended too many people: please remember that this is very much a first draft and I still need your help to understand what’s going on.
Phew. Okay, now it’s time to go deeper.
What Causes Man Sloth Mode?
I think this is an important question because the answers can help us, as men, understand what we can do to change.
But first, a warning: we don’t want to be trapped on either side of the explanation canyon:
I don’t want to come out of this section shrugging my shoulders and saying, ‘Love them or hate them, men are just like that!’ Nor do I want to point the merciless finger of shame at the individual man.
The path on one side of the canyon won’t change anything, while the other path might (and only might) change a single person alone.
I want to come out of this section with answers that will open up a path right down the middle.
I want to believe that the problem of man sloth mode is both tractable and bigger than any one man. In fact, I want to believe that it’s excitingly gigantic (more on that in a bit).
So here we go.
First up is the depressing answer that things are the way they are because things are the way they always have been.
In the UK, according to the government’s Gender Equality Monitor, women do 25.5 hours of unpaid work per week, while men manage only 16 hours — and more than 7 of those are spent on transport, probably commuting to work.
At this pace, it will take 210 years before we have eliminated man sloth mode. I’ll be dead by then. Too slow.
But if a couple of centuries is too long, then how about millions of years? That brings us nicely to my second answer to Where Does Man Sloth Mode Come From?
My Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️
Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, evolutionary or otherwise. But this is a story that might help some men move past any feeling of being under personal attack, paving the way for positive action.
Bear with me on this one because it might sound for a while like I’m making intractable excuses for man sloth mode. I’m not.
Massively Generalised Proposition: Men evolved for explosive life-and-death activities.
Men seem to have an evolutionary advantage when it comes to stuff like fighting (to the death), sprinting (to kill things) and lifting heavy rocks (to crush things).
This massively generalised proposition has two aspects:
Men perform better when they and their loved ones are under threat or facing an epic struggle, rather than when faced with the non-threatening day-to-day life admin
This life-and-death stuff tends to be explosive: it requires a huge outlay of energy in a short space of time
The consequence of all this is that, when not under threat or facing an epic struggle, men will conserve energy for when they really need it.
There you go: a neat little evolutionary explanation for man sloth mode. We’re not being lazy or selfish, we’re saving our energy so we can throw rocks at bears.
The problem is that, most of the time, for men like me, a life-and-death threat or epic struggle never materialises and we can slide unwittingly into a semi-permanent state of man sloth.
(There is one notable exception to this dearth of life-and-death in our modern man lives. Included in my list of life-and-death activities is mating. Yes: we can be pretty good at seduction.
So now you also have a neat little evolutionary explanation for that infuriating tendency for men to be incredibly attentive right up until the moment you decide to sleep with them.
As a good friend said to one of her girlfriends who was being messed around: ‘Hun, he wasn’t leaving it six days to reply when he wanted to fuck you.’ Amen to that.)
After reading the first draft of this article, a very smart friend cast doubt over the suggestion that evolutionary pressure could possibly exert much of an influence over our lives today.
She also described her scepticism about gender essentialism, the idea that evolution has somehow prepared ‘men’ as a biological category to do things differently than it has prepared ‘not-men’.
But, she added, ‘Maybe the concept of evolution and the concept of the biological category has!’
So the challenge for us men is how to use this popular, if scientifically unlikely, evolutionary story to support men’s growth rather than to fossilise it.
Where Does That Leave Us?
The point is that my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ pins the ‘blame’ for the existence of man sloth mode on powerful forces outside of our control.
That doesn’t mean we shrug our shoulders and give up: it means that we now have two ways to understand our predicament and two approaches to change.
On the one hand, the social conditioning explanation shows us that change is possible: if slimy girls can learn how to anticipate the needs of others and change the sheets more than once a year, then so can we adult males.
On the other hand, my Spurious Evolutionary Explanation™️ helps us shift the weight of individual shame or guilt (which isn’t helping anyone) and understand what might motivate us to elevate ourselves out of this temporary depressed state of being.
In a word or six, we men need something that’s…
Excitingly Gigantic (But Also Totally Achievable)
This is where we get back to my legendary friends spreadsheet.
Every evening, I take a second to note down the number of meaningful interactions that I had with friends that day, either in person or on the phone.
Then, every Monday, in my personal finance and business accounting spreadsheet, I write down the total number of meaningful interactions for that week.
Over the past year, my average weekly total was 16 friend interactions, with a record high of 36 and a low of just 3 (shocking and only partially explained by the November lockdown).
I have data like this going back more than four years: that silo of numbers is (to me) excitingly gigantic, making me feel like my social life is some kind of epic data-based struggle.
At the same time, the individual actions that I take every day are almost pathetically achievable, pandering to my default laziness even on my most man sloth mode days.
The spreadsheet plays to my strengths as a man, but its purpose is to hold me to account.
Am I feeling a little blue today? Well, maybe it’s because I have only spoken to three people all week.
Finally, this is the answer to the question posed at the start of this newsletter
Drum roll please because coming right up is my answer to why, over four years later, I still update my (now legendary) friends spreadsheet every single day:
Rather than outsourcing the management of my social support network to a woman, I have outsourced it to a spreadsheet.
My friends spreadsheet was the first of my excitingly gigantic but also totally achievable strategies to protect myself against the type of chronic man sloth mode that I fell into back in the winter of 2016.
I have plenty of others, like my two daily journals that help me watch my mental health or my 100 Days of Adventure challenge that pushes me to get outside regularly.
But these strategies only tackle personal pickles like my year-long social man sloth mode.
They don’t cover (except obliquely) the more immediate man sloth mode behaviours that result in other people picking up the majority of society’s practical care work as well as the bulk of its cognitive and emotional labour.
We need a strategy that will help us in the very moment that work man sloth mode strikes.
What About Strategies To Defeat Work Man Sloth Mode?
Confession: I don’t really know. This is all new so I’m still experimenting. I would love to hear from you on this one.
What I do know is that the creation of the term ‘man sloth mode’ has already helped me overcome its seductive allure.
Last night, I went over to a friend’s house for dinner. She was in the middle of cooking us a curry and, when I arrived, I noticed that I could quite comfortably slip into man sloth mode.
I felt a strong urge to do nothing but drink tea and chatter inanely while she worked at the stove, making the dinner that I would later scoff contentedly.
But instead of succumbing to man sloth mode, I called myself out.
I explained what I was feeling using the language of man sloth mode (it helped that I’d spent the whole day writing this article). Then, instead of sitting down and watching her work, I made rotis for us to eat with the curry.
This might not sound like much (and it really isn’t), but it is, I hope you’ll agree, a step in the right direction.
If this is a strategy for overcoming acute daily man sloth mode (and I think it could be), then it has four stages:
Notice yourself slipping into man sloth mode. If you’re not sure when this happens, look closely at the symptoms listed at the top of this article
Call yourself out publicly and explain what’s going on (without being boring or attention seeking). At first, acknowledging man sloth mode out loud will really help, but the ultimate goal is to effortlessly skip from stage one directly to stage three. (Who knows: stage one might one day miraculously vanish altogether…)
Seize the initiative. Take positive action to drive yourself out of man sloth mode. If you genuinely can’t think of anything to do, simply ask how you can help and listen to the answer. WARNING: If you find the other person instinctively micro-managing your contribution, don’t get annoyed. Remember that they might well be used to dealing with man sloths as if they were children. Politely request that they step back: you’ve got this.
If you discovered in stage three a pretty basic life skill that you couldn’t do without a lot of help, go onto the internet and learn how it’s done properly. Do not waste other people’s time: they are not your personal life trainer. If you regularly find yourself unable to think of helpful things to do, then spend more time observing the things that other people do to be helpful. Copy them.
As the infamous man sloth Theodore Roosevelt once berated himself:
Get action; do things; be sane; don’t fritter away your time; create; act; take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.
Life in man sloth mode is miserable. It is ending our relationships, fossilising our personal growth and slowing killing us. For our sake and for your own sake, get action.
Coda: Over To Us
This morning I was chatting to a friend on a bike ride. She’d just had a blazing row with her partner about his passivity and told me that the ideas around man sloth mode gave her hope for her relationship.
Guys: let’s not make that a false hope.
Over to us.
Now It’s My Turn To Ask The Questions
Have I gone too far? Not far enough?
What strategies do you have to protect yourself and others from man sloth mode? (Or whatever you call it)
Have I missed any symptoms, major or minor, of man sloth mode?
Is there an equivalent mode of being to which females are more susceptible?
Thank you so much to everyone I’ve spoken to about this topic over the past million years and thank you to everyone who has responded so thoughtfully to this article.
You have all been incredibly generous with your experiences and helped me mis-understand things a little less.
Special thanks to BG for holding up a mirror to the man sloth over so many years, to GC for coming up with the term ‘man sloth’, and to LH — for dinner!
But I have, since last year, been a skateboardist. So I at least understand the principle of balancing on a small thing with no handlebars and riding in an approximately forwardsly direction.
Naturally, this experience was next to no help at all when plopped onto an unstable surface like the ocean.
Fascinating fact: it’s the unstable surface of the water that actually keeps surfers afloat. As amazingly buoyant as modern surfboards are, they couldn’t overcome the gravitational effect caused by the hefty addition of an adult human, the weight of which threatens to sink said human into a watery grave.
My first lesson (with the awesome humans of Resurface) was spent lying flat on my face, windmilling my arms in the seat and scootching around the white water, occasionally feeling the rush of a wave beneath me, but mainly just kind of bobbing around pleasantly.
The few times that I did attempt to crawl onto my knees, the carefully callibrated balance point of the board would mysteriously vanish and I’d go for a quick swim. Hence the wetsuit.
But for the most part, I lay atop the board, surprised by my buoyancy, enchanted by my ripple-eye view of the world. I’m not sure if that’s surfing, but I want more of it.
I recently finished reading Blue Mind by marine biologist Wallace J Nichols.
I thought I was buying a popular science book on the cognitive and social benefits of being in or near the water, but what I actually got was a surprisingly disassociated collection of anecdotes, lightly supported by scientific footnotes.
In some ways, the book was a little like my experience of surfing: never quite knowing what would happen next or even from what direction ‘next’ would come, but more or less buoyed through the experience with only the occasional, perhaps refreshing, dunk.
Rather than having an array of science-y data at my fingertips, I’m left instead with a generalised sense that the ocean (river, lake, stream or shower) can be a force for good in our lives.
‘Blue mind’ is Nichols’ term for ‘a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness’, by no means exclusive to the ocean, but promoted by safe experiences with water.
Many of the studies that Nichols cites have nothing to do with any kind of liquid, which makes his thesis based on limited but favourable scientific evidence and then buttressed by not-implausible extrapolation.
In ‘The Men Who Stare At Trees’ I explored the health benefits of being in nature and it’s true that some studies have found an enhanced positive effect when water features are involved.
Matthew White was also one of the researchers involved in a 2019 study that found better general and mental health among people who lived less than 5km from the ocean, an effect particularly strong for the lowest-earning households.
This is why Nichols positions the oceanic ‘blue mind’ as an antidote to both the hyper-stressed state of what he calls ‘red mind’ and the apathetic, depressed state of ‘grey mind’.
It’s also why I found myself flat out on a surfboard, staring into the setting sun, mesmerised by the light and sound of the lapping ocean, nudging me gently to shore, in blue mind.
maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
Thanks to everyone at Resurface Bournemouth and to AT for getting me into the water. Six lessons, including wetsuit and board hire, cost me the unfathomably low sum of £95. The next session is Monday — can’t wait.
Journalists around the world have celebrated this vindication of the pernicious claim that ‘laughter is the best medicine’.
It’s all lies.
When you have an intercostal muscle injury, laughter is manifestly not the best medicine.
In this case, laughter is, almost literally, side-splitting.
If humans have personalities, so do muscles. Some are extroverts, showing off their range and power, like the hamstrings or the biceps, making their presence felt with almost every movement of your body.
But some are introverts, happiest when unnoticed and, like the muscles of the eyeball or the omohyoid, scarcely ever consciously felt — until something goes wrong. Then: beware the quiet ones.
The intercostal muscles of the rib cage are introverts.
Their job is to help you breathe by expanding and contracting the rib cage so that the lungs beneath can fill and empty of air.
In the same way that a hamstring injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop walking, so too an intercostal injury means that you don’t necessarily have to stop breathing.
What it does mean (in both cases) is that you should avoid explosive exercise.
In the case of a hamstring injury, now is not the right time to go sprinting.
In the case of an intercostal injury, now is not the right time for the six bodily functions that make life worth living:
Is there a more important muscle group than the one that helps suck in the air, not only of survival, but of life?
It started with a hiccup
It all started with a hiccup. Not a particularly large or loud one, just a normal hiccup on a hilltop near (appropriately enough) Rudenoise in France.
I felt a twinge in my side, but nothing more. The next day the twinge grew a little worse, but nothing insurmountable. I’d also pulled a muscle in my calf on the same walk. No big deal. I can walk it off.
There are many types of laughter. Some laughter is a social lubricant, either totally or partially under conscious control. This kind of laughter is fine.
But there is a laughter that is orders of magnitude more violent, more explosive and almost completely involuntary. More like a sneeze, in other words. This is what the songs we made with Abandoned Rugs do to me.
Now, these songs won’t necessarily make you laugh quite as much as they make me laugh. But imagine being six years old again. Go back to your most childish, playful self.
Now give your inner child unfettered access to an array of musical instruments, recording equipment and one very talented musician.
The magic of Christmas reduced to the banality of boredom and the sheer absurdity of trusting me (of all people) with the parody of a famous choral soprano leaves me helpless.
I’m standing on the grass,
I’m standing near the garden shed…
Professionally, I’m sure I’ve done better work, but nothing so reliably reduces me, personally, to paroxysms of laughter.
Unfortunately, such laughter rips into my intercostal muscles with uncontrollable and terrible force.
Laughing myself to death
The next day I catch the train down to Basque country. On Saturday night, I sleep fitfully and wake up almost in tears, unable to even roll over to get out of bed.
Luckily, I’m staying with a GP and, with the help of some serious Spanish painkillers, bought to ease my friend through the Camino, I feel much better on Monday and Tuesday — as long as I don’t go much further than a polite chuckle.
On Wednesday, however, I arrive in Lisbon. For some reason I decide not to take any painkillers. Despite the fact that I am here to spend a week with my comedy writing partner Beth Granville and our friends, writing funny jokes that make people laugh uncontrollably.
It’s a disaster. I manage to hold it together enough to survive the first course at dinner. Then I share a story about an ex, a bath and a game of chess…
Doubled over in the restaurant, struggling to breathe, not because I’m overcome by laughter, but because my lungs are unable to expand enough to draw oxygen into my blood cells through the pain.
It’s at this point that I wonder whether laughing oneself to death is a thing.
In the same way, with an injured intercostal, I can feel myself consciously measuring my responses to other people. It’s simply too painful to let go and laugh with my friends. I can do a half-hearted chuckle — but who wants that?
I notice that I’m holding back from saying things that I know the other people will find funny because I can’t risk the laughter tripping my muscles. It’s a whole new way of being in the world (and a bit of a shit one). Personality is physicality.
In the same way that mountains, valleys and the ocean play a decisive role in our experience of clouds or sunshine, so too does the morphology of our bodies influence our own psychological weather.
There’s no point ignoring the basic principles of our existence, our facticity.
If you’re feeling irritable, maybe you need to be kinder to yourself. Stop pushing so hard. Ease off for a minute. Your body needs a break and your mind is responding with antisocial behaviour, in the hope that you’ll isolate and rest.
One of the things that people say they appreciate about his newsletter is that I don’t tend to respond to current affairs. So I won’t do that today either.
(Except in this one bolded, italicised sentence, where I hope you will join me in a primal effort to extirpate all our collective rage:uggghaaaaaaaaghhhhhhgghghghghhguuuugaahhgahhhhhhhhguhggggggggghghgahhghhuuauauhghghghguuauuhghghghhghgghhgfuckssakefuckssakeghghgughghaagughhghhhhgagg.)
While I won’t respond to The News directly today, I will do something very much in keeping with the mission of this newsletter: I’ll show you a graph.
And then we can play a little game called: ‘What’s the time Mr News?’ or ‘What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing?’
But first a quick note about a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is an awesome hormone. It’s quite literally what gets us out of bed in the morning. Cortisol’s superpower is that it gives us energy, fast. Quite handy.
One little problem with cortisol, however, is that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it can be pretty darned stressful. In fact, cortisol is often called ‘the stress hormone’ (an unfair nickname, given the number of other useful jobs it does).
You see, one of the things that cortisol can do is make you better at noticing crappy things and then make you feel crappier about those crappy things.
(To be fair to cortisol, this combination of crap-ray-vision and fast energy does make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. There wouldn’t be much point in us having a hormone that responds with high energy when primed by the sight of white fluffy clouds or a field of kittens.)
In summary: although we are very lucky to have cortisol, we don’t want to mess with it.
Okay. Now here’s the graph:
And all together now…
‘What’s the time Mr News?’
If The News were a neutral report of the comings and goings of the tides, the pattern of the clouds on the water, the first catkins on the hazel and the first daffodils on the verge, amid the nest-building busyness of spring, then all would be well.
This probably comes as news to no one, but the science suggests that digesting The News with your breakfast will set you up for a crappy day.
What time of day should I partake in news gathering and sharing? Not until at least 4 hours after waking up.
The News Is A Privilege
The thing that gets me is that, for most people, The News is a privilege.
For people directly affected by the events reported in The News, it rarely comes through newspapers, social media or the television. The News comes as a knock on the door, a cry from a neighbour, a storm cloud on the horizon.
The News that the rest of us experience is a repackaged biography of other people’s lowest points, their worst moments, their most cataclysmic life events decontextualised for sensationalist (dare I say) entertainment in homes on the other side of the planet.
Worse: this style of ‘hard’ News can be addictive, often designed to manipulate our hormones to maximise eyeball retention, to maximise profit.
I am not saying that we should ignore social and political events.
As psychologists Boukes and Vliegenthart put it in 2017, The News ‘is generally understood to be crucial for democracy as it allows citizens to politically participate in an informed manner’.
And I’m all for sharing more information to empower democratically active citizens.
But Boukes and Vliegenthart then go on to demonstrate that, due to its focus on ‘negative and worrisome’ events, The News as we know it has a ‘negative effect on the development of mental well-being over time’.
I don’t think any of us are surprised by this finding. But it’s time that we all took the science seriously and acted with total respect for the awful power of The News.
Please Don’t Abuse The News
Respect your own hormones: give yourself at least a few hours after waking up before stepping into fire hose. Turn off your breaking news notifications, delete your news apps, watch awesome nature videos instead of The News.
Respect other people’s hormones: don’t share The News — at all, if you don’t have to — but at least not without considering how it might land. Be aware that other people simply aren’t prepared to hear The News from you. They probably opened their messages with eyes still half shut hoping for a love note… And now they’ve got This.
If you’re not sure about sharing something; don’t. Wait for the right context. I understand that The News is traumatic and humans seek to share that traumatising information to soften the impact, like a freefalling skydiver landing on a trampoline.
If you feel traumatised by The News, first seek out a genuine connection with a friend, set up the context, and only if it’s right then share your pain.
Remember that The News is mostly awful life shit that’s really happening to someone else. If you are lucky enough to have the choice, then please spend the morning beside a quiet stream, watch the buds on the branches, listen to the soft news shared by the chattering birds.
‘I am losing the precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.’
Through all his raillery there ran a note of longing for the wilderness.
‘I want to see what is going on,’ he said. ‘So many great events are happening, and I’m not there to see them. I’m learning nothing here that will do me any good.’
Outside my window, I can hear the gulls. So many great events are happening.
A friend who reads this newsletter says that, most of the time, he gets to the end and doesn’t really know whether he’s understood the message.
The comment made me laugh, but it’s a really good point. What is my message?
Shut off your screen, right now, and take a fourteen minute news-check on nature.
The experiment, then, was a success: the stated objective, to have ‘a lot more’ adventures, was achieved.
But getting outside more isn’t what made the experiment a success. What made the experiment a success was the success of the experimental method.
(Last week, a friend and reader said that he was never quite sure whether he understood my emails: with sentences like the preceding, I concede his point.)
Let me explain.
In 1747, the ship’s doctor of HMS Salisbury, James Lind, decided to compare six different treatments of scurvy, the bloody scourge of sailors long at sea. Some were given cider, some were given sulfuric acid. Some were given oranges and lemons.
In the process, Lind learned how to cure scurvy (it wasn’t the cider, sad face). That was useful, sure, but not nearly as useful as simultaneously proving the efficacy of a well-conducted clinical trial.
I’m not saying that 100 Days of Adventure was a well-conducted clinical trial, but it was a trial with a positive outcome and, like James Lind’s scientific successors, I can work backwards to isolate the elements of the trial that supported its happy ending.
Based on my reading of immortal business management truisms, two contenders for contributing elements of success spring to mind:
Public accountability thanks to this newsletter
Working with a well-defined and measurable goal
On closer reading, I’ve learned that both might well have done more harm than good.
1. Go public — but not too public
I’d assumed that, by talking about my goal in this newsletter, I was being held to account by nearly 300 discerning humans. And I thought that this was a good thing that would help me reach my goal.
Turns out that I was probably wrong.
A 1998 management study found that, while conditions of ‘low accountability’ improve goal performance, conditions of ‘high accountability’ merely encourage people to massage their public image, with no improvement in performance.
But is this newsletter helpful low accountability or damaging high accountability? Well, it’s hard to say for sure because I don’t have access to the paywalled academic papers…
But perhaps what this newsletter was helping me with was not accountability at all, but commitment.
Thanks to this newsletter, every week last year, I sat down with my calendar and counted up how many Days of Adventure I’d had in the past seven days. On the equinox and solstices, with the changing of every season, I also delved a little deeper and wrote a little more, reflecting on my progress towards my goal through the year.
Perhaps it was this regular commitment to the process that was helping me, rather than the sense that you lot were standing over me, tapping your rulers on the desk, waiting to punish or reward me.
This is certainly what I’ve found in the opening months of 2022. There was no fanfare at the end of 2021: there were no fireworks to celebrate my achievement. All that happened was that I moved onto a new page on my spreadsheet and started again from zero (now on nine).
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
2. Not so SMART
Some of you business types will immediately jump up and tell me why my process was successful: it was because I created a SMART goal.
The 100 Days of Adventure project was:
Specific. 100. Days. Adventure.
Measurable. A day either is or is not adventurous and when I hit 100, I’d hit my target.
Achievable. Before starting, I counted that I’d done 67 the year before, so 100 didn’t seem like too much of a stretch (as long as Covid played along).
Relevant. 100 Days of Adventure was totally aligned with my personal and professional values and priorities.
Time-bound. I knew exactly when to begin (1 January 2021) and when to end (31 December 2021).
But what if 100 Days of Adventure succeeded despite the smartness of the SMART acronym? After all, how specific was my definition of a Day of Adventure?
Not very, as it turns out.
My original definition is that a Day of Adventure is a day when I could answer the following question in the affirmative: ‘Did I spend a significant chunk of the day outside on an adventure?’
I immediately followed up this definition with a weasly confession:
‘Outside’ is deliberately wide open because I’m a firm believer that adventure can be found anywhere. ‘Significant chunk’ and ‘an adventure’ are both deliberately relative because DOA is a simple binary measure that should work for everyone.
This definition did mature over the course of the year. At some point, I decided that three hours was unequivocally significant, but I still maintained that great adventures could be had in less and several, particularly as the end-of-year deadline drew closer, were more like two hours.
Compare this to the stringent requirements of the forty practice hikes that I have to log before I can take my professional Hill and Moorland Leader assessment. These require me to do at least four hours of walking time. No ambiguity there — particularly not when all my hikes are timed and logged automatically by GPS.
The lack of wiggle room in this qualification metric means that I missed the deadline for taking my assessment next week. I’ve been out on far more than forty hikes in the hills and moorlands of England, but, analysing the data, I fall six days short.
Although I’ve enjoyed every single practice hike that I’ve done, the reality is that, by the SMART goal measure, I have failed. And that failure makes me feel a bit crap.
But my deliberately, ostentatiously vague definition of a Day of Adventure meant that there was plenty of flexibility in my 2021 goal and — surprise, surprise — I completed the challenge and that made me feel bloody marvellous. What an accomplished human being I am, pat on the back for me!
Two outdoor challenges: one I can put down as a triump, the other I’m forced to consider a failure.
But here’s the thing: the two challenges were identical. By definition, any day that qualified as one of forty practice days for my Hill and Moorland Leader assessment was also one of my 100 Days of Adventure.
They were identical in every detail bar one: one of the goals wasn’t so SMART. And, confusingly, sometimes smart goals aren’t SMART goals.
Suppose I’d only managed 99 Days of Adventure in 2021. What would I have gained from that year of abject failure? Yes, that’s right — a whole heck of a lot!
Similarly, what have I gained so far from only completing 34 of 40 logged hikes for my Hill and Moorland assessment? Yes, that’s also right — a whole heck of a lot!
The flexibility of my definition of Days of Adventure encourages me to go outside and try something new.
The inflexibility of the professional definition of a Hill and Moorland qualifying hike means that I won’t go outside until I can guarantee at least four hours walking.
Last time I was on Dartmoor, I arrived extremely tired. I’d meant to do a four-hour hike that afternoon, but only managed a couple of hours before I quit.
The pressure of an inflexible goal kept me going longer than I should have and, when I got back to the bunkhouse, knowing that the deadline loomed, I went back over the past few years of hiking, desperately massaging the numbers, trying to convince myself that I was ready for assessment.
I was doing exactly what the literature told me I would do. Instead of improving my performance, this condition of high accountability was making me manipulate my public image — I was being lured into lying!
So I stopped scrolling through my hike logbook and went to bed instead.
A couple of quality hikes later, walking off Dartmoor, through the woods on the edge of Fernworthy reservoir, the sun jumping from leaf to leaf through the trees, the chill air plucking at the hair on my bare arms, I realised that I didn’t want this to end; I didn’t want to qualify; I didn’t want to finish my training.
SMART goals are time-bound. SMART goals end.
What more would I accomplish by rushing to accomplish this goal? Nothing. Nothing, no assessment, no qualification could top what the process consistently delivers: these moments of serenity in the woods and on the moors.
There will be no fanfare, no fireworks. All that must happen is to move onto a new page and start again from zero.
Goals come and go, but the process endures.
So, sitting in the car, the chewy scent of mud in my nostrils, I opened up my email and wrote to my assessor, telling him of my gleeful decision to cancel…
Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a novel famous for its paradoxes. It’s so iconic that the book’s title has become the technical term for a specific type of paradoxical situation in which we’re trapped by the circular logic of rules and regulations.
Catch-22 was inspired by the inexorable bureaucratic logic of war, where war itself is a paradox.
We don’t need long memories to remember preemptive or, even more absurdly, preventive war: wars fought to prevent wars. The US and UK justification of their invasion of Iraq in 2003 springs to mind.
But how can war prevent war?
The paradox deepens, of course. Less than three months into World War One, HG Wells published a book describing that conflict as The War That Will End War:
[It] is a grim satisfaction in our discomforts that we can at last look across the roar and torment of battlefields to the possibility of an organised peace. For this is now a war for peace.
Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!
But how can a war end war? How can nations wage war for peace?
History tells that the peace won by Wells’ paradoxical war lasted barely twenty years. Among the ruins of the World War Two, another author stretched the paradox.
After George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, wars are no longer fought for peace. Now, according to the doublethink doctrine, ‘war is peace’. Perpetual conflict abroad is the easiest way for a government disinterested in social progress to foster a distracted sense that all is well at home.
The paradoxical logic of the military-industrial complex
It’s no coincidence that both ‘catch-22’ and ‘doublethink’ have entered the modern lexicon.
We are, all of us, too familiar with the inexorable bureaucratic logic of the military-industrial complex that has become an invisible motor running in the background of our societies.
That motor may be invisible to many of us today, but in 1961 — the year Catch-22 was published — it was evident as a growing threat to liberty and democratic process.
Those are not my words, but the words of President Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War Two and one of the prime architects of D-Day:
[We] must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.
War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.
Living inside the paradox
For anyone who doubts the modern relevance of these military-industrial paradoxes, ponder for a moment which side of the paradox you’re living through.
The war or the peace? The security or the liberty? The paradox or the logic?
Are you the crazy Orr, blythly flying deadly missions when you could be grounded? Or are you the sane Yossarian, flying deadly missions in terror that ‘they’re trying to kill you’.
Maybe you can’t feel the edges of the paradox because your reality persists entirely on the side of the happy-go-lucky.
It’s probably easiest to illustrate with an example. You’ll have your favourites, but here’s one that’s often on my mind.
Consider the paradox of the asylum seeker.
On one side of the paradox, refugees arriving in the UK after fleeing conflict or persecution will, in the grandiose name of Great British justice, be granted asylum.
Asylum seekers should be welcomed and immediately expelled.
War is peace. Security is liberty. Paradox is logic.
We are the catch
Of course, the kicker is that, in Heller’s novel, Yossarian comes to realise that the regulatory trap of Catch-22 is a trap of our own imagination:
Yossarian strode away, cursing Catch-22 vehemently even though he knew there was no such thing. Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon, or burn up.
The paradoxes of seeking asylum are not entirely traps of imagination. Unlike Yossarian, we do have a text we must ridicule, refute, accuse, criticise, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon and / or burn up.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is still being debated by the Lords. If you are a Lord, please choose at least three of Yossarian’s verbs and apply them most vigorously to the infamous text before you.
But, even if you are not a Lord, we are all responsible for the collective imagery of the multiple Catch-22s that appear in stories like ‘some humans are illegal’, ‘the unemployed are a drain on our national resources’ and in any number of doublethink bureaucratic snares whose teeth are invisible to those of us lucky enough to exist entirely in the land of the happy-go-lucky.
I don’t have any big and clever ways out of the paradox. Except to remember that human affairs are perhaps best described by Shakespeare’s Romeo, using, of course, paradox:
Here’s much to do with hate but more with love.
Where you go from here is up to you. Are you crazy enough to be grounded? Are you sane enough to keep flying? Is the answer to this question ‘no’?
Since I bought The Corollavirus back in March, I’ve driven 4883 miles. This has cost me about £777 in petrol, racking up a carbon debt of about 968kg CO2e compared to similar journeys on public transport. It’d take 44 mature trees a year to absorb these new emissions. That’s a whole copse worth.
In monetary terms, I’ve worked out that the unembedded carbon cost of my 4883 driving miles is £480. More to come on this calculation in a future email — along with where I’m going to invest that money for maximal positive environmental impact.
Even if negative emission technologies are a huge success, we must still make far-reaching changes to our societies and our economies. And, of course, there is no guarantee that negative emissions technologies will be a huge success.
If it passes without amendment, our government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill will put UK law in direct opposition to the 1951 Geneva Convention by criminalising people who arrive on these shores without a visa — even when they have a legitimate claim for asylum under international law.
Dylan’s finest albums by decade: Bringing It All Back Home (1965, 84% perfect), Blood On The Tracks (1975, 88%), Oh Mercy (1989, 63%), Time Out of Mind (1997, 56%), Modern Times (2006, 50%), Tempest (2012, 40%), Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020, 30%).
Writing a diary keeps me sane. I’ve written in excess of 223,000 words in my journal this year.
I use the wonderful novel-writing software yWriter to store my diaries and, since 2010, I’ve amassed more than 2.7 million words for future historians to sift through in bewilderment.
Above all, I’ve learned (again and again) that the discipline, creativity and curiosity of sharing this newsletter with you is not only good for my heart and soul, but that so many of you generous humans love it too!
Thank you for sharing some of those 8,744 hours with me. Thank you for hitting reply or posting a comment and telling me what moves you. Thank you for sharing these words with your friends and for helping this newsletter grow.
Most of all, thank you for helping everyone through a year of resilience and adventure.
I look forward to seeing what becomes of 2022 and I hope you’ll join me there.
Over the past few years, I’ve become a much more qualified arsonist.
Back in 2009, I remember footling around with a grate and some matches for about three hours, before a consummate fire-starter dragged a toothpick along an emery board for an instant conflagration.
Here are a few of the cheats I use today:
Cotton wool balls rubbed in Vaseline make for excellent lightweight, multi-purpose and fragrance-free starter fuel.
Stop using cigarette lighters and matches. Start using a torch. Not those kind of torches. These kind of torches, the ones with a steady, focussed blue flame that you might use to cremate a crème brulée. I’ve started fires with wet tinder using this. Definitely cheating.
Use an axe, penknife or saw to cut your fuel down to the right size for whatever stage of fire building you’re at. From bundles of finger-width twigs to hefts of wood block.
Make sure there is enough draft under your fuel. Oxygen is the forgotten force in the fire trinity of fuel, heat and air.
Don’t waste your breath on breathing life into your baby fire. Fan the flickers by using a piece of card, a scrap of bark, a book or even a t-shirt. You’ll get a much steadier draft and won’t pass out from smoke inhalation.
Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).
The Chocolate Phase
The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.
The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.
Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.
The Eating Phase
Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.
In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.
They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.
We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!
Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than, say, your shins, but this doesn’t translate to more rapid cooling from an un-hatted bonce.
However: if the rest of your body is well-insulated with woolly jumpers and thermals, then — yes! — the absence of a similarly-insulated noggin will result in a surprisingly rapid drop in your core temperature. But, I repeat, this is only if the rest of you is wrapped up warm.
A cold head alone doesn’t trigger the shiver reflex (which slows the rate of cooling). Strange, but true.
There are a lot of blood vessels very close to the surface of your scalp and face. When exposed to cold air, the blood passing through your scalp cools quickly and this cold blood gets pumped around the rest of your body. Brr.
Even when I don’t have a cold, I sneeze a lot. It seems to happen as a reflex response to getting a bit chilly, particularly my feet. And then, sometimes, the sneezing doesn’t stop.
As I spent the week on Dartmoor, I, and particularly my feet, got cold. During the course of a beautiful four and half hour walk on Thursday, I sneezed a grand total of eighty times.
There would appear to be two possible explanations for my heroic record of sternutation (you didn’t think that medicine would call a sneeze a sneeze, did you?):
The trigeminal nerve in my nose is hyper-sensitive to stimulation (in this case, fluctuations in temperature).
The sneezing centre in my brain’s lateral medulla has a low threshold for triggering explosive exhalations.
I could perhaps moderate the first using a steroid nasal spray. The second might have developed as a result of a work-shy allergy to dust and might be influenceable by some kind of Jedi mind trick?
Frankly, I’m speculating / making things up. Let’s get back to the science.
Counting one’s bless-you-ings
I’m a huge fan of The Boring Talks and, as a sneezer, the most memorable for me is #11: Sneezing.
It’s narrated by Peter Fletcher, a man who logged every single sneeze he ever snozed between July 2007 and June 2018.
To take my mind off my explosive sternutations, I decided to give Sneezing another listen.
I was shocked to discover that I sneezed more times on Thursday than sneeze-meister-general Peter Fletcher ever recorded in a month across eleven years of monitoring (95 in March 2008).
My twenty-four hour sneeze count topped out at 127.
You can see from this chart that peak sternutation occured while walking the windy wilds of Dartmoor, between about 10am and 3pm, before settling down in front of the cosy bunkhouse fire and stopping completely after I fell asleep.
During non-REM sleep, our cerebral cortex and thalamus get together to massively raise the waking threshold for incoming stimuli. Without registering the irritating stimulus, there is no sneeze reflex.
During REM sleep, we also go into a state called REM atonia, during which our motor neurons are inactive. As sneezing is a physical reflex, this sleep paralysis prevents the coordination of muscles necessary for a jolly good wachoo.
If, while you were soundly sleeping, I were to tap your knee with one of those silly little hammers, you’d just lie there and take it. (Unless I give you a proper whack, that is.) No reflexes; no sneezes. Mercifully.
How often does the average person sneeze??
It turns out that my epic sneeze count means that I am in high demand. At least, I would be over on Sneeze Fetish Forum. Oh yes. There’s a forum for everything.
After all, the great poet Homer once sang of the mighty sneeze of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and of how patient Penelope interpreted this awesome sternutation as a divine omen that her depraved suitors would be vanquished by the mysterious stranger:
Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, ‘Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.’
So next time you see me, tremble before my almighty sternutations and weep!
This segment is inspired by two superb newsletters that dropped earlier this week. So before I go any further, hats off to Mike Sowden of Everything Is Amazing and to Nikita Petrov of Psychopolitica.
Todays newsletter is about the stories we tell each other about current affairs — popularly known as ‘the news’.
First up: the Metaverse.
Did you see this? If not, I’ll let Mike Sowden do the dirty work of introducing you to what can only be credibly comprehended as the feverish gibberings of Mark Zuckerberg in the afterglow of a wet dream:
A few days ago, Facebook’s parent company (also called Facebook) changed its name to Meta, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video outlining his vision for what he calls the Metaverse: a seamless network of virtual experiences that’ll try to create the perpetual illusion you’re “inside” the Internet while you’re online.
The Metaverse is full of ideas like virtual businesses running on Zuckerberg-owned cryptocurrency, cartoon avatars slightly more handsome than you, virtual screens that float in front of your face and augmented reality glasses.
Zuckerberg reckons this Metaverse is about 10-15 years away.
Privacy and safety need to be built into the Metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space — or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.
Because god forbid that you’d want to ever actually leave the Metaverse. After all, inside your own private bubble, no one can hear you scream.
The beauty of ignorance
I don’t know how you learned about Zuckerberg’s Metaverse announcement (maybe it’s from me, right now — the honour!), but I’m glad I got the news from Mike Sowden because, for a newsletter with the title Everything Is Amazing, the Metaverse comes as an existential threat.
It’s not just that a Zuckerberg-designed virtual reality is a terrifyingly advertising-strewn prospect, it’s that it will be bounded by human limitation in a way that reality reality is not.
In a virtual universe designed by humans, by definition, humans know everything. The beauty of the real universe is that, the more we learn, the more we realise the vastness of our ignorance.
I’ll leave you with Mike’s beautiful conclusion:
Virtual worlds are most definitely designed by humans. This means they’re limited to what the human imagination is capable of cooking up, and the human-made computing hardware that can make it happen. In every way, a virtual world is anthropocentric. It’s by, & for, human beings.
The actual world, on the other hand, has a wonderful and occasionally disturbing tendency to ignore our wishes and surprise us in its unfathomable complexity, boundless novelty and awe-inspiring beauty. It is a mystery that we will never get to the bottom of, and most days, that’s kinda why life is worth living.
REALITY: The antidote
The antidote to the Metaverse, as Mike Sowden suggests, is reality. But perhaps not the REALITY of Nikita Petrov, author of the Psychopolitica newsletter.
Petrov’s REALITY is a work-in-progress YouTube show in which the most outrageous news stories of the day are read out in a dispassionate voice by an alien Bodhisattva journalist.
Jan Zimmermann, the YouTuber in question, launched their channel in February 2019. According to psychiatrists at Hanover Medical School, Zimmermann’s videos are peppered with ‘countless number of movements, vocalizations, words, phrases, and bizarre behaviours’ that he claims are tics caused by Tourette syndrome.
The only issue is that these tics are only stereotyped ‘mimics’ of symptoms that ‘lay people typically associate with Tourette syndrome’.
Yet Zimmermann’s atypical behaviour is being copied by teenagers in Germany, UK, US, Denmark, France, and Canada, making it an illness seemingly induced by the viewing of entertaining YouTube videos.
Flying sharks and stress relief
This is how the Hanover psychiatrists introduce the new illness:
Affected teenagers present with similar or identical functional “Tourette-like” behaviours, which can be clearly differentiated from tics in Tourette syndrome.
These teenagers basically start acting up when confronted with disfavoured tasks like schoolwork.
All patients presented with nearly identical movements and vocalizations that not only resemble Jan Zimmermann’s symptoms, but partly are exactly the same such as shouting the German words … “Du bist häßlich” (English: you are ugly), and “Fliegende Haie” (English: flying sharks) as well as bizarre and complex behaviours such as throwing pens at school and dishes at home, and crushing eggs in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the Tourette-like behaviours mysteriously disappear when the teenagers are engaged in more pleasurable tasks. Like watching YouTube videos, maybe…
According to the Hanover psychiatrists, these behavioural tics are a response to societal stress:
They can be viewed as the 21th century expression of a culture-bound stress reaction of our post-modern society emphasizing the uniqueness of individuals and valuing their alleged exceptionality, thus promoting attention-seeking behaviours and aggravating the permanent identity crisis of modern man.
These stories are all very interesting, but what’s the point?
Good question. This segment has two points. The first point is that I heard the news of both the Metaverse announcement and the new social media-induced functional Tourette syndrome contagion from non-traditional news sources.
This made me reflect on the stories we tell each other about current affairs (AKA ‘the news’).
I’ve chosen to trust these two writers with telling me their news stories and both arrived directly into my inbox. I’ve been subscribed to Psychopolitica for over a year now, whereas this was my first edition of Everything Is Amazing.
Mike Sowden’s story, about technology in the shadow of climate change, is a desperate appeal to fall in love with reality reality again — before it’s too late.
Broadly speaking, Nikita Petrov’s REALITY is a satire on newscasting, but the story he’s chosen to read is a dispassionate account of what can happen (functional Tourette syndrome) when we mistake artifice (the YouTube storytelling of Jan Zimmermann) for reality.
Stories — whether wittingly or unwittingly — teach us lessons and both of these are lessons worth learning and re-learning.
I’ve been following my no news diet for five years now and these are the questions I ask myself on the regular:
Who are you letting tell you the news? Are these active or passive choices? Signing up to the newsletter of a trusted writer: active. Listening to the 5-minute news segments that appear between songs on a radio station: passive.
What kind of stories are they telling? You can even pin down the genre: is this a horror story? A thriller? A rom-com? A tragedy? A farce?
What lessons are you learning? This might take some digging because, as Nikita Petrov shows us, the storytelling of journalism is often concealed behind a supposedly dispassionate delivery.
How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel alienated?
That’s the first point of this segment. The second point is simply to say thank you for allowing me the privilege of telling you the news today.
As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:
Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?
There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.
I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.
Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:
Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.
Kiwis, lambs and apples
‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’
I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.
But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.
Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.
This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.
An apple a day…
Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)
The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.
As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.
This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.
Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.
(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)
But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?
To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.
Coconuts versus the climate
According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.
How can this be true?
Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.
That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.
You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.
But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.
Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.
Fooled by paddy fields
On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.
In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.
Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.
Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.
Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.
Deadlines are great. They’re the reason why I’ve sent this email every week for the past six years. They’re the reason why, at the halfway mark, I’d only bagged 28 of my 100 Days of Adventure — four months later, with time running out, I’m on 81.
Deadlines are the reason why Beth and I have written an Edinburgh show and four series of radio comedy — and the reason why the beginning of our writing process is so expansive and the final weeks so intense.
Deadlines are great because they generate a scarcity, in this case, of time. Humans respond to scarcity with hyperfocus. When you’re trying to complete a project, this hyperfocus is really useful.
(Unless you’re Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’)
When good deadlines go bad
But hyperfocus comes at a heavy cost. Under conditions of scarcity, we enter a single-minded tunnel that excludes everything outside our immediate goal.
In the blinding heat of those final weeks before a deadline, we get the work done, we get the script finished — but when we come up for air and our tunnel vision fades away, we realise that we’ve neglected our diet, sleep, exercise, electricity bills, friends, family and houseplants.
Basically, everything that isn’t scriptwriting goes to shit.
And this isn’t just the experience of a hapless scriptwriter; this is a replicable scientific observation.
That clever book is called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, written by two clever people: psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan.
In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Shafir explains that the pair started out with the assumption that the money-poor were neither perfectly rational economists (none of us are) nor that they are uniquely afflicted by stupidity, loose morals and myopic planning (that’s all of us).
They believed there was something else going on…
Over time, we started getting more data and observing cases where the poor seemed to be making more extreme errors than those with greater means. That gradually led us to the idea that there’s a very particular psychology that emerges when we don’t have enough and that this psychology leads to very bad outcomes.
Very particular psychology
Just like busy people under deadline start to neglect their houseplants (I’m so sorry!), people who are money-poor become hyperfocussed on their economic situation and start to neglect the spheres of life that float outside their tunnelled vision.
The stark difference is that my deadline will come and go, but it’s much, much harder to get out of poverty.
This matters — a lot — because, according to the research, the cognitive penalty of living with a scarcity mindset is a temporary penalty of ten IQ points. Ouch.
All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all or most of the time. Understanding the particular psychology of scarcity is slightly terrifying, but it also enables a leap of empathy.
As Shafir says:
What’s most striking is that these findings make a very strong case for the idea that people who look very bad in conditions of scarcity are just as capable as the rest of us when scarcity does not impose itself on their minds.
So the next time someone says or does something stupid, maybe ask if they’re worried about paying a parking fine or meeting a deadline.
Cut them some slack.
Exploiting scarcity with my 100 Days of Adventure experiment
I’m already well past the 67 Days of Adventure of last year and, thanks to the self-imposed scarcity of the deadline, I feel genuinely motivated to somehow wring another nineteen Days of Adventure from the dirty dishcloth of 2021.
Bearing in mind that I’d only managed to collect a quarter of the adventures by the end of June, I think I’m doing bloody well.
I could find excuses for the slow start — a lockdown, winter weather — but the same thing probably would have happened under any conditions. That’s how deadlines work: we fritter away our time during periods of abundance and only when time is running out do we knuckle down and commit to completing the project.
One solution to the last minute panic effect could be to make the deadlines come around quicker. Rather than giving myself a year-long deadline, I could work in seasons of three months each, perhaps aiming for 40 Days of X.
This is actually a much stiffer target (160 days over a year), but with more regular deadlines I will be held more closely accountable. There’ll still be last minute panic, but the panic will be less daunting. Maybe.
Whatever I end up doing, I’ll definitely be reporting my progress in this newsletter. Having a public forum of accountability is almost as good as having a deadline!
There are only seventy days left in 2021. Cast your mind back to January. What did you have planned for this year that you haven’t finished yet?
It’s been a busy first week here in Cardiff. Mushroom-picking, market-hopping, Greek-nighting, poker-dealing, date-walking, theatre-laughing, frisbee-throwing and, of course, play-writing. I might have ended up lying in bed with a pulled hamstring, but it’s been a well-worthwhile week of most living.
what counts is not the best living but the most living
As an absurdist, Camus found it impossible to pin down a single ‘correct’ way to live. To summarise his philosophy:
Humans like us are desperate to find meaning in our lives, to give us a clear direction, to tell us the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, the Universe doesn’t give a shit. There is no ‘right thing’ to do with our lives. No right and no wrong. Else how could the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of the ancient Greeks (think the honourable blood-feuds of Achilles) follow a code of living so starkly different to the code followed by the supposedly ‘best lived’ lives of today (think the rapacious avarice of Jeff Bezos)?
Without rules, life, therefore, is absurd. So, rather than struggle with the wretched task of perfecting our ‘best lives’, the logical response to existence is to pack our brief conscious flowering with as much experience as possible. Ergo: choose most living over best living.
Camus uses the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate the logic of absurdity.
According to legend, Sisyphus had a persistent habit of irritating the gods. After escaping the Underworld not once but twice, Sisyphus was eventually brought to justice and sentenced to spend eternity pushing a heavy boulder up a steep mountain.
Shortly before Sisyphus reaches the summit, however, the enchanted boulder slips from his grasp and rolls right back down to the bottom, where the whole charade resets and resumes. Forever and ever. If the myth is to be believed, Sisyphus is still out there today, shoulder to boulder.
Camus argues that it wouldn’t take too many mountain reps for Sisyphus to realise he is being pranked by the gods. Knowledge of his eternal fate matures into acceptance and, far from being a source of despair, Sisyphus’ acceptance of the absurdity of his unique struggle becomes meaningful.
Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.
Human life, for Camus, is as absurd as Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity. Once we accept that inherent absurdity, our struggles are no longer so desperate. They can become joyful.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
You might think that this is a bit extreme, but Camus’s theoretical musings are paralleled in the couldn’t-be-more-practical experience of Holocaust-surviving psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. … The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails … gives him ample opportunity … to add a deeper meaning to his life.
Of course, acceptance of the struggle is only the beginning. Atop this foundation, both Camus and Frankl build the possibility for lives rich in more traditional human virtues, such as creativity, love and frisbee.
But such most living begins with the acceptance of the absurdity of best living, so let’s join Sisyphus at the bottom of the mountain, put shoulder to boulder, and laugh.
While walking the Jurassic Coast last weekend, I had an idea for how to think about sharing our lives with others.
PPF3 is an awful acronym that stands for Past, Present, Future and Far Future. The idea is simply to exchange with your interlocutor one meaningful memory, moment, occurrence, coincidence, problem, hope, fear, ambition, dream, day-dream or impossible dream from each of these time periods.
In doing so, I think we’d learn a lot about what’s really important to each other. Maybe in ways that wouldn’t come out in normal conversation.
Here’s something I might share:
PAST: It’s amazing to remember that I once cycled over four thousand miles around the whole of Britain. It feels like I’ve seen everything—and nothing.
PRESENT: I’m really lucky that I get paid for hiking around the countryside with funny/interesting/weird young people. Facilitating those encounters between human and nature feels like worthwhile work. The problem is how to extend this to schools who can’t afford to hire the company I work for.
FUTURE: One day, I’d like to run free outdoor experiences (hiking? cycling? running? camping? firelighting?!) for people typically excluded from the outdoors. Given my background, refugees would be an obvious starting point.
FAR FUTURE: I’d like to be involved in a project that finally bans cars from town centres and plants forests over all the concrete car parks.
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 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…
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.
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.)
(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.)
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.
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.
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!
Or: Wages ~ immorality: Stating the obvious, part XVI
It’s hard to tell how much statistical cherry-picking has gone on here, but this is still probably the second greatest graph I have ever seen in my life:
The graph is taken from an economics paper published last year that found, predictably enough, that most people have to be paid more to do work that is perceived as being immoral. A finding that is simultaneously heartening (that they do) and depressing (that they still do the work).
In another victory for stating the obvious, the researchers also found that corporate sociopaths were more likely to work in sociopathic corporations. From the abstract:
We also measure individuals’ aversion to performing immoral acts and show that those who find immoral behaviour least aversive are more likely to be employed in immoral work.
If there is a take-home message for those of us more generally averse to immoral behaviour, perhaps it is this: frowning and tutting isn’t enough.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:
I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
Optional: salt or other spices
Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
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.
Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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’?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?’
The refugee in Turkey who emailed my mum, urgently asking whether our family were okay.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Everyone who’s found their way up onto a rooftop. Give us a wave!
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.
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.)
Rain after a dry spell. Much as I enjoy the sunshine, full marks go to rain showers for making the trees happy.
Over in Cholsey, full marks to my little tree, which sprung some flowers in spring.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Ness Labs, James Somers, John McPhee and, above all, the lexicographer Noah Webster for introducing me to ‘the right dictionary‘.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mamihlapinatapai. According to Wikipedia, mamihlapinatapai is a Yaghan word meaning: ‘a look shared by two people who want to initiate something, but neither start’.
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.
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.
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.
Gifts. It really is the thought that counts. Thanks everyone!
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.
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’?
Cycle lanes. Can we have some more please?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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):
Linseed (= Flax)
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
Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
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
Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
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
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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)
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.
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?
I’ve been trying to exploit the wisdom of this trite little question this week.
What if this is happening not to me, but forme?
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?
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
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?
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!
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.”
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!”
“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.
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A charming and considerate personality trait.
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:
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.
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.