Monthly Archives: June 2011

5 minutes of Life (London)

I was on the Hammersmith & City Line this morning. Someone’s headphones were leaking an old favourite.

Apparently quoting from a song invites the threat of paying hefty royalties, but I think I can get away with this:

i didnt kn-w just what was wr-ng with me
till y-ur kiss helped me name it.

cause you make me feel
y-u make me feel
y-u make me feel like a natural w-man (w-man)

I sat staring at the boy seated across from me. He was Asian (in the sense that Brits mean), he was handsome and had a sturdy square jaw, he was tapping his toes and almost imperceptibly bouncing his head along to the beat pumping out from his earphones.

To be honest his look seemed a throw-back to the 80’s to me;

black Rebook-esque shoes,
stonewashed denims,
a tight white t-shirt
and a nice leather jacket with one of those Mandarin collars.

And despite the fact that he was beginning to get a bit fidgety thanks to the duration of my stare, I just couldn’t help it. He seemed the most unlikely sort of person to be blasting this particular Aretha Franklin classic.

He’s SO cool, I thought.

And then suddenly Aretha stood up and jumped off the tube at Paddington. It wasn’t my 80’s boy after all; he kept seated as I jerked my head towards the closing doors to see if I could catch a glimpse of the real Natural Woman Listener.

Taller, skinnier and dressed in a khaki pants and a loud sky blue jumper, A Different Guy skipped off into the distance without turning back.


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Binge thinking

Having spruced up my pyjamas for semi-acceptable outer-wear, I stepped out into the London rain with my laptop and headed to my local pizza place to write my blog tonight.

At the time I was hounded by an immediate need to eat.

Had I not been skidding towards the close of a workday about an hour earlier, I would’ve been enjoying a last-minute invite to join an acquaintance attending an event right around the corner where 5 personalities, well-known-to-some, often but not always, authors, take the stage for just 15 minutes each.

Their entertainment mostly comprises a short story or meandering talk. Usually one of the 5 is actually a musician …there to throw variation into the chatty line-up.

Right now as I enjoy my sausage pizza and side of broccoli salad, Sarah Bakewell is one of those 5 speakers.

I’d love to have heard her. Once my writing teacher, Sarah has since written the surprise-success biography slash philosophy masked as self-help book entitled How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Ron Johnson, another non-fiction writer and author of the book I am currently devouring, The Psychopath Test, will also take the stage tonight. At least I caught him 2 weeks ago at a different event — Book Slam.

The weird thing about getting the last minute invite via Facebook for the event that I am now missing, is that I’d mentally written my blog for today and it was already about the rise in binge thinking — it was already about this exact sort of night out. Even before I received the random invite.


Yesterday I tweeted a link to an article that appeared in the London Evening Standard a couple of months ago – it was about under 35’s hitting the talking shops for a night out, rather than the pub. I’ve christened them talking shops for want of a better umbrella term.

I’m referring to evening lectures as they’ve recently reincarnated in more unusual guises – such as the 5×15 session I am missing tonight and the monthly BookSlam series.

According to The Standard, from which I ruthlessly stole the “binge thinking” caption,

Here in London, being cerebral is now sexy – especially if you’re under 35. Twentysomethings have been drinking and clubbing for decades but a host of festival organisers and club promoters have sensed the need for a new kind of night out – one that involves using our brains. Young creative minds [want] talks, workshops and field trips covering everything from art to science and politics.

In short, we want to think while we drink.

Now, I’m not under 35 and I hadn’t heard of any of the upcoming events on The Standard’s radar, but these are exact sort of nights out that recently I’ve had to work a whole lot less to track down. They’re sprouting up everywhere. Grassroots style. And of course I’m happy to be deemed up to something sexy.

Unlike the traditional lecture secretly underway in elite university settings or members-only saloon clubs, this new brand of live spoken word has been packaged into something smaller and bite-sized, more popularly-minded and genuinely accessible to all. They really want us to come, join in – unlike their meaner, snobby cousins where even if we can buy a ticket we’ll need to be well-rehearsed to answer “And sorry, but you are … whom exactly?”

These new cool nights out are mostly talks with the odd bit of performance art and music tossed in.  They’re less lecture and more informal chat — local heroes talking down from a small stage to a relatively small audience. Increasingly, that size of the audience has much more to do with the special venues chosen and the philosophy of the events – and less to do with the volume of appetite for more.

The venues are local, keep a neighborhood spirit alive and have us put our money into niche/community funded art.

And they are perfect for me.

Before I found Spoken Word Nights Out (SWNO), I suffered cultural deprivation. I can’t help it, theatre and art exhibitions are not for me (why – is the subject of another blog.) Cinema and photography work better for me but to be honest I’d rather stay home (or go to the pizza place) and read books or meet friends for dinner or at the pub for a chat than go to the movies or look at photo’s. And the idea of musicals actually distresses me. Even though I did get a kick out of Cats when I was 10 because it was such a treat and I have occasionally thought that sing-along Sound of Music would be fun to do for a birthday – I mean fun as a concept – not as a reality.

SWNOs changed all that for me. They are my exact cup of tea. I can now go drinking and use my brain and meet people – all at once. And they make socializing with people I know only a little or just recently, a breeze. This is no small benefit for me. New people – speaking to them – is certainly one of my handicaps. Unless they are more freaked out than me, then I can.

If my friend from Facebook had messaged that he was in my local pub & did I want to go for a drink, it would’ve been ….well, odd.  But that he had a spare ticket for 5×15  made it the most natural sort of invite. Of course I wanted to go! And I’m really sorry I got the invite too late. Good thing these nights out are no longer some sort of freak happening. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy my pizza.


Filed under Bibliotherapy, London, Random idea

Sunday Sermon

There is only the Here and Now. The past and the future – both are fictions.

As a recovered self-help junkie, I can tell you that this premise runs through all sorts of paths to alleged inner better-ness (happiness, mental wellness, whatever anyone might call it – apparently the whole lot of it requires a high level of Here and Now-ness.) And yet, it’s an idea I resist … a habit of mind I just can’t develop no matter how many times I’m told that I should.

Meditation is brilliant for you. I’ve known this for sure for the better part of a decade — after I read that report that said actuarials in the US offer lower premiums to people who demonstrate a regular meditation practice. I couldn’t help wondering how such a claim might be demonstrated but then there all sorts of tick boxes on an insurance form that one wonders how they might prove. The point being is if stingy pay-out-the-least-that-you-can insurers swear by it, then the case for meditation improving health outcomes rests on rock-solid numbers tested by very smart mathematicians … it’s not just a fluffy virtue.

Anyway – meditation is completely about the Here and Now and I do understand that it is good for you to achieve this level of consciousness in all sorts of ways.

But I also believe it’s against human nature.

A few moments respite into the Here and Now, fine. I get it. I know how to suddenly stop listing my to-do’s and look up to notice the breeze playing with the flowers. I can do that. But the idea that I might aim to live a good portion of my life trying to Be Here Now, no thanks.

Here’s why I think it’s a flawed “should-ism” – all morally contorted … because people need narrative, that’s why. We need stories. And the Here and Now is context-free — there’s no space for story if we only have this present nano-second leap frogging to the next present nano-second.

For example, I have a headache. A sharp, biting sort of head throb arranged by my sinus infection. So if I were to detach myself into the Here and Now in order to free myself from life’s miseries, I would have felt even worse when a large purring cat started to harm me while I lay sleeping. A headache might want fresh pain from a different source to divert attention from its own – like the pain delivered by a single claw extending from an outstretched paw, poking my nose. Continually. But I’d rather not add that pain to my collection of current discomfort.

After a succession of brazen scratches and skin penetrating pokes, I open my eyes and the cat starts to head butt me into some sort of bull fight.  And that’s when it occurred to me that the Power of Now is such a stupid idea.

I would be miserable if Now was all I had throughout this particular moment in bed this morning. But instead I was able to look fondly upon my cat who yesterday disappeared and was lost outside in the pouring rain, who we walked the streets hunting for in vain, who we went to bed hoping and praying for, who we imagined making MISSING CAT signs for, who then bounded through the open window twenty hours later than normal with his fur matted and his paws muddied from a day of harsh weather conditions, who leapt up onto us and hugged us and purred violently in our ears until we put a plate of food down and then he practically choked trying to shove the jellied turkey bites down fast enough. If all I had was the Here and Now I doubt fondness would waft around my waking headached brain at 6 am ON A SUNDAY when I’m not a morning person.

And that’s when it occurred to me that the fundamental flaw with the Here and Now campaign is that it ruins any chance of a story. Stories rely on the past and the future. In stories they are even more important than Now, even if the past and the future don’t exist anymore or just yet.

The idea of living without story, just Here, right Now… well, that’s a far worse sort of headache than the one my sinus infection has managed to arrange.


Filed under Books etc., Random idea, Self-help

Survey says … findings from Me & My money (1)

Ok, so I found out some interesting, some reassuring and a few distressing points of comparison.  The headache I had analyzing the results reflects some sloppiness in test design … yes, I whacked it together on the fly … so BIG thank you, thank you, thank you to the 56 people who participated (And the 55 of you who didn’t use the comment box to snark!)

To keep things bite-sized I’m sharing the findings out across several blogs (stay tuned). The headline for today: those of us in debt, don’t do it by halves.

This chart compares your individual earnings with the amounts you told me you owe (excluding mortgages) to reveal what % of your income belongs to a creditor.

These numbers likely underestimate what you owe (and in some cases, probably substantially) seeing as I applied two assumptions to simplify the data

1) blanket assumption of 20% tax bracket (yes, a few of you pay less – but a big majority pay a lot more)

2) the debt question asked you to tick which amount you owed more than; in the analysis I very generously assumed “>12,000” was in fact 12,000 (when the next choice up was >20,000) and so forth.

Category A  represents 44% of us …if we stress amount money, we don’t stress about the debt side of it since we don’t have any. The rest of us do.

Category C people owe over 100% of their after-tax income. This bracket covers a varied collection of situations. There’s the poor “highly anxious about debt” person whose partner owes more than £100,000 even though they themselves owe nothing – the personal loans hang over them both. There are people whose debt has kept their small businesses afloat or carried a partner through a period of redundancy. There are people paying off  hefty student loans which for many is more an investment than the sort of debt explained by Imelda Marcos style tendencies, taking lots of expensive holidays or routinely living beyond our means. 

Which brings me to the whole stack of people in category B … the “normal” gang; owing 65-70% of after-tax earnings on non-mortgaged debt seems a scary average. But maybe it isn’t. Most of us seem accustomed to being in debt. The majority of respondents weren’t worried about debt (if they had some). Only 15% replied they felt anxious and just 5% very anxious. Remarkable. And nothing to do with size of earnings … as we shall see in the next installment of Survey Says.

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Save someone from drowning

For those of you holding your breath for the Me & My Money survey results, stay tuned later this week. Thanks to all contributors – it’s making for fascinating reading and some interesting findings.

Today I bring to your attention an article a Facebook friend posted on his wall. Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

As I recently learnt researching my own piece on drowning (which is concerned with what near-death experiences teach us about time management), the Hollywood version of a drowning person bears no resemblance to reality.

Someone really drowning is physiologically incapable of flailing their arms and making a noticeable commotion.

The author of this piece references some of the same sources I found along the way and importantly, lists the signs that someone has started to drown, while there’s still time to save them. Cheery, I know — but well worth a read as the Summer arrives.

PS. On a related note, I had my 1st swimming lesson (as an adult) last week at the Marshall Street pools; 3 days later and my legs still ache and I found the whole thing so much harder than I was banking on …. Still, no pain, no gain. Right?


Filed under Random idea, Sport

Help for blocked writers

Now, if you have time to read this, you have time to take my survey – 43 people have completed it. I need 100 by Sunday! Be a part of fascinating research.  

* * *

Last night a group of writers met and one of us shared a compelling list of all the reasons they could not write. 

Here’s what we suggested.

This Year you write your novel – Walter Mosley
Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
Steering the craft – Ursula Le Guin

Find a blogathon and sign up!

Join a writer’s support group

Listen to Elizabeth Gilbert (whether you like her stuff or not)

But basically we all said, SO WHAT? Just do it. We all feel the same. We all feel the shame.

Most of us (all of us?) can’t write as wonderfully as we desperately desire … Not without practice, blood, sweat & tears. And even then, the gap between the magic in your head and the reality on paper is just part of the way life is. But what on earth would we have to read and be inspired by if those of us so compelled didn’t stick with it …


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., On writing

What do you earn?

And other shockingly personal questions. PLEASE, please, please complete my online survey. It’s 100% anonymous — I will not see your name, your data is protected. I will share back this results on this blog next week.

The survey CLOSES Sunday at high noon (UK time).

Me & My Money Survey

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