Category Archives: Books etc.

3 life lessons from the groundhog …

According to Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog photographed above) there will be 6 more weeks of winter.

At least in the US & Canada which is where Groundhog Day is celebrated.

Tradition has it that if the groundhog emerges from his winter lair on February 2nd and sees his shadow, winter will continue; if there’s not enough sunshine and he doesn’t, we can look forward to an early Spring.

You might remember Phil the Groundhog from his role next to Bill Murray in the movie  Groundhog Day. Murray plays a local TV weatherman who can’t stand his annual assignment covering the big groundhog event in Punxsutawney. Worse still, for the remainder of the movie he finds himself repeating the same dreaded day over and over again.

But thanks to the movie, Groundhog Day Syndrome was coined [which is possibly the reason why the US National Film Registry deemed Murray’s comedy as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” but I doubt it …]

The syndrome refers to the odd way in which time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. The reason our perception distorts time like this is because the older we are, the more repetitive our experiences have become … and this familiarity speeds up our sense of time passing. It’s as if our senses are saying, “ya, whatever … been there, done that, move along.”

But when we experience something completely novel our minds are greedy to soak up as much sensory detail as possible and the more we pay attention to our experiences, the slower time goes. A massive & sudden intake of detail is why time goes very slo-mo when we fall from a great height (brilliant podcast over at RadioLab on this phenomenon).

Here’s how Steve Taylor, the author of Making Time: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control it, explains Groundhog Day Syndrome:

As a child, the world is an incredibly new place; all your experiences are fresh. Children are taking in new information all the time. As we get older, our perceptions become more automatic, and we have fewer new experiences. At five years old, practically everything is new; by 20, you might travel to a new country, or fall in love for the first time; but, by 50, most experiences are repetitious. As we get older, we establish routines in order to feel happier and more secure; but, paradoxically, the more familiar our life becomes, the quicker time appears to pass, and the more anxious we become about running out of time.

But none of this is inevitable.

There are things we can do to mitigate the effects of Groundhog Day. Here’s 3 that Taylor suggests:

  1. Change a routine — go on a holiday, take a different route to work, try a new sport … shaking things up  stimulates the senses … and this in turn, slows down time (and as a bonus, creates new memories)
  2. Reclaim nights and weekends —  these pass faster than our working weeks for both good and bad reasons. If we spend time on activities that absorb us — reading, hiking, cooking — time flies, but we have the reward of doing something meaningful and pleasurable (and in-the-zone activities are excellent for our our mental health.) But if we spend too many of our evenings and weekends passive and mindless — zoning out by watching TV or surfing the net, then time passes just as fast but without any benefit to us.
  3. Be Here Now. Much as I hate this expression, mindfulness meditation (which involves taking a few minutes out to simply ‘watch our thoughts’), slows the mental chatter in our brains which in turn brings us to a calmer, more awake state of mind… which, once again, slows time. Just this week, right as the groundhog was getting ready to rise from his bed, my mom was listening to a talk on mindfulness and sent me this link. Skip to the 7th minute to enjoy a simple introduction to a practice which takes no more than minutes to build into your everyday.

And the really great news is that these 3 life lessons are useful not only in the management of time, they’re also perfect techniques for developing our creativity and for battling off depression (which many of us now face given Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of several more weeks of winter).

And so it was that this week’s life lessons were brought to us by a little, furry groundhog. Till next Friday …


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The cat that walked by himself

Last weekend I was having a “deep and meaningful” with a buddy. You can’t really put the two of us together without this happening. Though there’s something about both of us that means a D&M rarely gets too heavy (unless copious amounts of red wine are involved and then nothing’s sacred and no-one’s safe.)

At some point I mentioned how confusing I find it to know who my people are … what sort of ‘milieu’ I belong to.

Who cares?

Well, if you’re dating this gets VERY confusing. But if ever I blog about dating please shoot me, so let’s leave it at that.

In reply to my identify confusion, my good friend replied,

“But, it’s obvious! You’re the cat that walked by himself”

“I am?”

“You are.”

At which point I lost her for a bit as she frenetically googled on her iPhone looking for the source of her reference … the story that led her
to say this …while I sat there sipping my latte pleased that there appeared to be a well-documented report on my condition, involving a cat no

The point of her point was to congratulate me on my independence even if it does cost me a sense of belonging. Had she simply used these words
there’s no doubt I’d have felt far less consoled than I did when I learnt that I am a cat. A cat written of in legends!

So if ever you want to cheer someone up that they’re not just a stray or a freak or an outcast, I highly recommend sending them The Cat That Walked By Himself.

Thanks to my friend for giving me this story.
“The Cat That Walked By Himself” is from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Here are the lines my friend had in mind, a 5 minute video of extracts from the story and the full Kipling text.

… and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Relationships, States of mind, Words

Abraham Lincoln meets Oprah

The story I told yesterday about my friend who lost her dad got me wondering about the connection between grief and gratitude … which through the magic of following Google leads down warrens brought me to the work of Dan McAdams.

A psychologist by trade, McAdams has compiled a social history of the sorts of stories that Americans tell themselves. These reflect the deep–down optimism that, as far as I’m concerned, marks the American attitude to life more than any other quality.

According to Publishers Weekly, McAdams analyzed hundreds of American stories — the Horatio Alger success stories, the early, middle and latter-day self-help classics, the writing of Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln and good old Oprah. He looked at confessions from the Puritans and he read the narratives of slaves. He checked out all the back copies he could find of People magazine.

And what he found was this — that Americans tell redemptive stories.

Stories of deliverance from suffering. And that these stories help us on multiple levels. In one piece of research patients healed faster if they had a redemptive story to tell themselves. The kind of people who say things like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” have a much higher chance of surviving than the rest of us.

The interesting thing is this — redemptive stories are not happy tales. They are not glossed over, upbeat, superficial approaches to dark times. The deeper the trouble, the harder the toil, the longer the suffering, the more power a redemptive story has in equipping us with the perseverance to make it through such hardship.

All we have to believe is that Good can come from Bad.


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Not in London, States of mind

Commissioned vs Non-commissioned Officers

Before I call it quits on this weekend’s investigation into words I’ve never properly understood, it is with shame that I mention that whenever I come across a reference to a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer, I think to myself that I must look up the difference. But I haven’t ’till now.

The shame …
Having spent most of my history degree studying wars, you’d think I’d have NCOs and COs clear in my head, but I don’t. I had forgotten. It reminds me of when I was a kid and about 90 minutes into The Eagle has Landed I’d double check with my dad to make sure I knew which ones were the Germans.

Strange coincidence …
In the past couple of weeks I’ve bumped into COs and NCOs on 3 different occasions of fiction which is weird because I don’t read a lot of fiction. It’s also weird in an on-time way because it was Remembrance Day this week … even if the anniversary of the end of  the First World War had zero to do with my recent choice in fiction.

3 different fictions …
I bumped into NCOs and COs in Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and O’Brien’s The Things they Carry.  

I cannot recommend O’Brien’s story enough. It’s short and it’s stunning. The back-drop is Vietnam, but the experience is Any War. If you haven’t done anything else to remember the military this week, please read this. You can download it here.

I also loved Cutting for Stone. Based mostly in Ethiopia in the second part of 21st century, we get to see some military action though the main focus of this addictive saga is the world of medicine and the fate of twin brothers born to an English surgeon and an Indian nun. Coincidentally, fellow blogger Aliceson posted a review of the book a few days ago.

As for Murakami’s Wind-up Bird, not so much my cup of tea. I loved his memoir on running, but this fiction left me cold. With one big fact exception. At a book club this past week we discussed this story and where we could all agree is that the best part of this 600 page book came about 100 pages in with Lieutenant Mamiya’s Long Story Part I and II, an account from the Japanese-Soviet  border fighting in Mongolia during World War II. The extract of this tale (complete in and of itself without needing to read the rest of Wind-Up) is also available online, here.

But back to the question … what’s the difference between a commissioned and a non-commisioned officer?

While it varies from country to country and across different parts of the armed forces, the former went to officer training school whereas the latter worked their way up through the ranks. Beyond that, it’s better explained by NCOs and COs themselves …. here are some of the best explanations I found online:

this is a difficult one to grasp and it varies by branch, ill try explaining it as a Marine. Commissioned Officers are managers. They all have formal schooling prior to joining. Their job is to oversee an office of Marines (who have been trained at specific tasks: motor repair, fuel, photography, computer networks.)

Non-commissioned (NCO’s) are enlisted Marines who have risen through the ranks. They are tasked with taking the officers plan and helping figure out how best to use the Marines to get it done. The NCO is responsible for training new Marines and
keeping them on task to complete the officer’s mission.

An officer will make general plans without specific knowledge of what the capabilities or restrictions of their Marines are. The NCO and Staff NCO (gunnery sergeant or staff sergeant) take those broad ideas and turn them into achievable goals for their junior Marines and then keep driving those Marines to get the job done.

Hope this helps, msg me if you still have a question.

Active duty Marine — NCO

* * *

I have been both an officer and an NCO. I was nine years enlisted before going to Officer Candidate School (OCS). It is not so much “which is better”… both are extremely important to the military… both jobs take skill and intelligence.An officer who has enlisted experience ( a “Mustang”) makes a better troop leader … but his chances of succeeding in the higher ranks is limited for several reasons (“ring knocker” clicks; right type of education, etc). As for the “@ss kissing” that goes on at all levels not just the officer ranks … the politics of personality is pervasive. You get paid more as an officer because you have more responsibility…your career can be destroyed in the slash of a pen. As an enlisted man I had nine article 15’s and a court martial…and still made E-8. As an officer I told my rating officer he was a “f_cking liar” in front of his boss and lost my career….. (never said I was smart.)

Airborne Ranger Green Beret, Cpt (retired)


I enlisted with plans of going to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. Got deployed to Iraq the first time and decided I would rather be an NCO. Now I am kind of regretting it somewhat – seeing guys with less experience, same education, having a great impact. Now on my 2nd deployment I wish I had of went to OCS.


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“At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves — that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas important to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.” Page 59

Reporting live from the 1307 East Grinstead to London Victoria service, I forgo my usual train habits to post this blog about what I would prefer to be doing right now: train-dreaming.

Long before I’d read the passages quoted in today’s post, I’d known that trains and me are good together.

Having a view sliding past a fast-moving landscape lets my mind expand and bounce around without any of the pressures of frustrated concentration. I save my thorniest problems for train time. Puzzles complete, possibilities explode and even poems unfold. Give me train-dreaming any time.

I wasn’t particularly pleased when several years ago I came across someone else with a lot to say about train-dreaming. I wasn’t pleased because I was envious. Someone else had stolen my thoughts, said them so much better and gone and published them! The _ _ _ _ _ _ _ !

But to prove I have matured since then I shall not attempt to outdo Alain de Botton in his brilliant descriptions of mind-wandering in transit.

“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train. There is almost a quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, new thoughts new places. Introspective reflections which are liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape. The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do. The task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand. Thinking improves when parts of the mind are given other tasks, are charged with listening to music or following a line of trees.” Page 57 de Botton’s The Art of Travel.

Which leaves me with another 40 minutes of this journey to indulge myself and do just this …

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Get better acquainted

In the 2nd part of today’s 9/11 post, a few words about fiction and community.

On fiction — many have commented that there’s been no “definitive” 9/11 novel and are asking themselves why. Fiction often helps us understand and process what reportage and facts fail to deliver. In this brief 5 minute conversation several authors talk about 9/11 fiction. Listen here 

And if you’re out and about and unable to tune in, here’s an interesting article on 9/11 fiction from 

On community — late last night I received an emailed announcement that took me by surprise. It was from the co-founder of

If you haven’t participated in a meet-up, check out the site. If you’re in London you could sign up to online marketing and social media events, “healing” nights, laughing clubs and impromptu gatherings of improving Spanish speakers — all taking place in the next couple of weeks. If you’re stuck working in a foreign city, meet-up’s are a brilliant idea.

I never knew that meet-up is a “9/11 baby” — born of a desire to get people talking to their neighbours again. The idea was to use the internet to get people off their computers and back out into the real world — spending time with like-minded souls and building off-line, in-the-flesh communities. Scroll down to read the email I received.

On getting better acquainted with other people — as squirmy as it feels to promote an hour of streaming Nat, since it’s just been published it would be weirder not to. And anyway, if you’re my Facebook friend you’ve already been bombarded with it earlier this week. So to wrap up on a weekend of podcast recommendations, this one involves getting better acquainted with me.

Brought to us by Dave-of-frequent-mention here at Panic Station, GBA (Getting Better Acquainted) is a weekly show about Dave getting better acquainted with someone. In this case — that person is me.
Listen to it here.

I’d also highly recommend getting better acquainted with Dave himself — Listen here for a very amusing collection of personal stories which he’s captured in the opening GBA podcast. Or if you’re short on time, start with this GBA sampler

Till next weekend, over & out — have a great week!

* * *

Email from Meetup Co-founder

To: Nathalie Hourihan
Subject: 9/11 & us

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is
special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many
people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles
from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought
local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet
and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I
hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors
in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to
neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally
ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each
other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring
people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and
grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a
crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make
people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months
after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s
working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups,
Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of
100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to
neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.
They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and
motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find
other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace
together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s
powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks
to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it
weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to
strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new
community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started
with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)
Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup
New York City
September 2011

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Current affairs, Not in London, Podcasts, Relationships, Self-help

“Strange” continued

Ok – so have mastered blackberry memory issues and am reporting live from the sitting room on Rabbit Run Road (which is just off Fox Chase.)

I’m in here to share what we have happening on the bookshelves.

Row after row of leather-bound, gold trimmed editions. We’ve five shelves of classics — Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery, Steinbeck, Thoreau, ee Cummings.

In the next bookcase we’ve got the collections. Bound volumes of The Atlantic Monthly 1860-1866, Letters of the Great Artists, Plutarch’s Lives, Victor Hugo’s five tomes des Les Miserables, Dickens’ complete works, the ten volumes of Abraham Lincoln’s A History and four shelves of The Harvard Classics.

I pluck The Harvard Lectures (1914) off the highest shelf. The chapters cover drama, poetry, prose fiction, history, natural science, political history, education, religion, voyages and travel — an entire pre World War One liberal education.

About ten years ago I came across a newspaper column about the Feng Shui of packed out bookshelves. A Feng Shui consultant was advising the columnist that at least half his books had to go. Not only are bookcases social lies (and as someone who keeps her self-help in the closet, I’d have to agree), but too many books means no room for fresh thinking and new discoveries.

I think it’s true that we can’t rely on bookcases to tell us the truth about their owners. Here on Rabbit Run Road for example, I’d suggest that obsessive hoarding of Beagles and their Cottontail chase is far more revealing.

If we’re stuck here another day we’re planning to start counting the ceramic and copper miniatures of bunnies and hounds, the not so miniature sculptures, the gangs of paintings, the needleworked pillow covers, the bunny and hound cookie cutters, ash trays, and lamp switches …. But for now that’s just too big a task so I’m curling up for the 1914 lecture series to see what I can learn.


Filed under Books etc., London, Random idea