Happy New Year

And so, on to 2022… after a thoroughly agreeable, if low key, festive period.

Between the turkey, goose, ham, endless cheeses, trifles and chocs – the wisdom of Joseph Goldstein on my daily dog walks has been a more ethereal and less calorific sustenance.

Now, if you’d have told me in any prior decades of my life than the one I’m living in, that I’d be listening to this sort of thing; I’d have said you were mad. Way too much Buddha and beads for an honest Northern lad like me.

But nobody said wisdom was a young person’s game. It takes time to tune in to these things. Thanks to the likes of Joseph Goldstein, I’m starting to develop an ability to slow down; to notice more and to hurry and worry less.

After all, most of what we spend our time doing – as Joseph Goldstein regularly reminds us – is struggle under the weight of two mountains: the mountain of the past and the mountain of the future. But although both weigh heavily on our shoulders, in fact neither of them is any more substantial than the wisp of endlessly passing thoughts and fears, regrets and memories.

Of course this has survival value. The so called Default Mode Network, which our minds switch to whenever we are idle, flicks relentlessly from past experiences to mid-term worries, to help us sweat the future and chart a safer path through it.

But it’s a bit of a waste of time really… The future will largely look after itself. As this Christmas showed, there’s a lot to be said for friends and family and simple pleasures.

So here’s to not having a plan for 2022. The dog has the right idea – simply chew on what’s to hand.

: )

Selfless

The path to enlightenment is no doubt winding; but letting go of a strong sense of ‘self’ is one of the core ingredients.

I’m enjoying Waking Up (as above) with Sam Harris, and in particular the ‘Path of Insight’ offered by the exceptionally wise Joseph Goldstein.

Yesterday was a pretty ordinary day at the (virtual) office. Plenty of small impediments and human scale frustrations. But I’m well prepared for this, thanks to my longstanding Monday reminder:

But remembering the ‘learned optimism’ of Martin Seligman (explained here) I changed this reminder recently… now it’s:

But on a much sunnier (in every sense) Tuesday, I’ve realised that Joseph Goldstein would likely nudge me to an even better place… namely:

Job done. No need for ‘self’ talk; just remembering to spot the universe up to its usual Monday tricks. Another step on the path to enlightenment.

: )

The Silk Road

I’ve just finished another terrific Coursera course with the University of Leiden, this time on the Cosmopolitan Medieval Arabic World. As promised by the course leader, a number of my preconceptions and beliefs about this place and time in history have changed…

The sophistication of medieval Baghdad, the mixing and mingling of peoples and cultures, the virtuous circle of stability, good rule and prosperity from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East and across the arc of the Turkic silk route to China; all these and more brought technological, intellectual, medical, social and philosophical advances.

Expansion of the four Caliphates 622-750 – Wikipedia

So, nice to see some of that encapsulated in a useful aphorism, which dropped into my inbox on Monday; and that I’ve quoted three times this week:

He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare,

He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.

Ali ibn-Abi-Talib c.602–661, fourth Islamic caliph: A Hundred Sayings

I first started to realise this about enemies in my late thirties, and learnt some formative lessons in making one or two in my forties. But I’ve only really fully embraced the truth of the matter post 50…

It is really really really not worth gratuitously falling out with people. There’s pretty much always an amicable way forward and it’s always worth seeking one.

Never had it so good?

Life is good. And as I was saying to an old friend yesterday Covid has certainly helped me to get a better balance in my life. A change of job, no time wasted on public transport, and an enhanced ability to manage my own time and energy are among the dividends of this pandemic.

So, encouraging to read in the New Scientist this week that terminal decline isn’t something to worry too much about either:

While 20-somethings may win a sprint, performance in many other sports can reach a high later in life. That’s not to mention factors like emotional well-being and mental discipline, which rise and fall in unexpected patterns. And despite nostalgia for the joys of youth, for most of us, our happiest days are actually yet to come.

And I must say that’s certainly how it feels to me. The New Scientist suggests there are seven stages:

  1. CHILDHOOD The era for original thinking and imagination.
  2. ADOLESCENCE The peak of curiosity and risk taking, which reaps rewards in later life.
  3. TWENTIES The fast years, but are they really the happiest?
  4. THIRTIES When superpowers of endurance make up for any loss of speed.
  5. FORTIES A peak time for emotional intelligence and ability to focus.
  6. FIFTIES AND SIXTIES Reaping the rewards of your crystallised intelligence.
  7. SEVENTY-PLUS A peak time for wise reasoning and making the best decisions.

I’m not sure I entirely recognise all these. I was fabulously unfit in my early thirties, and the brain scrambling effect of young children means I can’t remember much of our early 40s. Also I’m not entirely thrilled about being lumped in with sixty-somethings… (Sorry sixty-somethings!)

Still adding crystallised to emotional intelligence is certainly one of the gifts of your 50s. So long as you can keep fit and guard against cynicism, it helps to have seen a good many things happen before.

As the article says:

Contrary to popular opinion, humans seem to have evolved to flourish into middle age and beyond.

A good friend of mine told me this a decade ago. He wasn’t wrong.

Alcohol or Algorithm II

Up before 7am – a cup of tea made, the bed stripped and sheets in the washer before 9am. Out to the shops before several of them were open, and it’s a Saturday!

What’s going on?

18 months without drinking is what’s going on… Who’d have thought it? Not me that’s for sure. Least of all when I wrote this blog on New Year’s Day 2020.

Still (as subsequent reading has helped me realise) the signs and signals were there some while before. Five years ago in fact:

And then more recently:

So how did we get here? Two books, some Lego, a flower and a podcast…

Book one, by Simon Chapple, spoke to my cultural background as a middle aged British bloke; and dealt with my conscious mind:

Reading this led me to book two, by Annie Grace, which gave me stories, science and neuroscience; this dealt with my subconscious mind:

To get through the first days in early Jan 2020 (and it sustained me through the onset of the pandemic and more) I bought myself a Lego ‘clock’ which I converted into a day counter:

Coming up to three months…
At the turn of the year I gave up counting.

The flower is the carnivorous pitcher plant. It lures unsuspecting insects in search of a pool of delicious sweet nectar. Some varieties have a gentle slope which invites you in. Indiscernibly the insects passes a point of no-return. And then ‘plop’, into the drink and a sticky end.

The argument is we’re all inexorably wandering down the enticing slope of the pitcher plant with alcohol. It’s just a question of whether we’re meandering, or marching purposefully.

Finally, regular reinforcement as been helped by a podcast series, which is so culturally different for me (largely American, deeply personal life stories, mainly from women) that I find it incredibly powerful. It gets through my residual subconscious resistance to the reality of alcohol:

In sum, it’s a bit like when I quit smoking; thoroughly disgusted with myself after smoking three packs (and drinking a skinful) at a wedding in 2001. I’ve not had a cigarette since. I think I’d just had enough – and reminding myself of quitting smoking certainly helped on the odd day I’ve fancied a drink since 2019.

I can’t see myself going back though; and this week has given me a couple of reminders why.

Heading indoors to a pub (for the first time since lockdown) on Monday to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I arrived to find tequila shots already on the table. I smiled and said:

“Sorry chaps, I’m still not drinking.”

A few disappointed and incredulous looks, but people are getting used to it now. I ordered a low alcohol Erdinger and settled in for the evening.

Two and a half hours later it was getting on for time to leave. A half-hearted shout went up for “One more beer?” Everyone was tired, we’d had a good laugh and it was a ‘school night’ so there were mumbles of “Not for me”, “I’m good” etc. But then the inevitable happened in the ‘world of men’… someone pressed the group into “one more”. Another shot of tequila. I smiled and said I’m off.

As any heavyweight boxer will tell you (if they still can) it’s the late-career, late round punches that do all the damage. Into our fifties at past 11pm on a Monday night, we have no business doing shots. That’s a younger man’s game. I’m glad to be out of it.

And so to this morning. Bright, alert, healthy, happy, well-rested and ready for my day. And the only explanation (and it takes a year for the brain to rewire, the chemicals to rebalance and the urge to hit the alcohol ‘kill switch’ and turn your mind off to pass) is the absence of alcohol from my life.

Turns out it’s no loss at all.

Know your limits…

Listening to the BBC’s In Our Time on French mathematician and polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), I rather enjoyed Napoleon’s quote on his old teacher – whom he briefly made Minister of the Interior for all of six weeks.

Wikipedia is fulsome in its praise of Laplace:

His work was important to the development of engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy. Laplace is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time. Sometimes referred to as the French Newton he has been described as possessing a phenomenal natural mathematical faculty superior to that of any of his contemporaries. He was Napoleon’s examiner when Napoleon attended the École Militaire in Paris in 1784.

Napoleon clearly rated him, but soon realised not even the finest minds are good for everything…

“Geometrician of the first rank, Laplace was not long in showing himself a worse than average administrator; from his first actions in office we recognized our mistake. Laplace did not consider any question from the right angle: he sought subtleties everywhere, conceived only problems.”

But the killer line is this:

Il portait enfin l’esprit des ‘infiniment petits’ jusque dans l’administration.

In the end, he brought the spirit of the ‘infinitely small’ to matters administrative.

Poor old Laplace; but having worked in universities I know exactly how Napoleon felt… Allez!

Simple Pleasures

No-one would have wished for the pandemic. But it does help with one thing – the appreciation of simple pleasures. Last evening we had our favourite Chinese takeaway and enjoyed ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ as a family.

This morning: a fry up with sausages and bacon all round. And I sneaked a cheeky fried egg into the pan, just for me. I can’t remember the last time I had a fried egg.

A simple pleasure indeed.

Easy Listening

I can’t believe I’m now listening to The Archers omnibus…

Kicking off with Sunday Worship, the BBC News, Sunday, News & Papers and now Tweet of the Day, I’ve learnt about the Dipper:

Tulip lasagna:

The Coen brothers:

Democracy (or the increasing lack of) in Hong Kong:

The life of Des O’Connor:

And am now facing Desert Island Discs with Labour leader Kier Starmer… Enough!

I’m accumulating cups of tea.

And my head is going to explode if I have to stay tuned to any more thoroughly-middle-class ‘easy listening’. Sorry, I love the BBC but this is too much.

So why am I doing it?

Because I’m supervising this little bundle of life, who is bringing joy, and leaping, and pouncing, and chewing, and chasing into our lives again.

BBC Radio 4 is intended to bring soothing narcolepsy to her new kitchen home.

Happy days!

It’s like having a baby again; bursts of all-action energy and spells of total inactivity. Still, it’s doing me good.

I read a good piece of advice in the week, which is, whatever your faith (or lack of it) everyone should have a Sabbath; a day of rest where you sit, relax and put jobs aside. I’ve not been properly idle forever.

Despite The Archers, it’s good to sit still for a few hours on a Sunday; especially with a warm puppy in your lap.

Shocking

After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.

My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.

As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.

Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.

So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…

How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.

Peace at last!

Back on my feet

A difficult week given the untimely demise of our beloved pup; but I am finally released from the shackles of a job which often made me feel helpless and hopeless.

After crying my eyes out on Tuesday as the vet put Romeo to sleep, on Wednesday I began to tackle the domestic to do list: tidying and odd jobs. By yesterday evening I’d got as far as completing my tax return… a process and sense of achievement nicely encapsulated by Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, here:

Today I have cycled, walked, made sausage sandwiches for breakfast, sorted our evening meal, done my washing, and now am sitting socially distanced outside a little cafe with a nice flat white. I feel a bit like Atlas the robot below, tentatively upbeat…

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this week will always be remembered for our lost little dog; he tried, but after his stroke, never could quite get back to his feet.