I was talking to a nice chap last evening at a 50th birthday party, and found myself sharing some of the many horror stories from jobs I’ve had.
He was laughing and asked me what explains all the changes in role, sector and subject matter in my career? I said it was pretty simple really – in most of my jobs I’ve been like a cat walking on hot bricks looking for the first credible opportunity to jump!
The problem is it has often been from frying pan to fire!
Still, as we chuckled I did say the one advantage is I’m pretty much unshockable these days. Given the number and sheer variety of car crashes I’ve been part of in working life, it’s much harder to knock me out of equilibrium now.
And then I rather amazed myself, by saying I think I’ve finally lost my imposter syndrome… a previously constant companion throughout my working life! Having done a bit of almost everything, (and often having it go wrong on me) I realised I have achieved a greater balance between my expectations and my reality.
Of course the trick is to adjust your expectations – not to try to transform reality. That way madness lies.
In accepting who I am, what I have done and what I can do, I realised last night that a greater sense of equanimity has broken out. It’s not that I don’t care or don’t try – it’s just that I’m a bit more realistic about what I (or anyone) can do about all the things which go on around us.
I suppose I’ve accepted that I may not be amazing at everything that work throws at me; but I’m ok at most of it. And that’s all you really need to be. Ok is ok when you’re in your fifties, it mostly gets the job done.
A friend sent me this yesterday, on the topic of hope:
Ah, hope! You probably know the old story. A farmer throws his old, decrepit mule down a well. And starts shovelling earth onto it to bury it.
The mule gets a shovelful of earth in its hair and at first is resigned to be buried alive. Then it notices that if it shakes its head, the earth falls to its side, and that it can step up onto the new soil.
And that’s how it lives (and eventually gets out of the well) – shake it off, and step up. Shake it off, and step up!
And as I replied just now:
A great deal to like here. And the mule is excellent – very much what I think mindfulness is; shaking off the earth one shovelful at a time!
It’s quite a nice way to think about it really. Especially as we continue to be showered by debris from despots, demagogues – and own goals from our own democratically elected leaders!
That pandemic favourite – hand sanitiser – has been on my mind this week…
Once touted (with hand washing) as the indispensable saviour in COVID infection control, we all stocked up by the gallon. But as respiratory transmission became more and more commonplace, the question arose: what to do with all this HandSan?
Noticed first by my partner, and then rapidly adopted by me – we discovered HandSan does a terrific job on spots and blemishes… Happy days! Dab a blob and spots give up the ghost, and both the HandSan and the the spots quickly disappear without a trace.
But not just bacteria and facial blemishes – HandSan does a steady job of battling our fungal friends too. Athletes foot, whilst not eliminated, is certainly curbed by high alcohol goo. One of my toenails is telling testament to this, improving week on week with twice daily applications in the bathroom.
But the bigger reason I’ve been thinking about hand sanitiser is as a metaphor for life. Last Friday was the memorial service for a friend who died – probably due to COVID – in the spring of 2020. Blood clots and a brain haemorrhage were the final killer we suspect, but COVID was a likely trigger for both.
A family man and senior civil servant, perhaps in some ways it was better for those closest to him that some time had to pass before any significant number could gather in memorial. It felt like we remembered him with an unbridled wave of positive feeling, not the more tentative eulogies sometimes offered in the face of the raw anguish which follows a sudden death.
Everyone who spoke for Steve – and there were many – reminded us of his warmth, endless positivity, kindness, ready smile and total absence of gratuitous ambition, edge or sharp elbows. Notwithstanding this (and one hopes because of it) he rose to a very senior position; whilst impeccably contributing to the raising of three lovely children into their teens and young adulthood.
I don’t think anyone could have achieved more in the rounded service of family, friends and the wider public or have been appreciated more for it. Taken in his prime, we remembered him as a simply great person in every sense of the word.
After the event, talking to my partner, we both said (and she said another of our friends had also quietly mentioned)the thought had crossed our minds: “how could my funeral ever match-up to that”. Not that it’s a competitive business, just that with the memories of him so bright and large, we felt a little small and monochrome in our achievements and ongoing lives.
Because he left us in his prime everyone’s memories were fresh and his colleagues and friends all were able and wanted to be there. But what will it be like for those of us who might live another 25-30 years…
The audience will be much different. Probably fewer, and at much later stages in life, children will now themselves be in their 50s (the age of the friends at Steve’s memorial). And we will be remembering a life through a different prism. Much more like my father-in-law’s funeral last winter, where he was remembered by his bookseller not his work colleagues. In fact we scarcely touched on his working life at all.
So why does this lead me to HandSan? Quite simply because having experienced my father-in-law’s passing – and sifted through the many objects, possessions and general detritus of his life as part of clearing his house, I’m clearer on my end game. My aim is not to match Steve. My objective is to disappear at my passing, like a small blob of hand sanitiser.
Pouf (as the French say). One minute you’re there, the next you’ve disappeared into thin air. I’m aiming to have the fewest possessions, the smallest footprint and the simplest end. I’m thinking let go of the memorials, the legacy, any pressure to be remembered or fear of not being; and just settling for the the last volatiles of my final breaths floating off into the ether. Pouf, gone. A life lived, the job done.
Letting go of the memorial service lifts a burden from the mind. Having seen one of the best, I’d be surprised if anyone will ever top Steve’s. So my plan is to keep my life simple, and to seek to simplify it further all the time. Wanting less – including less of a parting fanfare – is the way to go, literally and figuratively. No fanfare equals more freedom.
Here’s to being like hand sanitiser: one minute here; the next gone.
People of a certain age will remember the astonishment and wonder of their first Polaroid…
Click, whirr and wait as a square of plastified paper renders, first, a ghostly outline and then a smiling 1970s face – complete with bad sweaters and basin cut hair.
In truth the quality wasn’t that great. Plus there was that annoying blank raised rectangle at the bottom. Let’s face it, they started out faded; and finished washed out.
But still they were the marvel of their day. Instant photos for the first time in history.
Now photos are everywhere. The biggest user of space on my iPhone, we count them in the 1000s. Not the ones and twos of the Polaroid years.
So why get nostalgic about Polaroids?
Because I’ve been working on mindfulness. And I have realised that, if I try hard enough, I can briefly notice and enjoy the individual snapshots of perception, which make up the endless movie in our heads.
When you start to notice the odd Polaroid in the stream of consciousness, you notice that the overwhelming majority of millisecond freeze-frames don’t get noticed at all.
On reflection, it then becomes possible to see (quite literally) that the flagship memories we carry with us are all just individual, faded and retouched Polaroids – which we’ve put in a mental frame. And they are just the tiniest fraction of the Polaroids we’ve experienced.
So what’s the value of this?
First, it helps to realise that the very worst things that have happened to us – some of which shape our self-image and core identity – are in fact no more than Polaroids in our minds. Look hard for most of them and you can scarcely find them.
And second, all the things we want in life will in their turn become faded Polaroids. Many, if not most, will be lost and forgotten soon after they have been bought, won, tasted or achieved.
This isn’t to argue for detachment or despair. More to make the case for equanimity, and a recognition that the everyday Polaroids are worth attention.
Because the special ones we covet and strive for (or fear and want to forget) are no more real or solid than the myriad Polaroids which will flash by our minds this very day.
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.
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.
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.
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:
CHILDHOOD The era for original thinking and imagination.
ADOLESCENCE The peak of curiosity and risk taking, which reaps rewards in later life.
TWENTIES The fast years, but are they really the happiest?
THIRTIES When superpowers of endurance make up for any loss of speed.
FORTIES A peak time for emotional intelligence and ability to focus.
FIFTIES AND SIXTIES Reaping the rewards of your crystallised intelligence.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!