Ground Control to Major Tom

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This week’s song is Bowie’s Space Oddity. Having had to take to the airwaves – and take on the national news media – at times I’ve felt a bit like Major Tom.

Small stuff really – Monocle 24 a boutique radio station, a few letters to the papers and the Huffington Post an Internet newspaper. But high enough stakes for me.

On Wednesday, as I sat staring through the glass into a radio studio control room, there was a pang of what Bowie sang. “Here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do.”

Earlier, ‘Ground Control’ had contacted Major Tom. “You’ve [nearly] made the grade”, I learned on the back of my rapid letter and blog writing endeavours. Then Ground Control moved swiftly on to another far bigger beast: “the papers want[ing] to know whose shirts [he] wears”.

But the weirdest experience for me, was taking part in a four way radio debate. To my surprise it was fun. I enjoyed it and I came out feeling less tired than when I went in – the opposite of what I’d assumed.

I’d certainly found myself “floating in a most peculiar way.” But as for Major Tom, “the stars look very different today”. A thing I have often feared, turns out to be fine – even fun.

Perhaps – like Major Tom my “spaceship knows which way to go” better than I do. Could this be lift-off for a bit more self-confidence in ‘fronting-up’ on the media? I might even enjoy it.

Only time will tell.

Marseillaise

Reading Csikszentmihalyi on a family Bank Holiday in sunny France, I was reminded of the tyranny of progress and performance. 

Not that it was Csikszentmihalyi’s fault. We’d been talking with friends the night before going away about learning musical instruments and the merits of lessons and regular practice. 

Now I firmly believe that the best way to improve at anything is to practice regularly – the action of water on a stone is gradual, but inexorable. I have also learnt that the best way to practice anything regularly is to integrate it your daily routine. The problem is there are only so many hours in the day. What to do? More, less often?

I remember from my time working in advertising in France in the 1990s that people have predictable daily and weekly habits. But we do not generally form monthly habits and signally fail to form fortnightly habits. This gave rise to the unspoken rule, never buy an an Ad next to a monthly or worse a fortnightly TV show – they never pull in a regular audience and generally fail. Even if they are well liked once, people forget to tune in ever again. We are creatures of routine.

So where does that leave us with practice, hobbies and busy lives. My conclusion is the only practical options are dedicating daily or weekly slots. My daily slots are all pretty much full: kids, work, kids, eat, dishwasher, potter briefly, bed. 

The brief evening pottering – which recently was when I walked our ageing dog – is the remaining ‘purposeable’ slot. But a few minutes spinning the wheels, albeit aimlessly, seems a very small concession to relaxation. It’d take something ‘light’ and ‘fun’ to fit in edgeways in that small nook in a way that didn’t feel like a chore. 

The ukulele used to be that thing. And for nearly a year I played five songs nearly every night and went from hopeless and tuneless to strumming comparatively competently. Then the dog got incontinent and the habit got broken. So I could go back to the uke. But here’s where the tyranny of progress kicks in. Our friends feel I should have lessons, improve, look to play publicly or at least in private duets and preferably drop the four strings and migrate to a proper six string guitar. 

Phew. Where’s the eudaimonia in all that – the pressure to rapidly improve my skill to meet the challenge of musical excellence feels most unappealing. I said ‘no thanks’. They looked at me like I was mad – what’s the point of strumming the same five songs and never playing them with, or for, someone. Where’s the progress, where’s the performance. The point though – I think – is I quite enjoy it as a personal exercise for me, for ten minutes at night. The simple challenge I set myself is met by my rudimentary and very slowly improving strumming skill: producing modest, low-impact, private, musical ‘flow’.

Separately, on hols I was congratulated twice on my French – one woman said “Vous parlez très très bien Monsieur”. Another asked me if I was a French teacher in England. 

I had given up keeping up my French. I’d given up listening to ‘intermediate French’ audio magazines I subscribed to when I first came back from France. There were no opportunities to match my once reasonable skill with any worthwhile challenge at home. Talking about nothing much in French, just to speak French, seemed pretty pointless. And over time I felt myself going backwards which made matters worse.

But ‘flow’ in French has returned. Family holidays now provide me the perfect opportunity to navigate the modest but important challenges of travelling, accommodating, feeding and entertaining my little family. And they seem quietly impressed and genuinely grateful for my efforts. Now I have a stage on which to perform, some modest (daily?) investment in progress and improvement suddenly seems worthwhile – I’ll be looking at what the web has to offer for ‘intermediate French’ these days.

‘Flow’, progress and performance are closely intertwined, so much Csikszentmihalyi amply demonstrates. But I conclude the recipe and mix aren’t always the same. There are things we do well, some we may do very well and many we could do better. I believe good day-to-day ‘flow’ lies in accepting that not everything we do has to be excelled at. Sometimes the only audience that matters is ourselves. 

Today

I heard Simon Armitage read his poem ‘Knowing what we know now’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4 on Wednesday. It features an Elf who makes the offer of turning the clock back to a man who is 44 – exactly half-way to the end of his life. It has a twist in its tale which I didn’t welcome but it certainly set me thinking. 

As I’ve written before it’s increasingly likely that I’m at, or close to, what Armitage’s elf calls the ‘tipping point’ – the half way mark. On Saturday morning in an unconnected thought I put it to myself, what am I going to do that will be memorable today? Cue 3 year old. I spent 3 hours doing 3 miles and 3 parks on a scooter with my son. We had great fun on what could otherwise have been a grey day. I love that boy.

Pondering it this evening, I thought to myself; what would be different if I counted life more often in days, not halves or years? Tapping 365 into a calculator, I realised that in the last year or so I’ve passed the milestone of living over 15,000 days. It’s a bit like when all the 9s turn over on another 10,000 on your car milage. That’s a lot of days. And since I reckon I have a reasonable hope of living another 15,000 that’s a lot of great days if I make them so.

And this reminded me of Seneca’s: ‘On the shortness of life‘. At the start he gently criticises Aristotle for bemoaning that nature has given man such a short span of life, for our many and great achievements, when animals have so long for so little. Seneca disagrees:

‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste so much of it.’

I listened to a very experienced and senior person describe his career on Friday. He had many thought-provoking things to say. But the one that stuck the most for me was a comparatively obvious one; you’ll spend more time working than doing anything else so make sure you do something you enjoy. He used the word ‘fun’ all the time to describe his work – great, enormous, tremendous… fun. Not a word I use anywhere near enough describe my working life.

And that is the thing I’ve been thinking about this weekend: enjoyment, fun and spontaneity. Thinking I’m half way to death makes me sombre and cerebral. Thinking I’ve got another 40 years, and probably another 20 odd of work, makes me think about my career and mortgage and school fees. Thinking I’ve got another 15,000 days makes me think about today – what’s going to be today’s highlight, what’s going to be today’s memory, what’s going to be today’s fun. 

As Seneca has it, the philosopher makes his life long by recollecting the past, using the present and anticipating the future. The most important of these for me though is remembering to have fun – today.