Positivity In A Sickening Online World

It’s pretty bleak out there just now. The news is depressing and scary, between Brexit, Trump, Russia and the everlasting effects of austerity. Often it feels like using social media or browsing the internet is an exercise in endurance as you read one argument after another involving people with unrelentingly aggressive, entrenched viewpoints.

To be honest it’s really starting to wear me down. To the point where part of me just wants to switch off the internet and go back to the 90s, before I was permanently connected to news (especially this last week with the horrible images of young children being taken from their parents at the US border) and other people’s horrible opinions.

Sadly I work in IT, so that’s not really an option. Where does that leave me? Crippled by my impotence as I’m unable to do anything to change the depressing reality of today’s world? That’s not going to do me any good in the long run is it?

If I can’t do anything to stop Brexit, prevent a new cold war, or impeach Trump what can I do to make myself and the world a better place?

In day-to-day life I try not to let things get to me. Often urging others not to worry about things they can’t change or control. So maybe I should start doing the same for the big scary things as well. The first problem though is how to stop worrying about them in the first place?

Use Social Media for Good instead of Evil

I’ve started purging my Twitter of negativity. It’s become a broken tap, leaking a never-ending drip feed of bad shit on my phone, laptop and PC screen. I look at my phone to get a light distraction for a moment and end up being angry and sad for the rest of the day instead. No more. The bad shit must be controlled.

Unfollow media accounts or users who only ever post bad news or retweet conspiracy theories (even if you believe them). Once the drip has slowed down then start filling your feed instead with the things you want to read about and that make you happy. I’ve filled my twitter with tweets from comedians, musicians, artists, DIY makers and other creative and entertainment content creators.

Use social media to find things that inspire you, amuse you and refill your joy tank.

Also follow real people who you actually know. People you’d have a conversation with. Use Twitter for two-way communication.

Now when I go on Twitter it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Some of the bad shit still leaks through (yuck) but it’s much, much more manageable.

Don’t accept every invite to an argument

The other big rule I have now is not to get involved in arguments. There’s absolutely no point to it. Everyone’s opinions on social media are so entrenched that there’s no room for grey areas or rational thought. It’s a terrible platform for reasonable discourse. Abandon the concept and throw it to the wolves. Block and move on instead.

Make Time For Your Own Wellbeing

Clear some time out of your day and do something to improve your health or make you happy. Spend your lunch hour fuming over a sandwich while browsing BBC news? Go for a jog instead, or take a walk to nearby river and sit outside to eat your sandwich. Even just move away from your desk with a good book for the hour.

Make time when you can. Swap sitting on the sofa with your laptop for digging out that guitar you’ve not played for weeks/months/years.

My downtime is important and though it’s difficult to carve out all the time I want with two young kids and a full-time job, I try to make sure I get out for a run or bike ride a few times a week to keep everything on an even keel.

Embrace What You Love

If you like doing something – painting, drawing, writing, making music, board games, video games, bird watching, stamp collecting, crochet, ballroom dancing, making voodoo dolls from the stray hairs of your enemies – then do it (except maybe that last one). Don’t let anyone say you can’t, slag you off, or tell you it’s wrong to enjoy something that’s not harming anyone else. Double down on it if you can. Love what you like.

For a long time in my late twenties and thirties I shied away from some of my geekier hobbies and interests. Now I’ve recently started playing board games and roleplaying again, fiddling with electronics and hobby computing, as well as wearing shamelessly geeky t-shirts in the office. I’m a nerd. These things make me happy. Why should I be bothered if someone else doesn’t like those things?

Take The Pressure Off You

Give yourself permission to make mistakes, not get involved, and to leave it to someone else. The news is horrific just now. It often feels like there’s a lot of pressure to DO SOMETHING. To enlist in the forces of good against evil. It’s overwhelming but fear not! It’s OK. You don’t have to join every fight. Look after yourself first, make sure you’re safe and healthy, then, if you’ve got energy to spare, feel around for what you can do to help others.

When you do jump in, you don’t have to go big. Do what you can, where you can. Donate to charity, local or global. Pick something you care about. It doesn’t matter if it’s the big topic of the day. Make the world better one monthly direct debit at a time. Volunteer to help with a local event you like. Give something back on your terms when you’re able to.

Be Kind, Be Helpful, Understand Others

I’m often amazed by the lack of simple empathy shown on social media. Much of this will stem from the top down, from politicians and the media, who fill us with negative stereotypes and othering of large sections of society. That stuff rubs off, contempt is contagious and it’s no wonder social media is so toxic when minority groups, the sick, disabled, foreign, and the poor become scapegoats for every problem in the country.

Here’s something we can change. I can’t fix the predominantly right-wing media or our populist politicians, but I can make sure that I show the values I want to see represented online. Interact with kindness, don’t post knee-jerk assumptions about people, think the best of others and forgive their mistakes.

Boost the signal when others are being positive. Retweet the voices who are constructive and helpful of others. Ignore the people who are being dicks, make sure good people get heard.

Engage On Your Terms

Look I can write a thousand words telling people what they should do. In reality everyone has to find a way to manage this stuff themselves. Hopefully some of these ideas are useful, they sound obvious when you write it down but the pressure to stay engaged with all the bullshit that’s happening can blind you to the fact that you don’t really have to. Find your own route through the forest fire that is world news and toxic social media, just make sure it works for you and if it doesn’t you can always walk away. I know lots of people that, shocking as it is, aren’t on Facebook or Twitter and they are perfectly functional human beings. It’s always an option.

That happened – Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

Like many people I won’t be sad to see the back of 2017.  As well as the misery of the daily news headlines, I’ve personally had to cope with more than my fair share of problems this year. Poor  health and injuries have taken their toll on almost all aspects of my life and decimated my attempts at achieving the modest goals I set myself at the start of the year.

It’s not all been bad. My daughter Chloe has been a thing of wonder and joy as she grows into a bossy wee toddler. All being well I hope she’ll also grow into a caring and patient sister next year.

We had some fantastic times as a family, from holidays in the Lake District and  weddings in Fife, to just spending time at home in our own company.

I changed job, moving back to a role I’m familiar with in an effort to regain some lost confidence. A move which seems to be paying off as I feel happy going to work for the first time in years.

Creatively, I had some really productive spells which saw me get two poems published and I also had some real barren spells when I barely wrote a word or played a note of music. It was simply consistent with the stop/start nature of the year really.

2017 was a year that happened. I think it’s best we just move on and start fresh in 2018. In that spirit I’m going to try something different this year for my 2018 goals/resolutions. Normally I set a short list of goals for myself like getting poems published (only one I achieved last year) or running a race to a certain time. I usually hit a few and miss a few and the whole year of goals feels a bit of a non-event.

This year I’m not going to set goals. I’m going to set values. These are the values I’m going to try and stick to for 2018. They will guide my year and how I choose to live. Hopefully they will guide me to be productive and happy at the end of the year, but that remains to be seen.  I wanted to keep the list short and in return each one would need to cover a broad range. I think what I’ve settled on covers most of the big things I want to concentrate on over the year and by setting them as values, rather than specific goals, I don’t feel like I’m tying myself down to something that could blow up in the first month due to some unforeseen problem like I had in 2017.

Here goes then, my values for 2018:

Be Healthy – Prioritise good health in body and mind
Be Kind – To myself and to others
Create – Write, play, make
Learn –
Try new things, read, listen
Finish –
See things through to completion

These five basic values remind myself how I want to change my behaviours and how I want to push myself in the year ahead. I need to put my health first and also remember to give myself a break if I can’t do everything I want to. In this era of twitter insta-rage and the horrible daily news headlines I want to also remember to be kind to others and show empathy first before jumping to judgement. The first two are also a reminder to make sure I’m happy and healthy, not preoccupied with things I have no control over and can’t change myself.

Then rather than committing myself to doing specific goals for the year I just want to remind myself to be creative in my spare time, to increase my knowledge and finish projects that I start. I have so many half written pieces, scraps of music and bits of projects I’ve started then never gone back to. I need to get things over the finish line occasionally.

So that’s my values for 2018. It’s set to be a busy year personally and it’s difficult to know how much traditional goals I would have a hope of achieving at the moment. Hopefully approaching things in this way still gives me that push to go in the direction I want to without adding the specific pressures that goals provide.

Happy New Year!

NaNoWriMo Go!

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

As with most stupid ideas, this one seemed like a good idea at the time. From tomorrow, November 1st, I’ll be taking part in my first NaNoWriMo event. What started as an American event is now a worldwide community of writers who get together and try to blitz 50,000 words in the month of November – National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.

I feel like I have a solid idea for a story and I can usually write pretty fast once I sit down and get typing. Theoretically, I reckon I can bash out the required 1667 words per day in half an hour to an hour per day. Which isn’t a huge time commitment and doesn’t need to be tackled in a single sitting.  Theoretically.

My biggest issue with any of my hobbies, but especially writing, is that I get very, very easily distracted. Even now, while doing some last minute prep by going over some outline plans, I’ve spent more time looking up specifications and parts for a Raspberry Pi project than I have tweaking characters and story setting.

So while I’m looking forward to the challenge and really looking forward to seeing the story in my head take shape on my laptop screen, there’s a little voice which is telling me I’ve failed before I’ve even started. There’s no commitment other than saying “I’m doing this” so failure doesn’t mean anything except I’ve not hit my word count.  Fingers crossed I can keep that little voice subdued enough to get some momentum started tomorrow to get me rolling into the first week of the challenge and beyond.

Anyone else taking part this year? Add me as a buddy at https://nanowrimo.org/participants/chrisoff/ and let me know how you get on.

Goals change, that’s OK

At the start of the year I set some goals. I liked those goals. They were sensible, achievable and meant I could throw myself at 2017 with some enthusiasm. Sadly my body had other plans for the year ahead.

Shortly after setting these humble targets – run a half marathon, record some of my music, publish a poem, and lose some weight – I had an episode. I got home from work and felt short of breath and a bit dizzy. My heart was having palpitations and was beating ridiculously fast. It got worse and lasted a few hours. Typically though, it had stopped by the time I was worried enough to contact NHS 24 and arrange to speak to a doctor at the local community hospital.

I’d experienced my first episode of Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation. A heart rhythm disorder which manifests as attacks of up to a few hours in length (for some people it can be days), where the heart suddenly starts beating with a very fast, irregular rhythm. It’s not life threatening, but during an episode I could barely go for a walk without feeling extreme fatigue and afterwards I was left feeling very tired.

Eventually after months of experiencing up to four episodes a day, I was able to get everything under control with medication by the middle of the summer. Now I feel pretty much back to normal.

Sadly by that point I was now also dealing with a recurring back injury, which at the time of writing (early September) I’m still having issues with.

My two main forms of exercise are running and cycling. I’ve hardly been able to do either for most of the year. Now when I do get out I usually pay for it the next day with back pain and restricted movement. Lots of fun this injury business.

Having lost my ability to exercise that meant my half marathon goal was toast. Even more annoying, without regular exercise I started putting on weight. Instead of losing a stone I gained one. Whoops. Another goal down.

Over the course of summer I changed job, went on holiday, had some other personal stuff going on and then I looked back and I hadn’t played or recorded any music for months and it looks like the EP goal is going to be missed as well.

You know what though? It’s OK. I’m not too down about missing these goals. Stuff happens. I’ve been pretty lucky and avoided any serious health issues or injuries over the years so to lose one year to some problems isn’t a big deal. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to take part in the first Great Run to happen in Aberdeen and obviously I’m annoyed at putting on weight but the layoff has given me opportunities as well.

I’ve hunted for advice on how I can fix my back problems which are apparently muscular issues, so I’ve looked at how I can increase my range of movement and the strength in my core. Both are issues I’ve meant to address for a long time but while I’ve concentrated on running and cycling it never seemed too urgent.

For the last couple of months I’ve used a two prong approach of body weight strength exercises and yoga. Both give a flexible program of movements which can be done with very little equipment and can easily fit into a life at home with a two year old toddler. I’ve even tried to get her involved a couple of times but she’s not quite got the hang of handstands or pull-ups yet (who am I kidding, I haven’t got the hang of them either!).

The body weight exercises I’ve grabbed from the amazingly helpful and supportive community at r/bodyweightfitness who, as well as publishing a recommended routine complete with detailed progressions and prerequisites, also publish regular technique features, videos and maintain an app for the exercises all for the princely sum of nothing at all.

Another superb resource of inspiration and tips has been the excellent folk at Gold Medal Bodies who offer premium paid for content of training programs, but also publish some fantastic blogs and video content for free on their website and Facebook page.

Then there’s the yoga. There’s a lot of nonsense which surrounds yoga. To be honest a lot of it I can do without, especially after buying a reference book for the movements and flicking through a load of pseudo-scientific rubbish in the surrounding chapters. However, the physical and mental benefits of spending a bit of time going through a yoga flow and then the reward of the Savasana meditative pose at the end are immense.

I wanted yoga to be something I can do at home in a quiet corner of the living room to unwind. Not a communal class I had to drive to and commit to an hour or so of discomfort in the presence of others every time I wanted to do some movements. To that end I installed the Down Dog app. It’s available for free with a premium version which offers extra ways to customise your practice, but to be honest the cheaper one gives you plenty to get going with.

Neither the bodyweight routine or the yoga practice are easy, even for someone who is relatively fit and flexible. The variety of movements and the range of progression means I’m always being pushed but even after the few short weeks I’ve been doing them I can see a big improvement in strength and most importantly my back!

Just the act of maintaining some kind of exercise routine (even if it’s not the exercise I want to be doing) has improved my mood considerably. It’s also made it a lot easier to motivate myself to get my diet back in shape using some calorie tracking to pinpoint exactly where I’m doing the damage to my waistline and tweak it as necessary.

So while I may have failed some of my initial goals for the year, I’m not down about it. I’ve embraced the opportunity to be flexible and try some new challenges. If I can strengthen my back and get back to running then this years goals will still be there, waiting for me, in 2018. In the meantime just getting back to health is a big enough goal by itself.

Oh, I didn’t mention the goal I set about publishing some poetry. Issue #5 of The Poet’s Republic, released in September 2017, features one of my poems. As does The Federation of Writers (Scotland) New Writers Scotland anthology to be released in Autumn 2017. Hooray! One goal complete!

Burkini Bodies

The terror attack in Nice last year was devastating and horrifying. I love France and have nothing but fond memories of the Promenade des Anglais and the week we spent in Nice a few years ago.  Watching the aftermath on TV I was distraught at the fear which would now be endemic in such a beautiful and welcoming area. An area which over the centuries has seen migration (and occasional occupation) from across the Mediterranean resulting in an exciting diverse culture which takes bits of French, Italian, African, British, Spanish and many others.

Then in the weeks and months after another disaster unfolded, this time the victims weren’t strewn across a famous boulevard but instead, they were on a beach, beside their children, with police surrounding them. Women, doing nothing more than enjoying a day with their family, were harassed, insulted and demeaned into removing the clothing they were comfortable in wearing because people were scared that they looked different. Scared that they looked Muslim.

In my fury at the knee-jerk reaction of the French politicians and security forces, as well as the empathy I felt for the women affected – who are as much victims of Islamic terrorism as the western, Christian people targetted that night in Nice, I wrote the poem below, Burkini Bodies.

This week I have mostly been…

I’ve thrown myself down a few creative holes recently and had quite a busy week for putting work online in some form or another.

I recently began publishing articles on Medium to try out that platform and give myself another outlet for some writing which I think would be unsuitable to host here. I think I would like this site to become very informal and just be personal reflections rather than anything too serious or professional.

At the end of last week I posted an article there about how I try and maintain self-belief in the face of anxiety, depression and the mental issues which these conditions inflict on me

Then at the weekend I presented my parents with the gift I’d made for them to congratulate them on their ruby wedding anniversary. It’s a drawing of the family tree which they planted the seeds for forty years ago, along with a short poem I wrote for them
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I’m pretty proud of it as someone who is really, really bad at drawing!

After that it was back to music and a project I’m working on throughout 2017 – recording 50 tunes throughout the year in a mix of video and sound recordings. This is an effort to get me learning and writing new music as well as building confidence in myself as a musician again. On Tuesday I posted a video of two tunes played on mandolin – Road to Banff and The Spey In Spate.

Once I’d recorded the mandolin set I left the camera set up and decided to do an impromptu poetry reading. I entered some poems into a major competition towards the end of last year and received confirmation that they’d not made the shortlist this week. Which, while disappointing, does mean they are now free to be entered elsewhere and shared with the world again. One of those poems is Leaving The Woods, which I wrote around the idea of leaving your childhood behind and based on some memories I had of the woods we played in as children.

I also published it via Medium with a bit of background on the poem itself and the stories told within it

Twitter Poems

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been using twitter as a platform for producing some very short pieces of quickly written poetry. Usually inspired by current events, or whatever is distracting me at my desk at that particular moment in time. The quality is patchy but there are a couple that I’m very happy with.

I’ve included a few that I like the most here. Follow me on twitter if you’re interested in seeing more or if you want to share your own short poems.

Goals for a new year

So 2016 was a year that happened. Frankly it’s developed a pretty bad rep, as well as quite a body count. It would be easy to wallow in all the bad shit that happened last year. Sod that, I want to waltz into 2017 on a cloud of positivity.

We had two fantastic family holidays in 2016, to Mallorca in June then Dornoch in October. I ran (slowly) the fantastic 15 mile Illuminator night race in Glen Tanar in September.  We had some great weekends away and I got to endure the hardship of being sent to Paris for a few days to work. I also celebrated some important birthdays with my extended family, went to some brilliant weddings and received news of some more to come.

Above all else, the year was full of the sound of my daughter and nephew laughing and playing.

Now it comes to the start of a new year and I naturally start thinking about what lies ahead. Hopefully a lot more of my daughter’s laughter, but what else? I toyed with the idea of setting vague resolutions like “Play more music” or “Run more”. However I work best when I have a set goal in mind, like a 15 mile night race to train for without my feet exploding halfway through.

With that in mind here’s a few (achievable) things I would like to accomplish this year:

  1.  Record an EP
  2.  Publish a poem or a short story
  3.  Run a sub-2 hour half marathon
  4.  Get my weight down to 11 stone

A couple of these are a little more difficult than the others but should still be achievable over the course of the year, or at least have significant progress towards them.

Record an EP

I’ve played guitar since I was fourteen and for most of my adult life I’ve written music and played in local bands. I left my last band a few years ago to concentrate on a solo music project I was working on, but once my daughter arrived I slowly played less and less until I pretty much put my instruments down one day last year and never really picked them up again.

Over the last month I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the horse and pick up either a guitar or mandolin almost every day. The aim is basically to get involved again and start pushing the project I started 4 years ago back into being. Eventually I hope to play some gigs but I think my self-confidence is a long way from that milestone. For now I’d be happy getting my playing and my singing into a good enough condition to record the EP I wrote down a tracklisting for shortly after I left that band.

Publish a poem or short story

As a member of local writing group Mearns Writers, I’ve produced a number of poems and short stories over the last two years. While I’ve submitted a few of these occasionally to some local poetry magazines and the odd competition I’ve not made a serious effort to get anything published (aside from posting a few on this site and the groups own self-published anthology). I need to step up my submission game in 2017 and see if I can at least place in some competitions and get some good feedback.

Run a sub-2 hour half marathon

This is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest of my 2017 goals. I should have a sub-2 hour half in my legs. I’ve ran 2:01 at Skye, which is bloody hilly and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to break that barrier. At the same time I’ve not been running nearly as much as I used to and I need to get my routine fixed and stick to it if I’m going to get anywhere close to this goal.

The Great Aberdeen Run is at the end of August and I entered on the day it was announced. That’s the target, though I might try a warm up race at the start of summer to see how I’m getting on.

Get my weight down to 11 stone

This goal will tie in with the previous one. If I train properly for a sub-2 hour half marathon I should lose weight. Since I started getting into fitness and sorted my weight issues over 10 years ago I’ve been stuck floating around the 12 stone mark. At the peak of my running routine, before my daughter arrived, I did manage to get down to under 11 and a half stone but that didn’t last long. I’m now back up to 12 and a half. That needs to be reversed.

Getting back below 12 stone should be easy. Exercise will fix that. Slimming down to 11 stone will need a bit more determination and willpower but hopefully I can get there by the end of the year.

There are of course plenty of other things I would like to do this year. I would like to worry less, focus at work more, cut out internet habits which reinforce negative thoughts, climb more hills and cycle many miles. Those are all good things to aim for but I think if I concentrate on these four achievable goals then I’ll be well on the way to a memorable year without putting too much pressure on myself.

Winter Comes Down

Winter comes down

The calendar says December,
There’s frost on the car
The days are much shorter,
Summer sun seems so far.

Winter colds are approaching,
Sniffles and coughs everywhere,
The shops are all hoaching,
Fairytale of New York fills the air.

Get the tree from the attic,
My wife asks of me,
And we’ll put it up quick,
Before the baby can see.

Well it comes down in it’s box,
And is laid in the room,
Where it sits by the clock,
Ignored in the gloom.

I can’t be bothered I say,
To decorate the tree,
We can do it the next day,
For now leave me be.

I’ve had enough of false cheer,
The noise and the fuss,
Just give me a cold beer,
I don’t get all the rush.

Now Christmas morning has come,
And Santa has been,
Let’s pretend to have fun,
Rushing down to the scene.

Trying to hide it as I open the door,
The smile lights my face,
And I know it’s not Christmas nor
Fun that I fail to embrace.

We gather around in the warmth of our home,
Swapping presents, get hugs and eat ‘till we groan,
It’s the time as a family I love and cherish the most,
As winter comes down and we share Christmas roast.

 

On mental health and the importance of talking

Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.