Collectives

Collectives

A refrain of poets,
A muzzle of vets,
A bribe of politicians,
A gristle of bins.

A reprimand of teachers,
A stool of chairs,
A scowl of judges,
A wobble of crutches.

A distraction of puppies,
An AWOL of keys,
A suspicion of police,
A horn of geese.

A harassment of mobile phones,
A dog’s dinner of old bones,
A pallette of blossoms,
An illusion of poems.

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.

Hey Internet, stop making me stupid!

Loose. Look at that word. That word makes me very uncomfortable now.  I know it shouldn’t. It can’t help it, after all it’s just a word. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary the definition is: Loose ~ Not firmly or tightly fixed in place; detached or able to be detached; not held or tied together or contained within something. Plus a few extra definitions relating to sport or clothing.

However there’s also a single line, listed under the usage heading on the definition page, which refers directly to what makes me so uncomfortable about this word: The words loose and lose are different and should not be confused.

Someone should tell that to the Internet.

I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t come across the word lose spelled, er, loosely. I think I can understand why, the word is pronounced with a long O sound like pool or food. But then there are plenty of words which are pronounced similarly that only have a single O like prove or lose. Which is great until you remember that English is an anarchic mess of a language which contains the following words: croup, shrewd, suit, ewe, you, fucking luge, cue, queue, shoe, and rue. The long oo sound is not consistent in its spelling.

All this is starting to have a strange effect on me. I’m a pedantic sod at the best of times. A total grammar fascist the rest of the time. Seriously. The amount of restraint it takes to stop me screaming on the Internet at people for not proofreading blogs, news articles or even twitter posts is heroic. Most of the time I can just about forget the grammatical horrors I’ve seen, but the lose/loose error is starting to haunt my mind.

I can’t read the word now. So many people (most natural English speakers so they’ve no fucking excuse) are spelling it wrong that I’m now second guessing the word when I see it. If I read loose in a sentence I’m hearing lose in my head.  Mentally correcting this seemingly small error is ruining my online experience. It’s so common now that even when loose is used correctly I just assume it’s a mistake. It’s an effect so strong it often takes me a sentence or two to pick up the correct context again and reset to the correct definition.

I don’t want to accept this. I shouldn’t have to.

So this is my plea to the Internet. Stop making me dumb. Take some pride in your spelling. Read what you write before you hit post (seriously, most tools and web platforms even proofread for you) and above all fix these simple mistakes:

Lose is not Loose.
Your is not the same as you’re.
Lego doesn’t have an s on the end under any circumstances.
But maths does (as it’s short for mathematics).
Affect changes something, effect is the result of the change itself.

How to stay focused and be productive

I get distracted a lot. For example I was doing something for work just now and in the middle of it I got distracted, opened a new tab and started writing this post. I should get back to what I was doing and come back to this over lunch…

…right. Where was I? Ah yes writing a poem… nope that’s in another tab. Oh yeah, getting distracted.

I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer, inclined to stop halfway through a task and just stare into space with my thoughts. It used to drive my friends nuts when I was at school if they sat behind me at an exam. From their perspective I spent half the allotted time staring at the ceiling, counting the tiles, but still finished with plenty of time and managed to pass.

My mind tends to jump from subject to subject and I get very easily sidetracked by whatever shiny thing I’m obsessed with this week (snorkeling at the moment if you’re wondering). However I do somehow manage to function as a human being despite this, so I thought it would be useful to share some tips on how I manage to keep my productivity roughly on track.

Some of these ideas are apps either on your phone, on your PC or both. Some of them are simply mental exercises or can be achieved using good old pen and paper. They all help me stay on track throughout the day and hopefully most of you will find them useful too.

Wunderlist
wunderlist
To do lists are one of the best tools for staying on top of your day-to-day tasks. A few years ago I started making a point of writing out a list every morning when I got to the office which made it a lot easier to plan my day and order my work into manageable chunks. Sometimes having a list written out can be a little daunting, especially if that list doesn’t change much from one day to the next, but if you embrace the positives it can help you identify quick wins and you’ll learn to love the feeling of ticking off task after task.

I made the switch to electronic to do lists recently and Wunderlist is a brilliant example. It gives you multiple folders and lists, recurring tasks, the option to mark important or urgent tasks and it syncs across multiple devices. All for free.

Outlook Tasks
If, like me, you spend most of your day in an office hooked up to a corporate email server then you’re probably familiar with Microsoft Outlook. It’s array of meetings, appointments and tasks which can be configured on your calendar with various reminders and alerts are great for popping up a detailed reminder on your screen when you need to do something. I use it all the time for reminding myself about work tasks like catching up with a client to mundane household tasks like booking my car service.

These days with many large companies moving to Office 365 and cloud solutions it’s likely that you can access all your reminders on the move as well.

Google Calendar
If you don’t use Outlook or you want a calendar environment which syncs seamlessly with your mobile experience then Google’s offering is perfect, at least if you’re an Android phone user.

Like Outlook, you can use this to remind yourself about appointments, deadlines and anything else you might want your phone to prod you about throughout the day. Plus being a cloud service means it will sync across your phone, desktop and tablet devices wherever you go.

Forest
Forest
I find it hard to stay focused for long periods. My brain flits between subjects every few minutes and I often find my hand creeping towards the web browser any time my concentration dips. However recently I’ve had some success at improving my concentration using a simple program on my phone called Forest.

The idea is you plant a tree in the app, which will slowly grow over your chosen time period. Any attempt to do anything else on your phone – check twitter, open email or play a game will result in a tree that’s withered and dead. If you can resist playing with your phone for the set time then you end up with a fully grown tree which gets added to your personal forest.

Continued success gives you points that can be turned into different species of tree to add to your forest and there’s various paid extras (e.g. no ads) that can also be purchased.

The only drawback for me is that while it acts as a decent mental reminder that I should be doing something other than browsing the web, a lot of the time my phone isn’t my problem. I need to find a similar app that works on my laptop at home and prevents me from checking YouTube or logging into Eve Online.

Google Drive
drive
I use Google Drive a lot. I use it for financial management (the ability to jointly edit spreadsheets between myself and my wife is great), sharing photos and other files, and I use it a lot for planning.

Whether I’m thinking about a poem, story, article or even home improvements and hobby projects, often the first step for me is to open Google Drive and get a file saved with a few details about what it is I’m planning. If it’s a story this could just be a couple of sentences of synopsis, for a poem it will be a title and maybe one verse (or often a whole first draft, I write poems quickly) and for hobby projects it could be a parts list or just a description of the concept and a high level overview.

Once that’s done I know the idea is safe. I won’t forget it. I can go back and flesh it out at a later date or pick through them during moments of writer’s block. The important thing is that I have the idea and get it down somewhere safe and accessible from anywhere so I can work on it and keep track of its progress.

I find this really helpful for me to see things through to a successful completion and again because it’s in the cloud I can update it on my phone, laptop or tablet wherever I am.

Mindfulness
Now I know what you’re thinking but hear me out! Mindfulness might be the hippy technique du jour at the moment with lots of press coverage over the last few years as it gains traction with the alternative therapy community. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day and mindfulness is being adopted in a big way by the NHS and clinical psychologists to treat a host of mental disorders including depression and anxiety.

Basically mindfulness is a type of meditation which trains you to focus on the present moment and your state of mind now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. It can be very powerful and enlightening for practitioners.

Personally I find that anything which forces you to take a few minutes time out to gather your thoughts in peace and settle your mind is definitely worth trying.

There are many courses you can take on mindfulness but to be honest I’d recommend just buying a book with an included CD of meditation examples. Then once you’ve gone through that you can use a timer on your phone or a specialist meditation app to track your times and take you through different types of meditation.

Listen to music
music
I’m often at my most productive in the office when I’m sat with headphones on and listening to some tunes from my phone. Drowning out the background noise of colleagues having heated discussions, the traffic to the communal kitchen nearby or the bus station outside our office window really helps me focus on the piece of work in front of me and I seem to get distracted a lot less.

A few months ago my ageing iPod classic finally bit the dust to my great dismay, meaning I no longer have access to my entire music collection on the move. For now I’ve replaced this with connecting my phone to the office Wi-Fi and using Amazon’s cloud music app to at least have access to the large number of albums I’ve purchased there over the years. But I think soon I’ll need to see if I can set up a streaming service on my backup server at home, so I can make sure I still have access to all those 80s and 90s metal albums I grew up with!

Get outside
SavedPicture-2013529203653.jpg
One of the most powerful tools to clear and focus your mind is fresh air and exercise. Even if you just take the opportunity to go for a walk at lunch time or if you go a bit more gung-ho and use your lunch times like I do to fit in some running or gym sessions then I guarantee you’ll see a big benefit in your focus levels.

Plus if you’ve stared at the same piece of work all morning just getting away from it for half an hour so you can sit down feeling fresh and maybe approach it from a new perspective on your return can work wonders.

Learning New Skills

One of the reasons I pick up so many different hobbies is that I really love learning new skills. I think it’s the pride I can take in seeing the result of a process of research, learning and then doing something for the first time.

Recently there was an opportunity to create a promo video for a player group in the PC space game Eve Online which I play (too much). I’ve not done a lot of video editing in the past, but there was a considerable reward on offer in game just for submitting something the group’s leadership liked, even if it wasn’t chosen so I thought I’d learn how to do it.

With the internet it’s so easy to find the tools and the know-how to do something like this. Almost always for free or very little cost. I had a look around and tried a few different pieces of production software before eventually settling for Hitfilm 4 Express and using their own tutorials and a bit of time spent in Paint.Net creating and editing graphics I produced this short 15 second clip two days later.

I’m really happy with the end result. It turned out exactly how I wanted it. Hitfilm 4 Express is free, the tutorials are free and Paint.net is free. These tools are available for everyone and it doesn’t take a long time to learn. The video hasn’t been chosen by the group but they’ve requested a new one with some specific direction which I’m going to try working on soon.

Cycling Through Memories

I wrote this piece after a bike ride in early spring which provoked a lot of memories for me on growing up and where my family have come from (i.e. not very far from where we are now). I don’t write a lot of memoir type pieces but I wanted to try something different. I’d started writing this out as a poem but then realised there was a lot more I wanted to say in it and that a prose piece might be more appropriate.

After spending months buried under the accumulated detritus of small home improvements, we finally spent a day clearing out the garage and uncovered my bike from its extended hibernation. As if on cue the sun also re-appeared and although it didn’t bring much in the way of spring warmth, I gave in to the illusion of summer, pumped up my tires, lubed the chain and clipped into my pedals for the first time since August.

Heading out of town I passed my parent’s house where we moved when I was eighteen and the front door I failed to close quietly all those times I snuck home in the early hours of the morning. Next to it is the overgrown burn, which I discovered was full of nettles when I returned from the pub late one night and drunkenly rescued a blind spaniel which had lost it’s owner and wandered hopelessly into the middle of the water. My stung hands gratefully accepted a box of chocolates from the relieved dog owner a few days later.

I see the vet’s surgery where so many family pets have been treated, comforted and too often left forever, before I turn off and pedal up towards the cemetery. Here I keep pedalling but my thoughts linger. It’s three years since I last passed through the gates when we lowered my Gran into the earth to rejoin her husband, who’d been there alone for twenty years. I wonder if I should feel guilty that I’ve never returned to the grave or set eyes on the stone which marks it? Then as I feel the hill steepen under the slim wheels of my road bike, I remember that everyday I pass their house and it’s those times that I think of her. The warm welcome she always gave her grandchildren and the many years of joy we had in her company.

It’s those memories I decide are important. Not of the elaborate box lowered on velvet ropes. I don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife so a cemetery is simply a place for those left behind to remember those close to us and I would rather do that as I pass the places they were happiest. I think she’d prefer it that way.

The handlebars turn towards Auchenblae and I remember all the miles I put on the tyres cycling this route last year, preparing for a two day charity ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven. I never thought the bike would sit untouched for months once that special journey was over.

There’s a slow, steady climb then a long, happy, freewheel down towards Tewel. With head and elbows tucked I race at breakneck speed passed the row of houses where many years earlier I’d pulled over in a dull red Rover 214 with two flat tyres. My mum’s car a casualty of my overconfidence and poor judgement while overtaking a tractor on the small country road.

At bottom of the hill there’s a sharp turn past a farm, down towards a ford over the Carron river. As a small child I was amazed by the road going through a large, flowing river. It seems much less impressive now. I cross the river, take the hairpin turn and stare up a tarmac wall pretending to be a road. Sometime later I reach the top of the climb, much more tired and sore in the legs than I was at the bottom.

I’m on the loop back towards town now. After another fast downhill I change road again, passing a stables and heading towards Toucks. At this stage of the route the image of a large black and white photograph hanging at the top of the stairs in my parent’s house pops into my head. My great-grandparents farmed land at Toucks and though I never met them I’ve seen their faces in that picture countless times.

A terrifying descent into Kirktown of Fetteresso joins the loop back to my outward journey beside a house which once housed a close friend. Site of drunken parties, singing sinatra into broom handles at 6am and one memorable occasion when their family St Bernard sat on his mum before it got too excited and pissed on her leg.

I take it easy now as I head back through the industrial estate where both my parents worked at various times. The smell of freshly cut wood in the joinery, recently changed hands, will always be with me as will the site of black smoke pouring over the roof as the site next door went up in flames while we were visiting.

My feet are unclipped from the pedals as I thread the bike through Edinview, past my old home again and the street where my gran lived for many years. I turn onto the Slug Road at the school. Site of so many endless lunchtime corridor laps, childhood scraps and awful burgers in oversized baps.

The ride ends passing the entrance to Mineralwell park, where I was terrible at primary school sports days and as a teenager we drank cheap booze on a Friday night. I bring the bike to a stop outside my own house now, which is steadily filling up with new memories of family, friends and children.

A bike ride in the summer sun which only lasted a half hour or so and which I’ll feel in my legs and bum for a few days after, has taken me far beyond the seven mile loop, back through a lifetime.

Looking after yourself

I haven’t written a piece for the blog for what seems like months. Probably because it has been months. The truth is I don’t know what to write here anymore. I’ve started a few pieces only to delete them after they’ve sat unfinished for weeks. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything to write about; I’m still cooking (although much less since my daughter was born), still playing music (although much less since my daughter was born) and still running and cycling (although… well… you get the idea). I’m also writing poetry and fiction and have managed to pick up a few more small interests which could make for interesting blog topics.

My problem is that there’s a whopping big elephant in the room. Before I can get back to writing about the hobbies that really interest and excite me, I feel like I should write about the big issue I’ve been trying to overcome for the last year. Since the middle of 2015 I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I’ve been feeling like I owe it myself and others to go into a detailed post writing about my journey through this illness. The truth is I don’t. I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself ill again by going over the ground that got me here in detail.

Instead I’m going to say this. If you feel under pressure. If you feel stressed. If your little ball of occasional anxiety is growing every day until you dread going to work, seeing friends or doing the things in life you enjoy. If you feel down and don’t know why. If you feel down and you do know why! Talk to someone. Do what you can to get help and take it when it’s offered.

Talk to those closest to you and don’t just assume they know what’s going on and understand. It can take some explaining, but it’s absolutely worth doing so they can support you through this.

The best advice I can give anyone though is to look after yourself. Find a sport or hobby that you want to do, anything that keeps you fit and gets you active a couple of times a week. If you don’t already do something, try something. Don’t assume you can’t do something because you have to be a certain level of fitness. Everyone has to start somewhere and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your personal fitness you can see in the first few months of trying a new hobby.

Take time out and relax. Get outside and sit in the sun or walk along a beach. Read a book in your garden with a glass of wine.

Eat well and eat balanced. Treat yourself only occasionally (but do treat yourself) and cut down on booze. All these things, exercise, diet, physical fitness and mental health are intrinsically linked. While it can be hard to juggle everything, if you find that you’re completely ignoring aspects of your health it will end up impacting your overall welfare.

Look after yourselves. Don’t keep problems bottled up. Get help if you need it.