Space vegetable purgatory.

Everyone’s got an opinion, but I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: in the developed parts of the world where cultural conditioning forces us to prioritize checking our very important emails before making sure we’re not about to be run over as we cross the road, things can be a bit messed up. Our so-called modern, sophisticated world, is one in which we live in a time of enormous political and social unrest, change and unnecessary, futuristic weirdness that we could all do without. It’s a simplification to say this, of course, but everywhere you look, things seem either overwhelmingly terrible, bizarrely horrific or needlessly progressive.

Watching the news, seeing the huge double-loaded boats full of migrants fleeing Libya, is truly awful to witness. There’s nothing I can do and the whole thing is such a shocking and depressing waste of life and it really does make you stop and think about how we came to such a crisis point. Then there are the bizarrely horrific things. For example, this morning I woke up and read a story about a young couple in which the female had shot and accidentally killed her partner, following a social media stunt which went more than a bit wrong. Then there was this: the other day, I tried to buy an apple at a supermarket using one of those self-service till things that usually don’t work, inevitably resulting in a disgruntled human member of staff needing to be called over, all blank face and could-not-give-a-shit. Just an apple, that’s all. All I wanted to purchase at that particular moment in time was a simple apple. But…I couldn’t find the apple anywhere in the fruit and veg section of the touch-screen menu, and the more I searched, the more I panicked, the more I began to think Is an apple fruit? Is an apple…fruit? Then followed a nightmarish day-dream scenario that must have only lasted the briefest time. In it, I was watching The One Show and Professor Brian Cox was sitting there all nonchalant as he does, smiling and lecturing in that endearing way of his, about how most people think that apples are a fruit but actually they’re neither fruit or vegetable, but actually a bizarre kind of space vegetable that isn’t really a vegetable at all. The presenters laughed heartily a—

“Scan it,” said a voice, snapping me back to the precariousness of modern life, and it wasn’t Professor Brian Cox, nor was it smiling. It definitely didn’t give a shit, however.

“What?” I paused. “…How…”

Just that familiar blank expression, like bloody always. I tried to engage with the face, doing anything I could, within my limited range of facial movements, to show that I didn’t understand. I really did not understand.

“…?”

“Scan it the apple,” said the cashier (what do you call them…the people who work the tills at supermarkets? Cashier feels too old-school, somehow.) “Apple scan it.”

I looked at the apple, turning it around in my hand, scared that I would find nothing and that, just maybe, I would always be standing there, just turning the apple, stuck in space vegetable purgatory.

And then I found it.

Turned out I didn’t need to find it in the menu, did I: the apple had its own personal bar-code, and it did not share it with anyone.

Fucking fruit.

Anyway, last night, my girlfriend and I discussed how we’d reached saturation point with watching the news on TV. We love watching the news and have a huge interest in current affairs, but recently it has felt like it’s all getting too much to take in. I’m not sure if things have genuinely changed as much as we decided they have done, but recently it seems like there’s been an enormous collision of old awful news reaching horrible conclusions and new sickening incidents occurring more rapidly than ever before, unravelling at frightening speed. For me, and many others, I suppose the really scary thing is seeing how the conclusions of the old awful news show a catalogue of problems, mistakes and human error which could surely have been avoided, and how the new news seems to be picking up exactly where the old awful news started, all those years ago. Time and time again, people speak about learning valuable lessons, and how this must never happen again. Then, as the next story about new news quickly develops, we’re treated to fresh mistakes and terrible speculation which suggests that nobody has learned anything at all whatsoever. In fact, of anything, it appears that the people in power have found even more new and innovative ways to fuck things up. And there it is, there you have it: the whole damn thing, tragic and horrible and damaging, starts all over again…

Aside from a love of observation and a hard-to-articulate desire to write successive sentences down, I think it is because of a need to emotionally deal with these things that I feel compelled to write creatively. I’m sure it’s a processing thing, like how some people have suggested that dreaming is our way of making sense of the stimuli we absorb in our waking lives. Or, maybe the answer is buried deep in our evolutionary code and consciousness: a need to record things in full, to keep ourselves immortal, to never be forgotten, to pass on our knowledge via the arrangement of data. Now I stop and think about that for a moment, it seems to compound an incredible sense of pointlessness and vanity. Thousands of news reports, literature, newspapers, books and video reports have already covered these subjects in immensely more detail. Why, then, do I feel the need to add to the mountain?

Why do any of us, in fact?

I can only speak for myself, but I suppose that the bad things also act as a trigger for me to write about the good things and the things that amuse me. Writing about silly things, and writing things in a silly way, is equally important. It brings a sense of lightness and allows one to escape. Aside from that, of course, it’s also a lot of fun to do. Wherever I am in the world and whatever I am doing, and no matter what is happening, I’m observing and documenting things in my mind, whether consciously or not. Making up stories, making mental notes, writing…in a strange sort of way. Most of the time these musings are fragments of full thoughts, fitted in and tucked neatly between the varying tasks that I do day-to-day. Some are echoes of memories, manipulated into stories that feel like I have written them. Some get skewered by a question at work, or toppled and erased by something more important. However the thoughts occur, there’s something really quite emancipating about just writing within the confines of one’s own mind, without a need or option to go back and edit what you’ve thought, knowing that it won’t and can’t be judged, that the thoughts remain free to roam, grow and evolve. I find that if I do this enough, I retain the thought patterns and can build on past writings, recalling or adapting them when necessary — or deleting them altogether, resurrecting them later or reusing them as I please. This, probably, is why I feel like I’ve been writing lots even when I haven’t actually been committing words to screen or paper. The fact that nobody else can experience those writings is not important — at least not to me. I think writing is about more than just the physical act of recording words. To me, it’s about documenting thoughts for a second or forever, not necessarily being able to pass those words on to anyone else.

I can remember a conversation with a good friend, had some time after writing and publishing my novel, The Number 3 Mystery Book, a few years ago. He was a good friend and someone I hadn’t seen in years, and he was chuffed for me about the realisation of my book. One thing he said to me has stayed with me ever since, and every now and again I go over what he said, coming to a slightly different conclusion each time. And what he said was this: “I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I always felt like it was too self-absorbing and vain. I just couldn’t justify it”. I can remember at the time thinking Self absorbing and vain? Spending hundreds of hours with one’s own thoughts? What the hell is self absorbing and vain about that? Looking back at the odd collision of those mini-thoughts that made up the main thought, I still find myself perplexed and amused. It’s worth noting that my friend and I had that kind of special say-anything-it’s-fine relationship, and that bar a small moment of total disgust on my part which was over before I even registered it being there, in the moments immediately following the comment, there was no awkwardness, and no change in the tone of our conversation. No noticeable change in the atmosphere. I remember being confused, but beguiled by the confusion and wanting to understand more. It was all positive, and sent us headlong into one of those deep conversations which you find yourself getting lost in, losing track of time, exchanging words, clarifying things, laughing, finding out as much about the other as your own thoughts that spring up out of nowhere. I just wanted to understand and appreciate why he felt like that and why the contrast between our two world views was so staggeringly different. I also recall that I didn’t come to any kind of confusion about this, either while we were chatting or in the time well after. Because the writing of the novel was so fresh in my mind, I suppose the impact of his words was greater than it would have been if we’d met just a few weeks or months later. I took it very personally, but in the best possible way.

Analysing what he said, as I write this, forces the invitation of a range of new mental findings: I wonder if he realised, as he said those words, that everything we do in life is, to a degree, very self-absorbed. It’s the nature of being human, isn’t it? I wonder if the thought he’d had was one he’d been pondering for years, or if it was something that had just cropped up without much prior consideration. I suppose the answer to that would potentially change my perspective. But either way, I guess what he was saying was that writing a book often doesn’t involve anyone else — at least, at the initial creation stage — and means thinking a lot on one’s own, without anyone else’s opinion. That the fact that it doesn’t is somehow bad and too lonely, somehow. And I can see his point there, obviously, because writing and isolation go hand in hand. From that perspective, if I’m representing it correctly, writing is incredibly vain: you’re in your own little world, not seeking approval, forging your own opinions and not asking for any kind of validation for those opinions, and you’re expecting other people — assuming you want the work to be read — to enjoy reading this and give you compliments. What if your opinions are misguided, formed in the wake or flow of a bad mood, or just plain wrong altogether? What if you can’t write well? What if your thoughts are attacking someone else, are biased, or loaded with a violence which is the reaction to something that was, at the time, unfair? However you justify it, writing, at the creation stage, is always one person and one person’s opinions, against the world. Or at least aiming towards it, squarely, taking aim, not apologising. Writing is a mental war.

It’s no wonder, then, that when someone reads your work and you receive criticism or feedback for the first time, it really fucking hurts. Wow, does it sting. It’s hard to explain how painful it can be to receive harsh criticism for the first time or even within the first few years of writing. Within it there is so much…else. You attack yourself for being crap and you berate your attacker, judging them for the opinions they have formed, asking them what right they have to criticise you, but trying to be polite and not be irrational. But that’s the thing that all new writers — and a lot of people who have been writing a long time, too — have to learn in order to move forward. We write and we put stuff out there, and it is the reader’s duty to form their own opinion and give you brutal, honest feedback, however it may come. Look at it from a reader’s perspective: why should they be nice about it? They’ve just read something which they potentially disagree with, and they feel like they have been in some way attacked. When they’re writing their criticism, they’re not thinking about all the time that you laboured over your masterpiece, and why should they do so? Within them, if they strongly disagree, is the weight of a life lived in, perhaps, direct proximity to the weight of your comments. If people don’t like your writing then, sadly, it is just tough shit and nothing else. It hurts me as much as the next person when I hear back from someone and they didn’t like what I wrote, but it is something that we, as writers, simply must learn to deal with. Because, in truth, negative reactions to your writing can only serve you for the better in the long run. And besides all these things, we did decide to send them out into the world now, didn’t we?

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you should listen to all negative criticism and immediately initiate an attack on yourself. I don’t think that is how it should work (I am also not suggesting that it’s OK for someone to tear someone else’s work apart for fun, just because a writer has decided to push their work into the pubic domain). If you spend some time processing the comments and find yourself in agreement of any kind, then that is something different. But very often, it is just a case of you cannot please everyone all the time. I’ve sent writing to multiple people — like when people read drafts of my novel to test read it as I was making changes — and occasionally received completely polarizing responses. This is probably one of the most confusing situations that can occur, as the horrible truth dawns on you that you will make some people happy and others very angry, often for what feels like no particular reason. In some writing personalities — and I’m sure in almost all, to some degree — it can create a perfect fusion of alarm, confusion and immense insecurity that goes far beyond just a small dilemma of conscience and self-esteem. You sit there, broken, wondering how the fuck you can please everyone, sure that the most popular and successful of writers have mysteriously found a way. The reality, of course, is that they have not, and have always struggled with the same identical problems as the rest of us. The only thing successful writers have done differently — other than the success, obviously — is learn to process the feedback and continue in the face of all of it. And, when you pause and really confront what they must have faced, it’s really quite impressive, isn’t it? They’ve literally received dozens or hundreds of personal insults, intended, it would seem, to stop them from committing any more words to paper or screen. Some people, like Stephen King, have received many thousands of very personal attacks, been vilified by the press, have been harassed in the street and have even received death threats. Death threats. All because of words. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how they managed to continue? Can you imagine going to your full-time job and then, on the walk home, being subjected to horrendous insults and death threats, just because you mis-spelt someone’s name incorrectly, or forgot to fill out a piece of fairly inconsequential admin? I admit that I’m being slightly facetious there, but you get my point, hopefully. It takes guts and sheer dogged determination to keep writing when people say that your writing is terrible, offensive, pointless or just a massive waste of time. It can feel like the attack is not just an attack on your ability to configure sentences and paragraphs: it can also feel like a direct attack on your perception and how you see the world…an attack on your identity and personality and in every way personal. In some ways, it seems to be saying “you don’t see the world in a worthy way”, and that can be horribly damaging to an individual.

I like to think that now, after a decade as a professional writer — I began working as a freelance copywriter in 2007 and have written in excess of over 3,000 blog posts in that time, only slowing down in the last few years — I know what I’m doing. Well, enough to get by. I can process and I can handle. That’s what I tell myself. But the truth is that I am still learning, and will likely always be.

I’m back. But is anyone else still there?

What a half-hour I’ve just had! Wait, allow me to start again — I’ve already gone and irritated myself: what a half an hour I’ve just had. It’s half-an-hour, not half-hour. I’m not American. I’m very much British.

There, I feel much better now.

So, as I said, I’m back. Back with this blog post. Back writing on this blog, and for the first time in 3 years, no less. And it nearly didn’t happen. Why? Because I couldn’t find my bloody freaking password now, could I. Actually, I couldn’t even remember the Username I have for this Blog. In fact, it was only down to my previous self’s total and utter obsession with writing down passwords and saving them on random, un-labelled memory sticks — fantastic habit, that is — that got me out of this hellish debacle. Feels like backwards time-travelling, in a strange sort of way. Obviously I’m better than I think. Clearly, at some point in the past I sensed that my future self would become utterly useless — something that was hardly a surprise, I suppose, given my previous failures. But still, I’m proud of my past more forward-thinking self, even if it was also a bit too negative, almost waiting for me to go and fuck up. And, who knows? Even today I might have done something incredible to future proof another mistake my future self is yet to make. I suppose I’ll find out in time like the rest of us. I just wish I had an inkling of what that mistake might be right now, as I’ve already lost half-an-hour. The way the world’s looking, I may not be able to lose another. There may only be a few hours left…

Got a bit sinister and dark there, didn’t I. It was bound to happen. I mean, Donald Trump? Anyway, enough of that.

The real question is…is anyone else there? Who knows, not me. And do I care? No, not really, not a bit. After all, it wasn’t like this blog and the writing within it ever made me any money and acquired me thousands of readers, was it? (No, no it wasn’t and it didn’t.) Not that money and having shit-loads of readers is important, but, well, you know what I mean, I’m sure.

Still, it’d be nice to know that just someone is out there. Is anyone? You don’t have to answer, don’t worry. Not that you are, or were going to, but, well…

Funny what triggered me writing this blog post and the existential despair of forgetting a long forgotten password, actually. I was just on that strange Twitter thing — also for the first time in absolutely bloody ages, but in a less stressful know-the-password situation — looking about, seeing if I had any Notifications, and then I found myself looking at a nice Tweet that someone called Tommy had sent me (age forces me to think that I must put weird new-fangled words in italics and there seems no way out. I can’t see it getting better. And now those italics have started to manifest in strange facial expression versions of physical italics whenever I’m forced to say a word like Snapchat). Well, sent the world. But primarily me, I think (I really don’t understand all the new technology, balls to it).

Anyway, this bloke, he was called @tommy66788. Tommy Lawn, as a matter of fact. And Tommy, this Tommy Lawn, he’d carefully used his limited number of characters to ask me if I once wrote a blog post about cowboy boots (something that seems to consistently occur every year or so, as it happens). Made me smile, it did. To this I replied that I did indeed write it, and, as is hard to comprehend for someone who still takes at least a day to reply to an email, Tommy wrote back almost immediately, crushing my mental capacity to fathom just how someone can be so incredibly fast and also live any kind of life. I’m not vain enough to repeat what he said here, of course, but it was nice, anyway. Tommy said that he’d bought some cowboy boots from Texas in America and that he liked the article. He also said that he wears his cowboy boots non-stop. Yes Tommy! To Tommy, I salute you. As mentioned in that post about the boots I bought, I find it and have always found it brutally difficult to turn corners while wearing my cowboy boots. Perhaps I have a special sort, I don’t know (or perhaps it’s me who’s special? Seems it’s looking likely). Or perhaps the corners round here are particularly challenging. Either way, I’ve inadvertently gone and said about 5 times more than Tommy did in his one single admirable tweet, and pretty much said almost all of what he said. Maybe it’s time for me to re-think how vain I actually am after all…

It feels pretty damn good, anyway, this writing a new blog post thing. Let me tell you.

Now I think back over the past 3 years, I’m struggling to really work out why I disappeared from this blog altogether. Were myself and my partner dealing with the miracle of bringing up quintuplets while I simultaneously ran a multi-national business? No. Have I found myself too busy to write words on a screen in rapid succession? Occasionally I have, but then again…somehow I’ve found the time to catch up with both Home & Away and Neighbours, usually one after the other on Channel 5. I suppose, then, the biggest thing that’s changed in the last 3 years is my work and the direction of it. I used to be exclusively a freelance copywriter, but nowadays I’m more involved in video and TV production.

One thing that I know has had an effect on my writing is having this massive iMac computer. See, I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I needed a 27 inch computer and a ridiculous amount of hard-drive storage. I needed all this stuff to do my video work, you see, that’s why I bought it. You might be sat there thinking How would a great big computer prevent someone from writing? And it’d be a fair question. But here’s the thing, my friends: the moment I got my big computer, something changed. Something got disconnected. Where once I’d been able to sit on the sofa and write my blog posts in leisure, blissfully ignoring all other responsibilities and delighting in musing about all kinds of inane crapola, I now had to sit bolt upright at my desk in a completely new position (my laptop had died by the time I got my new iMac). Gone was the connection I’d had with my laptop. With my laptop, there was something about the proximity of my hands on the keyboard and the small screen that seemed to create a kind of emotional pact between me and the small, uselessly underpowered machine. The new iMac was great for video and graphics work, but it was about as useful as a Ferrari if you wanted to grate some cheese when it came to writing long-form stuff (could you grate cheese on a part of a Ferrari? In hindsight I am sure you can. There’s probably a bit you can have custom adapted specifically for it. I feel ridiculous, in hind-hind-sight-sight, for even bringing it up).

What’s silly, in an even more elongated version of hind-sight, is that I’m writing this on my iMac, and it’s fine. It’s happening. I’m doing it. Clearly I am. But something is definitely missing. So I think a new laptop might be on the horizon. Actually, I think it needs to be. I’ve missed writing this blog too much for it not to be. I love creating videos and I love producing art, but writing…well…there’s just something about writing…and I need a small underpowered machine again. Who knows? Maybe I’m undergoing a kind of rapid backwards evolution of some sort. Maybe in a year or two you’ll find me with a bit of slate and a load of chalk.

3 years, eh? A lot can change in 3 years. Look at the UK! Look at the state of the world! So much has changed that I don’t know where to start. Which suits me well, as a matter of fact. Because I’ve written enough for one night, so I’m not going to bother. Yeah, that’s the spirit.

I am going to bother to write my WordPress Username and password down, however. I realise that it isn’t wise to do that, but then, what is it wise to do? Only last week we were on holiday and there was a really steep slope that wasn’t wise to drive up in a shitty hire car, in the ancient village where we were staying, and I went and did that and got stuck half way to the top, didn’t I? Yes, yes I did. And a whopping great nightmare it was, too. Ah, you have to love an ancient village. We really should have hired a horse instead.

This has been fun. It really has. I forgot how therapeutic writing is, when it’s not the most frustrating thing ever in the history of the world. My goodness writing is so frustrating but also so necessary. What a strange combination. And now I keep thinking Could I ride a horse? Probably not. Definitely not. I don’t know about you but I’m really quite scared of horses.

How to write without feeling intimidated by the blank page

Writing is and always will be an intimidating process – there are so many ways to go wrong and so few ways that instantly feel right to an inexperienced mind. Besides this, sitting down to write often requires the engagement of emotions which are not altogether comfortable, but are nothing less than essential in the deployment of all creative endeavours. Additionally, those who express an interest in learning to write face about a hundred enormous obstacles: will I be any good at it? Is there any fucking point? Will anybody actually read my bloody stuff? Is it possible to be a writer and not be poor and jaded forever? This is accompanied by a damaging cultural belief, in many societies, that in the age of the internet, absolutely anyone can be a writer. And if anyone can be a writer, writing must be easy. Writing, in the minds of many, is either a profession for mega-rich authors, journalists or students not yet at peace with their place in life, fumbling through until they no longer have to write any more. Yet the importance of written communication is a dominating force. Surrounded by such complexities and tarnished by the blight of a million terrible Amazon novels, it’s hardly surprising that putting words down can feel so difficult.

Reading this blog post probably won’t change any of that much – although it may illuminate a few things which help reveal ways to cope (a bit like this post from a long time ago on writer’s block).

Consider how incredible the concept of writing is

The controlled transfer of thoughts to paper or screen by way of fingers is a mesmerizing thing when you stop and really think about it. When we write in a way that can be accurately understood, we’re directly connecting our thoughts and feelings with those of everyone around us (or, at least, those who take the time to read them!). This is an incredible act of physical and psychological union – better than mind-reading, in a way, as the thoughts are pure and distilled and a reader doesn’t (usually) have to fight past an endless stream of consciousness to get to the good bits. So, if you’re feeling intimidated, consider that you are engaging in something fantastic and incredibly unique. Talking’s great and all, and painting a picture is a fine way to interact with others and share our thoughts, but writing is the honed and crafted direct observations of human beings. That’s quite something, don’t you think?

You can always write more

I don’t care if you’ve just finished writing your first novel and lost it – well, I do, I feel quite sorry for you, but you get what I mean – or if you’ve just wiped-out that blog post you’ve been working on for a week. You can always write more stuff. The preciousness of thought and time means that most of us get quite attached to our writing, often in an unhealthy way. We struggle to say goodbye to it, even when we know we can do better. Yet saying goodbye to it is exactly what builds stronger foundations. A better ability to cope with change and keep on going, past the constraints of rejection. The fact that you can just begin again a few minutes or hours later means that words are infinitely powerful.

Words are organic and unlimited. Aside from a few nightmarish notions fed to us by disenchanted people and critical self-esteem issues which beg you to do anything else instead, there is nothing stopping your words affecting people in the same way that the so-called great novelists of our time have – words are your chance to tell the world precisely what you think in any way that you desire. If that doesn’t act as an incentive to better one’s ability to communicate via the medium of words, I don’t know what does.

What you have written has been written before, but so what?

I often hear the argument – the bad argument, the terrible, meaningless argument – that writing has been done so well so many times before that there is no point pursuing it as an activity or occupation. It simply is not true. It doesn’t matter in the least. There will nearly always be someone out there who you know who is better than you, or more capable. It’s irrelevant. That a million people have attempted and failed to finish their novels does not mean that you will suffer the same fate. Even though the outcome for a new writer may be statistically likely to be similar, where writing is concerned, statistics are only worth the value we give them.

Know that the act of writing will bring about joy and self-growth, no matter what its end result

Contrary to popular misconception, the important thing about writing is not solely the act of committing words to paper or screen. The other very important thing is enjoying doing it. Out of all the times I have written blogs, articles or novels, I can only truly recall a couple of times where I in no way benefited from the process. Writing brings enormous entertainment, stimulation, inspiration and enjoyment. It’s a proven thing that those experiencing the flow state of writing are at one with themselves and, while being alone, are anything but lonely.

Unsure of what to write?

This is a subject I have covered extensively in a past blog. My best advice to those who are trying to write and feeling consistently daunted by it is…try and think about what you really want to say. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it could be very small. It could be a seemingly inconsequential observation that leads to bigger, pivotal things. In writing, small things grow into big things with very little encouragement. The great thing is that it happens automatically, you just need to commit some time.

Failing that, consider what you don’t want to say. Writing does not always have to follow strict rules and regulations. If you’re completely unable to write anything at all, then why not ask yourself the question of why this is the case. Why not try to formulate this feeling of frustration into meaningful words?

Stop listening to others who say they find writing easy

Again, this truly is irrelevant to you. How does it matter how well someone else does something? Who cares if they’ve only been writing seriously for a year and have written their first novel draft, beginning to end, one-hundred-thousand words? It simply does not matter in any way to you and what you’re doing, and it never will. And again, be careful not to run away with yourself. Writing is a learned craft which cannot be rushed.

I remember when I first started to write about 10 years ago. Writing came very naturally to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and it felt exciting to write without restriction. So accept that writers go through stages. Important stages that cannot be missed or circumnavigated. Those at the very beginning may find writing almost effortless, as they are naïve and lack the constraints presented by rules. Those who are well-practiced in the art may write in what appears to be a reasonably effortless way, owing to their growing knowledge-base and many hours of practice. If you’re somewhere in the middle, however, and a blank page is intimidating you, there is a possibility that this is all part of a very important process that must be endured and worked through. So try to relax and have fun when writing. If you can only do one thing, write stuff that makes you really smile.

Do you have any advice for fellow writers, or those who would like to begin writing but don’t know where to start? Feel free to leave a comment below, like it or share it on Facebook/Twitter. Let’s see what we can get together and learn.

 

 

How watching dogs interacting with sticks will substantially improve your life

Witness the wonder

Witness the wonder

Yesterday I saw a dog in a park carrying a stick – I think it was a Border Collie. Or attempting to carry a stick. The stick was as long as the dog was – assuming the mind-set of a dog for a moment, my guess is that this was probably the main attraction – and the dog was an old boy with a big shaggy coat. As soon as I saw him slowly approach the stick with his curious eyes and lovely colouring, I was confident that he was going to be enamoured by everything it had to offer. Another possible attraction of the stick may well have been its multi-faceted appearance. With an appealing smooth-yet-intriguing texture on the teeth and additional smaller sticks literally branching off from the main one, this particular nice stick, stranded in the greenery of the park and just begging to be picked-up, clearly had a lot to offer. Additionally, the stick was the only discernible object in the entire grassy field, which, surely, qualified as reason enough alone.

Here is how watching dogs interacting with sticks will substantially improve your life.

Mental wellbeing

As I believe I have just sufficiently demonstrated, watching dogs – young or old, age irrelevant – interact with sticks is a joyous activity for humans of all ages and dispositions. Some dogs simply carry sticks about, making humans smile almost by default (unless those humans are cold and dead inside like people who find no pleasure at all in films like Dirty Dancing, but we won’t bother ourselves with that here). Whatever a dog is doing with a stick, be it simply carrying it or trying to attack it, watching such activity makes for immense enjoyment and pleasure.

Physical wellbeing

Facial muscles require a regular workout. Don’t ask me why – let us simply assume that it’s better to smile than to not, and that all those freelance writers who have written copious web articles on the subject over the years had a real interest and were not just following the incredible trail of money which writing for a living so obviously brings.

Here comes the science part. Smiling induces movement in other parts of the body. Hence the fact that when you smile, you generally tend to be interacting in some way which also works other parts of the body, thus making you fitter in a subconscious, holy-shit-I’ve-just-lost-2-pounds-and-all-I-did-was-watch-a-dog-playing way. It is therefore possible to say that watching dogs messing about with sticks is physically good for you, even if you find absolutely no mental stimulation in such an activity and still resent me quite a bit for mentioning Dirty Dancing in the above paragraph.

Laughter is great

Scientists reckon that laughter can be used as an effective pain medicine. Wow. psychologists believe, and have strong evidence for, the notion that laughter helps people to bond and engage in meaningful relationships with one another. No way! Another direct consequence of laughter is the inevitable release of endorphins, which we all quite love. So watching dogs interacting with sticks is beneficial in a breathtaking number of ways. Not to mention the fact that watching dogs carrying and playing with sticks does other things besides…

It gets the brain working

Watch a dog obsessing over a stick and you can’t help but think. Try it out and see what I mean. Take this example, in the mind of a woman whose a bit fed-up with her husband: look at what she’s doing with that stick! That’s ingenious, dogs are clever, I wish Dave was more ingenious…which reminds me…he really needs to Google how to fix the cupboard door like he bloody told me he would…maybe I should consider divorce after all…

While it could well be said that dogs carrying sticks is, in evolutionary terms, creating a disenchanting culture of misery for couples – specifically those with DIY shortcomings which could have been avoided had one followed gut instinct when a light-bulb needed changing and the partner in question was seriously flummoxed in a way that should really have made one think long and hard about the future of that relationship – it could also be said that it makes you think and have ideas. And if you have ideas, that’s brilliant, isn’t it?

All because dogs just quite like carrying sticks around. There. Thank you, dogs, and thank you for being there, sticks.

Endless fascination: Foo Fighters’ Everlong

GrohlI didn’t begin to appreciate Foo Fighters music until well after I’d left secondary school. A shame, because had I got there earlier, I would probably have been better able to relate to my class-mates. A select group of my peers were raving about this Foo Fighters band, treating angry Dave and his muckers like the originators of some kind of actual religion. Needless to say, this was something which provoked the attention of a sadistic RE-studies-despising-boy who went by the name of Big Terry (or Infamous Big Terry, depending on which people you hung about with). As was the fashion back in the early 1990s, Big Terry quite liked getting weaker pupils in horrendous looking head-locks, and he didn’t much appreciate groundbreaking rock music, either.

There was a boy in my form who had big ears and wouldn’t stop going on about Foo Fighters. A boy who, luckily for him, could also run fairly fast. Possibly the owner of the largest surface-area ears in our entire year, this immensely obvious physical characteristic went largely unnoticed to his class-mates as long as he was talking about Foo Fighters and successfully appearing cool. No wonder, then, that he kept up his adoration of Dave’s gang with punishing force – providing Big Terry was busy terrorising another victim, that is.

Everlong was one of those songs which instantly arrested my senses. There was no transition, no needing to get acquainted or even interpret the lyrics – the connection resonated instantly. Just like PixiesBone Machine would do, and just as Jeff Buckley’s mesmerizing song Grace would so effortlessly achieve, listening to Everlong was an experience akin to what could only be described as setting foot on another planet. At the time, I had heard nothing like it, nothing that even came remotely close. While other songs would come and go over the years, losing their significance and some of their magic, for me, Everlong still to this day retains the same powerful intensity.

The key to Everlong‘s astounding, multi-layered feel is, I think, an ability to completely consume a person’s senses. Grohl’s lyrics are raw and rampaging, while the song’s construction is a sprawling mass of high-energy which will have you receiving a speeding-ticket in next to no time. Everlong is a song to go crazy to, one to sing at the top of your voice or quietly embrace through ear-phones, isolated from the outside world.

When I first heard Everlong, I listened to it repeatedly. I listened to it for months, every single day, until the CD wore out. Each time seemed to bring something new and as yet unnoticed – yet so massively engaging that I struggled to comprehend how I had not acknowledged its significance before. Yet over time, I realised that something was happening. Everlong wasn’t losing its appeal, as such, but I was beginning to realise that, like very few songs, it was a song to cherish.

Nowadays, I tend not to listen to Everlong very often. If I hear it more than three times in 6 months then for me, that could be considered an exception. If I hear it in a cafe, I will, almost subconsciously, do everything in my power to put space between me and it – while also feeling cheated that I am doing so. If it comes on while I am driving, or accidentally finds itself pouring out of my MP3 player, I will shut it off without a second thought…unless I am truly in the precise right mood. For me, Everlong is a very special song which I like to listen to only from time to time. To savour and enjoy when I need that extra-special something (so much so that I didn’t even listen to it while writing this blog post).

While it’s possible that I will one day get fed-up with this classic song, something tells me that if that is to happen, it won’t be for some time yet.

Channel 4: Live From Space, just for the hell of it

My girlfriend and I ended up watching the first of Channel 4s Live From Space series by total accident. Jen, fuelled by enthusiasm to see first dates flourish and fail miserably, was absolutely certain that everyone’s favourite new dating show First Dates was on Channel 4 at 9pm last night. It wasn’t of course. We were an hour too early. As it was then announced that, instead, the first episode from this new Space series was to begin, both of us sat there a bit pissed off and deflated and wondering what to do next. We had good reason to be annoyed, it’s true. I had my treats ready (one of which was a big fat bar of Dairy Milk) and Jen had her pack of blueberries at the ready (a real bargain at just 34 pence on special offer from our favourite supermarket, The Cooperative). In a very short period of time, we had to decide: do we watch this Live From Space thing or not bother? After a bit of debate, I decided to make an executive decision. We were going to give the show a chance. Probably it was going to be crap, we both thought, but whatever way you looked at it, it would at least be intriguing to see how people do poos safely in space.

But you know how it goes. No sooner had Dermot O’Leary appeared on screen than my phone went off in my pocket. I was tempted to not answer it, as Dermot had just started to speak – there he was, standing in front of Mission Control in Houston, looking happy to be doing something other than X-Factor – but it was our friend’s birthday and we had tried to call him a few minutes before (which, when he failed to pick up, saw Jen and I singing Happy Birthday onto voicemail like a right couple of silly goons). Selfishly, I had thought at the time that the amount of effort we had put into singing that famous song would somehow blow the mind of our friend enough that he would need at least an hour to take in the wonder of it all, thus giving us just enough time to first watch Live From Space episode 1. So as to concentrate fully on the chat with our friend, I turned the channel over. That was when I knew that I was more interested in learning about Space than I had first thought.

I tell you what, I loved learning about Space with Dermot. I really thought it was brilliant. Although it was at no point in time mentioned how astronauts safely do a poo in Space, we did learn plenty of other interesting things. For example, anyone who has often thought What the hell do people actually do in Space? would have been delighted to discover that, mainly, astronauts do bizarre experiments which are recorded in every way imaginable, apparently for the sake of it. Us viewing public witnessed this first-hand as ants were released inside a small container, live from Space. It sounds dull, I’ll admit, but watching the ants attempt to go about their business was strangely mesmerizing. It’s just a shame the ants can’t speak for themselves.

Another high point came when one of the astronauts shared with us a routine daily task that most of us with decent running non-diseased water take for granted: that loveable daily event of washing one’s own face. As Koichi Wakata explained how good it felt to put a warm towel upon his face, I turned to Jen, initially unimpressed and said, “I didn’t start watching this to see astronauts wash their faces!” My initial opinion soon proved to be hasty and wrong, however, as we learned that astronauts don’t have showers or use running water in Space. Knowing this, what we had just witnessed took on a whole new dimension of importance.

As the show went on, my imagination couldn’t help but go into over-drive. I just kept thinking: what experiments would I do if I was spending six months hanging about in Space? I decided these would take priority:

1: technically it’s not an experiment, but it is exciting. I’d go on a bit of a rogue Spacewalk. One day, when everyone else was asleep in their quarters, I’d wake up and go out into Space on my own, like a renegade! Probably I’d try and walk to a star or something daring like that. Forever, scientists and know-it-all people have said without question that stars are light years away from each other, but what if they’re not? What if there really is one just a couple of miles away and we’ve been lied to all along? You’d feel utterly foolish for not trying, wouldn’t you? It would be a great thing to say when you got back from Space, that’s for sure: “it’s not true that stars are light years away from each other. I came across one on a rogue Spacewalk. Beat that.”

I did have a load more ideas – doing falconry in Space, or maybe tricking the other astronauts into thinking that a secret astronaut existed on the Space Station who was hiding away somewhere and hell-bent on sabotaging the mission, etc – but I have decided to not go into detail about these here. On second thoughts, it seems very cruel on birds of prey and possibly a waste, quite literally, of Space.

There is more to be said, so I’ll get on with that.

Do you ever wonder about TV in the future? I do. As a result, I predict – and this is a very serious prediction with absolutely no humour – that the future will see millions of us tuning-in to an X-Factor style TV show where contestants are beamed-up to the ISS for incredible galactic singing competitions. It sounds crazy, but I’ve decided it’s extremely likely (the adverts would probably mention the phrase intergalactic fun at some point, but to me that seems a bit inaccurate, seeing as in Space terms the ISS is barely out of the Earth’s atmosphere. But maybe that’s just me being a bit anal, I don’t know).

There were so many things which amazed me as we watched the programme elapse. One thing which freaked us out all the way through was how the astronauts looked when floating about. They didn’t look normal at all! Instead of stomachs being where they ought to be, they appeared to have floated upwards by several feet. People’s shoulders, for example, were up by their ears, and I’m sure I saw an arse round where their shoulder blades used to be. Everything appeared to have floated upwards. This observation quickly grew into a rapid, escalating fear for the safety and location of the men’s genitals. I just kept imagining myself in Space, going to the toilet, and looking about for my genitals, only to discover them where my nipples used to be, swaying around upon my back.

Then there was the whole thing about what these so-called experiments were really for. Considering the United States’ love for experimenting in secret locations on Earth without telling anyone until caught absolutely red-handed, I struggle to believe that Mission Control are experimenting in purely innocent ways. And let’s face it, if there are places on Earth where rules can be completely ignored, Space is going to be a million times better. I’m not sure I want to know what other experiments they are doing in Space and not telling us about. Then again, I’ve banged on quite a bit about it here, so maybe I am lying. Perhaps I do.

The Spacewalk that Rick and Mike Hopkins had to do was fantastic viewing, though. Widely considered to be the most dangerous thing you can do, this one was to see Rick and Mike Hopkins (they’re not brothers, by the way, I just haven’t bothered to research Rick’s second name) go out to replace a valve on a coolant pump. For me, being asked to do something like this is my absolute worst nightmare, so it’s a good job that you can’t be called to go up into Space like you can be requested to partake in Jury Duty (as of yet, anyway). I bet I’d break something which would inadvertently cause the death of a fellow astronaut. I just know I would. I consider myself to be a good person, but still, I am in no doubt that this would probably result in me going back inside the ISS only to say “guys, Jason sort of fucked up the valve and died…the idiot. I did everything I could but it was too late. I told you you shouldn’t have trusted me too – I did make a very big point of saying that changing valves is not my forte, and you still bloody sent me out there.” I’d love to tell the truth in this situation, but what might happen then? It could be bad. Spending 6 months in Space with just a load of other men must do funny things to you. For mental wellbeing it cannot be great.

Which reminds me…how come we didn’t see any women on board the ISS? Could that be mere coincidence, or is that by design? The more I pondered this question, the more confused I got. In an age of (supposed relative) equality, surely women are just as capable as men when it comes to Space stuff? I concluded in the end that probably it was – is – by design and for safety. While I’m fairly confident that most men would be able to work with a woman in Space for months on end and not violate them in some way, I suppose there is no way of knowing how people will react once they get out there (a bit of research at this link has led to something of an explanation which is worth reading, and which also shows my naivety and lack of knowledge up in quite a dazzling way. It would appear that tradition plays a large part: astronauts were originally fighter-jet pilots, and since the military didn’t used to allow for the consideration of female fighter-jet pilots, the resulting lack of female astronauts – combined with a lack of wanting on the US Government’s part to adapt or change their selection criteria – was the inevitable tragic and downright hideously unfair result).

So there you have it: Space is so much more than just the worst place to get lost (unless you want to get really lost, in which case you couldn’t have been more fortunate). It’s not a place for lazy people, however. Did you know that in Space it’s mandatory to do a couple of hours of intense exercise every single day? You could float about all day in awe of Zero-G and do absolutely nothing but smile, but when your wife asked you to go shopping or even stand up for several seconds when you got back home, you’d wish you hadn’t, because your bones would probably break. A smile wouldn’t be much good then, obviously.

Much as I enjoyed the show, I have decided that I have no ambitions to go to Space any time soon. None whatsoever. Once I’ve finally seen Gravity, I have a feeling that the inclination might be even less, but still, I am willing to remain open-minded.

Life is great when you finally “get” cats

catBeing a new cat lover is an interesting place to be in my life. A surreal place, for someone who grew up only with dogs. A place that, at one point – a point which has stretched on and on for most of my adult life, it has to be said – I didn’t think I would ever be. Being a new cat lover brings a wide range of challenges, but it also brings joy, inspiration and feelings of contentment (like the first time I picked a cat up and it didn’t appear noticeably threatened, for example). When I’m not clearing up cat sick, the contentment bit tends to be much higher, it’s true.

Bizarrely, my new found love – what started as a new found ability to tolerate cats in the same space as me – began one day when I almost tripped and fell down the stairs in my girlfriend’s house. Seeking sunshine, the younger of the two cats had cunningly decided to wedge herself against one of the steps at the top, hidden in such a way that I only noticed her in that terrible moment when forced to make a choice: either sacrifice the cat’s life for the sake of my own, or shift my bodyweight and miss the animal entirely. Surprised to find myself doing the latter, I stopped there, on the stairs, where the cats had made an obvious attempt on my life, and looked at them both. They looked back up at me, sprawled out and reckless and, it has to be said, not seeming  particularly bothered in any way at all. Sitting down on the stairs, I pondered what to do with these strange new feelings I was having. A cat had almost caused me to fall to my doom, and there I was, not hating this cat, more curious than irritated…not resenting its freedom and incredible ability to make a full afternoon out of doing absolutely nothing.

“I think I might be a new cat lover,” I said to the cats. “I’m not sure if I’m ready or not, but I promise you I’ll try.”

This initial foray into cat appreciation was to be short-lived, of course. After a second and more crude attempt on my life later that same afternoon – this time resulting in a near-fatal bum-slide that had me acknowledging half the stairs with my ancient relic of a tail-bone – I was in a decidedly foul mood. I was in a stinker. The kind like when you’ve just picked up a pack of biscuits in the supermarket, and you drop them, smashing about half of them, and then feel obliged to buy the pack, because an assistant was watching you at the time. But it was then that a second event occurred which would have me questioning, once again, the place in my consciousness where the feline ones reside.

The cats were following me, meandering around my legs, mewing – this wasn’t me-owing, this was mewing – making it clear that they wanted something from me. Exclusively from me! From me? Yes. It was unmistakable. Not being any kind of expert, and concerned that I was reading more into this than was realistic, I asked Jen for her expert advice. Watching this display as I attempted to get a glass and fill it up with water, Jen confirmed what I’d been thinking: the cats wanted food from me. Not her, but me. The cats had chosen me as their one and only leader (for the day).

Now this was a revelation. I had gone from genuinely disliking cats to being their leader of the day! And while there were other more enthusiastic leaders around in plentiful supply, too!

Upon feeding the cats, however, any kind of bond between us seemed to vanish. I was clearly no longer their leader. Only bothered about the new slop I’d so kindly bequeathed them, the cats went back to their usual business and sauntered off in search of their new leader. I didn’t see them again for the rest of that day. Once again, I pondered how I had been used and thrown-away. Just another gullible human, tricked into doing the only thing the cats considered him good for.

Damn it.

It was to be several full days until the final episode in this catalogue of cat escapades happened, changing forever my viewpoint of the furry sack-like shape-changing critters.

We wanted to go to bed, but we couldn’t. Well, I couldn’t. Because beneath the bed was the older of the two cats. Clever, devious and conniving – it might seem like overkill to use such a spread of similar words, but I tell you it isn’t – the cat villain had planted herself beneath the bed in an impossible-to-get-to place. Again. And once I had seen her, there was no way I could simply get into bed and drift off to sleep, pretend like this had never happened. Anyone who has slept in the same house as a cat for any amount of time will understand why: either that cat is going to end up with its bum in your face at 5am, or they’re going to be scratching at the door to get out at around 3am, and the only way that’s going to happen is if you get up and physically let them out (call me sick, but at that point, a cat’s anus in the face almost seems preferable). After a quick consultation with Jen about this, which saw Jen amused and me less amused (by far), it was decided that it was my task to evacuate the cat from her den. I searched about the room and soon discovered a broom which was, by chance, broken and could have its head easily detached, making for a prime poking tool. This was to be my weapon of choice for coercing the feline from out, under the bed.

Obviously I couldn’t get her out though. For ten minutes I tried my best, jabbing at her and trying to swipe beneath her furry, sack-like body. But every time I was foiled. Either she got the best of my good nature by mewing and crying out in mock pain and anguish, or she swiped the broom handle with considerable force, attaching her claws to it and engaging me in a battle of mini tug-of-war that I would be foolish to try and win.

I went to bed in a vile rage, concerned for my imminent sleep’s welfare. I don’t think Jen got much sleep that night either.

Then something truly inexplicable happened. I awoke the following morning, only to find myself…having slept all the way through the night! Confused and scared for my life, I ferreted about for a few awful minutes, attempting to uncover the truth of my reality: was I awake? Was this some cruel dream? I looked under the bed and saw that the cat was no longer there. She must have escaped the room on her own sometime during the night. Elated, I got up and went downstairs. I felt like a new me. It felt like the start of an incredible new chapter where I could co-exist peacefully with cats.

Downstairs. Where I found the cats had been sick at various times during the night. One of them, all the way down the long, thin fridge, in an impressive cascade of bright yellow and brown muck. Lovely.

Despite the horrible sight – presumably a catty protest about the limited choice of slop available to them, contrasted with the stupendous choice which us humans so enjoyed – I smiled as I walked into the living room and saw the cats sitting there. I realised, then, that I had been fighting a losing battle all along. The cats weren’t my enemies, we were just from different worlds, is all. It was time to start new. Providing the cats didn’t keep on sabotaging my new open-minded approach to their existence by throwing-up all the way down the fridge, things would be good.