Memories

(Todays’ post was inspired by the piece ‘Relative‘ written by Matt Gemmell.)

He sits across the table from you, holding a stack of pictures which he soundlessly fans across the surface. They loosely scatter like leaves, each one showing a unique image. Here’s a small boy, smiling shyly into the camera and wearing his first holy communion outfit. Another shows children with fear etched into their faces as they run from a hail of rocks. This one is a shiny new bike, wheeled into the living room. As you look at this one you can see the owner of the pictures relax his face, as if smiling inside and remembering the moment.

He spreads his open hands across the tabletop and moves all the pictures around, in the manner of a cheap childrens’ party magician trying to distract your attention. Have more pictures been added? It’s hard to tell. They feel dense, somehow – this isn’t a collection of leaves any more as it is more a sense of mush. You realise that some of the pictures don’t have clean edges, they are ripped and torn and worn out. His hand sharpens into a pointing finger and glides across the table tapping one picture after another. Sitting upright in bed and puking. The curl of another childs’ hand around their Atari 2600 controller, a loose collection of kids and bikes wearing seventies flares and swarming down the centre of a road. The devilish gleam in a young boys eye as he prepares to lie down in the middle of an occasionally busy road. A young boy and a younger girl huddled together on a staircase in the dark, looking scared.

If you raise your head and try to catch his gaze, he will look fleetingly at you before returning his concentration to the tabletop. His hand moves from one picture to another, sometimes pointing one out, sometimes picking one up and holding it for a moment as if trying to remember the moment that the picture captures. When he does this, his brow furrows slightly with the effort of recollection.

An air of desperation creeps into the room. He doesn’t make a sound, but looks more and more frustrated as he picks up and discards images seemingly at random, faster and faster. He doesn’t seem to be looking for anything in particular, but even so a thread slowly emerges – the discarded pictures pile up at one side of the table, with new ones stacking on top to resemble a kids flick book – those ones you recall as a child with hundreds of stick figures taking on animation as the pages are flicked between the fingers. The pile of pictures builds. The child is getting older.

Look at the stack – there are gaps. Years get added on in the blink of an eye. Groups of pictures concentrate on one event, as if that carries emotional weight. Apart from the similarity of our subject, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency; the images leap from night to day, sun to shade, happy to sad. The boy becomes a man, and the pictures blur and fade for a while, then sharpen again.

His hands stop. They clench into fists and rise as if to strike the table, but then pause and relax. He looks up and away, then carelessly sweeps all the pictures to the floor. Before you can ask what he was looking for, he turns and is gone.

A pause for contemplation

I have recently read of people on the internet who have lost children to cancer. To say it in such a fashion cheapens the message somewhat, as if to reduce the loss of a child to a single sentence is to reduce the fury and impact that the family has to go through when confronting the fact that their child won’t be around to grow up any more.

But… Cancer. It’s still enough to chill the bones.

I’m writing todays’ entry in hospital as I go for my regular checkup with my oncologist. Not to labour the point, but I had my own experience with cancer three years ago, and although I know in my heart that I’m cured (not in remission, but cured, although it will take another seven years before my oncology team will say that), the need to come back to the hospital every four months still makes me uneasy.

My examinations are rudimentary. A physical exam, a chest x-ray every six months, blood tests at every visit. Still, this hospital is where I went through chemotherapy and the associated discomfort that that brings, and to return reminds me of that, even though I don’t visit the ward I was in; I just skirt the outsides of the treatment centres and sit in the restaurant eating a lunch that three years ago would have seemed a remote impossibility to digest.

I am often accused of playing the cancer card, and to be fair, sometimes I do. I’ve written before about the sense of relief that arises when telling someone you have cancer and are going through chemotherapy gets you special service, or lets you jump a queue. All these little things add up to relieve the pressure of living a little – because the pressure can be hard during treatment. Even now I still play it just to reset expectations or show someone that they are not alone in going through experiences such as those I went though – essentially I am trying to show that I can help, if so asked. I’m not asked very often, but I want to help. I want to show compassion and somehow leverage my experience to help others, to pay it forward, to alleviate the light sense of selfishness that my entirely self centred treatment engendered.

Regardless, I am now cured, but I still have to have checkups, and while they are physically trivial, they can be mentally tough. As a patient I am chirpy and lively but I’m still searching for that frisson of pause or doubt in those medical professionals whose opinion and expertise I have placed my trust – they kept me alive, after all. To see a pause in their examination or to sense a carefully worded phrase when reading results will communicate far more than it is supposed to. I am an adult and I know that they have seen this before and won’t allow themselves to slip and, anyway, I am better now. It was three long years ago and not a blip has shown itself on the numerous tests.

Nevertheless, as a man who is cured I still wait to be told that I have cancer.

Writing history part two

(this is continued from part one posted yesterday)

During German detention, I managed to get a different form of punishment from the other students. As my German teacher and I had already agreed that asking me to revise for German coursework and lesson content was a fruitless exercise, she let me do something else. She had agreed with my English teacher that I could write stories.

This was a substantial help to my coursework. I was never all that able to focus on coursework or the work I needed to do when I was off the school premises, but trapped in a one hour detention session with nowhere else to go does wonders to focus the mind. A crucial part of my final English exam was to submit twelve pieces of written work and my English teacher had agreed with my German teacher that she would accept stories I had written during my German detention.

Right there, I had an instant and almost unlimited source of coursework. Limited only by the number of detentions I had, which was substantial as I wouldn’t be able to leave the lessons until the last few months of school (my attendance at that point was an utter waste of time, so I got to go home or practice in other teaching sessions).

So, to get to my point, I wrote stories. I let my fourteen year old imagination run wild, took up a paper and pen (this was 1984 and computers were yet to arrive in any reasonable quantity pretty much anywhere at this point), and wrote. Looking back, some of my stories were complete ripoffs of other published fiction, usually re-imagined to place me at the heart as the hero or let me detach myself from the story altogether and present another viewpoint.

I wrote third person, first person, science fiction, general everyday life and countless other stories. I never wrote about real life or mentioned what happened outside of school. Everything I wrote flowed from my imagination and flew onto the page, unchecked for quality, spelling or even legibility.

My teachers loved it. The German teacher got something to read – although I would hesitate to suggest she got anything other than mild interest in the fantastical ravings of a fourteen year old boy – and my English teacher read and approved every piece of literature I wrote before adding it to the pile of content I could submit as English coursework. I had a lot; so much so that I could pick and choose my best work well ahead of schedule. Despite my boredom and laziness, I was one of the few that year that didn’t have to write anything at all at the last minute.

I got an A.

I fully credit those two members of staff for spurring me on and taking advantage of the odd set of circumstances to bring out the best in me. They lit the light in me that I use today to guide me through the difficult parts of writing; I’m no novel writer but I can bash out 500 words a day without having to think about it too much, and I owe it all to them.

Tomorrow I’ll either pick another topic entirely, or indulge myself in a little more history. The best advice is to write about something you know, and I do find I am an authority on myself.

Writing history part one

So, all of a sudden I don’t get the chance to write meaningless drivel in a personal diary. I’ve committed to writing things down that will be made public on the internet, and that places a burden on me to write something that will be interesting, or at least doesn’t make me look like a complete fool, anyway.

Let’s start off with something easy, and a bit meta – let’s write about writing.

I started realising that I was a better writer at secondary school, I think – at least, that’s the earliest memory I have of writing stories. Please understand that this wasn’t a series of creative writing classes, but a series of punishments – a series that ended up benefiting me in my exams.

I wasn’t really all that interested at school. It wasn’t helped by the headmaster who set a dangerous precedent on my first trip around the school with my mother – She told me on the car journey home that I was perfectly capable of getting 11 A Grade O-Levels in this school, which started off my time there nicely. (I never got 11 A Grade O-Levels; I finally left there with 4 mediocre qualifications which haven’t made a jot of difference to my professional life since).

I was particularly able to be led astray by my fellow classmates. As you would expect, I was the one who suffered for it, and this meant I got to spend a lot of time behind after school. I’d like to add to this that I was quite bright – as least, I think I was – and so I got bored easily. As any adult who looks back on their schooling will remember, being bored never really works out well for a secondary school kid, and while I did get some support for my appalling handwriting, I never particularly recall any support that was designed to make me shine as a academic star.

Except for two teachers.

I should point out that my secondary school was an all boys institution and as such was packed with hormonal teenagers who continually bordered on tribal struggles and violence. I have some true horror stories about the violence. This highlighted the good things that teaching staff did for us, and I had two teachers who did make the most of the situation I was in to help me out.

I sadly can’t remember their names, but both were women – one taught German, which I was awful at, and the other was my English teacher. My German teacher quickly cottoned on to the fact that I was not adept at second languages, but couldn’t ignore my bored behaviour so I got a lot of detention. My English teacher realised that my boredom was not conducive to the volumes of coursework that I had to complete, so between them they hatched up a plan.

In detention you were supposed to be punished. You were supposed to either catch up on homework or do things that reminded you of the futility of your existence during punishment. My exercises during other detentions were many, but during my German detention I got to write stories.

I’m already over my 500 word limit for the day, so I’m going to park this story here and come back to it tomorrow.

30 days from Fathers Day

Today I experienced the joys of Fathers Day for the very first time, and I must say it gives me a warm feeling of purpose. Writing about it gives me a sense of trepidation though, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

As I write this, my nearly nine week old son is sitting in his bouncer with a case of the hiccups and is happily surveying the world around him in the way only a baby can; his bright blue eyes are open wide and he is gawping around at everything that is within his limited vision. I assume he has limited vision – he hasn’t quite managed to fix his gaze on his mother or me yet, apart from the limited attempts when he is hungry and believes that looking more adorable is his key to being fed upon demand.

As I have explained to friends over the last few weeks, it wasn’t until he arrived that I realised how selfish I had been with my own time. I’d been used to sitting and futzing around on the internet for hours at a time, convincing myself that I was working or researching or doing whatever I needed to fulfil my dream of supporting myself (I was lying to myself – I was just reading different bits of the internet). Now my time is broken up into whatever chunks are available between Freddie needing to be fed, or have his nappy changed, or whatever attendance he needs to keep him happy, and whatever time I can eke out to just sit and bond with him.

Part of the time has been increasingly allocated to expanding my writing skills. Today is day 266 of writing 500 words a day. As I explained in my previous post, I have been doing this as an exercise in improving my writing skills, but because the writing isn’t public I am increasingly turning it into a whingey diary. I thought it was necessary to give myself a kick in the arse by committing to writing openly.

So I’ve taken a step and have decided to publish 500 words on this site every day for the next 30 days. The 500 words will be those I write as my daily exercise. This fills me with trepidation as I am about to make my inner mutterings public, and it also requires me to apply a filter to what I write now, lest I offend someone.

This explanatory post is the first of my 500 words a day. I offer no guarantees as to the quality of my writing – often as it is not planned but simply written straight out as I think of a topic in the morning. I edit very little, and plan even less. If I were to try and apply edits and careful planning I fear I would run out of time, and I have already committed to the writing for 266 days in a row – I’m not about to stop that streak.

So, enjoy what you read, and expect more every day. Let’s see what the next 30 days bring.

248 days

I’ve been putting this post off for ever, but as I’ve moved the blog over to DigitalOcean (referral link) in the hope that doing so would spur me on to greater posting heights and blogging activity, I thought I’d plunge back into the fray. As you may well be able to tell, my ability to post regularly is somewhat lacking.

I’ve read through the previous posts on this blog and the last one was a commitment from myself to myself to go through the 100 day programme in an attempt to build commitment to a thing. It’s not the first time I’ve gone through the programme, and although I’ve managed to complete it several times, I haven’t managed to commit to anything, with one exception – the writing for the 100 day programme itself.

After I started the programme the last time, one of the commitments I made to myself was that even if I utterly failed to create anything of meaning in the multitude of projects I started (I did fail, tremendously), I would write about it every day, and I’d write 500 words. Every day.

Well, the first 100 days passed, and I had to admit that the fantastic projects I had committed to had come to naught. I did write every day, though, and so I started all over again the very next day. The next 100 days came and went, and I once again looked back at my promises to myself and laughed hollowly, as they went the way of every other magical project that I get excited about and then promptly drop as soon as they get too hard to actually do.

Sigh. The point?

I wrote 500 words every day. So far I have managed 248 days in a row. I may have started and failed to finish a whole multitude of projects, I may well have amassed a collection of whizzy domain names that point nowhere in particular, but I did write every day, and now I’m on a roll I keep on doing it. Right now it’s no more than a diary of sorts; a collection of ups and downs as I chart my progress in trying and failing with the ever-so-clever ideas that come to mind from time to time.

Along the way I’ve learnt when I write best (before lunch) and what keeps me going (setting up wordpress blogs, oddly enough – I’m very good at that, even if I can’t fill them with anything). I can type 500 words on an iPhone if I have to, but it’s not a fun exercise. Day One is my app of choice for daily writing, and as long as the stuff isn’t public, I can write easily.

Public writing is harder. Hopefully the 500 words a day will make that easier. Hopefully this post, and the others that follow it (yes, I know, commitment) will prove that.

Hopefully.

Murder your darlings

“Murder your darlings”

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (1863 – 1944)

According to the high venerated Wikipedia Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch encouraged his students to murder their darlings, or quickly kill off those things they thought dear to them, in order to start afresh and anew. It’s a very good point. It also applies to those things that started off as fun, but over time became more of an obligation, and lost their lustre in doing so.

Back at the beginning of 2012, I started a little blog called Bloody Complaining. This was to be my dumping ground for all the complaints that my friends had to listen to every time I saw them; I had used the more traditional location of the Facebook status update to share these with the world previously, but I just came across as a whinger. Nobody likes to be thought of as a whinger.

Over seven months, I piled all my likes and dislikes into this sounding off point. I had set myself the high bar of posting every day and never repeating myself; this was incredibly easy for the first month and got progressively harder as the months wore on.

I found myself struggling to complain. The adage of never repeating myself was designed for the benefit of my many readers, or so I thought, but looking back at the early posts I realised – too late – that they were generic and any complaining on the same broad point could be seen as repetition. I had ruined my chances before I started.

It became a chore, this little complaining blog. Days would go by without an update, and then I would hurry to backfill the missing days. Often I found myself documenting seven or more complaints at once, and then inserting them carefully into the timeline. These complaints became weaker and weaker and my outrage dimmed, rending the last few posts little more than a bit of a moan.

And then July came, and I posted on the first two days, but ran out of steam. My iPad showed my Omnifocus reminder to post a new complaint every day, but I didn’t. I let each day lapse, and the distance between the last post and the current day grew larger and larger.

By the end of July, the gap was just too large, and it occurred to me that this fun little experiment had run its’ course. I was no longer able to complain as vociferously as I had done before, and the creation of new posts was no longer something I looked forward to, but something that was just hard work.

So yesterday I posted my last post. I may well keep the blog there as a reminder of what I managed – over 180 separate complaints is no mean feat, after all – but is now a static piece of memories for me.

I murdered my darling, and today it finally occurred to me what that phrase means. It was a necessary murder.

Losing Valued Readers

It’s not often that I am drawn to post about other peoples’ articles on the Internet. In the vast majority of cases, I read content because it adds something to my life, and is usually based on a subject about which I know very little. Every article I read adds something to me and helps me to learn.

Over time, I gradually add to the list of websites in my feedreader. Quite often, I prune that list in order to remove content that I no longer read, or which just doesn’t offer value to me as a reader.

The Simple Dollar is one of those sites that has survived many a year from this ‘pruning’. It has consistently educated me, enlightened me, and set me on the path to financial freedom by continually reminding me of the value of the little things, and the benefits of simple mindfulness when dealing with money.

Today, I feel thoroughly let down. Today, The Simple Dollar posted this post. It’s clearly written by a guest poster, from Cut Media, whom Trent has recently granted access to his site. (I believe this was financially beneficial to him, but I will need to find his post on this to be certain).

This post is appalling. Utterly unrepresentative of the valued and greatly appreciated posts that Trent curates and creates regularly, packed with linkbait and polished off with an infographic that is ‘de rigeur’ these days in every SEO sensitive blog, it is also just poorly written. I sadly smelt a rat when I read the opening sentence by our new contributor, Nicole, and the second sentence is no better:

“I’m excited to begin providing an additional resource for the blog’s readers with a fun and informative weekly consumer-related infographic.”

Excited? Fun? Informative? We have all read those blogs that promise “111 great tips to lose weight” or “23 fun things you didn’t know about cheese” and many, many others in those vein, but a discerning reader will quickly gather that these posts are the meaningless fluff of the internet; offering little value, and carefully written to gather eyeballs for the benefit of advertisers and few others.

It is with great regret that I must draw the conclusion that Trent has let the same thing happen on The Simple Dollar. With no prior notification that this was to happen, no explanation at the time of writing, and countless outraged comments on the post, coupled with a personal twitter account @trenttsd that has been dormant for months and a Simple Dollar twitter account @thesimpledollar that does nothing but generate links to posts, this is a prime example of a site that has lost sight of the value of its readers.

I may come across as a simply outraged internet commenter who demands something for nothing. I’ll freely confess that I have bought little – if anything – from the site, and as such I contribute little to Trents’ financial position. I do visit the site regularly, and subscribe to his site via RSS, and read every post he writes. I generate value with my attention, and Trent has worked hard to gather his ‘clan’ of readers who contribute to the discussions and gather together to support and recommend his writing.

In my opinion, this recent post on his site is the start of a slippery slope towards an advert packed, spammy blog laden with empty posts that offer little benefit to readers and treat them as fodder for advertisers. I’ll stay subscribed to the RSS feed, and stay glued to the site as I really want to be proved wrong.

Trent, if you read this, please, please, reach out to the readers who value you and tell us why you let this happen. I think your readers deserve an explanation.

Warm

I have a recurring desire to stay warm. You might think that this is a perfectly natural desire, one that is replicated in every human being on this planet, and that is probably so; nevertheless I have this desire and for me it is new. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was in hospital, I would often spend days lying in bed. Certainly, at the start of my treatment, lying in bed was all I could do. It was an effort to move, and the energy required to lift my legs out of the bed and move them to the floor, locate my slippers, and re-arrange my clothing so I didn’t inadvertently expose myself was just too much to bear.

So I spent a lot of my time just lying there. I indulged myself in conversation with my fellow ward-mates and waited for the next drug round or feeding time. It felt a lot like being in a zoo, with the one obvious exception of tourists not coming around to view me in my native habitat and poke food through the bars.

In an environment like this, when food and drugs were prescribed at predefined times, I allowed myself the luxury of sleep. In fact, this was not so much a luxury as a necessity – chemotherapy drugs are designed to flatline your whole antiviral system, and this in turn puts your body through a hell of a lot. On the outside, you are relaxed, calm and slightly dozy. Inside, multiple wars are being fought and won. It’s a lot of work.

When I slept, I often curled up into a ball, on one side, and drifted away. I became oblivious to the noise of the hospital and the varied comings and goings of those around me, and retreated into idle dreams and just plain flat out sleep. This was always easier in the afternoon, when shafts of bright sunlight shot through the windows and illuminated the ward.

I found that I naturally gravitated to the sun, and let it gradually warm me through as I dozed. As time went on, it became a natural thing to do – when the sun lit up my little space, I slept.

Now, nearly a year after that experience, I still find simple pleasure in sleeping in sunlight. Like a cat that curls up in front of a warm fire, or a spot on the floor that is bathed in light, I find myself wanting to catch a few moments of bliss, get comfortable, and sleep.

Perhaps this is a way for me to re-live the few pleasures I had when I was going through my treatment. Certainly while my body was wracked in pain or simply fighting a multitude of battles on my behalf, I was able to mentally relax, free of the normal structures of daily life, and let others manage my destiny for me.

I guess in retrospect it was a time when I could return to being a child, shuck off the responsibilities of adulthood, and live my life on far simpler terms. Now I am returned to the usual day to day challenges of work, I live for those moments when I can return to easier days.

Procrastination

It took me weeks to get started on writing this post. Oh har de har de har.

Like many of the people I read on the Internet, I suffer quite badly with procrastination. That is to say, clearly the majority of the people I read on the Internet don’t suffer with procrastination, or I’d have nothing to read as they would have loads of great ideas but never get round to writing them.

I’ve been told that I’m a good writer. I’ve been fortunate enough to be blessed with the sort of friends that consider my jumpy, abject, long winded prose and the ability to never manage to write a short sentence as a good thing. I’ve been told that underneath all this self effacing concern for my ability to get anything done at all is a good deal of dry wit, something that I have been trying to exercise on the other blog – bloodycomplaining.com – but even there I sometimes fail to express myself properly and just come across as a bloody complainer.

Which, I suppose, is just the point. That’s my place to vent and complain about the world and all the injustices that it serves upon me.

Tangents… Hmmm… Lovely tangents. Where was I again?

So, I’ve been told that I would make a good writer, but the problem with that is the people who tell me that have read stuff that I have written. Ergo, they have experienced the benefits of reading good output when I finally get around to producing it, but that gestation period between an idea appearing in my head and me being sufficiently motivated to actually sit down and write about it can be a very long time.

I’ve tried countless ways of addressing the good old procrastination bug, but the underlying point, I think, about procrastination in the first place is that it originates inside your head, and the inside of your head is a incredibly complex place to start messing around with. Besides, the inside of my head is also where all the reading I do about addressing procrastination goes too, and that makes it kind of hard to deal with.

It would be like trying to evict a horrible smelly flatmate by reading lots of magazine articles and books on “evicting a horrible smelly flatmate” and leaving them open all over the place – if he doesn’t want to go, no quantity of subtle hints or strategies that he knows exist because you openly share them with him are going to make a difference. Do you see what I’m getting at here? The analogy is a bit tenuous, but up there in my convoluted brain it sort of makes sense.

There is a bit of me that is stopping me doing my best thing, but I’m not going to be able to overcome it by reading more things about overcoming it, because by reading about overcoming procrastination instead of just getting started on something I love doing, I’m not actually solving the problem. At all.

Ooh, just got distracted by the idiotic laughing lady in the room next door. I’m typing this in a hotel on my iPad, just after I spent the last ten minutes wondering what the hell I was going to do because I was so bored.

Anyway.

Ironically enough, the very point about typing a post about procrastination is kind of helping me get out of the very problem I was having in the first place. You see, I started this blog with a good reason in mind, typing little posts about the horrible illness I had, and how it affected my life and everything, but as time stretches on and it fades into the distance, just like I knew it would, I find myself wanting to nurture this online place I call home, rather than letting weeds grow all over it like so many other blogs I started.

Blurgh. Long sentences, poorly punctuated. Not my greatest moment.

Anyway, that’s kind of it for the moment. My bit of procrastination busting that might spur me on to achieve more things. At least I’m not staring into the mirror and wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the next half an hour.