Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Wash Your Mind Clean

Last week I finally used up my Christmas vouchers from my lovely in-laws. (Yes, I'm one of those lucky people who married a really great family.) They were for Floatworks, the Southwark centre where you'll find small rooms full of Bond-like pods where you can float for an hour at a time and feel... different.
On a daily basis, I feel as if I start too many things and never end them. I always carry a notebook and a pen with me for when I have ideas and I'm afraid I might forget them. I draw clothes I want to sew or knit, jewellery to make, list chapters for books, ideas for blogs, places to visit and all the normal chores that really ought to get them done at some point in between the interesting stuff. All these ideas are stuffed in, popping up constantly shouting for attention and in need of an outlet. I could do with an office full of assistants. I've got a laptop and a small cat. Unless I keep up the yoga, and particularly the pranayama practise (controlled yoga breath) my head feels like fireworks exploding over a race track on saloon car afternoon, complete with crashes.
So how lovely it is to slow everything down, rinse out the ideas and feel as though I've wiped the slate, giving myself space for new, clean, clear thoughts.
You float in 10" of water, at body temperature, that's full of Epsom salts. It supports your body so you feel as if you're in space. Press one button and the lid closes. Press the next and the light goes off. The music fades out after a few minutes and you've got sensory deprivation. There was one thing I could feel; the cat had scratched my hand and left a tiny graze, enough for the Epsom salts to drive me bonkers with irritation. I flapped about a little while I found the buttons to put the lights back on and open the lid so I could find the packet of petroleum jelly to cover the scratch and protect it. Back in the box I let myself go. I once tried pranayama breathing in a pod but it didn't work. Concentrating on controlling my breath held me back from the deep relaxation you feel if you give in entirely to whatever thoughts fill your head, and then gradually roll away into nothingness.
The music starts again to remind you that it's time to get out. Only 10 minutes! I was robbed. Except that it had been an hour.
I remember a few things. Ideas for a set of short stories. A song about working in an office. A design for wrapping paper. All these things floated into my head. Many others floated off again without distracting me at all. If you don't fancy being shut in a pod the shape of a huge egg, you can keep the lid open. If you're afraid of the dark, you can leave the light on. They'll play music for you if you prefer a bit of background noise. In generally the world divides into those who can't wait to give it a crack and others who hyperventilate just thinking about 1) being naked in salty water 2) being shut in a pod 3) doing nothing for an hour. If you don't fancy it, sod off and stay away and don't make it difficult for the rest of us to get a slot. You just go for a walk in the nice sunshine while we shut ourselves off from the world and its noisesmelllightweightpainwork.

Will I do it again? I just booked myself three-for-the-price-of-two and I can't wait. OK, I'll tell you:

Friday, 25 September 2009

When Marketing Goes Bonkers

One plain white facecloth

I bought a packet of plain white facecloths to take off my mascara because I was tired of throwing out cotton wool. (So very ungreen.) The label did make me laugh though.
Exclusive of Decoration.
Exclusive of Ornamentation.
It says.

How bonkers is that?
I bought them because they were plain white cloths. I could see they were plain white clothes. I didn't need to be reassured that they were free of adornment so why did they write that?

The world of marketing has started to use what's missed out as a way to convince buyers that it's great to buy their products. This started as a good thing: "no added sugar" written on fruit bars to compare them with less healthy versions, "no animal ingredients" for vegan food. After that, once people got accustomed to the idea that "no added" meant "this is a good thing" then marketers started to make meaningless "no added" statements as reasons to buy stuff. As a person who's been trained in marketing, and even used to teach it, I find this shamefully lacking in creativity.

When marketing people can't be bothered to think of something good to say, they make up something that sounds as if it might be bad, then boast that their product doesn't have it. E numbers. Have marketing people convinced you that E numbers are bad? The E means that they have been tested for safety and approved by the EU. It's when a number doesn't have an E that it's dodgy. Safe natural colours and flavours all have E numbers. Safe synthetics do too. Implying that a product is better because it doesn't have something that's harmless is wicked and lazy.

Although in the case of plain white facecloths, it's so ridiculous it's also quite funny.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Free Tuesdays

Observing the Secular Sabbath

It's not my own phrase; I stole it from Jonathan Meades, who was on BBC2 last night in a programme about Scotland and how it's the world's leader in the ancestor business. Or rather, I borrowed it, because it reminded me of a visit to Frinton two years ago.

Mr. 4160 and I spent our wedding anniverary at the seaside in Essex, taking in an ice cream and a wander around lovely little Frinton. Estate agents' windows advertised many small homes with well kept gardens and "no onward chain". Frinton has the smallest church in England (or perhaps Essex) but anyway it's tiny. We went in, as Frinton is the sort of place where churches don't need to lock their doors to keep out undesirables. There aren't any. For the first time in ages I read the Ten Commandements which were painted in gold on wood in Arts & Crafts style, and was struck by very reasonable they are.

That said, I looked them up and found that there are more than ten (27) and that the good old Church of England had decided just to keep the sensible ones. ("The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb" sounds a bit parochial to me. Likewise the bit about driving out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. No-one else? Just them, the locals? One can't help thinking that there was some artistic interpretation of the Lord's instructions going on there.)

Back to Frinton and leaving out the spare 17 commandments. As it was my first weekend off in as many as I could remember, I lingered over "Observing the sabbath and keep it holy". I do know a few people who regularly go to church, and when they tell their employers that they can't work on Sundays, that's fine. If the rest of us say that we can't work on Sunday because we've just worked Monday to Saturday and we're exhausted, that's not good enough. So for the following few months a colleague and I had a code. "Off to church on Sunday?" "Yeah, I need to do a bit of bible study." How ridiculous is it, that you have to pretend to go to church just to get a bit of peace and quiet, a nice day pottering about doing nothing and having a cup of tea with your mates?

So there was Jonathan Meades, standing in a dull, drizzly, empty, silent street on a small Scottish Island, having a similar thought. Have we made our lives better by opening shops, cafes and entertainments on Sundays so that it's become normal to work all weekend? Or if we're not working, we're dashing around catching up with things we used to do in our lunch hour (remember that?) or when we got home and still had an evening. It's September; I ought to have the back to school, ready to start the new term kind of feeling. But after working through all but two weekends of yet another summer, feeling all worn out, I need a day off occasionally.

I can't do it alone. I can't just put my foot down and decide that it's just me. Now everyone has to be seen to work hard or else they let the team down. If I don't work on Sundays I'll be holding up a load of people who are waiting for my contribution. Collectively we've got ourselves into this state by willingly taking on extra work to see if we can earn more, get on, make progress, be rewarded financially for all the additional effort we voluntarily throw in. We've got emails that chase us home and follow us around the world on our iPhones. We're kidding oursleves that we're doing it because we want to, because it gives our life meaning. I get more meaning from picking my home grown raspberries or knitting a pair of socks.

It never ends unless we decide to end it. At least the rich Victorian mill owners gave their half-starved underpaid workers a day to go to church with the promise that they'd get their rewards in heaven. We're still falling for it, except that we're told we'll get our rewards paid on earth, in a sense of fulfillment that only comes from accepting a challenge and pushing oursleves until we hurt. And we've fallen for it. We're going to have to take our secular sabbath back ourselves. The non-stop generation needs to put its brakes on. So you can use my code if you like. Tell your colleagues that you have to go to church on Sunday then make it your own personal church. Get the papers in, put your feet up and have a chat. You don't have to achieve anything. Achievement is overrated. Just sit. Wait. Ponder. Listen to things you haven't heard in ages. Remember. Imagine.

I'll be going to church on Tuesdays. Come with me. Bring your knitting. I'll get the kettle on. We can have a bit of a natter and see if any brilliant ideas happen to crop up.

PS. The picture. I took that out of the front window one evening Sunday after sitting on the sofa for ages waiting for the right moment.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Free Fruit:

Free Fruit:
Go forth and find it.
For the past few weeks I've been out for a couple of hours each weekend to a patch of wild parkland near the canal in Hanwell, London W7. First it was the blackberries, then the plums, and last weekend more plums - 14lb of them - plus a few straggling brambles, a bag of apples and aother of pears which were just ripe enough to cook. This week, if it's not too wet, I'll get back to the pear tree (you have to clamber under the hawthorn tree tunnel but it's not impossible, just a bit of a challenge.

To be surrounded by more fruit that I could carry, without even having to stretch up on tiptoes, filled me with such fundamental happiness that it took me a while to calm down and start picking. Spending Bank Holiday Monday evening in the kitchen, turning it all into crumble base, puree, compote and finally, by Tuesday lunchtime, fruit leathers, was one of the simple pleasures that you hear people talking about theoretically but find difficult to pin down. So if it's not raining, and you have a patch of wild land nearby (or you know someone with a fruit tree in the garden) go grab some.

Cooking it is not hard. Put a small amount of water in a pan (1cm or so) with a load of fruit and a some sugar if you like. Put the lid on and stick them over a very low heat until it's all gone soft. Watch it or it'll bubble over and put sticky red goo all over your oven. (Did that.) Eat it. You can do exciting things with it involving pastry, syllabubs, sauces or savouries. Be as inventive as you like. In modern life we've lost the plot when it comes to remembering what really makes us content; harvesting is one of the good guys.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Shanks's Pony

I wonder if you've heard about the Nun Study, Dr. David A. Snowdon's research into aging. It's the most wonderful long-term observation into what might happen to us as we get older, carried out amongst a whole convent full of Catholic nuns in Minnesota. What's unusual about it is that all the nuns eat the same food and have accurate, comparable health records from a young age so researchers can rule out a lot of the variables that normally mess up your average health study.

One of the correlations (becasue it's tricky to say what's actually cause and effect) is that people who walk three miles a day stay healthy long into old age.
Current research reckons that longevity is influenced up to 75% by behaviour and attitude, not genetics, by the way. Since I found that out, I've tried to grab the opportunity to walk rather than take a lazier way of getting around whenever I have the time. It's selfishness really: naturally I want to stay fit for as long as I can manage, but I also find that walking has instant benefits for creative thinking. (Yoga too, but that's another story.)

For starters, on foot you have more time to notice what's happening around you. (You can choose not to; I have a friend who always strolls, deep in thought, staring at the pavement with his mind elsewhere.) If you like, you can observe people, buildings, clouds, spaces, faces, your neighbours' front gardens and your own reactions to them. When I'm stuck, really stuck, I love to go for a walk. Even just walking a slightly different route from usual can get you out of your rut. I've got six different direct routes to my tube station and I do like to vary them
just for the fun of it; it's a Edwardian working man's suburb - lots of parallel streets.

Time is a bit of a nuisance - well, absence of time to be more accurate - but if I'm on my way to a meeting or a workshop that's going to need me to delve into my deepest thinking resources, then I like to allow time to get there on Shanks's pony. (Grandma's term for legs.) It really does clear your mind of rubbish and fill it with interesting things - if you allow it, and put a bit of effort it.

My great grandmother made the local papers when she walked three miles to a party aged 92 then refused a lift home and hoofed it all the way back again. I'm rather hoping to follow in her footsteps, so to speak. In the meantime, for a good spring clean of the mental cobwebs, I shall be walking whenever... Machines in gyms don't work by the way. That's not one of Dr. Snowdon's conculsions; that's just what I think. They might help your health, but they don't refill your inspiration tanks.

The kit: for a formal event: Paul Smith brogues. They take a few months to break in then they are like walking on clouds, leathers ones. Informal around town: I've not found a walking shoe to beat my Nike Shox. Muddy: Merrell. Fields: barefoot but watch for cowpats. I've done that. Heels, if you must: Cole Haan G-Series with Nike Air technology. People tell me that Crocs are comfortable, but I wouldn't be seen dead, darlings.