Time to be Nice

At this time of year many bloggers feel the need to put ‘pen to paper’ for the noble cause of commenting on New Years resolutions. There are tomes (do we still have tomes in this digital world I wonder?) of blog posts about how to lose weight, get fitter, stop smoking or just be a nicer person than we were last year.

So what about ‘being nice’? It may surprise you to learn that the current day meaning of the word is the exact opposite from when it was first conceived, when it meant foolish or silly  (for all you “word buffs”, here is a lengthy explanation of the etymology of ‘Nice” : “The Meaning of Nice”). This word is the bane of a writers life. It is seen as a rather boring word. A word that we use when we can’t think of a better adjective. “He was a nice chap”, is almost a damning indictment of the fellow who can rise only to being ‘nice’. Even my fancy piece of software that I use to check for cliche’s tells me ‘nice’ is one and to find an alternative.  But I beg to differ (cliche!) ‘nice’ is a good word to use, a positive word, used as an  adjective it means to be pleasing, agreeable or delightful (Oxford English Dictionary). Who wouldn’t want to be nice?

So in 2016 I am going to be nice. That’s it. That’s my one and only New Years resolution. I’m done with not being nice, that would make me unpleasant, disagreeable and ‘undelightful’. Surely no-one would ever have described me as such in 2015? Well not to my face anyway!

When I researched this post (ok, I just Googled “being nice”) I got lots of results, many articles on how to be nice or to be a nicer person to your partner, to your friends, to your colleagues and so on. Does that mean we all harbour a desire to be nicer than we are? It would be an interesting state of affairs if that were true. Imagine supposedly hard-nosed businessmen, used to outdoing each other in the tough guy stakes, trying to compete with each other by being nice – in a friendly rivalry of course. Amazingly there are some examples of really nice businessmen – I came across a number of articles about the US supermarket giant Costco or more specifically the CEO Craig Jelinek, calling for the minimum wage in the US to be raised – this against the backdrop of Costco bucking the trend and paying its CEO a lot less than Wal-Mart, but paying its employees a relatively high basic wage. That’s nice business leadership. There is a false perception that you have to be cut throat – and therefore not nice – to succeed in business. Look at TV shows like “The Apprentice”  where Alan Sugar in the UK version and Donald Trump in the US version pander to that stereotype, and contestants try to outdo each other in what ends up being a competition to be disagreeable, unpleasant, and anything but delightful. I’d love to see Craig Jelinek take over the duties!

There is even a website where you can sign up to “choose to be nice” – choosetobenice.com! I’m not sure that’s totally necessary but it won’t do any harm – certainly a lot of people seem to have signed up as part of their New Years resolutions. When I thought about it in more detail, it seemed to me that being nice is down to just a few things:

Empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is not natural for all of us, but the more you try it the more you begin to see the world from other’s viewpoints.

Friendliness – it’s far easier to be friendly than to be unfriendly. It won’t always be paid back, but in my experience most people tend to default to friendly if that’s how they are approached.

‘Smiley-ness’ – there is actually a lot of scientific research that shows the more we smile, the happier we are and that there are real health benefits.

Patience –  For most of this this is a learned skill (I’m still learning!), the phrase “don’t suffer fools gladly” should be rarely used as the fool maybe you if someone just doesn’t see the world as you do. Used together with empathy, patience can help us see new perspectives and even learn something.

Good humour – This seems obvious, but if we can approach all that we do, and all who we meet with good humour it sets a much more positive baseline than to approach life as a ‘grump’ (yes, I am working on that one too!).

Tolerance – Goes hand in glove with patience. If we consider the reverse – ‘intolerance’ – meaning a lack of respect for opinions or behaviours that you disagree with – it’s fairly obvious that tolerance is the better position to take.

Of course with all of the above it does not mean that you have to be a pushover in any walk of your life. Principles are important, and you don’t have to tolerate poor principles, bigoted opinions, or bad behaviour. Not putting up with those things, and making a stand on principles, contributes to making you a nicer person.

 

Smiley-ness

Smiley-ness

I’ve met lot’s of nice people in 2015, I wrote about friendships in my last post, but there are others that come into our lives, sometimes just for a brief time but these genuinely nice people can have a very positive impact on our own perspectives and values. So here is my own New Years honours list of some people who have nicely and positively influenced me in 2015:

Karen Hobbs – friend, colleague, blogger, stand up comedienne and all round nice and very smiley person – check her out here – quarterlifecancer.com  Twitter: @karen_hobbs

Paul Geen – golf coach, probably the most patient person I met in 2015! I will be back for more coaching in 2016 Paul! http://www.paulgeengolf.co.uk, Twitter: @PGGOLFTIPS

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (Specifically Mareike in the library) for answering many of my research questions for my novel in such detail – I will be visiting soon! www.shakespeare.org.uk, Twitter: @ShakespeareBT

BMW Motorcycle Club (East Anglia Section) – looking forward to some great rides in 2016. Thanks to Dik Langan for his friendly, smiley and enthusiastic welcome! www.thebmwclub.org.uk/eastanglia, Twitter @BMWClubEA

Wishing you all a happy and really nice 2016!

Resolutions: The Importance of finding a “Bill Spratt”

When I was fourteen I wanted to be taller and faster. I’d been the skinny kid for all my school life up to that point, and I wanted to be bigger and to be able to win races. With a birthday just before the start of the New Year, I decided to combine the two and I resolved to grow as much as I could in the following year up to my fifteenth birthday, and to take up athletics to make me faster.

I embarked on a regime of exercise and a high protein diet which,  based on my limited knowledge of nutrition science, I decided would make me grow taller. I took up running, joined a local club, and ate more eggs and chicken than ever before – my mother however drew the line at letting me eat steak on a regular basis.

I trained hard. Beginning in the winter months proved to be a good test. My coach, a local man named William Spratt (known to all as Bill), was supremely fit although forty years my senior, and he would make me train in all weathers. Three times a week I’d run a mile, meet Bill and we’d continue on a circular route for another two miles that would bring us back to my house and then he’d continue on afterwards back to his house – I worked out later that he knew the distance from my house to where we met, and that I’d run three miles each time, but he’d run twice that. I also found out that Bill had been the first Cambridgeshire man to run a marathon, and he was something of a local legend, although he never mentioned it. I felt very fortunate to have him as my coach. He was a tough coach though, more than once I phoned Bill on a training night to say “it’s raining hard” or “the snow is quite heavy”, followed by “shall we give it a miss?” – we rarely did, the only time he would agree was if the conditions underfoot were dangerous – either too icy, or compacted snow. Rain was never an excuse. During our winter training Bill decided I would run the 400 metres on the track in the summer season, as this would suit my leaner frame and he would make sure that my endurance levels were high enough for this demanding distance, which is run as a sprint.

Bill - my athletics coach and mentor

Bill – my athletics coach and mentor

On winter weekends Bill would take a group of us to train at our local woodland, where there was a steep incline of about 150 metres (not easy to find in the flatness of the fens!). He would drill us up and down this slope, in what he called a “pyramid”; this involved running up the slope as fast as we could, jogging back down, and repeating this in cycles of two, four, six, four, and two – in that pattern with no breaks in between. This was designed to push our endurance and build stamina.

Bill entered me for local and regional cross country races, I rarely finished higher than twentieth in a field of forty or more. I later learned that, as a 400 metre runner, I wasn’t expected to, but this was all designed to improve my stamina and also test my resolve. I have to admit that I did feel like giving up in a few races that went ahead despite driving snow, but I never did – Bill had taught me to run through the pain and the dips in energy and confidence.

Wednesday evenings were club meetings, the club was big, and the evenings were well attended by juniors through to veterans. I was one of the youngest, yet found myself training with a group a few years older than myself. We ran circuits around the streets near the club meeting place, and the drills were long and hard, but I loved drilling with the older kids, always trying to prove myself against them, seeing if I could keep up with the sixteen and seventeen year olds – of course I rarely could, but as my training went on I found myself only just behind their pace.

Around March of that year it was our inter-house school cross country. I’d told no-one, other than a close friend, that I’d been training, and then I entered the cross country – actually volunteering for it raised a few eyebrows! It was only a three mile race, so just the same length as my training runs. At the start I didn’t sprint to the front, I held off the pace a little, letting the usual boys surge ahead, but I didn’t let them get away from me. After about a mile I realised that this race was being run at a very slow pace, well below what I was used to in my training, I let it carry on that way for a few hundred yards more and then I just got bored of running so slowly, so I upped the pace, hit the front and before I knew it I was 100 metres ahead of them all. I recall my friend, who was racing too, shouting “go with him, he knows what he’s doing” – but nobody could, and I waited a good thirty seconds for the next person at the finish line. That was a good feeling, and I realised that just as I had resolved, I was becoming faster.

Then we got to the late spring, and the track season opened. We started training on a proper running track. It was the old fashioned cinder surface, most of which have since disappeared and have been replaced by the much friendlier tartan all weather surfaces, but I loved that cinder track, which gave me my first taste of running on a real circuit in spikes. We trained hard that spring, club nights were now at the track, although I kept my thrice weekly training road runs with Bill. At the track there seemed to be more people than ever, I was put into a group with four other boys, all a little older than me. We focused on sprint training, and more pyramids (this time on the flat though).

We trained hard all spring and into the summer. My legs had started to get very large, with muscly calves and thighs, and I remember my mother getting quite exasperated at the speed with which I was growing out of trousers – not just by height, but by the girth of my muscles. That summer I ran my very first competitive 400 metres, I finished fourth in a field of eight, and clocked a time of sixty seconds – which wasn’t a startlingly quick time, but at that age was not too shabby for a first race. Bill was happy. If Bill was happy, I was happy.

That summer, following my cross country victory, I was expected to take a clean sweep at the school athletics house competition. But I knew there was one boy that stood in my way, Martin Cleary. He was tall and fast. I’d never beaten him in a straight sprint at any distance. I discussed this with my mum, and I remember her saying to me , “David, have you not noticed how fast you’ve grown this year? You are nearly as tall as your father”. So absorbed had I become in my short terms targets that Bill had set me, that the cross country race had presented, and that  weekly training had given me, with a focus on getting quicker, I’d forgotten about the first half of my resolution – to get taller. Of course, I had been able to control my running speed improvement; by sticking to a strict training regimen I had improved my endurance, my stamina and my speed – these were all variables that I was able to influence to a certain degree subject to my own discipline and dedication. What I could not control, was how fast I grew or how much I grew. As it happens between the ages of fourteen and sixteen I went from barely being five feet tall, to being almost six feet tall. At age fourteen and a half I was now taller than Martin Cleary. More importantly to me, I was now faster than he was, and I finally beat him! Later that summer I went on to run the 400 metres with my club in under 55 seconds, and progressed to county standard – I really had got faster! My personal best a few years later was 50.2 seconds.

The moral of this story from my own personal trip down memory lane? Well it’s quite simple really, what I did all those years ago, without even realising, was to make an ambitious resolution, only to have it broken down into more achievable shorter term objectives by my coach, who knew a lot more about how to achieve my goals than I did. If I had set myself the goal of winning the cross country, running under 60 seconds in the 400 metres, or beating Martin, then I doubt that I would have focused on the steps to get me there. Bill provided me with those steps. Maybe we all need a Bill, to keep us company as we work towards our grand objectives we set ourselves as New Year’s resolutions, it is the Bill’s of this world who have the wisdom to help us achieve those objectives stepwise. So if you are considering setting yourself a New Years resolution of losing weight, giving up smoking, eating a healthier diet, and so on, then don’t try and do it on your own –  find your “Bill”, and you will stand a much higher chance of meeting your resolution.

As for growing taller,  well I just happened to grow due to my genetic make up, so the lesson there is that there are some things we just have no control of at all, so don’t go wasting your time by setting totally impossible New Year’s resolutions – because if you don’t have the power to control the variables, then you cannot effect change.

So thanks Bill, you are long gone from this world, but you and the lessons you taught me are not forgotten.

Milestones

 

 

milestone

Last month my blog clocked up one thousand hits. I was quite surprised at how pleased I was with reaching that milestone. This got me looking back at all of my posts to see which had been the most read, and I realised that, with the exception of the “cooking trilogy”, every post I have written is related to some milestone or other (I suppose family meals could be milestones too!).  Why is this? – I wondered.

Perhaps it is because I tend to measure my life by those milestones – I know many people who do the same, perhaps we all do to a degree. Each marker in time  is some kind of right of passage to another stage, another chapter, of our constantly unfolding lives. I actually get annoyed with those count downs to milestones, as I see that as wishing one’s life away.The Christmas countdowns that start well before December are one such annoyance, wishing time away just seems plain wrong to me – we have only one life in this world, so why wish for it to pass more quickly? Like most people I’ve experienced times when I have wished time would pass more rapidly and give way to better times, but now those better times are here I don’t want the days and hours to flash by. Father Time though seems to have a wry sense of humour and, as the skilled illusionist that he is, gives the appearance of life passing slowly when things are  tough, but speeding it up when life is good.

Looking back at my blog posts, which only started in June 2014, the milestones are a combination of personal and societal. The death of my mother and the death of a good friend were two events that put life into sharp relief, a time for evaluation and re-evaluation of my own values, needs and desires. That’s when I began to write again and I have marked days of inspiration, reaching 15,000 words  in my book (20,000 now!), and now one thousand hits on my blog; these are small achievements, yet they mark my passage towards something I’ve always hoped for – some form of literary achievement. I haven’t recorded every milestone of course – that might be a little tedious for anyone who reads my blog  – but also some of these milestones are best kept private, so for example I’ve not recorded the details of my son’s departure for university and my daughter’s theatrical and musical exploits, they are things we talk about as a family, and that’s where the details stay – within our family.

Milestones though can be about more than just  personal achievement or marking the (hopefully) happy progress of our lives. Some milestones are marked on a national, and even global scale, there are some that will always be commemorated. In this blog I have written about the anniversary of D-Day and the observance of Remembrance Sunday – both all the more poignant as 2014 marks the 100th year since the outbreak of the first world war and seventy years since D-Day. Our nation marked those milestones with great respect. But they are still just that – milestones, they mark a point reached and another years distance from the real events, and the milestones become history themselves.

On a more upbeat note our US cousins have just celebrated Thanksgiving, a major annual milestone, and a time for friends and family to meet and give thanks for each other and what they have been blessed with. A positive and reflective milestone. Soon we will celebrate Christmas and then New Year, traditionally times when we look back at the previous year and it’s milestones.

Milestones become history the moment after they are reached. I am reminded of possibly one of the finest lines from a contemporary play, from Alan Bennet’s “The History Boys”, it is spoken by the pupil Rudge, who up to this point has been mostly monosyllabic: “How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another”. It is a line played for wry laughs in the play, but of course it is true. History, is merely a sequence of events that occur in succession – whether that is our personal history or society’s. If we can do our utmost to make sure that “one thing after another” is made up of positive actions,valuable achievements, and enriching behaviours, for ourselves and those around us, then our personal histories we will have a strong influence on our society.

Perhaps there is a moral in here somewhere, and as we approach the end of 2014, for me that moral might be that in 2015 I am going to do “one good fucking thing after another”.

 

Note: Apologies if the expletive causes any offence, however it is a direct quote and loses it’s impact and emphasis if censored.

 

Shooting Stars

I have struggled to write something for this month’s blog entry. Not because I have nothing to write about, but because everything I have started to write has ended up being some self-indulgent waffle. I started to write about ‘change’, because change is happening all around me right now: after years of hard study, my son has just started University; my daughter has landed a lead role in her senior school production; my sister is embarking on an exciting new venture as an artist, and a good friend was recently ordained. I was going to write that ‘change is a good thing’; ‘we should embrace change’; ‘change is exciting’. I was going to write that ‘sometimes when lots of change is going on around us we can feel like a stationary object with shooting stars of change coming at us from all directions, and we just have a moment to see them before they pass us by.’

Then I realised where all this was coming from. My own pace of change has slowed considerably. I was recently approached by two headhunters for senior roles in my industry, and I turned them down flat. Ten years ago, even five years ago, I would have ruthlessly followed up. In my field of expertise it is not unusual to change jobs every few years, from the age of late 20’s until early 40’s the average tenure is probably something in the region of three years. My own average since I was 28 (excluding two periods of freelance work) is two years and four months, and as I have now been with my current employer for more than three years typically I should be looking for my next move. But I am not. For the first time in a long time, I don’t want to move. I enjoy my job, have an enviable work/life balance, a boss who gives me complete autonomy (but is there when I need him), and a loyal hard-working team that I have built and developed.

So why am I feeling like I am surrounded by shooting stars? It is because I am. All of those I mentioned earlier are taking their opportunities and making the most of them, they are moving at a much faster pace than I am. That’s how it should be. We cannot all be in a constant state of rapid change – we’d go crazy if there were not things or people that we could rely on, or if our own lives didn’t stay relatively stationary for long enough for us to decide what we wanted, or to recognise a new opportunity when it arises. But human beings, on the whole, are progressive creatures by nature; we crave new things, new experiences, and new challenges. But we are also creatures that can appreciate what goes on around us, whether that is art, theatre, literature, sport, music, the natural world, or technology advances in areas such as science & medicine. We can also appreciate the beauty of change in others. I listened to my son, offering a little advice when needed,  as he carefully chose which university he wanted to go to, and what course to study, and then watched him apply himself to his studies, achieve his grades and get where he wanted to be, I’ve watched  as my daughter has continued to expand her creative horizons and will now be one of the youngest leads ever in her senior school play, I’ve seen how amazingly creative my sister is (the illustration on this page is one of her paintings), and I’ve watched from a distance as my lovely friend Wendy was ordained into the priesthood, after agonising over her calling. All that time I have had the advantage of being relatively stationary – I’ve been the constant this time. As a result I have a completely different perspective than these shooting stars and, if I watch closely and carefully enough, I can see them approaching, their lights growing ever brighter, and when they come close to me they are dazzling, but unlike celestial shooting stars, they are not gone in an instant and fade to nothing, if I choose to I can hold them for as long as I like in my gaze as they approach, and watch them grow bigger, brighter and more brilliant.

It is a true privilege to be standing relatively still while I take in all this change. It is also a lesson in not being too hungry for change all the time.  No doubt my time for change will come again and hopefully I will be someone else’s shooting star. But, right now, I am more than content to gaze upon those stars around me.

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DSC_2686_GreenShift_Sharpened_croppedInside

This painting by my sister, Sandra Brown, painted without my knowledge as I wrote this blog, perfectly visualises holding a star in my minds eye and watching it grow.

Shopping Centre Herd

Meeting, greeting
Looking for seating,
No place to stop
Ready to drop

Moping, sloping
Shopping and hoping
Kids in tow
Where’s left to go?

Look down to text
Where to next?
Don’t know why there’s no reply
Call on the phone, can’t we go home?

Term starts tomorrow
It’s spend and borrow,
The latest kit
Or the kids won’t fit

Teenagers in groups
The fashion troops,
Brainwashed by brands
Cash in their hands

Pensioners gaze
Crowds are a maze
Need some quiet
Nowhere to find it

A place to eat, wait for a seat
Time to rest, out of the heat
Overheard words:
“We’re all part of the herd”

Context: Composed after “people watching” (and listening) in the Grand Arcade, Cambridge, UK, the day before the school term resumes.