Monday, 17 February 2014

Confessions of a closet environmental fascist

In the process of my journalism training I too have stood next to higher-than-usual-water, in wellies, with a camera, discussing 'extreme weather'.

I can't say it's an official rite of passage.  It did however only take 35 minutes of standing out in the wind, rain, hail and slimy-almost-but-not-quite snow for me to develop a greater (if grudging) level of respect for all the journalists we see on the telly standing in flood water at the moment.

I've read a lot around the subject of climate change.  Historically because I used to be something of an environmental fascist.  More recently to back up the validity of our 'piece to camera' homework and today because of writing this blog.

What's clear to me (from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 'Climate Change  2013: The Physical Science Basis - Summary for Policymakers' document) is that the temperature of the earth is hotter now than it was in 1880 (~ 1° C), that the arctic ice is melting rather rapidly, sea levels are rising and that these things are having an impact on our climate.  Additionally these changes can be linked to the increase of C02 that we've been merrily pumping into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.

My reading also suggests that the future is a dark uncomfortable place, that we have slipped past our moment in time when we could've done anything to stop the inevitability of extreme weather as the norm by 2020, or the mass migration and environmental refugees this will create.  Top names in climate change science predict that conflict and war are on their way.

I checked in with my own mad scientist to get his view on the situation.  He cheerily agreed with the darkest assessment of the future and we had an interesting discussion about what would happen when bread reaches £10 per loaf.  It was dismal to say the least.

But the big question that isn't being answered for me, the thing I think we're missing here is this - what on earth (apart from stop buying houses in flood plains....) are we supposed to do about all of this?

In the not too distant past I used to be fundamentalist in my eco-beliefs.  I wouldn't buy something if I  couldn't reuse or recycle the container it came in.  I bought local, organic, fairtrade, seasonal.  I did not go into supermarkets anymore than I could reasonably help.  I ate a lot less meat.

As I look back at it now, it was a kind of mania, driven from the right place, a place of heart, of wanting to make a difference and make the world a better place.  It was nonetheless a mania.

It was also a glorious time in my life.  I lived in a transition town and was involved in environmental groups and activities. I was part of a community.  We worked hard and cared passionately about our campaigns but we also we worked together, we had fun, we made things happen - perhaps only at a small local level but it was a start, it was something.

I am something of a lapsed environmentalist since moving to Bristol.  I do the recycling but I confess I shop at Sainsbury's, watching my budget more carefully than the country of origin of the products I buy.

I feel a bit wearied by it all I guess.  In order to avoid the hopelessness and helplessness that I feel in the face of something as big as climate change I just get on with my daily life as best I can.  But I'm niggled by it.

I want the establishment to stop pushing out climate change deniers who are wonderfully distracting and cause us to focus on them rather than on asking awkward questions of our politicians about funding and future plans.  I want to know what I can do that helps today.  I want to know what I should be pushing Stephen Williams MP to be doing on my behalf.

And I believe that the media, our fourth estate, our establishment watchdog, ought to be better placed to provide that kind of public service.

'The uncertainty of our times is no reason to be certain about hopelessness.' (Vandana Shiva) 

Related links

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Be mine, valentine....

On Valentine's day a couple of years ago I awoke to find a neighbour had left me a plastic red rose under my windscreen wiper on the car and a note scrawled in felt-tip pen saying 'It may be plastic but at least it will last forever' followed by 'call me' and his number.

Mortified (he was a nice guy but a) twice my age and b) my neighbour so this just felt creepy) I threw the note away* and tried my hardest to avoid all forms of contact with him.  Not my most grown up response perhaps but about all I could muster at the time.

I'm not sure I've ever been swept off my feet on Valentine's to be honest.  The mad scientist and I had a lovely time last year - though again not without incident.  We'd agreed to have 'a quick beer' after work with some colleagues of mine. This had (perhaps inevitably) snowballed into 'a few beers' which in turn meant we had to push our dinner reservation out by an hour or so.  All was merrily in hand however as we skipped home to get ready to go out for the evening.  

Shaving my legs at this time was probably not the wisest of things.  I did think that I'd nicked myself slightly when all the water running down the plughole turned red but bunged the pre-requisite bit of loo-roll onto my ankle and skipped off to my room.  I carried on getting ready thinking little of it until 5 minutes later I had a panic-stricken boyfriend hammering on the door to check I wasn't hemorrhaging to death as apparently the bathroom looked like I'd had a nasty run in with Norman Bates.

I'm not sure I entirely pulled off my 'killer' outfit that evening, hobbling down the hill in heels I could barely walk in.  It turns out the bloodied and bandaged ankle is not really compatible with the intended sensuality of sheer stockings, but still we had a lovely night, if more fun and funny than hollywood high romance...

Now the thing is I'm totally down with the cool kids and all the usual arguments against Valentine's day - it's a commercialised faux 'event' that has been hijacked by hallmark and the chocolate/champagne and flower companies.  It's unnecessary - we don't need a 'day' to say 'I love you' (feel the thunderous shudder of all businesses engaged in extracting money from you for weddings at this statement).  It causes undue stress and anxiety, accentuating loneliness and the stigmatism of being single or being in an unhappy relationship. It emphasises a homogenised version of what is socially acceptable - that we course through life a la Noah's Ark in male/female pairs, having sproglets and continuing the promulgation of the human race (to the eventual destruction of this beautiful blue planet....).

I hear ya.  I'm all there.  And yet.  I stumbled across a Valentine's card that my dad wrote to my mum after more than 25 years of marriage. He had signed off "I never want to be without you, our never ending love affair, with all my love, your sweetheart...".  Guess what? Yeah, all my cynicism melted. Pathetic huh?!

But I do think it's possible to skip or navigate the commercialism of Valentine's day.  In my family we've long since had a tradition that Valentine's is about more than romantic love - it's perfectly normal for us to send cards or give each other flowers simply because it's nice to do something nice for each other. So why not tell your best friend you love them and write them a haiku to celebrate (being careful not to create your own Cameron Diaz-esque confused rom-com love triangle of course)?  Or do something nice for yourself.  Or take a bucket down to the Somerset levels and try to shift the flood....

My other advice is - avoid razors after consuming alcohol.  For some reason they don't include that as a warning on the back of the packet.

(*I'll confess, I did regret throwing his number away when, a few weeks later, he and his son threw a 72 hour house party complete with poptastic anthems being played on repeat at high volume whilst I tried in vain to use the weekend as a quiet retreat from the madness of the working week.)

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Time Tracking: Or 'At my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near'....

My good friends over at the appropriately brooding and philosophical Darkstuff Towers started a conversation last month about Time.  Specifically they asked where does it all go?

As I live with a physicist you can imagine time is something we talk about quite a lot:  Does it exist? How does the space-time continuum affect us? Is time-travel really possible?  When will dinner be?

But I've been thinking about time in a more pragmatic and self-reflective way over the past couple of weeks and specifically in relation to how much time I spend writing.

When I started out on the path to freelance freedom last October I made a commitment to myself that I would start each day by spending an hour creative writing.  I was conscious (based on what I know of my literary heros) that I needed to develop a writing routine and I felt the only thing standing between me and said routine had been 'having a proper job'.

I failed on day two.  Starting that day in particular by writing would have meant I had to get up at 5:30am *shudders*. A form of trauma for a morning sleepyhead such as me.

I decided therefore to move the goal posts ever so slightly and commit more simply to writing 'somewhere' within the day, everyday.  Guess what? I failed in that endeavour too. Creative writing (unpaid) got squished out most days by copy writing (paid) or by uni work (external deadlines) or bar work (yeah, money again) or the need to sleep (damn the human body for its sleep related weakness).

In no time at all I was back to my old pattern of fitting writing in, in fits and bursts wherever I could, daydreaming about islands of time in which I could muse and scrawl at will and beating myself up about not being disciplined enough.

About a fortnight ago, I decided to go slumming in the self-help section of my local e-book store.  I was specifically looking for an answer to the question 'how to get a daily writing routine'.  I came across a bundle of websites and blogs filled with advice about writing a thesis (duly passed over to the mad scientist in the house) but more importantly (for me!) I found Cathy Yardley's 'Write Every Day: How to write faster and write more' which turned out to be exactly the ebook I needed.

Yardley is a commercial writer who has published seventeen (let me repeat SEVENTEEN) books, two of which she wrote in one year whilst holding down a 40 hour a week job.  Fortunately she is also human and, despite having experienced some heady heights as an overachiever, she has hit some rather painful writing block lows too.  In combatting those lows she has tried and tested pretty much the full gambit of self-help lore.  Moreover she's boiled it all down into a handy and digestible set of exercises to help get the writerly person get writering again.

It's not just relevant to writers though.  I mean how many of us can actually answer the question 'where does all the time go' with any level of precision?  Knowledge is of course power therefore the first exercise Yardley recommends is time-tracking - writing down or recording by whichever means/device you fancy, everything you do and how long it takes you to do it.  Simple? Yes.  Obvious? Yes.  Done before?  From work point of view, yes, but never applied to my whole life.

The results were revelatory.

Time it turns out really is relative.  Tasks that I became absorbed in like sewing or reading and 'felt' like I'd only spent 20 minutes doing turned out to have eaten closer to 45 minutes or an hour;  other necessary-but-irksome tasks like washing up or tidying the house 'felt' like they'd taken at least half an hour or 40 minutes but were in fact more like 15 - 20 minutes in length.

Because I was measuring myself I found my behaviour changed.  I accessed social media a lot less for example.  I also became more focused on what I was doing.  Each time I scrawled down that I had finished one task I had to make a conscious decision about what I was going to do next which meant I had an increased clarity about the task I was undertaking.

In all areas, as a result of scrawling my actions in a notebook (carried around with me like a life support system) I was much more effective in all the tasks I did.  Total win.  Totally recommended.

Yardley quite sensibly explains it's only by knowing precisely how we're spending our time that we're able to figure out whether we've got issues with time (how we manage it), energy (over-subscribing ourselves), fear (being blocked) or  process (knowing how best to do what we need to get done). Or a little bit of each of these.....

Reading the book and engaging in the exercises I've come face to face with some inner monsters.  I've realised for example that I measure myself against one particularly hyperactive period in my life when I rocked a 16-hour-day corporate lifestyle, sat on three or four local committees, performed in plays, was teaching myself guitar and learning to surf, whilst also finding time to write poetry, read a book a week and go on regular hikes around the countryside with my dog.

I will never be that active again.  Never.  And actually I really don't want to be.  So I need to stop saying 'Yes' to everything in some belief that my superwoman alter ego self of five years ago is going to resurface in my life.

I also learned however that I have actually succeeded in developing a writing routine.  My blog.  I turn up at the page and write once a week every week and have done for nearly five months now.  I've learned a ton about my writing process and I'm as committed to blogging now as I was when I started.  Reading Yardley's book helped me recognise that my success in this area is probably because 'writing a weekly blog' is a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely (e.g. SMART) objective, as opposed to the much woolier 'write every day' one.

So having spent a week time-tracking I'm now moving into defining my time into 'containers' - not building a to-do list from hell (at least I hope not) but being really specific about what I need to get done, including EVERYTHING that needs to get done (including having good buffer zones around activities) and scheduling in time to write. Every day.

I'll let you know when the first novel is out ;).

(Gosh is that the time??? Better run.....)