Sunday, 27 March 2011

Empathy

There has been a recent surge of interest in empathy if my reading habits are anything to go by. I was struck by a link between two articles in this weeks observer magazine. This in itself is quite unusual as it is rare that I find one article that sets my synapses firing. The first of the two was about a man who lived as a hermit in a stone cottage without facilities on the Welsh hills miles from the nearest town. In this articles he describes how rather than become introspective as one might expect under these circumstances, he found his sense of self disolving into the nature he inhabited and eventually documented. This reminded me very strongly of Iain McGilchrist's description of the expansion of human awareness in greek culture. In the Master and His Emissary he describes how the narratives from the earlier part of this awakening make little use of the first person - there is no depiction of a seperate individual self. I would say that this is the goal of the reflective process, at least for me personally. This leads me onto my some might call gooey notion that our over reliance on a left brain hemisphere view of the world has led to a somewhat unempathetic approach to life hence the need for scientists to  enlighten us statistically  to the process of empathy. This would appear to echo the trajectory of Classical Greek culture which initially expanded in terms of both hemispheres but eventually an over reliance on rationalism meant that they could no longer express intuition and were thus forced to proceed down an ever increasingly rationalistic line of inquiry. Plato did revert to metaphor with his cave but this is done so in an objective or "knowing" manner.
The next article in the Observer is directly about empathy and the conditions that can lead to its erosion. The article takes as its starting point the removal of superstitious ideas of evil and replacing them with zero empathy. One paragraph begins with the words "As a scientist" which set me thinking about objectivity and empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen could have said that he wanted to explore what brings about the erosion of empathy using his scientific framework. A bit clunky but I hope you see my point that by putting science first the dialogue is automatically skewed. At the end of the article is a multiple choice that reveals your empathy quotient. these tests are always hard to do honestly because you can quickly see which answers give the highest rating but I recommend having a go giving your first most natural response. the relationship between data and realism (in its medieval sense) is very important but increasingly life in the west is compartmentalised and tdied up into smaller and smaller categories. You only need to look at the place you work to see this happening or the way public services are "organised". this all leads to a dehumanising view of the problems in hand. There seems to be cause for optimism in that increasingly we hear people talking about local initiatives and creating stronger inter-related links in communities. If a child does not receive good empathy and communication interaction then quite possibly they will grow up to be un-empathetic. This is why it is so important to do things that connect us to each other no matter how painful the thought of it might feel. Doing real things changes the environment we inhabit. And so I would totally agree with Simon Baron-Cohen that empathy is a vital tool for rebuilding from our crumbling left hemisphere centric culture.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Magic Growing Tree



“Did you swallow it?” I hear my wife demanding form upstairs. This is not a phrase I have heard for a few years. Our sons are aged 8 and 10 and well beyond the experimental stage of placing objects in the mouth to see what they taste and feel like. ‘How much did you swallow? Rinse your mouth out now!” This all sounds very dramatic but the glowing hand held devise in my palm prevents me from acting more urgently. Not a hand warmer but a handheld diffidence inducer. Ralf (his real name) had earlier persuaded my wife that the purchase of a magic growing tree was essential to his present state of contentment. Due to the intervention of my wife’s laptop diffidence inducer the tree had yet to be triggered into magical growth. Ralf had, in his impatience to witness said magical growth, tracked down the sachet of chemicals required to instigate the miraculous blossoming. He had, however elected to open the sachet with his teeth and it seems a small part of this mysterious clear fluid had found its way onto his taste buds. The unidentified substance causes crystals to form on the branches of the cardboard tree and one does not want crystals growing inside ones youngest offspring no matter how pretty the colours appear on the packaging – hence my wife’s vexation and rising panic. Never the less I confidently tell her that he has swallowed a negligible amount of the potentially lethal liquid. The directive to order the consuming of milk, which would ordinarily be the solution to such domestic mishaps somehow slips my mind.
And so the magic growing tree sits ungrown on the coffee table. Its sparseness reminding me constantly of the need to spend more time with my youngest son experimenting with potentially lethal substances. My wife forgets where she hastily stashed the elixir out of the reach of children with devouring urges. (note to self – teeth are a good tool in conjunction with hands.)
The opportunity to seek out the crudely opened sachet does not present itself as life speeds by but an image of its glistening torn edges flits in and out of my mind. I too hanker after the opportunity to document the miraculous growing process but the son whose real name is Ralf has ceased demanding the instigation of these rites.
 Such is the velocity of our urban village life that my wife has chosen to prepare foodstuffs in advance of my family’s arrival on Sunday. This involves concocting vast quantities of Moroccan style meatballs and a large vat of a delicious smelling tomato sauce. She is pushing the tiny food processor to its limits as she pushes the myriad ingredients into its unusually small receptacle. I am standing in a potentially irritating fashion by her shoulder when something crackles in the air between us and we glance momentarily into each other’s eyes. Could it be that culinary forward planning has reignited a romantic spark in our eleven-year marriage? This thought is left hanging unanswered as the fridge makes a large popping sound and has evidently decided to turn itself off. The confusion is added to by the simultaneous flashing of the smoke alarm on top of the fridge which periodically flashes to let you know the battery is okay. Aware that I was just standing in a potentially irritating manner I swiftly volunteer myself to cycle the half-mile or so down the hill to buy a new thirteen amp fuse.  I reason that by calm rationality I can prompt the inanimate fridge back into life in time for chilling the reasonably priced cava for consumption upon the arrival of my parents and sisters who will have spent an hour or so in traffic. On my way to the shop I feel a thought growing. The man behind the counter will not know what I mean by fuse when I ask him. It is such a small indefinable word that we will stand in limbo for a good minute whilst I try and explain. Sure enough it does take a few goes but almost as if he is tired of a game he points me to the second aisle where they hang with other domestic knick-knacks. This is a rack I often like to gaze at admiring its apparent union of the childish (small colourful packages) everyday practicalities (needles and assorted domestic problem solving accoutrements). Does my pre-emptive doubt make me a racist I ponder as I cycle back up the hill? Perhaps their surliness is not a cultural thing I need to learn to live with after all the white man in the village newsagents is always surly but then again he does not smile at the same time as being surly. His surliness is not part of a game. I thought cycling was supposed to help banish such non-useful thought processes. Luckily I have a simple task in hand and find myself back in the kitchen screwdriver in hand as I meticulously replace the fuse on the fridge plug. “Stand Back” I hear a voice in my head call out as I re-instigate the flow of electricity to the CO emitting device. The internal light does not come on when I open the door but this sometimes happens when the door is not opened at the correct angle. Still I can hear an encouraging background hum and consult my wife as to the direction of its origin (I myself only hear in mono). She cannot tell, which I find hard to believe but eventually track the source down to the cooker – this devise having been recently repaired under the terms of our house insurance. Undaunted I maintain confidence in the notion that the fridge simply needs resetting. The last thing we want is to spend the week without food chilling facilities when the solution was an obvious one to be found in the trouble shooting section of the owners manual. According to the flimsy pamphlet in my hand the fridge only has one dial on its external interface that is adjustable by lay people. I turn it expecting the familiar whir of the fridge to once more blend into the gentle thrum of the house. This hitherto undiscovered knob-turning process is one I had recently used to revive our boiler after a testing few days brought on by my wife’s denying me the opportunity of bleeding the upstairs radiators. Having exhausted all possible reasonable lines of non-life threatening enquiry we resign ourselves to using the backyard as a large walk in cool box. Rather sensibly, I think, I neglected to mention how I have noticed a propensity in my wife to push domestic appliances to their limits in a fashion that can’t help but put me in mind of somebody at the gym. Yes, in my superstitious primitive mind the fridge gave up the ghost out of indignation at the suffering of the diminutive food processor.
 My wife’s forward planning means that the visit of my family passes without major event but is perhaps a little too perfunctory to live up to the expectations of the soul that went into the preparation of the food. I grew up thinking corned beef hash was a delicacy. On Monday my wife arranged for an engineer to come on Wednesday to fix the fridge. Not until after she has battled through a mix up concerning the registered brand name of our appliance. It turns out to be crossed wire at the insurers end and I am sure they are drafting an apology as I write – such was the inexcusable surliness of the claim manger my wife spoke to. On Tuesday I return home early from a visit to Somerset house where the sun always seems to shine.  I detect a buoyant atmosphere in the home and low and behold my wife exclaims the fridge repairman had been in the area and called on the off chance that he could resolve our problem. Upon entering the kitchen he had immediately declared that the problem was either the motor of the circuit board but I can tell by my wife’s delivery that there is to be a twist in the tale. Thoughts of a reset button resurface. The engineer who was a very nice man had, however removed the circuit board and discovered it to be covered in patches of a strange crystalline growth. My wife tells me that he told her that she had not told him about storing the magic growth inducing fluid out of harms way on the top of the refrigerator.
And now everybody is happy. The fridge works better than ever and we are still in thrall to the novelty of possessing an indoor food cooling apparatus. The magic tree stands bare on the coffee table but I am no longer haunted by visions of the torn edges of its transparent sachet of miracle growth inducing liquid. The circuit board went into the bin after I briefly toyed with the idea of somehow reinventing it in a sculptural artefact. I might see if I can’t fish it out later before my wife gets back from work.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Dog chasing tail day


Yesterday I felt under the weather and with my eldest son who was also unwell securely installed in the back of the car I drove to collect my youngest son. This was a smash and grab mission – there was to be no eye contact just get in there and retrieve the boy. After a few circuits of the village I finally managed to get a parking space but not before an SUV driver had in an ironic parody of contemporary selfishness driven into a space I was indicating to go into a good two minutes before he drove up the other way. How we laughed (it was red nose day).
 So Youngest son was in the usual spot by his teacher in the playground. So far so good I even semi smiled at the teachers festival hat (big and red). “Dad I’ve made a picture and it’s in the Griffin Hall,” he informs me. He takes me by the hand and leads me there. I love holding my son’s hand but I keep my eyes at 40 degrees – low enough to avoid eye contact but not so low that I look like a loony. We’re in the hall, which had a swanky new deck out the front. This is a posh bit of the school I’ve never visited. There is a frisson in the air - a This is red nose day kind of frisson. We quickly find Youngest Son’s picture (Eldest son is in an unlocked car outside on the street in the middle of an urban village so we hurry). It’s a beautiful abstract with spiral fossil-like motifs and on our way out I tell my son how clever he is that he just drew something when most other children would try and think up some clever idea. We go to pay for his picture. For some reason in my mind I’ve pitched this like a cake sale. You know the odd pound. But before I’ve even had time to flick away the moths pouring out of my bulging wallet the lady is theatrically whispering to Youngest Son that he’s worth more than that. I, being hard of hearing, don’t hear the theatrical whisper and scrabble for the rest of the change in my wallet with two large notes plainly on view. I have misread the level of commitment to red nose day and the ferocity of the village PTA. “We’re trying to raise over a thousand pounds. Think of those starving children in Africa,” she suggests. But I can’t adapt fast enough. Later I think how good I would have felt to give her ten pounds for my sons beautiful picture (handily velcroed on the back) but at the time I feel frozen. I become the stingy dad who doesn’t care about starving children in Africa. I don’t think my youngest son will bare any grudges about my lesson in the harsh realities of the art market but inside I feel like I let an opportunity to make him feel proud of his work slip through my fingers. Sometimes it’s hard to be open to eventualities and I had already decided before hand that I was not going to engage with the realities of the school gate. My brain was caught in a feed back loop triggered by a seed of doubt that charity is in fact there to compensate for a society driven by desire and not need. What flashed through my head went something like this - Charity, like vaccination, is a harsh reality of modern life and the question of whether we can build a society fair enough to live without them is a non starter. But the balance is such that the lack of equilibrium in the global village is maintained by charity and immunisation, which cover for lack of basic levels of sanitation and fresh water. In the early part of the twentieth century America worked out that to stop overproduction we had to find a way of getting people to buy what they desire and not what they need. That what you buy could somehow reflect your uniqueness. Even today we talk about spending our way out of recession. I very attached to my I-pod and my smart phone but both are clearly designed to make me spend money on non-essential items. All of this reminds me of the left and right Brain dichotomy. The left-brain has made it possible for us to expand our awareness by mapping and organising but at some point society became happy with just the mapping and the organising. The system starts to respond to the system and not the fundamental questions facing human beings. In fact human beings are taught, in my experience, how to adapt to the system and do well within it. All this is not to say that the system is bad only that the system is meant to help solve the problems. Just as when the human mind went further and further into the realm of enlightened compartmentalisation it became harder to trust our intuition thus causing greater reliance on rationalisation, so too are we so far down the line of being consumers that we find it hard to be citizens of planet earth unless we ring fence the activity for a day. Carthorse tail dog…
All this is very easy to say and so it should be. For too long the written word has been associated with “gospel” truth instead of evolving ideas and thought processes. The codex as a book format is said to be responsible for the spread of Christianity such was its portability and ease of random access. And yet the codex was designed to be scratched back and erased like a magic note pad and would have been seen as impermanent and perfect for the spreading of ideas and fragile beliefs. Overtime these ideas became fixed and rationalised by the left-brain until we arrived at the preposterous phrase Gospel truth instead of continuing to scratch back and rethink.
So finally a note to myself! If, instead of rationalising the whole thing in the blink of an eye, you had appreciated the wonder of your youngest sons picture and paid the cash tenner everybody would have been happy. Direct local action. I think it’s called living in the moment.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Kimey Pekpo Hatches Out


Kimey Pekpo was inside his egg. Lately he had begun to feel very warm and happy indeed. “Momo has been hatching me very nicely,” he thought.
“ I am all cosy-cosy but it is time for me to hatch out and show Momo just what I am.”  So Kimey Pekpo began to bash at the shell until he had made a little gap like an escape hatch at the top of the egg. He stuck his head out and looked around at the outside with a smile on his face. The landscape was very strange, being mainly pink with very few landmarks to speak of. “Its like a blancmange desert,” chuckled Kimey Pekpo to himself (he liked chuckling to himself). Still he couldn’t wait to explore and climbed out of the hatch he had bashed for himself and called out “Momo!” feeling certain she would come and lead him on his exploration of the world outside. “Momo!” he called again but no response came. He noticed he was still very warm and guessed that Momo was asleep and had forgotten to turn down her hatching heat. He looked up at her glowing bottom above him but had to turn away as it made his eyes hurt. “I know,” he thought, “I will put the top of the egg on my head to keep the heat off me. I will walk around to Momo’s lap, climb up for a cuddle and then she will wake up.” So Kimey Pekpo set off and found himself walking a very long way without escaping the hot heat of Momo’s hatching behindness. He thanked goodness that he had thought to wear the shell top as a hat. He smiled to himself at the strangeness of his situation and shook his head. Presently he came to a tree and sat down for a rest in its leafy shade when a thought came to him, “I know I will climb up the tree and tickle Momo until she wakes up and turns down the hatching heat. So carefully Kimey Pekpo climbed to the top of the tree and raising his hands above his head he began to wiggle his fingers in the direction of the great glowing hatching behindness orb.
“This is sure to work,” he thought to himself and curled up on a branch whilst continuing to tickle with one hand. Soon he began to doze off with a contented smile on his face at the thought of all the fun he would have with Momo when she woke up. The motion of the tree in the breeze soon soothed him into a deep sleep. Sometime later he woke up to the fleeting smell of pine forests. He slowly opened his eyes and right next to his face he found a bird’s nest full of tiny eggs. Suddenly remembering his quest to Momo’s lap he sat upright with a jolt but seeing he was so high off the ground his head began to spin. Then he realised it wasn’t hot anymore. The hatching heat had gone but who had tickled Momo if he had fallen asleep? “Oh you are a kind and clever tree,” said Kimey Pekpo “ you have tickled Momo whilst I lay dreaming on your branch and now at last she has woken up and turned off the hatching heat behindness orb. Now Momo’s orb was a shimmering silver colour and he noticed that it no longer hurt his eyes to look at it. How beautiful it looked to Kimey Pekpo as he climbed down the tickling tree and determined once more to walk around to Momo’s lap for a cuddle. Just as he clambered down onto the lowest branch he saw a pair of eyes looking out at him from a hole in the tree. “Whoo whoo are you?” said a voice so barely there that it sounded like the sound of the sea in the tiniest shell. “ it is I, Kimey Pekpo and I am on my way for a cuddle from Momo. Who are you?” “ Oh I am the Woodle Owal and I sit in this tree catching mice as they scurry past.”  “How strange,” thought Kimey Pekpo “I have not seen many mice around here but perhaps that’s because the Woodle Owal is very good at catching them. Yes that is the most likely reason unless of course the Woodle Owal’s ancestors used to do this thousands of years ago and the Woodle Owal now sits in the tree believing mice catching is what he was born to do.” Kimey Pekpo shook his head wondering where such a strange thought would have come from. “I’ve got to get going” said Kimey Pekpo “but if I see any mice I will send them scurrying past you”. And off he set again into the shiny darkness. He hadn’t gone but twenty paces when the strangest feeling came over him. He felt that instead of him walking towards Momo, it was Momo who was following him. “Oh Momo I am trying to walk around you for a cuddle on your lap but shall never get there if you simply walk along beside me.” He carried on walking hoping that Momo would stay still but instead Momo’s glowing behindness followed him over his shoulder. So Kimey Peckpo turned around to walk back the way he came and as he did so a gust of wind came and blew the top of his shell down over his eyes. He had, by now, quite forgotten that it was on his head at all and surprised he pushed it back onto the top of his head and walked back to the tree where the Woodle Owal was sitting in his hole. Momo’s Behindness Orb glowed in the liquid black like a clock face above them. “Oh dear precious Woodle Owal won’t you help me?” cried Kimey Pekpo up to the hole under the lowest branch. “Whoo whoo said that?” came a papery voice. “It is I, Kimey Pekpo and I am looking for Momo’s lap but she keeps on following beside me. If you were to fly out perhaps she would follow you instead and then I could sneak around and get the cuddle I so desire.” Kimey Pekpo was not even sure the Woodle Owal could fly but before he had time to worry he spied two beautiful white wings gliding above his head. “Don’t forget to call out if Momo follows you!” cried Kimey Pekpo up into the sky. When he could hardly see the Woodle Owal any more Kimey Pekpo began to worry and called out, “Is Momo following after you?” “Whoo whoo” came the quietest paperiest of replies upon the pine scented breeze. “Yes!” thought Kimey Pekpo and holding onto his shell hat he set off to get the cuddle he so longed for. This time he walked straight towards the great hatching glow confident that Momo was distracted by following the Woodle Owla. Sploosh Sploosh went the ground under his feet. How peculiar thought Kimey Pekpo who now saw not one but two Momo Glow Behindnesses. One above him and one straight ahead of him. He looked down to see why the ground was splooshing and all around his feet he saw hundreds of tiny turtles. Kimey Pekpo had seen a turtle mirror in the dream he had dreamt up the tickling tree so was not alarmed (although he had not expected mirrors to go sploosh). He saw the turtles floating along in the great mirror and tried to copy the way they moved through its shimmering surface. In this manner he edged neared and nearer to the hatching glow below the one in the sky. “Oh gosh!” cried Kimey Pekpo after what seemed like a very long time “I am getting tired” and the turtles bobbed along beside him and tried to help him on his way. Just then a golden glow began to appear on the edge of the mirror and Kimey Pekpo cried out to the turtles, “Look look Momo is smiling because she has seen me and is laughing at how clever I was to trick her into following the Woodle Owal! Now I am going to get my cuddle” and he kept on swimming (although he didn’t call it that) harder and harder as Momo’s smile grew broader and broader. “See she is pleased to see me!” he kept on splosh sploosh splooshing until at long last the mirror stopped splooshing and his hand fell upon something warm and silky. It was such a lovely feeling and he called out “ This is Momo’s lap at last! And he pulled himself out of the mirror onto the gorgeous golden lap ahead of him. It was perfectly round and soft. He lay down on its glowing surface soothed by its warmth against his skin as Momo smiled down at him. He closed his eyes and snuggled himself up under the shade of Momo’s necklace that waved in the breeze like a palm tree. He put his eggshell hat down in front of him and soon the mirror came and carried it away. For a moment Kimey Pekpo opened his eyes and saw it bobbing up and down getting smaller and smaller and he smiled to himself. Now he had his cuddle on Momo’s lap and tomorrow he would wake up and go back to thank the Woodle Owal for helping him before setting off on his adventures. Until then he would simply enjoy his cuddle and Momo’s warm smile beaming down upon him.

Tubercular odyssey




The Lord is my oyster
Such a card
And efficient I concede
Perhaps I need to submit
To his order
Of richly veiled burocratic
Inky blackness
Defined by binary ping pong
The not knowingness
Out of my handiness
With a travelcard
I knew where I was
And I didn’t feel the icy chill
Of his phantom hand
Picking my pocket
When I swipe to exit
It’s etheric in all the wrong ways
Orange ticket void
Oyster shell quantum
Soup soup
I like the bleeping
Perhaps I can let go
But it’s hard to trust
No one in particular

Sunday, 13 March 2011

More Notes on Song Writing

My friend and general musical  maestro Rhodri Marsden has just asked me to share some thoughts on song writing for an article he is writing. I couldn't wait to share the unexpurgated version. This is that.
Song writing for me is like most things in life I rarely remember sitting down and making a concerted effort. This doesn’t mean I don’t make an effort its just that I don’t have a recollection of the effort. Upon hearing one of my songs I feel a similar satisfaction as I do when I look at the plinth I fitted under the kitchen sink or the allotment behind my house. 

Writing a song is like thinking aloud and being able to see the thought from inside and out. I usually start with a phrase I’ve read or (mis)heard that seems to set off a chain of unbounded synapse connections and let this coagulate into a melody. I try hard to keep that initial melody pure and give it space to develop (not unlike watching the smoke waft up from the bong I customarily never use as part of the process). It’s important that the chords serve the melody and don’t take over in a more theoretical fashion. For me a song is initially a delicate thing so I need to get to know it until it grows more robust. If I am too quick to be assertive things can get formulaic.
Usually I carry the words around in my head and shape them as I walk around. Recently, however, I’ve used lots of lyrics that were written down and never intended to be sung. The rule here would perhaps be that my lyrics either have to be made up in the head or written as some other form completely separate from the tune. When I was ten my teacher told me I was drunk with words (“you know like Dylan Thomas?” she added) but it wasn’t until quite recently that I realised that this might be a good thing when writing songs. For a while when I was on a major label I tried to write using the recommended formula where you start by asking yourself what the song is going to be about. I have a few note-books of lyrics from this time that make painful reading now. Pete Townsend thought that the dislocated nature of Kurt Cobain’s diaries were proof that he had help finishing off songs but I have no written evidence of most of my pop songs unless it was writing then down for someone who needed to know the lyrics (album art work for instance). You don’t need to be Aristotle to know that we can think and share thought processes orally.
This brings me onto singing because this is a heightened form of oral activity. The song and its performance give an edified specificity of meaning. The most trite language can become imbued with beauty in the realm of song (doesn’t mean I would ever try to be trite). I now know that to finish a song I have to really sing it physically to let the melody and lyrics expand. Music critics often use the trick of pulling the guts out of a song and laughing at the “revealed” gaucheness but songs are bigger than the most cynical pop idol wannabe and invariably bring something they hadn’t realised was occurring in the music. Songs are also like Swiss roll in so much as neither really work when served up as their constituent parts. On a slightly more serious note I do believe that song-writing and singing can help to circumnavigate rigid ways of thinking about an idea. It would be nice if they could become part of an accepted decision making process in the loftier realms of politics and society building.