Future text to go in here yadda yadda yadda.
WordshoreWriting in the long form
My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.
This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.
And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.
Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.
So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.
The hound remained unmoved.
And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.
Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:
Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.
Also, hunting fireflies…
Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:
What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.
Also napping, because I am no longer young.
And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:
Always, the fireflies.
That was a good summer.
It is Halloween (to some), Hallowmass to others, or the evening before All Saints Day, or various other regional, national, spiritual, historical or cultural variations.
And plain October 31st to others. But, whichever, more by accident than design I find myself at the exact same spot at sunset that I was at this time last year. Here’s the view then:
This last few years, the year for me has changed to a more natural and less calendar-based one. This day and time feels now like the end of things, tangibly as well, with the leaves on the ground and the sky dark by the end of the afternoon. So I read the post from the end of the last calendar year with interest (having a wonky memory means previous writing is sometimes fresh), and was pleased to realise that things since then have been a mostly positive continuation.
It’s been an interesting year. A lot got achieved; in the last week, I wrote a list of things done and, partway down the second page, I realised that hey, yeah, not a bad year for getting through the things. Not everything was done, or worked out the way I hoped, but overall, a better year than most so far this century.
Life in many respects is a lot simpler; I have less actual “stuff” for a start. The first thing I did a year ago was take a deep breath and say “Fuck this shit”; the second was to take most of the stuff out of my storage unit, dispose of it, and downgrade said unit.
And this process carried on through the year. Shredding, getting rid of things through sale and charity and giving away (rarely just dumping). Closing down online registrations, old websites and blogs, and getting some order over those remaining. And backing up some things and deleting lots of other things – so many bits gone, why is my laptop not lighter?.
And personally, pretty much removing myself from the library (social) sector, leaving most of the library and librarian social networks I’d gotten into over the years, unfollowing most librarians on social media who I was following just because they were librarians, ending communications with a few in real life, stepping away from library arguments, as well as nudging Ariadne to a new and caring home and marking the final closure of UKOLN (that was a rather intense hour, but that’s another story). I’ve gone from libraries being a significant and constant part of my life to only a minor and occasional one. But … having said that, I’m still using both public and academic libraries for several needs, still advocating for libraries in a few specific ways, and ironically the current long-form article I’m researching and writing is library-centric.
Life is simpler through other reasons. Death in its many forms (e.g. the end of things, certain hopes, friendships, relationships, people, cats) came a’ stalking or reminding of its existence a few times. Especially in the last few days, which were somewhat strange. But death in its many forms can also mean the end of bad things, and some legacy things that had been hanging over me since well into the previous decade (a few since well into the last century) were resolved.
My social circles are smaller but better; some people gone (some, but not all, missed – the older you get, the easier it becomes to throw overboard those who detract, rather than add, to life). A few new, good people, added. Several of the people I’m closest to – actually most of them – are at this exact time going through a spell of change or upheaval, so some of my time is currently spent as “remote supportive person”.
But, yes, we go on. Until we don’t.
Work was okay. I did one significant piece, and several smaller pieces. These forced me to finally figure out what I’m doing, and should be doing, and to alter all of my work practices accordingly – a process that’s taken me precisely 14.5 years. Visible work stuff is over on my work website, on twitter, facebook and linked-in – together, that’s where I “am” most of the (online) time nowadays.
Healthwise some things got fixed, other things appeared (I’m at the age where there will always be “something”, so, meh), and due to a lot of walking (possibly around 1,500 miles, maybe more, in the last year), and yardwork in the summer, dropped some weight. Yay.
I spent the long summer in the US of A, and any year where I spend a whole season in either the USA or Scandinavia is pretty much a win by default. After the summer, and (another win) after finally making peace in my mind with my birth country, I decided to wander around some of it; bits I have not explored for decades, or at all. That turned into a second season-long adventure, also providing a good opportunity to try airbnb and meet a bunch of new folk on the way.
Finishing here, on top of the hill, watching the sun go down, humming Baloo My Boy, saying some kind of Pagan blessing for various cats and people who have passed away this year, and this time thinking “I should write something. Though something useful, for a change”. So this is probably a good place to finish this post as well. The view now:
I wish you quiet prosperity, contentment and good health in the year ahead.
A walk doesn’t have to be of Appalachian Trail length to be epic. This evenings was but four miles long.
I leave base and walk in the direction of Wisconsin. Hit a junction, turn and walk in the direction of Minnesota. Pass a church, bright sign welcoming or enticing; pass a softball park, and new houses, rich and bland and slightly ridiculous and a little isolated by absurd lawns.
A crossroads. I turn towards Nebraska. I hit an area of agricultural land; farmland to the right of me, flat and still, large fields marching off to South Dakota, the occasional house with the occasional small lake. To the left, small holdings, the lights of the edge of town.
And fireflies. One, two, five, ten, dozens, hundreds, in either verge, flickering and flashing like an insect paparazzi as I strolled on by, towards where the sun had set a little earlier. Crossing the rail track, descending towards the golf course, more appeared; suddenly, I’m surrounded by a silent, glowing, swarm of fireflies, not landing on me but circling.
I stop and snatch out, on the third attempt catching one in my hands. Between my fingers it glows, intensely, on and off, nature’s own flying LED. I contemplate keeping it, somehow carrying it back to base, but decide against. This taming and appropriation of nature the last few hundred years has led us to quite possibly this century being the last one of advanced civilization; I don’t feel I deserve to keep the firefly.
The swarm moves on, and I feel oddly bereft.
Onwards, and always under the constant blanket of the sound of crickets, night insects, night animals. I can’t hear any traffic, near or distant.
Past the golf course, nearing the corner of the outer built up area of town, I swing left again, head in the direction of Missouri, following the curves of suburban roads. Large houses, each different, low lights and ponds and manicured lawns and refuse out for the morn pickup. Under a street lamp I stop and write a short while, a long term work problem solved, saving notes for future implementation.
Onwards, round suburbia, then picking up the grid of streets and avenues. Through the local college, low lighting and symmetry of building design. Back across the railroad tracks, and along the last straight road, elm trees slightly rustling in the late evening breeze. And still, that background noise, like Revelations happened while no-one was looking and only, by some deity administrative error, the crickets were left on Earth.
Back to base. I feel a lot older, a lot calmer, despite only being gone an hour and a half. It feels that the process of my mind gradually “decompressing”, for want of a better word, has concluded. Spending a year walking roughly a thousand miles around rural Leicestershire in ye olde England helped, as did clocking up a couple of hundred miles so far this summer here. It’s taken that much to slow the mind, return its clock speed to something more useful, get a whole bundle of thoughts and memories and strange life turns out of my system and into digital bits, nudge aside the inscribers block, and make some kind of adequate peace with the country of my birth. Now, it seems as equally foreign and strange to me as other countries. And that’s a good thing.
This is a better summer, and ultimately a productive summer.
I say hello to the cat, note that only three vehicles had passed by during the walk, upload pictures, eat a couple of chocolate glazed cinnamon swirls (99 cents for a dozen and I’ll never complain), and write this. Now it’s time for bed, falling asleep listening to some radio station elsewhere on the plains, hopefully a sleep undisturbed by automated warnings of storms and tornados.
Tomorrow is another day.
It may be 92F outside, after 7pm in the evening here.
But I have food, a roof, an attentive cat, some money in my pocket, a 15 word plan, air conditioning, less hurdles to emigration, a (still) (just about) working MacBook Pro, and some proper lemon curd in the fridge. And most importantly, wifi.
And, as the sun streams across the suburban lawn, it feels good – really good – to be writing and typing about stuff I want to, again. Framåt.
The end, finish, conclusion of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is a matter of conjecture, opinion and history. BBC weather tells us that winter ends today, February 28th, meteorologically. Some say it ends at the vernal or spring equinox, which this year is March 20th. Some say it’s when the clocks go forward and we suddenly have daylight and sunlight well into the evenings. Sometimes we just notice things that indicate a change of season. And some, in Boston, doubt it will ever end.
It perhaps does not matter what others say. Winter ends when you notice it is ending. That’s good enough.
I’ve enjoyed this winter. On the downside, some signs of aging. I feel the cold, even mild cold, which is something new to me and I don’t like that feeling. Things take longer to repair themselves; hell to my aching shoulder of some time now. As the beard lengthens (nearly four years now), so the proportion of whiteness increases. By age 50, Gandalf perhaps. Though I’ve written much, it’s mostly been recollections about people and events and times, and that’s all been filed away; maybe for future use, or inspiration, or maybe not.
On the upside, much has been done and completed. I’ve hit a vein of work that is interesting and, sometimes, fun. And controversial, but emerging technology in education always is. We perpetually argue about the proof, what it is and where it is. Occasionally, we agree on it.
This has also been the first winter out of the last six where I haven’t lived in a city, either Birmingham (England) or Toledo (USA). The lack of daylight or street light hasn’t meant an end to walks, though the mud and rain and surface water have meant diversions, and the strange preponderance of doggers and other people with their rituals in the rural east Midlands has also been a source of caution.
But I’ve got out and about, over field, up hill, and on trains both steam and modern to villages, towns and small cities in the eastern reaches, as the pictures on this post show. And that’s been fun.
Some of my significant legacy issues (more about that several years down the line) have been tackled; things I’d left for so long I didn’t think they would ever get sorted. From the mundane – finally getting rid of a load of physical possessions so I could downsize my storage unit – to more complex issues. Still much to do, but personal progress has been greater this season ending than in many previous.
Which is good. I just hope this momentum continues for the next six months, over the spring and summer.
Habits and daily mundane routines have changed, a lot. I still regress to a few bad habits; lemon curd, watching the relentlessly grim Walking Dead, getting pointlessly annoyed. And social media – I’m looking at your addictive qualities and we need to ‘have a talk’. Yet again. But much more of a useful nature gets done nowadays, between rising from the pillow and returning to it.
There is still much to do. The vein of work, although useful, needs more funding, perpetually. Some old things need replacing; tech and clothes especially. I have to make some difficult decisions about old books. I need, as ever, to do a bunch of legal stuff but that seems like a lifelong thing now. I have found the perfect present for my current housemate, which need to be procured soon. Closure on a few more issues would be good.
But overall, this winter has been quietly satisfying. Helped by, as said previously, living in a quieter place, on the edge of a market town, and often on my own. The sound of predictable chatty voices grinds me down; it’s been pleasant, restorative, to have coming on for a year away from that background noise.
My common sounds this winter have been the typing on this keyboard, the rustle of pages, and the radio. Four for the talking stuff, Five Live for the cricket. And if that means I’m old, then I’m old.
Possibly for the first time ever, logistics and moving things around mean that all three of my suitcases are with me in this room. The battered grey one that I hauled around two continents for several years; the very expensive-looking gold colored one that I rolled through Detroit on my first stay there instead of getting a taxi; the smart red one which has been pressed into service to transport human and animal ashes on several occasions this last six years. They probably all need a thorough clean before further use.
And one of these will soon be loaded, with new clothes, a cumbersome amount of tech, three books, a lot of stationary, and Cadbury chocolate (the genuine version). It’ll be coming with me on a long trip (multiple modes of transport, multiple days) I’ve started to plan out, and book.
Daily, several times, sometimes many times, I look up at the sky, where others fly for reasons significant, to places distant. It’s lighter a lot more now, as we steadily head towards the equinox, then the summer solstice. Looking at the sky frequently is a good thing to do; you leave the babble of people on the surface behind, make your eyes stretch far, become aware of the weather, the light, where you are, who you are, where you want to go, where you’ll probably end up.
It’s been a while.
That was a strange one. I was supposed to work all day today, but I woke just before dawn because of the cold. Winter, still.
But then noticed how clear and gradually cobalt blue the sky was. And so, by breakfast it was a case of “Dammit!”, laptop off, hiking shoes on, stuff thrown into overbag, and out the door.
This time I tried a few new paths heading straight south, but the second one did not exist; not for the first time, a large and monotonous housing estate, dwellings with tiny windows for new owners to hide away in, appeared where the map of a few years age marked only farmland. A detour, then heavy walking on muddy trails, and thenextremely heavy walking across what was, in summer, a cornfield; the effort made worse by the mini lakes left behind by horses and cyclists. Finally, a track on which I could scrape off the now several pounds of mud caked around my boots.
Zigzagged through a wood, along the side of a few more fields, then up a long lane I had not been before (new routes are always refreshing), passing expensive whitewashed farm buildings and driveways and picket fences, new England transplanted into old England. Then zigzagged around the side of the hill until reaching the double summit. Near the top, the remnants of recent snow and ice still clinging to the ground in places. Stopping a short while; inside my layers due to the mud-walk and hill walk; cold outside due to the wind; thighs hurting a bit, not used to the heavy mud walks.
At the summit, a plane was climbing from the south, probably out of Birmingham airport. Hence the picture. Followed by down the hill on the other side, a near-straight line through the woods, a short bit of road walking, more fields but still downhill most of the way, and back to base. Passing, in a few places, crocus and snowdrops starting to emerge from barren ground.
Spring, though not quite here yet, is on the way.
The older you get, the more you realize how artificial the calendar is. December 31st marks the ending of a period of time. January 1st marks the starting of another. “Easter” moves around according to some bizarre rules. Some floaty date in mid-June marks the solstice. A fixed date, one of 366, marks the day you exited your mother’s womb.
Far better, arguably, to follow the passage of nature, the sun and the seasons, the cycle of crops and food; the stuff you essentially shove into your mouth to keep going. But this (self-indulgent, introspective and wittering) post, with pictures I’ve snapped on walks and days out this latter half of the year ending, will play along with the concepts of “arbitrary year end” and “arbitrary year beginning”.
2014 has, personally, been a very good year. And I’m content, happy even, with this.
Despite the strands of mainstream news, amplified by social media, lurching from reporting one horror to the next. We are told it’s been a bad year. Many bad things have happened. War, abductions, horror, misery, kidnappings, torture, beheadings, injustice, the violence of online, oppression, more war, endemic racism, poverty, millions going without and needing charity and food. And, indeed, there’s no denial; these things all happened in 2014.
As they have done in previous years.
The difference being that 2014 has been a year of peak gratuitous video footage, easy to obtain through GoPro and camera drones and tech everywhere, and thrust in your face through many different channels and mirrors and screens. The lead news story isn’t determined by what’s the most “important” news, but which news has the most distracting media. People plant some trees? Restore and use derelict buildings? Help other people? Boring; show some fire and smoke and grieving relatives after a tragedy instead. Paranoid Android writ large.
Until the next horrific story with graphic video footage comes along.
And social media amplifies the relentless grind. “Look at this bad thing”, “And this bad thing”, “Then this bad thing”, tweet and facebook otherwise intelligent and rational people, becoming gradually addicted to, and comfortable and habit forming with, declaring bad things. Sometimes to vent, sometimes to amplify because others amplify, sometimes out of a sense of social or personal or privilege or peer guilt, sometimes to assert political or social credentials. Sometimes, genuinely.
It isn’t healthy for your mind. It cannot be healthy for your mind. To have a wall of reminders, of outrage, of fury, scrolling across your various screens. To not allow the light, or the positive, or the good that people do, in. To be frightened, as some or many seem to be, to post positive observations, or nuanced observations, rather than just the relentless churn of “People are bad and here is yet another example”.
People do good things. Groups of people do good things. If you think that’s a statement of weakness, or imbalance, then that is a reflection of your own unhealthy state of mind. Seriously, seek help. Allow yourself to let some light in.
Unless you were caught up in one of the horrifying events we were reminded of 24/7, whether it has been a good year or not for you depends on other, different, factors. Not what a newspaper, website, or god forbid a social media algorithm tells you. Perhaps – how was your health? Family? Relationships? Circle of friends? Career, job or income? Did you do some creative or interesting activities? Go to new places, read new works, eat satisfying foods, see things that made you smile? Resolve past issues, move, be content where you are, have good times? Do something genuinely useful to help the planet (e.g. planting some of those trees) or other people (e.g. worked in a food bank or shelter, or campaigned for something useful)? How many days did you feel good, in mind and body, and how many were you in pain, also in mind or body, for? But most importantly – what are the things that are important to you, personally, and how did they go in 2014?
Those, and many more factors, determine if your 2014 was a good year. Not what the TV, the twitter, the newspapers, the online media, those people you follow on twitter, some bearded dude whose blog you are reading, tell you.
As introduced, mine was very good. Not a slam-dunk; a few things went wrong, or did not progress much or at all. I haven’t written much publicly, spending much more free time making notes on childhood days, people I’ve lived with and worked with, places I’ve visited, and thousands of other words on experiences. I don’t know what I’ll use any of it for but it’s there, backed up now, for when memories fade or I need reminders and accuracy, or material for a post, a story or an e-book.
I still have unresolved long-term family issues and I wonder if some will only be resolved by specific people dying. My favorite cat died, robbed of one last glorious summer by the negligence of an idiot neighbor. And, though some medical issues were fixed and I’m building fitness and muscle in the gym or on long walks most days, at this age bodily things become more an issue of maintenance and sheer luck based on genetics, what you’ve done over the last few decades, and just random things.
But there’s the good. As said, some health issues are sorted. I can walk for hours, 12, 15 or 18 miles and feel great afterwards. It’s taken a while, but I have a clearer idea of work directions for the next few years – plus there is some work that goes with it. I’ve sorted out a lot of the inconsistent mess of online start-and-restart writing from the last few decades (though there’s a lot still to go). Tracked down every single item of work, and every article and paper and report, done over the decades (turned out there was a lot). Offloaded a lot of casual or fake friends, and become less grumpy and more sociable with genuine ones. Read some great writing, watched a lot of movies, and walked and explored and noted and watched the sun rise and set and walked some more.
And found it much easier to briefly glance at the “news”, or social media, notice the wave of negativeness, and rather than get sucked in to the flow, turn it off and go and do something far more mentally healthy, productive and useful.
2008 was the most fun year of my 40s so far; the five after that were at best average, at worst life or sanity-threatening. 2014 was a welcome return to the positive far outweighing the negative. I’m not going to predict 2015; that just tempts the wrong kind of fate. And I know there are some tricky legacy situations to inevitably see through, and I probably will be writing even less in public than in 2014. Instead, I’ll just remain quietly hopeful.
Whoever you are, and for whatever reason you are reading this, I wish you a peaceful, productive, and above all healthy 2015. Define your own year; don’t let others, the media or the commentators, define it for you. And if you want online content that is often positive, interesting, fun, but also has quality and depth, then try the Vimeo staff picks (no, they haven’t paid me to say this). Free, legal, often informative, not a magnet for abusive commenters or keyboard activists, and above all it won’t quietly and gradually take your mind to a place of despair.
Update: 30th December. I made the mistake of turning on the TV news this morning. In order:
1) Plane crash wreckage (with footage)
2) Ebola case in the UK (flashing light emergency service footage)
3) People die on burning ferry (footage of boat on fire)
4) Three people die in house fire (footage of police and incident tape)
5) Weather forecast (not “it’s sunny” but “it’s going to remain cold” – negative to the end…)
*Turns off TV*
*Goes for a walk*
Observations of the outside, this evening. As tweets, originally.
+ + + + +
That warm autumnal yesterday, shunted, fronted away by the tail of the storm. Winter enters, for the clocks to fall back in a hundred hours.
The fourth quarter slides in. The quiet countdown to Christmas, the silent worries of relative visits; that micro-social etiquette of cards.
Dinnertime darkness. Signs for bonfires protestingly tug at fastenings with each gust. Cyclists slowly strain and wince into the headwind.
Crinkled, bronzing leaves, twirling in mini-tornados. Swaying, unbroken, trees that have seen this and worse, and darker and wetter, before.
Draught snakes deployed; duvets togged up and heating notched up; ubiquitous white plastic garden furniture shedded; hatches battened down.
Coated commuters and headsunk shoppers. Gloved. Scarfed. Minimal exposed skin; minimalist conversation. Crocs and sandals replaced by boots.
Halloween tat vies with Christmas tat for shelving. Duffel coats are “in”; summer fashions “reduced to clear”. Mince pies “use by December”.
Less salad, more soup. “Summertime specials” culled by “Winter Warmers”. A modest stack of pumpkins where the “value barbeques” once camped.
Mittens for the young ones. Chocolates for the wife. Socks for the husband. Eggnog for the elderly. The commercial Groundhog Day of gifting.
“Where’s the saffron?” “This is Tesco, not Waitrose; you’ll be wanting bloody myrrh next”, bicker the identically attired couple in aisle 5.
Outside, still England. Just a damper, darker, version of a recent self. A lonely, early, firework ascends the sky. Pop. Szzzzzzzz. Sparkle.
But it’s quieter, fresher, sharper, newer. A trade-off in ambience. No drunken raised voices, now brushed away by that cleansing cold wind.
The near-identical glow of a terrace of televisions; the same living room corners, the same channels, beginning their sedentary winter eves.
The courtyard cat, now the fireside cat, tracks a floating leaf from the other side of the glass. Still a curious cat, but now a warmer cat.
A few more steps, key in lock, inside. Door closed against that outside. The unwinding relief of being “In for the night, now”.