Hibernation

Hibernation

With a warm richness of color,
Red and gold replacing lush green,
Trees burn their brightest in the fall.

Soon the leaves will drop revealing
Bare branches; the semblance of death
As life retreats from limbs to heart.

But the embers still glow inside,
Waiting to rekindle the fire
And be born anew with the spring.

Different Roles

Different Roles

It’s strange, but my behaviour changes depending on what I’m doing. I reluctantly went to the usual pub quiz last Tuesday night without my wife, who wasn’t well enough. This is the same pub I work in at weekends. When I’m behind the bar, being a barman, I have the confidence to speak to people. Because of the context of the job I can interact with complete strangers. So why do I feel so darned uncomfortable when I’m on my own in front of the bar?

I got there a good hour before the quiz started and the place wasn’t yet busy. I probably knew almost everyone in the there. But I didn’t feel at ease joining anybody’s group. I did hover at the edge of one group for a while but ended up sat on my own at the usual table reading the news on my phone. Even when the other members of the team arrived I felt isolated. It’s not that I wasn’t included; it’s just that I always put myself under pressure because I feel that I should be active in conversation. If it hadn’t been for numerous people asking after my wife’s health I don’t think I’d have said very much all night.

So why does it feel so different among the same people in the same environment depending on whether I’m a customer or a barman? I don’t really know. I do know that I hate to take a break while I’m working because for half an hour I’m out of barman mode and basically just a normal customer. I usually come back early from my break and hope I won’t get sent back out again. I guess it sounds weird but that’s me!

Even when I’m on my own behind the bar with a pub full of customers I hardly ever feel intimidated – I feel safe. Is it the solid counter between me and them? I don’t think so. I suspect it’s because the interactions are constrained and I understand the boundaries – I know what to expect from the customers because they just want to be served. When I’m in there as just me – no role to assume – there are no such boundaries.

I realise now that I can handle much more socially if I am fulfilling a role than if I’m just being myself – exposed, unprotected. In a way these roles are like masks that I can hide behind.

Mourning Strangers

Mourning Strangers

Why does the passing of certain people affect me more deeply, while others may depart with scarcely a thought? I’m not talking about deaths of family or friends here, I mean people whom I have never met and know only through their work in whatever field.

What got me thinking about this was reading yesterday of the death of Dennis Ritchie, a major figure in the world of computing. I started wondering why I felt sad on this occasion, while I was emotionally untouched when I heard that Steve Jobs had died. After all, I never met either of them – I never even saw them in the flesh. And I generally have neutral feelings towards strangers – people I don’t know.

Was there something about Dennis Ritchie that created a connection for me? I think so. When you experience works created by somebody, I believe you pick up aspects of their psyche. It might be from reading what they have written, seeing their visual art, using tools that they have created. An author’s voice is preserved in their writing and transmitted by the act of reading those words.

The second programming language I learned was C, created by Dennis Ritchie et al. The canonical reference book for the language, a work I know very well, was co-authored by Ritchie. And through his involvement in the development of the Unix operating system, there are aspects of him reflected in parts of that and derived works. So despite never meeting him, I do feel a degree of connection, of identifying with him – I feel an echo of him from his works and through that there is a sense of familiarity.

I don’t know how it works for other people – I have known people to feel grief on hearing of the death of some “celebrity”. I guess they watch them acting on TV or read about them in magazines and through that feel that they know them. That doesn’t do it for me. But somebody like an author or an artist with whose works I am familiar – then I feel that I have gleaned an insight into their mind from those works and in a small way I have begun to know them. At that point an emotional bond has been made. For me that is a prerequisite for a sympathetic response rather than just an intellectual one.

That is why I cannot mourn a stranger. As long as they remain a stranger I am unable to respond to their situation except in an intellectual way; until I gain some insight into a person they are just another grain of sand on the beach, indistinguishable at a glance from any other. I’m not saying that I have no feelings towards people in general – I treat them with respect and compassion. But I don’t have any curiosity about their lives; I don’t lose any sleep worrying over them.

When I see reports of some natural disaster on the news I recognise intellectually that it is a difficult, frightening situation for the people involved in it and feel a desire to help on the basis of our shared humanity. But I am unable to grieve for their dead: I did not know them. The images do not directly cause me emotional pain. I can reason about how it might feel to be involved in such a situation – it is an intellectual exercise. I need to analyse their situation, find parallels from my own experiences and consider how I felt in those circumstances to consciously develop an empathic response. But I have found that mourning – grief – is far beyond this in terms of intensity. I can feel sadness or regret  for a stranger but I can only mourn those I have a strong enough bond with.

The Best Card Ever

The Best Card Ever

I’ve been meaning to put this picture up since my birthday last month. It’s the card I got from a couple of good friends. I loved it when I opened the envelope and read the front: “I like having a friend like you. You’re different…”

It might sound silly but I felt really happy – not just accepted but liked for who I was. I think it was the perfect card for me. I don’t usually pay much attention to cards beyond reading who sent them but in this case I made an exception – this one really means something to me and I’m going to hold on to it.

I was in one of my low phases at the time when I got this card and it comforted and cheered me immensely. So a big thank you and lots of love to “B” & “M” who sent me this card – you know who you are…

A Change of Plans Causes Issues

A Change of Plans Causes Issues

I don’t know about anybody else but I have a big problem when events fail to turn out the way I expect. It’s one reason I try not to plan what I’m going to do in advance. Take what happened yesterday for example – I knew there was mince in the fridge that needed using along with tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and carrots. So I thought, “Pasta sauce!”

And then I got home and my wife had somehow managed to cook me a chilli despite her feeling so ill. Did I react with gratitude? I’m sorry to say I didn’t. I was knocked off-balance because some of the ingredients I had been going to use for my pasta sauce had been used instead to make this chilli. I managed not to get angry or melt down – took some self-control – but I did complain. I knew my reaction was upsetting my wife but I couldn’t stop myself. I tried to explain that it was the fact that my plan had been scuppered that had stressed me but the damage had been done.

I must say that I ate the chilli and enjoyed it very much. But. It. Wasn’t. Pasta. Sauce! How do you explain this kind of feeling to somebody who can handle change? That despite appreciating the effort she had gone to, I was unable to get past this clash – this discrepancy with my mental image of myself cooking a different dish. It’s my normal reaction to change – I try not to respond in this way because it hurts or offends people I care about but it causes me stress and I find it very difficult to hide. That would be the same as lying which I also find very difficult, even to save people’s feelings.

In this case I got over the worst of the feeling quite quickly and apologised – this kind of thing has happened numerous times before so my long-suffering wife is sadly used to it by now – but I’ve still got a little lingering disquiet that things didn’t happen as I expected. And I feel bad about not showing my gratitude from the outset. I know it’s a shabby way to treat somebody who’s made an effort to do something for me but I really don’t know how to get past the intense disappointment and stress I feel in these situations – the feeling is so intense that it swamps any other, more rational, thoughts I may have.

Creating New Routines

Creating New Routines

Why isn’t there some standard schedule of household chores? My wife is going to be laid up for some time after a recent operation so I’m taking on as much of the cooking, cleaning and general housework as I can find the time to do alongside work and looking after her. Or trying to…

The trouble is that housework is not one of my usual routines so I have trouble remembering what needs doing. Also, unlike my wife, I can only focus on one task at a time – for example, I can’t leave the washing to do some dusting because I’ll forget that the washing was in progress. I need to build these tasks into a routine so that I can perform them automatically, without needing to consciously supervise myself throughout.

This got me thinking – what are the obstacles that make doing these things more difficult for me than, say, developing software? Right up there has to be my memory problems. I can recall technical information relating to my job without any issues, navigating through millions of lines of code as easily as finding my way to the local shops. But I have lost count of the number of times I have poured the water into a cup of tea, left the room while it steeps and completely forgotten about it until my wife asks where it’s got to. I’ve also been known to go into another room to fetch some item only to have forgotten what it was by the time I get there. It’s the same with any non-routine task – if I step away from it to do something else, more often than not I will forget what I was doing. It seems to be only my short-term memory that is affected in this way.

So how can I create new routines so that I get these tasks done efficiently? My first thought was to create a full schedule, but I realised that this would require more detailed information regarding task durations and frequency of repetition than I possess, and would be too inflexible because of ad-hoc demands on my time. So then I thought about just making a checklist of tasks that need to be completed, perhaps with deadlines where appropriate. I think that’s the method I’ll try first – I need a way to organize myself and to-do lists generally work for me. I use them at work – along with decomposing tasks into manageable chunks. This is a common technique, breaking a large task down into smaller sub-tasks, that I use at work, first to estimate how long a particular software development project will take and then to structure my approach to the task. It also helps a lot when faced with a huge job that daunts by its very size and complexity. Breaking it up into small pieces allows me to focus on each individually and keeps me from trying to fit too much detail into my mind at any one time.

Once I’ve run through the sequence of jobs a few times I believe I’ll get used to the pattern and – as if by magic – a new routine will exist. Sounds simple, but I’m sure there’ll be some difficulties – I’ve got a feeling that some of these household jobs are ones that get done as and when they are needed rather than according to a fixed schedule like “mop the kitchen floor at 7pm on Tuesday evening”. I wish I knew how my wife coped with it all – it just seems so complicated and time-consuming to me. I’m amazed that she could manage it all without any written plan.

Night In The Woods

Night In The Woods

The world is seen in black and white
By the harvest moon’s silver light.
No clouds above to block the sight
Of stars that shine down through this night.

Tonight the woods are picture-still:
No creature stirs, no sound to fill
My ears. This endless moment will
A sense of utter calm instil.

I walk along the path that wends
Between the trees; it weaves and bends,
Rising quickly my course ascends
Until atop the hill it ends.

In front of me a ring of stone,
Ages old, creators unknown.
A place of power – druids’ throne
With secrets never to be shown.

I see the circle as a gate
Whose opening I shall await,
Then I’ll receive a gift from Fate:
My mind at peace, immaculate.

Too Much On My Mind

Too Much On My Mind

Sometimes…
      there are too many thoughts
      running round and round
      inside my head.

Sometimes…
      I feel so anxious
      I find it hard to focus
      on the task in front of me.

Sometimes…
      I get exhausted by the effort
      of forcing my conscious thoughts
      through the noise.

Sometimes…
      I just want to close the curtains,
      switch off the lights
      and lock the door.

Until…
      my spinning thoughts slow down
      to a manageable speed
      and my mind becomes quiet.

Caring

Caring

When this is all over and the dust has settled I am most likely going to come down with a bang.

My wife suffered serious complications after a minor operation Tuesday. Her blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels at one point and it was only the timely intervention of the doctors at the local hospital that saved her. She came home the next day but is still very ill and in pain.

She has to rely on me to care for her. It’s not easy for either of us – she has always been a very independent woman and asking for help does not come easily. I suspect I am misreading some of her signals: I see the anger at the surface when I should realise that her fear and pain is causing it. It’s difficult for me to be sufficiently detached to properly analyze her state of mind – to properly empathize requires that I, paradoxically, first have to distance myself so I can be objective.

I feel so helpless: there’s nothing I can do to take away her pain, to make her better. It will just take time. All I can do is try to make sure she’s got everything she needs to hand and all the household jobs get done. I’m not very good at it – left to my own devices I struggle to look after myself, never mind anybody else. I don’t feel as if I’m doing enough – I think that I’m just reacting to situations that arise rather than being proactive and forestalling them. I just think that I ought to be doing more but I don’t know what more I could do.

I keep noticing the symptoms of an impending shutdown – I get frustrated and tired more quickly and I feel the urge to disconnect, to get away from everything for a while and go for a long walk by myself. But I won’t let myself do that right now – I can’t allow myself that luxury until she is stronger. It takes its toll on me: it is physically very demanding. I feel constant tension across my shoulders and down my back, caused by the stress of the situation. Once she recovers sufficiently I can take the time out I need to recover. But until then I must carry on doing the best I can.

Sestina

Sestina

A sestina is a particular poetic structure based on six stanzas of six lines concluded by a tercet. The same six words in permuted order end each line of each stanza. It’s a challenging form to compose, and I’ve been wanting to try my hand at it for a while now. Here goes…

Worry is a worm eating me inside
As I endure this storm of emotion
That threatens to overwhelm my senses.
I cannot concentrate: my churning mind
Refuses to obey my need for calm.
I try to find some refuge in routine.

Like a straw to a drowning man, routine
Offers slender hope. It’s only inside
The familiar sequence I find calm,
A brief lull. Overload of emotion
Breaks like waves on the wall within my mind,
That guards my fragile hold on my senses.

My fear, like a hound tracing spoor, senses
Its quarry: any break in my routine
Will bring it swiftly in to grip my mind
In its cruel jaws. I watch from inside,
Not daring to rest in case emotion
Spills over the dam, shattering my calm.

I must maintain my air of inner calm,
And not let fear overwhelm my senses.
To shut down and give in to emotion
Is not a choice in times far from routine.
Unable to withdraw to the inside
Because there is another I must mind.

With love for my wife strengthening my mind
I battle my demons, retain my calm.
No sign on my face of the fight inside
As I maintain control of my senses,
Cocooned in the comfort of my routine,
Sheltered from raw power of emotion.

That’s not to say I feel no emotion:
Its echoes still impinge upon my mind.
But had I not the bedrock of routine
On which to build my citadel of calm,
Then fear would undermine and my senses
Would overload and I would break inside.

Strength lies in routine, or else emotion
Can build up inside, overwhelm my mind.
I fight to stay calm, control my senses.