Thoughts

Maybe I need interaction after all?

This is weird. This… Everything. Nothing is normal now. I thought I was doing OK with that but now I’m not so sure.

Last week I beat the lockdown by a day and started self-isolating with my family after I developed a persistent cough. By the middle of the week I was shivery (though had no fever) and felt quite ill, then a few days later I needed two or three naps just to get through the day due to fatigue. Was it COVID-19? Who knows? I might never find out.

I started feeling a little better over the weekend and even had enough energy to record a bit of mandolin for my own contribution to the #COVIDCeilidh hashtag on Twitter:

I told myself I’d try and pick up music and writing again to help me get through this and so far I’ve been pretty good at finding time here and there to pick up my mandolin or a guitar. I’ve loved getting to know pieces of music again that I’ve not played for years and even started working on a few new tunes. But to be honest it’s a thumb in the dyke of my anxiety just now.

The biggest problem I have is working from home. I thought I would really enjoy it, getting to look into my garden all day and watch the birds (and that has been great), go for a run around Stonehaven at lunchtimes, get to see more of the kids. The surprise to me though, as someone who is very much an introvert, is how much I miss the office environment. There’s a constant level of interaction which I find completely lacking now and no amount of Skype texts is making up for it.

For two days now I’ve been sat on my own in our spare room listening to my kids playing and arguing elsewhere in the house while I pick up tickets from my team’s queue, email users and fix problems. All without actually speaking to anyone. Suddenly I feel really distant and it’s hitting my anxiety hard.

Hopefully it passes. This is all new for everyone and I think it will take time for us to adapt. I have an online games session arranged with some friends over the weekend which might help. Plus, now I’m over my illness I should be able to get out running again and that should calm my mind down a lot as well. Failing that I’ll try more music or maybe I’ll start talking to the birds in the garden as though they’re my office colleagues.

Thoughts

Strange and Scary Times

It’s been a year since I posted anything on this blog. It’s probably been more than a year since I finished a piece of creative writing. I started studying with the Open University for a degree in Environmental Science last year and between that, work and my family responsibilities I haven’t had much time for being creative.

But I have really missed that outlet over the last few weeks. I sat watching the COVID-19 pandemic spiral out of control, encompassing Asia, then Italy and now most of the world. At first I felt OK. My thinking was we just have to follow the advice and the rest is out of our hands (personally speaking at least). I was able to detach myself from it and it didn’t affect me.

That’s not the case now.

My day job is in IT and as the department started to move from our normal day to day work towards enabling the business to work remotely in its entirety, a familiar old feeling started to return. I suffered from general anxiety disorder for a prolonged period some years ago but had felt like I was getting a lot of my old confidence back in the last 6-12 months. Then this week, as I was packing up my stuff to take home so I could work from my spare room for the foreseeable future, as I contemplated that my kids wouldn’t be going to nursery for the next few months and my eldest might miss the start of her primary school journey after the summer, as businesses both local and national suffered the sudden loss of most of their custom, I started feeling scared again.

Now to be honest it’s an understandable response and I imagine lots of us are scared at the moment. I’m hopeful that this isn’t a full blown return of my anxiety problems and just a natural reaction to an unprecedented situation, but only time will tell.

But it has highlighted to me that I spent too much time doing things which are unhelpful for my mental health. I can keep informed on the pandemic without constantly monitoring the BBC and Guardian’s live updates pages. I don’t need to sit on twitter all night watching everyone react in horror at the raving inadequacies of our government and Prime Minister. I can do something else instead.

I still need to spend a large chunk of my free time studying, though my current module will finish soon and I’ll be free for the summer. But I don’t have to fill the rest of my time battering my mental health when I’ve got enough on my plate with work, the kids and my degree. So I’m going to try and start switching off the laptop and getting back into some writing and playing music.

Hopefully I can get back into the mindset to write some poetry again, but to start with I think I’ll start keeping this blog updated some more and dig out my to do list of songs and tunes that I was working on before other commitments took hold. If I feel like sharing I’ll post some of it on here.

In the meantime everyone needs to look after themselves, their families and their community.

Stay healthy in body and mind.

Thoughts

Pushing Out The Boat and other updates

I keep putting the URL for this blog on my bio when I submit writing to magazines and journals so I should probably start updating it again!

On the subject of submissions, I have a poem – Spikkin – published in the latest edition of Pushing Out The Boat. The magazine is produced in Aberdeen and features writing from all over, but with a focus on the North East of Scotland. As my poem is written in Doric and is about my relationship with the language of North East Scotland I’m particularly pleased that it has found a home in Pushing Out The Boat.

The magazine will be launched on April 7th at an event at Pheonix Community Hall in Newton Dee (near Milltimber, Aberdeen), where a number of contributors (including myself) will be reading their work.

I also had my poem The Haar accepted into issue one of Aberdeen based collective Re:Analogue’s magazine. However it looks like this has been delayed so I’m not sure when that will come out.

That aside it’s been a slow start to 2019 with a very busy personal life (who knew having two kids would be even harder than just having one!?) and a challenging work environment leaving little time or inclination to do any writing. Now I’ve also started an Open University degree in Environmental Science because I thought I should destroy what little free time I had left. At least that might give me something to write about on here when the mood takes me.

Tech

A couple of small projects

I actually completed a couple of small projects this month! For someone who absolutely hates DIY I really enjoy it when I get the chance to physically make something. I think the pressure gets to me when it’s a DIY job, with any mistake immediately obvious to anyone else in the house and potentially very expensive to fix. But if I’m just making something creative for myself or as a gift then I can relax and enjoy it a bit more. It was with this in mind that I approached a gift for my wedding anniversary. 

The finished gift

After some extensive idea browsing I settled on a decorative mile marker signpost. I mulled it over for a few days and figured all it would need was a nice 3D frame to present in and some small cuts of balsa wood to make the sign post. The sign itself would have the towns where we’ve lived and a couple of important holiday locations (where we got engaged and where we spent our honeymoon), along with the distance in miles from our current home.

Unusually for one of my projects, it turned out to be as simple as I hoped and I was pretty pleased with the end result. A sharp knife cut the balsa into shape, a fine liner worked for the sign writing, and some wargaming texture grass for decorating figures added a bit of colour.

All was going really well until the week before our anniversary when my wife mentioned it was six years since our wedding, not the five I’d been certain it was. Which meant this year’s theme should have been iron, not wood. We laughed. Well, I laughed then had to explain what was so funny.

Thankfully despite my failure to count to six, the sentiment was very much appreciated and my wife loved the present in the end!

The second project I managed to finish used a completely different maker discipline, a bit more in my comfort zone. I’ve been playing with the Raspberry Pi computer for a year or two now and while I’ve had a lot of fun I haven’t finished a useful project for it yet. However a couple of weeks of frustrating poor service from Scotrail inspired me to finally put a Raspberry Pi Zero and a Pimoroni Inkyphat eInk screen to good use.

My plan was to have a small screen on my desk at work which would refresh periodically through the day with any service updates from the train operator, specifically for trains on my route home.

Sadly one of those trains was my way home

Scotrail operate a Journey Check website which lists all service updates in a fairly basic view. I could try and strip the data directly from there, but there is a better way. They also have the same page available as an RSS feed.  

I knocked up a short Python script using the Feedparser library to pull the RSS feed for my commuting route and then throw the page title, number of train updates, and the train details into some variables. These are then displayed together on the Inkyphat.  

The result is pretty good, though the limited screen estate of the Inkyphat means I lose some details off the edge. This is a fair trade for readability of the important train times though.  

Lastly I set a crontab to run the script every fifteen minutes and then placed it on my desk when I got to the office.  

Not to miss an opportunity, Scotrail duly cancelled various trains through the day including the one I had planned to take home. It was a bittersweet moment when I came back from lunch to see the screen had updated and my normal train was listed.

For those that might be interested in doing something similar, the code for the Python script is posted below.  

import inkyphat
from PIL import ImageFont
import feedparser

#Set font to use on the Inkyphat
font = ImageFont.truetype("/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/inkyphat/fonts/Montserrat-Regular.ttf", 12)

#set the URL for the RSS feed - Scotrail's journey check between Aberdeen and Stonehaven in this case
scotrail_rss="http://rss.journeycheck.com/scotrail/route?action=search&from=ABD&to=STN&period=today&formTubeUpdateLocation=&formTubeUpdatePeriod=&savedRoute="

#parse the RSS feed with feedparser
f=feedparser.parse(scotrail_rss)

#pack variables with the feed tag data
head=f.feed.title
updates= str(len(f.entries)) + " updates"
service = ""
for train in f.entries:
  service=service + train.title + "\n"

last_update=str(f.feed.published)

#uncomment two lines below to print output to screen for debugging
#message = head+updates+service+last_update
#print message 

#prepare lines for inkyphat
inkyphat.text((1, 1), head, inkyphat.RED, font)
inkyphat.text((1,10), updates, inkyphat.RED, font)
inkyphat.text((1,20), service, inkyphat.BLACK, font)
inkyphat.text((1,80), last_update, inkyphat.RED, font)

#write to Inkyphat
inkyphat.show()


News, Thoughts, Writing

I Submit

I know and I understand that to be a published writer I need to do two things – I need to write and I need to send work to publishers. I’ve not been great at the former, but I’ve always been terrible at the latter.

Despite this I still spend a lot of time feeling hard done by, that what little I do submit, rarely gets selected. Which is stupid. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t help it. The feeling of injustice when I see a competition winner announced or a magazine published without seeing a congratulations email appear in my inbox is large.

This isn’t because I think I deserve to win competitions, or that my work is so good it just has to be included in the must have literary journals, it’s just that from the moment I send the submission I start to hope; and as we all know it’s the hope that kills you.

All that negativity adds up and the result is I feel pretty down about the submission process and I submit less. Which, when I was starting from a pretty low submission rate, means I basically stopped submitting work altogether. Whoops.

Two things happened recently to change my attitude. First, I had some success (hooray!). A poem I submitted at the start of the summer, to a new local magazine by a spoken word collective, got accepted for publication (due out in November). For the second time in a row it was one I felt was the weakest in the submission package, but I’m not complaining! It just shows that you can never know what will click with someone.

The second thing was seeing this tweet about Sylvia Plath. That’s nine months of submissions.  Just seeing how hard she was working to get work published, even after her first collection had been released, made me realise that it doesn’t really matter who you are or how good the work is. The sheer volume of submissions editors get means that most people, even Sylvia Plath, will end up with more rejections than submissions. So to get work accepted I have to make the odds work more in my favour and that means I have to submit more and worry about rejection less.

This week I submitted work to three magazines and revamped my submissions spreadsheet to better track what I’ve submitted, to where, and if it was successful. With that and a more positive, but realistic, attitude to the process hopefully I can get some more success with my work. Or is it just more dreadful hope?

Health and fitness, Tech, Thoughts

Enjoying a Twitter break.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Twitter for a while now. Long gone are the days when it was a place of curiosity where we would marvel at celebrities tweeting while stuck in a lift or when the most serious tweets revolved around what to have for tea.

Now the site feels like a hotbed of trolls, racists, and racist trolls (or the US President as he’s commonly known).

I have a tendency to over-think things and get fixated on topics. Which makes it really easy for me to get sucked down rabbit-holes of Twitter hashtags full of abuse, conspiracy theories, and total fuckwits. I also developed a habit of just sitting on Twitter as my default position, either on my phone on the train or sat on the sofa at work. All that exposure to the extremes of human opinion is not good for my mental health.

Two weeks ago I deleted the app from my phone and got rid of any Twitter and Tweetdeck bookmarks in my browsers. I could still go to the site, but it means I have to type the address in manually. A small, but critical step in preventing me just auto-piloting on to Twitter when my brain goes into neutral. So far it’s worked. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve dipped my toe back in and that was just for a few minutes or to read a specific tweet.

Has it helped? Has going cold turkey from Twitter improved my mood? Absolutely.

Aside from the obvious benefit, not being exposed to a whole lot of idiots and their opinions which make me feel angry, I’ve found myself making much more constructive use of my spare time at home. Picking up projects and hobbies I didn’t have time for recently and being a lot more available for interactions with the kids and my wife. In fact it’s not until doing an exercise like this that I realised just how bad I was for shutting everyone out while I sat idly scrolling through Twitter.

That’s not to say that quitting Twitter has cured me of any of my mental ailments, it hasn’t, but it does stop me from actively seeking out content online which is only going to make me sad, depressed, and angry. Which can only be self-destructive in the long-term.

Am I finished with Twitter completely? Well probably not. There are good people on Twitter and some genuinely good content to be found. At it’s very best it can be used to spread positive messages and wonderful frivolous fun moments. Lately though those pearls are much harder to find.

For now I’m staying clear but when I do return I’m going to have to do some heavy pruning of my followers list to change the kind of content I see on my feed. Until then I’m going to enjoy spending my time away from the gathering of the internet’s worst people and spend more time being creative, engaging with real people, and doing the things that actually make me happy.

I might even manage to start writing again.

Thoughts

Positivity In A Sickening Online World

It’s pretty bleak out there just now. The news is depressing and scary, between Brexit, Trump, Russia and the everlasting effects of austerity. Often it feels like using social media or browsing the internet is an exercise in endurance as you read one argument after another involving people with unrelentingly aggressive, entrenched viewpoints.

To be honest it’s really starting to wear me down. To the point where part of me just wants to switch off the internet and go back to the 90s, before I was permanently connected to news (especially this last week with the horrible images of young children being taken from their parents at the US border) and other people’s horrible opinions.

Sadly I work in IT, so that’s not really an option. Where does that leave me? Crippled by my impotence as I’m unable to do anything to change the depressing reality of today’s world? That’s not going to do me any good in the long run is it?

If I can’t do anything to stop Brexit, prevent a new cold war, or impeach Trump what can I do to make myself and the world a better place?

In day-to-day life I try not to let things get to me. Often urging others not to worry about things they can’t change or control. So maybe I should start doing the same for the big scary things as well. The first problem though is how to stop worrying about them in the first place?

Use Social Media for Good instead of Evil

I’ve started purging my Twitter of negativity. It’s become a broken tap, leaking a never-ending drip feed of bad shit on my phone, laptop and PC screen. I look at my phone to get a light distraction for a moment and end up being angry and sad for the rest of the day instead. No more. The bad shit must be controlled.

Unfollow media accounts or users who only ever post bad news or retweet conspiracy theories (even if you believe them). Once the drip has slowed down then start filling your feed instead with the things you want to read about and that make you happy. I’ve filled my twitter with tweets from comedians, musicians, artists, DIY makers and other creative and entertainment content creators.

Use social media to find things that inspire you, amuse you and refill your joy tank.

Also follow real people who you actually know. People you’d have a conversation with. Use Twitter for two-way communication.

Now when I go on Twitter it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Some of the bad shit still leaks through (yuck) but it’s much, much more manageable.

Don’t accept every invite to an argument

The other big rule I have now is not to get involved in arguments. There’s absolutely no point to it. Everyone’s opinions on social media are so entrenched that there’s no room for grey areas or rational thought. It’s a terrible platform for reasonable discourse. Abandon the concept and throw it to the wolves. Block and move on instead.

Make Time For Your Own Wellbeing

Clear some time out of your day and do something to improve your health or make you happy. Spend your lunch hour fuming over a sandwich while browsing BBC news? Go for a jog instead, or take a walk to nearby river and sit outside to eat your sandwich. Even just move away from your desk with a good book for the hour.

Make time when you can. Swap sitting on the sofa with your laptop for digging out that guitar you’ve not played for weeks/months/years.

My downtime is important and though it’s difficult to carve out all the time I want with two young kids and a full-time job, I try to make sure I get out for a run or bike ride a few times a week to keep everything on an even keel.

Embrace What You Love

If you like doing something – painting, drawing, writing, making music, board games, video games, bird watching, stamp collecting, crochet, ballroom dancing, making voodoo dolls from the stray hairs of your enemies – then do it (except maybe that last one). Don’t let anyone say you can’t, slag you off, or tell you it’s wrong to enjoy something that’s not harming anyone else. Double down on it if you can. Love what you like.

For a long time in my late twenties and thirties I shied away from some of my geekier hobbies and interests. Now I’ve recently started playing board games and roleplaying again, fiddling with electronics and hobby computing, as well as wearing shamelessly geeky t-shirts in the office. I’m a nerd. These things make me happy. Why should I be bothered if someone else doesn’t like those things?

Take The Pressure Off You

Give yourself permission to make mistakes, not get involved, and to leave it to someone else. The news is horrific just now. It often feels like there’s a lot of pressure to DO SOMETHING. To enlist in the forces of good against evil. It’s overwhelming but fear not! It’s OK. You don’t have to join every fight. Look after yourself first, make sure you’re safe and healthy, then, if you’ve got energy to spare, feel around for what you can do to help others.

When you do jump in, you don’t have to go big. Do what you can, where you can. Donate to charity, local or global. Pick something you care about. It doesn’t matter if it’s the big topic of the day. Make the world better one monthly direct debit at a time. Volunteer to help with a local event you like. Give something back on your terms when you’re able to.

Be Kind, Be Helpful, Understand Others

I’m often amazed by the lack of simple empathy shown on social media. Much of this will stem from the top down, from politicians and the media, who fill us with negative stereotypes and othering of large sections of society. That stuff rubs off, contempt is contagious and it’s no wonder social media is so toxic when minority groups, the sick, disabled, foreign, and the poor become scapegoats for every problem in the country.

Here’s something we can change. I can’t fix the predominantly right-wing media or our populist politicians, but I can make sure that I show the values I want to see represented online. Interact with kindness, don’t post knee-jerk assumptions about people, think the best of others and forgive their mistakes.

Boost the signal when others are being positive. Retweet the voices who are constructive and helpful of others. Ignore the people who are being dicks, make sure good people get heard.

Engage On Your Terms

Look I can write a thousand words telling people what they should do. In reality everyone has to find a way to manage this stuff themselves. Hopefully some of these ideas are useful, they sound obvious when you write it down but the pressure to stay engaged with all the bullshit that’s happening can blind you to the fact that you don’t really have to. Find your own route through the forest fire that is world news and toxic social media, just make sure it works for you and if it doesn’t you can always walk away. I know lots of people that, shocking as it is, aren’t on Facebook or Twitter and they are perfectly functional human beings. It’s always an option.