It’s hard to be brought down when you have a balloon

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Original drawing by Ernest H.Shepard

A.A. Milne’s timeless quote and story of a young boy’s escape into the fantasy world of One Hundred Acre Wood, re-launched its endearing characters back onto the world’s cinema screens recently. My daughters were hooked from the opening scenes when we went to watch the new Christopher Robin last Thursday night – as was I.

Winnie the Pooh, and his delirious gaggle of enchanting friends, have a rousing message for their viewers, in director Marc Forster’s languid adaptation, which is this: don’t take life too seriously.

Now. Throw-away statements like these are relatively passé. This is not a new phenomenon and no doubt wikipedia can help us with affirming who, in fact, was the world’s first free thinking philosopher, conjuring up similar Pooh-esque invocations.

Feel-good monikers are all around us. Emblazoned on the front of T-shirts, and the sides of coffee mugs, today’s life-affirming messages come in all forms of delivery: podcasts, seeping directly through the ears of the day-dreaming commuter; celebrity endorsed morsels of wisdom saturating social media feeds; hell, these days, you can believe in the power of five suitably inspiring words so much that, for twenty quid, you simply tattoo their message under your skin. The heady combination of a few letters being powerful enough, for some people, that they are prepared to literally embody the sentiment for life.

The podcasts and the public statements, the inky reminders, the free speech blog-festing – each medium echoes the other, when it comes to framing these small momentary slices of wisdom, attempting to impart – as they do – a large, lifetime worthy cake-sized portion of advice.

Some days, as consumers, we detest these saccharine nuggets, with their overwhelming and irritatingly smug placements, in the middle of our Wednesday mornings. We detest their presumption and elitist codification, their lineation, their naivety.

On other occasions, and in other moods, we’ll share the love. Retweet the hashtag, apply the shoulder shrugging GIF, as the closing salutation to an inane whatsapp exchange, instigated by a work colleague asking us “how our week was going?” or if we were “enjoying hump day” – “At least Monday is over” – “Don’t take life too seriously, it’s Friday!”

This sodden landscape of social media – with its squelching footprints of metaphor and philosophized jingle – conspires to cover us in what Monty from Withnail and I might have described as “beastly mud and oomska”: and it is relentless. And why? Because it’s impossible to always take life less seriously.

Even Winnie the Pooh has moments of despair.

Perhaps a despairing moment comes for us within 60 seconds of waking up in the morning? Just the thought of the day ahead. The chairing of a meeting. The reading of a news headline. A sky-less view out of a window. Burnt toast. Joint pain. Angst about the future. Guilt about the past.

The truth is that we rely on these constant reminders to punctuate our routine, and help us side-step the rabbit warren of contemplation. Temporarily, we press pause and we pivot our imagination.

The novelist Iris Murdock once said thatone of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats“. I like that a lot, because there is no denying it: everyone is guilty as charged when it comes to small treats.

Murdock also wrote that “A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.” 

Isn’t that compelling, too?

Murdoch is one of many writers who have looked to make sense of an ever changing world in a way that, without ego, offers up, as she puts it, a ‘construction of forms’. An alternative pattern of ideas and ideals, a perspective that has authenticity and charm.

Much of her writing, and that which other writers and artists and story-tellers have laid down, reflect a similar fascination with this very subject. Questioning what we know about life and, time and again, unpacking what it means not only to feel weighed down by life, but also what it means to counter that.

Winnie the Pooh could be one embodiment of that ‘counter’ weighting that we all need and from which we can all learn. A fleeting throw back to a more innocent time of our lives – as children – when it was not a requirement to be seeking outlets to ‘pivot’.

As softly spoken and whimsical as Milne’s affectionate lead character appears, his is a frighteningly effective call to action: for playing pooh-sticks, for going on “adventures”, for curating the comradery of an impromptu tea-party. Flying that balloon.

Just as the adult Christopher Robin inevitably realizes, everyone needs these small treats, these heart-warming, guilt-free, post-it note reminders that reach down deep and remind us of what we all ostensibly know – which is that we will never truly “grow up” in the way we think we are supposed to.

We will try, but we will forever fall short. And that is the beauty of our story.

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Walking the Talk

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Dawn exercise in Hanoi, last week.

So, I’m 43 years old and last week I was taught how to walk properly. Turns out I hadn’t quite got it right these last four decades of trying.

The reason I needed the refresh, for something I’d taken for granted for so many years, was the amount of running I took on last year, to complete the personal challenge of finishing the Sapa Vietnam Mountain Marathon – a sizeable 70 kms, 3,000 metres and 13 hours of mountain running on the day itself.

By New Year’s Eve, I’d clocked up over 3,500 kms of running for 2017. Enough, it transpired, to ensure a memorable time in Sapa, but also to cause a serious malfunction in my left heel.

Many people in the world today have their sights set on personal challenges and an ambition for satisfying outcomes. Longer, faster, tougher –  the pursuit of something that seems unobtainable, combined with the thrill of proving, ultimately, that it isn’t.

I’ve written about why I like to run in previous posts. The programme of rehabilitation I’m now on, following 6 months of chronic heel pain and various misdiagnoses, I hope, will get me running again.

However, first, I’ve to fundamentally change a number of things I do in order to walk.

[For those of you interested, in addition to some sturdier inner soles, the tweaks made to my walking style include: keeping my chin up; shoulders further back; hips up and forward; feet pointed slightly inward; and then pushing off of the bottom of the ball of the big toe. There you have it, I’ll give that to you for free!]

It ended up being of little shock to learn that, when it comes to walking and running, I’ve been doing some of the basic things not quite right for many years now, and without realizing. A situation which feels analogous to other things in life.

To anyone familiar with my writing, it’s the development sector – my precious development sector – that springs to mind when making such comparisons, and how organisations, like CARE, seek to bring about change, and understand what change means.

Change can happen in a day, it can happen in a week, and sometimes it can take a lifetime. The type of change that CARE, and many working in this sector aim for is, you’ve guessed it, long-term change. Sustained, meaningful, generational outcomes. How does that manifest? As a sector we’ve collectively tried different ways and forms of intervening, and we’ve learnt a lot – some of which I’ve covered through blog posts, here and over on http://www.definitelymaybe.me.

Details aside, I think the biological analogy is a good one. After 6 months of trying to repair my heel using various interventions (including acupuncture, laser treatment, shock wave therapy, white blood cell injections – you name it, I experimented the hell out of it) the root cause of the issue was revealed to be connected to a bunch of things located far, far away from my Achilles heel. My neck, my shoulders, my core, my hips, my glutes, my quads, pretty much all the other parts of my body were conspiring against my heel.

It became instantly clear then that my heel would never improve unless all these constituent parts had received a full, physical makeover.

I’m fortunate to have found, just a week ago, a Vietnamese sports physio, named Danny Dong. Danny’s is a name I’ll not forget for a while, not merely because of the sheer charm it conveys (never since being introduced to a ‘Mr Phuc Dat’ the second week I arrived in Saigon, in 2011, has a name left such an endearing impression on me) but because Danny has helped put me on a road to recovery that feels as close to empowering as I’ve felt in a good long while.

This has not been without some ‘growing pains’. Earlier today, Danny took me through an agonizing session, reinforcing his instinctive advice (when first watching me move) of how the right side of my body is so much more flexible and stronger than the left.

Suspicions he had about this (and about the nature of my overly stiff hamstrings, and soreness in my right shoulder) he readily set about confirming, as he attacked the solid lumps of innate muscle tissue underneath my left foot – dormant for months since being rendered too contorted to be otherwise – and subjected me to a form of foot torture the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

Moments of writhing pain later, and an initial softening of some of the muscles in my foot, and he set to work on some of the other culprits (alas, there were many). But, as the old adage goes – there is no gain without pain.

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In social development terminologies, we know that to bring about change in a meaningful way, in countries such as Pakistan or Egypt or Sudan, does not always necessitate placing more resources directly into those contexts, but instead can be served better by resourcing elsewhere – around the policy making tables in Washington or in Brussels, perhaps.

Similarly, for many garment factory workers around the world, CARE has been able to build their individual agency and skills directly (through training courses, for example) however it is in dialogue with the world’s leading retail companies (whose procurement teams tend to be head-quartered in Hong Kong) that we stand more chance of influencing the conditions and the lives of garment workers, operating as they do out of the myriad of countries from where these buyers source products.

CARE does not have an office in Hong Kong, but there are ways and means of engaging these companies, provided 1.) we are clear on how the particular eco-system operates, and 2.) we are open to trying new approaches, and driving new conversations.

Just as I am now being schooled in how various parts of my body, overlooked for too long, each have an important role to play in the act of me walking.

Danny tells me that next week he is going to teach me how to run. Let me hope I can live up to his expectations and do so, and better than before and, fingers crossed, for another 43 years.

It seems to me that to do that – ie running “better” – requires me to make a continued shift (in my case, a literal ‘pivot’) on the topic of what I think running looks like in the first place.

And, as a concluding call to action from this particular reflection, I’d suggest, as a sector, that we take that spirit of reframing into as many of our discussions as we can.

We should take it into the exchange of ideas and engagement we have with our peers, or with the private sector and those companies with whom we partner, with policy makers, with local community leaders, activists, social changemakers, and the many others in society who are so often excluded, yet who we absolutely know hold the keys to unlocking many of the issues of the day, and of our time.

Let us never assume we know everything, and strive to be open to new ways of getting the job done – working, walking, running, scaling mountains, whatever our pursuit.

These things are all connected, and we can always find ways of improving, so that the learning curve each of us is on will never, in our lifetime, need plateau.

“Yn cofio”

Myra

Myra was awarded a degree from the University College of Swansea in 1943

W.O.M.

In worshipful duty,
Some four score years ‘n’ ten
(And five still more)
Devoted to a doctrine of
Deep unwavering love;
Committed values, truthfully pure,
For better or for worse:
One lady, Myra.

In charitable duty,
Some four score years ‘n’ ten
(And five still more)
Bestowing civic pledges
Unto all, with tempered calm,
A curing tonic past,
So future selves will certain thrive:
One lady, Myra.

In familial duty,
Some four score years ‘n’ ten
(And five still more)
Etched on generations now,
Festive beams of straight-laced talk,
Seven lettered praise.
In earnest, gentle kindness:
One Auntie, Myra.

Myra

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Winifred Olive Myra Copleston
(28 January 1923 – 4 June 2018)

Bubble Reputation

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Ma and Pa’s Wedding Day

Happy Birthday to my late Grandpa – Stanley Bishop. Son of Syd Bishop, a butcher from Ruislip, Greater London, Stanley Bishop (aka “Pa”) was born during the First World War, on a Thursday, exactly 103 years ago today. He went on to serve in the Second World War, by which time he had met and fallen in love with my Grandma, Edna.

One anecdote my brother and I grew up on, around the significance of the 27th day of the month, was that our own father, Peter, was born to Stan and Edna on 27th November 1949, followed by my arrival on 27th April 1975, and then my brother, Matt, was due to be born on 27th January 1978. Matt was late though (a February 1st vintage, in the end) although by all accounts he arrived quickly and full of gusto.

Dates often produce serendipity. Writing this from our home in Saigon (a city liberated by the Viet Cong a mere 72 hours after I arrived in the world, on 30th April 1975, a date which continues to commemorate the end of the various wars of that era) I was, this morning, musing on the fact that it was during this particular last week of May, a quarter of a century ago, in 1993, that I put down my pen in what was my last “A” level exam, and stepped out of the school’s Great Hall and into a new chapter of my life.

That I was born 3 days before the end of the American-Vietnam War, and that 25 years ago this week I finished high school, are not, I grant you, the most precise and brilliantly serendipitous coincidences. In any case, that last exam paper was on Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. A play I enjoyed watching again earlier this year, whilst Issy and I were back in Melbourne.

“As You Like It” is a witty and insightful tale, its cross-dressing protagonists fumbling about in the Forest of Arden, getting into various romantic scrapes. The twist of having the traditional all male actors taking on the female roles of Rosalind and Celia – who then spend the majority of the storyline pretending to be men – is one of those great examples that defines Shakespeare’s lasting appeal: that of an ‘alternative framing’ which has continued to be utilized in various art and literature ever since.

Another timeless page from the play is Jacques’ famous speech about the ‘Seven Ages of Man.’ Jacques’ descriptions of each Age (the full prose is pasted below) and his overall conclusion about the circle of life – from “mewling and puking” to “a second childishness and mere oblivion” – are packed full with observations and philosophies. Indeed, the numeric “7” itself is a number much quoted across cultures. Days of the week. Deadly Sins. Years of bad luck (for mirror damage). “Lucky number” seven.

Even my seventh paragraph, containing seven words.

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Anyway, as I enjoyed this Jacques passage again, it was the soldier “seeking the bubble reputation” on which I alighted.

In the context of war, bubble reputation could be a reference to the fleeting nature of the honour or the fame that a solider experiences in battle. Essentially, a temporary thing, bursting like a bubble.

Another explanation I’ve seen is that Shakespeare meant for the word bubble to infer “a person deceived by an empty project”. In other words, a soldier signing up to a war that had been ill conceived.

You’d need a lifetime to collect everything that has been written about ill conceived wars or about the sheer hopelessness of war: from the various canons of WW1 poetry, penned whilst my Grandpa was a child; to those crafted about WW2, a conflict in which both my grandparents served, and from which my father was then an infamous “baby-boomer”; to the angry outpouring of the millions of people who took to the streets (during the time of my parent’s own courtship and wedding) to protest against western interventions in Vietnam; right up to the viral nature of how online communications, in the 2018 arena, connect a far greater number of us than ever before, in a collective disdain for war and for conflict.

Others might counter this by persuading that meaningful change, without some form conflict, is simply not possible.

The debate here will no doubt run on, and on.

What is not up for debate, is the reality of the scale of the current ongoing conflicts around the world: from countries where enlisting in the armed forces is compulsory for its citizens (a “necessary way of life”); to those where young children are stolen from their homes to serve in anti-government splinter cells, or are fleeing for their lives, away from conflict, and without their parents; to those countries whose reputations for initiating conflicts, over centuries past, has granted them a place in the world pecking order to make decisions about when and where to repeat the process again; or, still, to countries whose political agendas continue to cause slow, protracted crises, so much so that living in a ‘state of conflict’ has simply become the definition of ‘normal living’.

Whatsoever the context, I find this definition of Jacques’ “bubble reputation” (ie that of an “empty project” causing “deception”) striking.

Just how many of the world’s current conflicts could be said to epitomize this notion?

In spite of all the institutional structures and global governance systems, established after WW2 to prevent such a thing happening again, the United Nations (one of the main institutions created as part of this process) recently claimed that the world is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.

In the four countries of South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, the UN estimates that as many as 20 million people are facing starvation and famine.

For the (approximately) 6 million Syrian refugees – a fifth country to add to these statistics – who no longer live in their home country, it is estimated it will be 25 years until they might safely return.

So, on this 7.5 billion person world stage of ours, what part, what action, are we each prepared to follow through on, in the face of humanitarian crisis and the nature of its conflicted genesis?

The truth is that there are many ways to act and to bring about action (some mentioned on here recently) and to play a “part.” From writing to marching to joining movements to the honest discourse exchanged with those young people yet to embark on their second ‘Age.’

And, I believe it is the union of these acts, their voice, their grit, and their steely coalescence, which can provide – as a military operation itself would – all that is necessary.

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Present times

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Loving the Present.

Monday reality this morning is a sigh of relief after successfully hosting nineteen kids at our house yesterday. Martha turns lucky number 7 in two day’s time, and she’s been planning her party since opening her final Christmas present.

Added to the already high intensity affair that Martha’s birthday parties tend to embody, it’s also a relief to have made it through another weekend keeping up with the slew of leaving parties that Saigon is awash with right now.

With only four weeks until school ends, local removal companies are making hay whilst the sun shines and the humidity grows even thicker.

The clammiest month of the year is also one of the most hectic. End of year dance shows, swim meets and football tournaments loom, but also end of era relationships, with transitioning ex-pats, turn the final page of their particular chapter.

Martha’s party was a hit, though. It was ‘Under the Sea’ themed, which meant that Saturday evening was spent with four willing volunteers sat on our sofas, drinking gin, tuning in to Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, and cutting out a variety of yellow, blue and green aquatic characters.      Continue reading

Pressing pause on life

 

It’s been 9 weeks now since I ran a single kilometre. Some kind of achilles tendon issue, which I’ve been unable to resolve, has kept me off the roads. A corticosteroid injection this afternoon will mark the latest in a string of interventions.

Since that last outing, I’ve been mainly frustrated at being “off games” – as we used to say at school – and quickly realised the need for new goals and focus.

We purchased a juicer (to help keep the carbs down) and I’ve spent more time than usual contemplating other things. I’ve had a steady slew of trips and, whilst home, Issy and me have kept up the routine of work, spending time with the girls, socializing, planning holidays, and indulging in those divine moments of quiet, when the house is still and you have no commitments or reasons to be anywhere else.

Overall, not running has meant I’ve read more, written more, and thought more about the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very keen to start exercising properly again. I wonder, however, to what extent my once regular 60+kms week was providing me with the space to think, or the space to feel dis-connected from the humdrum of the “day-to-day”? I think it was.      Continue reading

A little bit of culture

I’m renewing passports again, this time for my eldest daughter and, she doesn’t realize it yet, but this is the one where the photo of her, aged 9, which will feature in her new passport, will be valid until she’s 19 years old.

I can recall the relief updating my own passport at that age, after a long stint of mildly embarrassing immigration moments, as customs officials switched between staring at my ten year old passport photo and the teenager stood in front of them.

Both my daughters have spent their lives (mostly) growing up in Saigon. My youngest was born here, and she enjoys showing people the “HCMC” passport entry as her place of birth.

Someone once told me that Flo and Martha are “third culture kids”. This was a few years ago now, and I’ve never quite got to grips with it. My instinct leans in towards this catch-all terminology being intrinsically positive. The sceptic in me wants, however, to also challenge that presumption.      Continue reading

Get Up, Stand Up

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Image credit: http://www.cesie.org

This time last week I was waking up in Tbilisi, a tad dusty from an extended evening’s drinking with a colleague of mine, a Dutchman named Gerard, who has been living there for a while, and who naturally felt it appropriate to show me a variety of places, for the short time I’d be staying in “his town”.

We begun the night hosted by CARE’s local team, at a Georgian restaurant, where each new plate of food was brought out under a fanfare of live music and dancing, along with rounds of increasingly hearty toasting.

Post-dinner, and several watering holes later, I found myself sampling the country’s famous “cha cha” – a sweeter version of the grappa I’ve had in Italy – which came as a welcome tonic, given my stomach walls were still adequately fortressed with cheese and carbs, enough to keep out the most stubborn of digestifs.

We decided, bleary-eyed at this stage, to hit up one more venue close by – a favourite “low-key” bar of Gerard’s. Upon arrival we found it morphed into a darkly lit techno den, complete with strobe effects and a whole new type of Georgian dancing, quite distinct to what we’d witnessed over dinner. Nonetheless, we indulged in a nightcap, and then left for home, our ears ringing.      Continue reading