Punchlines

I’ve been reading a bit more fiction lately (Asimov’s Foundation and A Confederacy of Dunces are the most recent). I am finding it very engaging, after a period of reading quite a lot of quite earnest non-fiction.

Two things I have have particularly enjoyed. Firstly, the lightness and humour woven through the stories I have been reading, even while dealing with quite complicated or difficult things. This contrasts with the often endless seriousness of non-fiction. An (obvious) reminder that jokes are good.

Secondly, all too often non-fiction books consist of a compelling first 60 pages, followed by 200 or so pages of reiteration and exemplification. By contrast, (good) fiction builds throughout, so the final pages turn themselves. I’m not sure if the lesson there is that non-fiction should be more confidently succinct, or that writers should hold a little more back for the end, if they can.

Either way, if you haven’t done so recently, I recommend that you pick up a novel. And if you have any fiction recommendations, I would love to hear them.

Swimming in public

If you have encountered me in person in the last 12 months (almost exactly), there is a high chance I have bored you on the topic of outdoor swimming. If you haven’t, then today is your unlucky day.

But fortunately for you I’ll keep it brief: I have done quite a lot of swimming outdoors in unheated pools and rivers, and I have enjoyed it.

The reason that I bring it up isn’t to wax lyrical on the restorative nature of cold water (stop it — Ed.). I bring it up because that very act of (endless) broadcasting has (I think) played an important role in making me stick with it for the last year, to the point where it’s a habit rather than just a few frigid dips. Because if I’ve told so many people, it makes it that much harder to stop, past the point where it’s now just something I do.

The impact of feeling watched is significant, whether or not anyone is actually looking. This blog is another example for me. An impetus, that precious habit-forming gift.

I should use it more often.

Old notes

I found a nice notebook the other day, in amongst a cupboard of papers. I thought it was unused, but when I opened it I found a couple of pages of notes clearly written in one sitting, entitled “What I’d like to be in 2012”. A personal historical document, presumably written at or near the start of the new year, when I was approaching my final two terms of university and recovering after an ankle operation.

It is interesting to see what I was focused on. An ambition to be better read, perhaps natural for a young person about to strike out into the world of work. Music and languages were two things I wanted to do more of, the former has waxed and waned in my life, while the latter has fallen mostly by the wayside. Then vaguer interest in being “better prepared” and “more focused”.

The latter point of focus is given a bit more detail. I worried about the time I was spending on “Facebook and blogs”, or even “sitting doing nothing”, the latter of which has now become de rigueur with the rise of mindfulness. Oh to remember that time before smartphones (I had a Blackberry for my sins).

I am uplifted by a few sketched notes about “using the ankle injury as an opportunity… you will never have this opportunity again”. The primary manifestation of this was becoming Sports Editor of the student newspaper for a term, a first foray into writing, an activity which brings me joy to this day.

I finally entreated myself not to “spend your time writing things like this”. On this point, I must most heartily disagree.

You are what you read

PG Wodehouse has always been literary comfort food to me. I read the books when I was younger, and I would say that they are some of the few that I have re-read, often in times when I have felt I needed something warm and sustaining. When recovering from illness or jet-lag or otherwise. The language is crisp and clean, almost musical, always with a wry smile. The stories themselves are predictable, yet still they catch you off guard. It is timeless, yet so very of its time.

But I am getting off topic. To return to the subject, the thing that often strikes me when I have binged on Jeeves and Wooster is how PG’s turn of phrase and sentence structure begins to crop up in my own thoughts. How I find myself mimicking his abbreviations and metaphor (artlessly I might add). Some mixture of him infecting my mind, and me commandeering his voice. It doesn’t last forever of course, but for a while I am a little more Wodehouse.

You are what you read.

I have spent some time on Twitter lately, what with all this news that keeps happening. I found myself wondering how that very different type of reading was permeating my way of thinking. Obviously Twitter as a whole doesn’t have the consistent author’s voice to clearly spot influencing one’s internal narrative. But there is maybe something of the context switching, the pithiness and irreverence, the anxious tenor, that I perhaps can increasingly identify.

Where I take pleasure in noticing a spot of Wooster, I enjoy these Twitter tics rather less, which is probably a sign.

I can only assume that other people observe a similar influence on their thinking, depending on what content they have been consuming lately*. Whose voice do you enjoy borrowing, and whose do you like less?

*Of course it might just be me.

Parkinson’s Principle

I can’t remember which it was, but one of the newsletters I read recently recommended Universal Laws of the World, a collection of “a few laws – some scientific, some not – from specific fields that hold universal truths”. It is a bit of a click-baity title, but I will forgive the people at Collaborative Fund. After all, I did click, and was pleasantly surprised.

One law which rang particularly true was:

6. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Which surely all of us can recognise, in ourselves or in our work. It is the respectable cousin of a saying I remember from one of my university neighbours:

If you leave it to the last minute, it only takes a minute.

I am sure there are appropriate caveats, on quality and robustness. But work, like so many things, is lumpy. Not all working minutes are made equal, whatever your lawyer says. Some work harder than others.

The challenge of course is to have more lumps per hour, and less gruel.

My metaphor here relies quite heavily on lumps being good. Let’s just go with it, please.

Close shave

I don’t shave every day. Actually not even close. In my head that is a pragmatic choice – I am not sufficiently hirsute to warrant it. But I am aided by a secular trend of beard tolerance, which means that I can get away with shaving irregularly.

Not that my facial hair is universally well-received – indeed some of my nearest and dearest are very definitely in the detractors camp. But I hadn’t considered the global impact of my actions until I saw that P&G had reported an after-tax charge of $8 billion on its Gillette Shave Care line, as “lower shaving frequency has reduced the size of the developed blades and razor’s market”. That’s quite a few Smooth Shaves.

I’m not saying it was all my fault, and I’m not saying I am sat here worrying about the nice people of Proctor and Gamble, with their $288.56B market cap at time of writing. But shaving does feel like such a staple, stable activity, so it is a good reminder that all businesses have a finite time horizon.

The industry isn’t dead of course, the market has also seen increased direct-to-consumer competition which has likely added salt to the Gillette shaving cut. And fashion may yet swing back towards a clean shave (god forbid). If it does, I wonder whether there might be a revolution in shaving technology, doing away with the humble razor. Though I kind of hope not – I think the world has more pressing needs right now, however many times I cut my chin.

Jams

Music can bring back memories, reminiscent of a time or a place. Those rememberings often take you by surprise, when a song comes on the radio. When I recently came across a playlist compiled and shared years ago by a former colleague, I was transported back to those days of late spreadsheet nights.

Perhaps inspired, I recently decided to give my audio diary a little more structure, and started compiling the songs I listened to or encountered into weekly playlists of my own. A mixture of old favourites revisited and new discoveries, from friends, chance encounters, Hype Machine, Spotify. I have enjoyed bringing a bit more consideration and curation to my listening.

Unrelated, I was discussing a jam-related side-project with my sister, who suggested that there might be an opportunity for a musical tie-in. For my sins I enjoy a play on words. Next thing you know, I sent out an email with my latest weekly playlist with accompanying notes – SweetChilliJams was born.

If you want new tunes with accompanying words in your inbox on a hopefully weekly basis, please subscribe! At the very least you get to witness me trying to articulate why I think different songs are good, which turns out to be difficult when you can’t just sing along, dance, mime instruments or say things like “that bassline”. Musical criticism → actually quite hard.

If your question is “what kind of music will it be?”, I don’t know quite yet but hopefully good music?