Return to Childhood

Misplaced Childhood by Marillion
Misplaced Childhood by Marillion

Yesterday the prog rock concept album Misplaced Childhood by Marillion (then fronted by Fish) turned 30.

Thirty?! How old does that make me feel?

I remember the summer that it came out. My cousins Alan and Colin were into Marillion, I recall, which is what put them on my radar.

During the summer of 1985 my family went on holiday to Guernsey in the Channel Islands. It was an extravagance and looking back my favourite get-right-away holidays while I was a kid: it was a fabulous experience. We were, I recall, in part celebrating that my dad had survived three brain haemorrhages in the spring of 1983 (“Beware the Ides of March!”).

I remember standing outside the John Menzies in St Peter Port gazing at a window display that included a large cardboard cut-out of the boy from the cover. The whole thing captured my imagination: the artwork, the title, even the name of the band (Marillion is a shortening of the Tolkien collection The Silmarillion).

It wasn’t until a few years later before I actually listened to the album. It’s still one of my all-time favourite albums, and by a long margin my favourite Marillion album.

Happy birthday.

An exercise to map your family’s timeline

Family timeline method on BJ Fogg's website
Family timeline method on BJ Fogg’s website

Here’s an exercise that psychologist, innovator and university lecturer BJ Fogg used at a family reunion that I’d love to do with my own family.

The idea was to collectively map their family’s story, starting from his parents’ wedding to the current day.

Each person was given their own post-it note colour and told to write their memories of that year on the post-it. They used 4 x 6 inch post-it notes to allow the writing to be larger and write more.

The post-it notes were then stuck to large boards. Each board was divided into three columns, one column per year.

The exercise led to a lot of sharing, about positive events and negative, both of which have shaped their family’s journey.

You can read more about the Fogg timeline on BJ’s website.

I wish I’d discovered this exercise earlier. Last year we had a huge reunion down in the Scottish Borders where family from California met up with folks here in Scotland, some meeting for the first time. This would have been tremendous fun and a great way to share our stories and see where our lives interacted and if there were any common themes.

Next time, maybe…?

Are we a generation of idiots, smartphones and dumb people?

Remember those days before the world wide web, before social media when we were… well, actually social. We could sit in the same room with someone and chat with them in person rather than via Facebook or Twitter?

I appreciate social media and Skype, living here in the East Neuk of Fife which St Rule regarded as the western ends of the world. It helps me keep in touch, which is better than nothing. But I do love getting together with my friends in real life, which doesn’t happen as much as I’d like.

During this extended period of recuperation from viral meningitis, I have loved spending more time with Jane, Reuben, Joshua and Isaac. Long may that continue.

While I don’t think we’re a generation of idiots, I do think we need to put down our phones a little more often, step out from behind our computer monitors, and engage with the world face-to-face.

And maybe then rush home and micro-blog about it!

Rediscovering honest blogging

Where I love to sit and listen, and pray and think.
In my study, where I love to sit and listen, and pray and think.

This is a blog post I’ve been trying to find the courage, and the words, to post for quite a few months now. I made a commitment with myself to post it in the first week or this year. Here we are four weeks later… but here it is.

For the last few years I’ve felt bad about not blogging here more often. I’ve missed it, apart from anything else, partly because it helps me to think things through but also because in not writing I feel that I’ve not been honest with either myself or others. Let me explain.

Blogging

I started blogging shortly after I got married in 1999, following our move to Inverness. Although I didn’t call it ‘blogging’ at the time, it was a simple way to let family and friends know what we were up to. I had acquired a domain name (gareth-and-jane-saunders.co.uk) which I still own, had taught myself HTML and I hand-coded every page and news update. It was fun… apart from using FTP over a dial-up connection. When I moved to Edinburgh in 2003 I installed a new piece of software called WordPress which was then at version 0.71. I loved it and I’ve stuck with WordPress ever since; it’s now at version 3.8.1.

For years I blogged about all sorts of things big and small, both serious and fun. I enjoyed the creativity, I enjoyed being silly, I enjoyed having somewhere that I could refer back to: my blog also became a record of how I’d made stuff or fixed stuff, with the benefit that it was also there in the public-domain for other people to find and use.

Writing is thinking

I enjoyed that the writing helped me to think things through. In that sense it was like a journal. An article on A List Apart two weeks ago, called ‘Writing is thinking’, confirmed this for me. In it Sally Kerrigan writes:

I’m asking that you start with thinking. I suspect, if you’re a reader, you’re already a thinker—which means you’re halfway there. Really. Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking.

I enjoy thinking. I enjoying thinking things through and arriving at a conclusion, an opinion. That said, I’ve never really considered that I’m good at sharing my opinion about things, but I guess that I must be if I have written about them. At theological college I always used to joke that I was born to reflect and not shine.

Crisis of confidence

In 2005 I read a blog post by a friend, Kelvin Holdsworth, entitled ‘How to blog’ in which he offers twelve eleven tips (number nine is missing, for some reason) on how to be a good blogger. Tip number three is ‘blogging is performance, not real life’.

I didn’t fully agree with it and it got me worried. Sure, some of my blog posts could be described as ‘performance’: playing the fool, showing off, trying to make my audience laugh. But many other posts were about reminding myself how I had done something (like how to change the node type on a Windows network) or simply sharing with friends and family what was going on at home. I didn’t consider these as a performance: I was trying to be genuine and honest and authentic.

micro-blogging vs traditional blogging?

In November 2006 I joined Facebook, back in the day when you needed a university email address to sign up (go me!). In January 2008 (six years and one day ago, to be exact) I signed up to Twitter, having resisted for about a year. I began micro-blogging.

My updates were more up-to-date and shorter, they were quicker to write, but they also invited more immediate feedback. It was when I saw that my micro-blogging could become a conversation that I really saw the value of social media, and Twitter especially. I hooked my Twitter account into Facebook and so anything posted on one network was immediately echoed in another. It became a quick and easy way to keep in touch, and for the conversation to be more two-way than my blog comments allowed.

Over the next few years my posting to this blog declined. Here are the number of posts by year:

  • 2003 (26 posts) — First installed WordPress (June)
  • 2004 (138)
  • 2005 (415)
  • 2006 (409) — Joined Facebook (Nov)
  • 2007 (423)
  • 2008 (368) — Joined Twitter (Jan); Reuben and Joshua born (Nov)
  • 2009 (35)
  • 2010 (59)
  • 2011 (165) — Isaac born (Jan)
  • 2012 (34)
  • 2013 (48)

It seems that micro-blogging (Facebook and Twitter) in itself didn’t contribute to my reduction in writing longer posts. Which is interesting, at least to me, because I had always tacitly assumed that’s what had caused it.

Factored into this, of course, is the fact that I also got involved with other blogs:

(and more) which meant that my focus was diverted away from this channel exclusively; my blogging habit got a little diluted, you might say, not simply by micro-blogs and social media but also by other ‘full’ blogs.

Parental crisis

Looking back, the biggest factor that stopped me blogging so regularly was (obviously) the birth of my twin boys Reuben and Joshua in November 2008.

Despite having more to say, I had less time, less energy, and less sleep—which was not conducive to thinking things through to any depth beyond the most immediate. (Ah! Those days when it felt like my thoughts were literally falling out of my head!) In 2009 I posted only 35 articles, and I almost doubled that the following year.

But if I’m honest, it wasn’t just the lack of sleep that prevented me from writing. As we clocked-up the boys’ first few months I realised that I was becoming more withdrawn. I certainly felt that I was out of my depth, as I’m sure many first-time dads feel. I had an enormous learning curve, not only with the practicalities of feeding, winding, changing, bathing, and dressing a baby (and two for that matter!), but there was also the learning curve in managing myself and my relationship with Jane under such trying conditions. We were both utterly exhausted and (with hindsight we know now) Jane was descending into post-natal depression. I felt incredibly alone and incredibly vulnerable, more so than at any other time in my life.

I had always prided myself in sharing even the difficult periods of my life with others, whether that be being bullied at school or the death of my father. But somehow throughout 2009 I felt locked in: between a rock and a hard place. I was highly critical of my own perceived failings and I felt too vulnerable to reach out and ask for the help or advice that I really wanted. Except in a few cases, I felt too afraid to post on my blog things like ‘I found X useful today when looking after the boys’ or ‘I don’t know how to do Y’, because when I said such things in the ‘real world’ I felt bombarded by the advice given to me: ‘Oh, you should do this…’, ‘No! Try that…’, ‘This other way worked for me…’.

The worse piece of advice, as well-meaning as it was always offered, was, ‘It does get better.’ I knew that it must. It just never helped me at the time. It never took away the pain of now. Like the man standing on the shore watching another drowning shouting, ‘It does get better once you reach the shore. Or learn to swim’. I wanted someone to throw me a life-ring to help me float for a while, so that I didn’t need to use any more energy treading water, and for them to simply stay beside me for company.

And so I felt locked in, unable to reach out, afraid of not being able to cope with the consequences of baring my soul, admitting my weaknesses, and asking for help. So I wrote nothing… or at least when I did, it was ‘performance’. I shared the cute moments, the proud moments, the funny conversations, the humorous anecdotes. These were the moments that didn’t require me to open myself up to criticism. These were the moments that hid the darker moments: the pain and uncertainty and honesty.

My genuine and authentic self

Chrys Bader wrote a fabulous blog post on 15 December 2013 entitled ‘The end of the Facebook era’ in which he wrote,

Now that social networking has become universal, we’ve become increasingly sensitive to what we share on Facebook. Speaking on a stage in front of a mixed audience of family, friends, and acquaintances makes it hard for most of us to be our genuine and authentic selves. As a result, we tend to see people sharing only their proudest moments in an attempt to portray their best selves. We filter too much, and with that, we lose real human connection.

As your Facebook network becomes saturated, it can feel very public. It puts the focus on managing your image, rather than truly bonding with people.

I realised that is how I felt about my blog. I had lost the real human connection. My posts were increasingly impersonal posts about web technology or videos that I had enjoyed. I had begun to feel that my every move was being watched and judged, and so I posted nothing that revealed any more of the real me than was absolutely necessary.

I included part of that quotation in our Christmas newsletter 2013 before talking about some of the significant but in other ways trivial events of our family life from last year. I prefixed those tales with what was really a challenge to myself: let’s connect!

And so, here I am. This is one of my primary challenges for 2014: to rediscover honest blogging. I want to share more of my genuine and authentic self on my blog this year, and on social media. I want to explore more about what I think—and there’s a lot to think about this year: the referendum on Scottish independence, the economy, the state of the Christian church in today’s society, as well as family life, work, music and a million other things. Maybe this is the year I learn to shine as well as reflect. Let’s connect!

My Mum on Skype (and other connections)

My Mum on Skype, earlier this evening.
My Mum on Skype, earlier this evening.

This morning we got up early, carefully removed the roof box (it turns out that if the wind gusts above 50 mph then cars with roof boxes will be prevented from crossing the Forth Road Bridge… and we didn’t want to take any chances), packed the car and headed south, just as the sun was beginning to rise.

Destination: Selkirk. And more specifically, the my-Mum’s-house part of Selkirk. We were delivering presents and catching up, albeit too briefly, with relatives.

There are some members of my extended family that we’ve not seen for too long; a few had not even met Isaac, who turns three next month. Not due to any conspiracy, but simply a combination of the impracticalities of small, twinsy children, lack of sleep (a lot to do with lack of sleep), depression, back/neck injuries, and… the fact that it takes us the best part of 6 hours to just drive down there and back again. So it was lovely to catch-up, albeit too briefly. On our drive back north we popped in to see my brother Eddie at South Queensferry, to get the boys into their pyjamas and to deliver another Christmas present.

This year, for Christmas, we gave my Mum a new laptop computer (Asus X551CA, featuing a 15.6″ screen, Intel Celeron 1007U dual core CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD, Windows 8.1 Home).

Mum has never had a new laptop. Her last-but-one was a very generous hand-me-down from good friends of ours. Her last one was bought about ten years ago for a business that Jane and her Mum ran in Edinburgh. It was creaking at the joints: it almost panted with exhaustion running Windows 7, it would take about 15 minutes to start, the cheap webcam I had bought for it had too low a resolution and would invariably find itself pointing at the ceiling when I was trying to Skype with Mum, and the speakers were too quiet, so we’d have to Skype and phone at the same time to get both video and audio.

The new one, though, is fast: it boots in about a minute. It has a built-in high definition webcam and the speakers are loud enough for us to make a Skype-to-Skype conversation, as you can see form the screenshot above.

It’s been a good day of re-establishing connections. Hopefully we can get back down to the Borders before too long, and can start using Skype more to keep in touch.