Thursday, October 2, 2014

The physical and the mental

The Dublin Marathon is in less than four weeks. The sooner those weeks pass the happier I'll be, because training has brought on oppressive fatigue. It is not just that I am sore and tired all the time but that I am mentally exhausted as well. And as such, I get too easily overwhelmed by life. Little things unpick me, as if I were one of Jenn's sewing projects.

That's Jenn in the picture above, of course, wearing one of her sewing projects: a cape she made for a fancy dress dinner party last weekend. For those of you playing along at home, "fancy dress" in the United Kingdom means "costume." Imagine my disappointment when I first learned this many years ago; I had envisioned a soirée with people in tuxedos and evening gowns. Anyhoo, the dinner party was one of those murder mystery things in which one of you is the killer and everyone has to figure it out.

The setting for said murder mystery was London in 1961. In black and white, with Jenn sitting on a train platform and the grim rowhouses of Grangetown just barely silhouetted behind her, she looks like part of the rebellious element that was bubbling beneath the surface at the time –– like a girl who might have ridden with the ton-up boys.

We had run 15 miles that day, but Jenn has inexhaustible talent for getting up for an event. Whereas I find that as I get older I am damned boring on even my good days. Fortunately, Jenn's friends have taught themselves to expect little of me.

On that 15-mile run I had failed to stretch properly either before or afterward and had developed an oh-so-slight pain in my right hip. Add it to the radiating pain in my knees, the ache in my toes, the shin splint in my right leg, the lower back pain and the mysterious and inexplicable pain in my hands. I didn't think much of it until this morning. 

Last night I had come home from work and run 5.6 miles around Cardiff Bay, again without really taking the time to stretch. I had assumed my cycling home from work enough of a warm up. But through the first miles my right foot wasn't striking the pavement right. My shin ached and my hip ached and my legs felt heavy. I imagined myself tied to and dragging a boat down a canal. Because that's the way my mind works, yo.

"Golly, I'm tired. I feel like an 1840s canal pony."

Things evened out by the end of the run and I finished OK, but afterward was hobbling around the flat because of the ache in my hip. Overnight, the pain was such that I kept waking up. And that has pretty much taken all the wind out of my sails. I have fallen into a comedy Eeyore-esque moroseness and I feel utterly defeated.

My mind jumps quickly to worst-case scenarios. Jenn and I are planning to run 22 miles Saturday as part of the training, the peak before winding down to ensure we are ready for the actual race. I have lost faith in my body, though, and wonder if I will be able to complete this weekend's run. I wonder if it will cause damage that won't heal before the race. And instantly I envision myself dressed in normal clothes on the day of the marathon, sick with myself and limping, able to do no more than cheer Jenn's efforts.

Meanwhile, if you happen to be looking at this site on an actual computer or laptop you'll notice the look has changed. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a screengrab of the blog before changing everything –– just for posterity's sake. C'est la vie. I can't remember, but I think I had been running the previous since 2010.

The new look is considerably simpler, with less sidebar information. Simple is the new hotness, it seems, and I guess it makes sense. Quite a lot of people –– if not most of them –– surf the internet via mobile devices these days. Filling a page with sidebar columns is cluttersome and pointless since many mobile browsers filter them out. I'll admit, though, that I struggle to commit to simplicity. I could probably stand to apply even more minimalism.

My inspiration for the redesign comes from two people: Chris Phin and Chris Phin. Ever since we sat around on the floor of his and Jenny's bare-bones flat in not-so-fashionable New Cross almost exactly nine years ago I have held strongly the view that Chris Phin Is Probably Right when it comes to things tech/internety. You know, the way Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably right about astronomy, or AC/DC are probably right about how to play a kick-ass guitar riff. Other people might have equally valid and possibly better opinions, but if you're looking for a safe bet these dudes are the ones who are probably right.

Jenny, me and Chris. Chris is holding up a London A-Z so "we'll remember where we were."
Nine years ago we were sitting on the floor because, like all people in their 20s living in London, Chris and Jenny could only afford a single piece of furniture: a futon. It felt awkward for us all to be sitting on the futon at once having a conversation, and there were no tables upon which to set our drinks, so we took to the floor. Despite the fact I was in their flat and planning to stay a few days it was my first time to physically meet them; we had formed a friendship through our respective blogs. The wonders of technology, y'all.

Anyhoo, I'm wandering from the point. Chris and I stayed up late drinking and talking about said wonders, and it instilled in me a sense that he was probably right in his opinion of them. This is a feeling since reinforced by his professional career; he's written for and been at the helm of numerous tech-related publications.

His website is simple. Which means that simple is probably right.

Meanwhile, if you look at his simple website at the moment you will see a post talking about his recent decision to step down as editor-in-chief of MacFormat. The plan, it seems, is to go into business for himself, doing freelance, consulting and all the other things media professionals do when they come to their senses and decide they need to step away from the day-to-day slog.

Personally, I applaud this move, if not simply because the last few times I've seen Chris, chatting with him has been just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit challenging. Not because he's dull or any such thing but because he has for the past few years been so tremendously overworked. I had this feeling I was competing for his attention against the bazillion other things he had to do and felt guilty about it. You don't want to add more stress to your friends' lives; you don't want to be another thing they have to think about.

Going into business for himself won't necessarily reduce his workload but it will give him greater control of it. And hopefully that will result in less stress overall.

Aiding him in his freelancing effort, Chris' simple-design website also serves as a tool –– a shingle, to use old-school British lingo –– to communicate who he is, what he can do, and how to contact him. And again, here's me totally copying his moves.

In the past few weeks I've had a chance to write a few freelance articles for some motorcycle websites. Which is awesome on two levels: 
1) People are paying me to write about motorcycles, yo.
2) It's a real step toward one of my major goals in The Five-Year Plan.

I don't think I've mentioned The Five-Year Plan before. It's a 12-page document I wrote up in July, outlining the myriad steps I need/want to take in order to get myself from what I am right now to something more like what I want to be. Effectively, it's an extension of the whole 183 Days idea, which fell flat because it lacked structure beyond just really hoping my writing career would take off.

The Five-Year Plan is more focused and includes just about every aspect of my life: career, relationships, health, etc. The part that deals with career sees me building incrementally toward professional writerdom and sets earning goals in terms of percentages of annual income. It's boring stuff if you're not me.

These recent freelance gigs –– which will likely help me achieve my earning goals for 2014-2015 –– pretty much fell into my lap. I am hugely grateful for my luck, but it occurs to me this won't always be the way things happen. Sometimes people will come from nowhere to offer an opportunity, more often, however, I will need to find them.

So, in simplifying my website I'm also trying to rejig it to serve as a little more of a tool. You'll notice, for example, the blog no longer has a title; it's just my name. Though, I have kept the "Dancing the polka with Miss El Cajon" sentiment in the subheading/description. I've added a portfolio section (which may or may not be a good idea). I'll add a contact section soon. It's all a work in progress; I'm not happy with it yet.

All this is quite exciting and feels very much like those happy moments when you are actually living up to the expectations and ambitions of your younger self. But then hip pain keeps you from sleeping for just one night and you wake up feeling that all is lost.

Training for the marathon is beating me up both physically and mentally. I find it so hard to recover from tiny little things, so hard to push myself through the molasses of tiredness. Here's hoping the 27th of October comes soon, and that I can survive all the way there.

Monday, September 29, 2014

TMO: The forgotten names

Below is the third and final post about my road trip to Yorkshire Dales National Park. Basically, it covers my trip back home, which included a stop in Leeds and at the UK's National Motorcycle Museum.

If you've never been to Leeds I'd suggest you make no particular effort to go there. It suffers from that thing affecting a lot of large British cities that aren't London, which is that they are generally indistinguishable from one another. So Leeds is Cardiff is Bristol is Birmingham: depressingly uninspiring concrete buildings greyed and decayed by decades of traffic pollution. If you live in one of these cities perhaps you can see the beauty and uniqueness of it, but as a visitor there is nothing really to make you want to come back.

The National Motorcycle Museum, meanwhile, is located in that motorcycling Mecca that is Birmingham. Obviously. Going to the museum was an educational experience, though, in the sense it taught me that motorcycles are in and of themselves not that interesting. Not when they're just sitting there, at least.

What fascinates me, what gets me all yammering and wild-eyed about motorcycles is what they mean, rather than what they are. That's not surprising, I suppose, but it's a good thing to know about myself. It's good to know that I am drawn more by the romantic rather than the technical. Acknowledging that helps me in how I approach the whole thing.

Anyhoosiers, click below to read the post:

Friday, September 26, 2014

TMO: Ay up

Linked below is the second of three parts retelling my trip to the Yorkshire Dales. This trip was my second time to visit Yorkshire (having previously had a chance to spend a few days in York back in February) and I find that I really love that part of the world. The scenery is great and the accents delight me.

Though I cannot imagine being romantically involved with someone who had a thick Yorkshire accent. Just think about it for a moment. Think about sexy bedroom things a partner might say and imagine them said in a treacly Yorkshire patois. It doesn't work.

In most other interactions, however, it's an enjoyable accent. Even listening to a Yorkshireman be angry is strangely fun (as long as he/she isn't angry at you). I'd be quite happy to try living up there a while -- particularly in York. Indeed, from time to time I peruse job listings there. Maybe one day.

In the meantime I am content to just visit. And hey, perhaps that helps preserve the magic. Actually living in York and having to deal with typical day-to-day issues like getting home from work in the rain or finding the money to pay for unplanned bike repair or whatever would inevitably tarnish my view of the place somewhat. Maybe it's better to just hold it golden in my mind as a place of great scenery and friendly/odd people who speak in funny accents.

Anyhoo, click below to read about my excessive speeding and eating rich food in pubs:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

May contain adult content

Jenn and I are trying to sell our flat. Or, well, technically, it's Jenn's flat. She bought it before we met; hers is the only name on the lease. But it's the nature of marriage that you don't pay much attention to ownership specifics. It all blurs together. You don't sit down and say: "OK, I'll buy these oranges and you can buy those apples and we'll split the cost on this milk."

In Ye Olde Days, that was, of course, one of the primary motivations for marriage: a pooling of resources. Two adults working together to improve their general condition. Practicality, you see.

And it is indeed for practical purposes that Jenn and I are keen to sell the flat: to get ourselves into the position of being debt-free. Which will/would be of benefit when/if we move to the United States in a few years. Or just of benefit in general. Being debt-free, y'all; it's the new hotness. And I've worked out that if we could get out from under all our debt we could rent a two-bedroom flat/house (our flat is one-bedroom) and still have a quantum of funds each month to put into savings. 

Simply using the profit of this flat as a deposit on a larger place won't work because the mortgage on such a place would be more than what Jenn could shoulder on her own, and my status as a Damned Dirty Immigrant (who is working and paying taxes to fund the housing and welfare of natural born citizens who stand outside the Jobcentre with their hands down their pants, drinking Stella Artois and shouting obscenities) prevents me from being eligible for such a loan or co-signing onto one with my wife.

If you're not terribly interested in my personal financial situation, I don't blame you. I get bored even thinking about it. Or, well, panicky-bored. That feeling where your brain simultaneously says: "Ugh, dude, I don't wanna think about this," and "AAARGH! I DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT THIS!"

Selling a flat, even though it is technically not mine, is, I think, the most grown-up thing I've ever done. And it induces a tremendous amount of stress. 

Firstly, it consequentially results in my thinking about money all the time. I don't mean thinking about it in a City trader sort of way -- "I'm making the moolah right now, baby! Woo!" -- but more in the way Ukrainians think about Russia. I spend all day trying to work out various scenarios and solutions and equations, but at the end of each of them is the reality that I have extremely little wiggle room. There's a 17-gallon bucket to fill and I've got just 17 gallons of water. Things are OK unless someone gets thirsty.

Thoughts on how to handle money lead, of course, to thoughts on how to earn money. Specifically, how I'd prefer to be earning money. Cue the large Sweetums-esque monster of my mind to sing the same old lament of my writing career not being anywhere near as profitable or prolific as I'd have hoped it would be by the time I was 38 years old.

These anxieties stack on top of each other and mush together. It's like ice cream on a hot day. Life becomes the challenge of sitting there in the sweltering heat trying to tackle a 4-scoop cone without having any of it spill onto your hands or, worse, topple to the ground. And in the great quadruple-dip waffle cone of life the additional challenge comes in the fact the flavours are not terribly complimentary. It would be far easier to tackle them one at a time. But you can't. They are on top of each other and as time goes on they become more difficult to distinguish.

Panicky-bored. Panicky-bored. I don't wanna talk about this, man. I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS. Where I'm going with talking about it is that strange feeling of realising that I'm an adult and not feeling terribly happy about it. I think because I am fearful that I am not terribly good at it.

And here Sweetums steps forward again to sing the Middle-class Woes: the feeling that I am a disappointment by scale. Do you get what I mean? Objectively, my life is pretty good; I have achieved some good things. But I feel that if you take into account the tools I've had to achieve those things I am ultimately a letdown. 

I imagine myself in a large room full of mechanical parts. That is my life. And at the end of my life, God is going to walk into the room and say: "Well, what'd you manage to make, Chris?"

"This bicycle," I'll say. "It's pretty sturdy. I rode around on it quite a bit and it's held up. A few flat tires but pretty fun overall."

"Good, Chris. That's fine," he'll say. "But, uhm, well, you know... this room. All the parts and tools are in this room for you to have made a fighter jet. The parts and tools are here for you to have built a fleet of motorcycles. You've always had most of them. Then there were the times -- remember? -- that you put a lot of time and effort into developing some of the others. But you never really used them. A bicycle is good, Chris. And there are many people up here that, if they had presented me with even a drawing of a bicycle, I would have been very proud of. But you. With you, a bicycle is kind of disappointing. I think you've let yourself down a little. Ah well, you've got all of eternity to dwell on it..."

The fact that these feelings spiral from the simple act of trying to sell a piece of property convinces me even further that I am really not doing a very good job of being an adult. Or maybe I just don't like being an adult and resist it to the point of incompetency. I sense that I would be more enthusiastic about the whole thing if Jenn and I were planning to use the money to go on a massive road trip.

Monday, September 22, 2014

TMO: It's (not at all) grim up North

One of the challenges of maintaining two blogs comes when the blogs' worlds intersect. That sentence has the potential to lead us down a pretentious road of me taking me a little too seriously, but that's not where I'm trying to go with it. I simply mean that sometimes there are experiences/topics that I think fit the genres of both my personal blog and my motorcycle blog. And I'll waffle a bit on where that particular post should "live."

Such is the case with my recent trip to Yorkshire Dales National Park. I rode my motorcycle up there earlier this month and spent a day getting to know the park's communications team. Since I rode my bike, that makes it motorcycle related, right? But that trip to a beautiful part of the country that I'd not seen before is definitely a personal experience.

In the end, I opted to record the experience on but I want to draw your attention to it because I feel that my story of that road trip might be interesting even if you don't give a damn about motorcycles.

Going off on a tangent here, what is Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about? In the introduction, Robert Pirsig points out that his autobiographical novel is not really about either thing. Indeed, if you are an individual seeking specifically a book about one or the other, you probably walked away from that particular title feeling a little unfulfilled. Most motorcycle fanatics have tried to read it and will quietly admit they gave up when the narrative was somewhere in Montana and had slipped into chapter after chapter of not-motorcycle-related stuff.

I think about this because I have a book in my head that I am promising myself I will start plotting out soon. The narrative is very loosely based on my own experiences of driving across the United States in 2009. In real life, I made this journey in rental cars. But I have been thinking that for the novel I will have the main character buy a motorcycle in Boston and tackle the American landscape on two wheels.

But does that make it a motorcycle book? I guess for the purposes of sales, it doesn't hurt to have a niche audience like that, but... well... I don't know. Perhaps I am overthinking it.

Another tangent:
I have broken the tale of my Yorkshire Dales trip into three parts. The first is linked below and I'll link the others soon. Writing posts like these, or, rather, the experiences that lead to writing posts like these, is what I love most about motorcycles and motorcycling. Yesterday I was looking back through some pictures of last summer, when I first had my motorcycle, and was thinking of how much this stupid little machine has positively affected my life.

In the last year, I have seen considerably more of Britain than I had in the seven years previous, and that has resulted in my developing a more positive outlook on life. Having the freedom and ability to explore this island makes me hate it less. Yes, I am still eager to move out of Wales, but believe me, the venomous rage I used to feel and spit toward the Land of Song has reduced considerably. And outside of the Welsh context, very slowly (very slowly) I find myself warming again to Britain overall and Europe, and remembering why I was so desperate to move here in the first place.

Just because of a 600cc Honda motorcycle.

Anyhoo, here's the first of the three-part story of my taking that little Honda to Yorkshire, featuring an encounter with a WWII dispatch rider:

It's (not at all) grim up North