Archive for September, 2010

Santa in September

So,… it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in the UK. The kids are back at school, and settled again with resigned expressions. You think you’ve just done the last mow of the season, the nights are drawing in and there’s that sickly sense of something or other at the bottom of your gut – the year in free-fall to the solstice and the feeling you really don’t want to go there again, but you’ve no choice.  You need cheering up, you need a change of scene, but you don’t want to venture far from your gate, so you gravitate to your local garden centre for whom gardening has become more and more of a sideline over the years, and though it’s September, September for pity’s sake, there’s yet one more twist in the gut to come and it’s this:

Santa has arrived!

Yes. Christmas starts obscenely early these days. He probably came last week actually, but I don’t visit the garden centre much after mid-September because, well, to be honest,  because of Santa, who has begun to look more cynical and even slightly sinister to me these days. Over the coming weeks he’ll be joined by his motley crew of singing animatronic reindeer, and wall to wall sparkly jingly Christmas tat. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bloke but I feel like running from the place, screaming. There will even come a point in October when the Halloween pumpkins appear, to find themselves bedecked with Christmas tinsel and holly to form a hideous chimerical nonsense.

People will buy any old crap at Christmas – stuff they wouldn’t dream of buying at any other time of year. Miniature snow-globes with your names on them – made of plastic and banged out by the million in the far-east? No way? They sold a few today – though not to me I hasten to add. For me it brings into sharp focus the shallowness of our values. We buy this crap because it’s instilled in us that we have to. And it is not the crap itself that is the essential thing – its fitness, its sentiment, its rightness. It is more the monetary value: twenty five quid for front line relatives, tenner for the lower downs,  fiver for the second-cousins kids whose names you don’t recall, but they bought stuff for yours last time, so you have to do it or it will look bad. And you excuse the crap by saying it’s the thought that counts, and you’d better not grumble about it or you’ll look ungrateful, so you end up sitting there on Christmas morning with a fixed grin and a ridiculous  paper hat, cooing over a pile of stuff you’d never want in a million years. What do you do? You wait a respectable period before scraping it all into the bin.

And the point of it all escapes me now. The myth of the western consumerist Christmas has swallowed down completely the real meaning of that still far away season, and turned something that should mean something in simple human terms into something so utterly repellent I want nothing to do with it at all.  Ah well, only another three months to go.

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Sensationalist or what? I should be working for a newspaper!!!

I’ve not missed a day at the day-job since 2003. I’d been refurbishing the present Chez-Graeme back then, tearing floorboards up, but tore something in my back as well. That incident got me a  week off – not that I enjoyed it much, sat with my back up against a hot radiator with only my Psion 3 for company, tapping out a novel I knew would never be published.

Fortunately I get staff perks so I lost no pay, and then I was back at work right as rain for seven years. I was becoming stupidly proud of the fact I’d not lost any time to sickness since then, that I was – I don’t know – indestructible or super-reliable or something. Then comes last Wednesday and I’m pushing a trolley round the supermarket after work – full shop – no half measures. Toilet rolls? Margarine? Dishy Tabs? Check, check, check. Can’t be bothered making anything to eat after a day like that – so while I’m in the faceless, characterless mega-supermarket that I seem to visit every bleeding day, I buy myself a pre-packaged pasta salad with chicken-something-thingy-or-other – while I’m at it.

So, it gives me a bit of indigestion, not helped perhaps by the half bottle of rancid Chardonnay I quaffed on top – but never mind – it’s been a rushed day, and I probably ate and drank too fast.


Mr. Indestructible’s in the bathroom in the small hours of Thursday morning, vomiting so hard it’s coming out of his nostrils, and he’s trying not make a noise in case he wakes the family. And in the morning he’s ‘phoning sheepishly into work like the cringing coward he is to say that “actually he’s not feeling at all well”.

I lay down on the couch after the kids have gone off to school and college and what not, and I don’t move until they come home again, and then only to raise my head and issue jaunty platitudes to reassure them I’m still alive, that I’m still in business, still capable of earning and filling their pockets with cash and glee? I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. I ache in every fibre of my being and I’m so dog tired I can’t even walk to the tap for a drink of water, but neither can I sleep. I just lay there in a weird midway place, drifting in and out of imagination, my eyes tracking the pattern on the wallpaper, and eight hours is gone in a blur of nothing.

And as I lie there, I don’t give a damn about the day-job any more, don’t give a damn if I get well or not – if I walk the crest of Striding Edge just one more time or peg out right there on the crappy Chenille cover I’ve tossed over the couch, so I don’t spoil it. And I don’t care if a soul reads Durleston Wood or not because what the hell is it to them anyway? And what was I doing writing something so left-field as that in the first place, and I probably made a mess of it, but – I mean,… just,… oh,  who cares?

You hear these tales of sickness don’t you, which allow spiritual folks the time to focus in on something and change their lives because, my God, they’ve seen the light!!!! But really, though I’m a spiritual kind of guy, I see nothing at all! I’m focused in, sure, but it’s on nothing and the images that flit across that screen behind my eyelids aren’t from some  epic Shamanic journey, but from a daft impressionist movie that tries hard to make me think it knows more that it really does, when all it is is splashes of paint on a canvas, dabbed at random by a three year old kid, and any meaning I see is what I put there myself.

The next day you can walk about. You’re a little slow, a little dazed. Your head still aches but you’ve tempted your stomach into digesting a boiled egg without complaint now and you’re realising you’re perhaps not on the checking out list after all. You’re gagging for a cafetiere of fresh ground Javan instead of yet one more  glass of water, but you daren’t do it because you can still feel the burning in your nostrils from that stuff that was in so much of a hurry to leave your gut it didn’t care which route it took. And you’re sweating like a pig, and your brain’s working in a disturbing kind of slow-mo, but at least the kids have started nagging again so they know you’re off the danger list, and in a crazy kind of way you take some comfort from that. Then you wonder what it is to be a man in the twenty first century, and you wonder if your grandfather, or even your own father would have understood what it you’re thinking and you’re feeling, stranded here, food poisoned in 2010!

Then comes day three and it’s Saturday and Dad’s Taxi operates as normal with a run into town. You’re feeling at least capable of driving now, but you use the excuse of your sickness to bow out of standing like a pillock inside all the same shops where you nod recognition to the same bored assistants who’d rather not be there either. Instead, you walk over to W H Smiths, holding yourself like a cracked vase, for a copy of a well known highbrow UK broadsheet newspaper. You bring it back to the car and sit down to read but give up on page two, having been poked in the eye several times already by the word SEX, like in some sleazy tabloid from the Eighties where at least the girls got their tits out in an uncomplicated way and didn’t pretend they were doing it for any other reason than to stir a bloke’s loins and sell newspapers. And you’re thinking, dear editors, I’m feeling old and knackered today and I don’t want to know about that sort of thing any more, and really just grow up will you and give me some news, and some intelligent analysis!

But that’s illness for you – it makes you impatient. It makes you intolerant. And suddenly that seems no bad thing. Cut the crap. Keep it real. For God’s sake keep it real.

Then it’s day day four, and you’ve missed your Tai Chi class the day before because you thought you weren’t up to it, so you try to compensate by doing a bit of catch up in the back garden. You’re okay with the warm ups because you take them slow, but then you try the Sword Form and you manage only half way before your forehead’s touching the cool wet September grass in defeat, and the sword’s dropping from your hand, inviting the coup de grace. And you realise you’re a long way from being a hundred percent, that it’s work tomorrow, but you’ll be going in anyway if for no other reason than it’s crap being sick at home and staring at the wall-paper.

So,… to the person at the pre-packaged-pasta-salad-with-chicken-thingy factory who forgot to wash their hands that day, I say in all irony,  thank you very much!

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Even though I’m registered with the telephone preference service, which should prevent me from being pestered by telephone sales people when I’m: (a) just sitting down to my tea (b) sitting on the toilet or (c) having a bath, I’ve been getting a lot of calls about BT Vision lately and why don’t I sign up for it? Now, much as I like keeping up with the latest in computer/info-tech I’m really not interested in Internet T.V.  because I don’t watch that much T.V. anyway. Of the many channels now coming at us on Freeview I can never find anything that makes me want to switch the T.V. on – all right I’ll watch the news occasionally, and now and then I’ll watch a decent drama, but it’s becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. Indeed the last time I tried to actually turn the TV/Freeview box on, number two son had to do it for me because I couldn’t remember how.

But anyway, the first time I got the call from the tele-sales person, I listened with interest to them telling me of all these digi-video marvels that could be squished down my 2 Megabits of bandwidth, and I realised the fatal flaw in their argument – I mean some nights I’m lucky if I can get on the internet at all – okay number one son may already be online, gaming with his PS3, I may be listening to Frisky Radio over WiFi on my iPod, so when I’m also trying to upload my latest bit of nonsense onto Feedbooks or WordPress, it can be like wading through treacle –  so the idea we could actually get any more out of that bandwidth seemed a bit flaky to me, and I said so.

Undeterred, future sales persons seem to have been primed, ready with answers to this one, saying I actually only need 2 Megabits to get BT Vision working, that I have 2.5 megabits you know, because they’ve checked, and as such I’m getting twice the UK average!!!! This last one stumped me. To be honest, I would dispute the 2.5 megabits. I’ve just tested it and it’s definitely 2.1, but who’s arguing? What astonished me was the implication that I was lucky to have what I’m getting. If you’ve paid for “up to” 20 megabits per second and you’re the average UK internet broadband user and you’re only getting 1 and a bit-ish megabits per second (half of what I’m getting) , then you must be really brassed off, and I’ll shut up moaning about my 2.1 megabits because after this evening, far from feeling hard-done-by I’m starting to feel guilty about my megabit affluence.

Anyway. I still don’t want B.T. Vision, because like I said, I don’t watch T.V. that much, and besides, I’ve just checked up and discovered that if someone in your house is watching T.V. over the internet, your crafty little router will prioritise your Vision box and choke off anything else that others  may want to do on the internet, like erm, browse it, or blog on it, or play games on it, or horror of horrors listen to the radio.

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I’ve been re-reading Dreamgates by Robert Moss and I’m finding it very interesting. All of this is related to my exploration the old Romantic notion of the imaginal realm, or non-literal reality. Non literal reality, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is basically the dreamworld, it’s the place we drift off to when we’re not paying attention, it’s the place we enter when we dream at night, and the place writers can draw upon in writing their prose or their poetry. There’s also a long standing mystical tradition that it’s also the place we drift off to when we die, that it’s the mythical underworld, or the afterlife. It is a place that appears to be entirely inside our heads, and is most often rationalised as something we simply make up. However, another explanation is that it’s actually a dimensionless realm we can view through the faculty of the mind, that it is a real place and that we can make our way in it, if we know how.

What I want to do here is describe a way of entering this subliminal realm, of entering a dream while being fully awake and simply observing the run of it. You can do it too, and make up your own mind regarding the validity of the so called non-literal realm. The technique I used was the very first exercise in Robert Moss’s book, which is only meant as a light hearted thing to get you warmed up for the later deeply shamanic stuff, but which none th eless yeilded a surprising experience.

If you close your eyes and cover them with your palms, shutting out as much light as you can, you start to see patterns: lights, colours, swirls. If you observe these thing in a detached though objective frame of mind, you’ll see how these phantom patterns seem blended with your now hidden reality. Stick with the experience for long enough and the chaotic patterns will begin to condense out or crystallise into shapes. They’ll take on detail and they’ll move. When I was a kid these visual phantoms confused me and I remember lying in bed in the small hours trying to catch them in my hands. What the hell were they? Where did they come from?

Well, obviously they come from inside your head but appear before your eyes, as if seen by another kind of eye in the same place as your physical eyes, but it’s a vision that is somehow subliminal. If you watch them for long enough the details condense out so much they fill your field of vision, and you then become a passive observer of a different kind of reality altogther, like watching a movie you haven’t seen before, a world that moves and flows of its own accord. But you’re wide awake! And you don’t need to be stoned or drunk or hypnotised to experience it. Anyone can do this. It’s just that most of us have forgotten how.

The pioneers of this territory are what we nowadays call Shamans, though in other cultures they may be called Witch doctors or medicine men. These are individuals both feared and revered by their own cultures for their ability to enter the twilight realm and use the knowledge they gain from it to alter reality, to apparently receive visions of the future and to heal. One of the tools of the Shamans’ trade is the drum. The shaman beats his drum, quite rapidly – about 200 beats a minute or 4.5 Hz if you want to be scientific about it. It’s not exactly a relaxing rhythm and listening to it feels more like running, but the theory is that if the brain’s own rhythms can be entrained to this same frequency it will enhance the “shamanic experience”, it will sever the link tying you firmly into literal reality and allow you venture more freely into the non-literal realm.

Brain waves in this region are known are theta waves and are associated with trance states, with hypnosis, and with the borderline hypnagogic (leading into sleep) and hypnopompic (leading away from sleep) phases of the sleep cycle. Theta waves are also associated with lucid dreaming – dreams where you’re asleep but also fully conscious and aware that you’re in a dream. Theta then is beyond relaxation. Theta induces a liminal state associated with high strangeness, half dream, half reality.

I didn’t use a drum for my own experiement, because my neighbours would think I’d gone nuts and I didn’t want an ASBO. What I used instead was an app on my iPod Touch that delivers something called a bin aural beat, in the shamanic region of 4.5 Hz. I suppose I could have listened to a drumming tape or something, but I didn’t have one and I didn’t want to fork out £7.99 for one either from a New Age Emporium.

So, you tune in to the beats and you close your eyes and let the visual patterns emerge of their own accord. You don’t try to influence them in any way, you take a purely passive role, just letting yourself go with whatever comes. The first thing that materialised before my eyes was a desert region with sandstone mountains set against a startling blue sky. There was a dust storm blowing up in the distance, and there was this character walking towards me, walking out of the storm –  a Victorian gentleman,  in a top hat and an overlarge coat. It was quite a detailed vision. He seemed to be on the verge of talking but I’d set a timer on the iPod app, which faded the beats out  at the crucial moment and delivered me back into ordinary reality.

This was an impressive opener. I’ve used a technique for actively guiding my imagination in the hypnogogic state, probably all my life, but this was different. This was letting go of the controls, and the experience was vivid, detailed, colourful. The difference between it and a dream was like the difference between a black and white movie and HD.

Encouraged, I gave it another try.This time I found myself surrounded by a lot of Alice in Wonderland imagery. There was Alice in her blue dress with black and white stripey socks, there were rabbits, and then my Victorian gent came through again, a sort of prototype Mad Hatter? I wrote all of this down because it was fascinating stuff and completely off the wall. I mean, for pity’s sake the Mad Hatter? where did he come from?

And the punchline? Well,… that night I was doing something else, surfing for information online when suddenly, and totally unrelated to my search, there popped up an image of the Mad Hatter. Coincidence? Maybe. Still spooky though!

As with all things on the edge of reason, we should keep an open mind, weigh the evidence, expose ourselves critically to the experience, but take care not to let our brains fall out.

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