Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to talk about travel (morning thought)

Going places! Marrakech train station.

After a trip to an exotic place, you are obliged to talk about it. Friends ask you about Your Trip (especially in New Zealand, where every country except Australia and home is considered exotic). Or you have an urge to talk about it anyway.

But how? Travel talk can be such a pleasure, but it can also go seriously wrong. Half your audience has already been to the same destination, and the other half has been there in spirit thanks to TripAdvisor and Facebook.

Is there a taxonomy of travel talk? I have been watching how others do it, and I hope to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.

A. Travel talk that I enjoy hearing
  1. Personal experiences combined with insights into broader topics.
  2. The person who respects your knowledge and adds to it.
  3. A story steeped in joy or excitement or delight or drama or fear: strong frank personal feelings.
  4. People who travel with a specific purpose: how did things pan out?
  5. A story about people.
  6. An amazing fact that I have never heard before.
  7. Stories that grow and grow in response to the listener's questions.

B. Travel talkers who drive me nuts 
I wish you all the best, but I do not want to be you.
  1. The bore who tells you 1,000 (dubious, random, context-less) "facts" about a place.
  2. The know-it-all who believes spending 5 minutes in a place gives their every opinion the ring of authority.
  3. The full-time cruise traveller who compares tours, not places. 
  4. The relentless super-generaliser.
  5. Mr and Mrs Cost-a-Lot, Mr and Mrs They-Can't-Make-Chips, and their friends.
I'd better get an executive summary ready so that I don't lapse into category B.

And by the way: jotting down morning thoughts is more demanding than I expected. On a train and planes, I did not jot. Now I'm home, there's a little problem of time. Well, that's just for the record: it's all good.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Morning thoughts: like traffic in Marrakech

Traffic in Marrakech

Had to happen! Yesterday I idly decided (more or less) to write down my morning thoughts every day.

Today I woke a bit too early, and started wondering whether I would think anything worthwhile or useful or interesting this morning. (Note the elitism emerging already.) And then, assuming the worst, I started wondering whether I might cheat, by recycling something I thought a day or two ago.

How daft. I planned to jot down everything without censorship or judgement.  Yet immediately this began to seem like a task—changing the essential nature of any poor little morning thoughts that might struggle past the sentries.

This last week I've been staying in Marrakech for a family event, which doubtless explains why I have had surplus thinking time. The traffic is at times wildly unpredictable. You're walking down a narrow lane, maybe almost empty, maybe packed with people and colourful things for sale, when whoosh! straight from nowhere, a car or motorbike or donkey-cart crashes around a corner and misses you by a whisker.

Anyway, bear with me, I'm laying the groundwork for an analogy.

I've discovered that I experience danger in a profoundly different way from three of my sisters. When death misses them by a millimetre, they are surprised. They get a shock. They are momentarily afraid, as anyone with half a brain should be. But apparently I'm not on the same wavelength. The situation is is genuinely dangerous, but I seem to find it amusing, as if the world is putting on a delightful pantomime for my personal entertainment.

It's just as well I'm leaving tomorrow. The death rate from traffic accidents here is high, we have been told.

So far, I have recounted an anecdote plus an observation. Here, by contrast, is a thought: my mind is a toy, and I want to play with it as long as I can. Morning thoughts are a pantomime for my amusement. They are not right or wrong, but sometimes strange and funny—to me. They're not brilliant or moral or enormous or inspiring or alarming. Just entertaining.

Like the traffic in Marrakech.

P.S. Self defence instincts are three, not two.

  1. Flight.
  2. Fight.
  3. Write. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Morning thoughts about morning thoughts

Every single morning I wake up full of thoughts. I find them remarkably interesting. They start in my head and gallop around until they reach a certain point of satisfaction, then flow out my feet, treating my body like a drain pipe.

Because I live alone, nobody hears my morning thoughts or gives me feedback. When I lived with the Professor, I would tell him my morning thoughts (or dreams) as soon as he woke up. In the end, he found this intolerable; he likes to wake slowly and think later in the day, I suppose.

If I ponder one of these thoughts in company with friends during the day, this usually interrupts the communal flow of conversation. They exist in a satisfactory way inside my own head, like hermits. If I attempt to talk about them in company, they often flap around like black crows. Their natural environment is in my brain, before I flush them out.

I don't put them down on paper: I just put them down, as in animal euthanasia. I have no idea whether the same thoughts regenerate and circulate again and again, perhaps in a spiral. Am I repeating myself to myself?

This question interests me because sometimes I am positively thrilled with my morning thoughts. I think, "Wow! I wonder whether anybody in the history of the human race has ever thought that thought!"

A thought will feel amazing, surprising, and above all unique when it has allowed itself to be thunk past three or even two stages. That's the difference between a thought and an idea. No PhD theses or 24-volume novels spring up ready-to-write in the early hours; but sometimes the potential manifests itself.

One of today's thoughts follows. What if I wrote down my morning thoughts every single day for a year? Then I'd see how much cogitation recurs, how much goes down the drain forever, and how much develops over time, building upon itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

5 things I've learned about growing old

This month I've learned new things about growing old, as a result of preparing a speech for a conference. This was a special event from me as for once, two of my different worlds converged.
  • My usual daily work is in the digital sphere, creating online courses for online workers. 
  • The general purpose of this blog is to experience and explore the process of growing older, in the hope of reducing its scare-value.
At the DARE conference 2014, I found to my surprise that younger digital workers are also interested in the process of growing older.

The DARE conference audience worked at jobs such as programming, web design, content management, systems design, digital strategy and web editing. The process of preparing a speech for this conference was both radical and rigorous, involving a set structure and several rehearsals with other speakers. This was heaps of fun, and gave me some valuable insights.
  1. Your life story, past and future, is fluid. It is not cast in concrete.
  2. Writing about your life story brings surprising new insights. (Funny, that.)
  3. A 25-minute speech can be built like a screenplay or novel, using the 12-stage Hero's Journey structure.
  4. Your parents embed certain instructions in your head. If they're good for you, you can refer to them forever. If they're bad for you, kick them out and get some new ones.
  5. We already know how to grow old happily, thanks to science, experience and common sense. But don't wait for anything, not for that dream job or romance or Lotto ticket: the trick is to start being happy right this minute, regardless of circumstances and regardless of your age.
Now you can watch my 25-minute speech online (and of course all the others):
Life is short: find happiness now

Image from the talk: shows the way a body (mine) ages over the decades.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Significant moments: visiting the void

It irks me that I barely write anything in this blog nowadays. This is hardly an original problem — it's a problem for most of us: how many social media outlets can you handle?

My own list has been out of control for ages. I always intended to separate the personal Rachel from business Rachel and writer Rachel, and have failed hopelessly from the start.

Facebook was going to be for contact with far flung family and friends and the kids who use nothing else for communication. Twitter twice, for business-us and writer-me. Google+ because "they" said we ought. Business blog because I know I ought, and anyway, it's interesting. LinkedIn (neglected) for a different kind of business communication. And last on the list, Old Lady Laughing, this blog. Which was always intended to be random, undisciplined, and mainly for myself.

OK so those words are jabber about nothing much. I use the term jabber without judgement: jabbering has its place. It's a pointy word but it doesn't jab anyone.

Segue from nothing much to the void

By contrast, this year I have been forced to think systematically about the facts of growing old. I wanted to be forced, so I've been preparing a talk for the DARE conference in London (people skills for digital workers).

A 25-minute talk restricts the number of turning points you can discuss. But certain moments consistently crop up in my story and I repeatedly return to them. To an outsider, they seem like nothing-much moments, unremarkable. And yet for me, they happened as epiphanies.

Know the feeling?

By developing a short speech about my own life, I now understand that such episodes stick in my mind for good reason. Each is like a magic lens that enables me to contemplate the unthinkable.

Which is the topic of a short poem I wrote a while back.


  1. Voiding the void.
  2. Avoiding the void.
  3. Imploring the void.
  4. Embracing. Revering.
  5. Exploring the void.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Applying the hero's journey structure to a 25-minute speech. Or a novel.

The heroic figure above, if you can see it, is from the DARE Conference 2014 web site.  I wonder what feelings it evokes in you? I love it. Yes, we can fly to the stars: imperfect, comical, human though we are, we can have an adventure and reach new heights.

I'm going to be one of the speakers at this very special conference, whose tag line is "People Skills for Digital Workers."

They do everything differently at DARE. All speakers craft their talks into the standard hero's journey structure, based on Joseph Campbell's classic. This structure is almost obligatory for film scripts, and is also extremely useful for novels. 

We do this work in small groups, meeting on Skype every few weeks. 

You might think these meetings are a hybrid of writers' group and therapy session.  But what a privilege to have companionship, guidance and support as we work our way through a particular creative process.

We started by hammering a short talk into a 12-step structure, each step introducing a new twist or crisis. So far I have gained at least five benefits.
  1. I have enjoyed quality time with some brilliant people.
  2. My talk has a stronger theme and shape.
  3. I have gained a greater understanding of the hero's journey literary structure. 
  4. I have made a new narrative for my life. (Of course there are many possible records, but the needle is inclined to get stuck.)
  5. I am stumbling towards a deeper understanding of myself and my life. No really! It's true! 
Lucky me. I'm very much looking forward to the DARE conference as a culmination and reward. Step 13? 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mindfulness and meditation for beginners

Meditate for health and strength and relaxation and creativity. Meditate because it feels nice. Whatever. But if you meditate with the explicit goal of spiritual transformation, you lay yourself open to certain risks. Failure. Disappointment. Self deception.

Of course you may experience spiritual transformation while meditating. Sometimes you may drift into a delicious, quasi-mystical state. You certainly may find emotions welling up unexpectedly.

But if that's not your cup of tea, be aware that Just Doing It always works.

Be kind to yourself: your meditation is fine fine fine, just the way it is. Simply sitting still in one place for 10–15 minutes brings about a certain calmness and other physiological changes. If your mind keeps straying, so what? Noticing your thoughts and letting them go is a big part of meditation. There's no such thing as bad meditation!

6 misconceptions about meditation and mindfulness
  1. Meditation is hard to learn: no way. I learned in a half-hour session with a visiting guru, after which I just did it. Later refresher courses were interesting and pleasant but not necessary.
  2. It takes a lifetime to learn. Rubbish. You can learn how to meditate by doing a short course, which might take a weekend or six 1-hour sessions.
  3. You have to meditate for 45 minutes twice a day. Says who? 
  4. It's a deep and meaningful experience. Well, it may be, sometimes, yes. But usually it's just a practical habit with short- and long-term benefits, like brushing your teeth.
  5. You can't go it alone. You need to commit to a guru, whether Buddhist, Hindu or California New Age. Ah yes, they would say that, wouldn't they?
  6. Some types of meditation are better or stronger or richer or deeper or morally higher than others. Sure, there are many ways to meditate — breathing, focus, body scanning, mantras...  so experiment. Find a method or methods that you like: they're the best ones for you. 
Look around for courses and books that teach rather than evangelise. You may find them within the medical profession or online or locally.

The Five Minute Meditator: the best beginner's book I know. I give it away in handfuls and recommend it left right and centre. Even the title is calming and encouraging. Eric Harrison's other books give depth and perspective to the history and practice of mindfulness and meditation — but no dogma. His latest book, Mindfulness 101, welcomes the arrival of mindfulness as a new world-wide mainstream craze, because it strips the conventional monk's robe off this practical, useful tool.

The Perth Meditation Centre sells Eric Harrison's books online
Mindfulness Works: secular meditation and mindfulness courses in New Zealand
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Practices with Jon Kabat-Zinn