Settling

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In our search for our goals we tend to go ever faster from A to B. Our lines of travel get straighter and straighter. Habit inevitably then takes over and narrows us. The organic wandering we all once had, ceases.

In a negotiation workshop this week I raised the question of this narrowing of perception. As a practical example I asked the group how much they varied their journey to work. The discussion was furious.

One woman recited how she always parked in the same place and got the same seat on the bus. A colleague asked her how she’d feel if someone took either of those places. She said she’d be furious. In that moment she paused and thought.

The next thing she said was that she’d be sitting on a different seat on the bus home and parking in a different place tomorrow.

 

The title words are by Thomas Hanna – with my arrangement of them – from “The Power of Soft”

 

Struck

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I was struck this morning by a comment, made on the radio.

Looking at the aftermath of the earthquake in Italy, the reporter started her report by reflecting on the beauty of the flowers and nature around her. 

She then went on to contrast this with the devastation all around her; caused by the same earth.

I remain struck by this observation. Struck because it seemed to hold something.

As I reflected, I was struck again by a report showing a picture of a clock on a tower in Amatrice. 

The tower was still standing and the clock was frozen at 3.39am.

The article beside the picture said that the 13th Century tower stood whilst the nearby Romolo Capranica School, restored in 2012 supposedly to anti-seismic standards, had collapsed.

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I was then interested to hear of a nun escaping with her life from a collapsing church because she hid under a bed.

How is the frame of a bed safer than a building? I wondered. How is an old tower standing when a new school falls?

I reflected then on Ai Weiwei’s sculpture “Straight” which I saw in 2015. It was inspired by the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in which over 5,000 school children died.

Weiwei was struck when he realised that many of the buildings that collapsed, did so because of their construction.

They should have contained steel reinforcing rebars but they didn’t. 

Schools and public buildings had suffered most through this error of construction. They had been built cheaply. 

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Wei Wei bought all the rebars he could from the incident and had them straightened. He then made a work of art from the bars.

His piece asked us to consider these deaths and why the people had died.

I then read an article in which Dario Nanni of the Italian architects’ council who said that this week’s quake’s impact had been exacerbated by the widespread use of concrete rather than wooden beams.

In Nanni’s words “These indestructible beams hit walls like a hammer… that is why so many houses collapse”

I’m struck by the clock, the bed, the rebars and the wood but most of all I am struck the image of hard concrete.

“Rubble” is the deathly word the reports all seem to repeat again and again.

Hard, brutish, unmoving rubble. 

I see that it is buildings and the way that we choose to build them that kills people.

It is not the earth. The earth has always moved and always will. 

The reporter was right to reflect on the beauty of the earth and to contrast that to the destruction all around her. 

From GDP to GFP

As I plan the next stretch of open water, between September and Christmas, there is one thing I have decided to focus on. That thing is GFP. 

GFP is Good For Planet. It’s a way of asking – should I do this or not? 

GFP is a measure of goodness not GDP grossness. It is not about money or quantifiable return. It is simply a question of whether this thing is good and in what way. GFP takes me away from everything always coming down to questions of money. 

Good is a question that asks me –  “How is what I am doing contributing to the planet rather than taking away from it?”

Unlike GDP,this is not about stuff – unless maybe I can maybe get rid of some of it – this is about finding creative solutions that don’t involve more stuff. It’s about using what’s already there better. 

“Planet” encompases everything living. It includes human life as a part and that is the point – we are part of the whole. I want to go back to the origin of the word “eco” – to its Greek origin “oikos” – the whole house – not my greedy bit of it.

That’s all – a simple, practical measure- controlled by the bit I control, me. 

What is the GFP of this thing I am about to do? 

Small Boat Theory

Small boat theory is based on boats but just as boats are vessels for the wider dreams of man, so the theory seems to have application elsewhere.

My central observation is that there is a common pattern to the ownership of boats. A person may get into boating with a modest purchase, a starter boat. This might originate in their youth or in their later years. This boat is bought on a budget and is just enough to contain the reality of what we hope to do with it.

The small boat has the advantage of being no more than we need. Not only is it cheap to purchase, it is easy to maintain, has less complicated bits added onto it and less to go wrong.

As long as the vices of nasty haven’t been combined with the joys of cheap, small suffices.

Fewer troubles generally occur at the smaller end of the scale because micro challenges get solved easily. Small is simple. Small is human sized.

Over time though the possibility of the boat and the size of the dreams that go alongside it can expand. A shower, warm water, more cooking space, a bigger bed, faster cruising speed, competion, ego expansion; any number of things might attract us to a bigger vision of what is possible.

An industry exists to sell us dreams and it is easy to succumb to. We dream of what we might have and what we might be able to do. In a progress that often takes place in a number of steps, the boat gets replaced with something bigger, more luxurious and more expensive to buy and maintain.

Before long the vessel is big enough and well appointed enough to contain all possibility. Then, over time, reality tends to fail to keep up with possibility. Holidays are booked elsewhere, expediency takes over and the dreams are not fulfilled. Because our busy lives are elsewhere, the vessel sits lonely in the water gathering weed and costing, because of its size, a small fortune.

At some point the boat’s size on the water thus gets questioned. We can’t go a particular place because the boat is too large or I can’t go today because I need additional crew to help. At the same time the overall cost gets analysed. Does this make sense any more we ask? We decide not and tell ourselves we can always charter a boat in the sun or go with our friends. The boat finally gets sold and our fun on the water stops.

In all this we don’t step back to look at what has happened. It is difficult to consider going back to small again.

Instead, in all this escalation of dreams it is a rare thought that in the first place says: why not stay with something that is yes, always a little bit constricting but nevertheless gives us fun?

Why not value the cheap, the simple and the easy to justify over the large and complicated? Is not the seamanship, that being on boats is all about, centred on being economic after all?

In that searching for economy we are also forced to be more self-reliant and creative rather than resorting to our pockets to sort out our problems.

Small Boat Theory is the challenge to resist the charms of the bigger and simply stick with the least we can, knowing that we’ll be happy thereby.

The image at the top of the page is my small boat “The Magic Mushroom” beached at the bottom of the tide on Osea Island in Essex. 

Creative Tapas and the Chair Game

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Last weekend most of the family Gallo partipated in an event convened by Robert Poynton and family at La Serna near Avila in Spain. The event was called the Creative Tapas and it was properly exceptional. A group of about 40 of us did simply what we wanted, from dawn to dusk and beyond. In that loose array, we became truly creative.

Many things struck me. The shrunken heads that became photo head bombs, the random phrase conversation, the water wheel run, the shadow play, the paper planes, the movies, the move from light to dark…  I could go on.

In looking back I already know one distinct thing that sticks out for me and will particularly remain. That was a late evening running, an “after lights out” version of “The Chair Game” played on the thankfully lit but deliciously dewy night-time lawn.

The Chair Game is both a simple and a highly complex thing. In simplicity it is one person, the walker, whose job it is to sit down on the one free seat that is not occupied by a group of players who sit on all the other chairs. Those players are free to move around the chairs as fast as they like to block the walker from sitting down in the free chair with the one caveat that once their buttocks leave the chair they are on, they may not move back to the same chair.

From this simple start the game becomes a frenzy of movement that continues in wave after wave. The complexity comes once you start playing the game and realise just how many lessons it can teach us. There is obvious teamwork and communication on the immediate surface but then one starts to notice all the different styles of play and participation that emerge. Underneath there is also a structural thing going on that partly depends on the layout of the chairs. In the game we get to see the devils of structure and process pitted against reliance on pure emerging human ingenuity. Nowhere have I seen this balance better demonstrated. Altogether, this game seems to have most of the big life and corporate lessons meshed into it somewhere.

At the weekend I got the nickname “The Rock”. I think this was because I spent a lot of time watching the game and moved rarely. I learnt things about the game from sitting tight but I also learnt that to really learn I needed to take some risks. I needed to get up and mess up a move. Lesson no 1: Movement is required. Lesson No 2: To really learn you have to be prepared to fail. I did then duly learn these lessons.

In this playing the game also took on another dimension. Earlier in the day there had been an experiment with commentary for a football match. Like many situations in life we thought this was about the match when really it was much more about the commentary – the story which builds up around the play. Steve Chapman and Jorge Alvarez were the initial commentators and they each took specific roles in character. Steve and Jorge now provided the same commentary to the Chair Game.

Now you might think that providing commentary on a game you know very little to nothing about is difficult and that would be true. However that only remains true if you remain under an assumption that knowledge is always helpful. I don’t want to decry the experts here but in an uncertain situation such as this game too much expertise can simply blind us to new possibility. Here the progress of the game is far better served by the commentators just making believable stuff up, but doing so convincingly.

What really helped here was that Steve took the job of “Advance” whereas Jorge was “Colour”. This is a classic story-telling approach, the balancing of the job of advancing the story on the one hand and the colouring in of details on the other. Too much of either can kill our interest – a balance is what works best and finding that balance can be tough. Here, Jorge playing the local “expert” extemporised beautifully and Steve grabbed back the action as the play developed.

The role based approach works in commentary partly because of the handover. When colour is required the microphone was physically passed over. When advance is needed, as the action picks up, it is handed back. It also works because each knows their role. Colour knows that the job required is to paste in information that will interest and entertain. So we learn something about the player – how they got their nickname and what off field behaviour they are renowned for as well as something about their playing history. If as in this case there is not much real information then the job is simply to make it up. And boy did they make it up.

As the night turned into morning the commentary got swapped around as more and more people had a go at the microphone. Before long the history of the game emerged; a rich legacy of international championships intertwined with the lessons of Reykjavik and Oslo in the late 90s and early 80s. Classic moves such as the Etruscan Defence and Newton’s Shuffle were explained as they got discovered, demonstrated and then repeated on the lawn.

As the commentary got intertwined back into the game the power of story telling and improvisation, offer and acceptance, knitted the game stronger. This showed us the power not only of the thing but of the legends and stories that surround it, how history is created and sustained.

La Serna 2016 will now live on in the history of The Chair Game as it continues to grow. This is a game that not only has a lot to give but also now has a growing culture of moves, plots and characters. It is a simple creation of complex genius and I commend it to you.

 

Thank you to Steve Chapman for the photo used above.

Thanks also to John Willshire who is starting to curate the moves and history of the game.

Here is a slowmo video of action at a previous running at the V&A by Rowan Gray 

No Change to Punch and Judy?

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The rosy glow of summer sun conjures up a feeling that anchors us back in childhood. It’s a call of the beach that features sandcastles, ice-creams and fun. Once experienced, it is always remembered – an anchor point of safety and escape in an ever crazy world.

Into this mix we throw a show. This show comes to us, at the beach. It’s loud and colourful and before long we are pushing forward to see it. Adults stand at the back and children are pushed forward in ranks, the very youngest sitting at the front.

This is a game of puppets in which smart one-liners matter – the well timed blow just has to land. If it doesn’t quite convince, there is always the Machiavellian stick behind it. We are all laughing because we, as the audience, feel safe. Ice-cream in hand, we are satiated. Our little ones, pulled in by the Top Gear action, are transfixed.

No-one is going to speak out at this moment. No-one is going to say what they really see. No-one dares. It is part of the furniture of the place.

What we are really watching is a scared man beating up his scared wife. This is a woman with whom he has fathered a child. The baby is a product of an abusive marriage. For part of the show he will abuse the child in front of us, before disposing of the body. A policeman will be sent but he too will be ridiculed and then dispatched. Before long sausages will be stolen, burnt, fought over and finally lost.

Nevermind that. As an entranced audience we will not only push the children forward, we can also be relied on to pay for the show.

As the characters in the drama retire into their homes whistling their happy tunes, the audience too can be relied upon to depart back into their everyday lives also.

In doing that what we walk away from is a perfect mirror. Punch and Judy is a show without script that exists only because it reflects us and thus amuses us. It amuses because it parodies the very worst of what we are. All the bits that we don’t like about ourselves are up there to be walked away from, to be paid away in our ticket to the show, as entertainment.

It is these flawed bits of us that quietly undermine us, even in our moments of determined good intent. Yes, we are positive. Yes, we are focussed. Yes, we work. Why then do we fail to deliver on the promises we make? Staying and looking deeply into the mirror would tell us all we need to know; yet that is the one thing we tend not to do.

In December 2005 when David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party he made a simple promise to get rid of “Punch and Judy politics”. We liked that headline and we bought it.

These few weeks, in June and July 2016, show just how badly he has failed. He has failed because he is part of the cast; a cast that can continue to play a show they know and love to an audience that paradoxically loves it too.

The show is very simple really. It is project fear writ large. It is old style Empire based dominant power that cleverly now uses economic power in place of good old fashioned fighting with the law paid to prop it up. Ethics? Principles? What fun are they? When swords stopped being entirely fashionable, Flashman choose to employ his Father’s wallet.

In the show, the governing narrative is about fighting. It is about building a tribe, a band of brothers. To do that one needs first an enemy and secondly the power, economic or military, to fight that foe. The House of Commons, with its lines holding the opposing forces the minimum distance of two sword widths apart, takes that model and places it in a civil format.

We, as the audience take the model into our own lives too. As “hard-working families” we fight our own foes in our daily battles, as we wage economic warfare in the world.

The model is broken however. It is broken because the internet post 2001 has made us realise that fighting is no longer a model that serves a connected world. It may make good drama but if we allow it to rule our lives we have to, at very best, always choose sides. Sides then fail us. A model that doesn’t genuinely serve all, fails even the victors.

We exit from situations all the time. Exit can work but only if in that walking away we are in the process of walking towards something far better – creating something that is more creative, more connected, more embracing. 

If this was the leaving of a battlefield to do that healing, then the doctors who understand the wounds and the process of change and healing would be all around us urgently doing their work.
As one leader departs and another one takes over, are we, the paying audience, in danger of just walking away from one show, clutching our remaining pennies, whilst already quietly readying ourselves for the next?

Or has this happened because we took a good look in the mirror and really understood the problem?

The Ballerina Philosopher

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The word problem has a problem.

It’s so bad, problem is in therapy.

Stretched out in lower case on the therapist’s couch, problem finally gets face to face with the problem.

“I had it all once you know…”

This moment of reflection comes after weeks of woes. It seems nobody loves problem any more. Some people want to cut problem up into halves whilst others simply travel miles out of their way in elaborate avoidance strategies. 

The therapist has heard more than once that problem gets shunned and avoided wherever it goes. People don’t want to spend their time with problem any longer.

Suddenly, just as the therapist is getting a bit bored and thinking about what to have for lunch, problem pipes up:

“You know, when I was born, I was a child of two much older, wiser words; “Pro” and “Ballein”.”

“I didn’t”, the therapist says, “Go on…”.

“My Father, Pro was a philosopher; himself born before his time. He liked to always look forward.

Ballein was a dancer. She threw herself bodily into motion; a coiled spring ready to pounce.

My parent’s union came about because they needed each other. Each had a lot to give but together they were formidable.

I was the embodiment of their coming together and was named in their honour.”

The therapist continues to look at problem curiously, inviting more. Problem continues.

“That coming together: “Pro-ballein” – Pro, the proposal forward and Ballein, the active throw – became my name.

I was, I am “Problem”.

Problem dwells on that thought for a moment, reconnecting with something, then a new idea comes.

“I guess that in me, action met thought, a kind of dreaming made real. I was a fresh idea, perfect for those times; a new concept of actively throwing a difficult question forward for resolution.

I had a wonderful childhood and early youth. In times of trouble, people sought me out and I made lots of friends. In a world of change I was popular. People knew that by spending time with me their questions became clearer. People then were prepared to change their beliefs in my company. I had a purpose and a role. I helped people. I miss that.

I never appreciated it then…  before I knew it, times changed and people became more fixed in their beliefs. I blamed them and I’ve been blaming everyone for that for a long time.

I’m afraid to say it but I must; I’m not proud. Success went to my head and I didn’t stay true or relevant to where I was really needed. I cashed in for an easy life. I regret allowing this to happen. I know now that I can’t blame others, for I too let fear take over. I pushed challenges away, feeling I didn’t need them any more. Fear made me lazy and conceited and I let others see the worst in me.

Now I can see that I need to change; to evolve and become the word I am truly capable of being.”

There’s a pause. 

Problem then cautiously smiles.

“I am proud of my name…….and if I am proud others will be too.

As I sit here re-living those times I can re-connect with who I really am. I can see a role for me once again in a world, which is once again full of difficulty and conflict.

I have not been popular for a while. I see that now. I have allowed myself to become depressed. This is entirely my own doing.

I needed to change and because I was not able to change, this was holding me back.

I feel ready now to move forward once again”

There’s a pause and the therapist simply asks

“So…?”

Problem looks out the window, then finally turns back to the therapist:

“I want to say,

I, “Problem”, am here to dance with you, “Question”, once again.

Together we can project forward into fresh possibility.

I am asking challenge and change to join us once again.

Together we will face our fears. Our fears will now guide and fuel us.”

“That is what I want to say”

“Well, you just have” the therapist says, leaning forward to shake hands with Problem.

 It seems the answer was here all along.

Parallel Reading

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For years now I have had more than one book on the go at any one time. There is a danger with this however. It gets messy. I find it just too easy to stop reading a book without knowing why. Before I know it I have a house full of books with bookmarks buried somewhere in the middle of them. I’ve realised having those unfinished book gestalts all over the place is not a particularly calming thing to have going on. It is a mark of an indecisiveness I have grown tired of.

So I have decided two things. First I am either reading a book or I am not. If I have given up with a book I will treat it as read and I will not leave a bookmark in it. It is either not a book for me or, equally possible, the time is not right.

The second part of this decision is that the maximum number of books I am going to have on the go is two. I am also going to see if I can do what I have unwittingly started to do already; reading those two books consciously at the same time – in parallel. I’m going to do that because I’m beginning to see that two books together can work together for me even better than just one.

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The first books I consciously felt working together as I read them were Niven and Dunn; the second coming of Jesus and the ascent of Usury. When I started this I was doing what I often do: I had one more factual book for alert mornings (Dunn) and daytime and another more fictional easier read (Niven) for evenings.

These books bounced brilliantly off each other. The rebirth and death of Christ in the modern world sat at counterpoint to the killing of Charles I and ascendancy of money.

Each book on its own would be great but together they gave me new thoughts and ideas. It’s more like parallax (two separate viewpoints) than parallel but that sounds a bit fancy.

Looking at my matches so far here I also notice I’ve gone from a red match to a green one. I am not sure yet how to make a good match between books but I do know that thinking about it too much is not the answer. Colour may be a thing. Or it may not.

Now I am reading Rebanks and Bly. The organic life of the shepherd and the challenge of Iron John.

I didn’t know when I started that they would bounce off each other so well but they do.

Oh but they do.