Tuesday, 19 December 2017

New Year's Resolutions

It's that time of year again: the time when most of us overindulge. In this part of the world, we have fewer daylight hours, and the temperature has dropped considerably. Our bodies burn more calories in the cold weather, and our mood can take a dip in the relative darkness of winter. In many respects, overindulgence is rational. Let's not forget that the festive season is actively marketed as a time of overindulgence. We can forgive ourselves for giving in to temptation, can't we?

Come January, the owners of gyms up and down the land will be rubbing their hands with glee. Many people will look back on the holiday season, and judge that they let themselves down. Their chosen punishment for their transgressions will be to join a gym, give up smoking, give up alcohol, give up junk food or to otherwise deprive themselves of something which brought them pleasure - however temporary - during the festive period.

What will happen, of course, is that their motivation will wane. Punishing ourselves for what we perceive as bad behaviour only leads to us feeling bad about ourselves, and we begin to resent what we see as punishment. How long will we continue? I'd suggest that it won't be long and, if we finally give up on the task we set ourselves, we'll feel even worse. We will feel that we have failed.

I'm a little sceptical of New Year's resolutions, for all the reasons I've stated. I do, however, believe that we are more than capable of keeping our promises to ourselves. I believe that we can do this by asking ourselves a simple question:

Who am I doing this for?

If you don't already do this, then write down your New Year's resolution, or resolutions. Then, write down your reasons for wanting to keep those resolutions. Finally, and this is the most important step, look at those reasons and ask yourself how many of them are just for you.

From an early age, we learn to seek the approval of others. Until we are able to provide food, shelter, clothing and other items necessary for our survival, we rely upon the goodwill of others. At this stage of our lives, it is necessary for us to win their approval. Our world revolves around what those around us think of us, and this is known, in person-centred theory, as an external locus of evaluation.

Ideally, in our adult lives, we move towards feeling more confident in ourselves. What matters is that we approve of ourselves, and are happy with who we are. On our way there, we may go through the "awkward" teenage phase, where we actively push against the boundaries set by our parents and those whose approval was so important to us before. The point is, we ideally have this inner sense of whether we are doing well in life or not. Approval or disapproval of who we are becomes something we own ourselves. In person-centred theory, this is known as an internal locus of evaluation.

The problem is, we're social animals. Although, as adults, we no longer rely quite so much on others for our basic survival needs, we still want to have good relationships with those around us, to avoid conflict where possible, and to fill our lives with love, happiness, and positive experiences with those we feel connected to in some way. In fact, failing to do this causes us psychological and emotional pain.

Social media fuels all of this. When people like our posts, our photos, or make positive comments about these things, that's a huge slice of approval for us. If we don't receive this approval, it can be just as wounding to us, if not more so, because we are seeking the approval of a greater number of our peers. The temptation is to exaggerate how great our lives are, or to gain the sympathy of others. Again, it is perfectly normal human behaviour, but it is being amplified by the unusual phenomenon that is social media, and we are moving further into the territory of reliance on the approval of others.

So much for the theory. New Year's resolutions are for us, and us only. If they are things we feel we should, must, or have to do, then we might question from where these conditions are being applied. Are we doing something for us, or for the approval of others? If not for us, then how likely are we to keep those promises?

Me, Me, Me

I've no doubt that some people reading this piece are wondering what my own New Year's resolutions are, and whether they are just for me. I suppose that detailing the process I went through will help you decide whether they are, and determine your approval or disapproval (I might know what's going on, but it doesn't mean I'm immune to it).

I was over forty when I started learning to dance. It was something I started doing at the request of someone else, so my initial motivation was to gain the approval of another person. For me, that wasn't enough to continue, but fortunately I started to enjoy it for myself. Dancing seemed to connect with something in me of which I wasn't previously aware, and it just felt good to move to the music.

There's an element of approval seeking in Salsa. It's a partner dance, and it's only natural that most of us would like to think that dancing with us is a pleasurable experience for our dance partner. Not considering the feelings of our partner would suggest a failure of empathy so, in this case, a little approval serves as reassurance that we have behaved appropriately towards someone else, and hopefully contributed in some small way to them having an enjoyable evening.

The key here is that I was over forty when I started dancing. As much as I enjoy it, I've found that my leg muscles, shoulder muscles, and often other muscle groups are tight and tense during or after a night of dancing. At some of the events, I've been doing a lot of dancing over the space of a few hours. Over time, I've realised that stretching is vitally important, both before and after dancing.

Someone I see on a regular basis was talking about yoga. She said that a former colleague had been sceptical about yoga, but had gradually come round to seeing the benefits of the exercises, and had over time become even more of an enthusiast than my friend. It was one of those times when I'd heard something which presented itself as a solution or a way forward. At the time it was said, I'd started to realise that stretching wasn't just vitally important to preventing injuries in Salsa - dancing just drew my attention to the fact that my muscles were tightening up, and that a regular programme of stretching might be of benefit.

I've also had the kind of year where my stress levels, and the state of my emotional health, have been brought to my attention. It would be good to spend some time doing an activity which promotes relaxation.

So, my New Year's resolution is to practise yoga. As I said earlier, I'm reluctant to engage with the whole concept of New Year's resolutions, and would prefer to just see it as a promise to myself. Unfortunately, I arrived at my conclusion just in time for the festive season, and the reality is that it leaves my first steps in yoga as something which will take place in the new year. It's funny how these things work out, isn't it?

At least it's something I'm doing just for me, and that's just how it should be.

Friday, 15 December 2017

How 2017 has been for me

I'm concerned for the safety of a friend right now. Over a year ago, when I was also worried for her safety, I flew out to Croatia to see her. It's brought my focus back to what 2017 has been all about for me. It's been a year of loss. To be honest, it's been a year of not being able to recover, as one loss has followed another. In all, it feels like a year in which a nuclear blast has torn through my life, permanently altering the landscape, and leaving it a cold, desolate place I no longer recognise.

Of course, I'm currently working with people who've suffered a loss, and often multiple losses. Circumstance dictated that I work with bereavement but, in my work with witnesses of crimes and victims of crime, I'm also working with people who have suffered some kind of loss.

On Tuesday, I have my third counselling session as a client, and I've been invited to talk about losing my sister earlier in the year. I warned the counsellor that, although it's the clearest example, it's also far from being the only source of grief I've had to deal with recently.

Last night, I talked to some friends, and that reminded me of something I've gained during 2017. Some friendships have fallen by the wayside, but some have become stronger. I've also become stronger, but it has come mostly from being sorely tested, and having to find a way to cope.

I maintain a sense of gratitude. I still try to give some love to those who struggle to love themselves, and refuse to give up on those who want to give up. As stated by someone who has been vitally important to my development, the line between me as a counsellor and me as a person has blurred to the point where it can no longer be seen. In truth, I don't know that the line was ever there.

Earlier this week, I listened to someone talking about being on the path I'm currently travelling. As she talked about burning out, and finding ways to disconnect from the cumulative stresses of this work, I couldn't help identifying with her. That's pretty much where I am right now. I'm doing my best to carry on although, as I've said recently, I'm practically running on empty. Maybe 2017 hasn't been all about loss: maybe it has been about finding strength.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A useful configuration file for abcde

If you're here, you probably know what this is. I like using abcde ("a better CD encoder", apparently) to encode my CD collection for storage on my laptop/NAS, and playback on various devices and media players. I like to tag my music using Musicbrainz, so I changed that setting.

I thought about the formats that might be useful, for anyone wanting to archive their CD collection. FLAC is a given, I think, if your music is important to you, and you want to lose absolutely none of the detail within the recording. Opus is included, because it's open and it's awesome, basically but, for wide device support, I've included MP3 and AAC as well. With the FDK encoder, AAC clearly sounds better than MP3 at the same bit rate, at least to my ears, but MP3 is more widely supported, and at the time of writing has recently become patent-free.

It would be quite easy to delete the formats that are not needed, and edit the file in any other way you choose. You know where to store it but, if you don't, I'd suggest reading the documentation. Me, I just copied the sample configuration file when I first started to use abcde (as you can see from the comments in the file), and have simply kept editing it over the years, as my needs have changed.

# System defaults for abcde version 2.2.x
# Nothing in this file is uncommented by default.
# If you wish to override these system-wide settings, create your own
# .abcde.conf file in your home directory.

# CDDB options
# Choose whether you want to use CDDB or Musicbrainz. Default is CDDB

# If you wish to use a different CDDB server, edit this line.
# If you just wanted to use a proxy server, just set your http_proxy
# environment variable - wget will use it correctly.

# The CDDB protocol level.
# Right now 5 is latin1 output and 6 is UTF8 encoding.

# The CDDB protocol requires hello information, including a valid username
# and hostname. If you feel paranoid about giving away such info, edit this
# line - the format is username@hostname.

# This controls the email address CDDB changes are submitted to.

# The following options control whether or not fetched CDDB entries
# are cached locally in $CDDBLOCALDIR

# If NOSUBMIT is set to y, then abcde will never prompt asking if you
# wish to submit your edited cddb file.

# If NOCDDBQUERY is set to y, then abcde will never even try to access
# the CDDB server; running abcde will automatically drop you into a
# blank cddb file to edit at your leisure.  This is the same as the
# -n option.  NOCDDBQUERY=y implies NOSUBMIT=y.

# Select here if you want to use the locally stored CDDB entries.
# This is useful if you do a lot of editing to those CDDB entries.
# Also, other tools like Grip store CDDB entries under $HOME/.cddb,
# so they can be reused when ripping CDs.

# List, separated with a comma, the fields we want the parsing function to
# output. Defaults to YEAR and GENRE, for a complete list of fields provided by
# The fields are not case sensitive. Actually, "y,g" will work as fine as "Y,G"
# or "YEAR, GENRE"

# Specify the style of encoder to use here -
# oggenc, vorbize - for OGGENCODERSYNTAX
# lame, gogo, bladeenc, l3enc, xingmp3enc, mp3enc - for MP3ENCODERSYNTAX
# flac - the only supported for FLACENCODERSYNTAX at the moment
# speexenc - the only encoder for SPEEXENCODERSYNTAX
# mppenc - encoder for MPPENCODERSYNTAX
# default is a valid option for oggenc, lame, flac, speexenc and mppenc.
# Currently this affects the default location of the binary, the variable
# to pick encoder command-line options from, and where the options are
# given.
MP3ENCODERSYNTAX=lame                     # Specify encoder for MP3
FLACENCODERSYNTAX=flac                    # Specify encoder for FLAC
AACENCODERSYNTAX=fdkaac                   # Specify encoder for AAC
OPUSENCODERSYNTAX=opusenc                 # Specify encoder for Opus

# Specify the syntax of the normalize binary here - so far only 'normalize'
# is supported.

# CD reader program to use - currently recognized options are 'cdparanoia',
# 'icedax', 'cdda2wav', 'dagrab', 'cddafs' (Mac OS X only) and 'flac'.

# CUE reader syntax for the CUE reader program to use.
# abcde supports 2 CUE modes: 'mkcue' and 'abcde.mkcue' so you can set the
# MKCUE variable accordingly. The 'abcde.mkcue' uses an internal
# implementation, without the need of an external program.

# Specify the program to convert a CUE sheet back to a CD disc ID for CDDB queries.
# Select between '/path/to/cue2discid' (provided as an example) or
# 'abcde.cue2discid', implemented internaly.

# Keep the wav files after encoding. Set it to "y" and remove "clean" from
# the list of default actions, since we purge the temp directory as default.

# Track padding: force abcde to pad tracks using 0, so every song uses a two
# digit entry. If set to "y", even a single song encoding outputs a file like
# 01.my_song.ext

# Define if you want abcde to be non-interactive.
# Keep in mind that there is no way to deactivate it right now in the command
# line, so setting this option makes abcde to be always non-interactive.

# Specify 'nice'ness of the encoder, the CD reader and the distmp3 proc.
# This is a relative 'nice'ness (that is, if the parent process is at a
# nice level of 12, and the ENCNICE is set to 3, then the encoder will
# run with an absolute nice value of 15. Note also, that setting these
# to be empty will result in some default niceness increase (4 in tcsh
# and 10 using the bsdutils' nice).

# Paths of programs to use
LAME=lame                                 # Path to MP3 encoder
FLAC=flac                                 # Path to FLAC encoder
FDKAAC=fdkaac                             # Path to the AAC encoder
OPUSENC=opusenc                           # Path to Opus encoder


# Options to call programs with:

# If HTTPGET is modified, the HTTPGETOPTS options should also be defined
# accordingly. If HTTPGET is changed, the default options will be set,
# if HTTPGETOPTS is empty or not defined.
# for fetch (FreeBSD): HTTPGETOPTS="-q -o -"
# for wget: HTTPGETOPTS="-q -nv -O -"
# for curl (MacOSX): HTTPGETOPTS="-f -s"

LAMEOPTS='--cbr -q0 -b256 --strictly-enforce-ISO --add-id3v2 --clipdetect'                                         # Options for MP3
FLACOPTS="-f --best --qlp-coeff-precision-search"   # Options for FLAC
FDKAACENCOPTS='-b256'                               # Options for fdkaac
OPUSENCOPTS="--vbr --bitrate 128"                   # Options for Opus


# Actions to take
# Comma-separated list of one or more of the following:
#  cddb,cue,read,normalize,encode,tag,move,playlist,clean,default
#   encode implies read
#   normalize implies read
#   tag implies cddb,read,encode
#   move implies cddb,read,encode,tag
#   playlist implies cddb
# An action can be added to the "default" action by specifying it along with
# "default", without having to repeat the default ones:
# ACTIONS=default,playlist
# The default action list (referenced as "default") is defined in the following
# comment:

# CD device you want to read from
# It can be defined as a singletrack flac file, but since it might change from
# file to file it makes little sense to define it here.
# If we are using the IDE bus, we need CDPARANOIACDROMBUS defined as "d"
# If we are using the ide-scsi emulation layer, we need to define a "g"

# If you'd like to make a default location that overrides the current
# directory for putting mp3's, uncomment this.

# Or if you'd just like to put the temporary .wav files somewhere else
# you can specify that here

# OUTPUTTYPE can be either "ogg", "mp3", "flac" or "spx", or a combination
# of them separated with ",": "ogg,mp3".
OUTPUTTYPE="mp3,flac,m4a,opus"  # Encode to 4 formats!

# Output filename format - change this to reflect your inner desire to
# organize things differently than everyone else :)
# You have the following variables at your disposal:
# Make sure to single-quote this variable. abcde will automatically create
# the directory portion of this filename.
# NOTICE: OUTPUTTYPE has been deprecated in the OUTPUTFORMAT string.
# Since multiple-output was integrated we always append the file type
# to the files. Remove it from your user defined string if you are getting
# files like ".ogg.ogg".

# Like OUTPUTFORMAT but for Various Artists discs.


# Define how many encoders to run at once. This makes for huge speedups
# on SMP systems. Defaults to 1. Equivalent to -j.

# Support for systems with low disk space:
# n:    Default parallelization (read entire CD in while encoding)
# y:    No parallelization (rip, encode, rip, encode...)

# If set to y, enables batch mode normalization, which preserves relative
# volume differences between tracks of an album.

# Enables nogap encoding when using the 'lame' encoder.

# Set the playlist file location format. Uses the same variables and format
# as OUTPUTFORMAT. If the playlist is specified to be in a subdirectory, it
# will be created for you and the playlist will reference files from that
# subdirectory.
# If you want to prefix every filename in a playlist with an arbitrary
# string (such as 'http://you/yourstuff/'), use this option

#Like PLAYLIST{FORMAT,DATAPREFIX} but for Various Artists discs:

#This will give the playlist CR-LF line-endings, if set to "y".
#(some hardware players insist on CR-LF line-endings)

# Custom filename munging:
# By default, abcde will do the following to CDDB data to get a useful
# filename:
# * Translate colons to a space and a dash for Windows compatibility
# * Eat control characters, single quotes, and question marks
# * Translate spaces and forward slashes to underscores
# To change that, redefine the mungefilename function.
# mungefilename receives the CDDB data (artist, track, title, whatever)
# as $1 and outputs it on stdout.
mungefilename ()
    echo "$@" | sed s,:,\ -,g | tr \ / __ | tr '#*%' '___' | tr -d \'\"\?\[:cntrl:\]

# Custom genre munging:
# By default we just transform uppercase to lowercase. Not much of a fancy
# function, with not much use, but one can disable it or just turn the first
# Uppercase.
#mungegenre ()
#    echo $CDGENRE | tr "[:upper:]" "[:lower:]"

# Custom pre-read function
# By default it does nothing.
# You can set some things to get abcde function in better ways:
# * Close the CD tray using eject -t (if available in eject and supported by
#   your CD device.
# * Set the CD speed. You can also use the built-in options, but you can also
#   set it here. In Debian, eject -x and cdset -x do the job.
# KEEP IN MIND that executables included in pre_read must be in your $PATH or
# you have to define them with full /path/to/binary
# Uncomment and substitute the ":" with your commands.
#pre_read ()

# Custom post-read function
# By default it does nothing.
# You can set some things to get abcde function in better ways:
# * Store a copy of the CD TOC.
# KEEP IN MIND that executables included in post_read must be in your $PATH or
# you have to define them with full /path/to/binary
# Uncomment and substitute the ":" with your commands.
#post_read ()

# post_encode
# By default it does nothing.
# You can set some things to get abcde function in better ways:
# * Move the resulting directory over the network
# * Compare results with a previously made run, for tests
# KEEP IN MIND that executables included in post_encode must be in your $PATH or
# you have to define them with full /path/to/binary
# Uncomment and substitute the ":" with your commands.
#post_encode ()

# If you'd like to have abcde eject the cdrom after all the tracks have been
# read, uncomment the following line.

# To encode on the remote machines foo, bar, baz, quux, and qiix, as well as
# on the local machine (requires distmp3 to be installed on local machine and
# distmp3host to be installed and running on all remote machines - see README)

# Set to 1,2, etc. to obtain some information about actions happening in the background
# Useful if you have a slow network or CDDB servers seem unresponsive.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Maybe if I just close my eyes and breathe...

I told her that I'd see her on Thursday, at Salsa. In truth, I didn't know whether I would be there or not. Recently, I've started to feel that I might turn my back on dancing for a while. To get away, and avoid too many questions, I said I'd be there. Being so economical with the truth didn't sit well with me.

As it happens, I'm feeling quite ill, and it looks unlikely that I'll be able to go on Thursday. The question is, if I was well, would I go? As much as I love dancing, there's a sense that, for me, it may be coming to an end. I have an event to attend in January, with a very good friend, but after that...
I've considered just going to that event, taking a break from dancing in the time between now and then; I've considered just going to the classes and taking a break from the other events; I've considered going to the events and taking a break from classes.

I can't honestly tell you whether I'm feeling like gradually reducing my involvement, with a view to leaving it behind at some point, or I just need to take my foot off the accelerator for a while. All I know is that, right now, I don't love dancing as much as I once did, and it's wholly based on feelings that I bring to the classes and events with me, due to things that have been going on in my life.

I recently recorded a video, in which I danced with a friend with whom I love to dance, and danced my favourite style with her. When I watch that video, I remember how that dance felt. The problem is, that dance reminded me of what it was like to fall in love with dancing, and too many dances now feel like I'm just going through the motions.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Two years of dance

I've been learning to dance for two years now. I started with modern jive and, a few months later, I started learning salsa. I still don't consider myself a good dancer, from a purely technical perspective, but the amount of times I get asked to dance seems to contradict that.

I'm not the best at learning new movements, especially if they're part of a long sequence and involve multiple changes in direction. When I'm shown a new movement, I watch, and I try to take in where my left hand should be, where my right hand should be, what my feet should be doing and, most importantly, where my partner is. Unfortunately, that's not one of my strengths. In effect, I have to translate all of that visual input into a form that works for me, and that's how the move feels.

What I end up with is an approximation of the movement that's a little fuzzy around the edges, but it's enough for me to work with. Maybe being a little different is a good thing, and maybe it contributes to me being asked to dance. I don't know. Maybe it's a question of attitude. I'm always mindful that a lady will want to dance with other men, and that being asked to dance is quite flattering, so I keep her as the focus. If I can help her to show what she does that is unique to her, rather than restricting her by dictating what she does, then I think it's reasonable to expect that men will ask her to dance. After all, that's likely to be what prompted me to ask her to dance, or put a smile on my face when she asked me.

If I'm paired with a relative beginner, I try to imagine what it must be like for her to dance with me. Remembering how it was for me as a beginner is useless, because that was my experience, and her experience will be different. What I try to do is to focus on what she does well, as there will always be something I can highlight as being particularly good. The last thing I'd want would be for her to give up: that's ultimately her decision to make, but it seems a little sad if she gives up out of a belief that she's not capable of being a good dancer.

To me, dancing is about sharing those few moments with someone. I'm not there to show what I can do, or to make anyone else feel bad. I'd rather do a few things well than many things badly. It's not about having a carefully choreographed, set sequence of moves either, and my mind seems to rebel against that anyway. I'm very much about how a move feels, and all of them feel slightly different to me, and some of them feel wildly different or are associated with a specific feeling. Consequently, even with the comparatively limited number of moves I'm able to remember, there's a whole lot of expression in the way I dance, and how I move will depend on who I'm with as much as how I'm feeling. Apart from anything else, the two of us need to conspire to show the rest of the room what she can do.

I've seen leads dancing with two followers at once. If I'm honest, I regard that as showboating, and it doesn't interest me. I have less interest in rueda and birthday circles too, than I have in dancing with one partner for the duration of a song. It feels like an extension of how I prefer one to one conversations to group interactions.

I think that's probably how I should sum this up and bring it to a close. Whether I'm talking to someone when I'm dancing with them or dancing silently, I'm communicating with them and, whether they realise it or not, expressing a whole lot of feeling.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017


“If you have made mistakes, even serious mistakes, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down.” ~Mary Pickford

I needed to go circuit training. I needed to be in that room, with people who were mostly half my age, and struggle to keep up with them. I needed to sink to my hands and knees, gasping for breath, and to get back up again and keep running. Maybe they questioned why I was there, when I was running at half the speed they were running, and it was obvious that I was finding it difficult. The answer is, I was there because I found it difficult.

I was there to remind myself of a fundamental aspect of my character.

A few years ago, I did something that would usually be unthinkable for me: I started to open up about what was happening in my life, and how I felt about it. I can't tell you that it was a conscious decision, though. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I was carrying more emotional baggage with me than I could have been reasonably expected to hold.

What's important is that, when I started to open up, I wasn't seen as weak. The friends I chose to confide in painted a very different picture of me than the one I was expecting. What I heard was that they realised I was closing off a lot of myself, but they were okay with it, because they realised there must be a good reason for it. Importantly, they recognised that opening up was a sign that I'd reached a point where I was finding it impossible to cope. Then, one friend said something that took me by surprise:

"I admire how strong you are. Life keeps knocking you down, but you keep getting back up again."

Those may not have been her exact words. In truth, a few people expressed the same sentiment around the same time, so it's difficult to be sure who said what, but she was the first to say it.

When I started learning to dance, I thought I'd never get it right. It didn't matter how many people told me I was making good progress; what mattered was my own view of my progress. I stuck with it, though, because I wanted to dance, and I was determined to get it right.

It was the same thing that pushed me to keep going during circuit training. It didn't matter that I had to stop and catch my breath; it didn't matter that I ran at a slower speed than the others. It was embarrassing, maybe even a little humiliating, but I wasn't going to let it beat me.

Recently, I've been feeling the need to disconnect for a while. I've not been my usual self for a long time, and the main thought behind shutting myself away is that it can't be pleasant for other people to see me like this. I'd stacked everything I'd been dealing with into a neat pile, you see, and then the death of my sister, a few months ago, brought it all crashing down. I don't honestly know whether isolating myself will be good for me, but there's still that sense of protecting others from the effects of my grief.

Add the above to me being massively, massively introverted by nature, and you can see how much I feel the need to not be around people, as much as that's possible.

A popular self-help book says that, when the thought of something scares us, we should feel the fear and do it anyway. Some fears are rational, and some just hold us back.

I told friends that I'd be withdrawing for a while. I suppose I have to ask myself how long I'm prepared to stay down, before I get back up again.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A crisis

The words "mid-life crisis" have sprung to mind a few times. Apparently, I should be buying a sports car or a motorcycle right now. Instead, I'm in the process of becoming a counsellor and learning to dance. It feels less like a crisis and more like a continuing exploration of identity: in person-centred counselling terms, it's a time where we're aiming for greater congruence, and moving ever closer to our organismic selves. Yeah, you have to be careful how you say that last one.

It's likely that I always had a love for dance, and a desire to help others. The thing is, we bury so much of who we are, due to a misguided sense of who we should be, must be, or have to be. Our search for identity can feel like trying to paint with watercolours in the rain, or that we're forever pushing against a door marked "pull". Are we being our true selves, or the person we think we have to be?

It's particularly difficult if we were given the message, early on in our lives, that we weren't good enough, and that nothing we did would ever be good enough. This is damaging, as it leads to us setting impossibly high standards for ourselves, and labelling ourselves as deficient in some way, should we fail to meet those standards. At its worst, we may feel that we will get everything wrong anyway, so our motivation to try in the first place is affected. We might fear failure, because the consequences of past failures have been the disapproval or judgement of people who were important in our lives, which in turn affected our view of ourselves.

Maybe this isn't just about finding our true selves. Maybe this is just as much about throwing off the shackles of the expectations of others.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017


According to a receipt I've just found while trying to sort my papers, it was 37 minutes past midnight, on the 12th of July in 2016 when I bought a chicken tortilla from a shop on the seafront in Makarska. I remember that most of the sauce dripped onto my shirt, as I tried to dance salsa to the house music coming from a nearby club.

I remember keeping time with the music, as fast as it was. Then again, I'd had a few pints of the local beer earlier that evening, so I might be wrong. I was with a friend, and she was my reason for being in Croatia in the first place. From my perspective, a friend needed me, and I got a plane to Croatia without a second thought. Well, if I'm honest, there was a second thought, a third thought, a fourth and so on... but I got on the plane anyway.

It was in a bar in the town square that I'd consumed large amounts of the local beer. The bar had been quite a find. Actually, it was recommended by a guide I'd downloaded to the e-book reader I'd brought with me. There was little room inside, but plenty of tables outside.

There was something about drinking at a table in the town square... It was a nice, warm and pleasant evening. The beer tasted much better than I thought it would. Importantly, I was with a friend who'd reached a similar level of inebriation. There was a lot of laughter: some of it from me. It felt good to be away from everything that had been dragging me down, in the company of one of my very best friends.

It was only when the bar was closing that we decided to leave, via the seafront, and I saw somewhere that was still serving food. While I was waiting for my order, my friend started swaying to the music from the nearby club and reminded me that I'd recently started to take salsa lessons - well, five months earlier, to be precise. She wanted to learn some basic steps. In retrospect, the conditions weren't ideal, and I probably wasn't the best person to teach her.

"1-2-3... 5-6-7... 1-2-3... 5-6-7..."

I could barely keep up with the music. I was struggling to even count in time with the music. I got the numbers out of order a few times, due to the alcohol in my bloodstream. Somehow, I picked out a salsa rhythm in a hard house track. With a chicken tortilla in my hand, I demonstrated the basic forward step, back step, cucarachas and opening out step.

It was the early hours of the morning; I was in a beautiful country; I was with a friend; to be honest, I was quite drunk, but I was dancing. I didn't care about the sauce dripping onto one of my favourite shirts. It felt good. I thought, in that moment, that I should have more moments like that in my life.

I guess that my enthusiasm was contagious. My friend said she wanted to learn salsa. She managed to imitate the basic steps I was showing her. I looked around me a few times. The reflection of the moon was rippling across the water; above, the stars were clearly visible; not far away, a party was going on into the early hours of the morning. There I was, moving to the music with a great big smile on my face.

On the seafront in Makarska, under the stars, so drunk that I could barely stand, I fell in love with dancing.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

No sweat (I wish)!

I was at a dance last night, and it was fun, as it always is. Unfortunately, there's something that has been happening since I started dancing, and it happened again last night.

The evening started with a lesson, in which some of us learned a few new moves. As usual, I couldn't pick them up very quickly, but I started to get them towards the end of the lesson, only to forget them once I started asking the ladies to dance.

During the lesson, someone noticed that I'd started to perspire. I'd felt it myself before she'd noticed, but she confirmed what I'd felt. After the lesson, I noticed that a small patch on my shirt had become noticeably damper and darker than the rest of the shirt. For a while, after the class, I was approached by various ladies I'd met at these dances before. I prefer to take a break between dances, but I also have a rule that I never refuse a dance. The damp, dark patch on my shirt spread outwards, and my face became noticeably more wet as the evening wore on.

Why do I need to take breaks between dances? Why do I sweat so much? I remember the Christmas party in early December, where I made the mistake of wearing a Christmas jumper and not bringing a change of clothing, and I paid dearly for that mistake. A few ladies said that I looked hot, and I jokingly thanked them and told them they didn't look so bad themselves. Obviously, in that case, I suffered due to my own lack of foresight, but I still perspire heavily whenever I dance, even in the lessons.

I received a big clue as to why this happens, back when I was still doing modern jive. Someone was watching the other men dance, as he was trying to learn the style, and he later told me that he could understand what was going on when he saw the other men dancing, but when he watched me, he didn't understand.

All of us have our own way of moving. I know this from the many years I spent learning various martial arts. Although an instructor teaches us a specific way of moving, there will be a point where we take ownership of the movements we've learned, and they become ours through the modifications we make so that the movements feel more natural to us. This is how we get to the point where we can perform the movements with little conscious thought.

In my case, it was my early exposure to various Japanese martial arts in particular that would go on to affect how I learn movement and think about movement. Imagine the explosive speed and power which is seen as the ideal in the martial arts I'm talking about, but imagine it being expressed through the medium of dance. Imagine having to do that for three or four minutes at a time, repeatedly. Imagine that you're having to perform movements which are bigger, and not as efficient or direct as those you learn as a martial artist, yet you are so used to putting a certain kind of energy into your movements that you struggle to turn it off.

I'd considered that I was just getting old; I'd considered that I might be unfit; I'd considered many other possibilities. The bottom line, actually, is that I'm putting a lot more energy into dancing than is necessary.

The question is whether I'm able to change the way I've been moving for most of my life. The only way I'll find out is to keep dancing. I'm okay with that.

Lost in Translation

For a long time, I considered that I didn't have a favourite film. During my teenage years, and into my early twenties, one of the TV stations here in the UK would regularly broadcast foreign language films late at night. Occasionally, I'd watch one that I would connect with in some way: some feeling expressed chimed with something within me.

That brings me to Lost in Translation. It's my favourite film to watch late at night, without a doubt, and I once told a friend as much. Her reply was that the film has a very specific feeling to it, and she wondered if I could put that feeling into words. I couldn't.

The story is essentially about an affair of sorts, between a man who is of a greater age than the object of his affection, and that younger woman who seems to feel the same way about him. I struggled with this, because I wondered what connecting with this subject matter said about me, but I realised that it was something beneath the surface of the narrative that spoke so clearly to me. It was, as my friend had highlighted, all about the specific feeling of the film.

It's no accident that the story is set in Japan, and that much is made of the American leads coming to terms with being somewhere that is strange to them. In fact, it's the young woman who seems more familiar and at ease with being there, in contrast to the middle aged gentleman who is not just feeling uncomfortable with where he is in terms of geography, but also seems to be feeling a great deal of difficulty with where he is in life at this time. However, there is a point where she contacts a member of her family by phone and breaks down while talking to them, while they seem to be ignorant of how she feels, or at least show little empathy for her.

To me, the film is about yearning for a sense that we are loved, and that there is somewhere we feel we belong. In response to my friend's question about the feeling of the film, I'd say it's about feeling isolated, out of place, and finding that one person who understands and relates to you. Why is it my favourite film to watch late at night? I'll leave you to join most of those dots for yourself.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Counselling: empathy, core conditions and micro skills

I don't know that I can teach empathy. I don't know how I developed the ability to see things from the perspective of another so easily, but it's something that's been with me for as long as I can remember. It's in my nature to listen, observe and do my best to understand.

It's the same with the micro skills, and the use of silence in the counselling session. These are things that I just do. What I have to ask myself, then, is whether there's something about my approach to counselling which makes these things easier for me. Is there something about the way I see the counselling process?

If there's an overriding principle I use in my practice, it's that what I say isn't all that important. The temptation is to go into a panic, to believe that we have to show our skills by constantly reflecting, paraphrasing, summarising, using open questions and so on. What we are going to say next becomes our focus.

Is what we say next, or what the client says next, more important?

When I put my focus entirely on the client, and step into their inner world, I find that the skills come to me much more easily. If I'm obsessing over my response, then my focus in on me, rather than where it should be, and it serves as a block to listening.

Just as important is resisting the tendency to make assumptions. We're supposedly non-judgemental in our practice, but there's always a danger that we might start identifying with a client, and interpret their experience through the lens of our own experience. This is where those open questions become important: we ask the client about what the experience is like for them, rather than thinking about what the experience would be like for us.

Good examples of those open questions:
  • What does [something the client said] mean to you?
  • What was that like for you?
  • How do/did you feel about that?
I could use many more examples, but the point is that we have to get to an understanding of the way the client sees the world, and the issue they have brought to the session in particular.

What about silence? Again, if you're staying within the client's frame of reference, and trying to get an understanding of what they are experiencing, or have been experiencing, then why would you interrupt? Better to leave a little silence, so that they can continue, should they want to. It also gives both the client and counsellor a chance to think about what has been said already.

Become comfortable with silence. Become comfortable with not knowing what to say. Reflect, paraphrase, summarise or leave a silence: these things show that you've been listening, or are considering what has been said.

Focus on what the client is saying.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Lights! Music! Beer! Confidence!

I walked past her, and almost carried on walking.  I'd gone over to the far side of the hall, to talk to someone I knew, and ask if she was okay.  She hadn't looked like she was feeling too good when I'd danced with her earlier, and I was concerned.  She replied that she was fine, and I said she could always talk to me, if she needed to.  I wasn't expecting the hug that followed, but I appreciated the sentiment behind it.  After a few minutes, a song she liked started to play, so she asked her boyfriend to dance with her.  I decided to walk back to my seat.

I'd had two pints of lager and lime by this point, and it was getting towards the end of the evening.  I couldn't feel my legs.  To be honest, the lager and lime had taken me by surprise: the combination of lager and a little lime juice tasted much better than I remembered.  Maybe it was at least partly to blame for me walking past her, and having to turn back.  I'm not a big fan of alcohol, and had told myself that I wasn't going to drink anything alcoholic.  Things didn't turn out that way, though.

I arrived at the venue at a time when I thought the class leading up to the social dancing would be almost over.  As it happened, I had another half an hour to sit and think about everything that was going on in my life, and I started wondering whether the huge amount of courage it had taken to get me through the front door of the venue had served me well.  I decided that a pint or two of fermented hops and barley might help me get to a state where the evening made sense.  The lime juice was an afterthought.

I saw people from the salsa class that I attend most weeks, but I'd already sat down when I noticed them, and some arrived after I did, only to sit at other tables.  An inner voice congratulated me, sarcastically, for my continuing commitment to displays of social ineptitude.  I'd told myself that I'd go there feeling confident, and at peace with myself, despite actually feeling like I might fall apart at any moment.  In reality, I'd parked the car, sat crying for a while and then paused at the entrance to the venue, summoning up the courage for that final push to get me through the door.

As the class came to an end, I hadn't had much of the lager and lime that was sat in a pint glass in front of me.  I was still feeling that being there might be a mistake, and considered that I might walk out again - after finishing my drink, of course.

My thoughts turned back to my sister, and how ill she'd looked when I'd last seen her.  I felt the tears forming, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone familiar approaching.  We talked, briefly, and she asked me to dance.  I told myself that I'd leave after dancing with her, and I should have known better.  I felt so good after the dance that I went back to my table with a smile on my face.

I followed this by asking a few other ladies I know to be great dancers if they'd dance with me.  All thoughts of leaving had gone by this point.  I even found the courage to ask a few ladies I didn't know so well if they'd dance with me.

I almost walked past her, though.  As I said, I'd been talking to someone I know, and was on my way back to my table.  Well, I did walk past her, in fact, but turned back.  I recognised her from being at one of these events previously, and remembered dancing with her.  I asked if she'd dance with me, and led her to a relatively safe area of the floor.

"It's [name withheld], right?"


Her smile told me it meant quite a lot to her that I'd remembered her name.  I decided not to spoil the moment by asking if she remembered mine.  I caught the rhythm of the song that was playing.  It was a fast one.  There would be little time to think, and that would turn out to be a good thing.

I know relatively few moves, or at least I don't know as many as I'd like to know, but I made them work for me.  As I pulled her to my right shoulder, she turned her head to keep her focus on me; as I moved her in front of me to my left shoulder, she turned to look at me again.  I'd seen this in salsa before, but had never experienced it myself.  If I'd been entirely sober, it probably would have freaked me out.  Her smile was gone, replaced by an intensity that was quite surprising.

The few moves I'd practised again and again came together in some sort of sequence.  She followed everything I did perfectly, adding her own style into the mix.  I felt that the smile on my face was more subdued than usual, and I was making more eye contact than I normally would when I dance.  There was a strange kind of flow to what I was doing, and I barely thought about what move would come next - they almost seemed to happen by themselves.

What was it that I was feeling?  I had an idea of what it was, but the idea was so strange to me that I doubted it at first.  In the end I had to accept it: what I was feeling was confidence.

Her smile came back as the song came to an end - a big, beaming smile - and then her arms were around me.  Another hug.  We thanked each other for the dance and I returned to my table.

I watched on as, at the far end of the room, another man asked her to dance.  I watched as he went through the larger number of moves at his disposal, and linked them together in sequences that looked impressive.  I looked at her, and she smiled for him, but I detected something else.  She looked bored, and I didn't understand it.  I still don't understand it.

I had a few more dances, mostly with ladies who were quite new to salsa, and told them they were doing well.  The last dance I had was with someone I've danced with a number of times, and we just don't seem to connect, and this dance was no exception to that rule.  The song came to an end, the host thanked everyone for coming, and wished everyone a safe journey home.

On the way home, on a dark, quiet part of the road, I thought about my sister, and how much I missed my fiancĂ©e, and started crying again.  I hadn't consumed enough alcohol to be over the limit for safe driving, but I knew that, if I didn't control myself, I wouldn't be able to see properly.  I couldn't let my feelings overrule the rational part of my mind, although it seemed like I'd had just enough alcohol to make it more difficult to hold back those feelings and be rational.

Suddenly, I understood how that dance had been so good.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Thought for the day: helping

I'm starting to question what I do. Even when I'm not volunteering, a lot of people tell me about their suffering, or ways in which life, and other people, have been cruel to them. I don't have to tell them what I do, and usually I don't: somehow, they just feel that they can talk to me. When I went on holiday to Croatia last year, a couple of people I'd never met before talked to me, separately and at great length, about how life hadn't been fair to them and how they felt about it.

I try to treat people with kindness. In my own small way, I try to compensate for the fact that the world is often cruel and unkind to those who least deserve it.

That's all I have to say for today.


Last night (Thursday), I danced kizomba with a good friend.  It's far from being my favourite style of dance, but something strange happened.  I hadn't tried to present a good frame; I forgot about being technically perfect for a moment; I danced with a friend, and it just felt good to dance with a friend.

She followed everything I did, effortlessly, without fault.  That doesn't surprise me.  As much as she seems to want to credit me with being a good lead, she's an excellent dancer, and that makes things so much easier for me.  I didn't have to wrestle with an uncooperative partner; I didn't have to correct a partner who had wrongly anticipated what I was going to do.  I could just dance, because I trusted in her ability as a dancer.

I've heard people talk about dancers having a connection, and I think I understand what they mean.  The nervousness that I usually feel on the dance floor had gone.  It felt like a dance that might happen spontaneously, in an informal setting.  Though I stuck to the basic moves I know well, it felt like I'd known them for a lifetime.

The way I dance is very much affected by how I feel.  Without going into a whole load of psychological theory about cognitive functions, I operate via how something feels to me, or how I feel about it, more than most people would.

In a corner of the room, towards the end of the evening, with my legs already feeling like they might stop working as they should, it felt good to dance.  Actually, it felt great.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Who do I talk to?

As I start to write this, it's eleven o'clock at night, and I've just got back from a bachata class where I sat through a number of songs without getting up to dance.  You wouldn't know it, but I'm sat here crying, desperately trying to maintain my focus on the screen, and generally feeling quite emotional.  At the same time, I feel it's wrong to be this way, because I was born into a time when we were told that men didn't cry.

I hugged a friend earlier.  We don't have the kind of friendship in which that kind of physical contact happens, but she told me something that made the hug feel appropriate.  Actually, if I hadn't responded in that way, I would now be cursing myself for not responding in the way I should.  The hug was a very honest expression of what she means to me as a friend, and an equally honest response to what she had to tell me.

Unfortunately, a hug isn't just a hug for me.  I hide a lot of what I feel from the world.  I waited until I was alone before I cried.  I waited until I was alone before I let the full weight of my feelings hit me.  In public, it's like I'm wearing a mask which hides what I'm feeling.  A hug can send that mask crashing to the floor, where it shatters into a million pieces (I also wrote that last bit in a response I made to a question on Quora - I think the imagery sums it up nicely).

So, I'm sat here, overwhelmed by emotion.  This is the part of me that no one sees.  I've heard from a number of sources recently that I should be more open, and I'm trying my best with that.

A good friend asked me, just last week, who I would talk to if I needed someone to talk to.  It's a question I've been asked a number of times.  The answer is that there are people who get little snippets of what's on my mind, but I'm still quite protective of my inner world, as it were.  Instead, I do things like sitting here, alone, and just trying to come to terms with the fact that I've allowed myself to become an emotional wreck.

Do you want to know something?  Being an emotional wreck seems to be just what I need right now.  I'm alone, so I don't have to feel embarrassed about it, and so much has happened over the last number of months that any one of those things could have seen me feeling like I feel right now.  There's a sense that I need to feel like this, that this is some kind of release.  Maybe if my friend could see me, she'd wish she hadn't told me her news at this time, but I actually should be thanking her.  Maybe she'd get another hug.

I'm releasing a whole load of repressed feelings, and to my mind, that's healthy.  This seems to be my way of dealing with things.  I'm sorry if this post is disjointed but, considering what I'm feeling right now, to me it seems surprisingly eloquent.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Thought for the day: introversion

When someone says I'm the quiet, reflective type, or the strong, silent type, I know what they're talking about. Sometimes, I wish I could be different. I often question whether, if I'd had a more outgoing nature, I'd be spending quite so much time alone now. The world seems to favour those who are more open, vocal and better able to promote themselves.

Sometimes, the loneliness affects me more. This is one of those times. A week ago, I was still with the woman I love. The key point is that being around other people doesn't always cure the loneliness. Sometimes, being a part of the crowd can feel like the loneliest place on Earth. Yeah, it's the old cliché about being alone in a crowd. The happy medium is talking with someone, one to one, who gets it. The nature of this thing is that you often still find yourself listening more than you speak, but having someone there who understands is beyond value to you.

A lot of people don't understand. They talk, and talk some more, and become frustrated by the lack of response. There's no question that I'm listening, but I suppose the defining quality of this thing is that we don't JUST listen: we carefully consider what's been said (and, in my case, a load of stuff that hasn't been said) before we even think about formulating our own reply. I'm not saying that other people don't think before they speak, though it sometimes seems that way, but us quiet types probably spend more time considering what's been said and how to respond. In conversations where people interrupt each other, cut each other off and talk at the same time, we don't stand a chance.

Some sources compare introversion to the battery on a mobile phone, and say that an introvert's energy quickly drains in social situations. That's true to a point, but I'd say it depends on the type of social situation. I know a few people who don't drain my energy. Sometimes I need to disconnect and take time to think about things, but some people allow me the space to think, as though they somehow understand how much it's needed.

If there's too much noise, too much external stimuli or other environmental cues, then I'm more likely to feel drained much more quickly. I'll probably leave, if that's the case, but I'll wish I didn't have to leave.
I hope I've explained this well.  According to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I'm a particular type of introvert, known as an INFJ, so others may experience introversion in a different way.  My hope is that what I've written helps someone, though, whether they're an introvert or someone who is trying to gain a better understanding.