Windows On The World

You might think that this post is about the ill-fated restaurant in lofty Manhattan that booked its place in history on 11th September 2001, occupying as it did the uppermost floors of one of the two stricken buildings, with the tragic loss of many human lives. But, in spite of the poignancy of that story, it is not what I am writing about today. That notorious episode of modern terrorism has already been covered by others far better qualified than I.

I have to confess that I suffer from a mild form of brown box syndrome, a common condition caused by the remarkable ascent of Amazon, a company that has single-handedly transformed the retail industry, hammering as it goes on its merry way massive nails into the coffin of the High Street.

While I do not exactly crouch expectantly behind the front door, salivating in eager anticipation of the arrival of my packages, I do look forward to receiving them. My favourites are books and, in spite of the attractions of Kindle and ebooks, I still buy the print versions, which give a subtly different reading experience. In case you wondered, I do purchase the electronic variety too. My mastery over instant gratification has not yet achieved a high enough level to pass these by.

It struck me just today, after receiving two highly rated paperbacks that tackle the fascinating (and, I believe, important) subject of cryptocurrencies, that books are truly our windows on the world. We can get high quality information almost instantly online, but to get a story and a perspective, and to explore a theme in depth, there is no substitute for a book. Newspaper and magazine articles, now almost universally available online, meet this need in a limited fashion but for comprehensive treatment you need the full works.

When we buy a good book, whether fact, fiction or something in between, we get a fully integrated view of an area of life that is important to us.

The Knot Garden, which itself facilitates multiple abstract views of humanity, advocates investment in thoughtfully conceived and well written books that present us with unique and insightful windows on the world.

Intensity is the Glue

There you are, beavering away in your workshop, crafting from fruit wood the parts of the Windsor chair that you are making as a present for your wife. It is a labour of love. You are a perfectionist, with a sharp eye for detail and a finely developed sense of aesthetics. The day for assembling the chair finally arrives and you look forward to trying it.

As soon as you sit in the chair, you notice that something is wrong. The seat moves alarmingly as you shift your weight. The arms wobble and the back flops. You realise the cause immediately. The epoxy resin that you used in the joints was no good. The two tubes were too old and the glue has not cured. You will need to start the laborious process of cleaning out the joints and resetting them.

So it is with our lives. We have a sense of purpose, a benign environment, the requisite skill-set and a wisdom born out of adversity. But without the glue of intensity to bind it all together we will not have a stable platform from which to propel ourselves towards our goals. There is a risk that, like the chair, our lives will wobble around frustratingly – and perhaps eventually fall apart – for lack of cohesion.

We should be able to turn intensity on and off at will, as we might fire up an oxyacetylene torch and extinguish its flame when we are done. Would it were that easy. The facility of regulating the intensity that I can bring to bear on a single task or activity has become so important to me that it is itself a primary goal.

Several years ago, without realising its significance, I discovered high intensity interval training when I joined a City gymn called Slim Jim’s. As I recall, we did two circuits of eight basic exercises for a duration of thirty seconds each, separated by breaks of fifteen seconds. A recorded upper class military voice exhorted us to “Get ready”, “Begin” and “Stop”. I was young at the time and did not think too much about the eight minutes of exercise, taking it all in my stride. It just fitted nicely into my busy working day at the office. Many years later I read about the physiological benefits of high intensity interval training, which I still practice, albeit somewhat irregularly.

People – especially those employed in the self-improvement industry – are fond of wheeling out the tired old platitude “Life is a marathon, not a sprint”. Presumably they would not proffer this sage advice to Usain Bolt. Like “The best things in life are free”, this hackneyed expression sounds impressively virtuous but is no more than self-righteous fluff.

The patterns used in high intensity interval training have considerable application outside of the world of physical exercise. Intensity is closely related to time. We may not enjoy time pressure but it often causes us – if we can avoid panic and keep a cool head – to perform at a high level as we focus with laser-like concentration on the task in hand. If only we could achieve the intensity without the time pressure.

What conditions are necessary for intensity? I believe there are four. Motivation is the primary requirement – without a strong sense of purpose, we will just bumble around, directionless. Then there is energy, the fuel that propels us along our chosen path. Distractions are the biggest threat, causing diffusion of our valuable effort, and so we need an uncluttered mind. And finally, of course, comes time. We don’t need as much of it as we might think. Perhaps just fifteen minutes or half an hour of highly focused effort for each session will take us to our objective, when scheduled regularly and executed effectively.

The Trouble With Politicians

I do not care much for politics. But just because we find a subject distasteful does not mean that we should shut it out of our lives completely. My ignorance of politics is mostly deliberate as I feel that the time spent studying it would be put to better use elsewhere. I nevertheless concede that the question of who we choose to run our country is one that deserves our attention – in spite of the facility demonstrated by politicians for overestimating their ability to influence the course of the economy.

If I were called upon to summarise my dislike of politics, I would assert that politicians are far more concerned with the manipulation of information and people for their own ends than they are with improving the lives of their constituents. I see much greater merit in ideas for promoting and supporting continuous improvement in individuals than adding new layers of complexity to the tax system and operating central planning over the banking system.

When asking myself about the nature of politics, my instinctive response is that it is concerned with the acquisition, maintenance and application of power in the sphere of governing the state. We all know that power and corruption are frequent bedfellows. The desire to acquire power and the manner in which it is gained and used depend on the motives of the individual.

The power seeker can either have a goal of making the state a more just, productive, safe and fulfilling place for its citizens to inhabit – or they can pursue the attainment of personal wealth, social connections and prestige. These two objectives are incompatible with each other because the former requires a long term investment of time, effort and integrity while the latter involves a short term, superficial approach.

Rather than labelling politicians with over-simplistic party labels, perhaps we should assess them based on the extent to which they care about feathering their own nests rather than making the world a better place for us to live in. Politicians and bankers seem to adopt an unbalanced, one-sided stance in this respect, creating far more value for themselves than for others. The very people we need to be able to trust the most always seem to betray us.

We can generally determine what motivates people by observing how they behave. Many politicians routinely employ rhetoric with the purpose of enhancing their own image while discrediting their opponents. Mud slinging is a hallmark of their profession.

How do you feel about placing the important business of running the country in the hands of people who are given to arrogance and self-aggrandisement? Great store is placed (especially by the media) on the speeches made by political leaders. But their orations invariably seek to create an effect rather than containing anything of substance. What does “We will make our country strong once again” actually mean? Where is the value in this froth?

Politicians are often little more than mutant salesmen (and saleswomen) who have highly developed skills in sophistry. They project passion but lack sincerity. The Knot Garden believes that these are not the sort of people we need at the helm.

An Ordinary Day

With verdure clad the fields appear delightful to the ravish’d sense; by flowers sweet and gay enhanced is the charming sight

Here fragrant herbs their odors shed; here shoots the healing plant

With copious fruit the expanded boughs are hung. In leafy arches twine the shady grove; o’er lofty hills majestic forests wave

From Haydn’s oratorio The Creation

On the face of it, last Saturday was an ordinary day. Nothing Spectacular happened. I played some music on YouTube in the morning while writing, took a walk in the afternoon, ate a pie in our local pub in the evening and then watched television before turning in for the night. Each of these little episodes was, in its own way however, a special event that made me feel most fortunate – privileged even.

The music video was of a live performance of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, performed by Musica Saeculorum. Although I am a non-worshiper, I am moved to the point of tears by this exquisitely crafted composition, constructed by one of the greatest composers in history – teacher to the incomparable Beethoven – more than two hundred years ago. The arias and duets trigger waves of emotion that sweep through me like those invoked by Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas. And, thanks to the technological innovations of our modern world, we are able to enjoy such inspiring and moving performances at any time we choose.

The walk, with Setsu, took us through a hidden valley – an Arcadian retreat – and along a disused canal that runs through Siccaridge Wood Nature Reserve. This is a wonderful, secluded place at any time, where one can truly feel close to nature. But at the time of our visit the woodland floor had grown a luminous carpet of pastel blue. As is always the case in a bluebell wood, the colour intensified as we looked further away, the viewing angle changing.

The pie was a world famous 2-in-1, exclusive to the Weighbridge Inn, which sits a couple of miles from where we live, midway between Minchinhampton and Nailsworth. The pub is notable for its intimate feel and its admirable policy of not playing music,  the pie for its consistently high quality, maintained over decades. The concept is simple – a deep oval dish filled with equal quantities of steak and kidney and cauliflower cheese, topped with a crumbly pastry. Weight watchers beware! The components are satisfyingly complementary and the execution flawless. The organic grass fed beef is succulent, the gravy rich and flavoursome. A simple but worthy meal for a special occasion such as a bank holiday weekend.

The television programme, a Norwegian drama, was engaging and well made and the viewing experience was enhanced by the consumption of a bottle of good wine. Even the trip to Waitrose earlier in the evening to buy the wine was an excursion that, far from being mundane, elicited from me a feeling of gratitude. And the opportunity to end the day in the company of my wife, enjoying a few glasses of St-Véran while engrossed in a dark Scandie tale, is something I no longer take for granted.

A brief application of The Knot Garden’s Fundamental Framework shows that the four key elements of creativity, health, wealth and relationships all found expression in my “ordinary” day through music, writing, companionship, recreation, exercise, good food and wine. These are things that really matter.

The important message from this ordinary but special Saturday is that we should feel profoundly grateful for the opportunity to enjoy lifes’s simple pleasures. I consider myself to be fortunate beyond words.