Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

pigs head

My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

The first 24 hours…

Week one

88 days began around 20 hours ago. I started by thinking about inspirations. People, ideas, countries. And so…

A theme for week one: Inspiration

So who inspires me? I asked a couple of friends, and all of them needed a little time. Actually, Linda gave me a couple to start, then retracted. I did the same. Should it be someone who’s directly affected my life choices? What’s the difference between aspiration and inspiration? Do heroes count?

Is it more likely to be people closer to home, people I can share a beer with? I’m slowly getting to know a guy, a guy who Hunter S Thompson once described as ‘sinister’. He lives in New Plymouth, plays guitar, and once ran a vegetarian cafe in Guatemala with his wife and kids. When this gent nods his head sagely at something I’ve said, or laughs at one of my jokes, I feel better about myself. Maybe he’s a truer choice than say…Hemingway?

And it isn’t just who, is it? Everything I write starts with an idea. A seed, a catalyst. Inspiration. I’m writing this paragraph in a rural cafe, perched at the edge of a busy (for New Zealand…) motorway. Unusually, there aren’t any coffee sacks on the walls. What’s the story with those sacks? Who makes them? What do the markings mean? What of the sack maker’s family? Community? The needle she sews with, the light he sews by, their dreams for their children.

So maybe inspiration can be found in an absence. Or in nuance, minutiae, seeming trivialities. If the devil’s in the details, then maybe him (should that be gender neutral?) and I are about to become firm friends.


A muse for week one

Last week I listened to two interviews with an American author who’s now in her mid 80s. She was forthright, opinionated, and yet gracious. I could imagine her putting Hemingway in his place, if they’d ever sipped bourbon in the same bar, and he’d gotten a little salacious with a waitress.

Ursula K Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon. She believes in the power of the imagination. She can be commandingly forthright, but apparently balances her targeted tirades with gentle humour. Any of which draws me to her already.

So I’ll be hunting out this Californian octogenarian’s story, and looking into how she might inspire me. What she might teach me. Whether she hosts writers in residence, I hear Portland’s got quite the craft beer scene…


Finally, my tasks for week one:


1. Write a letter to someone who inspires me

Someone once told me how important it was to thank the people who inspire you. All of them. She explained that it seemed to be a relatively rare thing, even for people you expect would be almost burdened with kudos. And I imagine it is a wonderful compliment, a warm affirmation.

So I thought about the people who inspired me at the time, and then I went and worked another bake shift. But the idea got caught somewhere inside, like bubblegum in the carpet of my mind. And now it is time to follow through. After all, the same person convinced me to start writing again.


I need to do this one in the first week, to have any chance of receiving a reply by week thirteen. Am I even right to be hoping for a response? Ego check.


2. Find community

In my experience to date, writing is a solo pursuit. Lonely isn’t the right term, because I don’t miss company when I write. And yet somehow I find the presence of other people useful, comforting. I like to sit in a cafe, and focus on the page or screen. There, away from the lawns, the house bus, the Internet, my distractions are different. Someone’s pose, or tone, or half-heard conversation. Maybe the way they wear their sunglasses, or nibble at their bagel, or berate their child, that gets stored, or absorbed.

But there’s also that people-need of mine which isn’t writing specific. That desire to share and exchange notes about purpose, about vocation. One of the best parts about working in a busy kitchen, was the banter, the competition to craft the best shepherds pie, the nicknames for customers, the high-fives in recognition to a particularly well curated morning playlist. I need to find a writers kitchen.

I live in a tiny town, so people are a limited resource. Maybe I need to look online. Or do a few more trips around the country to do interviews with novelists, journalists. Or perhaps it’s as simple as finding out who the other person is who buys the German rye bread from the supermarket down the road.


3. Set long-term writing goals for the thirteen weeks

I need to have some longer term goals, and I need to set them early. I also need a range of interesting tasks lined up, so that there’s always a new challenge.

At the moment I’m hoping to achieve the following over the next 88…87 days, but I need to understand whether it is aspirational, underwhelming, or madness:

  • Write twice a week about the process, my experiences etc.
  • Write and submit a short story, and start another one
  • Write a feature story and submit it for publication
  • Re-read the manuscript of my first novel, then decide whether I move forward with it, or start a new one
  • Determine what part writing will play in my life, from day 89


Ok, I’ve got a craving for rye bread. Peace out.



Below the fold

This section is for trivia, photos, links, ideas. Non-essentials. Because often what we cast aside can be as useful as the things I cling to.

Muses I considered and then discarded for this week: John Pilger (old skool investigative journalist), Ira Glass (public radio story sponsor), Ernest Hemingway (American author), Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (compassionate vegan).

I discovered the website of the “Poets & Writers” magazine last week, as they host a stupendous list of publishers. It gives me hope of finding a partnership, if not a fortune:

One of the photos I considered for this posting, then rejected, because I couldn’t find any way in which it was relevant:

uni cxamo






88 Days


One of the world’s greatest forces is a sense of direction. My best days are often the ones that start with me being dragged from the sleepy tendrils of my dreams by a sense of purpose. And so one of the most satisfying things I can do for myself, is to ensure I set goals.

Around five years ago, I woke to a cold morning in Cambridgeshire. I crept downstairs and slipped outside, drawing boots onto my feet, and a hat over my head. I walked to a set of allotment gardens at the end of the street. There I watched the sun crawl into the sky, lighting frosted leaves, coaxing steam from shed roofs. I made a promise before the small, neat rows of vegetables, to write.

I have produced several hundred thousand words since that sunrise over Huntingdon. Articles, stories, a manuscript. A religious text. But most of them are still hidden away. Unseen. Untested. Unjudged. I’ve probably published 5%.

Today I am setting myself a challenge. I am allotting myself 88 days in which to confront my fears around sharing my work. I’m creating a list of tasks: interviewing a hero, getting a short story published, showing the world passages from my first book.

I’ll investigate the opportunities avaibale for writers in a digital world. I’ll look into ways  I can market myself, and the places I can go for help. I’ll introduce the people and services that assist me along the way.

And each week I’ll nominate a new inspiration, someone who I hope will help me learn something new. Maybe it’ll be Gordon Ramsey, or Tim Burton, or Katey Perry. Whoever or whatever it is, they’ll be my Muse of the Week, an excuse to look at things from a new perspective.

I’ll write all about it here. The good bits, the sketchy bits, the triumphs and challenges. Soon I’ll introduce my first muse.

So. 88 days. Starting…now.



Tools for being human, part seven: Eclecticism


I once sat between two huge men in a seedy Budapest bar, hoping my mate Paul wasn’t being drowned by their companions in some dark stretch of the Danube. One of us (I don’t think either of us remembers/admits whose idea it was) told the other “let’s get a cab to the seediest pub in the city”, and there I sat, dripping with sweat and regret. It was a situation which taught me several things. That I can trust Paul in a sticky situation. That if you’re unable to pay a debt to the Hungarian Mafia, then you get pimped out in live sex shows. And that my desire to experience more of life occasionally threatens to shorten it.

The other significant understanding that hindsight offers, is that my willingness to engage with as many different ideas, experiences and people as possible, builds the parts of me I’m most proud of. I believe there is a cost in denying myself an opportunity to try something out. The price is ignorance, reduced opportunities. And most disappointing of all, it means fewer chances to overlap with other people.

It frustrates me when people reject things without strong reasoning. “I don’t dance, I don’t read anything by female authors, I’ll never watch anything made by Disney.” It upsets me when I realise I’ve rejected something from a place of ignorance, from prejudice. Short-cut thinking is something I battle against, mental laziness. And sometimes it really is a battle. It is easy to maintain a huge list of ideas with a yes/no indicator next to them. Do I give a shit about dinosaurs? No. Do I care about someone else’s faith? No. But I find it is then very difficult to undo these binary indicators.

Instead though, I can leave a space next to anything that I haven’t tried. Am I going to be impressed by walking in the footprints of dinosaurs in Colorado? Blank space. I’m far more likely to convince myself to give something a try, if my mind isn’t already saying “not interested”. And once I’ve built a history of saying “Cool, I’m up for it”, then the momentum of previous exciting experiences builds, and it generates FOMO as a by-product. And the Fear Of Missing Out, is a great counter-balance to niggling anxieties about exposure to shame, embarrassment, or naked flames.

I’d like to congratulate my family for their contribution to this mental attitude. I grew up with two siblings, and though we all shared a love of hair metal and bourbon, we also developed independent ideas of what constituted a good time. For example my brother was the martial arts one, and my sister the horse riding one. And growing up with them meant I watched them find grins and LOLs in places I hadn’t been. And eventually I guess it was FOMO again, which led me to dabble in their respective arts. So one day I trained in Japanese sword fighting, which led to my involvement in the Lord of the Rings films. And another time I began taking riding lessons, which has led to trots amongst the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, tolts through the snow on Icelandic horses, and limb-ducking gallops across Czech forests. Oh, and several friendships, and a marriage.

My Dad didn’t do anything to counter my desire for diverse experiences. First, library visits with him meant I found joy in reading science fiction, Aesop’s fables, and to a lesser degree the ingredients on a can of toilet spray while I wait for difficult movements. This led to a (at this stage embryonic) career in writing, an inescapable interest in foreign lands and people, and a solid knowledge of non-CFC propellant mechanisms. Dad also had a strong desire to be his own boss, twinned with a low tolerance for boredom. So his decision to wear many different hats (firman’s helmet, chef’s toque, SCUBA mask) contributed to the ease with which I visualised myself as a chainsaw sculptor.

And then my wonderful Mum, she trained as a nurse, she worked with special needs kids, and then she led her and my Dad into a career in the wine industry when she decided to train in viticulture. So yip, I blame her for my weakness around an open bottle of wine, but also for my compassion, and that one time I worked as an art tutor with vulnerable communities.

So I have my family to thank for one of my greatest super-powers. And one of the greatest benefits of this power, is that it helps counteract a natural shyness. My readiness to consider almost anything has resulted in an interest in almost everything. I find that in general, when I meet someone new, I can usually find areas of commonality. Of overlap. This isn’t necessarily a shared experience or expertise, but if I haven’t told myself I don’t give a shit about laser holograms, then each time I encounter something around them, I build a little understanding. I write something other than “NO” in that blank box. And so when I meet an old Canadian scientist in a mead-dealing pub in Cesky Krumlov, we share an evening of stories, laughter, and herbed honey wines.

Common ground is a wonderful place for two people to start building a conversation, or mutual respect, or a plan to spend more time together. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Kiwi of no fixed career, and she’s a world class Brazilian surfer, my ability to find joy in more things rather than less, means that I’m more likely to be as interested in her side of the conversation as my own.

I’m far from perfect. There are plenty of things that I reacted against with minimal information. But I didn’t write “NO!” in the boxes next to Drum and Bass, or Trailer parks, or Bluegrass, and so when I eventually tried them, I discovered some of my most transcendent escapades. So I’ll push myself to maintain an open mind on as much as life as possible, because each new experience is a teacher, and each teacher guides me from places of ignorance, towards greater communion, towards stronger friendships, and towards being a more capable human.

Tools for being human, part six: Spending time in other people’s shoes


Before I started to travel, I thought the most inspirational experiences on the road would be those that belonged in an adventure film. Exploring intricate temples by torch-light, fighting imaginary foes on castle walls, passionate kisses on broken towers in front of rich sunsets. My first morning in Kuala Lumpur taught me that there was more to life than moments.

I woke early that day, a combination of time zones and excitement. I drew myself into thin clothing and stepped bleary-eyed into the dawn. I rose my hand over my eyes and admired the strong, early light painting a crumbling wall stone-fruit colours. I turned to look for shade and noticed an old woman shelling prawns on a step before a dark doorway. Our introduction was nods and smiles, and I stepped a little closer to look into her steel bowl. She tipped her head to the side as I made admiring noises, then held up a finger. She drew herself upward and then disappeared briefly through the doorway. She returned and passed me a second, smaller bowl, and nodded at the step. I sat down and she nudged the bucket between us. She showed me how to peel and de-vein with nimble movements, and then we sat, side-by-side, and watched the world wake.

She nodded to delivery men, she scolded children, and she kept an eye on my amateur efforts. She explained my presence to friends with shrugs of her shoulders, and they smiled in sympathy. And as the bucket slowly emptied, I imagined our spirits trading places, that it would be her that stood and brushed her hands on her thighs and walked out to find the tourist markets, and me that nodded gently and continued to shell prawns, rocking gently on the doorstep. And it was there, half-way through my second bowl, that I began a more important journey.

I once stopped over in Vancouver for a week, unsure what to expect. The first morning was cool and crisp, and I drew my beanie down over my ears as I walked towards the waterfront. I slowed to watch a young woman talking to her dog and rubbing its long ears. The two of them were curled under old blankets, beside steaming steel grates. I pretended to search through my bag for something, giving myself to observe without causing anxiety. I couldn’t get her out of my head as I continued down the streets, towards the super yachts and tourist float planes. What was the last thing she said to her parents? Did she befriend the dog here, in the city? The next day she was there again. And the next. I walked the same street each morning, hesitant to come too close, but curious for her story, for some understanding of the smiles she shared with her brindle hound.

On my final day in the city I bought a coffee, a hot chocolate, and some dog biscuits. I approached the lamppost which marked her spot with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I squinted into the sun as I approached the steam vent but there was no silhouette. Her spot was vacant. I was struggling with my backpack and hot drinks, so I awkwardly repositioned myself, arrayed my burdens around the lamppost and sat on my pack. I sat there in the sun’s glare, comfy in my three layers of jackets, sipping at the hot coffee. As I pushed the first empty cup aside a pedestrian glanced down at the cup and then to my eyes, and I shivered under their gaze. I was there for an hour with her ghosts, rubbing my hands and trying to guess her name. And wondering where or who I might be, if I’d lived through her days.

When I walk amongst the native forests in New Zealand, the birds are quiet. If I slow, then stop and lean gently against a giant Kauri tree, and close my eyes, I become accepted. The birds begin to pass messages on once more, and I become part of the bush. In the first days in a new neighbourhood I am an observer. I listen to the way people greet one another, the “good mornings” and “I’m enchanted”s. I swap nods with the old gents with hands clasped behind their backs. I find the streets where people sit and watch and wait for someone to ask how their week’s been. And gradually the gravity of communion draws me in, and I become a somewhat awkward part of the environment.

In the first weeks I’ve found good coffee (or began making it myself). I’ve hunted out the borscht made by the ex-mayor’s mother, and it may not be the best, but she speaks a little English and calls me ‘the lost one’ and introduces me to the regulars. I’ve found a piano shop where the students go to practice and dream, and on Thursdays a slim, dark browed man plays Crowded House songs with a gentle touch and his own version of the lyrics. Maybe I’m trying to understand the history of rebellion by hunting out ghosts and graffiti. I know what time the fresh custard tarts are drawn from the oven, and when to expect the rains.

After a year I am talking with new words and laughing at new ideas. I’ve found a job, or a way to live without one. I’ve found a new shirt, a new hat, and a pair of shoes that fits. When I walk through the dust and the mud I leave differently shaped footprints. I affect the economy, the gossip, even the scenery. And they affect me.

Taking these opportunities to dwell in places and situations far removed, it isn’t about the photographs, or the harvesting of stories. Ok, maybe a little, I’m a photographer, a writer. But more importantly it is the most effective method I know of for eroding my ignorance. Mornings sitting on a cool sidewalk, watching what was being delivered, peeled, stacked or washed. Watching how dogs and wives and spilt blood are treated. Standing in a queue at the post office, listening to the banter between builder and bailiff. Each step I take in another person’s shoes is a step towards a wider horizon.

Tools for being human, part five: Lego

lego-3I think the two most transformative toys of my childhood were my bike, and Lego. The bicycle might earn a place in this list at some stage, but today I want to talk about magical Danish bricks.

Five things Lego taught me about life

1. Lego taught me perseverance

The sound of my hand moving back and forth between one thousand plastic pieces in a wooden drawer. A pause as I draw up a helpful looking piece. The wrinkling of my brow as I realise it is too long, or too short. The feeling of the gentle-sharp bricks against my skin as I re-sift. The presence of a dozen four by four bricks when all you want is a six by four. Alanis Morissette would sympathise. The satisfaction as I finally roll a blue one-er between my fingers, all I need to complete the periscope on Captain Nemo’s submarine. Lego rewarded perseverance.

These days the hunts for a lost piece are over wider areas: Car keys, credit cards, camera chargers. As I try to remember where I left something, that old Lego drawer could be a metaphor for my ageing brain, my consciousness trawling back and forth between irrelevant information, trying to draw out the one piece I need. Maybe I should keep all those useful things in a wooden drawer. Good idea Lego.

2. Lego taught me competitive spirit (or perhaps selfishness)

The battles to the last part. My brother, sister and I combing frantically, harvesting wheels in the race to build the most powerful battle truck. Their younger eyes, my longer arms, I lean further and further over the drawer attempting to obscure their views. Lego and a shared pack of fish and chips were the two surest way to encourage my competitive edge as I hoarded blue bricks and hot chips with the watchfulness of a lioness and the selfishness of an elder brother. I don’t think I ever wished my siblings would disappear, but I did sometimes imagine how much more simple life would have been if they’d been born with little baby t-rex arms…

3. Lego left gaps for my imagination

A brick is a wall, is a building, is a spaceship blast-door. The most powerful thing about Lego was that it left space for my imagination. Jagged brick lines became a dragon’s tail, a pirate’s whip (everyone in my imagination had whips after Indiana Jones) or a breaking wave. Spit would fly as I added a juddering soundtrack of explosions, laser blasts or dragster wheels spinning. The joy really was in the neutrality of the bricks, they were simply a stepping off point to a story. The creators of Dr Who understood that dodgy props and costumes don’t matter, as long as you’ve engaged the viewer’s imagination.

4. Lego encouraged versatile thinking

Perhaps because Lego let me imagine I could build anything, it also encouraged me to think outside the bricks. At its core it was a building set, and it played well with others. It had hinge and hooks, holes and connectors. With a rubber band I could enable a catapult to fire, or make the world’s most delicate tank tracks. One of my friends got a Pez dispenser for his birthday. I eventually swallowed my envy and built one out of Lego. Ok, my fish bowl wasn’t so successful, but the epic flyovers us kids built for the slot car set were Californian in scale, if a little third world in execution.

Lego didn’t make me an overnight engineer, but I learned that if I didn’t have something, then I could make it. So I built medieval weapons in Granddad’s workshop, tea-stained treasure maps in the kitchen, and launched hand-crafted rubber-band powered planes with Dad on the driveway. I’m convinced that a childhood of making and crafting has contributed to my conviction that I can make do with less.

5. Lego was a hardening agent and a catalyst for curses

For every miracle of Scandinavian toy creation there is a dark side. Bare footed night-time walks to the bathroom were the best way to hunt out lost bricks. Actually maybe that’s just a spectacularly good design feature, no piece of Lego was ever lost for long. Lego prepared my feet for jerky barefoot walks down gravel paths, and jolting runs over hot black sands. Unfortunately it also earned me a few scoldings for the foul-mouthed language of discovery, but other people treading on misplaced bricks did help widen my cursive vocabulary. Very useful for blending in at Glaswegian festivals.

Still, I’d much rather run over a pit of hot coals than a blanket covered in those jagged-edged plastic shards. A blessing and a curse then.

Lego as guru

Dear Lego,

You taught me of Dependability and versatility. You were an aid to my story telling. You taught me never to get too attached to my creations, as the next day they would need to be demolished to make way for whatever came next. You tried to teach me that there was no such thing as perfection, that it was ok to have an all red sports car, except for one side of the bonnet. We had to agree to disagree there.

Thank you Lego, for the part you played in my own construction. And thank you Mum and Dad, for paying over the odds for a Danish toolkit for my imagination.

Much love,

x Regan

Tools for being Human, part four: Dancing


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with dancing. I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever felt so embarrassed doing, so many times, yet still felt a compulsion to repeat. Not even skateboarding. But I’m writing about a hundred things that help me feel human, not a hundred things I’m really good at. And there are times that moving to the rhythm, has a power to lift me beyond troubles, over hurdles, and beyond the reach of apathy. But there are other times that I stand on the edge of the dance floor and something inside me won’t allow my soul release.

I think key to understanding my schizophrenic response to the tempo is to map my rhythm-enthusiasm against my self-confidence. On the courageous evenings when my assurance is firm, my rhythmic libido is freely exposed. On the darker nights of the soul, during those long hours in which I suspect I was placed on this earth as a lesson to others, there’s no way this fool should be on the d-floor. No one should have to bear witness to an uncommitted dancer.

I guess I should take time to understand how I came to this perplexing state. Maybe it is time for a little journey through my history with dance.

The Waltz

Ballroom dancing lessons. Who the feck decided the best way to prepare me for the real world was to force me into such a blush summoning, sweaty handed, gender-based Mexican stand-off? Thirty eight boys along one wall, thirty-nine girls along the other. Acne, quavering voices, levels of anxiety off the emotional Richter scale. Ok, ok, within all that terror and unrequited adrenaline there are slivers of excitement. The slow building drums of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, those few, thin moments in which a girl approaches me, just before hope gives way to suspicion she’s acting under the power of a dare.

But it was in these sessions that I learnt of the fragility of hope. And that my ego was equally delicate. And that people I barely knew had the ability to fracture either with a simple, uncaring rejection. Films and television had intimated that my first dance would a series of stuttering moments, mis-steps with a soundtrack of mutual giggles. My hand held gently against the fabric of the back of her dress, her eyes and mine sharing brief glances. Reality delivered a sweaty angst-fest that very nearly put me off The Dance forever. It is only in writing this that I realise hip hop might well have saved me.

The Backspin

This was it, the phenomenon that let me believe dancing might actually be a legit part of my existence. Break dancing had “cool” accessories: a slice of metre-square  linoleum, an aunty-crafted  set of purple MC Hammer pants, a hand decorated ghetto blaster. Practice sessions were held in friend’s garages, or their bedrooms, one of us trying to desperately to balance single-handed on a coke can, the other clapping encouragement. Encouragement!

Us white boys lived so far from the ghetto we get to dance to caterpillar to the Footloose soundtrack without fear of dance-related beatings. There were rumours that huge gangs of angry teens in New York settled issues with dance-offs, so in a distant-cousin kind of way we were by association gangster, fly, on the edge of something our parents couldn’t understand. Superhero moves, running up walls, flips, high-tops. And the robot. I’ll never forget the feeling of the clap circle as I twisted into the start of an epic windmill, only to collapse in giggles and be hauled to my feet by friends. The memories of enforced waltzes weren’t forgotten, but Grandmaster Flash gave dance a fighting chance.

The mosh pit

There’s dancing with partners, there’s dancing in the centre of the circle, and then there’s the mosh pit. It isn’t easy to describe the uneasy combination of high intensity thrashing and a pervasive awareness of each other’s well-being. As one person goes down, others draw them up. As I launch myself into a shoulder charge, I’m landing my shoulder into another, I’m inflicting only the gentlest of bruises as guitars wail and drums thunder.

The pit is an example of mob mentality with a positive modifier. As you’re drawn into the front-of-stage crowd you become a part of it. It exists as an outlet for expression through physicality, but for me it is also an opportunity to be physically one with others. The moves are barely articulate, pogoing, short runs, twists to free yourself of the centre, and ultimately stage dives. But for me it is a way to hold onto others amongst the music, to feel part of something that extends beyond my own body. And there is something unveiling in aiming to appear out of control, and yet being aware of every twisting spirit around me. Rebellion tempered with empathy. I think it’s that tension that I enjoy, and the feel of the arching floorboards throwing me higher than the beat.

The rave

The millennium, champagne, pills, lines, Vauxhall Bridge, Swedish twins DJing, my first crack at the turntables. My introduction to rave culture was a trial by toxicity, my guide an Australian chef. Within a few hours the music finds a place within me, rounds out my skull, trembles down my arms. The courtship of narcotics and tunes, the slow build, the breakbeat, the pause and release. Music that only makes sense when you dance it.

My relationship with drum and bass and garage and trance was brief and intense. Two, three years, chasing what in the dusk felt like humanity’s best chance for empathic union, and in the dawn felt like a plot to enslave a generation of addictive personalities. But there’s something about dancing towards the DJ, lasers lighting up smoke, water bottles in the air. Your focus is forward or inward. With no audience there’s less room for inhibition. Just you , the tunes and 5,000 megawatts of lasers.

And so…

Hmm, ok, there’s a lot of good times in there. If I also add in all the slow-foot reggae shuffles in the sun, the car seat boogies on long road trips, the Forbidden Dance, the silent discos, dance has given far more than it has taken. And I guess it has never really taken anything, rather I’ve just not been in a position to give.

In future I’ll try to use some of these other tools to ensure I’m more open to her charms. And to my own.