Archive for September, 2008

City of reflections

reflected ad

When you’re in a city where a lot of the buildings are covered in reflective glass, what you see can be quite disorientating. I spotted this iMac ad, then thought, hang on, that’s the wrong way round! Then I realised I was looking at a glass clad building.
Then I looked across at this one and saw the crowds of shoppers milling along the pavements. When you look closely some of them look like they are in those distorting mirrors you used to get at funfairs.

reflected crowds

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sunset tokyo

Look carefully and you’ll see quite a number of buildings which are reflecting the setting sun. In fact they make a kind of red thread or trail right across Tokyo and up to the sunset. (If you can’t make that out, click on the photo to go to the flickr page where it’s stored and double click it there to see the large version)

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Ikebukuro sale

In the subway station at Ikebukuro, Tokyo, market stalls come and go, flourishing for a day, then gone again. This one at the foot of the escalator was selling clothes. It seemed out of place there to me, but probably seems perfectly normal to the local commuters.
Notice the interesting English phrase indicating the huge discounts available…….”Big Off!”

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Tokyo views

Do a search on this blog for “ben ledi” and you’ll see the kind of view I’m used to. Then you’ll realise what a culture shock it is to wake up and see this …….


When I first looked out of the hotel window here in Ikebukuro I could only see the vastness of it all. And the fact that as far as I could see there were only buildings. But then I zoomed my camera in on some of the detail.


This is something you see a lot in Tokyo – an old building surrounded on all sides by tall new ones – like a wee oasis!

Parking must be a nightmare in Tokyo – can you make out the multi-storey parking lot? Do you think they park the cars sideways to get more in?

Can you see the tennis courts?


This building is right opposite my hotel. The little rail track running around the rim fascinates me. But I haven’t spotted any trains yet!


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On the plane from Edinburgh to Tokyo I read theWarofArt by Steven Pressfield (ISBN 9 780446 691437). It’s subtitled “Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles” and has a brilliant little Foreword by Robert McKee which really captures the essence and the scope of the book. It’s one of those books about creativity in general and writing in particular. There are no breakthrough insights here but it is a highly readable and very inspirational little book which is structured around three sections. The first is all about what stops us from actually creating – Resistance. This is a brilliant section. He describes Resistance as a force. A pretty malevolent force and one that can feel highly personal, but which, in fact, is an impersonal natural phenomenon. It’s what stops us from starting, what stops us from carrying on and what stops us from finishing. As he says right at the beginning –

It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

Now there’s something you’ve heard before – that to write you need to turn up at the writing table, you need to sit down, stop sharpening the pencils, tidying the notebooks and post-its, stop browsing the web, and WRITE. It’s the getting started that’s hard.

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Isn’t that so true? There’s the things we want to do, the things we feel we should do, the things we feel we were even born to do, and then there’s what we actually do. And as we all know……..it’s what we actually do that matters. The commonest form of Resistance, of course, is procrastination, and he nicely captures its power –

The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.

He reminds of the common stories of people who have been told they have cancer or some other serious disease and who change their lives from that day on; change their priorities; channel their energies somewhere else. And he reminds us how often these very same people end up surprising the doctors and everyone else by seriously overshooting their death sentence. Why, he asks, do we need to wait till Resistance faces us with disease and death before we pay attention and start to live the life we were born to live?

He’s great about the passive aggressiveness of victimhood. By victimhood he means that use of exterior loci of control so clearly described by William Glasser.

Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.

There’s really a lot of refined gold in this tight publication. Let me finish telling you about the first section with a reference to his comments about criticism. I often think there are two common attitudes amongst people – the commonest one is to criticise and complain. On any train, in any cafe, in every work place, every day you’ll hear people expressing righteous indignation. It never makes life feel richer and it never seems to solve anything either. The less common attitude is DO, to be creative, to solve or to heal.

Individuals who are realised in their own lives almost never criticise others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.

The second section of the book is entitled “Combating Resistance. Turning pro”. This contains his advice for beating the phenomenon of Resistance and here’s the secret – it’s to “turn pro”. By this he means living your vocation.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.

He cleverly takes everyday jobs as a model for becoming creatively professional. Here are ten characteristics or principles we can take from doing and everyday job and apply to the work of being creative –

  1. Show up every day
  2. Show up no matter what
  3. Stay on the job all day
  4. Commit over the long haul
  5. The stakes are high and real (it’s about survival, feeding our families, educating our children)
  6. Accept remuneration for your labour
  7. Don’t overidentify with your job
  8. Master the technique of your job
  9. Have a sense of humour about your job
  10. Receive praise or blame in the real world.

You’ll need to get the book to read the detail on those! But I’m sure you’ll agree they make sense.

The third and final section of the book is the one Robert McKee takes some issue with in the Foreword. It’s entitled “Beyond Resistance. Higher Realm” and in it Steven writes about Muses – the spiritual forces which bring us inspiration and which work with our genius. He describes them as Angelic forces but is very clear that you don’t have to believe in Angels to benefit from the work of the Muses. He makes the point that just as we can think of Resistance as an impersonal force, so can we think of the Muse as an opposite impersonal force and he describes how he begins every writing session with a prayer to the Muses. I liked this section at least as much as the rest of the book. However you want to conceive of the Muses, I think he is completely right about them.

Let me finish this little review with one of Goethe’s couplets which he quotes –

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.

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I’ve been reading the WHO report on the social determinants of health recently. It’s a big document but written in crystal clear language and structured in a way which makes it easy to get the key messages.

THE key message is

Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale

And their positive response to that fact

The Commission calls for closing the health gap in a generation.

Quite a challenge!

The report is full of astonishing facts, but here are two connected ones which completely grabbed me –

40% of the population of the world exist on less than two dollars a day

OK, that’s enough to make you stop and think as you hand over the money for your daily latte!

Every cow in Europe is subsidised by European taxpayers to the tune of, yes you guessed it, TWO DOLLARS A DAY!

Now that makes you think about the choices we make! Doesn’t it?

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On the BBC site there is a fascinating story. Cyril Merle, aged 86, suffered a massive stroke just four days after his wife’s funeral. Now aged 91, he has not only recovered but he is able to do more than he could before his stroke. He credits his love of music as being the main reason for his remarkable recovery.

He didn’t just listen to music, but music became a motivator and a framework for his action. He took up “tea dancing” (this was a very popular tradition in England years ago where couples would enjoy afternoon tea and a dance to a live band) and playing the keyboards (having not played for 30 years). Despite his wife having described him in the past as a “rotten dancer” he says he can now dance better than he can walk and he regularly plays for community sing-songs in the residential home where he lives.

I think there are a number of interesting aspects to this story. Firstly, it does remind me of Edwyn Collin’s story, which is also a remarkable story of stroke recovery involving music. Secondly, right at the beginning of this story is the fact that this man’s stroke occurred within 4 days of his wife’s funeral. A powerful example of the strong psychological, emotional and social determinants of disease. We will never understand illness or health if we think of them in strictly physical/material terms. Thirdly, all three characteristics of health are present in this story. This man suffered a significant incapacitating event, but he adapted. He coped. He survived. But he didn’t just adapt, he grew. Through creative expression of dance and playing a musical instrument he enlarged his life. He developed. In fact, he developed to a point beyond the one he’d reached before his stroke. Finally, he was engaged with life and his community. Tea dances in particular are fundamentally social affairs and he didn’t just play his keyboards for his own enjoyment, he used his new skills to entertain and encourage others in the home where he lives.

What a great story!

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