Saturday, July 24, 2010

What I have gained from writing a blog

A student at one of the seminars I gave recently asked me how I wrote my books, an interesting question nobody had ever asked me before, nor one that I found I could easily answer. She wanted to know whether the words just flowed from pen to paper or whether I reworked what I had written a lot. This set me looking at how I actually do write. I proceed in small bounds, working on bite-sized chunks of words, invariably written away from home in some place of refreshment (see my blog of March 14th on Coffee Shops I Have Known), at most in very short bouts of perhaps 10 – 20 minutes. I then go back and transfer this to my computer, print it out, and take this printed version away with me again to my next expedition outside, to correct, delete and usually abbreviate, until the words flow as I want them to do, with the kind of cadence I am looking for. I then use the last paragraphs of this amended version to move me on to the next thought. I often have no idea where this will come from, but it seems to appear once I am happy with the content of what has just gone before, as each small kernel of thought leads me on to the next.

Since each of these excursions into a new thought represents about a page or so of writing, I find this now fits appropriately into the space of a blog, and I have increasingly begun to include in my blog some of these snippets of thought. I will, I imagine, eventually draw them together into another book, although I realise it would be far easier (and far, far cheaper, since I self-publish), simply to go on blogging and forget the publishing. On the other hand, I regard each book I write as in some way reflecting a form of completed thought, or at least a kind of temporary full-stop in what may well be a continuous process. And shaping a book requires much more than the publication of the snippets which a blog can resemble. A compromise would be to publish the blog as it stands, though that would, I think, be a bit lazy.

Nevertheless, the pressure of an audience for my thoughts out there, some of whom declare themselves to me, others forming rows of silent listeners surrounding me, encourages me in my thinking. I am sure, too, that much of what I have written in books remains unread by the people buying them, for I recognise that I do not myself always read books from cover to cover, often dipping into the first chapters and leaving the rest for another time, perhaps never to be re-opened. The same may be true of a blog, but, because they are shorter, it is more likely that people read to the end, rather than stopping half-way through. Perhaps, with people’s attention span much shorter because of the vast number of words out there waiting to be read, a blog is more likely to be read than any book now, and is more conducive to the realities of people’s rushed lives than the kind of protracted reading a book requires.

Certainly the presence of my blog has changed how I approach my writing and given it some urgency, because of the need to add to it at regular intervals. So here’s to further happy blogging, with the added bonus that now, thanks to Zara (see my blog of July 17th asking for help), I now know how to correct what I have already published!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Further tips on diagnosing the voices of the different elements

Each element has a distinctive way of speaking, and as five element acupuncturists we are taught to listen for tone of voice as one of the sensory signs by which we recognise the elements. As with the other three sensory signs, smell, colour and emotion, we tend to think that we recognise a sensory signal merely by using the appropriate sense organ, in this case by listening. But there is more to speech than the mere sounds we utter as words. In addition to the tone of voice in which we hear the words, we need to look at how the words are spoken, as well as the body language which accompanies them and expresses their meaning. No diagnosis of the element behind the words can be complete unless all these factors are taken into consideration.

There is an additional important factor here. When we feel we have to rely simply on the sharpness of our hearing, we may feel helpless if we cannot yet distinguish the different tones of voice, something which it takes many years to master (so students, take heart – we have all had to learn this the hard way!). If we can add to this some visual input, by looking at how the words are spoken and watching the body language, we have more in our sensory armoury to call upon. This is something that is particularly important for me as I am now very hard of hearing and don’t trust my ears as I once did. I have therefore started to develop additional distinguishing marks which I can add to tone of voice to help me recognize the elements. I noted, for example, that Fire people tended to lean forwards towards the person they are talking to it, making me wonder whether this was indeed a characteristic peculiar to all Fire. I then started to observe myself talking, and noticed that I, too, move forward towards my listener, as though trying to engage more closely with them and add something personal to the communication.

I have now started to look more closely at the movements the other elements make as they speak, and have so far discovered the following, though I have still much work to do to define these characteristics further and with greater reliability. Metal, as is to be expected, tends to remain remarkably still as it talks. Earth enunciates its words very clearly and obviously enjoys the process of speaking as though, I like to think, it enjoys the moment at which a word is uttered, then swallowed, and the thought behind it digested, much in the way we enjoy the taste of food as we digest it. Its way of talking is comfortable and soothing, reflecting the singsong quality characteristic of its speech. This can make it the easiest on the ear.

Water’s speech, on the other hand, tends to be more rapid and jerky. Its body moves as it speaks, with none of the stillness behind Metal’s words or the comfortable feeling underlying Earth’s. Its characteristic tone of voice gives it a droning-like quality of speech which can be difficult to listen to and unsettling to the listener, without their knowing quite why, a characteristic typical of Water. Finally, there is Wood, where the emphasis behind the words, that of telling somebody something with a kind of internal punch, can be spoken through tight lips, as though the words are being restrained from bursting forth.

These represent some early observations of mine, and reflect only half-formed ideas. As I go on, of course, I may find some Fire people who never move as they talk, and Metal people who do, just to throw the cat among the pigeons! But that is the nature of things, and I offer the observations above as food for thought and as another illustration of how we try to learn to hone our diagnostic techniques as patient succeeds patient, and as I hope I will continue to do as long as I practise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The declining (in every sense of the word) and pronunciation of English verbs

As light relief to all the serious things I usually write about, I am including below two amusing poems from an interesting book called The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher (Willliam Heinemann, 2005), which, as you would think, is all about the development of languages. These poems neatly encapsulate the difficulties we all have, English and foreigners alike, in spelling and pronouncing English. Having tried many times over the years, usually in vain, to help students with their spelling (a fast-disappearing skill with the appearance of Twitter and blogging), the poems made me laugh out loud.

The teacher claimed it was so plain,
I only had to use my brain.
She said the past of throw was threw,
The past of grow – of course – was grew,
So flew must be the past of fly,
And now, my boy, your turn to try.
But when I trew,
I had no clue,
If mow was mew
Like know and knew
(Or is it knowed
Like snow and snowed?)

The teacher frowned at me and said
The past of feed was – plainly – fed.
Fed up, I knew then what I ned:
I took a break, and out I snoke,
She shook and quook (or quaked? or quoke?)
With raging anger out she broke:
Your ignorance you want to hide?
Tell me the past form of collide!
But how on earth should I decide
If it’s collid
(Like hide and hid),
Or else – from all that I surmose,
The past of rise was simply rose,
And that of ride was surely rode,
So of collide must be collode?

Oh damn these English verbs, I thought
The whole thing absolutely stought!
Of English I have had enough,
These verbs of yours are far too tough.
Bolt upright in my chair I sat,
And said to her ‘that’s that’ – I quat.

(Guy Deutscher)

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake, don’t call it ‘deed’.
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt):
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose-
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front, and word and sword
And do and go, and thwart and cart-
Come! Come! I’ve hardly made a start!

(From the Manchester Guardian, 1954)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today”: Tony Judt

I have just read Tony Judt’s latest book, Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Books, 2010), a fascinating and challenging book. Judt is a philosopher and social historian about whom I wrote in this blog on 2nd July. His book is about what the title of another book, this time by Andrew Rawnsley, the political journalist, on very much the same subject, called The State We (this country) Are In. Basically Judt’s thesis is that Margaret Thatcher acted like a scythe cutting across all the gains this country had made in promoting social fairness since the second world war, and ushered in an era in which self-interest and the pursuit of wealth were lauded above all other aims, with no regard to their effect on the society in which we live. Hence the financial, and of course the resultant social, disasters we now face. He maintains that this trend was further encouraged, devastatingly, by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown. I myself can still remember how appalled I was when Thatcher abolished essential social services like the well-functioning youth worker network, and encouraged the sale of school playgrounds to developers, thereby consigning generations of schoolchildren to the streets, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except, inevitably, to add to our current crime figures.

Judt yearns for the return of a time when the good of society as a whole becomes once again the motivating force of society, rather than profit and the achievement of illusory financial targets in all things. He bewails the fact that there are no outstanding characters in government, let alone in parliament, with the vision and drive to halt the creeping advance of self-interest at the cost of the benefits to society as a whole. Just this week, with the announcement of what looks like plans for the wholesale dismantling of the NHS as we know it, we can see confirmation of that, as the parliamentary opposition, which should be fighting on the NHS’s behalf, is intent instead on pussyfooting about who should be its leader, leaving it effectively leaderless and without a clear voice at a time when a strong opposition is needed to take the fight to the government and hold it to account

What frightens me is the terrifying note of glee, rather than appalled regret, in the voices of those announcing drastic cuts to public services. I have heard no expressions of any true concern for those who these cuts are going to damage most, inevitably the poorest and least able to withstand their effects, nor, as Tony Judt points out, any understanding that the unequal society Britain has become, a society with, appallingly, the worst gap between rich and poor of any advanced nation, inevitably endangers the whole of that society, and not just the weakest of its members. If we value what we should now be fighting for, then a reading of Tony Judt’s book offers a lucidly argued condemnation of the direction in which Britain (and the USA) are moving, and constitutes a call for action to halt this downward slide.

This is truly a great and important book. And, thankfully, not a very long book. I read it almost at one sitting. Do read it! And if you want to support your local library in its fight to avoid the closures which now menace all public libraries, then order it through your local library, something I always try to do. I regard this as my small, but I hope important, contribution to helping maintain what I regard as essential social services, and my way of trying, through this blog, too, to change things. In Tony Judt’s concluding words to his book, “As citizens of a free society,we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In the Footsteps of the Elements

I am giving a seminar at the College of Traditional Acupuncture on 14th July, and have prepared the following outline for the day. I think it neatly encapsulates some of the difficulties we all have, both as human beings in general and as five element acupuncturists in particular, in seeing others as they really are, not as we think they are. I am calling the seminar In the Footsteps of the Elements:

“We can all throw great shadows, those of our own needs, over those we come into contact with, and it requires a high degree of self-awareness and humility to acknowledge how much we may be distorting the messages we think other people are sending out, so that we may, without realising it, be misinterpreting what they are telling us. It is particularly important for five element acupuncturists to be aware of this, since our diagnosis consists of tracking to their true source the footsteps the elements leave behind on each person. An image which can be used to describe a state of balance is that of someone standing at noon with the sun directly overhead in a cloudless sky so that they cast no shadow over anybody who approaches them. An image of imbalance is then that of a person standing deeply in their own shadow, so that whoever approaches is swallowed up in this shadow.

This further day with Nora Franglen will concentrate upon helping us learn ways of pushing our own shadows aside as far as possible so that we do not allow our perceptions of our patients to be distorted by our own imbalances.”

Friday, July 2, 2010

On listening to Tony Judt speaking on the radio

I have just listened to a very moving radio interview with the writer and historian Tony Judt who suffers from such advanced motor neurone disease that he is now completely paralysed except for the ability to move his head and to speak. What was so uplifting to hear was the way he approaches his disability and his determination to continue his work with the pressure of his impending death to speed him on.

At a much less extreme level I can resonate with what he said, as should everybody, whatever their age, but it is only as I approach the final quarter of my life, and having a few years ago had a very mild stroke to remind me of my mortality, that I have been made so aware that time does indeed press and there is a need for speed in all that I still have to do. It is as though all the thoughts dammed up inside me and jostling for expression are finding a new focus because there is some compulsion to utter them stirring within me with increasing urgency.

This may have something to do with the closure of the school, and the slight hiatus when I took breath to recover and realign my life, and now the feeling of taking off in another direction as though I have much work to do before this hand, still slightly handicapped by the stroke and a daily reminder of time passing, finally refuses to do my bidding and my thoughts falter and fall silent.

When asked about how he viewed his death, Tony Judt said that he did not believe in an after-life, but felt that the point of his life lay in what he would leave behind him. On the small piece of wood which is the only thing my woodland burial plot (already chosen and paid for!) allows as a gravestone, it would be nice to feel that I, too, could write that, in some small measure, I had achieved what I wanted to do and been able to leave something of all that is within me behind.