Swangling

20170603_080440

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Waterlog Magazine.

I once almost caught a trout between my legs.

Aged 8 or 9, frolicking in a murky River Itchen, my Dad lifted me up out of the water by my arms and somehow my ankles ensnared an olive brown trout of about a pound. Hauled skywards, I tightened my grip but after just a fleeting moment my ankles inevitably lost their purchase and the slippery fish wriggled free and plopped back into the water.

It would have been the first trout I’d ever caught. My father hadn’t seen what had happened but this intimate contact with my then elusive quarry had me excitedly gabbling for hours.

Anyone who knows the River Itchen will know that it is rarely murky, yet on this bucolic day hundreds of excited children were tearing up weed and throwing it at each other, drifting down the river in rafts, inspecting nymphs on the bottom of rocks, splashing wildly and giggling relentlessly whilst an aged statesman in a wheelchair serenely looked on at the scene from the middle of his garden. The trout and other river life I imagine were having a less enjoyable day, their usually idyllic habitat invaded by thousands of goose-pimpled legs, hence the reason why a usually evasive, wily trout could end up clasped between young ankles. Once a year this kind gentleman allowed the children from our school to use his gardens and the river that runs through it for an almighty picnic. Glorious, halcyon memories of England at its finest.

Until earlier this year, it is the closest I have come to catching a fish whilst swimming. This Spring, armed with a borrowed spear in Cornwall, I squeezed in two wetsuits and bobbing around more like an over-inflated lilo than a stealthy hunter, I managed to fight of the cold and buoyancy for long enough to spear a small pollock and, I’m ashamed to say, two wrasse. The shame blossoming later – at the time I was brimming with manly pride. I emerged triumphant from the sea, glittering with my prizes strapped to my weight belt next to my big shiny knife, emblematic of my connection with my Savage ancestors. If it hadn’t been for the ungraceful removal of my fins and the ten millimetres of neoprene impairing my ability to walk in a manner that might suggest I was a sane being – I’d likely have been asked to pose as a poster-child of hunter-gathering by passing tourists. Nonetheless, I michelin-manned my way back to our holiday house and casually deposited my prizes in the sink and declared dinner sorted and supermarkets for wussies.

My pride was short-lived – my mistake was to try to impress the locals by asking for a recipe for my recently hunted quarry. “The best recipe to ensure you draw out the natural flavour out of a wrasse” the manly fisherfolk in the pub wryly suggested, “is to sandwich it between two bricks and put it on a fire. Then when it’s well cooked throw the wrasse away and eat the bricks”. The internet served to humiliate further, suggesting that to spear wrasse – a friendly, kind and curious fish – was as difficult ‘as shooting a family labrador’. We ate it anyhow and it was surprisingly good, so we had the last laugh, along with my swallowed pride.

Which brings me drifting slowly toward my point: Given how much time us fishermen spend by the water, I am continually surprised by how little time we spend in it. We lovers of the water and all that lies within are surprisingly unlikely to pull off our boots, jackets and dive in.

Why?

Given the blackened fingernails and general cleanliness of the average fisherman, surely a post, pre or during-session dip, or perhaps even all of these, would only serve to improve our reputations and cohabitability? Are we all too aware of the creatures that lie within and therefore a tiny bit frightened of the things that we cannot see that may be lurking beneath a placid water, ready to chomp upon our delicate extremities? Is our imagination so vivid and fanciful that we allow our dreams of monster fish to prevent us from dipping our toes into the watery depths? I’ve yet to catch a snaggletooth big enough to cause me anxiety, but I still suffer a childish ‘what’s below me in this deep water’ fear that prevents me from going too far out, but it’s not enough to prevent the swim itself.

A now famous Patagonian guide learnt his trade by donning swimming trunks and goggles and spending a month submerged in the waterways of region, finding and watching trout from within their element, rather than above. Understanding more in that period about where fish lie, their behaviour and what they eat than decades spent casting from the bank.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that it’s worth swimming in order to become a better angler. Alas, in many course fishing locales, the visibility wouldn’t enable much more than an angler to appreciate that fish have highly tuned senses that are much more useful than their eyes. Instead I want to ask why on a glorious, hot summers day, anglers are restrained enough to prevent throwing themselves in? It’s a mystery why you’d want to be by the water but not enter it. To plumb its depths but not immerse yourself in it. The crystal coolness that’ll wipe away the sweat and heat of a summers day within seconds. To be at one with your quarry. To feel the water. After a day spent on the bank, surely you want to have one last cleanse?

I have a feeling regular readers of this magazine will know what I mean. Yet it so rarely happens. Who first decided that the two were incompatible? Is there some unwritten rule book, akin to golfers having to look like they’ve just stumbled out of a country tennis party, that means swimming would result in furrowed brows and letters to local club chairpeople? I hope not. The only good thing about golfing in my youth was being given permission to fish the old estate lake which served to frustrate the golfers who had to cross it. Fishing (and swimming) was certainly beneath them.

I’ve never been one for rules, so in the last couple of years since I’ve started fishing again, I try to swim as often as possible. A dive off the end of a punt into a lake, or a tumble from a bank into a river. It’s rarely allowed, but perhaps all the more pleasurable as a result. A swim to check, or more likely disturb, my swim. On one fishing trip, too lazy to walk to a bridge a mile away, I simply tied my gear to a log and paddled across the river to the surprise of some walkers I met as I scrambled gollum-like out on the far bank.

Swimming has also served to be a fairly good barometer of whether I should be fishing at all. Please excuse my wimpy fair-weather approach to our beloved sport, but one should be aware of one’s limits. Generally speaking, if I’m fishing in a location or at a time where I wouldn’t want to swim – think a canal in winter – then normally I think I might be pushing my obsession too far.

As such, good fishing is to me, good swimming. Namely, a natural setting where there aren’t many people and it’s not knee-deep in boiles, crayfish or shopping trolleys and where the ambient temperature is high enough to make the swim a pleasure rather than an temperature-induced exorcism-of-self.

John Wilson of ‘Go Fishing’ fame claims to have scuba-dived in weir pools and other places to better understand the fish he’s trying to catch. Chris Yates and Bob James from ‘A Passion for Angling’ seem to spend a good amount of time in the water, particularly in Redmire, although usually with the excuse of a bent rod in hand and fully clothed. Chris has also written a book called ‘Falling in Again’, which perhaps is a clever cover for a desire to cool off, so as not to upset the status quo.

Aside from these, I’ve discovered very few reports of swimming anglers, angling swimmers or us purebreds – swanglers. Google gives away little and there and on forums the only mention of swimming is accounted to fish not the fishers. Although delightfully swangling is, I have just discovered according to an urban dictionary online it is, ‘a word to describe achieving something in an uncommon or non-traditional way… Swangling, as stated, is an art… Above all, however, swangling is what the swangler makes of it’. What joy, the moniker fits. Perhaps it will be an olympic sport within couple of decades? You heard it here first.

Aside from the spearfishing, my first dive into my swim happened in mid-May this year and jolly nice it was too. As the summer has unfolded I’ve swangled on almost every trip. Just when I thought that my return to fishing couldn’t get better, swimming has enhanced it that little bit more. Combining passions and enabling a different perspective of the venue – the temperature, the feel of the bottom, an attuned sense of the silky wonder that is fresh water. Perhaps in years to come I will up my game and find some way to tie a lure to my toes and see if some leisurely front-crawl or breast stroke can entice a fish whilst actually swimming. I’ll keep the breaking strain low so that I don’t suffer the same fate as the Zanzibari fishermen I worked alongside – who told stories of inadvertent swims after hooking marlin whilst trailing thick lines trolling large lines from their outstretched ankles. Unbelievable, if it weren’t for the multiple bracelet-like scars on their ankles.

With so little mention of fishing and swimming elsewhere, I hope that I am not committing some massive taboo; some long-ingrained understanding that to swim whilst fishing is akin to a racial or sexist slur. I hope not because angling is, to many, a way of further appreciating and learning about the wonder of our natural, and to swim is to give that further and deeper perspective. So, I encourage you to entertain a spot of swangling next time you’re by the water and if you happen upon a fishing venue, likely in the South West, which contains or is fringed by an angler in sopping boxer shorts (or in even less populated venues his birthday suit) do come and say hello, if and when decency allows.

Advertisements

TEDx – Behind the Schemes

My TEDx is done…

Perhaps short for ‘Tom’s Exhausting Diary’, or ‘Tom’s Extreme Dichotomy’, the latter encapsulating the hypocrisy felt giving a talk on simplicity whilst living an entirely complex life during the process.

Plus ca change.

Hopefully my outfit and, of course, the talk itself will help further explain how I feel and what I learned from the process…  this photo was taken a few buttock clenching seconds before going on stage. I look calm. I am not. That’s a pretty normal state of affairs for me. Many people have commented on how generally chilled out I appear to be…

Don’t be fooled. The last month or two have seen many sleepless nights. If I look younger than I am, my picture in the attic is heavily wrinkled.

IMG_3651
A wise person I met a few weeks ago told me he never really understands something properly until he’s written about it. Too true. There’s a catharsis and comprehension that comes from taking the time to reflect on significant events, hence this post.

This talk couldn’t have come at a worse time for me – I was forced to write my ‘talk proposal’ during the only holiday I’d found time for this year. Spending precious moments on Vancouver Island holed up in cafes on my laptop rather than enjoying the place and time with my traveling companion.

I accepted the opportunity to do a TEDx for a few reasons. Firstly, I knew that like writing, it would force me to consolidate my thoughts. I’ve now been blogging for years and yet still am unsure as to where I’ve got to. I knew the TEDx would force me to crystallise some of these down to 12 minutes or 1500 words… to focus. Secondly, I’m terrified of public speaking, so this was a huge personal challenge, one that had sat on my bucket list for a few years. Why we put ridiculous, uncomfortable challenges on our bucket lists is also something I deal with in the talk – but I can summarise neatly in 4.5 words here – because we’re dumb.

Then, just in case I wasn’t cramming more shiny goals in to my magpie like mouth, I offered to live in a tent in rural Somerset for a month prior to the talk, as well as doing another talk at Bristol University in preparation. Double, triple dumb.

Which all would have been fine if I was a insomniac retiree, but I’ve also knew going into this that I was about to start fundraising for my business. Something that requires singleminded focus. Quadruple dumb, squared.

A TEDx talk takes A LOT of time. It was an intense few months grappling with ideas, cutting, editing, asking wonderful friends to look at the proposal and making further changes and so on.

Couple all of this with pitches to investors in boardrooms, negotiations, intense meetings and then finish the day with a trudge across a boggy field into a tent and you’ve got a highly chaotic, not-simple life.

So… What did I learn? What have I understood?

I don’t want this to be a spoiler, but there are a few thoughts I want to capture whilst they’re still fresh, as well as some of the 13,500 words and some that didn’t make it into the final cut… In no particular order:

– Nature, the outside and real life is only a put down screen and a front door away. My previous post, I hope, captures some of that wonder (https://simpletom.co.uk/2015/11/05/wood-you/). Adventures are easy to have, even if you’re at work in your normal life. At any time you could camp out for a night, or walk a different route home. Climb a wall, tree or hill. Sounds simple, I hardly ever do them.

– The more I immersed myself in the process of watching others’ behaviour, particularly with smart phones, the madder and madder the world seemed. 90% of a train platforms and whole cities filled with people staring into and relying on their devices, without even realising they’re doing it. Leave someone 10s alone and the majority will pick up a device. The damage this is doing to our psyches must be terrible. Almost everyone recognises this, but very few people do anything about it.

– We chase unrealistic, unreachable and unhealthy goals all the time, at the expense of our own happiness. People don’t know what makes them happy. We have no idea where we’re headed or why we do many of the things we do.

– Most people care more about the rewards of their work than the content.

What next… for me, a bit less. Some focus.

Perhaps a camper van to enable me to access the countryside more regularly. More of the same, I hope without quite so many of the rough edges and hypocrisy…

#YearofAwesome

Much of my writing feels a bit bleak. A meandering through the reflective, therapeutic corridors of my life rather than the fun and frolics. Writing offers a chance to knead internal knots, a literary massage. Yet much of my life is filled with laughter, soulfullness, adulescence and fun, and as such these e-musings might give the impression that I’m a little more morose and negative than I am. Perhaps reflection reflects badly.

However, I’m not going to change that. It’s why I write here – to explore and to unravel, not to preach or even necessarily to be read. Selfish as it might be, I write for me. Strangely though, it is when I tune into that voice that my writing seems to connect most with others.

Last year I embarked on an experiment with one of my great friends – Jim Kroft – who I’ve written about on this blog previously. The previous year his brother had decreed a ‘Year of Awesome’ and had gone on to have exactly that. Probably on account of our uncharacteristic sobriety at a New Year’s party, we decided also to embark upon our own #yearofawesome and set about planning an awesome road trip in March of that year through California together.

Waking up the next morning with man flu, I didn’t get off to a go start. But 2014 did indeed end up being a truly awesome year.

In January, I returned to San Francisco to finish our time at 500 Startups. After a January of practice and planning I pitched our company to the world at demo day (video here, in case you’re interested). In the following weeks, my co-founder Raz and I quickly raised our round from some amazing investors as I bounded into meetings bullish on awesomeness.

Shortly thereafter Jim arrived and we embarked on a two-and-a-half week odessy, chasing bears, flying drones, taking photos, lighting bonfires and recording music videos that encompassed the Sequoia National Forest, Big Sur, Las Vegas, Joshua Tree, Mojave desert and Los Angeles. One of the best two weeks I’ve had in an age, spending rare time with someone who also has so little of it.
2014-03-25 16.46.04

It’s never good to be too self-reflective

Returning home, my business partner and I built a new team in Bucharest, hiring an extraordinary team of ex-Facebook, Twitter and Dropbox stars and mapping out a new technical architecture that would enable us to index two billion profiles in six months.

In the summer I returned to San Francisco for Burning Man, which was awesome in its own unique and precious way. That humbling experience and the continued road tripping through California with friends who are still very dear to me is something that has affected me deeply.

Later in the year I took my team to Sicily, won additional funding from an EU accelerator programme and bought my dream house in Bristol. Plus there were many more awesome moments… but my aim of this post is not to be a year of awesome diary, but instead to focus on the declaration and what it brought.

At University, I gave up ‘deep shit’ one Lent, which simply meant that rather than getting embroiled in thinking too much, I just lived. I didn’t let problems or issues get in my way. The #yearofawesome was similar – a simple recipe for living that enabled a lightness with focus. Whenever I found myself at a crossroads, I’d try to follow what was most ‘awesome’. It was a times trite, but mostly it fun to goad the bombastic. Anyone following mine or Jim’s Facebook feeds probably noticed the regular exclamations of #yoa. Certainly we annoyed the hell out of friends, lovers and even each other with regular exclamations to anyone who would listen with, “hashtag, year of awesome”, accompanied by our gesticulated fingers mimicking a hashtag. I know that one friend suffering from a bout of depression found the fact that we were having a #yearofawesome particularly hard. I’m sorry, it was never meant to hurt anyone. But all-in-all 2014 was indeed awesome. A reminder that willpower is indeed a power that can be switched on and off.

The point, I’m rather slowly making, is that armed with self-propulsion and an #awesome mental attitude, it’s possible to lift oneself up, to achieve great things, to enable great things to happen. No great surprise, other than perhaps the gentle reminder that we are indeed masters and mistresses of our own destiny. The extraordinarily annoying proclamations of ‘positive mental attitude’ if channelled effectively (and supported by friends) are indeed supremely powerful.

So… although I do reflect more than perhaps I should and have a penchant for being ‘in my own head’ and deep shit, particularly here… don’t be fooled (and please tell me to snap out of it if I delve too deep) much of what goes on between these ramblings is indeed #awesome. 2015 has been pretty good so far, albeit with a less bombastic flavour. Whilst writing this post, Jim called for the first time in a few months… Clearly the wonderful serendipity and power #yoa is still with us both. When I told him the post I was writing, he declared we must get back on it. Watch this space.

For now, it would seem that the #yearofawesome gets past on by brothers – in this case to my sisters’, one who got married and moved to Bristol, 10 minutes walk from me a few months ago. And to my other sister, who’s also diving into awesomeness as her music reaches more and more ears and exciting gigs fill her diary. Here’s to #awesomeness and below is a ‘one second every day’ clip of a couple of early months in the #yearofawesome. Enjoy.

Alco-hole

My name is Tom and I’m not an alcoholic.

Picture the scene…

It’s late, you’re tucked deep into an East Berlin bar with an old friend. The walls, bare and industrial, speak of deep conversation, of exploration of humanity and history. The candlelight suggest intimate conversations of art, of philosophy, of human connection.

It’s a moment where work, when pressures slip away and, once again, you can rub spirit to spirit with another human and just talk and talk in licentious splendour.

Remove alcohol and you wouldn’t even be there in the first place. The conversations over a beer, the truths shared and the languid eyes replaced instead by an early morning. Perhaps a jog? Read the paper? Some work?

Or join them but ask for a cup of tea. Yeah right. Deep in the old DDR, where fellow humans once risked lives to be with one another and you want a what? Just a tea? You mean to say that you would sit here – whilst others open up – and you’d have a tea? Come on, just have one beer. Enjoy yourself. Relax. What’s wrong?

IMG_20141210_112454

The very same bar’s view of tea…

…and so goes so many evenings. The insidious creep.

Alcohol has been with us for millennia. The beer soaked saw-dusted floor of a medieval tavern, a wine-filled Roman amphitheater or the whiskeys in a western tavern.

The pulling up of stools that has for generations symbolized winding down, catching up and setting the world to rights. There’s to be no more of the day’s rushing. Or a dinner party amongst friends with oodles of red wine, music and laughter. Our sex lives would likely have been less interesting if it weren’t for this elixir. Alcohol opens doors and experiences.

These are a few of my favourite things.

Plus its all OK, because I’m not an alcoholic. The odd blow out here and there, but mostly in moderation. Sure, in the run up to Christmas, with parties and catch ups, this can be a daily occurrence. But tis the season. It wouldn’t be quite right to have mince pies, mistletoe and tinsel without a glass here and a glass there.

I don’t quite know where this all started for me. Until the age of 22 or so, I didn’t like the taste of alcohol and I’d only been drunk a handful of times. The almost paralytic drunk first time, when aged 14 with freshly minted livers, we’d not known that half a bottle of vodka isn’t wise… to drinking behind bike sheds or in bushes in the rain simply because it was forbidden, and forbidden things were infinitely enticing.

Alcohol has become such a prevalent feature of my, of all of our, lives that I don’t think we question it any more. If we discovered it for the first time – this moreish liquid that can wreck families, make your head thump, but the night before loosen inhibitions in amazing ways – perhaps we’d treat it with some respect. Yet I’ve seen captains of industry acting like 4 year olds as if that’s to be expected… funny almost – “God we were wrecked last night, wasn’t it awesome, I think although I can’t quite remember”. It’s such a fixed part of our lives, so normalised do we even see if for what it is?

Alcohol is sophisticated. Wines crafted over centuries. Generations of love poured into a single taste. As you sip you instantly experience the many lives of dedication to that one flavour. The blood of that artisan and sometimes even Christ, all in one. To ignore it would be like wandering through the Louvre blindfolded.

***

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to gain some perspective and objectivity. Around last Christmas I mostly didn’t drink for 6 months. This year I’ve had patches on, patches off. I’ve been to weddings, gigs and festivals, perhaps the nexus of the non-alcoholic person’s blow outs, and remained sober.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Though please remember – I love fun, naughtiness and adulescence. These are not conclusions I necessarily wanted to come to:

Moderation can be much harder than not drinking at all. Once you’ve had a pint, the second is so much easier to justify when coupled with the dopamine release. It would be so wonderful to have one, indulge and then stop but, for me at least, this is harder than not drinking at all. That makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I’m not.

Overall, I’m way healthier when I don’t drink. I sleep, on average, a half to an hour less each night if I haven’t been drinking for a few days and my quality of sleep is way better too. As a result, or perhaps in addition, my brain works better. I also feel I have much more energy during the day. I get more done and seem to have more time. For someone that has battled tiredness, this alone is a pretty compelling reason to abandon drinking altogether. I just feel better. I’m less prone to mood swings and low ebbs. I feel together, stronger and more emotionally powerful. There’s a mental and emotional sagginess that accompanies drinking that you only notice when you start to put some distance between yourself and the sauce.

Its very possible to have a good time, perhaps even a better time, completely sober. In fact, while alcohol gives the impression of opening people up – downed defenses decrease and tongues loosened – I’ve noticed that true connection, empathy and sensitivity actually decreases. In extreme, when people are properly drunk they, quite literally, turn into toddlers. Witnessing the scenes of normally erudite, intelligent, considerate people when inebriated is hilarious when involved but tinged with a moronic sadness when viewed from a sober perspective. I’m sure you’ve witnessed a ‘hilarious’ moment as seen by a drunken crew, that from the outside seems pathetic. That’s before that tears, fights, anger and the hormonal surges that often accompany.

Late nights don’t happen nearly as frequently. When drunk, evenings spill into the night and we roll into bed late. When sober, it’s harder to ignore pressing eyelids and the kebab, or rolling on somewhere else is much less appealing. As such you gain mornings but lose parts of the day when exciting things can happen.

Most people recognise all of this, at least semi-consciously. Tell them you’ve not drunk in a while and the reaction is usually along the lines of, “Yeah, I should too”. “Hangovers are just getting worse and worse”. Normally followed by a “But”. I haven’t even covered the horrors of the bad hangover… it’s not pretty, as evidenced:

Daybreaking Bad

Daybreaking Bad

Couple the above reasons with macro studies and the evidence becomes more damming. A Harvard study, conducted over 75 years – the largest longitudinal study in history, found that alcohol was the main cause of divorce, depression and mental disabilities. Sure, the study cites alcoholism but please don’t tell me that just because you limit your intake you suffer none of the consequences. I’m pretty confident that moderate intake results in moderate effects. Oh, and alcohol alongside cigarettes, contribute to premature/early deaths.

The slightly less scientific James Altucher points out that firstly, alcohol is a depressant, so why tempt it. It’s also a poison and damages the immune system. He concludes that he’s no puritan, just the opposite. But that he simply wants to live a long life with high quality in his later years. Fair enough.

There’s no doubt of alcohol’s damage when you visit places like coastal Kenya or backwater towns in the US, Australia etc. The cost of alcohol’s influence on our collective health systems is extraordinary. They say that 12% of the total health expenditure is for alcohol-related causes. That’s before absenteeism, and things like psychological problems if the Harvard study’s results are true – they claim 57% of divorces are due to alcohol. Woah.

So where does this leave us? Are we all living in an alco-hell? It seems pretty damming. I have a couple of friends who don’t drink. They seem more energetic, quicker to laugh, brighter. Yet some who gave up for powerful reasons, two of whom are therapists, have decided to drink a bit again after a long time without. Perhaps it’s just not possible. Perhaps the benefits of loosening up, talking, company and conviviality are so potently beneficial that we should all just enjoy ourselves.

Yet my experiments seem to lead to the same place – to giving up. The evidence seems, particularly powerful as I write it out, to be overwhelmingly in support of the abstainer. Yet that cut off feels overly restrictive. It doesn’t allow for spontaneity and fun. It’s an admission that alcohol is more powerful than I am. Surely, I’m in control of it, rather than the other way around. Yet again, writing it down it would seem that perhaps we’re not as in control as we think we are.

Plus I’m lucky, I don’t put on weight and I’m not an alcoholic and my family hasn’t been overly affected by alcohol. Those would be slam-dunk reasons for eternal sobriety.

So, where does this leave me? Tonight I’m heading out… again… into the Berlin night with a different friend.

But I think I’m on a clear path to severely limiting my intake permanently, if not stopping forever. I don’t have a problem, yet even that is a problem. If I can find the balance and have a glass or two a week without any of the negatives, I shall continue. But if the precariousness continues – this inability to walk the tightrope, I’ll give up. It’s just not worth it for now, even without the longer term health benefits. The damage that it does to our life is so huge, albeit insidiously so that it’s truly not worth it… even close to worth it when examined.

My name is SimpleTom, is society an alcoholic?

medications_treat_alcoholism

Some reference:

A year without alcohol

What you miss out on if you don’t drink

What alcohol really does to your brain “Alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making your feel great.  The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.”

Burned Man

P1210404

At the end of the summer I made my first pilgrimage to Burning Man. It had sat resolutely on my bucket list for a few years and finally it was happening.

The Burn has always appealed for a number of reasons. I love the values that emanate and encapsulate what it stands for – radical inclusion, self-sufficiency, expression, creativity, outrageousness, chaos, and counter-cultural rebelliousness, amongst others. It sticks two fingers up at mundane civility. It challenges adherence to stale norms. These, coupled with the extremity of its natural setting, make it one of the most adventurous, enticing events that exist. Something I just had to experience.

However, the reality was very different from the fantasy. Rather than enjoying the festival, I found myself despondent, lost and alone, exacerbated by the sensation that everyone around me seemed to be having the time of their lives.

Earlier this week back at home I went for a run over Clifton suspension bridge, only to be stopped by the police as someone had just jumped to their death. Whilst I was enjoying a deeply enriching autumnal evening, another person had ended their life. An extreme example, but a reminder that two people can experience the same moment in the same place in very, very different ways.

Burning Man was not all bad. In fact, I feel like it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life. Months later, I’m still affected by what happened to me out there in the desert. I’m glad it was on my bucket list, as it taught me more than I could have imagined, in most unexpected ways.

This post is an attempt to capture some of that learning before – like the playa dust that I’m still shaking from luggage and clothing – it’s no longer perceptible.

But before I begin, a deep thank you to the friend who invited me to his camp and shared his tent with me. This post might sound unappreciative, or you might feel responsible for what happened to me. Don’t. My experience doesn’t reflect the extraordinary generosity and spectacle you and your team created. The responsibility is all mine. Secondly, to my friends who scooped me up at the end and, with oodles of love and warmth, nurtured me through the decompression. Thank you.

I made some interesting choices before the festival. I had a number of different offers to join camps, but none from people I know very well and so really, I was heading to this festival alone and, truth be told, I quite liked the idea. That should have been the first warning sign – I would never go to Glastonbury on my own!

Yet my life over the last decade, perhaps longer, has been one of the ‘lone wolf’. I have moved from country to country, business to business. I have transformed from someone who didn’t like to spend time alone, to someone who revels in it. My dependencies on people and life at home made traveling in my early years often painful and a discomfort. Yet I have become someone who can live on the other side of the world away from my family and friends and be happy, mostly. Before Burning Man I was proud of that transformation – I’d become self-sufficient. And in that independence, I felt powerful.

I believe that boarding school leaves a child detached long into adulthood, sometimes permanently. One learns to fend alone, away from family. During those years at school I never mastered the art – or perhaps never managed to feel comfortable in that aloneness, despite it being one of the things I was being unwittingly schooled in.

However, in later years I’d grown into it. The detachment became a useful armour. In San Francisco I’d lived in 10 different apartments and for a couple of years afterwards living out of a suitcase moving from country to country, working remotely and I loved it.

The entrepreneur’s way is one where you are forced to plough a lone furrow and I have done that on three continents. My independence has also become a defining feature of my love life – I have remained single for most of my adult years and, although it’s hard to understand what the alternatives might have been had I been more open, it’s felt right. Or at least no-one has convinced me otherwise… yet.

Others who’ve been to the armour-building world that is boarding school don’t seem to have taken such a radical approach to their independence. And whilst I have had moments of missing and wondering why I have shied away from opportunities to remedy this, I have been true to myself – even despite societal pressure and regularly attending events where dozens of my friends are all partnered up, without exception. It’s been a part of my growing. An analysis of my love life would be worth a separate post, or posts, but I digress.

This independent Tom is the person that ventured out to Burning Man – the man who’d learned to fend for himself. The powerful, independent being that had grown out of my lonely, bullied and troubled youth. (I don’t describe it this way to try to attract sympathy – after all, whose youth is not troubled?)

I felt ready to be able to dip in and out of the various parties, experiences and opportunities that the festival offered. I may be over-analysing but it was almost as if this was a chance to put that independence to the ultimate test… and I crumbled.

This selfie just about sums it up... :)

This selfie just about sums it up…

I’ve never really believed in Damascene moments, but this is as close as I’ve been to that, or a breakdown. Somehow the searing desert light shone a spotlight on many of the choices that I’d been making over the years and pierced deep into my hardened heart. I found myself in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – the Temple at Burning Man – weeping. Anyone who’s been will attest to the extraordinary emotion that this remarkable place can induce. Yet, whilst others mourned for lost lovers, family and friends. I mourned the years without deep human connection in which I had slowly become protected against the world. It was all me, me, me – something again that the amour had hardened and encased.

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

In the desert, some combination of events led me to a place where my armour was removed and I, feeling naked without it, had the shit kicked out of me just when self-reliance was most needed.

I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail regarding specific events. In fact, nothing particularly drastic happened. A clutch of moments. Wandering off into the uninhabited areas of wide expanse feeling deeply alone. Battling through dust storms and playa dust. Climbing statues and art installations. Riding art cars. ‘Sleeping’ (the use of inverted commas appropriate given I was 15 meters from a $160,000 sound system) for 24 hours solid to try to escape. Attempting to engage in conversations, but lacking in confidence so that, despite the radical inclusion, I couldn’t click and found myself regularly misconnecting. Heading off to a sunset party and finding the music, drinking and cavorting so predictable and so boring. I realized that over the years I had been to hundreds of bars and clubs pursuing cool, yet enjoyed very few. Alongside love, I’d like to write another post about the pursuit of cool and how unhappy it makes so many people.

Perhaps the overwhelming feeling was that, despite the fact Burning Man was new and many of the countries and adventures I’d been on were too, I was taking the same me on each of those journeys. Deep within the amour that once protected me, I had become less and less open to what was really happening, instead shielded by that disconnectedness. You can travel the world and meet extraordinary people, but if ones armour is too thick, you see and experience very little of it.

The realization that hit home was that life was about people, love, connection and being open. I know this already – I have read and acknowledged it a thousands times – but I have never really felt it like this before. Like many things, until you experience something emotively, knowledge remains conceptual.

Burning Man felt pivotal. I’m proud of the independent man that I’ve come to be. As a (sometimes too) sensitive, emotive, empathetic person – my independence had been hard won. But I hadn’t realized how resolute it had become, nor that the armour, that would have been far more valuable in my youth, had started doing much more harm than good.

It feels that Burning Man was the apex of that journey for independence. Now to turn back.

It will take time… little, gentle steps in a new direction. Personalities are like shipping tankers – they take a long time to turn around. Even in the last few months, I’ve slipped back into old ways. But… now I have new knowledge this breeds new power. I’ve noticed there’s strength in vulnerability and noticing the armour and that it is long past its sell-by-date, and trying to keep noticing it, is the first step.

Sadly, as people get older, I notice they often start to become less and less connected to people – the clichéd middle-aged man who over works and has few friends to confide in as they retreat into their family, work and responsibilities.

It seems I am swimming against the current, again… but so be it.

I’m ready to begin a return journey… to people, to connection and to vulnerability and back to Burning Man one day with a different agenda.

Coming back…

San Francisco Sleepathon… is coming!

Sleepathon in San Francisco

Majesty and Misery

A few months ago I was compelled to write an ‘open letter’ (http://bit.ly/1dkuwcA).

I suggested I’d organise a ‘sleepathon’ in San Francisco in aid of the homeless. The response has been amazing – if we can get just a few more people to sign up, it looks this event will happen in September!

If you’re bothered by the homeless problem in San Francisco and want to help, please share this letter and sign up here http://bit.ly/RAfwSV

Why a Sleepathon? San Francisco is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. The scope of opportunity, innovation, energy and entrepreneurship remains unparalleled.

Yet despite this and the wealth that has accumulated, the city disappoints if measured by the way it looks after its less fortunate. The American dream here is enjoyed by a few, sandwiched next to the American nightmare.

After writing the last letter, I’d expected little or no response, perhaps criticism. After all, who am I to suggest such an event? What good would it do? Shouldn’t we leave the problem to the State, or to those more experienced? Is it hypocritical for a bunch of privileged people to have a jolly one evening? So familiar are the problems on Market Street or in the Tenderloin that many people believe the scale of the issue is beyond tackling, or worse still, feel apathetic or no longer notice. Yet it makes me feel a bad Samaritan, impotently witnessing desperate scenes whilst ‘living the dream’.

Amazingly, my last letter struck a chord and responses flooded in, including interest from some very high profile residents willing to participate. Given that support, I’m willing to invest a few weeks of my time this year to try to make it happen.

I envisage a night in a safe space – a park, a hall or a public area where people stay for the whole night. A night of fun, with music, an auction, talks by those who understand the problems and a hackathon in which participants can brainstorm ideas that might help. Perhaps even a little bit of sleep if we’re lucky, alongside friends and supporters.

We might all be a bit tired the next day. Let that be a badge of honor, demonstrating a willingness to do something. At the very least, we will have learned a little and had some fun – at most we might raise some money and awareness.

Please sign up to join us here – http://bit.ly/RAfwSV – and please, please do forward this on. If people don’t sign up I’ll take that as a lack of desire to make this happen – no hard feelings, but in the spirit of entrepreneurship there’s no point dedicating a lot of effort if there’s little interest.

Please do get in touch if you’ve any thoughts or questions. I look forward, I hope, to spending a night with you in September.

Thanks,

Tom

www.twitter.com/brightgreen

Sleepout Crowd

A sleepout in the UK