Adios Unwelcome Pounds ~ Welcome Wellbeing!

It’s all a conspiracy!

Strange how my trousers had shrunk. And in an act of cowardly collaboration, my bathroom scales (in league with that dastardly mirror), had started to lie. The holes in my belt had waited until night-fall to edge outwards. Even my bathroom towel seemed smaller. There was conspiracy afoot!

Reality

Which was when I remembered T.S. Eliot’s words: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” And the reality was that despite quick walks, my metabolism was slowing down. Or however those in denial of weight-gain explain a thickening waist.

The fightback begins!

So a year ago, I joined a gym. It’s my sort of place with a dedicated boxing area, state-of-the-art cardio and weight equipment, interesting classes and friendly members.

The longest journey starts with a single step…

After an absence of eight years, those first steps in the gym shocked me: I’d lost all my stamina! My range of movement had tanked! As for my boxing technique—I’d forgotten the difference between a left hook and a fish hook. Depressingly, for six weeks the scales in the men’s changing room refused to register any improvement which meant one thing: The conspirators back home had gained an ally.

Persistence…

My routine was simple. Three or four visits a week. Start with stretching and warm up. Jump some rope, shadow box, then five three-minute rounds on the punch bags. Cardio machines (what sadist invented the StairMaster?) followed by dumbbells. Then stretching and deep breath, in readiness for another confrontation with the dreaded scales that not only indicated my weight, but also informed me of my Body Mass Index (BMI). Too much information.

A note of caution

I’ve learned to listen to my body. If something is hurting, I stop. I stretch. I always build slowly to greater effort and monitor my heart rate. That way I’ve kept injuries to a minimum.

Progress

After a hesitant start, I’m up to fifteen rounds on the bags, a hundred floors climbed (think Empire State Building), two thousand dumbbell lifts and hundreds of calories burned each visit. Soon my trousers threw in the towel and started growing again.

What made me keep going?

I didn’t look too far ahead. I set myself realistic goals and congratulated myself on reaching them. A pound or two lost each month on the scales or added to the dumbbells was achievable. Everything else was a bonus and soon they began to flow: I’ve got my energy and flexibility back! My resting pulse is under sixty. My BMI is comfortably in the green band and I don’t need to buy a new wardrobe.

You can do it too!

I added a healthy diet too and am pleased I’ve (mostly) stuck to it. I really do feel twenty years younger and recommend using a gym to anyone who wants to shed the pounds or just improve their sense of wellbeing. Because wellbeing matters.

 

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BAM Festival!

Just back after a couple of days volunteering to help out one of my favourite charities, Good Lad Initiative (GLI). I helped staff a table at the 2017 Being a Man (BAM) festival, held in London’s Southbank Centre.

A packed 3 day event

The three-day BAM Festival ran talks, lectures, seminars and panel discussions addressing topics from bullying to knife crime, from domestic abuse to fatherhood, from privilege to consent.

There were early morning runs, comedians, a talk by Man Booker Prizewinning author Allan Hollinghurst, LEGO workshops for kids, a lecture on ‘How to be a Superman? Gender Equity for Boys’, a Finnish shouting choir, music,… and much more.

Good Lad Intiative

The crowd ebbed and flowed past our GLI table. I spoke to several teachers who were interested in booking us for their schools. An aspiring actor completing his Master’s in drama was looking for ideas for a 40 minute single-man performance. A psychologist dropped by: she engaged me in a discussion about male suicide (which accounts for 75% of suicides in the UK).

I took contact details for a number of potential volunteers and got to meet other GLI team members. I was impressed by the interest, the enthusiasm, the desire to facilitate change.

What does GLI do?

It trains men to run workshops in all-male school classrooms, for pupils aged 12-18, which address issues of gender equality and masculinity. We encourage them to talk openly using the media of role playing, games and exercises.

It’s fascinating to see the pupils challenging their preconceptions and peer pressure, as they articulate thoughts on various topics, often for the first time. At the end of the day, their feedback—which tends to be highly positive—is analysed. But of course, when I was at school, I’d probably have given anything five stars that replaced three hours of geography and math(s)!

Making a difference

‘Being a man’ is a huge—and until quite recently—a largely neglected topic. I’m constantly learning and questioning my preconceptions. Good Lad Intiative is one of those initiatives that deserves to succeed because it’s really making a difference.

Too late to save the oceans?

The Big Question

It’s been coming up in conversation a lot recently: “Is it too late to save the oceans?”

Perhaps the Professor would answer it…

Greenwich University

With that question in mind, a crisp evening not too long ago saw me travelling twenty-one stops on the tube and Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich University. I was attending a lecture by Visiting Professor Steve Fletcher PhD, of the United Nations Environment Programme and World Conservation Monitoring Centre!

The lecture title? “The Future of the Ocean: Health, Wealth and Biodiversity”.

But first – the Cutty Sark!

But before hunting down the proper lecture hall, a quick moonlight inspection of the Cutty Sark.  This magnificent tea clipper was built in 1869 and recently restored at a cost of £46m following extensive damage caused by fire.

As I studied her pitched, sweeping hull, her proud masts with their triangulated rigging, I wondered at the state of the ocean when she raced back with tea from the Americas and wool from Australia.

She launched just seven years after Alexander Parkes demonstrated plastic (or “Parkesine”, as he named it) at London’s Great International Exhibition in 1862. With the arrival of steam power, the great ship was soon rendered obsolete. I wonder if Mr Parkes ever imagined the benefits and damage later iterations of his invention would bring.

Greenwich University

Greenwich University—a maritime tradition, a maritime lecture

Once inside the spacious lecture hall, I noticed that the attentive audience (to my untrained eye) contained many students and I spoke to one, well into his doctoral thesis on the oceans, who’d attended my alma mater, Oxford.

$190 billion per year

Then the professor started, by painting a rather grim picture.

Did you know that the global seafood industry is worth $190bn but only 6.4% of the ocean is protected? If fish were people, the equivalent is that every one of us would be carrying half a kg of plastic in our stomachs.

The professor discussed illegal fishing (and the link to people and drug trafficking), pollution, the cruise industry, and the damage caused by a host of other human activities. 70% of the Great Barrier Reef has now been lost.

Ghost fishing

One slide of four turtles drowned by a discarded fishing net (known as “ghost fishing”), was particularly upsetting. We were reminded of the 1992 “Warning to Humanity” by 1,700 scientists of where we were headed if things didn’t change. And all this was supported by a series of well-chosen slides.

The professor isn’t alone…

But there was good news too. Teams of politicians and NGOs, often enabled by the UN, are now meeting around the world to agree protocols, set targets, honour commitments.

…even the white spotted wedge fish is on side!

Important (for a variety of reasons) species—such as the white spotted wedge fish—are now targeted for special conservation attention. I admit I had to google that one when I got home, to discover I knew it as the guitarfish I’ve seen on occasion resting on the sand in tropical shallows.

Opinion leaders, and the not-for-profit sector are finally being heard. The general public is beginning to wake up with economic, social, political and wellbeing issues associated with the ocean at the top of the agenda. And things are beginning to happen about plastic: the UK’s consumption of plastic carrier bags has dropped 85% since the introduction of a 5p tax per bag. Make it £5, I say, and do the same with plastic coffee cups and drinking strays!

…back to the Big Question

Asked at the end whether he thought it was too late, the professor answered that he’s an optimist, and thinks we can turn this situation around. He explained that the time has come to embrace the environment and treat it as a partner.

The old model of human activity necessarily causing environmental damage should be changed to one in which there’s a mutuality. Protect the ocean and we’ll all benefit. That makes sense to me. And no doubt to white spotted wedge fish too.

3 things you can do to help save the oceans:

  • Buy a re-usable thermos for all your water, tea and coffee purchases…and remember to take it with you!
  • Use tinfoil instead of cling film (Saran wrap) in the home
  • Join a plastic clean up group. Here’s the one I chose and highly recommend if you’re in the area: https://www.thames21.org.uk/

 

Toastmasters Annual Club Contest – A Record Breaking Turnout!

TFL on Overcrowding Alert
The feverishly anticipated annual Humorous Speech and Table Topic Contests at my local club came around last Thursday night. Transport for London (the city’s underground train service) issued a Code Red warning that Central Line trains to the station nearest my club would be seriously overcrowded between 18:30 and 19:00 hours — at one point the Club Committee held an emergency session to consider relocating to Wembley Stadium…

But seriously… Soon our venue was filled to bursting with enthused members, expectant guests and effulgent contestants. Judges and contestants were briefed and moments later, we were underway…chaired by yours truly.

Armed and Dangerous
Paul, our armed and dangerous Sergeant at Arms (day job: accountant), then delivered a series of rib-ticklers borrowed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (eg: “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change”).

Humour Competition
We began with the Humorous Speech Contest in which our brave competitors regaled us with speeches that involved motor-cycle rider Dave Death, the ramifications of being rammed by a ram (in a particularly sensitive spot), all that’s wrong with squabs (young pigeons, apparently), how to survive a hangover and why touching your interviewer’s beard is unlikely to land you that dream job.

Many congratulations to Michael, whose well-structured and highly amusing “The Worst Day of my Life” pipped the others and secured him a place in the Area Final.

Impromtu Competition

My Co-Chair, Robin, successfully retrieved the secret Table Topic question, “If I could grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” from a bunker 4,000 feet below a North Korean mountain. It was cleverly and entertainingly answered by all contestants. Jeff triumphed and his ability to think and talk so elegantly on his feet will be tested again on the 27th where he will join Michael at the next Area level contest round.

It was a fun-filled and memorable evening with friendships made and new members signed. Many thanks to everyone who undertook a role. And a big congratulations to all the contestants. It was an evening in which everyone was a winner.

Business or Casual?

I have signed up as a supporting artist (formerly known as a (lowly) extra) and need to post more photos on my casting agency profile page that will get me noticed!

Why Choose a Profile Pic?

The agency says my profile pics need to include formal, sporty, business or casual choices to make sure I get put forward for the greatest range of roles.

Business or casual—what’s best?

The Suit

A classic British pinstripe in dark grey squeezes into a dark back corner of my closet.

Old fashioned cut but classy, I like to think. A suit that says: This guy is serious…knows his stuff. Which was important when my Herculean efforts made no discernable impact on the world of finance.

And I have a black one, (hiding in a plastic clothes bag, sprinkled with mothballs), for the meetings I used to hate: when I had to play the gun-slinger. The tough guy… fortunately, I only wore that one occasionally.

There’s one more suit, however, that I prefer above all others. Light-weight, flexible, durable, well ventilated… A suit that’s been loyal and served duty in several shining corners of the world.

And it’s in my favourite colour too! If the agency lets me sneak this photo in… well, with the addition of a pair of flip-flopswhat better work conditions could one possibly hope for?

Just Jeans

But I’m a writer and artist now. Nothing beats jeans (501s in blue, black or tan) and a fleece. I feel more authentic in these. In fact I always did.

Which reminds me: my denim shirt (an obligatory component in the writer’s wardrobe) is falling to bits. Time for a new one.

Business or Casual?

What do you feel most comfortable in?

Please help me choose which is best? My new career depends on it!

 

Must-See Movie: A Plastic Ocean

Some films leave you speechless. Sow your mind with images that return in unguarded moments. Change the way you think about things. With DiCaprio involved, this one promised all three.

The Most Important Film of the Year

I’d heard about it, of course. The advertising was powerful, for a start. Snippets have turned up on the web. Joe Public had referenced it on Facebook. “Right up your street, Ben,” a friend had promised.

So I trekked up to North London this past monsoonal Monday to watch a 102 minute documentary.

The community hall where it was presented was strung with tiny white lights, and a screen and projector perched at the front. There was tasty homemade tomato soup on offer with delicious dark bread, chocolate cupcakes and cookies too.  I purchased an assortment, met the organisers, found a free chair and settled in to learn something new. I was unprepared for the scenes I was about to see.

The diverse audience sat motionless, apart from the odd gasp, or involuntary intake of breath. Then someone behind me began to cry as a beautiful Bryde’s whale convulsed to death. Choking albatross chicks followed. Bursting corpses. Gasping turtles. Too many dead fish to count. And the common denominator causing their suffering?

Plastic.

Eight million tons of it discarded in the oceans annually. Most as single use items like water bottles and carrier bags.

The film I was watching? A Plastic Ocean.

A film directed and written by Craig Leeson, presented by Craig Leeson and world free dive champion Tanya Streeter, and supported by Plastic Oceans Foundation, this is the most harrowing…but in my opinion, most important film of the year. Maybe of the decade. Maybe of the…

Because no, it isn’t the Amazon rainforest that captures most of the atmosphere’s CO2 and converts it into oxygen. 70% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean’s phytoplankton. Whether it’s the Sri Lankan deeps, the Mediterranean, the Maldives—in fact anywhere, all the oceans are in trouble. Kill them and our planet dies too.

Gyres in the Ocean

Every ocean contains gyres—slowly circulating current confluences that have trapped decades of plastic waste. Flushed down drains and washed offshore by storm tides, often discarded deliberately, this plastic never vanishes.

Before the sunlight begins to break it down, filter feeders (from majestic baleen whales, to basking, whale and megamouth sharks and countless species of herbivorous fish) consume fragments of bottles, tiny toys, baskets, packaging loops… until their insides are blocked. Trusting turtles mistake plastic sheeting for jellyfish.

Micro Particles in the Gyres

Over time the sun’s UV breaks it down into micro particles whose rough surfaces then attract toxins of humankind’s (“kind”?) industrial and agricultural activities.

Fish, molluscs, crustaceans (and their swarming larvae) eat these particles.  Then these plastic particles pass up the food chain. If they don’t cause death along the way, they end up on our dinner plates. And plastics are endocrine disruptors, causing elevated incidence of cancers and many other diseases.

Hope for the Future

But the film rose to the challenge and offered more than despair. There were creative new ideas. The US navy has installed a plasma destruction system on its Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers to render plastic biodegradable—can this technology be rolled out? An engineering company has discovered how to turn old plastic into diesel to fuel cars. Another makes plastic components to create furniture and other home building materials.

Plastic-conscious entrepreneurs are changing the way they handle this material—reducing, reusing, and building multi-uses for the plastic in their products.

What can we do?

  1. The film suggested we start returning our plastic waste to the companies that use it for packaging (restaurants, supermarkets) until they replace it with something safe and biodegradable.
  2. And crucially, we must stop buying single-use carrier bags and water bottles. Provide our own. Refuse over-packaged, plastic covered items. Take canvas or cotton bags to the supermarket instead.
  3. We can also see a screening of the film —and take a friend!
  4. Or take action: host a screening of A Plastic Ocean, sign up to the Plastic Ocean Foundation mailing list, or donate.

If you aren’t aware of the importance of the oceans, take a deep breath and watch this film. The importance of the health of the oceans is up there with global warming and nuclear war. And maybe, maybe…with a change of heart and habit, this consumer-led, disposably-irresponsible global society can change its ways.

 

Dinner Jacket or Morning Coat? You Choose!

The Importance of Profile Pics for Casting Agencies

With an exciting new string to my bow—I have signed up as a supporting artist (formerly known as a (lowly) extra)—I need to post photos on my casting agency profile page that will get me noticed.

How does it work?

The production company forwards a brief to the casting agency for, let’s say twenty extras, three of which must be 50-70 years old (check), well dressed (keep reading), and average looking (check) – as supporting artists must blend into the background, not draw the eye away from the leading actors. The casting agency then selects maybe 100 suitable candidates from their books, from which the producer makes his/her 20 choices.

So my profile photos need to include business, casual, sporty, and for today, formal choices—to make sure I get put forward for the greatest range of roles. My formal wear consists of a dinner jacket (aka black tie or tuxedo) and my morning dress (no, it’s not a dress).

Dinner Jacket Jaunts

This has served me well since my university days, when I seemed to clamber into it every few weeks for one event or another: the college dining club, a charity fund-raiser, someone’s twenty-first, the celebration after a wedding. The tie itself is what we call a single-ender: far easier to tie than the double-ender (which proved useful when a playful young woman decided to give it a midnight tug).

This faithful dinner jacket is beginning to show its age (cigarette burn on arm, missing cuff button) but it has rubbed shoulders with royal princes and princesses, billionaires, international sportsmen, politicians…and far more impressively, many dear lifetime friends.

Back in the day, it was an essential prop in a wicked hangover or two (never say yes to a second glass of port). Now its outings are less frequent but at least it still fits!

Morning Dress Mayhem

With my own wedding approaching in my youth, I needed formal morning dress—the traditional attire associated with the greatest day/mistake (delete as appropriate) of one’s life on this side of the Atlantic.

The morning dress comprises uncomfortably thick, coarsely striped trousers, a beige (or grey) waistcoat and black tailcoat. A white or cream shirt and sober(ish) tie. Lace-up shoes polished to within an inch of their lives.

I’ve only worn my morning dress to weddings as the Queen is yet to invite me to Buckingham Palace for a Knighthood after breakfast. Each outing is preceded with a cautious inspection: has the pheromone trap hung on the closet door prevented the clothes moths from masticating my tails?

I need your help!

Please help me choose which of these formal photos you like best. My new career depends on it!