Turning 40 – what’s that all about?

I’m in the last week of my thirties. My face still looks like it belongs in its thirties. My hair thinks I’m 60 already. The rest of me can’t make up its mind.

Turning 40 is something that’s been on my mind for a while. It has seemed to mark a stage in life where I should be all grown up; where I should know who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m going.

I’m not doing too badly on the ‘who I am’ bit. I’m blessed with a lovely family and lots of great friends, which tells me I can’t be too awful. I know what I believe in and what I don’t believe in. I know what I like doing and what I don’t like doing. I don’t feel any need to get into arguments or prove points, although I do have plenty of imaginary arguments and inner rants. I annoy myself all the time. I grapple with my demons more often than I ever let on, but I know those demons and their games, and I give them a good fight.

As for what I’m doing, ha – well, sometimes I know what I’m doing, but a lot of the time I lurch from one thing to the next in a daze. That’s parenthood for you.

Where am I going?

And where I’m going is anyone’s guess. Do any of us really know? We can make plans, but things happen that take us in other directions. And we might change our minds. My first career idea was clown/acrobat, or spaceman. I sort of play the clown now in pantomimes, so maybe that’s a dream fulfilled. Acrobat – no chance. I have all the physical dexterity of a sloth on roller skates. And I have no head for heights, which also rules out the spaceman option. I moved on to a more sensible aspiration of being a journalist, and I did that for three years, taking me into the communications career I have today.

Of course, I sometimes look back and wonder what else I might have done with my career. At school, I loved art far more than any other subject – could I have done something with it? If we’d done drama more at school, might I have discovered performing sooner? I used to harbour a secret wish to play James Bond. Maybe I could be James Bond’s dad when I get into my 80s.

And what of my writing? That’s why I wanted to be a journalist, after all. I sort of write in my job, but not a lot. But I do have a blog that’s five years old and has 100,000 views, which I never saw happening (blogs didn’t exist when I was at the ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ age).

I may not be a best-selling author or successful script-writer – wasn’t that meant to have happened by now? – but I am slowly getting somewhere, and I still have the urge to write (usually in the middle of the night, which is rather inconvenient). Nobody ever became a writer without writing something, so that’s what I keep doing.

So what is it all about?

What I’ve come to realise is that turning 40 will not change any of this. It won’t mean I’ve failed at anything, or missed my chance. Turning 40 isn’t about what I haven’t done – it’s about what’s yet to be. It won’t give me immediate wisdom, inner peace or abundant confidence. I still won’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. But rather than seeing it as a mid-life calamity, I’m now trying to look at it as a new chapter, with adventures ahead and blank pages to fill.

I’ll take my steer from Dr Seuss…

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

 


Life lessons from birdwatching

Last year, I set myself a birding challenge. I would try to see ten ‘bogey birds’ – species I’d always wanted to see since I got my first bird book at the age of eight, but which had somehow remained elusive.

During the course of my challenge, I would see some of the birds on my list and enjoy some magical birding moments. On the other hand, others would enhance their bogey species credentials, taking their evasiveness to a whole new level.

Along the way, I learned a few things.

The best-laid plans often go awry – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Two birds led me a particularly merry dance last year.

The hitlist challenge began in February with a determined effort to find a Hawfinch. I made a special trip down to Sherwood Forest, having researched where to see them, and I was in the right place – Lime Tree Avenue at Rufford Country Park – but not at the right time. Hawfinches had been seen in a particular tree at 8 that morning, but it was more like 10am when I got there. Two other birders were there to share in my disappointment. I bumped into them again at Clumber Park, my next stop, where we all failed to see them again. A family trip to Clumber the following month was equally Hawfinch-free.

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Right place, wrong time – Lime Tree Avenue, Rufford Country Park.

My priority bird for October was the tiny Firecrest, which I hoped to see on migration at Spurn, East Yorkshire. I was trying to lay ghosts to rest, as I’d made the same trip with the same hope two years previously, without success. Firecrests had been seen there on an almost daily basis in the two weeks before my trip. I tried all the places where they’d been seen. I even walked the six-mile round trip to the point to see if the bird that had been seen twice in a sycamore was still there. You know the rest – there was not a Firecrest to be seen. And the day after, three of the little scamps were found.

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No Firecrests, but always worth a visit – Spurn Point.

I could have been bitterly disappointed by both these failings, but I’d enjoyed two days out in beautiful surroundings. My day at Spurn, although Firecrest-free, gave me some quality ‘me time’ by the sea, in the sunshine – so although it wasn’t ‘mission accomplished’, it was certainly worth the effort.

Just keep trying

My daughter used to have a Disney Princesses book with sound effects, including a princess simpering ‘Just keep trying’. The princess had a point, though.

Take, for example, my efforts to see a Great Grey Shrike. One had unexpectedly been seen in early March at Heslington Tilmire – a new site to me, but quite near home. It seemed to be hanging around and was showing well (I saw so many photos of it, I felt I knew it personally) so I left work early one afternoon to try and find it. I patrolled the site for a good hour, by strange coincidence joining forces with one of my fellow Hawfinch-seekers from my Sherwood Forest trip (perhaps we were unlucky omens for each other). I liked the place and enjoyed close-up views of two Barn Owls, but the shrike had either gone or was mocking me from some hidden perch. Annoyingly, more sightings were reported the next day, and the day after. The weekend came, and I decided to give it another try, taking my son with me. We met another birder and his sons, and the three lads played together while their dads scoured various trees and bushes. We were in luck. A man up ahead of us started waving and pointing. We caught up with him and he said the shrike had just flown across the field, but then he spotted where it had landed and bingo – there it was! Not as good a view as I would have liked but it was clear enough, and I saw it another couple of times before I left.

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Shrike it lucky – Heslington Tilmire.

Sometimes it’s good to change plans…

Giving yourself the freedom and flexibility to change your plans can be quite liberating. Last May, I saw one of the most spectacular birds I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t on my hitlist – it was a very special bonus.

While planning one of my birding days out, I heard the incredible news that there was a pair of Montagu’s Harriers at Blacktoft Sands, about an hour away from home – incredible because this is one of Britain’s rarest birds, usually only found by a lucky few in East Anglia. I was happy to betray my list for a chance to see a Monty, and my spontaneity was rewarded with a stunning view of a handsome male soaring over my head. I never thought I’d see one, let alone in Yorkshire.

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My first bird book.

… or not to have a plan at all

I’d gone to Strensall Common, near York, to suss out a birding walk for Bird Watching Magazine and see what was there.

I’d seen a Green Woodpecker and several Great Spotteds. I watched one of the latter fly straight past, then something – a smaller bird – caught my eye on a half-dead silver birch. I fixed my binoculars on it and loudly exclaimed ‘No way!’ as I clapped eyes on a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I gaped for a couple of seconds, then it had gone. Without trying, I’d found one of the top birds on my list.

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Expect the unexpected – Strensall Common, where I stumbled across a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Targets and ambitions aren’t always helpful

There were times my birding challenge stressed me out. I felt pressure to find the birds on my list. I felt like I HAD to find time in my hectic life to get out there and make an effort.

Yes, there were benefits to making myself go birding, and I wouldn’t have seen some of those great birds if I hadn’t, but since I finished the challenge I’ve felt strangely relieved – like I’ve reclaimed my hobby.

I like the freedom of seeing what turns up, and the adventure of exploring places. I’ll keep trying to see birds I’ve never seen before – that sense of discovery is part of what I love about birdwatching – but without undue pressure and expectations. We all have enough of those in our lives without enforcing them on the things we do for fun.

 


The bird that started it all

My memories of my second year at junior school are, on the whole, pretty vague. I know I had terrible handwriting, liked making junk models and got told off for a couple of innocuous classroom offences.

But there is one memory that is crystal clear, and that’s the bird that Mrs Douglas, my teacher, pointed out on the school field one day. It was a Redwing.

Photo of Redwings at Rufford Park, Nottinghamshire.

Redwings – the bird that triggered my interest in birds when I was eight.

There was something about that bird that captured my eight-year-old imagination. Maybe it was that distinctive blob of red on its side, or perhaps it was the fact that it had arrived at our school at the end of a journey from another country. Whatever it was, I was hooked.

It was one of those quirks of fate that this particular Redwing popped up when I was in Mrs Douglas’s class, because she was something of an oracle on birds. She was able to tell me what it was and where it had come from (Scandinavia).

One thing I was keen on was drawing – and I began to draw birds. I was prolific. I filled scrapbooks with pictures of birds, which I copied from my new bird book, or from my Granny’s fascinating ‘Birds of the World’ book, which included Birds of Paradise and other strange, exotic species like the Hoatzin. Mrs Douglas seemed to like my bird pictures. She told me my drawing of a House Sparrow was the best work I’d ever done, and it distracted her fleetingly from the inadequacy of my handwriting.

She also introduced me to the Young Ornithologists’ Club (YOC) and before long I had a black and gold badge with a Kestrel on it and was going on YOC trips. There were two of these trips that stand out.

The first was to RSPB Blacktoft Sands. I saw two birds on that trip that I’ve never seen again since – the Bearded Tit and the Bittern. I can’t clearly picture either, but I can remember our guide shrieking with hysterical excitement when the Bittern came into view.

The other trip I remember was to Filey Brigg, where birds like Purple Sandpiper, Great Skua, Turnstone and Sanderling made me see one of my family’s favourite holiday destinations in a different light. It’s still one of my most reliable birding hotspots, and I’ve enjoyed many ‘firsts’ there – Little Auk, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter and Woodcock, for example.

I would pore over my bird book, memorising the size of different birds and studying the maps that showed where to find them, and whether they were resident, winter or summer visitors, or passage migrants.

When I got into my teens, birding took a back seat to football and other diversions, but my passion for birds, which was triggered by that Redwing at school, would be rekindled in my adult life, creating new memories. I still like to draw birds if I get chance, and my handwriting is still shocking.

Coloured pencil drawing of a Spotted Flycatcher.

One of my more recent bird drawings – a Spotted Flycatcher.


Blogging at the crossroads

Legend has it that blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and agreed to sell his soul in exchange for his musical talent.

I’m at a crossroads myself. I won’t be making any deals with the devil, but I could do with some inspiration on the writing front.

The crossroads in question is a blogging crossroads. The road I have been travelling seems to have reached a confusing junction. It has been a good journey, but what has brought me this far might not take me much further.

If this blog was a TV series, its declining viewing figures would point to inevitable cancellation. That’s the danger of studying blog stats – when it’s going well, the incoming comments and viewing figures are addictively enthralling. When you post something and the figures are low, it’s demoralising. The unhelpful voice in my head tells me to give up; that I’m a has-been. It compares me to other bloggers and says “They’re doing better than you. Why do you bother?”

I find myself wondering what to write about, and indeed whether to keep blogging at all, as I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied. On the occasions I have time to blog, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Other times, I’ve got an idea for a blog and talk myself out of writing it because I don’t think anyone will be interested – and I’m not even sure that I’m interested myself. I’ve talked myself out of writing this post several times and am only really posting it to spite myself.

My writing was most compelling when I was ill with depression. I wrote because I needed to get it all out of my head, and people seemed to relate to it.

But I’m happy to say I’m not ill any more. As I’ve got better, the story has become less gripping, and fewer people read it and feel moved to share it. And I don’t have that same drive and impetus to blog at the moment. I used to post almost every week. Now it’s once a month, if that. The momentum has gone.

I’ve written a lot about depression and sometimes wonder if there’s anything useful I can do with that back catalogue. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and hugely grateful for all the amazing support you’ve given me. I know from the comments I’ve received that my blog has helped a lot of people, which I love to hear. In return, every comment, retweet or like has helped me.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure I have much left to say about depression. I’ve been writing about it since 2011 and don’t want to keep dredging up memories that I’d rather forget. And I don’t want to bore people, or myself, by going over the same things over and over again. On the other hand, supporting people with mental health problems is something I really care about, and writing is one way I can do that. I’ve got to know many brilliant people through sharing my story – people whose friendship has enriched my life – and we all need to stick together to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I do love writing about wildlife, especially birds. Birding is something that helps me stay well, and I mainly write about what helps me to keep depression away these days, rather than depression itself. But I don’t think I want to restrict myself to a theme. I like writing about random stuff like pantomimes and music too.

I’ve written light-hearted stuff about parenting, but my kids are getting older and I don’t want to embarrass them – not in a blog anyway.

I also fancy writing more fiction and comedy. But is this blog the right place for that?

And so I stand at the crossroads. I know I want to write (sometimes anyway), but I’m not sure what. In some ways, it’s like starting again.

But there is only one of me. I have a finite amount of time, energy and inspiration. So another factor to fit into the equation – along with all the many other things I want to do all at once – is finding time to relax, and simply to be.

The main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have reached the crossroads, however frustrating it may be.

So, I don’t know what you can expect from Dippyman in the coming months. What do you think I should do?

 


My magical mobile memories

“So it’s a phone with a COMPUTER in it? And a CAMERA? And it can make FILMS? And you can send messages all over the world, just like that? What, and it fits in your POCKET?”

If you’d described a smartphone to me when I was little, it would have sounded impossibly fantastic. Phones still had dials, not keypads. They were definitely not mobile. Computers were big things, with primitive games that ran on cassettes. If you took pictures on a camera, you couldn’t see what they looked like until you’d taken 24 or 36 photos and had waited for the film to be processed. As for filming, you might occasionally encounter a video camera, if you were lucky, but it seemed very glamorous and exciting, and most people didn’t have one. And the Internet… Sorry, the what?

We forget how incredible smartphones are. Yes, they have a downside – we spend so much time gawping at them that we sometimes forget where we are – but they can be good for us too.

Having a camera on me at all times is a great way to capture memories, and it encourages me to look up and marvel at the world around me. If I get a decent photo, I can share it immediately with people all over the world. And I can look back at it in the future to recall a happy moment, however small.

Here are ten of my favourite mobile moments from the past year.

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I was getting out of the car at work and it was about to rain heavily. Just before it did, this splendid full rainbow arched across the sky.

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I enjoy walking from work into York city centre, particularly along the riverside path (not at the moment – it’s under water). I took this picture on a sunny day in autumn, when the leaves had started to fall.

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I’m lucky to work right next to a glorious park, and spend many of my lunch breaks there, walking around and watching birds. One of my favourite parts of the park is this pond.

 

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Spurn Point is an incredible place; unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I made two birding trips there in the autumn, and on the second trip I walked all the way to the end of the point. The first of these pictures shows the rows of weathered groynes on a stretch of the beach next to where the former road was destroyed by a storm. You can only get down to the point now when the tide is out. The second picture shows where I ate my lunch after a three-mile walk in unexpectedly hot sunshine, looking out over the mouth of the Humber and North Sea, over to North Lincolnshire. The third shows the sun starting to go down over the Humber.

 

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We have a family holiday in Filey every summer. It’s a rich source of photo opportunities. Even the gulls pose for pictures.

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One evening, my wife and I were out walking and it looked like a good sunset might be starting, so we legged it to the top of Carr Naze, a cliff offering views across to Scarborough and beyond, and caught the sun dipping over the horizon.

 

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Here’s an image that brings back memories of a great night with friends on Bonfire Night. It also puts ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown into my head, which is no bad thing.

 

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My brother and I have a strange tradition of finding hideous ornaments and sending pictures of them to each other. This was my best effort of 2015 – a disturbing-looking zombie sailor baby, found in a café on the east coast.


The small things that make a big difference to my mental health


It’s a few years now since depression made an unwelcome appearance in my life. Recovery is a slow and bumpy process, and I always have to be on my guard against my old enemy. To stay well, I need to look after myself, and I’ve gradually built up a list of things I do to manage my mental health.

This World Mental Health Day (10 October) focuses on those small things that can help you, or help you to support someone else. By sharing the things that work for us, we can all help each other. Here’s what works for me. Let me know what helps you.

Writing a diary

I quite often find ‘positive thinking’ a bit grating but one thing I’ve done consistently since I had counselling is to keep a daily diary of positive things. It could be something kind someone has said, or something I’ve enjoyed doing. It works in two ways – it makes me recall the good parts of every day, and, in difficult times, it’s helpful to read back as a reminder that good things do happen on a regular basis.

Birdwatching

It’s very important to do something you enjoy as often as possible. For me, that means going birdwatching. I try to arrange fairly regular days when I can take a break from my daily routine and go somewhere to get immersed in birdwatching, whether it’s looking for a particular bird or generally enjoying the distraction of being somewhere different and seeing what’s there.

Walking

When I was off work with depression in 2011, I made myself go out for a short walk every day, just to get out of the house. Walking is a healthy combination of fresh air, a change of scene, daylight, distraction and exercise. I still walk as much and as often as I can.

Looking up

It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts and pay no attention to what’s happening around you. I’ve found that looking up at the sky is a rewarding alternative. It somehow helps to give me a little perspective. I like to take pictures of the sky and tree tops on my mobile phone when I’m out for a walk.

Lunch breaks

I often use my lunch break to get a bit of ‘me time’. My mornings are a rush to get the kids ready for school, and my evenings often involve being somewhere – or the kids being somewhere – by a particular time. The middle of the day is a perfect time to get out for a walk or just sit somewhere quiet for a while.

Meditation

I did some Mind Calm classes this summer and – when I remember to practise – find it helpful in stopping my mind racing and flitting about. Mindfulness is widely talked about as a way of coping with depression, and this is the version I’ve found most helpful so far.

Running

I have a rocky relationship with running. I’ve had some great highs and off-putting lows with it, and really have to force myself to do it, but once I get going I quite enjoy it. I’ve just started going running again after a 14-month break, because I was feeling unfit and could feel myself over-thinking things and getting a bit agitated. Running helps me with both those things.

Self-care

I find it’s easier to support other people than to look after myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. All of the things in my list are a kind of self-care. It’s also worth trying a regular BuddyBox, either for yourself or someone else. BuddyBox is a new initiative from my friends at the Blurt Foundation. Each month, they fill a box with items to help, comfort or inspire anyone who needs a boost.


Five weirdest things I have done in pantomimes

I’ve recently started rehearsing for Beauty and The Beast, my 15th pantomime with my local group, the Ebor Players.

Panto is a bizarre tradition that has given me many fond memories, a great bunch of friends, and a number of surreal experiences that just couldn’t happen in any other setting. Here are five of the weirdest.

Doing a Ministry of Silly Walks dance to a Queen song

Fear makes you do strange things sometimes. In my first panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (1999) – I was playing a hugely unconvincing giant, who was several inches shorter than the dame, wearing a terrible fake beard and a flat cap. I had a scene with my magic harp, in which I said: “Harp! Play me some music. Something soothing.” The music in question ended up being ‘One Vision’ by Queen, as you’d expect. It was the week of the show, and we hadn’t really worked out what I would do while the music was playing. Left with a largely empty stage and a feeling of abject terror, I had to do something, so I did what any self-respecting giant would do in such a situation – a peculiar dance inspired by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Singing as Elvis while dressed as a fairy

In my next panto, Dick Whittington, I was a vision in chiffon – a nightmarish vision, in a blonde wig, white dress and copious glitter. The good fairy had a spell put on her, and was turned into me, the Hairy Fairy. My role was largely to impart wisdom to the hero. There came a moment where I had to advise him to ‘turn again’ – the perfect time for a song. At the after-show party the year before, I’d ended up entertaining/boring the cast and crew in the pub with numerous Elvis songs, and that’s how the musical director and I came to write ‘London Town’. Loosely based on ‘The Wonder of You’, the song was a series of Elvis song puns, and I performed/murdered it in an Elvis wig and shades – still wearing my fairy dress.

Doing a workout with a dancing panda

You know how it is. You wake up after sleeping for 100 years and a panda turns up and makes you dance to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ by Wham. Towards the end of Sleeping Beauty (2006), this is exactly what happened. Brought to life by a kindly fairy (naturally), the panda was Princess Beauty’s favourite toy, and was there to lead an extremely invigorating workout when a palace full of drowsy guests, royals and servants (including me as Oddjob, the palace handyman) awoke from their century-long slumber.

Being Vanilla Ice, in beach wear

Nine years after playing the fairy in Dick Whittington, we performed a different version of the show. I played Silly Billy, and was joining the rest of the cast on a trip overseas. We were going to buy or sell spices, I think. Rapper Vanilla Ice had recently teamed up with Jedward for a new version of his hit Ice Ice Baby, and the comedy duo that year came up with the ingenious idea of doing ‘Spice Spice Baby’. But they needed someone to be Vanilla Ice, and that’s where I came in. My obvious rapper credentials were seriously compromised by my outrageously colourful Hawaiian beachwear, and adding a baseball cap just made it look sillier. But given that we were three men who couldn’t really dance or rap, doing a rap and a dance routine, my apparel was the least of my worries…

Dad dancing as Darth Vader

Our 2014 panto, a Long Time Ago, was a tribute to the science fiction greats, and so it came to pass that I was playing the villain’s psychiatrist, Dr Vader. I got to dress up in a proper Darth Vader costume, thus fulfilling a boyhood dream. But there was a catch. At the time, a popular YouTube clip featured Darth Vader busting some crazy dance moves with some Stormtroopers to MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’ – and yours truly was charged with recreating this in the panto. The result was an improvised dad-dancing masterclass. The mask was a blessing.

Here's me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda. Picture by Jo Curran.

Here’s me as Dr Vader, hanging out with Yoda.
Picture by Jo Curran.


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