Collision Course

It has long interested me (yes, I really am this sad) that some people seem to instinctively know which way to move when you cross their path, whereas others appear to have no radar whatsoever to avoid bumping into other people. I’m intrigued to know whether those who correctly guess which way another person is going to move, thus moving in the opposite way to avoid a collision, are more intuitive individuals. Perhaps they are even more intelligent than those who repeatedly fail to judge others’ trajectories correctly. Or perhaps there is no rhyme nor reason whatsoever for this strange phenomenon and I should get a life.

Now you’ve read the necessary contextual preamble I’ll move onto the main point of this post. In order to ease the insufferable pain that is walking through the crowded streets of London Bridge after work I have today devised a game. Borne out of my interest in the behaviour of people whilst walking along a busy road, it’s a version of ‘Chicken’ whereby I walk straight at people and guess if they’ll get out of my way or not. The results of my first attempt are quite surprising. People who look like perfectly reasonable individuals are often woefully lacking in collision radars, whereas those at the scattier-looking end of the spectrum tend to be excellent crowd-dodgers. As social experiments go, this may not make it into a psychology journal, but it’s sure as hell going to improve my daily commute.

How to cope in the age of commuter rage

When I left London to go travelling in 2007 I was at the end of my tether with the rudeness of people on my daily commute. I genuinely feared one day I’d snap and scream in someone’s face, and it was the day I finally felt that fear about to become a reality that I knew I had to get away for my sanity’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this city dearly but it never ceases to amaze me how normally civilised people can become ruthless savages the second they step onto the northern line in morning rush hour. Though I’ve never seen a fight I have heard tales of suited businessmen coming to blows over perceived acts of rudeness, and the sighs and grimaces of people who refuse to move down the carriage to let you on when there is patently room because they’d frankly rather have the space to read is an experience I’m certain we’ve all shared at one time or another.

Similarly, there are the people who push and shove and rant and rave when there clearly is no space, and their getting on the train will most likely mean at least one person suffocating to death in their sweaty armpit. But why should they care? They’ve got to get to work, because being so much as five minutes late would obviously be completely unacceptable.

I have seen occasional acts of kindness on the tube-indeed once a man who was well over six feet tall fainted on top of me on the Piccadilly line on a particularly hot day and I myself became a Good Samaritan, shouting for water and asking people to step back and give him air-but on the whole the daily commute is an ‘each to their own’ affair that is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Take yesterday’s tube journey home as an example. Me and another girl were standing equidistant from a seat when the occupant stood up to disembark at the next station. I felt her body go rigid, and my own do the same in response. This was all out war, and there could be only one victor. But just as I braced myself for the pushing, the shoving and the glaring that would ensue when I beat her to the seat (as I surely would) I stopped and asked myself why it was so important to me to win the seat. After all, I was only going a few stops. If she wanted it so badly-as her reddening cheeks proclaimed she did-couldn’t I just let her have it? And so I did. And I got more satisfaction from that gesture than I ever would have in winning the seat.

So what’s the moral of my story? Perhaps that every now and then it’s good to take a step back from the madness of the morning or evening commute and make a conscious effort to be nice to a fellow commuter instead of automatically scowling at them. Give it a try-you might just like it.

Back to work

No matter how much you love your job, you always have a degree of back to work dread when the alarm goes off on your first morning back in the office post-holiday. And so it was at 7am this morning, when I groggily opened my eyes and pulled back the curtains to see yet another delightful day in the making. After a twenty minute armpit-in-face commute I was even less enamoured with the idea of a day spent in an airless office (the window open is sealed shut – far from ideal in these sweltering conditions). And by 11am – by which time I was less than a third of the way through my emails – I was about ready to face plant onto my desk.

Fortunately the afternoon part of the day proved far more fruitful than its morning predecessor. After a brief stint in the sunshine I returned, fortified, to tackle the To Do list head on. But, though a welcome development it wasn’t my increased productivity that proved to be the ultimate redeemer. What rescued the day from the jaws of defeat was the time I spent with one of our young people helping her to prepare for this evening’s exciting Backing Youth event, hosted by HRH The Duke of York at Buckingham Palace. Hearing the passion in her voice when she spoke about how much the charity has helped her was inspiring, and reminded me of why I do what I do.

Here’s a sneak preview of some professional shots we had taken recently on one of our projects. Definitely a good reminder of how important my role is as PR Manager for the charity.

Sticks and stones

Another false start on the finding-mindfulness-on-the-morning-commute front today, when a Daily Mirror-reading (says it all?) suited businessman took umbrage at my claiming a vacant seat he’d deemed to be his and spat the word “Bitch” in my face to vocalise his distaste.

Fortunately my recent mindfulness teachings have, if nothing else, shown me the correct way to respond to such an insult is not to retaliate by shouting “Wanker!” in his face to see how he likes it (as my old self would have found it hard not to do), but rather to take the higher ground, smile serenely and turn away – which, as it turns out, serves to infuriates such people even more.

Now I’m not sexist, but the fact I was not only a woman but a rather unwell one at that (my horrible cough being testament to this fact) would, in most people’s books, be enough to qualify my right to the seat – and that’s without taking into account the fact I was standing right next to the seat in question whereas he was standing beside it. In the world of tube train etiquette surely no one would dispute it was I, therefore, who held the commuter right of way?

Then we have the insult itself. That this man (at least 15 years my senior, I would guess, but nonetheless perfectly able to stand for the duration of his journey) allowed himself to be so riled by a 31 year old plague victim having the audacity to sit in a vacant seat right in front of her is ludicrous enough – but to call me a bitch for doing so? Dog analogies aside (I doubt he’d see the irony of dogs never requiring seats on the tube-if only I’d thought to ask him at the time), the word bitch implies – to my mind at least – some degree of malice. How he could have perceived me as malicious for being equally as keen to sit down on my journey to work as him I simply cannot fathom.

But enough about this sad little man and his misplaced anger – he’s had more airtime than he deserves already. Let him walk around in a rage against the world, because in the end the only person he’s hurting is himself.

The power of OW!

I’m currently re-reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. This morning, just as the train doors opened and an army of angry commuters elbowed their way onto the already packed carriage with scant regard for their fellow passengers’ comfort or wellbeing I read the following sentence about the present moment:

“It is as it is. Observe how the mind labels it and how this labelling process, this continuous sitting in judgement, creates pain and unhappiness.”

Before I was able to observe how my mind was labelling the process, however, someone stood on my toe, which meant the pain I felt was rather more tangible than the pain to which Eckhart was referring. But nonetheless I read on:

“By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be.”

Easier said than done, Eckhart, I thought, when the woman to your right is coughing directly in your face. But still, must try…

“Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”

At that very moment, as if to test me, the train stalled. I looked around at my fellow passengers, their gloomy faces pressed into one another’s sweaty armpits. Could I accept this moment as if I had chosen it? Could I really?

“Always work with it, not against it.”

Right, I can work with this. It’s not so bad. Focus on your breathing. Enjoy the moment. The train will move soon. Embrace the Now!

“Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy.”

Why is this train not moving? Don’t they realise there’s a serious lack of oxygen in here? Oh thank God, it’s moving. But wait, hey you CHUMP don’t stand on my bag! Aarrrghh! Stampede! I’m being crushed to death! HELP!!”

“This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

Hmm. I guess this mindfulness takes some practice to master…

This was the lake next to the ashram in southern India where I first learnt how to meditate. It was certainly a lot easier to do it there…

The happiness quota

On the way home from work today I was ruminating on the idea of having a personal happiness quota. If such a thing exists I’ve already moved considerably further towards the top end of mine by changing jobs and taking the decision to reduce my working week to four days a week (even if it does mean less money coming in – though maybe best to reserve this particular declaration of happiness until after my first pay cheque’s cleared).

Another way I’ve increased my happiness rating over the past few years has been through incorporating competitive exercise into my routine (not that you’d know it if you’d been watching me over the past week, slovenliness having set in a little in the wake of my last race). And over the past couple of days I’ve managed to crank the score up further still by signing up to the Take Ten programme by Headspace, a daily ten minute guided meditation which already has me feeling more calm and in control of my life.

So, you may ask, if everything’s going so well what’s stopping me from hitting the top rung of the happiness ladder? I’ll tell you what: My commute. After months of travelling to work on the new extended overland train to Shoreditch I’d almost forgotten the trauma that is the Northern line in rush hour. Now I’m working in London Bridge, however, it’s proving unavoidable.

There’s are few things worse than spending the 20 minutes before reaching the office and the 20 minutes after leaving it face-in-armpit with a total stranger – especially now it’s nearing summertime when the airless tubes turn into human microwaves (readers of my old blog may remember the time a six foot four inch giant fainted ON TOP OF ME at the end of a packed tube carriage on the hottest day in summer – NEVER AGAIN).

If I’m to avoid a summer of discontent it’s becoming patently obvious I’m going to have to find an alternative way to cover the four odd miles from Clapham to London Bridge. And the obvious solution is to get on my bike and cycle there. Not only will it keep me fit (possibly negating the need for a new gym membership?), it will also save me considerable money on the cost of tube fare. So what’s stopping me from getting on and doing it? The fear of becoming a statistic after having an unfortunate collision with a lorry, that’s what. I know you shouldn’t live your life thinking ‘what if,’ but when it comes to road sense I’m woefully lacking – at nine years old I cycled round a roundabout the wrong way, nearly giving my parents a heart attack in the process.

All of which leaves me in quite the dilemma: Do I face my fear and cycle or face a summer of discontent on a smelly tube train? I think I know what you’re all saying: Get on your bike! Right? Right. Now where did I put that pump?

This was taken during my triathlon last September – incidentally (and shamefully) also the last time I did actually get on my bike…

I saw you

I saw you today, as I do most days. I was sitting on the pavement watching my icy exhalation as it licked the air like a tongue when you careered straight past me, with barely seconds to spare before your train pulled into the platform. You always seem so flustered, as if the dawning of a new day has caught you completely unawares. Your cheeks betray the exertion of your rush to get ready, your skin shimmers with perspiration. You never seem at peace. Are you – ever?

I saw you today. I was standing near the entrance of the supermarket trying to get warm when you brushed past me. Your gym bag was slung over one shoulder, a sign that you like keeping fit (or at least that you try to). Your practical boots stated that comfort, not glamour, was your priority, as they often do on a work day. Not so at weekends, it would seem – once I bummed a cigarette from you on the high street after a night out with your friends when you were dressed to kill in a mini dress and heels that looked like skyscrapers. Do you remember?

I saw you today. I was begging for money (which I hate to do) but I was starving, what could I do? You were on the phone. Sometimes when you walk past I catch snippets of telephone conversations about bills, arguments with your boyfriend, work worries. Today you were bemoaning your lack of holiday allowance. Do you ever stop to think how lucky you are?

I saw you today. I was slumped down by the bins, drawing my last breath as you ran out of your cosy flat and climbed into a waiting car. You looked happy, for once, and as my own life ebbed away I was glad. You have a pretty face when you’re not frowning. Do you know that?

I saw you. But you didn’t see me.

Image

On the theme of looking but not seeing, I remembered this photo taken on the Mekong River whilst travelling in Cambodia. It was just after sunrise and the man was off to sell his wares to tourists like myself. It made me realise how lucky I was to lead such an easy and privileged life.