My biggest personal productivity shortcoming – and trust me, I have a few – is probably my ability to get easily distracted.  It used be procrastination, but I gradually managed to get that at least a little under control.  But focus is definitely an issue. I guess part of it is that I have something of a butterfly mind,  (oops…just flicked away briefly from here because a Skype message popped up) and I probably do have a low boredom threshold.

There’s a saying ‘Started is half done’ which I think I’ve misunderstood and turned in to ‘Started is finished, it just needs tidying up, and tidying up can wait…’.  The number of half finished projects around here is still pretty big – but again, not as big as it used to be, thank goodness.

I call my moments of lost focus and distractedness ‘Oooh….squirrel’ moments. Let me share the reason for this. Many years ago, our neighbours over the back wall used to have a gigantic tree in their garden. I was huge – thicker than a telegraph pole, visible from a mile and a half away, and as far as I was concerned it was poised to come crashing down through our back bedroom every winter.  When the wind blew, the tree added it’s own ‘Dodgy Horror Film’ sound effects, and it blotted out half the sky.

But the one benefit of this tree was squirrels. Dozens of the times a day we’d see squirrels running up and down it, popping on to the bird table, running around the garden, chasing our cats (Marvin, I’m talking about you….) On at least one occasion one popped up on the back window ledge and looked in whilst I was working at the dining room table.

Whenever one of these little chaps came in to view, I’d take a look.  There were occasions when my wife and I would be talking and the person with the view of the yard would suddenly stop what they were saying and doing and utter the words ‘Oooh….squirrel!’ to indicate that a ‘tree-rat’ was doing something cute.  OK – or to indicate that a squirrel was doing something….squirrelish.

It eventually became something of a code-word in household conversations for when one of us became momentarily distracted and lost the thread.

The tree was eventually removed – I love not having it there but miss the squirrels enormously, although in the last year the odd one has shown up on the edge of the garden near other trees.  But the phrase has stayed with us.

And it’s now become the code word for one of us being distracted, or losing focus. In fact, I now use it deliberately when I can feel my attention slipping – no squirrel in sight; just uttering the words makes me at least aware that I’ve temporarily lost the plot.  It’s become something of a standing joke in Pritchard towers, and I even have a daft expression on my face – a sort of quizzical look.

It’s become a helpful tool in my attempts to stay on focus. As soon as I say ‘Oooh…squirrel’, I tend to stop what I’m attempting to do and deliberately break from it. I look around the room and my head for the squirrel; was it an outside distraction, social media, boredom? When I’ve acknowledged my squirrel I’ll often review what I’m doing to see whether I’ve totally blown it in some way, but more often than not I can soon get back to the planned activity with that ‘mind break’ done.

Just admitting the presence in the room of that virtual squirrel acknowledges that I’ve been distracted, and I’ve dealt with it.

Of course, sometimes the squirrel just sits there being cute and I have to break off what I’m doing altogether – that’s often when I know I’m bored or distracted beyond saving and need to go and mentally watch the cute little bugger do what it will for a while.

And on that note…ooooh….SQUIRREL!

Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.

The title of this piece is a quote from the late, great American brainy bugger Gore Vidal.  I’m not sure how seriously I actually believe it, but a little pang of…something…went through me yesterday when a friend contacted me to tell me that a novel he’d written (and that I was lucky enough to read in manuscript form) was now fully completed and ‘out there’.  So, before we go further – check out ‘The Ironlane Detective’ by Paul Witham.  Congratulations Paul – you deserve it and I wish you many sales and the beers will be on you!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m lucky to know a lot of very creative people – film makers, craftspeople, writers, musicians, software developers, radio presenters, gardeners, woodworkers, painters, actors, comedians – and I love hearing from them as to how they’re getting on.  It’s just that….well….I don’t seem to have the knack myself.  I have the odd creative splurge every now and again, but it never seems to blossom in to the creative outpourings that many people I know achieve.  Which is odd because in my 20s I turned out books by the box full and articles for the technical press by the dozen – of course, that was in those glorious, pre-Internet days when there were definitely fewer distractions for those of us with butterfly minds!

I think that that is my problem – focus!  I know that when I do set my mind to something I can get it done.  I’m often reminded of Dr Johnson’s comment “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” with regard to my way of managing myself.  I need to be prodded!

Johnny Cash and me.

An early memory of mine is listening to my Uncle Idris play Johnny Cash songs on his guitar.  Particularly he did a great rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’, though without the Mexican trumpets, Mexican trumpeters being singularly rare in the town of Warsop in the 1960s. Back then, Cash was a big name, although I’m not sure that he was ‘cool’ – more mainstream.  And he became more known for his novelty songs like ‘A Boy named Sue’ and ‘One Piece at a Time’, and his TV show, than his more straight forward country / rockabilly songs.

Figuratively speaking, Johnny Cash wandered in and out of my life over the years; he showed up as a murderous singer in Columbo; I’d see his name on the credits of various TV shows and films and also became aware of his conversion to Christianity and his near constant battles with drug addiction.  I admired the guy; in attitude he reminded me of people like Neil Young – ‘not bothered what you think of me, I’m just going to do my music’ – in appearance he vaguely reminded me of some North American Indian version of my own father and uncles.

I loved his appearance in ‘The Simpsons’ episode ‘The mysterious voyage of Homer’, where, under the influence of “The Merciless Peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum” Homer undergoes a spiritually rich hallucination in which Cash play’s his spirit guide, a coyote. By now I’d grabbed a few CDs of his music, and also read his biography, particularly intrigued by his conversion to Christianity and his claim that he was still one of the biggest sinners he knew.

With the ‘American’ recordings, he became something of a cool icon – the black dress, the  sparse musical performances – especially with the cover he did of the NiN song ‘Hurt’.  Even now, it’s a song that reduces me to tears.

This was around the time that I started taking a more serious interest in my own spirituality, a process that eventually led to my being confirmed in to the Church of England a few years later.  I started looking at Cash’s back catalogue – his spiritual songs, gospel music – and also finding out more about his life.  He was definitely no angel – but he was a man who was honest with himself and others – what you saw was indeed what you got, warts and all.  ‘Hurt’ is indeed his epitaph, but I often think that the lyrics to the U2 song ‘The Wanderer’ – which Cash sang for the band – sum his journey up:

I went out there
In search of experience
To taste and to touch
And to feel as much
As a man can
Before he repents

And as he put it in his own song ‘Man in Black’:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin’ everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

Shortly after my own confirmation, I was asked to think about my own journey to Christ, and who influenced me on the way.  Three names popped up – my Aunty Harriet, CS Lewis, and Johnny Cash.