Jogging Big Year: Does it consume too much time?

Can I offer some numbers, please. This year I jogged 170 times, adding up to 177 hours. Unfortunately I only commenced monitoring my gym visits on Strava late in the year, so this next number is approximate, but add 112 hours (at home I hit the gym on every non-jogging day, but when traveling, that’s not possible). Even more time consuming, this year I’ve instilled daily stretching, probably only missing a handful of days, so go ahead, slap on another 350 hours.

We end up with 539 hours committed to the Big Year. Assuming 18 waking hours a day, 30 days or a full month of the year was spent in the service of an obsession.

Whoa, I hear you say, how stupidly wasteful. Andres, I hear you chortle, have you added a month onto your life and if not, aren’t you crazy?

All I can say is that the sums are correct but your conclusion isn’t. If you watch the TV news every night, plus another hour afterwards, you’re in the same ball park. If you read The Age newspaper for an hour a day, you’ve “wasted” three weeks. Anything worth doing is going put a dent in your year. And shouldn’t your year be filled with activities of value?

Writing Big Year: How I cope with seemingly never-ending disappointment . . .

I don’t. Cope, that is. Writing novels used to be easier: miss a self-imposed deadline and I was a couple of months late. But this leviathan of a book seems to never reward but always to crush.

It’s all my fault, of course, as anyone except I could see from the start. I spent far too long gathering far too much material on an expansive topic. I made no attempt to winnow – my mantra was “I’m keeping an open mind.” I drowned myself and now writing is a brain-shredding exercise in slash and burn.

The upshot is that whenever I’ve planned, any realistic plan stretched out to infinity, so my actual announced “plans” have always been dreamy aspirations that quickly soured. Disappointment after disappointment after despondency after dejection . . . you get the picture.

I don’t often chat about this because responses tend to be unhelpful. The reaction I hate most goes like this: “Ah, but you’re keeping yourself busy, it’s clearly a labour of love, thank goodness something interests you, so many retirees get bored.” Find me a steep cliff, I think (but don’t open my mouth).

Luckily, this Writing Big Year spurred me to find mental models and working methods that have sped things up. On a wing and a prayer, my 2017 Writing Big Year (it’s actually 15 months) bestows on me a “plan” that is, I reckon, a real plan.

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Hearing isn’t listening

These last few weeks, I’ve been practising. Here’s the drill: every day, listen to an album, either through home speakers or on-the-move bluetooth headphones; take some form of notes; after three listens, wrap up that album with what I call a “reviewlet,” a mini encapsulation of my experience in a form that’s meant to be swift and simple; every week buy an album (the rest come through via Spotify); keep searching for the best of new music to queue up for listening.

Here’s the rub: hearing isn’t the same as listening. When I was young, we soaked up music fully and effortlessly. Music was life itself. Music surrounded us. Asked for an opinion, we could rattle off song names, the guitar riffs, the lame tracks, the scorchers, the highly specific genre positioning, an album’s societal vibe . . . all this after what seemed like no time at all. Every key record lodged in our minds whole and replete. We LISTENED.

I’ve lost that. Last week was a typical, hopeless practice attempt. If I played an album through while writing, either the writing vanished or the music did. Walking to Bar Ristretto with Angel Olsen on headphones partly worked but I felt careless and unsafe. On spare evenings, ragged with tiredness, could I work through an album in its entirety? No, I could not. As a dress rehearsal for the first week of January 2017, last week came as a fat flop.

All this doubles my determination to carve an hour out of each pulsating day. Somehow. Somewhen. Have the courage, Andres, I whisper, to LISTEN and tap into the sublime.

Big Decade: My back seat problem

A big year takes one or two passions, interests or wanna-dos and maxes out on them. I know that many of us prefer to dabble with all our areas of fascination, and if that’s you, well, maybe you’re right. I say this only because my 2016 and 2017 Big Years have shoved some of my preoccupations onto the back seat. I’m barely reading, hardly watch TV or film, just tinker with birdwatching, have almost ceased hiking, and as for doing community work, that’s for 2024!

I guess it’s a choice: flit from wonderment to wonderment, or focus for 365 days. I’ll stick with my Big Years.

Jogging Big Year: Success

At the beginning of 2016 I feared I’d break down or give up on the goal of 1,500 kms (later upped to 1,700 kms) over the calendar year. There have been tough periods, including a strange, emotional last three weeks, but today I stretched and headed off in the early Christmas Day light, before the big heat, on my West & Back route. Strava told me I had 1,690 kms. We’re hiking up in the mountains from Tuesday the 27th, and tomorrow involves a big party and drive, so I had to run my final 10 kms today or fall short of the goal. In Big Year terms, today was December 31.

The first thing I noticed was how exquisite the morning was. Often I huff and puff so much that I barely register the world, but today it glistened. A cormorant aired its wings on the lazy Yarra. A coot cackled. The second thing I noticed was how many others were out, exercising before turkey and bonbons and afternoon napping and simmering feuds. Emotions coursed through my body and my mind, at its worst, made matters tough for me. I turned back at the halfway point with a decent average pace of 6:05 but from then on I struggled, slowing and slowing again. Up the rise under the freeway . . . along the flat . . . under the gums . . . discomfort seguing into longing for the finish, then into the regularity of physicality . . . the familiar wrench of the final hill . . . and I was done.

2016: 1,700 kilometres.

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Seek out the young, I say

Angel Olsen turns 30 in January. The American singer-songwriter and guitarist put out My Woman this year and what a revelation! Practising for my Big Year, that album-a-day obsession, has been tough, but this is the reward, disappearing into the deep musicality of this younger woman’s torchy, reverberating, serious, tuneful indie rock. What beauty! What profundity! How catchy! We can soar!

Let me point out one aspect of Angel Olsen that is, for me, crucial. She is in her 20s! She’s not in her mid 50s (a great gig from Mancunians James in November), late 50s (that brilliant Robert Forster album or the umpteenth sporadic brilliance of Robert Pollard or Nick Cave’s sublime Skeleton Tree), 40s (Okkervil River), late 30s (Band of Horses), mid 30s (Conor Oberst’s magical latest) or 30s (Eluvium’s majestic take on electronica).

You get the picture? I’m celebrating the fact that one of this year’s best listening experiences comes from an artist who is in her late 20s! When I was young, any singer or group aged over 23 was immediately a no-no. We knew that music, fresh vital music, came from the boldness of youth. Why don’t I listen to teenagers?

One answer to that puzzling question: I don’t know any young bands or singers or musicians. My sources – the music press, key websites, newspaper reviews – live just as much in the past as I do.

Well, sod that! Anyone out there who knows a vibrant young band, holler!

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Can you cultivate listening skills?

“Listen” . . . trivial to utter, harder to do. Most of my generation only listens to stuff they absorbed four decades ago and they’re not listening in any real sense. They’re singing along to a soundtrack in their minds. Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) summed up a 1982 book, Elliott Schwartz’s “Music: Ways of Listening,” as recommending the following seven cultivated skills:

  • Develop your sensitivity to music
  • Develop a sense of time as it passes
  • Develop a musical memory
  • Acquire a working vocabulary
  • Try to develop musical concentration
  • Try to listen objectively and dispassionately
  • Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation

The author’s genre was classical music, what I call “fossilized pop music,” and there’s no doubt that listening to R.E.M. or Sex Pistols or Can or Guided By Voices is fundamentally different to appreciating Mozart, but what I like about the above list is that it exhorts me to develop skills. We’re told that appreciating fine art in galleries is partly an acquired habit and sensibility – why should music be any different?

Over 2017, will regular listening to new music enrich my listening skills? That’s certainly what I’m hoping.

Jogging Big Year: Why is too far still too far?

After 170 runs this year, each of ten kilometers, wouldn’t you expect that activity to regularize, to turn routine, to feel free and easy? But no. Each and every jog finds me thinking, “this is too frickin’ far.” I can step back and point to gains – stronger, a tad faster, less prone to injury, much quicker recovering – but moments of mastery are too rare to count. Even now, running hurts.

I’m in Bawa, an airy, efficient barn of a cafe. Today is not a running day but I did hit the gym. Outside the streets are torrid with Christmas shoppers, leaving me proud of my outsider stance. I slow breathing and ease into a more reflective mode: if running hurts, as I wrote above, why the heck do it? Has this Big Year been a chafing exercise in masochism?

And I realize my attitude – asked right after a run, I reflexively sigh, “man, that was slow and tough” – is just a habit, a shitty leftover from pre-Big-Year struggles. Looking at myself from on high, a scientist analyzing an insect, guess what I see? I observe someone who can’t miss a run, who mixes joy with anxiety, who can be caught smiling at least once every outing, who waves support to oncoming runners, who experiences triumph after each sixty-one minutes. Watch this habitual striver put his body through its paces, watch the body do what it should. Even from above I can discern happiness, a palpable joy.

What’s wrong is not the run, not its distance, nor its hills. It turns out that ten kilometers is the optimal magnitude for this non-athlete. No, the fault lies not with the run but with the mode of thought. Yes, I must heave, muscles must pit themselves against gravity, organs must cohere to battle fatigue, but my mind should relax into purring acceptance.

Can I cut the grizzling habit? Not easily. The upcoming Fitness Big Year offers a tremendous opportunity to try. If 2016 was physical training and exertion, perhaps 2017 should tackle the mental, the emotional.

So too far isn’t too far after all. Less far is not far enough.