Mufti, the great leveller

shirts colurful_coachmetpassie
coachmetpassie via pixabay

Do clothes really make the *man?

I was on holiday in Croatia recently. In Trogir marina, some truly jawdropping yachts rode gently at anchor. One boat that likely cost more than my house to buy and more than my annual salary to run attracted attention and photos galore. A young blond man in chino shorts and deck shoes polished the gleaming windows, and it was impossible to guess his identity.

Back home, children are back in school and wearing uniforms for the most part, here in the UK. It’s assumed that uniform gives a sense of community and belonging. Once or twice a year, schools have mufti days; wear your own clothes in return for a charity donation. On those days no self respecting child would be seen dead in uniform.

Although many jobs don’t explicitly require uniform, there is nonetheless an unspoken code in the workplace. Dress down Fridays can be a trial, because the code changes subtly and it can be hard to pitch it right. You can’t actually wear whatever you want. Too formal, you look rigid and overcautious. Too casual, you look sloppy and gauche. We aim for limited individuality within the accepted norms of our industry or profession, safe in the body of the herd.

What is the function of a uniform?

It tells us what to expect.
If we need a police officer or a nurse or a shop assistant, seeing a person in uniform is useful. It’s been shown that we make judgements about people within 0.1 seconds of meeting them. Jumping to conclusions is a mental short cut that can cause as many problems as it saves mental processing space, but it is hard-wired in us.

It saves time and mental effort.
No worrying about what to wear today. No worrying about fashion. Some entrepeneurs emulate Steve Jobs, who famously always wore the same black turtle neck. He had the designer make about one hundred for him – a lifetime supply. The entrepeneur wants to avoid decision fatigue so that he or she can focus on the important issues each day.

It shows status.
The Forces operate on rigid hierarchy. The basic uniform is embellished with pips and stripes and medals that say, I am different to you. I have achieved more, I am paid more, I am more important.

So when we strip that away, how are we to judge people? The children in their various coats and trainers all look the same to the untrained eye. They know the rules of their own dress, which trainers are right, which coats are wrong. But outside their group, they’re homogenous.

Back on holiday, I wondered which of the many people strolling around might belong to that fabulous yacht. Holiday clothes are democratic, often brought out from year to year and thereby acquiring a faded familiarity. Which man is a hedge fund manager, which woman is an advertising executive? I can’t really tell. New shoes don’t always guarantee deep pockets.

Be yourself

A uniform can be a shield to hide behind, or a way to stand out. But mufti can function as a form of camouflage. I am away from work, and nobody knows who I am or what I do. Freed from the shackles of our working selves, on holiday we can relax. Maybe the young man I saw is boat crew, maybe the owner’s son, or even the owner, proudly sprucing up his pride and joy. I can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter.

We are all hiding in plain sight, outside the boxes, just for a while.

*man, woman, child, or other

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry


#4 in the colour series

Red peppers
Hans via pixabay

Listen to this poem:


Blood running hot, and never cold
it presses forward, always bold
calling us on to run and fight
propelling legs as they take flight
and for one moment stop and think.
Then the next instant to the brink
of madness.

The red eyes are blind
to all that’s gentle, good or kind.
A teasing swish, matador’s cape
will goad the bull. There’s no escape
from spears embedded in his back
that prod him to futile attack.

And down his skin run rivers red,
his life poured out and painted dead.

We feel the ruby pulsing heat
within our chests with every beat
of every crazed deluded heart,
so sure that this is just the start
of something lasting, fine and true,
of you and me.

I always knew
that red would overwhelm this love.

Though lovers gaze at stars above
and whisper declarations soft,
these ideals that they hold aloft
soon fall to earth.
Nothing to say.

Unbridled passions win the day
over mere intellectual words
when feelings fly like scattered birds
and reason flees.

All that remains
is quivering flesh and dripping veins
left hollow by an anguished flood
of passion, anger, rage, and blood.

Follow the heart, obey the head.
Go fast, full stop; now quick, now dead.

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Flying free

rainbow kite child mother
Shlomaster via pixabay


Listen to this prose poem:


We take our son down to the beach, enduring sighs and cries and stops for water and wee-wee shortly after and kicking the back of my seat and then we arrive, unload the car, careful with that and don’t forget the sunscreen, before trudging down the path down the steps round to the left, find a place among the rocks and did you remember his hat, let’s set up here and wait, you need sunscreen and okay off you go but stay where I can see you, the sun nicely warm but it still can burn even through clouds, there’s a doggy but don’t touch he may not be friendly, glad you brought the chairs even though they’re heavy and a pain because I don’t fancy sitting on this sand, it gets everywhere, there are a few clouds scudding along and that means it’s time, get out the kite and assemble it while he helps, no don’t put that pole in there, okay you can hold it but we have to finish it first, the doggy can’t help, we can have a snack after, sandwiches and juice in the cool box, okay have a little drink first while I fix the tails, and then off we go to the hard flat sand, not a bad day at all for a kite, come with me, hold it tight, run out the line, Daddy will let you have a turn in a minute, wait, hold it up and when the wind is right just toss it into the air and there it goes, bright fluttering rainbow and long tails, he laughs and points and claps his hands, forgets to beg for a go just yet, and we are three in a big wide world, checking the weather, holding the line, one grounding him, one holding him and then giving him the right push at the right moment so he can catch the breeze and fly high above the mundane earth, looking back at where he came from, looking towards the sky’s blue horizon.

audio, blog, creative writing, Pat Aitcheson writes

Forever summer

a short story

Stevebidmead via pixabay

Listen to this story:


(A video uploaded to YouTube shows a woman, her face in shadow, speaking directly to camera. A soundtrack of wave sounds accompanies her words.)

Curfew has been in effect for some time. We didn’t think it could happen here and many people openly flouted the rules. Until James Beck vanished and never came back. He was the first. We were all more careful after that.

The news is always cheerful, telling us things are getting better and our leaders are making great progress with diplomatic approaches. Just carry on with your lives. Be sure to be indoors by ten o’clock. Everything will be just fine.

The dream came occasionally at first. I thought I was just pining for old times, wind in my hair, sand in my shoes, melting ice-cream licked from my fingers. Nostalgia for a rose tinted past in a grey present and uncertain future. It was always summer, warm but not too hot, the sea rippling deep blue under azure sky. There were no clouds.

Upbeat news fills monotonous days, yet my night world sparkles with sunbeams on gentle waves and the drowsy heat of midday. They tell us not to worry. We don’t worry; we lie alone in bed staring at the dark and hope it hides the monsters.

I must go down to the sea again. My sister used to recite that poem over and over until the words lost all meaning. It comes back to me now, the soundtrack for my wide-eyed nights and my eventual dreams of summer. They are long in coming, but now they come most nights.

I asked Daniel to come with me, but he said he was too busy and anyway, we’d risk being out after curfew. It’s just one time, I said. I won’t ask you to go again. He said he’d think about it.

Once I upload this message, I’m going back to the beach. I know what I will find.

The sky will be a hard, pitiless blue. The sea will darken, and pause for a moment before a brilliant flash. And the sky will flower with a thousand suns, and the last cloud will rise.

If anything remains of us, know that some remembered summer.

(Film ends)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Experience is overrated

more is not always better

LubosHouska via pixabay

When we talk about experience we assume that more is always better. Those impressive antlers tell of years lived and challenges overcome. That’s something not every deer has. It is something to aspire to. And it’s a very good thing, if what you want is to get a set of antlers just like it.

But what if there’s more to the world? What if you aspire to see what’s beyond the forest and the herd, and live a bigger life? Then relying on years of in-forest living is at best wrong-headed and at worst, dangerous.

Years ago, I worked with a man who had big aspirations. He was a few years senior to me and our career paths would diverge after a year on the same team. He was very good at his job, but not the kind of person to invite to dinner; arrogant and insensitive. He said one thing that has stayed with me to this day.

Don’t be dazzled by people with more experience than you. It might be ten years of varied experiences, or one year of experience ten times over.

His words resonated with me as a young professional used to being patronised for being a greenhorn, amongst other things. True experience learns and enlarges itself, rather than treading the same path over and over until it becomes a deep rut.

In every fairy tale set in the woods, the heroine is told to stay on the path and stay safe. She should listen to the voice of the wise elder. But we all know that the real heart of the tale, the real learning experience, only happens when she strikes out to risk the unknown.

When we have some experience, we expect to command respect. Too often, people think that more years and grey hair entitle them to a louder voice. Well, that depends. While you’re growing bigger, heavier antlers, a hunter is fixing you in his crosshairs. You might wish you had listened to the little bird who flew over him, and tried to warn you.

Often creatives are exhorted to do this, or avoid that. Being an artist is flaky, you can’t make money from writing, poetry is old-fashioned, you won’t make it as a musician. Get a steady job (if such a thing even exists any more.) Sometimes these statements are well meaning.

But at their heart is fear: the fear that if you do try and maybe even succeed, the adviser’s own failure to follow their own path will be exposed. They might have had a different, bigger life. But they stayed on the path and played safe. Now they want you to do the same.

So when someone uses “experience” as a trump card in an argument, consider the source. Have they done what you hope to do? Have they lived the life they recommend, or implemented their own advice?  Have they ever taken a risk?

If not, think again.
You may end up growing the wrong skills, in the wrong forest. And the hunter is coming.


What’s the worst that could happen?

Overwhelmed and anxious? Embrace thoughts of disaster and move on

Wild0ne via pixabay

Ever found yourself worrying endlessly about bad stuff that might happen?

It hasn’t actually happened yet, but it might. Disasters big and small threaten you, your projects, your loved ones, the world at large. They play out in your mind at 3 am, ambush you in quiet moments in the shower or while waiting for a bus.

It’s easy to get caught up in an endless cycle.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.45.06

When this gets really bad, you find yourself zooming in on the worst possible outcome.
This is called catastrophic thinking. It’s a common cognitive distortion, or faulty way of thinking. You selectively focus on things that have the most emotional charge. They go round and round in your head as you ruminate without any resolution.

But the sky really might fall on me

Well, sometimes bad things happen, that’s true. And in this mind set, you want absolute, 100% assurances that it won’t happen to you. Rationally, you know nobody can give this assurance. Irrationally, you take this as proof that your feared outcome is just around the corner. What can you do?

Prepare for the worst

Face that nightmare scenario head on. We do this all the time. We buy life insurance, wear seat belts, and get the car serviced. Anxieties may not fall into these concrete areas though. What if my son fails his finals? What if I never get married? What if she doesn’t like me?

Get a pen and paper, or open a document. Writing it out works better for me. Answer the following.

  • What am I afraid of? State the fear clearly. Ask “why” until you get a specific answer.
  • What would that mean for me? Challenge negative thoughts with alternative explanations.
  • What actions would I take in that case? There is something you can do, even if that is to stop engaging and accept the situation.
  • How likely/impactful is this scenario? The amount of energy you spend on it should reflect the odds and the seriousness to you.
  • What can I do right now to lessen its impact? Make a contingency plan that addresses the issues you’ve raised.

By doing this you can acknowledge the fear, tie it to specifics rather than generalisations, and start problem solving. Think of your fear as a frightened child crying. First you sit the child down, then find out what the problem is. Only then can rational discussion take place. And it is the adult who brings options to the table and decides on the best course of action.

Action is one antidote to anxiety

The feeling of helplessness lead to inaction, and that digs the hole deeper. Like walking on the spot, it exhausts you without achieving any forward motion. Action helps you to escape that cycle. Having an action plan can help you sleep easy, one less worry to carry every day.

Gut feelings

The physical sensations that go with anxiety feed more and more worries. What if the headache is a brain tumour? What if that nausea is a stomach ulcer?  Our autonomic nervous system runs in the background, controlling automatic body processes such as breathing, digestion and circulation. It is always affected by our emotional state, whether we recognise it or not.

Often we have a physical sensation but are unable to recognise the emotion that preceded it. The fight, flight or freeze response of stress usually comes with a host of physical markers. Palpitations, shakes, nausea, body pains, dizziness and more are common.

We cannot control this system directly, but we can control our breathing. Slowing down breathing has a calming effect that turns off adrenaline and brings a sense of control.

 Make the out breath twice as long as the in breath. 

It doesn’t matter how long the count. The slow out breath is the key. Or try singing. It’s a good distraction that also forces slow breathing. Everyone knows a nursery rhyme or a favourite song.

Moving on

This process can help, but you’ve been sitting a while, working things out. Time to move away from the anxiety. Get up, go for a walk, do housework, march on the spot, do more slow breathing. And then do something different.

We all have worries, but when they occupy too much headspace, it’s time to manage them actively. Don’t let them control you.