Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Routine.

Ollie woke me up at 5:20 this morning. He was sitting on his bed in the kitchen, barking at something. Beetley was dark and still, so I have no idea what disturbed our dog. But he kept barking until I got up to let him out, and then I couldn’t get back to sleep.

So for some reason, I ended up thinking about routine. I call it that, but I suppose you could also refer to it as habit. After leaving school, I was employed in various jobs for forty-three years, until I retired at the age of sixty. For over thirty-three of those years, I worked shift patterns. Now you might think that shift patterns disrupt routine, but I am here to tell you that they don’t. They do the opposite, by making you live your life to a routine, even if it is one that changes on a daily basis.

I would have my shifts entered in a diary, by the end of December each year. I could easily see what shift I would be working on any given day, and whether or not I was working on my birthday, over Christmas, or how many weekends I was scheduled to be on duty. Unless it was a period of holiday leave, I knew exactly where and when I would be, on almost every single day of the year to come. This cannot fail to instill a sense of routine into your everyday life, as well as in your thoughts and behaviour.

So for decades, I followed those shift rotas as part of my working life, as well as enduring the impact they had on my social life. By the time I was in my fifties, I started to count down the years until I could retire at sixty, knowing how much I anticipated shaking off the shackles of a lifetime of routine. I moved away from London, retired to the country, and stopped thinking about what day it was, what time it was, and whether or not it was a weekend. Strangely, it wasn’t that easy to shake off the habits of a lifetime, and I developed new routines instead.

I started to go shopping on the same day every week, even though it didn’t matter a jot which day I actually went to the supermarket. I decided that Monday was a quiet day. Less customers, easier to park, and longer sell-by dates on products. That was it, Mondays were cast in stone.

Then I got a dog.

If I thought I had suffered a life of routine before, the arrival of Ollie made me realise I was merely a beginner. I began to structure my day around him, once I discovered that he didn’t like to go out early in the morning, and preferred an afternoon walk. I did what I had to do before midday, then stopped for a lunchtime sandwich. Even that became a routine, as I had (and still do) the same thing every day. A ham and cheese sandwich, with granary bread, toasted. I have tried to break the habit by occasionally having a bacon sandwich, or perhaps eggs. But I keep coming back to that ham and cheese, try as I might to avoid it. Then I have a bath, shave, and get dressed, ready to take Ollie out.

Later that day, I go into the kitchen to prepare what we will be eating for dinner, and give Ollie his meal, usually at 5:15 pm. He has come to expect it, adjusting his own routine to mine automatically. Then I time our diner for 7 pm, again the time that I have decided I prefer to eat it. I always wash up the plates and pans as soon as we have finished eating, as I like to have that sense of a ‘free’ evening, and don’t like to leave dirty plates and utensils piled up in the kitchen. So between 8 pm and bedtime, I watch TV or a film, reply to some blog comments, and start to wind down before 11 o’clock comes. Any time after 11 is considered suitable to go to sleep these days, and I am rarely up and awake after midnight.

So I ended up thinking about it today, and thought about changing it.
Breaking the mould, setting myself free, and possibly doing something completely different.

I might have a bacon sandwich, instead of ham and cheese.

Come on, it’s a start…

Ollie and his time clock

Like many countries, we here in the UK are still hanging on to the rather pointless tradition of putting the clocks back in October, then restoring them to their original time in the Spring. This annoying custom means that it is now dark by 5 pm, and I have had to scurry around changing all those timers and watches that don’t automatically correct themselves.

Being a dog, you would think that Ollie has no concept of time. I like to think of him ruled by nature, waking at dawn, and sleeping when it is dark. But that is far from the case. He is a dog ruled by habit. So controlled by his personal routine, and inner ‘dog-clock’, that if he had been human, he would undoubtedly be considered to be on the Autistic Spectrum.

He goes out in the garden first thing. After completing his patrols of the fence, and along the side of the garage, he waits at the top of the patio stairs until one of us (usually Julie) appears in the kitchen to let him in through the back door. He then has breakfast, always a twisty chew thing, that he loves to eat at that time. Once that has been devoured, he follows me around the house, or sleeps, until it is almost midday. At that time, I have a sandwich, and give him some of it, usually the crusts. He also has his midday ‘stick’, a corrugated chew that is supposed to be good for dental health. After that, he dozes until he sees me getting ready for the habitual walk at 2 pm.

His dinner is normally around 5.30, and if it is late, he will keep putting his head on my leg to remind me. After we have eaten, between 7-7.30, he gets a medium-sized liver-flavoured chew, strangely called a ‘Wonky-Chomp’. I say strangely, because it isn’t wonky. He does chomp it though. He will then happily settle for the evening, until his late night trip into the garden, close to 11 pm. The final treat of the day is a hard Bonio, a bone-shaped biscuit, which he always crunches with delight. Some time after that, he might take himself off to his bed in the kitchen, and sleep soundly until morning.

The next day, he does it all again; his own version of ‘Groundhog Day’, that seems to make him happy.

For the first three years that we had him, we marvelled at the way he adapted to the clocks going forward or back. Despite losing or gaining an hour the next day, he stuck rigidly to his schedule, not expecting treats or a walk any earlier, and unconcerned if they were later. He still appeared at midday for his stick, even though it would have only been 11 am, the day before.

But for some reason, his clock has been disrupted this year.

When the clocks went back last weekend, I expected him to perform his usual magic trick of not noticing, and carrying on as normal. But at 11 am on the next day, there he was, asking for his treat, convinced it should really be midday. By 1 pm, he was turning in circles, agitating for his walk, sure in his own mind that it was 2 pm already. And he has continued like that all week, determined to keep his routine the same as before the clocks gained that hour. After three years of appearing to be unconcerned, he has changed his tune.

I would love to be able to ask him why.

The wrong day

We have all done it at some time or another, I am sure.

You are going about your business, convinced that it is Tuesday, and at some point in the day, you realise that it is actually Wednesday. Somewhere, you have misplaced a day.

Public Holidays don’t help. They are almost always on a Monday, and make that day feel like a Sunday. When Tuesday comes along, it feels like it should be Monday, and the whole week slips out of gear.

Being retired from work makes it even harder to keep track of the days, as they are much the same when you are not working. Having to go to work makes you mark the days; anticipating weekends off, holidays to come, and noting appointments or meetings.

I mark my own week by going supermarket shopping on a Monday. Sad as this may seem dear readers, it is my ‘big day out’ most weeks, and I actually look forward to it. This week, Julie was off, so she did the shopping instead. That set in motion a whirl of confusion in my brain, and it refused to go away.

On Thursday, I was convinced it was Friday. I checked the wrong page in the TV guide when setting the PVR, and discussed with Julie that her weekend off would soon be here. She realised my confusion, and corrected me. It was Thursday, not Friday. I checked, and she was right of course. Despite this knowledge, the confusion persisted. Walking with Ollie, I repeated that it was Friday to two fellow dog-walkers. Both corrected me, and suggested that the Bank Holiday on Monday had led to my error.

On Friday, I got up convinced that it was Saturday, and the same silly saga repeated itself.

At least I know that it is Sunday today. The situation has stabilised. My perception of the days of the week has once again returned to normal.

I’m still missing a day somewhere though…

A very quiet walk

The routine of the beetleypete household has been disrupted of late. I am doing two weeks of Cycling Proficiency training at the local school, which means I have to go out with Ollie at different times. Regular readers may recall that my normal practice is to leave home around 2pm, and walk with the dog until at least 4.30, sometimes later in good weather. This week and last, I have had to split his walks, with the earlier start of 10am until 12, and a second walk from 3.30 until 4.30.

This may seem of little significance to you as a reader. But as a dog-walker, Beetley Meadows is a very different place, before midday. The majority of the locals have left for work, the children are at school, and most regular walkers do not appear until after 2pm. This fairly large area is completely deserted, apart from abundant bird life, some water-fowl, insects, and rabbits. Despite the heat, the grass is still wet, especially in the areas shaded by trees. With no extraneous sounds to disturb the air, the singing of birds is more noticeable than usual, as is their rustling in the high branches, or in the long undergrowth fringing the paths.

On the stretch running alongside the small river, we can even hear the sounds of fish, trying to take insects from the surface of the water. Ollie’s head snapping round, reacting to this rarely heard sound. A gentle breeze stirs the long grass, making a rushing sound, like the amplified swish of voluminous skirts. The whine and buzz of insects close to my neck warns me to keep up a steady pace, not allowing them time to bite. A large grey heron takes off some fifty yards ahead, the flapping of the wide wings clattering in the silence. On the lower tree branches, squirrels quarrel and chatter, sending small leaves floating gently down. At the bend of the river, by the picnic tables, children have made a small dam from stones. The water bubbles over it, at the point where it flows fastest.

Ollie, like many dogs, is a creature of habit. If he were human instead of canine, he might be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, perhaps even mild autism. He likes to approach the meadow in the same direction every time. He sniffs intently, scent-spraying where he considers it necessary. He negotiates the paths in the same fashion every time, zig-zagging from left to right, gently sniffing the extended tips of plants, examining every molehill. At certain places, he stops to violently paw the ground, leaving scars on the path; he is announcing his presence. When he gets close to the river, he accelerates, finally running in. Never too deep, just enough to be in control, but to get cool and take a drink at the same time. If the ducks are unlucky enough to have remained in range, he takes off after them. He probably knows he will never catch them, but is telling them that this is his territory, at least for a time.

He continues around the back path, remembering where he once saw a deer, and looking to see if it is still there, even though it was months ago. Last week, he chased a large squirrel up a tree, so he goes back to the base of that same tree every time, just in case. Arriving at the northern boundary of the meadows, the path runs close to the busy Fakenham Road. Ollie is scared of traffic, disturbed by the noise, and by being so close to the moving vehicles. However, this is also the site of one of the entrances, so frequented by many dogs. Even his fear of the road is not enough to overwhelm his desire to sniff every inch of the area.

A full circuit of Beetley River Meadows takes less than fifteen minutes to complete, at a reasonable walking pace. In a walk of almost two hours, it is easy to manage no less than eight circuits of the same area, allowing for brief pauses. For Ollie, each circuit is like the first. He takes off as if he has never seen the place before, just as excited to be going around again, as he was at 10am. For me, an element of boredom sets in. I know where to avoid all the nettles, and which areas of the shaded paths are still muddy. I walk past the deserted playground and football court for the umpteenth time, still noticing the discarded rubbish, abandoned despite the presence of a large litter-bin, in the shape of a friendly bear.

I have got the words of a song in my head, and it plays over and over. Despite trying to force it from my mind, it comes back time and again, until I fear it will drive me crazy. I think of things that I might write about, tasks I have to do later that day, and the cycling course to be supervised in the afternoon. But nothing takes the song away, so I try to listen to the sounds of nature instead. The starting of a motor-mower breaks the tranquility, and I can also hear the distant hum of high-flying military aircraft, visible only by vapour trails in the sky. I check my watch, 11.50. Time to head back.

More thoughts on Retirement

It has just occurred to me, that I have been retired for eight months now. Christmas is approaching, and it only seems like last week that I was still working, and living in London. The time has gone frighteningly fast, far quicker than it seemed to pass when I had to work every day. The weekends arrive with a rush, that it makes me feel that the five week-days did not even happen. I have taken stock of my time so far, and I am not proud of the results.

Decorating completed, none. Outside jobs tackled, a few. Books read- none finished. DVD films watched- only a couple. Places of interest visited, maybe three.

So, what have I done, with eight work-free months? The short answer, is ‘not a lot’. Dog walking and Vet visits have taken up a fair bit of time, though not enough to count as an excuse. I have watched a fair bit of TV, still not enough to worry about as time wasted. I do spend a substantial amount of time on this Blog, but in truth, much of that is late at night, and does not eat into time that could be used to better purpose. I feel that I have mislaid time, like a watch, or a spare pair of spectacles. It was there, and now it isn’t, and I really cannot put my finger on it, just at the moment.

This should concern me, and it does. I am haunted by my late Mother’s words, that time slips away as you get older, and days escape you, slithering away like mercury. I am now considering options. Do I get up earlier, to make more of the day? Maybe I should start to go to bed earlier, though I can’t think why. Is it the weather? Darker days, longer nights, seem to drag, if anything, so it isn’t that either. Perhaps a planned routine will make sense; what does everyone else do, I wonder? I am beginning to believe, that the very fact of having time available, makes it seem to disappear faster. During a busy working life, there never seems to be sufficient time to get anything done. Yet, with the whole week stretching ahead of you, unencumbered by necessary tasks, there seems to be less time than ever before.

It is a bit like the space-time continuum. Easy to explain in theory, impossible to achieve in practice.