April 2008

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office. – Robert Frost

The brain is the most perfect machine. it will do anything you tell it to. In the last few decades, this principle has become a key tenet of motivational psychology, particularly in sport. Muhammad Ali would visualise every moment of his fight months before a bout. He would programme himself – and in some cases, his opponents – to win (or lose in their case) in a particular minute of a particular round. Basketball players who practice mentally (with rigour) do almost as well as those who undertake actual practice – and many times better than those who do no practice.

What’s the point? What we tell our brain, up to and including the sporting extremes of “I will win”, has a very powerful impact on what happens. Or, I should say, on what we do. The problem is that we do not always know what we want. There is (as we sadly often discover as we get older) a conflict between what we think we want and what we actually want. We might , for example, tell ourselves that we really want to have lots of money, fame, a skinny body. And then strive to achieve these. But we might actually want something very different (no shit, Sherlock) – to be the world expert in Hitchcock’s cameo performances, or Grand Theft Auto world champion. Or in four cheese pizza, fags and gin. And then we – and the people we might have made promises to – get disappointed when we’re not achieving what we say we want…

This is all a simple preamble; not to say that I have taken you here under false pretences of course; I just hope that you are enjoying the ride. The Imp’s professional (so-called) expertise is in communications: what we (as individuals in organisations, usually) tell people who use our services or influence our world (customers, patients, residents, neighbours, suppliers, political masters….). And the Imp likes helping organisations to communicate the best they can: openly, honestly, clearly, maturely.

It makes me often stop and think. You end up questioning yourself; your own experiences and as in the rest of life, you’re always learning. Communications links to all kinds of things – socio-linguistics, organisational and individual psychology, media, PR, story-telling, teaching – and leads you to all kinds of observations, one of which I’m (finally) going to share.

You know that moment, well after the event, when you say, “Why on earth did I do that?!” You go back, you trace your steps…ker-ching! Got it! And then next time, you might watch your forward steps more carefully, try not to do the same thing again, right? And this time, you might be questioning your own motivations, pick, pick, pick: Are you being honest to yourself? Are you self-deluding?

It can be annoying behaviour, but on the whole, it’s pretty healthy and self-aware, as long as it’s balanced. But as a practice, it’s not all that common, apparently, especially at work. Think about the last time you said yes or no a bit too quickly. Was it because you had another agenda that only part of your brain would acknowledge? Was there a niggle? That you chose to ignore, because paying attention to it would tell you what you already knew – that the decision was really about…..

  • if I ask him, he’ll just pick at it, so I’ll go ahead anyway
  • I can’t be bothered to spend another half hour checking this
  • I need to beat her to the bar after work
  • my pride / hard-on- sorry, I mean ego, no, I mean…/ bonus will be at risk if I hesitate…

You get the idea.

Spend some time before the week is out checking your secret voice before saying yes or no (to others or to yourself) & see if you learn something about yourself. I never get feedback on these things, but I’ll do it too, and if anyone feeds back, so will I.

Happy watching your Yeses and Nos (it’s not really about that, but you won’t work it out ’til you give it a go, so I can’t say anything more that is meaningful).



‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
— Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looked into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.

– TS Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

I have just watched Michel Roux make a smoked haddock soufflé on television, with unfussedness and calm. Shortly, I am hoping Hugh Bonneville’s food heaven is the recipe of choice – oysters in beer batter…There is something very soothing and inspiring about watching good cooks at work.

When you have a confidence in what you’re doing, when you are relaxed into the thing, when you have flow, the end result can only ever be great, totally enjoyable, because that’s blended into it, through the creating.

Come back a step with me. The programme I’m watching (BBC 1’s Saturday Kitchen) has moved onto a piece about Charlie, a salmon fisher in Cornwall, who is known as “the fisher king”. Rick Stein’s no doubt about to grab his catch and do something magical.

And again, it’s all about the process, the journey. Charlie’s small movements, concentration, care culminate – sometimes – in a catch: what Stein calls “his treasure” that he brings into the restaurant to sell. These all play a part in the cycle. Because it’s not over with the eating, of course. Think of the meal, of the preparation, the serving, the eating, the conversation, the dressing up perhaps, smiles, laughs, thoughts that catch, sparks that fly, all part of the flow which in this case began with Charlie and the river and the salmon.

A wee something for any chefs: MR’s soufflé

Preparation time less than 30 mins; cooking time 30 mins – 1 hour

For the béchamel
30g/1oz butter
30g/1oz flour
400ml/14fl oz milk
For the soufflé
6 free-range egg yolks, beaten
salt and freshly ground black pepper
40g/1½oz butter, softened
110g/4oz gruyère, finely grated
125g/4½oz smoked haddock fillet
300ml/11fl oz double cream
8 free-range egg whites
1 tbsp fresh dill, roughly chopped

To serve
4 quail’s eggs, poached
4 sprigs fresh dill

1. Preheat the oven to 190C/380F/Gas 5.
2. To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a small heavy-based pan over a medium heat.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour (this is called a roux). Return the pan to a low heat and cook for two minutes, whisking continuously.
4. Remove from the heat again and add the milk, stirring constantly.
5. Place over a medium heat and bring to the boil, stirring continuously. Reduce the heat and simmer for 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously. Allow to cool slightly.
6. For the soufflé, beat the egg yolks into the béchamel and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover with cling film and set aside at room temperature.
7. Meanwhile, grease the insides of four individual soufflé dishes or ramekins (10cm/4in in diameter and 6.5cm/2½in deep) with softened butter.
8. Sprinkle a handful of the grated gruyère into each soufflé dish, rotating it to coat the insides.
9. Place the smoked haddock into a small pan. Add the cream and place over a low heat. When the cream starts to just come to the boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for two minutes.
10. Turn off the heat and leave to rest until cool enough to handle, then remove the skin from the haddock and flake the fish into a bowl with your fingertips, removing any bones you may find. Return the fish to the heated cream.
11. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt, until soft peaks form when the whisk is removed.
12. Place one third of the egg whites into the béchamel mixture and stir well.
13. Add the béchamel and egg white mixture to the bowl of remaining egg whites and fold in very gently, adding the gruyère and dill as you fold.
14. Half-fill each prepared soufflé dish or ramekin with the soufflé mixture, then spoon in equal amounts of the smoked haddock and cream mixture.
15. Fill the dishes with the remaining soufflé so that the mixture is slightly above the top edge.
16. Smooth the surface with a palette knife and run a knife around the inside edge of the dish to ease the soufflé mixture away from the side of the dish – this helps the soufflé to rise.
17. Stand the soufflé dishes into a deep roasting pan and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides of the dishes (this is a bain-marie).
18. Place into the oven to cook for 7-8 minutes, or until risen and golden.
19. To serve, top each soufflé with a poached quail’s egg and a sprig of dill. Serve immediately.

Tutto e in posto, ma niente e in ordine (Everything’s in its right place, but nothing’s in order – Italian proverb)

One of the imp’s most favourite and important hats is the one with the antennae on it, sucking information in, helping stuff to get out. And we’re all doing that all the time. But the problem is the engine of cotton wool that lies beneath, the brain. That’s where it can all get a bit muddled.

For example, I was going to scrawl something vaguely interesting about neural pathways, self-deception, habit of thought and various bits & such bobs. Instead, I have made you a picture to demonstrate the point. Ahem.

I have to share this with you, in the best spirit of impingdom. As I type, two dozen near-naked sportsmen (I think it’s rugby, going by the muscle) are frolicking for the cameras in a steamy outdoor pool which is overlooked by my window. Please, don’t think I am objectifying them, but I do like the chance to play at role reversal….

PS (some hours later)- I was right – it’s today’s Pic of the Day for the local rag….

“A man is a God in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“God gave men both a penis and a brain, but unfortunately not enough blood supply to run both at the same time.” – Robin Williams

As promised, it’s the boys’ turn. Take your pick of the quotes; I’d personally love to know what Emerson was on about.

Man. Hmm. Masculinity. Double hmm. “Manhood” – says it all, really. It’s a fragile thing, this man-thing. I know women suffer a lot of strictures about what they should and shouldn’t be, but so do men, and I wonder sometimes if those social expectations aren’t a lot more damaging.

After all, men start off at a massive biological disadvantage. We’re all of us all female in the beginning, as a couple of X chromosomes. Then one of those mutates and goes male (Y; …why, indeed?) More boy embryos die (in fact more mutate to male than stay female, but there’s an extraordinary attrition rate and so more girls are born). Once out there, males are more likely to be colour-blind and left-handed. Later, they have more addictions and circulatory diseases and they die earlier. God, this is cheery.

So that’s the biology bit. (If you want more, see the very interesting piece in the BMJ, Dec 2003, by Sebastian Kraemer on The Fragile Male). The next bit’s more contentious and takes us into research world.

Human males are more likely to display social disorders, and there is some science which might explain this. They are far more likely to be suicidal (successful or not), criminal, dyslexic, violent and to be at either extreme of the intelligence spectrum. And stalkers. These charming traits might be biological; they might not. But society is still where most of the blame is laid. And let’s face it, once you’re an adult, you’re supposed to be able to control your own actions. Otherwise, it just gets really offensive.

Mae West said that only men would start every day by tying a noose around their necks. That kind of sums it up for me. It has long been a male-dominated world. It still is. We all still play (i.e. consent to, are complicit with) ridiculous gender roles (only excusable when they’re consenting games where all players know what they’re up to). But for goodness’ sake: if I was a world-dominating man, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t set myself up for such failure.

Women, it seems, are more at ease with transgressing gender roles, but men get very squeamish (in front of other men, mainly). No? Then kiss your best mate on the cheek, chaps. Prove you don’t care what other people (and that tends to mean ‘men’) think of you… All excuses in the comments box, please. Thank you!

Oh, get over yourselves… ;)

When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid

This is about some of those girl secrets we don’t really talk about. However, Impery is an asexual activity, so there can be no sacred cows, sows or fraus.

Now: girl-on-girl politics are fraught. I’m talking about how women treat one another in the street, the workplace, family, socially – when they don’t yet know each other.

Ladies, you know what I mean. It’s that split-second assessment which is informed only through peripheral vision and an acute ear for nuance, accent, breath rate and – vitally, subconsciously monitored – a sense of humour. Uhuh. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Not persuaded? Think mother-in-law meets daughter-in-law for the first time. Think old female friend meets new girlfriend. Think new woman colleague – or new woman boss. Eeeurgh: tense, fraught and rich potential for disaster, insomnia, bitching and misery for all within a one-mile radius (or six degrees of separation).

And yup, you’re right, I’ve implicitly got men in each scenario. Before, gents, you start rubbing your hands together in glee, imagining we fight over you, let me make it clear that we don’t. This is actually nothing to do with you; you are incidental. This is about female pecking order, assessing power and threat – but also assessing complementariness. Hence the humour comment a moment ago.

We’re not assessing each other or competing over men – it’s over everything

…Bear with me.

As any fule kno (and chaps, you have surely seen this), the minute that two women who have met for the first time realise that they like and get on with each other, it is a huge and genuine relief. It’s a friend, an ally: and it’s important because a female enemy is far worse than a male one. Why do I say that? It’s not that women are their own worst enemies; they are anyone‘s worst enemy. And they are also the best friends (and lovers).

Hence the humour thing. If you sense you can have a laugh with a new woman acquaintance, all bitching bets are off. But perhaps that’s just a TLI characteristic? Please, dear readers, tell me I’m not wrong….

Mind you, I will happily be contradicted by:

(a) lesbians who say women are just as rubbish as men as lovers (i.e., they can’t read minds either);

(b) errrr…..hmmm. OK, contradict me anyway…

I think men’ll get the next opinionated set of paragraphs, just to even up the balance. Any material welcome.

One of those days: it’s zoomed, flown, zinged and was (and still will be) full of creativity, both paid and unpaid. I didn’t think Mondays were supposed to be like this. Here’s someone else’s lines for you to muse: meaningless, non-pedagogical, for its own sake:

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket

Seventeen times as high as the moon.

Where she was going, I couldn’t but ask her,

For in her hand she carried a broom.

‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,

‘Where are you going to, up so high?’

‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky.’

‘May I come with you?’

‘Aye, by and by….’

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