Sunday, 24 March 2013

Happy little ray of sunshine. 24.03.13

‘tis a mystery to me how this works, but things in my internet universe tend to come in waves.  Thanks to my propensity for taking random sharp turns in life, I am a member of several completely unrelated social media communities.  I know that these people don’t know each other.  I know that I am the only person in the middle of this particular Venn diagram.  Yet, because of synchronicity, coincidence, some sort of cyberspace-y hyper-consciousness or sod’s law, posts on the same subject will suddenly come at me from all directions.  I swear on Darwin’s grave that I routinely spend hours blogging on a subject just for a handful of random friends to stick up memes, quotes and two-lines status updates that summarise and elevate what I’ve been trying to say, making my efforts seem verbose and rather pointless.  Yes, it’s really annoying.

This blog is the other way round, though.  It seems that everyone is suddenly going on about happiness.  My friends are by and large proactive people that seek the good stuff in life; hell, I would hardly like to be friends with moaning bitches who enjoy rolling in their own misery and do nothing to help themselves.  That would not make for fun parties.  However, the current trend is well out of the norm.  Suddenly everyone is studying, dissecting, searching for or trying to encapsulate happiness.  Many apple carts are being pushed over.  Many chunks of shit in varying sizes are hitting many fans.  Many glorious memes are being created.  It’s a fun time to be alive, if we can all survive it without too many casualties.  However, I’m getting pissy.  Even more pissy than usual, that is, which is saying something.

“Happiness is a habit.”  “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”  “Count your blessings.”  “Be happy for no reason, like a child.”  I kind of agree with them, but they also make me want to scream and hurl stuff.  I don’t think I’m a pessimist.  I don’t think I’m an optimist either.  I think, naturally, that my perception of the world is razor-sharp and perfectly balanced.  That is because I’m a human, hence a deluded ape who really should have never bothered climbing down that tree.  With opposable thumbs and the ability to use sticks to club each other to death, we seem to have developed a cast-iron sense of self-righteousness that takes a lot of self-awareness to identify and destroy.  Most of us never manage it.  Deep inside us all there is a belief that the way we look at the world is correct; the corollary is that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is deluded.  Come on, admit it.  It’s not just about religion and politics, it is a parasite seated far deeper in our psyche.  We believe that our viewpoint is right and that any clashing viewpoint is wrong.  We might be TOLERANT of those who don’t agree with us, but it is a tolerance which incorporates a feeling of slight superiority.  We’re all smart-asses, in our little universe behind the eyeballs.

Spider Robinson makes the issue come alive in his book “Very Bad Deaths”[1], in which one of the main characters is a telepath:
“We each think our viewpoint is truth.  The more certain of it we are, the stronger our personality is, the louder our ego broadcast becomes.  A telepath knows better.  He has sampled hundreds of viewpoints and knows perfectly well that they’re all full of shit, including his own.  In a sense it’s the one thing he does know for sure – and every single thing you think at him tries to tell him he’s wrong.  You in particular, I mean now.  You’ve got a viewpoint so rigid and defended and angle-braced and fail-safed, even at a thousand meters you must seem to obliterate his worldview with your own, to bludgeon him into seeing everything as you do: correctly.”

Now, if you are a human, chances are you will spend a variable amount of time fighting against this assessment.  Then you’ll either have to admit that it’s correct and eat some crow pie, or lie about it to yourself and bury the truth so deep inside you that it will fester.  But this is not what this blog is about – it’s about happiness myths, or theories, depending on your point of view.  So here’s a list of the three happiness one-liners that most make me want to join some sort of paramilitary organisation so’s I can get my hands on a gun.

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”  In my head, I generally see this accompanied by a happy smiley face, which I want to punch.  The idea behind it is that whatever life throws at you, you should be able to turn it into something you can appreciate.  You should be able to make the best of whatcha got, kinda.  Well, hate to break this to you, but if you just squeeze a whole load of lemons what you get isn’t lemonade.  It is a sour, rather undrinkable mess.  If you want to make lemonade, you need to add something sweet, to taste.  So if life is only handing you lemons, you’re essentially fucked.  All you got, until you find some sweetness, is at best a load of lemons.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with lemons if you like them, but you’ll find that most people don’t.  You can try and make yourself get used to them, and then all you’ll have to deal with is probably a serious case of acid reflux.

You might as well say, “if life hands you lemons, find yourself some salt and tequila and stay blind drunk until things get better.”  No, I’m not advocating that, don’t be daft; that would be adding a major problem to all your existing ones.  What I’m trying to point out is that the lemonade statement, whilst sounding logical enough, is bullshit.  The truth of the matter is that to make a palatable drink out of lemons, you need a sweetening agent.  To make a palatable life, you need to find something among the flame and debris and horrors and loss and betrayals and disasters and soul-wrenching PAIN to give you joy.  Otherwise you’re just sucking lemons.  Yes, your level of required sweetness may be different from mine, and it pays to get used to having very little indeed, life being as it is.  But just lemons?  No, thank you.

“Happiness is a habit.”  Try saying that to a starving child in Africa who’s just seen his mother bludgeoned to death, or worse, on her way to fetch water.  Yes, I know, that is an extreme case that does not apply to most of us, but it’s my knee-jerk reaction to the statement.  Yes, it is true that we often need to school ourselves against negative modes of thinking.  Yes, it is true that un-happiness may become a habit otherwise.  Like most broad-sweeping statements, however, it is only true up to a point.  A positive attitude may be a habit that we can cultivate, but happiness is also, almost inevitably, the result of real-life events.

There are many personal qualities that can help us be happy.  I was brought up not being exposed to any of them, as my immediate family is messed up beyond measure, so I am learning about them as I go along.  You’ll have to excuse me if I get things wrong here.  The two main ones I’ve been working on lately are acceptance and resilience.  I struggle mightily with both.  I have a toddler’s tendency to scream and shout and get all worked up about things not being “as they should”.  Things, naturally, couldn’t care less about my opinion, so they just go on their course.  I waste a lot of energy throwing internal tantrums that would be much better spent getting myself out of the shit.  I might as well stand in the sea, feet firmly planted on the sea bed, with waves washing over me, screaming at them because I’m struggling to breathe.  It would be rather more helpful to accept that I gotta choose between swimming or drowning.  Oh hum.

As for resilience, hell, it’s a miracle I can even spell the word.  I only learnt about the basics of it last year when my back was firmly against the ropes.  I could deal with stuff or I could crumble.  Crumbling was rather a terminal option, as nobody was going to come and fix my life for me.  I had no choice, so I had to grow a pair[2].  I had to stop all the conversations in my head that made me feel weak or panicky.  I had to learn to focus on solving the problems right in my face, rather than dwell over them.  I had to get the hell on with it.  I learnt a lot, the hard way.  It was massively formative, although I am still not sure whether if the same circumstances arose again I will be better suited to deal with them or just opt to blow my brains off instead.  One can but hope, but all the same I’d rather not find out.

Cultivating qualities that help us being happy, that’s a habit.  Happiness per se, I don’t think so.  Unhappiness, on the other hand, just requires a bad attitude.  I know people that are able to take any situation and sap every bit of joy out of it with their attitude.  Plenty of people are just waiting to point out what might go wrong, what isn’t quite right, what is missing altogether.  They just can’t wait to rain on your parade.  I’d suggest bringing along an umbrella and using it to beat them out of your way.  Real happiness, however, for all of us who’re not fully Zen, requires some real-life stuff to back it up.

“Count your blessings.”  I tend to associate this with the whole “there’s plenty of starving children in Ethiopia who would be happy to eat your spinach.[3]”  Yes, I am sure that there are.  It doesn’t make me like spinach any more, though.  As exercises in futility go, this is pretty near the top.  In fact, it can be damn counterproductive.  Now, I can’t see anything wrong with looking at what’s right in your life.  It sure beats wallowing in what’s wrong – which is not to say that you don’t need to think about that, too.  If you can’t assess what’s wrong you don’t have a hope in hell of putting it right.  There are two main problems with blessing-counting, though.  Firstly, it tends to be delusional.  Secondly, it is often used as a competitive activity.

Take my position, for example.  I am relatively young-ish and mortgage- (if not debt-) free.  I run my own successful business.  I have an only moderately damaged body, relatively good health and most of my own teeth.  These are, allegedly, blessings I should be counting.  I get told that a lot.  I am so LUCKY.  So many people are WORSE OFF than me.  I should COUNT MY <insert Anna sticking an axe in someone’s forehead here>.

The problem is not with what I have, but with what it means to me.  I never wanted to own a house.  I hate houses.  As far as I’m concerned, if it doesn’t have wheels than it’s a prison.  To add insult to injury, this is a house at least 4 times bigger than I need it to be and which constantly sucks money and time out of me, being old and somewhat broken.  I have to keep feeding it or it will fall down around my ears.  As for the business, I never, NEVER wanted to be self-employed.  I hate the responsibility.  I’d rather be a wage-slave any day of the week.  Give me mind-numbing labour that I can forget about it as soon as the bell rings!  I took this whole thing on, like a moron, to try and fix things for the people in my life, who bailed out on me so fast I could not see them for dust.  I got screwed over and left with stuff with might be wonderful for you, but sucks the big one for me.  Meanwhile, my ex-stepchild’s mother lives in a tiny rented flat and flips burgers for a living, but she’s there with my ex-stepchild.  Would I swap with her?  Are you kidding me?  So, how about instead of telling me how glad I should be for stuff you don’t have, which I hate and makes my life a misery, you try and see my point of view, practice some EMPATHY?

And breathe.

We all have different values and aspirations.  The blessing-counters often seem to forget that.  What’s a blessing to you may be a curse to me, and vice versa.  My happiness is, unfortunately, linked to what I’ve got that I actually want, not what you want.  Now, I KNOW that there are people out there who are managing to be a lot happier than me on a lot less.  I salute them.  I respect them.  I am possibly a bit envious of them, if I care to admit it, yet at the same time I ponder at times whether they might be slightly brain-damaged, rather than more Zen than me.  Dunno.  One way or the other, the point is that they’re not me.  Also, they might be happy without what I have, because they have something I haven’t got.  Comparing the differing attitudes of different people living different lives is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, cubed.  Bit pointless, like.

So, am I, in essence, a miserable bastard?  What’s my personal position on happiness?  I think it’s essential and grossly overlooked.  I think if people thought deeply and consistently about what makes them truly happy the world would be a better place.  I’m not talking about superficial, this-moment happiness here, I’m talking about the real deal, the state of being that makes you wake up in the morning utterly glad to be alive.  I honestly believe that if people thought about the far-reaching, long-term consequences of their actions on their own happiness they would exercise a lot more self-restraint in the here and now.  People would be kinder towards those around them.  There would be less non-essential debt and a lot fewer affairs.  Ranch dressing and fried Mars bars would be a thing of the past.

I think we should all bust our collective arses for happiness.  However, I think it should be a reality-based happiness, not one of specious memes and one-liners.  And one of the key elements of real, in-the-bones happiness is the realisation that life sometimes sucks; that it might not matter if the glass is half full or half empty, because you are not going to get your grubby hands on it, or if you do it’s full of weewee.  I think that in happiness, as in life, we can’t just be thinkers or jingle-repeaters – we have to be behaviourists.  Focusing solely on changing your attitude when your life, to you, sucks arse, is akin to thinking about physiotherapy instead of getting down and working at the stuff.  If it works for you, hey, respect.  In the meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to walk down the Zen path, but I’ll also try not to step in dog poo as I go along and I’ll make sure my shoes don’t give me blisters.

I would like to leave you, oh faithful readers, with a poem a friend sent me during The Dark Days of 2012.  It is as good a statement on happiness as the original, and rather more helpful, I think.  We might not be fully happy, but at least we are not in Milwaukee[4].

"Deteriorata" - National Lampoon

You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here.
Deteriorata. Deteriorata.

Go placidly amid the noise and waste,
And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep.
Rotate your tires.
Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself,
And heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys.
Know what to kiss, and when.
Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do.
Wherever possible, put people on hold.
Be comforted that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment,
and despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

Remember The Pueblo.
Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.
Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.
Exercise caution in your daily affairs,
Especially with those persons closest to you -
That lemon on your left, for instance.
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
Would scarcely get your feet wet.
Fall not in love therefore. It will stick to your face.
Gracefully surrender the things of youth: birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan.
And let not the sands of time get in your lunch.
Hire people with hooks.
For a good time, call 606-4311. Ask for Ken.
Take heart in the bedeepening gloom
That your dog is finally getting enough cheese.
And reflect that whatever fortune may be your lot,
It could only be worse in Milwaukee.

You are a fluke of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not,
The universe is laughing behind your back.

Therefore, make peace with your god,
Whatever you perceive him to be - hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.
With all its hopes, dreams, promises, and urban renewal,
The world continues to deteriorate.
Give up!

[1] If you haven’t read it, do.  Read all his books and don’t come back until you’ve done so.  He’s one of the best writers in the world, goddamn, and he GETS people.
[2] Metaphorically, you’ll be relieved to hear.
[3] If you are planning to use this line of thought with any child in your care, beware.  My response, circa age 8, was to start collecting unwanted foodstuff into a cloth bag, to send it to them.  It is a miracle I wasn’t put up for adoption, it really is.
[4] If you are in Milwaukee, please don’t take it personally.  I’ve never been there.  They might not have been there, either.  Don’t worry, be happy?

Monday, 11 March 2013

My fairy tales - 11.03.13

I live in a narrative universe.  I am constantly talking to myself, analysing and chronicling the events of my life.  I think verbally – in fact, as I discovered while I was learning new languages, if I can’t verbalise a concept I can’t really properly think it.  There is a point when my brain is transferring operations from a language to the next when my thoughts are annoyingly unformed and muddled.  Until I develop enough of a vocabulary to express myself, I end up thinking baby thoughts, without clarity, depth or intensity.  This experience makes me agree wholeheartedly with George Orwell on the importance of precise language.  I read “1984” in a single sitting when I was about fourteen because the sheer horror of it kept me awake.  What terrified me the most was not the repression or torture, but the concept of Newspeak.  I fully agree with the theory that if you oversimplify language, you end up oversimplifying thoughts.  It may be interesting to see where the current fad for Textspeak will take us, as a matter of fact.  I am pretty confident that it will not be a good place to be.

People in this country seem increasingly contemptuous of words such as “contemptuous”.  I am noticing more and more often that people respond negatively, almost aggressively, when I use less common words, even when they are necessary because of the lack of a precise synonym.  Rather than being curious about unfamiliar terms, people seem offended by them.  I really do not get it.  I get so tripped out on words.  Language is such an essential part of what makes us human, of what sets us apart from the animal world.  It is a gift and a tool, yet some people can transform it into an art form.  Beautifully turned sentences captivate me.  I often find myself reading them again and again, savouring them, trying to hear them in my head.  Sometimes I like to read them aloud for the music and poetry in them, even when they are allegedly written in prose.

Maybe I get so passionate about language because I have no other means of expressing myself.  I cannot make music, draw, sculpt or dance.  I have tried and I felt impeded, as if someone had cut my fingers off or stitched my mouth shut.  The concepts are in my head, but they refuse to come out, or they come out clumsy and meaningless.  When I try to draw or play music I mumble and stammer.  I am a lot happier with words.  I can explain myself clearly then, or at least I know that I can give it a good go.  Without language I would be wholly isolated, trapped alone in my own, unexplainable reality.  I could not make contact with other humans.  Precise, expressive language is the closest thing I have to telepathy.  It’s no wonder I am so entranced by words, so impressed by and jealous of those people who can make sentences that cannot be improved upon.  There are sentences out there that are so definite, clear and beautiful that they will live forever, unaltered, independent of any context.  Language can just be so beautiful.

For whatever reason, I can’t leave words alone.  Every time something happens I internally describe it to myself.  I am effectively telling myself the story of what is happening to me.  In doing that, however, I am shaping my reality.  I am setting my point of view and creating my own version of events.  My experience of my reality becomes irreparably linked with the way in which I have described it.  This would not be a problem if it was not for the fact that I am a pathetic weakling with a completely unrealistic view of life and an overblown, unjustified sense of entitlement.

I tell myself stories all the time.  Due to some form of arrested development, however, I seem to be telling myself fairy tales.  This would be ok if it meant that I have absorbed our cultural archetypes about dangers lurking in the dark, whether it is the dark deep in the forest or inside people’s hearts.  But no, I have been suckered into believing in the sugary happily-ever-after of Disney-style fairy tale abortions[1].  In my skewed, infantile world bad or difficult things, when they happen, are a deviation from the norm.  They happen for a reason.  They are only a phase leading onto better things.  Disney is not the only culprit either, although I do love to diss him.  Moralistic, optimistic tales are all around us.  When I was a young child I was madly in love with “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I read the story so many times that I knew whole sections by heart.  It is a lovely tale, in fairness, about a girl coping with extreme adversity without being crushed or coarsened by it.  However, it still treats misfortunes as an aberration, as something that will sometimes be over.  You will suffer honourably and shine all the brighter for the pain you have endured.  You will walk through the dark woods and come out at the other end rewarded and recognised for your efforts.

The truth of the matter is that if you come out of the woods at all you will most likely be hurt beyond belief.  You might be altered to the point of being unrecognisable, even to yourself, and not always for the better.  You may be bent; you may be broken; you, as you knew yourself, may be dead.  You may have discovered a fabulous inner strength, but chances are that you are going to be so bloody sore that you won’t give a damn about it.  You may have learnt how good people can be in times of trouble and really appreciate the value of those around you, or have been hurt by people so much that you may fear letting anyone close ever again.  You might fear to trust in anything or anyone ever again, including yourself.  And, even worse, it isn’t over yet; your trials will not be over until your life is.  Chances are that there will be more woods to cross, and you may or may not see them coming.  There is no happy endings – there are no endings at all, bar the final one.  There is just life until death, and until then all bets are off.

I tell myself stupid stories.  When bad things happen, I tell myself how they have developed and why; I try and explain to myself what I have to learn from them; I try to give them a significance and a reason; I try to understand and justify them.  I connect bad things and good things, making it sound as if the good things were the rewards or results of the bad things.  The problem with stories, you see, is that they have a meaning, a moral and a structure.  Life doesn’t.  There might never be a climax and a resolution.  Life will just throw stuff at you, good and bad, and sometimes it is not even possible to tell which is which.  Sometimes joy and pain are so mixed up in a single experience that you would need to arbitrarily label it in order to make any sense out of it.  Sometimes things change from being one thing to the other so quickly that you can be blindsided by the shock and pain of it.  You can’t sensibly tell if something is good or bad until the end of your tale, and that never actually comes until your end comes.

Our lives are so interconnected, too, that details of someone else’s life can affect us in radical and shocking ways.  I was recently talking to a friend about “what ifs”, and we worked out that if one of his exes had not split up with him I would not be where I am now.  My life would be so entirely different that I could not even guess how it would have turned out.  The chain of events is so convoluted that it would send you to sleep, but essentially this third party, whom I have never met, made an entirely personal decision which completely changed the course of my life.  Even seemingly innocuous decisions on our part can have serious long-term consequences.  If life has a scriptwriter at all, he might have been influenced by Tarantino.

In telling myself stories, I am applying labels on events and circumstances which I cannot evaluate yet, for the simple fact that the story is not over yet.  I then get shocked and hurt when things do not pan out as they “should”, when the patterns I have made up are not followed.  I think I am trying to write a story in which there is a progressive move towards the light, towards self-actualisation and happiness.  I am a fool.

Or am I?  I could be doing far worse.  The stories I make up may end up hurting or disappointing me when they take unexpected, unpleasant turns, but at least I am trying to write happy stories.  When I label something as “happy”, I give myself the power to fully experience the joy it gives me.  If I labelled it as “not sure”, I could only enjoy it with caution.  If I labelled it as potentially negative, how could I enjoy it at all?  I would be raining on my own parade.

The way we look at our world shapes our experience of it.  I remember as a child reading a story about a man walking by three builders working on a cathedral.  The man asked each of them in turn what they were doing.  The first one said: “I am building a wall”.  The second said: “I am working to support my family”.  The third one said: “I am building a church to honour God”.  They were all factually correct, but the way in which they interpreted their actions shaped their experience.  They were telling themselves completely different stories, hence living very different lives.

I am fully aware of the current backlash against positive thinking as dangerous nonsense.  I can’t say that I am surprised, given the absurd extents to which it has been taken.  The positive movement started out encouraging us to stay upbeat.  I can’t fault this at all, as being miserable is no way to get a happy life.  However, it then went on to tell us that by staying upbeat we could ward off bad things, in a manner not dissimilar to the sympathetic magic of our distant ancestors.  Believing in the “law of attraction”, as far as I am concerned, is no different from believing that you can catch warts from toads.  It makes no logical sense and there is no scientific proof for it.  Then again, if that’s what floats your boat, good on you.  The positive movement went even further, though, by making us feel bad if we weren’t feeling good.  I find this objectionable.  For instance, a friend of mine is dying of cancer.  She will leave behind a loving husband and a young daughter.  To me, telling her that if she does not “stay positive” she is making herself worse, hence letting her family down, is tantamount to a criminal act.  She has the right to feel upset, depressed, even desperate.  She is fully entitled to experience negative emotions, because she is going through hell.  I am not saying that she should wallow in the negative, particularly as her days are numbered, but by making her feel guilty about her very justified feelings the positivists are adding insult to injury.

Positive thinking can be stupid or even negative, that is a fact.  Negative thinking, though, is negative all the time.  It ruins everything it touches, which is everything.  A pessimist is never disappointed, that’s a fact, but is never happy either.  Bugger that for a game of soldiers. 

We may not be able to force happy endings into existence, but we sure can help bad ones come along by having a negative attitude.  One of my exes kept quoting Tristan and Isolde in reference to us.  Sure enough, life got in the way and things did not work out[2].  I am not saying that thinking negatively made life get in the way, but humans are woefully affected by their own attitude and by confirmation bias.  If you believe that you are destined to lose the fight, you are far more likely to throw in the towel.  That is why inspirational leaders have been historically so important – if you tell people the right things, regardless of whether they are accurate or not, you can put a fire in their bellies that will make them fight much harder.

The mottoes we repeat to ourselves can shape our attitude, hence our experience of our lives, our reactions and our behaviour.  I think it is important to pick the most useful ones, the ones that can truly help us along.  Take, for instance, the motto of House Stark from Game of Thrones, "Winter is coming".  In the GoT universe, where winters are deadly bitter and can last for years, this is meant to remind us that, even if things are good now (“summer”), we must always be ready for the unavoidable dark periods when events will turn against us (“winter”).  We should be prepared and ever vigilant.  This is of course true, but, if you think about it, it is equally true to say "Summer is coming".  After every winter, there will be a summer.  Things will get better again; you just have to make sure that you survive up to that point.  Which one you choose to focus on is up to you.  Focusing entirely on the winter may help your survival, but it is bound to ruin your enjoyment of the summer.  Focusing entirely on the summer, on the other hand, may leave you unprepared for winter, hence lower your chances of pulling through[3].  The stories we tell ourselves can make us or break us, it seems.

A good friend of mine, far wiser than me, says that “the universe is a cold, dark place.”  I sort of agree with him.  However, I think it is cold and dark like a blackboard.  It does not hold those attributes out of spite; it is not cold and dark AT you.  It is an empty space, waiting for you to fill it with your own story.  You can try and write on it anything you want.  It is up to you to choose whether to write a tragedy, comedy, love story, epic trilogy or yet another book in the “Spot the Dog” series.  Your story might not work out as you’d like, of course, but if you do not bother trying then you will definitely not succeed.

So, I tell myself stupid, childish, unrealistic stories, angling for a happy ending.  I get hurt and disappointed along the way.  So what?  Hello, I am trying to write my own happiness here.  I can’t think of a more worthwhile endeavour, even though it is fraught with difficulties.  As long as I do not allow a nonexistent happily-ever-after ruin my kind-of-happy-for-now, what is the problem?  I might not be able to call happiness into existence, but at least I am trying, and I am trying to keep cheerful along the way.  If that is immature and foolish, I hope to be immature and foolish until the day I die.

[1] It seems to escape most people’s notice that Prince Charming is alleged to have lived happily ever after with Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.  Either those ladies where rather open-minded in their views on relationships, or “forever” is not that long a period of time after all.

[2] Incidentally, when one decides to write a romantic tragedy, one must be extra careful not to stray into the wrong book.  Tristan and Isolde had it bad enough, but it is nothing compared to poor Romeo and Juliet, for instance.  If you are not careful, you might be aiming for Tristan, overshoot and end up as Abelard.  It’s not big and it’s not clever.  Tragedies have a way of spiralling out of control.  They are a parasitic life form which really should not be tolerated, let alone encouraged.  Be told.

[3] Personally, if I had to choose a seasonal motto to encourage me along, I'd pick "make hay while the sun shines".  It is both practical and positive.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

How of-fence-ive - 6.3.13

Last year I built a fence, all on my own.  There are several very simple reasons why I did it.  I needed a new fence because the existing one got sheared at the base by high winds, so that I found it, still upright, several feet from where it once stood.  As it had been originally built out of crap, spit and hope, there was absolutely no point in trying to fix it.  I’m plagued by dogs, so I need a secure fence.  I took on the job myself because I could not find a bloody workman to do it for me.  Many a burly man scratched his chin and sucked his teeth in the approved manner taught at Handyman School, and then said that it was a big job and they were too busy at the moment but they’d be in touch asap.  After weeks of chasing them, I gave up.  I asked a few friends but everyone was busy.  Lastly, but not least importantly, I was poorer than a church mouse who’d been mugged on its way back from mass.  As I had done a fair bit of fencing work a couple of incarnations ago, it seemed appropriate for me to have a stab at it if it could save me some money.

I did not jump into the project lightly.  I was forced to do the work, because it needed to be done.  However, I was not at all sure at the start that I could manage it.  It was, indeed, a pretty big job, and I am a very small person.  While I was fully aware of what I needed to do and how, I did not know if I was going to be physically strong enough to do it.  All the technical knowledge in the world is no use whatsoever when you are struggling with weights you can’t lift.  I procrastinated as long as I could, but the sodding thing simply refused to build itself.  Eventually I simply had to bite the bullet.  Two things helped me get started.  Firstly, desperate times call for desperate measures and I really needed a fence that wasn’t held up by string.  Secondly, a kindly elderly gentleman, having noticed the heap of materials, chortled and told me that I would not even be able to paint the panels on my own.

Now, I believe I am not deluded in assessing my abilities.  I know that I am not as strong as the average male adult, as I am a female and a runt.  Biology is against me.  However, don’t you go telling me that I can’t paint a frigging fence panel, because I know that to be bullshit.  The comment and the manner in which it was delivered annoyed me so much that I clenched my tiny fists, puffed out my chest and decided that I’d show him.  Darn, but I would show him.  I would not be beaten by a fence!

As it happens, the project wasn’t half as bad as I feared.  I was indeed unable to lift a fair bit of the materials for the simple reason that they seemed to weigh more than me.  However, I realised that I did not need to.  For the first time in my life I was glad I had been forced into taking high school physics.  I could not recall a single formula if my life depended on it but I remember my fulcrums and levers.  I could not lift the stuff, so I levered it and rolled it and dragged it and wheelbarrowed it instead.  I made the darn stuff move, whether it liked it or not, by any means possible.  It was hard work, but it was doable.

Once I got in the swing of it I started to enjoy myself.  There is a huge sense of achievement in managing to do something you did not think you could do.  As an under-five-foot person, to look up at an over-six-foot fence you have just forced into existence is rather satisfying.  Also, if I say so myself, it is a rather fine fence.  It would have been a fine fence whoever put it up.  As I managed to do it - little me, alone and unaided - I was chuffed to smithereens.

I had to put a picture up on Facebook.  I just could not resist.  I was proud of what I had achieved and I wanted to share it with my friends.  Other than that, however, I did not make a big promotion of it.  I did not brag.  I did not stick a big sign at the front stating “this fence was erected by Anna – be impressed!”  I kept my trap shut about it, really.  However, as it happens, I did not need to tell anyone about it.  The world was watching.  Much to my surprise, it wasn’t watching in amazement at my achievements.  It wasn’t watching because it was concerned that might overdo it or hurt myself.  It wasn’t even watching to make sure that I was doing a good job.  It was watching in disgust.  The world was downright offended and was not going to be shy about letting me now.

People who saw me working at it just had to stop and discuss it.  Why was I building a fence?  I would give them the reasons, but they apparently weren’t good enough.  I should quite simply not be doing it.  It was wrong of me to try, even though it was becoming increasingly obvious that the task, however arduous, was well within my capabilities.  I clearly could do it, as amply demonstrated by the fact that I was doing it, and doing it well.  This, however, didn’t wash.  As I was told quite clearly, this was “just not a job for little girls.”  Kid you not.  At the ripe age of thirtymumblemumble, I was told I should not be doing something because I was a little girl.  Just to prove that the suffragettes truly died in vain, this comment was made by a woman.

I really couldn’t get it.  I understand how male chauvinists may feel emasculated by the sight of a female half their size doing “their” work, and I must admit that I enjoyed being the one doing the emasculation.  I am not a feminist, not by a long shot, but boys who still believe in the “weaker sex” get my goat.  As for the man who told me that I could not even paint the fence, I took an almost obscene degree of delight in watching his face fall after I told him that it was me who had built it.  I was evil enough to get him to tell me what he thought of it (very impressed) before dropping the bomb on him.  Oh, how I enjoyed his reaction.  Not that he believed me – a few weeks later, when I finally managed to find a reliable builder for some other works, he asked him, behind my back, whether it was him who’d put it up.  Clearly it must be a really good fence, hey.

I could totally understand his reaction.  He firmly believes that, purely by virtue of being a woman, I have certain limitations that cannot be overcome.  There is “man’s work” and “woman’s work” and that is how the world is.  What I managed to do upset this concept.  Why would fellow females, however, find the fence so damned offensive?  I would have expected either no reaction whatsoever, it being just a damned fence after all, or possibly some sort of delight in this manifestation of “girl power”.  But no, the women were the most offended.  Did the ladies feel that I was showing them up?  By demonstrating what I could do, did they feel that I was making a statement about what they were not even trying to do?

To this day, I am not sure what all the fuss and upset were about.  Not being a mind reader, the only way to find out for sure would have been to ask, and I didn’t.  I did not ask partly because I was genuinely taken aback and temporarily rendered speechless[1] but largely, much to my shame, because I did not want to stir more trouble.  In fairness, though, I think that even if I had asked I would have been unlikely to get an accurate answer.  I am not entirely sure that the people involved would have been self-aware enough to be able to formulate that.

I can only guess at what the issue or issues may be.  It is unlikely to be purely a size thing, although that probably did not help.  A small man carrying out the same task would have probably been complimented for his disproportionate strength.  Alternatively, or additionally, the task might have been reviewed in the watcher’s mind to something not as difficult.  After all, if a little person can do it, it can’t be that hard, can it.  Those posts must just look heavy.  With a little bit of mental juggling, a tiny bit of pushing in one direction and pulling in the other, it would have all fitted quite neatly into most people’s worldview.

The gender issue is more likely to have been a problem.  Gender stereotypes are alive and well, despite of the fact that we like to say otherwise.  I have come smack bang against them repeatedly in past careers and overcome them by the simple means of ignoring the fact that they were there.  Had I been a tall, built woman, though, I am sure people would not have been as offended on this occasion.  They might have filed me under “butch”, as unfeminine and slightly inappropriate, and left it at that.  I am not butch, though[2].  I wonder whether I fall under an unofficial archetype.  Am I the little girl who never grows up, the female Peter Pan?  Am I expected to be fluttering about enthusiastically yet ineffectually?  Or am I allowed to be tomboyish but only up to a point?  Little girls should not build fences.

There have been plenty of times in my past when I did things that I know people would not approve off.  Even when very young, I never did anything just to piss people off, for which I am proud.  I am forever disappointed at people who do stuff purely to shock or disgust other people, even when it is in the course of art[3].  If you truly believe in it, if it really is what you want to do, go ahead and I’ll be right behind you[4].  If you are just doing it to rock someone else’s apple cart, though, I have very little respect for that.  I guess it might provide enlightenment for some, but I believe people should be true to themselves first and foremost. 

This was definitely not one of those situations, though; not even close.  The one time I do not try to piss someone off deliberately, the one time I’m just doing my thang, out of necessity, I seemed to have such a disproportionate impact.  I just can’t work it out.  I’d like to say that I don’t care but it would be a lie.  I wish I had got to the bottom of it.  I wish I had had the guts to engage in rational discussions about the issue, rather than just take the comments away and file them in my brain under “you what?!?”  But I didn’t.  This is probably going to annoy me for years to come, most likely well after the fence has come to the end of its natural life.  If you have any ideas, answers on a postcard, please.

[1] See?  Miracles do happen.
[2] Believe me, I checked.  I actually asked a friend, for the purpose of this blog, just to make sure.
[3] Ask me about Marilyn Manson one of these days.  I can almost promise you an argument.
[4] Well, no, I want, because I will hopefully be busy doing what I truly want to do, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The elephant convoy - 03.03.2013

If you can't remember a better time
you can have mine, little one.
In days to come when your heart feels undone
may you always find an open hand
and take comfort wherever you can, you can, you can.
“Comfort”, Deb Talan

About a million years ago, when I was at University, my house was on the wrong side of the tracks, quite literally.  The tracks ran right past our back door.  In fact, they provided a handy if rather illegal footpath to the town in one direction and to the campus in the other one.  This was not as reckless as it sounds as trains only ran a couple of times per day and so slowly you could have overtaken them at a slow jog.  This was, after all, the back of beyond in rural Maine.

Further on, the tracks crossed the river.  The bridge was maybe 15 meters high over the waters at its highest point and a spacious two tracks wide.  The sleepers were spaced out about three quarters of a normally-sized foot apart, which meant that they were perfectly safe to walk on for most adults.  Being a tiny person, I could have potentially got a foot through the gap.  The rest of me, however, would never have fitted.  I was not about to slip through a hole into the river below; it was just not physically possible.  As long as I stayed in the middle of the bridge, I could not have fallen off the side without the help of a random and sudden hurricane.  Crossing the bridge was quite safe and provided a very handy shortcut to an area of town which would otherwise have taken ages to reach on foot.

My friend Rob and I used to go over the bridge routinely.  On a nice sunny day, it should have been a lovely stroll through a landscape I would describe as “enchanting” if I wanted you to throw up.  There was only a tiny problem with the excursion; I don’t do heights.  Well, I am fine on the side of a mountain or a cliff however tall or steep, but put me on a stepladder and my legs turn to jelly.  I struggle to balance on a chair and even some balconies cause me difficulties.  Every time we went over the bridge my stomach tried to stay behind.  Trying to be rational and hating my phobia I’d push myself to do it.  I knew that I was perfectly safe, but it was a pretty excruciating operation nonetheless.  Rather by chance, however, I discovered something that made it perfectly alright.  I faltered, once, and grabbed the back of Rob’s shirt.  That was it.  That changed everything.  Holding onto the back of his shirt (always a plaid, lumberjack-style affair) the bridge did not scare me at all.

This, of course, made no sense whatsoever.  I was not in any danger to start with, anyway, and holding a piece of flannel made no practical difference at all.  Do you know what, though?  I didn’t care one bit, because it worked.  My legs did not wobble, my stomach felt fine and I could even enjoy the view.  It made it ok.  It made it nearly fun.  We must have looked rather peculiar, proceeding in single file with me holding onto the back of him like a baby elephant following his mummy.  Of course, holding hands might have worked too, but that would have been far too lovey-dovey for the likes of us[1] so we never tried it.

It’s funny how that sort of thing works.  Rob wasn’t trying to offer me any support.  He wasn’t, in fact, offering me any actual support.  That little bit of contact did not decrease the risk I was in at all, yet it completely changed the experience for me.  He was just there, you know?  Feeling his presence near me made it all tolerable.  It seems the same applies to me in all sorts of situations.

I have never been good about getting support from people until last year.  I am not saying that I did not get help from people until then; I have been utterly blessed in my friends most of my life.  However, last year I had to learn to admit when I needed help and to ask for it, because I was completely and utterly fucked, if you will pardon my French.  I was physically removed from my friends, in a dire financial situation and having to deal with a ridiculous volume of stuff I was ill-equipped to handle.  In fact, I was so overwhelmed by what I had to deal with that I could not even manage stuff that I normally would breeze through.  I got to a point where I had no confidence in my abilities to do anything much at all, which made me malfunction.  Everything seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

To be fair to myself, the situation was pretty diabolical.  However, the fact that I was spending much of my time doing a deer-in-the-headlights impersonation did not help one bit.  What helped me, immensely, was having my friends metaphorically around me.  Every time I started to flap - whether it was because of a collapsed roof, the fence blown off across the yard, exploded pipes, a house fire, a friend dying, you name it[2] - there was someone there to steady me.  They were not there in body for much of the time, you understand, but they were always there in spirit.  They told me that I could do it so I would get on with it, encouraged me while I was doing it and complimented me when I did do it, however amateurishly.  I could feel metaphorical hands reaching out to steady me across wide distances, and it made it all better.

I read the last sentence and it sounds very pathetic, which demonstrate what an idiot I still am.  I hate the fact that I needed steadying.  I’ve had an “independent woman of the 90s” thing going on most of my life.  Yet, had it been a friend of mine in the same position, I would not take the same view at all.  I would be more than glad to provide any support necessary, and in fact made damn sure that they were asking for enough help.  I would not see it as an embarrassment on their part or a chore on mine.  That is what friends are for, after all.

In fact, had I asked, my friends would have probably come over and actually helped, in the same way that Rob would have carried me right over the river if I had asked him.  In a way, though, getting practical help would not have been as helpful.  Now that the worst is over[3], I am glad that I managed to do most of what needed doing on my own.  I proved to myself what I can do and what I can deal with.  I also learnt oodles of new skills as well as growing some serious muscles.  Without my friends around me, however, it would have been just horrendous.  I would have still done it, because it needed doing, but I would have come out of it in a far worst state and not have been able to enjoy the journey at all.

I learnt how much I could do, which was much more than I ever thought possible.  I also learnt not to even think about whether I thought I could do something or not, because if it needed doing there was no point in getting myself all worked up about it.  I would have to deal with it and that was all there was to it.  I learnt to ignore the enormity of the combined tasks ahead of me, because thinking along those lines would have taken up too much of my energy with worries.  I learnt to simply put one foot in front of the other, avoiding as much as possible all disturbing trains of thought, just getting on with doing what needed to be done.  I learnt how to pace myself and focus my strength.  There is a chance that this has turned me into a major arsehole.

You see, one of the skills I learnt is to not get involved in situations that are not my concern.  I have always had a tendency to feel responsible for everyone and anyone’s happiness and well-being.  This did not just apply to my friends and relations, but to the whole goddamned planet.  For instance, in my past career I was the worse team leader ever, purely because I could not bear anyone being in any way distressed.  People, of course, worked this out in no time and learnt to use it to their advantage.  Once people get used to you shouldering their problems, they expect it as a matter of course.  Suddenly their problems are YOUR problems, and if you can’t fix them it becomes YOUR fault.

Last year I could quite simply not afford to do that.  There was not enough of me to go around.  I could barely cope with dealing with my situation and keeping myself vaguely together.  It must have been quite a learning curve for the people around me to suddenly find me not rushing to their aid unasked, not taking on the responsibility for each and every thing.  In fact, I ended up actually sitting someone down and spelling out to her that she needed to be with people who would support her and I was “not one of those people.”  On reflection it sounds terribly callous to me.  Admittedly this was strictly a work situation and the person in question was trying to drag me into a purely personal shit pie of such depth and complexity that it went well above and beyond the call of duty.  Still, it was something I have never done before and it sounds just awful.

I learnt to lean on people, openly and unashamedly, and at the same time I learnt not to allow other people to lean on me.  Does that not make me an arsehole?  Admittedly there were mitigating circumstances.  Firstly, I did not withdraw my assistance from people out of spite or selfishness.  Whatever I had to spare, people could have access to; it was just that there wasn’t much to spare.  There would have been little point in stretching myself so thin that I could have been no help either to them or to myself.  Secondly, there has to be a difference between the mutual bond of loyalty and responsibility we establish (or at least I establish) with friends, and what is due to random people crossing our lives.  It may be a good thing that I learnt about these boundaries, at long last.  I am not suggesting that you should not help thy neighbour when you can, merely that it is not my duty to be a superhero, nor any sort of hero at all.  It is not my responsibility to single-handedly try to save the world.

Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, it is all very well to volunteer to go to the aid of strangers or acquaintances, but to be volunteered is a different thing altogether.  People-pleasing is a never-ending task which tends to grow almost exponentially; the more you do, the more you are expected to do.  You teach people how to treat you, and if you allow them to pile their responsibilities onto your shoulders you’re on a dangerous course.

There is a wonderful quote from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” which is often quoted in this sort of discourse:
“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders - What would you tell him?"
“I…don't know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?"
“To shrug.”

The thing is, I don’t really agree with this.  I have thought long and hard of late about what makes me happy of late, and looking after people, as it turns out, is definitely in my top three.  There are very few things I have any degree of natural talent for and that’s one of them.  It makes me genuinely happy to know that I am contributing, provided that it is of my free will, that it does not unduly jeopardise my own well-being and that the people involved are not taking advantage of me.  Throwing an almighty fuckit and dropping the ball altogether would just make me feel wretched.

What would I tell Atlas, then?  I would tell him not to stand alone.  I would tell him to think of the people in his life who help him feel better because, even if they can’t practically help him, they share his burdens in their heart.  I would tell him to ask for help before it was too late.  If help was unavailable and the burden became unbearable, I would tell him to put it down before it was too late, as gently and carefully as possible, trying to limit damages.  I would also tell him not to feel bad about any of this, because a person, however strong, can only do so much.

Thankfully, I am not Atlas.  I do not stand alone.  I do stand apparently more alone than before, that is true.  I lost quite a few people when I was helpless and useless, but clearly they weren’t really my friends at all.  I class that as a case of “good riddance to bad rubbish”, although at the time it hurt.  I feel my friends around me as an invisible web, ready to catch me if I fall, but even more importantly making me feel safer so that I am less likely to fall.  I am there, more than happy to do the same for them.  If it is a sign of weakness, we can all be weak together.  We are all in this together, helping each other on our journey, making it easier and more enjoyable, and that is the greatest beauty of it.

[1] I’m hardcore, me.
[2] Yes, it was a shit year, and that’s not the half of it.  Told you.
[3] Touch wood.