in sickness and in health

The last couple of weeks have been strange and difficult. Middle of the night ultra-anxiety; big, unattractive belly-shaking tears of fear and panic; excessive contemplation of death: all that. And not my own death either. Her death.

She developed this horrible skin condition which is apparently quite common but I’d never heard of. Hives or urticaria. She had it chronically bad: red marks, weels and inflammation from the scalp of her head, up her neck, across her face, all the way across her body to the balls of her feet. It was horrific. Something was eating or at least mutating my wife.

She woke up in the middle of the night crying at the pain and discomfort. Utterly fucking terrified, I applied a cold towel compress and vacated the room, eliminating my own body heat from her irritation. I walked down the hall to the sofa where I sat, read everything I could find on the internet about this thing and cried myself to sleep.

Over the course of two weeks and fluctuating levels of distress and discomfort, we went back and forth to see GPs, and dermatologists at the hospital. I spent several consecutive nights on the sofa, battling manfully against a snotty cold, suffering massive worry, catastrophising hugely, drafting her funeral eulogy in my head, wondering what my life would be like after she died. I pictured myself walking a dog and that being enough. It wasn’t just in the middle of the night when I wondered about her dying. I thought about it all the time, this constant sinister ticking: butwhatifshedies? butwhatifshedies? butwhatifshedies?

I didn’t want to lose her. It took me a largely miserable decade of being a loner to find her. We are not long married and planning a future, thinking about buying a house, getting a mortgage, maybe even (finally) a dog, and possibly reproducing if we can.

Did she have fundamentally flaky genes, having lost her mother in middle age? Will she ultimately not make it past a similar stage before something strikes her down? Will health deny us the chance to grow old together, to become old people? I always wanted to become a properly old person. Nobody has that guarantee, I know – health and chance and anything at all can shit over your life for no good reason; but all the same I really hope we get old together.

At its worst, walking down the street and seeing old people would make me mildly upset. As would seeing babies and gleeful children. Would we be able to have them? Really? Would we ever be parents or would there be further medical complications?

She has complicated thyroid issues and Grave’s disease (not exactly a promising sort of name, even for a disease). This means she’s predisposed to the whole range of auto-immune disorders. You don’t want to go Googling that stuff. With urticaria, there’s a general dearth of medical knowledge and research. Also it’s idiopathic, so you might easily never know the cause of your outbreak, whatever you try and however you eliminate things from your diet or routine. (We’ve tried a lot). There are informed sounding medical blogs and self-published books by American sufferers, but little more.

Over the last day or two, since the last hospital visit, it has mercifully eased and we are back sleeping together. But the fear will probably never go. Take nothing for granted, try to enjoy every tiny nice moment. You never know, it might all be fine.

unwelcome guests

Nobody likes feeling comprehensively disparaged.

My wife and I, together with her sister and her sister’s husband visited extended family across the other side of the UK. We drove to her sister’s, roughly half way, and her husband drove us all on the next day.

Her sister, a slightly nervous, shy and inhibited character, has had something of a ‘Daddy complex’ when it comes to partners.This might sound cruel to say, but the facts bear it out. At around 38, she has never been single her whole adult life, and always been with a man at least 10 to 15 years older than her, sometimes having affairs to get to the next one. Her husband of several years, with whom she appears utterly besotted, is in his early 50s, Scottish, a curious combination of laid back, mellow, yet militarily stiff and a bit boring. Let’s call him Gerald.

I cannot really comprehend the amount Gerald has seen and experienced in active service across countless countries. Equally, he has little sense of my work or myself. All told, we don’t have much in common at all. He didn’t attend our wedding a few months ago as he was working overseas. We were told that he was gutted to miss it, or words to that effect, but on viewing the photobooks of our wedding and honeymoon, Gerald passed no comments, asked no questions. My hunch is that he didn’t give a fig, or haggis.

I ask plenty of questions, particularly when I don’t know much about something. Partly because it’s polite to pay an interest, partly because I am genuinely curious. They have passed comment on that in my absence once or twice, according to my wife. ‘He asks a lot of questions, doesn’t he?’

In the world of grown ups it often seems like there are people to whom a lack of knowledge is an affront or a threat, and there are those to whom it is a welcome chance to learn. It could also be the case (and almost certainly was) that Gerald was entirely uninterested in us silly young people who can offer him nothing. But he asks no questions.

On arrival at their house we were not made to feel all that welcome, comfortable or even expected. Given that neither of them ask many questions, it was up to us to do the conversational running. They do not appear natural or regular hosts. We did nothing much from our arrival at around 2pm to going to bed after watching Sherlock at 10.30pm (our choice). We sat on the sofa and watched television. Granted, the weather was foul and did not encourage excursions, but even so, it was extremely boring.

One of his, and by proxy his wife’s, favourite sayings is “it is what it is”. This seems like they say this to conclude and dismiss conversation of virtually everything. It’s a lazy, slightly banal way of excusing yourself from discussing or analysing anything. We all have such common expressions in a way, and I guess I can see its utility in allowing you to let something go and move on, but when overused it gets quite exhausting. Oh, the holocaust? You know, it is what it is. Terrorism, the middle east? It is what it is. The meaning of life?

The following day we visited the aunts of my wife and her sister. He drove the few hours down the sodden motorways, clogged with surface water. Gerald appeared sullen and straight-backed at the wheel, casually aggressive towards other drivers at times, less inclined than ever to engage in conversation with us back seat children. Were we imposing on their trip? When we offered petrol money they said, more than once, that ‘they were going anyway’. Oh. So we weren’t then? This wasn’t a nice friendly group trip? We were seemingly just freeloading.

There was no indication of Gerald’s sudden transformation. This was what rocked and stunned us. In this company my big brother in law became some sort of cheeky, charming, jovial chat show host. His old charm guns were out and firing, and hitting the bullseye every time. By contrast, I felt wrong-footed and clunky.

The aunt whose beautiful home we visited for lunch and dinner lived with her husband, 25 years retired. (Think about that one, people who will probably never retire: 25 years retired). He was recovering after various serious, life-threatening surgeries (he had passed around an insightful colostomy publication). Back in the days when he had worked, he had worked making weapons. And he had also served his national service, thereby having a great many subjects to discuss with my brother in law.  Military travel tales were much discussed over a simple lunch of soup and posh bread. Some might say overdiscussed, at considerable length. I had none, and felt mildly subjugated in the covert war on inheritance.

Following lunch we went to check in at a nearby hotel. It had been mooted that we might, all four of us, go on a small exploration of the area. The weather appeared to be clearing up, slivers of blue sky slowly expanding through the grey. We had each found our rooms and my wife and I were exchanging observations of lunch, largely revolving around Gerald’s transformation, when she received a text message from her sister remarking on the blue sky. I suspected she wanted to go out, stretch her legs and get some air, as I did. My wife seemed less fussed, but replied asking if they were going out for a walk. ‘They’ (but Gerald, clearly Gerald) said no, they were just going to chill out for a bit. Gerald clearly fucking hated us.

Dinner was a little better, the conversation more evenly spread. I was determined not to be quietened or cowed, or afraid of being myself. However, it still felt like Gerald held the reins of conversation. Whenever it veered outside his realm of interest or experience (anything not military related) and everyone was chewing over an interesting point for a second, he would seize the moment to realign conversation into a track which suited him better.

I like to think my inner child is sometimes not far from the surface, I like to mess about, occasionally be animated for attempted comic affect. This is unlike my brother in law, or indeed anyone on my wife’s side besides my wife, who can goof around with the best. Their family had a monstrously dominant father who had a good go at nipping that sort of thing in the bud.

The females assembled in the kitchen after dinner, leaving Gerald, the aunt’s husband and I in the lounge. Playing around with the aunt’s young cat, sitting on the floor, I felt mildly judged, a little foolish. But I tried not to care, and didn’t. The first time Gerald and I were left alone, we kept the conversation going. The second time neither of us could be bothered, and I went to the kitchen.

The Chimp Paradox – a widely lauded mind management book of Dr Steve Peters – returned to my consciousness of late. In very simplified summary, it’s based around the emotional element of our brains being ‘chimps’, which can overpower us in certain situations when we feel threatened, causing us to behave in unhelpful ways.
Several years ago I heard of it and him for the first time when he was a guest on Richard Bacon’s Radio Five Live show. I made a note and emailed a link to my Dad, who has suffered from various psychological issues including depression for much of his life. It didn’t really register with him and I said no more about it until several weeks ago. Now more receptive to the theories of others, he downloaded and read the book, and found it helpful. As has my wife, still working her way through the audiobook. I’m half way through the paperback I bought her for Christmas.
This was a weekend when many chimps felt extremely active on all sides. There were unconscious threats, fears, concerns, a great many inhibitions. On the surface we made our way through it all fine, legs kicking furiously underneath, chimps swinging loudly from tree to tree.

One of the most powerful ways to undermine someone is the suggestion that they are unusual, or not normal. This can be what breeds paranoia and neuroses. Maybe military training, or a whole military working life institutionalises you into a certain practical and disciplinarian way of being. It’s perhaps no surprise that Gerald and I entirely miss each other on a number of levels – while remaining civil. Such weekends or meetings are not a regular event, and are unlikely to become more common.

What insulted and left a light scar was his sturdy, casual indifference to us; that he couldn’t, wouldn’t and probably never will summon the basic, regular levels of polite civilian inquisitiveness towards us. But he could switch it on in a headspinning instant for his elders.

there’s this guy

There’s this guy who I hate mainly out of pure envy.  And yet I also sort of want to be him. Or be best friends with. Because we’re around the same age, share a fair amount in common – regular blokey things: football, music – and I think in an alternative universe we could be friends.

The thing is, he is SO ‘in’, with the innest of in crowds in a city where it richly pays to be ‘in’. And he’s super ‘In’. A checkered, skinny-jeaned hipster, a pretty cool and stylish mod, quite dashing. It appears like he spent most of his career with one PR agency employer, steadily growing with them from a smallish size and rising up the ranks to a senior title. They are now a big name in the city’s business world, a leader in their space, arguably The Leader. This must have given him access to plenty of influential people, a great network of contacts. I don’t doubt that he’s good at his job; bashfully, floppy hairedly charming, maybe a bit cocky and a bit of a lad, but loveable.

Perhaps. I don’t really know all this. I’ve gleaned much of this intelligence through the internet and just seeing him around at stuff. We did meet once in person, a fairly quick exchange when I was representing a client and he didn’t follow through on his professional promise, but I didn’t much care. He probably wouldn’t even remember. He was confident and likeable enough, taller than expected, and imposing, but charmingly smiley. I’d bet he’s sent many young female PR executives knees nervously quivering over the years. Previously I was aware of him at a business function, flirting with people he knew at the fringes, not genuinely minded to mingle with strangers, as the majority never seem to be. And I’ve seen him once or twice at gigs or in a bar. A girl I had seen him with once, when I was single, was predictably really attractive.

I’ve often wondered if we’d have a great time getting drunk together having really open conversations and end up being mates, or if we’d just think each other dickheads.

In recent years he appears to have bravely put himself out there a bit more in his own right. He has written a novel, distributed by a local publisher, for which he’s done a fair amount of self promotion. I’m not sure how well it sold or was received, but he’s now writing another one, so it can’t have been a disastrous experience. He’s a very well respected PR name locally. The world is his oyster.

Recently my attention has been piqued because he does cool things online too; stuff to do with writing and food and stuff. I look at it and instinctively hate it.

But I tell myself to stop, grow up, and ask what is it exactly that I’m hating.

Is it his popularity and apparent success? His recognition and huge social media followings? (It still eats me that although I’ve been a fairly early adopter of all platforms and my commitment to them has never wained, I fail to have any large followings. This is mainly – I tell myself – because I won’t unthinkingly follow back the first few thousand people to follow me.)

Is it that deep down part of me thinks that he has what I deserve? If I had a little more career luck, shown more loyalty to an employer in my mid 20s, more patience, more diplomacy, been just slightly better looking.

Is it that nothing I’ve seen makes me think he is markedly better than me? (I read the opening and closing pages of his loosely autobiographical debut novel and was largely nonplussed. But then, I didn’t want to like it, so my perception was far from being warm and willing).

Is it that he is very of this place, a local guy people will identify with and want to like, a local hero? While I’ve lived here for the majority of my adult life, I could not and would not ever want to be considered a native.

Is it that so many people seem to fawn over him? There’s an extremely try-hard, busy young guy, around 25, desperate for career success, quite boring: he flaps around him like a moth round a lamp. It’s adorable and disgusting.

But then, despite myself, I can sort of see why. I want to be his friend too.

No I don’t. I bet he’s a dick. Is he a dick? He’s a dick. Yes, let’s think that.

do as you would be done by

“Do as you would be done by”. 

This is a principle I’ve always applied, but recently questioned. That’s because it seems to based on idealistic, possibly misguided and arguably naive ideas about life. That life is fair, that you reap what you sow, that it’ll all come back around.

But you don’t necessarily reap what you sow, as argued whiningly before here in countless blog posts, life is certainly not fair. You can do the good thing and report something, confess something you might otherwise have got away with, and still be the recipient of similar bad luck: somebody not doing the same for you.

It can be a middle class moral minefield out there, and you could easily promote the flipside.  We must live in hope. We need to have some basic faith in the goodness of other humans in order for a decent civilised society to function. We can’t go around doubting everyone: I know you’d screw me over so I’m going to screw you over. Although you sense others might employ that strategy, you can’t do it yourself if you want a modicum of self respect.

We have to trust that there are some decent humans out there, and you should try to set a standard – particularly if you have kids who you want to be decent people.

Context of this recent conundrum…

Last Saturday night I reversed out of my parents’ driveway onto a pitch black road. There was a car parked on the opposite side of the residential village road where there is usually no car parked, and which I did not see at all.  I reversed squarely into it. Not a light kiss of bumper. A sturdy thwunk.  No tinkles of glass.

Fuck fuckity FUCK. I tried looking for damage in the dark. There were scrape marks I probably caused on the other car – fortunately a fairly old looking Skoda, but none discernible on mine.

My angst was considerable about what to do next. I could probably get away with it, but I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. It didn’t stop me sleeping but it was the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep and the first thing I thought about when I woke up, and I could barely stop thinking about it when walking the parents’ dog the next morning, guiltily wringing it over and over in my head.

They had a white van in their driveway, small but still industrial and workmanlike. I didn’t want to risk knocking on the door to find a typical bolshy, arsey white van man. No thanks.

My preferred, admittedly cowardly option was to leave a short apologetic note on their windscreen with my mobile number, so the ball was in their court – would they care that much about a shitty old Skoda?  I’d had a similar scrape in the courtyard car park of my city flats a while ago, and the owner hadn’t really cared. As soon as I pinned the note, I would promptly leave the village and return to my city flat.

That’s what I did.

Sadly, after seeing the note they visited my parents and appeared to charm them to the point it felt like my parents were firmly on their side. A prickly email exchange with my stubborn, never wrong mother ensued over a difference between the photographs I had taken – showing scrape marks and an intact seam of bodywork, and the photographs they had later taken – showing the seam of bodywork that had come apart.

They would come back to me with some figures. Terrific news. What would those figures be? How big? Fuck fuckity fuck. At the time I was chasing a number of late payments and my bank balance was plummeting accordingly. There is still an excessively direct correlation between my mental health and the silly poxy numbers on a screen representing my bank balance. These indicate if business and life things are good, or not good; or shaky, iffy and worrying. I can never see six months into the future with any confidence, but I try to pacify myself with the notion that nobody can.

One of these outstanding payments was due from a businessman I had never wholly trusted, a man about whom I had been warned before beginning a professional engagement. I had decided to make my own judgement, and now all the evidence was pointing towards him trying to wriggle out of paying me a few hundred quid.

He had dropped me from his team without any explanation for a following fixture – leading to minor awkwardness; he had acted casual when I had asked him in person about the payment, as if there was a perfectly innocent reason. He had promised it would be in my account on a certain day which came and went and no money was in my account. When I next asked, he told me to call him in a couple of days and when I called him it rang and rang, and I left a voice message he didn’t respond to. I called again the next day and withheld my number. Nothing.

It irritated me more and more, how he was appearing to squirm out of it, ignoring me, how massively unethical it was. I envisaged ways I might publicly expose him online, several months down the line. I daydreamed a scenario where I had a big dramatic stand-up argument with him in a busy press room and my articulation powered through and I won and everybody clapped and he stormed out and I was a big glorious hero.

He is a respected, successful, tidily off businessman. But he is also sort of slippery. I accepted no excuses for part of the payment being over three months late. It was disrespectful and plainly wrong.

Then suddenly, surprisingly, he paid. Perhaps he realised I wasn’t going to let it drop when others previously had. I had to make a real fucking nuisance of myself in order to get paid and would keep doing so until I was paid.  He sent a mildly apologetic email saying something about an automated payment system not working, which I didn’t really believe.

He might have got away with it again, as he apparently did previously with another colleague of mine.

Like I might have got away with bumping the other vehicle, if I’d left and said nothing. If my guilty conscience would have permitted it. Which it wouldn’t.

I suppose it’s as much about our conscience, and if we can live comfortably with our own decisions. I’ve often struggled with the need to be brutally honest, for good and bad. Being honest and highly valuing honesty, hoping for similar in other people: it usually means your morals are sound. But it can make you sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, potentially weak, and expose you to more biting levels of disappointment in others.

On occasion it seems like ‘do as you would be done by’ has no rewards.

her name changed

I saw her last name had changed. I knew she was engaged but had unfollowed her Facebook updates, not wanting to know more. Then her name popped up when I discovered a new tab containing all the mostly annoying people I’d unfollowed on Facebook, but remained friends with. And it had changed. I couldn’t not look at her profile to see a few of the first smartphone images of the wedding. A castle, a beautiful long flowing dress, a proper looking wedding. She looked appropriately starry eyed. Her guy looked solid, sort of dreamery and distant, ‘easygoing’. They took regular, enviable looking hiking holidays to grand mountain ranges. I imagined they both enjoyed solid employment. Several weeks ahead of my own rather more understated affair, I had strange feelings.

This was a girl I took a ridiculously long amount of time to get over. She ruined me, even though our relationship wasn’t all that long, not quite a year at the very start of our twenties. The decision to separate had been mutual, but it appeared to me like I was the more devastated when we met for a polite coffee or something a few months afterwards – the last time we conversed in person. She ruined me for a while, or perhaps I ruined me.

My success with women during the course of my twenties has been likened (by me) to Emile Heskey’s goals per games ratio for England. (I don’t even know the exact figures but I think he scored something like 6 or 7 over about 10 years). And my strike rate probably wasn’t quite that good. Reflecting from now it seems flattering, because you can cluster a handful of different memories, places, nights and women and it seems respectable enough. If we’re talking ‘lad points’ it trumps guys who got together with a girl really young and have stuck faithfully with them ever since. But at the time, living it day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year, it’s often boring, occasionally humiliating (with a brother like mine) and harrowingly lonely.

Part of that was because of her, who I kept thinking and occasionally dreaming about. It was far and away the most serious relationship I’d had before or for about ten years afterwards. I loved her and she was pretty into me for a while.

I remember meeting her off a train once and feeling flattered to the point of dizzy that she’d missed me so much. When I visited her childhood home at her parents’ house in one of the prettiest little fishing towns in Cornwall, we had a moment that I remember thinking was near perfect. I remember thinking ‘wow, this is incredible, I’ll remember this’ and I have remembered it.  We’d gone for drinks at a traditional oaky old fishermen’s pub in the town and seen some live music, before walking back up a steep hill to her Mum and Dad’s place, which overlooked the ocean. We had to sleep in separate beds. Her mother spoke at a frightening pace, barely needing me to say anything to keep the conversation flowing. Her parents’ powerful love for her, their only child after some major medical struggles, was overwhelmingly apparent. Nearly at her front door, we turned and looked out across the town and harbour. The full moon reflected off the sea and I held her tight, articulated my pleasantly drunk affection, which I’m not sure was quite reciprocated. Something faltering.

I’ve glimpsed her in town once or twice since returning to this city five years ago, and just a few weeks back we found ourselves in the same room at a business event. About thirty of us watched a posh guy in a suit give a talk, after which I downed some orange juice and bolted away, missing the breakfast, half bottling a potential conversation. We’d glanced shyly across the room at each other but not fully acknowledged each other’s presence. Only an hour or so afterwards she casually posted to my Facebook wall that she was about to come and say hello, but I’d gone. Wall posting! She was always a little behind on social media, never discoverable on Twitter or LinkedIn, despite having roughly the same communications job at the same employer for well over ten years.

dim and distant

Part of us is always intrigued about revisiting our past: the places and people of former times. There’s a mysterious romance to it even when there shouldn’t be, even when you should just be relaxed about tucking it away in a box, ‘compartmentalising’. But surely most of us, unless there’s some incomprehensibly horrific post traumatic stress disorder-inducing episode, have a vested interest in the complicated tangle of experience which has produced the confused, neurotic mess of a human we have become.

We might wonder how differently things might have turned out – for better and worse, if you’d stayed around and finally somehow got that break you’d been holding out for. It’s broadly accepted that regret is a fairly useless emotion, but it usually colours any degree of personal reflection.

As an underachieving bloke still fumbling nervously along in his mid-thirties, I ponder less mature versions of myself. The younger-me versions who inhabited those places, the things that were going through my head. Memories are easily coaxed out through old iPods on long car journeys. Remember going to that gig, feeling miserable, and standing against that wall looking miserable and hoping someone would talk to you, then going home and hating yourself? Ahh, great days.

You wonder how far removed that person is from the you of right now? Are you really older and wiser? Have you mellowed? Or are you still irrationally wounded and bitter at all the unfairness in the world?

You idly consider how have the places might have changed, evolved, been knocked down or built up. How have the people changed, grown, altered? Or how nothing much has changed at all.

It hadn’t been all that long anyway. Only five years.

Never shy when it comes to gazing at my navel, as this blog robustly testifies, over a few days I flirted with the idea of returning to London. Just a short, flying visit. I miss the place, its scale and pomp, and hadn’t returned in about a year. There was a chance to see people I rarely see. I was feeling claustrophobic about not having left my current hometown for a while. I wanted a small personal adventure of my own. I was curious about how I’d react to being there alone again, all that familiar old stimuli, echoes of a time when I was often lonely and miserable, despite liking much about the place, thinking I wouldn’t need much – just a couple of things to fall right and bingo, everything would change.

In two and a half hours I drove down to Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport, just outside London. I left the car in a sketchy feeling 24 hour NCP car park which happened to be free on Saturdays and Sundays, and hopped on a tube.

Gay Pride debris bombarded me upon arriving into the centre. Flamboyant rainbow coloured people sitting drinking on pavements in small groups, as if in protest that they couldn’t get Glastonbury tickets. Thousands of upbeat people swarmed in all directions, apparently unfazed by how easy an act of terrorism could be. You have to forget all that when you live in London, but when you’re an infrequent visitor and there’s been a spate of recent terrorist acts, it’s harder.

One misgiving I had about making the trip was accommodation. Never much of a planner, I’d left it late before committing to the trip and hadn’t booked anything despite quickly browsing Airbnb and a few others. I didn’t want to pay over £50 for just a handful of hours, and all the faff. Surely I could just sponge a sofa stay? But then I didn’t want to be a pain and cheekily impose myself on anyone I didn’t know that well. Hmmm. I hadn’t quite worked it out, but fuck it, cross that bridge when I come to it. It’d be fine. It was summer, not going to get cold, there are 24-hour coffee shops, plenty of interesting streets. I had my Kindle and an enjoyable book on it. It’d be fine. Wouldn’t it? Yes. Just get on with it and do it. Worry about that other stuff later.

Having tired of the social gathering around 11.30pm, or it tiring of me, and being nervous of further alcohol consumption when I was unsure what the next few hours held in store, it was later.  I drifted away, semi-drunk and walked back through the centre, thousands of Pride revellers still revelling. I got a sloppy burger meal, walked more streets, got a large coffee in a 24-hour coffee chain on gay high street Old Compton Street, impatiently endured a middle-aged man with a cleft-lip and speech impediment hesitantly question me about Kindle internet connectivity, then walked back towards Piccadilly Circus, from where buses would travel in the direction of my car. It was later and late and I was quietly worrying.

Pretty tired, body confused by alcohol and caffeine, I had considered sleeping rough. It was warm enough. Parks and doorways everywhere. I didn’t want to though. Uncomfy, awkward. And I’d get unlucky, mugged, arrested. Now I was on a long, slow bus ride, being driven by a violently braking young man who would ultimately deposit me a few footsteps from my car. How sober was I? Was I really fit to drive? No. Probably not. Could I sleep in the car, in the car park, if there was no attendant? Likely CCTV, but unlikely to be monitored. I badly needed to pee as well. Drive a short distance out to some residential street and sleep in the car there? Questions, confusion, lethargy. Shit. How had I clumsily played myself into this hole? Idiot. Looking out of the window shortly before the bus approached my stop I saw a bunch of hooded youths. If I encountered any such groups like that while seeking somewhere to rest or piss, I would have undoubtedly shat myself. It didn’t seem the friendliest area.

Stepping off the bus onto the still populated middle-of-the-night outer London street, I smartly headed to the car and started the ignition straight away. I was ok enough to drive, wasn’t I? I’d probably fail a breathalyser test and I wasn’t at all proud of this, but it was now 4 straight hours since my last sip of beer. Between times I had eaten a reasonable amount of food, and drunk a large coffee and water. That was ok? Not ideal, sure, but ok, right?

Still I felt shame and doubt and anxiety and paranoia. It was a risk, a gamble, I could get caught and regret it for a very long time. ‘Death By Dangerous Driving’; ‘Driving Ban’; ‘No consideration for the safety of others’. I have never been a reckless deviant, never had any scrapes with the law. That stuff scares me.

After turning right out of the car park, I slowed next to a residential street and peered down the road seeking a quiet haven. A tall man was standing there, just hanging on the street corner at 3.30am, like you do. Fucksake. I headed for the motorway, windows open, music blaring, eyes pinned, gripping the steering wheel tighter and more sensibly than usual. Every set of headlights in my rear mirror was a potential police car destroying my life.

I stopped at a service station in Reading and, the stabbing at my bladder so severe I half limped half crouched my way to the toilet, as if trying to balance a bowl of piss on my stomach. I was nervous of any lurking, over-caffeinated traffic cops. There were none I could see. Promptly returning to my car, I took a few deep breaths. I was calmer now, and the black sky was already being diluted with blue.

After that I grew steadily relaxed, if still cold by the necessarily blasting air. Whenever my blinking rate increased I sang and shouted to fend off any chance of them fully flopping. It seemed to work. Thankfully the midsummer darkness didn’t last long, lighter morning hues seeping into the sky around 4am. I grunted monosyllabically at my partner and flopped into bed at 6am, relieved but still ashamed.

Clearly I am now much older and wiser.

neurosis yo-yo

And still there is constant yo-yoing neurosis in the realm of work, career, the infuriating need to make money.

On the one hand there is building this business thing of my own. There are flickers and hints that it could work. It is not yet an almighty disaster. These things take time, they say. I have put in some hard graft and continue to do so. Small wins, babysteps and all that.

But even if it does develop and grow, and I am as modestly happy as I allow myself to be, there is likely to always be a sense of the uncertain and unpredictable, a definite lack of security. I will always worry.

On the other hand, still there remains the idea of a ‘real job’. Drawn by attractive ‘grown-up’ salary numbers, I still spuriously apply for ‘real jobs’ and sometimes people reply, seeking more information, occasionally inviting me for interviews. Do I really want any of these real jobs? All the office stuff, spirit-crushing corporate guff and nonsense, all the ego and swagger and testosterone and idiots? Only if the job is genuinely really interesting, if it can engage me day-to-day and not regularly make me want to throw myself out of the window. Then perhaps. But even then, maybe not.

Which isn’t to say I could get close to such a job anyway. My CV and career is patchy. My competitors for such jobs would likely have bigger, more recognisable names in their CV, more sustained periods reflecting greater commitment, letters after their name demonstrating extra training and qualifications and rubberstamped commitment to their vocation. Alongside them, I’m sketchy, a gamble.

This latter real job option is chained to a slightly old fashioned, almost caveman-like sense of duty; a feeling that as Man Who Is Getting Married Soon And May Feasibly Reproduce In The Coming Years ‘I must simply provide as much money as possible.’ The press of wanting to provide security, stability, a solid foundation, is almost prioritised above my own work sanity.

I yo-yo between yes, my own thing CAN work. There are signs, incremental positive improvements. I have poured in so much time and stupidly major monetary investment, thousands of pounds. I should not cast that aside. As much as the day-to-day can be really tough, I know I’m a lone wolf now; more comfortable playing by my own rules, being independent, not sitting in an office and talking politely about the weather and the weekend to colleagues all day everyday forever until I die.

And I yo-yo between no, it WON’T work, this is stupid. You’ll never earn THAT much, not quite enough to equate to a serious salary. You’re good enough with money (tight/sensible/boring enough) to fudge along ok for a while, but in the long term? Sure, you can top up your income so sure, carry on doing bits. But it’s time to wake up and grow up now, face up to your responsibilities, buckle-up to the bullshit of corporate-land. And wouldn’t a real job have perks anyway? Imagine having that stability and predictability, having annual leave, relatively guilt-free holiday, the chance to actually fully switch off?

And in the middle of the yo-yo I have moments where I wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t just… you know, chill the fuck out a bit with all the analysis. Stop being so dramatic and taking everything so bloody seriously. Accept that in life and work, stuff is deeply unknowable and you’ve stumbled along this far, so perhaps you’ll stumble some more. You’re not a TOTAL idiot. You’ll work it out, and other parts might work themselves out. So try to worry a bit less? Relax about the uncontrollables (but what if they ARE controllable?), try not to constantly beat yourself up with what-if worry and guilt.

All that is pretty damned hard though, especially when you have more time than you’d like to play with all this stuff in your brain. When under-occupied, I suspect most human neurons spark instinctively towards what-if worry, fear, guilt, worst-case scenarios; rather than cool, calm, mindfully philosophical ‘what will be will be’. This is probably to do with primal self-preservation, survival instinct or something.

*NOTE TO GOD – Isn’t it time humans had a programmatic genetic reboot for the 21st Century? How about it, God? Pretty confident I won’t die from a bear attack now. Update our operating system already!

Playing matador to fizzing renegade neurons is a major challenge  – particularly when it’s so easy to see all the people doing so much better than you everywhere. Meditation and mindfulness continues to enjoy a resurgence, but there’s always alcohol, nicotine, escape or release via other media or substances.

Hope this dumb yo-yo snaps.

in sickness

Wheezing heavily over my keyboard as I originally typed this opening line, I wondered how to present what it was that I was trying to say. Nothing was all that clear.

Over the past few weeks my usually fairly reliable 34-year old body became alien to me: shrivelled and compressed, waves of hot and cold tingling from head to toe, body parts claiming curiously insistent pulsations (inside lower lip), involuntary grunting emissions like an old man in a care home, strangely transient rashes, the sensation of a razorblade guarding the stoop of my throat, greedy for medication, medication, medication.

Sickness offers a bleak window into a possible future where this is pretty much all that remains of life. Illness closely collaborates with ideas of mortality, and death. It can remind us how our bodies are temporary vessels, just a physical organism like any other, one which happens to be alive right now, a cage for our organs, a borrowed bit of blubber, although supposedly more refined.

There are strangely dream-like moments of not being quite there, fully present in the moment. You feel that you are standing there in the kitchen like that, trying to hold that conversation with her, but everything’s in soft focus, a light vignette around the edges, a woozy drifting sense of elsewhere, you’re not really listening, trying to make the right noises in the right gabs, is this what dying is like? Or just a relationship? Another wave of coughing crashes ashore.

There’s hopelessness and helplessness in badly wanting to be getting better and wanting to function normally again, but your body stubbornly resists, mutinying against your basic wishes like a belligerent child with whom it is impossible to reason.

You toy with the idea that perhaps you are dying from an obscure disease that won’t be detected until it’s too late, if it’s ever detected at all. You wonder how people will regard you if you do die, and you draft your own obituaries. “Work was never an easy thing for him…” I feel I would be pitied a lot. It’s more impossible than ever to escape judgement than in death.

You anticipate the mild euphoria of experiencing health and power again, the comeback, the resilience, the pride you will feel in this creaking vessel of a body.

It feels a way off.

wedding planning

I’m getting married.  We now have a date several months hence, making everything frighteningly real.

Here is a thing people say to you when you’re getting married.

“It’s YOUR day to do what YOU want.”

It’s bullshit.

Now it might be less bullshit if you’re totally up for the whole big wedding thing; a lavish public performance of your love in a big ornate church, followed by a grand reception in a castle; if you’re into all the traditions and have a large close family and tons of friends.

If you’re less bothered about the whole performance, perhaps if you’re less fussed about the ‘getting’ part of marriage altogether, it feels like it is bullshit.

I want to be married. As for the getting married part, if I was able to be massively selfish we’d probably just do it in five minutes in an office – which is tantalisingly possible.

However, that would be heartbreaking for my family, and particularly my mother – who I’ve found increasingly hard work of late.

Her inability to converse without immediately refocusing any subject on her own experience is immensely exhausting. The way she looks at me like I’m a starving African with whom she’s unable to communicate. She asks no questions of me, and when I do volunteer information it doesn’t register. Her brain simply pans for her own nearest reference point so she can talk about that.

She can be blithely cruel and patronising to neighbours, apparently needing to feel better than them. She can be tactless and embarrassingly candid to my partner about her admittedly dysfunctional family.  (You can say things within a family that you just cannot say outside it). She can be a total snob, as can my Dad: that whole needing to feel better than everyone in a small village. They seem more confined to their bubbles than ever.

This might just be a thing that happens to everyone as you reach later years of life. I’ve noticed it a lot recently. From your 50s you grow more snug and comfortable in what you know and like. You slide into becoming more alienated or uncaring about what you don’t. So you stick to it, ask fewer questions, and your general world view shrinks.

Still, for all this, out of dutiful son obligation, because you must ALWAYS keep your parents happy, I accept and tolerate it, and try not to snap. They have given me a lot, and I should probably be more grateful. Even so, if I ever become a father, I would hate for there to be a time when my child feels as remote from me as I feel from my parents now. From the outside looking in, it must look fine. To neighbours who see my car in the driveway semi-regularly. The truth is that we barely understand each other and ‘connect’ on only the dimmest level.

Nonetheless, we are doing the wedding thing in part – albeit scaled down registry office and something afterwards (to be decided), because it would hurt my family if we did not.

Another aggravation is, of course, him: the brother. In speaking to him on the phone he was his typical excitable, theatrical, embarrassing pantomime dame. I much prefer the sober, serious guy I see on television to this flouncy irritating buffoon who gets under my skin like no other human on the planet. Grunting to him on the phone like the teenage version of myself he always makes me feel, out of reciprocal obligation I asked him to be co-best man (as I was for his wedding around a decade ago).  Even though he makes my skin crawl. I tried to dodge questions about Stag Dos. I’ll go out for a few beers with my other best man, one of my best friends. Other than that, I’m not bothered – especially if it involves my brother.

Now is a time with stress.  A few weeks ago my main source of income was cut when the dim, blank people in an office where I’d worked for the better part of 12 months decided not to renew my contract. They were persuaded by a newish member of staff: a Frenchwoman in her mid-40s, hired to train and hire other people. She was high on cranky zany va-va-voom energy, positivity, motivation exercises and inspirationalism; low on everything else.  We never really hit it off. She hired a new person to replace me for less money. The higher-ups didn’t care that much, cared most about money. I was out the door inside two weeks.

Cashflow is now tight, and all going in one direction. I’m barely making any money and have little clue what I’ll be doing for work in the next few months leading up to the wedding. (The call centre? Surely not the call centre? Please not the call centre. I am STILL not better than the call centre?! It has featured in a cold-sweat dream or two).

I am working pretty hard on my own business things – which brings in limited cash. I am back applying for jobs I don’t want again, getting nowhere. I am grouchy, irritable of my partner’s messiness and a little snappy. I feel entirely inadequate, my esteem is low and I am simply scared about the future. My parents know my circumstance, somewhere must sense this, and ask nothing about it. My bride is immensely supportive, almost equally critical of my remote parents, yet somehow still wants to be my bride.

Sso HEY!!  WEDDING!! HOW EXCITING!!! You MUST be excited!

On the day I will try to plaster on a smile, accept people saying how it is OUR day to do what WE want, but we must invite these people and have this and this and that, and no you can’t do that! Are you crazy?  Right now it all feels a little overwhelming, potentially painful. I am dreading all the bullshit.

I will try and fake my way through everything without snapping. It will not be easy.

social tsunami

A generation has been cruelly deceived by the emergence of social media. Ok, maybe not a whole generation, and maybe not by social media alone. Maybe just a demographic by the false confidence that their identity and ability to articulate was enough. And maybe just a certain type of person. But I feel sure more than just one (me). I have a weight of hunch that there are considerably more people than just me towards whom the following applies.

There we were, circa 2005/6/7, not long out of university and embedded in low level marketing roles towards which we felt largely indifferent, but they provided a necessary source of income.

Like many marketers or PRs, perhaps we harboured private dreams of writing more interesting things, had secret side projects, but we had no real outlet for this. We knew we had a voice and we could write about stuff. It just so happened that what we were paid to write about, for mid noughties websites, printed material and email newsletters, wasn’t all that interesting.

Then the tsunami of social appeared on the horizon. A thing called Twitter which seemed exclusively for nerds but, ok, damn, whatever, let’s give it a go. Blogs built traction as a thing and we began playing with them, interest piqued. Slowly this social thing on the horizon swelled.

At a certain point the nervous excitement at the potential gave way and we thought this was it, what we’d been looking for, THE platform for our voice. Social allowed us to believe in our own uniqueness, our own personality and identity. We needn’t be defined by our employer or where we work. This would give us an audience, allow us to showcase our talents, we WOULD be recognised and ultimately go on to better, more fulfilling, more interesting things.

We backed ourselves, trusted what we had, and after a time, by necessity or not, towards the end of the noughties we went freelance: those of us who’d gambled and moved around a little, had one or two jobs in a few different towns, were not institutionalised by a workplace, those who were independent-minded, not tied down, open to taking a risk or two.

The economy was shit but it was shit for everyone. You had to deal with it. We could do this. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but with careful nurturing people would see the value. We knew what we were talking about; we could deliver a service on our own merits.

Unless we had somehow managed to rapidly scale an audience and built a high enough platform – helped by a leg-up from a few big brands or not, we got flattened.

Ok, not flattened. Not quite. Washed up and floundering under the weight of noise, it was suddenly more of a struggle to get heard than ever. Despite those early day hopes, our own identity and voice didn’t count for much in the chaos.

Some made it, and not necessarily the best. Those people managed to get high before it hit, and they appeared to flourish as a result. But the approach of slow and steady, implicit trust in the well considered thought of audiences: that did not pay off.

Volume mattered. Quantity mattered. Big numbers. For that you had to tolerate complete idiots, read their nonsense, “interact”. You could not be picky, and those of us who foolishly were, we suffered for it.

We clung desperately onto a root of something, a business of that same early kind, while looking around for better, firmer, a stronger platform. We made a reach or two for other shiny stuff and missed, not trustable enough. Everything still rushed around us, swirling dizzyingly, maddeningly, the inane quotes about perseverance and working hard, the pictures of food and drink and sunsets; while the highly rated and presumably now nicely rich idiots stared down their noses.

We’re choking now. In our mid 30s but feeling beleaguered, jaded and overtaken by fresher, keener faces in their mid 20s, utterly familiar, comfortable and happy with the noise, the feeds of hundreds and thousands. Still we’re trying, still gamely hanging in there, still dimly hoping. But we desperately want surer footing now, a more solid base; we are pleading for a small grain of financial trust in our future. We are growing colder and colder.

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