loose connections

Another long and warbly blog-as-shrink post about the dysfunctional relationship I have with my parents. 

In the car with Dad, travelling the hour and a half cross-country to a football match.  We were both trying hard to talk in a way we don’t usually: deeper business things than we’d speak of around Mum, shared self-employment workflow gripes.  It had surprised me, his level of conversational effort.  Then we spoke about sport, we led into our shared physical attributes, many of which I’ve inherited from him and most of which I’m grateful for – build, metabolism – if not the hair, or increasing lack of it.  He could have kept that.

Then he said: “speaking of the things we share, do you ever think you might have problems with depression?”

That came out of the blue and I sort of froze.

“Um, dunno.  Maybe?” I said, and looked out of the window to my left, away from him, scared of eye-contact.  We’d spoken of such things before, but not for a couple of years.

In that moment I saw myself through his lens.  It wasn’t easy viewing.  Had my parents finally considered my lifestyle – although it’s been roughly the same for over two years – and recognised that I might not always be happy, that my sluggish silence around them might indicate more than an overly protracted teenage phase?

How bad did I get?  I was ok really, wasn’t I?  It was something I’d pondered from time to time.  Sure I get down-days like everyone, perhaps a little more frequently given my general lack of contact with humans, but it never got that bad, did it?

I’ve read around the subject a little, for a number of reasons including general personal interest.  My gloominess is never as all-consuming and paralysing as I’ve seen it described.  I shake myself out of it eventually; I do something or am lightened by something, I see a great goal, take a walk, watch a gorgeous sunset, drive into the mountains, absently stare at a ludicrously beautiful female in the street.  There’s usually something which jolts me out and forces perspective.  It’s never been the case that I can’t get out of bed or leave the flat, can’t move or function.

No, I’m well enough acclimatised to coping with sporadic unhappiness and able to ride it without pills, thanks.

He went on to advertise antidepressants, which he’s now taken for twenty years or more, and how they help him.  Apparently he experimented with coming off them recently and his mood rapidly plummeted so he resumed again; only low dosages but enough.  They really help, he underlined.  And it’s important too, because your moods affect the people close to you.

“Well I’m alright.  There’s no-one close to me.”

It was intended it as blackly comic but he didn’t laugh.  I can never predict when he’ll laugh.  A primary tactic of mine in breaking down barriers and getting closer to people is light teasing.  I’ve never felt comfortable doing this with Dad, so sensitive and serious is he about always being in the right.  His anger is formidable and he often seems to emit a general sense of obfuscation, a glaring inability to say ‘I don’t know’ about things he clearly doesn’t know.  He has a tendency to try and smugly predict gameshow answers out loud, to generate a fillip of superior righteousness, however small.  Not always successfully.  It’s always mildly amusing when he’s wrong.

Perhaps he wanted me to take antidepressants so I’ll be happier and more upbeat on my visits home and Mum won’t worry about me.  Yet I still can’t imagine ever being chatty around them.

Maybe there’s an extent to which we all tend to regress around our parents, presenting earlier versions of ourselves which accurately reflect their experience of us.  When you reach the stage of bringing home a partner you begin to present a combination of two sides: the old you who your parents know, together with the current you who is liked or maybe even loved by your partner – and who you probably like better as a result; a more developed and happier side of you.  Without that you still keep showing the old you.  If you never had a brilliantly open relationship with your parents to start with, the upshot is that you’ll likely slump into a self-fulfilling despondency.

Little impels me to disclose much detail to my family; I am that infamous “dark horse” and “closed book”.  I’d happily disclose more to a complete stranger; to you, than to them.  There’s a natural reticence with them that shames me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t occasionally feel like snapping.

ACTUALLY PARENTS, I AM A ROUGHLY NORMAL-SEEMING, ARTICULATE PERSON WITH OPINIONS AND THINGS TO SAY TO MOST PEOPLE.  JUST NOT TO YOU, OK?!

Is it because they essentially bore the tits off me?  The endless commentary of minutiae and tales of village life which I find it impossible to feign an interest in.  You’re not allowed to say that though, because it’s cruel.  Family is The One Big Thing we must universally cherish above everything else.

Dad will offer help if asked and if it doesn’t clash with any other plans he’s made, but he won’t go out of his way.  He regularly visits the city where I live on business.  He never tells me.  We never go for a coffee or a pint.  It’d probably feel awkward if he did.  He never visited me in my three years in London.  He’s not that bothered.

Maybe I speak so little because I know my words would  go in one ear and out the other, they’d be distracted by thinking about what they want to say next about themselves, or by nothing in particular – which would be easier than listening, then asking a related question and.. you know, having a conversation.  My experience of trying to do this is so often disappointing that I stopped trying.  Now I try to listen, often on cruise-control, and ask questions in the gaps.

They seem to ignore that I’m perfectly chatty and outgoing with my brother, his wife and children, where it’s possible to have adult conversations, to be stupid and muck about with the kids.  And equally mixing with new people at extended family functions.  Their gaze or attention makes me feel artificial, like I’m alienating them by not behaving as they expect.  Perhaps they view it as an act.

Despite all this, Dad’s question wasn’t without a cause.  I probably look miserable and am uncommunicative around them, with little other stimuli than books, the internet and the dog.  But I feel I’ve somehow developed strength in being a loner for such a time.  You develop a pattern of habits which protect you; an appetite for newness, places and experience, an acceptance and fearlessness about being alone for the vast majority of time.  While it’s far from ideal, it means you don’t malinger as much as you might.

It’s a difficult notion for my parents, or possibly most people to empathise with though, because loners are an unorthodox minority group: misunderstood, untrusted, usually responsible for serial killings and massacres.

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mission improbable

You finished a chapter of your book, sipped from a mug of coffee and looked around you in one of the many coffee shops where you hang out, and you wondered if you weren’t bored of all this now, if you didn’t genuinely desire a sense of mission and purpose now, if you were ready to properly try again.

To try at what, you weren’t sure.  But something.  A proper job with people.  This was getting a little boring now, wasn’t it?  It wasn’t like you didn’t do this on most lunch breaks when you had a regular job.  And it’s less enjoyable because you know you’re not exactly taking a break from work; you’re using it to fill time because you haven’t got much work.  To wedge in a block of time which isn’t spent at your desk or wandering aimlessly.  Because you’re just spending plenty of time being worried about a lack of phone calls and email traffic which seems to be dwindling in direct correlation to the leaves on the trees.  Your biggest sense of mission and purpose is getting a coffee and a comfy seat in which to read a book.

The more it goes on, the more phone calls which go unanswered, the emails which go unreplied, the more you pointlessly wail into the internet; the more you feel a like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.  Am I actually dead?  The one sometime client who reassures you with a swift acknowledgement is now based in California and, alas, in no position to offer work or employment.

But even when you get work you resent it: the drone of that painfully erratic main client, the writing and rewriting about the same fucking software.

Aren’t you capable of a tiny bit more?  Isn’t it time to get over that fear of knockbacks, rejections, and be brave again?  Recapture that early to mid-twenties vitality and ambition.  Shrug off the fact that it’s still cold outside and jobs aren’t easy to come by, particularly without connections, without belief or ability to sell yourself.

Regular employment still casually dangles there in the background, often unspoken, unattractive in its overbearing ability to control and seize your independence, yet appealing in its promise of returning normality, and redemption for permanently feeling like a cheat.

It’s not as easy as that though.  And say you found something which did initially interest you.  The chances are that you’d quickly resent it, tire of it, develop an unhealthy disrespect of your bosses and colleagues.

So this is still the easiest option for lazy idiots like you.  And it could just be another phase anyway.  You’ll forget about this twitchiness and trying to do something else if work suddenly picks up, if your patience-testing key client stops ignoring you in borderline rude fashion.  Just go on as before.  But what if it doesn’t and into November, towards Christmas, your invoices grow ever-more paltry?  At least you booked no New Year break this year.  Not quite confident enough.

That itchy eighteen month point is approaching too.  Your life tends to be marked in eighteen month periods: stints of time in an employment or dwelling, after which you get restless.  Eighteen months is enough to give most things when you have no obligation or responsibilities.  After eighteen months it’s time to do something different.

It’ll soon be eighteen months since you moved back here.  Around two and a half years spent working like this.  You still like your flat and the city where you live – even if you’re indifferent to many of its residents.  This dreary routine though.  Can’t you change that?  Do you really want to carry on doing what you’re doing?

Not much.

Then change it, like you tell other people.  It can be done.

How, genius?

Uhm.. not sure.  Usually means committing to something, doesn’t it?  Investing hope?

Hope?  That thing that sneers and laughs and shits in your face, leaving you on your knees, disgusted at your pathetic romanticism.

Yeah.

Fuck that then.

Before I Go To Sleep

There was irony in my failing to remember any key details of the novel which sounded so different.  At its heart is amnesia, and specifically the story of a woman who wakes up each day with no memory at all.

So fascinating was its premise, the book stuck vividly after I had heard an interview with the author, or perhaps only a discussion about the book in a Guardian Books podcast.  I listened to it as early as February, March or April, but deleted and failed to retrace the precise podcast.  Nor could I remember the name of the book or the name of the author; merely the basic idea that it was about amnesia, and I was fairly sure it was a debut novel by a youngish man.

Weak Google searches yielded nothing or too much, Waterstones staff looked understandably blank, the presenter of the podcast Tweeted helpfully, but fed a link to an episode which gave no clues.

Only when browsing the New Books shelf in Waterstones a week ago did it leap out at me, the eye on the cover, the title; bells began to ring.  I picked it up, flicked through.  Yes, this was definitely it.  An idea to just buy it there and then flickered through, but no need.  Birthday soon.

But then, in the library the next day, browsing the modestly populated new books section, that eye stared at me again.  I hadn’t sent my birthday wish-list.  A spring of the heart, an instinctive click of the fingers – which probably made me look like a dickhead, a jubilant fist.  After being frustratingly out of reach, untrackable for months – possibly because it hadn’t yet been published – now it had found me, weirdly, somehow.

I suppressed the alien sensation of cheer and good fortune: the fact I’d subconsciously glamorised it by not knowing enough about it, been seduced by the quirk of not remembering any pertinent details.

Probably be crap now; don’t get your hopes up.

But it wasn’t crap.  The book is written in an unshowy, crisp but elegant style by an author with a medical background who is deliberately not assigned a gender on the book synopsis or writer biography.  Not flawless or without arguably necessary contrivances, it’s always compelling.  This is largely because the premise is so crackling, disorientating and unlike anything you’ve read before – even in other fiction where amnesia is central to the plot.  It’s little surprise that film rights were snapped up by Ridley Scott’s production company, presumably quite early in the book’s lifespan, possibly even before publication.

The subject snares us immediately because we are all affected by memory; everyone depends on it.  In a way it’s all anyone ever has, so what would we do without it?  How can we live, having our intelligence and awareness, but knowing nothing about ourselves or our lives or the world?

Towards the end it develops a thrilling momentum and sense of dread which made my heart race and literally panicked me.  I can’t remember being as physically moved by a book in a long time.  When you look back on a book, years down the line, you remember first and foremost how it made you feel.  While the emotion was pushed to its very limits, arguably overdone in part, there were points where it was impossible to stop the eyes from welling up.

The book also acts as a testament to how writing supports and enables memory, ostensibly in creating an artefact for future reference.  It’s always been my belief, though this isn’t mentioned in the book, that writing itself – explicitly putting down what’s inside your head, helps to cement memory: just reliving it once and turning it into words is as a rubberstamp.  Although that’s not always a good thing.

I’ve often wondered if I’ll look back on the contents of this blog, if I’m lucky enough to grow into an old man.  If I’ll squirm with embarrassment at the memories, or smile wistfully and think myself an idiot.  Either way it could potentially support memory, make me remember certain times, places and people.  That is, unless something stupendously humiliating happens and I spontaneously delete the whole thing.

great expectations

A question re-illuminated by events of a couple of posts ago was this: how far should your expectations of a female (or male) be adjusted?  Or, how far should they be toned down?

For a romantic idealist who wears their heart on their sleeve, they’d prefer to be completely wowed by a female.  At least for a brief period.  Sure it’d be unlikely to last forever, but initially they would want that early phase of fuck me, she’s a-m-a-z-i-n-g.

But what if that never happened?  What if there wasn’t ever that exhilarating romantic spark with anyone?  Maybe you could only feel that in an unrequited way, with dynamic females who had been snapped up a good few years ago.  And maybe part of the reason those females are so dynamic, magnetic, electric, is because they’ve pretty much always had the attention.  They’ve never spent much time sitting alone in rooms wondering if they’re fundamentally unattractive.

So what if you met someone and she didn’t exactly knock your socks off?  What if she was just fine to be around?  If it was enjoyable hanging out together, and doing a little more besides.  You weren’t deluged with other offers, so why not?

Should that be good enough?  Should you allow yourself to make that compromise?  Because that is what it feels like.  Or should you go on searching in hope of someone who wows, someone you may never find?

Would it be wrong to lazily throw in the towel like that?  Or is that precisely what people do all the time?  They settle.  Especially if one party is a dominant and decisive, and the other is lazier and doesn’t have the nerve or inclination not to settle.  Because it works well enough.  I absolutely have a certain couple in mind here.  I have no idea how he landed her at all.

It’s arguable that the longer you go on bitterly kicking down the picky single lonely path, the less likely you will find someone you’re wowed by.  More likely perhaps that you’ll gather additional neuroses about how you’d like A Person to be, and collect further constipating baggage through constant over-analyses.  By not thinking: fucksake, just do something you prick.

A friend suggested that, if you asked many unmarried couples whether they’ll go on to get married and have babies, a good proportion would just shrug and say they don’t know; they’re just having an ok time as it is, see where it goes..  There’s no need to overthink it if there aren’t any real fireworks.  Don’t make a drama out of it.  If you find you’re having an ok time, go on having an ok time.  Take each game as it comes.

Therein lies a beauty of being relatively casual.  If someone else should happen by, it’s not illegal, there’s no til-death-us-do part sin, especially if you’re both on the same page about things.

But romantic idealists beat themselves up.  They’re such soft pricks they’re nervous about other people liking them; even ones they don’t know if they like much.  Although a kooky inverse vanity can inflate that impression.  There might not be as much meaning involved as you think.  They might behave the same with any guy and feel exactly the same as you.  They might be a level-headed, mature, sensible person, which is a dangerous assumption to make, but you never know.  They might exist.

It’s still unsettling, all the same.  Now stop cupping my face like that, quit with those soppy doe eyes.  Please don’t like me too much; I’m a prick.  Everyone knows it.  Here, I can even prove that by being honest and saying I’m not really that into you.

Although perhaps I could convince myself into being into you, in time, maybe, perhaps, possibly..

No, I couldn’t.  Shut up.

Lord guilt

I struggle with the strains of freelance life, the good things as well as the bad.  The ability to take off when we have an unexpectedly nice spell of weather, as last week, provoked irritatingly mixed feelings.  There was no reason I should have felt guilt.  Work wasn’t going badly.  Merely a quiet lull, my main client going off radar as they’re wont to do from time to time.  As yet it has never been for too long.

Still, part of me is constantly paranoid.  When I took off for the seaside at 3pm on a weekday afternoon because I couldn’t resist the weather, I was still nagged by guilt.  What else would you do instead? I asked myself.  Sit at your desk being unproductive?  It’s extremely unlikely for any email to land in your inbox which will demand immediate action.  And if it does, you’ll have it on your BlackBerry immediately, and be back at your desk by around 7.30 at the latest.

No need to worry.  Just relax.  Enjoy this perk of doing what you do, having developed what seems to be a satisfactory business model.  Don’t sweat it.  Feel smug.  Stroll about in the sunshine, listen to your podcasts, music, read your book, take some photographs.  Enjoy the stuff that interests you so much more than your work.

A flipside of this is, however many other interests you have, you will sometimes be bored.  Your day-to-day life, even when it is occupied with work, won’t be all that interesting.  With no immediate colleagues and no commute, there are fewer variables.  Your flat buzzer might sound because a bloke wants to read the meter.

And when the work does dry up for whatever reason, as it has recently, you have to contend with yourself, try to be relaxed and philosophical and optimistic.  Rather than anxious, fraught and doom-mongering.  Don’t sweat it, don’t be guilty if you spend a little longer reading that book, or in the gym, or if you click your Xbox on for the first time in months.  If you ever click on daytime television you certainly do deserve to die, but that’s never even been tempting.

To have the liberty though, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, no less legitimate or respectable than sitting at a desk in an office in a city with other people for 7 or 8 hours a day.

Although.  That’s exactly it.  It does feel less legitimate and respectable and normal.  That’s what nags, despite everything.  The nebulous overlord which dictates you must be busy and important at all times – who I largely shun – I’m still aware of, in the background, tutting and shaking his head when he sees me getting furious about my weak video game skills.

There’s an implicit culture of fear which comes with careers and employment.  The dire, desperate, urgent need to feel busy and important and needed at all times.  I’m not sure if it’s a British thing or a more general developed western world thing.

It’s a thing some people relish and thrive on: the need to feel powerful and important.  So much so that they cultivate extra work and any number of projects which will draw attention to themselves but have a questionable impact on profit.  Those projects are now practically infinite thanks to social media and the web.

A friend in her mid-twenties is on a graduate scheme for lawyers, bouncing around different firms.  She takes work home and works into the small hours of the night to get everything done, such is the pressure she’s under, the fear of not achieving, not being successful.  I don’t think she relishes it in the same way as some, although the feeling of being professionally needed and important is fresh, and likely to still flatter her ego into doing the work.  She and millions like her are being exploited.  This is amplified with repetitive news about the economy and jobs market.

Everything becomes infected with urgency and stress.  As a result people seem to allow themselves to be dictated to by relatively minor things:  absolutely having to go to the supermarket as soon as possible.  They cling to trivial things for a sense of balance and routine and confidence.

I have no conclusion or summary about this.  The ingrained culture and the ultimate futility of commerce just saddens me, makes me hanker for simpler times and places where that looming overlord of guilt has fucked off.

way to blue

At the end of last year when another ill-fated relationship came to pass, one that had barely even grown serious, I predictably grew miserable then mildly cranky about it.  I checked her Twitterstream too often, beat myself up and generally thought too much about it and her, even while touring around an exciting new city thousands of miles away.

Then I met a new female in said city and the female before rapidly faded. I went home and we began the long distance cyber-relationship, will we / won’t we meet again thing.  Then that faded out too.

Over recent months a new affection developed, originally online.  Again, irritatingly long distance, but not quite as thousands-of-miles-away-unrealistic; merely a few hundred.  Telephone calls became regular, things seemed to be going well.  Reciprocal visits were promised (hers first) but nothing was cemented.  I pressed a little too hard, excited and keen to meet.  But several gently repeated questions about what the issue was, led to her cancelling everything.  Shocked and upset but still patient, I tried to argue against what I perceived to be a rash decision.  Nothing doing.

Perhaps she never really intended to visit. Perhaps she did.  Perhaps there was an element of her just bottling it, or generally getting cold feet.  Or maybe it was all my fault for pushing.  Whichever way, after three months of almost daily communication, the majority of it fun and pleasant, she called a halt to everything and I was crushed.

Another one down the drain then, you idiot.  All that hope invested, despite myself, despite telling myself it was dangerous, don’t do it, don’t hope too much.  And we never even met.   It felt ridiculously, embarrassingly ‘playground’, impossible to translate to less web-inclined friends in the pub.

“Ooh, I hope you used protection, mate!”
“Or at least antivirus.”

These are the times we live in, the straws clutched at by sad lonely guys who live and work alone; guys who don’t often get to the pub with their married or as good as married mates.  Guys who feel slightly too old to play and socialise with a football team of lads in their early to mid-20s.

As ever when you’ve taken an unexpected knock from a female, you try to brush yourself down and say it was their loss.  You must try to convince yourself this is true, for the sake of your ego.  Sigh, grimace, try not to be angry with yourself, breathe, open a beer.  Never mind.  Download another stupid social / dating app to your iPod.  Bound to work this time.

Remembering how a night with an American female helped to dull my aching bitter crankiness about the female before, I considered visiting a female with whom I’d been chatting on the newly downloaded social app thing.  She’d likely be mental too, I reasoned, but sometimes there were virtues in distance; convenience in her being a good few hours’ drive away.  At least she was meetable, without too much planning and strife.

I’m profoundly bored of the internet, instant messaging, telephone calls, the wide and various nodes of virtual reality.  How about plain old simple reality for a change?  That luxury of interpreting facial expressions which aren’t reduced to fucking smileys, the ability to more confidently use sarcasm and irony and say “I’m joking” with a smile; for it to be clear that you’re joking.  Simply having an in-person, physical discussion.  Radical 21st Century ideas.

Playing the long game, being patient and thoughtful and nice?  That doesn’t appear to reward as you might like to think.  Those Guinness ads about good things coming to those who wait?  BULLSHIT.

So fuck it.  Yeah ok, why not?  I’ll come visit you.  It’s a straightforward enough drive, a nice day, I like driving (I’m not doing anything else).  It’s only a few hours (don’t think of the extortionate petrol cost).

She was Hungarian, tired and unhappy.  You probably have to be quite bored and lonely to use those apps and engage with people.  She spoke excellent English but this didn’t mean conversation was always comfortable.  After watching the football in a generally light atmosphere, we ate dinner in a heavier one.  Facing each other, it became clear how miserable she was.  How she wouldn’t help herself.  How insular she was, how unengaged with the world.  All politicians corrupt, all news bad; better not to watch.  An unorthodox job meant she was practically nocturnal, always tired, a ruined bodyclock.  But it apparently paid a better than average wage, which helped to relieve pressures of sending money home to family.  She was the rich daughter living abroad.  She wobbled, momentarily on the edge of tears, I looked down and away.  (Fuck, she was in a worse place than me!)  I suggested things she could do to be active in finding a new job, how she could force herself to be decisive, if she wanted – ignoring my hypocrisy – how it didn’t have to be like this.

The mood recovered, we walked back across to the multi-storey car park in a huge shopping centre.  Mine was the only vehicle left on the roof level, dying rays of a pink sunset casting its warm hue over the city: a beautiful setting for a murder.  Probably a bad idea; too much CCTV.  Instead I kissed her.  She tasted and smelled different.  I noticed it when we first met.  A little like a smoker, although she wasn’t a smoker. So she said.  And it wasn’t that bad.. impossible to put my finger on.  Just… Hungarian?  I drove her home.  She invited me into her studenty terraced house, shared with housemates she barely knew and rarely spoke to.  We went straight to her room.  I stayed.  Nothing more was asked.

*

A thick layer of mist stuck to the terraced street the next morning, joined by a novel October chill, which felt abrupt due to the unseasonal weather.  My car was still where I’d left it, untouched but tightly hemmed in between two other vehicles.   I wriggled it out, navigated through the city’s rush hour traffic and out onto the long A-roads.  The sun punched a bright white, perfectly circular hole into the grey.  Driving through green hillsides, I listened to a new favourite album and watched the sky wash itself back to blue.