caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s Sunday and early August in a grey squally windy West Wales.

The caravan has been leased by the parents of my sister in law, my brother’s wife. It has all modern appliances: an electric fire, fully appointed kitchen, dining space, nice pictures and tasteful furnishings. While peeing it strikes me that there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main toilet (there was another en-suite) but we have yet to find a picture for our bedroom in the house we moved into over a year ago.

Our family hasn’t met up for some months and seeing my brother’s kids, 10 and 7, is a thrill. A first exploratory stroll on the beach with just my niece and the dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the large deserted expanse of sand.

But this is not the classic summertime weather my mum has hankered for, having somehow never visited a beach with her grandchildren until now.  Mum and Dad arrive around lunchtime and come to meet us on the beach with my brother’s wife. It feels cinematic, watching their distant outlines slowly become more recognisable. We walk to a café overlooking a stretch of beach where Dad is embarrassingly rude to a young barista who gets our order slightly wrong and my brother and his family mock Mum’s old phone, before we head back to the caravan for lunch.

Now it’s approaching the end of the afternoon, the time my wife and I were thinking of leaving anyway. We all sit in the caravan, drinking warming hot drinks after a bracing post-lunch walk and play on the blustery, sand-whipped beach. Sand is still stuck to my scalp and hair, despite me not having much hair.

This is when it begins and my sap starts to rise.

My brother has this regular shtick of proclaiming himself and his family poor. His perspective is wildly skewed by his Oxbridge peers, the social elites with whom he works and one friend specifically. Dave (his real name because fuck it) is a hot shot millionaire investment banker. I didn’t get a favourable impression of Dave many years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, with which I sympathise. But it’s a decision he makes about living in Oxford and working long hours in London, it’s a compromise that comes of earning a strong salary which I suspect is no lower than £65,000. His wife is a university tutor, researcher and academic. Despite being on an unreliable rolling contract of sorts, I would guestimate she earns around £30,000 minimum. They live in Oxford, they are healthy, they have good jobs, beautiful healthy children, a high quality of life.

But compared to Dave they are poor. Therefore they are sitting in a lovely static caravan donated by the in-laws for their holidays moaning about their poverty and how to fund the university education of their children. They apparently do not have much extra disposable income. You might suggest because of their standard of living. Regular private music lessons, theatre trips and visits to amusement parks. (Or is that what you just have to do when you have kids that age? I don’t know).

In response to my brother’s introduction of university expense, our father suggests starting up an entirely dedicated account, a fund for their higher education. Our parents seem to have lots of money, partly due to hitting the generation sweet spot. They were never spectacularly successful in their careers – although Dad still works and has for a number of years earned a respectable, reliable annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a specialist consultant. They have always been prudent, made investments, and have a lovely house. They go on holiday frequently, and recently bought an expensive long haul package to Central America. I often feel like, if I had less inexplicable pride and hang-ups about asking for help, they could donate more cash to help me develop my business.

Across the caravan from me sits my wife, firmly ensconced in a game she is playing with my niece and nephew, unhearing of the wider conversation. We had discussed this on the way here, how my brother wheels out the poverty line, how it pisses us off, how she might say something if he presses it. I raised an eyebrow when she said that, unconvinced she actually would given how she is so averse to confrontation. Now it’s unclear if she’s taking the conversation in. She later says she wasn’t, she heard nothing, was too involved in the game.

Meanwhile I sit there and stew. Poor? He is really poor, is he? Fuck. Off. What if he could experience my schizophrenically jittery bank balance, cluelessness about the future, pathetic self-doubt and crippling worry that we will never be able to afford children? He probably wouldn’t give a shit. He would most likely cackle and trivialise it, smug posh personified.

My wife and I have recently begun speaking seriously of kids, if we can do it, financially, physically, mentally. It’s fast approaching now or never time and we are getting increasingly regular yearnings, feelings that we want that relationship with a small human. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me. (Is that a legitimate feeling or extremely self-indulgent?) We feel maybe my family has written us off, given up on us. ‘They don’t want any now. It’s over for them’.

But we have lately discussed whether my ever rickety, insecure work situation might be a good thing, save on childcare, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many can’t and don’t and are royally screwed over.  There are so many overwhelmingly unknowable ifs and buts.

I feel my face getting hotter and redder and crosser as my parents discuss the financial options for funding their grandchildren’s education, as my brother continues to claim he is poor. Hitting the food banks anytime soon then, brother?  And I start packing up some bags. We leave with me Britishly repressing a swarm of waspish emotions.

nothing new

Haven’t posted here for a few months and there’s unlikely to be anything new. The same old neuroses and fears wheeled out in a different set of words.

The other week I made the associated Twitter account private. I’d seen it presented by Twitter as a suggested account to those who follow my two professional accounts, which scared me – the idea that professional contacts might put it together. Although I’m fairly sure none would, that hardly anyone would care.

While I have prangs of fear like that, there’s also a conflict. In my view, this blog contains some of my best writing. That is, amongst my scintillating content about the elegant sleek sophistication of taps and bidets, business critical enterprise software and essential felt roofing materials. Part of me would like to use and promote this place more. But it’s scary because it is so personal. But it being so personal is what makes it good to my mind. Round and round we go…

Work and finances are the constant nagging neuroses. Now is a time of huge global uncertainty, of continued economic uncertainty. It can nudge you into panicking and make anxiety worse. If Donald Trump can become the US President, then literally anything can happen. You can spin this in positive and negative ways. That dream job you think you could never get?

Still I regularly feel like I’m cheating, like I should feel guilty for not doing more.  I am doing everything I can think of to drum up business but business is not flowing freely. Jobs and work are bitty, stop-start, dribs and drabs. A lot of totally speculative work where the chances of making a few quid are stacked against me. Come the 2016/17 end of year accounts it wouldn’t surprise me to find minimum wage levels of annual income.

Without such worries I could exist perfectly happily. With a life-changing cash windfall these concerns could be snuffed out. I could happily occupy my days walking the dog (I could occupy days doing this alone), doing a little housework, reading books, watching films, drinking coffee and whisky, watching seasons pass, being a loner dreamer fool, perhaps writing in this blog thing from time to time. I feel guilty because these are things I already spend time doing because I am not that busy.

I could spend even more time sitting at a desk generating self promotional content which makes me look like a desperate dickhead, or frittering away cash on advertising, or attending networking events, or any number of things. Which is why I beat myself up when reading a book or walking the dog. But I do do these things as well. They just seem ineffective, as much as I continue to hack away in an attempt keep visible. Which is how I can just about manage to forgive myself when I feel guilty, and like I don’t quite deserve this life, wife, house or dog.

It feels worth remembering that I have never, at any point in life, felt that busy. Not consistently, not in the way I see other people are, dashing around on train platforms glued to smartphones, busily flapping and flustering and talking fast about meetings and how much they have to do. My wife is one of these people. And I think perhaps I was never shaped to be that frantic person everyone looks to. I never needed to be needed quite so much, or maybe I just wasn’t needed. I never stayed anywhere long enough or fostered enough loyalty in anyone. I alienated way more than I invited. I was moulded into being a wallflower who might step forward now and again, who abhors exhibitionists and needy loud theatrical voices. Like my brother.

And yet all humans do need to be seen and heard and valued. (Someone somewhere used that combination of words and it chimed with me). We need recognition, professionally and personally. That’s how self esteem survives. Without that, everything is harder. And that’s what I find tough: the idea nobody gives the faintest shit about you, and the hard brutal evidence that that is the case. You are professionally of no use to anyone, sorry. There are hundreds, thousands of people just like you.

*

We still talk about kids occasionally, but agree that now is not the time, not with work the way it is. Not with me being a woefully inadequate provider and a useless businessperson. She hates me talking like this but I feel it is not untrue.

All of the things mentioned in previous posts still hold true. Part of us thinks we’d be ok with never having them, we’re occupied enough, fine with being slightly selfish. Then you see the smallest thing in the street, or in a film, an emotion pipe cracks and something starts leaking out which leads you to question everything.

We love our young dog, possibly too much. We wonder how much of a surrogate child she is, our baby, and if this is alright. Being a morbid idiot, I think not infrequently about all the possible horrible things that might happen to her, her dying and how hard it will be. Even though that will hopefully not happen for over a decade and we could all be dead in the Trump apocalypse by then anyway.

the strength to reproduce

Becoming puppy parents has brought a keener focus on the idea of being human parents.

Over recent weeks we’ve adapted and realised what it is to be a parent of sorts, to have responsibilities, to have a cute little dependant, to no longer be quite so free.

It’s hard not to apply this to thoughts about children. But still we waver indecisively.

Are we capable? Are we strong enough?  Both of us: physically, mentally, financially. Are we selfless enough?  Being child-free until your mid-thirties means you’re comfortable having time, hobbies, relative freedom, being selfish.

Time imposition

I resent the amount of time it takes to do laundry. The monotonous drudgery of sifting clothes, washing, hanging stuff up to dry and putting stuff away: it takes so long it makes me angry. I suspect more advanced civilisations exist where they push material through some kind of tube and it is done in seconds, like a car wash.

Time dedicated to laundry at this point in life would pale in comparison to the amount of time and gargantuan imposition a small human being would bring. (And the added laundry load doesn’t bear contemplating). Would we want our lives changed so drastically forever?

Puppies have immediate rewards in cuteness and plain undiluted joy. As well as a lack of major additional laundry. (Old towels is about it). For all the hard work of training and cleaning up piss and shit and vomit, there is obvious pleasure to be had from early on. They also sleep for a good amount of time, letting you do other things. It is not relentless.

Is this really the case with those alien baby things? No.

[Read: Sorry Sperm]

Health

Of course we might not be able to have children anyway. We’ve never tried. There could be all sorts of health complications. I might not be spunky enough after angrily frittering away my most potent stock over the course of my lonely twenties. She has a number of health complications meaning she takes regular medication. Neither of us are ‘young young’. There are no guarantees.

I also have concerns about her, for which I feel guilty but cannot escape. Is she physically and mentally strong enough for all that? She is easily drained on both counts, quickly fearful of any potential health issues. This is perhaps understandable given the early loss of both her parents. Would motherhood summon a total neurotic meltdown, a tsunami of postnatal depression? Do I deep down believe she is strong enough? A brutally hard and maybe impossible question to answer.

If we did it, would I feel greater financial pressure? Already I feel painfully inadequate about my puny earning power. I am impelled to constantly buy equipment in order to keep up and advance professionally. Whether I actually do or am is a moot point. But this doesn’t help. Even so, we get by ok month to month. We don’t really go without, except holidays and socialising. That doesn’t really happen, partly because we have few friends. But if she’s off work and I’m stumbling along with my few hundred quid here and there way of earning, would that be enough to comfortably support a family? Possibly possible, but not comfortable either financially or mentally.

Feeling even more inadequate and insecure about my earning will help nothing and nobody.  Could I do anything else?  Could I actually get a different job earning a more respectable wage? And if I did would I be totally miserable?

[Read: Pondering Parenthood]

If we don’t

It’s ok if we don’t, of course. That’s the liberated twenty-first century view. You can do what you want. You don’t have to make excuses to anyone and there are plenty of solid rational reasons not to. The biggest fear is probably what older versions of yourself will think. Will 40, 50 or 60 year-old versions of ourselves be wracked with painful regret about a life unlived, or unfair resentment of each other?

Or can you coach yourself into being philosophical about it all? Spend time with nieces and nephews, try and volunteer doing something with young people, without implicating yourself as a pervert.

Even then, will we have enough to keep ourselves occupied? Will there be a gaping hole that can’t be filled which ultimately separates us?  There are far too many unanswerable questions in all this. You can’t ever know, one way or the other. You can overthink it until your head hurts a lot.

Scary clocks are ticking, not yet with major serious urgency, but they are ticking nonetheless.

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 has 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 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”. It’s used to conclude and dismiss conversation of virtually everything; a lazy, slightly banal way of excusing yourself from discussing or analysing anything. We all have favourite expressions, 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.

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.

thought patterns

It’s not healthy to compare yourself with others all the time.  Focus on yourself.  Generally I try not to compare myself with all the other much more successful people of whom I’m crazily, bitterly envious.  Not too much.

There’s one person though, the constant subject, the permanent comparison, the guy my brain returns to in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, when the mind is ablur with a whole load of recurring, endlessly cycling nonsense.  Maybe it’ll be the first night in a while without the girlfriend, or the first night in a while without a drink.  The subject?  The guy?  My brother.  Yep, him again.  There’s probably tons here about him already, saying much the same.

They’re often the first people you ever really compare yourself against, your siblings.  Can I do that thing they’re doing?  Crawling, walking, running, kicking a ball.  Two and a half years my senior, we competed a lot as kids and I always lost and it always ate me and it still does.  He has remained better than me at pretty much everything and I have remained confused and angry at life, aged 33.

Going to school, teachers were prepared for another version of him, excited after the precocious headstrong whirlwind that had gone before.  But no, sorry.  I was the difficult experimental second album, the solid but largely underwhelming sequel, the convoluted and confusing follow-up.  I still feel like that’s how I’m perceived by people – regardless of whether they know my brother.

I don’t believe I’m entirely worthless.  On the contrary, I feel more capable than a lot of people at some stuff.  But I have no support now, so find myself floating, lost in space, unremarkable, missable, not especially employable, a terrified hostage to fortune.

We’re early teens, maybe I’m around 11 or 12 and he’s 13 or 14. He asks what I want to do in life, when I’m older, and I unthinkingly reply footballer or rock star, knowing neither is genuinely achievable. I have never demonstrated anything like the required talent , and am unlikely to. He replies, “oh, I’d hate to want to do something unrealistic that I could never do,” – or some such. It’s not malicious, just matter of fact.

I still feel a similar disappointment and emptiness, that I’ll never do something or achieve something or have a job that I really *really* want. It won’t happen. I can keep trying and working and hoping. But, you know, in all reality, it won’t happen. It’s my fault for only being drawn to stupidly popular things.

Returning to the family home at Christmas, minutes had passed with us all under the same roof before I felt my comparative inferiority: he’s right and more clever (though a buffoon) and I’m rubbish.

As kids he made me feel unremarkable, not very good, beatable, missable.  And he still does, without being cruel, without even trying.  I wonder, often mid-conversation, how is he so certain about everything?  I know nobody who is or appears to be as constantly sure of themselves, and of everything. 

Our realities are so different.  Our ideas of ambition and success and relative middle-class poverty.  We disagreed on the pay hike for MPs, which my brother thought would be a good incentive to attract a higher quality of person, not that I voiced my disagreement that strongly, if at all.  His London-centric concept of salaries is extremely different to my embattled, embittered provincial one.  I would probably accept 20 grand and considerably less stress right now, maybe even lower.

I don’t warm to him easily, that involuntary smuggy smarminess to his manner; it’s cringeworthy and weird and embarrassing.  The way he speaks to his kids in those leading questions with that ingratiating intonation at the end: “do you think that is sensible or is it silly?

All the same he is so much better at life than me.  He is one of those people for whom, from a distance, life seems to have been a breeze.  Education (besides a little bullying), partner (Week One of university), education, career, marriage, mortgage, two beautiful kids: all before turning 30.  Bosh.  Job done.  What’s the problem?  Don’t make a meal of it.

Me, on the other hand: not a fucking clue what I’m doing or where I’m going.  Completing patronising application form questions for crap, low-wage jobs, trying to work out if I have a low enough opinion of myself to return to a call-centre next week.  Hounded by guilt for infecting my girlfriend with miserable angst and resentful at my paranoia about every pound spent, my inability to treat her or plan anything.

A chink was shown in his armour one evening.  His wife confided to my girlfriend that he fears failure, and sat alongside each other on the sofa, I opened up a general knowledge quiz app on an iPad.  He squirmed with discomfort.  “No, I’ll be rubbish.”  The man devours historical non-fiction, is pretty much at the top of his profession, a very smart and knowledgeable man.  He feared getting questions wrong on an app.  It amused me, briefly, especially when he got one or two questions wrong, and tried to shrug it off in just the same way Dad does when he answers a questions out loud on a television quiz show, and gets it wrong.  I love it when that happens too.

My Dad and my brother share the same sense of certainty in everything.  They are extremely seldom wrong in the confines of their own heads.  Certainty and always being unambiguously correct about everything is a virtue which they hold extremely dear.  Ambiguity or nuance does not exist for them.  Apparently not one of life’s major winners, maybe it’s natural for me to be more relaxed about these things.

Relaxing about everything doesn’t come naturally though.  When my brain spins during unsettled nights; when I’ve tried placing myself on football pitches and seeing if a game magically starts happening around me devolved of my conscious brain (I love dreams of playing football), but it hasn’t happened; when my brain has whirred through a highlights selection of my football playing days (happens embarrassingly often but is nice to do – disappointingly few goals); when I’ve visited that serene, remote pond, surrounded by snow but not iced over, and envisioned myself sitting on a nearby bench as an older man; when I’ve tried gliding high and unaided over a canyon; when I’ve remembered the few lovely moments over Christmas spent with his kids; when I’ve worried massively about money and the lack of a career and my inability to provide for myself, let alone anyone else; and I’ve angsted about the future and thoughts of ever being a father; then he appears, his well-fed belly bulging, grinning like a buffoon, spouting something he believes is witty.

But just look how much better he is than you, look how much more he has of everything that is meaningful.  Hahaha.

related to death

My experience of death remains mercifully slight up to now, the most profound being the death of a dog with whom I had grown up from the age of 6 weeks to 12 years.

My girlfriend’s experience of death is rather more profound. She had lost both her mother and her father before she was 29. They died a handful of years apart, her mother a few before her father, both after long illnesses.

A year ago the boyfriend of a good friend of hers died in a slightly mysterious car crash, aged 24. They were friends too, she says, outside of her girl friend. How close were they really? I’ll never know, but I would wager with some confidence that they weren’t that close. Perhaps they all went out and got drunk together a bunch of times, likely no more than a small bunch. And she visited the couple’s home from time to time.

Nonetheless, yesterday, on the anniversary of his death, she felt compelled to take the day off work and visit him at a crematorium with her friend. Not his former girlfriend – she didn’t want to go – but with another mutual friend.

My fear is that she involuntarily romanticises death, feels a duty towards death itself. She can be a whispy, drifty, daydreamy character: easily distracted, struggles to focus and self-discipline. This sort of thing doesn’t help.

Of course the first anniversary of a friend’s death deserves pause for thought, remembrance. But this week she confessed to being more distant because she is thinking about this guy, her memories of him and also the memories of her grief and shock, the drama associated with learning about his death. It was awful, yes.  But to ponder it to this extent seems to me theatrical, dramatised, romanticised, indulgent, difficult.

Why? I struggle to empathise, am left bewildered, confused, frustrated.

Why not concentrate instead on the living, on life?  Don’t get drawn off into this ethereal hinterland. Maybe instigate an interaction with me from time to time, instead of letting me do it all the time.

For various reasons we’ve been almost a week apart now – which is some time for us.  And we’re not great at communicating over distance.

The other night I dreamt about cheating on her – which felt great and good at the time (possibly because the fictional other girl was blonde and more attractive and seemed to *get* me more instinctively and naturally; and because I am a bad, shallow individual).  It felt good despite a concurrent fear and guilt; then I dreamt about confessing to her and it was emotional and terrible. When I woke i felt disgusted and sad.

Apart, I feel we always drift a little, which scares me.  Although she doesn’t feel it and says I overanalyse.  Perhaps we should both prioritise moving on together, finding that equidistant place halfway along the motorway between us.

competitive nature

Mum wasn’t home during the week when I called, so I spoke to Dad for a little longer than normal.  I told him how my lower back had spasmed, like it now does every 15 months or so, causing acute pain.  In a style more regularly adopted by Mum, he took this as a cue to talk about his back problems – which he does nothing to help by continuing to run what to me seem like still pretty long distances for a guy in his mid-sixties.

A neighbour who is also a doctor not long ago stopped him in the road and severely reprimanded him for his selfishness, how it will impose on my Mum in the long term, how he basically does not look healthy and upright when he runs.  He looks ill.  She didn’t even know him or us very well, but it was all true.  It was a wake-up call he accepted he needed, but still he runs – now just slightly shorter distances.  No more half marathons.

He has to weigh it up against his mental health, he says.  Because not being able to run would affect that.  A recent convert of cognitive behavioural therapy, he had a few sessions and now believes himself cured of irrationally intense mood-swings, more able to handle his depression – for which he has taken medication for many years.  Therefore he runs for his mental health, and because he enjoys the company and camaraderie of his running clubs.  And to hell with his slowly crumbling spine.

I didn’t speak much of my own acute pain and how I’m a little hacked off to know I’ll probably have to suffer it for several weeks a year, and I’m half a lifetime younger than him.  He didn’t seem all that interested.  But he never seems all that interested in me, which still hurts a little.

Later on in the week my girlfriend changed her profile picture on her Facebook account.  My Dad was quick to click a Like.  This irked me because my Dad never ‘Likes’ anything I do on Facebook, and I do a lot on Facebook – mostly to promote a business interest.  While I realise it’s a relatively banal thing to be annoyed about, the irritation hung about and I began unpacking and possibly over-thinking it.

Dad had a terrible relationship with his father.  His old man was a bit of a depressive lunatic so he left home as soon as possible, aged 15.  An only child, my Dad is not a natural with kids – although my brother, who has a couple, says he is improving.

Growing up, my older brother had what appeared to be in-built self-belief.  He knew he was great and smarter than the rest of the kids and would succeed.  My parents’ only other kid, a couple of years younger, I didn’t.  I never felt encouraged, particularly by my Dad – which I think is a key job of a dad, I never had much belief.

Seeing my Dad like my girlfriend’s photo, knowing he encourages and supports other people in his running club, remembering his utter disinterest about my back pain, I think: what about me, Dad?

Maybe it comes down to his early conditioning that the father-son relationship is built on one-upmanship and competition.  But I don’t want to compete with him. I’m not great at competition.  I want him to be on my side, dammit.  He’s my Dad.  I want us to be mates.  I want him to back me, recognise me, endorse me, be proud of me, or at the very least pay some genuine fucking interest.  Not fall into the introspective world of self-interest which marks many a depressive.  I know he doesn’t live exclusively in that place because he’s more than happy to support others.

Would I ever talk to him about it?  My girlfriend asked this when I expressed this frustration.  I don’t know if there would be any point.  Is he really able to change?  It’s probably an unconscious thing.  Maybe he does envy me in a quite basic way – although fuck knows what I really have to envy.  Would it more likely cause upset and unrest at this stage of life, when it’s something that, perhaps at 32, I should just accept?

burning rubbish

“Take it you never met their Dad?” I asked as flames spat from the old metal bin.
“No, unfortunately.”
Unfortunately?” I asked, a hint of challenge in my voice.  “Or maybe fortunately?”
“Yeah, well..  He sounds like a complicated man,” he diplomatically responded.
“Complicated is one word.”
The fire crackled some more, smoke plumed above, twining and weaving its way between branches, up and away.

Wood and various other tools, pots, tubs and things had been strewn across the garden for many months, planks lying forgotten, chipboard from the old man’s weird ideas and plans, which died with him two years earlier.  As well as wood, we fed the fire polluting artefacts of his existence: floppy discs, CDs, a hidden photograph album which did nothing to improve his reputation – I struggled to suppress strong feelings; bank statements, letters, a postcard from a far flung brother.  This was what had remained.  This and debt and an unroadworthy car and a number of strange, unidentifiable chemicals, oils, petrols, building material, scaffolding, paint pots, tools: an overwhelming mountain of mess.

The smaller flammable items tentatively took, as if the flame first needed to get to know the alien material, before curling, enveloping, incinerating and disintegrating.

We were both with the deceased man’s daughters; my fire partner with the elder one, me with the younger.  Between the two was a tricky, aspergersy son, also indoors, belatedly pouring through the effects.  All three of them had been paralysed in the wake of their father’s death, only a few years after the sudden passing of their mother.  As I saw it, his monstrous control over them and his steely conviction about everything meant that newly faced with authority, responsibility, decision-making power, the need to discuss things – his children were all stunned and awkward.  The older sister was physically removed, a few hours across the country, and rarely returned.  It was a significant event that this weekend she had visited, perhaps spurred on by learning that pressures were taking their toll on her younger sister.   The son didn’t drive, was socially stunted.  Much fell to the youngest, a driver and a worker and the most proactive of them all – as it had with the palliative care of a father who barely deserved it; the one I was proud to call mine.

Here we were, eventually, two years later, the old man’s desk finally in the process of being cleared.  Boxes, files, pens, paperwork, photographs.  It was the first time I had been upstairs, perhaps reluctantly permitted to help move boxes.  Only now had his reading spectacles been lifted from their final resting place near a monitor.  Both urns of the parents still sat in the corner of the living room.  Something which had unnerved me at first now felt acceptable, normal.  There were plans of a kind.  Scattering would happen once agreement from another stakeholder, a half-sibling in Scotland, had been made.

But we kept out of it, me and this mild-mannered chatty Glaswegian man, at least ten years my senior.  At the end of their long sloping garden we stood with the fire’s heatwaves bathing our faces, and volleyed back and forth stories of our own families – his wheeler-dealer father, my Dad’s retirement from running; his awkward sibling relationships; life in my brother’s shadow.  This was our place for now; we’d go for a pint in the dodgy local when the sun sank.  I wouldn’t have to try too hard to tease out more of his war stories.  Much sounded attractive about being in the forces, all the different environments and travel and challenges.  Shame about that whole ‘putting your life on the line’ thing.  Didn’t fancy that much.

After the pub we’d return to check on progress and sibling harmony.

pondering parenthood

Long term goals and lifestyle pondering (as in the last post) have made me consider bigger, serious, scary life things. I’m talking.. I don’t know why but I am talking parenthood. And whether I ever want to be a father. Whether I would regret it if I never was, and how much.

It’s largely arisen as a result of growing more comfortable in a relationship. She has stacks of issues, her internet presence is far from compelling and she annoys the living crap out of me at fairly regular intervals (getting out of bed and leaving the building remain painfully slow processes and I generally do *a lot* of waiting around because everything takes her so long.  Sometimes I exercise superhuman levels of patience, particularly for a not very patient person, and still she moodily considers me impatient and unreasonable and I don’t know what to do other than dissolve into a puddle of hopelessness). But despite all this, yes, I love the girl. I want to live with her. I’ll be 33 this year. She’s only a couple of years younger, uncertain what she wants but pretty great with my niece and nephew, now 3 and 6 and less exclusively like vessels of human excrement.  More like actual small people with developing personalities.

On the one hand my brother’s nauseatingly soppy, overbearing, pandering parenthood style puts me off. But I know it doesn’t have to be like that; it’s just his way. There’s also the exhaustion and the sheer effort and the sleep deprivation and the massive imposition on every single aspect of your life. I like having time to do stuff I like doing. I’m not sure how I’d feel about having to give most of it up for some wailing little emperor who dribbles and snots and shits his pants every few minutes. Fuck the little bastard.  There’s also the whole conception, gestation, birth, early life stuff – all of which can have complications and be immensely difficult.

On the other hand though, I read books and see films (recently Ewan McGregor in tsunami emotion-fest The Impossible), and admire cute families in the street and can’t help wondering what that kind of love must be like, that type of kinship and bond and friendship and closeness. To be *that* important to someone, hopefully for the rest of your life, even afterwards.  To have someone be *that* important to you. It’s unfathomable. Would I be ok dying, likely an underachiever together with an underwhelming highlights reel, with it still being unfathomable? Or do I want one day to fathom it?

It’s commonly the only single thing people are proud of doing, their kids.  Often stupid people who appear on daytime television chat shows and genuinely haven’t done much with their lives, but then neither have I.  And another life is pretty undeniably something significant.

This guff also arises in the face of a current on-going malaise, a tide of futility (trying to pinpoint noteworthy achievements on CVs and job applications is gallingly difficult); a defence against yet more professional patronising and rejection; a lack of any progress in an area where I’d deeply love to make progress; indulgent, possibly immature bleating about unfairness; and  a lingering fog where nothing seems particularly meaningful or important.  Except feeling.