when worry wains

Oh hello, how you doing? Good weekend? Mine?  Well yes actually, this May bank holiday weekend was excellent because we did very little indeed.  And I’m not just saying that because I don’t want to talk about my weekend because look, few hundred more words down there.

When a guy in the pool mentioned the upcoming bank holiday I was annoyed. Really? There’s another bank holiday? We only just had Easter. I was mainly annoyed because bank holidays and weekends don’t tend to mean as much to me as they might to those in regular employment. I still feel the press to work, to go and sit at my desk if I’m not out of the house working. And because the bank holiday would present yet another obstacle to me being paid by various clients.

Getting paid remains one of the most infuriating things about freelance life. A job is never over when you have delivered the work. The job is only ever over when you see the money in your bank account, and sometimes not even then. Between those two things there can be weeks and months, endless emails and phone calls politely prompting and reminding with appropriate levels of levity and seriousness. It is a battle to maintain tight-lipped professionalism when conducting a simple online transaction can be the simplest thing in the world, and when these are never monstrously large sums.  Naturally they matter to me though. I make very little money and every few pounds matters to me.

It is this worry and stress about getting paid and not getting paid which you live with, day to day, your mental climate dictated by what those numbers in your bank accounts say, how many digits long they are, how much they are likely to plummet with further outgoings, bills, monthly business expenses, mortgage payments. They impact your esteem and ego. Having recently calculated your annual income, it is pathetic, paltry, embarrassing. You are plainly not successful.

And yet here you are, existing actually quite nicely. How does that work? You like your lifestyle, your house, your wife, your dog, your walks. Outside of worrying about money and work, the car screwing up, scrimping a bit, never going on holiday, most other things are all pretty good thanks.

-But do I deserve this? Have I earned it?

Please shut that shit up right now brain, just for a moment, just for a weekend. Relax and enjoy what you have.

Nobody said that outside my brain. It was something that seeped in gradually as we sat there in our quite nice conservatory, reading our books and drinking tea, rain flecking the windows, clouds flying overhead, the dog grumbling and sighing on the floor. Simple pleasures. We could have been 10, 20, 40 years older. But we are certainly not young-young now.

Although that itself presented the topic of discussion which forever bubbles away under the surface. Children.

Do we want them? The selfish knee-jerk rationale for ‘certainly not now anyway’ is my perpetual floundering sense of worry about work and finances. Bringing anything else into that equation would probably send me spiralling towards nervous breakdown, or at least more consistent fear and self-loathing. Either way, it would not be good. Would it?

Although a flipside might be that it occupies me better and makes me feel like I do have a purpose and reason and I am not an entirely useless semi-unemployed piece of shit. (Unless I am entirely useless at it, which is possible). It could also be ok to flexibly work around. We could work it out. Could we?

But we are happyish now, with this, with us, our fur baby down there. This is ok. It would all be terrifying, and who knows if we even could have kids? 40 is now closer than 30. We are not exactly in the bloom of youth.

You live with a dark premonition of profound regret in later life. Isolation too, having no family and nobody around you. In later years you might see your extended family – niece, nephew, brother – maybe once or twice a year at best? So, no support, nobody who really gives a shit in a country with a massive ageing population and an NHS which could by then be fully disintegrated. And what if one of us dies much earlier than the other?

We had those discussions, as we do. They come and go at almost tidal intervals. Mostly though we enjoyed the house, the rain, the dog, our books, pockets of peaceful unoccupied space in our brains usually occupied by worry and stress, Mozart filtering through from the other room, still somehow feeling faintly fake (is this really our life now?) but fuckit, day bleeding slowly into night, just being there together and not doing much. The dog groaned loud and long, turned over. We both looked at her, the beautiful embodiment of calming therapy, then at each other, smiled. For a time it was peaceful and meditative, to be cherished.

Worry will come back, of course it will. Stress, anxiety, nerves, all that; you can’t keep them at bay indefinitely. But you can effectively keep it at arm’s length for a time. It turns out, surprisingly, in the right circumstances you actually can.

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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.

sorry sperm

It’s late afternoon. I’m bored, restless and a little sad, walking aimlessly through an old neighbourhood, weaving around sprightly cheerful old people walking towards me.

I reach a place I don’t ever remember seeing before: a clearing beyond some suburban housing, a copse of trees which reaches high and majestic into the sky.  Behind them a more developed forest, the beginning of something. Leaves lie thick, deep and moist on the ground, like it must be autumn. I run up a small incline, mildly wary that this might be a hideout for local gangs or bored kids. None are here and there’s no evidence of them, no litter or debris.

There’s rustling though. In the half-light I see, is it a hare? It seems very large. I can’t figure out if it’s stalking or being stalked, until I catch a glimpse of an even bigger hare. This seems ridiculous, something out of Alice In Wonderland. I don’t believe myself and walk on, arcing back around towards suburbia, marvelling at the shapes in the high treetops.

The leaves and ground underfoot here is boggier than I recall. Turning over my left shoulder I see two figures, a man and a woman, children on their shoulders, all wearing some kind of protective boiler suits. Have they been bog snorkelling? Sounds and looks fun. The children laugh.

I follow them inside their perfect house – light blue walls, red door – and look around the place.  It’s unruly but somehow ordered. I befriend the boy and scare the mother. I tell him not to speak or play with me here, I could be anyone, and go back downstairs to his mum. I’m not sure where his father is. I leave the house and wake up.

*

Lately in waking life I have been thinking more about children, the idea of having them, being 33 in the next month or so, and of never having them. My best friend and his wife are pregnant with twins.  They will soon be moving into a new house in a commuter-belt town.  Added to this, I really enjoy the time I spend with my nephew and niece, 6 and 3.  Their lack of any real care or stress about anything is infectious and freeing and I begin to miss it when I haven’t seen them for a couple of months.

I’ve thought about it and discussed it here before.  But perhaps it was my best friend’s news – delivered in a stunned tone on a telephone call shortly after the first scan (twins!)) – and pondering it more since.  That has made me think again. Everyone is growing up, getting married, buying houses, having babies, getting dogs, seemingly growing reconciled to their careers. That’s what Facebook says anyway.

At almost 33 I am more nervous about paying my rent each month than I ever have been; more uncertain about a career path or lack of one as I have ever been. Freelance work is slow at the moment, all regular jobs look unrealistic, unobtainable, over 4 years out of a regular full-time workplace. I feel unemployable. I am worried.

Unlike my girlfriend – who is incredibly supportive – I am not hung up about the whole marriage thing, but do regularly hanker for a dog, holiday, travel, a nice house, a solid supply of good quality wine; and occasionally (often privately) think of children.

Having children is like experiencing a tremendous thunderbolt of love. I see that. I get that. You want to provide them with the best of everything and give all you can.

While I am indefinitely nervous about paying my rent every month, ‘big progress’ of the kind gently encouraged by parents, doing ‘life things’ on any level, it all seems impossible or hamstrung at best.

Everybody lives life differently, yes. It’s unhealthy to compare yourself with others (though equally impossible not to), yes.

And yet all this stuff can’t help but add up to feeling at least a little inadequate, at least a little failed.  Sorry sperm.

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.