Saturday, 30 June 2018

Feminism and Me

It has been drawn to my attention that, as a man, I'm not in a position to comment on, never mind criticise, feminism...

The thing about feminism and me is I've been doing it for bloody decades. I was doing it at Brighton Poly back in the 80s and it was almost like this sacred cow for us male students then - we renounced anything masculine - everything manly or paternal, macho or laddish. I knew I couldn't be a woman, but I certainly didn't want to be a man. Women were right about everything and their perspective was true. I believed in political correctness - it was right to modify our language and check our sexist assumptions. This was the 80s and Soft Cell and Boy George were in the charts. Tom Robinson went Sing if you're Glad To Be Gay and Frankie said Relax. I wasn't interested in clothes enough to really go for The Look but I cultivated effeminate mannerisms, which were noted and approved of. I even let it be believed that I might be gay (even though I've never wanted to have sex with a man) because it wasn't cool to be straight. We all agreed that nobody was completely straight anyway. I never doubted that women were at least as intelligent, capable and creative as men, that everyone had an absolute right to love and fuck whoever they fancied and that any kind of abuse or oppression of women and homosexuals was totally wrong.

Actually I'd been doing this a lot longer. I was standing up for a woman's right not to be stuck in the kitchen against my working class conservative uncles at 13 and was idolising the girls at school by the time I was 8. I desperately wanted to be with them. The boys and men were hard and aggressive, unpredictable and rude and I wanted as little as possible to do with them. It was a common view back in the 70s among the men that women were better than men, though that didn't stop them putting them down and taking them for granted. For their part the women made it very clear what they thought of the men - laughable, smelly and crude. I never really understood why any of them would ever deign to have sex with us without some sort of subterfuge.

And all this time, despite desperately wanting to have sex with many women, I tried incredibly hard not to be a typical man - to listen and ask questions, to be emotionally intelligent, to not push myself on them and to not make assumptions. Actually I'm pretty sure I missed quite a few chances to have sex because I didn't want to spoil a friendship or make them uncomfortable. And it wasn't an act - I genuinely prefered the company of women to men, and I liked the conversation and the fact that I didn't have to compete or banter. I wore my hair long and wandered around in a sarong and a black vest and was actually fairly gorgeous for a while there, though I didn't know it at the time.

So yes - now I think it's time to take a little back. I think I've been doing the women's cause long enough to be able to say - you know what? Women aren't always right. Feminism gets it wrong sometimes - especially when it talks about how men feel or think (I'm not sure they ever asked us). Women get it wrong too - they make assumptions and over generalise. And sometimes, when things go wrong between men and women, it's not because of sexism or patriarchy - sometimes it's because we're human and humans piss each other off fairly frequently, and sometimes we handle it badly and sometimes we fuck up - men and women. Patriarchy is still far too strong and men attack women far more often than women attack men, but in other ways, women can be every bit as evil as men - just a selfish and ruthless, as jealous and manipulative, just as lacking in empathy and compassion. I even suspect that women are just as capable of aggression and violence. On average women are still physically weaker than men - but it's an average. There's an awful lot of overlap.

The fact is I am, at heart, an egalitarian. I actually believe that men and women aren't all that different and that a lot of what is assumed to be typically masculine behaviour is actually the behaviour of people in power, and as women become more powerful, they will do more obnoxious things - just as opinionated and aggressive, ruthless and competitive (but also adventurous and creative). I also believe that men will become more like the women were. In fact it's obvious to me that both these things are already happening and have been at least since the 60s.

Many women seem to have assumed that as they become more equal with men, the world will become a better, more nurturing caring place with fewer wars and less focus on money and wealth, in accordance with traditional feminine values, but being equal and being moral are two quite separate things. As the economy moves inexorably toward brains rather than brawn, and technology takes the place of physical strength, women will become equal. They just will. And I will defend that to the end - the right of women to be our equals, even though I know it means more women behaving badly, because women having the freedom to choose is the thing, whatever they choose to do with it. They should have as much right to fuck up as we men have. Whether the world will ever be better is another matter. I've not given up on that but it feels a lot less achievable at the moment.

So yes I'm not going to deferentially let women tell me what I'm allowed to say. I've been doing women's rights since before a lot of them were born. I hope I'd never try to tell anyone what they've experienced or how they feel but if they start trying to tell me what I feel and what I want I will go for them, whoever they are. We're all human - we can all empathise. We can all use reason and evidence. And this may come as a shock to some but feminism is about men as well as women. It has to be - it's about how men think and feel about women and how to change that. If women have the wrong information about men (assuming that we all feel confident and powerful in our lives for example) feminism won't work. If women care about men at all - even if it's just their sons - they need to understand us. And you know what? sometimes an outsider's perspective is valuable. Sometimes when you're in the thick of it you can't see out. It's good to get the opinion of someone who's less embroiled. A man's opinion doesn't have any more power than a woman's. It's just an opinion. Nobody's forcing women to do as they say. As long as the opinion is expressed respectfully (and briefly if possible) it doesn't hurt to hear it out.

I am also proud to call myself a socialist, an environmentalist and a scientist and I have problems with some of the stuff they come out with too. I've never been one to just stick to the party line. So I will continue to express my opinions on feminism. It's a great cause and I want it to be as strong as possible. Plus I hate patriarchy so it's not entirely selfless

Friday, 29 December 2017

Crap Feminism

Ok - I confess - I am beginning to have problems with feminism. Not the pro women's rights and equality, anti-patriarchal, anti-male abuse type of feminism. I'm still totally on board with all that. It's more a kind of quasi-intellectual feminoid orthodoxy that's getting to me, and many women too. It's just too precious and inward looking and it makes women look weak. I suspect it's just a small minority but it's getting a lot of attention, at least among the people I follow online.
I had a rough exchange with someone on facebook (now unfriended) yesterday and today. It's not the first of its kind but it typifies the kind of thing I mean. Here is her last message, and my response

Her - there really is no excuse for personal attacks of the sort you did. I could have responded in public, but I am (trying to be) a grownup. you clearly have issues with women generally, and probably worse with older women. In our previous exchange, you asserted that you probably had just a bit more understanding of homophobia and what is offensive to gay people than would a 65-yr-old lesbian with 48 years of life experience plus activism plus academic cred in related studies. Basically, I have a phd in lesbianology, and while it's fine for you to ask questions or suggest alternative interpretations, ultimately it's much like the non-science person arguing with a scientist, the thing you always decry. You have argued with other women about mansplaining- and then you demonstrate it, over and over. You then made insulting remarks and very personal attacks when I was not available right away to respond to your never-ending flow of opinions (which in the music instance I did not particularly take issue with, but was not fascinated by). I am done with you. You are smart about plants; you are an idiot when it comes to yourself and other people.

Me - "you clearly have issues with women generally, and probably worse with older women"? Really? Have you seen how I talk to men? I talk to everyone the same. I have issues with people. I struggle with relating to people, as I've said so many times before.
I have been entirely for gay and women's rights and equality since I can remember, but you started telling me what it's like to be a straight man (something I know a bit about) and you got it wrong. You know all about being a lesbian no doubt but (like many feminists) you know nothing about men - you've made us into this big powerful demonic enemy when mostly we're really struggling, and if you don't understand your adversary your way of tackling them is likely not to work. Is that not worth knowing? When was the last time you spoke to a man who did not entirely agree with you? Not worth listening to are we - you can just dismiss it as 'mansplaining'
Secondly - I actually was "suggesting alternative interpretations" (I even said "but then, I'm not gay - what do I know?") I was completely polite and respectful but you told me that basically you couldn't be arsed to explain it to me (which is why I gave you short shrift this time). I'm always open to discussion and explanation. I'd jump at the chance to talk to someone who was interested in what I had to say but had a different view. I only 'assault' people when they really are just stubbornly sticking to their beliefs no matter what anyone says. And I have never insulted or gone in for personal attacks. You really are making stuff up now.
And "assault"? Seriously? All those people who have actually been assaulted might have something to say about that. My basic assumption is that everyone is equally capable of taking part in a debate. I do not buy into this idea that women (I assume you mean women) are these poor weak things who can't hold their own.
I don't know what else to say. You seem to be so caught up in your lesbianology bubble you just can't see out.

I may be an idiot where other people are concerned but at least I know it.

Now, I am often badly affected by people's criticisms of me and I tend to go in for a lot of soul-searching but sometimes there's a moment when your adversary says something so plainly stupid that you can just sit back and enjoy replying. For an academic of, presumably, some standing, she's made some stupid debating mistakes - unfounded assumptions, B+W thinking, jumping to conclusions, dismissing views based on things other than reason and evidence, etc etc etc and I'm pretty happy with what I wrote, but there are some bigger issues here that I think need looking at.

Firstly, that first point "you clearly have issues with women generally, and probably worse with older women." This is a common assumption in this kind of feminoid diatribe - that when there is any kind of conflict between a man and a woman, it is clearly because the man is a misogynist. What she failed to do was ask 'Does this only happen between this man and women?' If a person makes a categorical point like that it's essential to look for counter examples - does he do it to men too? Do women do it to men? Had she asked I could have given her plenty of examples, but she didn't. She didn't ask any questions at all. She just assumed she knew exactly what I was on about.
As I went on to say I'd be the first to admit that I find interactions with people problematic and I find it hard to judge how people see me. I explicitly avoid any kind of name-calling or other dismissive or confrontational language but I think some find my overall way of expressing myself patronising. I try to be articulate and rational and I almost never feel angry. Generally I feel calm and intensely thoughtful, in the same way I imagine people feel when playing chess (except in debates there are real issues at stake - not just little bits of wood) but I am tenacious and I don't hold back. If I have a good point to make I make it. I make it as respectfully and compassionately as I can but I don't not make it because I might upset someone. They chose to join in the debate. They don't have to be there. We're all adults.

The second point is about feminists telling us what we're like. Feminists have often objected to men telling them what women are like (though we're all human so it's not impossible to relate, and an outside perspective can be useful) and yet feminism is based on an image of what men are like. In many ways feminism is about men, and in particular what men do to women, think about women, say about women etc, and in general it seems to me that if you want to change things you really need to know as much as possible about what you're up against. Feminism has been very good at describing and theorising about male aggression toward women and the way patriarchy has distorted society to make women second class citizens. Feminism knows a lot about abusers and men in power, but the rest of us? Not so much. We're kind of a blur. Maybe there are some decent blokes out there? or maybe we're all the same when it comes down to it. This is where Male Privilege comes in handy because no matter how good your feminist credentials, no matter how un-masculine you may be, no matter how desperate and humiliated and rejected by the system you may be, oh no, you still have Male Privilege, so really, we are all alike.
And the idea of actually asking men what they're like? What would be the point? We're men - what do we know? And anyway we can't be trusted. Sadly the result is an image of men that owes more to action movies, smutty seaside postcards and Donald Trump than it does to any actual men. It's a caricature, and it's as useful for campaigning purposes as a cartoon of Germans as goosestepping automata. They're just not like that.

This is where we wheel on the spectre of #notallmen. Some feminists get very worked up about this. I believe they see it as just men attempting to avoid taking responsibility for sexual abuse and patriarchy, but the fact is, most of us aren't responsible for it. We're born into patriarchy and some of us make use of that but for most of us it's just there. We can avoid the worst excesses of it but it's the way the world is. We can't not do patriarchy any more than most ordinary people can not do capitalism. For some of us who are not 'typical blokes' it doesn't serve us very well at all and some of us don't want to have any part in it because it's abusive and unjust and frankly obscene. Likewise violence - violent crime is overwhelmingly a male vice but most of us don't want to have anything to do with it, in the same way that terrorism at this time in history is mostly a Muslim thing but that doesn't mean that Muslims generally support it or feel like they benefit from it. Quite the opposite.

But I suspect some women do want all men to be responsible. Partly I think this is a simple campaigning stance - it makes for snappier slogans and soundbites. It's easier if you can just say "Men oppress women" and "Men silence women". "Of course" they add, "we don't mean all men" but that's not how the language works. If I say "Giraffes have long necks" it's obvious I mean "all giraffes", not "some giraffes" or "most giraffes". It's especially obvious if I say something like "Women stay at home and look after the babies". Any self-respecting feminist would just have to put a 'some' in there. And really how hard is it to say "some men", or "a minority of men", "men in power" or even "abusers"? But these women don't want to do that, and I suspect it's because really, they do want it to be men in general. It's easier to be fully committed to a cause if you have no complicated feelings of compassion or being able to relate to the enemy. It feels better to have that simple clarity and certainty about who the enemy is. There's a lot of bitterness and cynicism there and bitter people typically like to make blanket statements about life in general and how shit it is. Sure they know some nice blokes, but it's like the racist who concedes that some of his best friends are black. Ok, I get it that some people have been very badly abused and I can't imagine how that feels, but really - if you don't feel able to get your own back against the people who actually did the damage, it's kind of cowardly to just take it out on the people who happen to be around and who are probably on your side.

This brings me finally to 'mansplaining' which is a general term for men holding forth on what they think, and how this is oppressive and an example of male aggression or oppression or supremacy or something. As an idea it's lazy and stupid on a couple of levels. In the first place I know plenty of women who go on and on about what they think and what other people should do. I've had plenty of unsolicited advice from women over the years, often patronising and opinionated on subjects they knew nothing about. But this is not me saying this is something specific about women. Both sexes do it. This is what is important to me about the notion of sexual equality. It doesn't mean women aspiring to the exalted status men have supposedly enjoyed all these millennia but instead acknowledging that we're all a bit crap sometimes. We can all do great things but we all fuck up sometimes too.
But mansplaining is more insidious than that because simply coining the word implies that what men do is somehow different to women going on a bit - it has some extra power or authority. When men talk about what they think it's reframed as telling everybody else what to think, rather than as expressing a personal opinion. It's assumed to be about self-importance ("He likes the sound of his own voice") rather than an attempt to explain something that he finds interesting or important. I can see this being a problem in a situation where a man has some actual power over women - in a work place where women are discriminated against for example, or in an abusive relationship, but on Facebook? What extra power do I have on Facebook? We're all there writing away, airing our views. We all have equal power to post and to comment at length or to go away and do something else. In what way am I expressing male privilege there unless the women in question give it to me - unless they in fact see me as more powerful?
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do about that. For me writing an opinion piece is just about putting thoughts out there for debate. Nobody is under any obligation to listen, let alone take my opinions seriously. Should I mollify my arguments so women get the chance to take part? Should I be extra nice to them in a way I wouldn't be with the men? That seems a bit condescending. I know some of the women I've been friends with in the past would find it downright insulting. They would insist on being talked to exactly the way the men are. The implication that they weren't every bit as able to hold their own in a rational debate or even a slanging match would be anathema to them. Frankly I'd be much less able to hold my own if it came down to it. I'm much too sensitive. My basic assumption about women is that they're perfectly able to hold their own with men in any situation that doesn't involve physical strength, and possibly there too (there are a lot of very weedy men out there, and some very tough women). For better or worse, women can be every bit as evil as men psychologically, verbally and rationally. And men can be exactly as compassionate, sensitive and emotional.

My problem with any movement or campaign is almost never what they say but when they make it impossible for any outsider to question what they say. Religious people say that atheists can't know because they don't know god. Conspiracy theorists say that anyone who disputes their claims is either a sheep or is part of the conspiracy. New Age people say we can't challenge their views because everyone's view is equally true. Zionists silence anyone who criticises Israel by calling them anti semitic. And of course racists, anti semites and misogynists dismiss the opinions of black people. Jews and women because they are black, Jewish and female. And now we have some feminists saying that a man can't question how women see things because it comes from a man's point of view. Any challenge from a male pov is sexist and possibly misogynist. Even women who disagree with the these feminists (for example women who choose to work in the sex industry or give up a career  to look after the kids) may be labelled as being in the thrall of patriarchy and possibly suffering from 'false consciousness'. What this invariably results in is an unchallengeable orthodoxy that neatly avoids running the risk of being embarrassed by contradictory evidence or reasoning. Mainly it serves the interests of academics and professionals whose careers are based on expounding the orthodoxy but it also appeals to people who need that sense of certainty in order to feel strong, but it's a weak position to anyone outside looking in - one that can only lash out when criticised. Mansplaining, male privilege and the mess over #notallmen may have started out as valid feminist critiques of patriarchy but have simply become ways of silencing dissenting voices.

So I refuse to buy in to this petty, whingeing version of feminism I keep coming up against. It's demeaning and disempowering to women and bitter and cynical about men.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Confessions of a single man

As you'll know, I consider myself very much a feminist but I don't want to go into the issues of patriarchy or male violence here. As far as I'm concerned that debate has been had and won, and although there's loads of work to be done getting anti-discrimination laws enforced and abusive men prosecuted, I don't have much to add.

I do have something to say though about the way men and women relate to each other in ordinary every day professional, social and sexual relationships. For example, an issue that preoccupied me endlessly when I was younger was about how men and women get it together to form a relationship. I suppose most of us meet our partners through friends or work, but if that's not working you have to somehow try to talk to strangers at social events. This made me miserable for years - right up until my late thirties in fact and there were many late nights, walking home half-cut from some party or club - me literally in tears because I simply couldn't work it out. I felt rejected and humiliated and utterly wretched almost every time. I don't know how common that is. We men don't talk about that sort of thing so it's impossible to say. I seriously doubt it was just me though

There's a club if you'd like to go
You could meet somebody who really loves you
So you go and you stand on your own
And you leave on your own
And you go home and you cry
And you want to die
(The Smiths - How Soon is Now)

I thought about it pretty continuously, certainly from the age of about 13 until at some point in my early 40s I realised that I was ok, and actually, in retrospect I'd done pretty well, but it hadn't felt that way at the time. At the time I felt utterly undesireable. Now I'm 55 and single again and have the distinct feeling that time is running out. People make optimistic noises but realistically, after all these more or less unsuccessful relationships, what are the chances?
So I'm back to thinking about meeting women again, and remembering what it was like, back in the day...

Despite about a hundred years of women's rights and equality, it is still very much expected that the man will make the first move. Some women do and that's great but they do tend to be the extremely extrovert types, and often they're the same with everyone and don't mean anything by it, as I have discovered, to my chagrin, several times.

The first problem was knowing if the woman was interested in being approached, and it was pretty much impossible to tell. If she smiled or made eye contect it was still most likely she was just being friendly or cheerful, so going up and trying to make conversation just felt like making a nuisance of yourself. I spent a lot of time trying to think of something cool and original to say but my mind was always completely empty.
In contrast our role models were film stars and lead singers and footballers. They seemed to succeed  by making some outrageously bold move that women simply couldn't resist, or by being incredibly funny, or else by simply turning up in that suit and smiling that smile.
So the opportunities for getting it wrong, especially when you've had a few to calm your nerves, were numerous. The problem with having to perform in front of your mates and her friends was that there were no stage directions or script and if we were honest we knew we were not that great looking anyway. It was incredibly easy to get it slightly wrong and come over as quite intrusive, rude or inappropriate. I'm not talking about outright harrassment or obscene suggestions or inappropriate touching here - just doing or saying something embarrassing, being too forward or too persistant or too intimate. Even looking at women, trying to catch their eye, trying to work out whether to go for it or not, came over as creepy and desperate.
This is where the notion of 'unwanted attention' comes in on the #metoo campaign. What seems obviously wrong to a woman (and other more mature onlookers) can seem, at the time, like a really good idea to a young man. The pressure was enormous, to get a girl, to look cool, to get anywhere at all with a woman. Most women probably found this unimaginable because many of them spent most of their time fending men off, but for young men, any attention at all from women was incredibly rare, and therefore extremely unlikely to be unwanted. Even for women that got very little attention, men's gauche attempts to impress them seemed more like a nuisance than something genuine and meaningful. Most of us really simply had no idea what we were up to.
I think this was the crucial mismatch between what we intended and what women experienced, and almost nobody talked about it, least of all the men.

The women in my experience had almost no patience with any of this - the flip side of that male role model was that they expected men to be charming and confident and witty and cool and surely there was something wrong with us because we simply weren't. But men are powerful and in control aren't they? It's what women have been aspiring to all these years - to have that sense of personal potency - to get that job and make the money, to have that freedom, that self-reliance, that sense of entitlement. That's what being a man is all about surely? So who were all these weirdos making unfunny comments and embarrassing themselves on the dance floor?

There were of course always a few men who could do it. It was always the same one went home with a girl, and he just didn't care, because he could get it pretty much whenever he wanted. We also knew he was an obnoxious twat but the women seemed to like him. They wanted to tame him. I've always had female friends so I heard both ends of it - how most of the men they got involved with turned out to be egotistical bastards. It was a constant shock to them that the dude who was so supremely sure of himself in the bar was not going to be the man to talk about his feelings and take an interest in their kid's homework and clean the toilet. But those were the only guys who had the nerve to approach the women, and a skin thick enough not to care much what happened, so those were the guys women had most experience of when they told us how fucking selfish and untrustworthy and abusive we all were.

There is a happy ending though - to wit - thank fuck for online dating. I'm pretty good at writing an online dating profile so if I get a date I know that she wants to spend a little time with me and talk to me, and that's really all the encouragement I need. Under those circumstances I can be myself - I can be as relaxed and confident as I ever am, and actually, more often than not, have a genuinely nice time. So that'll be me some time soon, posting my profile again, and hoping for the best...
Happy New Year xxx

Monday, 24 July 2017

Self-help for sceptics

Yesterday I began to try to explain to a good friend what I meant by using science to sort myself out. I didn't get far. It's not hard to explain but it's not something I can encapsulate in a few sentences drinking coffee outside a cafe in Shoreham. This isn't helped by the fact that most people don't really know how science works. They maybe remember what they learned at school about repeatable experiments, and later they read the often controversial and mind-blowing claims about climate change and vaccination, cosmology and subatomic particles. At best they maybe watch documentaries or read popular science but most people know very little about the process of ordinary everyday science.

I’ve made some immense improvements to how I deal with my life over the last few years, after 50 years of struggling and being very unhappy, and frankly I’m as amazed about that as anybody. As it stands I’m pretty much the only person I know who has suffered from debilitating low self-esteem, depression and anxiety all his life that has succeeded in working his way out of it, mainly by thinking it through. I’ve been a little surprised and disappointed that nobody’s wanted to know how I did that, considering so many of them suffer similar problems. You’d think they’d want all the ideas they could get.

I certainly spent a lot of time asking people how they manage – hoping for some sort of useful insight but instead I’ve been told I’m obsessing, over-thinking and being paranoid, navel-gazing, being self-indulgent or self-involved. If I feel unhappy I should simply be more positive they say. If I’m struggling to get on in life I’ve been told I should just believe in myself – ‘just do it’. People who’ve given me advice have been exasperated with me for not simply doing what they say. I’ve been told I don’t really want to be happy – that I’m just wallowing or attention-seeking.

These people are of course expressing their own impatience with my unhappiness rather than trying to help, and that means I’ve almost never had a constructive conversation with anyone about it and have had to work it out for myself. Furthermore, I’ve never found the idea of Gods, spirits or souls, or any ‘consciousness’ beyond our own (and perhaps a few other animals) made much sense, so I’ve had to work it out without being able to fall back on any of that. I can’t put my trust in a higher power or ask the universe because nothing about my experience suggests that makes any sense. I can’t simply put intangible things down to ‘energy’ or ‘spirit’ because I have no idea what those things mean (I know what energy is in a pure physics sort of way, but not in the way New-Agers talk about it, which seems very muddled)

Of course, none of our experiences are completely objective. Science goes to enormous lengths to minimise the effects of personal perception and interpretation by making the process as open and impersonal and disinterested as possible. Peer review is about laying your work open to people who don’t necessarily agree with you and want to find fault. But this is impossible with introspection. Psychoanalysis has made a lot of money out of our ability to delude ourselves about what’s really going on in our own minds, but I think it’s possible to achieve a useful amount of objectivity if two things are true:-
1. If you genuinely want to get better. If you use the wrong information the treatment won’t work, or it’ll only work superficially but won’t tackle the deeper causes, so the problems will re-emerge in a different way. If you really want to get better you need the best possible information about what’s happening or there’s simply no point. There’s no point pretending – you’ll only be fooling yourself. Even so the information you gather will always be incomplete and any conclusions you reach will be uncertain. All you can do is make as coherent a theory as the evidence allows, and be ready to revise it when new evidence comes along.
When you come up with a hypothesis you have to test it to destruction – you have to try to think of anything that might disprove it. You learn to spot that nagging feeling that something about your new hypothesis isn’t quite right – that it’s too easy or too generic. You need to be ruthless – no comforting half-truths or convenient rationalisations.
With a bit of experience you’ll know when you hit the right explanation because you can feel it fit, and the change happens like that - whether you try or not. It simply works. You don’t have to practice or say something over and over or believe in something. If it’s right it works, in exactly the same way as using the right component fixes an engine.  If it doesn’t work you try something else.

2. If you can take an inquisitive and fearless view of whatever you find. Simply be interested in the contents of your mind - in whatever comes up. Don’t cherry-pick evidence to support a preferred story. In science, there is no wrong answer. The evidence you uncover might lead in a completely unexpected direction. Go with it – see it as interesting rather than disturbing, exciting rather than unacceptable (after all – nobody else needs to know). I suspect many people stop when they come across something they don’t want to know, or that they think reflects badly on them and instead of exploring further, just pretend it’s not there, or cap it off with a lie. I understand that if you’ve been through something deeply traumatic this might not be easy (none of this is easy) but it might be doubly good – debriding the wound – getting in there and clearing the junk out so it can heal properly.

Another thing you must be prepared for is for it to take a long time and to involve a lot of going around in circles (this is when people think you’re obsessing and wallowing). The first part of any scientific project is the collection of data. You’ll need to really get into the feelings that come up on a daily basis, in order to see what they consist of – to unpack them and trace the components back to their origins. As a scientist, I assume that things are not random - that causality applies - so I’m looking for connections and patterns. I’m not going to go into the details here, but the fact is, unless you find the workings of your mind intrinsically interesting, you won’t be able to do this, because it’s time-consuming. Personally I think minds are fascinating (not mine especially – it’s just that mine is the one I happen to have handy and which is giving me trouble). Looking at other people’s minds, just by talking and observing and/or by taking in a little psychology and neurology really helps. A bit of anthropology and philosophy helps too but none of this is essential - an ability to think critically and a ruthless honesty are really all you need.

Where to start? I begin with the time-honoured idea that how we are for the most part comes from our childhoods. Traumatic experiences can over-write that but for most of us, who we are is based in the time before we were able to make conscious choices about how to be and life just was whatever it was. If I understand it correctly, the research tells us that we’re more or less 50:50 nature/nurture, but in any case we take after our parents genetically and form our characters mainly in response to the behaviour of the people we spent most time with in those early years. Probably the amount we change after that gets smaller and smaller the older we get with a small peak at adolescence.

I think it’s crucial to understand what your early years were like as much as possible – not just the events, but how your parents felt and behaved, and not just in terms of how it was good or bad for you (this is not about blame). You can’t avoid being very much like your parents, so it’s best to get to know them as well as you can. You may have taken after them or rebelled against them, or a bit of both but you need to know. It might be worth doing a bit of history – see what the world was like when they grew up – what the dominant culture was then (mine grew up in WW2 but were too young to remember much about it, but they remember the post war austerity and were just too old to enjoy the 60s, unlike some of their friends who had their children only a few years later) Find out how their parents treated them and what their early memories are (my dad did his best to be nothing like his own father, who was a very angry man) Observing other people’s children, it is obvious that their basic characters are already well developed by the time they’re 2 – whether they’re withdrawn, adventurous, curious, fearful, dominant, sensitive, confident, proud, caring, or mischievous – it’s all there. It gets added to and modified over the years but in many ways, once it’s set it takes an enormous amount of deliberate effort (and possibly therapy) to change and generally it’s not really possible. It would be like changing the foundations without dismantling the house.

I’ve found the Freudian Id/Superego/Ego model very handy – especially as transformed into the Child/Parent/Adult model in transactional analysis (the Ego/Adult in this case is a rational, mature, disinterested person – not a selfish authoritarian one. The Parent/Superego is the authoritarian). I think this makes sense because of what we know from child psychology about how children’s minds develop. Those early Child /Parent interactions aren’t rational, whatever the actual real-life parent may intend. To the child, life is all emotions and instincts and conditioning. It is what it is – natural, common sense, normal, obvious. You do as you’re told or you get into trouble (or you get away with it). And of course, much of the time adults are no more rational than their children. Only later can we think about fairness and whether doing things another way makes sense but by then it’s too late - the deep feelings are set. We can (with a lot of effort) change our behaviour superficially (wear a smile, force ourselves to get up in the morning, repress our rage) but the deep feelings are there, and if the behaviour and the feelings are at odds there’s going to be a struggle.

For those of us who are struggling, this all sounds a bit hopeless but the iota of hope in all this is that the foundation is, as I said, never completely coherent – it is made up of lots of misc bits and pieces and the number of permutations, even among a small number of components, is large. We can’t be anything we want, but we can find a way of combining them to make a foundation that works better and allows the house to be improved. Some of the old components can be reused or they may become redundant (they’ll always be there but not actually doing anything, except maybe getting in the way.)

For me, locating a whole load of components that had been ignored was the key – things from my Child that had been dismissed as useless but which were undoubtedly there, and strong, from the start. I had gone through life viewing my Child the way my Parent did, which at its worst, was with contempt and exasperation – an unrealistic, immature, lazy, and somewhat stupid child. I’d somehow dismissed all the other things I was, and which I still am. I had to go in and see all the different ways I was back then, what I did, what I wanted, and also how other people responded. More than anything I had to look at my Child not as my Parent did, but as my Adult, with understanding and compassion and curiosity (because that tends to be how I look at other people) and I found a creative, conscientious, imaginative and enthusiastic child with a good heart. And as I said above – when I found the right components they fitted and my new way of doing things simply worked. It’s almost like I can’t see myself the old way now (or at least, only sometimes when I’m very tired). As a bonus I learned to look at my actual parents that way too, and to let them off.

It’s taken a very long time but maybe if I hadn’t had to work it all out from scratch it might have happened sooner. I don’t know. No doubt this ‘method’ is not original. I’m sure it’s been thought of before. I’m not a fan of self-help books or self-improvement courses so it’s probably out there. That said all those I’ve come across do seem to rely on either some form of spiritual belief or some sort of rigorous practice to keep it going, so if you’re a sceptic or don’t have that kind of self-discipline but really enjoy thinking, maybe this could help.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Clean and Tidy

I've thought a great deal about this and have come to the conclusion that there are basically two good practical reasons for cleaning and tidying - making it so the place is reasonably hygienic and people don't get ill too often on the one hand, and on the other, so we can find things reasonably easily and not trip over stuff all the time. The rest is aesthetics, and as such, is purely a matter of personal preference.

Hygiene seems to some people a very cut and dried thing - there simply mustn't be any 'germs' about the place and we buy products that claim to kill as much as 99% of them, but of course it's not as simple as that (is it ever?) Frankly our bodies inside and out, our homes, our food and in fact our entire environments are veritable ecosystems of 'germs'. Many species of mostly bacteria but also archaea, yeasts, and microscopic plants and animals live in and on us and everything we touch, and the vast majority do us no harm whatsoever. A few are crucial to our survival (certain gut bacteria most obviously) and a few can cause disease. It is well known now that we have in fact over the last few decades, in our attempts to keep everything germ-free with a huge range of new cleaning products, possibly made ourselves sicker with autoimmune conditions and more susceptible to hitherto harmless organisms as a result. This shouldn't be very surprising - in macroscopic ecosystems (forests, lakes, gardens), if you eradicate the existing fauna and flora to plant crops the land doesn't stay clean and tidy for long but fills up with opportunistic generalist plants and animals - commonly known as weeds and vermin and you have to invest immense amounts of time and money controlling them. My guess is this is what happens with the germs that live on us too.
But I'm not advocating just leaving everything filthy. Our living conditions have changed so much over the last few centuries and our immune systems have not kept up so we use medicine and cleaning to make up the difference.

Tidiness is more a matter of practicality but living a disordered life can be deeply depressing and frustrating. At the same time, if you have a vigorous mind and have a fair idea where everything is, having everything out in piles on the floor, on chairs, on the bed, in the car, might suit your way of working. Or you just might not have time to do much about it.

Beyond that, cleanliness and tidiness are completely a matter of individual taste. Some people like a very spare white and chrome look with huge windows and shining floors and are prepared to spend a lot of time or money keeping it that way. Others prefer a more cluttered look with lots of books and toys and plants about the place and accept that there will be some dust and a certain amount of wildlife about the place, otherwise they'd never do anything but clean.
So cleaning and tidying are very much a matter of personal priorities. Beyond a basic level of health and safety and practicality it depends only on how much time and energy you want to spend on it. Possibly we'd all like a spotless abode to come home to, with the kitchen surfaces clear and ready for action, the duvet cover changed and no fluff behind the telly, but there are so many other things to do. I want to talk to my friends, read, write, run the nursery, and frankly, since I'm not one of these people with loads of energy, I also want to spend time on the sofa watching old DVD boxed sets. And above all I really don't want the tyranny of having all my time mapped out and filled up. I really enjoy loose time.

And yet...
And yet so many people don't seem to see it that way. They seem to think that there is some absolute necessity to keep things clean and tidy. It is simply something one must do, always, even if one doesn't feel like it, even when one is sick or exhausted. There is no excuse. The way some people react to the washing up being left for the morning you'd think it was a notifiable public health hazard.
This isn't supposed to be a sexist point. I've known women who were utter slobs - especially when they were single, and men who were incredibly pernickety. The gay couples I know often move to opposite ends of the spectrum over time, so one becomes the nag and the other becomes the slob. Sadly though, in heterosexual relationships, it is almost always the woman who is the martyr and the nag, and the man who is the oblivious slob.

If you came over here right now to my flat you might notice that the carpet hasn't been vacuumed for a while (I hate vacuuming) but the washing up is well under control and there's not much stuff lying about. I tend to put things away when I'm done with them but things sit on the table if they're part of some ongoing activity. I have a couple of areas of chaos - the most obvious is the bedroom table which has piles of unfiled paperwork on it. I get around to sorting through it about three times a year.

When I was married I tended to take responsibility for the kitchen and 'wet works' (bathrooms, toilets etc) I actually don't mind washing up at all and I do it once a day, usually in the morning. I was a better cook than her and also tended to do most of the laundry. I did the bins and recycling, The Big Shop once a week and was around for her kids when they got in from school. She worked longer hours than I did but she was in a career she loved. She earned more money, but also bought a lot more stuff, whereas I can live happily on very little if it means I don't have to work full time.
Nevertheless there were times when I got that look - the one that says 'You're just not doing enough.' She wasn't particularly interested in housework herself. She'd do a blitz on the place every so often, especially if someone was coming. Later she complained that I was not doing 'deep cleaning', whatever that is.
It came to a bit of a head when we redid the bathroom. It certainly was a bit shabby and leaky and we went for a total refit. I've never been into DIY and I was by now running the nursery which took up a lot of my time and energy. I demolished the old wall between the bathroom and the airing cupboard and chipped off the old tiling. I had to build a new wall, box in the waste pipes and put up the shower cubicle after the plumber had done his bit. I made a T&G frieze and wooden floor. We both did the tiling - several times actually because the wall I built wasn't rigid enough and the adhesive didn't work. She painted the walls.
At the time I felt guilty and hassled about it - that I wasn't doing enough - a feeling I can get very easily from just a slight disapproving glance or a well-placed silence. The feeling that I was the useless man and she was the dutiful woman grew during that time. The summer house that I'd planned and built sat unfinished and empty at the end of the garden because I didn't have the time or the energy to work on it. I was very sad about that when our marriage ended. For our wedding present we'd asked people to just give us money towards it.
In retrospect I can see that not only did I do almost all the work on that sodding bathroom (despite the fact that I had no aptitude for it and made many mistakes) but that in fact, having a new bathroom was a purely aesthetic decision. The old one would have needed fixing up for sure - re-tiling and a new shower head, but it worked. It wasn't worn out, and frankly that's all I want. I don't spend a lot of time in the bathroom and I really don't care too much what it looks like as long as it's reasonably clean. No, this was her project - her priority. It was no more necessary than me doing the garden or building the summer house. It was almost entirely a matter of personal preference and yet I ended up feeling guilty and inadequate over it.

Was she wrong to want a nice new bathroom and a 'deep-cleaned' kitchen? Of course not. If that's important to her there's no reason why she shouldn't spend her time and money on it and I'd help where I could. I got no help in the garden because that was what I was interested in and I didn't need or expect any help. (I could have done with some help with the summer house though.)
Anyway - where am I going with this? The point here is that something that should have been a matter of personal preference ended up being about my laziness and untrustworthiness.

Of course there are still men who expect their women to do everything around the house but not nearly as many as there used to be. It used to be pretty much the rule. Now it's something some men get away with, not something they're entitled to. Things have changed. And yet a worrying number of women still seem to think this way, even though women these days can choose who they want to be with, and have an equal say in how the relationship goes. It is entirely a matter of choice now. Are women choosing to be with selfish gits because they find them attractive in other ways? Perhaps the characteristics they're looking for in a man do not fit well with them doing their bit around the house. Perhaps nice helpful blokes are not sexy? It's possible they're less forward so perhaps women don't tend to meet them, or even realise they exist. At any rate, the period of courtship should give her some idea of how interested he's likely to be in doing stuff around the house, long before they move in together. She shouldn't really be all that surprised or disappointed. And yet she is.

At that point the need to change him steps in - to make him more the way she thinks he should be, but by then it's not a matter of personal preference. By then, having the house cleaned and tidied in a certain way is simply the way it should be. Somehow she has access to the universal objective standard of how people should live, and he's falling short. In fact he only has to be a short time behind her for her to end up doing all the work. If he typically notices some dirty crockery needs putting in the machine only five minutes later than she does, she will end up doing it every time. He doesn't have to be a slob at all to end up doing almost nothing, because his tolerance for mess is only a little greater than hers.
After that he becomes resentful and rebellious and she becomes martyred and judgemental. Neither of them handle it well, but because she believes she's objectively in the right, she has the advantage. All he can do is give in and do as he's told or throw a tantrum or sulk. The women then martyr themselves - scuttling around, huffing and tutting, saying 'no, I'm fine', doing what has to be done, exhausted and stressed but fired up with self-righteousness and self-sacrifice.
At this point she sees herself as the victim in all this, powerless against the men in her life, and she blames men in general for something she has chosen.
There are many heinous ways in which women all over the world are victimised and oppressed and abused, but this isn't one of them. This is a matter of choice. If he turns out to be different to what she wants, she can ask nicely, but she can't expect to change him. Would she change her standards for him? I don't think so.
And if he really is a slob - how did she not spot that when they got together? Was he an amazing actor, or was it just not something she was thinking about at the time? Too often we choose a partner based on looks or confidence or sex, and then try to change the other parts of them. I really don't think that ever works, unless they enjoy bickering, or being in a sub/dom, parent/child type of relationship, which some people apparently do.
And if she has kids with him, that is her choice too. She didn't have to do any of those things. It was her choice, her freedom and her responsibility, and denying that does nothing for women's power. She's made herself a victim, and frankly it's beneath her.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016


About two months ago I started writing down the problems I still had with getting things done. I'd done it many times before so this was nothing new - trying to look at them, as a list and a flow diagram - how different parts of the problem interact and cause each other. I think I did this in the car during a work break actually. I have a note book on me all the time and my introspection goes upside-down in the back.
If you look at the picture you can see that I identified 6 different factors. I'd been aware of them for a long time but this time the way they work seemed especially clear
3 of them (1,2 and 6) seem like basal causes - 6. the physiological (tiredness, allergies, migraines etc), 1. the psychological/neurological (something like dyspraxia) and 2. parental/historical/sociological learned stuff - working class pessimism and anxiety etc (sorry the numbers are in the order I worked them out, not in order of importance or origin)
The flow diagram shows (top left) me trying to get going in the morning and the things that get in the way and my reactions to them (4,3 and 5)
4. feeling nagged and resisting
3. compulsion (to finish my things) and procrastination
5. anxiety and judgement - how people look at me doing all this and the unhappiness that causes

5 is about people judging me as lazy and 'can't be bothered'. It was the thing I couldn't shake off - that judgement - that I just wasn't trying hard enough - that I should just force myself. I remember in the car later on asking myself if I was really doing absolutely everything I could to get things done, and the answer was obviously not. There's always more that could be done. I've known this to be true for some time. It was the Damning Fact that prevented me accepting myself.

This was when I remembered my old CBT experiences and the importance of compassion, and in particular a sentence I came up with at the time "Often it's the people that screw up the most that deserve the most compassion."
I had previously always assumed that it's only the people that always do absolutely everything they possibly can to get things right that DESERVE compassion, but the truth is we fail all the time - we keep trying but the same old stupid things happen over and over again - with addiction, with over-eating, with money, with relationships, we keep on trying over and over again and we fail over and over again, but we keep on trying.
And it suddenly seemed very obvious to me that the last thing anyone can say about me is that I can't be bothered - that I just don't care. I've always tried so hard and cared so much - maybe too much. The idea that I'm simply lazy just makes no sense at all.

I’ve spent a very long time going over my early life, my childhood events, my parents and school times - trying to make the story as evidence-based and rational as possible (not simply ‘dwelling’ or ‘wallowing’. This is where the scientific approach comes in.) and that makes me as sure as I can be that this is true - I couldn't be so sure of this if I hadn't done that ground work. Simply assuming or believing that I am a valuable person in some vague spiritual way isn't enough for me. Most if not all of us have messages in our heads (I'm useless, I'm ugly, I'm lazy, I'm horrible, I'm stupid) from early on in life that sound ridiculous to other people but which strike deep in our perceptions of ourselves. There really do seem to be some bad people out there and the fear that we can’t shake off is that we might really be among them.

So I've messed up over and over again, and I still do. I'm never going to be a punctual, organised, energetic, socially adept sort of person. I'm probably always going to have those three things (tiredness, 'dyspraxia' and working class pessimism) But I'm not lazy - I'm not a 'can't be bothered' kind of person - and knowing that, deep down Knowing, is the thing, and I know it's right because I haven't had to keep on telling myself like some sort of confidence-building positive-thinking mantra. It's not a rationalisation or a comforting story (they never work). As soon as I knew it, it fitted, and now it's there in my mind. It fits. It's right. And it works.

I've had epiphanies like this before and I know what it's like when I've found the right form of words that fits the old message that fits the feeling. It just clicks into place and it never goes away.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Procrastination is not about Laziness. It's about Fear

I've been largely unemployed again since my last job, working for Miss Green as a gardener, came to an end last May. She died quite suddenly but not completely unexpectedly - she was 96, but had been my excellent, feisty, but supportive and respectful employer for 10 years - more or less the same period I'd been with my ex and living in her house in Henfield. It was the most settled period of my entire life since I left home. In some ways it was worse than the end of my marriage, partly because I've never been so financially secure and partly because Miss Green and I got on so well. 
Anyway, on top of the bereavement there was the simple matter of being unemployed again - a state I absolutely loathe - not because of the poverty (I can survive on surprisingly little) or the boredom (I have plenty to be getting on with) but simply because I do need at least some money - not much, but some - and sooner or later I need to set about finding someone to pay me to do something.

This is what I hate - job-hunting. It is my single most hated thing ever in life. I have no problem with public speaking (as long as I feel I know what I'm talking about) I wouldn't mind taking my clothes off in public. I might even prefer singing a solo (I might even be quite good at it). I'd sit my A levels again if I had to. But I hate job hunting. It has a power to make me feel wretched that nothing else does. It's not the interview - if I get an interview I'm generally ok - it’s the searching part - it's the trawling through all those uninspiring and often incomprehensible job descriptions (could they possibly make them seem less worth having?) or trying to locate likely looking employers and sending out cvs and covering letters to people who really aren’t interested and probably have someone very different in mind. I strongly suspect that even if a job sounds vaguely within my powers, that it'll be long hours for little return, probably working with people I can't relate to, for some greedy autocratic turd of a man doing something that means nothing to me, and I’ll end up messing it up in some way. 
I’m aware that my perception of The World of Work" is a little mad (I never said my feelings about all this were entirely rational) but one thing I have always fought against is the notion that I am simply lazy - that I just don’t want to work and can’t be bothered even to try. It’s not as simple as that. I love having a real job to do - something I can really get into and do well. I work very hard and actually have trouble pacing myself so I may end up with a migraine the next day.

I try to explain the problem to people but it’s like saying ‘I simply can’t walk. I just don’t seem to be able to work out how do it.’ They just sort of look at me like I’m a moron. It’s something they take for granted that people do (or in a few cases something they’ve actively chosen not to do, even though they could if they wanted to). Sure they don’t necessarily have great jobs, or much money, but they always assume they will be able to get some sort of job and earn something when they need to, and they have holidays and children and gadgets and little treats. As it happens almost all of them are on quite a bit higher wages than I was content with, working part-time for Miss Green (about £15000pa before tax). It’s just something they do - and from a young age. My ex told me - when she wanted something or other when she was in her mid-teens she got a job at the local kennels and lo and behold by the end of the summer she had the money to buy whatever it was she’d wanted. I know many of my contemporaries just worked long hours doing pretty much anything all summer so they could travel, or for driving lessons or whatever. I could never do that - the idea of ‘wasting’ a whole summer doing something miserable so that maybe, at the end of it, I’d have saved enough money to go away for a while just seemed impossibly risky. To me, money wasn’t like that - you couldn’t trust it. Unexpected problems came along, or things happened and lo and behold by the end of the summer you’d spent the time bored out of your mind in some dingy factory or shop and still somehow had almost nothing to show for it. I just didn’t trust the whole work/wages process. It just didn’t seem very realistic, especially when I could stay home - walk in the country, do stuff with my hobbies, or just live in my imagination, using the resources and knowledge I already had. Having to put up with my parents’ disappointment and going to the benefit office once a fortnight were bad but a doddle by comparison.

Now I don’t know where this fairly extreme distrust of The World of Work comes from. It must come from somewhere - this sense that it is futile and humiliating, and a part of me knows it’s not really true. I sort of know that. But a fairly powerful part of me is not convinced. The thought of having to go through all that - the trawling through the sits vac, the trying to write something that sounds like I really really want to do whatever they want for whatever money they deign to give me - the humiliation of having to justify my patchy CV. It’s just all too depressing, and as I said, probably futile. Probably nothing will come of it.


The problem is actually a bit broader than just job hunting. The anticipation of humiliation is specific to that pursuit but the feeling of futility extends to many areas of life - reading instructions or legal documents, shopping around for utilities providers or insurance, electrical goods or cars. Even just trying to get organised to face all these things brings out that same feeling of lostness and pointlessness in the face of all this…. crap. And I go back into my own space, doing what I know I can do, with the resources and skills I have. Anything I might achieve is down to serendipity and impulse.
I wrote a lot of stuff about this feeling in my notebook recently - about how it feels to be faced with my to-do list of a morning - after I’ve had my coffee and toast and begun to feel that I’ve done whatever there is to do with my emails, Facebook and Flickr and I begin to get that nagging feeling that I should be ‘getting on with something’. And yet I don’t - possibly for another hour yet.
I hate the word ‘procrastination’ because it sounds like laziness and weakness but something Mike the CBT Guy gave me said first up that ‘procrastination is not laziness’ - it has nothing to do with can’t-be-bothered. It’s a strategy for avoiding things that upset us - things we can’t face - things, ultimately, that we’re afraid of.

Procrastination is in fact a perfectly logical response to fear. But fear of what? I’m actually not sure but the feeling is of being overwhelmed - it’s a feeling of bewilderment and confusion - it’s a fear of being hopelessly lost and muddled, of taking too long and getting left behind, of letting people down, of being an embarrassment and a disappointment, of being ridiculed, of being contemptible and untrustworthy. It causes a kind of panic - an inability to look at what is to be done and come up with any kind of strategy. It’s impossible to think about how long things might take or how one thing might affect another - it’s all too complicated - impossible to make a decision. This is the tearfulness I feel when I’m depressed and the frustration and the fury I feel when I know I bloody well should just be able to just get it done, like everyone else does. Better to just avoid it and hope it won’t be necessary somehow, or just dash it off at the last minute without looking back. Get it out the way - forget about it. No wonder I procrastinate. It makes perfect sense.


I was listening to something on the radio about dyspraxia. I hate the medicalisation of personality traits but some of what they were saying sounded sort of like what I’m talking about here. Mostly dyspraxia seems to be about some sort of neurological deficit, like dyslexia or dyscalculia, when people look at a sentence or a sum and simply can’t make sense of it. Whereas for most people it would signify something, for these people it just looks like a string of meaningless symbols. I’m not dyslexic but maths is like that for me. I look at an equation and it means nothing - I did a bit of oceanography at uni and there’s a lot of physics and a lot of equations - I had to keep looking to see what the symbols meant (how can you multiply time by pressure? What does that even mean?) But many people look at a dyslexic and think she’s just not trying hard enough. That’s how I feel and I don’t even have a name for what I’m going through. Dyspraxia seems to be close but more about some kind of basic inability to see things in relation to each other, to understand patterns - spatial relationships etc, so dyspraxics tend to be clumsy and disorganised. I’m not especially clumsy unless I’m tired. It feels like maybe the word is trying to cover too many different things, but anyway I can relate to part of it. I look at my to-do list and I don’t know where to start and I feel wretched.

Actually things have moved on a little from there. A long time ago, during my first stint at Uni (or Brighton Poly actually) I went through a sort of crisis over deadlines - they used to keep me awake all night - worrying about what might go wrong and how I might mess them up. And then at some point I looked back at what I’d done so far and realised that I’d actually got all my assignments in on time and got good marks and I said to myself ‘I’ll manage’ and it became a sort of mantra and I did manage - I never handed work in late and always got decent marks. But I think the difference there was that it was a strict, externally imposed deadline, and only having to concentrate on one thing at a time. I’m actually quite good at exams, and interviews too - once I’m there in the room there’s no choice - I only have what I have there with me - whether I’ve prepared well or badly there’s no going back, and I relax, and I often do ok. The preparation though - the revision and research - I’m hopeless - because it’s open-ended and I could be doing anything at any time - I procrastinate. I could never do the reading efficiently - the literature review. There just seemed to be a whole library full of things that might be useful, or even crucial - how could I choose? The thing I needed to know might be in the next volume, or on the next page. I couldn’t read the whole book, let alone all the books that might conceivably pertain to the subject. And then, as a post-grad there was a whole world of articles that might be relevant too, and which someone might trip me up on if I hadn’t read (and understood) them. I was lost.

More recently I have got the hang of prioritising. I used to look at my to-do list and not know where the heck to start but I’ve learned that on that list there are always a few things that really can’t wait and there is usually a fairly clear order among them. One of my last visits to Mike the CBT Guy furnished me with a piece of A4 divided by a cross into four quarters - the upper half is for Urgent things, the lower for Non-urgent. The right hand half is for Important things, the left for Unimportant. I’m good at Urgent things like deadlines, getting to appointments on time, and dealing with emergencies (I’m actually quite good in a crisis). Unimportant/Non-urgent things I’m fine with too - like most people I can potter about - commenting on stuff on Facebook and looking up plants and watching boxed sets - especially when there are other things I know I should be getting on with. But it’s the Important but Non-urgent things that are the problem - the things that really should be done but where there’s no real time-limit - just on-going, open-ended effort - things like job-hunting, and money and research, and finding publishers for my writing, or getting things fixed around the house, and shopping around for insurance and utilities providers. These are the things that I just can’t face. These are the things that get me down. Of course, with most of them, if I don’t get around to them, nobody suffers but me. It’s the work/money thing that’s the problem, because then I have to go to my mum and ask her for help, or my friends have to bail me out when my card doesn’t work, or i can't afford to go out and do nice things with my girlfriend. And although mum has savings and a pension and dad’s life insurance, we are by no means a wealthy family, and I know she worries and it’s humiliating and I feel guilty because I know I should be doing better by now (I’m 53) and I should be able to find a job by now (I have a good master’s degree ferchrissakes!) And yet…

I could get a ‘normal’ job - working for a nursery or a shop maybe. It would be for little more than minimum wage so I’d have to work full time so I couldn’t do anything else (I’m not one of these people with masses of energy) and I’d have to give up the nursery (something I was able to set up exactly because Miss Green financed it and I could do it with the resources and skills I already had - but it makes a loss. Making the nursery more profitable is another thing in the important-but-not-urgent corner of the diagram.) The idea that I could get a proper graduate job that pays enough to either work part time or which is interesting enough to keep me happy doing it full time, has just never struck me as a very likely option. I know - that sounds mad but I just can’t imagine it. That’s another of the weird and yet true-feeling ideas I have about The World of Work - that ‘good jobs’ are just unimaginable. Going to uni and getting my MSc and then going onto a Phd and getting a job as an ecologist was my big idea of a career. Since that fell through half way through the Phd I’ve had no more ideas about what to do instead, unless you count the nursery, and of course the novels, neither of which pay.

So what am I to make of this?