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?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Just Do It!

I had to take my car into the mechanic's yesterday to have the driver's side window repaired. For whatever reason the electric window opening mechanism turned into a glass grinding mechanism. I went along to see my mate (I'll call him Leo) after dropping the car off (he lives along the road from the mechanic) and he drove me home and has offered to come and pick me up when the car is ready. He and his wife are incredibly generous. Unfortunately, listening to Leo often leaves me feeling a bit useless - he is one of these very gung-ho people who just seems to go for things and get stuff done and I don't think he really understands what it's like to not be like that. He has his own problems with depression and yet he still seems to get a massive amount done. He has an online business, he's a computer consultant and he's doing up an old property to live in. Business is always on the edge and money is tight they say but there always seems to be enough to buy some quite expensive things, at least by my (admittedly fairly modest) standards. There are teenage kids in the picture too. It's always pretty chaotic round there but they have a lot of friends and are constantly on the go.

In many ways it's the sort of life I'd aspire to myself - working for myself on this and that, not worrying too much about the niceties. My priorities would be different - I'd probably work less and own less than they do, but that's just a matter of emphasis. I've always admired people who seem to somehow get it together to make enough money to get things done without succumbing to the 9-5 grind. As you may know if you've read what I've written over the last 18 months or so, I've been pretty pleased with myself for accepting, feeling compassion for, and even loving myself as I am, but this still gives me trouble - especially since Miss Green's death when I've been mostly unemployed and being bailed out by my mum. I've learned to accept and even feel ok about being an 'introverted home-body' but the fact is I still feel like it's a waste. At some level I feel like I've given up, and I'm only 52 and it feels a little early to be doing that.

I think what Leo doesn't get (and what many people before him, including my ex, didn't get) is that it's not simply a matter of somehow forcing yourself. I think most people, no matter how sympathetic on the outside, deep down, just think I'm not really trying hard enough. And yet I know that if I push myself now it will make it worse. I will feel confused and pressurised and I will become tearful and clumsy and bad tempered. I will not be able to think and I will begin to have little accidents. I will be rushing to get it over with. I certainly won't be alert to new possibilities. I won't be thinking laterally or creatively. I will just be wanting to get it over with. Afterwards I will be tired and, yes, relieved that it's over, but without much real conviction that anything much will come of it. A lot of the time these things seem pretty futile from the start. I do them because, well, it's better than doing nothing. I don't expect the things I do to be what people want so if it's about job applications or publicity for what I do, I don't expect much of a response. In short, before all the struggle and panic, deep down it all seems pretty pointless. I talked about why it seems futile in the last post. It's not because I don't value what I do - actually I really like what I do. I just don't expect anyone else to be impressed. It's not my fault - it's just how it is. I've said all this before I think. 

There was something on the radio the other day about dyspraxia which I could relate to. This is a condition in the same sort of league as dyslexia and dyscalculia - neurological conditions that prevent the mind understanding written language and mathematics respectively. Dyspraxia is usually understood I think as a kind of chronic lack of coordination (clumsiness and messiness) but apparently it can also come out as an inability to plan ahead or get organised. In all three conditions it is not merely a benign and adorable muddle but leads to anxiety and frustration and feelings of inadequacy. Now I'm always sceptical of the medicalisation of human diversity. The number of new conditions and disorders and syndromes seems to be multiplying exponentially (which is good news for Big Pharma of course) but that doesn't mean people aren't struggling and these diagnoses do at least illustrate the variety of ways people fail to thrive. At any rate, real or imagined, this latter description of dyspraxia pretty well illustrates how I feel about my life. 

Is it real or imaginary? There are always those who suspect that most psychiatric disorders are a result of the sufferer just not pulling themselves together or not trying hard enough. It's a common enough opinion among right-wing pundits that all our problems - unemployment, poverty, depression, religious extremism, addiction, crime, violence, and even illness could be cured by the robust application of free-will, responsibility and self-discipline, and of course there is something in that. That people can be lazy, often do take the easy way out, do not challenge themselves, seek to blame others rather than take responsibility and generally make excuses is a fact. Left wingers do it too though. I recently came across a posting by a very well-meaning friend on Facebook which said "You are not stuck where you are unless you decide to be" - a well- meaning enough plea for self-confidence and positivity, and yet looked at another way, it is saying that if you are stuck (unhappy, poor, frustrated, pessimistic...) it is because you have decided to be that way. You are aware of the alternatives (otherwise it wouldn't be a decision - it would just be getting on with life) and yet have chosen to remain unhappy, poor, frustrated and pessimistic. In other words it's your own fault. This is the (misguided) message of existentialism and free market individualism. It's also the message of the rugged self-reliance of the working class and the libertarian right. There is no excuse. It's your own stupid fault and the sooner you face up to that the better. You can't expect any help from anyone else.
(I'm very aware, by the way, that my problems are my responsibility and nobody else's. As to who is to blame, that's another matter. Suffice it to say 'blame' has become a less useful concern. I'm more interested in explanations.)

So - how to settle the dispute then between the idea that we all have enough free will power (should we choose to apply it) to 'get over' our problems, on the one hand, and on the other, that some of our problems are beyond our powers to change, or at least, are extremely difficult to change? The law tends to assume that criminals above a certain age are fully responsible for their actions - otherwise punishment and deterrence make no sense, but it also takes into account mitigating circumstances. Mad or bad? Nature or nurture, and if nurture, does that mean easier to change? If it is 'all in your mind' does that mean it is easier to deal with than if it is 'real'. For me at least, faced with the prospect of all the things I'd like to deal with, there really does seem to be a part of my mind that simply says 'Won't'. Part of me is like a furious toddler, throwing himself about, screaming or just silently refusing to move. I have no idea what to do with him, and lord, have I tried. The more I go on at him the more he refuses to move (I'm not sure if this has to do with the fact that when I was little there was zero tolerance of tantrums of sulks - the consequences would have just been too dire). No doubt this is indeed 'all in my mind' but it might as well be a huge rock on my legs. I simply don't know how to shift it. 

I've asked people for help with this several times over the years, because they seem to know something I don't. I ask them how it's done. I'd like to have travelled a lot more. I'd like to have a house of my own. At the moment I'd like to do more writing - not like this - real writing. There have been suggestions that I could teach or lecture or write more on horticultural matters and make money that way. I used to want to do more art (I can draw and sculpt as naturally as some people can chat and make friends. I just never developed it). I say these things to them and they just look at me like I'm a fool. 'So do it' they say. There is just this huge gulf of understanding right there. They genuinely don't understand what it might mean to not know how to 'just do it'. It is unfathomable. My trips abroad were mostly holidays paid for by women who had better jobs than me. The one I paid for (to Mexico) was after a complete fluke where I got paid £1000 to do a preliminary survey of common lands in Sussex for English Nature. I suddenly had £1000 and spent it on a flight. All my time at uni has been funded one way or another or I wouldn't have done it. The nursery was funded by Miss Green, my grandma's will, my ex and my mum. I've never been able to get my head around working and saving for a certain length of time to go and do something. It seems like it should be the most obvious thing in the world and yet invariably the money earned is barely enough to live on and I'll have wasted several months in a crappy job for nothing. Why can't I get a better job? I don't know. I talked about this a couple of posts back. I don't know why I've never had a proper graduate-level job. It's that invisible boulder on my legs again. Partly I suspect it's the difficulty of fitting in. Partly it's the boredom of ordinary jobs and the fear of screwing it up and letting everyone down. Partly it's the sense that it probably won't come to anything anyway.

I've never felt so inferior though, as when I've tried to explain all this to people. They just don't get it, and I suspect they either think I'm work shy, or that I'm just not trying hard enough - that it's all in my mind and I should just get on with it and that if I don't it's because I've decided not to - because at some level I like being unhappy and unfulfilled and maybe I like whining about it. Whatever they think, all I get is incomprehension, exasperation, contempt and finally they leave. The women on those dating sites (see previous post) simply see it as some inexplicable weakness. Men after all - real men, are confident and worldly and, like 21st century women, are social, busy and energetic - always getting out and doing things, because staying in is a sort of weakness, and being lonely is a kind of repulsive failure. 

So I guess I should shut up about it. Hopefully I won't have to think about it much more now I've got it down here. Perhaps I should just accept that I am that home-body - introverted, dyspraxic and prone to depression. I live in my imagination. I have several elaborate places I go to where the scenery is wonderful and there are interesting characters and even friends, and I don't have to work all the hours god sends to save to go there. I have friends online as good as any I have in 'real life' (which says more about the poverty of my real life relationships than about the internet) I have the nursery which keeps me going a lot of the time, and at least my mum and bro seem prepared to support me. The things I have achieved in the past have been partly a result of being able to directly use resources I already have and therefore don't have to save for, and serendipity. Maybe that's enough? Maybe if I accepted that fact I could be content in myself and therefore find the confidence and enthusiasm, energy and good humour I know I can have, and which I know is so attractive to women and potential friends alike?

In the mean time I have to pay the bills. 

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Date Burn

They say "Just be yourself". People have told me that all my life. Well, no, since I left home they've told me that. Before that my family, teachers etc were very clear that ideally I should try to avoid being myself as much as possible. But later, mixing with people who were a bit more free-thinking - post '60s people, people who smoked a little weed, liked Hendricks and The Doors, people who travelled and read more widely than we did in our family. They all told me to just be myself.
I was an anxious, socially awkward teenager who never really believed that anyone would choose to be in his company, given other options. Nevertheless he tried to make friends. He worried about what people thought of him and thought a great deal about how he might come over better - cooler, wittier, more relaxed, more fun to be with. There was a conflict in his thinking because he didn't want to just do like everyone else did. He didn't even want to conform to the standard rebellions that were going around at the time - punk, ska, new romantics, goths. I think, it's probably fair to say then, that he wanted to be Himself. But he also wanted people to like him - not everyone - not even a lot of people - just a few people to hang out with, plus maybe a close friend to talk to, and a girlfriend of course (that was almost the most important one. But girls don't like you if you don't have friends.)

It's taken me a long time to work out who Myself is, and to accept him, and to even like him. That's a lot of what my earlier series of posts (entitled This Time it's Personal) are about. I do finally know who I am, and, perhaps more importantly, I don't feel ashamed of him any more. I'm not regularly infuriated by him. I understand. I like him. As a result I'm no longer always going over it in my head - why I am as I am - trying to explain myself - justify myself.

This change has however exposed a new problem. Sure - I feel pretty good about myself, but that doesn't change how others see me. Part of the reason those free-thinking friends told me to be myself was because they saw that I was trying too hard to be different in order to make friends and it was kind of pathetic, and desperate. What they were saying was 'If you are more yourself, other people will like you more', but sadly, that doesn't necessarily follow. What you have to accept, when you make the decision to just be yourself, is that people might well not like your self. You have to face up to the possibility that you may be less attractive, less interesting, less likeable. You might be comfortable in your own skin, but you might make others distinctly uncomfortable. No doubt they had in mind those charming energetic, creative free-spirits who don't care what anybody thinks of them, who everyone kind of admires, but not all of us 'individuals' are like that. Don't get me wrong - I still think it's infinitely better to feel good about yourself than to be constantly second-guessing yourself (I absolutely never want to go back to that) but it doesn't naturally lead to popularity and fulfilment.

This has become sparklingly clear with the online dating. I've been doing it for some months now, as I said in the previous posting, and I'm beginning to get quite a clear picture of what women, by and large, like to see in a man. I'm aware that I'm generalising from highly subjective impressions but so far as I can tell they want us to be confident and out-going, positive, sociable, and with a good sense of humour. They also generally want us to be taller than they are. The preferences were a bit different in the first site I went to (Zoosk) to those in the one I'm on now (Guardian Soul Mates or GSM). The former were more concerned with their men being 'financially savvy', family oriented and wanting to make the woman laugh. The women also wanted to be looked after more. In the latter the women are more self-reliant and want their men to be 'adventurous'. In both cases travelling and generally getting out and being busy seem extremely important, although there were plenty of mentions of quiet nights in with wine and DVDs on Zoosk.
Either way it's pretty obvious I do not fit the bill, but it's also very obvious that almost nobody I ever met fits the bill either. I'm sure such romantic paragons do exist but I apparently don't mix with them. I suspect they're extremely rare and probably kind of up themselves.

But my own tastes have been interesting to observe too. Having set my search criteria to realistic limits (age 40 - 52 [my age], not more than 50 miles away, doesn't want children) almost immediately, I was aware that I was dismissing a lot of women purely on the basis of their photos. In a way this is inevitable - there are literally thousands of them and there has to be some basic winnowing process, but it's not as blunt an instrument as you might think. Looks most certainly aren't everything but they are crucial. If you can't imagine snogging that face, or more scarily, looking at it whilst having an orgasm, you might as well forget it. They might be lovely people and make great friends, but for me at least, the physical side of the relationship is still hugely important. If you don't fancy them, well, they might turn out to be a friend, but they won't be a lover. Physical attraction is 'necessary but not sufficient' as the philosophers say.
On Zoosk I quickly identified several categories that I would not even 'like' :-
1. Sad and desperate, haggard and worn. No doubt some are actually in care or rehab of some sort, and my heart goes out to them, it really does, but I really don't want to even try to have a relationship with them.
2. Too old. It doesn't matter so much about actual age. One woman I dated had beautiful skin and firm boobs and she was several years older than me. Another woman in her late 40s looked like a little old lady with very tight lips and a lot of loose skin.
3. Smart, functional, sexless. This isn't so much about age as dress sense - there's a very sensible, well-turned out look some people get with age. It tells me they're probably not up for a lot of sexy romantic nonsense.
4. Trying too hard. I've never gone for women who wear a lot of make-up or look like they spend a lot of time on their appearance, but some, on Zoosk especially, looked like they were trying to be teenagers.
5. Too skinny/athletic/boyish/bird-like. I'd avoid anyone really obese too but I have a lot more lee-way on that.
6. Too beautiful. Lovely to look at but I know my limitations. I'm a 7 at best, on a good day. Even if Bianca (see previous posting) had wanted to be with me she was at least a 9 and I suspect I would have felt quite insecure with her in the long run.

I'm fairly sure that if anyone is reading this, that at least some will be fairly aghast, if not downright outraged by this list - so flagrantly judging women on their appearance - but putting aside your presumptions a moment, have a look at the qualities I've mentioned. None of them are the obvious young-and-blonde, slim-with-big-boobs stereotype we expect of men's tastes in women, and I happen to know I'm far from alone in this. I'm not overly worried about weight or age. More importantly, to me, the way people look (not just women) tells you a lot about the kind of person they are, and the kind of person they are has a huge effect on how they look. Appearances are not superficial. Unless the person involved is an expert make-up artist, or actor (or psychopath) appearance is a very honest signal. I just know that 1, 3 and 4 (and maybe 5) will probably not suit me. There will inevitably be exceptions but I think it's a valid place to start.
But anyway, I think I'm allowed to have physical preferences. I like certain kinds of face, and eyes and lips especially. I like good skin. I like curves. I don't like short hair. I don't like flat chests. I have almost never been attracted to a black woman but I am often drawn to Latin and Middle-Eastern women. I can't help what I'm attracted to, no matter how politically incorrect that might seem.
More importantly though, there is no implication in this that one look is right or superior to another in any absolute or general sense. It's purely my personal preference. Other people will have other preferences. What I happen to fancy has no more meaning or power than that.


Once I move on to their profiles other issues emerge. The fact is that a lot of the women in my age bracket have just left marriages, child care and steady jobs and are ready to go out and do everything they ever dreamed of, and they want a man who wants to do it with them. This was the main problem with me and my ex, as I said before. She was in exactly that position and she didn't understand (couldn't comprehend the possibility) that after a life spent running about, trying to get a career, living in a different place every year, I was ready to stop and settle down. Setting up the nursery should have been a big clue. I'd love to think I'll do some more travelling but it's not a high priority for me now, and frankly it seems more important to me to learn to feel genuinely satisfied and fulfilled by ordinary life, by the things I have around me every day, rather than living for my next adventure, with ordinary life just a hiatus between thrills - a place where I survive and raise funds for the next expedition. Home is important to me. The area I live in is important to me. Having a job that is fulfilling and/or doesn't take up too much of my time is essential to me, even if it means living fairly frugally. Naturally this wouldn't go down well with a lot of the women at GSM or Zoosk.
Another alarm goes off when they talk about spending a lot of time with other people. The ladies at Zoosk like to 'have a laugh' all the time (one question in the questionnaire said 'How often should the man try to make you laugh' Some ticked 'All the time'. All the time? Seriously?) They often say 'My children are my world' (so what would I be - some sort of satellite?) The women at GSM like to go out a lot too and, like my ex I suspect, don't really understand that a person might be content with their own company a lot of the time.

There's been a lot in the media lately about introversion. It's not what we thought. It doesn't mean people who are just miserable, moody, antisocial losers who spend their time just thinking about how sad life is. Apparently some of us just need time away from other people. Introverts find company tiring whereas extroverts find it gives them energy. Spending too much time with other people leaves me jangling and enervated. Sometimes I'm fine the whole evening but generally I'm good for about an hour. Then often I need to back off. Sometimes I just can't face it at all. What neither me nor my ex realised was that 'other people' includes family, and more specifically, her kids. (People have suggested it would be different if they were my kids but it seems a bit risky to find out.) We introverts don't hate other people - quite the opposite - but we have our limits. On the other hand if we're pressured to join in and be sociable we really can become miserable, moody, antisocial losers, and I think that's what happened to me during our marriage. The fact that I have a tendency to depression adds to the problem.
None of this bodes well for the dating sites where women expect men to be confident and out-going, positive, sociable, and with a good sense of humour, pretty much all the time.


I have a lot good going for me - I really do know that now - I like me - but reading about what women want on these dating sites, and especially after living for six years with someone who fell for the hype about what men should be like, and didn't understand that the reason I was not like that was not because I wasn't trying hard enough - well, it's not encouraging. I have to accept now that it's quite possible that I am simply not the kind of person women want, and that I will spend the rest of my life alone. I'm not being self-pitying. It's actually a genuine possibility. Of course I'll keep trying. I am both hopeful and realistic, but I know enough about statistics and probability to know what the odds are. It is no good me, like those fat and wrinkled woman, staring at themselves in the mirror, going 'Why can't they take the time to see the real me?' Maybe I'm just not an attractive person.
I'm not prepared to 'settle for' a woman I'm not physically attracted to, even if we're the best of friends, so there's no reason I should expect women to settle for an introverted home-body like me, no matter how good looking I might be. Both sets of criteria - the men's and the women's - are equally idealised and superficial, but none of us is prepared to settle for second-best. We'd rather be alone. People used to settle for loveless, sexless marriages, for the sake of decorum and the children, but contrary to popular legend, I seriously doubt they were happier in those days. The simple unthinkable fact is that many of us now will end up alone, not because of widowhood, but because we never found the right one.

But I have met a couple of women online who liked me very much - I just didn't feel that way about them. And even the ones I really liked but fell out with (see previous post) liked me initially. The trick is to remember, in dating as in so many things in life, that we are not trying to appeal to as many people as possible. We are not Tesco or McDonalds or the X Factor. We are bijou, niche and indie. We are trying to attract the few who appreciate what we are. It's easy to see this dating as a whole string of rejections but in fact it's exactly as it should be - given that we are all properly compatible with almost no one. Almost everyone we see should be rejected - or to sound less ruthless - passed by. It is a numbers game. If I have enough encounters - initial online chats, followed by first dates (I've had 14 first dates this year), sooner or later I will fancy someone who fancies me back and there'll be a second date. Of course that's only the beginning. We could have a few months or even years together and still break up and have to start again. Almost certainly that is what will happen, and possibly several times. (I prefer not to dwell on that.)

So despite everything I remain hopeful. Bruised, but hopeful.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Carpe la Femme

This seems to have been my year for falling out with people. First and not least there was my wife back last autumn, which I have been through, at length here. Then there the bust-up with my erstwhile friend and sole reader, which I also described here back in March. There was another erstwhile friend I unfriended on FB a little while back. He probably doesn't know why - just thinks I'm throwing a strop but it was a long time coming. We've had our set-tos a few time in the past, on line mainly and this was just the latest. I was already wary of a certain spitefulness of his if I said something he didn't approve of and I knew from past experience there would be no point trying to discuss it so this time I just decided it was time to call it a day. So it's felt a bit like a clearing-the-decks kind of a year. Cutting out the dead wood and so forth. And a good thing too.

So then there's the internet dating. That's been erm... interesting. I've actually had angry exchanges with six different women so far. Not funny. My previous experience online dating was pretty good - ten years ago I met my wife online, and say what you like about what happened more recently, we were very happy together for quite a while. And there was another woman at exactly the same time who I could have chosen - she took me home to bed on the second date. (My ex didn't wait long - probably the third date.) But it was the fact that I met my ex's kids early on (probably on about the fourth date) that swung it - not because I knew right away that I had to have them in my life but because I knew it was a big deal to meet a woman's kids and I didn't want to muck them about. Maybe I made the wrong choice? Who knows?
Prior to that I did a little online dating while still in Southampton and met Pauline, who is still a good friend.
So you'll understand when I tell you I was optimistic about meeting women online.

I don't know what's different now. Maybe I've changed. Maybe the world's moved on. I don't know.
I've had some ok dates - nothing spectacular, but pleasant and friendly, and it's almost always nice to sit and have coffee and cakes. One I met in Arundel I could tell was deeply disappointed as soon as she saw me and we had a desultory cuppa before parting. I didn't have many decent photos of myself at the time and she was going on one that wasn't very old (4 years maybe) but which I now accept was a little unrepresentative. I have better pictures now. Since then there have been a few 'just friends' type experiences - no spark/chemistry. I have a reject message ready to paste in for such instances - "I've been thinking about our date and, although I had a really good time, I really feel we'd be more like friends than lovers. I hope you're ok with that." I've had quite a few long relationships in the past that really should have been friendships but where I didn't want the woman to feel rejected (and I was afraid no one else would want me) so they went on far too long and created much worse hurt in the long run. So far my honesty has been appreciated I think.

Nevertheless, pretty much every woman I've had any kind of lengthy correspondence this time with has ended badly. Part of me is all too ready to take this personally. In fact with so many wallops in such a short space of time I find all my old insecurities coming back. It's been depressing how readily those adolescent miseries have been reawakened and if it wasn't for the work I've done on myself over the last few years I think I might be very miserable indeed. The fact that I'm damn near unemployed, as I explained in the previous post and am very worried about money doesn't help - that if not for my mum's generosity I could be homeless and alone, middle-aged and penniless is not helping, and yet it is still these rejections that hurt the most. And they really do. There have been times when I've just sustained another kick in the guts (which is very much how it feels) when it has seemed reasonable once again to think that there must be something deeply inadequate about me. It's a suspicion I have carried around most of my life but it has been balanced by the suspicion that there is nothing very much actually inadequate about me so much as that there is something about me that makes it difficult for other people to appreciate me - a certain social ineptitude, which is a lesser evil I think. I can at least feel ok about myself when nobody else is there.

I subscribe to that old Kentucky* saying "If you go out and you come across a jerk, they're probably a jerk. If on the other hand you go out and everybody's a jerk, then it's probably you that's the jerk." So I've given what all these women have said a lot of thought, as you'd expect and come up with a few ideas. The main one is that I perhaps try too hard to be rational, which might sound like a good thing to some but I know how much it winds people up. It's really a topic for another essay but suffice it to say here that my attempts to get to the bottom of misunderstandings have not helped. I guess most people would just leave it and let it go but my instinct is to try to sort out the difficulty. My thinking goes this way - to me very often, these difficulties seem to stem from some misunderstanding of something I've done or said. In almost all cases the person is under the impression that I've said something judgemental or rude or prejudiced or insensitive perhaps, when in fact I've been trying to be witty, or my meaning has simply been literally misunderstood.
Obviously the ambiguities of the written word come in here - sarcasm and irony do not transmit well, but with people I've known a while I would hope they'd know me well enough to give me the benefit of the doubt. I'd hope they'd know that a. I have some intelligence, b. I have a sense of humour, and c. I am not a bigot, but apparently not. This is always a disappointment to me, especially with people I tend to assume a, b and c of. My suspicion is that many people simply skim read things and only register the things that fall into a fairly narrow set of pigeon holes and they assume that's what's being said. My problem is that I'm often trying to say something a little different to what is normally said (otherwise why bother?) My mistake, I suspect is to assume that the people I communicate with are as insightful as they think they are, when often, they're not.
The problem then, is that if I do just leave it, I'm leaving the situation with them thinking I'm stupid or obnoxious. If it's a debate, I'm leaving them thinking they're right when they're not - that they've won when they haven't. Why would I do that? For the sake of the friendship? But what's the point of a friendship where one person is looking down on the other? I may destroy the friendship by insisting on pursuing the argument, but is that worse than being friends with someone who thinks you're a fool or worse? I don't know the answer to that one.

There is a deeper problem here though in that I don't think most people want to think rationally about things - they just want to have their feelings and beliefs and express them almost as if they were a favourite dress or song or meal. I've talked a lot about reason and belief on here in the past and will do again probably. One of the big fallings-out I mentioned was with a woman who I'll call Amanda 2 who I'd been having a fairly casual relationship with since our first date. We didn't have much in common but the sex was good. The problem came because she believed that many of the phenomena science has not explained can be explained by alien intervention (the pyramids, human evolution...) I didn't pursue it (I'm quite prepared for friends to have beliefs I don't agree with. I have Christian friends and Pagan friends and conservative friends) but she brought it up a few times and seemed to want to have a discussion about it. Unfortunately the discussion didn't go the way she expected. In fact I'm still not sure what she expected. It came down to the fact that she wanted to discuss her understanding of human evolution with someone who knows a lot about about evolution, despite the fact that she knew almost no evolutionary theory, or biology, or indeed science. I'm not sure what she expected me to say but the gist of it was that she considered her beliefs about the subject to be equally worthy of respect and consideration as my knowledge and training. I suspect a lot of people would agree with her, but my point would be that there is such a thing as expertise. Some people simply do know more about subjects than others. No doubt she knows more than I do about what she does, and I said this to her as nicely as I could but she took it as me trying to make her out to be stupid. We had a bit of a row about it one evening when she invited me over to dinner but I'd thought we'd got past it and I was not keen to broach the subject again. But then more recently she sent me a link to that silly article about octopuses being aliens that was doing the rounds. I sent her a link to another, more scientific article and again she accused me of 'showing off' and thinking she was stupid. She was very angry.

Now, whatever the merits of the original debate, the problem here it seems to me was that she had a hang-up about people thinking she was stupid. Like I said, I don't have a problem with people having strange opinions - no doubt many of my friends think some of my ideas are a bit strange - and I certainly don't think of them a stupid, and I never thought of her as stupid (quite the reverse - she was much more worldly than I will ever be.) Of all the things I'll talk about here today, one thing I am sure of is that her idea that I looked down on her for being less intelligent than me did not come from me, and my strong suspicion is that it's her issue - something about people looking down on her, from her childhood, her school experience, ex husband, whatever. We all have them, I certainly do, as I've said at great length before. The difference, I would maintain, is that I'm aware of mine but most people aren't, or will certainly not 'fess up to them. They think because they feel something to be true it must therefore somehow be true, and to challenge it is somehow to disrespect them.
So when I try to 'be reasonable' with people, part of what I say almost invariably includes an attempt at an honest appraisal of the part my own hang-ups and misunderstandings have played, leading, hopefully, to a six-of-one/half-a-dozen-of-the-other type reconciliation, but no - the most depressing thing about almost all these slanging matches I've been in over this last year has been the determination of the other person to simply make it my problem. Without exception, none of them will accept any part of the responsibility, and I find that very hard to accept or let go of. Me just going on and on, trying to make them see how it can't all be my fault and they have their own hang-ups just seems to make matters worse.

The other thing I do wrong is get too involved too quickly. I know this is my problem - it always has been a problem and it's disappointing to say the least that it has come back just as strong as ever to screw up my attempts to be with any woman I'm genuinely attracted to. I mentioned before how so many of my past longer-term relationships were with women I should, by rights, have been just-good-friends with. The reason these relationships have been so 'successful' is I think partly because I didn't care too much and I didn't try too hard. I'm not saying that the women in question were responding to a 'treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen' approach (although that might be partly the case) but that when I feel like I stand a chance with a woman I genuinely fancy I go slightly nuts. I just can't seem to wait for things to play out. I start visualising my foreseeable future doing things with them. In short, I become infatuated and a little obsessed. When I was young I went into deep and protracted periods of misery, going over and over imaginary conversations and even stalking them a little. I had two first dates in quick succession just a couple of weeks back where this happened. I am more in control of it than I used to be and most of my obsessing happens away from the woman of my dreams (this wasn't always the case) so she doesn't get to see it.
The first of the two was a very lively woman of Latin parents (let's call her Blanca), born in the UK but grew up in Vegas. Very in-your-face, extremely talkative, quite loud. I have found most of the women I've dated this year to be big talkers. I've got used to mostly sitting back and trying to look interested and to ask relevant questions. It's not ideal but at least this one had something interesting to say, plus she was very lovely to look at (much better looking than me). She really had some sort of charisma and at the end of the date, one of the best kisses I ever had. The problems started because she had an eight year old daughter who she was not prepared to tell she was dating. Plus she had no family nearby to help babysit and was unhappy about asking too much of her friends so it quickly became apparent that we weren't going to be seeing each other again any time soon. Instead we had phone calls. Now I hate long phone calls. It was one of the reasons my relationship with my ex went sour so soon after she left for Canada. Even with people I know well I find it difficult. I think I need to be able to see their face and their body language, and with this one, I really wanted to be able to touch her. Plus I am sure phone signals are much worse than they used to be, or my hearing is worse, and my arms ache holding the receiver for more than about three quarters of an hour. My fault in a way - I should have cut the conversations short but I just wanted as much of her as I could get, and I didn't want to put her off. In the end the conversation just became not fun. So I emailed her the next day to 'explain'.
The next phone call in less than a week is better initially but then gets much worse. I try for a little sexy talk (something I've never been very at home with, much as I'd like to be - I am my mother's son after all) mentioning how one girl I knew liked to be spanked and she proceeds to tell me in some detail and in very earnest tones all about the four year BDSM 'lifestyle' she lived with an older man back in the 80s, and how Fifty Shades of Gray is the story of her life (only her life would be better written). I try to play along - be cool with it. I have nothing against BDSM per se, although probably not into it myself (and to be fair she told me she probably wouldn't ask it of anyone again), but thinking about it afterwards I'm not sure I'd want to hear about any girlfriend's previous sex life in anything more than innuendo, and certainly not after one date. Again I tried to be cool with it but it wasn't good and again I tried to 'explain' the next day by email. In return I got a shitty email about how I was judgemental and hypocritical and I sent back an equally shitty reply and she blocked me.
Would it have worked if I'd been cooler? Probably not - I suspect she'd have worn me out quite quickly. I was out of my depth and we wouldn't have shared the necessary wry humour to get past it. I could have done with some more of those kisses though. Those days though - waiting to see what would happen with her - less than a week - really horrible.

And then within a week another really good first date - let's call her Denise - an on the face of it lovely freckly red-haired woman who I chatted to for ages in a coffee shop in Hove - and no, she didn't just hold forth like some of the others - we had a good equal balanced conversation and then I offered her a lift home to Burgess Hill and we spent the afternoon talking and kissing and listening to music in her lounge and then I went home (because if not things might get 'too complicated'. Fair enough.) I sent her an email next day just to say 'Had a great time, looking forward to seeing you again. X'
I still don't really understand what happened next. I got no response all week and began to go 'slightly nuts' again, wondering what was happening. I sent her a 'good luck' message for an interview I knew she had and she wrote 'Thanks' back. I wrote another (I hoped) humorous message then about how she'd maybe gone off me for being too short. Apparently the first email hadn't arrived but she said she understood that I thought she'd been ignoring me. We tried to arrange another date but I managed to insert an extra digit in the phone number I emailed her so she couldn't call me all day to confirm (although she already had my number from the first date). By the time I read her email (about 6.30) it was apparently 'too complicated' and too late to go out. We tried again for the following week - a meal out in Hurstpierpoint. A few hours before the date I texted her to change the arrangement because she was a veggie and I'd been round the restaurants to see if they did a good veggie option and they didn't. I made a reservation at a place I know in Henfield. (Neither Henfield nor Hurstpierpoint are that far from Burgess Hill.) Anyway there was some confused texting and me trying to phone her and her not picking up and long story short, by the time she eventually got in contact she told me she'd been home gardening (so she could have picked up the phone) and it was again 'too late' and she suggested meeting at 9 in Hove. I was furious - after all that, to go all the way into bloody Hove. My guess was (and is) that she just wanted enough time to dump me and then go and see some friends living nearby. I wrote back to say no, 8, and I suggested a pub nearer to both of us. So again I got a shitty email completely rewriting what had happened to make me the baddie - that the email about her going off me was 'rude' and I wasn't really 'committed to dating' and how she was pissed off that I'd changed the arrangement for the meal (even though it was in order to make the evening better for her) and it was just all 'too complicated'. Needless to say I sent a really shitty email back but nobody needed to block anyone because her account on the dating website had expired.
I don't know. Again, maybe if I'd been cooler - less emotional? I should have asked if she got that first email instead of assuming she'd changed her mind. She told me it was 'too complicated' three times but really, there was just a missing email and a typo. That doesn't seem very complicated to me, if she'd really wanted to see me again, as she assured me she had. But by then it was too late.

Finally this week I had what I thought was an ok first date (we'll call this one Amber), although she told me off for interrupting right at the beginning which immediately set off alarm bells, but by the end of the date it seemed like we'd laughed it off and were going to see each other again. I'd thought at the time that the reason I had to interrupt was that she tended to go on a bit, but as I said above, I know a lot of people who do that. If I objected to that I wouldn't have many friends. Anyway, this time I didn't get a shitty email. This time it was merely patronising - about how she finds men who really listen (and don't interrupt presumably) very sexy, and she thought I should get out more, presumably to get some practice at not interrupting people. I sent back a shitty email about her inability to have a normal conversation and called her an arrogant cow. Then I blocked her.
There have been a couple of others - one (who we'll call Noelle) who lived too far away to date but who I had a very lively conversation with online. A time came when our conversation was getting quite graphic and I was starting to think 'It's only Oxford. It's not that far...' but she slapped me down by telling me no, she needed 'an alpha male' and 'only a silverback does it for me'. I'm not sure how she thought I'd react. I tried to explain how offensive and hurtful I found that with predictable results. I tried to take back some of the things I said (manipulative and spoiled for example) but that was that.
The only other example was the first woman (who I'll call Amanda 1) I went on a date with after the split with my ex, who after a very enjoyable and drunken first date and ending up in my bed, started making plans to move over here. I really did attempt to talk her down kindly because I know what it's like to get fixated on someone but she was angry with me and told me that I didn't know what I wanted. I told her I did know, and it wasn't this.

That's enough. I know nobody reads this but on the off-chance you have, I apologise for my verbosity. I know also that you're only getting my side of the story. The fact remains though that according to me, over this time I seem to have met nothing but jerks. Does that make me the jerk?
Trying to learn from my experiences I look for the common thread so that I can either try to change my behaviour or accept myself as I am and the fact that I will quite possibly never find a woman who will put up with me.
What do they all have in common? As I said, I get way too involved way too quickly with any woman I really like but that only applies to two or maybe three of them. When I feel things might be going wrong I try too hard to explain and reason out the situation.
I think what really stands out though from all these is that there isn't really a common thread. Apparently I am judgemental and hypocritical, I think women are stupid, I interrupt, I change plans and am not 'committed to dating', I am not an alpha male or a silverback and I don't want to commit after one date.
Man I must be the worst most horrible date ever. What a loser!

Or maybe what we're looking at here is a whole bunch of women and their screw-ups projecting their preconceptions onto me. It's not a sexist point - men probably do it too - I wouldn't know. I never dated a man. My hang-up, I know, is that I expect people to change their mind about me pretty much on a whim and that makes me extremely anxious and too keen to please, or if not, then too keen to explain why I failed to please. For that I take full responsibility. But that doesn't explain much. In fact it contradicts most of these criticisms, which centre on me not trying hard enough, which I think is what they expect from men and what they're looking for and what they unerringly find and then blame the men for - assuming my experience is not unique.

As you will know by now I pride myself on having quite a feminist turn of mind but I am getting sick of this easy assumption that if things don't go according to plan in a woman's life then men must be somehow to blame. Blanca expected to be judged and condemned and felt justified in dismissing any men that did not respond with complete acceptance to what she said and did. Denise expected men to be a bit useless and careless and felt it was ok to dismiss any men that weren't completely committed to her having a nice time. Amanda 1 expected men to use and discard her and she could not understand a man who wasn't prepared to enter into a full on committed relationship with her and Amanda 2 expected men to look down on her and dismissed anyone who didn't take seriously whatever opinions she might come out with. Amber expected men to not be interested in what she had to say and felt free to dismiss anyone who did not pay full attention to everything she said. Noelle thought the only men worth bothering with were 'alpha males' and she was free to mess us about as she saw fit.
There's a feeling of entitlement in all these cases - that they are entitled to a certain standard from men which is to be expected without any particular effort on their parts, except perhaps to dress nicely and put on some make-up. I guess it's a seller's market but that's not a good basis for a caring and respectful relationship. Amber did not feel the need to take into account the listener - she just went on and on saying what she wanted to say and would tolerate no interruptions (I think she's quite a successful business person, so I guess she expects to be listened to). Denise did not seem to feel the need to go half way in setting up the arrangements. She just expected me to have everything ready for her. Blanca didn't have a clue about how other people might react to her revelations and didn't feel the need to make allowances. Noelle assumed men are all confident and strong can take whatever she chooses to do to them. Amanda 1 is the one I feel sorry about - clearly she'd been through some tough times and she just needed to be loved. I was as nice as I possibly could be with her but she was still angry. No doubt all these women have had their share of troubles, some of it at the hands of men, but haven't we all, and that's no excuse for crapping all over me. I know there are some horrible men out there and they've done some horrible things, but it wasn't me! It doesn't help to take it out on me. Maybe they take it out on me because I am actually quite a nice sensitive guy and an easy target, unlike the actual culprits, who'd probably slap them around for it. Maybe that's what they want...

Maybe some bitterness is what I've been lacking.

I don't think so. It doesn't suit me.

* well I got it from an episode of Justified anyway