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

Friday, 14 August 2015

Sits-vac and Thinks of England

These last few weeks have been a bit more trying than I'd like. Brought back a lot of nonsense from before. Two old gremlins have come a-knocking - work and women. I shouldn't have thought I was 'cured' I suppose but on the other hand, these are problems I was not having to face this time last year so, on the positive side, maybe it's time to apply something of what I learned then to the new situation.

Last week was awful. I'm not sure I've ever been truly suicidal but I have certainly considered seriously the advantages of not being around any more. Two things stop me - one, I can't think of any method that might not leave me crippled or brain-damaged if I get it wrong, and two, I wouldn't do that to my mum and my bro. There have been so many times though over the last few years I just wanted to not exist any more. But then there is number three - I do always have some hope. These days it is less easy. I feel like I'm running out of time. I know I know, I'm only 52, but I don't have that sense that there is time to make something important happen now. In the absence of ample time any big plans I might have now would require ample funding and I know my talents, and making money is not one of them.

So, in May, Miss Green died. I had a month's notice and then I was unemployed. I've found a few bits of work since but nowhere near enough, and last week the car failed its MOT and I had to borrow off mum. The flat I live in is too expensive for me really but I can't face moving again. At the same time I had two awful dating experiences, culminating in both women knocking me about with fuck-you emails. I came back at them equally hard, which was slightly satisfying, but the whole experience left me feeling misjudged and resentful. The whole thing felt horribly reminiscent of being a teenager again. I was extremely low for a while there and for a day or two went back to my old ways of trying to explain things to people and get some answers.

So - where to begin - work or women?
The main difference between them is I want the latter and enjoy thinking and talking about them, whereas the former is merely a necessity. I've never really talked about work problems before so I guess that's where I'll start. Save the fun for seconds.

Job hunting for me is a miserable experience - the worst thing I ever have to do, including public speaking and exams. I believe I'd rather sing in public than job hunt, if it came to it.
Why? Is it because I'm lazy and don't like hard work? I hope not. The 'common sense' view I was brought up with about people who fail to live up to expectations is simply that they are not trying hard enough - they are perfectly capable but simply choose not to bother. Thus everyone else (family, teachers, employers) can neatly avoid any responsibility and leave the person to suffer on their own with just the occasional taunt to get them to buck their ideas up.
But like most people I think I'd very much like to have something worthwhile to do with my life - something that is satisfying for me and makes a difference to others (and pays the bills). I love having something I really believe in to be getting on with, and when I do I tend to go at it almost too much and wear myself out. I'm one of those full-speed or stop people - no good at relaxing or pacing myself. If I have something I'm really motivated by I wear myself out and often get a migraine next day. I've had to remind myself to eat enough, drink enough, even to go to the toilet, and generally take breaks, but it doesn't come naturally. I have had to learn to relax in the evenings which I do using DVD boxed sets. But I'm not one of those people with tons of energy all the time, even when doing something I love. I really envy those who do but I need a lot of sleep and space in between activities. The busy-busy, work-hard-play-hard lifestyles you hear about sound awful. I also hate those jobs where you spend a lot of time trying to look busy or where people spend a lot of time skiving off. If I'm at work, I want to be busy.

So no, I don't think I'm lazy. I am perhaps a little conceited though. I do feel that I should have a job that is worthy of me - not just some crappy thing that someone else wants me to do. That does sound conceited doesn't it, but I think I am realistic about my abilities. If I was just some gormless slob with no motivation, creativity or intelligence perhaps I would be expecting too much, but I don't think I am. I actually think I'm capable of a great deal and yes, I do feel the world owes me a living - not because I'm an entitled elitist, but because, well, why wouldn't it? If a person has all this potential why wouldn't the world want to use it? Just ignoring it because it doesn't quite fit their preconceptions of what an employee should look like seems to me like cutting off their individualistic noses to spite their free-market faces.
Yes, if I really was desperate of course I'd have to take whatever job was on offer, but it hasn't come to that yet. I know the capitalists would like us all to behave as if life was terribly hard and none of us has enough and we all have to work all the hours to survive, but that isn't the case and I hate to have to behave as if it is. Funny how the capitalist right always talk about freedom (especially in the US) and yet expect us all to do whatever it takes to make money and to tie ourselves up in financial commitments, and call us lazy if we don't. Something about that infuriates me and makes me refuse to give in to it.

But there is more to this anxiety about job hunting than simply being a refusenik. The very act of looking at the sits vac makes me feel like running away and crying. Whether online or in the local paper I feel overwhelmed by the choices. I feel I simply don't know where to start. No matter how I try to read and think, I find I am simply observing shapes on the page. They don't mean anything. I feel a panic rise and the more I try to force the words down my optic nerve and into the relevant part of my brain the more my mind slides off and wants to do something, anything else. It feels like a waste of time. It feels futile. It feels like what these people are writing about has absolutely nothing to do with what I can do, and, at its worst, is designed to exclude me. A lot of the job titles mean nothing to me - mostly, I guess, office jobs. Those that do make sense are either things I'm not qualified to do (teachers, mechanics, nurses etc) or menial, so it tends to be the menial ones I end up looking at - cleaners and labourers, shelf stackers, fast food and kitchen porters, sometimes landscapers and garden centre staff but all minimum wage or little more. It's a miserable experience. There is nothing about what I find in sits vac that feels interesting or promising. It is a dreary trudge, looking for something that will be boring or frustrating, and which will barely pay for the basics, and then only if I spend the vast majority of my waking hours doing it. And we're expected to be motivated and optimistic about job hunting! Hah!
Most people don't seem to feel this way though, and I'm not completely sure why. I heard my relatives and their friends talking about work when I was a kid and knew then and there that I wanted no part of it. What a waste of a life. I think I decided long ago to not have kids and to avoid the many other financial ties that go with being a grown-up (mortgages, cars, insurance, pensions) so that I could spend less time at work and do something that meant something to me. Mostly I've managed to do that, until now. Now I have the flat and a car and the business. Still, at normal self-employed gardeners' rates (£16 - £20/hour) I can live on three days a week, plus whatever the nursery brings in, and until Miss Green so selfishly upped and died, it worked. Three days a week. £300 a week. It doesn't seem too much to ask. I don't need much. I'm not asking for much, until now.

But the question you must be asking is "Surely there must be something else you can do? It can't all be office jobs and minimum wage" and I have to agree. I find this perplexing too. I have two good degrees, and, as I said a whole lot of other good qualities going for me and yet I can't for the life of me think what to do with them. I'm sure most of the people I graduated with have had good post graduate jobs and taken it for granted that that was what to expect. The economic climate has probably lead to many disappointments but through no fault on their parts. They just expected to get good jobs. Why not me? Why is that so unimaginable for me? I expect also that many of them have found jobs that have little to do with what they actually studied (transferable skills and all that). I expect most of them are on salaries far higher than mine, and that many would be able to work freelance, self-employed or as part time employees, which would suit me fine. Why have I never even attempted, or even been able to imagine attempting to get into a similar position? I have simply never had a graduate level job (except for a brief and ill-fated sojourn in teaching in further ed.) Isn't that odd?

I think I have a distorted view of what it's like to be at work. I actually have a deep fear of what it would be like to be in that situation. It's not exactly a phobia, but I don't think it's particularly rational. Even so I can't seem to get past it. I think I fear that if I'm put in some position of responsibility, that sooner or later I'll fuck up and let everyone down, and the humiliation will be awful. That is pretty much exactly what happened with the teaching. I was fine for a while, although I had more of a sense of winging it and getting away with it than of feeling competent and confident. Then the summer term came around and things began to fall apart and my confidence just dropped away completely. I couldn't think clearly. I just wanted not to have to do it any more. I said some stupid things, made some mistakes. I couldn't talk to anyone - I tried but they just looked down on me, and got increasingly exasperated with me. I was on my own. Bear in mind this was my first teaching job and the college in question (Plumpton) had no arrangements for mentoring a new teacher - they just wanted fully formed staff to just get on with it. But even so, I don't feel other people in my position would fail so completely. Something else would have happened. I don't know what. The same sort of thing has happened in the past when I have had any kind of responsible job. I interview well, interestingly, and then I go in with confidence and energy, but then sooner or later things start to go wrong, and sooner or later they find an excuse to be rid of me. Partly I think perhaps when things start to go wrong I become defensive, but it's not like I don't ask for help. I ask too often perhaps. There is a phase early on when I am almost too keen to please.

Maybe I burn out from the anxiety or maybe it's just a periodic thing - every few months I just go into a phase when I can't function properly and I just need to coast for a while. I'm prone to periods of depression and low energy even when I have something good to do but employers above all want employees who are consistent, and I'm not. And it's not just the employers - it's the colleagues too. I think a lot of people, even if they don't particularly like their job or their boss, at least enjoy the company of the people they work with. I feel though, at some point, they will all be looking at me and wondering what is going on, and judging and dismissing me. That's why I hate work - because I feel that that time will come, sooner or later. Maybe I fuck up or maybe I just lose my energy. Either way there seems to be no way up, or at least, I've not found one yet.

And yet I don't really believe it has to be this way. I don't know how it can be different but I'm sure it doesn't have to be that way.

I have had two jobs that weren't this way - Miss Green's garden and a garden centre job I had back in the 80s. People seemed to accept and even like me. I fucked up sometimes but it didn't seem to matter too much. They left me to it, and it seemed to work. Of course both were fairly menial. There were no real ramifications if I did badly, and I did ok at both. Miss Green had no problem with me starting late and finishing late - a timetable that seems to suit me well. Why are so many bosses preoccupied with starting work early? I can force myself to get to work by 9 or before but they won't get the best out of me. I naturally wake at about 8 but it takes me a while to get going and I like to take the morning to potter about getting household stuff done, having a proper breakfast (usually about 10) and generally getting my brain in gear. If I'm forced to move around too fast in the morning I just get clumsy and irritable and I'm no good to anyone. On the other hand I'm happy to work til it gets dark because evenings are a bit of a waste for me if I've been working hard all day. Miss Green was fine with this. I think she felt she got her money's worth. Even one winter a few years back when, thinking back on it, I must have been very depressed, instead of working in her garden I sometimes just went for a walk in the woods. There was nothing much to do in the garden and Miss Green seemed happy with what I did do. This last year though we got loads done. I got on well with the other staff and although I mostly worked alone I miss them now. They were a good bunch.
I think I need to be trusted to get on with things even if I'm not always at my best. I like to think my good times easily make up for my bad. When I'm on form I am really very good - very hard working and very bright, but I'm not like it consistently, and I'm certainly not like it if I feel my boss or colleagues are looking askance at me. That way leads to The Plughole of Doom described above. The more people push me the worse I do.

What else could I do? I'm good with deadlines and I'm good with having one task at a time to complete. That's why I was good at uni. I'm quite good in a crisis but I don't function well with constant nagging and suspicion. I'd like to work from home, freelance, part time, working late? Surely people do that don't they?
This is when the other problem kicks in - which is that I suspect the people who do those kinds of jobs come from a different social background than I do. My background, as I've said before, was all about getting a 'proper' safe secure full-time job. I knew, as I said, from an early age that that wasn't what I wanted but I never knew how to do anything else so I've been scrabbling about around the edges ever since. I'm fairly solitary so I don't have contacts, and I don't have much professional confidence so I don't 'sell myself' well. I'm neither one thing nor the other. There are various possibilities I can imagine for someone who writes reasonably well and knows a lot about gardening and ecology and so forth but I wouldn't have a clue how to go about 'putting myself out there'. I've made some tentative steps but, as with job applications generally, I don't seriously think they'll amount to anything. It feels like going through the motions.
The nursery is the only thing I can say I really know how to promote and make the best of but it's a very niche market and I doubt it will ever make me a living. I've had this idea for being a kind of planting consultant - working with garden designers and landscapers (who often, bless them, don't know much about plants, although obviously I can't point that out to them) but deep down I really don't believe in it. Like my novels - I love them and think others might well enjoy them too but I've done no serious PR, and only attempted to approach publishers once. On the one hand I am excited about what I do and believe it could be really good. On the other hand I don't really genuinely believe it will happen. It doesn't matter how positive I feel about what i do because i don't really believe anybody else will be interested, or if they are it will only be in a way that makes my original idea so distorted and dreary as to be no more worth doing than some menial repetitive chore. They'll just make it about money, or they'll dumb it down and make me do it their way (even though they know massively less about it than I do). I have no real trust in collaboration or teamwork.

Maybe I have too high an estimation of my abilities. I don't feel particularly intelligent but I think I have a certain originality of thought and creativity that could be valuable if anyone chose to use them, but they can't be forced into a mould or they won't work. If as a boss it is more important to you to have things done your way than to foster individual creativity you won't get anything out of me and we will both have lost out. You will also miss out if it is important to you that I look the part (so important that you are prepared to reject me on my appearance, no matter how able I might be. And when I say 'appearance' I don't mean clothes or grooming - I mean my ability to look positive and confident when I don't feel that way.) Apparently we're all on the sales team these days. Of course there are jobs that genuinely need people to work well under stress (doctors for example) and to be highly competitive (sales perhaps), to be 'team players' (sports, obviously), to always appear confident and charming (hospitality) and to turn up early every morning (farming), but probably not nearly as many as is often insisted and I suspect these things have just become a fetish of bosses who are under the delusion that everybody should be like them.There is no longer a place for the gifted misfit in the back room, except maybe in IT. Perhaps the world would be a better place if everyone was like this, but we're not. Does that mean we aren't allowed a decent job? Anyone who took me on would have to accept me as I am - not due to some egocentric arrogance on my part but because I simply don't seem to be able to be any other way. 

I'm sure I'm far from alone in this. I've met enough gifted weirdos in my time to know that there are a lot of us, excluded because we can't conform and don't know how to do it another way. Many of us turn to drink or drugs or maybe move into some alternative lifestyles, claiming benefits, doing a little cash in hand here and there, frustrated and anti-social or harmlessly stoned. I don't do any of those things. I keep holding it together, making it up as I go along, living as small as I can so the little I do make (and pay my taxes on - it's become a point of honour) is just enough and I have time to myself to do the things I really care about (and there are so many things).

I dare say some more gardening work will come along - it's just a matter of time. I only need another day or so. Mum seems finally to get me now. She doesn't want to see me lose this flat or the nursery but I hate depending on her.

What I learned last year was to see myself clearly, and instead of subconsciously giving myself a hard time for being that way I would be able to look at how I am with understanding and compassion - not as a failure but as just another human being muddling through. So today I accept that although life would be easier if I were more biddable and able to hold down an ordinary job, or better if I were more confident and able to hunt out the work I'd really like, instead I am this person who cannot be either of those things. Some other way will have to be found, but for now, acceptance of how I actually am, with understanding, patience and compassion rather than contempt, disappointment and frustration, is what I need.

I'll talk about women next time

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Everthere

Misty November Morning and Me
This time last year my wife was selling up the family home and preparing to move to Canada. I don't have the exact date to hand but one day last summer I was installed in this flat so she'd have a place to come home to, as and when. I'm still here but we're separated and I hope to never see her again. What a strange year.
I've been wanting to write something about it for a while. I don't seem to feel the need to write as often as I did - I don't seem to feel the need to 'explain myself' as much as I did, but it's been going around in my head and putting it down here seems to be a good way of 'parking' it so I don't have to think about it any more.

What I don't want to write is a bitter diatribe about her. I don't feel bitter for a start, or not very. I don't really do bitter. Actually I feel sort of ok. I think maybe the separation was one of those things that was a long time coming, and frankly a bit of a relief. I love this flat, and though it's frankly way too expensive for me, I'm prepared to not have other things in order to be able to keep it. I certainly don't miss the garden at the old house which was getting neglected because I was too busy at the nursery.
Fact is, I'm not sure I miss any of it. I still see her kids, though they're with their dad, and I got a lovely fathers' day card saying how I'd always been there for them and I was incredibly chuffed with that. They've had their GCSEs and A levels to contend with this year, and their nan died (my mother-in-law) as well as the general upheaval.

Frankly I'm not sure what to make of my equanimity. Did it really mean that little or am I in denial? Am I going to wake up one day and realise what I've lost and be heartbroken? We were only together 10 years, of which only six were married and living together. We had no kids together and have nothing to squabble over, possessions wise. She owned the house with her ex. Sometimes that ten years seems like a weird isolated lacuna in my life, and now I've woken up and come back to normality. I can hardly remember what it was like when it was good, although I know it was good, and for quite some while. We were so warm and silly. There was a time when I knew we would grow old together and it was a good thing. I was done. I didn't need anyone else. Our first dance at our wedding was The Everthere by Elbow, which is about this very thing -

All my saints have taken bribes
Singing, "Going, going, gone."
All the angels taken dives
Leaving you the only one

If I loose a sequin here and there
More salt than pepper in my hair
Can I rely on you when all the songs are through
To be for me the everthere, everthere?

Slide into another book
Now and then laugh out loud
Throw that very dirty look
Which says, "Okay, stop staring at me now."

If I loose the sequence here and there
Less derring do than quiet care
Can I rely on you for a good talking to
To be for me the everthere, everthere?

If I loose a sequin here and there
And take my time on every stair
Can I rely on you when this whole thing is through
To be for me the everthere, everthere?

Unfortunately the DJ screwed it up - played it far too loud and distorted and no one knew what it was about and we stumbled through our dance. We should have requested We Have All the Time in the World - she sang it to me once as part of a concert... That's a good memory. Turns out of course we didn't, but that's why the song is so poignant. Whatever the words say, the music tells us it's actually about loss.

I used to love just looking at her - I was so incredibly chuffed with her. I can't remember what that felt like now. Somewhere along the line we lost that. Too much 'real life'. No drama - no infidelity or violence, just, you know, falling out of love I guess. We used to joke about how bizarre it was we got on so well, considering how little we had in common, but I think that caught up with us in the end. We ran out of things to talk about and I would end up going on how I felt about my life and she about the NHS and how terrible it was. I think it hardened her.
Last Christmas, when we finally split, I got an email from her reinterpreting our entire time together in terms of my failings. She was very angry. The final straw was a posting on here that mentioned her by name and implied that she was the female equivalent of a selfish bastard. I apologised profusely and felt cold and sick. It was stupid and indiscreet of me. But now here I am again and I just think, should she ever come across this, that she'll just have to put up with it because I have to do what I can to look after myself now.

And I know I was hard to live with. I had quite severe depression, as many do, but I was not someone who can't face getting out of bed, just quietly suffering in the other room. When I get depressed I try to force myself on and I get frustrated and anxious, clumsy and bad tempered. The less I feel like doing anything the more I feel I should be getting on with things. The result is usually some sort of climax where I hurt myself or burst into tears or do a bit of ranting, or sometimes, I throw something. I got migraines often and dizzy spells. I had tinnitus and deafness in one ear. When we were first together I let her see all this. I told her she was the only person i'd ever really trusted with it and she gave me love in a way I'd never known before. I worked on it almost obsessively because I could see what effect it was having on her and the kids. I finally consented to taking anti-depressants and going back into counselling - two things I probably wouldn't have done otherwise, and I did endless amounts of self-analysis, partly using therapeutic ideas I'd picked up here and there, partly from a CBT book on self esteem she bought me and I reported back to her, to get her feedback on what I'd been thinking. (I've written a lot about this in previous posts.) Weirdly, just too late as it happens, it seems to have paid off. It's been over a year now I've felt able to cope with life in a way I never have before. I still get low every few weeks for no apparent reason but I no longer seem to feel the need to go over and over it in my head as I used to. It's very hard, when you're in the middle of a depressive episode, to see out - to know that it will pass - to not see it as the way you will always be, but I am better at it now, and when I'm in the middle of it I can see the signs and not let it get out of hand. Even through the upheaval of this last year I've remained remarkably calm - not by suppressing my feelings but simply because I understand how they work. I feel ok today. I didn't feel ok earlier in the week. Nothing in my world has changed. It's just how it is.
She will miss all this - how I am now. She left at the exact time I got it together and she won't get to enjoy it. On the other hand, had we stayed together probably we'd not have changed. We'd run out of things to talk about. She wasn't remotely interested in plants and didn't like my music, and wasn't nearly as much into debating things as I was (the kinds of things that make up most of the posts on this blog) or at least, not in such a rigorous analytical way as me. For my part I tried to take an interest in her midwifery and associated topics but increasingly it became about how crap the UK system was and how great it would be in Canada. In short, we ran out of common ground and increasingly, I filled the blanks with my opinionation.

I guess the fact is we grew apart - the ultimate reason I suppose for most marital break-up. We just didn't get each other any more. A time came when I was trying to explain my latest thinking on what was wrong with me, when it became obvious that she didn't get it at all. I'd be trying to tell her about this amazing new realisation I'd had and how things were getting better and she'd just tell me I'd said it all before and that I was just as bad as ever. My going on and on about it became more about trying to make her understand, because after all, this was the woman I was going to grow old with - my Everthere, and if she didn't get it, who would? So I kept trying, and in the process infuriated her more and more. She likened me to her mother - needy, attention-seeking and over-emotional, and disapproved of my method of self-analysis, which she believed was perpetuating the problem. Like many people faced with depression she came to believe that I was wallowing - that at some level I liked being unhappy - that I was comfortable there. I disagreed vehemently (I love it when I'm confident and positive and hate it when it passes) but that was another cause for argument. Of course she'd never say outright that it was my own fault that I was depressed but because I didn't follow her advice and give up on the self analysis it became my fault. And somewhere along the line she lost patience and I became a problem. She came home angry and exhausted from work and spent all her time on her ipad in her room. I went up there periodically for a bit of warmth but spent most of my evenings watching old boxed sets in our bedroom.

The ironic thing probably is that the marriage probably caused my depression more than it helped. Don't get me wrong - I've always been prone to depression/anxiety/anger, and there's a lot of it in my family, but I don't think I've ever been as depressed as I was those six years we lived together. I'm always oppressed by others' expectations of me (or what I imagine they expect of me) and in living with a partner, I have nowhere to escape to, to have a breather, to get my head straight, to just be myself, in my own space. Always, I feel that something more is expected of me, and that my partner is quietly seething at my selfishness. Even when she and I were close I felt this, and went out of my way to do more than necessary to make things good for her. I always did more housework than she did, not that she did much - usually it was just a blitz when visitors were expected, but this was ok because she worked longer hours than I did. (We agreed on this early on.) I made real home cooked meals regularly. (She did the big special occasion meals and the routine something-from-the-freezer type things.) I did The Big Shop every week. All my wages went into the family purse every week. I did the laundry most times and all the washing up and the recycling and the bins, and the garden of course. She tended to do the dusting and vacuuming but I did the wet works (kitchen, bog and bathroom) at least as often as she did, and at least as much DIY, although she was the one with the plans. (I hate DIY.)
I'm pretty sure she'd argue with most of this, because as far as she was concerned I didn't do it 'properly'. This seems to be the latest go-to position for aggrieved women, dissatisfied with their men. Before, their men didn't lift a finger around the house, now we do but we don't do it 'properly' (ie, we don't do it how they would like it done).

As time went on, these unfulfilled expectations became not in my imagination. Looking back on it now it is obvious that she did indeed expect more from me.
Firstly, I wasn't family oriented enough. She told me early on that the kids did not need another father as they already had a perfectly good one (he is still a good friend) but still there was this frustration with me that I did not want to join in more. It was difficult for me because I don't come from a very family-oriented family. I've always been quite solitary and never really understood kids, even when I was one, as I have explained elsewhere, and I never pretended otherwise. I tried hard to be a father, in my own way, and ultimately I seem to have done ok, but still, from quite early on she was agitating for me to be more a part of her family. Interestingly, they didn't get on with each other anything like as well as my small residual family, and fell out often and vociferously, but they had this bond I don't have with mine, and her sense of the importance of family was something I simply never had any real understanding of. The fact is I found it very difficult to adapt to her family - it was completely foreign to me. But nobody could accuse me of not having tried, and although I never measured up to her expectations, in the end I think I did ok.
Secondly she increasingly objected to the fact that I was not more sociable generally. She has loads of friends and really loves just going round and having drinks and chatting, or karaoke, or going dancing or running or whatever it is. The fact is I'd like to see people more but I find it quite exhausting. I can rarely really relax in company and I get fidgety and feel there are other things I'd rather be doing. Plus her friends were mostly not interested in the things I'm interested in, or in my way of talking about them. They were mostly nice people - don't get me wrong. She's a nice person. If you met her you'd almost certainly like her. I just only have so much energy for socialising. That's pretty much all there is to it. She didn't like that.
Thirdly there was an issue with sex which I won't go into in detail but it was partly a result of her feeling bad about how she looked and partly about having to fit it in around children and domesticity. Suffice it to say, I just really don't feel like it last thing at night and I think, for any couple living together, sharing a bed every night, picking up each others dirty undies, slouching around in those faded leggings and tee shirts, it's a real challenge to keep it fresh.
Finally she got fed up with the fact that travelling was not a big part of my plans for the future. We were at opposite ends of our lives in many ways. She'd been doing the responsible mum and employee, home owner and provider since she left home, whereas I'd been moving around doing different things all my life. Her kids were nearly grown up and she was ready to go. I had my new business and was ready to stay. Interestingly, if I'd said yes to going to Canada we might still be together. Then what would all these complaints mean? I'd have had to give up my nursery, leave behind my bro and my mum and this landscape that means so much to me. She said in one of her last emails that all she ever wanted was for me to be happy but I really can't see how that can possibly be true. I'm pretty sure I'd have been much less happy there (I did emigrate once before, for a year, to Australia, so I have some experience of these things.) The simple fact was that she couldn't really understand why a person would not want to travel. She assumed her kids would take the first opportunity to move out there with her but they show no signs of wanting to. They have their own lives here, and with both their parents in the travel industry, travel is not a big deal for them. She regretted not having the chance to travel when she was young but her kids don't feel the same way. It's her dream, not theirs, nor mine. I'd like to do a few trips in the future but at the moment my priorities are in my business. Plus I just love my home. I know it's uncool to say so, but I really do.

I never hid any of this or pretended to be someone I wasn't and never really wanted her to change (except maybe to be a bit less anxious about her body). I guess she fell into the age-old trap of getting into a relationship with someone on the basis of them changing, but nothing is more guaranteed to make me anxious and depressed than trying to be with someone who really wishes I was someone else. So when she sent that email around Christmas time last year, reinterpreting our relationship in order to make it all my fault, it was this she was talking about. I had been the wrong person almost from the start, and I simply hadn't tried hard enough to be the way she thought I should be. I think she'd supported me in my quest to deal with my anxieties and depression because she assumed that it would lead to me being more the man she wanted me to be. In fact of course it has lead to me being more comfortable with the person I actually am, which is not at all what she wanted.
Anyway, I wrote back to her to try get her to admit that it couldn't all be my fault. It hurt to see our life together trashed but she was angry (something I guess she'd been keeping bottled up all that time) and so it was justified. She did concede that (in theory at least, and possibly to shut me up) it must be to some extent her fault but I suspect if I asked her to point out any one thing that was actually her fault I doubt she'd have been able to come up with anything. I really think she thought she was completely blameless in all this.

Now? Who knows? I've not spoken to her since. The fact is, by the time we came to break up, pretty much everything I did was wrong. Our last time together, when she came home from Canada in the October because her mother was ill in hospital (too late as it happens to actually speak to her before she died) was completely rewritten to put me in the wrong on pretty much everything. I know people do this - when love breaks down, people justify it by making the other person out to be an utter waste of space. And I know I did not handle those few weeks well - she was worrying about, and then mourning, her mother, true, but I was mourning my wife and marriage. I don't know how one is supposed to balance those two. Anyway I was not completely reasonable the whole time. It was not all exactly the way she would have liked. What a surprise. When she left last August we held each other and cried and cried at the airport. When she left in November we hardly bothered.

I don't know. I'm still angry, obviously. I know I was hard work but marriages survive much worse things. I never turned to drugs or gambling or booze. I always made it to work. I did my bit. There were times when we were both very upset and usually me apologising, but there was never that moment where we looked at each other and said 'If something doesn't change we're going to break up'. It was always just about my faults and me changing. It was never about how we related to each other, and it was certainly never about how she was. We both knew something was seriously wrong but neither of us ever said 'Look we need to stop this and try something else.' That would have been the moment when we got some help, maybe some counselling. That's both our faults. And then it didn't have the chance to happen because she went to Canada. She just gave up on us.
But maybe there was nothing to be done. I think ultimately we were too different and in the end we really didn't have anything much to talk about. We fell apart, and really, looking back, it's hard to see what kept us together so long.

So now what? Well like I said, I still get tearful and tired periodically but nothing like I used to, and sometimes I still get migraines, but my deafness has all but gone. My last dizzy spell was in September soon after she left and it had me in hospital overnight - I was picked up off the side of the road unable to drive or even stand up, being sick in the verge. Apparently it's all migraine-linked but I've hardly had any symptoms otherwise.
I've started dating, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to cohabit again nor get involved with anyone with young children. Luckily quite a few women my age seem to have the same misgivings. I'm worried about the money since Miss Green died back in May and I have no regular work, and yet somehow it's not really getting me down. I love this flat and I have a good lodger (I like living with other people, just not with a girlfriend/wife apparently) and the nursery, though hardly paying its way, is very satisfying. I'm ok. I really am, and I expect she is too.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Popular Culture?

A friend recently took it upon himself to trash my novel. It was very strange at the time because it seemed completely out of character (unless he is suffering from some sort of dementia or bipolar disorder, in which case I am truly sorry) because he's normally such a mild-mannered chap, polite and decent and suddenly there was this... I'm not sure what to call it - tirade? I sent him a copy of the fourth part of my novel, Fruition, as a gift. I knew he hadn't especially enjoyed the others but we'd been talking about it on and off and I just thought he might be vaguely interested. Instead it just seemed to have made him furious, that I had had the temerity to foist this thing on him. There was actually a kind of moral outrage, as if I had made him try to read it under false pretences, promising something that it was not, somehow betraying the whole endeavour of literature by having the arrogance to offer up this thing purporting to be a novel. It was like he'd been insulted by it. Very odd.
We swapped a few angry emails after that - the gist of my responses was 'fair enough, you don't like it, but that's just your opinion' but he seemed to want to make my failure somehow more of an objective fact - an offence against some - I think the phrase was - 'not entirely subjective' standard. My book was simply wrong in some objective way. I tried to have a debate with him, as we often had on other topics, generally amicably, but his position seemed to simply become more entrenched with no acknowledgement at all that he might be in any way out of order. What I'd written was not a proper subject for a novel he said. When I told him it was not reminiscences but made up he told me he couldn't think why anyone would bother to make something like that up. His only praise was that I'd had the stamina to push out such an enormous turd.
This is all especially odd given that our debates often involved me being the one claiming greater objectivity (my arguments being more reason and science based) while he would have advocated a more intuitive, subjective approach to life. But now here he was telling me that in the matter of the quality of my writing, he was simply right, based on some absolute standard.

Now, before I go any further I must just point out that I'm under no illusions about my writing. It's my first novel and although I love it that doesn't mean anybody else has to. Some people do, but I'm terrible at self publicity so the sample size is tiny so far. I wouldn't be surprised if this chap is telling anybody who will listen that I simply can't take criticism but that's not the case. I do reserve the right to discuss the criticisms - not just accept them at face value, but I'd have thought any real friend, as opposed to, say, a critic, would want that too, not simply to dismiss their friend's work out of hand.

His outburst has not especially worried me since. It's interested me a lot, which is why I'm writing this now, but it hasn't hurt me. A similar occurrence a year or two ago left me wounded for weeks, mainly I think because I cared far too much about whether people understood me or not. It used to really make me miserable when I felt unfairly judged or dismissed. This time it didn't, partly because I seem to have overcome that problem (see previous posts), partly because the attack was so obviously unhinged that I couldn't take it too seriously, and partly because my marriage had just collapsed and frankly it really didn't seem that important by comparison. It was a good time to cut out some dead wood. I don't need friends that feel it's ok to talk to me like that.


I suppose we have all, when given some new thing to assess (song, work of art, garden plant, plate of food) at some time or other dismissed it as rubbish, rather than simply not to our taste. I remember having this sort of conversation with my elders and betters when I was just beginning to get into pop music as a kid. It wasn't simply that they didn't happen to like my music, they actually thought it was wrong in some way - that nobody should like it - that there was something wrong with us - the younger generation - for liking it. I think at the time they'd have been comparing it with Sinatra and big band jazz, maybe the old singalong songs, the Hollywood greats and hits of the 40s and 50s. I don't know what I was listening to at the time. This was pre punk but there were plenty of black and gender-bending soul and glam-rock acts on Top of the Pops every week for them to get riled up about. Disco was jungle music and as for the rest - you couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl!

Nowadays, interestingly, my peers yearn for the music they grew up with which mostly means the punk and new wave of the late 70s and early 80s but also Bowie, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and tend to dismiss everything since as pointless commercial pap. I tend to disagree with them, because I think there's always been a lot of commercial pop acts in the charts (The Osmonds? David Cassidy? The Bay City Rollers? Boy bands have been around for an awful long time) and the good stuff you've always had to dig a little deeper for. I'm not so nostalgic but the late 70s/early 80s was an insanely productive time - not just punk and new wave but ska and electronica, goths and new romantics and then just a little later on, world music and rap. It was a time when everything from before was recombined and pushed to new limits and established norms were overturned, especially for gay performers, but at the same time a lot of it was just rock 'n' roll, but in new outfits.
But I like a lot of new music and don't often listen to anything more than ten years old. I think the stuff I listen to now is every bit as good as anything I listened to back then, but it's not just commercial pap nor hopelessly obscure. It's just a bit off to one side, as it's always been. Back then I liked The Cocteau Twins and Propaganda. Now I like Emiliana Torrini and Unkle.

The point though is that there is still this commercial pap. For most of the music I've mentioned above (and I haven't even mentioned classical music, some of which I like a great deal), even if I don't want to listen to it personally I can appreciate it. Whether you like it is purely a matter of personal taste but I would never dismiss it out of hand, or condemn it as rubbish (even opera, which frankly I don't get at all). I can see why it matters. I can understand why other people like it. But then there is this commercial pop music and suddenly I don't want it to just be a matter of taste (because clearly a huge number of people like it very much) no - somehow I want it to be objectively, actually worse somehow - and liking it to be a sort of moral failure, or at least, laziness. Of course I don't want to give people a hard time for it, but I sort of pity them for it. I indulge them. I tolerate it. And this is just the sort of pompous arrogant high-handed manner I accused my friend of in my last email to him.

It's not even Pop per se I'm against. A really well-crafted pop song, catchy and enjoyable as well as musically original and meaningful is an extraordinary achievement - I'm thinking Abba most obviously, but also Waterloo Sunset, Penny Lane, God Only Knows, but that's not what we're getting from Simon Cowell's production line. Sure the girl can sing but is she singing anything worth hearing? No. Almost never. Maybe it's a great song but is he doing anything fresh or meaningful with it? Almost invariably no. But why should I care? It's Popular. People like it. It makes them happy. And it makes money. Emiliana Torrini is probably making a reasonable living doing what she's doing but I doubt anybody's getting rich on it. This would have been my uncle's argument - the music he liked (Sinatra et al) must be better than mine - look at the sheer number of people who like them, and how long they've been popular, and all the money they make. The numbers don't lie. Everything else is just self-indulgent noise.
So do I have a legitimate not entirely subjective basis to dismiss Simon Cowell And All His Works? Is Emiliana Torrini in any way objectively better?

Popular is a funny word. We tend to assume that if something is quantifiably popular that it must in some way be good. It's a sort of democracy. Lots of people buy this product, therefore it must be good. If nobody ever buys a product (my book for example) is it therefore no good? I think most people would say 'no it's not as simple as that' but I'm not sure they'd be able to say why. I think the answer is that popularity is actually a measure of inoffensiveness, not excellence, averageness, not exceptionalness. Most people buy music as something to have on while they do something else, at a party, to sing along to, to jig around to. Most people aren't really that into music but they like something on in the background - something not too challenging, that doesn't say anything too way out, and above all something where they can tell right away whether they like it or not - not something that takes several listenings to get into. This is not a criticism. Most of us are like this about most things. I can't be bothered to look for stylish clothes. I'd like to but it's just not a high priority. I'm the same about interior design, and even garden design. I like what I like and tend to stick to that. In particular I don't want to spend a fortune on it. I have other things that mean more to me. Food I know a bit more about but I still get most of my groceries from a supermarket or the local farm shop. I don't source exotic ingredients from tiny mail order firms in the east end of London. Music I do know more about but I'm a total beginner compared to some people and I don't understand the technicalities of actually playing a musical instrument at all. Plants I do know about - possibly as much as anyone in the country. I seem to have become one of a small number of nurserymen that people go to when they want to find something that nobody else has ever heard of. And we're all like this. We all have things we are really into and know a lot about, we have other things we like but don't know much about and we have yet other things we aren't interested in at all but still have to buy from time to time. Popular music falls into the middle category. I'm sure some people really really do love it, find it deeply meaningful and attach their whole identities to it but for most of us it's background noise. The fact that it sells as much as it does is a measure of how innocuous it is and how unremarkable most people's tastes are, not of how exceptional it is.

People who really love music on the other hand, although probably numerous all added together, break down into multitudes of genres and sub categories all voting for different things - classical, opera, choral, early, folk, blues, jazz, soul, rock, dance, and any number of sub genres (big band, bebop, trad, modern, acid etc etc) and each will have its own aficionados and its own pinnacles of excellence which will probably be broadly agreed upon (but endlessly discussed) among those aficionados. I would argue that it's those pinnacles that are closest to being the best, even if they hardly sell a copy in any given year, rather than whatever has sold the most copies in any given week. That would be like saying a Big Mac is the best food in the world. It maybe sells more than any other but that's because most people who buy a Big Mac just want something to fill a hole - something cheap, predictable, sort of tasty. Some people seem to really enjoy a MackieDee but I think a lot of people just really aren't that bothered about food. And that's fair enough. Probably they care deeply about something else.

This still smacks of some sort of elitism though doesn't it.
Partly I think this is a sort of inverted snobbery from those who feel their tastes are being looked down on. I had it with my family. Coming across someone who's tastes are more 'sophisticated', more 'developed', more 'refined', makes some people feel that that person thinks they are better than they are (and sometimes they do of course) but in fact this is a natural consequence of being really into something. Almost always, the more you get interested in whatever it is, the more the things you look for in that thing become subtle and not immediately obvious. You begin to look for things that are unusual. I've certainly found this with my plants. Most people just want something colourful to fill a space in the garden. Ideally they want it to be evergreen, possibly with colourful foliage, make big brightly coloured flowers all summer, grow rapidly to a certain size (not too big) and then stay that size and put up with most conditions and need very little up-keep. That's what a Popular plant looks like and you can get any number of them from the local garden centre and they sell by the million. My taste in plants though has changed and developed over the years. It was probably never exactly ordinary. Nowadays I can't even tell you what exactly I like in plants - some subtle thing or other. I like many different things - I'm not a specialist. I certainly don't eschew colourful flowers but that's nowhere near enough on its own. I have no problem giving space to something that flowers only fleetingly (usually in spring) as long as it's not ugly the rest of the year and plants that flower all summer bore me, like eating the same dinner every evening for months. I tend to like plants that would not look out of place in the wild, rather than heavily selected and hybridised cultivars. A lot of popular garden centre plants look plasticky to me. Some of my favourite plants have black or green flowers (Hellebores, Fritillaries, Arisaema...) and I'm far from alone in this. This is why I find the whole notion of Ideal Beauty a bit bizarre. I'm not sure what the Greeks would have had to say about flowers. Did they write about them? I don't know. I know they wrote about ideals of beauty in music and people and that now seems just as absurd. Either they were simply noting a form that happened to be popular at the time or elevating their own personal taste to the level of objective (or not entirely subjective) truth, which, I guess, because of their status or hubris or whatever, they thought everybody else should abide by.

There are some objective facts that inform our opinions - we'd probably not rate a flower or a human body that was sick or deformed very highly (although I don't doubt there are some who would dispute even that. Some very popular variegated plants just look sick to me.) We tend to rate expertise very highly. Being able to play your instrument makes a big difference to how highly rated a musician is, or a piece of recorded music, but the fact that the punks supposedly couldn't play their instruments (or the fact that Dylan can hardly sing) has not prevented them from being very highly regarded, and there are lots of excellent musicians playing jingles and elevator music for a living, not doubt very well. Modern artists are always lambasted for not being able to draw.

I don't want to go into all the criteria we may or may not use to assess a thing as beautiful or good or right but one dichotomy stands out for me and that is the value of both freshness, self expression, energy, originality and even roughness on the one hand with experience, purity, control and technical excellence on the other. When I was a teenager I as put down for having any opinion on what was going on. I was accused of thinking I knew everything but in fact it was them that were acting like they didn't need to know anything new. At the time, adolescent as I was, I became defensive and dismissive of their ways but since then it has become obvious to me that we need both. The adult who has done whatever it is many times knows pretty much what is likely to happen and can anticipate the problems and get the job done without much fuss, true, but a new pair of eyes can see things afresh and might well spot how the way it's been done all along is not the best way. The adult might have missed something that is obvious to the child and so it is with creativity.

I had a brief debate with a friend about that earlier time when someone trashed my writing and upset me so much. The piece I'd submitted was intentionally rough and a little chaotic. The sentence structure was somewhat loose and flowing, almost like a prose poem but veering back and forth into proper prose as the view rushed up and down the house, stopping here and there to look at something or to have a thought. The main criticism, predictably, was that the grammar was wrong. I tried to debate this but my critic simply insisted that without proper grammar there was no point in even looking at anything else.
I complained about this to a friend and she tended to agree with him but her argument was a little different. She quite liked the piece (although she thought it could be improved, and I agreed) but told me that I was not in a position to break the rules yet. I had to do my time writing in the way people expected, maybe get some recognition, and only then, maybe, I could (as I put it) write in a way that meant something to me. Perhaps she thought the thing that I wanted to express was some idea that only needed the correct English to say it, whereas my point was that the style (grammar, sentence structure, use of tenses) is part of what I want to say and surely any real writer would agree - every comma has to do the right thing, it has to mean something, not just be there because that's where we put commas.

Why couldn't I just shut up and do my time? Wouldn't life be a lot easier? Yes, but only if I don't feel very strongly about what I want to say. And only if when I finally come to write what I really want to, in the way I really want to, I can still remember why it was important. And that's even assuming I ever get any recognition. Dad tried to teach me guitar for a bit. Like many boys I liked the pop music I heard on the radio and like many boys I could have figured out a few chords and banged out a few basic songs, but no. That way he said you pick up bad habits and then you can't get rid of them later. The upshot of that is that I never took up music and he never finished a tune that I can recall. Instead of just having a good old go, bum notes and all, leading a good old sing-song at a party (which was all he wanted to do) he fretted over the frets, going back to the beginning when he made a mistake, endlessly trying to get it 'right'.
Sheer energy - just getting it out there - whatever it is you want to say - some big idea you've had and can't contain. It all has its place. I learned about plants from tropical house plants. I filled my bedroom with them and most of them died. If it had been my dad he'd have started me out on peas and tomatoes and I'd have been bored almost as soon as I'd started and I certainly wouldn't be where I am now. I didn't want to grow mustard and cress. I wanted to grow a Philodendron. Bad habits? Maybe. I don't know. I've gained in expertise over the years but not by doing my time. I've put myself out there - jumped in the deep end, said 'to hell with it' because it couldn't wait. There isn't time. You just have to give it a go and the expertise can come along when it's ready.

And so, by a long and circuitous route I come back to what my ex friend said about my book. Basically he didn't get it - that's fine. We're from different generations. It didn't fit his preconception of what a novel should be like. Maybe it's just a generational thing that he thinks that his personal preconceptions are a reliable guide to truth and that people (including friends) should just accept that, and possibly even be grateful that he has taken the time to give us the benefit of his wisdom. But I'm sorry, I can't. I don't have time. I have things to say, and I need to say them my way. You may not like that. That's fine. Nobody's forcing you to read it. At least I've written my book, which is more than can be said for many of us, even if it does turn out to be an absolutely enormous turd.