Thursday, 27 December 2012

Interval


The applause dies to a single clap, there's always one who applauds longer, and the velvet curtains slowly close as the first act is over. The orchestra puts their instruments down and the audience's whispers raise to an excited murmur. The stampede of feet begins to the loos, the bars, or to form an orderly queue for miniature pots of ice cream. Others remain glued in their seats worried that if they move they might miss something. These are the ones drawn to a flickering screen like moths to a flame. Advertisements are part of the entertainment. With nothing to focus on, they leaf through the programme guide or rifle through the contents of their handbags. They busy themselves with guilty looks and purposely avoid the gaze of mingling spectators. Fifteen minutes is a long time to appear to be thus occupied, even with occasional stoppages and furtive glances.
Meanwhile, at the front of house, people are huddled in couples or small groups. Glasses of wine delicately held, pints of beer gripped, and ice clinking in soft drinks with spirits. The hum of voices reaches fever pitch as each tinkling laugh or rich baritone tries to compete with each other. One level down, ladies stand in line for the toilets, crossing and uncrossing their legs as they shuffle forward. There's the constant click of cubicle doors as they're locked and unlocked. One woman out, the next one in, the sound of gushing water. Hands washed and dried, face powder and lipstick applied, flyaway hairs patted and smoothed. A final look in the mirror before walking out to rejoin the social fray.
Behind these scenes, in the dressing rooms, the actors remove their wigs and re-acquaint themselves with their next lines. They warble their vocal chords and stretch their supple limbs. Just before they're called, Wardrobe touches their make-up up and readjusts their costumes. Production places props in their correct spots and sets the scenery. Backstage and front of house is a flurry of activity.
The bell rings its five minute warning. Backstage, this message is passed on like a game of Chinese whispers, until it reaches the Director's ears, “Five minutes everybody!” He reiterates loudly. Front of house, the bell is accompanied by an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, the second act will begin in five minutes.” The last mouthful of drink is swallowed, ice cream is scraped from its miniature pots, toilets are flushed and tights hastily pulled up as the audience scramble back to their seats. In the stalls, people sit and stand, sit and stand, stand and sit as they squeeze past one another. The musicians who have returned to their open pit play a whining tune to match the audience's disharmony. Out of sight, the actors are advised, “Places please!” The lights dim, the curtains rise and the orchestra strikes up tunefully.
On stage, the scene has moved to New Year's Eve. The first act: Merry Christmas, followed by the interlude, had mounted anticipation for the second: Happy New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Tradition

Santa's little helper
Is it disheartening if you know exactly how Christmas will go or is it comforting? My mind has raced ahead in the usual build-up to the 25th. Images presented in my head like the reel of a movie. In this cosy cinema, I view each future scene set before me:
It's late morning on Christmas Eve and I'm gathering my stuff together, throwing clothes and cosmetics in a bag, food and presents in another. I observe my future self scanning the flat, what else? The pause as I think, will I need my hot water bottle? Probably not, but making a grab for it anyway. Have I got enough jumpers and vests? I'm thinking it won't hurt to fling a couple more in. I'm packing as if I'm planning a trek to the North Pole, whereas if I was to walk, Mum and Dad's is only 45 minutes away. This future me zips up the bags and skirts the flat turning appliances off and unplugging them. The present me laughs as the intercom buzzes and I watch myself jump suddenly. Its loud ring catching me out every time. The video screen flashes into life and shows my Dad standing there, the blue and silver two-seater Smart in the background.
Hi Dad! I'm just putting my shoes on.” Is that voice really mine? I wonder what it sounds like crackling out of the outside speaker.
Do you need any help?” Dad offers.
No, I'll manage thanks.”
This other me struggles into her coat and completes the final checks. She scoops the bags uneasily up and fumbling with keys pulls the front door to and locks it. She staggers under her load from the third floor to the ground. With everything piled into the car, myself included, the short drive home commences.
The image fades to another on Christmas Day...
The family is gathered ceremoniously in the lounge. Monty, or Taz as he's known when he's excited, is the first to open his presents. My parents and I watching on as he rips the wrapping off with his teeth. The uncovered toy lets out a volley of squeaks, but he's mesmerised by the crumpled up ball of paper. As we begin to open our gifts, he sniffs and paws at the three of us as if to say, “Give me that paper!” Bored of this, he tries another diversion: “Mum, Dad, look at me! Look at me! Don't I look cute with my boot?!” Cantering up and down the carpet, shaking the boot, its laces trailing. When this fails to work, he positions himself in front of Dad and grumbles, “Dad, play football with me!” The tip of his nose lightly kissing a paper ball, backside up in the air and tail wagging. He gives me a smirk as if to say, “Look how I do downward dog like you, except I'm better!” 
In the next scene, there's yelps and bouncing with the occasional nipping, “Feed me!” He doesn't let up until Mum gets up and obeys him. They disappear in the direction of the kitchen. From my seat, I observe Monty waddle back, belly swollen beneath him. With a self-satisfied look, he flops with a resounding thump on the carpet. Sated, the red devil snores in his sleep, and calmness descends once again in the household...
These scenes from Christmas play on a loop, except in each, I'm a year and eight days older.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Picture

Little h 1988, Big H 2008
On the 17th at exactly 11:45am, I'll be another year older. Another digit will be added to my age. People are always surprised by the number of years I own up to. At 16, I seemed to stop visibly ageing, perhaps I hit pause before then. In primary school portraits, it's still undeniably clear that it's me. That little girl hasn't finished growing up yet. A girl with freckles and a brown ponytail dressed in the regulation school uniform with the green and grey striped tie and green cardigan. A smile, a solemn look or scowling. I might have lost the puppy fat as my frame became more sculpted, but beyond that I've stayed much the same. People from those days, even the teachers and office staff, still recognise me instantaneously. Adulthood has not changed me enough to hide me. Do we all feel that looking back at early pictures of ourselves? Can we all identify unaltered features?
The family jokes I'm a 'Dorian Gray'. Somewhere there's a painting stashed away that ages. The paint peels and cracks with every new crease and wrinkle, so that my appearance remains untarnished. People still ask me for I.D or if I've written my list to Santa. They say I'm blessed with youth, blessed with genes or a non-belief in visible ageing, but I don't feel that way. I have an older head on not-so-young shoulders. In attitude, youth slipped away, perhaps it was never there to begin with. I was always the responsible one. The sensible one. The practical one. The one who joined in with adult conversation. The one who would rather play at being a grown up. Now it's the reverse: I'm a grown adult child that teenagers race ahead of. I do not understand the youth of today even if they're only half my age. The clothes, the current trends, the lingo and the use of social media.
Where has a civilised society gone? What has happened to social etiquette? Gone, gone, gone. Somewhere it evolved into something different and I missed it. Or perhaps I chose to ignore it. The ghetto twang in London accents. Life interrupted by tweets and texts. The overspill of text speech into every faucet. The misspelling of words and the misuse of apostrophes. Your used instead of you're: you are. Math's instead of maths. I underline, circle and correct these grammatical errors because the 'dumbing down' that is accepted by others irritates me. It's petty, but I can't hide my compulsion to do it.
The speed at which children want to grow up alarms me: to wear hot pants, padded bras and stilettos; to experiment with sex, drugs and alcohol; to leave school uneducated, distracted by the latest technology; and the need to conform to an image by having cosmetic surgery. I hate to use the line 'when I was young', but when I was, the social pressures that were there were different. They weren't unavoidable, but with the advent of social media they're now inescapable.
An ageing mind and body cannot be wilfully prevented. One day you will turn into a version of your parents, in looks or in your behaviour. Suddenly you'll become interested in property, politics and the architect of churches. You'll find yourself unintentionally using the same phrases and mannerisms, like a nervous tic you can't control. As you realise this, you'll utter, “Oh my god, I'm turning into my mother!” At some point I expect to wake and find my appearance has caught up to match my demeanour, and I won't object to these lines etched, to this new picture.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Poison

Bleary-eyed, I awoke to a shaded room and the sound of thudding. Thud, thud, thud... There were no noises coming from outside or from the flat above. I raised my head, ouch! Throb, THROB! I laid back down to rest and brought my palms up to my temples. The right side was pulsating. Pulse, pulse against my fingertips. I was now locked into an uncomfortable position in the belief I would obtain relief; one hand pressed to my forehead, the other held on top of my head. I lay like that for what seemed like ages until the pain subsided. Slackened to dull thuds and throbs.
Last night, I had felt the beginning pounds, but prayed sleep would eradicate it. Poof, like magic! I was wrong. I attempted to move again, gingerly raising myself up and swinging my legs out of the bed. I was now sitting on the mattress edge. Ow! Ow! Ow! A stabbing pain sliced through my head like a sworded assassin was severing my blood vessels. I managed to stand and walk wobbly to the lounge-cum-kitchen. My vision was disturbed so that even the meagre light flooding in was too dazzling. I pulled the curtains across thinking perhaps it will ease if I do some stretching. Yoga might help me to release this tension, but in the middle of a simple stretch, a groan erupted from my lips, “Oh god, I feel sick...” Movement causing waves of nausea and my head to swim. Crest after crest building, then falling. I realised it was part of whatever I'd been afflicted with: an excruciating head, light and noise sensitive, and stomach churning.
For four days, this migraine occupied my head, like armed troops setting up camp, then ordered to move territory. Inside, the army was on the march, outside, I was immobilised. Stuck in bed with my hands clamped to my head or sitting quietly in darkened chambers. On days when my head was pounding less ferociously, I attempted some light reading. The letters on the page blurred and danced in front of me and my comprehension was absent without leave. Now this was torture!
By the end of the week, this constriction had faded. My vision was sharp, my head was clear, my stomach was like a calm sea, and movement was unrestricted. The army had finally deserted me! But I was not content to let this go; I wanted to know if these ill effects had an agent, and I think I may have traced it: Quorn. As a fledgling veggie, I had became sensitive to this fungus, but had recently thought why not give it another go, so I did. On that fateful night, I allowed myself a small portion: a handful of Quorn chunks in a stir fry. The brutal consequences as described above followed shortly after.
Most people will not experience 'the Quorn effect', but like any intolerance, it builds up. Don't make the same mistake I initially did and rely on it as the main substitute. I may have said this before, but I'll reiterate it: One person's choice of alternative meat is another person's poison.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Comforting

The peel comes away in coarse slivers, each strip revealing more of its deep orange flesh. Its earthy coat removed, I pick up a sharp vegetable knife and attempt to attack it. Tough, this knife is obviously not big enough! I use all my force and successfully halve it. Chop, chop, chop into rough-sized cubes. Hoisting the heavy wooden chopping board into my hands and pushing these chunks into the pot with the sizzling onion and spices, then pouring vegetable stock over. Some liquid splashes from the measuring jug onto the work surface. I tut, tut as I wipe it and turn the electric hob down to a simmer. For 20 minutes, I watch mesmerised by the small bubbles that form on the surface. My patience runs out, I cannot wait any longer. I lift off the lid and pierce an orange cube, the knife easily slices through – it's done!
Stage two: improvisation. I grab a potato masher from the drawer and proceed to vigorously squash any remaining lumps until it resembles more of a puree. Phew! With the back of my left hand, I brush a loose strand of hair off my face and assemble my insufficient-for-the-whole-job stick blender. My right index finger selects the only speed, the blades rotate and churn the liquid. A guttural whirring. I reach for the already opened can of coconut milk with my other hand and gently add half its contents. The white swirls swiftly disappear as they're blended with the liquid. Its colour lightening and texture changing; intense orange to rich amber, grainy to smooth to velvet. The blades choke to a halt as my index finger is released from its labour. Perfection!
As the liquid cools, I wash up and inhale the aroma. Periodically sniffing the air as I clean each used utensil. I divide the tepid liquid between two plastic containers and on two identical labels write in permanent marker: Homemade Sweet Potato Soup, peeling these off the backing paper and slapping them round the containers. I seal the plastic lids on and bundle them both into the freezer. My mouth watering as I think how delicious this soup will be when it's reheated and finished properly. A extra pinch of chilli spice, a dash of lime juice and a tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter or creamed sesame. A real winter warmer!
I'm still picturing a bowl of steaming soup as I untie my apron. Folding the garment up, my thoughts turn to my other comfort foods. Those ideal for when I'm craving carbs or suffering from a nasty cold: plain spaghetti or boiled rice with a knob of spread and grated cheese, or a jacket potato with baked beans. At this time of year, simple food is just so soothing.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Muffled


Badger Bill, c.1979
Last week I was struck down by seasonal change. Temperatures falling, then rising; rising then falling. In a state of flux like the season. Muffled hearing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, sniffling, one evening of aching and shivering. My joints creaking, crying out to be oiled like well-used hinges, and my body leaking from its orifices. None of the symptoms occurring together, but acting independently. A reversed variation of flu as the aches and pains commenced towards the end and not at the beginning. I snuffled my way through interviews, straining my weak voice and struggling to make sense of what people were saying. Confused, yet I needed to appear comprehensive. I'm listening, I'm taking it in, I'm with you. But really I'm not. Words coming out in a rush, none of them planned or expected. My brain was cocooned in a thick fog. This pilot had lost control and was caught in an Bermuda Triangle induced by illness.
Generally I cope with the usual coughs and colds pretty well, but this new sense was frankly baffling. The world smothered, a cloudy view with muffled sounds. Without headphones on, I'd tuned in to a muted frequency. All that remained was the occasional whoosh like the sound of air travelling fast or the tide going back and forth languidly. A shell was being permanently held to my ear, “I can hear the sea! I can hear the sea!” I exclaimed to anybody excitedly. Marooned on British Isles with imaginary sounds and inaudible people.
Pedestrians and vehicles were miming acts I had to decipher. Flapping gums and mumbled tones. Wheels spinning, exhausts sputtering. Closely observing all activity with nothing to alert me. Noise drowned out by the wind and sea. Whoosh, whoosh. I'm trapped in an sound-proofed construction. Interferences bouncing off the glass before they can reach me. The dull wham, wham as people knock into its walls and disoriented, walk in the opposite direction. The world I knew had been temporarily turned upside down and vigorously shaken.
Back at home, this silence was blissful. A flat calm. No hum from the refrigerator. I couldn't hear the kettle click, the microwave ping, or the phone ring. I allowed vast pillows of cloud to engulf me. Let the auto-pilot take control so I could recover.
I awake still blanketed by fog and venture again into the blankness. Wait, I stand on the pavement outside my flat, something is changing. The whooshing is getting faster, louder. Mayday! Mayday! The auto-pilot must have pushed the eject button. I'm being catapulted back to earth without a parachute to slow me. Terrifying surround sound ricochets off my eardrums. “Arrgghhh make it stop! Make it stop!” With my hands instinctively clapped over my ears I run back inside and bolt the door behind me. A huge sigh escapes from my lips, aaahhh muffled bliss once more.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hoax

Operator: Ambulance, Police or Fire?
Caller: Fire.
Operator: Fire service. What's the emergency?
Caller: Two people carriers have crashed in front of me.
Operator: Can you see how many people are involved? Is anybody moving?
Caller: Each vehicle is carrying six people.
Operator: Address please.
Caller: Fleetwood Street.
Operator: Name please?... Caller, are you still there?...
Silence. The caller has hung up on the operator.

The above is based on a transcript of an actual call made to the emergency services. It's not exact, but it was just one of a string of calls in fact. A series of incidents reported involving the same street somewhere in Blackpool. Each time the caller hung up and the fire brigade had to attend the scene. To viewers watching these edited version of events, the details gave came across as vague and it was clear that these repeated calls were phony. It was done for a laugh, to get a reaction. 999 knew this person was a He, making calls from the same public phone, reporting the same locality, and if he didn't hang up on being asked his name gave the name of male celebrities. He was probably observing it unfold behind twitching curtains, laughing sardonically. CCTV eventually caught him in the act and he admitted to it. In the interview he gave to the documentary crew, he said it was a compulsion. In other words, an irresistible urge: he had to do it.
Antisocial behavioural problems with drugs and alcohol cause offences and unnecessary strains to the emergency services. This hoax caller is not the first or the last. Crank calls are happening with increasingly regularity. Maybe in this case his compulsion was genuine, perhaps he has undiagnosed OCD and needs professional help. But should drug and alcohol abuse be accepted as an excuse? Well, that's okay then. Acknowledge the problem and do nothing to prevent it. Create a new one: let them dial 999 and abuse this service just like they misuse other substances. It's what it's there for.
I'm shocked that some people have no concept of what an emergency is. I've broken a nail. My ex has got custody of my cat and I want her back. Now! Others are more conniving, getting the paramedics called out by pretending to be unconscious. They know exactly what to do get an ambulance. Flashing blue lights and wailing sirens. Attention seeking time-wasters. What happened to respecting our emergency services? The job they do, the lives they save, the service they provide every single day, every 24 hours.
Dial 999 to save a life, not endanger it.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Pawn


I state my name, address and flash my card. Registered, my details crossed off, I'm handed a white slip. There's no conversational talk, just an uncomfortable silence. I'm dismissed with a single glance. I turn away and approach an empty booth, my footsteps echo behind me. At the front, blue panels close me off from peeking toms, but the back stays wide open. Its structure reminds me of a hospital gown, and yet despite being clothed, I feel exposed. The booths next door to mine stand vacant. I read the instructions pinned up and make a mental note of the most important bit: Mark with a cross, not a tick. I take a deep breath and pick up the blunt instrument left for these purposes. I suppress the urge to request it's sharpened. I study the candidates printed on the white slip, the pencil poised above it. With a shaky hand, I make an 'X' next to my first choice and select my deputy. My hand steadier, the 'X' more definite the second time round. Folding the paper in half as instructed, I exit the booth and return with more confidence to the desk. I give a furtive nod to the presiding officers and post my vote in the box.

After I vote, I'm always hit by a sudden rush of euphoria. My shoulders relax, my arms swing and there's a bounce in my step. I've made a strategic move, my vote will be counted. I don't toe one party line, I cherry-pick. I'm not loyal to one brand, one faith, or one way of thinking. I select views that work for me. The coalition government has re-ignited my interest in politics, but in the past when I lacked interest I still voted. Why? Because exercising that right was given to me. My vote is for the women that fought and the women still fighting for it. I vote as a woman who benefited from the suffragette movement and its tragedies. I vote on behalf of the women who have yet to gain this equality. In the West, we forget that voting for women was/is a luxury. Men will never comprehend this in quite the same way.
I'm saddened that members of my own sex don't seem to care or are unaware of this history. The vote is seen as disposable, just as women are still seen today. The female form is either used up like a dirty rag or thrown away. In the West, we've developed barbaric practices to either accentuate or negate our femaleness. We lope breasts off or pump them up, we have nose jobs, face lifts and tummy tucks. Girls aspire to glamour modelling, women take up pole dancing. Opportunities are taken away if you're a woman of a certain age or child-bearing. Often we do all this to ourselves and call it empowering. We tell ourselves we're pleasing ourselves and at same time pleasing society. Submissive to the male in the word of female.
Is this the subversive route the suffragettes thought women would take? Liberalness and compliance. Leaving the home to conform to an overtly sexual image. Feminists are considered aggressive, others are kept silent. Women are still pieces being moved around in an increasingly sexualised society.
I vote because this is the one true voice afforded to me.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Tribal

I lie back in the chair and stare at the monotone ceiling. Closing my eyes, I try to relax and block out the noise in the background: the rustle of new instruments being prepared and the whirr of machinery. The smack of latex gloves and then a damp cloth touches my skin. I hadn't anticipated this wet sliminess, I shiver. Any moment now... I wait... Something is slapped on the surface and held there. Hands clamping it down, prodding its edges and smoothing it into position. Told to stay still for five minutes, the hands are lifted off, and I'm left to think of England. My thoughts turn biblical, medieval, sacrificial. Like a lamb, I've been enticed to to this chamber. Hypnotised to offer myself up to the tribe. To be accepted. Footsteps resound on the wooden flooring – my torturer is returning! My heartbeat quickens as their heavy breaths fall onto my face.
Time's up.” The gruff voice says, “Are you ready?”
I give a feeble nod to consent and squeeze my eyes even tighter. A bead of sweat has formed on my brow and slowly tickles downwards. It reaches the space beneath my nose, above my lip. My tongue tentatively skirts this upper arch and catches this drop of saltiness. My mouth is dry, throat parched. Fingertips brush my skin, nails prising the perimeter of a covering. There's a sudden ripping sound. I flinch. “Don't move!” Another baby rip like sellotape, followed by a foot pressing a lever. I move with the chair into an upright position. A big, burly hand taps my shoulder, “You can open your eyes, you're done.”
I look down at the flat expanse of my navel, to the right the skin is no longer nude, it's coloured. My torturer holds a mirror in front of it. A dolphin has been captured there. “It's beautiful.” I whisper.
My torturer lets out a loud cruel laugh, “Transfers don't last. It will wash off and fade in a few days. Faux body art is my trade!”

Transfers, artwork you peel and apply, adhere to the skin with water. Your first tattoo like your first word or baby tooth. In the late 80s, it was a ritual all kids went through, flicking through the pages of Smash Hits to find them. A rose on the hand, the name of your favourite band, or a weird graffiti symbol. A bit of harmless fun and highly fashionable: art to match your clothes, your shoes, your mood. Like a denim pair of jeans, transfers acquired holes and gradually looked worn and patchy. Adults were mimicked in childish ways, but we didn't progress much beyond it. We decorated our bodies with faux tattoos and painted our faces. We played house and smoked faux cigarettes, puffing clouds of talcum powder in each other's faces. A preadolescence tribe that maintained some individuality.
Tribalism now has intensified, it's more edgy, and its effects are spreading rapidly. Likes and dislikes advertised on skin-coloured canvas. Names engraved, sacred text etched, and symbols carved. Images inked on hips, bums and calves. Every inch covered up, but flaunted.
Has expressing who we are gone too far? Body art is contagious, similar to the town that caught Tourette's, but unlike Le Roy, we haven't investigated what could be causing it. Mass tribalism? Artistic self-harming? An expansion of social media? Is tattooing, once considered a tribal art, now just frivolous branding? Why can't the tribe say: Love the skin you're in, don't permanently mark it!?

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Feel No Evil

Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a fourth wise monkey. His name was Feel No Evil. The youngest of four brothers, he was by far the most compassionate. His heart was touched by witnessing and people confiding in him their life experiences, for unlike his siblings he was blessed with all senses: seeing, hearing, speaking and feeling. People travelled for thousands of miles to tell him their stories. He heard stories close to home and those from far away. Stories of hope, courage, faith and endurance. Stories of hardship, poverty and tragedy. Each night, he would return home and recount these stories. See, Hear and Speak would sit on the floor, the three points of a triangle formed around him. In the centre, Feel narrated and acted every part, feeling every emotion. He laughed and sobbed through the lines; gave contemplative speeches in sign language; he fell to his knees to pray for forgiveness, or danced in joy. He assumed the role of many characters and felt no malevolence towards them. He never judged, he didn't take sides. At the end he summarised the narrator's perspective, justified their attitudes. He saw the good in each of them and identified the moral of their story. He had a gift – he was born a storyteller.
At first, Feel did not realise this. He was a life scholar, content to be learning empathy and sharing this with his brothers. Over time, word spread of his gift, 'Seek him, confide in him. He is compassionate.' the rumour said. Each who told now wanted their story acted out in front of an audience. Feel didn't resist, he saw no harm in this. It wasn't fair to keep these lessons to himself. He reasoned that in passing these stories on, people would learn from one another's experiences.
Night after night Feel performed to growing crowds with his brothers seated around him. He was revered and given the best of everything. His ego grew and he believed it. His storytelling changed; he ridiculed the tellers and became insensitive. One by one, his senses began to desert him. Blinded by his wealth, his eyesight faded. He was blind to people's suffering. His hearing grew weak as he listened only to what he wanted to hear. He was deaf to people's suffering. His speech became judgemental and opinionated. He missed out pages of the script and invented others, possessed by his own self-importance. His voice, once rich, became hoarse, then silent. He could no longer speak of people's suffering. He was unable to put himself in others' shoes. He had felt too much and then not enough as people applauded him. He was numb to people's suffering. His followers left him. His brothers disowned him. He lost everything. Dead inside, Feel was shunned and forgotten.
His disgrace led to See, Hear and Speak spreading their own messages about communicating with evil. They quickly became known as the 'Three Wise Monkeys'. Their carved statues now inhabit homes, but each of their messages has been misinterpreted:
See No Evil: Do not be blind to people's suffering, see it.
Hear No Evil: Do not be deaf to people's stories, hear it.
Speak No Evil: Do not be silent to your voice, speak it.
If the fourth brother had been remembered, his message would be the wisest of them all:
Feel No Evil: Do not be numb to people's images, thoughts, words and experiences, feel it.

The moral of this unknown fable is: Do not lose your empathy. Feel and forgive.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Weepy

At Sea
What makes you weep? Sob? Cry? Brings forth a cascade of tears? Or floods? It doesn't seem to take much these days. Books, friends going their separate ways, goodbyes, injustices, endings. An emotional tide, waves calm or crashing. Inside, I ride a private roller-coaster; outside I'm stoic. Behind closed doors, the eyes fill and spill over at the wrongdoings of others. The unfairness and obstinate attitudes. The intolerance that still pervades society. Crying over the circumstances that others accept: this is life. Hard-hearted towards guilt-inducing adverts for charities. Numb to requests for monetary help or those offering a false sense of hope. Emotions are an enigma.
I project a detached persona. Distant, reserved, aloof. Hold the tears back, only the weak cry in public. Bottle everything up, don't exhibit what you feel. Do not openly admit to feelings. A Victorian Britishness. A stiff upper lip, but fragile like bone china. I will not shatter in front of you. Hands cold to the touch, an embarrassed hand shake, “Cold hands, warm heart” they say. Overly sensitive, I never toughened up internally. It's sink or swim. Paddle furiously against the tide or bob like a cork on the surface. Overwhelmed, be dragged down. Sink to the bottom. Sit on the seabed, feel, think. Let the emotions settle and wash over me. What I'm unable to verbalise, I write.
How do you explain to someone that feeling anything is painful? Exhausting? That you live by this sense and therefore take on board how others feel all the time? Internalise, insulate their emotions? You ride their highs, experience their dips, and digest their angst or stress. It's draining. You don't have the space to trust how you truly feel, so you protect, protect, protect.
You suffer. It affects everything, from relationships to working life. A gift, but now you avoid getting to know people face-to-face altogether. Even that doesn't prevent it. Once a connection's been made, you feel their joy, their sadness. Pick up on their emotional states like a satellite dish or radio antenna. When you care, it's worse. How do you separate yourself out from that? How do you allow yourself to feel, and yet stop feeling?
You cry silently, bruise easily, but do not get attached to new places or people. You close yourself off from new experiences. You live quietly. Create a cocoon where you can escape it. You find a way to cope with the emotional onslaught. You become a functional feeler.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Tweet, Tweet

Tweet, cluck, caw, coo, cock-a-doodle-doo! These sounds once attributed to birds, now to Twitter. A chorus of voices, muttering pathetic gems or pearls of wisdom. Mocking. Opinions. Songbirds replaced by human tweeting. Repeating and general twittering. Permission to chirp ad nauseam. A written 'X-Factor', like giving the mike to those who think they can sing, except in this freedom of speech, there is no auditioning. Voices out-of-tune automatically through to the chorus round, no training. No practising scales, warming up the vocal chords, or warbling, just thrust out on an unlit stage and performing.
Letters forming words, forming sentences. Their comments contained in speech bubbles. The voice unheard, words seen. The audience reads an improvised script, adding their own thoughts to it. Repeating opinions. Following the latest news. Obsessed with twittering. The tweets get stronger, if not in actual sound, then in volume. The flock grows more shrilling. Lyrics reduced to abbreviations, unusual punctuation and smiley faces. Language used as a violent form of gesticulating: angry gestures spew from the mouth instead. Some words that are better left unwritten, unread, unsaid.
Vindictive and spiteful like The Twits. A children's book by Roald Dahl which some adults said made them feel physically sick. It was the descriptions of their practical jokes on each other that did it: Mrs Twit's glass eye and Mr Twit's beard where food would be saved for later. Adults were repulsed, kids loved it. A Roald Dahl reader, I was sucked in by his words, his characters, but now I understand how some adults felt: I feel the same way about Twitter. Would I love it if I were younger? If I wasn't quite so principled? I don't doubt it; I'd probably be addicted to it. But social networking came on the scene after my teens and I'd functioned perfectly well without it. Like Mrs Twit, I'm happy to turn a blind eye, but what I can't concede is the pressure to join it. Tweet, re-tweet, twitter, keep up, follow tv, radio or sports personalities, politicians, and trending. Who has the time? Everybody it seems – tweeting is part of the job, essential to everyday life. A web entourage of people, like the glue Mr Twit coats tree limbs with to catch birds for his pie.
The vast majority have fallen for this social trap: this interactive map of new technology. A social platform where everyone from Joe Bloggs to David Cameron is connected. Points of view from the mundane to the offensive. Freedom of speech from behind a safety blanket. Greater debate, we all get to have a say – fantastic! Nobody is oppressed, excluded. Yes, but what about when this freedom is intentionally used to champion an horrific act or slander an emergency service? People verbally abused on cyberspace. Mr or Mrs Twit gets what they want: a response. Attention. Is everyone entitled to their opinion? Of course, but some thoughts need to be self-policed. Kept private. Or conveyed in such a way so as not to cause indignation or distress. Twitter basically says while it may not be wise to speak these words, you can tweet it.
What and how to tweet is a linguistic problem: how do you engage in mistranslation? Where the written word is not black and white? Where there's no body language to accompany it? In a public forum, the words we use are important and should be tweeted carefully. Birds need to be alert – don't get caught by The Twits.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chicken

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. That was the joke that was regularly told when I was younger. I don't know why it now springs to mind when I think about job hunting. Perhaps it's because I'm no spring chicken, I'm in my middle years, my prime. Job hunting has got harder. Supposedly it's because I'm past my best, my flesh more tough than tender. I haven't just left school or university. I've done the 9-to-5, the commuting; been chained to a desk and the office stress. I'm battered from my brief working life, I'm fried. In leaving my last job, I took a risk and now I can't seem to cross to the other side.
I know the look you're giving me: playing chicken at your age!? Why? Why? Why? For reasons I won't go in. An impulse, a moment, my state of mind. Like a hen that can no longer lay, I knew I couldn't continue. I'd desperately tried and it wasn't working, the situation was worsening. Perhaps it was all in my head, but I needed fresh air, a change. That was earlier this year and I'm still here: on sabbatical. Unemployed, but not for want of trying. Before you rant, I'm not on the dole or claiming any benefits. My choice, my savings.
Humph, what did I expect? Finding a job was never going to be easy! I knew that, but I hadn't expected to, well, feel so redundant. Used up, wiped out. I wasn't aware my qualifications, my experience would mean so little. That it would be so difficult to even be considered for a new career. Cooped into an area of expertise. Wings clipped and inclined to viciously peck my way out of it. Caged because I don't hold a degree, I didn't choose to raise a family. Where are the opportunities for those of us who are 30+? For those who didn't excel in written exams or go to university? What was the point of college and working part-time? Getting my first full-time office job aged 18? Working my way up, changing jobs, gaining experience. My CV rubbed out if GCSEs are altogether scrapped by 2017. On paper, I won't exist. Defunct.
What exactly does 'graduate' mean? Some employers assume 'graduate' means more equipped for the job. Value a degree in any subject above everything else. Theory does not outweigh the practical. Then there are employers who favour experience, but won't help you acquire it. Pah! And the same goes for modern apprenticeships. Why are these limited to an age group? Why can't I have a new start, train for a different career? Why can't opportunities be created for all of us, from when you first enter work to when you leave it? Where are my answers? Not here.
The Government struts, crows its educational strategies. Congratulates itself on ill-considered policies, preening. Education does need an overhaul, but so does employment. Employers need to assess candidates individually, taking into account qualifications, achievements and experience, instead of writing you off with a cursory glance. Good GCSEs; a GNVQ, which is dismissed, undervalued; no degree; relevant skills, but not in this field – reject! Under or over-qualified - which is it? Confused! Training yourself is not a one-off, a phase or stage. A decision made at school or university. People change... Mature, develop new skills, new interests. From egg, to chick, to hen, to tough older bird. Gaining knowledge and skills is a lifetime apprenticeship.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Penny

See a penny, pick it up and all day long you'll have good luck.” I recited scooping a penny from the pavement. I held it aloft and rolled it between my thumb and index finger. Caught in the light, the Queen's copper head glinted, her thin lips look pursed, but she could be smiling. Is a shiny new penny luckier I wondered? If you picked up a penny that's old and brown, would your luck too be tarnished? A bad penny, layered with dirt, discoloured by other people's misfortune. Could this be why brown pennies are mostly used for making wishes? Flung in a fountain or down a well? Fingerprints washed away, cleansed by water. Brown penny, make a wish and get rid; shiny penny, pick up for a full day's good luck. Someone should investigate this, conduct a study to find out.
Personally I don't recall any instances of luckiness on 'I-saw-a-penny-day'. It would make no difference even if I had for I was intent on saving. Browns and coppers stashed in my purse for a rainy day. Tempted to dip my fingers in fountains and wishing wells, save the coins from drowning. Rescue them from a watery grave. Hands held tightly behind my back; resist, resist, resist... “Money doesn't grow on trees”, my dad told me. I never thought it did nor did I trust the money-spider. Why does he always tell me this? Money doesn't grow, it's made by Snow White's seven dwarves tunnelling underground in caves. Really, adults are so stupid! I thought as I rolled my five-year old eyes. But I liked being a money-saver; listening for the clunk as I pushed bronze coins into money-box tins, rattling the container. Emptying them out on my bedroom floor, counting one, two, three.... two, four, six... Separating the pennies from the pences. Inhaling their stale, musty-brown odour, which left a residue on my fingers. Penny fragrance, an Autumn perfume: the mulch of dead leaves and bonfires.
The bank was important. Men in suits and women that sat behind huge glass screens. My head just reached above the counter, money-bags clutched in one hand and my savings book in the other. My fists prised, coins and book swiped from the customer's side to the banker's. My pennies scrutinised, patiently counted; the sum calculated. A proud smile touching my lips as my pocketbook is transferred back: I did this! These frugal lessons have stayed with me. Penny-pinching gives my heart that same leap of satisfaction, along with receiving a payslip or cheque for services rendered. Managing my funds, creating a cushion.
The way banks operate has altered; it's harder to access your money or talk to someone about your finances. Nobody is on familiar terms with their bank manager. Telephone and Internet banking is a web of security passwords. All of us duped by their assurances. The economic climate we find ourselves in was a sudden boom, a crash, but was it? Somewhere there was a gradual shift away from saving. A switch to spending, hemorrhaging. A subtle tide to have what you want when you want it: credit. The account entries in red, unbalanced.
There's a wise Japanese saying: 'A fortune begins with a penny.' The colour red may not be considered lucky by us, but a penny should be. Seeing a penny and picking it up could change your luck: begin with bronze, follow with silver, then go for gold!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Yes Or No?

Do you ever regret lost opportunities? The jobs, people, or invitations you said 'no' to? Do you regret the ones you accepted? The ones where you said 'yes' without hesitating? Impulsively consenting. Have you ever considered what kind of person you are: a yes or a no?
We've all used yes or no in response to closed questions, but predominantly which one are you? Do you generally accept or decline? I'm a decliner. What some people describe as 'no fun'. The 'no' popping out of my mouth like bubblegum, even at times when I don't mean it. I wonder 'what if?' but still give a shake of my head, mouth no. That's not to say I always refuse, but nine times out of ten I do. Extremely lucky if yours is the tenth invitation: Yes! Yes! Yes! She said yes? She accepted? People have fainted at my feet before. From shock? Most probably, but it could have been due to fright: how would they cope with an enigma in company? Would I be polite or hostile? Sit in steely silence or be talkative? An unknown quantity, they'd need to keep an eye on me.
I said yes until my late-20s, but it was still a word I uttered less than my peers. Yes was said to discos, then clubs and holidays, but other things I always said no to. No to anything out-of-the-blue, sprung on me. Unprepared. No to people I didn't want to date, an occasional yes creeping in. Mistakes. No to people I liked. No to finding out, or if I did I couldn't handle it. It was too much. No comes out of my mouth more than it used to, yes is too complicated. Yes is in danger of becoming extinct, disappearing from my vocabulary.
What makes a person say no more than yes and vice versa? Is it nature or conditioned behaviour? Both? If the following was put to you, what would be your answer? A prince or princess knocks on your door and offers you a different life. Do you take it? I don't know that I would. I'm more likely to reply, “Thank you, but no. Goodbye Prince Charming.” The fairy book character that brushes Prince Charming away, exclaiming “'ere git off!” Or takes hold of a broom and bars him from entering. He's not crossing my threshold! Programmed to resist, unbending. No to fairy tale endings, but yes to opportunities knocking.
Choice. The two options neatly summed up in one phrase. Do we know how lucky we are to have it? Free will to choose, even if it may not always seem it. The point when to pronounce yes or no is left up to you; only you can change it.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Mail

I fish out my key, unlock my mail box, a red and white card greets me. Royal Mail. 'Something For You' branded at the top. The time, today's date, my name and address. Damn! Now I'll have to go to the sorting office or rearrange delivery. I check my watch, it's a little after midday. I've just missed him. I shouldn't have walked my mum to the bus stop. Hang on, my block is usually first, there are three separate entrances. The postman must still be around somewhere. I'll hunt him down, claim my 'too large' packet. I was right! There he is! In the courtyard, in uniform and wheeling his trolley in front of him. I race across, shopping bags banging against my legs, and intercept him, “Sorry to trouble you, I think you have something of mine.” Waving the card in front of him. “No trouble.” He smiles, handing my prize: a white jiffy bag over.

I've always had a special relationship with the 'postman'. No, not the 'milkman' variety. As a girl, I'd learnt the game of 'Fetch!' Played it with the dogs. The rattle of the letter box, the sprint to collect. The door's mouth opening, a narrow slit, envelopes falling through. Sealed rectangles or squares picked up from the mat by my hands, not my teeth. My ponytail flicked: was there anything for me? Bouncing up and down if there was. Excited: who could it be? Who's writing was that? My name and address scribbled or printed carefully. Was it recognisable to me? Different scripts, calligraphy. Someone cared to put pen to paper, to write to me.

Postman Pat is to blame for this, him and his cat, Jess. On his rounds, bringing news to the villagers. Motoring along the lanes in his red van and plodding up their driveways. A whistle, a hum; pushing letters through the flap or a rat-a-tat-tat on the door. I'd watch, listen for Mr. Postie. He would come before school, rain or shine. A regular time, an identifiable gait. A race down the stairs, wait... The same game played even during the holidays, in another house.

Mail structured the world, forged new connections, before the Internet superseded it. Emails are not the equivalent. I grant you, the response is quicker, but is that better? Seeing 'New Mail' in bold, is not the same as receiving a stamped addressed envelope. Unsealing it with your fingers, not a click to open it. Holding a handwritten letter, not reading it typed off a screen. Correspondence like this is an occasional treat and will always be, for me, first class.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Service!

Can I have some service please?!” I ring the bell. Ding! Nothing. No cough or 'Coming! Be right with you Madam.' from the room beyond. “Service! Service!” I holler, jamming the bell with my finger, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding...I let out a deep sigh of indignation. “Thank you. Have a nice day.” I mutter, as I read the sign taped to the counter: If at first you don't succeed, try again. I guffaw sarcastically. The small print underneath says: We can also be contacted by phone and email. Er, when??? I've tried and received the standard response: 'All our operators are busy at the moment. Please try later.' Email replies have been the same: auto-generated. Arrggghhh, this is driving me insane!

Rational people give up sooner, think 'oh well, forget it. I'll go elsewhere.' Those half-crazed from failing to get a response get madder. They think, 'If I try this, maybe I'll get through.' Write. Redial, hold the line. Countless times. Complain. A game of persistence. The foreign voice reading the script can't comprehend your deviations. You speak louder, faster. Not slower. Lose your patience and wring the phone. Cut yourself off, slam the phone down in its cradle. The matter is not resolved. Shops fare a little better, except you get that stare if you, god forbid, ask where something is. Interrupt their shelf-stacking or a cosy chat. A huff, a frown, that look of can't-you-see-I'm-busy. Sometimes you get the other look, the duh-I-don't-understand-you. Face blank, I can't help you. The tired old line, 'We don't stock that.' Then you spy it, do a dance on-the-spot. Eureka, you found it!

Where has service-with-a-smile gone? What has happened to our attitude? When I say 'our', I refer to us - all of us- as we all use the service industry. At some point we've been the employee and/or customer. Played each role. How do you act? Did you still continue to treat others as you would like to be treated? Do you get frustrated? Do you assume different attitudes? Become more demanding or surly? As customers, are you unreasonable? As employees, are you bothered? I have an example I'll like to share which happened in a branch of Wilkinson. I was standing in line, the next one but one in the queue. In front, a 40-something man, was about to be served. We'll call him Nutter 'cos that's what it said on his t-shirt. Nutter was rude to the middle-aged female cashier, expecting her to unload his brimming basket, pack his items in plastic bags and be quick about it. The request to empty his basket went down like a lead balloon. He has to do that as well? His language brittle, jaw clenched. Eyes shifty. The cashier scanned and packed, Nutter grudgingly handed a note over. Exited. My turn, I had to comment: remarked on her patience, wished her a better day. Said she was relieved to be clocking off. I understood. I emphathised.

Where has being human gone? Where is the service in dealing with 'real' people?

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Rent

Your first home. All yours. A dwelling you're responsible for – you pay the bills and the rent. You're left the nest, now living alone or sharing. It feels like you're still playing 'house', except everything is grown-up sized and you're the doll. Seven years on from leaving the family home, that first move is lodged in my memory. My first rental property: the appointment to view and confirming 'I'll take it!' Agreement signed, now the proud tenant of a part-furnished converted studio flat for £625 per calendar month, plus council tax, gas, electricity and water. Hadn't I just been robbed in broad daylight?! No, you're mistaken. 'Not in Epsom dahling' People would drawl, 'This is very reasonable.' So there it was, I'd signed on the dotted line and transferred to a plummy landlady.

How was the move? Dreadful. When I was six, moving house was an adventure. Sent to school on moving day, I pretended I was sick. I didn't want to be out of the way, I wanted to be in the thick of it. Fake sickness dropped, I sat with the removal men on bare wooden floors and ate jam doughnuts. That was by far my favourite bit! 18 years later and able to afford it, this move was different. There were no removal men and no doughnuts. Just my parents and I, completing it in stages; carloads ferried backwards and forwards. Finally in – this was home.

Three years, three months I existed there. A model tenant, rent paid on time and seldom bothering my landlady. Looking back, I think of that first flat with affection and disbelief: how had I survived that? Sharing the space with mismatched rustic furniture, peeling paint, dampness, and spiders. The problems with the waterworks, (not my own!), and the lack of insulation. Winter was positively Dickensian: no double glazing, permanently wrapped in layers, and sleeping encased in the covers like a sausage roll. Wasn't this being mature? Embracing adulthood? Morning post addressed only to me shooting through the letterbox. Closing my own front door behind me, tiredly hanging my coat up. Renting that first flat didn't put me off. This was what I'd been waiting for: this was living.

Renting, they say, is dead money. Money frittered away; wasted. Invested wisely, bricks and mortar belong to you: the proud owner. Some of us can't /don't wish to aspire to this, (delete as applicable), because renting is relatively hassle-free. No flicking through trade directories for a plumber or electrician; just one phone call, the agent will take care of it. Being an owner, as I am now, is different. With a flat in my name, I'm tied to a property and responsible for it. That fateful word forever illuminated in my head: COMMITMENT! I want to run from it... But I think if I can handle this, one day I'll progress to being a doll in a full-scale house.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Fig

'...also, if you tie a bull, be he ever so mad, to a Fig Tree, he will quickly become tame and gentle.' As I read this quote from a recent book, I wondered if the opposite were true. If a tame and gentle bull was forever tethered to a fig tree and was suddenly untied, would he be angry? Would he quickly become feisty? Would the abrupt freedom be too much for him to handle? Should I have tied myself to my granddad's fig tree?

I seem to have spent most of my life tethered to a tree: The Faraway Tree, as described by Enid Blyton. Clambering up its sturdy trunk and stepping off a branch into a land where I could play. The tricky bit was asking myself: what land did I wish to visit today? Did I want adventure or utopia? A land full of colour or eccentric characters? I cocooned myself in lands hidden by fluffy white clouds at the top of a tree. An only child; a dreamer, I've never been accused of lacking in imagination. My head was permanently stuck in the clouds, eyes glazed, far away some place else. Amusing myself, believing in a world no-one else seemed to be able to see. Fairies are real and toys talk to me. I still believe!

Were my parents wrong to indulge me? Other parents said as much; they didn't want their kids drawn into this foolishness. It was unnecessary. Were they right? I still think no, but perhaps so... It made childhood magical; the problem is I haven't exactly grown out of it. My life is mainly lived in my imagination. The freedom I have there, I deny myself here. I'm scared. There's a line in Strictly Ballroom that says 'A life lived in fear is a life half lived.' I can hear Fran pronounce these words in her Aussie twang. There was a time when I thought I was just like Fran: a frizzy-haired, gawky, ugly duckling that would one day turn into a swan. Except even Fran was braver than me. The 'swan' bit also eluded me.

What do you do when grabbing life scares you? Baby steps. I've taken risks that haven't always worked out for the best, but I've tried it. Gone to events where I've had to mingle, attended training courses and workshops alone, and even holidayed on my own. Well? I hated every single minute of it! Ok, so that's a lie, but most if it. The maddest thing I ever did was travel to San Francisco, but yet four years down the line, I'm still left with poignant memories. Doing excursions, meeting new people, seeing the Olympic torch, and spending my last morning in the grounds of Grace Cathedral. Would I do it again? No, because it tested me. Every day I felt on edge, all experiences were heightened. That's the problem with risks – I can't relax until it's over. My mind races, my pupils dilate and my pulse shoots up. Is she on drugs? People must wonder... Untied, I probably come across as a little manic. A natural born worrier.

Was the Faraway Tree the wrong tree for me? The opening quote has filled me with curiosity. If I'd sat under my granddad's fig tree, would I have achieved enlightenment like Buddha? Would I handle life more easily? Maybe. Or would I become more bull-like? Scuffing my feet and breathing noisily. Two fingers stuck up, exclaiming “I don't care a fig!” whenever anyone waved a rag in front of me. Does freedom come with vulgarity...?

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Future Is...

The Jetsons 1985-1987
As a child, what did you think the future would be like? What did you think yours would hold? A friend confided in me: 'When I was in 1993 I thought 2012 would be robots, hover crafts and space ships etc.' Didn't we all? I thought. It's for him I write this and explore my own fantasies. I imagined the 21st century would be like 'The Jetsons', one of my favourite animations. We'd all be flying around in aerocars, a flying saucer with a transparent bubble top. We'd live in Skypads where robots would serve our every need and be considered members of the family. I believed in what was being shown to me. This was our future. But that was before teenage hormones hit and life became about 'Take That'.

Were these thoughts of the future far-fetched? As adults they now seem laughable, but as children anything was possible. Am I disappointed that this future, as I saw it, hasn't taken shape? No, because I outgrew it, but yet I'm perplexed by this future I find myself in. Never once did I think I'd be living in a techno-revolution. Where virtual is taking over reality. Where some prefer to experience life as an avatar; removing all physical trace of themselves or observing others through a camera. A disconnection from the natural world, choosing instead to connect to the worldwide web. All of us have in some form submitted to it. Emailing, googling, e-commercing, blogging and social networking. The internet has transformed our lives, but are they better because of it? Would any of us have guessed the magnitude of its web? I doubt it.

The internet may have changed the way we interact, but I don't think it's changed me. I'm not compelled to use it to live my life virtually. If I turned to you now and said: “The future is...” And paused for you to fill the space, how would you complete it? I would jest and say 'the future's bright, the future's orange.' That well-known mobile network slogan makes me want to say it. My friend thinks 4000 would be wild, but we won't be here to see it. What do I visualise for myself? I see the one thing I wanted as a child and knew I would one day get: a mobility scooter! In burgundy. I thought I could hop into any left unattended outside shops. An adult hand would pull me away as I tugged at their sleeve saying, “Why can't I? Please...” My future is: my own shining scooter, which by then will hopefully have a bit more momentum!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Copycat

When were you last really happy? This question was put to me recently and I'm still pondering... I didn't think I would have to dig deep, but let's be honest I'm shovelling. Sometimes you have to go back to go forwards, at least that's what I've read and been told. The problem is I'm always happier looking back and never venturing forwards. Forward is unknown and I have a strict comfort zone. What one person may think nothing of will tie me in anxious knots. I'm unable to relax in any unusual circumstances: places I haven't been before or where I don't know what's expected. How should I act? 'Just be yourself', I tell myself, but I'm tense and ill-at-ease. At social events, all I can think is 'God, please help me look as though I'm enjoying it!' My eyes turned up to the sky beseechingly as I'm thinking it. Poised like a cat, my body never slacks. Does anxiety lessen the effect of happiness? I think it does...

I've always been a people pleaser. A chameleon: changing my response to suit the situation, mood or person. An on-the-surface copycat which is a form of social etiquette; I know what behaviour is expected. It's not being false, but it's not altogether genuine either. Sometimes circumstances require a mask to hide or protect yourself, or to be accepted. Have I gotten so good that I no longer feel real happiness? Do I recognise when it belongs to me? I don't know... Perhaps it's contained somewhere, gathering dust. Maturing. Cork popped, the bubbles will froth and spill over. Is it possible for each of us to experience happiness differently?

Happiness is subjective I thought, yet we treat it as a commodity. There's a Richter-type scale to indicate where we are and how we compare to other countries. For policy making and as data research, this is interesting, but aren't we trying too hard to quantify what makes us happy? Happiness is the buzz word: how to get it and how to improve upon it. Er, isn't that missing the point? Isn't happiness somehow meant to catch you out? Creep up on you? If we constantly measure our own and strive to experience it, aren't we diluting it? Should happiness be taught? Well, we're trying. Covertly informed how we should react to life-changing events and how we should display it. A competition to find lasting happiness and doggedly hold on to it; nobody yet coming forward in their claim of it.

Why? Because happiness doesn't work like that. In being a copycat, you imitate how you think this emotion should look, but you don't really feel it.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Epsom Girl

Have you ever felt like walking out? Escaping your own life? I have, numerous times, and I've tried. Plotting to give the whole lot up - resigning from my job and relocating, or failing that losing myself in a book or daydreaming. My head screaming: “I want a different life! A different home town and profession!” I want the reverse of the Cheers theme tune - where nobody knows your name - and be unrecognisable. To not get stopped in the street or bump into new or old acquaintances. I play this game of love-hate with it. Sometimes I don't want to converse or be distracted, but other times I do, enjoying these spontaneous tĂȘte-a-tĂȘtes outside local shops or inside supermarkets. Living and working locally has meant I've formed a link to more and more people. I never forget a face, (occasionally a name), and neither does it seem I have a face that's easily forgotten.

I'm the Epsom face that never changes. People may come and go, but I'll still be here; my face and physique unaltered. I should be flattered by this recognition, so why aren't I? Because I've yet to accept this is where I'm meant to be, for eternity. But deep down I know it, and even deeper down I'm content with it. The perfectionist in me says this is a failing: 'You're missing out, you have no ties, challenge yourself, start again somewhere else – leave!' Gripped in fight or flight and depression I listen. This is the rescue I need from myself, this will help me, and so begins research...

I can list the places I've looked, believing them to be better: Wimbledon, Guildford, Woking, Bournemouth, Littlehampton, Worthing, Bognor Regis, and Chichester. Every year, the search gets further... These dreams of a new life are never brought to fruition because each time I wake up and realise what I've got. The familiar. Family 10 minutes away, the rumbles of trains and the chimes of the clock tower. London and the countryside on my doorstep. Nostalgia. If I lived anywhere else, I'd miss it. Epsom is a part of me as much as I'm part of its history.

Is the grass always greener? I realise it's not and yet occasionally I hanker after it. When the monotony of everyday life stifles me, I plan my move. I imagine standing on the top of a hill like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, skipping through a new cobbled town with nuns and children behind me. The world will feel alive and music will accompany me. I will be the pied piper. Is this just a fantasy or could I make this real? At these times, I choose to believe the latter. This will be my nirvana. Then the bubble bursts, the circuit is complete again. I'm not a mover or a shaker, I'm a stayer. Why is this seen as a weakness? Is it because under-40s have not been taught how to be satisfied? We think we have to, or at least try, to have it all.

I flew the nest, I just didn't fly very far. It's a documented fact that I've never been able to. My wings clipped to short distances, well within my comfort zone. My flight path mapped out clearly spells E.P.S.O.M. A map I continue to add to as I explore its niches, finding new streets and businesses. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but familiarity is also home.