Forest Christmas

I’ve had Christmas already this year. I met up with my sister and her husband, my new nephew (Gus the Poodle) and my niece (Ruby the Golden Doodle), in a cabin in the Forest of Dean. And we had a jolly nice Christmas.

Now, I don’t know what that last sentence conveys to you, but fuck me, people are having a hard time getting their heads around this extremely simple concept. I’ll grant that there’s a more traditional date that was chosen arbitrarily a few years back, but there are also other festivals that shift. No one says ‘Easter in March isn’t really Easter, is it?’

Despite which, it seems that Christmas is so effectively tied to December 25 that people absolutely cannot fathom that it could happen at any other time. To the point that they are almost, almost affronted.  I’m now so fed up of explaining and justifying that I’m simply not going to bother.

Sample conversation #1

‘So did you have presents?’

‘Yes, it was Christmas.’

‘What about a tree?’

‘Yes, because it was Christmas.’

‘What about…’

‘Look, we had presents, and decorations, and Christmas music, and a roast dinner, and we watched Die Hard! Because it was Christmas!’

Blank look.

Sample conversation #2

‘When did you have Christmas?’

‘Last week.’

‘So more like Thanksgiving then.’

‘No, it was Christmas.’

‘What do you mean, you had Christmas?’

‘I mean, we did all the stuff you do for Christmas. Because it was Christmas.’

‘What are you going to do at Christmas?’

‘Nothing, because I already did Christmas.’

In some respects, it’s a fascinating insight, first into how difficult people can find it to break what they seem to regard as hard-coded rules. If Christmas is one, are there loads of others that I don’t know about as well?

Secondly, the more specific questions pinpoint what defines Christmas for one’s interrogator. Sprouts are a key signifier; Die Hard is definitely up there too. A couple of people mentioned the queen’s speech, which I have never watched anyway, or midnight carol services. Which I don’t attend.

I actually was thinking about sort of doing Christmas again, and then I thought, why? I had a lovely Christmas. I don’t need two of them. I still have to get some presents, and I’m going to see the stage show of White Christmas so that seems plenty. But there’s stuff that’s just for me, like a tree or fancy bits of food, that is simply unnecessary. So I gave the money to charity instead. As the Other Christmas build up really gets going, I’m finding myself relieved at the amount of tasks I don’t have to bother with and the volume of thinking that I don’t have to do.

We’re thinking of making Forest Christmas a regular thing. It’s an appealing thought, and not only because it involves dog walking and copious amounts of champagne being drunk in a hot tub. It’s  a ‘Get out of Christmas hysteria’ free card, while still allowing me to take a week off when the rest of the country does Other Christmas. Forest Christmas for the win!

Doing one thing at a time

I’m taking the opportunity of all this unaccustomed time I have at the moment to try to learn some new habits. One of the activities my CBT coach got me to do when my anxiety was at its worst was to create a weekly timetable and then evaluate how I felt about what I did in each time slot. I rated from 0-10 for Achievement and from 0-10 for Enjoyment.

Probably unsurprisingly after so many years at work, where I was rated almost entirely on what I got done, I am very task focused. So with my weekly timetable, task after task was an achievement, but nothing was particularly enjoyable. If anyone is feeling that their life is a little, or a lot, off balance, I’d recommend trying that rating exercise, by the way.

Somewhere along the way I developed the attitude that anything enjoyable should be pushed to the fringes of life. Fine to do when the chores are done, but not stuff that can take priority. I am a tidy, organised, control freak anyway and I think my previously frenetic working life exacerbated these tendencies. Life really did become all work.

But the chores are never done and they never will be. I’m learning that that’s ok, and I’m deliberately trying to create more balance by forcing myself not to do things. One way to do that is to focus on just doing one thing at a time. So I started by just listening to a podcast. Then just listening to the radio. Like a lot of people, I think, I’ve tended to use the radio as background noise. But I can’t work or read with background noise, and now I’m not driving much I’m missing shows that I liked.

No one thinks it’s weird to sit down and watch TV for a couple of hours. But who these days sits down to give the radio their full attention? I started by settling myself in with a pot of coffee one Saturday morning and listening to Saturday Live on R4. To start with, it felt strange and twitchy. I had to keep reminding myself that this was what I was supposed to be doing with the time. I reached repeatedly for my phone, and then put it down again as I realised I was about to start multi-tasking. I made myself stay still, and I listened to the whole programme. Then I got on with my usual day, but feeling calmer and more grounded. I noticed that my entire day seemed to run more slowly and comfortably.

Mid-week and I listened to a podcast about Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal. It’s long been my favourite poem and this show included Samuel West reading parts of it aloud – absolute bliss. I dug out my copy of the poem to take to bed with me, and over the next couple of nights I read the whole thing aloud to myself. Sunday morning brought The Archers omnibus and ok, I did a bit of a Tweetalong as well. But that was less a distraction and more a shared experience. It’s not as if The Archers is always very interesting – there are whole storylines that are dull as blocked culvert water. So allowing myself to be bored for a couple of minutes becomes part of the experience as well.

I like this slowing down and paying attention. Everything that needs to happen still happens. But, taking one thing at a time smoothes the rhythm of the day and makes everything more enjoyable.

 

 

 

Reveal: Robbie Williams

Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.

The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.

Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.

So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.

Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.

There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.

As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’

 

Tough times, strong women

Time is a little bit blurry for me at the moment, but the fact that we’re now in July means that I’ve been at S’s house for about 10 days. Wow. Which at least is enough time for some dust to settle. Life persists in feeling surreal, though, so I think I might still be in some kind of shock. I’m aware of waiting for life to get back to normal, so I have to keep reminding myself that this is the new normal.

What I’ve learned, or rather, been reminded of, is that when the going gets tough, it is the strong women in your life who you fall back on. For the practical stuff, for the pep talks, for the wine, the doughnuts and the kick up the arse to get out of the house or do some yoga. So it’s my sister who says ‘Don’t be stupid, of course you’ll get another job and in the meantime you could do this, and this, and this…’ It’s my friend S who cleared out her spare room, set up the air mattress, made space in the closet and the fridge and the freezer, and made dinner –  and all that on the day she got back from the US after an overnight flight and a painful journey home. It’s the friend who, amid her own crazy work and family life, makes time to call and check in on me; and the friend who said ‘If you need me, I will get on a ‘plane.’

These are the women who are keeping my head above the water, and I know damn well that I’m lucky.

Meanwhile, in the latest dramatic switchback on the hurtling coastal road of life, the house is back on. Well, maybe. I had a couple of conversations with my vendors, who have found a new house to buy and are pretty sure it can all happen by the end of July. That is the cut off point I’ve set, and if all goes tits up again, I will walk away and back to the grim world of renting. For now, it’s a holding pattern.

Which means, the cats are now in their second cattery. This is far and away the worst part of this whole life collapse business. I don’t care how luxurious a cattery is and how much people claim their cats settle down, it’s jail for kittens. I saw Belle and Charlie in their last, lovely, spacious place, where I know they were being well looked after by great people. Charlie would barely come out of his box, both of them were jumpy and wide eyed at every sudden noise. It breaks me to see them and it breaks me not to see them and I will never get over the guilt.

There are jobs to be applied for and some recruiters are calling. There is a certain kind of freedom and luxury in stepping away from the position of ‘Well, I earn x so I don’t see how I could work for less than y’ to ‘If I earn z then I’m covered.’ I’m lucky here, too, in that as my identity isn’t bound up in holding a certain professional position or earning a certain amount, any which way I can cover my costs will be fine by me. I’ve stacked shelves in a store before, and I’ve also been in meetings that are way more boring than that. Thank goodness for savings, though. I can hold the wolf from the door until the end of the year, and if I have to I will fucking kill and skin the wolf, the cats can eat him and we’ll all huddle together in a wolfskin.

So that’s a plan, right?

I’m starting to hate LinkedIn

I know I’m not the first person to realise this, but LinkedIn is the Facebook of work, and I gave up on FB over a year ago. It’s bad enough that at work I can’t just do my job and we all have to play the game of cheerleading about ourselves to as many senior people as possible, while ostentatiously collecting ‘Recognition events’ for ‘Living the company values’. I realise it’s difficult to tell, but those things in quotation marks are real; I am actually not making this ridiculous shit up for effect. A great deal of money, time and effort goes into creating corporate values. Loads of companies have them and without fail they can be summed up as ‘Don’t be a dick’. Recognition platforms are becomingly increasingly gamified, too, with managers now having points they can allocate to their reports as reward for scoring highly on the values. And what do points mean? Prizes!

Admittedly, I am a miserable, cynical old cow, but I started work in the era before objectives, 121s, recognition and managers who were supposed to talk to their direct reports. You were just left to get on with your job, and if you did it, great and you probably got a bit of a payrise and eventually a promotion, and if you didn’t, you got shunted off to another department or life was made a bit miserable until you left.

So, as far as I can see, nothing has changed in terms of end results, there’s just a load more hoop jumping and specialised vocabulary along the way.  Oh, and more people being signed off with stress.

Anyway, so where Facebook was the platform on which people carefully curated their lives, LinkedIn is the professional equivalent. Even more than Twitter, it’s the place where personal and professional boundaries blur, to create an environment where curated professional personalities perform their jobs. At one extreme, people just whore out their accounts to their employer’s social media agency.  Those accounts then become simply a stream of airbrushed marketing fluff, patently superficial. Disconcertingly, the odd real post can still sneak in, which only goes to underline the falsity of the majority of the content.

At the other end of the scale, you can continue to manage your own account, but following all the best practice tips to maximise views and interactions. This is the slightly sneakier way, a more personally crafted version of authenticity, which still manages to showcase either your own awesomeness, or ideally, lavishes awesome sauce on your company as well. Sometimes, it’s an inverted way of showcasing awesomeness, when you write a ‘triumph over adversity’ post that starts off by outlining the problem/thing you didn’t realise, and ends up with the solution/lightbulb moment. It’s best if you can ensure that the realisation is either due to teamwork or your own moment of humbleness and genuine learning.

No one ever just posts the reality that they’ve had a great day because they had one good conversation that unblocked a difficult situation, or someone fixed the vending machine; or a shit day, because your budget just got wiped and now you have to deliver all the same stuff but with no money and fewer people.

Because we must all be our best professional selves all the time on LinkedIn. It’s like doing your job twice over, once during the working day (assuming you’re a hold out who has a working day and doesn’t live in the interstices between emails), and then again, by booming out the edited highlights into the echo chamber.

I’d like to propose an alternative site, LinkedIntrovert. We can all just post our CVs or any jobs we’re recruiting for, and then shut the fuck up.

Another thing about anxiety

It’s boring. I mean, really boring. Mine bores me. It makes answering the question ‘How are you?’ really hard, so I’ve taken to saying ‘Pass.’ This isn’t because I want people to dig, it’s because my brain jams and somehow, the only answer anyone wants in response, ‘I’m fine’, won’t come out. I don’t want to talk about being anxious most of the time anymore, even to the people who I think I believe I know are genuinely willing to listen. And that’s invidious, because staying trapped inside your own head all the time only makes it worse.

Anxiety is also one greedy motherfucker. It will feed off anything. I am constantly balancing on the high wire of trying to calibrate my own reactions, and it doesn’t take much to tip them one way or the other. Am I being paranoid or should I legitimately interpret that comment as criticism? I can’t really tell, so I have to make a judgment call, but my judgment is shot to hell. Or is it? I don’t know. That’ll be a fiver for another spin on the merry-go-round, lady. ‘How are you?’ ‘Pass.’

My other answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Two glasses of white a night.’ This is a new thing, but it turns out, while white wine doesn’t disturb my sleep or give me hangovers, it does knock me out. It is, therefore, fucking brilliant. And I don’t have to worry about the calories, because I’m not eating so much, so that all balances out then! Ok, I know it doesn’t. I know it isn’t ok, and it isn’t sustainable, but I’m not expecting it to be. There is a magical future land where everything will be ok, and it is called ‘When I move’. Unfortunately ‘When I move’ is indeterminate.

Or rather, ‘When I move’ into the house I am allegedly buying is uncertain. I have lost any sense of time in that regard, so it could be next week or next year. Who knows? If I was previously struggling to find the excitement in buying my first house, now even the ashes are cold. But the removal company are rocking up on 18th June, and either the boxes and I and the cats will go to our new home, or the boxes will go to storage, I will go to my friend S’s house and the cats will go to a cattery.

I’ve always sworn that I will never put the cats in a cattery, and the thought of being forced to do so by circumstance now creates a fantastic mix of tear-inducing murderous rage. They will hate it. I will hate it. There isn’t really anyone I can blame for this, not even me, so I simply snarl and growl and snap at the binds of the situation, and pour another glass.

The logistics of this potential interim move become further sources of anxiety.  I know that all of the decisions involved are in fact, relatively minor. They are all manageable. There are solutions to all of the problems that only even seem like problems because anxiety has no truck with problem solving and prefers to skate over answers and loop endlessly back to questions.

And that’s another thing about anxiety. It’s tiring, because it’s relentless. Not even in some grand, dramatic way. Anxiety is pettifogging and small, mosquitoes of the mind that refuse to be swatted. They will die, one by one, because life is not a stagnant pool, it’s clear running water. I just need to get out of these shallows.

Ageing practically

We were at the hospital with my mother again on Friday night. She’s fine, she’s home now, before anyone worries. My stepfather was with her and I turned up to provide additional support and tell the story properly as he can’t be relied on to give the appropriate details. So my sister, who usually handles all the medical scenarios, had called me. Eventually, my mum was admitted overnight and I drove my stepfather home and finally got in myself at around midnight.

As I head into another break up out of whatever, strange, intermediate relationship status this currently is, I realised that if I were in a similar situation, most likely there won’t be anyone turning up at a hospital to look after me. That’s not self-pity, but there really isn’t anyone fulfilling the role of husband or daughter in my life and based on life experience to date, it would be fucking madness to assume that the future will look any different. I’m quite comfortable on my own and although my friends are busily reassuring me that ‘You’ll meet someone else,’ my primary response at the moment is ‘Why?’ On the off chance that they’ll be around if I have any health scares does not seem like much of a reason.

Much better, I think, to look at the situation pragmatically. Aside from the huge unknowns, which I cannot predict and for which I can’t plan, there are some steps that can be taken.

  1. For the whatevernth time, I have to get back to exercising. Which I’ve known, but seeing my parents wheeze their way through a few steps really brings it home. My stepfather’s refrain is ‘It’s all due to getting old’, but I know it doesn’t have to be.
  2. I realised I can’t become one of those people who doesn’t know how to do stuff. Whatever the equivalent in my senior years is of internet banking or dealing with utility company screw ups, or fixing the computer, I’ll have to be able to handle it. This is bad news, given my propensity to hate dealing with that shit already. On the other hand, if there isn’t anyone else to do it, necessity will damn well have to become a virtue.
  3. I’ll have to use what is available to my advantage. So, let’s assume that the IoT has moved beyond just a selection of pointless, hackable tat in the next 20 years. With that, and whatever wearable tech is around, I presume I’ll be able to pay for a service that will remotely monitor my health and take action if I collapse somewhere. That’s going to have to be outside the home as well, but we’ll all be geotagged by then anyway. At the very least.
  4. Chuck money at the problem. Tricky one, as I don’t have any, but if there are any tattered remnants of the NHS left, there will most likely need to be some private options filling the gaps as well. I have to think about this one.

This is turning into a year of real adulting. I can’t look ahead with pre-regret to the situation that my own choices are likely to bring about. But I do have to think and plan now, because being old is no longer unimaginable.