Thursday 29 July 2010

Future perfect

Could I really be afraid of the future? I decided to take the problem to my esteemed therapist Dr Melissa Flinch, at her luxurious consulting rooms in leafy South Belfast.

She offered me a herbal tea and an oatmeal cookie as I reclined in the well-padded armchair among a dense thicket of overgrown pot plants.

Nick: I'm afraid that I'm afraid of the future.

Melissa: Don't be silly. You can't be afraid of something so unbounded, so intangible. It's like being afraid of the weather, or speech, or a blank sheet of paper. You can only be afraid of something specific. Like spiders. Or flying.

Nick: But I'm afraid I'll be overtaken by some awful disaster in five years' time.

Melissa: Then you're just afraid of disaster. That's natural enough. But you're not afraid of some wonderful pleasure in five years' time, are you?

Nick: No, of course not.

Melissa: In fact, you must think pleasure is a lot more likely than catastrophe?

Nick: I suppose so.

Melissa: Well then, you're just a sunny optimist with occasional fits of pessimism. You allow for the very realistic possibility that you can't have pleasure 100 per cent of the time. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes they go very wrong. That's life, baby.

Nick: I guess you're right.

Melissa: Of course really you're just afraid of yourself. You're afraid of your inability to cope with any disaster that comes along. You're afraid of your own inadequacy, your own helplessness, your own confusion.

Nick: I'd never thought of it like that.

Melissa: Well, that's what I'm here for. I've seen a thousand tortured souls like yours. I know what's going on in your murky unconscious. I can unravel the tangled strands, lead you out of the psychic morass, restore clarity of thought.

Nick: What would I do without you?

Melissa: I shudder to think. That'll be £100 plus VAT. Mastercard as usual?

Nick: Cheap at the price.

I skipped happily down the front steps, the heavy burden lifted from my shoulders. All at once a rosy future beckoned.

A new British survey says almost one person in five has consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist. Some 95% of those polled believe it is a good idea to seek counselling or psychotherapy for a problem before it gets out of hand, while 88% thought people might be happier as a result of doing so. Some 88% believe counselling and psychotherapy should be available to all on the NHS. This is a huge change in attitudes from six years ago.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

The groping guru

If you thought Swami Korianda was just a wild flight of the imagination, think again. A self-proclaimed guru and healer who molested and raped numerous women has just been jailed for ten years.

Michael Lyons posed as the illustrious Mohan Singh, a spiritual sage who was skilled in osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture and nutrition.

He gathered plenty of followers from around the world, particularly women, who were taken in by his plausible manner and supposed esoteric wisdom.

But women who were given one of his special treatments often found that he would then casually feel them up or rape them.

His bizarre justifications for these attacks would be hilarious if they weren't also shockingly exploitative. He told one woman he was groping that he was "feeling her energy pulse." He explained to another that he was "enlightening her with his organic penis." Yet another was told he was "unblocking her chakras."

Even more disturbing was the fact that sometimes other women were not only witnessing the attacks but encouraging them, such was their naive trust in his sincerity.

Unfortunately such so-called gurus can set up their bogus cults and attract legions of gullible followers without any need for official vetting or approval. All they have to do is convince a few people of their spiritual powers and they in turn will convince thousands of others.

Those who are desperate to revitalise empty and dissatisfying lives will suspend disbelief and idolise such charlatans without asking too many questions about their abilities or claims.

Knowing he was wealthy enough to have homes in London, Manchester, Los Angeles and Miami would only be further evidence that his mystical knowledge had brought well-deserved material success.

It just proves once again that the best guide in life is your own inner instincts and not some glamorous, charismatic holy man who simply wants to get his rocks off. With you.

Pic: Michael Lyons

Sunday 25 July 2010

Fear of the future

My regular readers will know about my fear of darkness. But it's only just dawned on me that I also have a fear of the future*.

It came to me in a blinding flash. I was thinking about my various anxieties and realised they all had a common theme - I was nervous of what might happen in the years ahead.

I'm happy enough with the past. I don't regret anything I've done, and by and large I don't wish I had had a different sort of life. Fate has been kind to me and sent me wonderful opportunities and experiences. And the present is okay too. Whatever I'm doing, whoever I'm with, I just try to get the best out of it and make light of the negatives.

But the future's a different matter. It's so uncertain. There's no guarantee it'll be as pleasurable as the past, that things will go as smoothly, that I'll still be able to cope with whatever's flung at me. Disaster is as possible as good fortune. Unhappiness is as possible as joy.

I envy those who assume the future can only mean more pleasure, more success, more wisdom, a constant movement onwards and upwards. I just don't have that confidence, that faith.

Maybe it's because life has been so good to me up till now I'm afraid it can only be less good in the future. My luck can't hold forever. Maybe it's because I'm getting older and therefore likely to become physically frail or senile. Maybe it's because I know how easily some unexpected turn of events can shatter a comfortable existence.

Whatever the cause, I can't see any obvious way of combatting this fear. However much I tell myself there's no point in worrying about the future, precisely because it's unpredictable and unknowable, and because none of my imagined scary scenarios might actually happen, it doesn't stop the anxieties bubbling to the surface and stubbornly persisting. I can rationalise and intellectualise all I like, the rest of my brain takes no notice.

All I can do with this annoying syndrome, like all my other weird quirks, is to minimise it and stop it spoiling my enjoyment of life. I must let the future take care of itself.

PS: Maybe I'm going over the top here. If it's only the possible misfortunes I'm afraid of, and not the pleasures, maybe it's simply a fear of disaster. Or as the therapist Fritz Perls put it, catastrophic expectations. Or pessimism....

* Oddly enough, there seems to be no technical term for this particular phobia

Thursday 22 July 2010

Beyond vanity

When I was a boy, paying too much attention to your appearance was regarded as unseemly vanity. Particularly in the case of women. Tarting yourself up, using too much makeup, having fancy hairdos, and any sign of excessive primping and preening, was dismissed contemptuously as nothing but vanity.

Somewhere along the line that all changed and constant attention to your appearance was no longer vain but completely normal. Everyone wanted to "look their best" or "make the most of themselves". Naturally a woman wanted a more flattering hairstyle or a smoother complexion, anything less was "letting yourself go".

Now we've moved even farther and perfecting your appearance is not just normal but almost compulsory, a measure of self-worth. Spending huge amounts of time and money achieving the looks of a film star or a supermodel now shows that you value yourself, you believe in your potential and your talents.

Anyone who isn't feverishly botoxing, boosting their breast size, having a Hollywood or adding highlights clearly doesn't think much of themselves. They're content to be the sort of second-rate, unimportant low-achievers nobody ever notices. Improving your appearance is now as vital as taking a degree or buying your first home. It demands rigorous effort and single-mindedness.

For too many women (and increasing numbers of men) tarting yourself up is no longer a naughty pleasure but a daily treadmill, another domestic chore that mustn't be neglected. The innocent days of unseemly vanity are long gone.

How did this shift of emphasis take place? How did we slide so unwittingly into such an all-demanding obsession?

The gap in life expectancy and health prospects between the rich and the poor in the UK is now greater than during the post World War One slump and the Great Depression. And that's after 13 years of a Labour government....

Monday 19 July 2010

Banning the burka (2)

Never let it be said that I'm not open to argument. A ban on burkas and face-veils made sense to me on Saturday, but after a weekend of impassioned media debate, I've changed my opinion somewhat.

After reading several articles and letters either by Muslim women or people who know a lot of Muslim women, I can see that the demand for a ban seems to be an over-reaction to something that really isn't that disturbing.

Muslim women insist that for most of them wearing a burka or face-veil genuinely is a personal choice and isn't forced on them. Neither are they oppressive, they say. They don't impede communication* or identification**, they don't desexualise or ghettoise the wearer, they don't stop you working, and in hot climates they help to keep out sun and dust.

They say that those calling for a ban are simply misinformed about the actual experience of veil-wearers and how it affects (or doesn't affect) their dealings with other people. In reality it doesn't reduce their quality of life. If anything it improves it because they feel more comfortable and free from constant aesthetic and sexual judging.

They also point out that freedom of dress is a basic human right, they're as entitled to wear a burka or niqab as other women are to wear miniskirts, bikinis or make-up. As long as they're not harming other people, what's the problem? Any legal ban on particular types of clothing could easily lead to more draconian bans.

Well, the arguments against a ban have been very well put and I'm prepared right now to accept them. I'm not one to stubbornly maintain an ill-judged view when I'm clearly being outflanked and out-thought by those who are far more knowledgable than myself.

So keep those burkas coming, if that's what some women really prefer to wear. Sorry, Mr Hollobone, but I've just deserted your cause.

* Eyes, ears, mouth and hands are sufficient
** Face-veils can be lifted for identification if required

Saturday 17 July 2010

Banning the burka

I have a sneaking sympathy for the Tory MP who wants to ban the burka or niqab in public because they prevent "normal dialogue with other human beings."

Philip Hollobone says "seventy five per cent of the usual communication between two human beings is done with personal experience. You don't get any of that if your face is covered."

He is bringing a private member's bill into parliament to ban garments that hide women's faces. This follows a similar ban by the French parliament this week.

He says he has no objection to religious clothing in general, such as Sikh turbans, but burkas and niqabs are not religious requirements, merely traditional practice. Not only do they hinder normal communication, but the person's identity is concealed.

He will refuse to talk to Muslim women in his constituency surgery unless they lift their face veil so he can see them properly.

I must say I have some sympathy with his views, despite the fashionable opinion that covering your face or body is a matter of personal freedom and nobody has the right to request otherwise, whatever the reason.

I admit I find it disconcerting when confronted by someone whose face or body is covered. I suspect it's not entirely a personal choice but is heavily influenced by other people (particularly men) insisting that exposing the female body is provocative, licentious and indecent. I also think that seeing someone's facial expressions helps me to understand how they are feeling or thinking, which mere talking cannot do.

Naturally Muslim groups have condemned Mr Hollobone for "fanning the flames of intolerance " and increasing discrimination. But what about the flames of intolerance that insist female flesh is so shameful and disgusting it should never be seen by anyone?

A survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that a ban on face-covering veils was supported by a majority in France (82%), Germany (71%), Britain (62%) and Spain (59%), but only a minority in the US (28%).

You can read an opposing point of view by Nesrine Malik here or by Martha Nussbaum here and here

Pic: Philip Hollobone

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Budget breaks

Like many other Brits, Jenny and I decided to have a staycation this year - we're going to Scotland rather than some exotic foreign destination.

The number of trips abroad by British residents plummeted by 15 per cent last year, reversing a lengthy trend upwards in search of ever more unusual and dazzling locations.

The long drawn out recession has led many hard-up folk to think twice about jetting across the world, and they're opting for cheaper alternatives in their own country.

They're braving the rain, the gales, the cold and sullen seaside landladies to appreciate their own heritage and keep a bit more cash in the bank.

Jenny and I have chosen southern Scotland (in September) because we moved house last year and moving-in expenses mean we can't quite run to another Aussie getaway until we're a bit more flush.

The number of British trips to New Zealand is down by a whopping 30 per cent, and Canada by 26 per cent.

But our own cities are increasingly popular. Edinburgh saw an extra 133,000 visitors and Cambridge an extra 18,000. We're seeing the merits of beautiful places we've neglected for years in favour of some tempting tropical paradise thousands of miles away.

And it may be more than the cash factor. It seems that a lot of people are getting sick of the growing hassles of air travel - hidden extra charges, laborious security checks, crowded planes and off-hand cabin crews, unexpected delays and cancellations, strike action, lost luggage, inedible food, volcanic ash.

Suddenly jumping in the car and driving a few hundred miles seems like a much pleasanter option.

People reading about the Belfast riots have been asking if Jenny and I were affected by them. No need to worry, these skirmishes always occur in the same local hotspots which are well away from our own leafy enclave. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have rather belatedly condemned the thuggery.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Forgotten life

Can you imagine spending six years not knowing who you are, trying in vain to find out, your whole life an almost total blank?

Benjaman Kyle* was found beaten, unconscious and naked outside a Burger King restaurant in Richmond Hill, Georgia, on August 31 2004. When he came to, he could remember almost nothing about his life.

He thought his date of birth was August 29 1948, he thought he was called Benjaman, and he had blurred memories of Denver and Indianapolis. And that was that. Everything else was locked away inside his brain, as irretrievable as a teenage waist size.

Had he ever fallen in love? Been married? Had children? What work did he do? Was he good at it? Did he earn a lot of money? Did he smoke? Did he drink? What was his favourite food? He had little idea about any of these things, there was just a big black hole where his memory ought to be.

It must be so incredibly weird, not knowing all these absolutely basic facts about yourself and your life. How odd when people ask you simple questions and you have no answer, just a baffled ignorance.

The police, the FBI, the media, DNA experts and a private detective have all tried to track down who he is, but drawn a blank. He appeared on national TV and there was a flood of leads, but they all went nowhere.

Inevitably some people have claimed his so-called amnesia is just a big publicity stunt and really he can remember everything. Of course they have no proof. And what would be the point?

In reality he must be desperate to retrieve his past and fill the huge void where his life should be.

* He called himself Kyle as a reference to Burger King (BK)

See also his Wikipedia entry (which also has another picture)

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Bashing the boomers

Once again some idiotic journalist is blaming the older generation (the "baby boomers") for the hard times facing the young as they pile up debts, hunt in vain for jobs and can barely afford a home of their own.

He castigates all 17 million of us over the age of 60 for reducing welfare benefits, bringing in university fees, pushing up property prices, accepting mass unemployment and letting working conditions decline.

Well, excuse me, but I'm not responsible for any of these things. I never supported them, I never voted for them, I never caused them. And I would say that most of the baby boomers never supported them either.

I think most of us wanted the next generations to have the same advantages and opportunities that we had. We never envisaged the big lurch backwards that produced the harsh realities of today.

The real villains are without doubt not us but the politicians. Time after time they've been elected on a harmless-enough manifesto, only to ditch half of it months later and do something utterly repellent. Like Tony Blair suddenly deciding university tuition fees would be a nice little earner. Like Gordon Brown scrapping the reduced tax rate for the low paid.

Blaming every baby boomer for the plight of the young is as ridiculous as blaming all young people for binge-drinking mayhem, or blaming all parents for playground bullying.

Many of us are as furious as the young about the obstacles they're having to struggle against, particularly when it's often the baby boomers themselves who're having to put their hands in their pocket to bail out their children and grandchildren.

So if you're searching for someone to blame, try looking at the House of Commons and its slippery, two-faced occupants.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Slowing down

Being jobless, I have the luxury of being able to take my time over everything. I don't have to rush to meet deadlines, or sweat to keep up with an ever-expanding workload. I can just trundle along at a natural pace that doesn't send my blood pressure rocketing.

I'm a splendid example of what's known as the Slow Movement, the worldwide campaign to stop us all hurtling around like maniacs and slow us down so we can enjoy things rather than ticking them off as Jobs Done.

Most people have accumulated so many daily chores and commitments they simply don't have the time to savour their favourite activities or just watch the world go by. They're zooming from pillar to post, frantically getting little Johnny to his music lesson, or doing Granny's shopping, or merely fixing that aching tooth.

The Slow Movement wants us to take everything at a more leisurely pace. Take more time over your meals, your conversations, your outings, your orgasms, your kids, your daydreaming. If you've too much to do, work out what's really essential or important, and dump the rest. If you're doing things out of a sense of duty or habit, then ditch them. Get your life back!

The prevailing wisdom says that by doing things faster you do them more efficiently. You're making better use of your time and being more productive. But do we really want to be "efficient" and "productive" or do we just want to enjoy life and soak it all up?

Yes, we want to speed things up if that means the endless queue at the airport check-in or a ten-mile traffic jam. But if it means bolting our meals or never having enough time for friends, what are we gaining?

Let's all just slow down and start smelling the coffee. And the roses. And the sweet fragrance of life.