Friday 27 September 2013

Swept away

It really annoys me when people look down their noses at someone who's got into some horrible mess and declare that it's all their own fault and they should have known better.

They stubbornly believe that the reason they've never stumbled into the same sort of mess themselves is their own superior character - their innate common sense, self-discipline, intelligence, or whatever.

They're too blinkered and obtuse to realise that we're all capable of screwing up our lives if the circumstances allow it, and that what brings it about isn't wilful irresponsibility but some personal weakness we're simply unable to resist.

If they haven't succumbed to such a weakness, it's not because they're inherently superior but because they've just been lucky enough not to land up in a situation that exposes that weakness and triggers it off.

People who have disastrous affairs, or go broke, or get themselves sacked, or are caught shoplifting, aren't merely "lacking in self-control". They've been so smoothly tempted or charmed or beguiled or persuaded into something risky that they're simply helpless to resist, despite their better judgment, despite their gut-feelings, despite everything. They just find themselves swept away and powerless to do anything about it.

Whatever we may think, we could all find ourselves on that slippery slope. There are plenty of stories of people who thought their lives were going fine, that they were sitting pretty, and a few months later everything's in ruins.

The sight of people crowing and gloating over other people's unexpected misfortunes is something I find quite sickening.

Tuesday 24 September 2013


I think of myself as a not especially generous person, but that may be because I'm thinking of generosity in the money sense. I'm probably quite generous in other senses though, like being forgiving, or being empathetic, or overlooking faults.

I quite easily forgive people for hurting me, or upsetting me, or being rude to me. I don't hold grudges for years afterwards or plot their early demise. I just assume they were having a bad day or didn't think before they spoke.

I try hard to understand other people's feelings and opinions and circumstances. I don't instantly dismiss them as idiots, cranks or time-wasters. I assume there are good reasons why people are miserable, or poor, or intolerant, and I want to know what those reasons are.

I accept that people have all sorts of faults, the same as I do, and I work around those faults rather than condemning them. Cutting them a bit of slack seems kinder than making them feel guilty and incompetent.

I don't let an instant dislike of someone put me off them. However disconcerting a person may be at first glance, I always give them a chance to correct me and show me their finer qualities. And they usually have some.

I will give people time. If someone has a complicated problem, or a long tale of woe, I'll hear them out for as long as it takes. I'm not one of those super-busy, self-important people who always have something more urgent to attend to.

I try to accept people as they are and not as I would like them to be. I try to respect their uniqueness and individuality and not force them to be something I find more comfortable or definable.

In return I hope others will be generous to me in the same ways. That they'll give me time, be forgiving, be compassionate, allow for my faults.

We can have all the material goodies in the world, we can have beautiful homes and possessions, but if we aren't generous to each other, if we treat each other brusquely and harshly, then life becomes cold and sad.

It's the people who've been generous to me, who've treated me with unexpected warmth and sensitivity, that bring sunshine to my life. They make up for all those who were mean and curt and discouraging, those whose hearts are frozen.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The rose-tinted dead

Not many people give their honest opinion about someone who's died. However extreme and infuriating they were, people find all sorts of clever euphemisms to dress up unpleasant traits as something quirky and endearing.

Whatever the grim reality, most of us want the enduring memory of the person concerned to be a little rose-tinted, with their more objectionable qualities carefully softened or ignored. Those awkward characters who tell the truth are seen as malicious and embarrassing.

As one journalist notes, obituaries can be little masterpieces of misdescription. An "eccentric" could well be a social outcast, someone with "blokey humour" is likely to be a fierce misogynist, and someone who "enjoyed a tipple" was probably a confirmed alcoholic. There's a vast vocabulary of flattering or at least neutralising terms to help us out.

Obviously no one wants to offend grieving relatives and loved ones, but why go to such absurd lengths to pretend someone was a lovable old rascal when in reality they were a total pain in the neck or even a vicious monster? If that's what they were, why not say so?

It's odd that people don't want to speak ill of the dead,even though it's no longer going to hurt or distress them, yet rabid criticism of the still-living and still-vulnerable goes on all the time.

In any case, however thorough the attempts to clean up someone's image and hide all the skeletons in the closet, sooner or later the truth will out in some no-holds-barred biography or a bit of careless drunken gossip or the chance discovery of some revealing love-letter or diary entry. Secrets seldom stay secret forever.

I really don't care what people say about me after I'm dead, as long as it's not total invention. Of course I can be selfish and argumentative and obsessive and timid and scatty and brusque. So what? I've never pretended to be a saint so why pretend I'm one after I've gone?

Sunday 15 September 2013

San Francisco

Wow, what to say about San Francisco? First off, it isn't the paradise on earth it's hyped up to be. It's a very dysfunct-ional city, with not much that works efficiently and dozens of down-and-outs in every public space.

Many of the main streets are seedy and grubby, with lots of tacky tourist shops and stalls. The famous areas like Fishermans Wharf are jammed with tourists and day-trippers. There are long waits for the cable cars, as there aren't nearly enough of them to meet the demand. Most of the hotels are on busy thoroughfares and quite noisy at night.

That said, if you're willing to dump your inflated expectations and make the most of the city as it really is, there are many interesting and beautiful sights -  and people. We visited quite a few of the well-known SF 'hoods, as well as Berkeley, and found all sorts of little gems and treasures.

We loved Castro, the gay district, where we visited the GLBT Museum and Harvey Milk's old camera shop. We loved swish North Beach and Nob Hill. We loved the Golden Gate Bridge and also the Bay Bridge, which is just as elegant and impressive. We loved the wide range of art in the De Young Museum. We loved the sixties time-warp of Haight-Ashbury. We loved the cool and studenty Uni of California campus at Berkeley.

But oh dear, it's such a chaotic and shambolic city compared to say, Vancouver or Sydney. It was hard to get a complete map of the bus routes, there's no direct bus from downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Museum of Modern Art has been totally closed for enlargement for at least 18 months, and there were masses of derelict buildings. Plus the cable car shambles and the ubiquitous street-people I've already mentioned.

It's not a city I would want to live in or come back to. It's not even much fun to walk around because of all the steep hills - daunting even to the fit and healthy - and the crowded and shabby main streets. I'm puzzled as to why so many people are so enthusiastic about it. I guess its nostalgic reputation as a mecca of alternative culture and sophistication is way out of line with the reality, which is rather more prosaic and predictable.

Pic: Castro Street