Thursday 30 January 2014

Pot shots

One of life's little mysteries is the way people condemn things out of hand. Things they don't understand and don't want to understand.

How can you decide that something is sinful or immoral or damaging purely on the basis of some knee-jerk reaction, some blind instinct totally detached from the facts?

People who slam a play without seeing it, or a book without reading it. People who condemn immigrants or refugees with no comprehension of the circumstances they find themselves in. People who sneer at alternative remedies or veganism or psychotherapy without knowing the first thing about them. People who knock teachers when they haven't set foot in a school in 40 years.

On the basis of a few tabloid headlines, or neighbourhood gossip, or a dinner-party anecdote, they casually let rip at anyone or anything they fancy, oblivious to the distress and alarm they might be causing to those on the receiving end. It never occurs to them that they might be totally misinformed, prejudiced, wrong-headed.

Personally I try not to condemn anything I know very well I'm ignorant about. If I'm not sure of the facts, I prefer to keep my mouth shut until such time as I am. I'm not going to pontificate simply to impress an audience.

If I don't understand something, I'll confess to being puzzled, or being uncertain, or being undecided, rather than feign knowledge I don't have. I'll try to find out a bit more about the subject and road-test whatever half-baked preconceptions and stereotypes are floating round my head.

But I think a lot of people actually feel embarrassed or uncomfortable at the idea that they're ignorant about something. Instead of admitting their ignorance, they parrot the latest fashionable opinion and hope nobody examines it too closely. All I can say is, I'd rather stay silent than talk out of my arse.

Monday 27 January 2014

Ow, that hurts

I'm quite susceptible to little hurts. A dozen times a day I feel hurt that I've been rejected, or ignored, or slighted, or not appreciated, or not understood, or treated brusquely.

But they're only little hurts, a bit like nettle stings or pinpricks. They only last a minute or two and then they're forgotten. I'm too resilient to dwell on them for long. I don't magnify every little hurt into a tearful melodrama. I shrug them off as a trivial part of daily life, just a sign of the rough and tumble of a hectic world.

The big hurts are a different story. The sort of hurt when a long-time friend suddenly snubs me, or my professional competence is doubted, or someone questions my sincerity or integrity. That goes deeper, like a thorn in my flesh. It pierces through the usual resilience and lodges somewhere, constantly resurfacing in bursts of bewildered pain.

That's the sort of hurt that can't just be shrugged off, though I'm still able to see it philosophically as an unfortunate but inevitable part of being human. I'm not the type of person who deals with serious hurt by getting bitter and vengeful, trying to cause as much hurt as was done to me.

I know some people would say that's a cop-out, that I'm bottling up my feelings and it's far healthier to ease the hurt by flinging it back where it came from. But that's not the way I see it. I want to drain the hurt, not add to it. So I keep it to myself and let it run its natural course.

Then again there's the biggest hurt of all, which is grief. Luckily up till now I've never experienced major, all-consuming grief, and I hope I never have to. I can only imagine how I might cope with it. Very well? Very badly? Probably the latter. Such excruciating hurt would knock me for six.

Friday 24 January 2014

A lick of paint

Why so much make-up? Why the unquest-ioned norm that a woman needs to be plastered with the stuff in order to look good? Why the constant assumption that a woman's natural face is so ugly, unsightly, off-putting that it needs a thick coating of expensive pastes and powders to be presentable?

A strategic dab of make-up here and there can be beneficial. A smear of lipstick. A smudge of mascara. But piling it on with a trowel until it becomes a kind of obliterating mask - what's the point?

When I see photos of celebs, they're always thick with make-up. To see them au naturelle would apparently be unthinkable, shocking, repulsive. Who would want to contemplate such a dreadful sight?

Yet to my mind, on the odd occasion when they're seen without their cosmetic veneer, they usually look much more real, much more interesting. Lady Gaga, for instance. Or Julia Roberts. Or Halle Berry.

Employers often expect women to wear make-up. Supposedly they look more professional, more trustworthy, more reassuring. A natural-looking woman would apparently frighten off the customers with some sort of unwholesome aura.

Personally I tend to see an employee in thick make-up as less trustworthy, not more. I associate a slick, glossy appearance, be it make-up, a flashy suit or a fancy hairdo, with phoneyness and sharp practice. Perverse maybe, but I'm sure I'm not the only one.

There was a brief feminist fashion in the seventies for going without make-up, or at least wearing the bare minimum. Unfortunately it didn't last, undermined by the combined pressures of advertising, gender stereotypes and self-aversion.

One thing's for sure - the cosmetics business is laughing all the way to the bank.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Wot, no kids?

Now and then I still feel a little embarr-assed that I don't have any children. Having children is seen so widely as the "normal" thing to do, that even after many years of being childless, and not in any way regretting it, I still feel it's a choice that needs to be somehow justified.

Nobody ever asks me why I don't have children, nobody ever gives any hint that it was an odd decision, but nonetheless I always feel slightly unusual, a bit of a maverick, a bit of a rebel.

I suppose it doesn't help that there are two schools close to our home, and twice a day dozens of children pour in and out of their parents' cars, the parents obviously doting on their little offspring and watching them protectively.

It also doesn't help that any woman who gets pregnant is promptly congratulated by all and sundry, everyone admires the gradually swelling belly, and when the baby finally appears, yet more congratulations are offered.

Unfortunately all the fervent enthusiasm and showers of baby-gifts, however natural they may seem, inevitably give the message that having a baby is much more impressive than not having one.

I can justify my child-free decision by pointing out how much extra cash I've had and how much that's improved my quality of life, but somehow that just makes me sound a little selfish and smug, as if other people's sacrifices for the sake of their children are worthless.

In fact being "selfish", not replenishing the human race but thinking only of our own pleasure, is what childless couples are often accused of. If I suggest that maybe the anticipated joy and reward of having children is itself a somewhat "selfish" desire, the reaction will be frosty to say the least.

I've never felt that I've missed out by not having the patter of tiny feet around the place. But it still seems a bit like the exception that proves the rule.

Friday 17 January 2014

Bring it on

There's no such thing as Too Much Information. To my mind, the more information the better. I can never get too much of it. Information is always preferable to ignorance.

The more information I have, the more I know about the world, about other people's lives, about my own mind and emotions, about everything. The less I'm floundering about in a fog of confusion, speculation and misunderstandings.

I don't care if the information is outrageous, or obscene, or repulsive, or peculiar. I don't care if it upsets me, or embarrasses me, or alarms me. I can deal with my emotional reactions and I'm not going to push something away just because it temporarily unsettles me.

I'm an intensely curious person. I want to know. I need to know. I don't like being fobbed off with vague explanations and coy silences. What is so devastating, so shocking, that I mustn't know about it, I mustn't be exposed to such horror? There's not much in this world that's truly shocking, especially at the ripe old age of 66. Whatever you think would shake me to the core, probably would just leave me a bit puzzled.

Of course some people conceal things as being "Too Much Information" when what they really mean is that they're nervous of other people's reactions. They're afraid of being laughed at, or criticised, or simply facing a stunned silence. Which is understandable. I withhold certain facts about myself for just that reason.

But dismissing awkward topics as Too Much Information is absurdly squeamish. It's precisely those awkward or controversial remarks that give me precious insights into human nature and other people's complexities. Without them, my understanding of the world would be much more limited.

So tell me everything, I say. I don't care if it knocks me for six. I don't care how awful it is. To my mind, Too Much is always better than Too Little.

Monday 13 January 2014

A tide of horror

I find the constant tide of violence and brutality and callousness pouring out of the world's media quite over-whelming at times.

I can only cope with it by siphoning off my emotions into some dark part of myself where they gradually dribble away and disappear.

If I allowed my feelings free rein, if I allowed the full weight of sadness and despair and sorrow to wash through me, I would soon be an emotional wreck.

I'm beyond shocked at the depraved and deranged things that human beings do to each other, apparently without a shred of remorse or guilt or self-loathing.

I'm endlessly amazed at those dogged individuals who still get up each day with a sense of optimism and self-belief despite years of harsh and degrading treatment. The Nelson Mandelas and Natascha Kampusches* of this world. And all those we've never heard of at all.

I can't share the cynicism and indifference of those people who shrug their shoulders, tell you it's just the way of the world and carry on with their daily activities as if it wasn't rape and slaughter they were responding to but a minor kitchen spillage.

And I cringe at all those governments that throw their hands up in horror but so often are unable to halt the barbarities going on in their country day in and day out.

We are not born violent and cruel. We are not born wanting to spill blood and spread terror. How does a child's tenderness get so casually crushed and replaced by something so malevolent?

* Natascha Kampusch was held in a secret cellar in Vienna by her kidnapper Wolfgang Priklopil for more than eight years

Thursday 9 January 2014

Rough and ready

Someone accused me the other day of "undignified" behaviour. Well, frankly, I've never seen myself as especially "dignified" in the first place. I'm just a very ordinary person fumbling my way through life in a rough-and-ready fashion, probably more stupefied than dignified.

In fact I'm rather suspicious of anyone whose aim in life is to be dignified. It suggests someone who's rather stiff and starchy, rather defensive, afraid to be themself in case they do something embarrassing or stupid or laughable.

They would rather do nothing at all than see other people looking down their noses at their unseemly or uncouth conduct. They would rather be "dignified" than interesting or amusing or witty.

But surely to live your life, to be who you are, or simply to enjoy yourself, you have to risk losing your dignity every minute of the day? You have to risk the inevitable pratfalls and cock-ups that go hand in hand with spontaneity and experiment.

I associate "dignity" mainly with those public figures whose reputation seems to rest on being aloof and pompous and never saying anything candid or off-message. The only result is that hardly anyone trusts them because their "dignity" is more important to them than getting on with the job.

I also associate "dignity" with emotional repression - not showing your grief or rage or even wild excitement because it's "undignified". Bottling everything up and pretending everything's fine is more "appropriate" than letting it all spill out and maybe making other people uncomfortable.

So no, I'm probably not a very dignified person. But I'll settle for being a sometimes toe-curling plain speaker.

PS: Isn't dignity just another word for respectability? Or is it something more than that?

Sunday 5 January 2014

The hair thing

It's a good thing men aren't expected to get rid of all their body hair. Some men have such jungles of the stuff it would be a Herculean labour to purge it all in favour of smooth, silky skin.

Not only that but all those men with beards and moustaches would be very reluctant to part with those cherished patches of hirsuteness (though why they cherish them so much is beyond me; for some reason beards and moustaches just make me want to laugh).

Luckily my own body hair is fairly sparse, so a sudden fashion for male depilation wouldn't be too much of a chore. But men are so proud of their corporeal undergrowth, even if it serves no purpose whatever, that I can't see a runaway desire to rip it all out any time soon.

A bit unfair though, isn't it, that men can leave all their body hair serenely intact while women are expected to remove every last trace of it (even the pubic shrubbery nowadays), with all the time and expense and nuisance that involves.

Some women go to absurd lengths to conceal those rampant thickets of body hair in places their menfolk* expect to be smooth as a baby's bottom. They dread the shock and revulsion their supposedly body-friendly bloke might suddenly display if they weren't scrupulously bald.

There's a sizeable minority of men, though, who do prefer to remove their body hair (sportsmen, gay men, models) and don't see anything odd about it. And there are quite a few women out there who like their men to be hair-free (although the men won't always oblige).

So who knows? Maybe one day men will be as preternaturally smooth-skinned as the opposite sex, and just as furtively slipping down to the beautician for an urgent waxing session.

*and womenfolk for that matter

Thursday 2 January 2014

Love on the cheap

I do object to the way the word "love" is trivialised and misused and cheapened. I object to the way it's thrown about so casually, and used to glamourise more mundane emotions.

To my mind, love is a two-way thing, an active give and take between two people, something growing and developing, something fed by affection, empathy, understanding.

When people say they "love" Lady Gaga, or Ed Miliband, or J K Rowling, surely that's a misuse of the word? There's no two-way relationship, no give and take. They've probably not even met the person they "love". There's no giving, only taking, only consumption.

What they really mean is that they "admire" Lady Gaga, they're impressed by her, they take a close interest in her. That's something entirely different.

Or people say they "love" Italy or New York. Meaning for a week or two they consume Italy and New York. They don't give anything back except money and a few casual compliments to the locals. And I doubt if they love the mafia or the pan-handlers. The word love is a mere romantic flourish.

Love is a very serious emotion, a very serious connection between two people. It's something rich and deep and resonant. It's a communion of souls. To equate it with showbiz loyalty or tourist fads is to mock its true meaning. It's the cut-price imitation, the discount knock-off.

Okay, it shows we're passionate about something. It shows we're emotionally healthy. But passion isn't love. Passion isn't intimacy. Let's not confuse the two.