Friday 26 September 2014

Unnerving beauty

Beautiful women often say that one drawback of being beautiful is that men are too intimidated to approach them. Men feel more comfortable with a woman who's more "ordinary looking".

I've certainly found that myself. I can think of plenty of occasions where I've encountered a beautiful woman (beautiful to me, anyway) and found myself promptly tongue-tied, or stammering, or indeed hesitant to talk to her at all for fear of an instant brush-off.

I know I should be more confident and more blasé, and take the attitude that it makes no difference if she's beautiful or plain, all I'm doing is having a conversation and why on earth am I so flustered? But my psyche won't cooperate.

I think it's partly because I connect beauty with intelligence and assume that whatever I say will strike her as incredibly stupid. I know very well there's no necessary link between beauty and brains but nonetheless I'm convinced that this particular woman I'm speaking to has to be as smart as they come.

I'm not so intimidated by beautiful men. I'm not bothered by their beauty or their intelligence or anything else about them. I talk to them quite easily. So why I get so nervous in the presence of a beautiful woman is a mystery.

But just the other day I was chatting to a very pretty woman, and even though I've known her for a long while, I found myself unaccountably stammering and stuttering like an idiot. What is WRONG with me, I thought. Why am I behaving like a goofy ten-year-old?

Well, if I haven't yet grown out of this adolescent insecurity, I doubt if I ever will. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Not really poor

Linda Tirado of Washington DC, who had known a period of grinding poverty, wrote a piece for a website about what it's like being poor. The piece went viral and as usually happens, people started attacking her left right and centre.

And what were they attacking her for? For explaining poverty to people who were well-off and had no idea what it was really like. For telling people that poverty was real and not something invented by scrounging layabouts, journalists and lefties.

Of course they didn't say that. They just claimed she was never really poor because she came from a middle-class family. Or she wasn't really poor because it was only for a few years. Or she wasn't really poor because her wages were enough to live on.

They simply couldn't accept that someone can be genuinely poor, genuinely struggling to make ends meet, genuinely unable to get her rotten teeth or her clapped-out car fixed. They were convinced she was making it all up or wildly exaggerating.

As she puts it herself: "In America we have this myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We're afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. There is a fear of the poor that is uniquely American. It's especially hard to look at someone who could be one of their kids - someone like me who's white and intelligent - and see them as poor."

People lucky enough to have a good income and a comfortable life don't want to think about those who have neither. It makes them feel guilty, anxious, scared, vulnerable. They shy away from the possibility that a run of bad luck or some personal misfortune could see them sinking into poverty themselves.

The irony of Linda Tirado's story is that because of the huge readership her internet piece attracted she was able to raise over $60,000 to turn it into a book and quit her job as a night cook. She hasn't had her teeth fixed yet but she's using a better brand of shampoo.

Pic: Linda Tirado

Friday 19 September 2014

Stressed out cats

Never mind the emotional stresses we humans have to contend with, it seems that cats are also increasingly stressed out. But we may not notice because unlike dogs they don't get aggressive when they're under stress, they just get withdrawn.

To me, cats always seem enviably placid and imperturbable, quite indifferent to what's going on around them and absorbed in their mysterious feline ruminations. But obviously I'm mistaken and they aren't nearly as placid as I imagine.

No doubt the cat-owners among you could easily have enlightened me (and will of course confirm what follows).

According to cat experts Pippa Hutchison and John Bradshaw, cats show their stress in subtle ways like sleeping under the bed, over-grooming and scratching.

Contrary to popular belief, many cats don't like going outdoors and feel much safer staying inside. They can be quite scared of sharing territory with the local cats, especially ones that don't want other cats on their patch. Unlike dogs and humans, they're not naturally sociable.

In the rest of Europe, where many people live in flats, cats are more commonly kept indoors and it doesn't seem to do them any harm.

Cats can find any number of things stressful - a new baby, a new home, the death of another pet, visitors, loud noises, traffic, travel, confinement, strange odours, or even a new type of cat litter. They may be spooked just by another cat looking at them from a neighbouring wall. The most "laid back" cats can become stressed, despite being outwardly calm.

Some experts recommend a special "cat room" or hiding place, out of bounds to dogs and children, where a cat can retreat if it feels the need.

I can understand the feline tendency to withdraw. My response to stress is much the same - I withdraw rather than getting aggressive, and wait for things to get calmer. I don't tend to over-groom or sleep under the bed though.

Sunday 14 September 2014


One thing I really don't get is the extreme emotional misery some women go through when they find they're infertile. For them, it's not just bad luck, not just an unfortunate quirk of nature, it's something that tears them apart and makes life unbearable.

Tracey Richardson-Lyne, writing in the Observer today, says no one understands the sheer emotional pain of infertility - the feelings of grief, anger, jealousy, isolation, uselessness and failure.

She says that just walking around, seeing pregnant women, dads with pushchairs, or children looking for mummy or daddy, fills her with loneliness and dread.

She feels guilty that she can't reproduce like a "normal" woman, that she can't give her husband a child or her parents a grandchild.

To me, this seems like an oddly extreme reaction to something that should surely be no more than disappointing or frustrating. Can you not just accept the situation and find other things to do with your life? And surely a woman's identity shouldn't still be defined by whether she can reproduce or not? Or whether there's a toddler clutching at her?

But feelings are feelings, and just because I don't understand them, it doesn't mean they're invalid and she shouldn't be having them. If she's in emotional pain, then of course she needs help to deal with the pain and hopefully, one day, get pregnant.

Emotional pain is so much easier to bear if at least other people have been through something similar and can understand what you're feeling. It must be so much worse if you're bearing it alone amid widespread incomprehension.

I can't judge her. I can only wish her some relief from what she's going through, some respite from the suffocating misery.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Caught in the crush

I may be the grand old age of 67, but I still get crushes on people from time to time. Not as much as when I was younger, but they still happen.

Of course I'll never go to bed with them because (a) I'm happily married with no wish for extra-marital adventures; (b) they're usually a lot younger and wouldn't give me the time of day; (c) it would all get far too complicated. So it's never anything more than an entertaining secret fantasy.

I don't have any crushes on anyone right now, but I was very taken by one particular woman at the office block I work in. I looked forward to seeing her and chatting to her, and she probably wasn't aware that I saw her any differently from her workmates. After some months she moved to the States and rapidly faded from my mind.

I've written before about my huge crush on Elena (not her real name), a woman I worked with once in a bookshop when I was still single. Clearly she didn't have any special feelings towards me so absolutely nothing happened, but I would follow her every movement and utterance with heightened attention. I was obsessed with her for years until she also moved on and I never saw her again.

Long ago I had a passionate crush on a waitress at my lunch-time restaurant (that was when the working day still included a full lunch-hour). She had an incredibly sexy way of walking that always had me riveted. But as far as she knew, I was just the thin guy who ordered the omelette and chips and gave her a handsome tip. That time I moved on rather than her.

I've never actually dreamt about my crushes, except in Elena's case. It's usually strictly a daytime thing. And I would never flirt or stalk or do anything inappropriate. It's all in my mind and that's where it stays. Then again, did other people ever have crushes on me, I wonder? Was I ever crush-inducing material? If so, I never suspected and I shall never know.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

What a shame

Why are there so many things we're ashamed to talk about? So many things we'd rather not mention for fear of the conse-quences?

It seems that for each thing we lose our shame about, something else shameful pops up to take its place. And the list of shameful topics is frighteningly long, even in the supposedly tolerant and open-minded 21st century.

Some things have become, well, not totally shameless but much more widely acceptable than they used to be. Part of the scenery at least. Like being gay, being transgender, having an abortion, or being an unmarried mum (funny how unmarried dads have never attracted the same scorn).

On the other hand the number of things people feel ashamed of is as long as your arm - addictions, mental problems, fatal accidents, rare illnesses, affairs, suicide attempts, sexual assault, eating disorders. And I'm sure there are plenty of things I've missed there.

Yet these are all commonplace human events or weaknesses, shared by thousands of people. Why so much shame? Why can't they just be talked about freely? Why the chronic anxiety and fear about sharing them with others? Is society really that intolerant, that scathing, that uncomprehending?

There are not that many things I'm personally ashamed of. I'm happy to reveal most of my odd quirks and eccentricities. There are one or two things I keep to myself, not out of shame but because I know they're probably incomprehensible to others and there's no point in mentioning them.

One thing I feel slightly ashamed of is not being honest enough with other people, being polite and agreeable rather than voicing my true thoughts and feelings. But hell, don't we all do that? If we were totally honest all the time, life would become a nightmare of insults, rejections and wounded emotions. I wouldn't fancy that.