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Thursday 29 October 2015

The Way You Look Tonight

So on Tuesday a friend-and-work-colleague and I were talking about formal and professional dress.

One thing about where I work is that most of us folk that do the guts of the work can wear pretty much what we want. I mean as long as it isn't stoopid. If I turned up with nine-inch platforms and a four-foot mohawk then some questions may be asked, but probably from a safety perspective rather than a fashion one.

The thing is, we're there to work on computers for eight and a half hours a day. Very vew of us speak to clients, or even see them. We aren't sales or account management - and the folks who ARE tend to dress in a sufficiently impressive fashion when necessary.

It got me to thinking, as we were talking about it.

I don't often comment on how people look or how they dress, especially uninvited. When asked I try and be honest, but I have to open with the fact that I'm not a fashion expert, I'm not an aesthete, and I don't know how a lot of the unwritten rules work

There's a few reasons for this.  One of the main ones is that it's none of my business.

There's very few circumstances in which how someone dresses is my business. On 99% of days, 100% of people shouldn't have to care what I think of what they're wearing. They shouldn't have to dress for me, and honestly, I'd rather people wore what made them happy and comfortable than anything else. It's like I feel that maybe, passing comment is me tacitly implying that they've fulfilled (or failed to fulfill) my expectations, expectations that they were duty-bound to consider for some ridiculous reason.

I don't understand the entire business-formal thing. I don't get it, and wearing shirts and ties makes me feel distinctly uncomfortable. Like, I know that it is how people are expected to dress, it is what you are meant to do, but...why? why is that the uniform? And why would people who do, say, what I do be expected to wear button-down shirts and nice ties? Is it a mindset thing? Like school uniform? Will it make me type better? ...I just...don't understand.

Sure, a suit makes anyone look great if it is cut right - but I'm not at work to look good. I'm at work to quality control. I have work duties and none of those work duties involve being a stylish thirty-something.

I recently posted on Twitter a realisation that I came to; I am, essentially, always going to be a background character from Daria. In how I dress, how I act, how I live - it is pretty much who I am. I'm also very much okay with that, in all honesty. I like wearing faded metal band shirts and jeans and sneaks. What does that say about me? Probably that I'm not very corporate-minded. Maybe a point in my life will come where I decide to wear polo necks and slacks for the rest of my days - but I doubt it.

There's probably something wrong with that, but I can't outline it, and will probably act with a degree of incredulity if actually told the reason. Even if it makes sense. Is that meant to happen before or after the mid-life crisis? Am I IN my mid-life crisis? If I had the money would I be buying a Ferrari?

Maybe I just skipped every normal stage of my life between early teens and early forties. Maybe I'm still trying to be a teenager, except with sticking to responsibilities and having reasonable life expectations.

All I know is that if you look good, I will probably keep it to myself - unless I think you REALLY need to know.

Saturday 24 October 2015

It Is By Will Alone (On Insecurity pt4)

This is the forth, and final, part of a series of blog posts on insecurity. Each one has had a different theme.

I read a fair amount of Nietzsche., wait, come back!

Okay okay. I HAVE read a fair amount of Nietzsche, and that's led me to some interesting thoughts about us as a people and how we do things.

So I agree with his thinking in terms of the "will to power" - the constant drive to succeed, achieve, and control one's environment. To put one's self in a position of power if at all possible. That's basic human behavior. You can see it as greed, but that's a gross oversimplification.

I think the reason why we want this, at a very base level - driven instinctively by that urge to control and command - is because we're insecure.

Yep, I've been banging on about it for the past three weeks - it is time to draw a conclusion.

We, at our core, are insecure. It is part of being sentient, of having an ego, of having consciousness. Our fear of failure is tied to our drive for success. When what you want is so deeply ingrained in you that it governs you, then surely the urge to have it is paralleled by an equal and opposite fear of NOT having it.

Doesn't that make a degree of sense? The urge to survive as a constant leads us to make that survival a stable thing, a given thing rather than a continuous struggle. We want that safety net, that security - we're afraid of the alternative, because the alternative is not surviving at all. We're afraid of it, avoid it in the same way as we instinctively avoid fire, dangerous situations and awful things.

Now a great many people will probably claim that this really doesn't apply to them. "But John," you will cry, hauling yourself out of the plastic bathtub filled with Tesco own brand whipped cream. "I'm not afraid, or insecure! Everything you have said is just an attempt to validate your own anxiety!"

Perhaps, but I also call bullshit.

There is a disorder called Urbach-Wiethe disease; it is a genetic disorder, and it damages two small almond-sized bits of your brain - and when that happens, you can't feel fear any more. Unless that happens, boy howdy, you feel fear. It's what you do with it, that counts.

We've all heard the saying - feel the fear and do it anyway. It's true. There's no bravery without fear. Everyone feels it and it is something that we need to admit to and acknowledge - ignoring our weaknesses and our flaws is a really good way to lose a hundred battles. (That's a Sun Tzu joke.)

We seek to make our lives better, to make our lives more secure, because we fear that lack of security. It's what we do, what we spend most of our time doing. We need to take control of our environment because we're afraid of what would happen if it controlled us.

Some of the worst situations people can be in involve loss of control and loss of agency. The most stressful situations are those out of our control, where we have to watch the disaster happen right in front of us. Knowing you can't change it. That is the real nightmare. Life taken out of one's hands, and placed at the whim of causality.

As long as we have power - as long as we have control over our lives - we can minimise our exposure to the things we are insecure about. We can reduce contact with toxic individuals, lower the chance of mishaps, ensure that our day-to-day lives pass by with as little fear as possible. In the modern world that often comes down to money; the power-money dynamic is well-documented in this day and age. The two are often conflated.

Hate the awkwardness of public transport? You won't ever have to worry about it if you get a car. Nervous about going to the gym because you don't like how your body looks (but want to go to the gym anyway because you don't like how your body looks)? Buy your own gym equipment, or find a gym with such open hours that you can go when no-one else is there.

This is the urge Nietzsche speaks of. To achieve and excel, and thus secure one's existence. Outrun your demons by feeding your angels. I've spoken before about how one's needs in life change as one's income or standing alters, right here. It's true. The end argument is that all we really want is to have agency over our lives - which is not only something we should want and strive for, but something that we should help everyone achieve.

Which is why we're so pissed off that the Tory government wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act, and if you're not pissed off, then you haven't been paying attention...but I digress.

Insecurity, then. It's the devil we run from, the constant whip against our backs. Sometimes we control it, negate it, nullify and minimise it - and sometimes it guides us. Sometimes it's a little of both. Sometimes it is one but we think it is the other.

It is the root of a great many evils. It leads to racism and greed and who knows what else. I could probably draw a line of causality between most crimes that occur on a daily basis, and a base insecurity that led to it happening.

It haunts us, this fear, this gnawing anxiety. It hides itself in other drives and motives. It poisons otherwise noble intentions, adds inflection to sentences and stills voices that would otherwise speak out.

It costs lives.

Insecurity. The burden of sentience, of creativity, of imagination.

If it were a dragon, we'd be well-served to slay it.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Learned Behavior (On Insecurity pt3)

This is the third part of a series of blog posts on insecurity. Each one will have a different theme.

As anyone who is anyone will be able to tell you - in Bowling For Soup's opinion, High School Never Ends.

How right are they?

I'm sure everyone I know either believes, or has been told, that school is the best days of one's life. Certain parts of it are awesome, sure - not paying bills is a wonderful thing, or worrying about work. Certainly things were easier on that side of the scale.

Mentally though? Emotionally, spiritually? Well, I suppose I can only speak for myself - but high school was never an environment in which I did remarkably well. The actual learning, the academics, that was just fine. People skills, though? Not being basically completely mental? Yeah, that fell down on me pretty hard.

I was in high school between 13 and 18. That school now deals with kids that are 11-18. This period in someone's life is...well...let's just say chemically difficult. You are pretty much at the mercy of a lot of hormones, a lot of brain chemistry, and a lot of alterations in one's physiology. That in itself is a difficult environment to exist in.

Then we add the tribal mentality that seems to exist. There's us and them - lots of different thems, sometimes a couple of different uses. It's our first taste of semi-adult sociology, and we come into this environment loaded with brains like chemical bombs.

The culture of school, of education, of being the age one is and doing the things one does at that age - it becomes something of a power struggle. Everyone has authority over a schoolkid. The teachers, other parents, other adults; and at a time when self-doubt is enforced upon you by simple virtue of hormonal shift, that lack of control and agency can lead to some pretty harmful mental states. One grasps for power and control wherever they can. Sure, that teacher there has the authority to make you do things and you have to listen - so obviously, if you find a way to "get one over" on that teacher, to express some form of dominance or control, then...well, you're hard pressed not to take it.

That goes double for other kids - because if you push a teacher, or try and bully an adult, there are repercussions. Try it with your peers, though? You will almost certainly get away with it. As evidenced by the fact that bullying is still pretty much widespread to endemic proportions even today, in this enlightened age.

It's a truism oft repeated by the victims of bullying that those doing it only do it because they're insecure. That's probably right. They feel like they aren't in control of their environment, so they strive to take control over part of it - their victim. Power is a stimulant. Once you've had a little of it, you want more, and sometimes you want it more than you want to be a good person.

We've all heard that school is the best years of our lives - have we not also all heard that kids are cruel? Or witnessed that cruelty? They can be assholes - to each other even more so than outsiders. Trust me, I was one, and even though I spend most of my time keeping my head down and avoiding being targeted, I did my fair shair of asshole things.

The thing is, I look at some of the behaviour people demonstrate long after high school, and a lot of it hasn't actually changed that much.

Why would it, in fairness? Sure, we grow up - our tastes change - we pick up responsibilities and learn how to cope with them, we learn hard lessons and have life experiences both good and bad. Our mentality has already been shaped, though; and unshaping it is hard work, sometimes harder than people are willing to work toward.

Xenophobia is a high school behaviour, which develops even earlier than that - as social structures get formed they decide that some things are okay and some things aren't, and anything different or weird is a very obvious target. That can last - that can stick around, especially if unchallenged. Likewise, the power politics of the playground; alphas beating their chests, social climbers belittling others, unspoken rules being set and those who don't follow them being mocked. Now what I've just described could happen anywhere at any age after middle school. Admit it: you've been in places like that, or at least heard of them.

We were all in a state of constant insecurity once. We learned some lessons that hurt a hell of a lot, and we picked up some habits that don't help us very much in adult life. It's hard to break a habit. Trust me, I know.

If only we could recognise it in ourselves and do something constructive about it...maybe we'd all be a little happier.

Monday 12 October 2015

Choices And Repercussions (On Insecurity pt2)

This is the second part of a series of blog posts on insecurity. Each one will have a different theme.

We've all made big decisions - changed our lives in various different ways. Signed up for a gym and actually attended it, took up a hobby and seen it through, started a relationship, bought a house, bought a car.

Have we not ever justified that decision post facto? I know I have. It's natural, isn't it? Put down a significant proportion of a couple paychecks and you feel the need to salve your conscience - after all, that was a lot of money to spend on a laptop, even if it was totally worth it.

Insecurity rears its ugly head - but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, if we never second-guessed ourselves, we'd be very creepy people, wouldn't we? Just imagine that. It would be...


Sometimes, though - don't we make those decisions because we're insecure?

It's an old joke - the midlife crisis, the guy in his early forties buying a new Ferrari. Of course he's insecure. Classic trope. There's a lot more associated with it, but you can see where I am coming from: insecurity leads to a big decision.

What happens when we buy the Ferrari but we're still insecure?

At the root of it, that moment of disquiet, that core doubt that comes from being a person with sentience isn't something that can easily be stoppered up. It seems to come and go as it sees fit, no matter what we do. Even after we hop into the F40 and take it for a burn down the Military Road, that hole is still there, right in our gut, and we don't quite grasp why.

We can't have made the wrong decision, could we? That's why we're IN this car. That's why we're AT this gym. That's why we BOUGHT this house. Surely, we made the right decision. That's why we vocalise about it. It was the right idea, and other people agree with us. Must have been. I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, I must hasten to add.

So when we see people who didn't make that decision, who seem to be doing just fine...wouldn't it be natural for us to try and explain away why? Why would THEY not need the Ferrari but we would? The insecurity that we tried to salve with the object becomes insecurity attached to the object and how we relate to it.

I think this is what leads to people knocking on others for their life choices - at times. We all know that bullying derives from insecurity, and - honestly - making people feel crappy or alienating them deliberately because they didn't make the same choice as you...that is actually another form of bullying. It's not always seen that way though. Here comes that socially acceptable card again.

Just another facet of how sometimes, striving to fill that void in one's life can be harmful to yourself and others. A little self-awareness can go a long way.

Friday 9 October 2015

Across The Gulf Of Imagination (On Insecurity pt1)

This is the first part of a series of blog posts on insecurity. Each one will have a different theme.

I don't care what anyone says - everyone engages in escapism sometimes.

The definition of escapism is wide, of course. It is also sometimes seen as a bad thing, which leads people to shift the goalposts - THIS escapism they engage in is just normal and fine and dandy, whereas THAT escapism that those other people engage in is weird and strange.

Hobbies in and of themselves are escapist. Nobody wants to be working all the time, and it is actually unhealthy to do so; likewise, dealing with a perhaps stressful, difficult or awkward situation at home. Engaging in that 24/7 isn't something human beings can really do - at least, not any more, not in tandem with the prospect of surviving our thirties.

I defy you to find someone that doesn't do at least one thing, regularly, probably every day, that isn't engaging in direct problem solving, employment or provision of care (self or otherwise). If you can even name that person - do they seem strictly right, to you? Are they okay?

The thing is, with hobbies - they attract all sorts, and some people are quick to dismiss other hobbies, mostly through base insecurity. Of course football fans don't necessarily recognise a dedicated WoW raid group as being similar to them. Of course someone who reads a book every couple of days will find distance between themselves and a classically-trained pianist. They're different skills, different appeals, different draws - and some are more accepted by society at large than others.

Going out for a drink on the weekend is infinitely more acceptable to most of the population than getting together around a table and pretending to be dwarves, elves and wizards. Look at incidents of each on film and TV. Guarantee - most of the appearances of a D&D group will be used for comic purposes, whereas the bloke who doesn't go to the pub is the one worthy of scrutiny.

I've always held that the pursuit and appreciation of art is worthwhile in and of itself. To watch a movie, to read a book, to listen to music; all of these things are worth doing, because art is - for the most part - good for you. I have on occasion felt guilty for spending what actually amounts to not very much money on the apparent extravagance of seeing a movie in a cinema, and not long afterward, felt kind of stupid about it. Surely the two hours of experience I just enjoyed was worth the one hour's wage I just swapped for it? In most cases - absolutely, and yet another kind of escapism.

For just a while, we as humans - the Birmingham City fan, the reader, the golfer, the writer, the beachcomber, the Gnome rogue, the other Gnome rogue, the target shooter, the photographer, the choir lead, the local Scrabble champion, the Pokemon pro, the kart driver - need time to not be who they have to be the rest of the time. As long as what we are doing isn't harmful - to ourselves and others alike - then surely it's just as valid as the next person's escape?

On that topic - what's the shame in admitting we need it anyway? Speaking for myself, I play RPGs, video games, listen to music, watch movies, all of these things to not exist in the standard headspace my brain creates for me on a daily. I've been accused of being a weirdo for the RPGs (weird is a heavily over-used word these days) and a shut-in for the video games (actually I was a shut-in for different reasons but thank you). I daresay the people throwing those terms at me like attacks would be unsure as to how to survive a working week without several pints at the end of it.

Yet another form of escapism. A frighteningly common, effective, and socially-approved one. I am genuinely surprised that there are as few alcoholics on earth as there are - though I would wager a hog's head of mead on there being far more than are actually diagnosed. FAR more. Alcohol is pretty harmful though - in many ways, and to many people.

All we want, as a race, is to be okay with ourselves. We want a place, a space, a mindset that lets us be just...okay. Some get that on the basketball court. Some get that behind the wheel. Some get that rolling a twenty-sided die. Some get that drinking or smoking or fucking or dancing or laughing or crying or anything else that lets them take the mask off for a while, even if they have to put another one on.

...and some people feel the need to chide other people for avoiding the "real world", and in doing so, engage in their own escapism. Rendering judgment is easier than self-assessing, at least. Spit bile at those around you and then you don't have to drown in it. Escape, escape - anything to not face the cracks inside, the insecurity that all of us feel, and all of us fight from the moment we know who and what we are.

The longer I'm on this little rock spinning through a vast universe, the more I come to realise that this one thing is truly what unifies us all - and what divides us in equal measure.

Who wouldn't want to escape that particular thought process?

Friday 2 October 2015

Feeling Strangely Fine

I'm sorry to disappoint anyone misled by the title, but this blog post isn't about Semisonic's second album.

The following disclaimer can probably apply to every entry I put into this blog but I feel it deserves repeating anyway: this entire thing is going to be from a very personal perspective. If I generalise, please understand that I am really only speaking for me. I wouldn't presume to speak for anyone else - but if you see yourself in what I write, then know that we understand each other, at least a little.

Everyone knows at least one hypochondriac, although they may not self-identify as such.

You know the type. They are sure they are sick most of the time. Either they go to the doctor once a week with a new complaint, or they never ever go to the doctor and self-diagnose instead. Either way, whenever you haven't seen them for a few days, the next time you speak to them - there's something new wrong with them.

I'm not going to say they aren't sick, or there isn't something wrong. That's not for me to say, and it's none of my business.

Here's the contrast, though; I have noticed that people with a chronic or ongoing condition, almost universally, respond to questions about their general health with a neutral or vague-positive answer. "How Are You" is replied to with terms like "Fine," or "Not Bad", or "Okay" - most of the time.

There's exceptions of course. Once you're past that moment in the street, sat down somewhere and talking and get onto actual conversational topics, and words like "In Yourself" and "Really" get tabbed onto the end of the original question - that is when more pointed answers come out.

If we went out the night before and drank enough liquor to stun a platoon of Royal Marines, then we'll happily talk about how we now have the hangover from Hades. Broken arm? Yep, look at this cast, yes I chose pink fuck off I like it. Fatigue? Arthritis? Anything chronic or perpetual? ...yeah, fine, not bad.

In my case at least, there's a lot of reasons for this.

One of those is that I'm hyper-aware of the depressing effect of hearing that one of your friends, colleagues or associates is suffering, especially if there's nothing you can do about it. I'm usually reluctant to lay that on someone. Another is a kind of insecurity; talk about how shit you feel but try to put a brave face on it and you come across as something of a martyr, whereas the lack of brave face can come across as being very moany. Again, two things I don't want to lay on anyone.

(All this is in my own head of course. Anyone else talking to me about things they are going through, I would never think that they were moaning excessively, or nailing themselves to a cross. I'm just bad at taking my own advice.)

Another factor that influences the answer to the How Are You - the scales are different. If in general a person is okay, and isn't in much pain, and doesn't find anything difficult, then their knee joint being particularly painful of a morning is going to warrant explanation or exclamation. I, however, have a very odd relationship with pain. It's worthy of comment when my joints DON'T hurt - or when they hurt enough to stop me doing my already-reduced average daily allotment of doing things.

It becomes the new normal. At first you rail against it, hate it, loathe it, want nothing more than for it to not be happening...but over days, weeks, months, years, it becomes life. It is something you work with and around rather than something you mindlessly defy. You get zen about it, or you go a little crazy.

That doesn't mean to say that you should try second-guessing people if you know they're ill and they say they're fine, because there's another reason why we say as such: some of us don't like a fuss made of us, or the attention that a full and frank explanation of our condition and its current effect on us might draw.

I'm the kind of guy that deals with sickness pretty much alone. If I have the flu, or a cold, or anything like that - I retreat into a little cave and stay there until I'm better. People bugging me doesn't help me, and in my experience, keeping your head straight helps you heal. Psychosomatics and all. So if one applies that to a condition that is not only life-altering but also totally ongoing, then, well...who wants a barrage of questions every time you get asked if you're doing okay?

It's a shitty thing to have to manage. If we look at it like a car, then it would feature numerous structural problems that make it awkward and ungainly to handle, but taking it to a garage sometimes makes it worse. Drive that for two years, and you'll stop bitching about the stiff gearstick real fast. Sooner or later, even the desperately uncomfortable seat becomes a background annoyance rather than a bane of one's existence, if you can't change it.

In the end, it is what it is. Keeping your head straight is the most important thing - it is easy to lose hope and become demoralised, even easier to focus on the debilitating effect of one's condition rather than...well...anything else, really. Some days it can feel a lot bigger than you, a lot bigger than the rest of the world even.

One way of preventing that - one way of looking illness in the eye and letting it know that it isn't all that big a deal after all - is saying that we're fine. Saying we're okay. A dismissal. Sure, most joints I have from the neck down feel like they're filled with broken glass, and my lungs are half-filled with scar tissue - but you know what? I'm fine. Can do. Can deal. Can cope. I am London circa 1941, and the illness is the Luftwaffe. Fuck you mate. I'm alright. Coventrate my fat ass.

So...yeah. I'm fine, I guess.