I had to do a very short presentation type thing at work recently. Above are some of the notes I made. As I was preparing for it the night before… (I always prepare for things the night before so as to create the maximum amount of anxiety)… I realised that my capacity to learn stuff has dropped off a cliff. It’s about five years since I last did any kind of formal studying but it feels like, since then, my brain has evaporated. You know when you leave something in the microwave too long and it shrivels up into a dry, crumbly, useless piece of shit? That’s my brain.
Actually I don’t think it’s anything to do with a reduction in brain cells. I still have the same number of brain cells that I had five years ago (about nine). It’s more to do with an increase in anxiety. I’m even more anxious now than I was then about getting it right!! How can that be?! Surely I’m supposed to be getting more confident as I get older not less!! Well, basically… nope! This time next year I fully expect to be drooling and slumped in a chair clutching a puzzle compendium. The question is… why?!
My daughter Hannah was recently part of a stand-up comedy show and I went to see it. I think that stand-up comedy is probably the most scary thing in the world to do. Acting is scary but at least you have a character and script written by someone else behind which to hide. With stand-up there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. Part of this show was done as various characters such as the three Nana’s shown above (Hannah first on left) but for the rest, each person involved had to do their own routine, as themselves, performing their own material!
I can’t imagine anything scarier. I admire all stand-up comedians as probably the bravest people in the world. Why it is so terrifying to stand up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh? I’m not sure. The worst that can happen is that nobody laughs. You’re not going to die (unless it’s from fright), you’re not going to get your head chopped off (unless the audience really really hate you), you’re not going to get chained to a car and dragged across nettles (some people pay good money for that). So why is the prospect so mind-numbingly, butt-achingly terrifying?
I suppose it’s to do with our powerful need for approval. The relationship between a stand-up comic and the audience is completely raw, naked and immediate. You say something; they laugh (or not). You expose yourself (not literally unless you really have to); they give their approval (or not). If you don’t get a laugh, you’re not getting approval. And if you’re not approved of, your whole identity could be at stake. You may be forced to face the fact that you’re rubbish at this, you failed, you’re not the person you thought you were.
Ironically, the thing which is most likely to make you fail, not only in stand-up comedy but in many areas of life, is your fear of failure. The only way you can be a good comedian is if you get laughs and the audience must be relaxed before it can laugh. If those people watching you sense that you’re not confident then they won’t relax and they won’t laugh, no matter how good your material. So really, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can genuinely convince yourself that you will succeed then there’s every chance that you will. Generally I don’t tend to believe in things unless I have evidence (no, not big on religion as you can imagine). So I could never make the leap of faith required to get up on stage and do stand-up for the first time. The only evidence I have to go on would be the fact that I was rubbish enough reading out in class at school so I’m probably going to be super-rubbish as a performer. If I could take it on faith that I’d be able to cope, whatever happens; that my whole identity wouldn’t be threatened if it didn’t go well, then I might stand a chance.
Luckily it wasn’t me up on stage for this show, it was Hannah. But when you have kids, you feel their pain as though it is your pain. I was in agony before the show started, writhing in the shadows in sympathy with my daughter. When she came on stage my agony reached a horrific crescendo of empathetic fear mixed with pride. It was about ten minutes before I breathed again.
Hannah did well. She did a good routine and got laughs. It was going to be OK. Then, of course, I realised that it was always going to be OK. She was always going to do well because she’s good but even if she hadn’t done well, that would have been OK too. She would have come off and laughed about it and either said how she’d never try that again or maybe said how she would try it a bit differently next time and gradually build up her skill. Her identity was never at stake. My problem is I’m so terrified of pain, however fleeting. I can’t accept that pain is good, pain is there for a reason; to keep us safe, to teach us how to be in the future. I spend most of my life avoiding pain and so I never learn.
The show went really well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even me, once I’d been treated for hyperventilating by two paramedics named Janice and Darren. Maybe next time I’ll realise that, whatever happens, it’ll be OK. Or maybe I’ll just remain an enormous wuss. See you soon Janice and Darren.
This week I saw this (above). It’s not some horrific DIY accident, it’s actually a sculpture by Robert Gober on display in the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. It’s a cast of the artist’s own leg, embedded with human hairs and dressed with a man’s shoe, sock, and trouser-leg. The hairs on the leg are so realistic it’s eerie.
The body fragment is meant to speak of absence, detachment and loss. The leg is installed as if emerging from the gallery wall, portraying an uneasy balance between interior and exterior. Apparently, Gober’s disembodied limbs and appendages imply a psychological fracture.
His work is related to domestic and familiar objects such as doors, sinks, and body parts, and has themes of nature, religion, and politics. The sculptures are meticulously hand-crafted, even when they appear to just be a recreation of a common sink. He has also made photographs, prints, and drawings. I read somewhere that the leg is difficult and unsettling because it’s difficult to figure out whether the object as alive or dead.
Years ago there were communities. There was a shop on the corner of every other street, a post office down the road, a pharmacy five minutes walk away, a cafe in the next street… There was no way for people to travel quickly to larger towns or cities so everything had to be located in the neighbourhood. Then came the car.
From the moment that cars came within the reach of the average family, communities have faded away. It was possible now to get to places so much quicker. Global companies could build vast supermarkets on the edges of cities and everyone could reach them in less than ten minutes. There was no need for the corner shop anymore, no need for the local post office or pharmacy, and so they gradually disappeared. At the gigantic superstores you could get everything under the same roof and there was easy, free parking.
So why is that such a bad trend? If supermarkets are cheap and convenient, why is that a negative thing? Maybe because, along with the cheapness and the convenience comes de-humanisation. When the shops, cafes, butchers and pharmacies were located in our local communities, we knew the people who worked and shopped there because they were our neighbours. When we’re shopping at the superstore we rarely see anyone we know because they’ve travelled from a much wider region to shop there. We’re no longer amongst our neighbours. So we don’t say hello, we don’t pause for a chat, most often we don’t speak at all. We even start to get irritated if someone does try to have a conversation especially if they are in front of us in the queue at the checkout. Tutting and sighing is the nearest we get to an interaction. The superstores get bigger as the local communities shrivel out of existence. It’s not really the fault of the supermarkets; they’re just responding to our demands. The really dangerous factor is the availability of the car.
So there’s no hope? We’re doomed to see the destruction of local communities because we can all jump in the car and nip to the supermarket? Not necessarily. The car has become so popular that it’s becoming a victim of its own success. We’re starting to find that we can’t nip to Asda quite so quickly because there’s a traffic jam on the ring road, we can’t pop down to Tesco because there’s tailbacks all the way back to the motorway. So maybe the car is starting to fail to provide the wonderful freedom and mobility that it used to. When it becomes the norm to sit in a queue for half and hour to get to Sainsbury’s, perhaps we’ll start to think that walking to a corner shop would be a better option. Maybe the corner shops will start to reappear along with all the other local amenities. A feeling of community could start to return. The car will have driven us round in a great big circle.
In previous years I’ve made New Year resolutions and they’ve not even lasted a week. Each time it has happened though I’ve used the experience to hone my resolution-making skills for the following year. For example, the first resolutions I ever made included 1. Irrigate the desert, 2 Solve the Middle East problem and 3.Moisturise every morning. I now realise that those resolutions were far too ambitious; there’s no way I was ever going to moisturise, for God’s sake!
The next year I tried to make my resolutions more achievable; 1. Eat a bit healthier, 2. Get a bit fitter, 3. Moisturise once a month. By February, I had plummeted into a deep pit of stinking, vomit-inducing, shit-smearing depression. I sat in front of the TV from March until November; didn’t even switch it on till August. This had happened because the resolutions had been too vague, mundane and uninspiring this time round.
Year 3; I deliberately made my resolutions much more lofty and inspiring. 1. Say one nice thing to everyone you meet every day, 2. Smiling makes you feel better and everyone around you feel better so smile, smile, smile, 3. Moisturise! I still struggled however. Saying something nice to everyone I met proved to be tricky as I regularly associate with daleks, Dracula Prince of Darkness and Nigel Farage. Also, I found it a strain to have to smile whilst unconscious (ie- while asleep or at work).
Consequently, the year after, I tried to be a lot more realistic and down to earth when setting resolutions. My list read; 1. Use cockney rhyming slang whilst simultaneously replicating the voice of Ray Winstone, 2. Pronounce ‘th..’ as ‘ff..’ as in ‘I ffort you ffort I was ffinking I ffort you was ffick!’ 3. Ffarcking moisturise you ffarking nonce!
None of these resolutions worked and maybe we have to face the notion that the whole idea of just deciding to change something about yourself on some arbitrary day of the year is always going to be doomed to failure. Changing habits is one of the hardest things we can ever aspire to do. It takes planning, persistence, repetition and support. Even the simplest of habits can be so ingrained that it takes a lot of shifting. You can’t just decide to change it and then expect it to automatically change overnight. The real danger in making New Year resolutions is that the inevitable failure to stick to them can make you feel inadequate, hopeless and depressed. Then, change is even less likely than ever. So what should we do instead of making resolutions? Ah… well… haven’t figured that out yet. Definitely going to figure it out this year though. It’s one of my resolutions.