Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Where are all the good female characters?

A little while ago, I downloaded Amazon Prime.  I was pretty much forced to - Amazon offered me a free trail and I forgot to cancel before they loaded €50 onto my Mastercard.  These are the perils of having an account in a language you don't properly speak yet!  Unfortunately you really do need to use when you live in Germany - using the version only precipitates extra delivery charges, and there isn't a magic button you can press to have it all appear in English.  

It all worked out ok though, as despite the fact that most of the shows are in German, there's still a good proportion of them that appear in their original version, or "OV".  There are loads of things actually, and they're adding to the list all the time.  I was disappointed not to find Mad Men or Community under the list of shows that I could watch without paying extra, but had heard good things about Breaking Bad, so decided to give that a go.  Which...... pretty much put paid to the next two months of my life, as I developed a dependence in no time at all.  Wow - what a piece of work that show is.  Its Wikipedia page describes it as being "considered one of the best television shows of all time" and it is a well-deserved assessment.  I was going through my Mad Men and Game of Thrones stage when everyone was watching Breaking Bad, and I wish someone had told me about it!  The writing, the story, the character development, the conflicts, the acting - even just the concept is quite brilliant.  We've been told lately that we're going through a Golden Age of television, and with shows like these it's easy to see why.  It seems that have eschewed the tired cops and robbers/doctors and nurses/legal formats, and now we have mould-breaking, unique stories about seemingly real people with real conflicts and flaws.  Mad Men is similar - you won't find "New York period drama about advertising" in the Little Golden Book of Television Clichés either, and along with other intelligent programming like House of Cards, House and the afore-mentioned Game of Thrones, the claim has been made that we've finally grown up as audiences and are watching more nuanced, sophisticated storylines with more realistic, flawed characters.  Thank God.  We have the Sopranos to thank for it, apparently.    

And yet!  

The other day, to my intense regret, I ran out of Breaking Bad.  Along with everyone else who has seen it, my head exploded with the brilliance of the last episode and the sheer poetry of it all.  I watched and re-watched the last ten minutes or so over and over, read about the development of the series, learnt about the choice of final song for the closing stages, saw interviews with the actors online, and pretty much did all the things that sad, pathetic people who are hooked on a tv show do when they can't let go.  It seemed like I would never quite be the same again, but after the appropriate mourning period I set about trying to find something else to become worryingly addicted to.  I'd probably had my fill of harrowing violence and plot twists for awhile, so decided to try "Alpha House" - a light, fluffy sitcom about the Republican Party, which surpassed expectations despite the fact that I got bored of it midway through the second season.  I went looking for something a little more substantial earlier this week however, and had quite a lot to choose from.  In the 24 hours or so following a return from a really intense tour, normally premium time for me to put my eyes on screen-saver and take in as many films and tv shows as I can, I tried in no particular order, "The Man In The High Castle" (definitely promising), "Vikings" (up and down), "Transparent" (weird), and "Secret Diary of a Call-Girl" (meh).  Eventually I decided I might want to try some legalise though, and tried both "Damages" and "The Good Wife".  They both had good casts (Damages stars Glenn Close for instance) and are both clearly aimed at a female market, and I thought that along with my Facebook feed they might contribute to further rounding out of my slovenly male personality and dragging me just that little bit more out of the patriarchy.  Much of the above television that I've seen stars male and female characters, but men were invariably the main pro/antagonists - it would be good to see what female characters could do in hard-hitting drama.  

If you haven't seen either of them, here's a brief summary.  The Good Wife: a lawyer turned housewife is forced to return to the profession to support her family after her State Attorney husband is accused of sleeping with prostitutes on the government purse.  Damages: a hotshot young female law graduate accepts a position with a prestigious New York law firm, and becomes the protégée of the ruthless, manipulative senior partner.  Not bad to start with, huh?  Plenty of room for conflict, twists and turns and general character study, right?  Well.  

Unfortunately I was met with a big, fat bunch of cliché and total lack of plausibility.  Some of it was basic television cliché (everyone in The Good Wife boasts model-esque good looks and wardrobes, even the people that work in the call centre for strippers in the second episode), but perhaps more alarmingly, a lot of it was motivated from a sexual politics standpoint that verged on the downright irresponsible, if not just really boring.  Here's a brief run-down, taken from only the first couple of episodes and a bit of forward reading in the episode guides:
- Damages: the young protégée is never really seen to do any real work and always has time for her family and friends, despite the fact that she'd be expected to pump out an eight-day week and take loads of work home with her  
- Both: the protagonists have the ears of senior partners and play major parts in important cases from the outset of the show, desipte the likelihood (particularly in Damages) that they would start in very junior positions 
- Both: the bad guys are always men and they always lose, no matter how much money they've got and how many platinum gold lawyers they're toting.  This is taken to extremes in only the second episode of The Good Wife when the plaintiff, an achingly glamorous rape victim, turns down a $450,000 settlement on a point of principle for a crime she can't prove 
- The Good Wife: despite her husband being caught literally with his pants down, our herione Stands By Her Man with only token moments of anger at his obvious and public betrayal.  Her house is also always immaculate and her kids are perfect angels - insert "domestic Goddess" cliché here
- Damages: despite her Ivy League education, it is revealed that the protégée is from a working-class background, 'cos y'know, that's where all New York corporate lawyers come from.        

..... I could go on.  

So much of what has been impressive about shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is that the characters are "real" people.  In some cases they're anti-heroes, who do frankly horrible things.  Don Draper is a sexist, selfish, philandering alcoholic and a bully.  Walter White is a ruthless, violent killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, no matter the collateral damage to his family and those around him.  These are bad men!  And yet we love them for all the horror they bring to proceedings, just as we loved Tony Soprano.  Finally we see that the messages television shows are bringing is not delivered on some pink cloud where all the protagonists are nobly motivated.  Have we grown up on that basis, though?

I'm not so sure, because it seems to me that these characters are all men.  Yes, there are plenty of "supporting" female characters in these shows that could be described as being realistic, but when it comes to genuinely plot-hinging character studies with just enough darkness, evil and menace, it's the men who portray them, and carry the shows on that basis.  We like these men because we believe in them, but we also like them because we're afraid of them.  Where are the female equivalents?  

What disappointed me so much about The Good Wife and Damages is that we saw women cast in pivotal, leading roles who were still playing the part of the "perfect" woman - or the perfect "modern" woman, at least.  The characters have it all - looks, carriage, money, great careers, power and influence, but tellingly, active and rewarding personal lives and families which they seem to maintain with ease.  They are shown in moments of domestic harmony and social and romantic bliss, and they never have an angry or impatient word for anyone, despite carrying what would be incredibly demanding workloads and working long hours.  These are women who have broken the glass ceiling perhaps a little more easily than you would expect.  We already know how difficult that is, but witness the other elements of their stories - the facile way that they're both employed, the responsibilities that are handed to them so early in their tenures, the Cinderella-story rises to influence so soon after being hired.  Answer me seriously - do women actually believe this crap?  

Maybe I'm being over-critical, though - we all like a bit of fantasy after all.  I have more concerns, though.  What frustrates me most about both of these shows is that they masquerade as feminist pieces about powerful strong women, when the opposite couldn't be more true.  Both our protagnonists are passengers, if not actual victims.  The storylines happen to them, not the other way around.  The Good Wife is forced to return to professional life after her husband publicly misbehaves, and has to deal with his rival trying to trip her up every step of the way.  She also only seems to represent women, who are also vicitims, invariably of male bad behaviour, who often seek solace from her on the basis that "she knows what it feels like".  The character in Damages is flung head-long into a maelstrom of greed, ambition, organised crime and violence when all she wanted was to augment her already already perfect life with a cushy job in a law firm.  At no stage that I have seen do either of either of these characters ever really take charge - the entire premise of the shows are that they are victims of circumstance, and inevitably, male lust and greed.  By contrast, television audiences all over the world can't get enough of chemistry teachers leading criminal double-lives, wildly hedonistic advertising executives, drug-addicted, sociopathic doctors holding entire hospitals to ransom, and forensic scientists who are vigilante serial killers in their spare time, all of whom make life-changing, devil-may-care decisions at every turn, because that's what men do.   

I don't know about you, but I know what I'd rather watch!  

As far I'm concerned, this raises some interesting thoughts about the perception of men and women within the broader community.  In the past few years, discussions on topics such as wage inequality, rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, sexism and mysogyny, fat-shaming, revenge-porn, and cat-calling have become more and more common.  You could throw in the continued criticisms of male-dominated religious institutions as well.  This has also been conducted to the backdrop of an economic crisis that (certainly if you're European) just doesn't seem to want to go away, which has affected everyone's lives on the basis of the banking sector's greed and mis-management.  It has become more and more apparent that when the world closes its eyes and thinks of the face of evil, the image that is brought to mind is one of a man, and a white man at that - something all these characters have in common.       
Is this why we're making television about male characters who are all bastards?  Who knows.  If so, it does seem rather ironic that the image of man has taken a beating, and what has transpired is some really good telly, and maybe even a pop-culture inspired carte blanche for men to behave even worse because that's what Don Draper would do.  Life does imitate art afer all.  It seems a shame however that the humble television show, one of our most ubiquitous and culturally influential art forms, continues to show women as largely cardboard cut-outs by comparison, even when it's clear that someone's making an effort.  Maybe we will only truly grow up when we are prepared to portray their flaws as well.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Blogging 2.0

Apologies for the recent hiatus.  A mixture of being out of town, busy and not very well - nothing major, just a cold, but certainly enough to slow me down.  Not sure to whom I'm apologising mind you, maybe only me!  I'm getting semi-regular hits, but I have no idea whether anyone's actually reading the things I'm writing or just happening upon the site on account of some sort of random keyword search. Still, like I said, I'm doing this because I wanted to do more writing, it's half of my two New Year's resolutions, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to keep going.  

Another reason for the delay in posting anything is that I've been struggling a little for motivation.  My concern when I started everything off again was that I would have a brief flurry of ideas and a brief flurry of posts before I got bored and stopped, just like the time before, and the time before that.  The thing is that I'm essentially writing opinion posts, essays of perhaps a thousand words or more, and they take effort!  Most blogs that I visit don't work that way, and in fact the one I visit most regularly isn't really a blog as much as a community.  Nothing much is written post-wise, but the comments go on for miles and miles, as the discussions and arguments that are had by its huge readership have actually transcended any actual prose from its author.  I'm not looking for any sort of massive readership, I'm looking to find my voice, really - and I know that I always feel better about ideas if I can verbalise them or write them down.  Writing them down is always the best way though, particularly if you're happy with what you've written, as you can re-visit everything later on.  As far as finding a voice is concerned, I'm also scratching an itch for my mother in a way - she's convinced that I have it in me to be a writer, and I said to her at the end of the year that I'd fire up the blog again and see what came of it.  I've lasted six weeks or so so far and there's been some reasonable output I suppose, although nothing has REALLY grabbed me - I think I've made some reasonable points here and there, but I haven't really hit as many nails on the head as I thought I might.  

We'll see how it goes, though - I don't want my writing resultion to be the equivalent of someone else's getting fit resolution - one that usually lasts a month or so before they get bored or don't see the results they were hoping for.  I definitely have some ideas for pieces bubbling away, so hopefully there'll be a lot more to come.  


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Karnevel in Köln

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Karneval, one of the pillars of the the cultural calendar in Germany.  Despite the fact that I live much closer to Düsseldorf than I do Cologne, I chose the latter of the two places for my visit, as I have friends there.  Of all the places that celebrate Karneval in Germany and The Netherlands, Cologne is really supposed to be where it's at, anyway - bigger, wilder, boozier, more fun, etc etc etc.  

I didn't really know what Karneval was for quite awhile, even when I lived in The Netherlands.  I knew what it was in Brazil, and obviously Venice as well, but I had no idea that it even existed in Northern Europe.  Essentially, it's exactly the same thing there as it is everywhere else, though - a traditional street festival which marks the entry into Lent, when everyone gets to let their hair down and have fun before the 40 days of fasting, observance and general boredom before you stuff your face with chocolate over Easter.  Hurrah!  Bring it on.    

I wasn't quite sure what to expect though, as I had heard that Karneval could be a bit .... unpredictable.  Having already been to Oktoberfest in Munich and New Year's Eve in Berlin, It seemed to me that for a quite conservative, socially and culturally observant place such as Germany, a fair few of the big "moments" on the calendar can get a bit crazy - sometimes in a good way, sometimes bad.  

Silvester (New Year's Eve) in Berlin was unfortunately the latter, and it shocked me beyond measure.  It was an absolute war zone.  It seemed that the entire place just descended into absolute bedlam in the worst possible way with people throwing bottles around, letting off fireworks everywhere, shooting them into crowds of people, letting them off in trains and in taxis, together with a real "who let the dogs out" sort of in-your-face aggression and casual violence.  I expected it to be wild-ish, but not quite as destructive, and really didn't enjoy it at all.  I went when I was living in London, long before my recent foray into German life, and I'm afraid I returned with some grave doubts about Germany and German people at large.  What did it say if people feel the need to break things and throw bottles around to have fun?  It was like they had been on their best behaviour all year, with all of the pent-up rage building and building, until they were allowed to let go in a mindless explosion before squeezing themselves back into their too-tight shell for another 364 days.  It seemed really unhealthy to me; I was actually more than a little worried for my safety at various stages, and I also just found the whole thing more than a little troubling.  It's only been quite recently that people have explained to me that Silvester in Berlin isn't really German, given the huge ethnic populations there, and shouldn't be seen as reflective of the rest of the country on that basis.  

Oktoberfest was different - there was a LOT more sex in the air.  I noticed it as soon as I got off the train, and it continued when I joined my friends and witnessed my ex-girlfriend flirting outrageously with one of her colleagues.  Later on she kissed him passionately in full view of me and despite the fact that she had a live-in boyfriend, to whom she returned to that evening.  It was one of the most wilfully base - and I'm afraid to say, erotic - things I have ever seen.  I didn't understand it at all at first and was quite confronted by it, but she took pains to explain to me that this sort of thing was virtually expected; what happens at Oktoberfest stays at Oktoberfest, and she held no illusions that said boyfriend was doing exactly the same thing when he went.  In the end it made sense to me.  The clichés were all there about the brass bands and the busty girls and the men in little shorts - if Oktoberfest isn't about being naughty, then what is it about?   

Karneval, I had heard, was a bit of a mixture of the two.  A bit of bedlam and madness, a fair amount of sex.  In fact, I heard that one of the defining features of Karneval was that it was a time where everyone gets a hallpass, and gets to let off a bit of polyamorous steam without getting in trouble.  I even asked a couple about this once, when the topic came up.  I wanted to be diplomatic, in case one of them exercised that "right" without the other knowing or something (these things can be complicated), so I asked in as neutral a manner as possible.  In my best bumbling, vaguely Hugh Grant manner, I said "er - I've heard that Karneval is sort of, er, about ..... partner-swapping.  Is that true?"  I wasn't sure what they'd say or whether I would dredge up some bad blood somehow, but the reaction was pretty funny.  They both shared a look, giggled, and said to me "yes, that's EXACTLY what it's about".  

So what was Karneval going to bring me, I wondered?  Was I finally going to get laid, after however long?  And if so, was there an ettiquette to it all?  I was also going with couples who were all locals - would someone's girlfriend or wife suddenly throw herself at me like something out of "Perfume"?  Would my natural studliness cause all of the women in the vicinity to take leave of their senses at some point?  How would it all fit together??

I needn't have worried, of course.  It was altogetherly much more sedate than any of that.  Despite the above conversation I didn't see much evidence of "goings-on" at all, in fact when I engaged one of the locals in conversation at one point she made it very clear that she was married - clearly she hadn't read that manual either.  What I did see was a general openness and a willingness to engage with strangers that was really fun, and actually quite nice.  We spent quite a bit of time in a bar in the middle of town, which for me didn't seem to serve much of a purpose beyond going to the pub in the middle of the day in stupid outfits, but once I'd had a few drinks I was more than able to get talking to a few local girls, all of whom were really happy to chat.  I'm used to the equivalent scene on a Saturday night being pretty grim, where only the tallest, big-shouldered guys carry much cred, but it wasn't like that at all.  One foray to the streets outside even precipitated me being bailed up by a sexy policewoman, pirate and Robin Hood, who all apparently took umbrudge to me accidentally bumping into one of their party by flirting with me outrageously and stealing my headgear.  Like a complete doofus, I didn't take it any further though and didn't even ask for so much as a phone number.  I'm really going to have to work on acting in the heat of the moment if I'm to get myself out of this rut that I'm in!  

The purpose of attending Karneval is not just to pick up, of course.  It's to have fun.  And we did that in abundance.  It was the complete polar-opposite of anything I experienced in that Berlin New Year's Eve, either - the whole city seemed to have relaxed into a loud, slightly pissed state - that part of the evening when you're about three or four beers in and everyone is your friend.  Thankfully, that feeling lasted from the first drink to the last with me, and together with the street bands, wurst vendors and cheap but good beer, it was a really fun day.  These sorts of things are great for my German as well - like a lot of people I speak much better when I'm relaxed, with friends and .... pissed as a newt.  Call it "social lubrication".  Hopefully there'll be more chances to do similar things in future - it's further evidence that my German experiment is working, and I really hope that I can go again.  Two slightly drunk thumbs up!!!  



Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Social Media and the Political Pinhead

I'm not a big follower of politics.  I mean, I'm a follower of it, just not a BIG follower of it.  I'm a follower of it in the way that the average person is a follower of football - you can't not really, it's all around you all the time, pretty much 24-7.  You can't not pay attention to politics in the same way that you can't not pay attention to the weather.  It's just there.  

So, this means that I'd have a stab at knowing the names of prime ministers and presidents of various countries and the parties they represent, but not much more.  Don't make the mistake of thinking that I'm not well-informed mind you - I think I definitely am, but the political process leaves me pretty much cold.  The machinations of what one party is doing to another, who is leading whom, how and why is completely uninteresting as far as I'm concerned, and how the political game is played more-or-less amounts to moving of chairs around the Titanic.  Such-and-such is going to change everything, such-and-such is a nasty piece of work, such-and-such is doing this, that and the other and that's wrong/right and clear proof that the Labor/Tory/Rebublican/Democrat/Octogenarian Mothers' Nosehair Collective party is providing the sort of leadership that will take this country to the top/bottom, is just the sort of stuff that bores me to sobs.  This sort of talk just seems such a gross over-simplification of .... well, anything really, simply from the point that it's just so unlikely to be true.  You cannot divide the entire population of the world neatly in half and, depending on your standpoint, label one side "right" and the other side "wrong", that's not how ANYTHING works.  Neither is the leader of xyz party likely to be Super-Jesus or Beelzebub either - like anyone, he/she will selfish interests and ambitions, they're almost certainly not motivated by any real desire to "make a difference", and somehow they ended up at the top of the pile.  Kind of like your boss, really.  The best you can hope for is for some basic competence and intelligence, but as we all know that's not a pre-requisite for being in charge of something anyway.  .... Kind of like your boss.         

This is why the social media desperados drive me up the wall, as well.  You know the type - the type that will publish any and every article they can get their hands on to their Facebook/Twitter feed and shrilly declare that whatever dickhead who happens to be in charge this week is freakin' .... HITLER ...  on ..... STEROIDS, and that's why they deserve to DIE, NOW, VERY PAINFULLY AND SLOWLY because of this THING that their party did and ...... blah.  I tend to find that more often than not the "thing" is probably not as politically motivated as you would think and could have happened on anyone's watch, but people do love a good yell, don't they.  These platforms are there for people to air their various interests and opinions, but I always find this sort of online behaviour to be so intrusive and discourteous, too - particularly in an international context.  Really, who gives a damn about your political leanings in your inevitably uninteresting little part of the world when there are wars being fought and actual injustices going on - the "cause" you're representing is almost certainly less significant than any of those, but the fact that you're being so shrill about it implies that you think it is.  You're also very likely to assume that everyone is approaching your cause from the same standpoint as well - after all, EVERYONE is a middle-class English speaker in a large urban centre, and everyone will relate to your story on that basis.  

It's this last point that really gets my goat when it comes to things like feminism and race, and when statistics are published in articles.  Something like "80% of women will be sexually assaulted before the age of 16" is a good example, not least of which because its actual meaning isn't clear (80% of female sexual assault victims, or 80% of all women?).  It's the sort of thing that gets bandied about a lot, as well as "X% of non-white people experience racial discrimination in the workplace".  The statistics might actually be correct, but where are they correct?  The article you're linking to on your newsfeed was probably written for a specific publication with a specific catchment.  What's true for that part of the world isn't necessarily true everywhere else, and posting them as though they're universal is just plain stupid.  What it also does is colour these issues with your local brush, and if you're from a big enough and culturally significant enough place (the USA, I'm looking at you!), you can fool everyone into thinking that police habitually beat up black teenagers everywhere, or that men really are bastards all over the world.  

This is pretty much why my Facebook page is mostly meaningless bullshit.  Lately a lot of cats have been making an appearance, which sort of reflects where this blog has gone, too.  I'm sure lots of people must think that I've become some sort of Mad Cat Lady.  When I haven't been talking about cats, it's been cricket - 'tis the season in Australia after all, and we're on the verge of a World Cup.  Red hair has been a recurring theme for the past few months as well because y'know - Carrot.   I do often wonder whether people somewhere think that my blatherings are really frivilous and annoying, though.  Maybe my cheerful, unintelligible rubbish is half the world's idea of obnoxious, attention-seeking behaviour and everyone hates me.  It's something that genuinely crosses my mind from time-to-time, and will occasionally preclude me from posting anything at all.  It has genuinely made me a bit quieter than usual!    

Sure as hell though, I won't be inviting you to play Candy Crush Saga anytime soon.  That really IS obnoxious.  Anyone who does that deserves what's coming to them!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Letting the Demons in

One of my favourite authors growing up was a British writer called Robert Westall.  He was a staple of the Young Adult section, and The Machine-Gunners was almost as ubiquitous as Of Mice And Men in high school English syllubuses for awhile.  Maybe it still is, I haven't been anywhere near a high school in quite some time!  He died in 1993 aged only 63 and seems to have disappeared from the consciousness somewhat, which I think is a shame.  

One of his books, The Scarecrows, deals a lot with the notion of anger.  The protagonist, Simon, is thirteen year-old boy in a 1969 boarding school, whose mother has re-married following his father's death.  He despises his step-father, and resents his mother's happiness.  I don't read as much as I used to, but it's one of the few books I can recall reading that deals much with the notion of male anger and isolation - much though it approaches it from an adolescent point of view.  I suppose that's not a bad place to look at it though, as I find that when I get angry I often feel helpless and trapped, and I didn't ever feel more helpless and trapped than when I was about that age.  

Early on the novel, Simon "lets in the devils", and loses his grip on his anger to the point that he brutally beats up the school smart-alec and bully in a fit of Incredible Hulk-style rage that he has no proper memory of.  It is related how they whisper to him to be set free, and that they hover in the periphery of his vision.  They are referred to several times but we only see them emerge properly once, but long enough for them to cause the bully and various of his friends to fear him, which isolates him further.  

Lately I've come to thinking about my own devils - or demons - and how they have haunted me somewhat.  I've been a person with a few anger issues along the line, both as a teenager and as an adult.  When I was thirteen, exactly the same age as Simon, I was a pretty unhappy kid and used to descend into absolute fits of rage on occasion, fits that caused no end of mirth to various of my school friends and did nothing much more than make a complete fool of me.  At various stages in my adult life I have felt helpless and trapped beyond measure, and powerless within my unhappiness to do anything about it - the latter stages of my office job spring to mind, plus the falling out of my last relationship.  Anger issues being anger issues I had a pretty short fuse, and would occasionally lash out verbally at people, usually strangers and third parties - bus and taxi drivers and the like, in a way that could only be described as self-destructive.  How I didn't get punched at various stages I will never know.  Thankfully I've managed to rein that sort of behaviour in in recent years, and much like an addict sensing a relapse I can recognise the danger signs.  Fatigue and stress are contributors, and if someone behaves badly or unjustly towards me when I'm in that state I've learnt to breathe, and divert myself.  It's been a long time since there's been any sort of flare-up of that kind by consequence, although I have also taken steps to make sure that I'm more in control of my life and state of general well-being which has definitely helped, too.         

I do suffer still from the odd set of demons, although they're not the anger type anymore - well not really.  These ones visit me at night after I've gone to bed, so they're well out of the way of people in the shopping queue, and have zero potential to make a fool out of me publicly.  They're pretty insiduous though, and the image of little malevolent creatures whispering to me just out of reach is pretty apt.  The idea of "letting them in" really works as well, as sometimes I lie there when I can't sleep and almost deliberately dwell on things from my past and present that make me unhappy.  I had a pretty bad bout of them last night and it seemed to go on for hours, and echoes of their visit stayed with me during the course of the following day - not so much what they were or what they "said", as much as just the fact that they'd been.  I had really funny dreams when I did get to sleep, too.  

Many of them centre around my emotional/love life or lack thereof, despite any pragmaticism that I might have espoused in my Being Single post.  A lot of them deal with my career and doubts about my professional future in Germany due to my struggles learning the language.  Others deal with my past on all possible fronts - previous relationships, betrayals from loved ones, friends and people that I trusted.  A particularly familiar and care-worn one deals with the episode of being publicly sacked from an opera in 2012 by someone I saw as a mentor.  I have spent many, many nights rehearsing what I would say to him if I ever saw him again - inevitably I become tongue-tied and my rhetoric dries up, even in my head.  As these things go round and around in my head, I'm also painfully aware that I probably wouldn't be having these conversations with myself if I wasn't alone in the bed in the first place.  

I wonder if this is common - the nature of personal demons is a cliché after all.  It does seem interesting to me that sometimes these little monsters visit me when I'm actually doing ok, though.  I'm doing pretty well at the moment and have nothing much to worry about - in fact just about everything in the above paragraph could be countered by any number of entirely legitimate counter-arguments, and reasons to feel confident, not the opposite.  Even the opera story, much though I still hate that prick, is water long under the bridge.  

So why now?  I have as little reason to stay awake at night, muttering to myself as at any other night than at any other stage for the last several years.  And yet, there I was.  It's a funny one, and maybe it serves to remind you that mental/psychological/emotional wellbeing is not a one-way street.  You are not always 100% whole, and you will have your bad moments on good days as well as good moments in the bad, which is why discipline is required, I guess.  Note to self: everyone has scar-tissue, and allowing yourself to dwell on it at 2am will only serve to re-open it.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Neverending Story and the Family Cat

Meet Prezzioso.  

Not the greatest photo in the world, but I couldn't get him to sit still!  What's the old saying?  Never work with children or animals?  Well.  It is funny how cats know that you're taking their photo - or are at least up to SOMETHING - they certainly get agitated when the iPad goes up.  Of all the cats whose photo I have taken (and I have taken a lot, which qualifies me to be a mad cat person according to a recent Facebook quiz I took), not one has reacted positively, or even ambivilently.  Prezzioso was mid-tail lash in this shot, which is a fairly typical reaction - they just KNOW.  

Anyway, I digress. 

Prezzioso is New Cat Friend #3, following Billy's demise last summer.  He belongs to my landlady, who is crazy about animals in general - we have three cats, two dogs, three sheep and an as-yet uncounted number of chickens.  After Billy died, Prezzioso, his mother Babar and the crazy, autistic runt of the litter Mia, slowly started adding my little flat to their territory, and regular visits from all of them now ensue.  I've discovered that Babar really likes diced bacon, Prezzioso has a really weird thing about sitting on my digital keyboard, and Mia can't be trusted not to make really disgusting messes in hard-to-reach places if left unattended.  They're all wonderful in their own way, even Mia, and I'm always happy to see them.  

Prezzioso is a bit of an adventurer, spends most of his time outside and has only recently started visiting (hence his status as #3).  He's a very beautiful cat as you can see, and has a couple of features that are quite unique.  First is his eyes, the lines either side of them that look like eye-liner and give him quite an Asian appearance.  Second is that he has a mane!  I don't know whether it carries any significance for domestic cats, but it puffs up as proudly as any lion's.  It's not the greatest angle there, but you can see it in the picture.  

Anyway, this afternoon I was getting ready to go to a rehearsal and I was drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen.  Prezzioso was sitting almost exactly where he is in the photo, and I was spoiling him as usual - scratching the back of his neck where he likes it, and stroking around his face and throat.  At one point he turned his head to look right at me and sort of blissed out - he shut his eyes really slowly, and together with the fact that he's got a square-ish sort of jaw, in that instant he looked for all the world like a puppet.  Not just any puppet though - a muppet, or something a bit Jim Henson-ish.  

..... Hang on.  What was the name of that ..... thing from the Neverending Story?  The big, white salamander ..... thing.  *Frantic Wikipedia search*.  Falkor the Luck Dragon!  Omigosh, that takes me back.  *More Wikipedia searching*  Wait - The Neverending Story was a BOOK?  And a GERMAN book at that?  Clearly no-one gave me that memo when I was seven.  It was around the age of seven or so that my big reading stage kicked in as well, I used to read more than my mother could give me.  I was right into fantasy fiction too, although that was a habit that actually ultimately spelt the end of my reading stage because I got myself into a rut with it, and there's an awwwwwwful lot of crap in that genre.  Either way though, had I have known about The Neverending Story I would have absolutely devoured it.  It's great to find out about it now though, and particularly to find that it's by a really prominent German author not long after I've moved here, it'll be great to read it.  It can't get on my bookshelf fast enough, frankly.  

Did that movie freak you out when you were a kid?  It certainly did me!  All that metaphysical stuff with bad vibes destroying everything, swamps killing you if you get depressed and worlds being saved by bullied, nerdy kids reading books.  Agh!  I can remember leaving the cinema with my Mum and having a long, earnest conversation about the Nothing, what it was and what it meant.  Strangely enough, a fleeting moment with a cat this afternoon reminded me of all of that, and that strange mix of confusion and fascination that I felt as a small child.  It has stayed with me all day.  I can't be sure, but I think seeing that movie might have been one of the earlier moments when I contemplated the idea of something ..... other.  The idea that maybe we're not alone, or that there's ... MORE, somewhere, somehow, and that we dont - can't - really understand it.  There's not much about the world that a seven year-old kid really understands when it comes down to it, but I was a very serious, intense kid, so much so that I worried my mother no end - I'm sure seeing that with me didn't help things much!     

I often wonder about the road less travelled, and how lucky I am that I get the opportunity to re-visit this stuff.  I've had a reasonably productive day by my standards, and still I'm able to spend the time writing all this down.  There's no way I'd be able to do it if I was still a corporate, and/or with three kids and a mortgage to pay.  You win some and you lose some with lifestyle and career choices - but I do appreciate the opportunity to have a good THINK from time to time.  I'd be lost without it.  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Being Single

I'm single.  I have been for almost exactly three and a half years.  Late August 2011 to late(ish) January 2015.  This is approaching my personal record of three years eight months, which was set from December 2004 to July 2008.

Does it feel bad to look at it in such a stark "these are the vital statistics" sort of a way?  I don't know, but it certainly doesn't make for GOOD reading.  Comparing the two periods, there's no question that this one trumps the first, though - the first was pretty awful for the most part, with absolutely no rain at all for over three years of it until right towards the end care of a drunken snog with a friend.  I probably went on about three dates the entire time, all of which were awkward, truncated affairs, and I was shot down a LOT, sometimes in excrutiating circumstances by people I cared about, and I had all but given up hope of ..... anything, ever again, by the time something finally popped up.  

This time has been different, and there has been a good deal less bone-crunching loneliness, wishing my life was different, "wanting to wake up as a couple of other guys", as the line in the Bernstein musical goes.  That's not to say that it's been a picnic from start to finish - the relationship I was in left me pretty emotionally numb for probably at least two years, and there were some pretty dark days - dark days for any number of reasons above and beyond my relationship status, but dark days nonetheless.  What has changed however is that there has been a bit more precipitation here and there, a few dalliances with a few different young ladies, even if they only lasted for an evening or a night, in whatever form they happened to take.  There has definitely been enough there to tell me that I'm human, in a way that there wasn't the last time around.  

And yet, here I am - still single.    

If you allow it to, the world has a way of telling you that you're failing for any number of reasons, and it's pretty clear that if you're living a largely sexless life, that's going to be somewhere at the top of the list.  We still don't understand this stuff very well, but the nature of attainment, and having a partner, like you might "have" a pair of jeans is one of life's big rubber stamps.  Even if you're having a rotten time together, have nothing in common and fight like cats and dogs, being with someone is always seen as better than being alone, and somehow you're a better brand of human being if you can capture someone's attention for long enough to say that they're your partner.  Being "taken" trumps being single any day of the week.  Even those that are in unhappy relationships and secretly want out will attest to that - it's always a leap of faith to leave someone, because our biology tells us that we're better off with someone than alone.  Being single for lengthy periods of time marks you out as suspect, unattractive by definition, unwanted, a pariah - you only need to look at film, television and advertising to see that.  

How does that make me feel?  Well, not that great, but the key word at the start of that paragraph is "allow".  If you "allow" the world to tell you that you're failing at anything, you'll struggle with anything and everything - even if you're doing well, you can always do better, and you can carry that to the point of insanity.  My relationship status is just one of any number of things that I could decide that I'm not making the grade on, if I chose to think of things in that way.   

..... Which I don't.  The last period of singledom (or at least the second half of it) has co-incided with some of the most interesting and successful periods of my career and life to date, and I have plenty to be happy and proud of.  And yet!  At a time in my life when various of my friends are bringing their second or even third child into the world, or are maybe even into their second marriage, I remain frustratingly alone.  It also frustrates me no end that various of my single friends either don't stay that way very long, or enjoy being single in the way that the marketing tells them that they should by having various flings and casual encounters.  Even the people that have just ended relationships, the heart-broken, the people that I have literally held the hands of and comforted as they sobbed their way through break-ups, don't seem to have any trouble.  I mean Jesus, do I really have that little going for me that I can't attract SOMEONE'S attention? 

It doesn't help to get frustrated, of course.  And fortunately - perhaps unfortunately - I know my strengths.  And they do not include me throwing myself around and asking out everything that moves.  Every single time that I have attempted to be some sort of ladies' man, tried to be a little physically ..... available (not the right word, but maybe you can join the dots) at a party or a bar, taken that chance and asked out girl that I thought would probably say no anyway, the results have been the same.   A variation on the theme of "no thank you" that ranges from an embarrassed smile right up to complete toe-curling scorn.  So, generally speaking, I play a conservative game, and I do my best to "meet" women rather than "pick them up".  Which tends to make me any number of friends - or at least people I'm friendly with - and a gives me a front-row ticket to see them go home with some other guy.  It's a bit of a vicious cycle, really.  

It seems that there's nothing much else to do but wait.  Keep smiling, keep going to parties, keep making an effort online, keep being friendly with colleagues and friends of friends, and eventually I will end up in the right room at the right time with the right person who will take a shine to me.  It's happened before - just ...... not very often!  But it has happened before.  And without question, even if I do break my record from above, I know that things are much better than they were back then, anyway.  

I just wish it would hurry up, that's all!