In Which I Fight The March of Progress

I love audiobooks. They are so soothing and comforting and nothing says relaxation to me like lying on my bed listening to a great story. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a library, the oldest on cassette tape – which are now hard to listen to because my cassette player is so ancient and well-used that the wheels scream in protest after an hour or so – the next era on CD, and then the most recent on the ipod Mr Litlove gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. For my next birthday he gave me a docking station, because I prefer that to ear buds and because the docking station has no function buttons on it whatsoever, it comes with a remote.

Now the first little mishap I had occurred one night while I was sleeping. Evidently a butterfly flapped its wings in China, I turned over in bed, the thick corner of the duvet shifted, clipped the remote on the bedside table, and sent it on a neat dive head-first into my nighttime glass of water which was standing half full on the floor. I put the glass there so that it shouldn’t get knocked over and spill onto the pile of books I happen to have beside me. This goes to show that you really can’t think of everything.

Well, you may imagine my horror when I woke in the morning to witness the mischief that had taken place. Without the remote, the docking station is useless. But I dried it off, and by the end of the day it was working again, albeit unreliably. The on/off button worked, even if all the others didn’t seem responsive. I couldn’t honestly tell you it was much different when it was new, as I would often poke and prod it without effecting noticable change to anything other than the volume.

The next little mishap wasn’t even a mishap. I’d taken the docking station downstairs to listen, and then returned it to the bedroom. Obviously it travels as well as I do, because this caused some sort of short-circuit or dodgy connection at the point where the ipod fits onto the station. If I fiddled about with it and pushed it down harder, I could get it to play, but the sound could cut off abruptly if an atom shifted in the universe.

But hey, I could still get it to work, and after a long, frustrating evening, Mr Litlove managed to find a way to continue downloading audio books onto it, after itunes and audible decided that no one uses such obsolete devices as ipods any more. I think I’m supposed to own a swanky phone or tablet instead, so it’s a good job that none of these young turks at the forefront of modern technology have seen my 2004-bought pay-as-you-go phone which beeps every time I press a button, much to the amusement of my son, and can only save about a dozen messages at a time. In my defence, if I decide to commit a crime, I’m pretty sure the police will never trace me.

So having negotiated all these technological pitfalls, I finally discovered there was one thing I simply could not get around – and that was the chaos caused by falling asleep. It’s very hard not to, when you are warm and cozy and doing nothing more than listening to a soothing voice. Recently, I’d used my latest audible credit on Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I was loving. It’s a wonderful family story, with all the trademark Tylerisms that make it so good to listen to, in particular her ability to turn out both a beautiful sentence and a great line of dialogue. Well, I was enjoying it immensely, but the inevitable happened and without being able to tell you at what point exactly it happened, I fell asleep.

I woke up to silence. This was worse than usual, as it meant that the ipod must have shifted on its docking station and lost its connection. How long had I been asleep before that happened? I’ve woken up before to disconcerting déjà vu when the story has both finished and seamlessly started all over again. But now I had no idea how much of the narration I’d missed. The remote was useless to me, so I went over to the ipod and fiddled about with it until it started speaking again.

My ipod has a touch screen the size of a large-ish postage stamp. It has two little lines or an arrow in the middle, for play or pause, and a triangle either side for fast forward or rewind. If you tap the triangle it skips a chapter (not at all the same thing as a chapter in the book, alas) and if you hold your finger down, it supposedly moves forwards and backwards more slowly so you can skim. HAH is all I have to say to that. I touched the screen and we instantly jumped forward by several book chapters. Now I was even more lost than before. I touched the screen to move backwards, and this time it was enough to cut the connection. After more wobbling and poking and calling it some ugly names, the narration resumed but way further back, back at a part I’d been listening to the previous day. There was more back and forth that I’ll spare you, but eventually I ended up deciding the best policy was to listen again to a chunk I’d already heard.

After the half hour it took to reach the place I fell asleep, I turned out to have missed only a paragraph or two.

What is this obsession with tininess? I don’t have particularly large hands, but this whole poking and swiping business is a nightmare of inaccuracy. My ipod could be three times larger than it is, and it would still be small. It could have buttons on it, so I could actually be sure what function I was selecting. The ‘chapter’ divisions could correspond to actual chapters in the book. And the most smiled-upon solution, to switch to a newer form of technology, means learning a whole new host of instructions on ever more complicated gadgets. What is a dinosaur of technology like me supposed to do?

The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.

 

* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!

The Things We Talk About When We Talk About TV

I have always been aware that Mr Litlove and I are opposites and generally this works out okay. We worry about different things, and can therefore count on one of us being sensible for the other in a crisis. Although our interests are wildly different, they both require space alone and time to indulge, and so we’re usually sympathetic to each other’s needs, particularly now we don’t have childcare to share out. But every so often, the deep-down difference in our natures makes itself felt to my surprise.

We were watching The Good Wife – the first season, as I’m on average six years behind the curve when it comes to television and films – and in this episode, the legal drama concerned a wife and a mistress who were wrangling over the body of the man they shared, as he was being kept alive on a life support machine after a motorbike crash. One wanted to turn the life support off, the other to keep it on. Thrown into the discussion was testimony from a doctor who’d witnessed a patient suddenly revived and healing after twenty years of comatose inaction.

So naturally, I expressed my feeling to Mr Litlove that I would never want to be maintained in a vegetable state. That if the lights go off, then that’s it for me and no regrets. A bad virus gave me thirteen years of chronic fatigue syndrome, and I can’t imagine what the payoff would be for twenty years in a coma. Not worth considering in any case.

‘So what about you?’ I asked.

Mr Litlove didn’t say anything; he just scanned the ceiling for a while with his eyes.

‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘You want to be kept alive, don’t you?’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, batting his eyelashes, ‘if I wasn’t being any trouble.’

‘I think you might be a little bit of trouble.’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, still batting, still reasonable, ‘if I wasn’t in any pain.’

‘No pain, for sure. You’d be dead.’

I still can’t quite believe he’d want that, I mean, who would want to exist in a vacuum of thought and sensation, with no relationships, no creativity, no feelings to access? And then I thought of Mr Litlove on the weekend, and how he works his way through hours of seven-minute-long clips of The Graham Norton Show on youtube in order to be in exactly that insentient state… and I suppose it came a little clearer.

As for The Good Wife, I absolutely loved the first season, but having reached the end of the second just last night, my admiration is waning a teeny bit. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s essentially the story of Alicia Florrick, the wronged wife of a politician caught in a damaging sex scandal. Alicia has to return to work as a lawyer in order to support her two teenage children while Peter is in jail, but then he gets bail and comes home and wants to get back into politics. (I don’t understand the American system – he’s state attorney, which somehow seems to be political.) The question in the first season is whether Alicia can forgive him for what he’s done to them all. She’s remained loyal on the surface, partly out of the paralysis of shock, partly because she wants to do the right thing by her family. But you can see that forgiveness is almost beyond her. In this second season, it’s looked as if the marriage is healing, until we reach the end when a new revelation splits them up again.

The thing is, I understand the television series requires oodles more conflict in order to keep going. But the lovely purity of motivation that powered the first season seems to have gone. Now it looks as if Alicia never really forgave Peter, that she was always holding out for a good reason to leave him. She has no statute of limitations on past misdemeanours, and she seems to think that people are good or bad, with any fault or crime putting someone beyond the pale in her life. She’s also become very controlling, which sure, is a response to having been put out of control through no fault of her own, but it also speaks to the litigious nature of American legal practice, and it never works as a life strategy.

Anyway, I’ve watched two seasons in a row and it’s probably just time for a break. I need a new box set!

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.