The science of giving

(Posted by Mark)

Giving up
First up, let’s establish the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a quitter. If you’re not winning, and you’re not cheating well enough either, then give up. Persistence doesn’t always pay off, and though few people like a loser, even fewer people like someone who just doesn’t know when to let go. As Zena so correctly points out, failing and then quitting immediately gives you more time to go and fail somewhere else. Spread the failure around, don’t keep it all to yourself.

Yielding when you know that you can no longer win represents a realistic and honest attitude, rather than a bloodyminded insistence that however bad the situation gets, you will continue until the bitter end. For some reason, though, society regards the fact that a captain will go down with the sinking ship as somehow heroic and noble rather than really moronic; though I can see the point that this would serve.

If the ship is sinking, then it must be the captain’s responsibility and he can’t be a very good captain if his ship is scuppered, therefore letting him perish along with the vessel allows you to get rid of an inept mariner. Now that’s good thinking, but still not very heroic. And I’m sure that rats aren’t too chuffed that they’ve been given a bad name simply because they had the sense to desert the sinking ship. Which in turn raises the question: if a ship of rats is sinking, would the rat captain desert or go down with the boat? I think we should be told.

There are, as always, a few minor exceptions to the rule that capitulation is often a sensible course of action. If you have swum halfway across the Atlantic, it seems foolish to give up, turn around and swim all the way back. You should just radio for a cruise ship instead. Also, you should recognise when it is a good time to give up: a split-second after the aircraft has taken off is a bad time to realise that you aren’t yet ready to face your fear of flying. For the best example of when not to quit, watch Lloyd Bridges’ attempts in Airplane and you will see what I mean. Otherwise, though, feel free to give up immediately.

Giving gifts
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis. Quite true, especially if the gift is a bloody big horse made of wood with armed warriors inside. However, as the construction of such an animal is time-consuming at best and pointless at worst, most of us make do with making something smaller, or just selecting and buying pre-manufactured balsa mares gifts. Though I run the risk of being accused of hubris, I would aver that I am quite a good gift-giver, provided that I have remembered the occasion and that I am in the unlikely position of having any money at all. When memory and wealth collide, though, profligacy surely follows.

It’s a great feeling when you see something and immediately think to yourself, “I know exactly who would love that!”. The only better feeling is being there to watch them open it and, hopefully, dance a little jig in celebration at having received a perfectly chosen present. Last birthday, I was on the receiving end of the perfect present. My friends all clubbed together and bought me 12 Bond DVDs, in a box which they had made and decorated with pictures of Bond girls cut out from newspapers and magazines which also contained little tins of caviar, some crispbreads and a bottle of vodka. I recall being speechless with gratitude (and, ahem, booze), though there was no jig-dancing. There was chin-cutting and blood-letting, but no jig-dancing.

Giving money
I would refer you to Messrs Kiedis et al and their previous statement to “give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away now”.

Giving directions
As referred to many, many times before, I am an absolutely hopeless navigator, preferring instead to work out my route through ‘zen navigation’: wherever you end up is where you were meant to be. I am, however, quite good at giving people directions. Not directing them in the “1.5km north-north-east” sense, mainly because I never know where north is, wherever I am. I give people real-life directions, though occasionally putting in a bit too much detail:

“Right, go to the end of the street, where the coffee shop is, take a right and walk down just as far as the HMV. Stand with your back to the HMV window display and on your right, across the road, you’ll see a small alleyway. Go down there until the second wheelie-bin, turn left then right and you should be about 20 seconds away. Got that?”

I’m also good at drawing little maps, which is pretty necessary when directing people from my flat to, well, anywhere, but mainly to the tube station. Wiggly lines means the canal, little pint glasses shaded three-quarters black mean pubs, little five pound notes mean banks, shopping baskets mean supermarkets … you get the drift. Camden being Camden, I was wondering whether I should put in other little symbols to denote some of the more ‘local’ attributes: little needles could represent either piercing studios or drug dealers, outstretched palms could mean beggars, and little black inverted crucifixes could indicate goths. It would give the map a bit more of a community flavour, I think.

The two pre-eminent experts at giving directions are my flatmate Mike and my father. Knowing London intricately well, most probably better than either the front or the back of their hand, they seem capable of instructing people through all the back streets, byways, alleyways, one-way streets and short cuts. Whereas I tend to know some areas very well and others hardly at all, Dad and Mike have a knowledge to rival The Knowledge. This is significantly better than most of the minicab drivers who stand by Camden Town station and whose knowledge of Camden itself is rather bad, never mind the rest of London. Half the time, I end up giving them directions – perhaps I should give them a copy of my local map.

Giving as good as you get
Although I am not one to advocate retaliation, it’s vital in the cut and thrust of conversation to be able to stand one’s ground and refuse to be intimidated, cowed or bullied. And it’s even more important that you manage to get at least one cheap gag into a conversation before you’re shot down. Parrying and blocking another person’s verbal barbs is tricky, and is often easier when you’ve never met them before because you have a licence to be as rude or intentionally offensive as you like. It’s especially fun to watch and listen to other people when they are duelling with their wits, mainly because they will probably reveal some secret or some gossip that they weren’t supposed to let slip. Either that or you can learn new put-downs.

It would be perfectly possible to enter into the ‘an eye for an eye’ versus ‘turn the other cheek’ debate here, but I’m certainly bored of it and I imagine you are too. I say that you’re entitled to riposte when someone is deliberately and nastily attempting to belittle or humiliate you. Those who would patronise and humble others in order to make themselves feel good, look good in front of their friends or provide themselves with a way to pass the time, those people should prepare themselves for some equally vituperative and forceful comebacks. I really hate it when people talk down to me, so I see no reason why I should do it to anyone else, and would hope that this is a common view. But then the real measure of a heated conversation is whether the person who’s dishing it out can take it, so you might as well test them.

Giving yourself to the moment
Carefree abandonment. Even the words sound fun, never mind whichever actions or inactions they represent for each person. Surrendering into what you really want to do has to be the most exciting part of the science of giving, without any doubt.


The Science of Failing

(posted by Zena, after that talented bloke Mark)

Some people think Failing is an art – imprecise, open to the vagaries of colourful creative types – but I’ve got it off to a science. If that is indeed a phrase. I suspect not. But hey, no editor, so bugger you.

The thing about having failed is it’s on your CV (resumee, honey) for ever. Done deal. So I’ve failed at a couple of jobs, more than a fair handful of relationships, and at small every day tasks, numerous times. No, really. But then my refugee antecedents give me naturally high standards. Standards I can only fail by. Imagine, a big red stamp over your life: FAILED.

This is like “failing math” in a John Hughes movie circa 1987. Failing math has baggage like being dressed up as Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and wearing too many bangles and too much eye makeup.

The upside of failing is that you can change course mid-fail (seri-fail?). You can see the eyeliner on the wall, and the accessories piling up and think to yourself “how did I get here?” like you’re in a Talking Heads song, and then get into Failers Anonymous and you’re only twelve steps away from being new and improved like washing powder or gunpowder or even talcum powder.

I made this up. I have no idea what a failer is. Someone who is currently in the process of failing: someone who has the characteristics of failing hardwired into their personality; a person who never passes, only fails. This is getting depressing, non?

Alternatively, it could be Fayla: the latest North London hip hop diva (have you noticed how all those words end in -a?), and then of course you’re a massive success. Or a showgirl. One or the other.

I think you can be the victim of someone else’s failure. So my parents are moderately middle-class people – my dad’s a lawyer – who haven’t quite had the life they expected. My Dad’s judgement led to him mistiming and mis-judging a couple of crucial deals that would have meant he could retire at thirty. So I guess that makes my mother a failee: she’s living a certain degree of failure, as a result of the actions of someone else. It’s a good reason not to get married, too, methinks.

I’m just “writing with the door closed” as they say on all those annoying creative-goddess within weekends that I have paid oh-so-much money to have my creative-genes attuned. I’ll stop now. Must go fail at something else.

Big Yellow Taxi

(Posted by Melodrama)

I do not own a car and rely on cabs to ferry me all around Calcutta. I favour cabs because:
(i) I just do not have the patience to wait for a bus or a tram or the metro.
(ii) I hate crowds.
(iii) I have started enjoying the thrills and heart-stopping moments involving rides in Calcutta cabs.
(iv) I am lazy.

Calcutta cabbies fall under two categories, the bengalis or the non-bengalis. If you have hailed a bengali cabbie, the probability of having an interesting conversation is high. In the past, I have discussed Rabindranath Tagore (I knew next to nothing about Tagore, but after the ride I felt I was equipped with enough trivia to put any self-respecting, cultured bengali to shame), the communist state government in Bengal, the decline of the jute industry, why Dalhousie square was renamed BBD bag, the Goethe Institute and the Calcutta Film festival. Most bengali cabbies are inquisitive and over-helpful and will ply you with advice until you are ready to yell “Tagore” in exasperation.

The non-bengali cabbie is another ball game. You will never need to visit an amusement park as long as you take rides in cabs in Calcutta. The cabbie often harbours the misconception that he is Schumacher and your heart will be in your mouth as you see him weave and twist in the traffic. No self-respecting Calcutta driver drives in a lane, so how can our cabbie? You open your eyes and just when you think the bus charging into your cab will flatten you and you start whispering your final prayers, the cab will lurch and you will bang your head against the cab top and will find that the cabbie is cheek to cheek with the lorry that was along your cab and the driver has stuck half his torso out of the cab to abuse the bus driver who dared to take over his right of way. When you reach your destination the cabbie will have no change and you will often find his meter tampered and spiked. A long argument will ensue between you and the cabbie and will result in you resolving never to take a cab again. Then when you need to return home, you hail a cab and breeze into it and forget all your resolves until your next encounter with a non-bengali cabbie.

The science of worrying

(Posted by Mark)

There’ll always be something on your mind you’ll never quite find
Won’t you ever make your mind up?

I find it possible to worry about almost anything at any given moment, despite the fact that I lead what is, in comparison to a lot of the world’s population, a rather worriless and pleasant life. So why worry? Although not quite at the “did I leave the gas on?” level of ill-remembered fretting, many of the things I worry about are embarrassingly trivial. It’s quite similar to sitting around thinking about whether you could ever train cats to play football when someone asks, “What are you thinking?” to which you have to lie “Er, reconstruction in Iraq”, otherwise you sound pathetically shallow (and not a little crazy). With some of the topics for my worrying, such shallowness abounds.

This is the most understandable of worries: Did I do X? Have I called Y? Will I get to my location on time? Have I taken the right turning? Will they remember who I am? Did he leave the tickets/keys where he said he would? What’s my name?

Speed-fretting such as this is fairly low grade and can be dispensed with quite quickly. If you are worrying about being lost, then stop being English for a second and just ask a bypasser for directions. You can check your mobile phone to see whether you called someone or whether you are running late. And if you get to your destination and things aren’t entirely perfect, there will probably be either a good explanation or a way of fixing things so it all turns out well. That’s the optimist in me talking. For advanced worriers, the consequence tree has many branches and each different aspect of an outcome will produce another mini-worry chain.

No, the real problem with speed-fretting is when you are worrying about so many different things at the same time that you fall into a kind of shutdown mode. Combining multiple worries can send you into a catatonic state whereby you are incapable of any form of remedial action to resolve your panic. Here’s an example worry chain: Lack of money + delayed train + missed call + not sure of directions + meeting for the first time = a very nervy worrier who is about to go into a state of mental breakdown. And there’s no real solution to this one, other than to stop. You could try the ‘go to your happy place’ trick, but I’m not sure that works and it sounds a bit hippie-ish for my liking.

Work is another area where worrying takes hold. This is usually because you have too much to do and too little time to achieve it. Here again the shutdown mode is evident, because while you are trying frantically to finish off as much as you can, you’re also thinking about what’s next, what can be shelved, what can be delayed and what you can make excuses for. Your mind is not focused on the one thing you are supposed to be doing at that time, and so you make a botched job of it, meaning that the remedy work which will eventually come back to you will add to your overall burden. Don’t you just love vicious circles? For this kind of worrying, there are really only two cures: cigarettes and coffee. If you don’t smoke, take it up. If you don’t like coffee, learn. You’ll need all the nicotine and caffeine you can get to work your way through nightmare days.

You shouldn’t, you know, but it’s terribly easy to. It ought not to make a difference, but it really does. Yes, it’s the old worry: what people think. I am 100% positive that I have inherited this trait from my mother, who has an incredibly bad case of “what will the neighbours think” syndrome. WWTNT syndrome is particularly severe in the particular leafy corner of tube zone 4 where our family house is located, with net curtains going all aflutter when strange cars drive down the road and curiously coincidental bumping-into-by-accident meetings whenever I was bringing someone home back in the days I still lived there.

I went to pieces when I should have shouted and screamed instead
So sorry, I said

To be more accurate, I don’t worry about what people think about me in isolation; I manage to feel this while simultaneous thinking that if they have a problem, they can go to hell. This combination of low self-confidence and misplaced belligerence is hardly a sign of good mental health and yet I know that other people get this as well. First impressions are always a worrying time because although everyone knows that the best way to make a good impression on someone is to be yourself and be relaxed, the situation in which you are meeting someone for the first time is probably going to be a bit stressful, to say the least. Also, the most annoying way of ensuring that you have worried yourself into a gibbering frenzy is to keep thinking about it; sod’s law, really.

A good example of worry paralysis is when meeting up with people you have never met; for example, taking a random situation from nowhere in particular, at blogmeets. Turning up at the right place and at the right time is a good starting point. And then you just sit there, trying desperately to remember people’s faces from the photos you quickly checked out the day before when you realised that you were just about to go off and meet a whole bunch of people about whom you know incredible amounts of information yet whose faces are completely unknown. Occasionally, you might glance over at another table and think “well, they look like they might be bloggers” but then quickly dismiss it because anybody could be a blogger. You recall that one of the people you are due to meet wears glasses. Well done, that narrows it down to half the UK population.

Then you realise that you have no idea what one or two of the prospective attendees are called; oh, you know their site name, but their real name? Nope, no idea. So you either stay seated, firmly in the grip of worry paralysis, or you start to wander around the place in the vague hope that you might recognise someone or that someone might recognise you – this is known as worrywalking: you’re not actually going to anywhere definite, but the act of moving is a displacement activity while your mind roams through myriad possibilities.

If you are eventually lucky enough to find or be found (thanks Hg), then you have to worry about the fact that people might be talking technical things (uh-oh) or just that they’re all a lot funnier and have better social lives than you. At the beginning, you stay very quiet, trying to work out what the hell terms like RSS, A-list and MT mean so that you don’t make a fool of yourself. Eventually, the worry will pass and you will slip seamlessly into conversation, so for anyone worrying right now: fear not, there is hope. (Top tip: keep hammering on about being Z-list so no-one realises that you actually have no idea what you’re doing; it’s worked for me so far. Fingers crossed.)

Some of your worries will have foundation. There is a chance that you might miss the beginning of a film, your partner could be having an affair, your friends may be talking about you behind your back – however likely or not, these are all within the realms of possibility. Some other worries, however, will be entirely groundless and quite fantastic. This is generally the time when you should stop worrying about alien invasion and begin considering the distinct possibility that you are clinically insane.

While sitting on the steps outside my work building a while ago, enjoying an elevenses cigarette, I looked up at the building site diagonally across from where I was sat. The construction work was still in an early phase and the building’s skeleton was the only completed part. Looking up at the girders and beams criss-crossing up and up, I wondered to myself whether a sniper sat on one of the beams would be able to shoot me from that distance. I then wondered whether, if a sniper starting shooting into the crowd, I would be able to find adequate cover from the fusillade of bullets which would be raining down upon the commuters and workers crossing the road. While I was trying to work this out, I realised that I probably would be able to find cover, but not in time, and this started to worry me.

I should point out that this is paranoia of the highest level and I have (a) laughed it off since then, and (b) seriously considered getting professional help. However the momentary worry I had, before realising that this was entirely the fault of an overactive imagination, a slightly warped approach to urban planning and probably a bit too much coffee, was definitely real. It is annoying, though, that I had not only to deal with some of my real worries, but that I was also inventing new and implausible ones to further send myself into a nervous breakdown. Fortunately, I managed to stop myself worrying about my worrying, because that’s just taking it a bit too far.

The science of wanting

(Posted by Mark)

As a child, I remember being told that ‘I want’ never gets. As a lesson in manners, it was extremely effective and is probably the root cause behind my overwhelming compulsion to say thank you far too many times in shops, thereby alerting the sales assistant to the fact that I am a twit. As a lesson in life, however, it is not strictly accurate. ‘I want’ often does get.

We live in a material world, and I am a material girl erm, bloke. Acquisition and immediacy are highly important in our everyday comings and goings as chattels and goods have become status symbols and brands have developed to be instantly recognisable. Truly, we want it all, and we want it now (or next-day delivery at the very least). Previously, conversations might go:

“Nice shoes.”
“Thank you, I’ve only recently bought them.”

Now it is far more likely to be:

“Nice shoes”
“Yes. They’re the new Nike Dunk Low Pro B hoops shoes.”

For some reason that I have never fully understood, trainers are very, very important. It is essential to have the correct trainers and to make sure that you are wearing the latest footwear fashions and brands the moment they are released to the slavering, drooling masses. It is the equivalent of having a large sticker on your feet stating that street credibility may go down as well as up. And I don’t agree with it. I may not know much about co-ordinating my own ragtag clothing ensembles (especially not if I’m only going to work; why dress up for them?), but I have to disagree with ‘the street’ on the issue of trainers. Wanting the latest fashions and trends every fifteen seconds is simply unreasonable, it makes me mad as hell and I won’t take it any more.

Come the catastrophic, nay apocalyptic, day when I become a father to a Master or a Miss Londonmark, I hope to be able to sidestep the whole ‘new trainers every day’ issue by presenting my child and heir with a simple choice: you can have the trainers, Mark II/Marcia, and you can buy new ones as often as you like. However, you will have to work for them. I’ve signed you up with a temp agency and although you’re only seven, they’ve waived the whole underage working restrictions thing. You start 9.00am on Monday as a legal secretary, and don’t forget to put some overtime in if you want to pay for this week’s board and lodging. Harsh, you may cry. Get to work, I say.

Although we always want things, childhood is the time when we are most insistent. “Want, want, want” cries the child as he/she/it points at an ice cream or a balloon and, in order to avert wailing and tears, the child is pretty likely to get the object of his/her/its desire. This does not work when you are a twenty-six year old standing outside Micro Anvika on Tottenham Court Road pointing at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Apple 23″ cinema display screen, because it is unlikely that anyone will care whether you start screaming and crying, unless they decide to have you sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Otherwise the similarity between childhood wants and adult wants are reasonably similar: food and toys.

When denied the ice cream which they want, want, want, a child may sulk or holler but then, like I did when I was a child, they will make a promise with themselves: “When I grow up, I’m going to eat ice cream every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m not going to eat horrid vegetables, I’ll eat tubs and tubs and tubs of ice cream instead”. It’s when we get to adulthood that the thought of an ‘ice cream only’ diet may sound appealing but we know it to be impractical. We bound our wishes with realities, in this case the realities of nutrition, body shape and balanced eating.

Perhaps we also lose the singlemindedness of our childhood: for a brief moment, the ice cream is the most important thing to have in the world and we strain in our efforts to get it. After the denial of gratification, and the tantrum it brings, however, the desire has passed and we focus on something else, this time needing the new item with the same blaze of intensity. Adulthood brings with it an ability to rationalise away snap decisions and impulses, and to moderate our monomania. Which is, I think, a little bit of a shame.

When we say “I want you”, we are neatly combining many differing and possibly self-contradictory things we would like to say, but either lack the words or lack the courage to say them: I want you to be around me, I want to you to agree with me, I want you to support me, I want you to affirm me, I want you to have sex with me, I want you to live with me, I want you to laugh at my jokes, I want you to take care of me, I want you so I’m not alone, I want you to change me, I want you to change for me, I want you so I’m not scared any more, I want you to stay with me, I want you.

The title song of the latest Rufus Wainwright album expresses want wonderfully:

I just want to know
If something’s coming for to get me
Tell me, will you make me sad or happy
And will you settle for love
Will you settle for love?

Of course, the wants we have for others may rarely, if ever, be fulfilled. An entire artistic subject has been based around concepts and examples of unrequited love; I believe some dead bloke called Shakespeare may have written the odd poem about it, even. Our childhood monomania for ice cream/balloons may well have developed during our transition to adulthood into a more narrow focus away from transitory pleasures and towards … well, love.

Of course, in the process of wanting others, we may well be found wanting by them. Our capacities for reciprocation, generosity, care, tactility, expression, thoughtfulness and all the other attributes which light up our eyes may well not be enough for another. You can want someone too much; one person’s detachment is smothering to someone else. Whether wanting is measured in quality or quantity depends entirely on the individuals concerned. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast guidelines for us to follow – we just have to muddle through, minds fogged by desire.

Is it the pursuit of perfection, a realisation of pragmatism, the search for the divine or perhaps baser instincts which drive us into wanting someone? Or, more likely, is it a combination of these? I’ve always felt ever so slightly envious of couples who have known that they were meant for one another from the first moment they saw each other. I don’t begrudge them their happiness by any means, but the romantic deep within me still gives a nearly imperceptible sigh. It’s probably because we were force-fed all those fairy tales from infancy, where everyone lives happily ever after at the end, but I don’t see why the world can’t work that way simply because it doesn’t at the moment. Starry-eyed nonsense, I know, I know.

But if you’re allowed to want a new car, want peace on earth, want an ice cream, want to be loved, or whatever it is you want, then I’m allowed to want as well. And that’s the beauty of the science of wanting.

Three Minute Affair

(posted by Fi)

The exit ramp from the motorway took me down to a set of lights, sadly however it took everyone else down too and a queue of vehicles was waiting to get through the lights. Only half a dozen cars were getting through each time and the starting and stopping became automatic to me as my mind wandered and I found myself looking forwards into the car in front.

Inside the blue Renault Clio there was only the driver, her long dirty blonde hair falling below her shoulders, I could see her dark roots showing through, she looks about my age and she… she’s watching me in her rear-view mirror. Start, move forward, and stop.

Looking again, I can see her playing with something with her teeth, nibbling her fingers or something. Is she watching me? Yes, she’s watching again, to see if I’m still looking. Against her back windshield a plump orange soft-toy playing a furry blue guitar is also watching me. I suddenly feel embarrassed at appearing intrusive and nosy and I hook my own hair behind my ears and look away.

Her car is so much cleaner than mine, and just as it isn’t until you see how good someone else’s haircut is, or how nice someone’s new clothes appear that you feel bad about your own. First thing this weekend I swear I’ll wash this hunk of junk and make it shine. God, I hope she doesn’t think I’m some sort of slob because I have a dirty car. Start, move forward, and stop.

What is she doing with her fingers? I keep angling my head to one side to try and see past her headrest but each time she leans to one side too. I find myself wondering what music she’s listening to, where is she coming from, where is she going? I find my mind inventing all sorts of scenarios; she’s on her way home from work in her boyfriend’s car. She’s single and the back seat is full of bags of shopping. She’s going to see her parents to tell them she’s moving out to stay with her lesbian lover.

For a few minutes this woman has become an obsession for me, she consumes my thoughts, is she thinking about me? I can see her eyes, the mirror makes them appear darker and tilted forward seductively, ocean blue, which probably means she’s just a dark blonde who lightened her hair colour, rather than a brunette trying to be a blonde. Ha, I smooth a hand through my own blonde hair, how does she like those apples? Start, move forward, and stop.

I thought she had time to get through the lights, maybe she was just too slow, a voice inside me says she did it on purpose to stay here at the lights and draw this affair out a minute longer. She’s now first in line, with me directly behind her. After this change we’re likely to head our separate ways. Is she thinking what I’m thinking? What would happen if I got out and walked up to her window? Would she deny that she was watching me? Would she accuse me of staring at her? Maybe she’s not even bothered by it and feels quite flattered by the attention. And maybe I’d just be left standing there at the side of the road like a lemon.

It can only be a few seconds now until the lights change, already I notice the flow of through-traffic is lessening and the boy-racer in the Ford Escort beside me is like a horse champing at the bit, he grins and I turn away with, what is hopefully a disdainful look. One last look forward before I release the hand brake.

The dirty blonde winks one of her azure eyes at me, turns to one side and spits her gum out; it sails in a wide arc and lands in the grass at the side of the road. The fantasy scenarios are put back into the mental filing cabinet and reality takes hold again as the lights change and she pulls away to whatever life awaits her. It was probably never meant to be, anyway.