Month: January 2017

‘Contentment is nature’s Prozac.’ Discuss.

I’ve just finished reading this book.

How To Be Normal, by Guy Browning

How To Be Normal, by Guy Browning

I was conned into buying it by a nice lady in a nice bookshop. I won’t name and shame but every time I visit her bookshop she persuades me to buy a book (or two). Often, she is right, and I’ve picked up some real gems thanks to her sales technique (‘I think you’d like this’). For example, this one below. My youngest son loves this book. It is about a bunch of weasels who decide to try to take over the world. They are thwarted in their efforts by a unplugged plug. They are also much distracted by their love of coffee. It’s great.

A book about weasels taking over the world.

A book about weasels taking over the world.

She also told me that I’d love this book (and indeed, I do). This looks like a children’s book, which it is on one level, but it is also a profound post-structuralist, philosophical examination on the nature of objects. It is about semantics, signs, and the power of the human imagination. The use of the apple as the object to question is no accident. I think I could write a whole blog on this book so I’ll leave it there.

It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

However, on the occasion of my purchasing How To Be Normal, until I got to the last few chapters, I had concluded that she was wrong to persuade me to buy it because ‘you’ll like this’. It is a humourous book so will have mass appeal, but I found it quite irritating. I’m not sure what I was expecting. But it didn’t seem to be offering any great insights on how to be normal. It didn’t delve into the question of normality in any great depth or breadth. Perhaps I should have enjoyed it for what it was: a tongue-in-cheek examination of human nature. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously. I think it was telling me to take a chill pill. I’m not good at taking the chill pill.

I NEED some of these

I NEED some of these

So, as I have said, I read most of the book with an air of slight disdain, pompously puffing out my cheeks as I turned the pages and kept reading. That is, until I came across the chapter on contentment, which stars with the sentence ‘Contentment is nature’s Prozac.’ This made me unpuff my cheeks and sit up and silently exclaim ‘Yes!’

I have always envied the content of this world. They live on an attractive level plain. They travel the same path of life’s ups and downs as the rest of us do, but they seem able to batter down the ups and gently push up the downs and carry on their merry way. They neither get overwhelmed nor underwhelmed. They just are. They accept. They cope. Most importantly, they are happy. Or if they aren’t happy, they reason that it is normal to be unhappy sometimes and this makes them feel content. They know that they will be happy again soon.

I am not one of the content of this world. I rarely feel that warm, snuggly sensation: contentment. I can feel extreme joy, excitement, pleasure one moment but then find myself in the depths of the well of despair the next. Christmas thrills me. January pulls me down. Presents excite me. Making mistakes at works renders me drafting my resignation letter in my head. Snow falling has me in love with the world. An argument starts and I’m losing a good friend before we’ve even finished the first sentence of the argument. It can be exhausting. Perhaps it burns more calories to be like this (therein lies another blog entry). But there are many times when I dream of being one of life’s contented people.

So back to the original question: Is contentment nature’s Prozac? Having tried Prozac (and hating it) I believe that this might actually be true. Do the content need Prozac (or any other equally as effective anti-depressant medication)? I’d have to do a survey of 100 contented people. But, equally, you can’t fake contentment.

I live on one of these, really, I do

I live on one of these, really, I do

So as a emotional rollercoaster kind of person, I have only one choice – accept that instability and use it to positive effect, both the ups and the downs – as inspiration for my art and for my blog writing.

The world is one big shadow

I’ve recently been reading a lot about the idea of the simulacrum for my art degree research. Don’t stop reading. I’ll explain.

The simulacrum (in Latin: likeness, similarity) is defined on the Internet as:

  • an image or representation of someone or something
  • an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute

This definition implies a negative notion. Traditionally, in the West at least, the simulacrum is seen in a very derogatory way. It still is. However, it was the likes of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Baudrillard who studied the idea in more depth. Deleuze, of course, went a step further and decided it was A Good Thing. But this blog will look at the negative aspects only and how they relate to our current version of reality.

Jean Baudrillard with his very small cat

Jean Baudrillard with his very small cat

Plato’s allegory of the cave is perhaps the most famous example of simulacra: people here were chained up in a cave for their entire lives and only saw shadows of real objects, believing that the shadows were reality. Only the shadow of things existed for these prisoners in the cave. That was their reality. This is a simulacrum: fake reality which often seems more real than the actual reality. Since Plato roamed the earth, philosophers had been trying to move away from this simulacrum, to become the one prisoner who leaves the cave and discovers reality.

Those poor prisoners, thinking Big Brother is reality

Those poor prisoners, thinking Big Brother is reality

Before Jean Baudrillard came along, everyone believed that the simulacrum was entirely two-dimensional and only one aspect of reality. Baudrillard argued, however, that the simulacrum was inescapable and a integral to our current reality. The simulacra were as real as reality, he believed.

I think this is quite forward thinking for his time (1980s). He said all this before the days of social media and reality TV. To Baudrillard, simulacra stopped being projections of reality, they became a separate body of symbols which exist irrespective of reality. These symbols, or shadows to use Plato’s term, became more important than the objects casting them. We covert objects and status not for what they are, but for what they say. We own that particular pair of shoes because of what they say about who we are.

Baudrillard argued that we could no longer describe what was good in objective terms. We could only describe goodness relative to what is bad. This is most evident in the politics of the last 30 years: you know who I am talking about I am sure but I would argue that the likes of Thatcher and George Bush started this trend.

Next we should consider the hyperreal. This is the generation of the simulation of the real – more a copy than an emulation. Science fiction loves this idea. Think Inception, The Matrix and The Truman Show as three examples. There are many other examples in literature too. Have you ever dreamt of electronic sheep? Did you burn your books at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? That is, assuming you are an android or a fireman – a shadow, or simulacrum, of a ‘normal’ human.

Reality TV, which some would argue is now on the wain, gave the next wave of simulacrum. In the early 2000s, we lapped up reality TV as if we were desperate for an escape from the real. Reality TV was created to imitate and parody life. However, it became a hyper-dramatized version of reality. We refused to see it thus. It became, in our view, a mirror of society. It became a mirror of a society we wanted to belong to.

I would argue that we are currently in a new stage: a stage of accepting that reality TV is a complete farce. We don’t readily admit to enjoying reality TV. However, in it we fail to see that our current  constructed reality is similarly a farce. As social media got its paws on our lives, we started to imitate reality TV through social media: the drama, the humour, the selfies. Take a look at Facebook now and look at the statuses that you flick through with your finger. How much of that is a mask of people’s reality and how much of that is genuine? How much is a projection, or a ‘shadow’ (Plato stands grinning).

Fast forward to the year 2017. It could be argued that reality has now almost completely lost its substance. Donald Trump is the human embodiment of that (yes, him again). Think Donald Trump and add Twitter, think #alternativefacts and add post-truth (one of the newest entries into the Oxford English Dictionary). Where has reality gone?

The mass media has become the frame through which we see what we think of as reality. But it isn’t reality. Simulating is not longer faking. It is what we think of as existing. But we are faking it as much as they are. We are all faking it.

Social media has now become all encompassing in our lives and has even further accentuated the trend. Many of us, most of us in fact, live behind the facade of our social media masks. We have a ‘self’ online that is not our true self. Our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram self is a virtual version of Plato’s shadow.

The lovely Facebook

The lovely Facebook

Do we even know what our real self is now, I wonder? Will we ever get it back?

Perhaps we should just accept the current ‘reality’ for what it is and not mourn the old reality. The future will change things whether we like it or not.

 

 

Why does puppet rumpy pumpy weird me out?

This was a weird thought I had at the weekend while watching Anomalisa. For those of you that don’t know this film, it is an animated film staring puppets about a man deeply troubled by his ordinary middle-aged existence. The film starts with the man travelling to Cincinnati by plane for a sales presentation. He seems distracted. There’s a lot of detail about his journey and how dull it is. On his way he’s remembering the end of an old love (Proust would be proud). He arrives at his hotel and phones his wife. The rest of the film unfolds with a fairly ordinary narrative which facilitates a weird, quirky inspection of human nature, desire and imagination. It is an also exploration into the repetitious nature of life (why it appealed to me of course) and what happens when the repetitiousness is challenged by a chance encounter.

The two main characters - before they make love

The two main characters – before they make sweet puppet love

The film is funny, dark and witty. However, there is one particular scene in the film I found really, and surprisingly, hard to watch, and it is that scene that forms my weird thought. At the ripe of age of 45 I have seen people jiggy jigging on TV and in films many times. I don’t have any issues with jiggy jigging on TV. Nor do I have issue with it in real life. It can be rather pleasant. It’s not a strange or exotic thing to do or see. This is why I was completely taken surprise by my abject reaction to puppets getting down and dirty on screen. It was odd. I struggled to watch. I was cross with myself for my reaction.

Being the deep thinker that I would like to think I am (deeply), I had to analyse this of course. It bothered me greatly. I’m not a prude. My first thought was: perhaps I really am a prude! I was not happy. I’m so not a prude, I told myself. I’m really not! But then, I thought some more. And one element that divided this film from, say, 9 1/2 weeks, is (yes, it is obvious to you reading this), that it is animated and 9 1/2 weeks stared real people (and a fridge full of food). It seems, I don’t like puppets having sex.

An iconic scene from an iconic film of my teenagehood

An iconic scene from an iconic film of my teenagehood

But that’s not quite enough. There must be more. Then I realised what it must be. I connect animated visual entertainment with films designed for the under 12s. The reason why I felt so uncomfortable was that it was like Sherriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear getting down and dirty in the toy box, or Shrek and Mrs Shrek on their wedding night finding out where each other likes to be touched.

Buzz and Sherriff - do they share a puppet love?

Buzz and Sherriff – do they share a special love?

However, there was one more element to the love making in this film that I found quite odd. And this added to my reaction. This element was that the sex wasn’t at all romanticised. The puppets did it like real people in the real world. It was clumsy and chunky. It wasn’t all stars in the sky. It was actually not that exciting.

What is he about to do, I wonder?

What is he about to do, I wonder?

My funny reaction to puppet sex besides, I loved this film. It is existential to the core. It’s about the paradox of loneliness while being surrounded by people. It is also graphically real (not just in the sex scene) but in the depicting of human nature and human feelings about love, sadness, passion, post-coital despair, reality and boredom. It is gritty.

It is both enjoyable and scary. It is light and depressing. So it is a film of contradictions. It also questions the validity of the narrator’s voice. How much of it is real? How much of it is in his mind? There’s one point in the film when you  come to realise you may have been completely duped and the story thus far was all in his head. But then shortly after that, it seems that you’ve been duped again, and it is real after all. The film switches between the two. It keeps you on your toes. It is deeply melancholy yet very funny.

Despite my odd reaction to realistic puppetry sex, I want it to go in my top 50 films of all time chart. I think I loved it even more for my cringe at the sex.

Puppets can do it if they want. Free love to the puppets, I say!

Ménage à trois

Ménage à trois

Anxiety and happy at the same time – is that possible?

Today’s weird thought is about whether you can be happy and anxious at the same time.

We have just moved house and since we moved here (The Rented House as I fondly call it), I have become gripped with quite sudden physical symptoms of anxiety which has seemingly come out of nowhere. I’ve had this feeling a few times before in my life so it is not too strange in that respect – I recognise the signs: nausea, twisted stomach muscles, lack of appetite, heavy heart and edginess. However, I don’t feel depressed. I feel sad about certain things (moving house and leaving my friends has made me incredibly sad) but I don’t feel depressed. Depression is a debilitating condition and deprives the sufferer of a part of their soul. I see it as a dark, intense fog that overcomes. I haven’t got that, not even remotely. In fact I feel quite happy with my lot at the moment. I don’t want to hide. I don’t want to sleep. I want to be busy, I want to create, I want to draw and paint, and to work. I love work. I live for work. I love to be busy. So my weird thought is: is it possible to be chirpy and optimistic and anxious at the same time?

I’ve googled ‘can you be anxious and happy at the same time’ and google is actually quite unhelpful on the topic. There’s a lot about finding happiness after anxiety, but nothing that specifically talks about having both at the same time.

I found an appropriate quote today though.

What T. S. Eliot had to say about creativity.

What T. S. Eliot had to say about creativity.

As this quote suggests, I often find that worry feeds my creativity. And creativity kerbs the physical symptoms of anxiety while I am being creative. If I’m anxious, I draw. When I draw, I don’t feel so anxious. I feel better.

Google did help in one respect though: you can feel anxiety about happiness. There is such a thing as a fear of happiness. Now, that is bizarre. Who would be scared to be happy? Not me.

 

Why I don’t like en suites

In 45 years, I had only ever lived in one house that had an en suite. This was in 1998-2002. The house was in Oxford. Here is a picture of a house on the same street (thanks to RightMove).

Not number 18, but the same street.

Not number 18, but the same street.

In those four years I refused to use the en suite toilet, even when poorly (I’m not sure I was poorly while living there). I hate them. I don’t know if that is unusual. But I’ve never understood why people like them.

I think I may be weird as there are a lot of houses that have en suite toilets.

Now I am now 45 (far too old for my liking) and I have temporarily moved into a rented house that has an en suite. I haven’t yet used it. I can’t do it. I couldn’t even put my toiletries in there. They are in the bathroom across the landing.

If I can see the toilet from my bed, I'm not going to use it, ever

If I can see the toilet from my bed, I’m not going to use it, ever

‘What do you have against en suite toilets?’ I hear you cry. I think there are two reasons why I don’t like en suite toilets. I’ll tell you both of them. Firstly, I don’t think it is normal to have a toilet close to where you sleep. That’s just odd to me, on all levels, hygienically or otherwise. Secondly, I have always struggled with the idea of other people hearing me use the toilet. I don’t like to be heard at all. I can just about cope in a public toilet as it is generally going to be strangers listening to me but I don’t want people I know, let alone those I live with, to hear me. It unsettles me. I want them to go away, go downstairs, out of the house if possible, so I can wee (or otherwise) and read in peace.

So for as long as we live in this house, I will be using the bathroom across the landing, even if, or especially if, I’m in a hurry.

Stuff, more stuff, and even more stuff

Moving house has made me realise how much STUFF we own as a household of five people. We have temporarily moved from a roomy four-story four-bedroom Victorian house with lots of cupboards and space to keep ‘stuff’ to a ironically-small five-bedroom 1990s detached house. We have managed to fill this more-rooms-but-smaller house with our STUFF. It is everywhere. I can walk for stuff. I trip over stuff. I sit on stuff. There is nowhere to put the stuff. I fear that I am going to drown in stuff.

Here are some pictures of this stuff:

Shoes.

Shoes.

Books.

Books.

Scarfs - Dr Who ones.

Scarfs – Dr Who ones.

Random Stuff.

Random Stuff.

More random stuff.

More random stuff.

What would life be like if we got rid of 50% of our stuff? I’m not talking about the books, or my clothes, of course, but other stuff. The general ‘stuff’. I’m sure there wouldn’t be a psychological breakdown. I’m sure we’d survive.

Artist Michael Landy famously destroyed all of his stuff over a period of two weeks for an art performance, except the clothes he was wearing. He claimed that he lasted without stuff for mere minutes as people immediately gave him stuff out of sympathy. He also reported a strange sense of anxiety and loss immediately afterwards, until he gathered new stuff, like a rolling stone that gathers moss. He said that he struggled the most with the loss of those objects that cannot be replaced: letters, gifts, tokens of memory. He didn’t miss the general crap that we all own: books (I hate to include those), DVDs, clothes (and those), shoes, paper, post, STUFF. So there is a lesson to be learnt there.

I wish I were brave enough to get rid of some of this stuff. But I think the hoarder-next-door part of me just doesn’t want to do it. So, I think I will have to be content with drowning in stuff here in Muxton. At least I’ll be well-dressed and among good books as I go.

Repetition is good, endings are bad, but they have to happen

I now have just two days left to live. By that I mean, just two days left to live in Shrewsbury and the weird thoughts are flowing at the moment.

I am currently obsessed with repetition. I am looking at the philosophical notion of repetition in my artwork for my fine art degree and it spills over into my everyday life. When something happens to me that is related to repetition, I analyse it, consider it, churn it over and write about it.

Today, I have been considering the end of repetitions and how this, in particular, is affecting me.

The repetitions that will end in two days are:

  • Taking the children to their school in this town, something I have been doing for over eight years
  • Waking up in the house and drinking coffee before getting up
  • Going through the daily rounds of breakfast, lunch, dinner, sitting, watching, working, sleeping, reading, playing, bathing, weeing, pooing in this house
  • Cycling to town to have coffee
  • Cycling to Sainsbury’s to have coffee
  • Calling children from downstairs to come and get their breakfast, lunch, dinner and / or shoes on
  • Falling asleep in this bed in this room

These things will be carried out after Monday, just no longer here. I will never, ever again, after Monday, wake up in this bed in this room looking at the fireplace I can see in front of me, listening to the traffic going up and down Monkmoor Road. That repetitious act which I have experienced almost every morning for over eight years will end abruptly on Monday and I can never go back.

What I can see, right in front of me and soon that will be gone.

What I can see, right in front of me and soon that will be gone.

How does that make me feel?

The answer: extremely anxious.

The paradox is, though, that even though non-returnable change makes me feel terribly frightened I would not want to look back on my life from my death bed and see that I haven’t moved, travelled, changed, evolved or experienced during my lifetime. If I was never to move – I’d still be in Stafford right now (or, strictly speaking Upton-upon-Severn but I don’t remember living there). I’d not have experienced the wonders of a Japanese funeral, dressed as Father Christmas for a Japanese pre-school, sampled space cake in Amsterdam (I didn’t inhale though, honestly), worked with the likes of Margaret Drabble and Simon Winchester in Oxford, discovered the beauty of the supply and demand curve in Exeter, sky-dived in South Africa (nah, that one is made up) and met many, many other interesting people along the way.

Me being Father Christmas in Japan.

Me being Father Christmas in Japan.

So, how do I reconcile this anxiety / desire-for-new-adventure dichotomy as I stand on the precipice of change?

The only way is to push through the pain, hold my nose, jump and accept the anxiety and grief, and trust that things will be ok whatever happens to me next. I will develop new repetitious acts: the children still need to go to school, they still need feeding and I will, of course, still need to wake up every day.

Little pieces scattered around – with some left to spare

I have just four days left to live. At least, that is, to live in Shrewsbury. I’ve lived here for over eight years. I’m really quite very sad to be leaving. I have just returned from a trip around town, buying parting gifts and paying in cheques and other such errands. As I was walking around, after a lovely coffee in my current favourite coffee shop, I felt that sudden, yet familiar pang of melancholy that comes with endings. My weird thought is related to that feeling (a feeling I have had before). It seems that every where I have lived, I have left a tiny piece of myself behind. That piece of me can be imagined as a big ball of emotions and memories (as opposed to, say, an arm or a leg). Most of that piece will of course remain in me but some of that will stay in the place I am leaving behind. It feels almost as if I am leaving it there so that I must return to check it is still there and it is ok.

The coffee I have just drunk

The coffee I have just drunk

This means that there is a little bit of me in Stafford (probably lurking around Walton High School or the swings on Weeping Cross). There is also a tiny piece of me in Exeter (in the Lemon Grove drinking a Diamond White – note, not in the library or in the lecture theatre in the Amory Building). And another piece of me lives in Japan (this piece is most definitely in the staff room at Iwatsuki High School eating Hershey’s kisses). Yet another lives in Oxford and another in the lovely village of Charlbury, where I lived before coming to Shrewsbury. And now I must leave another piece of me here in Shrewsbury. What remains of me, will have to travel to Muxton and then on to Newport after that. Will I need to make sure I have more pieces after that for future moves? I don’t know.

My favourite street in Shrewsbury

My favourite street in Shrewsbury

But as I say goodbye to my Shrewsbury piece, I will do so with a heavy heart. The good thing is that I won’t be too far away. I know I will be back to visit myself many, many times from this weekend onwards. I need to check that my Shrewsbury ball of emotions and memories is doing ok. I’m sure it will be.