|Not drowning, waving (2010) Kodakotype by Pants|
I'm writing a new novel. It's loosely structured on the subject of desires. Not desire for romance or a new fitted kitchen or bigger tits or anything vulgar like that but the desires that supposedly motivate we humans to do whatever it is we do. It began to strike me that my 'drivers' as they say, are not travelling in the same lane as most people's. In my mind, I'm speeding happily through Tuscany solo in a lime-green Austin Healey Sprite while most of the rest of the world seems stuck in motorway traffic in a white Ford Focus with three petulant offspring and a flatulent Labrador. Perhaps these disturbed souls are dreaming of winning the lottery so that they can buy a BMW X5 or a new fitted kitchen or bigger tits or a sex holiday in Thailand, (with bigger tits as an early booking bonus). A significant point of difference always indicates to me that there is a project waiting in the wings.
It was my birthday a few days ago. I turned sixty-one blissfully unaware that this event should make me miserable rather than put me in the state of heightened glee in which I found myself. The world and I are not singing from the same pianola roll; that has been evident for some time. To my shock and without the slightest dint of cognition, I have morphed into a crazy old bat that everyone humours but no one believes. I received several birthday emails exhorting me to 'do something nice'. Sadly, one of my oldest friends wanted me to 'do something different'. Gratifying to know that people have so much faith in one, innit?
Why would I do anything different? I do exactly as I please every day of the year. Can that be bettered? I hardly think so. I don't measure the value of my experiences on whether or not they'll look good on my CV or Instagram. There is nothing more unattractive to me than going through the motions of an approved activity for the benefit of others. Parties ceased to be fun for me when they acquired the competitiveness and faux earnestness of a nineteenth-century novel and everyone brought Perrier because they were driving or breast-feeding or both. It's so much more thrilling to express abandon alone than to attempt polite conversation with people who think you're drinking too much. Why don't people know that? And yes, I can guess what you're thinking.
Hmmppphhh! I can see why her friends have had it with her!
Perhaps that's how it ought to play out. Perhaps I will come across as someone who protests too much to be credible, but, believe me, I am content with my current speed and direction of travel. I have neither wants nor urges now, merely a fascination with desires. If being understood is out of reach for this crazy old bat, then I have to say that being ignored is infinitely preferable to being 'handled'. I'm presumed to be in state of loneliness - a default position unless one is surrounded by grandchildren and cupcakes. That's not the case at all. I'm solitary. There's a huge difference. And why the fuck does anyone imagine I moved to this idiotic coastal fishing town anyway? I wanted a cheap ocean view and a space to contemplate. And, above all, no distractions. Distractions are the enemy of work.
Speaking of which... The idea for the novel comes from the title of a book of short stories by Leo Tolstoy, Boredom: the desire for desires. I haven't been bored in the colloquial sense in years. The worst kind of boredom involves other people and waiting for them to arrive or leave or decide or fashion a thought bubble into a cogent sentence, that kind of thing. I worked out a long time ago that other people can cause time to elongate in confusing and not entirely pleasant ways. If one limits access, hones focus and adds lots of decent wine, it's possible to enjoy company. So that is exactly what I do.
Yesterday, as I was preparing my favourite brunch of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on rye toast with fresh dill and parsley from the garden, I listened to a radio item about boredom. From a great height, a penny dropped. Apparently boredom, in the sense that one has failed to be engaged in an approved reportable activity, (hey - that's me paint-balling in world-heritage wilderness!), has been outlawed. An academic expounded,
We're conditioned to say, Oh, I'm so busy!
Now this goes some way to explaining why I've been baffled for so long about why everyone is acting strangely. I must have missed that particular upgrade, the one that conditions us to emote a state of being permanently, madly and outrageously busy on contact. I'm a fleecebook and twidda refusenik and prepared to accept that this makes me a social outcast. I don't mind that. I've been saying for years that conformity on this level is very bad for society. And I've been met with howls of derision. Well, fine, be like that then. I remember how much fun it was in the seventies when independent thought and messing about with ideas was encouraged, along with shoving two defiant fingers into the face of the establishment. It was a time when one didn't have to prove one's sentience by drawing attention to oneself every hour on the hour.
The power to refuse can be potent when control depends on a willingness to join in. I hadn't realised quite the extent to which subversives like me are considered a threat and, well, a bit creepy. Old friends lob me a quarterly email that always begins something like this,
I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to write but things have been frantic.
Routinely, I reply promptly. I pride myself on my time-management skills and I'm unerringly punctual. Invariably, I begin these replies in a conciliatory tone,
Please don't worry, I understand that people are busy...
Which is total bollocks because I have no comprehension of this version of 'being busy'. If you have too much to do, surely you solve that problem by doing less and sticking to the things that are either enjoyable or necessary to sustain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don't you? And perhaps you could find a way to tell old friends that writing long emails to them is a burden too far in this modern world. That, I believe I would understand.
On Art of Pants this week, I wrote about something that the artist Michael Craig-Martin said,
People who make things have a different understanding of the world than those who do not.
As I said in that post, I was happy to discover that I have a 'different' understanding of the world as I had previously thought the place a complete mystery and was cheerily resigned to the parallel life I'd managed to establish. However, it appears I might yet be right about a few things.
The academics on the radio show claimed that a lot of people were discontent with this life of frenetic and often meaningless activity and synthetic connectedness. The key, it seems, is to get in touch with one's inner self. Well, no shit Sherlock. Surely there's an app for listening to the birds sing or watching the grass grow. What, no MOOC for teaching your mind to roam free? Well, not quite yet, however, a suggestion was made that learning to daydream could be built into the primary school curriculum.
Laugh, well, I nearly drowned. Ordering children to daydream is likely to be as successful as sending them out to buy cigarettes. I've always been a champion sleeper. In the first few years of primary school the teachers used to make us take off our shoes and lie down on the floor on manky old mats with no pillows, three children to a mat, and sleep for half an hour. Presumably this was so that they could sneak off to the staff room for caffeine and a fag. Slumber under these conditions was impossible. An otherwise enjoyable pastime turned into a nightmare of crawling insects and foot odour. I can just imagine how the children of today will respond to the instruction to daydream,
Please Miss, could we do some long division instead?
I wouldn't trust it either. I would immediately suspect that my thoughts were being monitored for nefarious purposes. And you know what, they probably would be. How else would the system assess the efficacy of this radical experiment? It makes one positively nostalgic for the days when the teacher hurled a piece of chalk at you if you stared out the window.
The novel. Well, I set myself a goal of a lazy first draft to take on Christmas holiday and I'm a little over halfway there with six weeks to go. The process is a bit like NANOWRIMO but without the external discipline. It's also a bit like daydreaming, but with fingers. Oh, do get your mind out of the gutter. I set myself a target of 1,000 words a day. It's a three-month project and I'm comfortably on schedule.
It might not be any good. I don't know and I don't care. That's my superpower - not caring. It's a very useful superpower to have and it's an effective substitute for both confidence and inclusion. It's dancing like no one's watching. It's also a great companion to invisibility, a superpower which all women my age have. Provided we resist the pressure to conform for the sake of others', er, what is it exactly? A desire? A duty? To be reassured? Absolved? I've given up guessing. Provided we can tolerate being dispassionately surveilled, we can do pretty much as we please. This is a freedom I would not willingly relinquish.
My mother never approved of daydreaming. If she caught me staring at nothing, she would always say,
Do you think the rain will rot the rhubarb?
So the obligation to be busy or appear to be busy or whatever the fuck it is that is rendering everyone bonkers isn't a new thing. Sadly, when I spoke to her the other day, Mother said,
There's so much I should be doing!
You may ask yourself what an 86-year-old woman in declining health should be doing, exactly. Wonder not, because I asked. Predictably, the activity was a perennial one in House of Pants Snr; moving her stuff from one room to another 'to make space'.
She and I have a very different understanding of the concept of 'space'. Must go now, the grass is whispering...