Thinking like a smartphone

I saw a Reddit quote the other week in response to the question, ‘If aliens landed what would they find strangest about our society?’ The answer said: We carry around super computers in our pockets capable of looking up nearly all the information known to mankind, and we use them to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers. I would add to that: and ignore the people we’re physically spending time with, without considering how rude it is. Because it’s just the way things are now. We are in a new age of communication – although people have been saying that for the last hundred years at least. But we are now in a revolution of manners, and of how we actually think.

Smartphones play a totally new part in our daily lives. Before, if someone was talking to you and you picked up a book or a newspaper and started to read when they were mid-sentence, it would be considered unbelievably rude. And yet we do it with our phones without thinking. I’ve had meet-ups with friends when they’ve spent more time texting someone else than they have speaking to me. (Which has on occasion felt ironic because they’re so bad at replying in general. It makes one wonder if you’re the only one who has to wait a week for a response.) Yet even though this infuriates me, I still do it to other people. I’ll check my phone while I’m out with a friend or talking to somebody else, and it doesn’t feel like a big deal. But it is.

I am genuinely worried about what smartphones (and smartphones specifically, as well as technology in general) are doing to our societies. When was the last time you switched off your phone? Even on planes or in cinemas or theatres, people can’t bear to switch them off. They’re just put on aeroplane mode. I switch mine off, but the first thing I do as I’m leaving is turn it back on. Why are we so addicted to these tiny pieces of technology? I would estimate that about 90% of the times  I check mine, there is nothing remotely interesting for me to look at. And yet I keep doing it. I’ve noticed on nights out when I’ve forgotten it or I have no signal I still get that automatic message from my brain: check your phone. I start feeling like I’m going mad because I get this compulsive urge, and reach for my phone before realising it’s not there – like looking for a phantom limb. It’s pretty alarming.

I read a book in the summer called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, about the ways that technology is changing the way our brains work. Not that this hasn’t happened before – it happened with the advent of deep reading. As writing materials became more widely available, and larger, people started writing more, and more people started reading – at first aloud, and then gradually, silent reading became the norm. ‘As language expanded, consciousness deepened.’ ‘The quiet of deep reading became part of the mind.’ Doesn’t it sound fabulously peaceful? But now: we are physically shortening our brain’s attention span with our use of technology. In simple terms, our working memory can only ever absorb a certain amount of information at a time, and then it gets stored in long-term memory. But we aren’t retaining as much of the information we look at because we don’t look at it for long enough. ‘Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.’ We skim, and flick between tabs; minimise windows and move them around, read half an article then click a hyperlink to read another article, on and on, always with twenty things going on at once. Some people say this is multitasking, but multitasking has been proven to be a myth. The brain is not capable of performing two complex tasks at the same time. You can see this for yourself if you’re walking with a friend and ask them a complicated question they really need to think about to answer. Their pace will slow and may even stop. The brain cannot keep doing something even as simple as walking if it needs all its energy for another task. The same thing will happen if you are driving and chatting and then need to navigate a busy intersection. You will stop talking, often mid-sentence. You may be able to return to the sentence afterwards, but for those seconds, you cannot do two things at once. When we think we are doing two complex tasks at once, we’re actually switching between them very fast – and losing a little time every time we switch.

The leaders of Google and Apple and Microsoft don’t want us to believe this, however. No, the more apps you run at once the more efficient you’re being! Buy more processing power! Buy more gadgets to be EVEN MORE EFFICIENT! Schmidt, a former CEO of Google, came out with this truly terrifying quote: ‘The most obvious use of Twitter… can be seen in situations where everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way’. This doesn’t make sense. If people are talking about the play, they aren’t watching the play. You cannot do both at the same time. The last time I went to a concert, I ended up being forced to watch half of it on somebody’s phone, held up in front of my face. Whoever it was lost half of each song because they couldn’t wait until afterwards to upload the pictures and videos to the internet. It’s all about sharing and tweeting and making people aware of what you’re doing, even though at the moment you’re staring at your phone, you’re not at the concert. Your brain is elsewhere.

But the more time people spend doing real things in person, the less time they’ll be spending on Twitter and Facebook and shopping and buying and looking at adverts and making tax-evading billionaires lots more money. Or, in less cynical terms, the less time is spent communicating with wide networks of people and sharing information and expressing ourselves to our beautiful huge communities of online followers. That’s how it works, right? Everyone’s our friend. Except, if you’re me, hardly anybody notices what you’ve said/seen and you are left with that odd feeling of disappointment, of losing something you never really had. We are, according to Nicholas Carr, ‘lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment’. I certainly feel like a lab rat sometimes.

But what’s complicated about uploading a picture and listening to a concert at the same time, you may ask. Or having a conversation and reading a text.  You can do that easily. Can’t you? If your attention is focussed on reading, your ears won’t work so well. I do it all the time. “Sure, I’m listening, keep going, I’ll just answer this email while you talk… mm hmm… what? Sorry I didn’t quite hear that bit.” Much as we all want to believe we’re super-powered computers who can run a million jobs a minute, that isn’t how our brain works. It’s both much simpler and far more complicated than a machine.

I read a book recently called ‘To be a Machine’, about transhumanism – people who want to extend human life, often through part or total melding with machines. Some people believe if we find out enough about the human brain, we could recreate a mechanical brain. We can make ourselves into a computer, and thereby live forever. Or create androids, robots, replicants, with brains like ours. But is this really possible? We all talk as though it is: the metaphors linking our brains and computers are growing all the time. Processing, memory, bandwidth, the ‘space’ in our brains – brains or hard drives? – and so on and so on. Yet these ideas ‘take for granted that the brain operates according to the same formal mathematical rules as a computer does – that, in other words, the brain and the computer speak the same language. But that’s a fallacy born of our desire to explain phenomena we don’t understand in terms we do understand.’ It may seem odd to say that we understand computers and don’t understand our own brains, but it’s true. Even those scientists working right now on recreating a brain don’t know how to answer the question ‘will it be conscious?’, because we don’t know what we mean by the term conscious. Our own minds and the ability to have this concept of ourselves, of ‘I’, is something philosophers and scientists and theologians have been arguing over for centuries – and they’re still arguing, because we haven’t understood it yet.

So we’re convincing ourselves that computers can mimic our brains, and also persuading ourselves that our brains can mimic computers. We try to do everything at once, concentrate on ten different things and who cares if we look at our smartphones when we’re doing another task, or talking to another person? Why can’t we do two things at once? Perhaps our smartphones are already becoming extensions of our brains, relied on for looking up information, remembering phone numbers, doing even simple arithmetic, and communicating with people. We are making it easier to imagine being able to meld man and machine, as that deepening of consciousness that came with reading, the questioning and reasoning that it brought out in our brains, is made shallow and vague as we forget even the simplest things in preference to looking at the little rectangle in our hands. We forget how to have a full, complicated conversation, and how to wait for things instead of getting instant gratification. We become more rude and distant – even if nobody notices because everyone’s the same. Nobody notices what the person opposite them is doing, because nobody’s looking each other in the eye.

I know that when I spend a lot of time looking at my phone, I get this irritable, slightly queasy, flickering sensation in my head. Often I’ve been conscious of wanting to stop looking at this pointless endless scroll of information long before I’ve actually looked up, but have stayed glued to the screen: ‘we crave the new even when we know that the new is more often trivial than essential’. But I hope we retain some way of teaching young people how to process (!) information without the aid of technology. We risk losing this ability to choose what we see, choose some of what influences us, because we’re all addicted to the stream of words and pictures dictated by who knows who, with who knows what aims in mind. I’ll end with a quote from David Foster Wallace, who said that giving up this control, this means of exercising command over our own brains, is to be left with “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”. Our brains’ abilities are infinite. Those of a smartphone are not.

All quotes are from the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The last, from David Foster Wallace, is also quoted in The Shallows.

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Relaxation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relaxation. I’ve realised that I’ve slipped into a place where I find it very difficult to fully relax in my own flat. I always feel like I should be doing something, should be cleaning or should be putting things away. I can’t quite remember what I used to do all the time when I lived in a flatshare and had a space only for me. In this flat, the spare bedroom is my partner’s office, and my space is in the living room. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be swallowed up by the half of the sofa I always sit on, I spend so much time there!

In the last couple of months I’ve started taking myself out to the café in Waterstone’s at the weekend, sitting with a book and a cup of tea (sometimes cake too if they have a good one) and relaxing there. My mum wouldn’t understand going out and spending a fiver on tea and a biscuit when I could have them at home, but at least when I’m out, I don’t feel like there’s something I need to be doing. It doesn’t last long, though – I start feeling like I’ve stayed too long, even if I don’t have to get back for anything in particular. I read an article a while ago about women often being the manager of household chores. My partner and I do about equal amounts of stuff round the house, but it’s usually me who’s the organiser, the decision maker, and the instigator of getting things done. Maybe that’s my natural role, or maybe I jump in too often, or maybe I’m too critical when he tries, so me organising everything becomes the status quo. But it is exhausting.

Yesterday I woke up with a horrendous sore throat. I’ve had sniffles and a neverending almost-cold for months and months, but this was the first proper cold I’ve had for a long time. Finally, I had to stop and do nothing. I barely even checked in with work. Many of us who have the means to work from home find it truly difficult to switch off when we’re ill or on holiday – for me it’s the trade off I’m happy to live with for the flexibility of working from home one day a week, and occasionally other times if I need to. The only issue is it can mean your brain never quite knows how to switch off. It’s turning into a cliché now to say we’re always working or always on call, thanks to smartphones, but I’m starting to realise how true it really is. If we don’t set up our own boundaries, we can’t complain when work seeps into home life. And it’s easy to feel like you’re missing something or messing something up if you don’t keep checking in.

For me this inability to fully relax is combined with a shyness around my favourite things to do to unwind – mostly watching Friends, Sex and the City, or The Good Life. I’ve seen them all many times, and there are no surprises anywhere anymore. With Friends, I could recite the dialogue from beginning to end of most of the episodes in my head if I wanted to. Sex and the City I know less well but it’s equally brainless. Sometimes I’ll watch while doing something else, fixing something or browsing for things on the internet, but the best times are when I just watch it and relax completely. However, I feel silly watching the same thing over and over again, and worry that my boyfriend thinks it’s stupid. He has tried a few times to get me into his hobby of choice, playing computer games. It doesn’t work for me, however: not having grown up with them I feel lost and like I’m making a mess of it, and no matter how many times someone tells me that doesn’t matter, I don’t find it that enjoyable and don’t have the urge to keep going until I get better. My brain doesn’t get involved or particularly care about the outcome, which makes it difficult.

One of the other things I used to do to relax was write blogs. I would get a topic in my head and turn it over for a few days or a few weeks and eventually sit down to write and it would all pour out. Lately the pouring out hasn’t happened, for reasons I’m not quite clear on. I’ve been struggling to find that relaxed state of mind where I can turn off the cynical, judgemental switch until I’ve got to the end or at least got something written down. There hasn’t been any particular reason for this that I know of, although some people have suggested that being on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication can cause blockages in the creative flow. Maybe I’ve got too tired of staring at a screen all day. Maybe I’ve got too used to jumping up to tidy my flat. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to get my brain to really relax.

I’ve thought a few times of writing more about the car crash I was in in the summer, but I was worried people would be bored of that and not want to hear any more about it. But I write this blog for me, so it doesn’t really make sense not to write about that if I want to. My anxiety around driving has got worse again the last few months, and I’m now trying to decide which form of help would be most useful for me. I’m considering ordinary counselling, hypnotherapy, and standard driving lessons. The hypnotherapy is pretty expensive – £370 for six sessions, and the lady assured me I would need that many. Her whole tone was somewhat mercenary and not particularly encouraging. A counsellor I got in touch with had no space and was hardly any cheaper. A driving instructor replied to my email saying ‘Yes I can help you’ which is what I needed to hear, but I haven’t had the guts to call and arrange a lesson yet. I’m hiding behind excuses. This cold this weekend is very convenient.

The only positive and concrete step I have taken is to have a biodynamic massage – a friend has recently qualified as a masseuse and I was eager to give it a try. Biodynamic massage is psychotherapeutic massage, investigating the energy in the body and releasing it from places it has got stuck (apologies Anita if this is a shocking description!). I had my first session this week. Since the crash the issues I’ve had for a long time with muscle tension in my right jaw and shoulder have spread down into my hip and into my foot – I’ll find my right foot is tensed upwards, as if it’s resting on an invisible accelerator. One thing Anita suggested at the start was that my body might be trying to relive the accident to get a different result. I realised that that’s what I’ve been doing psychologically too: I haven’t let it go because I keep thinking I should have done something different, but without being able to go back in time and change anything, that sense of guilt and unease has stayed with me.

During the session the tension in my right arm started to improve, although it’s always difficult for me to relax it after years of computer and mouse work. After massaging my legs, Anita held both my feet calmly in both hands. I can’t explain it, but I started to feel a twitching and a shuddering in my right foot. Odd as it sounds, I felt the guilt and self-blame I’ve had since the accident rise up and find a measure of release. I started to cry. After the session was over I felt calm and light-headed but immensely tired, and a couple of days later I got this cold. Perhaps this is my body’s way of taking control and forcing me to get some real, proper rest, without the shoulds and shouldn’ts that so frequently consume my thoughts.

Today I’m trying very hard to relax, which is a contradiction in itself. Perhaps it’s better to say I’m not trying to tick off a to do list, or find something to do that other people would think was a good use of time. (It helps that the flat is already clean and tidy so looking around, there aren’t many tasks that jump out for me to do!) It’s still difficult, but I don’t want to have to get ill to start feeling like I’m allowed to sit down and do what I want – even if other people would think watching fictional people make the same stupid decisions over and over again is a pointless thing to do. It’s only for me.

You should’ve asked

Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

Coming out of a car crash

If your car goes into a skid, the advice is to steer into it. I always thought in that situation I would panic and try to steer the other way, as continuing a skid seems counter-intuitive. Last weekend I found out that this advice has actually found its way into my subconscious – but also that if you go into a skid in a car, you really don’t feel like you have any hope of steering your way out.

Last Saturday I was driving up to the Midlands for a wedding with my partner. It was the first time I was doing a long drive to somewhere I’d never been, and that made me anxious. I also find weddings in general anxiety-inducing, as I find the endless small talk with strangers awkward. We negotiated the M25 without too much difficulty, although traffic was heavy and difficult with a lot of stop-starting going on. People were driving badly, not moving out of lanes when they should and driving too slowly in the faster lanes. Earlier in the week I’d had the pleasure of a longish drive with my brother, who is an excellent driver and changes lanes with ease and endless practicality. I’m sure all of this informed the way I drove, both the anxiety and the experience of driving with someone far more experienced – although maybe I’m just over-thinking what informed my reactions on that particular day.

Once we were on the M40 I was hoping the driving would become easier, but there were still a lot of people and I still felt unsafe with the way we were driving as a group – people were quite close to each other, and I felt edgy and wanted to get out of the way of people if I could. I think that was what made me decide to switch to the next lane over to the left – I had been in the fast lane for a bit but I wasn’t going as fast as I knew some would want to go, and there was nobody to my left. I indicated, checked, pulled over. Then when I was halfway through getting into the lane, or maybe more, I’m not sure, my partner shouted something to warn me. A coach was moving over from the slow lane, hadn’t seen us, and was terrifyingly close to the car.

I think I panicked. Which isn’t unreasonable as a coach was bearing down on me. I steered sharply to the right, but at that speed sharp changes of direction do not go well. My partner was shouting ‘FUCK’ which each breath, which was totally understandable but made me panic more. I tried to correct the steer by going to the left but it was just as sharp and just as scary. It was an out of control zigzag at 70mph in the middle of a motorway. I think I had some thought that I wasn’t going to be able to correct it, or that I needed to try and get away from the other cars, or both, or maybe I felt like I was skidding as I went back to the right and my brain told me in a skid, you steer into it. One way or another, I steered hard to the right. My partner was still shouting FUCK as we hit the central reservation. This felt a lot like playing dodgems at a fairground, and has made me think since that that must be why I have always detested dodgems. Where is the fun in simulating a car crash? He was still shouting FUCK as we spun round. He says we spun more than once. I don’t remember.

We came to a stop facing the wrong way, still in the fast lane. I remember everyone else moving past us in slow motion. Thank god for the speed of their reactions – if someone had hit us during that spin it could have gone very badly. As it was we were sitting in the car, totally shocked but entirely physically unharmed.

I sat and stared at the dashboard, which was completely blank. I realised vaguely that the engine had switched itself off. I wondered dazedly if I could turn it back on and turn round to keep going. I said ‘I don’t know what to do now.’ I think my partner was asking me if I was all right. That’s when I looked at him and felt the guilt of the decisions I’d taken to steer as I had. I said, ‘oh my god – I could have killed you.’ And that was the main thought I had for the next six or seven hours.

Why had I steered that sharply? Why hadn’t I just moved back into the lane I’d come out of? If I’d panicked less, if I’d been less anxious, if I hadn’t wanted to keep moving lanes to show I was a good driver, if, if, if, if… we would be safe and still driving, shaken but okay. I should have done it differently, I shouldn’t have over-steered, I shouldn’t have done that, I should have done this… should, shouldn’t, should, shouldn’t.

Luckily, a wonderful man – a brilliant, real-life good Samaritan, angel of a man – stopped a way behind us (or in front from where we were looking) in the same lane, and put his hazard lights on so people had some warning and wouldn’t come bowling up to our stationary vehicle. He came over, shouting to us to check we were okay. My partner answered, I couldn’t. When the man – Kevin his name was – got close to us he said that the car was leaking fluid and we should step out. We were under a bridge so I huddled against that. I realised that various parts of the front of my poor car must have got strewn across the road, as people were driving over them with a terrifying CRACK which made me flinch every time. Our Good Samaritan called the police while my partner tried to comfort me. I was shaking and crying and retching but could hardly bear to have him touch me. I had almost killed him, so how could I accept his comfort?

Eventually the police came, I was reminded I needed to call my insurers but having found the number and dialled I couldn’t say anything anyone could understand so my partner and the Good Samaritan handled the call. The police stopped the traffic a way down and pushed my car onto the hard shoulder. They swept – and kicked – the bits of my car over to the sides of the road. I was still shaking but explained what had happened to the police who took it all very casually. I expect they see it all the time and in fact another accident had happened further down the road behind us – possibly caused by people not slowing down fast enough to account for four lanes becoming three for a while because of our cars. I felt even more guilty when I heard that.

At some point when my partner was on the phone and I was talking to Kevin, a.k.a. the Good Samaritan, I told him that I felt so guilty. I could have killed someone. He was brilliantly down-to-earth and reassuring. He said: ‘No. What you did was an Evasive Manoeuvre. You had to do it, and if you hadn’t, there could have been a massive pile-up. All these people driving past could have been involved. You did the Right Thing.’ I have no idea if he knew how much those words were going to stick with me.

The Good Samaritan and the police carried on, and the traffic restarted with a roar and a rush. An ambulance stopped by us but we said we were fine. After a while a Green Flag bloke provided by Direct Line picked us up. He provided meaningless chat interspersed with tactless comments, like telling us that someone from the other crash had been loaded onto a stretcher. I had barely stopped crying since the accident but that brought a fresh wave.

Direct Line are an amazing company who provide you with a taxi to reach your destination if you aren’t able to keep driving – which of course we weren’t. The bonnet and side panels of my car were unharmed but everything from the bonnet down had disappeared. The bulbs for the headlights were dangling from wires, the plastic had completely gone. The bumper and the radiator had vanished too. After a chat my partner and I decided to carry on to the wedding. I pictured going home, shocked and defeated, and having nothing to do but stare at an empty parking space. Even if the wedding would be difficult, it would be a distraction. An incredibly sweet taxi driver took us to Evesham. My partner’s friends – it was his friends who were getting married – were absolutely brilliant. One took me away somewhere quiet as soon as we arrived, as she saw from her first look that I was about to break down in front of everyone.

A few hours into the wedding, and a few glasses of champagne in, I finally told my partner that I could barely look at him because I felt so guilty. The entire taxi journey of nearly two hours I’d barely said a word. He took me for a walk and told me that from his perspective, whatever I’d done had got us out and saved his life – he felt he owed me one. He’d told me at the side of the road that he felt his panicked yell hadn’t improved things. He might be right but what else are you going to do when a coach is a few feet from squashing you?

Together we enjoyed the rest of the night. Copious amounts of alcohol aren’t the recommended treatment for shock as far as I know, but I think it meant a lot of the emotion that could have been buried for hours, days, or even weeks, was brought out as quickly as it could. I paid for the emotional lack of control a bit when it was time to go to bed – I was exhausted but somehow terrified of going to sleep. I couldn’t stop crying as my partner lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. Luckily for me, a good friend was still awake at half-past one and she talked me down. I found a mindfulness body scan recording on my phone, and managed to focus on that long enough to get my brain out of its spiral.

In the days since, I’ve experienced fatigue like I’ve never had in my whole life. Going back to work in London was tougher than I expected – King’s Cross made me very jittery and I found myself walking along as close to left-hand walls as I could get wherever possible. Concentration has been extraordinarily difficult, and body and mind have felt perpetually exhausted. This began to lift a little for the first time yesterday, five days since the accident. Today I am nervous again as I’m going to pick up a hire car provided by my insurers. Hopefully I’ll be able to use said car to get to the garage which is examining my poor, broken Clio, so I can collect all the things out of it that I had to leave behind – including the remote control which lets me take a car through a gate into the close where I live. Getting a replacement would cost me £40 I can ill-afford as I need to get a new car and my insurance premium has just doubled. Unfortunately the people who provide the remote control fobs aren’t willing to give me a refund if I get mine back. I am resisting the urge to tell them they’re being heartless fucks.

I am nervous about driving again and nervous about seeing my Clio. I thought I had seen it for the last time at the centre we were taken to after the crash. I’m not sure I want to see that smashed-up front again. Some other strange part of me thinks I should take a picture of it as some gruesome reminder of what happened, or to shock people in years to come at dinner parties when I feel safe to bring it out when the conversation reaches a low or tedious ebb. Probably this is all a bad idea and a reminder of how bizarre our society has become, that we feel the need to record anything shocking or sensational or faintly interesting, even if it points to a dark or maudlin aspect of our brains.

I hoped that writing this out would be cathartic, and I believe it has been. I have no doubt that the anxiety I had just been overcoming about driving will now rear its ugly head again, but I hope I will be able to cope with it. I will now be a sturdy middle-lane-hogging driver on the motorway, and never switch lanes until absolutely necessary. Although perhaps that wouldn’t have helped us anyway, as the coach – which drove cheerfully on after the crash – simply hadn’t checked its blind spot sufficiently before beginning to move over. Accidents happen. As time passes I’m blaming myself less for the way I reacted, which after all I could hardly control in the heat of the moment. All I can really do is thank my lucky stars that nobody else hit us, that we hit the central reservation at an angle which meant the bumper took the brunt not either side of the car, and that that brilliant person stopped to help us in our moment of need. Thank you to him, wherever he is, and to everyone who has been so brilliant ever since – to my friends and my partner’s friends, particularly those who gave us a lift home after the wedding, and to our families. We love you all.

Working Out the Gym

Over the last few months, I’ve taken up going to the gym. I can hear the eyes roll and the bored sighs from here. People hate people going to the gym – until recently I was one of those people, and honestly I would also sigh and roll my eyes at a blog post about going to the gym. Stick with it, my friends. Hopefully it will be faintly informative, or at least faintly funny.

I started going because I have an ongoing issue with the nerve in my right elbow, due to the amount of time I spend sitting at a computer. Three physiotherapists have asked me if there’s anything I can do at my job that doesn’t involve a computer – the answer is no. Perhaps I need to retrain as a shepherd or a taxi driver to avoid the problem. But in the meantime, my solution is to go to the gym to try and release the tension that runs from neck to shoulder to wrist and back again.

The gym is a fascinating place to observe human behaviour. It is at the same time an intensely private and completely public place to be. People are frequently half-dressed, or in clothes so tight-fitting they may as well be half-dressed. Men with shoulders the size of their heads stride around calling to each other, obviously at home and at ease. Women run on the treadmills with their headphones in, making no eye contact. I am one of these – I avoid looking any other people in the eye, mainly for fear of judgement. I am blessed with a slight physique, so don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m too heavy to be in a gym (which is, by the way, a completely bizarre piece of logic) but I worry anyway about being judged on my appearance or abilities – and on being compared to other women.

There is one woman who goes to my local gym who is pretty, petite and blonde. She wears a crop top and leggings, showing off a lovely figure. She does do some exercise in the gym but she also spends a lot of time chatting to the guys with shoulders the size of their heads. It’s a proper flirt party in the middle of a gym. Once, she was doing some kind of squats while kneeling on the floor – fair enough – but was pausing for minutes at a time in between sets to chat to the guys while rocking back and forth on all fours. For heaven’s sake – just grab your favourite and take him home for a romp in the sack.

I feel bad for judging her. I shouldn’t really, and honestly she only really annoys me when she’s hogging some equipment I want while doing her flirting workout. Obviously, the main reason she makes me feel bad is because she makes me feel unattractive, with my unwashed hair (I’ll never understand people who shower BEFORE going to the gym) and my already modest chest squashed a little flatter thanks to sports crop tops. I act aloof among the men at the gym, rejecting them before they can reject me. I’m quite sure they don’t notice and don’t care even if they do notice, however. While I’m feeling insecure and worrying about people watching me, most of the people at the gym are entirely focussed on themselves.

I mostly do weights stuff at the gym, trying to strengthen my arms and back to take the pressure off my arm. The weights area is lined with mirrors, which are sometimes useful to make sure you’re straight and centred, but which personally I hate because it brings my attention back to my appearance instead of my performance. If I’m not in front of a mirror, I’m in front of screens playing music videos (without the sound, the music is something else) which infuriate and depress me in equal measure as the women bounce around and stretch and make sexy faces at the camera. Why on earth would anybody find me attractive, I think, after staring at them for five minutes, getting up to do something else, and trying to surreptitiously wipe sweat marks from my hands or back or arse off the equipment.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I. Of course the point of going to the gym isn’t to judge yourself and come out feeling like a bag of manure. It’s to take control of your body and push yourself and feel the difference, in fitness or strength. In the media, for women it’s always about losing weight or getting toned, which I hope is slowly beginning to change as the world and her mother push the benefits of exercise, quite apart from any weight loss. Even though I’m not really going to the gym to lose weight, I am still (clearly) thinking too much about how I look while I’m there. I read this article this week about taking exercise in a body positive way, which has some great tips. I went to the gym after reading it but tried to ignore everyone else, view myself with detachment instead of negativity, and focus on how my body felt and on whether I could push myself to do a little more. It worked, and I set some new personal bests.

For my partner, going to the gym is very useful for his mental health. It’s a pure, uncomplicated feeling for him. He enjoys going through motions, going through routines, and appreciating the complexity of simple exercises. Doing things properly requires focus, and practise. He says although our stereotypes are of meatheads in the gym, they are good at what they do and often I see them helping each other with exercises, making me think they are just nice normal guys even if seeing them in the gym I’m tempted to stereotype them as dull and narcissistic. In a way, the gym is an entirely judgement free zone, because whatever anyone thinks of you you’re unlikely ever to hear about it. You are all strangers. I see the same people, I’m sure, but I’ve realised how little attention I pay to them, because I can never remember whether I’ve seen them before or not. As much as you may think people are watching you and laughing behind their hands, it’s in your head. It’s a natural thing to think, because that’s how we’re wired – to think people are hyperaware of our mistakes and completely oblivious to our successes. For me, that’s how I think of myself, not how other people think of me, and I need to get out of the habit of projecting those negative thoughts into other people’s minds.

So gyms may be a bit strange and a bit intimidating and some might say a little dull, but they are also fascinating and interesting and fun places to find out what your body can do. There are people doing every type of workout, and it’s entirely up to you what you work on and why. I like that freedom, and at its best it feels like you’re a child again at one of those play centres – although without the ball pit, thank goodness, because as an adult they’re impossible to get out of. People might go there for different reasons, but remember that you don’t actually have to give any of them a moment’s thought. They are all there for themselves, and you’re there for yourself too.

A Year of A Long Commute

This time last year I moved to Canterbury from London, and started commuting on the train into London every day. A couple of months after I started commuting I wrote a deeply smug blog post about how much I was enjoying it, that I was getting into using a Nintendo 3DS and that after a year I wanted to be able to see what I had achieved with this easily measurable slab of time. Well, inevitably, it has not been as straightforward as that. All I know for certain about the commute is that it’s given me a hell of a lot of time to read, and it’s shown me that I get bored almost as easily as a toddler. I take a backpack with me to work that makes me look like I’m about to go for a trek in a rainforest. It usually has at least two books, a kindle, and an iPod (yes, I am old school – I got tired of paying Spotify £10 a month when I listen to the same thirty songs day in, day out) as well as a small pharmacy, tea and water, and various snacks in case I get hungry. It’s a wonder I can fit onto the train.

Commuting is a strange business. You see the same people every day because people tend to always get on at the same door – perhaps just so they have one less decision to make at 7.15 in the morning. Most of the time nobody speaks but I have regular conversations now with two of my fellow travellers. One is an ecologist and the other is something to do with army recruitment. The latter has a very short phone call with someone every morning as the train is about to pull in, and I don’t know why. The ecologist has a son who’s studying music at university, and plays the clarinet – I was played a piece of his music which was a bit surreal but lovely. The army man has a son who is dyslexic, which he (the army man, not his son) and I had a conversation about after he saw I was reading Neurotribes, a book that’s about autism but has a tagline on the front – ‘how to think smarter about people who think differently.’ It was an interesting conversation although he was irritatingly patronising about how long he thought it would take me to finish the book – it took me about a week.

I have made “enemies” as well as “friends” during this commute. My nemesis is a woman who stands out at the side instead of congregating in the little huddle of people who are staking a bet on where they think the door will stop. We all stand dutifully back from the edge, behind the yellow line. As the train pulls in, this brazen female will walk right in front of everyone neatly queuing, and stand right in front of the doors when the train stops. The urge to push her under the train is strong. It is as bad as the people in London tube stations who decide that they ALONE will ignore the ‘keep left’ sign, and march down the right-hand side- often making progress if there’s no trainload of people coming the other way. They think they’re so smart, refusing to follow everyone else like sheep. I guess they don’t realise, or don’t care, that they are only gaining something because everyone else is playing by the rules. If everyone did it, if everyone marched alongside the edge of the track to stop in front of the doors, or ignored the keep left signs, it would be total chaos and people would regularly fall under the trains.

In many ways commuting is just an opportunity to catalogue selfish acts. Like the people who set themselves up in the outside seat and stick their suitcase in next to them, or plug themselves into a screen attached to the back of the seat in front so nobody will bother to ask them to move. This strikes me as so astoundingly selfish I want to shake these people and ask them how they can so wilfully inconsiderate.

People who sit at tables and put their bags on the table instead of the overhead racks. People listening to music so loud half the carriage could sing along (shout out to the guy who got on at Ashford one morning listening to Atomic Kitten loud enough to bust his eardrums). Men on the tube – and I’m afraid it is mostly men – who seem to have made it their goal that day to take up as much S P A C E as possible. Once two men having a conversation on the tube in the rush hour were taking up enough room for six. I had to physically duck under one of their arms to get into a space. It makes me wonder if we need more than one definition of the word consciousness, because these people are so completely unconscious of anybody or anything other than themselves.

Commuting also gives up many funny or scary or interesting day-to-day occurrences. A guy who ate four chocolate éclairs on his way home one evening – he also called a woman a tramp the week before and got a very public dressing down from another man on the train. A drunk man who followed a girl when she moved to get away from him, and was roundly shouted down by many members of the carriage, once people realised he was harassing her. He had no choice but to withdraw to his seat. The girl ran away but reported him, as later members of the British Transport Police got on to hear what he had to say for himself.

Other tiny irritations. Endless people who are unable to breathe quietly who always seem to sit next to me. A man who was sniffing in such an irritating manner that I offered him a tissue – which he declined to take. People watching slightly disturbing or pornographic television shows on their tablets, which you can’t help seeing even if you’d rather not.

After the bombings at London Bridge my commute became something other than a long, mildly tedious but also peaceful few hours of the day. As I don’t live in London anymore I don’t have the daily immersion in city life, which immunises you to some extent to the fear of an attack. When you do it every day, you can’t keep up feeling anxious about it – unless you suffer from severe anxiety. It’s part of the day-to-day and you stop noticing it. But I was coming in and going out and wasvery aware of the change from calm rural setting to the frenetic stressful city. I was afraid of going through King’s Cross and of getting on the tube. I watched my fellow passengers suspiciously and felt exhausted by the effort. I tried to make excuses to stay at home and work there, because I felt imminently in danger.

It didn’t last too long, thankfully. About a week or two. Now my commute is back to deciding which book to read and staring down my nemesis at Canterbury West.

People ask me how the commute is going, as if it’s an entirely separate part of my life – I suppose it is in a way, but I try not to think about that. Especially since I realised I wasn’t going to have anything neat to tell anybody I’d achieved in all that time, other than reading an incredible number of Agatha Christie novels. Hopefully nobody can say that’s a waste of time. While I do get tired of it, particularly when I haven’t had a holiday in a long time, it could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe one day I’ll remember the long hours in air conditioned carriages, doing wordsearches and failing to work out who poisoned the local gossip, and wish I had such a pleasant commute again. One thing’s for sure, though – when it ends, I won’t miss spending more than a fifth of my salary on it.

Everyday Powerful Women – Appearance

For more than a year, I’ve had this definition of power saved on my phone: ‘Power: the ability to act or produce an effect’. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘power’, and in particular what it means to be a ‘powerful woman’ in today’s world. In this brilliant article on women in power throughout history, Mary Beard suggested that one of the main problems we still have is that we don’t really know what a powerful woman looks like. Most women we think of as ‘powerful’ are adopting the clothes and style of powerful men, rather than inventing a new way for women to appear powerful.

Where does power come from, and is it different for men and women? Historically men have been physically powerful – in terms of strength – and powerful in terms of intellect. When we read the history books, the politicians and the warriors and the philosophers and the scientists and the decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. There are examples of women, and they are often passed over or forgotten, but even so the men are primarily seen as the ones with this power. Women are powerful in terms of their beauty, and their ability to bear children. The latter is a never-ending political hot potato, as the life of an unborn child is frequently seen to be more important than the life of the woman carrying it. This is the paradoxical power of being able to carry a child: it overwhelms all other purposes or needs a woman may have.

Mary Beard also wrote that women may not want political power or to stand on a soapbox, they just want to be taken seriously. I caught my breath a little at that, because it struck right to the heart of what feminism means for me. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to meet me and listen to my ideas and take them seriously as ideas coming from a person, not a sex object. Unfortunately the week after I read this article I was reminded how little women are still taken seriously, even in the middle of London. I was cat-called by a man on a bicycle while I was on the phone to my mum. I was pointlessly challenged in a pub by some idiot propping up the bar, who thought it would be funny to say ‘no you can’t!’ when I asked if I could have a pint of some beer or other. And I was threatened with bodily violence by a stranger for passing comment on a horse he’d tied in the middle of a pavement (don’t even ask).

Our appearance and our ability to bear children both give us power in myriad ways, but as a primary source of feeling powerful, they often suck. To have your ‘ability to act or produce an effect’ determined by the way you look means that your brain and personality are frequently ignored in favour of being summed up instantly as a) a woman, and b) on a sliding scale of attractiveness. This is endlessly frustrating, and is applicable to all women everywhere. In some parts of the world, it means your own will and wishes are considered to be secondary to those of others. When you are only judged on the outside, you are essentially a doll, and considered to be a second class of citizen. And even in the UK, which is apparently enlightened, and even if you are running a country, some people still won’t take you seriously – and prefer to comment on the shape of your legs rather than your ideas and your actions.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. I see women every day on the train putting on their make-up, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. The thing I hate is the system that makes women believe that they have to spend a lot of time and money on improving their appearance. All of it speaks to a notion that we are not enough as we are. We are not enough unless we spend hours removing hair and shaping brows and going on diets to get a ‘bikini body’. And this is all because the whole system still buys into the idea that women’s power, and worth, comes first and foremost from how they look.

This is made clear from childhood. I hated looking stupid or wrong or ugly from an extremely young age. I didn’t want to pull faces, or get dirty, because then I wouldn’t look pretty. My body was rarely praised or criticised for its abilities, only for the shape it made. I have grown up continuing to evaluate it in the same way. I hated playing sports at school because I didn’t think I could do it properly and I hated looking like a fool – I also hated wearing shorts for P.E. because I thought my legs were too skinny (this was enough of a problem that at age seven I feigned illness to get out of a school Sports Day).  It was all about how I looked doing things, and because I was so concerned with that, I was inevitably bad at things that required full concentration on, say, where the ball was, and whether I could swing a stick in time to hit it. I thought that if I tried to hit it hard, it would go a pathetic distance, so I put no effort in at all so at least it wouldn’t look as if I’d tried and failed. Clearly the only way to be good at any physical activity is to keep trying and failing until you stop failing so often, and begin to succeed, but nobody told me that. Sport seemed to me to be for boys, and I was no good at it. I didn’t take myself seriously, but did that start because nobody took me seriously? I don’t remember ever being really coached at sport, you just did the activity and then stopped. I sucked, and wasn’t told how I could get better. This creates problems throughout life because exercise is key to health and happiness.

When I was growing up, I was not popular with boys – which I shouldn’t have cared about as most of them were idiots. But somehow it seemed to be the most important thing. Getting a boyfriend seemed to be key to happiness (a problem which the media and society do nothing to assuage as you get older) and thus I needed to be more attractive to fulfil this goal. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents and I grew up before social media was really a thing, because I can’t imagine what it’s like without a good support network and with other people constantly pushing idealised images of people in your face. With Photoshop and filters used on every picture in the public eye, people judge themselves against CGI and even forget what they look like when they haven’t edited their own face. People like Kylie Jenner, who apparently had her face, boobs and arse remodelled at age 16, are truly terrifying examples of what can happen to young women who have one goal: to look perfect. When women in the news are judged on how they look every single day, young girls absorb the message from everywhere that how they look is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, women frequently perpetuate this notion themselves. Women put down other women like pros: many magazines ‘for women’ make an industry out of criticising other women for being too fat/thin on a daily basis. We are so chronically insecure and tired from judging ourselves all the time that the only way to make ourselves feel better is to judge everyone else too. For example, many people have many issues with Lena Dunham, but the fact that people got upset because she started seeing a personal trainer and doing some exercise absolutely astounds me. This reaction proved a few things: a) that Lena is still extremely rare to be a woman in the public eye owning power in her less than “perfect” body; b) that people hate people who go to the gym; and c) that women have such serious insecurity issues that one woman taking some exercise is enough to make them very angry. It’s fairly obvious that Lena going to the gym on its own isn’t enough to annoy anybody, the problem is that she was “fat” and said she was happy being “fat,” so other women who are “fat” can also feel happy the way they are – but now Lena is betraying the tribe. She’s taking exercise because she wants to help herself with serious mental health issues and endometriosis, but she is attacked for apparently wanting to change the way she looks. Everyone thought that if she was happy the way she was, and achieved what she has looking that way, then she could be taken seriously without being thin and conventionally beautiful. And if she could do it, everyone else could stop worrying about how they looked too and think about something else. The ridiculous thing is that of course one woman doing some exercise doesn’t affect anybody else’s self-worth or power, and that there is nothing wrong with doing exercise anyway – even though many people hate it, exercise is always good for you. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with weight loss, although infuriatingly exercise and weight loss are almost always connected for women. I would love to be able to change this. The negativity surrounding exercise for women is toxic.

All these perceptions of women and their power need to be taught differently from childhood. Being a girl should not be about being pretty and looking nice all the time, about never being awkward or doing something stupid or getting into trouble. Girls should do all those things, and be encouraged to move and exercise to enjoy it, as well as be good at it. Hopefully as more girls see female sports players, politicians, writers, scientists, and decision-makers on the television and elsewhere, they will see women showing power and strength through something other than their physical attractiveness. The outcry when the media and people in top positions treat women like dolls must be louder and longer until it’s no longer acceptable. Unfortunately America just voted in someone who speaks about women as if they are not just dolls, but sex dolls, provided for his amusement. But I am hopeful that the next four years will show him just how many powerful women there are around the world who are willing to show him he is wrong and repulsive, and needs to take women seriously. We can all do our own bit by taking ourselves seriously, every day, and taking the other women around us seriously. Only then can we link by link undo the chain that stops us from being judged – by ourselves and everyone else – on our internal worth.