Change

This year, as I am entering my fourth decade, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learnt and achieved. How does it compare with where I thought I would be? Turning 30 is a manmade phenomenon, a landmark where none really exists, but just because something is all in our heads doesn’t mean it feels less real and tangible. I thought by now I would have learned to eat chocolate without getting it on my trousers, but I haven’t. I rather hoped I would have worked out what I want to be when I grow up, but it seems I’m still wondering.

It’s a strange feeling when we have a solid idea of who we are and what we’re about, and then suddenly find we’ve changed without our noticing. I was bemused the other day to realise something I’d known for a long time – that I work in the finance department of a technology company. That certainly wasn’t something I or probably anybody else would have predicted for me. It doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it – but it’s unsettling when you realise something about you or your path has changed.

I’ve had another revelation this week. For the last two or three years, I haven’t owned a full-length mirror. I didn’t think it was particularly important, and in some ways it was rather nice – if I couldn’t see whether or not an outfit worked together, then I could just assume that it did and roll on with it. But at the same time I realised I wasn’t entirely sure what I looked like anymore. So I bought a mirror. And it turns out I’ve changed rather.

When I was younger I was very thin, so thin that people always accused me of being anorexic and called me names. I didn’t like it at all, but as I got older I changed a little and people started telling me I was slim in a nice way, rather than a mean one. When I was 24 my hips suddenly realised I was no longer prepubescent and they expanded somewhat, which I also rather liked. I’ve always been insecure about my breasts being too small but overall I thought I was rather a nice shape.

I’m still more or less the same shape, I think, but I’m certainly no longer the waif I was growing up. My hips have decided they didn’t do a good enough job when I was 24 and seem to have expanded again; I’ve grown a bit of a tummy – a pouch to hold my extra cookies, as Jess says to Nick on New Girl – and my thighs have changed shape too. The last may partly be muscle as I’ve been going to the gym and doing squats and deadlifts, which are bound to add on some muscle, but I’m not sure, maybe some of it is fat too. I’m aware that I’ve put on a bit of fat the last two years, mainly I think from having a commute which means I’m sitting down for an extra two hours a day, which makes quite a difference.

Anyway, rightly or wrongly, I was surprised by how I looked. It wasn’t the image I had of myself in my head, and it’s a very odd feeling to find that the body you’re walking around in doesn’t look the same as you thought it did. How can you possibly miss it, I thought, it’s there all the time! I wasn’t sure I trusted the mirror, and my friend said mirrors lie, so I decided to have a wardrobe clearout to see how much had changed.

Well, oh dear. Several dresses that used to be sleek and flattering now make me look like a sausage in a very tight casing. A pair of trousers I rather like and thought looked nice now look decidedly strained. A couple of skirts now no longer fit neatly round the hips but sit up round the waist in an extremely unflattering fashion. Determined not to be annoyed or shamed by these clothes that no longer serve me, I now have three large bags of clothes for the charity shop.

Well, who cares, you might ask. So I’ve changed shape a little – what does it matter? It’s an excuse to go shopping! New clothes! Hurrah! But unfortunately it isn’t quite that straightforward, at least not for me. There’s such a degrading feeling to having to throw out clothes because you’ve put on weight at the best of times, and for me it’s compounded by not really knowing how I fit into my own idea of myself as being very thin and slender. This may sound ridiculous to a lot of people who’ve seen me lately. I am still by most sane measures a very slim person. Some would say I’m now a “better” weight – for the first time in my life I’m designated at as a ‘healthy weight’ by the BMI index, whereas previously I’ve been classed as ‘underweight’ or even ‘emaciated’. But I’m still feeling a bit despondent, a bit unattractive, and, most strangely, a bit less worthy than I used to. In today’s society women are held up to an impossible list of physical ideals, but I do know that putting on weight is almost never seen as a Good Thing. It’s the butt of so many jokes on sitcoms and TV programmes: running into an ex when you’ve put on weight is about on a par with smacking someone over the head with a golf club. There is a definite feeling that you’ve lost, or failed, by changing shape in that direction.

Of course, the whole idea that who we are should be interpreted or judged by what we look like is absurd. It doesn’t make any difference. Or rather, it shouldn’t  make any difference. I’m no longer the super skinny girl who would get called Twiglet or gently asked by a doctor if she has any trouble eating. While that isn’t a huge part of my identity it is still a part, and one that I now need to adjust. Right now I’m in danger of adjusting too far the other way, so I’ll be careful of that. It’s good to have a realistic sense of what you look like, but also to hold that idea gently, and to try not to make it a focus of your thinking. Being a touch heavier doesn’t mean I’m less clever, or smart, or interesting as a person. And I need to keep reminding myself that seeming attractive to others is only partly to do with what you physically look like – it’s more about how you see yourself. If you feel good, people will respond to that.

So I’m going to buy some new clothes that make me feel pretty, and keep chucking out any old clothes I find that make me feel crap. And put in some practise at thinking of myself as a fairly slim, reasonably toned woman, with a bit of a tummy – and a great arse.

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New Year, New… Not a lot

The concept of the ‘new year’ is a strange one. It’s entirely man-made, and feels fairly arbitrary, particularly when you remember that the Chinese celebrate New Year at a different time to the rest of the world. Until the intrusion of the west, many countries in East Asia measured time by a solar calendar instead of a lunar one. Japan started using the Gregorian calendar in 1873, after a modernisation push begun in 1868. I remember learning that at university and thinking how odd it is that something we rule our lives by so strictly isn’t exactly real – it’s something we invented to make it easier to organise things and keep track of how long people worked for.

I’m thinking about time more and more these days, and 2018 is an interesting year for me as I turn 30 in May. This is neither a big deal nor not a big deal to me; it just is, and in the same way as we evaluate things differently when we arrive in a “new year”, so turning 30 can make you consider things in a different light.

This can be dangerous if it means you suddenly start beating yourself up for not being where you thought you’d be by a certain age. For better or worse, I’ve never been one for life plans or had specific ambitions, so I’m not overwhelmed by negative thoughts about hitting a fourth decade. But I am aware of the expectations that come with putting labels on the passage of time. I think many of us are tricked into thinking everything will be different in the new year; it’s a blank slate and the irritations of the past year will be have faded away, or at least be easier to manage. Certainly we are helped in this assumption by endless marketing campaigns shouting NEW YEAR, NEW YOU! I filed away a lot of odds and ends at work and at home before Christmas and really thought that the time off would make a meaningful difference of some kind, so this week has been a bump back to earth and a struggle, as I’ve found that things are in exactly the same mess as they were beforehand. Our expectations create an artificial high which is never going to be met, because nothing has changed except the date in the corner of the computer screen.

Of course, if we look at time the right way, we can help ourselves to create something out of nothing, and try to build new habits or kick old ones into touch with the help of a new diary and calendar. I’m doing Dry January this year, not because I drink an enormous amount, but because I’d like to see how it affects my mood, sleeping patterns, and general wellbeing to be sober. (If you’d like to sponsor me/donate some money to Crisis, my page is here http://bit.ly/2m4AElz.) Other people start new classes, or try new diets (Veganuary seems to be all over the place this year) and it can be a really helpful time to make a new beginning – as long as you realise that you are the same person you were on the 31st of December, and won’t automatically have a brand new Willpower Pack and Courage Belt to help you.

While turning 30 doesn’t make me think ‘Oh Christ! Why don’t I have a husband/children/a house/a proper career plan’, it does make me think of myself in a slightly different light. I’ll think about doing something I’m afraid of, and think, ‘well I’m nearly 30 – I should be able to do that’. The way you see yourself can be extremely powerful, and I’m quite enjoying the sense of grown-up-ness which is coming with my impending birthday. (An example of a less useful self-image is when I was diagnosed with depression some years ago, I kept thinking ‘I’d better be careful – after all, I am depressed’ which was a rather self-limiting way of looking at things.)

I’m glad to have this internal feeling of security and strength, as this week has been a tough one for me, not just because I was disappointed that my work to-do list was still as long, but also thanks to the news. For whatever reason I’ve seen more headlines than I normally do, and they haven’t filled me with joy: my annual rail pass has gone up by £248 to a staggering £7,188, the average deposit in London is now £80,000 (up £30k in a decade) and our NHS is being held together with string and the sheer determination of the people still working inside it. I look around and think, what is my future? It takes people ten years to save for a house deposit, and that’s presumably not if they’re spending their savings each year on the train that gets them to work. Thanks to low salaries, an MA degree, rail passes, a waster ex-boyfriend, and car expenses, my savings have been massively depleted in the last ten years. Every piece of news I see about the UK makes me wonder how the country is going to stay on its feet. My partner is all for moving back to his home country of Canada, provided we can find jobs, and I’m open to the idea but terrified absolutely stupid at the same time. I’m not wondering why I haven’t got to a certain place in life before 30, but I am wondering what seismic changes there will need to be politically or personally for me to get to that place at all.

All this has led to a week of stress, anxiety, and lying awake at 4am – before being awoken at 6am for my commute, and wanting to cry. I haven’t found it difficult not to drink, but I have realised it’s my default position to have a drink when I’m stressed or anxious. I’m having to find replacements now and it isn’t easy. Nothing is as fast or as simple as having a glass of wine! I might get the same results from a bath or an hour reading or half an hour of yoga, but they all require more effort and none of them are anywhere near as sociable.

One plus point is that the feelings stay in my head for longer, so I’m more inclined to write them down and do more of these blogs (hopefully you think of that as a good thing too, dear reader!). I don’t have any magic answers today, only lots of little things I can do to make me feel like I’m moving forward and moving in the right direction. And continuing to write and straighten my head out is one of those things, as even if it doesn’t get me a house or a cheaper commute, it gets me a better night’s sleep – and maybe that’s the best thing I could get anyway.

Highlights of 2017

I’ve done this for the last couple of years – it’s a great way of looking back over the year and picking out the best bits, not just for now, but for when I look back in future years.

Swing Train

This is an exercise class based half on swing dancing, and half on cardiovascular exercise. The music is enormous fun and the moves range from Charleston kicks to squats and even, in one of my least favourite tracks, press-ups. I’m lucky enough to have a class only a few minutes’ walk away with a wonderful teacher, who is enthusiastic without being irritatingly peppy, and extremely good at judging the energy levels in the room and how to push us just enough, but not too much. Highly recommended.

New chair

Recently we bought a new Ikea armchair and footstool, which sits in the corner of our living room with bookcases on either side. It’s deliciously comfortable and my favourite place to sit and properly unwind.

Overcoming fear – twice

This time last year I’d just driven my little Renault Clio home to my parents’ house for Christmas, the first drive on motorways I’d done for years. That drive improved my driving anxiety enormously, and I kept doing more driving and feeling more and more comfortable doing so – until July, when I crashed the car on the M40. After that, I had to go back to the start. I had to deal with all the admin of the insurance for the old car, and of buying a new one; and then I had to learn to feel confident at driving again. With most things I get anxious about, there’s no real danger, but driving was always different. And once you know what it feels like to lose control on a motorway and smash into something at 70mph (like a high-powered game of dodgems) it’s very difficult to tell yourself your anxiety is unwarranted. With patience, practise, the help of Winnie the Pooh audio tapes, and some driving lessons, I am now feeling much more confident in my driving. It’s still difficult, and tiring, but I know what I need to do to feel safe now and that makes a big difference.

My birthday

It’s a cliché to say that you birthday should be one of the best days of the year, but for me, in 2017, it was. The day before I drove my partner and me down to Tarr Steps, a beautiful spot in Somerset where I’d spent many birthdays as a child. It was the longest drive I’d ever done, and when we got there the weather was hot and still and perfect. I had a cold shower to get rid of the sweat of six hours in a car with no air conditioning, on a very hot day, and then got drunk ludicrously easily on white wine sitting outside. The next day, my birthday morning, I woke up very early. When I was small my brothers and I used to get up super early, sneak out of the hotel, and walk along the river to a meadow and back before breakfast. I decided to relive the tradition. When I set out, the sun was only halfway down the trees covering the sides of the valley either side of the river, and the river itself still had patches of mist. By the time I got back to the hotel, the sun was fully up and everything was hushed and quiet but bathed in warm golden light. It was a perfect start to the morning.

Gratitude jar

Every weekend, or sometimes more often, I wrote on little pieces of paper things that had happened that had made me happy or that I was grateful for, and I kept them in a glass jar. It’s been a great way of remembering the good bits, and emptying out the jar to relive the good times on the 1st of January was hilarious and heartwarming. Many of them seemed to involve weekend trips to the pub for a drink and a heart-to-heart with my partner, although there were also many to do with books I’d read, or relief at various drives being over without any incident.

Concerts

I went to several excellent concerts (gigs? I don’t know what to call these anymore) this year, most of them with one of my brothers. We saw Radiohead in Manchester, which was phenomenal, and the band James twice (some of you may remember James from the 1990’s hits Sit Down and Laid). We saw them at Newmarket racecourse, which was a brilliant and hilarious afternoon and evening. I got quietly drunk on Pimm’s, we watched some races and then the band came on around dusk. One of my happiest and brightest memories of the year.

Learning

Last year my employers encouraged me to get some more training in bookkeeping, as much of my job involves bookkeeping tasks. I am now the proud holder of a Foundation Certificate in Bookkeeping, and I’m planning the next course to embark on now. Studying alongside work is far from easy, especially when you have a long commute, but it’s great to feel like I’m still learning something.

The laziest evening ever

I am someone who often has issues relaxing, as I always make to do lists so long that nobody could ever achieve all the stupid things I put on them. So the odd evening when I really chill out is precious. One evening in 2017, my partner was out at a conference, so I knew the evening’s choice of food and television viewing was just down to me. I got off the train, bought a bottle of wine, then went to the local chippie and bought battered sausage and chips. Battered sausage, wine, and a few episodes of Sex and the City: it was a truly glorious evening.

 

I hope you all had many wonderful memories in 2017, and here’s to making many more in 2018!

2017: My Year in Books

Rarely have I read more voraciously or more gratefully than I have in 2017. My commute is devoted to reading and I am incapable of going to work with only one book with me – I take two if not three in case one doesn’t take my fancy. This is partly because 2017 is the year I have started Actively Avoiding the News. I hit my emotional limit after the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Each horror on its own would have scarred me, but the headlines about lost partners and family members became so gratuitously designed to twist a knife in your heart that I became too angry with the media to want to engage. Instead, I read books, and read even more fiercely than I do normally. Here are a few highlights and lowlights.

The Good

How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb

This is a late entry for 2017, as it was a Christmas present. The writing is brilliant, and his story is by turns very funny and completely heartbreaking. His take on masculinity and his wise words on how toxic it can be make this a vitally important addition to the feminist literary canon. I learnt an enormous amount about the pressure boys and men are under from a very young age, and had a little more insight than I needed into how a teenage boy’s mind works. How he had the courage to put to paper some of the ways he acted at university is beyond me – a more accurate title for those sections would be ‘how to be a complete penis’, and they make me want to instruct all girls not to date a man below the age of 25 – but that, I suppose, is his point. The patriarchy benefits nobody, not even white boys who went to university at Cambridge. This book should be compulsory reading for all.

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I’ve tried to read Virginia Woolf before, and found it impossible, but something made me try again with Night and Day. I absolutely loved it. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the dialogue is perfect, and the relationship between mother and daughter is so accurate it’s uncanny. Some might find the moment-by-moment descriptions of emotional states wearing, but I thought they captured the difficulties of everyday trials and tribulations only too well. I’ve since tried reading a few others of hers, but so far they’ve all been too whimsical and ‘let’s float off on a tangent’ for me.

Happy by Derren Brown

This is a self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Brown argues against the popular case for endless positivity, pointing out how this can quite easily just make everyone feel worse. He outlines various ancient philosophies in very accessible language, and generally made me feel a whole lot better about things. This and Night and Day are now fixtures by my bed for nights when I’m having trouble getting my brain to calm down and switch off.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Towles’s novel Rules of Civility has been one of my absolute favourite books for about five years, and I was a little nervous about this second book. The hardback, which I loaned from the library, is simply enormous and the cover is brash and unappealing. However, once I got into it, this is a wonderful story. It follows an aristocrat in revolutionary Russia, who is put under house arrest in the opulent Hotel Metropol (which I was very excited to find afterwards actually exists, and if Russia wasn’t such an autocratic, sexist, homophobic shitshow of a country I’d want to go and blow a lot of money staying there). He makes friends and loses them and has more adventures than you would think possible in only one building. The whole thing is brilliantly atmospheric, and I loved the little bits of Russian history he slipped in, too.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr AND To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

I’ve read a lot more non-fiction than usual this year, and found some real corkers. These books were both excellent examinations of technology’s effect on modern life. The Shallows focusses on the ways the internet is affecting how our minds work – fascinating stuff, and frightening too. Our attention spans and short-term memories are getting worse and worse, and this has knock-on effects for our relationships and how we interact. We are getting less patient and more fidgety, our brains are tired and our expectations are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale. To be a Machine follows the extraordinary world of transhumanism – people who want to extend human life spans, perhaps indefinitely, and perhaps by melding man and machine. The writing is superb, and along with The Shallows, it’s a great read for encouraging us all to take a step away from the technology and assess what’s really important to us.

The Bad / Unfinished

Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton

I decided to give this a try as I grow worryingly close to reading every single one of Agatha Christie’s books, and thought I’d better look out for a “replacement” author now so the pain of having no more of her books to read will be easier to bear. However, Agatha Raisin is not for me. I read a couple and they’re reasonably funny but there is no skill involved in solving any of the crimes, only endless irritating returns to question the same people, long past most folk would have taken her to court for a restraining order, and then finding the culprit by falling over them by accident. Tedious.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Having said that, this novel by my beloved Agatha is really rather dreadful. An attempt at John le Carre-esque spy thriller-ness is just confusing and tortured, the ending is baffling and it involved Poirot’s twin – which I think may be the one and only time he makes a (sort of) appearance. The only one of hers I haven’t enjoyed, so far.

How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong

Tepid. Obviously aimed at middle-class morons like myself who have time to read a book about worrying less about money, rather than people who actually need to worry about money like those who have to decide between feeding their children and paying for electricity. His main thought is that your worries about money are probably connected to something else, some other deep insecurity which isn’t actually anything to do with not being able to afford the latest iPhone. Well, duh. Don’t waste your time.

A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

Another attempt to find an enjoyable crime writer who isn’t Agatha Christie. Again, not my cup of tea. All rather odd and the sort of book where the mistakes people make are because they’re too stupid to take an obvious course of action. Tiresome and I skimmed the second half rather than prolong the pain any longer.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Cracking opening chapter, total nonsense from then on. Something to do with a baseball, flitting between time periods, no clue who anyone is or why you should give a hot damn about any of them. No.

Author of the Year

It would be Agatha Christie for the second year in a row, and to be honest maybe it should be – I’ve read so many crackers of hers this year, particularly a few that aren’t Poirot or Marple: Crooked House, Sparkling Cyanide and Sad Cypress. All fantastic.

But one crime author who I returned to this year, and then read four books back-to-back, was Nicci French. I’ve read many of their books (it’s a writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and particularly enjoyed their series with Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who gets caught up in a lot of police cases. Earlier this year I read Thursday’s Child, Friday on My Mind, Saturday Requiem and Sunday Morning Coming Down one after the other. The plots are exceptional and I love the characters and places that they’ve created. If Frieda Klein’s house was real, I would want to buy it. The books are very creepy but not revolting, which is good for me – I shy away from a few contemporary crime writers because they’re just too nasty. I once read a short story by Karin Slaughter which was so revolting and poisonous, it made me think she needs some serious psychoanalysis. And to stop writing immediately. But I can highly recommend all these Frieda Klein novels, which are intelligent and completely engrossing.

 

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.

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.