I read a lot of stuff on the internet, partly because there are lots of interesting things to read, and partly because I’m easily distracted, which seems to be the primary function of Web 2.0 – to distract us from the things we could have been doing In Real Life (frequently shortened to IRL, but I’m wasting enough of my Real Life reading disposable internet opinions without electively shortening it as well).  Ooh look, a cat in a box.  Sorry.  Where was I?

Some of the time I comment, because I, like every other commenter, think that I’m the one who sees these things clearly, unlike the massed mindless drones of commenters flaunting their wrongness in forums across the wide e-universe.  It’s like traffic jams, queues for the Christmas post and the table seats on trains across the let’s-call-it-civilised world: they’re populated by people who wish the crowd would bugger off, not counting themselves as part of it.  This is the phenomenon of seeing oneself as separate from all the others chasing similar incentives under similar conditions, and I find it vaguely annoying, as does probably every other irritated individual in the altogether annoying crowd. The opposing phenomenon, however, is one I find more than vaguely annoying.

The inverse of the I’m-not-part-of-this illusion is the I-speak-for-all-of-us illusion.  Commenters reply to articles with “we”, implying a spokesperson’s mandate, partners tell waiting staff “we’re fine”, not knowing if it’s true or not and politicians spout more “we” than an overwatered toddler, all of which makes me wish I knew how to grind my teeth. I can wiggle my ears, and raise one eyebrow, but the teeth are..  ooh look, a cat falling off a shelf.

So.  Yeah.  Anyway. People forgetting that they don’t have a mandate to speak for all of X-, Y- or Z-kind. Dear people-who-are-not-British, please don’t listen to “What the british think about (insert group here)”, it’s probably just what the writer thinks and we all disagree with his/her opinion. I know this because I speak for all people who are not that writer. Dear generation-other-than-mine, please disregard the assurances given to you in articles claiming that my generation either despises or venerates you, it’s all tosh, we haven’t even noticed you as are we’re the selfish generation who just want to cut-throat our way into a job at some point so we can live a life of luxury and one day own our own hovel.  I know this because I speak for my entire generation. Dear Men: I wouldn’t know what to make of it either.  If I collected all of the “What women really want” articles and posts created on the basis of one writer’s personal wishes, supported by having asked a couple of mates if they agree, I’d have a very very big pile of annoying rubbish. If men are expected to treat us as individuals (which they are by me, although who knows what the other, obviously wrong, commenters think about it) then I think it’s making the job unfairly hard to tell them we all want the same thing.  Maybe the same problem exists with “What men really want” articles – I wouldn’t know, I’m too busy trying to combine being myself, avoiding clinginess, showing vulnerability, not letting him lose face and showing him I need him with .. ooh look, a cat on a skateboard.

All those people writing their blogs, thinking their opinion matters.  They don’t speak for us.  That’s not what we want – we don’t want someone to stand up and speak for us, we want to be listened to as we are.  We don’t want to be categorised and labelled, we want to be accepted as individuals.  All of us want that.  Exactly that and nothing else.  I know this because I speak for all of us, and I am, unlike every other driver, post office queuer, train passenger and internet commenter, not wrong. I speak for all of us, because I .. ooh look, a dancing cat.




There are some places where I just don’t go anymore, because it’s not safe. These places include High Street clothing shops, rooms with televisions playing in them and supermarkets with more than four checkouts, and it’s because I’m an optiophobe: scared of choice. Well, I say “scared of choice”, but obviously I’m not humiliatingly, irrationally, terrified of it like I am of spiders, and I don’t want to abdicate all choice, otherwise I could just commit a terrible crime and look forward to a life prescribed for me by prison officers. On the other hand, given a choice of 60 different types of ice-cream, I will invariably choose either:

a) Vanilla,
b) No ice-cream at all,

because the thought of choosing from the endless variety is just too much for me.

This may give the impression that I’m a useless, pathetic weed who is simply incapable of thinking things through and making up her own mind. This would be only partly true. I am, of course, a useless, pathetic weed, as the sum total of my action to defend myself against the ills of this world consists of this blog, so the weed charge stands. Thinking things through, however, is another matter: I’m quite good at it, and I do it all the time, which is exactly the problem. While I’m contemplating the 60 available ice-cream flavours, I can’t help but begin comparing them and their interactions on my palate. Not only that, but their nutrition value, possible melt rate, desirability by my companions (share value), relationship to my diet so far that day, their place in my overall ice-cream consumption, their price, location, fat content, and the social signals I’m receiving from the person selling them and from the other customers, all flicker through my consciousness before I can bring myself to make an order.

Help in making choices can be hard to find.

Help in making choices can be hard to find.

I can do it, I honestly can. I can summon all my mental powers to focus and tune out, and clear my mind of everything not related to ice-cream purchasing, and I can get the job done…. but then, why should I? The things I’ve had to evict from my sphere of concentration are probably much more important than what kind of ice-cream I should have. When I then forget to transfer the money for the rent, or turn up for work without the presentation I’m meant to be presenting, I can’t help wondering if that’s because I quashed exactly that “remember the rent/presentation” thought, in order to make some trivial and irrelevant decision involving an unnecessarily broad spectrum of choice.

Choice is like food, or water. A certain amount is necessary; increases beyond sufficiency are not necessarily beneficial. Too much leaves us bloated, overweight and drowning.

The end effect is, I couldn’t give two hoots if people think I’m socially incompetent when I stand there blankly refusing to pick one. They may well think “This idiot really needs to get a handle on these basic life decisions”, respond telepathically with “Get your choices out of my face: I have better things to do with my brain than this.” I don’t want a choice of doctors, I want one competent doctor. I don’t want an entire high street of fashion labels competing for my attention and limited finance, I just want a pair of trousers and a shirt, and so I have developed a number of coping techniques. Here are my favourites:

  1. Only wear clothes in one colour and without logos.  The in-shop choosing is almost annihilated once you’re limited to the clothes that fit these criteria and your body, and getting dressed is then also simplified, because everything goes together.  Yay!
  2. Stop eating meat, or some other very common ingredient.  Your choices in restaurants are similarly decimated.
  3. Stop trying to get a really good meal/dress/wine/whatever, and aim for something acceptable.  This means you can get a recommendation from the staff and just buy that, safe in the knowledge that it’s probably not a disaster. Be a good tipper and you’ll probably end up with all the nicest stuff anyway.
  4. Go with loyalty instead of trends, in everything except brands. Stick with everything you’ve got: objects, friends, clothes – don’t go for new when you don’t have to.  Mending old clothes (or having them mended) is still cheaper, faster and less stressful than shopping.  Mend old friendships wherever possible too.
  5. Stop watching TV (another source of endless and trivial naffing choices), and use an adblocker on your computer.  Cultivate ignorance of consumer culture, and even salespeople will start to steer a course around you.
  6. Practice a blank idiot stare to defend yourself with in high-choice scenarios. After step 5 this will come automatically.

A bit of a crash diet? Maybe. But it does mean I remembered the rent this month, and my presentation too.  I count that as “acceptable” which, by my own rules, means it’s good enough for me: I win!

The Boss (short)

He sits at his desk, croaking well-meaning grumbles like a bloated amphibian, short-tempered and snuffly, shuffling his day’s work-papers decisively to one side and then to the other, busily resenting bothersome questions and dismissing with an irritated wave the foot-to-foot shuffling questioner, immersed in their own miserable frustrated hurry. He frowns away all plaintiffs, referring them mercilessly to unfathomable systems and processes of his own unnavigable design, impatient and work-wearied at the start of the day. “Get to the point”, he tells them, and those naïve enough to do so get the bluntest of short shrifts, “what on earth do I have you here for if I have to do your JOB AS WELL AS MINE” he barks, heartless and oblivious to their helplessness.

“Hello you”, I breeze, adopting his accent to announce my address to his personal self, “how’s your motor?” Tectonic plates shift under his amphibian features and he suddenly radiates cuddly uncleness; she’s running a lot better now, do I want to borrow it at the weekend, know you’re visiting family and the trains, well they’re terrible dear, isn’t it? The mottled cheeks wobble with jollity: do I have everything I need for the day? Lots to do yes, but all in a day’s work, isn’t it, how did it go with the stuff he put together for me last time? “Lovely, lovely job, thanks for the help, much appreciated”, oh not at all, flushing slate pink under the compliment, just let him know anytime, always there to help. His smile puts an arm around me and the grey-skinned dictator is another man, one who swallows him up on a bad day, except you know that you know, that you’re never really sure who swallowed whom.

Very short story

The lady looked at her watch again, reflexively. It didn’t look like she even noticed the time. More like she just had to do something other than be still, and so repeated the motions of pushing up her sleeve, looking at her watch, pursing up her lips, pulling her sleeve down, looking out of the window, crossing her legs, sighing, pushing up her sleeve and looking at her watch again.

The other passengers noticed the slight oddness of her behaviour but, not wanting to make contact, they busied their eyes reading and re-reading the advertising that lined the inside of the tram.

Sascha stood up from her seat, looked around at the other passengers, smiling, and announced loudly, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Today is free foot massage day. There is a free five-minute foot massage for anybody here, now. If you would like a free foot massage, please simply take off your shoes.”

The other passengers stared at her for a moment, then looked away. Nobody spoke. Some returned to inspecting the advertising. Some stared at their feet as though their feet had embarrassed them.

Sascha smiled again, then sat down and took her shoes off.

Managing Alexandra England

Freelancing means there’s no difference between the company and you. For me, this means firstly that I can bitch about myself over a cup of tea, but be magnanimous and forgive myself because I’m so good at what I do. Secondly, it means I read far too many productivity and self-management blogs to try and get my staff under control. They’re great – my favourites are Lifehacker and Stepcase Lifehack, both of which have lots of great advice, although not very often the advice I really need: “stop reading blogs and get on with something!”.

One piece of advice they frequently repeat is the need to manage our online identities, to make sure that what people see about us online isn’t damaging, and is hopefully helpful to us in getting the jobs, clients, partners and lifestyles we want. This is often a two-pronged effort, consisting of a “landing page” website (mine’s under construction) and a tightening, throttling even, of social media. The logic says that if our future bosses, partners and colleagues are all googling us to dredge the dirt on our misdeeds, then we should get there first and tidy up.

I got curious – what does the web really have to say about me then? There’s a site called webmii that rakes up everything it can find on a name you give it: on my name it found a couple of pictures of me that I use for profiles, and my profiles at places like Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing and so on. So far, so innocuous.

Google had more to say, and also found my profiles and comments on:

mac forums
Leo.org translation forums
yahoo answers

and comments on a board where I thanked Dashama (my online yoga teacher) for her free yoga lessons. It also found this blog, and my previous online home, Bolts from the Black.

Ok, deep breath, that is actually quite a lot. There are details about almost every aspect of my life. A total stranger could find out very very quickly, (even more quickly now that I’ve collected all those links in one place!) that I’m a Quaker and a non-theist, a linguist, teacher and translator, a film, book, comic, music and comedy lover, a traveller, a student, a divorcee, newbie aikidoka and a person who starts things she sometimes doesn’t finish. But what didn’t it find?

Hate. There isn’t any hate, for me or from me: I have argued with racists and I’ve told a Yahoo asker that he really should write his own university essays, but that’s all friendly, open-minded stuff. There’s no badmouthing, no threats, no lies. There’s drunkenness, there’s a great deal of silliness and friends, and there are some really, really, unflattering pictures. If a prospective client were to look me up, would they, after discovering all of these things about me, still be interested? And does it matter?

No. For me, it doesn’t actually matter, because it’s all true. It is, however badly judged and embarrassing, all me. Maybe I could conceal it from people, and maybe they would be more likely to give me what I want – but I would have basically lied to get it.

I come from a small town in Wales where your business is everybody’s business, and I wasn’t brought up to do things in public that I don’t want my mum to find out about – there is really no hope of keeping things secret forever in a small town. If the internet has made us a global village, then we’re all living in the online equivalent of my small town, knowing the neighbours talk and hoping they aren’t saying anything bad. From experience, I can confirm that there’s nothing you can do to stop them. All you can do is watch your mouth, exercise a bit of self-control, stand by what you’ve done if you had good reason and apologise sincerely if you didn’t.

So, potential clients, bosses, colleagues, partners, please feel free. If you find things you don’t like, then I’m glad for both of us that we’ll never be forced to upset each other in person. If you find things you like, good! There’s plenty more where that came from, because that’s the real deal.

As Dan from Gloucester once wrote on my boiler, “Happiness is free – fill your boots!”

How not to do religion.

Religion is mostly uncool in general. Either there’s the romanticised Roman Catholic imagery (look at me playing with the etymology there. That’s what passes for cool in my world, oh yes) in things like ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ and ‘The Departed’, which we all know doesn’t come from belief, it comes from movie-and-tv world, in which depression, egomaniacal behaviour and drug abuse can all be quite cool and admirable, or there’s religious belief in the real world, which is mostly, as Dylan Moran has pointed out, based around tea. Not to mention quite incongruous. It doesn’t add up. Real World + Invisible Deity = Someone Looking Silly, or at least someone looking extremely serious, daring anyone to risk pointing out that they may possibly be being silly. There’s melodrama, or there’s boring.

Most religious groups do sort of divide up along those lines, too. You get the serious, dusty ones; the Wesleyans and the Church of England, Chapel, that sort of thing; and at the other end of it you get the happy-clappy seventh-day-pentecost alleluja evangelists. There’s space in between for every shade of ridiculousness except for Marcus Brigstocke. Mine is, of course, the one that manages to be both very very serious and more ridiculous than most of the others: the Quakers. And I don’t even fit in there.

Quakers are an odd bunch. The gist of it is; everyone has their own relationship with the divine (hereafter referred to as the Thing, to avoid causing offence to people who don’t believe in God. Of which I am one, but fortunately I’m not at all offended by any of this post), which means that we don’t need an intermediary to tell us how to be religious, so we all get together to sit in silence, mostly. Everyone, having their own relationship to the Thing, has their own truth, and so we don’t need to agree to believe exactly the same thing. If you’re conducting your own relationship with the Thing, it’s a 24/7 thing, and so you don’t get to cop out of anything by saying it’s not communing-with-the-Thing time (e.g. Sunday morning): you have to do it all the time. Practically, this tends to mean various levels of success/failure in not lying, fighting, gambling, getting drunk, being selfish or showing off. It really honestly doesn’t have anything do to with porridge. Although I like porridge a lot.

I’m mostly terrible at those things, especially at not being selfish and even worse at not getting drunk. Okay, and not showing off is really hard too. Okay, I’m only good at the not gambling, and I’m too choice-phobic for it anyway, I go tharn in the supermarket if my usual milk isn’t there and I have to pick one. I would claim to be good at not fighting, but then I’d have hexed myself on the not lying thing: ‘good at not fighting’ is not the same as ‘rubbish at fighting.’ The whole thing would be much easier if porridge-eating was part of it, I might shock myself and succeed at it. But the thing is, I’ve got used to trying and failing within this particular set of parameters, banging my head against this particular brick wall, so to speak. Just because I don’t believe in an actual proper God doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to quit bloodying my head on this reassuring, known, hard stone wall, and go seek a new one. Realising that I hate most mainstream movies hasn’t stopped me from paying a tenner to sit in a sticky-carpeted hollywood temple resenting the crisp-eaters behind me and hating my own popcorn-scoffing habits (I don’t even like popcorn), so I don’t see any arguments against sticking with my religion, with or without the God bit in it. Besides, there aren’t even any Quakers here, so it means I get to sit here with my Richard Dawkins book, and selfishly drink all the tea. Whilst eating porridge.

Where are the really, really un-cool comics?

I’ve just knocked back two whole series of Peep Show, and I’m raising a solitary glass of Ribena to the onscreen distress, discomfiture and other disses of David Mitchell. What a total dork. What a guy.

In principle it’s no surprise for comedy to be filled with people who don’t seem to get on well with reality: comedy is famously a place for exposing your vulnerabilities, testing your boundaries and so on, but British comedy (in my obviously baseless, biased and probably irrelevant opinion) seems to be particularly based around the public parading of shame and embarrassment. From Del Boy falling through the bar to Alan Partridge stabbing himself in the foot and Fry and Laurie’s Hedge Sketch, British comedy has a moment of mortification for pretty much any taste. There’s a BUT, though.

These people are pretending. They’re not one hundred percent inside those idiots they portray: maybe they’ve had moments of standing in the shoes of the incompetent, but not a life sentence. David Jason’s been in lots of other things, playing lots of different people. He’s not really a proper custard-case. Alan Partridge? I’ve seen Steve Coogan on Parky’s sofa, all leaning back and laughing, like people do when they’re perfectly normal, and not a loser, so I’m not going to believe he’s one of us. Fry and Laurie: who plays the social incompetent? Exactly. Doctor Bloody House himself. Doctor I’m-so-clever-I-get-lonely, Doctor You-all-forgive-me-for-being-an-egomaniac-because-you-fantasise-about-getting-in-my-pants House, Mister Sark of Astic, a genuine stottering invertebrate? Don’t make me laugh. No, really. Don’t, because it isn’t FAIR. These guys can stop. It’s just an act, they’re not in fact, embarrassed to be themselves. They get to knock off and go back to being cool. They’re like the posh girlfriend Jarvis Cocker sings to in ‘Common People’, who plays poverty for kicks, because in reality she has a choice.

If I was a completely different kind of person, I could now sound off about it being actually quite like pretending to be a member of any other socially disadvantaged group just for the sake of a bit of entertainment at their expense, and that discussion would go on and on until someone mentioned Hitler, and then I’d get blamed because this is my blog and I started it. And I’ve just written ‘Hitler’ anyway, so it is, definitely, now, my fault. But I’m not that kind of person, despite the Hitler comment; I’m the kind of person who just smiles and wonders what it is, whether I have really made another gaffe and I won’t realise it until I wake up in the night surreptitiously using my fingers to smooth out my upper lip to stop myself from cringing in the dark, or whether they are laughing with me. They never ever ever bloody are. Even David Bloody Mitchell betrays us on the panel shows. Okay, they’re scripted, but still – and there have been interviews, too, in which he’s come across as treacherously well-balanced.

I know that these comedy characters, just like film heroes and wizards and baddies, are not real. They’re based on real qualities, though, that we all have in life to some degree. Heroic people in the real world aren’t like in the movies, but we admire them. Real evil and selfish people aren’t movie–character bad, but we try to avoid them if we can get away with it without there being a scene. Why is it then, that if you’re afraid of other people and you tend to want to apologise for your skin and everything in it, that’s not, in life, a scaled-down version of the funny and charming movie version, but instead just, well, somewhere between pitiable and contemptible, depending on the charitableness of the cooler onlooker. Like, for example, comedians, who can see straight through us, take us off to perfection and then flick back to relaxed amiability. Bum-beans and reprobates.

So, what do we do? I can hardly join up with my own kind. ‘Flake Pride’ isn’t going to happen, because I’m as ashamed of them as I am of me, and they feel exactly the same way. I think. Obviously I haven’t asked, but there’s no union and you can’t select ‘Sad Sack’ on the census forms. So we just laugh. After all, it is funny. Social incompetents trying to get through life and cocking it up is funny. Even I can see that.

Maybe some of them are really lonely, bored, hoping to make a connection with someone else who doesn’t ‘get’ the world. Maybe it’s all of the comedians and most of the laughers, and there are no really cool people at all. Maybe we’re ALL uncool, and in the closet about it, hiding our true gawk behind successful performances, to varying degrees (which would explain Mr Mitchell’s apparently laid-back style on camera and allow me to return to thinking he’s The Real Thing). I think this is probably a ridiculously over-optimistic idea/hope/fantasy, but I’m going to cling to it like a barnacle to the first rock it finds, not knowing if there will ever be another. If anybody else wants to cling to my rock with me, you’re more than welcome: out yourself as socially incompetent and, if we can get more than three, then I’m up for a Flake Pride march in November (reliable weather, and we look good in coats). Maybe David Mitchell would open for us.