Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Driven and Committed, Need Not Apply

Driven: determined; ambitious; motivated; impelled; compulsive; goaded; involuntary.

Committed: pledged; sworn; bespoken; affianced; attached; loving; wrapped up; bound.

There is a point at which derived meanings become less synonymous with the original terms, where the ambitiously driven are no longer afforded prestige. What we value as most virtuous becomes obsession, to be admonished instead of rewarded.

Sometimes I consider the people I am acquainted with who are overtly ambitious, those who will stamp on heads to ascend mere inches. Yet it has occurred to me that this level of drive toward personal success could be condemned as some kind of involuntary compulsion. That said, I don't expect it to be included in DSM-V.

A very small part of me retains envious admiration for such individuals, for on occasion I have attempted to set myself on a blinkered route towards some end goal, planning out how I will thwart those who step in my way, packed ropes and hooks and carabinas for surmounting the impossible obstacles that may block the road to my destiny. The problem, as I see it, is that it is only on occasion and it turns out it's not my destiny after all.

If this implies I am not proud of my achievements, then it becomes all the more clear that it is a lie, a prophecy of false idols. If we wash our hands once, it is because they are dirty; we wash them six times in quick succession and we enter the domain of the obsessively, compulsively disordered. The distinction between being driven and compelled is as fine as that of commitment versus addiction. At some point choice ceased to have meaning. Perhaps pity rather than admiration is an appropriate response.

I spent half an hour or so talking to a total stranger last night - a freedom that comes courtesy of instant and essentially anonymous messaging. Taken at face (or text) value, here was a young man engaged in a desperate battle: on one side his brother's and his own mental health, on the other academic achievement. Not knowing how much truth there was to his account, or anything more about him than that stated above, I offered forth the generic, unbranded motivational remarks I reserve for students I don't know. We must keep trying to achieve what we want, for ourselves and not others, although sometimes it's difficult to establish whether we should hold on or let go.

Ridicule me if you will, but I absolutely believe this about drive and commitment: all of us have one thing that we must do. Whether we excel in that thing is irrelevant. I had the noteable misfortune of catching Simon Cowell in full swing a couple of days ago, before him a man who couldn't sing at all. Maybe he understood this for himself, or was convinced that Cowell was lying. It doesn't matter either way, for in his eyes was the glint of ambition and it denied the truth. This was something he had to do.

To students I have often declared that we are all good at something, a statement that may need re-qualifying. We all believe we are good at something, even if that belief only visits us from time to time. Often it takes a while to work out what it is that we must do and because we are compelled to do it, well, practice makes perfect, allegedly. Very few of us are granted a fully-fledged gift outright by the deity of our choosing, but in time (and with measured doses of drive and commitment) we improve. There is no option not to.

Way back at the start of my mammouth sick leave my GP offered me the following words of wisdom: it is acceptable to be off with stress for a month, maybe six weeks, but no longer than that. From this I gather that the four months it has taken for me to reach as near to full recovery as I'm going to get is unacceptable. To whom? Employers? Society at large? When he said it, I registered the thought that I didn't care. I would resign and give up material well-being for good if it guaranteed I'd retain my sanity.

Within this there is the implicit assumption that my commitment to my career is such that somehow I can shake off the difficulties and 'pull myself together'. This is the kind of magic the government believe in too, when they tell us that we must reskill ourselves as frequently as is required in an ever-changing employment market. Good grief! It took me long enough to happen upon one conventional career that pays a decent wage and do the necessary to get into it.

Certainly being absent for almost half of the academic year does not bode well when it comes to seeking alternative employment, be that in teaching or elsewhere. I imagined last September that once I did 'pull myself together' I would be more concerned about this and still I simply can not manufacture sufficient motivation for venturing further into hell, even if there are places where they've managed to install thermostats or air-conditioning and 'it's not so bad'.

I haven't given up on a career in teaching. It is an intent that I have always lacked, although I'm told I am a good teacher, an asset to the school. If I am supposed to be motivated by these kind words, then my apologies for feeling only sadness that they couldn't make my time there more tolerable. If they had I could have continued indefinitely, believing that it was the thing I must do.

The lesson that is learned from all of this is that we do not fail simply because we give up, for it indicates we do not suffer from OCD, manifest in those driven by blind ambition. Going after that one thing we want most is all well and good, encourageable even. Latching on to anything else is to chase our own tails, hardly a desirable behaviour, in dogs or humans.

Monday, January 28, 2008

And it only cost me a pound!

Like most topics that crop up in this blog, I vowed I wouldn't write about my weight and now here I am doing it, even though I could be anything from the width of a stick to the side of a house and it wouldn't matter as far as my internet presence is concerned. However, as this has been a significant preoccupation for all of my adult life (and most of my adolescence), it's remarkable that I've failed to mention it at all.

By medical and social definition I am obese, not quite 'morbidly obese', but with a sufficiently disproportionate height to weight ratio for that incredibly ugly word to apply. Honestly, I'd rather be called fat, chubby, tubby, lardy, pudgy, chunky, cuddly or anything than 'obese'.

I've experienced many phases of 'obesity': first there was the puppy fat stage, which coincided with puberty and in retrospect is somewhat more than coincidence, in that every epochal change in my weight has occurred at the same time as a significant hormonal event. Being a social scientist is not a good thing when it comes to trying to explain these changes. Adolescence is a trying time for almost everyone and mine was not exactly a smooth transition into adulthood, to say the very least. In other words it might have been the hormones but there are too many other factors that may account for my weight in stones matching my age from 12 to 16.

The next change came in the form of a pregnancy that ended at thirteen weeks. Again, my activities were such that I was walking a mile or two a day, hardly eating at all, so hormones alone can not be thanked for the sudden decrease in weight - 3 stone in two months this time. By the end of this phase I was 11 stone, my lowest weight since childhood and, eye witnesses tell me, rather gaunt-looking. Some sensible adjustments in diet put me back up between 12 and a half and 13 stone, which was where my weight stayed until after the birth of my first daughter.

There's not much can be done to control appetite and diet when caught between breast-feeding and pregnancy, so I tried once (appetite suppressants prescribed by one GP and later condemned by another GP in the same practice) then gave up. My second daughter was born, my weight was 16 and a half stone and stable - until the hysterectomy.

Bear in mind I was mid-degree study, consuming vast amounts of college canteen cappuccinos and quick meals. It wasn't that I didn't notice my weight increasing; I chose to ignore it. No scales in my house or anywhere else I frequented, so it was easy done, other than my discarded clothes poking me vengefully every time I shuffled them across to fit in the next size up.

Finally, after expanding from UK size 16 to size 26 over seven years, several factors worked together to cajole me into doing something about it. I was losing hours of sleep due to backache, Nigel had lost his fitness due to illness and a colleague asked me if my ankles were swollen. Well, yes, they were - with fat. I went to a fitness centre, weighed in at 19 stone 4 and decided it was time to gain control.

There are many bizarre rituals that I share with my fellow travellers on this terrible journey. I recall with much amusement (now it's so long ago) a time when my mum and I were dieting. It was serious starvation of the body at 750 calories a day, drawn from dry salad, brown rice, pasta and low calorie bread. One evening we jogged from home to the town centre, bought chips, went to the pub where my dad worked, had a drink and got the bus back home. I think that might have been the end of that diet, although my loathing of most things wholemeal and boring, bare salad harps back to that time.

Another thing we do to ration the calories is miss meals, usually breakfast, which any dietician / nutritionist will tell you is one of the most likely ways of failing to lose weight at all. Breakfast gets the metabolism going and stops severe bingeing later in the day. Us fatties, however, often see it as the one meal we can forego because it occurs when we are least hungry and therefore we can save the calories so we can have a decent meal fit for more than a rabbit at teatime. Eating breakfast pretty much every day was one of the 3 big changes I made to my lifestyle six years ago.

'Shape Up And Dance' with Felicity Kendal. Oh, what profound hatred I have for that poor woman because of this particular ritual. We've all done it - one of my colleagues uses a DVD that requires her to be aerobic with Patsy Palmer and she despises her too. The theory, I imagine, is that with just a little investment in one of these products we can fit a decent workout into our daily routines without too much effort. The reality is yet another piece of abandoned clutter in our fat-fighting lives, with the added bonus that we get to dust it and feel guilty at the same time.

I said that 6 years ago I decided I had to get in control of this weight issue, but this is not necessarily about losing weight and it's most certainly not about being the ideal weight for my height, which by all accounts is between 7 and a half and 9 and a half stone. At my lowest weight of 11 stone I was, by all official measures, still 'overweight'. I would be more than happy to be 11 stone again. My family would worry about me if I was though, as they did last time.

What I needed to control was the total obsession with my weight - not easy when every medical professional deems it necessary to pass negative, usually threat-loaded comment. Then there's the fact that clothes' shops don't stock my size, people commenting with a smile of encouragement when it looks like I might have lost some weight. I was sick to the back teeth of all of it. Being overweight makes you feel guilty about eating, causes you to judge other overweight people when they're eating, destroys your self confidence and leaves you convinced you're a failure.

When I had sinus surgery a couple of years ago I was the fittest I'd ever been in my life. OK, I was still about 16 stone, but my pulse rate was normal and when I told the nurse who took it that I had been working out, changed my diet etc. and lost 3+ stone. The response? Nothing. Hooray!

It's a work in progress, which is a wonderful freedom. I have this thing with the house that if it looks half-decorated then that is far better than in need of decorating. I'm doing something about it, getting there slowly. I'm still fat, but I'm not over-eating and I'm exercising regularly.

And I know I'm not over-eating because I signed up to a free online calorie counting service two weeks ago, more to check that this was true than to get all fixated on how many calories are in the things I want to eat. Amazingly, even with the pizza, kebabs and lager I've consumed during that time I've still stayed at 2000 calories or less a day.

Having lost only a pathetic, singular pound in the past week (with concerted effort on the exercise front) I am a little miffed that things aren't progressing faster, but I will not allow this aspect of my life to be the thing that controls everything else. It did so for far too long. I know that I, like all abnormally thin or fat people, will never be free from monitoring my weight, diet and exercise levels. There are many who are lucky that they will never understand how difficult this is to live with.

Perhaps a little truth can be found in the old adage that inside every fat person there's a thin person sometimes striving, often giving up on the possibility of ever getting out. I for one do not want to be thin. It's just not right for me.

Friday, January 25, 2008


Anyone who has ever posted to Blogger will know that above the textarea for the main body is a place to add the title. I have always started from a title, as my posts are never entirely pre-planned: I have something I want to say but there's no concrete destination in mind when I begin. My title provides a succinct frame of reference, keeping me focused in some direction or other.

Today a title eludes me, although I don't quite know why. At 7.30am I was set on getting straight down to some novel editing, just as soon as I reached a suitable place to leave the book I am reading ('Barking' by Tom Holt). Then my concentration drifted and I lost interest, not because the book is bad. It offers Tom Holt's usual blend of off-the-cuff fantasy with chuckles and I've read enough of his books to feel qualified to say that, in my opinion, it may not be one of the best novels he's penned, but it's certainly not one of the worst.

So I dragged myself into the world, feeling somewhat weary in spite of an early night, which involved missing half of Star Trek. I'm thoroughly aware that as of a week on Monday, Bravo's scheduling of The Next Generation at 11pm will be far too late for me to enjoy it without suffering the consequences severly at 6.40 the following morning. It is a minor, yet acutely experienced, inconvenience - a symptom if you like. Like I can predict where Tom Holt's narrative will take me next, or second-guess the character reactions of the crew of The USS Enterprise D/E, I know that this is my Level 1 stress response kicking in.

A momentary digression into the wonders of spelling: why does 'took' use a double 'o', when 'stuck' does not? It was 'struck' that 'strook' me before - the realisation that I think in words, and in the same way as I occasionally lapse when writing and get stuck on 'stuck' if I think too hard about it, I did the same in my thoughts. In fact I got so caught up in the spelling I forget now what I had been 'strook' by. However, grammatically I am certainly stricken.

Back to the issue of a title for this post: it seems that when I ponder what it should be I develop either a twitch in my right eye, or an awareness of it. Both are appropriate to the meaning of 'stress' - emphasis, tension, focus, force, accent. It's a good, concise term that has the privilege of being one of those words unlikely to suffer ambiguity even out of context.

Every person experiences the effects of stress in a very different and unique way. For me it is mostly this sense of total exhaustion and disengagement. If that doesn't boot the stressor into touch it's followed up by some pretty brutal abdominal pain, physically real enough for me to have long since abandoned my appendix. On the plus side, knowing one's stress responses can be an effective means of tackling the issue head on. Unfortunately this also assumes that something can be done about it when in actuality we are rendered powerless, if only by the stress itself.

Passive use of the verb 'render' in the previous paragraph is intentional, hypothetically no less so than the Wachowski brothers' presentation of pure Foucauldian hell that is The Matrix Trilogy. We carry those little pills in our pockets, moving them from one garment to the next with loose change and receipts. If we ever notice they are there, we do so knowing that we can take neither. The only free will we possess is bound to those pills remaining in our possession.

I loved parts 1 and 2 of The Matrix Trilogy and I possibly don't need to explain why, considering that the above examples of my interests in fiction depict alternate realitites that are far better than this. 'Revolutions' killed the hopes built in 'The Matrix' and 'Reloaded'; Messrs Wachowski must bear this responsibility to their graves. Even when we have the power to create the illusion of a free universe it is beyond us. We remain constrained by the discursive binds we tied ourselves and merely tighten the knots when we struggle against them.

Only Rodenberry managed to produce a vaguely utopic vision that endures, with a blatant disregard for the efforts of his successors to deconstruct or even destroy it. The further he ventured away from mainstream US culture, the harder it became to maintain those counter ideals in the face of increasing awareness and acceptance of diversity. It gives me hope, not that the future will be a place driven by self betterment instead of accumulation of wealth, although that would be nice, as would the required eradication of poverty and disease, not to mention a military presence rightfully bestowed with pride and honour. No, my hopes are not so grand or naive.

Returning to my own education was a head-on collision with something introduced to me as 'the sociological imagination'. I've since grasped that it's just a case of opening the curtains and looking out of the window rather than walking away. Ideologies aside, a quick glance will tell us that this is not the place we believed it to be. It's much better and yet much worse than that all at once.

I foresee my own narrative heading into post-modern apathy - the lack of title assures it. There will be no revolution, bloody or otherwise, not out there, I thought. All your grand theories are just keys jangling from the jailer's belt. Then I held onto that moment and let it turn to introspection. Where do I go now? What do I mean by 'out there'? If I follow where I lead then the freedom of which I write is that created by the mind, in the mind, hopes and dreams cast in ink or light and thrown to the void.

And I turned to Ginsberg's ghost and said 'I am beat!' and he took my hand and pulled me to my feet and replied 'Yes you are.'

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The costs of living in a bubble

Yesterday I endured the same old question-answer routine that I have for the past seven years.

"So, you're a teacher?"


"What do you teach?"



Inquisitor makes some backward movement to ward off evil mind-reading powers.

Actually, it can go one of two ways at that point: either the person with whom I am conversing develops a sudden terrible fear of the seer status they themselves ascribed to me, or they mumble some regret about psychology not being on the curriculum when they were at school.

And really, as I've written a lot more than I've taught over the past four months, my defining occupation is that of writer, by choice and reality. Alas it occupies but still doesn't pay, and it's not going to get me corporate rate membership at the local sports and fitness centre.

By now it is custom in this type of scenario for me to demystify the magic of my discipline, such as it is mine at all. We are all mind-readers, or else we would make little sense of this world. So, I said, yes, I do know what you're thinking, but not because I have special abilities, but because your face is in my direction but the rest of you is off down the corridor. With that he trundled off to get a form he'd forgotten the first time, amazed that I could know such a thing.

Elsewhere this week, life has progressed in mundane fashion, other than the absurd ups and downs of prices and interest rates. I'm sure when I was younger if the interest rate went up it did so because inflation was on the rise, and prices increased accordingly and indeed universally. So there I am, in 'The Asda', staring at the shelves of the bread aisles with around six of my fellow shoppers, trying to make sense of £1.53 for a loaf and I'm in danger of heavily quoting Victor Meldrew. Even the value / smart price / betterbuy loaves are 37p. It's like cardboard that stuff; it possibly is cardboard, and it's twice the price it was two years ago, but my mortgage has gone down again.

I don't follow, but I'll tell you what, Mr. Beveridge, it looks like we'll all be doing without bread and cakes. Even the cheap flour is now 36p, where it was 12p and I know that this has something to do with wheat crops because people have been telling me this for a few months. In the baking aisle, there was just one box of yeast left, which suggests anyone else with the potential know-how thought 'sod that for a game of soldiers' and decided to bake their own bread.

Last year I had to shop around for the best deal on coffee: now all of the supermarkets are selling it at less than they have for quite some time. My brother-in-law said they were on the Douwe Egberts at the moment, as they are coffee whores and buy whatever is cheapest that week. We're all coffee whores - that's why it's all a lot less costly than it was. Well, that and maybe something to do with bumper bean harvests.

On the way home I bought diesel - £1.07 a litre and that was the best price I could find locally. Any of you free market economists want to give me an insight into that one? We're driving more than ever before, so where's your self regulating price mechanism in all of this?

You may read all this and think 'Well duh! Nothing new there and the reasons are obvious.'. To a social scientist the possible explanations number so many that either your head explodes or you find yourself a nice bubble away from reality and peer out occasionally to utter 'What the hell...?'.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mills & Boo

Who the hell were they anyway?

This is what I imagine so far:

Miss Elizabeth Mills (Betsy to her friends) was a fifty odd year old spinster (actually make that an odd fifty year old spinster), who met another lovely middle-aged spinster, Edith Boon, one day in the publisher's office. Both had achieved limited success as writers of tame, fairytale style, romantic fiction - love stories for discerning ladies of leisure. You know the sort I mean: wives with empty nests who have nothing to fill the void but paperback consumption.

"We are very good at this." said Miss Mills.

"Indeed we are." replied Miss Boon.

"Let's set up on our own." suggested Miss Mills.

"What a simply splendid idea." responded Miss Boon.

And so they did, buying the novellas of other like-minded souls and casting them out into the ever yearning world.

To be perfectly honest, I don't care how Mills & Boon started or became the leviathon in bulk publishing that it is. The reality is that writing a fifty thousand word story of wishy washy romantic adventure, no, not even adventure, is no easy feat. Or maybe it is if this is the kind of thing one likes as a reader (and it's most certainly not).

However, I firstly owe it to the company to point out that as they've been making a decent living out of this for a century, there are evidently enough people out there who do like this kind of thing. What worries me is that I don't and as a consequence I'm not really writing the sort of story that would enthral the average M&B reader (professional women in their 20s and 30s, according to an article by Julie Bindel of The Guardian).

Nor do I want to be writing the kind of story where the heroine abandons her strength and independence to submit to a man. That kind of occupation isn't for everybody and definitely isn't one I can endorse.

Curses to my setting out of goals to be achieved. I've got to write it now, whether I want to or not.

The Wikipedia entry for Mills & Boon probably presents a more accurate account of the origins of the company than I do here.

I believe that the most accurate description of this blog posting is procrastination.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Elementary, My Dear Reader

It was windy last night, so windy in fact that our milkman was delayed in his deliveries, or at least I assume that's why the milk was late arriving. I imagine battery powered, open-backed vehicles with a maximum speed of about 15MPH don't fair well in weather like that. Still, he got here in the end. Unfortunately the empties had taken flight at 4am, but they've regrouped, ready for tomorrow.

And it's a 'Green Day': the local council's day for collecting all recyclable household waste. Again, due to the severe winds during the night, it would seem that the vast majority of the crescent's plastic bottles, cans and whatnot ended up in our front garden. Why, when our own rubbish stays firmly where it's put does everyone else's erupt into a bouncing merry-go-round echoing through the night and keeping me awake? Because the buggers don't 'rinse and crush' as directed and empty vessels, noise etc.

So that's air for you. Water - well - first there was the issue of a blocked washing machine filter, resulting in my newly washed jeans and Turbie Towel smelling like they'd spent the week camping in the Lake District. They're back in the wash as I write. Then there was a bit of a problem with the handle on my bucket breaking whilst said bucket was filled with disinfectant and water.

I've no doubt mentioned before that I like to visualise myself tending to a large holding in the country, as each morning I set the dogs free in the garden and clear their, erm, stuff. I sluice it down, all the while imagining that this is my farmyard and I am somehow free of suburban career slavery. Alas, I got halfway across the kitchen with the 2 gallon bucket, filled to the brim incidentally, and lost half the contents over the kitchen floor and myself.

All in all, it's taken two hours to get from the shower to here, just in time for the sun to gather enough strength to make my computer screen barely visible, although certainly not enough to dry up the muddy mess that was once my garden.

An interesting start to the day. I also managed to volunteer to knit mittens before I'd even got out of bed, so I guess I'm off to buy wool next, not that I even know whether I still own a pair of matching knitting needles, seeing as I haven't knitted anything since my eldest daughter was a baby.

Oh well, must crack on - things to achieve, yarn to buy and all that.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Picking up the Breeze

If I could sit here a moment longer,
The wind drifting over my head,
Dust clouding my view,
I'd have a vision.

If I could wait a second more,
The gust lifting my collar,
Howling in my ears,
I would find a voice.

If I could walk a mile further,
The gale pushing me onward,
My hair in my face,
I might find a way.

If I could take a day over,
The breeze capturing my thoughts,
Lifting my dreams,
I will find them outside.