On unempathetic headfighting

I have a handful of friends I very (very, very) rarely see in person. We live too far apart and our lives don’t collide on any kind of regular basis. Instead, we write (and now that corona’s struck, we have more time for more in-depth writing). Technology is a wonderful thing.

Except.

Except, regardless of all the emojis and jokes and stories of our days and silly photos of things we find share-worthy, sometimes words fail to convey the emotion behind the keyboard.

Things that sound harmless in my head occasionally snowball down my arms and through my fingers, so that by the time they reach the screenpaper several latitude lines away, they’ve built up a dangerous energy and explode through my friends’ eyes and send splitters of bad feelings into the furthest corners of their minds, pressing all the niggly buttons as they go. The buttons I would never intentionally poke. The ones my friends are aware of but still, after all this time, haven’t worked out how to disconnect. The ones that are hard-wired into the central nervous system and which set off their own trails of destruction like dominoes or the mouse-traps in comedy films, except fully lacking the humour.

The same reaction can be sparked by the lack of a response.

I know how well these automatic reactions work because I have enough buttons of my own. Buttons my friends press, as unwittingly and unwillingly as I press theirs.

Harmless isn’t always harmless. Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes it’s the memories of past hurts that come to haunt us, sometimes, but luckily far less regularly, the hurt is new. The ‘battleground of past hurt’ is one of our most frequently but unintentionally visited places.

That we’re still friends is something of a miracle and I’m grateful for them and their patience and ability to work things out.

***

Accusations

My About Page starts with the following story:

Once upon a time, someone interrupted my rant about someone else, with the words, “you do that too!”. That stung for a while, but it’s proved helpful since then. It makes me stop and check my position before getting stressed about others.”

That accusation feels like an eternity ago. Since then, there have been (many) other stinging comments from various people, but nothing quite as soul-shakingly succinct or ‘for general-purpose use’. Things happen, people say things, we work through them and they’re over. Rinse and repeat.

Recently I received the following general-purpose slap-round-the-face-with-a-dead-fish type comment:

“… [you] like to win arguments through domination and tone, not solve anything in any factual or sincere way – it’s all unempathetic headfighting.”

BAM.

*breathes*

Ok.

I would argue (!) that I aim for factual more than dominating, but I can accept that I miss the mark (and hit the wrong tone) more often than I’d like to admit.

“Headfighting” is a word I’d never heard before it was thrown at me like a grenade, but it’s a good word, one I can live with. It fits me and the way I argue more perfectly than any other word I can currently think of. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

Of all the uncomfortable words thrown at me in one sentence, it’s the “unempathetic” that really stings.

No matter how much I tell myself it’s unlikely to be true, that I’m probably not completely unempathetic, the idea lingers that it doesn’t really matter how empathetic I am or think I am; if it’s not felt by the people I care about most, and this person I care about is obviously not feeling it or they wouldn’t have found it necessary to say such a thing, then it doesn’t count.

That’s kind of worrying.

***

Empathy

Wikipedia says: “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.”

If anyone had asked, I would have said I often sense what people are feeling. I would have said I regularly ‘know’ what kind of mood people are in before they start talking. Once upon a time I was even proud of picking up mood changes by the punctuation people used when writing to me. I would have said I could pick up differences in the atmosphere like a people-y barometer. Sometimes I get so caught up in other people’s emotions that I lose track of my own.

Turns out that none of that’s worth very much if you lack the words or the ability to do anything with that knowledge (thinking of it as “know-ledge” when really it’s “feel-ledge” might be part of the problem…) and I lack both, to varying degrees in varying situations.

***

Emotional Vocabulary

When Kate asks me how I feel about things, I tell her what I think about them. I lack vocabulary for feelings and emotions and even when presented with a list (!) I have a hard time matching them to myself or other people. I once told her “I don’t feel.” In return, she sent me a quote that I instantly identified with:

“Others of us come equipped with a somewhat more basic emotional vocabulary that […] consists primarily of ‘good’, ‘not so good: and ‘I already told you’.

When […] asked what they are feeling, they usually say ‘Nothing’, and when they are asked how they are feeling, they usually say, ‘I don’t know.’”

– Stumbling on happiness

This is me.

This is so me, it’s weird reading it from someone else.

I might have a few more words than the person in the book, but it’s not a long list.

I’m working on it, but it’s a sloooow process.

***

Talking about feelings (and cats)

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, this lack of emotional words is only an issue when it comes to things involving people.

Inanimate objects, with the possible exception of glass, don’t care or talk about feelings. (The washing doesn’t care how aggressively I load it into the machine. My bike doesn’t care how I’m feeling when I cycle it. The weather doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it, it does its thing regardless of who hates it. The wardrobe doesn’t care how indecisively I get dressed. Glass, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered, does care what mood I’m in, at least enough to only cooperate when I’m being nice to it. Even then, it doesn’t talk to me, so words aren’t an issue.)

(Many) animals can sense moods and intents and act as they gauge appropriate. A cat might curl up on your lap and let you stroke it, or it might hide and avoid you, but it won’t talk about feelings, neither its own, nor yours.

People do. Especially people you know. In the best case, they care what you do and feel and they have their own doings and feelings which need considering and reacting or responding to. A while ago, when I was seething about something, but willing to admit that it wasn’t a rational something, and not wishing to explode all over the person I deemed ‘responsible’, a friend suggested I give my hurt a bubble bath. That is an idea I would never have had in a million years.

When it comes down to it, my approach to feelings (and empathy) is much more cat-like than people-like. Approach cautiously, then, if I like you, and/or I think you like/need my company, I’ll stay close and listen and maybe hug depending on the person, or if I don’t like you or I feel disliked or unappreciated or hurt or scared, I’ll distance myself (maybe after I put my hackles up, hiss, scratch or bite). I might well talk, possibly too much, but I am unlikely to talk about feelings.

***

Private thoughts and Button pressing

I love good words when they’re directed at me, but I’m more likely to return my sentiments in a hug than an equal outpouring. I don’t ‘gush’. It takes me forever to tell people I love them (if I ever do :/). I try not to get angry. I rarely cry in public. I don’t shout at people (in public or otherwise). I don’t (like) kiss(ing) in public. I don’t go in for public displays of anything. Private things are private, and even then, even in private, opening up to what’s more than just below the surface is something I don’t do easily. Stirring up what’s below that, is something I hardly do by myself…

Against that, when my buttons are pressed, and they are unfortunately quite easy to press, especially when I’m tired, and even more especially in writing, I can get hung up on something secondary, something unimportant and not at all the point of what was being said. If I feel hurt (or angry or any of the ‘not-so-good’ emotions) I have two main go-to ‘programs’ either retreat-and-sulk or claws-first, reasons-after. Reasons, especially badly explained written reasons (or any reasons at all when aimed at heart-people), aren’t particularly useful as either bridges or bandages, and sulking doesn’t solve anything. If I’m very aware of myself and my own needs, there’s a third option – to accept that I’m not able to respond to something constructively ‘right now’ and say so, but that is something I’m still working on, very very slowly. (NB: I’m open for advice on further options..)

***

Robotic self-awareness

Awareness is a hard beast to tame. Sometimes, when I try to focus on not stressing, not hurting (you or myself), not getting angry, not being unreasonable, not saying anything that could be misinterpreted, I end up sounding robotic. Getting rid of the perceived negatives sometimes seems to erase the humanity in the positives. I’m sure there’s some way of striking a happy balance, but I haven’t found it yet.

In primary school, we were read a story about someone who built a wall around their garden so they could stay safe and wouldn’t be harmed by anything. It took them quite a long time to realise that they were also keeping out the good things. I don’t remember the details, but at the end they took down the wall, and let everything in. That’s something I’m working on too.. Unfortunately, I still have overly-enthusiastic antibody-like guards to warn me that ‘bad things’ are coming and to defend me from them, and there are far more of them than celebratory-messengers to let me know about ‘good things’.

***

Dodging deep feelings

On a related note, when I’m scared by the deep deep feelings in myself, I’m liable to skirt round yours, partly because I don’t know how to help, but also partly so I don’t have to deal with my own. Sometimes I’ll actively pick out the bits I’m confident I can handle, and ignore the rest, sometimes it’s more subconscious than intentional. Sometimes I get stuck on the first bit of new information and don’t register the rest.

If you tell me Ghandi survived on a grain of rice a day and that you know that it’s possible because you’ve been close to death [by starvation], there’s a good chance I’ll focus on Ghandi and the rice. That’s something I don’t know and which causes an instant “need to know more” reaction. Death (and related suffering) is not a topic I’m good at talking about, at least not on a personal level, so I, mostly unconsciously, skip it. I’m not trying to reduce your experience, or imply that you’re not telling the truth.

If you tell me you’re so scared or worried by what someone told you that you won’t be able to sleep, and then, almost in the same breath, ask me how I prioritise what I keep in my too-small freezer, I’ll be 3 lines deep in frozen soup and fishfood before it even registers that there are deeper and more important issues at stake. By the time I’ve discovered what’s happened, we’re buried in superficialities and the potential for sharing (and possibly eradicating) the “can’t-sleep-tonight,-help-me” moment is gone. I don’t want to think about how many similar moments I’ve missed ;(

***

People pleasing

Being responsible for other peoples’ unhappiness is one of the worst things I can think of. Yeah, there’s all that stuff about everyone being responsible for their own reactions, but I think if you punch someone, or bash them with your suitcase when you rush past in a packed station, you’re responsible for the physical pain they feel, even if it wasn’t on purpose. I don’t see that it’s all that different for mental pain. If I say something that hurts someone, regardless of whether I did it on purpose or accidentally, it’s still something I did. Apart from not being a good thing to do, it hurts to see other people hurting and if I can avoid it, I will. I think this is kind of normal.

My problem, if it can be called a problem, is that I’m not really sure where ‘actively hurting’ stops and ‘not actively making them happy’ starts. I don’t think it’s my duty (or even actually possible long-term) to make people happy but I still feel bad if I do something they would like me not to do, or could do something but choose not to do it.

This makes it difficult (not impossible) to create and protect my boundaries or organise my own priorities.

It also makes it difficult to know when to object to the way things are said to me, especially if I can appreciate that the person saying them is stressed about something else. Awarding myself the same right to remain unhurt often comes second to being understanding.

Choosing to stand up for myself, at the cost of not siding with the other person, not being accepting, not being ‘nice’, is really hard, especially if that person isn’t happy as a result of it.

The ‘easy’ version of this, as something to practise on, is arguing about things of no consequence.

***

Self-criticism and slippery slopes

On top of that, I am ridiculously self-critical, to the point that if I think you’ve criticised one thing on my list of Things-I-criticise-myself-for, I will probably assume you would also agree with everything else on my list and more, and come to the conclusion that you think pretty much everything about me needs changing and that you’d be better off if I wasn’t inflicting myself on you. This is not logical or rational. I know this when I’m happy. On a not-so-good day, I can often recognise what’s happening and think my way out of it. On a bad (or very hormonal) day the slope is very slippery.

If you, for example, tell me you didn’t enjoy playing a game with me and that you would have preferred to do something else, that is entirely reasonable from your perspective because you’re letting me know something I couldn’t otherwise find out. It’s a knowledge transfer. A sensible reaction is probably to file that information and offer to play a different game next time. And yet, given the right circumstances (tired/hungry/upset/hormonal/whatever) it might well set off a chain of negative thoughts that are almost entirely unrelated to you or the exact game in question but entirely logical in my head, and before either of us know it, I’m having a pity-party that you didn’t see coming, and don’t understand when I try to spell it out, if I even try.

***

Words, in person and in writing

Words are tricky things. They evoke different feelings and meanings in different people. Nuances aren’t always minor. Explanations don’t always explain anything. What I say isn’t always what you hear (and vice versa).

In ‘real life’ face-to-face interaction it doesn’t really matter so much if we have words for things or if we don’t agree entirely on the meaning. Assuming I can remember the numbers correctly, the actual words people use make up something like 7 % of face-to-face communication, the other 93 % is all the non-verbal stuff; tone, gestures, facial expression, the way you’re breathing and standing and and and… We can wave our arms about and make faces and work out if we’re happy or sad or whatever. Happy is easy. Happy just involves existing and being interested and joining in the rejoicing. Sad (etc) is harder, but when I can’t offer words, I can offer hugs, or ice cream, or sit in the kind of silence that [I hope] isn’t oppressive. If there’s something that needs doing, I can join in with doing it.

It’s (much) harder on the phone, but I’m pretty good at hearing how people say things (I think), which makes it easier to know what they mean, and easier to change track or explain what I originally meant as soon as it’s obvious that something didn’t come across the way I intended it to. It’s instant too, like in ‘real life’, so you can work through things as soon as they happen (that’s simultaneously a potential bad thing, because you have no time to think out an answer, but on the whole still good).

In writing, this becomes horrendously difficult. If you can’t easily express what you’re thinking and feeling in person, when you’re face-to-face, with the whole range of possibilities, you have very little chance in writing, when you’re stripped to nothing but words and a scattering of small, round, yellow faces. Small gaps or differences in understanding can turn into a huge, ravenous canyons seemingly instantaneously. Even emojis, which are supposed to help, are subject to interpretation. I spent a long time using one smily as a ‘guilty-as-charged’ stand-in, later, I was told most people use it to indicate eye-rolling. That’s quite a difference. I use the monkey covering its eyes to represent situations when I would cover my face, apparently there’s a different one for that and the monkey is for ‘see-no-evil’. I can’t even begin a similar list for words. Ice cream doesn’t travel well, and since no-one knows what you’re doing when you’re not writing, silence can be taken as avoidance or lack of interest when you’re actually desperately scrambling to choose a fraction of what you’re thinking and feeling, and arrange it into something that can be read and understood by someone who doesn’t inhabit your head. Or you’ve just been phoned. Or your battery’s just died. Or your computer/phone’s frozen and you can’t make it unfreeze.

***

After all that introspective rambling, I think this is what I’m trying to say:

When you, whoever you are, are upset about something, I would love to be well-grounded and stable enough to wait out the storm and be an island if you need shelter before heading off again. To put myself aside and make a space for you until things are better. That….is not always a realistic expectation :(.

Sometimes I’m not strong enough for both of us, sometimes I’m in the middle of my own storms. Sometimes the way you talk to me hurts and I concentrate on my pain and not on yours. Sometimes I focus on ‘facts’ and not (your) feelings. Sometimes I try to see the whole story and miss that you need me to see your story. Sometimes I miss the whole point and think we’re talking about something else.

Sometimes I don’t have the words I need, to say what you need to hear.

Sometimes I let my words get in the way.

Sometimes I put them in the way on purpose.

Sometimes I suck at being a good friend, not just at being empathetic.

I’m sorry for the times I’ve been a lousy friend. Will you help me become a better one?

On changing jackets and beds

I have a cycling jacket which I wear when I go cycling.

I have a coat which I wear when I go anywhere (outside) without my bike.

If I am likely to be going anywhere after cycling, or cycling when I get somewhere, I wear one and take the other one with me.

Today, I cycled to work, worked, walked to the station and caught a train to where my driving instructor picked me up. I came straight home after my driving lesson.

Guess which coat I was wearing when I got home this evening?

Guess which coat I put my house key in when I set out this morning?

Bonus points if you also guess who was out and who was asleep when I rung their respective phones and doorbells.

***

I luckily have a

<Ok. Life is crazier than I could make it up. I got to here in my write-up before Unexpected Things happened. I’ll go back to telling the story in the right order tho..>

I luckily have another set of neighbours who don’t have a copy of my key, but DO have a big sofa. L was in and still awake when I phoned (around 9:30pm I guess).

“Yeah, no problem, come in! I’ll find you a duvet.. Do you want anything to eat? What happened?”

Within very few minutes I had a huge sofa, a blanket, a duvet and half a million cushions.

And it was warm and dry and I didn’t have to go back to work to get my key (which would have been my backup option).

And I could finally go to the toilet 🙂

L finished unloading the dishwasher and fed her animals and we yakked for a bit and watched the dog for a bit before it was time for bed (or sofa).

Instead of instantly falling asleep (which my body wanted), I started writing (because obviously the world needs to know about how I lock myself out..) and then this happened:

L knocks on the door and comes back into the sitting room.. “Jess? I’m really sorry about this.. E (her boyfriend) just phoned. He’s bringing a guy from work home for the night and I don’t think there’s enough room on the sofa for both of you…”

Oh. Well that’s great, I guess I’ll go back to work after all….

“…but I phoned the landlord and he was on his way over anyway so I asked him for your key..”

Uh.. What..? He wasn’t there earlier.. But cool! Am I asleep? Did he really just give you my key?!

“..I’m really sorry to wake you up and bother you..normally you would be really welcome to stay..I didn’t know anything about this guy coming over until just now..I’ll put your key on the table and let you get dressed..”

***

And that’s how I came to be sleeping in my own bed after all.

Zzzzz

On love and phone theft

I phoned a friend yesterday.

Half an hour or so into the conversation her partner came into the room..

Friend’s Partner: is that Jess?

Friend: yes..

Friend’s Partner: I want to talk to her, give me the phone *takes phone*

Friend: (in background) ..but..

Friend’s Partner: shh! Go away, I’m on the phone!

Friend: ..but.. (in background) ok Jess, let’s talk later..

Friend’s Partner: *takes phone outside*

Can’t say anyone’s ever fought over the chance to talk to me before.. *loved*

On balance

It seems that it’s impossible to add purely Good Things to a life.

Great news? Bam! Bad news.

Good mood? Bam! Some reason to hide.

Have lots to do inside at the weekend? Bam! Have a couple of fabulously warm sunny days so you either feel guilty about missing them by being inside or about not doing the things you’d planned.

Finally get motivated enough to practise running? Bam! Do something to your ankle and need to take it steady for a while.

Finish a project at work? Bam! Get a crazy migraine headache and have to be rescued because there’s no way you’re going to cycle home.

Find a friend you haven’t seen for years? Bam! Someone you love is taken to hospital….

The great universal scales seems to need balance.

Banal or super-important, nothing is safe and even if nothing is actually related, sometimes it seems to be.

On unexpected guests

Friday

A friend from a place I used to work is coming over for the weekend. She had some kind of conference during the week and added a few days holiday since she was here. We’d planned to meet in the city and do touristy things and were working out the details. And then she told me that she was planning to sleep here.

It’s a good thing shocked silences don’t show via text. 🙂

As is to be expected, I spent the next couple of days cleaning and tidying up, making space for the blow up bed and generally making the place presentable.

***

I picked my cleaning sponge up out of the bath to wipe the sink down..

I’m not a screamer, but I came close.

I’m not at all used to finding leeches in the bathtub. I’m not sure if it is definitely a leech, but I don’t know what else it could be. It’s black, about 7 cm long, kind of flat, maybe 5 mm across, has suction pads at both ends, can climb vertical flat surfaces and is very shy.

I had no idea what to do with it but I didn’t want to kill it or wash it down the plug hole so I put it in a plant pot with a splash of water.

Vermicious knidish question mark

It didn’t approve of the water.

Within seconds, it had climbed out of the pot and was hiding underneath it.

I went to work, leaving it hiding under the flowerpot.

***

My colleague thought it was hilarious when I told him about it. Our lunch break was immediately filled with stories about leech infested jungles and “would you rather..?” questions. (‘bungee’ jumping in Vanuatu* is generally our baseline. In this case I think it’s a close call, I really really don’t fancy either option, but I would probably be ok with letting leeches bite me if I was in some kind of medical emergency, whereas I can’t imagine any situation when I would want to jump).

Even the pressing explanation of how to get photos off his phone and onto the computer was willingly postponed because “bathroom leeches are more important, the photos can wait. You can tell me about them on Monday…unless you have more stories about leeches – they obviously have priority!”

* YouTube is only sometimes your friend..

On being a good photographer (or maybe just on taking lots of pictures)

I was recently in Girona on my way from Murcia towards Berlin.

Girona is a really pretty city, at least what I saw in the 17 or so hours I was there. Much friendlier than Barcelona and much less scary to walk around at night.

I wandered between the old old houses and shops, admiring the art nouveau balconies and door handles, stopping ever few hundred metres to take photos of things people probably mostly ignore. Missing bricks, the compass worked into the street, the street signs and the people on the traffic lights.

I visited the ancient Arabic baths and tried to visit the cathedral (but decided the entrance fee was unjustified). I was on my way to the remains of the tall wall that originally enclosed the city when I met Amanda.

I didn’t know she was called Amanda and I wasn’t out to meet anyone. Especially someone as glamorous as Amanda. I wanted to know how to get onto the wall and she was the only person around to ask. If there’d been anyone else I would have asked them instead.

“I think there’s a staircase along here next to the tower, let’s go and find out.”

She set off and I followed at a distance, leaving her some space – space it turned out she wasn’t really all that interested in.

***

“Do you think you could take a picture of me?”

She’d been fighting her phone for a while, trying to find a way to fit herself, the wall and the cathedral onto one photo.

“Yeah, sure, if you show me how your phone works..”

She handed it over (“Just press here”) and started posing, adjusting her hair and sunglasses, shuffling her position, arranging and rearranging herself, letting the sun dance on her face and make her earrings sparkle – obviously this is something she’s used to doing.

Click.

“Hey, give me your bag and your water bottle – they don’t need to be in the picture, and I’ll move my bag out of the way too. There.”

Click click click.

“The wind keeps messing my hair up..”

“I think if you turn just a bit more to the left.. Perfect.. Hold that…”

Click. Click. Click click click.

“Here, have a look to see if you’re happy with them. I can take more if you don’t like them.” I hand her phone back.

“Wow! You took loads! Thank you! I love this one, and this one. And this one’s good with the cathedral – you’re a really good photographer. Thank you so much!” She smiled as she flicked through the pictures. “Can you take another one of me in close up? From over there..”

Click. Click click. Shuffle. Rearrange. Click.

“There you go.”

“Thanks ever so much. That’s brilliant. Thank you!” she gushes. “Most people just take one and don’t check if you have your eyes shut or if you’re smiling. They don’t even make sure that the scenery fits on the photo. You’re lucky if they don’t cut part of your head off..” She paused. “Do you want me to take some of you?”

*panic* “Uh…” My mind races. Me? No way. Why not? I can’t. Just because you don’t usually. You can’t always hide behind the camera.. Ugh. “Ok. Go ahead. Please.”

My phone beeps as I hand it over – less than 10% battery life left. I hope it lasts until I’ve found my way back to the station. I hope there are plugs on the train. I hope I’m there in time to catch the train. I hope..

Click.

I stop thinking about the rest of the journey for a minute and try and act a fraction as cool as Amanda while she takes pictures. I think I need more practice at this posing lark.

Then it’s over (“Is that ok? Want any more?” “No, that’s more than enough, I have to get back to the station..”). I jump down off the wall, get my phone back, pick up my bags, start to leave.

Halfway down the steps I remember the other lady who’d been sitting by herself and who’d watched us taking pictures of each other for a few seconds before turning back to stare across the city. I go back up to the platform and ask her if she wants her photo taken too. She looks up, shy, and tells me she was going to take a selfie, but if I’m offering.. She stops mid-sentence, reminding me more of myself than of Amanda. I put down my bags and take her phone. She looks like she feels even more awkward than me as she balances on the wall, hugging her knees. I take a couple of pictures and ask her if she wants to move along the wall a bit – the sun’s behind her and I can only take pictures of her silhouette. She laughs, moves, resettles. “Better?” “Much.”

Click click. Click. Click click click.

I move too, trying to get her and the cathedral and the wall and the clouds onto a picture without anything getting in the way of anything else.

“This is like a proper photo shoot!”

I doubt it but we laugh anyway. She’s finally relaxed enough to sit naturally.

Click. Click.

Click.

Beep! My phone is still in the process of dying, reminding me that I have a train to catch. I hand her phone back and say I have to go. She thanks me and goes back to her original position, looks across the city, looks at the pictures I’ve taken. Smiles.

I catch up with Amanda at the bottom of the tower, she’s been waiting for me. She wants me to take more photos of her along the next section of the wall.

We align clouds, walls, towers, roofs, trees as we make our way towards the end of the wall, sharing fragments of our lives – and the current moment – with each other. It appears we’re not so different after all, our reasons for being in Girona, our opinion of Barcelona, our travel plans for the next few days. Not identical, but similar enough to feel more than coincidental. The realisation that there’s a person under all that make-up is a surprise. Especially a person I can relate to. I am always surprised by this; in my mind at least, I still associate heavily made up people with the “cool” girls in my class at school. The ones who would rather do anything than talk to me and risk losing their coolness. The ones I had less than nothing in common with. The ones I still ‘see’ despite the years and miles between us.

At the end of the wall she thanks me again, profusely, for all the photos I took along the way, telling me again that I’m a great photographer. She ignore my protests that I just take lots of pictures and occasionally some work well, and instead wishes me a good time travelling. She insists we take a selfie together. One each. To remember.

Together. Me and Amanda. The laid back, perfectly made up, glamorous Amanda from Brazil, with her pearl earrings and flowing hair, who wouldn’t look out of place in a magazine or on one of those huge roadside posters advertising sunglasses or perfume, and me. In one picture. On purpose. Despite my messy bun and crumpled skirt and bag lady luggage. My word.

One day, I decide, I will lose some of my shallowness. Some of my prejudice. And maybe, maybe also some of my reluctance to talk to [makeup wearing] strangers.

***

This is me, sitting at the top of a tower on Girona’s city wall in November, taken by Amanda from Brazil:

On furnishing adventures – papasan chair (and picture boards)

I recently gave away the first piece of furniture I ever properly owned. A lady came early in the morning to pick it up for her cats…

***

I bought the papasan chair at a carboot sale in autumn 2006.

The town held a car boot sale once a year and pretty much everyone who was anyone went. Either to buy or to sell. The posters were put up well in advance and on the day the entire middle of the town was covered/filled with people – I didn’t know the town was big enough for the turn out.

So anyway. There I was. Newly arrived in a new town with a new room in my first shared flat. It was a fantastic room but although it was furnished, I had a shortage of seating. My housemates were busy doing other things so I set off by myself.

One of the first things I saw when I reached the car boot sale was a papasan chair. I’ve always loved those chairs so when I saw one I couldn’t leave it behind. On the other hand I didn’t want to carry it round the whole town so I paid for it and asked the seller to look after it until I came back to pick it up.

As I made my way round the market I also bought a printer, a backpack, a heavy frying pan and a few other things. Fully laden, I set off for home..

Then I remembered the chair.

A sensible person would probably have carried the first lot of stuff home and come back for the chair. I am not that person. Instead I packed the backpack as full as I could, put the base on the inside of the chair, persuaded the printer box into the base and piled everything else into the spaces.

Once everything was stowed away, I hoisted it onto my head and did my best impression of an African water carrier… except I am not cut out to carry things on my head without holding onto them so my best impression was terrible (and wobbly, despite holding on).

***

I made it home without dropping anything which is a very good thing since I wouldn’t have been able to gather it back up without major effort. As it was I unpacked on the drive and it took multiple trips up and down the stairs to bring everything into my room.

Phew! I could finally lie back in my new chair and relax :).

Only for a few minutes tho – I had lots of other new things to admire and unpack and wash and put away. (It was lucky I didn’t put the unpacking off until later – the printer turned out to be missing all the necessary cables and drivers and I think the block the ink cartridges go in, although I’d been promised it was all there so I lugged it back into town and the guy refunded my money 🙂 )

***

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. The chair has accompanied me for 12 years and 5 moves. It was looking somewhat worse for wear. The base was mostly held together with cable ties and the seat part was missing pieces of the spiral. Sitting in it felt like a brave undertaking, being as how it creaked and groaned and sagged when you lowered yourself into it. Getting out again was even trickier.

When I found a newer version in the small ads I pounced. It was on the other side of Berlin and I am still car-less, but that never stopped me before so I organised a pickup date. It was being offered without a cushion, but mine was still ok so that wasn’t a problem, and as far as transport went, was more of an advantage than anything else; the chairs are unwieldy things at the best of times and the cushions are heavy.

The former owner only lived a mile or so away from the station and the weather was good, I didn’t see a problem. When she found out I was going to be carrying it on the train she was amazed (and amazing) and tied the base to the chair for me. (She had a ball of string strategically placed close to her front door. I might have to adopt this practice).

Having the pieces tied together makes carrying them much easier.

I set off towards home.

Because I am still not the sensible person I wasn’t before, and because I hate wasting travelling time, I had made another appointment to pick up some picture boards conveniently being given away en route.

Mostly en route anyway. I suppose one has to count getting off the train for a 25 minute round trip with a large unwieldy chair as a slight detour.

The people sitting outside the pubs and cafés on the way between the train station and the picture board house were much amused by me walking past them twice.

Carrying 2 picture boards as well as the chair proved a little bit more complicated. Luckily I had lots of time to get home.*

***

There’s no way I have space for a broken chair I’m not using – the old one had to go. I couldn’t bring myself to dismantle it and throw it away, but I also couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to pay for it. I put it on eBay and hoped for the best.

Within a few minutes I had the first interested message. A couple of hours after that the second. In the end I gave it to the third person who wrote a week later after the other two hadn’t arranged a concrete pick up date.

When she arrived to take it away I pointed out all the places it was broken and said she should be careful sitting in it. Turns out I didn’t need to worry – she’s lining it with multiple blankets and letting her cats sleep in it. Good to know it’s got lots of life in it yet 🙂 makes getting rid of it that much easier..

* (..she says, lying through her teeth. I was running late and had to get home, showered and dressed up for a concert in very few hours).

On beneficial baths

Mostly written last night.

This morning it was warm and sunny and I cycled to work in a T-shirt and skirt. Yesterday and most of last week that was no problem. Today however…

When I looked out of the window at 5 this evening it was raining. The weather forecast I should ideally have looked at earlier said it wasn’t due to stop raining until tomorrow. I didn’t fancy sleeping at work so I packed my bag and cycled home straight away – in the hope that it meant I only had to face it being cold, wet and windy instead of cold, wet, windy and dark.

By the time I’d finished packing my bag it was not only raining but chucking it down. I was soaked well before I reached home.

Look! A dry bit! 🙂

***

This post was going to be a rant about the weather. I started writing it in my head on the way home. Then this evening happened and I no longer feel like ranting. I am actually kind of thankful for the rain, in a roundabout fashion..

***

The first thing I did after getting home and taking my helmet off was put the kettle on. The second thing was start running a bath.

I love baths, especially long baths but I don’t know when I last had one. ¾ of an hour cycling in a downpour without a coat seemed to be the perfect excuse.

Isn’t that ridiculous? That I feel like I need an excuse to spend [excessive] time in the bath. It’s like I have some kind of voice in my head permanently telling me that I should be doing something, should be productive, should have something to show for all the oxygen I’ve been using. I’m not sure what I’m trying to prove, or to whom, but I am aware that the more I try to prove it, the more I actually prove how incapable I am of proving it.

Productivity is all well and good, but I can’t be productive all the time, especially when my batteries are flat.

Sometimes batteries need recharging.

Sometimes a long bath is the best way to do that.

***

Today two very luffly friends (who barely know each other and are therefore almost definitely acting independently of each other) wrote to me to find out how I’m getting on and scheduled a phone call for tonight and next week respectively.

I’ve been spinning on my own axis in my own world for a while. Monday, for example, was one of those days where you I wonder what, if anything, you’re I’m capable of doing well and why you I even bother trying to deal with all the chaos when all you’re I’m doing is taking up space and messing up other people’s otherwise orderly lives. Reaching out (in person or by phone) and talking to people who love me was well overdue and I am so grateful for these people who seemingly instinctively know this and help me with it.

***

F and I had made our telephone plan before it started raining so I decided to combine the plans and phone her while soaking in the bath instead of while sweeping the floor and putting washing on.

Her phone didn’t work directly so I read my email while I was waiting for her to sort it out. I still get Flylady mails (remember her?) which I don’t often open but which I read today. I even poked the link and arrived at her podcast/vlog about how she makes her bed. Couldn’t bring myself to watch all the way to the end, there’s only so much bedmaking I can cope with, but since I was on YouTube anyway I jumped about through the recommendations until I came to a TEDx talk by a lady called Tracy McMillan.

BAM!!!

That is one cool lady.

I’d never read her articles or books or watched her TV shows. Never even heard of her before. Might be a tiny bit obsessed now though ;p.

As soon as her talk was over I googled her and found an interview between her and Lewis Howes (F’s phone didn’t properly recover so we spoke for a few minutes and agreed to postpone the call to tomorrow).

Here’s the link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eWwRl_CNLR8

I think that’s the first YouTube link I’ve ever posted here. I am so awestruck by this woman’s positivity in the face of everything that she’s lived through, I think you should all go and watch the interview. Or the TED talk. Or possibly all the videos, except I haven’t seen them all and can’t directly recommend them.

She mostly talks about loving oneself. Flylady is always talking about flying. For all of you who don’t know her and weren’t around when I signed up for her emails, FLY is an acronym for finally loving yourself… I find the full-circle-ness fascinating.

***

So.

I was planning to do a million things this evening. I wanted to get my tax return finished and tidy the sitting room and do the washing up and put some unwanted things up for sale online. I wanted to find some photos to print and go through my computer and find the documents I need to work on over the next few days. I wanted to achieve so many things. In the end I didn’t do any of those things (although I did get a load of washing done, change my bedsheets and cook and eat dinner), but I think spending the time with a cup of hot ribena and a bath and Tracy McMillan’s voice turned out to be the best thing to do with the evening.

I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for having to cycle in the rain.

For that I am thankful. That’s why this was going to be a rant, but isn’t.

On birds, bees and an underdressed first date

Mid April

A couple of weeks ago, I took some friends on an exploratory trip around my part of the world.

F pointed out an advert for “cinema night” on the notice board of one of my local churches. They were going to show a children’s film, followed by a film called “More than honey”. None of us had heard of it, so I made a mental note of the date and decided to look the film up online when we got back.

***

It’s a film about bees, or more accurately about the role and treatment of bees around the world. It was produced by the people who made ‘We feed the world”, a film I watched several years ago. I can’t exactly say I enjoyed watching it, but I was glad that I did.

This one sounded like a watchable film too.

***

I asked H if he wanted to come with me. It was something we might have done anyway, but we decided, semi-jokingly to call it a first date. It also meant we could go in his car ;).

When we got there the church was not only dark, but also locked.

Hmm.

After much puzzlement, lots of wandering around looking lost and a more careful study of the advert, we discovered that the church displaying the notice wasn’t the church showing the film. Google maps wasn’t particularly helpful, as it reckoned the film-church was in the same place as the notice-church. It took quite a lot of sleuthing powers to find out where the film-church actually was, by which time we’d missed a considerable amount of the film. The film-church was several km away, so getting there would have gobbled up even more of the film time.

Ever practical, and quite a lot pragmatic, H suggested we skip the film and go out for dinner instead. He knew of a restaurant close by where he’s eaten with his work colleagues before. And besides, going to the cinema is an overrated idea for a first date anyway..

When we got there I almost bailed.

It was a very posh-looking place. The sort with a french name and cloth serviettes. It turns out that “eaten there with my work colleagues” actually translates to “my boss takes us there to celebrate finished projects”.

I don’t eat out much, and almost never anywhere fancy, so I’m almost always out of my depth when I do. On the occasions when it is required of me, I like to have some forewarning and a chance to pretend that dress like I know what I’m doing. My going-to-the-cinema-in-a-church-hall clothes do not match my idea of going-to-posh-restaurants clothes. H laughed at me when I told him I wasn’t appropriately dressed to eat there and said he didn’t care, and also that one of his colleagues has been known to eat there with his hair still full of swarf. I could hardly compete with steel toe caps and swarf so I shut up and we went in.

Confronted with a menu full of words I never heard in school french lessons I almost bailed for the second time.

In the end I chose something more or less at random. My French is obviously worse than I thought it was because what arrived bore very little resemblance to what I thought I ordered. In fact, the only thing both dishes had in common was the chicken. If I’d still had a menu I would have checked, but they’d taken them away and I wasn’t sure enough to say anything without “proof” and it was entirely likely that I’d pointed to the wrong thing when it was my turn to order.

As I ate my spinach and hoped it would make me strong, I wondered how I always end up in such odd situations.

***

H was wonderful company, the food was good (if unexpected) and no-one said anything about my attire or tried to make me leave (which is admittedly obvious to most people, but still a realistic if irrational fear in my head). And a good time was had by all even if it was a shame we didn’t get to see the film. I think I will try to borrow it from the library

On chopping onions

K: how do you want me to chop these onions?

KC: I don’t care. I don’t know how to chop onions in multiple ways. I think just stab them to death..

K: so little squares are ok?

KC: yes.

Love it 🙂

On being an awful partner

I currently have a friend over for a long weekend and I am becoming more and more aware that I am not cut out for a long-term female partnership..

How do I know?

I have no patience for conversations about frilly knickers, nail varnish, the best way to burn candles or which bread has the lowest glycemic index. (But I can sit for hours listening to people talk about the finer points of changing the blades on a thickness planer machine, despite never having seen one).

I am not very knowledgeable about yoga, stretching, running, or really any exercise in general.

I don’t care much about fashion, fabric, design, pattern, or clothes as long as I’m dressed and warm enough.

I have less than no idea about hairdryers. I don’t blow-dry my hair unless I absolutely have to. That happens maybe once a year, twice if I go to the hairdressers. I have a small hot-air-blowing device which I use on the rare occasions when I deem it necessary, and which packs into a small bag in a cupboard for the rest of the year. (Naja, that’s not quite true, it’s also pretty good at drying paint/woodstain if I’m too impatient to let things dry by themselves, so it does get to come out of the cupboard sometimes). It turns out it isn’t a proper hairdryer but rather a styling brush (and therefore not useful for drying one’s hair). Who knew?

I wouldn’t recognize an electric nail file if I tripped over it, nevermind know which way to hold it or how (or why) to use it. Or an electric callous grinder (see? no idea what they’re even supposed to be called). I don’t remember ever having or doing a pedicure, unless you count filing the pointy edges off my toenails when they break and threaten to make holes in my socks.

I am used to being the dithery party. I am used to getting lost in places I’ve been before. I am used to people complaining about how long it takes me to get ready to go anywhere. I am used to people getting stroppy about me leaving a trail of my things strewn across the house. I am used to people laughing at or not understanding my clothes (“so what is this thing anyway?!” – talking about a wrap around skirt).

I am not used to waiting for more than an hour to get into the bathroom in the morning.

I am not used to working round other people’s PMS.

I am not used to multiple (many many many) bottles of ‘body care’ potions appearing all over the house.

I am not used to getting home and being greeted by a wave of ‘girly smells’. Perfume and baby powder and shampoo and conditioner and body lotion and hand cream and whathaveyou each with a different (but strong) fragrance.

I can’t work up any excitement (at all) for an evening of ‘pampering’ if it involves anything other than massage. Start talking about mutual makeovers and I will bail.

I can’t deal with “What’s up?” “Nothing.” conversations.

I don’t understand freezing but simultaneously objecting to either finding another jumper or turning the radiators on.

I don’t understand why anyone would [regularly and willingly] eat nothing but salad for dinner and then get up in the middle of the night to raid the fridge and the breadbin.

When I get ill, I am more likely to have manflu and go to bed with honey-and-lemon and a hot water bottle (and maybe my laptop) than to try and keep up my manic schedule while sneezing, snuffling and coughing, at least for the worst couple of days.

I am not naturally a tidy person. I don’t think anyone could reasonably call me a neat-freak (:)) – I severely dislike washing up and doing housework – but finding cups in the bookcase and plates left on the coffeetable instead of at least in the vicinity of the sink has helped me develop a new sympathy for people who are.

Also. Hair. I used to laugh at a long-distant-ex-boyfriend for complaining about the “hairy woman-beast” inhabiting his space. I’m not going to take sides with him, but I can at least see that he might have had a point.

In short, I feel like I’m suddenly on the wrong side of all the bloke-whinges-about-girlfriend cartoons/sketches/blogposts and I’m not used to it. I’m not sure I even like being on the other side of the frustration.

Ok, so frustration is frustrating on both sides.. I’m just usually defensively frustrated, at the people trying to hurry me for example, but I could never really see where they were coming from. I used to get upset at people who weren’t understanding or able to listen or were obviously disinterested by what I was saying, people who wouldn’t cooperate with me and/or my way of working, people who were more concerned about reaching a destination than enjoying the journey..

I am slowly starting to understand some of the people who complained about me, as well as some of the actions of the people I complained about… and that’s worrying!

I’m not a particularly good hetero girlfriend, but it seems I would be an incredibly awful lesbian… 😉

***

NB: Against the impression I’m probably giving, I do like this lady 🙂 I’ve just previously only seen her in smaller doses (like for an afternoon) and never had her to stay..

On staining

Look! Isn’t it fabulous?!

That’s obviously only a very small piece of the end – I will put up complete pictures (of the shelf ;)) after K’s been. She’s coming to visit soon and she reads what I post and that would spoil the effect.

It still needs sanding and waxing and putting up.. it is a very time intensive shelf.

H can’t really understand my excitement, but I can’t understand how he doesn’t find it as amazing as I do, so I suppose it’s balanced..

Green fingernails and evenings well spent

My neighbour, H, is making me a shelf. It started as an offer to put my coat hooks up. I told him the rack he was holding wasn’t for coats and we came to a strange sort of compromise where he agreed to build me a shelf which I could hang coats on.

Over the weekend he glued and sawed and sanded and planed and did whatever carpenters do when making shelves.

Yesterday he brought me the raw wooden shelf (it’s beautiful) and a box of different wood dyes which he proceeded to spread on a couple of cut off edge pieces so I could choose one. I didn’t think any fitted quite right. I wanted green. Apparently green isn’t a colour he uses all that often..

Tonight, after work, I stopped to buy fishfood and green wood dye powder. And turkey for a thank-you curry.

I was still frying onions and chopping peppers when H arrived. He stood and watched for a minute or so before pulling out his penknife and adjusting the doors on the kitchen cabinets. It seems carpenters are incapable of ignoring badly hung doors. Never one to stop other people working, I found him a decent screwdriver or two and pointed him in the direction of the sitting room and all my other cupboards. My floorboards are anything but level, and I don’t think any of the cupboard doors hung straight. I also had a cupboard where the door opened the wrong way. No longer 🙂

The cupboards and the curry were both finished/ready around the same time.

At the first lull in the after dinner conversation, H leapt up, announced his intention of clearing up, and started running hot water into the sink, ready to wash up. At this rate I’m going to be cooking thank-you dinners for a while… 😉 I certainly stand no chance of drying faster than he washes.

The wood dye is astonishingly easy to mix and keeps for 6 months or so in a jar. I bought 2 packets, a light and a dark green, just in case the labels were misleading. The first trial pieces were painted in a matter of minutes, leaving us time to talk about different sorts of sealing coats, wax or varnish, matt or shiny, and the best kinds of joints to stop the wood twisting out of shape.

Tomorrow I can paint/dye the shelf.

By the end of the week it should be up on the wall – can’t wait to see it finished 🙂

On making the wheels go round

(or: on letting go of what is not yet broken)

If it’s working and you know it, leave it alone!

If it’s working and you know it, leave it alone!

If it’s working and you know it, and you really want to keep it that way,

If it’s working and you know it, leave it alone!

***

I cycled to work again today.

It’s been really cold lately and it was still around freezing when I left the house, late.

The wheel was stiff when I tried wheeling it away from the bike stand and towards the road. It felt like the brakes were jammed on tight, but they weren’t. After a bit of gentle persuasion and a few angry words it unstuck itself and off I went.

I assumed (see, there’s that bad word again, almost as bad as “planning”) there must have been ice in the works somewhere – it did get thoroughly soaked last week and it was icy this morning (never thought I’d have to scratch ice off the saddle, but I did).

***

I left work while it was still light to cycle to my maths/English/German student. As it turned dusky and got darker and darker I realised I was riding without lights. Argh. As a car driver, I can’t stand cyclists without lights.. as a cyclist, I try to be car friendly, in the hopes that they won’t run me over. Also, as I found out on Wednesday, lights are useful.

***

After we’d talked about adjectival attributes (?!) for as long as we could concentrate, I borrowed a front bike light from my maths kid’s mum and headed home.

Except I couldn’t. The front wheel was stuck again. It took me several metres of pushing and kicking and cajoling before anything happened. When it finally did start rolling, the nut holding the front wheel onto the forks starting turning too..

I stopped and did it up as best I could with gloves on. Another couple of paces and it was loose again.

At some point I noticed that the cables from the dynamo were hanging in the breeze and the box they’re supposed to join into was riding round in circles, presumably enjoying unknown freedom.

I prodded it a bit, retightened the nut and rode home, very very carefully.

***

It would appear that my dynamo has died.

When I said I was thinking about getting new lights, I didn’t mean I no longer wanted the old ones.

Tomorrow, I will have to find a bike doctor before work. Even if I was willing to buy new lights and ignore the dynamo, I am not willing to hurl myself at the pavement when the wheel falls off.

I expect I will have to leave my bike there and then walk to work or at least walk to the train station.

Sometimes I really love my life.

***

I think it’s time for a new motto/mantra:

If it’s working and you know it, leave it alone! Do not touch it, use it or think about it. Do not criticise it. Do not think about changing it or replacing it.

Instead, be thankful for it..you never know when it’s going to stop working..

On breaking the old and dropping the new

From Friday.

Once upon a time, when I lived by myself, I bought myself all manner of things and used them as required.

Then I moved in with xDB and stopped needing most of my things. I sold some and gave lots away. The rest were put in the garage or the cellar or hidden stowed away in boxes.

Recently I moved out and back into a flat of my own. I began buying or being given things to replace what I was missing. I assumed that the things I already had would continue to work as expected.

However.

Nothing is ever as one assumes. This is probably why assumption is something to avoid.

***

I went out to pick up a stereo system after work this evening.

My old one wasn’t as good as xDB’s and so had been rehoused at work when the ancient radio there decided it had had a good life and wanted to go to wherever good radios go when they die.

When I moved, I no longer had any way of playing music besides my alarm clock, my phone and my laptop. None of the three have spectacular speakers, especially the alarm clock. I’m not especially fussy about these things, but I’m quite happy if I can recognise who’s supposed to be singing or what song is playing.. I suppose I could theoretically take my old stereo back from work but I can’t imagine my colleague working without a radio, so I decided to leave it there and procure a newer one for my flat. Almost 6 months later I still haven’t. It hasn’t fought to the top of the priority list.

While I was browsing the free section of the small ads the other day, I found someone getting rid of a ‘micro stereo system in top working order’. I wrote to say I wanted to pick it up. The seller said it wasn’t free after all and named his price. I said he shouldn’t have put it in the free section if he actually wanted to sell it, but named my maximum and we agreed on a time and place to meet across town.

I decided, possibly foolishly after Wednesday’s adventure, to take my bike with me to save having to make a detour via work to pick it up afterwards.

I got the two trains with no problems. I found lifts and even found somewhere to change my large(ish) banknotes into smaller ones. I reached the designated meeting point at the designated time with the correct money and was feeling very proud of myself.

Even picking up the stereo was no problem. I didn’t want to leave my bike outside, so when the seller suggested he brought it out to save time I readily agreed

The man had packed it very neatly into two carrier bags. It was bigger than expected, and heavier, but I thought that must be a good sign.

One of the carrier bags was plastic, one paper. I’m probably a bit overly cautious but it’s January and the current weather forecast doesn’t make for overly joyful reading. I think potential rain and paper bags are a bad combination (though not as bad as actual rain and paper bags) so I carefully repacked my new speakers into my panier. The subwoofer in its plastic bag hung on my handlebar. It was much too heavy to balance while cycling so I pushed the bike.

The journey back was less simple. There’s a very large station in Berlin where a lot of S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains travel on different levels. It’s a station I usually quite like. I’ve been there a lot and changed trains there many times in many constellations….as a footpassenger. As a passenger with a heavily laden bicycle, stations turn into something quite different. I rode at least 4 lifts and spent a long time trying to find out where each of them were hidden. What takes me a maximum of 5 minutes by foot, took me at least 15 with the bike.

When I could finally see the platform my train was leaving from, but not the lift I needed to get to it, I gave up on the lifts altogether and used the stairs. My bike is fantastic, but it is not a light thing. There is no way I can carry it downstairs onehandedly, so I kept the front wheel in the air and let the back wheel bounce slowly on each step.

Approximately halfway down there was a sudden, strange noise. I looked behind me and saw the panier hanging from one of its clips. I was on the middle of a relatively well used staircase, a I had a subwoofer under one arm, the other hand on the crossbar with my elbow and wrist keeping the handle bars halfway steady. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t adjust my grip of anything, couldn’t even use my knees to push the panier back up to level because it was on the other side of my bike.

The only way out was down. I carried on going.

The second and final clip flew off before we reached the platform. The panier holding the newish stereo fell down and rolled the last few steps. It seems plastic clips aren’t up to being ignored for several years and then bounced.

I walked home with one bag on each side of my handle bars.

And the stereo didn’t even work when I got it home.

Before, I just wanted clearer music, now I also need new paniers.

ARGH.