Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horror

I’ve never got the fascination with Halloween. 

When I was growing up, the greatest excitement on October 31st was semi-drowning in a bucket of water while trying to pull an apple out with your teeth. 

That was it. Party over.
It was only when I moved to the US that I realised what I had been missing out on. My local Williams-Sonoma store in Beverly Hills started stocking up on Pumpkin Carving Kits at the end of summer. I’d never before been in contact with a pumpkin, let alone something to turn it into a work of art. It wasn’t that my parents were mean; they were just a bit slow on the uptake when it came to essentials for festivities. 

We were always, for example, the last people Christmas shopping for sprouts at 5pm on Christmas Eve (I still am, by the way). My Jack o’ Lantern was always a turnip, not a pumpkin, because the latter sold out at least a week before we needed them (I recall one year when even the turnips had run out; I think we had to make do with a plump carrot that year).
In Los Angeles, people start turning their lawns into Halloween Festivals round about September 1st. Skeletons, ghouls, fluffy white stuff, pumpkins, candles - everything guaranteed to terrify a small child goes on display, and for what purpose I have never been able to fathom.
A notice came around in my building last week asking whether I wanted to be included in the Trick or Treat festivities carried out by the complex’s little people. Not unless they never want to be reunited with their parents again and eke out their remaining days under my floorboards, I said. Politely.
I put it down to the fact that I was born on November 5th. In the UK, that is the day that celebrates (or commemorates, depending on which side of the political fence you are sitting) Guy Fawkes’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was a Catholic. That may or may not be relevant - depending on which side of the religious fence you are sitting.
Every year, children came to my birthday party armed with (and I mean this literally) explosives. Sometimes, I got a present, too, but the bigger the box of explosives, the smaller the present. After everyone sang Happy Birthday and I blew out my candles on the cake, everyone retired to the garden to watch the explosives display. 

Except me. 

I always stayed inside, hiding under the dining table or behind a chair until it was all over. I hated fireworks then and, to this day, I still do. They make me cry. To me, it’s the loneliest sound in the world.
I suppose I equate Halloween with that time of year. I’ve never been able to be near anyone wearing a mask; my dislike of beards is probably because I genuinely have a fear of being close to anything with its face covered. I would need to be accompanied by paramedics if I were to attend a masked ball; my mother once had to carry me out of the circus when a clown approached me for a friendly chat. I had hysterics in Paris Disneyland when a mouse came within nibbling distance. 

And I was 43 at the time. 
So, tonight, I am staying in. I’ve just had to turn off Strictly Come Dancing on BBC1 because they are doing a Halloween theme, and I never thought I’d run screaming from BBC presenter Jeremy Vine. 
What’s to like about something that celebrates everything that is horrible? That preys upon our greatest fears about the unknown? That transforms people into hideous incarnations of grossness?
Bizarrely, it is a celebration - the first day of Allhfallowide - that takes place on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. In my book, that’s just a posh way of saying “Another Excuse for Christians to Get Rat-Arsed Day".
Apparently, we’re not supposed to eat meat today, but we’re at liberty to light candles on the graves of the dead. 

Go figure.
So, a very happy Halloween to you all. I’m keeping all my doors locked, eating all the candy I have (sorry, kiddies), and watching back to back Law and Order: SVU (again).
Come November 5th, I might emerge. 

Drinks are on you.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Health is Bad for your Health

I suddenly became very weepy this morning. 

For no reason whatsoever. 

Having recently reverted to my Twenties lament of “I am short, fat and ugly”, I’ve been living a very healthy lifestyle of late: meditating twice a day, drinking my healthy green shakes, going to the gym, walking, swimming, taking time to read, making sure I take time off from work to enjoy friends. None of it has helped with my sleeping, though (not to mention the short, fat and ugliness), and I think I’m just exhausted with fitness. 
I keep a daily book of my morning weight and blood pressure, meditation time (20 minutes), everything I eat and drink, the seeds and powders that go into my shakes, my morning vitamins . . . and, before you know it, it’s time to go to the gym. A walk of 1.3 miles to Chelsea Piers.
There, between machines, I catalogue my calories and miles per hour and length of time spent on each exercise. Then, I walk home, write down the statistics in my book, do my evening meditation, take my evening vitamins, cook my supper, write down what I’ve had, do my evening meditation, relax in front of the telly, and retire to bed. Exhausted (Oh, yes, I forgot. I work, too).
Except I can never sleep. I’ve never been a great sleeper, even as a baby when, even then, I think I had a terror of what I might be missing. I haven’t been out for a week (apart from to the gym) and think that my new lifestyle might be turning me into a bit of a recluse. What if someone buys me a drink that is over the 125 mls I occasionally allow myself? I daren’t risk the adventure.
Which is possibly why, this morning, I just started crying. I started to read up on depression that can be related to both meditation and exercise. I already knew of the former. When I learned Transcendental Meditation many years ago, my calming Alpha waves made me so spaced out I nearly got myself killed crossing a road after a session. I then became so severely depressed, they had to cut my meditating time, as I was clearly delving way too deep into my psyche. 
There is a theory that over-exercising can induce depression, too. While it boosts serotonin, which brings about positivity, some believe that coming down from that high can send you plummeting to the emotional depths you were trying to escape in the first place, in much the same way that coming down from a drugs high can do.
The truth is probably much more simple. We are physical, emotional and spiritual beings who cannot but help react to our surroundings and the people in them, conscious or otherwise. We want to love and be loved; we not only have our needs, but we like to be needed; no matter what our social status, we have basic primal emotions that are all part of the one basic need, which is to survive.
Despite our apparent surface differences, we have more in common than we know, and it probably boils down to this: we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We choose many different ways to do that (I am not, for example, going to rob a bank), but survival is all.
Survival is also about control and, when one feels that life is out of control, there are any number of things people turn to that might give them at least a semblance of control or, at best, the illusion of it.
I’ve never been into the chemical drugs scene (I was once offered speed and turned it down on the grounds I thought I was being asked to run a very fast marathon. Not joking. I was very young), but I’m suspecting that ultra health is my drug of choice.
As a child, I spent most of my pocket money on Here’s Health magazines and the vitamins it recommended. I have exercised my entire life and never not been a member of a gym (although I know many people who can say that and they have never been to one). I’ve always looked to being the best that I can be, physically and mentally (give or take the odd bottle of Chianti, obviously).
But: Oh, sleep, where art thou? Because, no matter what I do, I can’t capture that one thing that everyone tells you is the key to good health. I dread going to bed. I dread sleep. I hate every minute I am not conscious. I hate my dreams in which I am always buying houses I can’t afford (a bit like real life in that, actually) or travelling in vehicles that won’t take off or land. I fear every moment I am not in control.
And there you have it. 

Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s the fear we all have: the dread of losing control just manifests itself in different ways, socially, politically, personally, whatever. This morning, I just lost control. 

But tears dry. 

Life moves on. 

And so, for today, I’ll just go along with the words of the song: “You've got to laugh a little, cry a little/Before the clouds roll by a little.”
And at the risk of going a little too soppy sitting alongside my Kleenex, this much I know: The sun’ll come out . . . 


Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Badge of Pomposity


YAY! Finally, I have made it to an age when the young call me pompous. My adult rehabilitation is complete.
Having joined two journalism “support” (Ha!) sites on Facebook and been nothing other than kind, generous and helpful in my suggestions, stories and advice, the tide has turned. It had been a while coming, and I had already been surprised by the levels of aggression when people asked for advice, I took the time to give it, and then others joined in the thread to disagree aggressively with what I said (including one man who got very heated in the “learned” vs “learnt” debate (that was half an hour I’ll never get back). Caring and sharing it sometimes ain’t.
The swearing and blaspheming was so rife on one day, I thought it might be construed by some to be offensive. I deigned to suggest that, in the marketplace where potential employers are operating, people should refrain from using the F word or blaspheming, as some people might be sensitive to such things.
The worst abuse, however, came from women, and I came under attack both from people I know and complete strangers. When I added fuel to the fire by suggesting that their language and attitude might be the reason some of them were struggling to find work (the Groundhog Day of complaints out there), the sound of self-combustion – emotional and verbal - was laughable. If, in my opinion, they were scuppering their chances of getting work through swearing, they were now on a suicide mission to linguistic wasteland. 

I decided to leave both sites, as the “debate” (I use the word loosely) escalated and turned nasty. Life really is too short and I genuinely do not have the time or energy to deal with people whose only form of defence is another form of attack. Besides, I had articles to write. And money to earn.
I have nothing against swearing per se; I have been known to drop the odd expletive myself - as, indeed, have many of my colleagues and editors, who do so in the workplace (although personally, I would avoid it there, too); but it’s different when you are presenting yourself to others and looking to be employed; I’m sorry, but different rules apply. 

Much as you may like wearing a T-shirt and jeans around the house, you wouldn’t dress like that for an interview. If I am looking for a front of house receptionist for a five star hotel, I wouldn’t choose someone with facial piercings. If I am employing a construction worker, I wouldn’t choose someone who wants to turn up to work in a three piece suit and tie. If I am employing a wordsmith, I choose someone who uses language to the best of their ability, not a lazy person with a shallow word box who resorts to expletives when the going gets tough. 

For me, social networking is the same: you are in the public sphere, so you act accordingly. Fine, if you don’t want to do that, but if you are on sites where you are trying to get work, surely you put your best wares on display.
Just in case I was out of touch with modern thought, I’ve asked a lot of people (writers, editors, sub-editors) for their opinion, including many of the women on these sites. Privately, without exception, they all agreed with me, but didn’t want to be seen commenting on the page – which reinforces my main point: that one behaves differently on social networking from how one does in private.
The language/swearing issue is an interesting one. If it is so socially acceptable, everyone would be doing it - in print, on TV, in every social situation; but they’re not. It certainly has its place. A Paul Abbott drama without swearing would be laughable; a newscaster telling us that there’s another effing war in the Middle East would land them the sack.
Keith Waterhouse was a good friend of mine, and one of the greatest and most successful writers of his generation. Privately, Keith swore regularly and it never offended me. There was also what some would call “colourful” language in his plays – all of it justified in its context. But there was never, ever a swear word in his journalism - for one simple reason: he knew his marketplace, and you cut your cloth accordingly.
One response on Facebook pointed out to me that “We are all adults”; my response would be “Well, stop acting like children.” Yes, it’s true, you can say what you like and how you choose to say it, as it’s a free country and you are, officially an adult, despite evidence to the contrary; but this is still missing the point. 

On pages/sites/anywhere where you are looking to be employed and presenting yourself to people who can potentially give you work, it is detrimental, as a writer, to advertise your linguistic retardation. If you can’t at least try to understand that, you are missing not only one of the fundamentals of good journalism, but of life.
If that makes me pompous, I embrace my new status with alacrity. 

And anyone who doesn’t like it can simply Go . . . F . . . Find themselves someone who gives a damn.