Tuesday, November 29, 2016

My Phobic Christmas

The festive party season is upon us. People, music, balloons, dancing to Slade’s Merry Christmas, Everybody. Unless you happen to be me.

’Tis the season not to be jolly.
Let me say at the outset that I love Christmas. I don’t subscribe to the Scrooge ‘Bah! Humbug!’ philosophy and, while I find the festive season stressful with all the preparation, it’s still a joyous time of year. I just hate Christmas parties.

I especially hate Slade, by the way, because Alison and Mandy in my secondary school loved them and they bullied me. Noddy Holder’s wife once asked me why I had it in for her husband every time I mentioned the band and I told her the truth. It’s not him; it’s them. But I digress.
Christmas parties bring my worst phobias (and other conditions that usually lie dormant) to the surface. Claustrophobia (too many people), misophonia (literally, a hatred of sound, which I have all the year round but have developed techniques to control it) and Globophobia – a fear of balloons. Yes, it is a real fear. And I have it by the airload.
I am in very good company because, apparently, Oprah Winfrey suffers from Globophobia, too. So, while all of you are out enjoying funny hats, streamers and liaisons over the office desk at the Christmas party, Oprah and I will be indoors, cowering in a corner – because we both can’t be within screaming distance of balloons (although, in Oprah’s case, I suspect it might have more to do with a fear of ballooning).
I also suffer from Coulrophobia – a fear of clowns – but then what sane person doesn’t, if they’re honest; worse, though, I have severe Metamfiezomaiophobia – a fear of mime, clowns and people in disguise. I used to think I suffered from basic Maskaphobia (which speaks for itself) and it’s very common among young children, but the triple whammy is a whole new ball park. Let’s just say that my worst nightmare would be a Marcel Marceau concert. The only comfort would be that it would keep my misophonia in check. But at what cost?
I really can’t go near anything that has its face covered or distorted in any way. I can’t date men with moustaches or beards; my fear of the dentist has nothing to do with the drill and all to do with the dentist’s mask; I have never and could never attend a masked ball (masks and balloons; dear lord, call the paramedics). I’ve had it from a very young age and it’s one of the reasons I never go out on Halloween or New Year’s Eve, where balloons occupy more space than people, and painted faces and masks are the order of the night.

Balloons, though, are undoubtedly the worst, and if I go to a party, wedding or other special event, the first thing I do is case the joint; it’s one of the reasons I love funerals because you sure ain’t gonna find balloons there.
Most globophobics can’t touch, feel or go near a balloon for fear it will pop (although, technically, that is phonophobia); I just have a fear of balloons in general. To me, they are a sinister, unpredictable presence, like spiders (don’t even get me started on my arachnophobia); their hideous colours bob along the floor like buoys in the sea, pretending they are stable but all the time plotting to approach you when you are least expecting it.
Apparently, it’s not very common, although my mother tells me that, as a child, I had a recurring nightmare when I would wake crying, insisting that my room was full of balloons. There is just something about the texture, the tightness and the meanness of a rubber balloon that sends my heart rate and blood pressure racing.
I’m okay with foil balloons, but that’s probably because they deflate at their own rate; I don’t rush screaming into the house if I see a hot air balloon (although you would never get me into one without resorting to chloroform). I’m ambivalent towards bubble gum, though, and that bulbous oral uterus genuinely makes me feel sick.
Christmas is a very stressful time for people with phobias. It’s a dreadful time for people born in the festive season for example, if they suffer from Fragapanophobia (fear of birthdays); and for anyone thinking of substituting turkey for duck, spare a thought for anyone coming to dinner who might be suffering from Anatidaephobia, which is a fear that one is being watched by a duck.

I didn’t think I suffered from the latter, but now I come to think about it, I suspected something was watching me when I went for a walk in St James’s Park this week; I had just assumed it to be human.
So, happy partying all. I’ll be celebrating with you – from a distance.

With my new best friend Oprah, of course.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Day One in Trumptown

And so, it begins. 

Fifteen months ago, I was talking to Justin in my local bar, Mr Biggs, in New York, and I told him it would happen. “He won’t even get past the first vote,” he said. Then, Trump did. And beyond. Next, he was the Republican candidate. “He’s going to do it,” I told everyone last week. And then . . . well, the rest is history (literally).
He was not my choice. I cried when it became clear what the outcome was going to be. I woke today in shock and disbelief. President Trump. The very words stutter from my tongue as if in combat with a serpent on their way into the ether.
But it’s happened. And we must accept it. For whatever reason, a self-confessed pussy grabbing, tax-avoiding racist has acquired the top job in the world. I will never understand it, but I have to live in hope that the disturbing rhetoric The Donald employed to land the gig will quickly dissipate once the reality of what’s involved sinks in.
The actor and rights campaigner John Barrowman posted a wonderful clip on Twitter this morning. In bed with his husband, Scott, he called for the hatred on Twitter to stop. While not liking the outcome of the election, he appealed for calm; for the continuance of people standing up for what they believe in; for the need to move forward.
My heavy heart of yesterday is no lighter today, but I will not lose friends over the chasm that lies between us in relation to this. One of my closest friends and even my mother voted for Brexit; I was, and still am, in disbelief that they did. But it’s their right. I was also genuinely interested in their reasoning, however insane I thought it to be.
Because that’s what we do. Or should. We are the only living species that has the capacity to voice our thoughts and feelings in words (and before all you Chihuahua lovers out there tell me that your pooch talks; barking doesn’t count. It really doesn’t); but we are often so busy listening to the sound of our own voices, we forget that we have another great skill. Listening.
I spent last night in the same bar in which I predicted the outcome of the election and shared what seemed that very same distant memory with Justin. It’s not the result either of us wanted and, apart from two people, it wasn’t the result anyone else wanted there, either. It’s a gay bar, and the horror of Mike Pence, Trump’s deputy, recommending electric shock therapy to “cure” gays is, of course, abhorrent. As is so much else of what has come out of these men’s mouths.
But a democracy is not about one day, no matter how historic that day might be. It is about having a voice that continues to be heard until it dies – and in so many forms, not least literature, long after that.
I want to come back to ears, though. We hear but we do not listen. Every day, we have the chance to learn from others, no matter how different their opinions and beliefs might be from our own. Even as I write, I am conscious of the gift of sound. I hear a police car siren racing along 11th Avenue in New York, my keyboard tapping, my refrigerator making ice, a car horn blowing, my mouth slurping at the glass of bubbly I had put by yesterday in anticipation of a celebration today (ah, well; it’s got be drunk, no matter what the occasion). Listen. Words are our armour and our anchor.
One of my favourite songs the brilliant Iris Williams sings is Sondheim’s Children Will Listen and I’ve had the privilege of hearing her perform it on more than one occasion. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but the lyrics of the song always move me: yes, children will listen. Adults don’t. 

At what point in our lives do we lose the capacity to listen? Is it when we begin to form opinions different from those our parents instilled/indoctrinated? Is it when we realised that some people are just vile? Is it because we live in fear of not having our own views of the world validated? Is it simply a terror of thinking that we invested in something that might turn out to be wrong?
I have no idea. But I do know that although we hear so much, we have lost the capacity to listen. Today must not be a day of mourning; as John Barrowman said, the sun is still shining (although it’s not in New York City, it’s bizarrely pissing down for the first time in weeks, but you know what I mean). We must all, no matter what our beliefs, listen and try to understand – that is the only way of conversion.
I will never understand attacks on any human being, whatever their sexual persuasion. I will never understand racism. I will never understand intolerance.
But we are complex beings who carry baggage and gather more as life goes on. This, however, I do know: we progress only by understanding, or at least trying to understand. As I said in yesterday’s blog, quoting Ephesians: Be kind to one another.
Today, I cry tears of disappointment – and, yes, fear. But onward. Upwards.

It is what it is. 

And I’ll say it again. Be kind to one another. 

This is all, at the end of the day, that truly matters.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Day of the Frackle?

FYI:  FRACKLE: an unnamed monster from The Muppet Show

Eight years ago, on the eve of my 50th birthday, I was standing in front of a TV screen with tears streaming down my face. I was consumed with joy that, in my lifetime, I was about to see the first black man elected to be President of the USA.
It was a sublime moment in history: a massive step for man, an even bigger one for mankind. The racism Barack Obama endured then and has endured since is a disgrace; but he, and his extraordinary wife, Michelle, have come through two incredible terms of office in which so much has been accomplished. There will be many who disagree with aspects of Obama’s policies, but when I decided, on that historic day, to come to America, I can honestly say it is a better place today than it was back then.
Although I have spent, and continue to spend time in the UK, it is America that I love with a passion. I am fortunate to be able to split my time between Los Angeles and New York, and, in the latter in particular, I have found extraordinary warmth and friendship in people from all parts of the world. America’s great strength is its lack of history; it’s what lends it a rather lovely innocence. But conversely, its great weakness is its lack of history, because it has few benchmarks that might have proven to be invaluable lessons along the way.
Because today, alas, I am one of many who awaits the result of an election that might see the very antithesis of Obama elected. Donald Trump. A man whose racism, misogyny, ignorance, tax evasion and bullying is being celebrated by millions. A man who, by his own admission – proudly - admits to all these things. A man who intimidates the vulnerable, exploits the power of money, cheats on his wives, loudly spouts drivel because he is preaching to the deaf. A man who has all the characteristics of a sociopath. A man who is, quite frankly, not a man.
There are many men like him. But there are millions who are not. There are millions of women who, bizarrely, are attracted to the monstrous behaviour Trump displays at every turn. I find it inconceivable that any human being in the civilised world would vote for him; but I find it especially offensive that any self-respecting woman would.
More than ever, in the chaos of our modern world, we need to stress, on a daily basis, the qualities that make us human: compassion, love, acceptance of our differences, tolerance, a belief in the need to strive to be better. In essence: goodness.
While I do not hold the religious beliefs I once had, I still maintain that Ephesians states that message beautifully and succinctly: “Be kind to one another.” That’s quintessential goodness.
Nothing that I write is going to change anyone’s mind about the way they vote today; truthfully, it never was, though I have been doing my bit in the vague hope of making the stubborn blind see. But if this election has taught us anything, it is the lesson about what it means to be a decent human being.
I am not saying that Hillary Clinton is squeaky clean (what politician is?) but I have studied her over many years and seen how she has championed the weak in her work as a lawyer; celebrated womankind both publicly and privately (and she has done so much for young girls and education that has conveniently been forgotten); and, whether you think she was wrong or right to stand by her erring man, Bill, she did. It’s called marriage. It’s called loyalty. It’s called staying power.
I sit here today, genuinely scared about the outcome of the vote. I am not alone. Saying yes to Trump is casting a vote in the ballot box of stupidity. For what sane person would want to live in a world that has, at its helm, a person who is openly contemptuous of everything we hold dear in society? It boils down to humanity versus inhumanity, and, cliché as it is, my heart feels heavier today than it has ever done.
This is no Brexit. Not even close. 

Here’s the thing: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Adolph Hitler. He also said: “It is not truth that matters, it’s victory.” Sound like anyone you know?
Today is either going to turn out to be one of the greatest in American history, or one of its saddest. One can only hope that sanity will triumph.
Until that moment, I’m uncorking a bottle of fine wine. 

This could be our last day of freedom. 

I want to remember it.