Monkeys of the Mind

For the last couple of days my head had been spinning. I’ve been insecure, irrational and in one particularly ridiculous moment Aretha Franklin made me burst into uncontrollable tears, in full view of everyone on the train.  I’ve tried to think about my problems, to rationally diagnose myself, but I think the simple truth is that I find love hard and I always will.

It has become a bit of a trope to say we are sold a lie of what to expect from romance by films and media. Adverts bombard us with images telling us how the women we date should look. Songs and music videos tell us how to spend our Friday nights. Friends on Facebook remind us how happy and successful they are. But everyone needs to navigate these things. We might be collectively suffering under the yoke of patriarchal ideology, anti-social media and unrealistic romantic expectations, but other people seem capable of coping.

I remember dating someone a long time ago who was kind, funny and intelligent, but didn’t fit the narrow criteria for how I thought women should look. I dumped her. In retrospect it is embarrassing- I was immature and cruel, but at the time it seemed obvious. I was spooked about what other people would say or think and cut myself off. The more I reflect on my actions the more hypocritical they are. I am not a conventionally good looking person. I exude geekiness and hope people see the attractive qualities buried underneath. But my own actions were the opposite and you can only claim to be a subconscious victim of the sexist media so much, when your whole worldview is based around rising above the ideology!

We shouldn’t dwell on our mistakes, providing we learn from them. Maybe the same is true of other people’s. Emotions and insecurities are independent beasts but we make choices that can either feed or curtail them. Sometime simply the choice to get enough sleep is enough to silence the screaming monkeys of the mind. Either way it is isn’t enough to think over and over about why you are hurt, or what decisions you or other people shouldn’t have made. Perhaps at times it is better not to think at all.

 

Since there’s no help let us kiss and part;

Nay I have done, you get no more of me;

And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,

That thus so cleanly I myself can free;*

 

*Farewell to Love, Michael Drayton

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Reflections on my Recent Mini Break in Oxford…

Reflections on the Revolution in France my Recent Mini Break in Oxford…

Below are some of my immediate thoughts upon leaving Oxford. They are largely unreconstructed and some ideas may form the theme of future blog posts, but for now I just wanted to keep it raw and real.

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On Oxbridge

Going to Oxford for any self-proclaimed intellectual is a difficult and conflicting experience. Friends of mine who graduated from top universities, often in the face of mitigating circumstances, still harbor open resentment of Oxford and Cambridge for not accepting their applications. I was never in a position to apply to Oxford, but it is nonetheless difficult to escape Oxford’s shadow. Oxford is where our future leaders, Prime Ministers, academics and civil servants go to be educated. It is where Churchill grew up, Oscar Wilde learned his prose and Inspector Morse catches murderers. We ambitious, intellectually curious and slightly egotistical bunch who did not go to Oxford medicate ourselves with comforting notions like the existence of a class system and lack of meritocracy in society. Secretly however each has the suspicions that Oxford graduates, just maybe are better than us as we didn’t make the cut.

While irrational bitterness is a problem I openly struggle with, it didn’t take me long to realise that despite not going to Oxford I’m actually doing OK. I enjoyed University and made good friends there, including my lecturers, who I’m still in touch with. After a few years of grafting I have even managed to get a job that I’m proud of. Oxford hasn’t stopped me living a good life and I may yet lead a great one. But some things are still hard to shake. The debating society I helped organise at University was not the one that still today attracts experts from around the world. The anti-establishment political theory I enjoyed as a student was pioneered at Oxford and the lecturers I am still friends with, you guessed it were bloody well Oxford educated. Luckily I’m self-aware enough to know that I would never want to be a part of a club that would have me as a member.

On Loneliness

I was visiting Oxford for The Oxford Lindy Exchange an excellent, if slightly imperial, weekend of dancing in venues such as St Columba’s Church and the historic Oxford Union Debating Chamber. After years of striving to explore the Union Debating Chamber it was actually the blues after party in a community center for the blind that blew me away. Dan Nash is a brilliant musician. He had the room in his back pocket, a deep knowledge of the blues and the ability to articulate this knowledge such a way that you actually cared what the hell he had to say. It was in this moments of intimate connection, I began realise that loneliness isn’t the exception it is the rule.

It is as if we have all been born with splinters in our hearts. In time skin grows over the splinter and we learn to ignore it until we have a moment of intimate connection. The splinter is then yanked out and we feel a great release; but at the same time are vulnerable because our flesh is laid bare. In time the protective skin will regrow and so will the splinter. Connection is bitter sweet, love is a drug and we are fighting the symptoms but not the disease.

On Class

I recently noticed something that made me feel uncomfortable while watching the BBC drama Broken. Broken made me feel sad and angry about the way benefits are organised in this country. However, I also realised that I felt far more empathy for the fictional woman portrayed on my screen than the homeless people that I had avoided on my way home from work.

Unfortunately, not everyone was sipping on beer and dancing in exclusive venues this weekend. Many more were working shifts to make rent or begging on the street. I encountered and to my shame ignored a number of the latter, but paradoxically was tipping generously the workers taxiing me around Oxford and serving me food. Perhaps this comes from a kind of Left Wing snobbishness. The working class are after all the instrument of history* while the homeless are just lumpenproletariat… Or maybe I just feel more kinship with service sector workers from my time being employed at McDonalds. Either way there are some inconsistencies in my morality.

On Rousseau

The following quote from Rousseau’s essay on inequality, that I was reading this weekend, really has stuck out to me. Basically people have been sharing your anxieties for centuries and it is not your fault or even your parents fault. Rather, blame lies with those selfish monkeys’ who years ago traded society for the sweet harmony of the state of nature:

The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided them nearly all by adhering to that simple, uniform and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed.

Happy summer holidays everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

*Marx charmingly describes the homeless class as: The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

Connecting the Dots

Moments of human connection are exciting. You find yourself filled with happiness and enthusiasm. The first feeling is a rush not least because it is full of potential. However, what’s less of a rush is the vivisection of that connection your brain makes long after the moment is over. Was the connection real, did they feel it too? Was the connection romantic or friendship? The brain has a way of dissecting moments of happiness, reducing them to their subordinate parts and making it impossible to reassemble again.

All this sounds a little dramatic, but misinterpreting a connection is probably the most dangerous thing that happen in a friendship. You risk putting unreasonable expectations on people or letting them upset you over what wouldn’t normally be an issue. You might start developing feelings that you shouldn’t, or begin to indulge feeling you deep down know better to ignore.

I haven’t learn too much about human connection, but love isn’t a philosophical problem that can be resolved through thought experiments or meditation. There are two choices. You can act or you can put the genie back in its bottle and bury it deep. That is at least until the next connections turns up like a whirlwind to blow the dust away.

Thoughts on the Thames Valley Balboa Festival 2017

The swing dancing scene in Reading is really a wonderful thing. You can learn Balboa on Monday, Lindy Hop on Tuesday, dance the blues on Thursday and there is even a university swing dance society that opens their lessons to locals. We have regular social dances, Sunday Swing at the pub and alongside this there are also events that bring some of the best dance teachers in the world to our doorstep. One such event was the Thames Valley Balboa festival which I attended last week and am still feeling a warm glow from.

The Thames Valley Balboa Festival ran by All Jazzed Up brought Sylvia Sykes, the woman generally credited for reviving Balboa, alongside Marty Lau, Laura Keat and Nick Williams to teach a two day Bolboa workshop in Henley. Balboa is a dance located firmly underneath the Swing Umbrella. Unlike Lindy Hop, the better known incarnation of Swing, Balboa is close. The steps are small, fast and the dance is generally less showy and more about connecting with you partner.

True to the nature of Balboa, the Thames Valley Baboa Festival was dedicated to connection and musicality. We learnt lots of variations, ironed out some the tricky steps, like crab steps, and I generally feel much more confident and enthused about Balboa. It also didn’t hurt that Henley Town hall is a beautiful venue and that the Jim Wynn Orchestra’s set on Saturday was brilliant. I wholeheartedly recommend this event and hope you keep an eye on the website for next year.

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Author’s notes

Just in the interests of full disclosure I am friends with the organisers of the Thames Valley Balboa Festival, although these thoughts are completely my own. I also recommend getting in touch with the organisers of this event if the ticket price is tricky to pay in one go. I understand that they are generally opened to paying in installments etc. 

The Green Eyed Monster

Jealousy is a toxic emotion. Shakespeare called  it “the green-eyed monster which doth mock. The meat it feeds on.” It takes positive emotions such as friendship, love and turns them feelings into ones of bitterness and resentment. Jealousy has at times strained my friendships, relationships and generally made me a not very fun person to be around. It seems remarkable that I am only now learning how to manage it.

Managing jealousy involves recognising that it is a problem that you need to deal with, not something other people need to make accommodations for. Jealousy comes with a sense of entitlement. Why has my friend managed to get this job I rightly deserve? Or what does she see in him, I am definitely the better option?  But in life no-one is entitled to anything, let alone success and people. While the world definitely is not a war of everyman against each other, we do live in a competitive capitalist society with winners and losers. In this context we are all just trying to manage our own problems and find a little happiness, but when push comes to shove no-one needs to risk assess your insecurity when trying to get nice things.

That’s all jealousy is really, a symptom of insecurity. When you are happy with yourself the ambition and romantic interests, they all become less intense because less is stake. Getting the promotion, going on that date becomes less important because it is not the difference between happiness and frustration. Generally when you learn to accept your own strengths and flaws less pressure is applied to things you do not have control over. And that is good thing because win or lose you are still doing OK. Everything else becomes a bonus.

I feel like it has taken me a long time to learn these basic lessons, but most of them have come through experience and reflection. Of course for our generation there are also lots of other things at play. Social media at times is less about connecting everyone and more a personal PR platform people use to justify their existence. It makes everything more intense. So if I can summarise my thoughts on jealousy it is just that you need to accept that 99% of life you don’t have control of and that you need to love yourself – it is after all the start of a livelong romance.

Any thoughts on jealousy? Think this blog has become boring and pretentious now I can’t talk about politics? Let me know in the comments… 

Reinventing the sickle

 

It is never too late in life to reinvent yourself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Recently I made a mental pact to become less political not because I think I am wrong, but rather because living for the Left hasn’t made me happy. But reinventing yourself doesn’t mean you get to escape yourself and true to form I started day one of my new life as Nick Byard: defined by other things by telling new friends about the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, getting drunk and singing the Red Flag.

The trouble with trying to think differently is how much do you leave out? The old things you cared about are still important and part who you are, but at what point does having a healthy relationship with the person you were become repeating old thinking patterns and habits? These are questions touched upon by Arthur Koestler’s Arrival and Departure in which his protagonist, Peter Slavek, discovers his political idealism to be merely a symptom of a personal psychological trauma yet chooses to continue to fight the good fight anyway because without it his life has no meaning.

I feel bit like Peter Slavek right now. Unlike Peter I’m not a victim of childhood trauma and I definitely haven’t been tortured by Nazis (although the way things are going I wouldn’t rule it out just yet). But now God is dead I am struggling to find meaning and risk repeating old habits and similar thinking patterns. Perhaps this is a good thing. The world as it is needs more ideological egotists who put political causes above their own happiness. More than this, talking and thinking progressive politics is something that I’m good at. Thanks to my efforts I like to think that more people have a positive view of the Left and an idea about what the hell dialectics is. But the whole point of trying to reinvent yourself is giving enough space to experience and get good at other things.

So for the meantime I’m sacrificing certainty, but hopefully in its place will come opportunity.

On the future of this blog

You may be wondering right now where all the blog posts are. What was a thirty article strong blog is now only three or so articles. Don’t worried I haven’t had my data stolen or anything like that. I’m pretty sure date thieves don’t go after publicly available blog articles anyway. Basically the long and shorty of it is that I have a new job which I need to be politically neutral for so I thought it would probably be a good idea not to have my political opinions freely available on the internet. This is now going to be a non-political blog. Which is crazy because I’m not sure if can write about anything else.  So writing wise I’m out of my comfort zone. But that is compensated by the fact in many other ways I’m more comfortable and confident than ever.

22.03.17

Today London was attacked and once again it becomes clear that there are people in this world who are violent, cynical and cruel. Four people have died. Twenty have been injured. It is hard not to feel, hopeless, powerless and insecure. I was in London today, no-where near the attack thankfully but it is a strange feeling. Equally worrying is the thought that already political strategists are working out ways to frame this event. Finding ways to make it fit a narrative.

The facts are still coming out, but it is starting to look like the London attack is connected with ISIS. There is going to be a lot of stuff telling us that this attack proves Islam is incompatible with Western values. Britain First activists are probably putting an infographic together right now. The nationalists are drafting their press release. We are going to hear that multiculturalism has failed and that we need to respond to hate with anger and fear.

Hate and fear are powerful emotions because in the face of terror we as individuals are more or less powerless. We’re not policemen. We’re not first aiders or MI5 agents. We definitely don’t have power over geopolitics. However where we do have power is in how we react to situations. I am naive, but I think the most powerful way react to terror is to show empathy.

The man who carried out today’s attack was a human being. He had a mum. But someone twisted this man and made him care more about ideas than people. Can you imagine a lonelier, more pathetic or nihilistic kind of existence? The kind of a life that you are prepared to give up for an ideological fantasy. Where you are so consumed by hate that you are prepared kill indiscriminate strangers. This man is a sad figure, a pathetic figure and we should pity him.

Now it is easy for me to preach. I wasn’t personally affected by this attack. But I live in this country and I live in this world. Political forces will use this attack to spread their ideas and spread their hate. Our power in the face of terror is to choose how we respond. If we find the strength to show empathy, find a way to see those who disagree with us and even those trying to kill us as human beings, I think we can get through this. Liberal, loving, multicultural London will carry on.

Quitting = Failing?

This is lovely and it is real.

Life Powered by Tea

TL;DR? Well take this away with you – quitting something that makes you unhappy is brave; don’t be a coward and just do it. Life will get better.

I’ve always lived by the mantra: “If something makes you happy, do it; if it doesn’t, don’t.” I repeat it over and over to people. I never thought I’d deviate from that path, until I found myself very, very unhappy and couldn’t help but sit and wonder ‘how did I get here?’

I had to stop for a second and take a think about why exactly I was so unhappy.

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On paper, my job was ideal and it should have made me glow with joy every day, but it didn’t – it was quite the adverse effect. It took a lot of bravery at first to admit that to myself, but when I realised that I was so very unhappy…

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A Fish Called Byard

At my dentists they leave the radio on high volume. The receptionist claims it is because she loves BBC Radio 2’s blend of 60’s classics but I know better. I get anxious at the dentist, luckily there are lots of things to calm you down. Copies of fashion magazines and Men’s Health are spread across the waiting room. Many years ago they kept a copy of The Reader’s Digest, but that has now gone along with the toys for young children. What has replaced the toys and the Reader’s Digest is a fish, a goldfish to be specific. I watched it while waiting for my filling and the fish looked back at me. The goldfish and I didn’t connect on an emotional level, but we both knew that things weren’t as they seemed.

When I was a pretentious lefty I might have compared the goldfish to false conscious members of the ruled class. Swimming away, bobbing about, eating food and occasionally staring at its reflection. More recently though I’ve decided not to patronise the goldfish, but rather to identifying with it. The dentist’s goldfish is subject to forces beyond its control. It is reliant on power, drainage and dental systems completely beyond its comprehension. The only humans it hangs around with are anxious people, who are either in or about to be in great pain.  It is easy to see why I and the goldfish have a lot in common.

Whether or not I and the goldfish are kindred spirits I do have a small advantage over it. I know the goldfish’s purpose in life: it is to calm me down and provide decoration to the dentist’s waiting room. Admittedly these ideas are beyond the fish’s conception. There would be no point trying to explain room layout or nervousness to a goldfish after all. So the obvious conclusion to draw from the situation of the goldfish is nihilism. If the goldfish’s purpose is beyond its conception then why would my life purpose be any different? Me and the goldfish already have a lot in common so why not meaninglessness? The difference between me and the goldfish is agency. While like the goldfish I have no power to conceive life outside my own fish bowl, I do have the power to organise it. Unlike the goldfish we can choose whether to pollute our environment. We can choose how we distribute the fish food.

The danger lies in conflating political decisions about how we organise the fish bowl with our personal struggle for deeper meaning. We risk suspending our conscience and abandoning our humanity in order to play an ideological role. I am his agent God will forgive me or I am just am servant of the dialectic of history. But danger lies not just in surrendering to ideologies about how we change the world, but also in surrendering to the conventional wisdom about how it is. In a world where ideas and political consensus’s are changing, pragmatism really is just another false god. Another word for accepting the limits of the neoliberal project. Dominant systems of ideas change, sometimes things aren’t as they seem. I know that BBC Radio 2 is on high volume in order to hide the sound of dental drilling.

 

Gold fish