Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The internet is playing a trick on us

Lots of us, my generation, are guilty of falling for it. 

We're constantly, unknowingly seduced by numbers (over a thousand followers? Must be a big deal) and faces (the featureless, flattering photos of Instagram) and other people's life events (the party where everyone's having the time of their lives).

And no matter how well we think we're negotiating this life stuff, these little tricks - and deep down we know they're tricks - end up making us feel bad about ourselves anyway.

So a while back I decided to cut down my online life a bit, and make sure I was doing alright without it.

A few weeks before my 30th birthday, I decided that Facebook could be where I got event invitations, or involved in group inbox conversations, or tagged in photos - but I would no longer browse what I had begun to term The Timeline of Doom.

Despite never being a particularly active user, not having it on my phone, and never big on sharing my innermost thoughts, I hadn't realised how much I subconsciously flicked onto the website in between tasks at work throughout the day, and the effect that was having on how I felt about myself.

At first, it felt a bit alien not to be entertained by the constant slew of missives from friends and acquaintances. I felt a bit of a pull towards it, and that surprised me too.

But after a few days, then a week, then a month and more, the habit dropped completely.

Now I manage quite nicely without the constant drip-feed of other people's lives - which almost never made me feel good, but did give me a lot of oh my god, why aren't I doing that - and instead, if you'll excuse my French, began to give a shit about the stuff that actually, you know, matters.

And low and behold - when you're not comparing yourself to others, or locked down to life on a laptop, or updating the world on your every move for a Retweet - it's like...bloody hell, I'm doing alright.

In fact, I'm doing good: I'm working hard, earning enough money to live the way I want to in one of the world's best cities. I can travel and see friends abroad, live in a good houseshare, occasionally date people, occasionally not, have busy weekends and quiet week nights. And all of that is ok. 

Being online a lot can warp your priorities, and change what you think you want. 

It's fine if other people aim for marriage, babies or a house, writing a book, or getting fame and popularity in a corner of the internet - but at the moment, I'm working on a different kind of future: where I work hard and earn money, not "likes", having fun and, well, a pension; because when I'm old and rickety after all the adventures, I'm going to need some cash.

A timely reminder of the digital microcosm we live in now came the other night, when I sat opposite a man I'd just met for the first time - through an app, ironically - laughing, flirting, getting along fine, and seeing a blank look on his face when I mentioned the word "Buzzfeed".

That someone my age had never heard of this huge website that dominated so much of my online feeds seemed odd - but it was also hugely reassuring.

Because most of the websites, numbers, influential people, followers, likes and carefully posed profile pictures are all part of the internet's big trick.

What matters is when you're sat in front of someone, just getting on, having a laugh. Mates, dates, your face, their face, chatting in the real world: knowing that if they like you, that's cool, and if they don't, you'll still be alright. 

And no amount of Instagram filters can help you with that.

Monday, 22 September 2014

All the little places

I was 16 when I fell in an approximation of love for the first time.

At that age, I had no idea that there would be others after him. It was just all completely new, that rush of lovely reciprocated feelings, and because I didn't yet realise that boys who said they loved you might one day just... not, there were only good things ahead.

You fell in love once, and he had huge brown eyes, and we were going to be together forever, and that was that.

He was two years older than me - a frightening age gap in my mother's opinion - and she was suspicious, she later told me, because those huge brown eyes never met hers. But she had the good sense to let me find out for myself.

And then three weeks later when he ended it, my mum perched on the bed where I'd been laying in the dark silently crying for the past couple of hours, and comforted me. Then she said, "You didn't sleep with him, did you?" and quietly "Thank god." when I shook my head no.

This wasn't just my first initiaition into heartbreak, but the first time I realised it wasn't just people you had to get over, but places too. My bedroom used to be my bedroom, but now it was where me and him first stood there hugging and then slowly, tentatively, kissed.

The bench in the park where we'd walked my dog - the one with my initials and his scratched into the wood - no longer belonged to a London Borough Council, it was ours. And then, because it hurt to look at it, it was to be avoided at all costs.

The park is still there, the bench is too. Reclaimed by the council, the love for that brown eyed boy long gone and replaced ten times over.

But if I'm passing, I'll sometimes sit there and run my fingers along the seat trying to find a trace of the letters I carved with my house keys 14 years ago, feeling nothing except glad that although it hurt, it happened, and I learnt from it, and occasionally I'll wonder what he's doing now.

And sometimes, all that seems to have changed is my age, the men, and the locations: the more people I meet and get attached to, the more invisible flags get planted and fade all over London - some quicker than others.

Some places have a sort of magnetism about them; your eyes are automatically drawn to a doorway or corner, or a flat, a bus stop, and the conversations you had there pop into your mind, word for word.

The other day I crossed over to the side of a road that took me past a front door.

Not because I hoped to see him come out of it (although I armed myself by inwardly rehearsing our conversation just in case) but more because I'd been unconsciously refusing to go near it.

I'd been avoiding an entire side of a busy road I used most days, and now, I decided, I wanted it back.

Doing so triggered a little memory, and made my chest hurt for a second or two. I glanced at the door and no one came out of it, and then I carried on walking home.

But everything fades, and nowadays I know that soon I'll walk past that door and feel nothing but a vague curiosity; wondering a little bit about what he's up to, and what little flags will get planted next.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Are we friends yet?

For the second time in as many weeks, my body reacted like it'd been given bad news.

My phone lit up on the desk at work, his name on the screen again, and my stomach dropped an inch or two. For gods sake, what now?

The rejection had dissipated slightly in the two weeks since his original message, the one that mowed down every cliché in the field: not looking for a relationship, would be amazing to still be friends, carry on hanging out more, etc, etc, etc. The next day, my reply had been calm and honest (fuelled only slightly by gin), explaining why friends couldn't happen: because I was hurt.

So now, knowing that my day was about to be disrupted by whatever he had to say, I carried on with what I was doing. Left it there unchecked for a while until I was ready: my day will not stop for you.

Eventually I looked at the message, and stared at it, all four words and a kiss.

Are we friends yet? X

It was just a thread, nothing more. And when you hang on to threads, you get dangled - and that wasn't about to happen again.

That didn't stop replies lining up in my mind for the best part of a week, covering every emotion from sarcastic, honest, angry, witty, to mildly humourous, none of which would ever be sent.

Then one week later at the tail end of a house party, the bit when you sit on the kitchen counter and chat about the world, a friend and I talked about me being single.

"I suspect it's the sort of bloke I'm attracted to", I said, "here's a good example."

Then I showed him the text messages, trying to explain this person I really liked and his sudden departure from my life, "...and then I got this."

My friend held my phone and looked at the final message, his eyebrows furrowed. "Who even does that?" he said, seemingly angry on my behalf.

Then, before I could do anything, he'd tapped twice on the keyboard and pressed send.

When I grabbed it back and looked down, there it was; the answer I'd never have sent.

The lines of communication officially closed and all threads cut with a simple word:

no


Monday, 14 July 2014

This is all I know at the moment

If there was ever a way to press pause on a moment and bottle it, now would be the perfect time.

This is what's going through my head as I lie there fully clothed, the thumping hangover slowly worsening or abating, I can't tell which.

Hip hop plays low in the background. An arm slips around me, the other hand finds mine, and I bury my head in his neck.

"Bloody hell, I'm dying" I say, because the night before ended at 6am when daylight crept into the party, and only then was it time to go home.

It was when I woke up later that morning that the text was there, asking if I wanted to come round that night.

"I can't do tonight, but do you fancy just being a hungover mess with me this afternoon?" I replied, because he'd had a big one too, and misery loves nothing more than company when it's only a short, slightly ropey, too-hot-for-this-hangover bus journey down the road.

I told no one where I was going; there was no one to tell anyway, but it felt nice to just disappear to his flat in the middle of the afternoon, pull down the blinds and forget about the outside world for a while.

In fact, I tell no one about any of it, save a few close people who know me well enough not to ask too much, and not to share the details they hear.

Because this is how dating seems to go; it's uncertain, it's fun, and it's mostly closing your eyes and storing this moment because you're not sure how it will turn out later. 

And all I know is what experience tells me: that this - whatever it is - isn't ready to be labelled yet, won't be for a while, and doesn't need to be prodded in the way my friends would if they knew. 

What would I say if the questions came? That it's not as terrifying as it was at the start, certainly; that he's 30% familiar, and 70% an unknown mystery, but we're working on that with every date.

Well, sort of.

"You're going to a desert island and can only have one soft drink and one alcoholic drink forever", he says, 'what you having?"
"Ribena. And a gin and tonic" I reply, "you?"
"Strawberry milkshake and a White Russian." he returns.
"Interesting. A milky choice there."
Then I turn around and he curls behind me, and all I know is that even with a hangover, this is a good place to be at the moment. 

So with the important questions covered, for now, we nap. 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Changing states of mind

"If you like someone, you don't mind getting two texts in a row from them."
"Either do it now, or do it tomorrow."
"I think just do it now. No games. You want to see him, so just ask."
"God, I haven't seen you like this before."

My mind was in a state of flux.

It had been that way since the minute I'd woken up and brushed the button to light up my phone, ostensibly to see the time, but also to see whether there had been any deliveries overnight. And there hadn't.

Panic had set in.

"So he wanted to see you last night..."
"Yes. But it was late and too far so I suggested this afternoon and now nothing. Nothing. All day."

The feeling of all rational thought taking leave was an alien one. It was unsettling to seemingly have so much time, so much energy to devote to just one thing, one person, one bloody phone screen.

The highs and lows were disrupting the nice, level minded constant I'd put time and effort into building up. It was disconcerting. I was going nuts.

Right. What would you advise someone else in this situation?

This was the question I'd asked myself earlier on the bus, as I'd stared out of the window and envisaged a future that contained both the perfect and worst case scenarios in quick, altering succession.

I'd say you can't assume to know the motives or thoughts of someone you've known for just a week. I'd say it's hormones. I'd say what do you really know about this person? I'd say not everyone treats their phone like the messiah.

But really, I needed rational advice. I needed the real talk, the science, not the irritating "how exciting! No, but this is exciting!" exclamations of those who have been in relationships too long to remember the fear, the terror, the crippling insecurity of having feelings for someone you've known for only a week.

I needed Google.

How to stop yourself feeling completely crazy when...

When what? When you've known someone a week? When you've had a spectacularly good first date?

...you're on Facebook
...you're on your period
...you're falling in love

Google's last autocomplete threw me, and I stared at the results warily before clicking onto what I considered to be the most reputable. And then I read.
"You are under the influence of your hormones that are making you feel, all at once, euphoric, endangered, and exhausted. You are adding a dating relationship to your normal, busy routine. This can make you more anxious than normal. This process can be threatening and make you feel unsafe."
Science out of the way, I needed the reassurance from my perennially single, tell it like it is friends. I needed two gay mates and a housemate.

"Yeah, it's horrible." they agreed, "Bloody awful, liking someone. The worst."
"I know, it's so much easier when you don't care."
"Urgh, I feel for you."

Finally, I thought. People who understand.

After a while and a beer I realised that while you can't know someone else, you can know yourself. You can know how to allay your own fears - even the most startling irrational ones - or at least set them on the road to recovery.

Knowing that I'd taken the adult route, the direct route, would mean that even in the event of a Non Reply, I would feel better for trying.

I typed.

"[Full name]. Are you still free on Monday?"

It sent. It delivered. It sat there, under my last message, making my screen into a field of green.

You've known him a week. You'll get over it. Plus if he loses interest this quickly there's clearly something else going on and you do not need a problem child. Nope.

And the weird thing was, I started to feel better.

An hour passed, then two, and the strange feeling in my chest was returning to normal.

"I don't think I'll hear from him again. I think that's it", I said, as my housemate and I walked home from the park, ready for a night in.

We were mid way through unpacking a bag of shopping when my phone, discarded and in disgrace on the kitchen counter, lit up with a message.

"For you? Yes. X"

And then I fell into a state of relief.

Friday, 23 May 2014

What's the worst that can happen

If there's one saying I've heard over and over again through the years, it's this:

"You might as well try. What's the worst that can happen?"

This seems to be the go-to response when someone wants to put themselves out there, take a risk or try something new - and for some people, it probably serves as the kick up the arse they need to do just that.

Which is great for them.

But if you're the sort of person who worries about the "worst that can happen" a fair amount of the time, the idea of imagining the worst case scenario and using it as a reason to do something probably won't be all that helpful.

In fact for years, putting any focus on the "worst that could happen" - the uncertainty, not knowing the outcome, potentially looking silly, getting a negative reaction, failing - would conversely be the thing that stopped me trying in the first place.

It keeps you in stasis.

And if you normally calculate the risk and go with the option least likely to cause a fuss, you're unlikely to be the sort of person who takes a deep breath, ignores the thumping in your chest, and rejects something like a pay rise offer because, well, you reckon you're worth more.

Because let's be honest, if jobs are hard to come by, pay rises are even harder. If they don't budge, it might mean you have to find another job - and with rent to pay, that's a pretty big risk to take.

But last year, this is what I did.

It could have been this thing I read - about how women get promoted based on their past accomplishments; where men get promoted on their future potential; that women actively highlight the things they're not good at, hold themselves back, state their shortcomings before anything else - which made me stop, take a picture of the pages, and admit that yes - this is me in my career so far, grateful for anything, undervaluing myself - and see that fitting that sort of statistic is probably the worst that can happen.

Maybe it was that.

Maybe it was yet another impending house move signalling an overhaul, maybe it was just the reckless "sod it" feeling that passes over me sometimes like a tide (the same one that also makes me book things like plane tickets to take me half way around the world).

Whatever it was, it made me say "that's generous, thank you - but actually, I deserve this much" - and push a much higher figure over the table, along with the reasons why.

(I calculated that the worst that could happen would be them laughing, my embarrassment, handing in my notice, living off meagre savings, and struggling to find another job. So I sorted my CV out just in case.)

In the end, the pay rise I wanted came through, and with it - as I walked out of the room stifling a grin, feeling really quite emotional - a feeling of wonder: if I asked for that and got it, what else can I do?

Which is how, six months later, I ended up sitting at my kitchen table after a decidedly mediocre day at work, contemplating the worst things that could happen if submitted my CV for a job I'd chanced upon, which was at the very edge of my abilities, and already showed a large amount of applicants in the running.

The worst? I'd hear nothing, and stay where I was.

The other worst? I'd get an interview, and have to lie about a doctor's appointment.

(The guilt, the guilt. Always the guilt.)

But then one e-mail became a phone interview, which became more face to face, and now here I sit at my new desk, in a different, bigger office, with a new job and new colleagues; managing, instead of being managed.

Granted, "Well, you might as well try, because the best that can happen is that someone says 'yes', and in fact the more you try, the more people will say yes" doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the original version.

But for now, as far as sayings go, it seems to be working for me.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

I don't know where to put you

I'd been wanting to see them live since first hearing the album back in 2010. 

They'd been the accompaniment to my final months of travelling; me, my now Ex, and our ever present soundtrack of the same songs, in the same order, wherever we went.

Now the gig had finished, and our sentences were glazed with that post-live music wonderment - you know, when the encore's done, the lights go up and you walk out, down the stairs, onto the street and all you can say is oh, I loved that, that was so good.

"How did you hear about them?" my friend asked, and I told her how he'd been all over this stuff, we constantly listened to music, stayed up til 6am dancing to it - this was what we did.


"Have you talked to him lately?" she said, because we live in the same area and, for a time, I seemed to bump into him every time I left the house.

"Not for ages," I replied, "Not since he was walking outside my old flat last year and I saw him, then completely forgot my housemate's name."

"But it's weird." I continued, as we walked among the throng of people heading to the nearest station, "usually I'll wonder how he is, and then he'll cycle past me at the bus stop or something."

"Alright, so you know he's still got legs. That's cool." and we laughed and I said, "Ha, yeah. I've been thinking about him a lot lately, just hoping he's ok. But I suppose you always do, don't you."

We got to the station and split up, her to go underground and me over. It was five minutes later when I was faced with a closed line, forced to retrace my steps back over the road and take a different route - such is the reliability of the London transport system.

As I placed my Oyster card on the reader and stepped through the barrier, at that precise moment and time at the overly busy station, some hair caught my eye, then trainers, then my brain pieced together all the different characteristics of this person in front of me.

And even though he hadn't turned around yet, I called his name because it was definitely him.

"Hello," I said, and I can't remember if we hugged.
"Hello" he replied, "how are you?"
"This is weird, that you're here", and of course he'd been to the same gig.

Then we walked down the escalator, onto the same tube, where we placed ourselves by the doors on one side of the carriage and his friends on the other, sometimes glancing our way.

There we stood as the tube rattled from one side of London to the other, catching up, carefully skirting topics, asking after people and family and jobs and travels; vaguely referencing a time we can't talk about here, like this; occasional silences where we looked at each other, smiled a bit and didn't know what to say next.

We reached the barriers at the other side and he hung back, waiting for his friends so they could get food.

We hugged. A goodbye, a good to see you, a quick, distant utterance of I'll text you or something and a Yeah, do thrown over my shoulder in case I'd misheard, or hadn't, and then I walked up towards the concourse at Liverpool Street Station.

--------------

Days later, the chance meeting sticks in my mind.

He's back there in my head, of course, because he always is anyway. It's fate, or chance, or I could bump into him at any time or place and it would seem as though I'd always just thought of him that moment.

With this one, there's no box to put him in. I don't know where he's meant to go. Everything fits, and nothing does at all.

He's just there, and, as long as we live in the same city, on the same road, and listen to the same music, I suppose he always will be.
 

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