In the deep
Three months after we parted, for three days, I had each day a phone call from someone who didn't say a word. I couldn't even hear their breathing. At first, I wondered whether it was a robot, calling in the hope of being picked up by an answering machine, but they stayed connected for a while.
Who are you? What do you want? It seemed pointless to ask because somehow I knew that they wouldn't answer, and they didn't.
On the fourth day there was no call and I missed that silent communion.
Some days later, walking on the front street of my town, a woman -- a girl you'd call her in less liberated times -- approached me and asked for help.
She did not ask for money. She said, Can you help me? But I took it for begging and walked on. She did not ask twice. I had barely even seen her. All she was, a flash of blonde hair and a white scarf.
I like to think I am a generous person but I did not stop.
A couple of days later, I was walking along the same street and I saw a piece of white cloth across the road from me. Could it have been her scarf? I couldn't say and I wasn't curious enough to cross over to look.
It was just trash.
A few months later I became ill. I did not know what it was but I felt drained and feverish. I visited the doctor, but he was not very interested. He seemed tired and dispirited. I felt like I must be wasting his time. He sent me for tests.
I did not go for the tests. I went to bed instead and stayed there for a couple of days and felt better.
In the woods near my home, birds sang in the trees. As I walked, the sun was refracted by the leaves, bright where it felt its way through. The birdsong lifted me; I felt better than I had for a while. I realised I had been spending too long in the house. I resolved to change things.
But I didn't. It's easier to promise than deliver.
Some time in the next week I thought I saw the same girl from the window of a train but it was going so quickly that she disappeared from view without my being able to get a clear picture.
Or had she even been there? Sometimes ghosts wander in the space that you can only see from the corner of your eye.
I had been having dreams of riding on a horse. I had never done that so I didn't understand the dream but there I was, galloping in some fresh meadow. I could hear the beat of the hooves and the breath that steamed from the horse's wide nostrils. I could hear the birds echoing in the woods as I walked. I could hear my own heart beating, feverish, sweating in a dark night that seemed never to end.
Some days later, walking on the front street of my town, a woman -- a girl you'd call her in less liberated times -- approached me and asked for help.
I stopped to see what she wanted and before I knew it we were kissing among the leaves that fell from the trees in the woods where birds sang and the shards of light threatened to blind me.
I could feel the leaves against my back and drifting across my face. I could feel the leaves in my mouth, the smell of wet earth and the salt from a sea that I could hear but not see.
A couple of days later, I was talking to a friend who was telling me that he had seen you a week or so ago and you were fine and had lost a few pounds.
I did not remember that you even had a few pounds you could lose but when I tried to recall your body, all I could see was arched white skin, and in my ears was rushing water, rain on the roofs of the houses in my street.
There is lightning in the night when I return home but I'm not afraid, although the electric air is lifting the hair on my arms and the rain does not relent the whole way from the station to my front door.
I dry myself with a towel, the rough cotton feels like it may rasp all the skin from my body, and I am thinking about what you would find beneath it.
Some days later, walking on the front street of my town, a woman -- a girl you'd call her in less liberated times -- approaches me and asks for help and I want to say, Hey, I cannot help myself so what can I do for you? but the words echoing in my head sound so crass that instead I shake my head and keep it bowed as I walk away.
Wait, wait, she is saying, but I am wishing it would not be too strange just to run.
Wait, wait, I only wanted to ask...
I am breathing hard. I want to stop and still myself, bring my breath back into my body, enclose everything I have ever released, swallow my existence and cease to be.
All there is is the sound of my breath. Are you okay? All there is is the sound of my heart cascading symphonies of life. Are you okay are you okay are you okay.
I realise I do not know where I am. I have been walking without looking where I was going. I am deep in it, lost in a place I should know but there's no signpost, no clue, and finally I say
Yes, what can I do?DR
Drug the boy not
article in the NY Times
about the ADD drugs that it has become
fashionable to poison our kids' heads with. Mrs Zen wants Naughtyman
to be drugged. I am totally and implacably opposed to it. I will never
allow it no matter how much the school lies about how it will help
Of course when tested in the lab, drugs such as Ritalin have been
shown to improve concentration. We all know that stimulants can help
you focus. As a oneoff. (Who didn't scoff Pro Plus when cramming?) But
what has been less studied (why would a pharma company even care about
it?) is the long-term damage done to a child's neurons by being
One of the key quotes in the article for me was this:
"One of the most profound findings in behavioral neuroscience in
recent years has been the clear evidence that the developing brain is
shaped by experience."
One of the areas in which I and Mrs Zen differed to the point of
screaming matches was her parenting of Naughtyman. I believed she
damaged him by not treating him like a "normal" little boy. Not that
she didn't also do good (he has real issues that have been helped by
some of the help she has acquired for him), but she often acted as
though she had a mild version of Munchausens by proxy. She decided
when he ws first born that Naughtyman was fragile, and then proceeded
to make him fragile. Then she diagnosis shopped so that she could
match what she felt about Naughtyman with whatever she found on the
web. (She did the same with me: apparently I have Asperger syndrome,
which would be news to anyone who knows me. In case you are not au
fait with Asperger's, think Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory and you'll
get the picture.)
In some ways he is fragile. Most kids are. They are sensitive and need
a lot of love and care. But he is also clever, cunning even,
manipulative. He pursues what he wants by any means he has available.
A big area of concern is food. He won't eat what the other kids eat.
It remains my view that the biggest error in parenting Mrs Zen made
was to give Naughtyman separate meals from the girls. We all have to
eat things we don't like much when we are kids. We all have to try new
things. Except Naughtyman does not. He is able to refuse because he
knows she will cave and give him what he wants.
Last night, I gave him mash. He used to eat mash but now he cries if
he's given it. Mrs Zen says he will eat "orange" mash made from
potato, sweet potato and whatever else, so long as it's just right. If
it isn't, he will refuse to eat it.
I make him eat it. It's a war because he is used to getting his own way.
So he starts gagging. Naughtyman, I say, that won't work with me. I
know you're faking.
He stops. I say to B, he does this gagging thing to the point of
spewing so that he doesn't have to eat things. B is sceptical. The
girls confirm that they know he's faking. They say he goes to the
toilet and spits his food out, pretending to be sick.
But his psychologist said he's ultra sensitive, and some foods may
give him a bad mouthfeel. I laugh, because it doesn't seem like
there's a biscuit, chocolate, cake or lolly made that he doesn't like
the feel of in his mouth.
I am not sure how to resolve Naughtyman's issues, although I'm sure
many, even if not all, are resolvable. I feel like anything I do is
bound to be undone week to week. If I try to make him try new foods,
she will undermine me by letting him eat baked bean sandwiches for a
week; if I try to get him to stay in his own bedroom, she will undo
the good by letting him sleep with her, as I'm told he does every
I am concerned that she will have him prescribed ADD drugs behind my
back, because she "knows best". She does not. Although I do not think
for a moment she has anything but the best intentions toward any of
our children, I do think she hurt Naughtyman, and the girls, by
treating him as though he was disabled from the moment he was born.
(And it has hurt the girls. They hate that he's treated as though he's
more special than them. Now it's hard to feed Zenella too because she
has started to not like things she once ate. It's clear that she is
hoping to get the special treatment that Naughtyman has always had by
acting like him: she often complains that "Naughtyman is allowed to do
it but I'm not". Luckily, Zenita has reacted in the opposite way: she
becomes ever more obliging in the same hope. All they have ever needed
though was to be treated evenhandedly.)
My view remains too that Naughtyman should be shown how to get what he
wants in ways that aren't so dysfunctional. He should be shown strong
boundaries. Kids don't start thinking you don't love them if you're
firm with them: generally, they respond well, because you are, after
all, showing you care. Naughtyman possibly would respond to slightly
tougher love. But I often feel, what's the use? Any good I do will be
undone the next week. In this way I've become complicit in his
misparenting, but I don't really know how to fix it. Mrs Zen refused
to talk about the children in a serious way when we were together and
she still refuses to. Naturally, I understand that when you feel
bitter about someone, it's easy for conversations to degrade into "you
did, I did, you didn't, I didn't". But that doesn't necessarily mean
you shouldn't try.
The bang and the clatter. The rattle and the wheeze.
Bang, clatter. Rattle, wheeze.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
He is a man. He is a man who is smacking that cheap, plastic keyboard.
He is a man of thirty-seven, thirty-eight years – I’ve never asked, never cared to ask – who shows the keyboard who is boss.
Fuck it. Fucker. Fuck it. Fucker. The bang and the clatter. He stops. Sucks his teeth. The rattle and the wheeze. Fuck it. Fucker.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
He is getting the minutes in there by some sort of two-fingered Morse code, I swear. He is a man among men. You'd think he could have learned to touch type. Bang. Bang. He is fierce.
I am fierce. I stalk the corridors a mighty warrior. I hunt the prey. I jerk my hips like a savage when I get the picture of the pool secretary. Then I remember the cameras and stop it. Stop it, stop it. Is she begging or teasing? Wanting it really. I catch sight of myself in the glass panels.
No natural light touches me nine to one, two to five. I breathe the breathings of those who have breathed before me, and when I am done with it, the system takes my air for them to breathe once more. The building hums gently. The air tastes strange. Everyone but me has bad breath.
Fuck it. Fucker. Fuck it. Fuck it. Everyone is breathing the air I have breathed and their breath is worse every day. They are talking under their breath and under that oppressive weight what they say never rises above a mutter. A murmur. Fucker. Bang. Fucker. Bang. Fucker. Bang.
This is how we compete. Someone is talking about targets. I am looking at a spot on the table. If I look harder, ever harder, the voice becomes a drone, the drone a hum, the hum indistinguishable from the aircon, the aircon a whisper of nothingness. I am glaring at the spot on the table. Glaring.
Someone asks me something. I haven't a clue. Yes, I say. I nod. Yes, and a nod. Nod, nod.
The drone begins again. They’ll send the minutes. He’ll send the minutes. Action. I find out what I agreed to when I see the minutes. I don't care. This is how we compete. Say yes, nod, move on. I can vanish into the spot on the table. I can vanish and they won't know I've gone. They will keep on putting the money into my account at the end of every month and they will not know I've vanished. Bang. Clatter. This is what you agreed. I don't know. I just nod, yes, nod, and read the minutes.
Someone is talking about targets and I am wondering if time began or whether the world has always been. But I'm thinking, in here time begins at nine. There is the world out there, beyond these four walls, and the world in here. The same rules do not apply. We are sealed off from the rest of it. We are breathing the air we’ve breathed.
Someone is talking about targets and I am watching the pulse in his neck. I wonder whether anyone could stop me if I dived across the desk and bit through his neck.
I need sharper teeth.
I am looking at my teeth in the mirror. My shirt feels uncomfortable. I pull it, I tug it, I move it around, but it bunches. I have to pull it out from my trousers. I glance up. I wonder whether they have cameras in here. You’d think it would be wrong. Wrong. But what is wrong? They have cameras in every corridor. If they want to watch you shit, they can.
The door opens. A guy walks in. He knows me. I know him. We are nodding. Nod, yes, nod. Hey. Hey hey.
He doesn't ask why I have my shirt pulled out. He doesn't even look curious. I tuck it back in. I look at his prick as I walk out the door. Not a long look, just a sneaky peek. It is small and the foreskin hangs over the glans.
If there is a camera in the washroom, they've seen my looking at another man's cock. I don't know what they will make of that. I don't know what the rule is for that.
Bang. Bang. Bang. BANG.
The end of his typing hangs in the air. He is breathing heavily. He has chased it down, hunted it, killed it, skinned it and fucking roasted it. The minutes. They are done.
If I could see through the walls of this room – do you still call it a room when it is so big? – I would not see the forest, I would not see the hills. But if I could stand up, on the roof, I could see far enough, far enough to see beyond the grey, to another, whole world. I could breathe.
What the fuck am I thinking about? He passes me a copy of the minutes. He has been talking to me. I have been nodding. Yes, I say. It's amazing how often yes is the right thing to say.
If I could only climb up the sheer face of the glass outside, reach the roof and breathe. If I could get high enough, just for a moment, I could see the forest, I could see the hills. They must be there. Even if in here there is no forest, out there…
Yes, I’m saying. Yes, yes. I nod. But what the fuck am I thinking about?
I am thinking it over. The figures are not right. Someone has changed the figures. I am thinking over the figures. Who would I tell? If I wanted to tell, who would I tell about the figures? I am trying to think who would care.
Someone has stolen a large amount of money, I’m almost sure. I am trying to think who would care. The same amount of money passes into my account at the end of every month. I'm trying to think who would care that someone has changed the figures.
I can see my reflection in the monitor. I am looking at my teeth. They are flat and blunt, not the teeth of something that lives in the jungle. I need sharper teeth before I start to care.
These figures don't look right, I say. But I am not sure anyone has heard me. I am not sure I said it aloud at all.
When we are born, we are the whole world and everything in it. Then our lives, one long process of finding out that others have made the world, and the space they have left for us in it grows smaller, ever smaller, until it is a speck of nothing, blowing in the wind.
I am looking at my teeth, reflected in my monitor. It is close to five o'clock. I should file my teeth like a savage. It is five o'clock. I should leave.
Repost: Fu Manchu and the Golden Phoenix
Some years ago, long before he became Fu Manchu, Fu learned the secret of extending life.
He stole it – although he claimed it was fair exchange – from a sect of monks whose commune he swept and cleaned for seven years. The monks, peculiarly for their sort, did not sweep and clean their own quarters. They had lost the discipline. Their order had once had a strong discipline, a rigid and some would say harsh regimen: gruel, manual labour and an obedience that would have appealed to the very soul of old Kong. But in those times of easy living, the scions of gentlemanly families, who as you would expect made up the most part of the monastery’s complement, would have no truck with anything that might dirty their hands – preferring to pass their days in meditating and playing cards – and it became necessary to hire a boy for the job. Fu was that boy.
He wanted to tell Harry Landers, as he fastened the handcuffs on to the steel bar above his head, that he only stole the secret because the monks, degenerates all, had replaced him with a woman, their order having fallen so far from its ideals as to permit the defilement of the monastery with a female. But he doubted not only that Landers could grasp the intricacies of Chinese society of that time, although Landers did claim to be Oxford’s foremost Sinologist (which Fu did not credit, Landers’ putonghua having shown itself more than once to be lacking, unless the importance of China as an area of study had very much declined since he had last visited), but also that Landers would welcome the distraction from the serious business of figuring out how to escape from the fiendish end Fu had prepared for him.
Sometimes, in a darker hour, Fu felt he might just as well shoot them, these blowhards who came to foil his cunning plots for world domination, but it was one of the few pleasures his dwindling years afforded him to spend long hours in imagining the most fiendish of end.
He left Landers strung up by the wrists, and walked out on to the verandah of the mountain hideaway. He had built it himself, twenty years before. He enjoyed the physical work of cutting the wood, shaping it. It kept him supple and focused the mind. He had learned the art of carpentry and joining from a man in Shanghai who had built houses for merchants who had made money in opium. The carpenter had struggled with his conscience. He knew the money he was paid was dirty, that it derived from others’ misery. He knew that the merchants sometimes had one another beaten, assassinated even. He knew they were not good men. He found it hard to bear.
Fu Manchu reflected that a man can always choose. The opium does not choose the smoker. Fu knew that well. For many years he had been a dope fiend, hanging around the slums of one of the numberless cities of the south, hoping to destroy himself, to eradicate himself in opiate oblivion. It didn’t work. Fu had a core, an inner light, which no matter how he tried he could not extinguish. He blamed his youth in the monastery.
On a dark night – unseasonally dark, you might say, for July in Shanghai, but the clouds covered the moon and made it a night for evildoing – Fu Manchu drowned the carpenter in a bucket. The carpenter had been washing his face. Fu knew a fork in life’s road when he saw one, and pushed down the carpenter’s head. With all his strength he pushed the carpenter down. When he was dead, he threw his body into the harbour from a shaded boardwalk. The carpenter barely made a splash.
Fu took the carpenter’s business and expanded it quickly and ruthlessly. His strategy was simple. Some of his competitors he killed. In those times a man could disappear and hardly be missed, if you had the will to make him gone and a dark night for the deed. Fu had the will and as the year drew on, the nights became dark enough for any desperate thing a man felt he had to do. Other competitors he frightened with sorcery, which is to say by using thinly veiled threats cloaked in the melange of smoke, mirrors, blood and thunder that impresses the less educated, or did back then, before schooling became more available to the lower classes. By the close of the year, Fu had a monopoly on traditional housebuilding on the waterfront. But clouds were gathering. Soon the Europeans – who had been only an occasional, pitiable presence, mostly in the form of crazed priests, whose own version of sorcery, with its own thinly veiled threats (which Fu somewhat admired for their ferocity but scorned for their lack of personality) gripped the peasant mind of many of Fu’s workers, to his great delight, because they ceased to agitate for better conditions, having come to believe that their reward was assured in another life – began to encroach into all areas of trade. The worst of them was that they despised the wooden houses that the merchants had always loved. They held to a peculiar belief that the solidity of stone was the right medium to express wealth rather than the organic beauty of wood.
Fu knew he had two choices. Kill every European who came or change track in his business. Fu did the research. It seemed clear that Europeans were tenacious where they were not subtle. Still, he felt it would be somehow noble to kill them on principle. The meddling fools seemed to believe they had a right to the wealth of the whole world, and would trample the locals underfoot, destroy their customs and traditions, to get their grasping hands on it. There were many unemployed coolies on the waterfront whom it proved easy to inspire to a grudge against Westerners. Soon Fu had a small army of thugs, who would assassinate the European businessmen who were becoming so prominent in Shanghai. The thugs grew ever more enthusiastic. They burned and looted godowns, churches and houses; they even swam through the choppy water of the harbour to climb like rats up the anchor chain of the Europeans’ boats, to rob them of the merchandise they brought as well as that they intended to take away. Chief among the imports was opium, and Fu quickly found he owned several hundred pounds of it. He did not wish to enter the drugs trade, having been ensnared by opium himself and recognising it for the evil it was, but neither did he wish to waste the goods that he had so the scruple proved surmountable.
Fu Manchu’s thugs were not often caught. When they were, they did not speak his name, because they feared him more than any torture the authorities offered them. Still his name came to be known, and the Europeans, who had been making great profits from the opium trade, began to think that he was the worst of things in their universe – bad for business.
So they began to send their agents, resourceful although not particularly intelligent men, to find and if possible eliminate Fu Manchu. Over many years they came and he amused himself with the game of setting them ingenious puzzles, watching them blunder through Shanghai and the surrounding countryside, bemused and lost children, his playthings. He had amassed a very large fortune and employed many thousands of men. It became obvious to him that he could, if he chose, become ruler of all China, which was becoming more and more complacent of its power and, in truth, was needing only the gentlest of pushes into instability. From there, how could he be stopped, were he to arm his nation with the latest weaponry, easily purchased from the Europeans, who would sell anything to anybody if the price was right, if he wished to conquer the entire world?
But something held Fu back. He began to doubt he could rule the world and remain the shadowy figure he liked to present. He did not seek the limelight. He had managed these many years not to be known, just to be a name – not even his real name. The people who could correctly identify him could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and each of them could be eliminated in an instant if he chose. Periodically he had them eliminated anyway, just to be sure. But if he had to inspire a nation of millions, he would need to be a figurehead. There would need to be rallies, conferences, meetings. Meetings! Fu did his business in smoky rooms, speaking from behind a curtain. He began to doubt you could conquer the world from a smoky room.
The view from the verandah was splendid. The low hills and wooded valleys around Fu’s hideout shone with late spring rain. The air, fresh, with hints of pine and jasmine, made a promise of new life that even Fu, bitter as he was, could not fail to respond to. He was glad that he had begun to make the puzzles that little easier, the traps slightly more escapable, so that the European agents would at least have a chance. Their ends could be, and often were, ghastly, usually involving sharp blades, for which Fu would confess a penchant. But they were not entirely doomed. Fu had come to feel he should share some of his own ability to escape fate, that they too should not necessarily have their lives curtailed. He did not know why. He had begun to have the idea that they were like children, and he was no more than their teacher, a guru of pain. Certainly they did not understand that wisdom must be earned, which explained why he found it so easy to entrap them in the first place – they never had the experience or plain dog sense to try to cover their tracks when they arrived in China. They blustered about Shanghai and Guangzhou, shouting the odds with the locals, many of whom owed something to Fu, and could repay their debt by sharing what they heard. The fools might just as well publish a circular, Fu thought, so brazen were they.
But it tired him. He bowed his head over the rail of the verandah. He could hear the cries of Landers, who had realised what was planned for him. Fu sighed. What use was life’s game of chess, if one’s opponents must each time be taught the rules, over and over? He walked down from the verandah, on to the path that led down from his hideaway, down through the forest, over the old bridge and into town. He would eat some rice and pass perhaps an hour in contemplation of the people passing by.
“The world shall hear from me again,” says Fu Manchu, wishing that this time he will not escape from the abyss and return to one of his hideaways to lick his wounds and once more work up a plan to make himself master of perhaps not the whole world but at least the corner of it he coveted. But he knows that Landers, who did not have the sense to look behind him when he entered a dark room, can inevitably only confront him by the cliffside.
Fu curses. He doesn’t even know whether he’s cursing himself, the Europeans or the world for existing for him to dream of owning. Or nothing at all.
He will turn end over end, his voice fading, until the watching agent can no longer hear it at all, and will not see, will not know that Fu Manchu has concealed a parachute, can fly, will live a thousand years and a thousand more, always striving, always thwarted, always alone. DR 2004
The story of my dad
What is he hiding? I have never known and of course I have wondered about it often because he is the man most like me. I know what I am hiding because I have gone and looked for it but it has never illuminated for me who he is.
I wonder whether it should be what is he hiding from that I should ask. I do not believe it is darkness though, and I know I hide from darkness. I think he is afraid of the light. I think that if he could, he would live in a burrow, where nothing could make him feel anything at all, where nothing real could disturb his imagination. He was never happier than hidden away in his room, defeating the computer at whatever game was his current passion, or deep in a book in front of the TV.
I found it interesting that he studied history but the history he was studying was mainly constructed from lies. He studied the Greeks, who lied, and not modern history (I mean that he was most interested by that, not that he has never read any modern history).
Am I wrong to believe that he is hiding from love?
When I was small, he loved me passionately, and I am afraid to think too much about it, because it recalls for me the passionate love I have for my own son. I fear its dissolution, that I will not love mine if he is something other than the boy I picture. I know that I find thwarted expectation unbearable. Does he too? Is that why he will not put skin in the game?
Some time ago, when I was more confident about who I am (I mean who I was then), I begged him to tell me more about himself, to confide in me about his own father, to make me more real by becoming more real himself. But he would not or could not, I don't know which. He said he had never known his father, which is true. He knew him as a small child and briefly when he met him when he was grown, when his father was as utterly a stranger to him as a man he had never met at all. I imagine he imagined I was seeking something special, something memorable, a fantasia of father and son that simply did not exist. I did not. I wanted to know the mundane details, the things that seemed meaningless to him. I wanted to know how he felt.
I feel as though he is a stranger to me. It disconnects me from myself, to be so rootless. Unmoored. I often think of myself as someone who has no tethering to the world, emotionally stateless. I sometimes believe I have no other real emotion than rage that I exist, that I am who I am. It is easy to tell people you do not love yourself but close to impossible to explain how that feels, what it means concretely. I am not able to describe abstractions because, I think, they involve faith, and I am entirely devoid of faith in anything. I roleplay faith; I play a game in which I have it, yet it is entirely hollow. If I had to inspect it, I would find nothing there.
Do I believe he is more complex than he is? I do not believe that. I think he is as complex or as simple as I am, and each is a true description, depending on what angle you view him from.
I am afraid that he will die without my ever knowing him. I want it to be enough that I have never questioned my love for him and never will. He earned it when I was that small child, although earning it makes it sound much more transactional than it was. There was a process that did not have structure, in which he became the person I loved more than any other in this world. I do not understand that process. It is of course no longer true. I know that he would not mind that it isn't. He would expect me to love my children more fiercely than I could ever love him. I know that because I know that he and I are more similar than we are different.
I have to write this because it is the only way I will ever know him. I know he will never have a way to be present for me, to become real; I sometimes feel sad because it is my belief that he was robbed of it.
I will never diminish my belief that he is a good man, even if I must redefine good so that it includes him. I will do that because my love for him has not perished and will never perish. I will cherish him until I am gone because something in me, I don't know what it is, holds firmly to honour, and that is how I honour him.
I feel sorry that I am not the son he believed in. If I could relive my life, I believe I would simply become that man because ultimately nothing else really matters. Only our love for each other. Only that, I cannot subscribe to any other religion. When I read about Chinese people and their notion of filial piety, I understand that they have merely formalised something I understand intuitively.
I like to tell the tale of how my dad taught me to chase women. As far as I know, he is as useless with women as I am. But his advice has, I hope, stood me in good stead, although I haven't always been able to follow it.
He was drunk, I seem to remember, which was quite rare for him. He likes a drink but I seem to recall that he is not good at it. I can well remember his coming home from a work do, where he had drunk heavily, on a moped. His story of how he had fallen off on a roundabout made me laugh my arse off. He said a car had stopped and the driver had got out to ask him how he was. Piss off, Jack, he had cried, remounted his steed and somehow made it home. You probably had to be there. My dad's "funny voice" is truly funny.
So he took me into his room. I was downcast because some young thing was breaking my heart. I did not have the balls to ask her out (often the case in my teens). My dad looked at me with the deepest pity. I'd say contempt, but to be honest, he only really has contempt for people who are full of shit. I've never known him express it for people who are honest but misguided.
When you're chasing women, he said, putting on his I am wise voice, there's only one thing to do.
I leaned forward. Finally, my dad was going to give me "the talk". I was to receive the family wisdom. I was beyond eager.
His eyes tried to focus but they were well beyond his control. He looked like he was on the verge of collapse. He nodded. This would not just be wisdom. It would be a deep secret of manhood. Only now, drunk, uninhibited, could he share it. It felt like I was experiencing a moment of the deepest bonding.
Talk to them and don't be a cunt, he said.
I'd like to dedicate this to Don. I think he too strives to be a good man, and striving is good enough for me. When he wrote about his dad, he reminded me that we are, above all and endlessly, sons, whatever else we are.
Make your own tree
I was thinking about Naughtyman and how he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. It was a bad diagnosis because he meets few of the criteria. Of course there's something up with him but it's precisely that he's Naughtyman, not that he's something simply categorised with a list of symptoms (B's dad, who is a psychologist, says that Naughtyman certainly does not have Asperger's because he is very social; although he has some anxiety around new people and situations, he doesn't avoid social contact--he will look you in the eye when you talk to him, and he's a loving and giving boy). He's like me in that. Mrs Zen used to google Asperger's because I was writing a character with it, and she thought I must have it because I lack empathy. But the truth is, I don't. I lack empathy. It's not a part of a broader picture. It's just something about me.
One criterion for Asperger's is an inability to understand figurative language. Of course I understand figurative language very well, but I don't like it. I don't enjoy simple metaphors in writing and what is more, I don't enjoy descriptive writing much either. I don't enjoy reading it and I don't indulge in it. I was talking to B and I said, Aspies don't understand things like "my heart was racing like a steam train" because hearts are nothing like steam trains. My objection is that I prefer to say "my heart beat fast" and you can decide what that's like. I like to write in extended metaphors, which are built from blocks of concrete language. I do not say "there were great oaks that spread their branches like a giant's clothed limbs, cloaked in the luxuriant russets of their autumn foliage". I say "there were trees". In my writing, you make your own tree.
Once I wrote a post in which I suggested that women think I should be a pond, in which they could see themselves reflected, but I am more like the sea, where all you can see is shards of reflection, which you must form for yourself into a picture that makes sense. And I think that captures well what is good about how I write: I do not describe the world you live in for you; I do not reflect it back to you; instead I give you pieces of understanding about it, which you must fashion into your own picture. I think it seems I am more generous, when really I am willing to give you much less than it seems. Literary types use artifice to make a world for you to enter, enslaving you to their vision. I offer you freedom, but if the metaphor I have built is clever enough, I enslave you in a more subtle way. You think the shards are reflections of a truth, and they are, but you are led to believe it is a truth we share, because you must construct it. Yet ultimately it is the truth as I see it. It doesn't always work, and failure is much more common than success if I'm honest, but there is no limitation on how many blog posts you can experiment in, and anyway, I am always and forever only talking to myself, seeing my own reflection. What else could I do, lacking any way to understand who you are?
You are politely requested to read this post thanks
The sign in the toilet says "please use the button to flush thanks",
which seems rather passive-aggressive once you get past the natural
reading that you should somehow flush thanks when you receive them.
This is what you might call a polite order, although it is not
actually all that polite. Were you to write "Please use the button to
flush", this would simply be a politer version of "Use the button to
flush", which is simply an instruction for those who may not otherwise
be able to figure out either what the button is for or whether it's
for constant use or just for the cleaning staff or whatever.
I dislike passive-aggressive signs. "Thank you for not smoking" is
grossly offensive. The "thank you" is fake courteous, which is at the
other end of the courtesy scale to really being courteous. It means
"Don't smoke", not even "Please don't smoke", which would seem to
offer you the option.
I believe this kind of sign was invented to avoid the awkwardness of
the passive voice in signs like "Smoking is forbidden". Who forbids
it? is the question that springs to mind. One is led to believe that
God himself made it a commandment. Indeed, I believe the world would
be a slightly better place if it read "We forbid you from smoking" or,
should it be in a train station "Q Rail forbids you from smoking", or
"This hospital forbids you from smoking". Or just "No smoking" or
"Don't smoke here".
There's worse: the passive-aggressive command with passive voice.
"Patrons are reminded that the use of mobile phones during a
performance is forbidden." This is as bad as English gets while still
being recognisably English. If I knew you forbade using a mobile
phone, I won't have forgotten. If I didn't, you need to forbid me more
"Please don't use your mobile phone during the film."
"Hawthorne Cinema forbids you from using your mobile phone during the film."
Although the latter is on the face of it discourteous, I contend that
it is politer than the version the cinema prefers.
Note that in my version I have preferred using a verb or a verbal noun
over the construction "the x of". Do this where the terms are
equivalent. ("The end of Rome's hegemony..." and "Ending Rome's
hegemony..." are not equivalents. I will write a post explaining why
at some point.) It will improve your writing probably as much as any
other thing you can do.