Saturday 25 October 2003

Something to think about

"All the potential selves we can admire stop short of what we are, and this is true however little we may be satisfied with what we are."

(Hugh Kenner, "The Cubist Portrait", in Approaches to Joyce’s "Portrait": Ten Essays, ed. Thomas F. Staley and Bernard Benstock ([Pittsburgh]: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976))

Wednesday 22 October 2003

Gordon Square Park, London, WC1 (waiting for Fulbright at Birbeck), 3 September 2003

The thread of life, wound round a cotton reel, circling closer and closer to the centre as it runs out. But when the thread is all used up, all that is left is the empty cotton reel, threadless, hollow, and no nearer to the centre than it ever was.

Friday 17 October 2003

Oxford Muse: self-portrait

I wrote the following self-portrait for Oxford Muse - a charitable organisation which is trying to create a human map of Oxford by writing portraits of the people who live here. Their website will explain in more detail if you're interested. Last Saturday night, while most people in college were revelling in the Back to School bop, I just sat down and started writing (prompted by a few questions) and created my self-portrait. Had I been in a different mood, it could have turned out quite different. It is quite long, but here goes anyhews:

This is Dog
This is Dog

When I was a child, I used to be dependent on a stuffed toy called "Dog" - a much loved, but worn out Snoopy. He was always with me as a comforter. Without him I found it difficult to sleep, I felt alone and helpless without him. I remember one weekend when he was left behind in Dalmellington after my mum's yoga class. He was sitting on top of that piano, and I was crying my eyes out all weekend. I think someone must have made a special trip from Ayr just to pick him up for me. I must have been about three or four years old at the time. He remained an important part of my life until I got braces at the age of about 10. After that, I couldn't suck my thumb and snuggy him any more because I had a plate in my mouth. I think I missed being able to snuggy him for a while, but it was about time that I grew up! It was around about then that I got my own room for the first time as well. Prior to that, I had always shared with my brother. I also have another brother and a sister - all older than me. When I was a kid, my cupboard was always really messy - mainly because I had so much junk. I would never want to throw anything out. I kept the hamburger box from my first McDonald's for ages. (Maybe because it was such a novelty to be allowed to eat fast food!) I continued to keep all my junk when I got my own room, but I started to regiment it. I guess I got this obsessive compulsive neatness from my school friend, Herbert, in Germany. He always used to line up his pencils neatly in his Star Trek pencil case, ordering them from dark to light. I copied him because I thought he was cool. He also had this tracksuit that he wore to gym classes. It had matching top and bottoms and he used to tuck his top into his bottoms and line the rectangular labels up. When it was my birthday, I got the exact same tracksuit, but with a T-shirt too. And I lined up the labels too. My family liked to tease me about that. They used to lift up my shirt to check if my trousers were lined up with my belly button. I don't think they really understood. I was also exact in my bedroom. I used to have this squared table cloth on my desk, which was great because it meant I could line up all my desk tidies and pencil cases exactly. I don't know why I did this. I guess I felt that if everything was neat, then everything would be perfect. There was also another advantage: I could always tell if anyone had been in my room because my things would be slightly out of line. All my clutter made it really hard to dust, so the ironic thing was that even though my room was neat and tidy, it wasn't necessarily very clean. Although I did take great pride in my room. All my football posters were also nicely lined up, in line with the stripes of my wallpaper. It used to irritate me when I was lying in bed if I could spot one of them was squint. Somehow, over the years, I have become less fussy. I suppose it's because nowadays, I feel like I have less time on my hands, therefore I can't spend my whole life tidying things up and making sure everything's in line. I have learnt to cope with being a little less regimented.

Until I was about sixteen, I was sports mad as well. I loved the stuff. I used to play all sorts of things: rugby, football, volleyball, cricket, athletics, darts, basketball, cycling, tennis. When the pressure of exams started at school, I began to cut down. I still play a lot of rugby now, but the other things hardly feature at all. I was always good at what I did. But once you get to about sixteen, things start to get more competitive. The others caught up with my size and speed and things were no longer as easy. I don't think that's what put me off, though. I think I just wanted to focus on my school work. I have always done really well at school. I was very competitive with my friend Herbert - even at six years old. I was jealous of my brothers and sisters when I was four because they were all at school and I still had to wait another year to start. I was itching to go. Then we moved to Germany, and because of that, I had to wait another year because they only start school at six over there. To make up for it, I would spend hours playing at schools with my sister as the teacher. I could write my own name and do some other basic stuff too. I was so glad when I finally started school. I think my enthusiasm has a lot to do with why I do so well at my studies. I always love the things I do, so I excel at them. I find it hard to understand people who hate work. Maybe if they enjoyed it more, they would do better. But then again, maybe if I wasn't so good at it, I wouldn't enjoy it as much. I don't know what comes first. But I think that goes for anything in life: attitude has a lot to do with it. If you go into a lecture thinking, "Oh, this is going to be so boring," then chances are it will be. But if you go in with a positive attitude, eager to learn and find out things you have never thought about or learnt before then you are bound to get more out of it.

Going back to my sports, I think part of the reason I am less enthusiastic about them now is because I have achieved - or seen my favourite teams achieve - some or all of my goals. I used to be mad about Manchester United, but ever since they won the Holy Grail of the European Cup, my passion for them has waned. It isn't as exciting if you've been there before. I think there's too much football on TV now as well, so it's not as special. Now I only like watching games when I support one of the teams. I can sympathize more now with those people who don't particularly care for sport. It must be really boring for them. If you don't have a stake in it, why would you find it interesting? The same goes for my music too. I used to play the viola. My ambition was always to play "The Montagues and the Capulets" movement from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet suite. I did that with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra when I was in Lower Sixth. After that, I never had the same enthusiasm. It was partly to do with my teacher and the regimented way I had to practise at school. I used to get much more out of it when I practised whenever I felt like it, not when the school timetable told me I must. I would never be doing it just for myself anyway: I would do it to impress my teacher and with the hope that someone, usually my mum, would say, "Oh, that sounded nice," and then we could talk about it for a while. Many of the things I do - sports, music, writing - I do because I like to get positive feedback about them. Like most people, I love having my ego massaged with praise. I don't have great self-esteem, so if someone can tell me I'm good at something that helps to make me feel better about myself. There are some things I don't need that for: my academic work, I can pretty much tell if I'm doing well. I set high standards for myself, but when I get near to achieving them, I feel good about myself, even if no one praises me. With English, it's quite a lonely degree. Not many of my peers read my essays - unless they have to in tutorials. I don't read many of theirs, although I would like to. You could work away for a whole week on an essay and the only person who would ever read it is your tutor. That's maybe why I've learnt to gauge my own performance, rather than having to rely on feedback from others. But when I do get feedback - positive feedback - I always really appreciate it and, usually, it puts me on a high for the rest of the day. That's usually the high point of my week: the day of my tutorials, or when I get an essay back that has been marked.

I guess my degree suits the sort of person I am. I am a bit of a loner. There are things I could do about that, but somehow I always seem to wallow in it. I don't think I like it, but it's just in my comfort zone. Occasionally, I pluck up the courage to go outside my comfort zone, but I haven't had much success. I try all the time to arrange things with people: to go to the cinema with a friend, say; or to meet them so that we can go to dinner together. It's nothing full on - just something that friends would normally do. I always manage to ask the wrong person at the wrong time, or ask them too late or too early. Sometimes it feels like they always say no. That knocks me for six. It makes me wonder, "Why don't these people want to spend time with me? What's wrong with me? Am I boring?" But I know part of the problem is the very fact that I ask myself these questions. Sometimes I ask someone even if I know they are probably going to say "no". Maybe it's in my voice, or the way I ask the question, making it too easy for them to turn me down. I don't like being pushy or too clingy, but I guess I should do more of that if I want people to spend time with me. I have different priorities, though. I could go out with people all the time if I did the things they wanted to do: mainly go out drinking or clubbing. But I don't drink, I don't like dancing, and I don't like noisy places, crammed full of people. My idea of a good time would be sitting with someone in my room just talking, with a cup of tea, or maybe watching a film together. I don't like having to shout in someone's ear if I want to tell them something. Most of the time the conversations you have with people at night in pubs are useless to me anyway. I don't feel comfortable enough to have a normal conversation. I find myself churning out the same old replies to the same old questions: "What did you do during the holidays? How's the work going? What do you want to do after you graduate?" And so on. That's part of the reason I'm so excited about the Oxford Muse: I want to have real, meaningful, thought-provoking conversations with people. I don't want to be going through the motions the whole time. So I suppose that in relationships - daily acquaintances - my priorities rule. I sometimes make the effort to go out with the rugby team or go down the college bar but, most of the time, I don't want to do it, don't feel like it, so I won't. If that means I don't see people, then fine. I'm stubborn that way, and although I'm doing what I want to do, it's not necessarily making my life any better; nor is it probably the best thing for me.

Coney Island boardwalk, Brooklyn, New York
Coney Island boardwalk: I don’t like having to shout to make myself heard. I’m going to have to find a way to meet people more like me, because I don’t want to be alone.

As I've said, part of the reason that I have cut down on the number of sports and extra-curricular activities that I do is because I don't feel like I can afford the time because of my studies. They are my main priority. It would be silly to have put in all that work to get to Oxford and then not take full advantage of all the opportunities that are here for me. I know that I'm missing out on other things - on a social life and real, close friends, on having the best times of my life - and that does make me sad, and it does make me feel sorry for myself sometimes when I'm feeling low, but I don't want to sacrifice doing the best I can in my degree for the sake of a few memories. Maybe I'm doing things wrong, maybe I haven't got the balance quite right. Maybe I should set myself more goals in my social and private life rather than just worry about my studies and my career. I do wish I had a girlfriend, or even just a close friend, someone who called on me for a change, who asked me out to do the sort of things I want to do. Those goals are there: I do want these things and I do sometimes make the effort to make them happen; but I guess I'm scared of being hurt again. I seem to be able to cope with the steady stream of loneliness; but could I cope with major highs, and maybe suffer a few lows along the way if a relationship breaks up or I get turned down by someone? Maybe I shouldn't take everything so seriously, take every encounter to heart. But I guess that's just who I am: I'm pretty intense in everything I do, pretty serious, pretty dedicated, pretty full on. Maybe I don't have another setting, or maybe I just haven't found the switch yet.

I don't know how much good this self-portrait will be doing. I know part of my problem is that I think about things like this too much. I'm not impulsive enough in my relationships; I worry too much about what people say about me - even if it's in jest. But I haven't learnt yet how to stop being that way. I have a friend called Si - she used to be my very best friend - whom I admire greatly because she has this great charisma. People want to be with her, want to be around her. She has a great smile and she makes you feel special when she gives you her attention. She has so many friends and she always seems so cheerful. She's the opposite of me. I've spoken to her about all this, and we can't understand how the other works: why I think so much, and she hardly seems to think at all. It doesn't seem that much bothers her. To me, our relationship was everything. She was my best friend. It felt like it worked the other way too, but now I realize that I was probably just another friend to her. I feel cheated, and I still feel quite bitter towards her, especially if she has other boyfriends. Maybe it was all in my imagination. Up there, in my thoughts, things can be the way I want them to be. When they have to be acted out on the stage of life, not many others seem to have read my script, which is a real shame because up there, in my head, things can be real rosy.

It's a shame that my emotional and social lives aren't as great or as successful as the rest of my life. I guess everyone has to have a weakness somewhere. This is mine. I feel really lucky about everything else. I've got a great family. My parents are quite liberal. For example, I call them Moira and Sandy, rather than mum and dad. Why should I call them that? It's not their name, is it? It's just a role; one facet of their life. I don't call my brother, "brother", do I? As a result, I have felt close to my parents. They really have done a great job. They have given me so many opportunities. Moving to Germany to live when I was four is just one of many. I feel so fortunate to have experienced another country, another way of life, another culture, another language. At one time I spoke German as if it was my mother tongue. I was still young, so I couldn't exactly read or write beyond the level of an eight year old, but I could still think like a German and my accent, I think, sounded native. When I came back to the UK at eight, my English accent had been warped. I used to speak with German intonation, and it took me a while to forget the German phonetics and spell properly. I'm always quietly proud of the fact that because of living in Germany, I've been at school a year less than most of my peers, and I couldn't even read or write in English until I was eight! I also feel grateful for the fact that my parents have let me make my own decisions about things. Religion, for example. I wasn't brought up any particular way, just to believe what I wanted to believe. Now I'm a bit sceptic about organized religion, but I don't scoff at it. People can believe whatever they want to, so long as it doesn't harm anyone or themselves. Part of the problem with religion, I think, is that it is just another way of branding people. I dislike stereotypes. I try my best not to apply them to people. It is difficult because stereotyping is everywhere. I think it's lazy, as well as dangerous. It's an easy way to make a judgement on someone, it saves time. We cannot hope to know everyone, so it's a way of selection. But when someone says, for example, "All Americans are fat" or "All Americans don't know geography" I feel insulted on their behalf. They haven't been given a chance. There are plenty of overweight and unilateral British people around too, you know. Our media has a lot to answer for concerning stereotypes. It's a pre-digested way of describing people, so it saves space, time and money. But it also falls short. People aren't like that: they don't jump through hoops and fit in all the columns. Sometimes we like to think they do, just because it's easier; but this lazy attitude causes conflicts and misunderstandings all the time. It's a lazy way to make conversation, just like all those bog standard, "How are you?" type questions.

I haven't always thought like this. I used to think making fun of Americans was funny too. Learning about their political system at school helped to change my mind, I think. Sure, I indulged in a few quaffs at their gun laws and conservative attitudes towards their rights, but those are only the vocal, mainstream opinions. I'm sure there are many out there who don't feel that way, just like not every British person drinks tea and loves the royal family. Maybe other people's tastes and prejudices will change eventually. I know that tastes can change. I've gone off sport a bit, I have a more tolerant palate for vegetables and other food that I disliked when I was younger (but I still hate the taste of alcohol and what it does to people). Sometimes, I refuse to let my tastes change out of stubbornness. I don't know why I don't drink. People ask me quite frequently - because it is quite unusual - but I don't really have an answer. Maybe it's just to be different. My brothers and sister and all my friends at school and uni drink. It's kind of like my own mini rebellion: rebel by behaving! My parents would have let me drink at a young age if I wanted to. But as I say, I don't like what it does to people. My brother is like Mr Hyde when he drinks too much: he gets argumentative and violent. He's no longer like the brother I know. Maybe it is him, the suppressed him; but if so, I don't like that side of him and don't want to know him. I hate the whole drink-fuelled culture we have in this country. It's surprising how prevalent it is. That's the main way to ask someone out: "Do you want to go out for a drink sometime?" It's also what people seem to do most evenings and weekends - especially as a student. Not me though. It does make me feel lonely sometimes. A couple of weeks ago I went out for a night in Newquay with my rugby team-mates. It was the last night of our tour. We went to a few pubs and then ended up in a club. Usually I would go home before the club, but this time I stuck with it. By that time, most of the guys were quite drunk. They seemed to be having a good time on the dance floor. I don't like dancing, though, so I just stood at the side and watched. It was funny seeing how silly they were, but when you're drunk, you loose your inhibitions - and your memory - so I don't suppose it mattered to them. But what is sad about it is that I can be in a club with hundreds of people, all having a good time, and I can feel terribly alone. I don't know these drunken people. I know them when they're sober, but they're not the same when they're drunk. I don't really want to talk to them - not that there could be much of a conversation. I don't like parties for the same reason. I find it hard striking up conversations with people, partly because I refuse to have those boring, pre-packaged conversations with people, partly because I'm shy and don't like having to shout to make myself heard. I'm going to have to find a way to meet people more like me, because I don't want to be alone.

I've only ever had one girlfriend, but being with someone, being in love with someone, is the best feeling I've ever had. You just feel so wanted, so valued, and your self-confidence goes through the roof. It's great being together because nothing else seems to matter. Kara made me feel drunk, I suppose, made me lose my inhibitions. When I was with her, I could do those silly things. I became less self-conscious. The reason we were so close was that we knew each other before we met. I'm a bit embarrassed about this - even now - and I don't really talk about it much or mention it to people. We met online. We were like pen-friends for six months before she came to visit me one summer. But I think that was a great way to do things. I didn't know what she looked like for about a month, but we didn't start having feelings for each other until quite a bit later. We were just really good friends. I didn't go out looking for it. We had just recently got connected to the internet and I filled in this profile on AOL, not thinking anything of it. Soon, people started to contact me, wanting to chat online. Not wanting to be rude, I replied to them. This one American girl thought that it was nifty that I was Scottish and wanted to introduce me to one of her friends. That's how I got to know Kara. We would talk for a couple hours on the phone each week, write each other long letters and emails and have online chats. I know it's not a real relationship if you can stop and think before you write or say something, but it didn't do us any harm. We knew each other so well by the time we met that it was almost like clockwork when we were together. It was such a treat! I was reluctant to admit that I had feelings for her at first. She was the one that started it. She was always going on about how much she liked me. She had the best taste of anyone I have ever known! But the reason I was reluctant was that I was waiting for someone else. I had had this crush on a girl at school for about four years, but I'd never had the courage to do much about it. I once phoned her and sort of asked her out, but nothing came of that, probably because I wasn't forthcoming enough. I was too scared of rejection and too shy because I knew that people - especially my family - would tease me about it, even if it worked out and we did go out - probably more so than if I had been rejected. It's such a shame that I was put off because of that. But anyway, I eventually gave in and let myself fall in love with someone else: Kara. Part of the joy was that it was secret. No one at school knew about it - all I would have got from them was misunderstanding and slagging - or at least, that was all that I expected. And the same goes for my family. I'm really disappointed with my family for that. That's the main thing that they have done badly: they have made me shy and cautious about having relationships with girls. It's silly because their teasing was only the juvenile, dinner table, loving sort of teasing; but it still had a great effect on me. Anyway, my year and a half with Kara - or however long it lasted - was great. It was really tough not being together all the time, but it made our summers together that bit more special. She was American too, so going to visit each other wasn't easy or cheap. The only problem was that my mum didn't really like Kara. She's a very gut-feeling person, is Moira. She didn't really give Kara a chance, and the fact that she made me so happy when we were together didn't seem to matter. Moira saw how distraught I was when we were apart and she didn't feel comfortable when Kara and I were together so that was it for her. End of story. That didn't seem to bother Kara and me that much, but maybe it was part of the reason why she got fed up being apart. Eventually, she got together with someone else, or gave in to his wooing. That really messed me up. I was shattered: my confidence took a major dip. I just couldn't understand it - after all the good things we had together. I was so bitter - just like with my other friend, Si (which happened much more recently). That's something I have to learn to cope with: not everyone will like me, or will continue to like me with the same intensity as they started out with. And it's not always personal. Sometimes people just change their mind. I suppose that I have to try to be less emotional about relationships, and be more rational about them.

I manage to be rational in many other parts of my life. I've been thinking very carefully about my future recently, planning what I'm going to do after I graduate. I've researched it a lot, talked about it with my family and with people who have experience in the right areas. My future is really important and it has been mapped out - by me, not my family - for a long time. I've known for a while what my academic and career goals are. Knowing these has helped me achieve what I have. It's always good to know where you are going. But now I feel my future becoming more uncertain and more out of my control. Finals will be the hardest exams I have had to face; and I can't have as much influence over my future employers. Part of it is luck: knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time. But I do have confidence in my abilities and I know that I can deal with almost any situation that I am put in. I usually get what I want in these areas of my life and I don't see any reason why that would change.

Part of the reason that I struggle with self-esteem sometimes is because I don't feel good about myself. Because of the high standards that I set for myself, I feel disappointed if I let them slip. If I waste time by messing about on the computer or by sleeping in, then I feel bad about it and berate myself. I then punish myself by taking away rewards and opportunities. Say, for example, I sleep in one day and then mess around on the computer or do little bitty admin jobs until lunchtime. I feel like I've wasted part of my day and will then try to work hard for the rest of the day to catch up. I may have been planning to go to the cinema or try to socialize, but to make up for my earlier lapses I will hide myself away until things are sorted. That makes me quite reclusive sometimes. I do realize that, at times, it's okay to sleep in or be a bit lazy. My body may be telling me to slow down and take a break. And I can accept that - sometimes. At other times I won't forgive myself. That's just the way I am. I don't know if I want to change that, because if I did, maybe I wouldn't achieve as much. I might be happier in other spheres of my life, though. But at the moment, the academic stuff is my priority.

I wonder if people would recognize me from this portrait. Maybe people don't know me that well. Maybe the real me isn't that appealing. Sandy (my dad) said that he met Moira when he was on a course preparing to do voluntary aid overseas. He made a conscious effort not to be himself, to step out of his comfort zone and act differently. Maybe that's what I should do. Lack of courage or stubbornness might prevent me from trying that. But then it also wouldn't be "me", would it? Or would it? It would still be me doing those things, even if those things were not normal for me. I wouldn't be lying if I did decide to get up and dance, or try drinking, or force myself to meet new people. This is something I'm going to have to resolve. No one is going to do it for me.


Update (September 2021): Want to find out what happened next? Every year since 2010, I've been doing a process of personal reflection called 10Q, in which you write answers to a series of questions and then lock them away in a digital vault for a year. Here are my answers from 20102011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 20192020, and 2021.