Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Little Death that can Kill a Decent Life

The other day I heard that the term 'the little death' was applied to orgasms, and I will start by stating clearly that that is not what I will be discussing in this posting. My view is that the term refers to fear. Given that I am affected greatly by movie references, I probably gathered this from the movie 'Dune' (1984) in which characters refer to fear in this way. Maybe that is drawn from US culture (or given the nature of that film, Arabic culture). The premise of this posting is based on another movie quote, this one taken from 'Strictly Ballroom' (1992) in which a character says, apparently translating from Spanish, that 'a life lived in fear is a life half-lived'. Throughout my life I have aimed to shape my behaviour by such tenets and even the statement by Dolores Ibárruri ('La Pasionara'), a female Spanish politician and soldier who said in 1936 that 'the Spanish people would rather die on its feet than live on its knees' and this was translated into a statement for individuals as on the mural of 'La Pasionara' in Glasgow painted by Arthur Dooley 1971-7. I must say that throughout my life I have utterly failed to live up to any of those statements and in fact have always bottled out of even mildly challenging situations, to the extent that I have a phobia of seeing people embarrassed on television and will turn away or even leave the room.

I can speak in public, talk with strangers, but certainly am phobic of any circumstances even leading to mild embarrassment let alone humiliation. People also believe I am a pessimist, though as you will see from this blog I am very unfortunate in the number of minor things that go wrong in my life and the unnecessary hassle from people. This element is exacerbated by not being very co-ordinated so dropping and breaking things, even walking into furniture, doors, etc. and having a poor memory so I forget to do things and where I have left items. Writing all these traits out actually makes me feel less condemnatory of myself and actually recognise that it is quite an achievement to get through the average day at work.

Maybe it is not simply my fear of what could go wrong which has hampered my life, but that is the one element I can alert you to and encourage you to reflect on what a fear of embarrassment and/or failure might be stopping you doing. In addition, when doing the posting about songs that trigger off nostalgia for me, I recognise that a great deal of it stemmed from missed opportunities in my life. These fall into two broad categories, giving up on establishing relationships and not travelling.

I have always got on well with women and am told that when I write female characters in my stories they are done well. I have always had both male and female friends. Some of the latter, naturally I have hoped would turn into girlfriends. Astoundingly given my unattractive appearance and unpleasant scars on my body, I actually attracted quite a lot of interest from women.

When I was 10 I actually had a 'girlfriend' to the extent that we held hands and kissed each other on the cheek and called ourselves girlfriend/boyfriend to the extent that we knew what that was. We would sit together and play together at break time. However, 10 is too young and I had to endure increasing ridicule from other boys who at that age would have nothing to do with girls. If I had waited four years they probably would have been jealous. Helen was beautiful with lovely long black hair, pale skin and freckles and was very intelligent and had a spirit of adventure, but the ridicule kept me awake at night and I began to spurn her, having no knowledge of how to break off a relationship. She did not understand why I was behaving that way and I was grilled by her parents and my own. Fortunately she went off to a private school. I met her again nine years later, with the hair cut short, and apologised and of course she said it was nothing, her life had moved on a great deal and whereas I in my terribly introspective way still felt guilty for the upset I had caused her, for her it was by now a tiny element of her childhood days. The last I heard she had been in Japan for six years teaching English, suggesting she had retained her adventurous spirit, but that was probably 14 years ago.

That incident then stopped me asking a woman out ever again until I was in my mid-20s. I knew that I had little chance if I asked a woman out and that even if I was not humiliated by her, then I would be by other people or I would screw up the relationship and upset her. I also felt that any other man she would encounter would be preferable to her than me, so I would withdraw even in a basis of a relationship began whenever any other available man appeared on the scene. My feelings of not being able to get it right began fading in the mid-1990s when I was living in Oxford, but were totally reinforced by my treatment at the hands of two women I asked out there. The first rejected me because my job was as a civil servant earning only £8,500 per year and she was incredulous that I worked in such a job and made it clear she could not date anyone who did such a lowly profession. The second was worse. She felt offended that I considered myself to be worthy to ask her out and insisted angrily, via her housemates that I make an apology to her for doing so, in writing which I did.

Such incidents set me back ten years. There were women who were interested in me, but of course I always seemed to go after those who seemed to despise me for one aspect or another. At the time when I rejected advances from women I gave no thought to what impact I made on them I just selfishly thought about why I kept behaving in the same way and how I had avoided some imagined mistake I would have made that would have distressed the woman even further than my rejection. I guess for most modern women, being rejected by one man features very minimally in their life experiences, if at all, and that thought consoles me.

At the age of 16, having had six years with no sight of any relationship (bar some girls at school who when I appeared ill seemed to want to nurse me, not the sound basis for a teenage romance) there was Fahana whose political views were in step with mine (a rarity in my home district). Again, she was very attractive and intelligent, and for some reason and I cannot identify why I reacted so negatively whenever she came and sat near me and made it clear she wanted a relationship. I guess it had to come down to irrational fear, but that made me appear to be so badly behaved. I seemed to be a racist because I could give no rational basis for not wanting to go out with her and she probably felt rather rejected as she was a quiet soul and of course that was the last thing I would have wanted to make her feel, given as teenagers we were all feeling awkward and to some extent spurned by society.

I did not learn from that lesson. When I moved on to college there were a number of women I was interested in and may have been amenable to being asked out, but I could never do it. Then there was Liz, probably the biggest mistake of my life. She was a quiet but fashionable and to me appeared a sophisticated woman with her own style. We chatted easily and she asked me out three times, once via a friend and then twice directly. I do not know why but I always made excuses despite the fact that I was burning to go on even just one date with her. By this time I was 18 and was conscious that compared to the other male students around me I was inexperienced in the ways of women and I always feared I would be a disappointment. I imagine now that actually most of the other students both female and male were less experienced that I envisaged, but no-one tried to convince me of that at the time. Being no good at football in the preceding years at school I had fallen in with the nerds on computers and playing 'Dungeons & Dragons' so there were no friends around to encourage me with Liz. Fortunately after realising she was not going to get anywhere with me she moved on which heartened me a little.

The problem was that I missed yet another opportunity to get any experience in a relationship and time was beginning to run out as once you pass your early 20s no woman is going to pay attention to a man who at least has the basics of kissing, sex and being a reasonable partner. In fact the first woman I slept with was furious when she found out that I had been a virgin when I slept with her. To finish off my college years there was Heather but she was too obsessed with horses to have any time for men and I was not the only one rejected by her. All I got was some pleasant cycle rides home with her.

University followed the same pattern of me chasing unsuitable or disinterested women such as Belinda, Judy, Saskia yet at the same time, notably with Barbara and Rachel, ignoring until they had lost interest women that something could have started with. The one I messed up most with was Anneli, an initially shy woman two years below me, who quickly transformed into a sweet but trendy woman that I fell head-over-heels for. I kept doing odd romantic things that never really came off and that I never followed up. We even went on a date to a university ball, but when she encountered a male friend, I assumed that she would be better off with him and so left them. They did go for a walk by the lake afterwards, so maybe I read his signals better than I read hers. After I had moved on to Oxford she invited me back and it was clear she had a lot of male interest. She wanted me to stay the night, though not to sleep together, but I went home in the evening and wondered what would have happened if I had stayed. I recognise now that that was probably my romantic nature and nothing would have happened, I had screwed up any chance I had had the year before, probably bewildering the poor woman. I do search out these people occasionally online and found the only reference to her was that in 2002 that she had married a wealthy Oxford graduate from a family of admirals and scientists and property developers, so I hope life is treating her well.

Another was Gabrielle who I had met in Germany, a friend of the Liz on her way to Hungary who I mentioned in my last posting. Gabrielle was often in unsuitable relationships so unavailable, but when we both ended up in Norwich we were naturally friends and I ended up in a weird role where I would go shopping with her and do domestic things even buy crockery and household supplies, go to cafes as if I was her husband (or maybe I got it wrong and she saw me as simply like a female friend). Then when between relationships she asked me to stay the night, but knowing me, the minute I saw her contraceptive pills by the bed I ran off, fearful that my incompetence in sex would annoy her. Of course she might not have wanted sex anyway, but what I am saying is that fear stopped me even finding out or seeing if the kind of marital relationship could gain other aspects. Of course many relationships never get very far, you may have a few dates and it come to nothing, but two things: at least then you will know rather than wonder, and even one date is better than none at all.

To go to university with no sexual experience can be a disadvantage, to leave it with none is really too late. The next decade was very lean with me asking out a number of work colleagues and receiving polite rejections with sweet smiles and mad rushing up to women on the underground or in car parks and asking them out because I had been attracted to them in the queue in the supermarket, probably very scary for them. There was Kashifa, but she turned out very quickly to have very politically unsound views regarding Jews so I dropped her not only as a potential girlfriend but as a friend too. Illaria a seemingly very sweet woman who I loved from a distance at work until she revealed actually that she viewed me as very child-like, unsophisticated and the only interest she would expend on me was in a pitying way in order to teach me how to do something I was clearly incapable of doing. She saw all British very much in the same light anyway.

Things did not turn around until another Helen, this time in London. She was in an established relationship that led to marriage but a relationship between us developed, throwing her into doubt about whether she was naturally promiscuous and had been unaware of the fact and a whole lot more. We worked together and then lunched together and things grew from that. I knew a relationship with her would be immoral and I broke it off with her before anything physical developed though she had told me she had been thinking about it. It was not anything to do with pride about not wanting to be 'the other man', more I kept thinking about how I would feel if I was in her partner's position. Even then I bottled out sending her a letter breaking it off, but she ran into me on the way to postbox and it all came out. Her partner was incredibly good about it, unsurprisingly rather prickly, but his manner seems to have enabled him to have got through it and 13 years later they are married parents. The thing about this Helen was that she showed me that I had characteristics that could actually attract a woman, which I had been increasingly unwilling to believe and after her I got into dating agencies and so on and quite a few different dates and even short (sexless) relationships that stop loneliness. I think these days if I saw a woman I was attracted to I would have no fear of asking her out and certainly if one asked me I would not run away in fear, after all what is one date, the worst that can happen is that it goes badly, the best quite a bit more. Many women work on a 3-date principle, they actually have no interest in seeing you in the long-term but like to have 3 dates with you to have someone to accompany them to a restaurant/exhibition/movie they otherwise would not go to. After Date 3 is when things begin to shift either to a conclusion or the beginning of a real relationship.

So fear certainly screwed up my relationships, upset in the short term a number of women and meant that I was ill-equipped for being a male adult in the decades I lived through. Relationships can be fearful, but never turn your back on anyone who shows an interest in you. Many times it will not be the love of your life, but remember if you feel uncomfortable then they must feel ten times worse, go out with them you might have fun. I have found that the women I get on with best in relationships are always very different to the ones I expect so I recommend being open to all the sorts of women you might encounter. Adjust the gender in these sentences as appopriate for your orientation. If you really cannot bear to envisage going out with a person who asks or are attached and they are oblivious to the fact, be firm and snuff out any embers of hope straight off, but ensure you are tactful and polite, never be angry or demand an apology or treat them as if they were scum not fit to even be on the bottom of your shoe, they are only trying to make their way in life after all. See their interest as a compliment not some kind of insult.

The other aspect in which I feel my life was held back by fear was in terms of travel. In terms of disposable income I had far more at certain times in the past than I do now, yet worried about money I turned down invitations to attend weddings in South Africa, Malta and Germany which would have been interesting experiences and in the case of South Africa and Malta those are two countries I have never been to. Even when I was abroad my social unease and my appalling lack of ability with languages stopped me going to events, notably in Germany. Occasionally I would have flashes of courage as when really exploring Berlin's Goth scene and I can only attribute that to the warmth of the people I met on the scene. The only other occasion was in fact when I was at my poorest in that room over the chipshop when I simply set off on my bicycle to France and toured around the Nord, Pas-de-Calais and Somme departements stopping at youth hostels and in rooms over bars. I have no idea where the courage for that came from.

I know in the UK we get horror stories of people being killed or dying abroad but you can be run over in your own home town in the UK. Despite at the age of 24, paying to train to be teach English as a foreign language I found immediately that I had no courage to go abroad and try and get a job. It could have taken me anywhere, into Europe, to Asia, South America, even Africa if I had chosen, but I did not even get to Slovakia. I simply ignored all the jobs on offer that family members and friends passed on to me, saying that I was constantly rejected (in fact even if I had applied that may have been the case as even now I only get an interview for every 25 jobs I apply for and usually have to apply for over 120 jobs before I get one) but in fact I never applied for any of them and instead got a job moving furniture which paid £104 (€135; US$208) per week, which was bad even in the early 1990s. I worried I would be lonely in a strange country with people speaking another language, but in fact I was pretty much like that wherever I ended up in the UK (especially Milton Keynes). I know it would have been tough because I do not make friends easily and relationships as noted here were even harder, so I certainly would not have had the experiences of friends who met their future partners while teaching in France or elsewhere. Yet, at least I would have experienced a different life. I suppose the difficulties I experienced in West Germany with the authorities (I was almost drafted in the Army) where in fact I made loads of (British and Irish) friends probably also weighed heavily against me. Instead I lived at home with my parents and this added to the real sense that I had not really grown up which simply further undermined my ability to deal with women and life's challenges. I suppose you have to face some hardships and discomfort to mature (this is going to be a major problem for current schoolchildren even more cut off from the challenges of the real world as they grow up than even I was).

Even putting aside working abroad, in terms of going on holiday, fear of crime ,especially in Eastern Europe scared me off going to visit Prague and Budapest (both of which I really wanted to visit) let alone going into Russia in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s when things were all still changing. In fact when I heard from two younger women about their exploits unharmed through Russia in fact I felt even more humiliated that I had not done what they had done and came to the pig-headed decision that I could go nowhere without being totally robbed and murdered (I think scare stories on the television did not help), consequently I had only one holiday between 1990 and 1999 and that was in a house rented in Normandy for a week, hardly adventurous (when I went to Prague in 2003 with my work, I found it had far less crime than I had even seen in the UK and people were very friendly and I had a great time. Even then it was still incredibly cheap to stay, visit places and eat out so would have been ideal when I was on a student-sized budget). I once saw an advert on an underground station showing a dreary elderly couple saying 'we almost went to Istanbul once' and I used to take that as a warning to me. As the advert said, 'you never regret the place you have been only missing out on those you have never been to' or some such words. I have never been to Istanbul, St. Petersburg or Budapest.

I used to say it was my friends, all of whom were unadventurous and even more disorganised than me, so never sorted themselves out to get on holiday, bar that trip in 1995 to Normandy. They did not like 'roughing it' in the slightest and on the other hand I was never going to be as robust as my brother spending six months in an army truck going coast-to-coast West to East across the middle of Africa. I alway assume it is me who will get food poisoning, malaria, be robbed or shot. It might be but most of those things (bar malaria) certainly could happen to me here in the UK. I did have some bad experiences such as losing my inter-rail ticket in West Germany in 1988, but I got home quickly and safely, so even my much commented upon bad luck did not entirely ruin things. Trips to the weddings would have been even safer and yet at least exposed me to some other countries, people and cultures.

I regret the lost years of the 1990s when fear stopped me exploring more of the world at a time when I had the time to do those things and also could access discounts for young people. Instead I sat at home, bored and lonely watching programmes reinforcing my fears. Of course if I had found the right woman (any one of the two Helens or the Liz for Hungary would have suited admirably; though of course trips with a partner can severely strain relationships, I know one woman as a consequence who always leaves her husband behind and holidays with female friends) or even just some friends of either sex to go with it would have been very different, but I never mix with people who have any enthusiasm to stray outside the UK. Their fear is greater than mine I recognise or maybe it is simply disinterest and my problem has been the desire to travel and yet not having the courage to do so. Now it is too late as the Belgian fiasco proved. I recommend ignore all the media horror stories, get out there, see places, be the person that when you turn 70 you can say 'do you remember that time when we were in Istanbul?' and not be like me, resembling the dreary couple on the poster who never went anywhere.

This posting has been about facing fears, because they are the little deaths, they chip away at the potential richness of your life until what is left is a dull mundane thing which is not worth living anyway, a state, which as regular readers will know, I have got to. Asking out a couple of people each year, going on one decent trip per year, these are not great tasks, but they could lead to having a much richer existence and hence one that is worth living.

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