Thursday, February 20, 2014

The art of expectation

I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Not because I have a problem with commercial holidays that have no inherent meaning and exist solely to make profit out of people who are told to feel something they aren't exactly sure how to feel, probably because we cannot confine and reduce the complexities of love and meaning into some crappy sentiment the card companies invent. But more so because the whole thing, like Christmas, feels forced and not spontaneous and heart felt. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy guiltlessly eating a box of heart shaped chocolates. I maintain that if someone else gives them to you and you don't buy them yourself, the calories do not count. But why do we need to be told to go out to dinner or for lunch with someone we love and to tell them we love them by buying them an expensive card or bunch of flowers? We should we doing this anyway and we don't need flowers and cards to do it. But maybe the chocolates, yup, those can stay.

Valentines Day is fraught with expectations and it feels like people are setting themselves up for disappointment either way. I haven't actually gone out on Valentine's Day for many years, because my birthday falls on the 12th of February and early on in our relationship I told my husband I'd much rather we go out on that evening and treat is as a kind of two for one business. For one thing restaurant reservations are infinitely easier to come by on the 12th, even last minute ones, and the long stemmed roses (which never open) aren't as ridiculously priced.

But I also find the row after row of couples with the red rose or carnation and bottle of wine on the table with an air of expectation lying thickly between them uncomfortable to witness and don't particularly want to be a part of the conveyor belt nature of it. Again it just feels synthetic and contrived. And if the couple are not married, there is a good chance she is expecting him to propose because that is what the beautiful full page full colour ads in the magazines by De Beers or Tiffany's say you're supposed to do right? I always feel a bit sorry for men in this situation: What if they've just met, or he isn't ready, or he's not sure, or he doesn't have the money for a ring? Even if he shows her a fantastic evening, the only thing she'll remember is that he didn't ask her.

Then there are the couples that are already married, and there is the expectation that some fantastic proclamation of love or poetry will be made – even if the people concerned are not ordinarily poetically inclined, or that a bit of jewellery might be presented. Same scenario as above – if he doesn't have it, she's going to be pissed. A friend of mine says a handbag is also OK, it doesn't have to be jewellery.

I have the same trepidation when it comes to Christmas. The whole thing feels contrived and not particularly spontaneous and again, there are the expectations. Everyone, the adults especially, have an idea of what Christmas is supposed to be, and how they think they will feel on the day, and if you are the host, somehow it is your responsibility to make this happen. You are set up for failure even before you start. And the Christmas lists that go around make me feel uncomfortable. I don't like asking someone to buy me something – it feels wrong. A bit like giving your husband the grocery list on his way out the door. I enjoy being surprised and the idea that someone saw something and knew I would need or love it is a genuine joy. But let's be honest here, how often does that happen with extended family? And the fact that we have to ask what people want or need serves as a reminder that we don't make enough effort during the year to see them and know them – which again makes Christmas feel like a bit of a sham to me. Why do we need a holiday to bring us together?

One Christmas my husband and I decided to host, and we had an argument. And given we don't argue that much, I took this as a bad omen and further proof that Christmas is a dodgy business. The argument was something stupid over when the Christmas meals are served. Historically in my mother's family a large Christmas lunch is served between 12 and 1pm. My great grandmother who lived into her 90s and presided over all of us with a quiet steely matriarchal gaze, not unlike an ancient eagle, was always the guest of honour and would have eaten at 11am if she had her way, but we managed to negotiate the more sociably and digestably acceptable hour of 12. My mother and grandmother before her would ensure everyone had the experience of what it might be like to be a foie gras duck. There was so much food that indigestion was not only standard it was considered a necessary compliment to the chef.

All of this would be followed by an array of puddings and ice-cream until someone would gesture that they were having a heart attack which turned out to be heartburn. Meal time conversation consisted of a lot of shouting that someone didn't know what the hell they were talking about and ought to do x y or z instead. Individually my family are brilliant, but together they assume pack mentality with everyone being an expert on your life except of course you. Gatherings were extremely anxiety provoking, even as a child. And the thing is most of my family members didn't even drink – this was authentic crazy of the non alcoholic variety.

Then at around three or so coffee, tea and cake was served so that that the tiny bit of food in your stomach you'd just about managed to digest could be replaced with more food, and more indigestion. At this point my grandfather and other men in the family would loosen their belts and set about dozing on the sofa while the women and girls in the family would start the dishes with admonishments on the part of my grandmother about how lazy we girls all were and how we should help my mother around the house more. And then we would all go home around 6ish feeling stuffed and a bit cross. About this time I decided that I was going to be a feminist. I didn't know exactly what it was but I didn't think a feminist would be washing the dishes while being told off for being a bad future housewife while my brother, boy cousins and father and uncles sat by dozing or setting the world to rights.

My husband's family on the other hand do a light lunch with lots of small dishes and then a serious evening dinner. They tend to talk a lot about politics, there is some arguing although all terribly intellectual, and there is wine. Everyone gets stuck in with the cleaning up except the person who prepared it as they deserve a break. After that people tend to sit around chatting or reading the papers and then there is a big dinner in the evening with more wine and intellectualising and everyone sleeps over.

As no one was sleeping over at our house that Christmas, which my husband found inconceivable in and of itself, we settled the argument by agreeing that a big midday lunch with cake and tea mid afternoon was the plan, instead of two meals. It was a nice enough day, no arguments or people yelling, or men loosening their belts, and again everyone chipped in with the clearing up. But I couldn't help worrying that my husband and his family had compromised their traditions (and expectations) and it was my fault. Although of course no one actually made me feel that way, it was all good old fashioned self imposed neurotic guilt that existed no where else but inside of my own head.

More recently my husband and I tend to travel to somewhere sunny with the kids and treat Christmas as another day by the pool with the exception of a nice lunch in a restaurant and some presents for the kids. My son who is three is infinitely easier and happier when he can burn of his energy outdoors and not be confined to being indoors day after cold rainy day. We see family either early in December before we leave for our vacation or in January after we return, but it's in bite sized gatherings and without it having the title of 'Christmas Day' hanging over it in large red ominous letters, these get togethers are somehow a lot more enjoyable and less stressful for me.

I was telling all of this to a good friend of mine who is from Italy but lives in London. She looked on with an expression not unlike horror, and I said: “I imagine it's the same for you too right? Right? Its a stressful business.” And she responded with: “Actually, no, my family and I love Christmas, and we all get together in Italy at my parents' house, and my mother makes pain stakingly delicious recipes that have been in our family for many years and take hours to reproduce. And if someone cannot make Christmas it is only for a very serious reason, and one year my uncle didn't come and that really affected the family deeply. It is a very important holiday for all of us.”

Wow. I would be lying if I said this didn't make me feel guilty (Yup guilt again). There I was moaning and complaining about how stressful I find it and here was someone talking about experiencing Christmas in a magical way – where family comes together thoughtfully and meaningfully, and cherishes their history, their shared blood, their ties with one another. And I thought to myself that maybe I have gotten it all wrong – maybe if I just try a little harder, I can make a Christmas like this too. Maybe it is my own expectations that are getting in the way of achieving this. And what if one day my children don't wish to spend Christmas with their father and me? How would this make me feel?

And then I told this story of my friend and her Italian family and their beautiful Christmas (because I was genuinely moved by it) to another friend of mine who is American but lives in London, and she said: “Yeah, well, that sounds great. My family and I drink too much and fight, which is why I've stopped going back to New York for Christmas.”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Life through the lens of Facebook

So I recently turned 39 and as a birthday present to myself I decided to quit Facebook. Only I didn't actually quit as in delete my account nor have I given up my page School Run Mum. Nope, that would have been too final for an addict like me. I rationalise that on my personal FB account I have so many photographs from over the years, the originals scattered between various SD cards, laptops, iPads, and a series of iPhones, that I am too scared to lose them and haven't yet found the time to save them onto yet another device. I'm far too busy using FB you see. Likewise the funny stuff my kids have said over the years (both born during the Facebook years), which I've recorded in various status updates and which I keep meaning to write down in a book for them to look at one day when they are older or have kids of their own. Then I thought about deactivating my personal FB account which means your stuff stays there but it's like you switch the light off and shut the door for a while. But what if people need me in case of an emergency or worse, an invite to a party? My husband advised against it and suggested instead I download FB Messenger onto my iPhone. He assured me it was a win win situation: I didn't have to delete or deactivate my account and risk losing stuff, I just didn't have to use FB if I didn't want to, but if people needed to contact me they could. *An audible sigh of relief*

I agreed but immediately realised this was a form of denial; My relationship with Facebook is the way some people are with chocolate or beer in the house; they cannot just have a couple, they have to have the whole lot in one sitting. I've used and loved FB for so long - been there since its conception - and I became convinced I'd crack under pressure and start using it again because I know it's there, silently waiting for me to upload a photo or a post, or like a friend's picture, and then someone would comment, I would respond, and I'd be sucked right back in again - more hours whiled away. And what if I missed something really really important? Like the death of an actor or an earthquake? Which leads me to an important note to self: Facebook is NOT a reliable source of world news.

OK, so why exactly am I trying to quit given I use and love it so much? Notice how I said trying because while I think I'm done with my personal page and all the social stuff of FB I am quite keen on getting my page School Run Mum off the ground – I think it might be interesting (see final paragraph). But in terms of using FB in the traditional timeline sense or rather not using it, the most obvious reason is a simple one; it takes up too much of my time. I'm so busy Facebooking about my life and experiences that I'm somehow absent when it comes to being a present and in the moment participant of it. It reminds me of a few years back going and watching Woody Allen and his band perform at the Cafe Carlyle.  Everyone was filming the performance on their phones or cameras or taking pictures (Allen didn't seem to mind, not the way Bobby Short used to apparently) and very few people were just sitting and experiencing the moment without a device in front of their face. It occurred to me that somehow we don't actually just live anymore unless we are doing so through some form of social media or medium.

Before Facebook I was actually a fairly prolific blogger, which you may argue is another form of social media and you may be right. But it is also where I write and this is an important part of who I am and how I process the world I live in. Now I haven't blogged in ages, firstly because I had two small children who were not in school and then because I post FB updates when I have an idea, and subsequently don't sit and spend the time developing it into a piece of writing. Likewise I have a painting I am struggling with and I'm avoiding it and using FB as a way of doing so. My Flicker account (and love of taking pictures) lies dormant, I have piles of unread books, not to mention a myriad of admin and unpacked boxes from when we moved back in September 2013. I recently had to take my child to get vaccinated and couldn't find his red book and realised I haven't seen it since the move. I kept nagging myself with the accusation: 'If you'd sorted through all those boxes instead of mucking about on FB you would have found it by now'. This interior accusatory voice sounded strangely like my mother.

And I'd be lying if I said I didn't sneak a peak on FB when I am hanging out with my kids, even if it is when they are engaged with a game or toy or TV programme and aren't requiring my immediate attention. I read stuff people post, check out the links, look at the youtube clips, respond to stuff, get into the occasional argument in the comments on Slate, the usual stuff. Quite simply I am wasting valuable time on Facebook and I need that time to lead what I think will be a more productive and creative existence. If this still doesn't happen in the absence of FB usage, I may have to accept that perhaps I (and not FB) am to blame for not leading a more productive and creative existence. Always risky not having something or someone to blame for ones shortcomings.

There is also another more ominous aspect of Facebook which bothers me. Perhaps I cannot blame the medium itself, but I think I can blame how we have come to use it, or perhaps how it allows or encourages us to use it, and how it can be an incredibly destructive social force. Last year I read how a man and a woman had gunned down a second woman who was still holding her baby because of a Facebook dispute between the two woman. She died but the baby was found still alive beneath her. It haunts me this story. In a less homicidal and dramatic form I have seen from my own personal experience and those of my friends how Facebook or the use thereof has destroyed a lot of relationships.

You have have a party or have a handful of people over, and someone doesn't get invited and someone else you have invited takes a photo or updates that they are at your house. And the uninvited person/s get seriously pissed and thinks you hate them. This happened to me last year and I was genuinely upset about it for a while imagining all sorts of reasons why I hadn't been invited and inventing scenarios as to what the person who had thrown the gathering had against me. The real reason of course, was that she had nothing against me. The fact is this was not about me – she had some people over and didn't invite me, which is not the same as not inviting me. And the funny thing about all of this is that I am the first person to tell people to get a grip, and that not everything is about them and not everyone is obliged to invite them to every bloody thing. Can you imagine if they did? Your life would be like featuring in a Groundhog Day episode of Cheers.

And then there are the people that never actually invite you to anything, quite possibly because they never actually host anything, but get offended because you don't invite them to something. It's like my son who thinks every Buzz Lightyear (in the store, at the bottom of a stranger's buggy) belongs to him. Likewise biscuits. I don't actually have anything more to say on this subject. It speaks for itself. Or someone posts a photo of you with someones ex husband or ex friend that they've come to hate in an old testament kind of way (but you still rather like this person), and the eejit taking the photo tags you and that leads to another shit storm.

Or you post something and someone disagrees with it in principle and suddenly you are having a terrible personal argument when it all started about your love of the film 'The English Patient' (Homage to Seinfeld here). Staying up until all hours waiting to see what they respond with, and then responding back and then being unable to sleep because of what they may respond with. And sitting at dinner with your husband feeling compelled to check your phone every few minutes to see if there has been yet another response to your response. And if he even thinks of raising an eyebrow you feel justified in almost shouting out: "But honey this important!" And god knows it feels important. This happened to me, although not about 'The English Patient', and a very good and long term friendship very nearly ended for good over what amount to nothing important at all. Not to mention all those hours of lost sleep. 

I honestly think we've created a culture of potential social bedlam of Jerry Springer proportions. Things in the past, that we may have done and lied about like normal people, are now out and in the open on Facebook causing all kinds of offence (imagined and real), hurt, and fallings out. It's quite crazy when you step back and look at it for what it is – highschool. Since when did we have to record our every living breathing moment or opinion and have to be accountable for everything we do and who we hang out with, and since when did people feel entitled to have an opinion on this either way? And why do we care?

I've posted a holiday snap, had a comment to the effect of: 'Well it's alright for some' and then fallen into the trap of apologising with stuff like: 'Well, you know, it's pretty full on with the kids, and my husband has quite an intense job and he travels a lot and it's nice to have some time together as a family.' When instead I should say: 'Yes, I'm on holiday, I'm having a nice fucking time and I don't need to apologise for it'. It serves as an important reminder: Even if you are not someone that likes to crow and make people feel bad about the fact that you have something that they don't - if you look as though you are having a good time and there is Facebook evidence of it, you appear to be rubbing other people's noses in it. There is no escaping it.

Facebook also serves as a shitty substitute for having a meaningful relationship with someone. A really good friend of mine who lived in Germany got very ill and died last year. We were both lazy correspondents to begin with and in recent years had got accustomed to checking in on each other via Facebook as opposed to Skyping or emailing as we used to do. He got ill and was in hospital for a few months before passing away and I had no idea, none, until I got the call that he had died. During the period of his illness his Facebook activity was obviously zero, which meant he didn't feature in my feed, and I just assumed he was taking time out, working on something, and it never ever occurred to me that something might be wrong. I genuinely struggle to deal with this on a day to day basis – the fact that I didn't call him or email him and be there for him in his illness and see him before he died. And I cannot blame Facebook – it's my fault entirely for relying on it alone to facilitate my relationship with him.

Then there are the people who see the handful of things you choose to update about and assume that it represents your life in total. So a holiday snap plus you in Starbucks drinking a coffee plus a new pair of shoes equals a blessed existence of holidays, lazy workless lunches and shopping without any of the stresses and strains of their life. It discounts the fact that like everyone else you may have health concerns, worry about money, have to work at your marriage, have issues with your children's school, or anxiety, trouble sleeping, family problems, all of this stuff that you DON'T POST ABOUT. People who assume Facebook is a reflection of real life need a reality check or therapy. But perhaps what is worse are people that are guilty of consciously promoting this bullshit fantasy about their own lives and maybe Facebook as a medium encourages it?

So I'm taking time off from my personal FB page /timeline maybe indefinitely. I want to write, which I am kind of trying to do here, maybe develop the idea of School Run Mum into something more than a FB page, and I want to finish that bloody painting. And I am determined to sort through all of my unpacked boxes and have a clear out. And I want to really engage with my children rather than say: “Just a second I'm just updating my status.” And I want to call and talk to my friends (or better still see them) and find out how they are rather than relying on their status updates to check in on them. And I don't want to talk about what I am doing all of the time because I don't want people to resent me for it. If I want someone to resent me, I'd much rather we go out, have a drink, and I put my foot in it as I always do. Then they can resent me for a good old fashioned real reason, not because of a picture of me drinking wine where I manage a smile for one tenth of a second which makes it look like I am having the most fabulous time and have no troubles in my life, ever. I also don't want to know which of my friends might be partying without me. I'd much rather they lie to me through omission – the way we've always done it. That way we can all just get on with our lives and everyone will be much happier. I genuinely believe this. Sometimes ignorance is most certainly bliss.

And of course I am going to click the 'Share on Facebook' button right now because I want you to read this, but I'm not going to check it. No I'm not. So don't comment on Facebook if you have something smart to say like: 'Well it's OK for some to fanny about writing blogs.' Not if you want me to read it that is. Drop me a call and let's go out and then you can tell me.

About School Run Mum: A week or so ago I started this FB page after I watched Bill Cunningham New York. Bill takes pictures of real people on the streets of New York wearing interesting and beautiful clothes. It sparked an idea because something that has interested and intrigued me since I started taking my children to school was seeing how some people dress given they have about the same time I do in the mornings, yet manage to come up with something a bit more creative than my own sweater, jeans and deck shoes uniform. It's not about designer stuff or how much you spend on your clothes, but rather seeing the creative way people manage to express their individual style through clothes and accessories, in and amongst the chaos and time limitations of getting children to and from school.

When I initially had the idea and asked some people what they thought, they were unanimously positive and asked 'But where will we see the pictures?' and I honestly couldn't come up with a better idea than FB because it's just so accessible and pretty much most people I know are on it. I also don't have to yell out some long winded or complicated URL after taking a picture of someone but instead just tell them to see it on FB as it's a public page. If you're wondering if this completely and utterly contradicts what I have written in this blog I had the same concern, but this page is not about me personally, it is a creative enterprise and I think it can be very interesting and it's something I am happy to spend some time on. I also worried that maybe people might start making bitchy comments about photos but as I facilitate and regulate the page I am not going to allow that. This project is about finding a beautiful individual moment of creative expression in and amongst the chaos of getting kids ready for school, not a place to bitch and encourage all of the negative stuff I've written about in this blog.

So please send me your photos via the message facility on School Run Mum and simply state which city or town the picture was taken in – no need to tag: Ideally I'd like pictures from around the world: Not just of women or men in big cities, but everywhere. It may be a something as simple yet as beautiful as a pink scarf over a winter coat on a rainy day, or a pair of colourful sandals peaking out at the bottom of a burqa, or an African print top paired with a pair of jeans. If you take a picture of someone else on your school run please do not have their face in it, and no pictures of children ever. Thank you.