Ambition

In a forgotten corner of the city, squeezed between flyover and tired scrubland, a disused foundry admitted a small fraction of milky winter light through tall, soot-blackened windows. Inside, the peaks and troughs of minimal Chicago House surged languorously over a buoyant dance floor. The hypnotic, interlocking patterns seemed to directly control his motor responses, leaving him free to float in blissful introspection. As the next track was deftly teased into the mix to a raucous welcome of raised hands and whooping, he quietly decoded the intricate counterpoint of sixteenths over triplets with unaccustomed clarity.

His mind felt sharp, his body fluid; these speckled doves were certainly worth Cheeky Brian’s premium price. He patted the thin pocket of his linen trousers and ascertained that he had two left, with luck still safely ensconced in the clammy embrace of cling-film.

Christ, it was hot. Water drained from exposed brick, some drops catching the light to explode in rainbows or leave jagged, translucent trails that faded like… “What was the word? Ambition.”  He chuckled to himself ruefully, forgetting the intrusion of reality in an instant.

Emerging unsteadily from the roiling miasma of sweat and dry ice, she was momentarily distracted by an Evian bottle lurching across her path. As she tried to determine its direction, they met in a damp collision of limbs. A dishevelled snapshot of charcoal bangs and smoky eyes, accented with bold feline flicks that she’d learned from a girl half her age on YouTube. Her apology was muted like her lipstick, the curve of mouth haughty, but her flickering gaze clearly contrite. He caught a whisper of citrus.

“I haven’t a chance”, he thought, as his half-constructed joint disintegrated over her cropped T-shirt, on which Hello Kitty appeared to be defecating.

Without pausing to brush off the clinging strands, she touched a finger to her lips, sank onto rounded haunches and rootled around in a nondescript bag. After a few seconds she produced a red and white badge, on which was inscribed in a jaunty font, “Hi, I’m Alissa-Beth”. Above this sat a smiling cartoon chicken of questionable sanity. He was briefly haunted by the image of this chicken stamped on thousands of pills and almost laughed out loud.

“No ordinary waitress,” he surmised, acknowledging her inventive greeting with a matching grin. The situation suddenly looked promising. The last girl he’d dared to engage had been one of those thrusting perfectionists from HR or marketing, who shouted a lot and ran on coffee, heels and bitching. Attractive packaging with a distinctly limited shelf-life.

Besides, he’d always been enamoured of a double-barrelled first name. Many people thought them trashy but for him they exuded a quaint, wholesome charm. He mouthed “Alissa-Beth” to himself, savouring the soft, romantic cadence, then — noticing her puzzled look — pointed bashfully towards a cosy nook that promised shelter from the thundering bass.

To his surprise, she nodded, took his hand and led him briskly off the dance floor, swaying in time to a shuffling beat over which a tortured synth gleefully crackled. Her nails were neat and unpolished, her glance to camera imperceptible.

[Originally appeared on Fiction Crowd and to be continued (if I ever learn to write)]

Delusions of the profound

If your Tuesday is not sufficiently depressing, allow me to present serial tree-squanderer Paulo Coelho, a self-proclaimed philosopher whose love of wisdom seems not to extend to his own writing, which bristles with bird-brained observations taking flight in one of the following forms:

1. A fatuous gobbet of New Age toss wrapped in a cloying blanket of lyricism, as if Gwyneth Paltrow had unconsciously coupled with that pretentious bore in sixth form who always wore a trench coat and banged on about Jim Morrison’s poetry.

2. A cheesy platitude phrased in such a way that at first glance it appears profound, but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Often found on motivational posters, scrawled in winsome cursive over an ethereal waterfall, with the obligatory attention-seeking Facebook status not far behind.

This dastardly duo has mysteriously helped Coelho shift millions of sentimental self-help manuals whose unifying theme can be encapsulated by this beacon of ignorance:

to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.

Never mind our other obligations, the crass selfishness, or the inconvenient fact that none of us has ever been allocated a cosmic burrow at the end of which quivers a predetermined fate, because if you cheerfully abandon reason the universe will totes look after you. Of course. More of that nonsense later.

First, let’s start by nervously sniffing a few deepities from The Alchemist:

All things are one.

Whoa, easy there Keanu. Sure, if I were able to group together all the things in existence, I could in a literal sense refer to this collection in the singular. Linguistically true, but hardly a revelation. Meanwhile, the illusion of profundity is provided by the false implication that everything in the universe is somehow interconnected by blue string pudding, or what prosperous vendor of quantum flatulence Deepak Chopra would call “cosmic consciousness”. As eminent rationalist Summer Roberts from The OC so aptly puts it: “Eww!

Oh how I miss Marissa’s imprecise diction and Ryan seething. Anyway…

There is always a right moment to stop something.

Stop holding your finger in a candle flame when it starts to hurt. Stop your car at a red light. Stop dressing up your cat as Dorothy. Yes, stop that right now. Banal and obvious. But again, reading from another angle, that slippery “always” also hints at a non-existent “grand plan”, in which, say, it is absolutely crucial that I stop typing right now and draw eyes on the bin so it looks like it’s nomming the potato peelings.

Granted, perhaps delaying this momentous decision by five seconds might actually make a surprisingly positive difference to my life, but that scintilla of chance pales in comparison to the number of times it won’t. Either way, my wife’s subsequent hollow laugh and filing for divorce certainly won’t be the result of divine orchestration.

…keep reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason.

A vintage deepity especially beloved of dippy teenaged girls and as hurtful to a functioning brain as it is ubiquitous. A part of me dies every time I hear it. Like, literally. Of course everything happens for a reason, but only in the self-evident sense that chains of cause and effect interact within the physical world: the cat rears on her hind legs because I am holding a sardine above her nose. But also implied is that my producing fish at that precise moment is somehow part of the cosmos’ fiendish plan to shape her little furry destiny. Sigh.

My favourite extract, which kicks off with a deepity and moves on to a barefaced lie, is so egregious it is tempting to give him the benefit of doubt and allow that it has been mistranslated:

Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.

It’s gratifying that by being wrong twice within this very aphorism he has already disproved the first part of it. One hardly need point out that something that happens twice must by definition have happened once. As for thrice? My boy cat has sired two children. Sadly one of them was orange, which swiftly earned him the snip and a sackful of consolation catnip. Just kidding! I love redheads and their preternatural affinity for cobalt blue, but sadly he won’t be fathering another. However, I’ve no doubt that our muddle-headed maestro will be silly a third time. One doesn’t have to wait long. Here he switches effortlessly to the first form:

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Supersize that sick bag and pass it over pronto. Seriously, Paulo, it doesn’t.  A handful of people and perhaps a well-disposed opossum might conceivably do so, but the remainder is obviously incapable of thought, let alone conspiracy. Though feel free to suggest a plausible mechanism by which it might, turn decades of rigorous scientific enquiry on its head and claim your Nobel prize. No?

Though the bag is in danger of overflowing, he continues in the same vein:

There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.

Ah, so it not only “conspires” in helping you achieve your desire, but also thought of it first. Such prescience from an unconscious void! And there was I thinking my unrequited longing to domesticate a rotund Pallas’ cat was due to a series of electrochemical reactions limited to my body. How prosaic and narrow-minded of me. After being subjected to this simpering rubbish, I really really want some China White to soften the pain, so presumably my “mission on earth” is to become a heroin addict? Nice touch, Pollo.

A helpful consequence of conjuring up this inexplicably sentient universe—a feat sadly shared with Rhonda “Victim-Blamer” Byrne’s breathtakingly hateful “The Secret” (beautifully eviscerated here)—seems to be the ability to convert any desire into reality using the power of thought alone. Hark at this whimsical pair of bollocks:

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of
[…] And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream.

Except of course those who aren’t capable, for whom the dream is never fulfilled, for whom the land of reality suddenly fails to conform to Coelho’s mendacious, cosseting optimism.

Now, please don’t get me wrong:  cherished aspirations can certainly be pursued, provided that they are realistic. If you yearn to travel, teach, grow out your bangs (please don’t do that), learn a foreign language or raise several litters of ragdoll kittens and have the wherewithal to do so, then damned well go for it. I hope that goes without saying.

The trouble is, Coelho’s interpretation admits no boundaries or restrictions on the aspirant. Indeed, it typifies the second OED definition: “an unrealistic or self-deluding fantasy.” We are forewarned of this when the hapless shepherd Santiago is told that “dreams are a language used by the Soul of the World to communicate with people.” Oh dear. The reach of this type of dream tends to exceed the grasp of reality, in every sense.

To claim that anyone (which, if you think about it, implies ‘everyone’) can achieve the exalted heights of a pop star, president or, god forbid, Paris Hilton, merely with the application of positive (as opposed to actual) thinking, is stupid and cruel. Personal limitations and the structure of society simply don’t allow it. However, Coelho blithely rejects this inconvenience: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”. If only that were true. On second thoughts…

If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man […] Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.

Yes, let’s totally ignore the consequences of our actions. Let’s ignore women. Let’s not learn from past mistakes. Fuck the future! If Don Draper took on a crack dealer’s account, he could do worse than that for copy. Credit card companies already use a variation of it. It’s a relief to know that, like Paulo (net worth $20m), they’re looking after our best interests.

The irony is that as soon as one accepts the fact that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” and harbours no ultimate purpose or sympathies, the chance of enjoying a fulfilled life actually increases, as it becomes grounded in reality not flim-flam fantasy where every dream—however lofty—is worth pursuing cause, y’know, with the universe as wing man anyone can do anything. No they fucking can’t, Paulo!

It’s also hard to ignore the questionable morality of the tale. At one point our protagonist temporarily pokes his shaggy head above the mystical nonsense to pause his quest with a delightful (if conveniently subservient) lady. In a rare moment of clarity, he realises he has found his “treasure” at last. This would be a sensible place to end, but unfortunately Coelho—failing to realise his book’s brevity is its greatest asset—soon makes him abandon her in favour of the tawdry pot of jewels he eventually finds at the end. So much for the “spiritual” message: just follow the money, bitches! The book is also suspiciously Randian in its relentless worship of the individual. Concerns for the lives, doubts and criticisms of others? No mate, it’s all about you you you.

Anyway, I’d best not continue or I’ll start reliving the upsetting experience of being stranded on a train in which I had only the choice of The Alchemist or Chopra’s latest rectal emission (definitely a Type 6) as potential company. Staring disconsolately at this brace of bullshit-artists pouting pensively from their book jackets, I was struck by the horrible thought that they might one day join forces. Coelho believes “Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong”. I sincerely hope I am.

Florid Collins

[A very silly thank you letter due in 2009 and sent three years later. I was so ashamed.]

Dear Aunt and Uncle,

Once upon a time there existed a half-decent nephew. Granted, as a growing boy he may have incorrectly suffixed his favourite Aunt’s name with an -er, abused discordantly the delicate keys of his Uncle’s harpsichord, smoked the odd illicit fag out of the attic window during his cousin’s more intense Buddhist chants and of course overcharged wildly for ineffectual tree surgery, but in general he could be relied upon to produce the occasional stilted screed and perhaps even show his face in return for morsels of game suffused with heavenly reductions. But as time accelerated he became lazier and self-absorbed—yet paradoxically busier—and good behaviour was rudely, disgracefully cast aside.

Yet still the wonderful geyser of presents and touching handwritten cards continued to erupt from Middle Earth, without fail scattering annual joy on the undeserving nephew.

A cornucopia of beautifully be-jarred herbs: every scrap now committed to curry, bolognese, melted shoulder of hogget and other unfortunate yet delicious creatures;

perhaps a cashmere jumper of such softness and quality that it nearly shamed poor Cotton into simply giving up production of her rough thread;

certainly a pussy blanket—possibly two—composed of luxury fleece once resplendent in tan and pure white, which has succumbed gratefully to a thick layer of tabby fur because one can count the minutes during which a pussy is not ensconced in it on one foot. The counting, that is, not the kitty, as their genes don’t allow for acrobatics (though I allow that there is the occasional dramatic sink-bound leap, to inspect the flow of water from the tap as if for the first time. These often fail with a skittering of paw and embarrassed thump – oh how we try not to laugh). This foot and its corpulent attachment are often found lurking under it too, probably watching trashy TV and not writing letters;

a deviously cunning bottle opener that glows gently blue in sympathy with the kettle (embarassingly, this was also a present) and managed to appear literally hours after its rival the Screwpull (1999-2011 RIP), having failed to entice its last cork even a quarter way out of the bottle, shattered its femur with a noise that would have worried the Inquisition.

I am certain there are countless other treasures that have enriched the life of this appalling nephew beyond the capacity of mere words; regardless it is clear that something of an imbalance has presented itself, to put it mildly. And mildly it will have to be because if I think too hard about the injustice of the situation I will probably weep. I’m so sorry!

Which diabolical apology leads me to the cheering news from M that we may see you next week in D for a well overdue ketchup, albeit not under the ideal circumstances; nevertheless your presence will line the afternoon cloud with a most considerable gilding of silver. The nephew will be found hiding in shame in a corner of the church, while his dear wife braves a short reading. Meanwhile on this balmy eve he hastens once again toward the wonderful corkscrew, yet again to challenge it with an evil plastic cork, staunch protector of a Chilean plonk whose number is up. A toast will most certainly be raised in your direction.

Much love,

Dishwashers

When I last looked, Zanussis performed considerably worse than Boschs or Mieles, according to Which? It would be unlikely that their brochure would rush to highlight this shortcoming. This dip into the fallen king of consumer idiocy followed an uneventful date with Kate Moss, you understand, though there was some hoovering apparent. Anyway, ‘Please beware form over function’, they blandly exhorted, ‘however enticing the tarty silver ones with subtly recessed controls may seem, the white, boring ones still have the edge in performance’. So now we know.

My wife and I have never rinsed ‘owt before challenging our Teutonic beast with the foulest platens of greasy residue, and we haven’t yet been disappointed. It really isn’t necessary, unless you have entertained a vegetarian with steak and kidney pie, in which case any available quadruped is the obvious beneficiary.

Actually I’ve noticed that folk who perform a ritual pre-dishwasher rinse and employ a cleaner are apt also to clean their house within an inch of its life before the cleaner arrives. There is a definite connection. I’ve never been sure whether they are ashamed, considerate, mistrusting or simply oblivious to the function of labour-saving technology.

Stacking a dishwasher properly is an art oft ignored yet easily learned, according to someone else’s Mum. Despite this discouragement, the act becomes an undiluted joy as soon as you realise how much less time even the most complicated “Tetris level 9″ stack takes when compared to the endless drudgery of using a brush and sink. Even if it involves dried-on cat food, tortilla, cigarette ash, lengthy spinach stalks and of course the ubiquitous ‘matter’, on this occasion nervously united with tea leaves by solidified lamb fat, all spread among sufficent oddly-shaped vessels to require devilishly inventive placement, you will still have saved time. Reading that sentence would have taken longer in fact. Wine glasses should never be put in a dishwasher unless you don’t mind them slowly turning grey (thanks to the harsh abrasive powder). Anyone who puts antique glasses in one is a wanton and dangerous idealist. I found a wonton lodged in the filter once, although the contents were ominously conspicuous by their absence. I can promise you a (German) dishwasher is an excellent investment, even if you have to re-clean the occasional omelette pan. Your water bill will thank you too.

Luck

It irritates me when people claim to be (un)lucky, as if they have a supernatural gift (or curse) which allows them somehow to circumvent the laws of probability. For despite the ubiquity of this misguided superstition, luck is simply that: applied probability, often with skill and diligence (or the lack of it) lurking not far behind.

Of course there must be the occasional person who enjoys an “incredible” streak betting on the nags, just as a coin will sometimes produce an “amazing” run of nine or more heads in a row. But they are not gifted, at least in any mystical sense – though they may well be deft at analysing form, for instance – merely perched further towards the end of the bell curve.

Indeed, when humans are asked to write down a sequence that represents a realistic series of coin flips, they invariably underestimate the frequency and extent of these runs. For instance they might write HTHHTHTTHHTHTHT whereas something lumpier, such as HHHHTHHHTTTHTTTTT would be more representative of reality.

Similarly, someone killed by a falling durian might be considered dreadfully unlucky (once the inevitable guilty chuckles had stopped) but is simply the victim of a remote probability that they chose to increase significantly by standing under a tree that kills several unfortunates a year. (The Latin name for durian means “smells like a civet cat” by the way. ) Meanwhile someone must win the lottery – no luck in that, it’s eventually a 100% certainty – while every other entrant is taxed on their failure to grasp how pathetically minuscule are the odds of a pre-chosen person winning.

People who consider themselves lucky generally have a more positive outlook on life. Good events are highlighted in their memory while bad events fade. A positive outlook will be reflected in their response to certain circumstances and availability to spot and act upon opportunities; the opposite is true for the “unlucky”. This has a cumulative effect which is bad news for the “unlucky” person because they are likely to become increasingly aware of every bad event and increasingly dismissive of good ones, falling into a vicious spiral of irrational “the fates must really have it in for me” paranoia. This type of person often fails to take responsibility for his own actions, preferring instead the easy cop out of fatalism, or worse, puts their faith in astrology. This doesn’t usually help.

Please note I’m not claiming we aren’t prey to chance. Of course we are, every single day. There are myriad inflection points which no amount of personal governance can alter. For instance, we have no control over the circumstances of our birth and the subsequent privilege (or lack thereof) granted to us by them. As a passenger, we can do nothing about the aeroplane whose engines simultaneously fail, except perhaps choose a seat in which one is statistically more likely to survive. But at no point does chance take the form of a guardian angel.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Seneca

I note that no fewer than 380 lucky horseshoes were sold on eBay in the last 15 days. Sadly I doubt it was cheaply to meet the needs of 95 barefooted nags.

Quotations

  • Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, rebalance yourself so that you maintain your angle to the world. When the world shifts, you shift. (Stoppard)
  • He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher… or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. (Douglas Adams)
  • Ensanguining the skies,
    How heavily it dies,
    Into the west away;
    Past touch and sight and sound,
    Not further to be found,
    How hopeless under ground,
    Falls the remorseful day.
    (A.E. Housman)
  • I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.
  • Seek freedom and become captive of your desires, seek discipline and find your liberty. (Frank Herbert)
  • Not being able to govern events, I govern myself. (Montaigne)
  • To predict the behavior of ordinary people in advance, you only have to assume that they will always try to escape a disagreeable situation with the smallest possible expenditure of intelligence. (Nietzsche)
  • “Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
    “Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads. (Jong)
  • Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards. (Sanders Law)
  • Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. They seem more afraid of life than death. (Byrnes)
  • We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. (Dawkins)
  • from Withnail and I
    Monty:
    Get that damned little swine out of here. It's trying to get
    itself in with you. It's trying for even more advantage. It's
    obsessed with its gut - its like a rugby ball now. It will die,
    it will die! [He storms around ineffectually.]
    
    Withnail:
    Monty, Monty.
    
    Monty:
    No dear boy you must leave, you must leave. Once again
    that oaf has destroyed my day.
  • The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)