Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Teacher Who Gave Me Freedom And Took Away My Hope

Prompt 31. The Professor: Write about a teacher that has influenced you.

Last night I considered these questions:  Has any teacher influenced me in a big way?  How was I influenced?

I concluded that no school or university teacher influenced me in any spectacular way worth writing about.  Some teachers helped me.  Some, I'm sorry to say, hindered me.  Very few encouraged me in the realms of ideas and I'm not someone who says, "Ah yes, without Mrs. Burke I don't know where I'd be now."

I decided I'd write something about my secondary school music teacher, Phil Baker.  He was a good man and I wish I'd allowed him to be more of a friend.  I also wished I'd decided to study A level music with him.  It would have been a brilliant two years, one to one teaching with Phil.  He ran our community choir and he introduced me to music I wouldn't otherwise have heard.  I also socialised with him a few times out of school.  He took me to a world premier concert, got me involved in a production of My Fair Lady, and took me to a spirituality day at Tekels Park - which was a home to both the Theosophical Society and the Liberal Catholic Church.  Phil Baker was the best.  The last time I saw him was many years ago.  He surprised me by showing up at the house to see how we all were.  We weren't all great.  My mother happened to be an inpatient at the Royal Marsden.  Phil instantly changed his plans and took me up to see her.  He was one of the best things about my school.  So why didn't I study A level music?  That's not a question I'm answering today.

I didn't write about Phil though.  What I wrote deviated from the facts about a teacher who has influenced me.  It's true that Phil had an office near the main music teaching room.  It's true that his clothes were slightly to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.  And it's true that he used to sit in his book-filled office, music playing, and smoking a pipe.  All of that is true.  The rest is not.

What follows is a free-written story.  It's unfinished.  1800 words plus the 500 you've just read is enough for now.  I think I know a little of how the story would develop.  I'll let you into a secret:  An arrest follows.  And a hiding away.  Then either a sad resolution or an antagonist and a crisis to lead into something bigger.  You can have your own ideas and complete the tale in your head.  That's what the full tale is about:  Having your own ideas.

"Freyja and the Necklace" by James Doyle Penrose

He was a brilliant man.

He was my religious studies teacher and he was my first love.  Half the girls fancied him, and no wonder, but I loved him for his intellect.  Almost from the beginning of my first year in the school I looked up to him because he seemed so in control of his life.  It felt like nothing could ever worry him and the air of calm he carried with him was contagious.

He wasn't anything like the other teachers.  Compared to Mr. Stevens they were nothing to me.  They might as well all have been robotic imitations of people for all the difference it would have made.  A lesson with them felt like being bossed around by something only programmed for one task and with one set of knowledge.  Go to a maths class and it's just maths, monotonally mouthed.  The beauty of numbers was systematically drained of excitement in those lessons.  Go to an English class and have grammar forced into you as if the English language was meant to be the most fundamentally dull subject on the planet rather than the tongue of the poets, the orators and the novelists.  Even music had life sucked from it.  It felt very much like our music teacher, Mr. Cuthbertson, was on a mission to encourage all children to want to avoid all forms of melody and harmony in their adult lives.  Whether Bach or The Beatles, Chopin or Coltrane, his view was that we should analyse them methodically but that they weren't there to be enjoyed.  In our school music was just maths, and maths just a near infinite series of meaningless tests to be completed.

Mr. Stevens was different.  He was the only teacher who made life bearable in that place.  He was quite the eccentric.  He would sit in his little office playing music at high volume, smoking a pipe.  He wasn't really meant to smoke on school premises of course and lots of us would joke that it was something stronger than tobacco in his pipe.  He would tell jokes too.  Often they were bad jokes but they were the best we could get in our school.  He dressed scruffy.  Dress code was that all male teachers wore a suit and tie and Mr. Stevens followed the code.  He just followed it badly, without a hint of enthusiasm.  His jacket and trousers never matched and his jacket was so old it had patches in places where it had worn out.  His tie always seemed out of place.  It was never tied neatly, was often brightly coloured and sometimes had words on related to religion or politics.  Children would laugh about Mr. Stevens sometimes but the jesting was only half-serious because although we thought of him as the school nutcase we all liked his lessons and wished he taught us more often.

Almost every child looked forward to religious studies even though half of us couldn't really care less about the subject and wouldn't have wanted to go home and discuss religion with their families.  He animated every topic with his teaching style.  He could make Immanuel Kant exciting and I'll always remember the time he got us debating the rights and wrongs of David Hume's views about the possibility of miracles.  That anyone would ever think to debate this when it was so clear that Hume was anti-truth and an idiot astounded me.  How can you debate a liar?  But it was when Mr. Stevens left behind pure philosophy and taught from the sacred ground of the greater and lesser religions that his classes really took off for me.

I came from a godless family.  It wasn't as if our lack of a god had turned us into rabidly immoral creatures or had made us all fall into a bleak nihilism and despair at the dinner table about the meaninglessness of it all, wondering whether it was even worth eating another meatball for all the lack of good it would do in the long run.  We just didn't do God.  No deity ever got a mention and to this day I don't know what my parents personally believed about God beyond a belief that religion should never be discussed or expressed except in a church.  I don't think they realised there were religious people who didn't meet in a church.

I knew what they thought about maths and the sciences.  They told me often, "You make sure you pass those physics exams or you'll spend your life washing up in the back room of a bar where terrorists meet."  My parents had some strange ideas and they knew what they wanted for my life.  Any other choices would have been a disappointment for them.  My choice.  I was disappointing enough that they locked me up for six months until I promised to buckle down and become a proper scientist.  When I turned again from that path they disowned me.  If it hadn't been for Mr. Stevens I'd have obeyed them without question.  Tried to make my scientific contribution to saving our world from the climactic climate disaster that looks to be inevitable.

Mr. Stevens showed me the path of the religious and I was hooked.  He showed me the path of the musician and the writer too and once apologised for how useless Mr. Cuthbertson and the rest were.  One lunchtime I needed to go and see Mr. Stevens about a problem I was having with a tricky essay about the relationships between Christianity and Islam in the time of the Crusades and how it was that Jerusalem was of such importance to both, and to the Jews too, a people often persecuted by both of the larger religions.

Mr. Stevens sorted out my confusion in moments and then beckoned me across to his desk, saying excitedly, "Look at that, boy."  A large book was open on his desk and on the page was an image of woman.  She was the most beautiful person I'd ever seen in a book and I told Mr. Stevens so.  "This is Freya," he said.  "She's one of the goddesses of old, like a god but they're women.  You won't learn about her in lessons.  She's not in the curriculum.  The powers that be think we need to be protected from ideas of goddesses.  As if the gods have done a good job.  Just look at those Crusades boy.  All that bloodshed, fighting over land and whose god is better.  Perhaps we should have done away with all of those dictatorial deities long ago.  Instead we see them coming back and our governments are complicit.  Maybe they think another batch of Crusades would be good for the economy.  What do you think about that boy?"

I really didn't know.  I'd never heard anyone talk like that before, not even Mr. Stevens.  And I had never heard that their might have ever been female deities.  I fumbled for a reply and mumbled something inane about how I didn't want more Crusades and wished the religions could just agree to differ and that people should stop fighting for each other's land when there was plenty to go around.  Mr. Stevens nodded, harumphed and said, "Freya was more free than we are.  I'll tell you more sometime if you like.  Now go boy or you'll be late for your next class."

I went back to Mr. Stevens' office the next lunchtime to look at Freya again and he began to tell me more about her.  I was astounded by the ideas he was giving me and that there could be another way of thinking than the one we were all used to.  Wasn't our way the only way?  Wouldn't it be seditious to even talk about an idea that challenged it?  I asked Mr. Stevens that and he quickly back-tracked.  "Of course I don't believe in Freya.  Of course not.  But I don't think there's any harm in looking at the old books or uncovering a forgotten history.  This is how some people lived and whether or not we choose to remember them or suppress this knowledge is up to us.  There's lots to learn.  Come back tomorrow I'll show you more."

After that I was in that office nearly every lunchtime and often I'd go there after school too.  Our teacher-pupil relationship developed into a friendship and I became more and more fascinated by the old ways and the possibility that there might be a greater truth beyond the three religions proscribed by our governments and that strange Jewish religion that had been allowed to exist within all three societies ever since the trilateral planetary treaty was signed two centuries ago.

Mr. Stevens had dozens of books hidden in his office, all of which told of other faiths and other systems of government too.  I told my friends and parents that I was working in the office, that I found it a calming place where I could better focus on preparing for science exams.  In truth of course I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of reading more from those volumes.  Mr. Stevens told me that most of them were forbidden.  He warned me that even reading them was officially a crime and that I would be punished severely if the authorities discovered I knew about this forbidden history and hadn't reported it.

I would never have jeopardised my lunch times of course.  I treasured being able to sit with Mr. Stevens.  We would drink tea together and discuss the ideas and wisdom as we discovered it and would talk of how there might, one day, be a world in which hundreds of choices might be expressed without fear.  I came to see how our media consistently promoted one viewpoint, how there was no freedom in the press and how the newscasts didn't always say what was right.  We were fed what our leaders wanted us to think was right, that Christianity was the basis of the superior society and that we must continue our battle against the inferior Islamic and Hindu societies in the other societies, standing firm lest we be overcome by them.

Sitting with Mr. Stevens it became clear that such spoon fed misinformation was garbage.  Sitting with him I became more and more angry.  I wanted change, wanted to be able to talk of Freya, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and all the deep beauty found in them.  I discovered there were even Christians whose teachings had been uncompromisingly repressed.  Mr. Stevens taught me about Quakers, about the Progressive Christians and about rogue theologians like Kierkegaard and Eckhart.  He even showed me how much merit and clarity there was in the ideas of David Hume and how he was a brilliant man we were all taught to despise.

I asked Mr. Stevens, "So what do we do?  Is there a way to bring change?  What would it take for me to stand up for freedom?"  He sighed sadly and said he didn't know.

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Very Sensible People Who Love My Charity Shop Clothes

30. Shopping: Write about your shopping wishlist and how you like to spend money.

Today's writing is a free written splurge about my clothes and about the joy of finding them.  In four days there will be a prompt that asks me to sit outside for an hour.  I tell you now, if it's not warm enough I'm not doing it!  Newcastle in early February is not my most ideal place to sit outside.  Especially when I need to hold a pen so can't wear gloves.  Tomorrow I think will have to be a fiction and the next day a rebellion may be staged against the tyranny of prompts.  I'd quite like to write about the Cafe of Stolen Dreams instead.

Dressed up for a night out!

Something's been happening to me recently.  It's a new experience.  I've spent most of my life telling myself that these things aren't important to me.  Not important at all.  Honest.  I promise you.  But now it's happened I find I like it.

What happens is this.  I go into a place and meet with people.  They say things like this to me:

"I like your skirt."

Two people said that to me in the space of half an hour this week.  One of them said it was amazing.

"I do love your top.  Where did you get it?"

Someone said that to me last week.  A few days ago someone else said it about a different top.

"God that's an awesome jacket.  Where's it from?"

That was said in the last week too.

What the hell is going on?  I'm not used to this.  There are people who like my clothes.  And they're not idiots!  I know them to be rational people who have their own sense of style and aren't just playing with me by saying polite things because they're sympathetically diplomatic.

I'm not sure that in forty years of living outwardly as a male anyone ever complimented my clothes.  And I didn't care.  I didn't want to put any effort into looking good.  If it wasn't for my mother giving me piles of jumpers and T-shirts throughout my adult life I'd have worn a lot more that was faded, frayed or just had holes in.  My wife and a friend once staged an intervention, throwing away many of the clothes I was wearing and owning so that I was forced to wear different clothes without holes.  We're not talking tramp on the street level of clothing disrepair.  But without all that womanly help through the years I'd have probably reached it.

I passionately hated shopping for clothes.  That's an overstatement.  A small one.  Shopping was a burden, a chore.  It was a necessary evil that I would have liked to be unnecessary.

Things have changed.  They began to change when I came out as transgender.  They continued to change with the influence of a friend (nearly mistyped as fiend) who encouraged me to wear more colour, to experiment and in my clothing become more myself.  Over the course of the last eighteen months I have removed the majority of black clothing from my wardrobe.  And the brown.  And the grey.  Gone.  On one day alone I cleared out over sixty black and grey items.

Over sixty.  Yes.  I admit to you freely.  It's a lot.  I have too many clothes and buy too many clothes.  For as little money as possible.

So when people say "Where did you get your skirt?"  I gleefully and proudly tell them.  It cost me two pounds in a charity shop in Newcastle.

When they ask about my top I say, "It came from a charity shop in Chorlton," or "It came from a charity shop in Farnworth for ninety-nine pence."

The jacket I mentioned was a little different.  That didn't come from a charity shop.  It came from a stall at the Greenbelt festival, drastically reduced to clear because it was the last festival they were selling at that season.

I tell them.  Charity shop.  Charity shop.  Cheap.  And I smile not just because I don't look like crap but because nothing has cost me lots of money, because I've not gone to "normal" shops, and because I have come to love wearing what I wear.   A friend said to me of her own clothing, "It's taken me a lot of work to be able to dress like this."  It's the same for me.  The courage to be yourself and wear whatever the hell you like can take a lot of time, commitment and strength to find and maintain.  I am proud of my friend.  She in turn is proud of me.

I love charity shops.  And not just charity shops.  I love car boot sales although I can't get to many now.  I loved growing up going to lots of jumble sales most weekends.  The joy of finding an obscure book or record or adding something to whatever I collected at the time cannot be overstated.  That was my childhood.  Things improved still further when I started buying things so I could sell them again.  By the time I went to college and had to stop being an avid dealer I was buying and selling a couple of hundred books a week.

I still love charity shops and car boot sales.  You'll have noticed that by now.  I love them because they're cheap.  I love them because you can find brilliant things there.  Most of all perhaps I love them because they are uncertain.

Go to one of those proper shops and you know roughly what you're going to get.  You'll get their range of clothes, chosen by their buyers, based on what some fashion guru has said should be the style and colour of the season.  But go to a charity shop and you could get anything.  Anything at all.  You could get a skirt like mine, a top like mine.  You could get something even more spectacular.

Or you could get nothing.  Disappointment is possible.  I don't mind the disappointment.  It's outweighed by the excitement of entering the shop and exploring the great unknown.  It's lessened when I remind myself I have too many clothes.  Today I found nothing.  But I was wearing a jumper I bought for two pounds last week.

It's not just clothes either.  It's books.  It used to be CDs and DVDs too but I find myself looking at them less and less, belatedly realising that I already own more of those items than anyone could ever need unless they were a DJ or a film and television critic.  Something similar could be said about my book collection.  Wait, it has been said.  More than once.  Without effect because I keep buying books.  In my bag today I carried three books (why?!) bought in the last week.  A book about the fortunes, or lack of fortunes, of a German Jewish family in the Holocaust.  Philip Pullman's version of Grimm's Fairy Tales.  And a history of Christian evangelicalism in the USA that looks absolutely fascinating to a religion obsessive like me.  It only cost me fifty pence too.  For a big hardback.  I was very pleased with it.  A confession:  I did buy a DVD on the same day.  It was Orlando, the movie of Virginia Woolf's novel.  Something I've wanted to see for a while.  I had to pay a massive five pence for it too.

I am addicted to charity shops.  I learn which are the best.  Which are the cheapest.  I learn the ones where I never buy anything.  And I visit them anyway, just in case!  The Cancer Research shop is the best for me in central Newcastle.  It often has clothes I want and nothing will cost more than three pounds.  Chorlton often has interesting clothes.  And a precious discovery is the set of charity shops in Farnworth.  There is always something there for me.  So far.  When I found that two pound skirt (which has pockets too) I almost screamed with delight.  When I found that top in Chorlton I said, "Nooooooo, that won't fit, it's the wrong size.  Look.  Wrong size.  There's no way it will fit."  I will never be allowed to forget that I was forced to try it on and discovered it fit me very well.

That's enough about my charity shopping habits.  It's not enough writing.  Before I stop I want to say something about my life.

Three and a half years ago I came out as transgender.  The dam collapsed and I was forced to admit the truth to myself in a way I wouldn't ever be able to deny again.  Within two months I lived full time as female.  It was the most exhilarating and most frightening period of my life.  One of the side effects of socially transitioning so quickly is that you have to buy an entire wardrobe of clothes quickly too.  Another side effect is having an entire wardrobe of clothes that you never want to wear again.  It's all got to go - apart from some pairs of boots including the ones I've worn pretty consistently for at least eighteen months and a pair of red trousers in case I want old clothes to paint in.  I gave all my clothes away, including the suit I wore to get married.  All of it went to a refugee service in Newcastle.  I'm sure that many refugees benefitted by my gender transition.  Yay!

Clearing was the easy bit.  Buying was harder.  Because I didn't know what I could wear as a woman.  I didn't know what size(s) I could wear, what would suit my body.  I didn't know what would look good or make me look like a man wearing appalling drag.  The only way to find out was to experiment.  Keep buying a wide range until I had lots of clothes that would at least look okay.

I've heard quite a few transgender women saying that they cannot afford to socially transition because clothes are so expensive and they'll never be able to afford it.  They talk about places to go to get "clothes suitable for a trans woman" and I'm forced to agree.  They'll not be able to afford it.  Even if they give up smoking legal and sometimes illegal chemicals or drinking.  Even if they stop going to coffee bars or don't go that concert/cinema/wherever.

Several times I've suggested to these women that charity shops are good.  That they're cheap.  I even point out the cheapest ones - there used to be a hospice shop nearby where the most expensive item of clothing was a pound and many were much less.  But no.  "Oh, no no no no no!  We couldn't possibly go there.  We wouldn't be able to find things there.  We wouldn't like what we found."  I'm serious.  I've heard transgender women say things like that.  So they delay transition because they think it's too expensive.

Today I wore a skirt, T-shirt, pretty jumper and a Per Una coat.  Total cost?  Six pounds and forty-nine pence.

Transition isn't expensive.  (Except for shoes.  They're hard.)  Pride is expensive.  Fear is expensive.  Living a long way from charity shops is expensive too.

If it was not for charity shops my transition may have taken much longer.  I would have made it of course.  I would be me.  But it wouldn't have been as easy as it was.

All hail the charity shop.  Source of a thousand happy finds.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Tenfold Joy Of Happy Flapping When The Vibes Are Bad

29. Good Vibes: What makes you smile? What makes you happy?

You know how some people don't like the word moist?  They almost feel physical pain when they hear the word.  Moist, moist, moist, moist.  Personally I can't see the problem.  There's nothing wrong with moist.  But vibes?  I don't like that word.  Vvvvvv eye b zzzz.  It sounds wrong.  I like vibrations.  Vibrations are good.  Vibes are not.  There can only be bad vibes.

This day of the writing blog isn't going to be a writing blog.  Instead I'm going to post some photos from one folder on my laptop.  These were taken in different places over a period of a few weeks.  They show a few of the things that made me smile during those days.  I can say that I have been happy flappy about everything below.  I get happy flappy quite often.  One of the advantages of accepting myself as autistic is that I now know getting flappy isn't a bad thing.  I've been able to drop the guilt.  Stop being so ashamed of myself for wanting to flap.  I've been able to stop devoting so much energy to acting normal and repressing what is, for me, a perfectly natural reaction to the ecstatic joy autistic people may often feel.  I've also been learning to repress other reactions less.  Rocking, whether in peace or anxiety.  Odd shudders that aren't odd at all.  I've been learning to be me, learning to be autistic.  Learning self-acceptance in an even deeper way than I did when I accepted myself as female.  I am immensely thankful that I know I am autistic.  It's a two-edged sword but I am glad that I found out.

I have learned that happy flappy is good.  Very good indeed.

So here are ten happy flappy pictures, with a little explanation to accompany each image.

This first dream catcher picture is almost worth a writing prompt of its own.  If the dream catchers were powerful.  If they caught the dreams of each person in the cafe and threw them into other customers so you would arrive with one dream and leave with another, better or worse, bigger or smaller.  Make it random.  Make it more ordered.  Or add in an elite in charge of the cafe who would cream off the best dreams, stealing them for whatever purpose.  Add in a horrific version in which the dream catchers malfunction causing each person to leave without dreams, leading them all despairingly to end their own lives.  Add in a situation where some of the dreams can become real.  Add in whatever you like that's even more of an experience than the happy flappy time of sitting among the dream catchers.

The picture was taken in The Wonder Inn in Manchester.  It's a place to which I will return.  It felt like a safe space for me.  Almost directly across the road is an entrance to the Arndale Centre, a vast city centre temple of commercialism and normality.  The contrast between the Arndale and The Wonder Inn is immense.  Many people would prefer the former but as for me, I have not been happy flappy there or breathed in a helping of relaxation.

Number plates!  I love them.  I always loved them and grew up playing games with them.  When I was five I went out with my brother spotting car number plates.  This involved writing down the number of every car we saw.  No other details.  Just a number plate.  On that Friday afternoon we found a stolen car, it was returned to its owner and the thieves arrested.  We were given a reward of five pounds and the local press lied about it.  We learned early not to trust the media.

So from the age of five I've loved number plates.  We played with the numbers - counting games, maths games, spotting games.  I used to love finding the prime factors.  Strange child!  We played with the letters.  We enjoyed seeing odd number plates.  I remember not being able to suppress my happy flapping as a child when I saw the plate reading "F1ELD".

Then there was this bus, seen at Leigh bus station.  What could be more smile making than that?  The soft toys, by the way, are Blob Thing and Winefride.  They're autistic too.  Blob helped me a lot last year and without him I don't think I would ever have begun this writing project. 

This person.

She makes me smile.  She makes me happy.  She hangs soft toys from theatrical costumes of passing characters in a shopping centre.  She makes me laugh.  Sometimes our friendship can be hard but that's true of all friendships.  If it wasn't hard sometimes it wouldn't mean so much.  I look at this picture.  I remember.  And I smile again and feel warm inside.  Which is just as well because it's bloody freezing today.  The heating is on full.  I have an extra jumper.  And my fingers are still so cold they don't really want to type.

Lights.  Pretty lights.  These make me smile.  I have friends who own stunning lights that do amazing things.  Friends who own marvellous sensory equipment too.  But this light is mine.  It moves on the ceiling and I feel good.  At least for a few minutes until it gives me a headache!  I have a remote controlled colour lamp too and a unicorn who lights up the ceiling with stars.

I'd been feeling very sad for a week before this photo was taken.  I hadn't functioned well at all.  Then I forced myself to go out.  See something I'd seen before - a mining museum.  And see something I hadn't seen before - this lake and park.  Everything made me smile.  Between the sky, the surprising warmth, the water, plants and birds it took away much of the malaise I'd been suffering.  Then this happened:

I rode on the train, a return ticket through the country park.  I hadn't known the railway would be open and got very excited indeed when I was told I could be taken on the train.  I was the only passenger, barring the two soft toys who rode with me.  It was so exciting and out of all the moments I'm showing you this was the one that produced the most hand flapping.  I couldn't hold back on the excited noises either.  It was pretty awesome.  Next time I want to pay an extra few pounds.  If you do that you can drive the train.  Oh my God!  Oh my God!  I've got to go back.

Back to Manchester.  This place produced hand flapping and smiles.  It's a free creative space in the Northern Quarter in which you can be yourself and play with words and images.  The woman who started it is a poet.  If ever she offers to recite her poem about Afflecks (a most excellent place) I'd advise you to accept her offer.  We talked for ages about shared interests.  And by the time I'd left I'd resolved to visit a social group in Manchester whenever I could.  A couple of weeks ago I made it to that group and I smiled again.

Then there's this cafe.  I've known about it for a while.  It's deep in a basement, though there is natural light at the back.  I'd stood at the top of the stairs before, staring down into the unknown.  I'd walked away because descending on my own was too frightening a concept and my anxiety levels bounced out of my body.  Last month I made it down the stairs.  Many smiles.  Happiness.  Another place where I feel at home.  Another central Manchester refuge for me.  I've visited several times now, drunk tea, eaten toasties, sat and written or read.  I've even been to a kind of not-church church there.  And if you ever want to see a well decorated loo I'd recommend theirs.

This was taken in Manchester's Northern Quarter too.  It represents street art.  A lot of times, these pictures make me smile.  I take pictures of the art I see and it means more to me than most of what I see in galleries where the "proper" art is to be found.  One day I need to post all the photos online, show the world what clever people live in Manchester and closer to home.  The artistic spaces in Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead all deserve visiting.

The sea.  The sea.  [note to self: read Iris Murdoch books.]

This was a beautiful time.  I was with the person seen above and there was as much craziness as usual and as usual I refused to participate.  My urgent nooooooo was repeated.  After taking this picture I joined in and she was right.  It was fun.  It did bring smiles.  Afterwards I had my palm read by a Victorian penny arcade machine.  The arcade manager had to fix the machine before it would read my palm.  Then he had to fix it again before it gave me my fortune.  Apparently I am going to have twins.  I'm not quite sure how that's going to work out but am pretty sure the whole experience is going to become a writing prompt one day.

So there you have it.  Ten memories.  Ten occasions in which my smile has turned to happy flapping.

With my apologies that today's writing challenge blog wasn't filled with brilliant writing.  No strange stories today unless you think my life is strange.  Perhaps tomorrow I will return to my normal strangeness.  The prompt is about shopping and at this point I don't have the first inkling of an idea what will be written.

[1602 words]

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Remember Your Shadow. It Has A Terrible Life.

28. Shadow: Imagine you are someone’s shadow for a day.

I am writing this while tired in an evening.  This morning I began work on a new writing project that may or may not lead somewhere.  In theory it could become a novel.  Or more even than a novel.  For now there is a 3,200 word quickly written story that takes me through the synopsis of a plot written in a few minutes a couple of days ago.

At this point I'm excited by the project.  It's something to work on, play with, develop massively, and to enjoy as and when I feel inspired to continue it.  I think it's got scope to become something good.  Of course, for that to happen I will have to commit a lot of time and work to it.  I think it's worth doing even if the results never see the light of day.  The writing would be a big learning experience even if it doesn't ever become a big reading experience for others.

For tonight though there is this.  Something completely free written.  Seriously.  I just typed the first sentence and ran with it for a while.  The shadow photo was taken yesterday morning above the rocks at North Blyth, Northumberland.

It's not easy being a shadow.  You think you have it bad.  Your feet ache after a long day.  Ah, diddums.  Hard cheese.  Just think about me for a change.  With every step you take you are stamping on my feet.  My feet are flat enough as it is without you stamping on them all the time.  Do you care?  Of course you don't.  You don't stop to think about me.  Oi, you.  This is your shadow speaking.  Stop treating me so badly.

You don't even care to wonder how I feel when you step out of the sun into the shade.  "It's so hot," you say.  "I can't deal with this heat."  Well I've got no sympathy I can tell you.  Never stop to think about what happens to me when you hide your big puffy physical bodies away from that big flaming physical body in space.  It's excruciating.  I have to hide.  Turn invisible.  Pretend to be a chameleon and just blend in with whatever you're standing on at the time.  It's bloody hard work I can tell you.  If you only knew.  If only.  Well then you wouldn't be in such a rush to run away from the sunshine would you?  You'd put up with the discomfort.  Hey, a bit of sweat is nothing compared to what I have to go through.

It's okay at night.  Sleep in the dark.  That's good.  I can rest then.  I don't have to create this mask of invisibility when you're asleep.  I can stretch out and relax.  Have a snooze myself.  And sometimes I'll make patterns on the walls just for the fun of it.  People are so stupid.  You wake up in the night and see a moving shadow on the wall and think there's a ghost or a monster in the room.  Don't be daft.  It's only me.  Your own shadow and I'm not very likely going to hurt you am I?  I might get annoyed with you.  I might think more than half of what you get up to is stupid.  But I depend on you for life don't I?  It's not a great life but it's all I've got.

Not great.  Hah.  Understatement of the decade.  It's an awful life.  I challenge you to live it.  Just for a week.  We could swap places.  I could be you and you could be me.  I'd make the choices, go where I want to go.  I'd sit in bright lights and in the gloom.  And you?  Well you would have no power whatsoever.  You would have to follow my every footstep.  Even into dark places just in case someone switches a light on and you're suddenly needed.  You would have to bend yourself into crazy shapes, stretch and squash yourself depending on the light.  And just for fun I'd walk into places with multiple light sources.  I'm not even sure you would cope with that.  You would have to split yourself into two, three or even more sometimes and concentrate and work harder than you would believe.

It's not having a choice that's the hardest thing of all.  Not all the shape-shifting.  Not the fact that if I got it wrong for a moment you might notice and head off into some panic or other.  I don't get a say.  Ask me.  Yeah, next time you want to go to the beach, climb a tree, or sit at a desk for eight hours, just ask me.  You want to play with the lights.  Ask me, I'm affected more than you.  And ask me what shoes you should wear you selfish thing.  Remember that I feel your footsteps.  I think high heels were invented by an evil man who knew the truth about his shadow and who lived to express hatred of any creature darker in colour than he was.  High heels are a shadow's worst footwear nightmare almost.  Don't wear them.  Don't grind me down with that devilish stiletto.

My life is terrible.  I haven't even got rights.  None at all.  I'm not able to communicate with my fellow shadows that often.  You would hear.  While you walk through your lives we can only whisper our hellos when two of us have to occupy the same place.  And that's an insanely difficult task in itself.  We hardly have any mental capacity left after that bit of shade juggling to say anything very clever to each other.  Not enough to begin to organise some resistance to the tyranny, the way you consistently oppress us.  We couldn't do it anyway because such encounters might just as well be random.  We don't choose them.

Things get better when you fall in love and sleep in the same room.  They get even better in dormitories.  Any shadow whose person sleeps in a dorm is envied by all other shadows.  Because they can form friendships that last as long as the person keeps sleeping there at night.  If only we got a choice as to when the friendships end.  You move on from the dorm and the pain experienced by us is exquisitely terrible.  Listen.  If ever you choose to start sleeping in a dormitory don't stop.  And nobody else should stop either.  For the sake of shadows everywhere.

Vampires have got the right idea.  I wish you were a vampire.  Go on, just for me.  Become a vampire.  You know you want to really, especially after I saw you watching that ridiculous romantic vampire movie last year.  Be a vampire.  Please.  Think of me, your innocent little shadow.  Think of me whose life is worse than all your pathetic complaints.  Become a vampire.  And set me free.  Give me that.  It's not much to ask.

No.  You won't do that.  I'm not important enough am I?  Anyway I can tell you that you don't know any real vampires.  At least not very well but you did speak to one just last week.  I spotted them.  No shadow.  I'd warn you about them if I could.

You won't set me free so there's no hope for me except in the freedom your death and my death will bring.  No hope at all.  So I urge you, implore you.  Remember.  Just remember.  My life is hard.  I'm your shadow.  Think of me today as you go about your life.  Don't ignore me.  I'd say to buy me a drink but I can't drink.  Know that when you walk the dark shape in front of you, behind you, by your side has a mind and soul and feelings.  Remember me.  That's all.

[1097 words]

Friday, 27 January 2017

Prompt 27: A Matter Of Life And Death And Puzzles

27. Closed Doors: What’s behind the door? Why is it closed?

Inspired by a "difficult" question posed to Professor Brian Cox at the beginning of The Infinite Monkey Cage this week.  A question he nearly got right but which I didn't even need to solve because the question had been posed so many times before.

The question was a challenge to say fifty words in a minute - none of them the same - that didn't contain the letter A.   Ready, steady, go!  Did you manage it in half a minute, while the music from Countdown was playing?

I thought I'd won.  The tests they set me hadn't been too difficult.  Not for me.  I don't say that because of some sense of pride or an arrogance in my intellect.  Don't think that of me.  I'd been raised for this.  Almost from birth I'd been surrounded by puzzles in my toys, my books.  Every day from the age of six I would be tested and challenged by family members to solve some conundrum or other.  So much so that they became almost second nature to me.  There were many problems I didn't have to consciously consider anymore.  Show me the terms and conditions.  My head would instantly create a picture of everything, turn it around and the solution appeared.  Other problems were harder but almost instinctively I'd know how to tackle them and reach the right answer or answers.

I always knew I'd be a candidate for The Testing.  They told me so.  Told me I'd be amazing.  Told me that if anyone could beat the system it would be me.  And I believed them.  I passed the qualifying exams with flying colours.  They were easy for me.   Nothing there I hadn't seen before.  Some of the puzzles were exact duplicates of ones I'd solved.  Boring.  When the results came I knew with certainty that I'd be one of the three candidates chosen that year for The Testing.  I knew it.  Because I knew that I hadn't got a single question wrong.

I wasn't excited.  This was what was expected of me.  Nothing more, nothing less.  This was my life for better or worse.  I was scared.  Nobody had beaten The Testing in my lifetime.  Eighteen years old and I didn't have a single person to look at and say it could be done.  Yet I believed.  I would win.  The prize was worth the risk.  A seat high up in the government.  If I achieved that then finally the resistance would have someone on the inside to legally effect change and bring a measure of social freedom.  The alternative was death.  Each puzzle would be self contained in a room with two or more doors.  The correct solution would lead to a choice of door that would open to lead into the next room of The Testing compound.  Any incorrect answer would lead to a door that would lead into the next life via a painless death.

Nothing had been too hard for me although there was a steady progression of difficulty.  The first rooms were trivial.  One of them made me laugh and wonder why they bothered.  No candidate would be challenged by a puzzle like this:

Two doors.  One leads to life.  One to death.  A man is in the room and instructions are given.  This man either tells the truth all the time or he lies all the time.  You are allowed to ask one question and then choose a door.

I ask you.  Where is the challenge in that?  It's nothing that I hadn't seen before, dozens of times.  After that The Testing grew much harder and I found I was having to think about things.  Very carefully.  When death is one of the options you check your working out very carefully.  Logic tests, maths tests, probability, sequences, word play.  On an ordinary day I'd have been excited by it all.  But this was no ordinary day and I was getting tired.  There's no resting in The Testing.  Every puzzle is timed.  If you haven't opened a door before the limit is reached you are automatically disqualified.  By means of a poison gas.  Painfully.  It's better to guess than to fail to answer.  At least that way you don't suffer.

The room I'd just left had thirty-one doors leading from it.  A horribly fiendish question about the lives of eighteen people, with just enough information given to work out the date of birth of all of them.  The final date found led to the solution.  They only gave me fifteen minutes to sift through all the information, collate it all in my head, hold it all in place and connect the dots.  I'd only just made it.  With just a few seconds to spare I knew I was right.  The fictional Henrietta - who had a green shirt, blue shoes, lived in the fifth city, liked toast and could juggle six balls - was born on April 2nd.  I had to open door two.  I ran to it and opened it, breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn't mucked up my solution somewhere.

This was the final room.  A sign said so.  Just one more puzzle to solve and I would have won.  After that last mental stretch I believed I deserved it.  But this was no puzzle.  I could see that straight away.  There was only one door.  No choices.  This must be a trick.  A congratulatory room and then I'd be welcomed into the governmental palaces and begin my life's work for my people.  It must be that.

Printed on the door was a message.

This door may lead to life.  It may lead to death.  Each option is equally likely.  Congratulations.  You have solved every puzzle.  But not every puzzle has a sure answer.  Sometimes you need to guess, take a chance.  Sometimes government isn't about knowing whether you are doing the right thing.  It's up to you.  Do you take the chance?  Do you open the door?  Please note there is no penalty for not opening the door and you will be released back into the city.

I weighed my choices.

Sit and wait.  That gave me a 100% chance at living.  A 100% chance at failing in what I'd been raised to do.  I'd be disgraced.

Open the door.  That gave me a 50% chance of living.  A 50% chance of death.  And a 50% chance of victory.

I didn't want to die.  I didn't want to lose the control and certainty that I'd always had.  I hated this puzzle that wasn't a puzzle.  Random wasn't fair.  Not fair at all but I knew that I had to open the door.  Take a risk, the first real risk I'd ever taken.

I walked up to the door.  Took a few very deep breaths.  Turned the handle.  Pushed the door.  And walked through.  Life.  Or death.

[1056 words]

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Prompt 26: Fleeing The Barbed Wire Arms Of False Love

26. Fear: What scares you a little? What do you feel when scared? How do you react?

I'm writing this after a writers' workshop.  There's homework!  Today's homework is to work up a story outline into a short story as soon as possible with a view to later turning it into a novel after building a world from the ground up.  Or the sky down, depending how it goes.  That's quite a lot of homework to come out of one morning.  Especially as there's another workshop tomorrow that will lead to new ideas unrelated to this morning's.  Yesterday I also signed up for five extra workshops over the next four months that I am only allowed to be at because I'm part of a marginalised community.  Several of them as it turns out.

Today I don't know what to write.  And that scares me a little.  It's Empty Page Syndrome, where the blankness stares back at you and in your mind you hear it jeer and tell you you're useless and that you won't ever have anything worthwhile to type or put on paper.  The empty page lies.  So I'm just going to write.  Starting ... now.

She called out to me from the mist.

"Clare, I know you're there.  I'll find you."

I was lost.  More lost than I'd ever been.  When I fled into the marsh the way had been clear, visibility perfect and I thought I would be able to cross without too much trouble.  Follow the high paths.  Jump across grassy humps as they rose from the water.  I convinced myself I wouldn't have to wade or get wet.  I could do it.  And over the marsh, safety.  Maybe.  Any hope was better than none.  Any place was better than the one I was running from.  And the marsh looked so inviting too.  Forget all the rumours, forget the nightmares people talked of.  It didn't look so bad from the hill as I ran and rolled, heart pounding, fearing that she would discover too soon that I'd gone, that she would find me and drag me back, punish me, and not allow me the little freedoms I'd worked so hard to gain.

Maybe half way across the marsh - although I had no way to tell with any certainty - the mists suddenly rolled in.  The clammy, claggy air reacted somehow with the water and by the great God I swear I've never had the displeasure of smelling anything worse.  I had to take off my top and wrap it round my nose and mouth but even then it was almost intolerable.  And in the mist I lost all sense of direction.  Couldn't tell at all.  I could have been headed right back the way I came and I wouldn't know until I reached the hill again and spied her mansion at the top.  It was only a matter of time until the mist cleared again but I had to keep going.  Fifty-fifty chance.  Freedom or her mansion.  One hundred-zero chance.  She would discover my escape and follow me into the marsh.  I couldn't stop.  Ran faster.  Faster.  And, jumping to the next hump of grass, I fell.  Broke my ankle.  Fuck it.  Hobbled through the stinking waters as best I could until I reached a path again and dragged myself onto it, pushing hard with my good leg.

I lay there.  Had to rest.  No matter the consequences.  Adrenaline had kept me going.  No time to think.  No time to worry.  Now I stopped and a creeping dread fell on me.  My ankle screamed obscenities at me and I shivered from the cold.  My stomach began to knot and thoughts began to race, accusations against myself, wild imaginings born of the nightmare stories I'd heard.  And there was the very real spectre of her.  She would be looking for me by now.

"Oh Clare, damn you for attempting this so soon.  There would have been another chance and you might have been more prepared.  You foolish girl, and there probably isn't anything better out there, at least she fed you and now you'll have lost her trust.  You've made it worse Clare and now you'll never get away.  Idiot.  Stupid bloody idiot."

I knew I had to stand, no matter the pain, keep limping, oh crap Clare get up get up get up get up you can't stay there need to move get your ass in gear get your feet pounding the ground get on get on no don't cry you pathetic excuse for a girl get up or you don't deserve anything good.  Get Up!  NOW!  Why are you still sitting there?  You can do it yes you can move move move or she'll find you.

Still I sat there.  Paralysed by the torrent of thoughts, by a fear that seemed to steal all volition, all physical ability.  Just couldn't do it.  No point waiting for the mist to clear is there you silly Clare because then she'll spot you and drag you back and lock you in that room and it won't just be for six months this time.  It'll be forever.  Never let you out.

If it hadn't been for that voice I would have stayed there unable to win the mental battle.  That voice did it.

"Clare, I know you're there.  I'll find you."

Adrenaline pumping at a thousand percent overload.  I got to my feet.  It hurt so badly.  Putting weight on my left foot was like being stabbed with the Dagger of Lamboi but I refused to admit to the wounding.  What was a broken ankle compared to the hope of freedom?  I hobbled.  Limped.  And, refusing the pain, I walked along that path.

"You can't escape Clare.  Let's go back.  You know I love you."

I ran from the voice.  Forgetting pain.  Forgetting disorientation.  That voice told me where I should run.  Away.  That was all.  Away was safety.  Towards was back into her barbed wire arms.

That's enough.  I'm tired.  Not satisfied with the writing. 

I don't know who Clare is.  She's not me, the name is coincidence.  I don't know who the woman with the mansion is either.  When she first spoke I had no clue that she wasn't going to be a benevolent helper to a lost person.  I don't know how Clare came to be in the mansion, who else lives there, or who the story tellers were.  I don't know how long Clare was there, what she had to do in order to gain enough freedom to risk an escape attempt, or what the interior looks like.

In my head the exterior is similar to a mansion some friends lived in when I was growing up.   That mansion wasn't on a hill though.  I loved visiting them.  They had clubbed together with several other families to buy a place that was quite a wreck, each family living in one part of the building.  To begin with the visits were superb because we had freedom to run wherever we liked in the whole mansion.  After a time new walls were created and such freedom was impossible although by climbing into a tunnel in the cellars it was just possible to squeeze right through the building.  We loved our visits.  We loved the walks in the grounds and the forest beyond.  We loved playing in the ballroom and climbing to the top of the highest tower.  Everything was so much more exciting than living in a terraced house on a modern housing estate.

I have many questions about the above scene.  I assume that Clare escapes.  I assume too that there is some sort of revenge or justice in her future.  My questions are unlikely to be answered.  I have a novel to write for my homework.  This afternoon that seems a more pressing matter than fleeing those barbed wire arms.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

On Capitulation And Saying Yes In The Difficulty Of Social Interaction

25. Dread: Write about doing something you don’t want to do.

For this prompt you're getting something about my life.  No stories about skating on the sea with a goddess or sugar addiction today.  No poems about losing your home.  I see more fiction in the near future.  Today there's this:

A social picture from South Shields

In a social situation I do my best to remain calm on the surface.  This is Clare.  Cool as a cucumber.  That's what is portrayed.  Underneath?  Well that's different isn't it?  At least in some of those situations.  For most of us it's different.  In my case the cucumber isn't just chilled.  It's been deep frozen.  So the surface is unblemished.  The contents are mush, each cell broken, incoherent.   So my face remains impassive or it fakes emotion.  And my brain doesn't have much of a clue what to do.  Everything seizes up, clogged in anxiety.  Old scripts are repeated.  Intellectually learned rules of engagement are followed, one part of the carefully constructed flow chart leading on to the next so I don't have to think.  In those situations conversing and reacting is a logic problem.  Volition is irrelevant.  Desire is irrelevant.  The facade becomes a lie.  And it's only later I might work out what was going on, and perhaps live to regret words, actions, agreements, all those times I nodded my head because it fitted into the rules I thought were there.

These buried-panic situations are like maths problems at school, they're the logic tests from college.  School calculus was easy.  Solving those quadratic equations was simplistic.  Stick in the numbers.  Follow the rules.  Be exact.  Do not deviate.  And the answer inevitably falls out at the bottom.  I didn't need to think about why it worked.  Didn't need to worry that halfway through the calculations a rogue number would creep in and muck up the problem, forcing me at gunpoint to include it in line seven.  Everything was uniform.  Exact.  Numbers knew their place.  Numbers didn't lie.  Numbers didn't surprise and they didn't try to get me to do anything more than arrive at the correct answer at the bottom of the page.

It was the same with logic.  In my one year on a course at the University of Bradford before hearing an imagined voice and rushing off to study theology (don't ask about that today) logic was included in the syllabus.  Two of my term papers, chosen from a range of subjects including philosophy, psychology, and sociology, were logic papers.  They were easy.  Very easy.  I achieved a mark of 100% on both papers and was smilingly congratulated for being so brilliant.  I couldn't understand this brilliance.  I hadn't done anything hard, or so I thought.  All I'd done was to learn a set of rules and applied them to some puzzles.  Stick the rules in at the top and it was inevitable that the perfect solution would follow.  Because those rules didn't lie.  Didn't scheme.  Didn't change.  Didn't expect anything of me beyond parroting them back.

I was at home with those rules.  Some zebras are Capricorn.  All Capricorns are named Brian.  Therefore some zebras are named Brian.  All mobile phones have a screen.  All screens enjoy cricket.  Therefore all mobile phones enjoy cricket.  The logic at college was more complicated than that but year one logic didn't even get fuzzy.  You get the idea.  It couldn't be changed.  Couldn't be altered.  I knew where I was with it and it was immensely relaxing even though my grandad told me that the system I was being taught was overly burdensome and could be greatly simplified.  "Look at this," he said one day.  "Wittgenstein taught me this."  My grandad was right.  He taught it to me and it really was a much better system.  It's a shame I wasn't allowed to use it at college.  It's a deeper shame that twenty-five years later I can't remember the slightest thing about it.  What a loss to humanity:  From the genius of Wittgenstein.  Direct to my grandad.  Direct to me.  And then forgotten before I could ever use it.  Forgotten, almost directly because of that imagined voice.  Again, don't ask.

A social situation is not logic.  There are rules.  Rules that you are expected to follow even when they're as objectively meaningless as all those term paper logic questions.  You know the rule about the weather.  It's been written down and not by me.  Persons A and B meet.  After saying hello and how are you - they're both fine of course - person A says something about the weather.  Person B responds in agreement and adds a little more information.  You don't deviate from that.  Ever.  It's a major social faux pas to disagree or to share a different opinion about the weather.  Even if you strongly disagree you don't say.  That would be classed as a destructive act rather than an attempt at constructive discussion.  I have to restrain myself regularly and force myself to follow the rules.  It was especially hard one day when in one conversation person A had said to me, "It's cold today, isn't it?" and in the very next conversation person A had said to me, "It's warm today, isn't it?"  What's an autistic woman supposed to do?!

Beyond such trivialities and scripted conversations the social gets more complex.  The rules are harder.  The signals more difficult to read.  The number of people increases.  The amount of sheer bloody information you have to process rises exponentially and a calmly ticking over brain has to put more and more of its energy into frantically processing everything and to keep up with things.  It doesn't matter whether it's a social group or a business meeting.  And then there's a lag and you get lost and right through the whole thing you're expected to be able to respond appropriately, participate, answer questions, be a rational human being.

Sometimes, I can't.

I just can't.  Knowing what's being said.  Processing the words.  Understanding the meaning.  Understanding subtexts.  Body language.  Facial expressions.  Motivations.  I just can't.  Turning it around so I know what to say.  Saying what I mean.  Being able to stand up for myself when I've not even got the strength left to understand what standing is.  I just can't.

And so it is that I find myself agreeing with things I disagree with and then I find myself agreeing to do things I don't want to do and don't need to do.  Combine that with being a normal, nice human being who wants others to be happy and wants to be accepted.  Combine that with every bloody thing that comes from being autistic and not even knowing about it for most of my life.  Combine that with anxiety issues.  Combine it with sensory issues that may be making concentrating on the situation at all and act of fierce, strength sapping willpower.

It's a fatal combination.  100% on tough University logic papers.  Bloody easy.  Well done Clare.  Not screwing up my life in a social environment.  Bloody hard.  I'm never going to achieve 100% on that one.  It's not a question of "if."  It's a question of when I'll screw it up and how badly I'll manage it this time round.  It's a question of what I'll say that sounded perfectly pleasant when the words were formed but which was majorly offensive.  (Did I tell you about the time I said something to my Priest that came out totally wrong resulting in him never speaking to me again?)  It's a question of what I'll agree to do that I shouldn't be agreeing to do.

So it was a couple of weeks ago.  I was in a business situation.  A meeting with a dozen people round a table, under the strip lighting.  I wasn't coping very well.  I'd spent the whole morning in a state of useless near motionlessness.  Great anxiety about attending and putting all my focus into not allowing it to escalate into a major panic attack.  Perhaps I shouldn't have attended the thing at all.  Should have stayed away and written poetry or got stuck into a writing exercise.  Or just gone for a walk.  Anything but attend a business meeting that I didn't need to attend in the first place.

There was a need expressed at the meeting.  An important need.  I perceived that there was nobody else to fill that need, at least not round the table on that day.  I perceived everyone was in a hurry to have that need met and it would be burdensome to them all if it wasn't met.  All eyes were on me.  Will you do it?  Will you do it?  Well someone's got to do it.  Will you do it?  And there I was.  Not coping but trying to present that facade of smoothness.  Heck, the last time I'd been in that meeting I walked out half way through because I wasn't coping at all.  Everyone just assumed it was because a particular person had entered and was talking but that wasn't it at all.  I just wasn't coping and in any case I knew that I needed to tell people that I was withdrawing from other things I said I'd be doing when I wasn't meant to be doing them.  Sorry.  That sentence was cryptic by necessity.  The perceived badgering continued.  Will you do it?  Will you do it?  It's enjoyable I promise.  Sign up.  You won't be liable for much, we'll try to make it so you won't be liable for everything if things go bottom up.  Please.  Will you do it?  Dammit I felt a hell of a lot pressured than they felt they were pressuring.

I said yes.  Found myself on the committee of an organisation.  An organisation that I knew I should be serving in that capacity.  I knew that saying no would have been wise.  I knew that I didn't want that role and that it wasn't for me.  It's like if I was asked to be front of house staff in a busy café.  I should say no because saying yes would be a disaster for me and for the café.

I said yes.  What can I say?  I agreed that there was a need and stepped in to fill it because on that day there wasn't another.  I caved to perceived pressure.  I wanted to be useful.  And I've felt shit about saying yes every day since.  I know it's wrong.  I have told another committee member that I'd only do it for six months - and less if someone else stepped up.  I'd fill the need.  Solve the immediate problems.  But I wouldn't be a long term solution.  I wouldn't get stuck in it.

Two weeks of anxiety about doing this thing I'm not meant to be doing.  Two weeks of bad sleep, of worrying about how the hell I would cope with it, how the hell this name on a piece of paper in an organisational structure could ever translate to a useful reality.  Who knows?  Maybe it could.  Maybe I'd turn out to be wonderful.  So I tell myself to give it a go.  And then I panic.  Like a fly in a web, a butterfly pinned.

No.  It's enough.  In response to messages telling me about how I wanted to be on this committee I've been able to say - in writing and out of the stress of a physical gathering - that I didn't want to be on it at all and only said yes because I felt pressured and caved, and because there didn't seem to be anyone else.  I felt like a piece of excrement writing that.  It was the truth though and I needed to tell it for my own well being and safety.

It has worked out.  Today, thanks to a kindly individual, I have been given opportunity to withdraw.  Before attending a single meeting.

I am told that everyone will understand.  Of course I'll still feel like I'm letting them all down.  I am assured that people won't see it that way.

Today I am greatly relieved.  I know it wasn't my place.  It's a Wednesday so this morning I will attend a group in somewhere that I have discovered is my place.  I will meet with people - a social gathering yes - who I am learning are my people.  It's a place where I can be me.  A place where I don't feel an overpowering need to follow rules because nobody there particularly cares about them.  Creativity trumps rigidity.

Today I am greatly relieved.  I'm back on the path I know I should be following.  I'm facing the right way again.

One hundred smile emoticons!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Prompt 24: Forty-seven. A Nerd's Number And A Happy Place.

24. Numbers: Write a poem or journal entry about numbers that have special meaning to you.

Written in the Wolfson Reading Room, Manchester Central Library, as light relief after writing prompt 21 and people losing their home.

Free worksheet taken from this site.

In the pilot episode for the television series Alias, created by J. J. Abrams, a quite stereotypical geek-nerd-genius character is introduced.  Later his character would be developed beyond the realms of the TV drama geek-genius but to begin with we were encouraged to laugh at his nerdy social ineptness.  Geniuses provide comic relief according to television writers.  The name of this particular genius was Marshall Flinkman.  During the course of the pilot he hands over gadgets he's created for a dangerous mission undertaken by our heroine, Sydney Bristow.  One of the gadgets is a stick of lipstick.  One end contains a tiny camera that takes perfect 3D images and Marshall talks proudly but regretfully about it.  He says it can take forty-two photos.  Then he says that he's trying to get it up to forty-seven.  Because forty-seven is a prime number.

I have never forgiven J. J. Abrams for that script.  Never.  I probably never will.

And why not?

Because of this:  Yes.  Forty-seven IS a prime number.  Yes.  I can see the attraction of trying to get something up to a prime number.  I'd be likely to do that myself.  I like prime numbers.  I used to know lists of them but have forgotten them now.  Reciting them was as relaxing as reciting the first dozen numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.  Over and over in my head, providing some central cohesion in the chaos outside.  1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on.  Or 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on.  I found a degree of peace in those numbers.  In square numbers too.  And powers of 2.  It still feels good inside whenever I notice that the first bridge I see on the Metro after leaving central Newcastle is numbered 1089.  A square number.  And that one of the signals I pass has the number 164.  That's the sum of two squares, and if you halve it it's still the sum of two squares, and if you halve it again it's still the sum of two squares.  I thought about writing about these numbers.  Of how I manually calculated the square root of three to forty decimal places as a child, using pen and paper.  Because I liked the square root of three!  Of how I count the washing up.  Of how I love numbers.  You know where you are with numbers.  Like a woman said once on television, "Numbers are groovy."  It was love at first count!

I may be a little strange at times.  Back to topic.  I don't bear any grudge against J. J. Abrams for the fact that Marshall wanted a prime number.  Good for Marshall.  High five.  And miss and look embarrassed because we're TV geeks and that's what we do.

It's not that.  Oh no.  I bear this grudge for a great crime.  This crime:  If Marshall wanted to extend the photographic capabilities of this lipstick camera to a prime number of shots and was starting from forty-two then he would have known this.  Forty-three is a prime number.

Marshall would have said "I'm trying to get it up to forty-three, because that's a prime number."  He would not, could not, should not and there's no possibility at all that he would have mentioned forty-seven.  None.  J. J. Abrams, you're an idiot and your scripts stink!  Not really.  This mathematical faux pas didn't stop me watching the entire five seasons of Alias more than once.  It didn't stop me watching Lost and I have to say that I generally find his work satisfying.  If only Marshall hadn't said that line!

I learned later that forty-seven was important.  It wasn't a coincidence that Marshall said that number.  Abrams didn't write that number into the script on a whim or just because it was a good nerdy joke.  He had his reasons.  It was still a mistake though.  And one with an easy solution.  If the camera had taken forty-five shots instead of forty-two.  Solved.  No elementary error and there's still that occurrence of forty-seven.

Okay.  Hands up who knows that forty-seven is an important number.  Hands up who knows why.  Ooh, me, me, me, me.  I know.

Somewhere in a mathematical journal is a stunning proof.  It's (almost) flawless.  The proof was developed by people in the maths faculty of Pomona College in California and it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every number is equal to forty-seven.  How can a number not be important if every number is equal to it?  Forty-seven.  How old are you?  You're forty-seven.  Or at least equal to forty-seven.  And so am I.  David Bowie died at forty-seven.  The Queen still lives at forty-seven.  (Unless she dies in the few days between today and the publication of this post.  In which case I'll hastily edit that line!)

The article was, of course, a joke.  As much of a joke as the article published in a serious theological journal a while back which claimed to show that the Old Testament was written after the New Testament in order that all the prophecies would work out correctly.  In truth there's only one number equal to forty-seven.  And that's forty-seven.  That didn't stop Pomona College having a Forty-Seven Society.  It didn't stop me becoming, for a while, a member of an online forum devoted to the number.  Like I said, I may be a little strange at times.

What connects a clever joke in Pomona college to Marshall Flinkman's error?  One man.  He studied maths at Pamona.  His name is Joe Menosky.  He left college and didn't devote his life to maths.  Instead he became a writer and at some point during the making of the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation he landed a job as Executive Story Editor.  Menosky went on to work on Deep Space 9 and Voyager.  I think he's writing for the new Star Trek series too.  He wrote a lot of decent episodes but for me the most memorable thing he did was this:

Joe Menosky intentionally included the number forty-seven in every Star Trek episode he wrote.

Other writers caught on and the started including forty-seven too.

Watch the late episodes of The Next Generation.  Watch most episodes of Deep Space 9.  Watch any episode at all of Voyager.  You will spot the same thing:

The number forty-seven.

I love noticing.  I love the number.  And it's prime!  Every time I'm watching television and the number appears, spoken or on the screen, I tend to punch the air with my fish.  Like I say, I might be a little strange.  I watch out for seventy-fours too.  They aren't infrequent.

And then J. J. Abrams learned of forty-seven.  And he joined in with the joke.  Marshall had to say forty-seven because it's a writers' joke.  The number then appears in some form in every single episode of the series.  It's massively enjoyable to watch for the number.  It's enjoyable to watch at all and see the scrapes Sydney and her friends and enemies get into in true Saturday morning cliffhanger serial style.

Abrams continued to use forty-seven.  Every episode of Fringe.  All the movies he makes.  It's everywhere.  And then I start to see forty-sevens in other shows too.  Am I imagining them or are they truly there?  I don't know but I see them anyway.  And because human psychology is what it is, I notice the forty-sevens in the world too.  There seem to be an awful lot of them but in truth I know they're not more common than other numbers.  I just notice them more.

I am madly in love with forty-seven.  The endorphin rush of a forty-seven is a beautiful experience.

If only Marshall Flinkman hadn't made that unforgivable mistake!

Monday, 23 January 2017

BITE - A Cautionary Tale About Childhood And Sugar Addiction.

Prompt 23. Sugar: Write something so sweet, it makes your teeth hurt.

A story today, almost free written, although the seed of it was planted as I lay in bed last night.

Jaggery.  Image taken from this site.

I always had a sweet tooth.  Perhaps even before I had teeth I was wishing that my mother's own milk would be replaced, from time to time, with a saturated sugar solution.  I grew up dreaming of the one day each week when she took me to the corner shop and I could choose twenty pence worth of penny sweets from a selection that seemed to my six year old mind to be impossibly varied.  Sometimes it would take me twenty minutes to spend those twenty pence.  Some of the choices were sacrosanct, unvarying.  Always a Blackjack, a gobstopper, a raspberry bootlace.  And always a Bazooka Joe bubble gum and the excitement of a new comic strip.  They meant so little, I see that now, but back then they were everything.  What would Joe get up to this week?  Not much, but his adventures excited me and were almost more important than the slab of bubble gum they surrounded.  No other bubble gum would have been acceptable in those days.  Just Joe.  Can life be better than a comic held, a bubble blown, and the taste of joy, the whole thing being a sensory paradise purchased for a penny?

Most weeks my mother bought me a couple of packets of sweet cigarettes too.  Another joy as I opened the packet and drew out the card, hoping desperately that it wouldn't match one from my collection.  The disappointment of getting a "swap" when I had nobody to swap them with was momentarily a despair that seemed insurmountable.  Yet just one taste of a cigarette and I'd be in my happy child place again.  I loved sucking hard on them, slowly licking the exposed surface in my mouth, enjoying the grainy sugar taste for as long as possible.  Sometimes I'd give in to primal lust and slam an entire cigarette into my mouth, chew it rapidly and allow the full sensation of that beautiful sweet healthiness saturate my tongue.  Perhaps there was nothing more ecstatic than that moment of the crunched cigarette, the pieces washing away all thoughts of anything sour in my six year old life.  If only I'd not progressed further than sweet cigarettes.  Or candy sticks.  They're candy sticks now and don't have that red tip to simulate a nicotine burst in process.  If only.

As I grew I learned of the limitations and expectations of pocket money.  My own money.  To do with as I wished.  Free cash to explore the wider reaches of the corner shop confectionery.  Except it wasn't free at all.  "You can't spend it all on that."  No.  I was given money and then was told to save it.  My eight year old mind couldn't understand it at all.  I wanted to rebel, and sometimes did too even knowing that the consequences would be severe.  But rules were rules and money was saved and mostly I didn't spend more than I was allowed on sweets.

There were biscuits too in the house and I couldn't get enough of those.  Because the biscuit tin was out of reach and access was strictly rationed.  No more than once a day.  No more than two biscuits at a time.  On too many days I was left feeling sad because all the tin contained were rich teas and what could be less exciting than that?  Even worse were the weeks that my parents would buy a packet of ginger nuts.  I hated them.  They knew that of course so it wouldn't just be ginger nuts in the tin.  But that wasn't much help to me.  They would put rich teas in the same tin as ginger nuts.  Holy shit!  How could they?  My biscuits tainted beyond repair by ginger contamination.  My parents couldn't ever see what the problem was though I tried to explain in great detail every time a new packet of ginger nuts appeared.

And there was cake.  Cake.  Lovely cake.  Not often but the rarity of this precious substance made it all the more like a diamond in a case of broken glass.  How I loved cake.  At home a cake would be made four times a year.  Once on each of our birthdays and once at Christmas.  It was just a simple sponge with a bit of icing but to me it was paradise.  It could only have been improved with the addition of more icing.  Lots more icing.  And chocolate.  And sweets baked into the soft sponginess.  I looked forward to my parents' birthdays eagerly because I knew I'd have cake to eat.

As I became an adult I had more access to money.  I had to work for it of course and learned that my parents had been quite right that spending it all on sweets was a bad move.  Never mind.  There was still enough money left over to indulge myself on more than a Bazooka Joe.  I worked my way through every kind of biscuit in the supermarket.  Except for ginger nuts.  Some were disappointing.  Others were brilliant, especially the ones covered in chocolate and filled with extra sweet delicacies.  I learned that there was more to cake than sponges.  There would always be cakes in my house.

I explored the world of confectionery avidly.  So many choices and many of those penny sweets came in full packets.  I'd buy some packet or other every day and a couple of times a week I'd head back to the penny selection, complain about inflation and how it was now a two or three penny selection and spend a couple of pounds.  If only I could still read about the adventures of Joe.  If only I could still suck on a sweet cigarette.  Somehow candy sticks didn't have the same appeal.

I wanted more.  My lust for sugar was not satisfied.  More.  Please more.  And then I found jaggery.  Beautiful, salvific jaggery.  People claim it's healthy sugar and that it cleanses your body.  I'm doubtful about that.  I'd have become very healthy and extremely clean.  Because I developed a jaggery addiction.  Couldn't stop eating it.  The first time was difficult.  It was sweeter than I was used to and it was a different kind of sweetness.  This was no caramel toffee.  This wasn't just pure icing or the joy of squeezing a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk from a tube and then sticking it in your mouth.  Jaggery outranked all those joys.  Replaced them all.

I stopped eating sweets.  Stopped buying cakes and biscuits.  It was jaggery or nothing.  Fortunately there was an Asian supermarket a couple of streets from my home so there was no fear that I wouldn't ever be able to buy more.  I stockpiled at home just to be on the safe side.  I'd keep at least twenty kilos of it in a cupboard.  Every day I'd be out at the supermarket and would buy a minimum of a pound of jaggery.  It was the only way to keep myself satisfied.  I was truly a jaggery addict.  Couldn't stop thinking about it.  Couldn't leave the house unless I carried some with me.  I didn't mind eating so much sugar, not when there were so many articles online about how many health benefits my drug of choice gave me.  Happy little addict, in denial at the time that I was an addict at all.

As you can imagine, so much jaggery didn't do me any good physically.  I ignored the changes to my body because it gave me so much happiness.  It was only when, in the space of six months, my weight hit seventeen stone, I had what they called a mild heart attack, and I was diagnosed with diabetes, that I was forced to stop and consider my life.  The doctors all said I had to give up jaggery but I didn't want to and kept relapsing.  I realise now how much damage I was doing to myself and how one thing leads to another.  It got so bad that my family and friends staged an intervention and forced me to get professional help and to join the Overeaters Anonymous group that had started in the town.  I've got to admit that without that intervention I'd have probably continued backsliding into jaggery consumption and it would have killed me.  With the intervention?  Well it all went very well for a while.  My weight dropped to thirteen stone, my blood pressure improved and though I still craved that sweet taste I believed I had it all under control.  I wasn't quite so stupid as to call myself and ex-addict and say I'd solved everything so I kept going to the group, kept being a part of those people, my people, who had lost their souls to food.

It was after one of the group sessions, in which I'd talked at length about how much I missed carrying jaggery, eating it whenever I could, and having so much at home, that my life changed.  I'd spoken about the joy of sugar and how messed up my taste buds were and how much joy a sugar burst bought me.  Afterwards a group member drew me aside.  He talked very quietly so as not to be overheard.  He told me about Bite.  A sugar substitute.  A powerful sweetness.  So powerful and giving such a rush that it was illegal.  He told me that it was meant to be a brilliant solution for addicts like me because, though there might be a few health risks and maybe some side effects, it wouldn't give me weight gain or muck up my diabetes or anything like that.  I could indulge my sugar addiction in a form beyond any I'd ever dreamed of.  And nobody would ever need to know.  He told me that he used Bite regularly and his life couldn't be better.  He said he only kept coming to the group now so that his family wouldn't freak out at him.  He said he hadn't had any side effects at all and the risks were worth it anyway because they were far outweighed by the benefits.

I told him I didn't want Bite.  No fucking way.  I wanted to get well and stay well.  I told him he should be ashamed of himself for telling me about some shitty drug.  He just smiled at me.  Told me to think about it.  I told him to piss off and that I wouldn't think about it at all.  My answer was no.  Definite no.  But I did think about it.  Couldn't help it.  Was this really a way I could indulge my sweet tooth without getting fatter and risking hospital when my insulin went haywire?  Was this Bite even better than jaggery?  I hated myself for it but couldn't stop thinking.  Couldn't stop wanting.   Needing to at least try it.  Just once.

So I did.  It wasn't cheap.  Illegal things never are.  A bottle of Bite.  With clear instructions.  Draw out one millilitre into the syringe.  And spray into my mouth.  Easy enough.  I sat with that bottle in front of me for a couple of hours before that first dose.  I was scared.  Would this be everything I'd been told?  Would I experience side effects?  He'd said that sometimes the first time hurt because the user wasn't used to tasting anything so sweet.  And he'd said that in very, very rare cases - one in a million he claimed - that first dose reacted badly and would set the user's teeth on edge.  He said not to worry about it.  One in a million.  Who cares about that and he was sure it wasn't anything serious anyway.

With trembling hands I drew out that single millilitre.  Held it in front of my face.  Felt guilt.  Shame.  Defeat.  I put the syringe down and cried.  This wasn't what I'd wanted from that group.  I'd wanted to overcome addiction and here I was entering into a new form of it.  But I wanted this too.  I wanted to know.  I wanted jaggery and couldn't have it.  Wouldn't have it.  Bite wasn't defeat at all was it?  It wasn't jaggery.  It wouldn't kill me to try it.  Somehow I convinced myself that the syringe in front of me was what my family and friends would want me to have.  They would be pleased to see me now with a productive solution that I'd found for myself.  They would be pleased to know that I might never crave jaggery ever again.  So I picked up that syringe.  And squirted the contents into my mouth.

Instant sweetness deeper than anything I imagined.  That rush to my brain lit up a million lights, a million fires of paradise.  I knew in that moment that I would never live again without wanting more of this.  Bite was my future.  No matter what.

The sweetness increased.  More.  More.  Too much more.  It began to hurt.  To burn.  A million fires of hell.  What the shit had I done?  I put my hand to my mouth and found I was bleeding.  Bleeding and foaming.  And the pain was like nothing I'd felt before.  Mixed in with the joy of the more-than-sugar rush in confusion.  I bled more.  My teeth screaming for it to stop.  Moving.  Fuck, hallucinations.  They were shifting in my gums.  I stuck my finger in my blood foam filled mouth and felt them move, turn, their points no longer facing each other but facing forwards.  I tried to scream.  And then it was too much and I lost consciousness.

I awoke much later.  The pain had subsided.  The cushion by my mouth was caked in blood and the remnants of a yellow foam.  Never again.  No more Bite.  That was too much.  My mouth felt funny.  I guessed it was to do with the bleeding and it would take a while to heal.  I lay for a while.  My head hurt badly, crying out in sorrow.  And crying out for jaggery too with an urgency I hadn't known for a while.  Never again.  I'd tried it and the joy was not worth this.

I got up and walked through to the bathroom.  Looked in the mirror.  Face a mess of blood.  Opened my mouth.  My teeth.  Oh God my teeth.  What had I done?  They had all turned.  Ninety degrees.  It had been real.  Oh fuck it had been real.  They sat there, perfectly solid in my gums but facing the wrong way.  I had been that one in a million.  My teeth were set on edge.  Bite had stolen my bite.  One sweet rush and I was screwed.  Sweet rush.  Mmmmm.  Sweet rush.  Maybe now it had happened it wouldn't hurt so much next time.  No don't think like that.  Stop it now.  You've been screwed over by a drug.  Throw the rest away.  Do it now.  I returned to the lounge and chucked the bottle and syringe in the bin.  Called for medical help.

The dentists at the hospital said they couldn't fix my teeth.  Said they had heard of this happening.  That the only thing to do was to remove every tooth and fix a full set of false ones.  They could fix that up for the future.  In the meantime I'd just have to put up with it and eat lots of soup.  They sent me away with an appointment for a week's time to get measured up for false teeth and to decide whether to remove a few of the real ones or whether to do the lot in one go under general anaesthetic.  It depended on the results of the x-rays they would take and at that time they didn't know quite how they would get the teeth out safely.

I went home.  Slept badly.  Shouted at myself for stupidity.  Cursed myself.  Cursed the man from the group.  Cursed the Asians for inventing jaggery.  Cursed my mother for my birthday cakes.  And cursed those stupid Bazooka Joe comics.  No more sugar for me.  Ever.

And then I saw the bottle.  Still in the bin where I'd thrown it.

Can't do it.  Can't destroy it.  Need it.

Second syringe filled.  Placed between my lips.  Squirt.

[2700 words]