Mid-life Crises are a Sign of Privilege

My sister is a funny woman. She has many talents and gifts and among them are an excellent sense of humour, turn of phrase and comic timing. Once, when were were both young, she introduced me to the concept of the mid-teen crisis. I heard the phrase first from my sister and she was ha-ha, only serious kind of funny.

It’s a real thing. All the pressures of being a teenage girl in a world of teenage boys combined with all the pressures of school life – it was a wild time back then and I can only imagine it’s become worse since I won’t tell you when. I will say I’m a lot older than she is. I have friends now who are parents to teenagers and all I can say is, good luck, cling on.

Can we talk about the male mid-life crisis? Just for a bit? The classic one – the sports car, the stupid affair, the ill-advised clothing, all the cliches. That one. It’s a gendered thing, I think. I seldom hear about women having one. It seems to be one more thing the Patriarchy arranges for its favoured sons, another indulgence, another affront.

Getting old happens for most of us gently; a slow boat to the islands on a calm summer evening. I remember coming back from Stornoway to Ullapool after a stormy week on Lewis, past the Summer Isles, past Rhue and up Loch Broom, the calm water only disturbed by the slapping bow wave of the Cal-Mac ferry. The ferry terminal came into view so slowly that it hardly seemed to move at all. I thought I would spend the rest of my life rumbling gently and quietly into port. That’s what I thought life would be like.

It’s not. There’s an old man in the mirror every morning, face crumpled like packaging on the floor of a neglected goods room. It’s all creases on the face in the glass, wrinkles and lumps and wild, wild hair. Yesterday, or it feels like yesterday anyway, yesterday the face in the mirror was smooth, almost as smooth as the water on Loch Broom was thirty years and more ago. And that’s the thing. Thirty years is a long time to be getting older.

I am definitely in the second half of my life. Another few years and I don’t think any but the most charitable would call me middle-aged. I’m still at that awkward age. I think I’ve always been at an awkward age but let me talk this one through. Were I to die next week they’d say – you’d say if you knew me – “He was still so young.” I’m too old to be a young man and granted the innocence of the young. I’m too young yet to be granted the status of elder. In other words, I’m ripe for a mid-life crisis.

The thing is that mid-life crises are a massive expression of privilege. Even taking for granted that I should somehow, some day have the status of an elder anything is a statement of privilege. I am still a middle-aged, middle-class white man. I don’t need to worry all that much about my personal safety when I’m out and about. I’ve had a very good education at the expense mostly of the state and my parents. I didn’t have to work very hard to achieve the little I have achieved. I take for granted that people will help me when I’m in trouble and by and large that is what has always happened. It’s an accident of birth. I was born at a certain time in a certain place. I’ve done nothing myself to merit special treatment. To act as if I have or to fail to acknowledge the reality of my circumstances would be an expression of privilege.

I haven’t woken up disappointed in what I have failed to achieve. I don’t think that I deserve more just because of who I am. The crisis some men go through is the realisation that they have reached forty- or fifty-something and that they will never be the man they should have been, or wanted to be, or someone else wanted them to be. They deserved more, somehow, than what they have. More money, more recognition, more success, more sex. Different sex.

That’s the root of the mid-life crisis. The old man in the mirror where the young man once was. Maybe he wants the return of the whole, huge, meandering, senseless possibilities he once could almost taste even if he never really had full possession of them. Maybe people have stopped noticing him so much. Fewer opportunities at work. Fewer sexual encounters. Falling fertility, failing potency. Aches and pains and hints of mortality. Less feeling great, more feeling just meh. Meh-ddle age.

Mid-life crises are expensive too. You need a certain income to indulge one thoroughly. You have to believe that your needs and desires are more important than those of the people around you and that is difficult to sustain when more than a thousand people are dying with or from Covid19 every single day. Staying at home, washing your hands, covering that aging face when you do venture out all militate strongly against the full expression of the middle-aged man in crisis. It’s all privilege.

I don’t think I’m immune. I have a very silly, bright orange bicycle, not a sports car. I still harbour athletic ambitions. I squeeze myself into Lycra and try to ignore the belly that wasn’t there five minutes or five years ago, depending on my state of mind. However, my wife and I made promises to one another and I’m not going to break them just because I’m feeling unreasonably mortal. Promises matter. That’s one of the things I’ve found out.

I have a sample size here of one. I know I’ve been lucky in lots of different ways. I think I am going some way to recognising my own privilege in all of this and that makes a destructive mid-life crisis less likely. I can only hope so, anyway.

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Do You Remember?

I sometimes eat Butterkist Toffee Popcorn. It was the sort of thing we would normally only get when we went to the pictures when I was wee. We didn’t often go as a family because there were lots of us so it would have been expensive and dad worked shifts as a polis so we would seldom have weekend evenings together for a trip to the cinema in Edinburgh. Finally, my mum only learned to drive when I was in my early teens. Still, we’d go to the NPH in St Andrews when we were on our hols in Fife and the weather was too Fifey to do anything outside.

I remember one trip across from St Andrews to Lundin Links in a more than usually Scottish thunderstorm. There were almost two very Catholic families crammed into a Volkswagen Beetle. We were like one of those record attempts where students would see how many people they could cram into a small car to raise money for charity but we were doing it to get fish suppers. Anyway, one Beetle, lots of noisy kids, several stressed out adults, rain stotting knee-high and arm-thick off the road, lightning flashing all over the place, and my grandmother yelling at us not to touch the sides of the car in case we were struck by lightning.

There is something about the smell of Butterkist. It has a sweaty, sweet smell sometimes that reminds me of something else and I can’t quite place what that is. There are loads of things like that, smells and tastes which trigger a hazy memory and nothing you do can drag the rest of the memory out into consciousness. The synaesthesia doesn’t quite kick in all the way. You taste the madeleines and there’s something there but it’s not enough. The messages go from the tip of the tongue to the back of the mind and get stuck.

There’s a spice I can’t quite identify but it’s in some curries and it’s another of those subtle tastes which almost trigger memories. Maybe it’s not a single spice. Maybe it’s a combination of them. Asafoetida does odd things to other tastes but I like adding it to my curries. I just have to remember to keep the jar tighly sealed, inside a Tupperware box which I bury in the back garden. I can’t describe the flavour because it flits chaotically across my memory, a butterfly sent hither and yon by the currents of other, stronger thoughts. I can’t even tell you the last time I tasted it or what I was eating, just that something almost tripped the switch in my head.

Do you ever feel something in your shoe on a long walk on a cold or wet day? You put up with it because it’s not quite annoying or painful enough for you to go through the faff of finding somewhere sheltered to remove your boot and sock. Nonetheless, finally you find somewhere out of the wind and rain, remove your rucksack, loosen the laces on your boot getting mud all over your hands in the process, take off the boot, waggle your foot in the air so you don’t get your sock wet in the puddles on the ground while you take it off only to find bugger all there. That. That’s the search for that memory. I’m not sure there’s anything really there at all.

I am sometimes surprised that really obvious things aren’t more memorable. Scotch Abernethy biscuits are much sweeter and crisper than ordinary digestives but they leave a particular paste and taste across the roof of my mouth and it’s not completely pleasant. It’s why I don’t have them very often but every now and again I’ll forget that and buy a packet because they go very well with a glass of milk as a nice wee afternoon snackette. I remember I like that but not the slighltly offputting mouth feel.

The trouble for me with talking about memories is that mine isn’t great. I forget names and titles of books very easily. I have picked the wrong sport to follow. Athletics is one sport but it’s so many different disciplines. I have trouble remembering the names of even my athletic heroes. It took me ten minutes to remember Michael Johnson’s name yesterday. I had to go an look stuff up to be sure of his name. I can’t always remember who does what, even if I have a vivid visual memory of an event or a perfomance. I’ve talked before about all the labels falling from the memory so I can’t tell you the identity of someone even if I know exactly who they are and what they’ve done.

I’m off to reinforce some memories now by rewatching The West Wing. That’s apparently what we need to do to make sure memories hang around for longer. While I write, I’m listening to The Buena Vista Social Club which is triggering memories from years ago when my ex used to sing along to Omara Portuondo singing Besame Mucho on a Saturday evening in the house we shared in Oxford. It’s a surprisingly sweet memory to end on.

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Rich Talks Shit

That’s not a surprise to anyone. I do talk a monstrous amount of shit. I know hardly anything about lots and lots of different and mostly very tedious subjects. I can combine that with a pointlessly in-depth knowledge on a very narrow range of stuff. Now, that makes me God’s own gift to an under-achieving pub quiz team – just don’t ask me about pop culture after about 1985 or any sport, especially athletics – but a stream of bemused women from the Grauniad’s Soul Mates pages in the early years of this century will almost certainly roll their eyes and say “Oh him, yeah. No.”

I know that names come and go in popularity but were there an especially large number of Catherines or Alisons born between say, 1965 and 1975? I met several Kates, one Kat, a Kaz and memorably but very briefly “Call me Catherine, please.” A story for another blog if I can cope with reliving that one. Over the years I’ve had crushes on several wonderful Alisons too. Sorry, an aside.

Back on topic, let’s talk shit.

A screenshot taken from Word HippoHippo.com of the entry for "talking shit"
Fun with Word Hippo.

I think this misses one of the most basic senses of talking shit. There’s talking nonsense, making up stuff, like writing speeches for Boris Johnson or Donald Trump. I’m a fan of Horrible Histories which does a most excellent job of talking shit about history. It’s proof of another form of talking shit, where you just riff off an idea. You take an idea like exploring past lives in the form of a chat show where Death mocks people for dying in a particularly stupid way and calling the whole thing Stupid Deaths. You probably know that when a singer riffs on a musical theme it is called scat and scat is another word for shit and I am in love, deeply in love, with the notion of Cleo Laine shit singing.

There is something a little more vivid and visceral about shite when you compare it to shit. Compare “ya wee shite” with “you little shit” and there are worlds to explore and possibly PhD theses to be done between them. Differences of class and geography are laid bare. Think about the voices saying those words and the circumstances where they say them. You can go and do some role-play now if you like. You might find it cathartic.

As an example of my wide but shallow pool of knowledge, I found out about mining fossil shit in Cambridge recently. They did it on Coldham’s Common and down between Trumpington and Hauxton. These rather pleasant spots was once mined for Cambridge green sands, coprolites that were ground to sand and mixed with acid to produce a kind of fertilizer. Of course, you can use turds laid down much more recently to make fertiliser. Stinking fortunes were made importing and processing guano to make fertiliser or explosives. The USA had something called the Guano Islands Act which empowered US citizens to take over uninhabited islands unclaimed by other states if they contained guano. More recently, and dealing with even fresher shite, my dad was a mounted policeman in Edinburgh. He would occasionally drop by to see his mum if he was passing her house in the Colonies in Stockbridge. He’d tie the horse up by the front gate, pop in for a quick cup of tea and before very long one or another of the neighbours would be out with a shovel to pick up the very fresh manure the horse would leave behind.

I was looking for a word for talking shit. I thought of kakaglossia. Kaka, caka, or cack are common enough. I think cack-handed is a euphonous word, better than butter-fingered. Does it mean inept rather than clumsy, do you think? Oddly, English gets cake from the Norse or Swedish kaka which almost uniquely doesn’t mean shit. Kakaglossia means shit-tongued so it’s a nice new word for getting a bit sweary. I used to have “erudite fuckmouth” on my Twitter profile as a warning for those of an unsweary disposition. Not everyone enjoys my use of language. Should I have put a content warning on this post?

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Can’t Wait To Get Into My Pants

Do you have trouble getting into your pants in the morning? Assuming, that is, you get into your pants in the morning. I’m not being pervy, or anything, you might have problems standing up and keeping your balance, or with bending your arms so you t-shirt or vest doesn’t go on as smoothly as it really should. Basically, are you getting old?

My wheelchair racing friends will no doubt just say “Dude, really?” and get on with getting on. Me, I’ve had about six weeks of reduced flexibility, an ongoing problem with cellulitis on my shin which finally seems to be clearing up, an extra bout of falling down when I stand up, and a bit more forgetfulness than is normal, even for me. Basically, I’m getting old.

Typically, at least until recently, I have been a bit of a dressing gymnast. Nobody likes a show-off in the morning, but I had been able to stand on one leg while I pulled my boxers on and then one morning, round the start of December, I couldn’t.

Do you ever just blank in the middle of a really routine action so that you couldn’t, on pain of cattle-prod, remember what you were supposed to do next? PINs and passwords are like that. If you remember the first digit or character, then muscle memory takes over and everything flows nicely. I remember guitar chord progressions being the same. If ever I had to stop, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to pick up again where I left off, I would have to start again al capo. On the odd occasion when I come across one of those upside down number pads at a petrol station, I am completely buggered. I don’t remember the PIN, I remember how my fingers move.

So, one morning, around the beginning of December, I was standing in my usual spot between bed and wardrobe, left leg in my favourite blue-striped boxers and when I went to lift my right leg into them I couldn’t remember how exactly to do it. My arm seemed to be in the way and when I tried to lift my knee high enough, there was a pain in my hip and groin. Now, I’ve never exactly been Stretch Armstrong when it comes to my flexibility, but I hadn’t until then had a problem getting into my pants in the morning. I managed after a couple of confusing seconds to sit down on the edge of the bed and cover my embarrassment.

Now my normal degree of gymnasticism is not exactly Olympian. I’m not going to impress or intimidate Louis Smith or indeed the Russian judges with my Getting Dressed routine in the mornings. However, it’s not supposed to hurt or be difficult, is it? Of all the things I do with and to my body, covering it so the rude bits don’t dangle offensively has been relatively straightforward to date. Getting dressed is a low-tariff event, after all.

Still, I’ve nearly finished my second course of antibiotics in an attempt to clear up some cellulitis. I’ve reached the stage now where taking the pills, two of them, twice a day, has become routine and that’s a problem. A bit like adding salt to my porridge, I can’t always remember whether I’ve taken them and a couple of mornings I thought I had when of course I hadn’t. Sometimes I end up with very salty porridge and sometimes I might as well eat gently boiled mud. Similarly, a 10-day course of antibiotics has so far taken 12 days. I should finish it tomorrow, as long as I remember to take the last three doses between now and then. That’s not a given.

Now, what about standing up? My balance problems have so far been a source of comedy rather than frustration or worry, but there’s been a bit of deterioration over the past few months. Most mornings, unless I’m very careful about how I get out of bed, I immediately sit down again on my first attempt to rise. I need to make sure my feet are closer to the edge of the bed to make it on my first attempt. My memory for names and things has never been great but I haven’t until now forgotten events. I noticed my first example of that last week and of course I’ve now forgotten what it was. D’oh. I even had a wee tremor at the weekend which resulted in my ground coffee spraying irritatingly over the counter instead of going into the holder thingie in my vesuvio.

All of this is just me getting old. I can do things to work on my flexibility. I’ve dug out my yoga mat and subscribed to Yoga With Adrienne on YouTube. I’ll get started on a training plan with the aim of running a marathon in June, if it goes ahead. I should have done the first run on that plan today but I’m wiped after a truly bad night of sleep. Starting tomorrow isn’t going to make much difference. I can still walk and run and it’s all going to be fine, I’m sure. If it were bad, I would go and see my lovely doctors who all assure me that the surgery is open for business.

I’ll finish with an old news piece from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. Ford Motor Company has been carrying out research for years now to ensure that its vehicles are as accessible as possible. To give its engineers some insight into how people with limited mobility, or flexibility, interact with their cars, they developed what’s become known as the Third Age Suit. Very much the opposite of one of those robotised exoskeletons that in sci-fi or liberal nightmares turn wimps into supersoldiers or robocops, this suit stiffens and limits mobility in all the limb joints, has a neck brace so that the wearer can’t fully turn their head, a wee spasm generator so they can experience the joy of not being able to fill their coffee pot, glasses that mimic glaucoma or cateracts, and ear muffs to limit hearing. Basically, think Bibendum with a bit of malice aforethought.

All of this is intended to make driving or operating the passenger controls in one of their cars easier for those with movement or mobility issues compared to the general population. It’s one thing to ask users what they need but experiencing problems for yourself can give you better insight into possible solutions.

Of course employing more disabled engineers would also help but that’s a different blog post. So would waiting a few years until things don’t bend, shake, collapse or go blurry all on their own.

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A Certain Jane Austen Thing Going On

Most of us lead small lives. Our consequence rarely extends much beyond our acquaintance. It’s easy to forget that. We’re the centres of our own universes, most of us anyway, the protagonists in our own narratives. What we say and do goes only as far as the people closest to us, even now that what Jane Austen called our connexion can be world-wide.

That’s not to say that we’re unimportant, or what we do lacks value and worth. Nor does it mean that our actions have no impact. What we say and we what we do has consequences in the lives of everyone we touch. It’s especially important now. Nerves are raw for all sorts of reasons and it’s really easy to make things worse, not better.

To limit the spread of Covid, we need to wear a face covering, keep apart, wash hands and open up enclosed spaces where we meet other people to winter. Not easy in this weather. All I want to do is huddle with chums by a roaring fire, glugging hot chocolate and eating slices of Victoria sponge wider than my face. That’s not something we can do under Tier 4 restrictions. I had a look at the data on both the BBC and Project Zoe’s websites and infections are rising round here really quite markedly so all the public health messages are not getting through.

Some of us lead more public lives and I really do wonder at how the people with the most influence over our lives are using that influence. I stopped watching the news years ago because when I wasn’t depressed after a broadcast, I was deeply, gammonly angry. Anne barred me first from listening to Any Questions and Any Answers on a Saturday lunchtime and then I stopped listening to live news broadcasts altogether. The stupid, it burns, dude. Anyway, as a result, I don’t really have much idea of an overall news narrative. I take my news in bites from various newspapers’ websites, the BBC and from NGOs and other organizations which interest me. I haven’t watched any of the government’s briefings live because I don’t need that stress in my life.

I don’t want to get all political because infectious disease doesn’t really give a stuff about radical approaches to societal problems. Between Brexshittery and Remoaning, or between Maomentum and Bliarites, whether you fell for a slogan on the side of a big, red bus or you keep your star safe, none of that matters to wee strands of RNA that only exist to replicate. Don’t even get me started on Bill Gates and injectable tracking devices. Nobody really wants to take unpopular decisions because who wants to be unpopular when your job security depends on your popularity?

(Sometimes I think we should replace our elected Parliament with a big jury that gets selected every couple of years. Once you’ve served, you can’t serve again. No more elections, just jury service.)

So, I wish that some people who have a big stage and fill it with amplified sound would either shut the fuck up, or tone down the nonsense when they do speak. I’d rather that notions of self-sacrifice and service were more evident in the behaviour of our leadership. I would be much more inclined to believe them if their actions matched their words more closely. Duty is a bit of a Jane Austen concept these days. Only the queen mentions the word with a straight face, I think. For everyone else who does so, it’s rather something to be encouraged in others than undertaken themselves.

Another rambling post. Sorry. I’ll end here with Mr Knightley in Emma. “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.”

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Just Another Arbitrary Moment In Time

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Space might be big, vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big but our orbit of the Sun scribes out such a small part of it that it takes only a year for us to come back to the same spot on it again. The Sun itself has moved on in its own orbit of the Milky Way so it’s not the exact same spot in space. For me, that just adds to the arbitrariness of the notion of a New Year.

The thing about time I really don’t understand is why it’s on such a strong ratchet. Our experience of time passing changes depends on how bored or tired we are but we don’t experience the future before the past. I really should insert a get me the lottery numbers joke here but while you can’t know what’s in the future, some tropes are predictable and therefore boring and good bloggers should avoid them like the pl…

I’m not going to mention transmissible diseases today.

I am going to mention general relativity. I’m probably going to mangle it and get dragged off by the Physics Police for some re-education but here goes. Time slows down when there’s a lot of gravity around the place, but only from the point of view of an observer where there is less gravity. That’s your actual time dilation, that is. I think. It also slows down the faster you’re moving but that’s special relativity and I’m just going to ignore that. It’s irrelevant to the point I’m almost certainly going to miss because I’ve forgotten what I was talking about at the start of the paragraph. For you, lovely reader, probably only ninety seconds or so have passed. For me, it’s been about an hour while I read up on Einstein and black holes and pointedly avoided looking up stuff about quantum physics.

Frames of reference are important in relativity and there are equally important frames of reference in reading, and in creating a narrative. I am aware that I’m letting you peek behind the curtain here and nobody really wants to see how political deals, sausages or blog posts are made. Nevertheless, an hour, that’s how long it took me to create what was supposed to be a brief linking paragraph and now you’ve wasted another minute on my excuses for its rambling nature. Onwards.

In spite of time slowing down in the presence of a strong gravitational field, it doesn’t ever start going backwards. The biggest, strongest, weirdest objects in nature can’t change the direction of time. That’s what I meant about time having a ratchet on it. One of those nice clicking screwdrivers that let you screw your things together but not unscrew them unless you slide the slidey mechanism over a couple of notches, a bit like that.

We can’t go back in time. We can only go forward in our frame of reference at the rate of one second per second, one minute per minute, one hour at a time, one day at a time, every week of every year. This particular spot we’re passing through now is not the same spot we were passing through this time last year. Everything is moving in relation to everything else, and it’s moving with what Douglas Adams would have called mind-boggling speed and we can barely tell. It’s only noticeable if you pay close attention to the sky on dark nights, months apart, and who has the time anyway? Who has the time to do that other than astronomers and dreamers?

To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter. Our days, this year just gone of all years, have all melded into one. Ironically, as far as this blog post is concerned, only the longer nights and shorter days give us much sense of change. The gentle, relentless, pulse of the seasons as the year proceeds is what gives our year a rhythm. Without that, we’d have no marker of change. That in turn is a result of another arbitrary thing, the tilt of our good Earth on its axis.

I’m going to try to wrap up some stuff here. Space might indeed be sphincter-wiltingly big. The passage of time is absolutely relentless. We can’t change that. All we can do really is find people with whom to share the experience as we complete another orbit of the Sun. If you feel the need for a start to things I’m just about human enough to wish you a Happy New Arbitrary Moment In Time. Happy 2021, people. Be nice to one another.

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