Tuesday, April 27, 2010

my mate helen the genius

I had a day out in Galway with my writing partner Helen this week. We were attending a screen-writing workshop. It was a beautiful sunny day, and immediately we arrived we went in search of breakfast. That’s the first thing we always do on these trips to any city – find food. We once got off the morning flight from Knock and bought a bag of groceries in Luton airport M&S to have for lunch when we arrived at my sisters house. We had the food finished before we got off the train. The journey was half an hour.
These screen-writing workshops are always full of young men. Gangs of them lounged outside the old theatre, in earnest conversation with each other, smoking. Groups of young men always irritate me. Partly because they think they know everything and partly because, as a forty five year old married mother-of-two I am utterly invisible to them. They represent something I have lost – the fresh, obvious sex appeal of youth, and something I will never have - egotistical male confidence in my own professional prowess. The guy leading our workshop was a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter. His technique was great, but he insisted on regaling us with anecdotes about Frances (Ford Copella) and Gary (Oldman) – both of whom, it seems are were geniuses. What seemed to identify them as such was inordinate emotional intensity, cavalier rudeness and erratic behavior. The film industry, like the publishing and art world, is simply brimming with genius. All of them men. Maybe it was my invisibility, or the overly large fried breakfast, or the fact of being inside on such a sunny day, but I started to get annoyed. In my experience genius is usually just a cover for a reasonably talented creative who is chronically badly behaved. “He’s a genius,” men are fond of saying about each other, “with all that that entails,” which generally means a drink problem, a propensity to be exceptionally rude, promiscuous and pathologically self-aggrandising.
We don’t have women geniuses. We have “Gifted Actresses” and “Greatest Living Female Novelist” (best of a bad bunch- in other words). If a brilliantly talented woman displays genius-type symptoms such as being a diabolical housekeeper or a bit tardy about her appearance or fond of a drink and a ride – she is labeled at best eccentric and at worst an amusing slut. Creative women, quite simply, don’t get to act up like men. We just can’t get away with it. I am often so involved in my work that I lose interest in blow-drying my hair or even, frankly washing myself. At such times of intense creativity I would happily leave my house to rot and my children unwashed and unkempt. My husband is supportive, he cooks the dinner and mind the kids and pulls his weight about the place when I have a lot on – but frankly, there is no way he would ever indulge me to the extent a woman married to a male-writer would. Much as I would like to, I can’t go about looking like a bag of washing for weeks on end without him pulling me up on it.
Helen is an exceptionally clever woman – I mean that scary combination of naturally being really, really, clever and highly educated. A first from Oxford followed by intensive, obsessive reading means she is quite terrifyingly well informed. She is also a brilliant, literary writer and poet. I have a pitifully small amount of knowledge in my head, and feel very privileged to having full working access to her brain. I bring other things to the working partnership – order, structure, biscuits – but if Helen was a man she would be most certainly be classified as a genius.
In which case she would be able to indulge her intense loathing of housework while some misguided young wife hung on her every word, brought her sandwiches and tea and shielded her from the front-line of parenthood as she sloathed about in her pyjamas writing seminal novels and poetry. As a perk of her brilliance she would also be allowed to drink copiously, insult publishers and drop the hand on aspiring young poets without fear of criticism or retribution. But because she is a woman, Helen must content herself with coming on screen-writing workshops with me with no more reward than her own bodyweight in biscuits. Oh plus – if she was a male genius? I would hate her and we couldn’t work together.
We went out for lunch and discussed all this (apart from the bit about her being a genius) over designer burgers and chips and having bonded over our annoyance with young men in general and male geniuses in particular, had a very pleasant afternoon. Except frustratingly, we couldn’t eat the bag of donuts we had bought back in with us because they made too much of a crinkling noise and everybody started looking. That’s what you have to do to get attention when you are an female genius – eat loudly - or kill yourself - like Sylvia Plath.
When we got home I collected Leo from my mothers house and she told me some anecdote about him that, being a bad mother, I now cannot remember.
“He’s very advanced,” she asserted in her I-know-everything-retired-schoolteacher voice, adding, “that boy’s a genius - I’m telling you….”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
Inwardly, of course, I was thrilled.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

having a good old moan

I hate hearing older people moaning. This is not an ageist comment because I adore old people, and most of the old people I know have a refreshing, upbeat outlook on life. But this is largely because I avoid the moany ones. It just seems acutely depressing to me that our outlook on life doesn’t get better as we get older. I cling to this idea that as I get older I will enjoy my life more because I will be wiser and more in harmony with myself. That the airy optimism we have when younger - that we will win Eurostar and then be the woman who will put manners on Russell Brand and settle down to live between homes in Paris, New York and Cong – will be gradually turned into solid rocks of realism and which will imbue me with a sense of deep acceptance. Moaning is in contravention of that. Moaning is evidence that as you get older you have more to moan about. In actual fact, that’s not true. Young people have far more to moan about than older people. They have hormonal surges, spots, no money, the media, and therefore everyone else hates them – their peers discourage them from wearing coats (boys) or tops (girls) so they are always frozen – and they don’t know how long and troublesome life is so every broken love affair or failed exam is an unmitigated disaster. While they get bored or outraged – depending on the person - but you rarely hear a young person moan about things like crowded buses or the weather. That kind of senseless giving out for the sake of it is something we do as we get older.
The thing about moaning is that you don’t hear it when you’re doing it. (Have I told you about my knees? They’re arthritic.) The hard truth is that I only know about the moaning I do when I catch myself doing it. I am as deluded about myself as the next person, which means that I am probably perpetually moaning every day, all day – and getting worse as time goes on. So that the only time I am not actually moaning is when I am being self-righteous around some other moaning person, shaming and annoying them by pointing out the ‘positive’ in being a sleep-deprived new mother/ a reluctant commuter/ a frustrated first-time home buyer – or the new epidemic in moaning - victim of an undiagnosable illness, (I have this crick in my neck, I can’t shake this virus, have I told you about my knee?) which almost always comes down to nothing except for the compulsion to moan about something. Which means that I need people to moan to me so that I can contradict them and be my “upbeat” self. In fact far from avoiding moaning people, I should be seeking them out because they make me less moany.
You see what I mean? It’s depressing.
Perhaps age then gives us the confidence to moan. The inner strength to be cantankerous, crabby old bastards without caring what other people think of us. Is that really the only thing to look forward to?
It would seem so – because undoubtedly the only thing more annoying than the moaner is the person that never moans. The perpetually sunny positive thinker. The Zen junkie who sees shafts of sunlight on a rainy day; the mother who zones out when you are all complaining about your kids – and that female anathema, the woman who cannot be drawn into moaning about her husband.
Is there a balance that can be struck? Like a Weightwatchers points system where you have to adhere to a balanced diet of positive and negative thoughts. In which case hasn’t it been a mild winter – have I told you about my knee?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Wicked stepmothers DO exist

“Sometimes you have to do things you don’t feel like doing,” I say to my son at least once a day but apparantly I am steering him wrong. Because it seems in we live in a new feeling-led society where grinning and bearing has been marginalised into the outdated world of the right-wing religious maniac, and the goal of the modern person is to self-seek themselves into a state of eternal happiness. Big fat example was this week as a website was launched for stepmothers who don’t like their stepchildren. The bottom line is that these poor women are madly in love with daddy, but they just don’t love his offspring so it’s hard for them you know? Having to be nice to his children even though they don’t love them? Thousands if self-pitying women have already signed up to sympathize with each other over their hardship. They don’t like their men showing affection to their children, they are jealous of their shared experiences, hurt by mentions of the “ex” as mummy. The woman behind this initiative fell in love with a guy at work – who then left his wife and she has therefore inherited his two children on the ocassional weekend. The kids have been adjusting and haven’t been very nice to her in the process. Imagine! These kind of ‘love’ stories just make my blood boil. The people involved always think of themselves as centre stage in some great “follow your heart love story” but in fact they have got nothing to do with love at all – and everything to do with “feelings”. Here’s an idea lady - if you don’t like kids then don’t fall in love with a guy who has them! People fall in love with people they shouldn’t all the time, but some of us have the strength not to follow through on something just because we ‘feel’ like it.
I know great stepmothers who just get on with it. I don’t know if they really love their stepkids but they have the intelligence to say they do. Taking on someone else’s kids is a big deal and if you have a ditched wife to contend with too you should be so bloody busy trying to fix the damage you have done, that you won’t have TIME to think about how you are feeling. I have friends who don’t want kids – their own or anybody elses - because they say they are are too “selfish”. Great - that’s ok. What’s not okay is saying “I wish my step-kids had never been born, but that doesn’t make me a bad person”. Sorry ladies – yes it does. What’s appalling is this pseudo-psychology culture where expressing any kind of feeling is okay. This thinking-out-loud self-analysis that gives ultimate importance to personal emotions and minimises the needs of those around us. It’s all about being loved, about what we can get out of our relationships and how other people can make us feel fulfilled and happy all of the time. Because, of course we’re worth it. Are we though? What about the importance of giving love? The unconditional, grown-up process of loving that involves self-sacrifice and discipline. Like acting like you love a child, over and over and over again, until eventually – maybe after years and years, the feelings kick in. Because that’s the price you pay for falling in love with someone who already has children. Or at least, it should be.

Friday, April 2, 2010

It's my losing weight rant. It's easter, my fridge is full of emergency-visitor food and my larder is groaning with chocolate. My kitchen has become one big hotel buffet and I can't handle hotel buffets. The last time I moved over to the dark-side food-wise was after Kelly’s hotel a number of years ago. Three nights and four days we were there. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea – then the thing that finished me off altogether – “kids dinner buffet” at six. Two hours after a plethora of miniature cream cakes were sitting, struggling with my big lunch for digestive space – I am firing delicious home-made chicken goujons in on top of them begging my already stuffed son to go up again because ‘it’s free’. By day three I was waddling down to a gourmet dinner in my husband’s track suit bottoms like a scary trailer park American entering a bratwurst-eating contest.
Generally speaking, I can handle a breakfast buffet. There is an air of hearty optimism in eating early and everyone knows it’s not humanly possible to stay in an Irish hotel without eating one’s own bodyweight in fried meat before ten am. Otherwise what’s the point? If watching your weight you leave one rasher on the plate then replace it with fruit, yogurt and cereal to compensate your system and keep everything ‘moving’. On your way past the ‘breads’ table you spot a pain au chocolat, and grab one saying “I’ll have it instead of lunch”. You eat it in the lift on the way up to your room to put on something with a looser waistband but still, it’s early. The day is ahead of you and the good things is that you are so stuffed you could not possibly eat another bite all day long and you are going to go for a long, long walk and….. “Lunch? Are you mad?” I said to my sister when she said she had booked us into the Radisson Galway for lunch, after I had just finished inhaling a pile of creamy scrambled eggs, delicious, dark chocolaty wild mushrooms and half a sizzled pig, “I couldn’t possibly eat lunch!” My mother and sister looked at each other. “You’ll be hungry by two,” my mother said. “It’s a buffet,” Claire said, then her face clouded with the realisation of what she had done, “please don’t torture me.”
“With what?” I said, offended. “With the running commentary,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, “I’m just going to have a small plate of light salad, and some cold meats is all.”
“Here we go,” she said.
When lunchtime came I took a small plate and heading towards the salad and cold meats section, “I am just going to have a starter and that’s it.”
By the time the others sat down with their starters I was up again “sampling” the smoked salmon and a cous-cous dish I had missed the first time around.
“Will I or won’t I have a main course,” I agonised for the next ten minutes. “I mean, it’s paid for – and I could not have potatoes …” My sister tried not to involve herself in my torturous decision-making process but blinked, silently, in irritation. I went up and had the full roast, and justified myself loudly and needlessly with every mouthful. Then because I had already indulged, I sampled every pudding until I found one I was happy with – and made myself feel so thoroughly miserable I had to sign up to Weightwatchers again.
Too much choice makes me greedy and neurotic. The hotel buffet as a metaphore for modern life.