Category Archives: opinion

let’s shoot the word SUPER in the back of the head!

The girl in the cafe is excited. She’s not wickedly excited or outrageously excited or deliriously excited or giddily excited or awesomely excited. Or any of the other great qualifiers our language is blessed with.

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No she’s super excited and doesn’t she just have the jazz hands to show it. Why has this shit superlative suddenly become a vogue word? I don’t get it. Did I miss the meeting where we all got made honorary German exchange students?

It’s such a prissy, buttoned-up word. Every time I hear it I feel like cutting off my own balls and wearing them as ear-rings as I prance around the room singing The Sound of Music.

(Don’t worry, professional help is being sought).

It just seems to me that in the past we were more inventive with our superlatives.

When I was growing up a good thing could be: sweet, smart, ace, tops, fab, the bomb, the business, lish, mad, class, crucial. Or if you fancied more bite: wicked, savage, nasty.

Compared to this super’s like the kid with the scrubbed face in the corner whose been told his hands will drop off if he touches himself.

If you’re not convinced about what a bad word it is take a look at where it was getting used before its current vogue.

The supermarket. Oww that’s a fun place to hang out. Superman. What a charismatic, multilayered character he is. The Super Bowl. Idiots running headfirst at one another. The superego. My parents controlling me still through my own unconscious. Sounds a hoot!

And why do we need another superlative anyway? Especially one that’s been floating around in the detritus at the bottom of the word barrel for so long. Isn’t it about time we reined in this culture of false hype? It’s turning us all into first-grade morons.

Take the girl in the cafe. I don’t know what she was so super excited about but I can imagine that in all likelihood it probably wasn’t that super exciting. It probably wasn’t even just plain exciting. She was probably going to Target to get a new coat.

But these days there’s an unwritten social contract where we all have to pretend like the mundane events of our daily life are so great we should be spluffing in our pants at the very thought of them (“You’re going to get a coffee! Wow! Nice!”). Either that or they’re so awful they hardly bear thinking about (“You’re doctor says you can only have decaf. Man, that’s tragic!”).

If you offer no enthusiasm either way, people will assume you’re depressed. Which is depressing.

But it’s important to keep things in proportion. Otherwise when something truly impressive happens you’ll have trouble naming it for what it is. This happens all the time in 24-hour news. They expend so much energy spewing out fevered hype about non-stories that when a real story comes along – like the Boston bombings last year – everyone goes into shock and doesn’t know what to say.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of hyperbole now and again (witness the title of this piece) but hyperbole all the time is rubbish. Witness the way the word ‘love’ has become so hackneyed through over use.

So let’s all take a deep collective breath, find some perspective, and…. deep breath out…. stop saying that shit word.

And don’t even get me started on super dooper.

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that joke isn’t funny anymore

Laughter’s the best medicine. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But is it true?

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Bill Hicks

Like most of you, I suppose, I tend to subscribe to the idea of a good laugh being a panacea. Science seems to back this assumption. Laughter, it’s said, helps decrease stress, support the immune system, improve blood pressure, even to reduce pain.

In Britain, my homeland, you can’t survive without a sense of humour. The playwright Alan Bennett described it as being the amniotic fluid of the English. He’s right. We swim in it.

It was strange for me when I first came over to the States to find how much more literal Americans are. There are English who are also very literal. But they tend to be those dull, let-me-tell-you-about-the-intricacies-of-my-route-to-work types, whose conversation is best avoided.

Most English infuse their chat with mockery, irony, satire: a full arsenal of comedic devices that is so part of the way the English communicate that no one even stops to question it.

But perhaps we should.

The only other culture I’ve been around in which humour serves such an integral role is Jewish culture.

Why is that, I wonder?

When I think about those cultures and what they share in common the thing that comes to mind first is an abiding respect, bordering on obsession, with knowing things. It’s been said that when Jews turned secular they replaced faith with a veneration of knowledge. I’d argue that something similar has gone on in England. You can see this through the widespread popularity of the quiz. English TV is filled with them and if you go to an English town on any given day you’re certain to find a general knowledge quiz going on in a pub somewhere.

It makes sense to me that these twin obsessions of being smart and being funny run hand-in-hand. It’s a connection we already implicitly make when we call someone quick-witted. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who values a great comic as much for their insight as for their ability to make me laugh.

The Jews and the English are comic cultures, but my favourite ever comedian hailed from neither of those worlds.

Bill Hicks was from Austin, Texas, from a family of God-fearing Republicans. He wasn’t a God-fearing Republican himself but, luckily for us, he did have a sense of humour about it.

When I came to the US I assumed everyone would know him but, aside from a small devoted following, he’s mostly overlooked.

This piece was originally going to be just about Hicks. He died 20 years ago this year and I was going to start off saying how even though it’s two decades since he’s gone he pops into my head nearly every day. That’s a crazy thing to say isn’t it! I mean, I don’t think about my family that much and I lived with them half my life. The closest I got to Hicks were his videos, a collection of diaries and many many repeat viewings of his standup on Youtube.

There are many things I love about him. His passion, his integrity and the way that, in common with all great artists, his work transcended his art. He created standup that was not only funny, but also artful and poetic, meaningful and confronting.

He challenged his audiences to free themselves from the straight jacket of modern consumer culture, and to think for themselves. In one trademark routine, with reference to the movie Basic Instinct, which had just come out, he talks about how our critical faculties are being assaulted by manufactured hype.

He warns the audience not to get caught up in the controversy surrounding the movie’s lesbian sex scenes (which were perhaps more scandalous then than they would be now). Instead he countenances you to take a deep breath, step back and have another look.

“Ahhh…It’s a piece of shit!”

His point being that we already possess the skills to judge. We just need to shut out the white noise of the culture and get back in touch with our own instincts. Our basic instincts, if you like.

A lot of his act is like this. Him critiquing culture and then offering you new ways to think about things. His mum once told him that his act was very near preaching, a point he apparently acknowledged.

In another part of his act he tells the people who work in marketing in the audience that they should kill themselves because “you’re fucked and your fucking us”. He tells them that this is their world, and imagines them sleeping untroubled after they’ve just decided to market cyanide as a baby food.

It’s an aggressive broadside and not altogether fair and when he keeps repeating the idea that they should kill themselves you can almost sense the discomfort among the audience as they ask themselves, ‘Is he being serious? Or is he joking?’

Hicks’ marketing rant is a good example of the ambiguity of humour. On the one hand, he’s telling you in fairly bald language his hatred for a segment of the population he feels are poisoning our collective psyche. But because everything he says is in the context of a comic performance, ultimately we can walk away knowing it was all just meant as a joke.

And that’s the problem with laughter. While it might be a good way to lighten your worries, it can also be convenient avenue to avoid dealing with them.

Comics and their defenders (of which I’ll admit I’m usually one) often use the self-justifying argument that comedy is a good vehicle to talk about serious issues in a way that is more accessible. But by telling us it’s okay to laugh about things maybe comics are actually making it easier for us to get off the hook from worrying about them.

I know in my own life I’ve frequently been in the habit of turning my problems into a joke. And while that might provide half an hour’s entertainment for your friends in the bar, I can’t help feeling in retrospect I’d have been far better served soliciting my friend’s advice rather than their laughter.

There are times these days I’ll find myself surrounded by laughter at the movies during scenes that I am certain are not even meant to be funny. I get the impression there are people so afraid of not getting the joke, they’ll laugh at anything. I used to be more that way. And I don’t think it’s a good thing. To me it suggests an emotional disconnect. A nervousness.

Maybe an appreciation of humour should be more like an appreciation of sex. If you spend all your time shagging then the act becomes bloated. But when you have sex when you really feel like it and with the person you really feel like doing it with then the act can be intoxicating and charged with meaning.

It could be that comedy doesn’t always have to be funny (in Shakespeare’s time comedy referred to a relationship drama that ended in marriage). So maybe we’re missing out on something when we regard shows like The Office only as comedies. Maybe the seriousness of Michael Scott (David Brent in the original British version) is just as important as his ridiculousness.


confessions of a hypochondriac

Last year I went to see a specialist about a problem with my throat.

Aside from learning that the best way to get a fibre-optic camera down your throat is by sticking it up your nose, and that acid reflux is, in the opinion of the doc, “the illness du jour”, the visit was inconclusive.

The doc found nothing troubling. If he suspected that the problem with my throat was imagined he didn’t let on.

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Even so I left feeling pretty stupid. I had forked out $175 for the visit, and I’m certainly not making the kind of money where I can afford to toss off a few hundred dollars on every paranoid whim that comes my way.

But the issue with my throat had been building up in my mind for weeks and weeks and was seriously impacting on my quality of life so that, in the end, I wasn’t paying for the diagnosis, I was paying for the peace of mind.

Hypochondria is an old word. Its origin is Greek and it refers to the soft body area below the ribs that was originally thought to be the seat of melancholy.

It was believed for a long time to have both a physical cause (centered around this area) and an emotional one. Famous hypochondriacs include Charles Darwin, who underwent daily bouts of being drenched in water, which was thought to be the best way to cure the crisis of nerves that was causing the illness.

It paints quite a funny picture to imagine old Darwin sitting in a bath complaining about his glands while some quack tips a bucket of ice cold water on him. But there’s something inherently comic about hypochondriacs. They make you think of those types you meet in offices who forever have blocked up noses and allergies to everything.

My mum, where I get the obsessive nature, used to come up to me in the middle of the day and say stuff like: “Paul. Feel my neck.” Then expect me to give my verdict on whether one side of her neck seemed larger than the other, which of course it never did.

I used to laugh at this behaviour but then it happened to me and – to paraphrase Morrissey – that joke wasn’t funny anymore. You see, when you’re in the middle of a hypochondriac episode it’s impossible to see the lighter side. When I had my throat thing, for example, I spent an entire work shift obsessing over every… single… swallow.

Since then I’ve spent time at work obsessing about a rib thing, a gland thing and, most recently, a mole thing.

For me hypochondria is a lot like body dysmorphia since you have this totally distorted sense of your physical body which no amount of rationalizing can get you to amend.

The creation of the internet was a disaster for the hypochondriac. All across the internet you find proof of that maxim about how a man armed with a little knowledge is dangerous. For example, if you put ‘lump in throat’ into Google you’ll get loads of those Yahoo Answers feeds filled with know-it-all hypochondriacs freaking each other out in ways that are borderline sadistic. Sooner or later someone mentions the ‘C’ word, which for online hypos is tantamount to the money shot moment in porn.

Even when you don’t seek it out the internet is a minefield for those paranoid about their health. You don’t need go far to find cheery headlines like the one I saw this morning on the Weather Channel, under a picture of a chemotherapy patient saying, “Five signs you’ll get cancer.” Even reading that headline back just now there’s a masochistic part of me desperate to click on the ad so that I can find out which of one of those signs I definitely have.

Leaving aside the deplorable ethics of the people behind these ads, these things are the nasty end of a far broader trend in the medical industry of sowing fear.

My girlfriend is pregnant, which has meant my first longterm interaction with the US healthcare system. The impression you get is that they treat pregnancy as if it were an illness. For the first few months we went to an OBGYN clinic in Manhattan. They took endless blood draws and scans in the name of ruling various diseases or deformities. As a result we were constantly being reminded of everything that could go wrong.

I understand why they do this, of course, but it’s very dispiriting, especially when there’s no counter-balance. Why not, for example, give us regular updates about all the incredible developments that are going in my girlfriend’s womb? Or talk to us about all the things you can do to make your pregnancy more pleasant?

The trend for fear-mongering in healthcare mirrors society’s more general obsession with scaring ourselves witless. The news does this. Men do it in bars. Women do it over a glass wine. Its the ‘we live in dangerous times’ mantra which on a global scale looks about right, but when you apply to your own life generally holds no water.

Because let’s face it, most of us are going to live to old age without incident. Few of us will die in warfare or get mown down in a gangland killing, or get wiped out by a Tsunami or a flesh-eating virus.

For the vast majority of us it will be a gradual fade to grey, a slow decline into soft-headed dotage. And while that doesn’t give good copy for the headline writers, it should make for some peace of mind.

There. I feel better already.


why am I anxious?

Where does it come from?

Like many of the states of mind which are central to how I experience my life (happiness, hope, depression, sexual appetite) my anxiety comes in waves. That’s not to say it ever really leaves me. Like those other states it’s always there, and even when it’s lying dormant I can sense it below the surface, wanting, needing to make itself manifest. When I’m strong or just very preoccupied with living, anxiety stays down there: the monster under the bed. At other times I lose the battle and it overtakes me.

Goya

Are there triggers for my anxiety?

I experience it very physically. Somewhere along the way I’ve learned to repress the particular cause of the anxiety. I tell myself that whatever it is that’s worrying me isn’t really a cause for worry and the anxiety gets repressed and comes back as something physical. This action has become so automatic down the years that it’s a real effort of will for me to go back and try pick out what might be worrying me.

What does it feel like?

It migrates around my body. It collects in my throat and causes me to swallow and clear my throat all the time. I feel it in my chest and it bothers my breathing. I feel it in my head and shoulders as tension. I feel it in my stomach as nausea. These physical symptoms provoke further anxiety as I begin to obsess over my health. I become consumed by the thought that there is something wrong with me. My health ultimately becomes the main focus of my anxiety.

My fear of death

Hypochondria runs in my family – I often joke with my brothers about my mum’s at least bi-monthly visits to the doctors with some new ailment. There’s a good reason for my mum’s hypochondria. She had cancer when we were kids and this brush with mortality understandably scared the shit out of her. My hypochondria is also based on a fear of death. The Swedish children’s writer Astrid Lundgren apparently used to begin all her phone conversations with her sister with the words, “death, death,” so as to get the subject out of the way. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that a popular children’s writer would be preoccupied by death. Children are very concerned with death. I know I was. I remember we used to go for walks with my family along the cliffs that skirt the northeast coast of England where I grew up. As a child I was terrified one of my family would fall to their death and I remember I used to admonish them for walking too close to the cliff edge.

This childhood preoccupation with death is natural when you think about. Children always want to know why things are the way they are. That’s the question I remember asking all the time as a kid. But why? But for death there is no answer. And the questions for which we can find no answer become, I think, the enduring questions of our life.

As a child the unknown aspect of death scared me. In my twenties I travelled a lot to far flung, sometimes dangerous places. I wonder now if these physical journeys to unknown places were part of a subconscious effort to stare this fear of the unknown in the face? Perhaps. I’m in my mid-thirties and my fear of death has returned. But unlike when I was a child, now it’s my death that fills me with dread.

Can I overcome my fear of death?

In a way I think the more important question here is: do I want to? I’ll be honest; sometimes I don’t. That childhood concern with death contained within it – still does – a morbid fascination. Like Keats, I sometimes find myself “half in love with easeful death.” I love the darkness. Why is Goya so much more interesting to me than Renoir? Why has a graveyard in winter always held a far stronger pull on my imagination than a summer wedding? I was born at the end of November, the dawn of the season of decay. Does that explain it?

I don’t want to be anxious and I don’t want to spend my days consumed with thoughts of my own mortality. To do this, I must get out of my own head. I must do more for others. I must stop my every waking thought being about I, me, mine. I must kill the ego – that is the only useful death I can think of. I must see, understand, feel the reality of that idea spoken about in the Bhagavad Gita that duality is an illusion. That life and death are one and the same. I must learn to embrace no thing.

I have a lot of work to do to overcome my fear of death. The good news is: I think I still have time to do it.


standing up to bad behaviour

This story was first published on CNN.com on August 13, 2011

As a Brit living in America I have watched the footage of riots and looting going on in my homeland with a mix of sadness and shame. But shocking as the events of the last week have been, they don’t surprise me.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has spent time riding public transport in the cities where this civil unrest occurred might echo my lack of surprise.

When I lived in London I took the bus to work every day. Aside from rush hour gridlock, the thing I dreaded most on those journeys was a certain type of adolescent getting onboard.

You could spot them immediately. There was a good chance they’d be clad in hooded sweaters, baseball caps and outlandish sports shoes. Peppering the air with expletives they would strut down the centre aisle and drop heavily into seats, yelling across to one another as if the man in the suit alongside them was no more than a phantom. And woe betide you if you made the mistake of actually engaging them: I have seen teenage girls heap mouthfuls of abuse on a passenger for no other reason than they didn’t like the way he looked at them.

If you don’t live in Britain it’s hard to appreciate just how pervasive this kind of behavior has become. It was part of what the British Prime Minister David Cameron was referring to four years ago when he stated that Britain was suffering from a “broken society.”

This week’s appalling scenes of looting are the worst manifestation to date of Cameron’s stark diagnosis.

The causes are manifold. Even so, when the debate on the riots began in earnest this week the two sides of the political divide reverted to type. The rightwing media were quick to blame neglectful parents, a breakdown of moral values and an indolent underclass with no stake in society after decades of pampering on welfare. The left pointed to the lack of jobs and opportunities in the communities many of the looters came from; they  criticized recent government cuts to facilities aimed at keeping inner-city youths occupied.

But by concentrating all their attention on the criminals, both parties have forgotten to consider the role of the other key player in this story: the British public or, to put it another way, everyone else on the bus.

Let me give you another example from my life. A few years ago I did something very out of character. At the time I was living in Leeds, one of the riot-hit cities. I was riding on the top deck of a bus home from work when a group of teenage boys began flinging coins down the aisle. Beside me sat a young woman with a baby. I shouted at the teenagers to stop, but a few minutes later they hurled a coin in my direction, which, thankfully, hit neither myself nor the mother.

I was shaken up by the experience and when I told friends about it the answer I got was universal: if it happens again, don’t get involved. I understood their concern but the defeatism of the answer was depressing.

Since moving to New York two years ago I have the impression that Americans are better at dealing with this kind of thing. I was in a pharmacy the other day when a young woman pushed past an elderly lady with a walking frame who was trying to get out the door. A customer confronted the girl who noisily protested her innocence. The good Samaritan stuck to her guns and the young woman left looking embarrassed though not quite contrite. In Britain it is rare to see that kind of intervention simply because we are by instinct much less inclined to speak to our minds.

We Brits have ceded our public space to antisocial teenagers. There has been a collective loss of nerve. Most people on the bus prefer to avert their eyes and hope trouble goes away.

This is unsurprising. Nobody wants to be pelted with coins and the consequences of intervening can be much worse. The news in Britain often carries horrendous stories about concerned citizens killed in the streets trying to break up fights or for confronting a gang of young people over some act of vandalism.

But the consequences of doing nothing are evident in all our major cities. With the police apparently incapable of tackling the problem, the hoodlums are given a free rein. Often the product of broken homes or of abusive parents, many of these young people grow up placing no value on themselves or the world around them.

In public this problem is compounded when no one censures them for their behavior. They become emboldened, regarding certain areas of towns and cities (and their public transport systems) as their own personal fiefdom where they can do or say whatever they like.

For some, this destructive path only ends with the intervention of the courts and, eventually, prison, by which point it is usually too late. There is no clear solution. The chronic social deprivation that produces this antisocial behavior is entrenched and will take decades to overcome.

It is also hard to see how ordinary Brits can take back their streets without putting themselves at risk or without descending into vigilantism. Neighborhood Watch programs serve an important role but they are hamstrung by the often chronically slow response time of the police.

Yet until Britons find a way to reclaim their streets, the anarchy we saw explode this week will never be far from the surface.  And, I’m afraid, the passengers on the bus will be in for a bumpy ride.