Lost for Words

Photo by David Lopez on Unsplash

I am sure that anyone that has been around my little corner of WP for any length of time will know that I do rather enjoy a bit of a chat on the Comments board.  One or two of you may also have discovered that when real life comes a-knocking and I am at a loss for the right thing to say, my default position is to say nothing and then whittle for days about whether I have appeared uncaring.  If this has happened to you, please accept my apologies.  I really am not uncaring.  I am vividly aware of my propensity for unwittingly putting my foot right in it; my knack of saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time.  If my brain can be relied upon for any one thing, it is to desert me at my moment of greatest need.

Be certain that, when care and empathy is required, my brain will be the one that is sitting alone in the middle of the bathroom floor in a sea of snot and tissue – incoherent and useless.  If ever I think of the right thing to say, it is always several hours after I should have said it.  My child-like response to pain and anguish is humour.  Wasn’t I, after all, taught that it was the best medicine?  If I encounter someone in obvious distress, and I want to help them feel better (which, obviously, I do) surely the best thing I can do is to make them laugh, right?  Well, actually, no.  It’s a dumb thing to do, and somehow I can’t stop myself doing it.  What is required are apposite words of consolation and support – but I have never been taught them.  I want to say something useful – something comforting – but I don’t know what it is, so, desperate not to cause offence, I say nothing – which I realise might well cause offence.  If I have failed to reply to something that you feel I should have done, then I’m truly sorry – although, given the asinine nature of some of the things that are apt to fall from my lips, you will have to believe me that it is probably for the best.

I have a dreadful habit of enquiring about the health of the dead: of course, I knew they were dead, I went to the flippin’ funeral.  When people tell me that they have broken up with the love of their life, the temptation for me to tell them that I never actually liked him/her anyway can be almost overwhelming.  Bridges are irrevocably burned when they get back together two weeks later.  I have bitten my tongue so often that is a wonder I can even speak.  Mind you, I spend so much time with my foot in my mouth, it’s a surprise I don’t have athletes gum.  I am the conversational equivalent of Monty Python’s giant foot.

Now, just in case you are thinking that I must be a bad person, I’m not.  At least, I don’t think that I am.  Certainly nobody other than my wife has ever told me that I am.  I believe that I am a good man (Mind you, I also believe in Father Christmas and the basic ‘goodness’ of mankind) but I don’t believe in great outpourings of emotion (which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to).  Somehow, to my girdled mind, those who wear their hearts on their sleeves do so only to make them accessible to others: to demonstrate what a fine person they are and, occasionally, as some form of justification for the random fallout when they blow their top.  I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve – if I did, I would have to watch it 24/7 to make sure that it didn’t stop.  As a child I was taught to suck it up so, by and large, that is what I do.  My stock answer to, ‘How are you feeling?’ is ‘Fine.’

I presume that we all have a vision of ourselves, of how we believe ourselves to be.  I presume, also, that few of us perceive ourselves to be ‘bad’.  A huge percentage of violent crimes are committed on the basis that the victim was disrespectful – eg ‘Not my fault guvnor, he brought it on himself.’  Even Ronnie and Reggie must have had some sense of morality that they had to appease, but whilst I can fret for days over a single errant word or gesture, they could probably pacify their conscience on the grounds of, ‘We had to nail his head to the coffee table, because he was not showing us the appropriate level of respect.’  In my world, it is very easy to respect a psychopath with a handful of woodwork tools – it’s putting the requisite distance between us that requires the effort.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say really.  If you ever wonder why I don’t reply to a comment, it is either because I don’t know what to say without putting my foot in it, or I’m being chased by a mobster with a Black & Decker…

Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence – Jorge Luis Borges

The Paper Trail

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The routine seldom varies. I get an ‘idea’ over the weekend and spend the next few days jotting down associated thoughts and notions on random pieces of paper as I go about my routine daily humdrum. Mid-week, I gather the assorted detritus together, tip it onto the desk in what we compulsive organisers call ‘a pile’ and painstakingly transcribe it onto the laptop. I then stare at it blankly for a few hours wondering ‘what was I thinking?’ before panic sets in and I cut and paste it into some kind of shape, after which I fanny around with it for a few hours in an attempt to impose some sort of grammatical structure onto it. And fail.

Editing, for me, usually involves a printed manuscript and a rainbow of coloured felt-tip pens. The end product is a jumble of variously-hued words, numbers and symbols that even an indefatigable Rosetta Stone Scholar would struggle to decipher. By Thursday I have reached the point of ‘enough’s enough’ and I make one final transcript before my brain melts. Now, one brilliant by-product (for me) of this archaic and ill-disciplined approach is that amongst the frayed and tattered discarded accumulation of scribbled-upon paper, tissue, card and sometimes flesh, I usually find the germ of the idea upon which the following week’s gallimaufry will be based. A discarded phrase, a half-finished sentence, a single word even, can be enough to send me careering off along some weed-strewn, pot-holed single-track byway of thought that leads to something like this. Why do I mention it? I mention it because last week it did not happen. Last week I was overtaken by some sort of missionary zeal in which the usual cacophony of varied and various voices that reside within my head achieved a unanimity of thought that allowed me to bash out the blog, from start to finish, entirely digitally. No paper. ‘But that’s good news,’ I hear you cry. ‘You have at last awoken to the planet’s plight. You have saved, if not a tree, then at least a sizeable twig.’ And it did, I agree, feel like good news – last week. This week, however, I have no discarded bits of calligraphic flotsam (or is it jetsam?) on which to work and, to tell the truth, no idea on which to nag my week away.

There are people, plenty of them, I know who would say ‘what does it matter, you’ve never had anything approaching a decent idea in your life’. True, possibly. A harsh, but defendable position I think, but not the point. You see, it matters to me. And the reason it matters to me? Well, I’ve just emptied the crumpled and torn content of my pockets onto my desk this week and there it lies, leering celibately up at me. Unsullied and unmolested. Like me, it has nothing to say.

Strange, isn’t it, how a blank sheet of paper can mock. Like most of us, I guess, I remember my teenage years and the mocking gaze of pristine white answer sheets as I sat nervously nagging on my pencil in a feet-smelling, gloomy and fetid gymnasium, waiting for the invigilator to say ‘you may now turn over your paper…’ Somehow those bright, white sheets, void of even feint lines and margins, completely numbed the mind. ‘Remember to fill in your name in the top right-hand corner of every page.’ Name? My name? What is my name? Do I have a name? Do I even exist? Whirr, whirr, fzzz, bang! Having thus collapsed, my brain thence refused to co-operate by carrying out its ancillary duties of co-ordinating the functions of other parts of my body: I couldn’t hold a pen; I couldn’t swallow; I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t avert my unblinking stare from the intense white nothingness of vacant foolscap… Forty odd years on and I still occasionally wake in a cold sweat, certain that I knew who Foucault was when I entered the room…

I have taken exams since, and they still have the same effect on me. The rooms are brighter, cleaner and have fewer wall-bars, climbing ropes and painted lines than in my day. I am sure that in reality they do not smell of socks, but somehow that is all I can smell. I am sure it is only in my imagination that the dinner ladies are dropping cutlery into metal trays at the other end of the corridor. The instructions remain the same: don’t look around you, don’t speak, raise your hand if you need more paper. If you need the toilet (yes, yes I do) somebody will accompany you (presumably to check that you haven’t written the answers on your willy).

It’s hard not to resent the effect that modern technology has had on exam taking. Depending upon the circumstances examinees can now call upon their tablets and the sum-total of human knowledge that is available on the internet. Not to mention some cute skateboarding cats if they finish early. We even had our chewing gum wrappers checked for illicit revision notes I recall: labels had to be peeled from water bottles. I took my exams in a pre-calculator age. In our math’s exam we used a slide rule. If you have never seen one, allow me to attempt to describe it for you. It was the size of a twelve inch ruler (I know, I know – 30cm until the rules change again). It was always kept in its hard plastic case – unless your parents wanted everybody else to know how affluent they were, in which case it was kept in its leather case. It had a middle section that could slide to and fro along its length and a little clear plastic collar-thing with a line on it. Still with me? Good. Each of the three sections of the ruler was liberally covered in all manner of miniscule tables and indexes; numbers and symbols in such variety that it would probably keep Bletchley Park occupied for years. The theory was that you slid about the two moveable sections of this ‘space-age’ tally stick until certain values aligned and, by knowing where to look, you could work-out vital values like sine and cosine; calculate logarithms (if, indeed that is what you do with logarithms) and probably the rate of inflation in Ulan Bator – you name it, a slide rule could do it: although always incorrectly in my experience.

With a few exceptions: a recently anaesthetized frog, a sharp knife and a box of tissues in Biology; preparatory sketches in Art; la plume de ma tante in French, there was nothing between you and the expressionless velum save a nibbled ball-point and the distant memory of something that Churchill said about The league of Nations – or was it Bessie Braddock – in 1924. Want to know the answer? See how useful Wikipedia can be? Many of my friends fried their brains and loaded their memories with life-shattering doses of ‘further reading’ and revision in preparation for exams: a period of joyless endeavour and desk-lamp illuminated research, the price they were prepared to pay for future success. I watched Monty Python and The Goodies and did very badly. They trooped off to university whilst I spent the next three years measuring inside legs and asking clueless men on which side they dressed.

Still… After the torture of the exam, there was always the promise of five Park Drive from the corner shop and a crafty pint in the pub up the road that would serve you, even if you were wearing your school uniform, as long as you didn’t cause any trouble. Bet you don’t get that now hey, Mr. Twenty-First Century Smart Phone Smarty Pants…

Anyway… Point is, I’m not actually certain what the point is, but I can’t sit here reminiscing all day. I have a blog to write and just this blank, unblinking white laptop screen to write it on…