Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Venting

It is very odd but today something crystallised what I’ve had skittering around the forelobes of my brain for years. Namely, a potentially unhealthy air conditioning system at work.

I have a pal in Greece who bleats like a lost lamb if you stick on the air con during a car journey. He laments the unhealthiness of it all and that it affects his breathing. I always thought he was being an oversensitive arse until I realised exactly what happens when you don’t maintain an air con system properly.

I work as an English teacher in Rome (well, Fiumicino to be precise) and this week I’ve been doing summer school. There are 3 of us instructing kids in the finer points of the Queen’s, with me taking the 7 to 8 year olds (or levels 1 to 3). Classes start at 9.30 and run until 1.05pm with a 15 minute break halfway through. 

Despite the 3+ hours in one room, the lessons are a lot of fun with games and drawing and gluing things to other things and role plays and drawing on the board in marker pens…to name but a few. This week I’ve had a class of 4 little girls and all are very attentive and clever and it has been an utter pleasure to teach them. 

But I digress.

Every day I’ve had a slight sore throat after work, that cleared up within an hour or two of leaving. I didn’t put 2 and 2 together until today, when I realised it was possibly the air con being up the swanny. A dirty filter would have been belting horrid, stinky air around the room and to feel like I’ve been coming down with a head cold each day was odd to say the least. I flagged it up to my line manager and she said she’d tell the cleaner tomorrow.

Job done.

However….the breakthrough I’ve had today from this is that I realise that most of my memories are recycling through dirty filters and poisoning my mind the way that big white box in the corner of my classroom was doing to me and possibly to my students.

I’m currently living on what I romantically call “survival rations” as I’m not making enough money to eat whatever I want, when I want to. My one treat a week is to buy a cheap tub of ice cream and a frozen pizza. The rest of the time I’m on salads and beans. I’ve become very creative and have made some tasty dishes with mozzarella, radishes, sweetcorn, tuna and chick peas (to name a few). I don’t expect pity, I chose this life after all, and as a plus point I’ve lost a stack of weight while retaining a whole load of muscle definition (i.e. I look fucking awesome with my shirt off).

However, this situation has proved testing and despite trying to find other work to supplement my income I have not been able to find any more work. No biggy, I get by. 

Second thing, is that I live in Fiumicino, about 2 miles from the airport. Awesome for the two occasions that I needed to get to a flight as I just cycled to Terminal 2 and locked the bike up outside but shit for getting into central Rome (about 18 miles away) due to the poxy and sporadic public transport system that shuts down about 10pm on a weekday. Now we have nice weather, I’ve been putting in a lot of time on the bike, including a 53 mile jaunt last Sunday (my inner thighs needed nappy cream after that one!). I have improvised and adapted and I am surviving and getting by.

The reality of all this though is that I’m not in a position in life where I feel secure and, as a result, I want to break free of this cycle, despite it being something I can live with.

Since childhood I’ve been hyper sensitive to many things, criticism being the main one. I’ve grown up expecting to get emotionally or physically hurt through a mixture of bullying and the aforementioned hyper sensitivity. Trusting people has proved very hard and I’ve always been more comfortable moving on every so often so my attachments couldn’t hurt me too badly. 

I’ve also had a habit of venting.

This was/ is a safety valve from childhood that I developed in order to purge negativity. If you are denied an outlet for your dark emotions then you will find other ways to release them. Akin to a valve on a pressure cooker, the ‘bad stuff’ has to go somewhere. As I was told that everything was my fault, I would find alternatives to get mad at. To illustrate. Somebody does something that upsets me. I’m told I brought it on myself but I still feel pissed off so I find alternatives to focus the anger on. The anger then has somewhere to go and doesn’t poison my entire system.

The main problem with this though, is that by finding alternative vents to purge through, the filters in those vents eventually become clogged, like the air con at work, and poison other aspects of my life.

Lately I’ve been fucked off by stuff I’ve read on Twitter. I’ve got narked off about the Environmental Protection ‘officers’ (read: gobshites in uniforms wearing cameras) who fine people for dropping litter in some UK towns. I’ve thought long and hard about my past and had imaginary conversations with people who caused the negative emotions to occur way back when. I’ve felt loathing and a desire to punch out some of the staff on the Italian (and British) rail transport network for how they talk to their customers. And let’s not get into the fact that I won’t go in the local supermarket any more due to the staff being lazy.

All relatively inconsequential things that have made me really angry, beyond what was reasonable in the circumstances.

The problem? The filters on those vents that I was using to purge my aggression had become so clogged up that I was simply poisoning my entire life.

Today I had a great day where I taught some receptive and bright young Italian kids English. I felt at peace for the first time in a while and it was only the stinky air con that made things finally click. I’ve been venting for so long that I’d forgotten I was doing it. 

Anger has ruled my life for many, many years. As an alternative to feeling helpless in the face of adversity, I simply got pissed off, venting like a flatulent cow grazing in a field, at anything other than the actual problem that was in my face. As a child this was a fairly decent coping mechanism. As a 40-something….not good.

Like biting my nails, being angry as a ‘go to’ was a bad habit that has proved hard to break. What I choose to do now is change the filters and not simply vent, poisoning my life withe paranoia, mistrust, fear and misery.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Poster Boys

Last Friday it was the 13th. As an English teacher in Rome I always look for stuff that’s a bit unusual to discuss with my students. I have two classes on a Friday, back to back, that are adults and kids in their late teens. After I’d found a photo of Jason Voorhees on Google we had a brief chat about how the most recognisable symbol in 2018 for Friday the 13th isn’t a black cat, or a broken mirror but the hockey goalkeeper’s mask that Jason wore in the movies. I then showed them a brief clip from the intro to Friday, part 6 where Jason is resurrected as a zombie. The discussion that followed was based on the fact that Jason evolved from an evil villain in parts 2 to 4 (in part 1 his mother is the killer, part 5 it’s an impostor) to become an anti-hero along the lines of Darth Vader, or Seth Gekko. This is taken up to 11 in the opening sequence of part 6 where, after having been resurrected, the camera zooms in on Jason’s eye where he then walks on, in a pastiche of James Bond’s gun barrel sequence, and slashes the screen with his machete.

It was only after seeing this sequence again after so many years (the film came out in 1986) that I realised just how much I had idolised Jason along with Freddy, Michael and Bub. I fucking loved horror films. And I also remembered that, back in the late 80s, I had posters of not only Jason on my wall but also an exploding head and a zombie with its guts falling out.

Looking back now it seems odd. Back then (and I can still relate to this feeling) it was perfectly normal for me. My parents, my teachers and my fellow pupils at school thought, in the majority, that I was weird for my obsession with gore, guts and gruesomeness but for me it was no different to being obsessed with football, a particular band, or even fly fishing.

The extreme ugliness, brutality and violence of these films and their accompanying media such as comics and tie-in novels, gave me a release from the unpleasantness I felt every day as I was growing up.

To elaborate…

I was miserable from about age 11 until I went to university at 20. 9-ish years of bullying, loneliness and believing I was isolated. Always told to suppress my feelings (or at least, the negative ones) and that to display them was selfish. If you take a child and put a lid on his adolescence (what is basically a “breaking in” period for human emotions) then those feelings don’t change by creating a cocoon to emerge, a long time later, as a beautiful butterfly of happiness, gratitude and joy. They instead manifest in the foetid sewers of the psyche and find, grimy, foul outlets to escape through. 

My anger and sadness were extreme as a teenager. I had virtually no friends and lived every day in fear of the predators that stalked the playgrounds and classrooms of High school. Most of this was verbal bullying only, but that didn’t make the experiences any less real. The outlet I found was in safe, contained and easily controlled violence that you see in horror films. The darkness that resides within a lot of people (I am by far the only person to idolise Jason. The Friday the 13th franchise has made millions of dollars globally, despite the majority of films being utter shite. There was even a crossover in 2003 with Freddy Kruger called Freddy vs. Jason) can be dealt with by purging through other means. Some people play volleyball, others do Judo, some go for long walks. And some of us watch people getting torn apart by the undead or having their heads crushed by unstoppable killing machines.

The villains in the Friday and Halloween franchises were huge, hulking guys with massive childhood issues. Jason was born disfigured, and drowned as a child on a summer camp. He came back several times over the 11 movies, a vengeful, brutal mass murderer who only showed restraint when he was around little children (who he never harmed at all). Michael Myers from Halloween was a mentally disturbed 6 year old who grew up to become a serial killer in a scary, blank faced mask. While I also loved the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the sequels got progressively more dire and there was something about Freddy you just couldn’t like. As cool as he was, as funny as his one-liners were and as inventive as his murders could be, you couldn’t get past the fact that he was a nonce and really ugly.

I seriously doubt that these franchises were set up to make heroes of mass murderers but as the franchises continued they played up the “cool” factor more and more of how these characters looked and moved. From a James Bond homage in Friday, to Michael Myers dolls, to Freddy Kruger releasing a song with The Fat Boys, the iconic status of the bad guys had tapped into a strange yet common gene in millions of people. 

I didn’t think that Jason was cool for killing people. I just loved the fact that he was able to do whatever he wanted, without hesitation, remorselessly. A line from the Friday 13th part 3 (in 3D) trailer had the narrator say “Jason! You can’t fight him!”. I repeated this over and over again like a verse from a song. Everyone could fight me, I was the exact opposite of Jason. Puny, scared and lonely. Jason was the personification of the rage I felt for the world I lived in back then. 

Similarly, I didn’t think a poster of a zombie with its guts hanging out was attractive. However, the poster was one of the few that existed for one of my favouritest ever films, Day of the Dead. I would watch this film over and over again, especially the bit at the end where the deranged, one armed Miguel commits suicide in order to unleash a horde of undead on the bullying, thuggish, soldiers. Seeing Torrez, Rickles, Steel and Rhodes being ripped apart was cathartic for me. I watched these scenes hoping in my darkest fantasies that the same fate would befall those who were making my life unpleasant.

Ultimately, I knew that these characters weren’t real. They were like Mary Poppins, the Pevensie children or Indiana Jones. Characters from a world of fiction. They were people that, if I had met them, would have killed me too but they also did things I could not. They acted upon their anger and dealt with people as they saw fit. No remorse, no guilt, no shame. 

I never liked the Child’s Play films (and only watched the first one) as Chucky wasn’t a cool dude like Jason. He was a doll and highly irritating. All the actors who portrayed Jason from Friday part 3 onwards were over 6 feet tall and massively built. Again, the opposite of what I was.

To have been so heavily into such movies is something that I look back on now and go “huh?” I still love Romero’s zombie films and some of the Friday the 13th films are good to watch, mainly for nostalgia. But I have lost touch with that extreme, isolated and raging part of myself that found its outlet through stories where a protagonist’s own anger would result in any secondary characters having a very bad day.

George A Romero once said that he didn’t believe horror films would make people go out and commit a crime and that, in fact, they would potentially act as a fuse and prevent people going out and committing  a crime.

I agree.

Because without my poster boys my anger wouldn’t have had a safe outlet and I don’t know what might have happened.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Avatar

A pleasant surprise last week was watching the sequel to Jumanji and finding out that it rocked. Thoroughly entertaining with some great actors, good plotting and a fantastic story.

Loved it.

The funniest part is that the teenagers, who are sucked into a modernised, computer version of the board game from the original movie, materialise in avatars of the characters they had selected when they began the game in the “real” world. The nerdiest one of the group gets incarnated as Dwayne Johnson, the Rock. 

What I liked more than anything about this story was that the actors playing the avatars were happily sending themselves up. Karen Gillan has been a masturbatory fantasy of mine ever since she was in Doctor Who and seeing her in Tomb Raider-esque gear and with the personality of an awkward, female adolescent was brilliant. The “seduce the guards” scene was hysterical, as was watching her and the Rock have a rather nauseating snog. The vain, smartphone-obsessed teen girl gets the body of Jack Black and explains “I’m a fat middle-aged man!!!” while finding that peeing through a penis is much easier than she was used to.

Each character comes to terms with who they are and while it was a great film it got me thinking about the avatars that the kids got to inhabit while they were trapped in Jumanji.

When I was a little boy I dreamed big. I was Batman (but not Robin), the Lone Ranger (but never Tonto) and, for a long time, a cowboy. Like nearly all little kids, I had fantasies about being a superhero and thwarting ne’er do wells, baddies and rotten scoundrels. As I got older these feelings expanded and I wanted to be Logan 5, Luke Skywalker, or Captain Kirk. Harmless fun and a crucial part of growing up. To be able to use your imagination to create worlds that you live in, in your mind. There is nothing in this world more creative than a 7 year old child at playtime.

As I got to about age 11, things began to become less fun at both home and school. I was bullied almost constantly and my parents moved me to a different school in 1982, partly to try and combat this problem. I was being raised to believe that all the ill in my world was down to my actions or inactions, and I deserved to be treated badly…most of the time. My heroes of fiction became a little darker than before. Instead of simply thinking Judge Dredd was a great comic strip I would actually want to be him. I watched Blake’s 7 and wanted to be like Avon, a cold hearted and ruthless anti-hero. By the time I was 13 my idols were Snake Plissken, Mad Max and Jonathan E,  and by the time I was 17 I had a poster of Jason Voorhess on my bedroom wall. 

The avatars we create in our minds for how we want to be are based on how we feel on a daily basis. From being a whiter than white hero as a child (Adam West’s Batman was in no way, shape or form like the darker versions from the 80s onwards) I had begun to idolise flawed, broken and unpleasant characters who nevertheless had a basic code of ethics. Jason Voorhees never murdered little kids; Snake Plissken was disgusted at how many people died to save the uncaring and ungrateful US President; Mad Max was the world’s biggest misanthrope but always kept his word. 

I was projecting my views of my life into my fictional world. This in itself is in no way wrong. I firmly believe that fantasy is a safety valve for reality. Stuff we do in our minds prevents that same stuff from becoming a reality. Watch Jason chop people apart, feel better yet know that this is not real and everyone shook hands and went home for a cup of tea afterwards.

When I got to university in 1990 I had many facets, most of them negative. I had a certain tenacity of character but, after 20 years of being told that everything was my fault and that I was ugly, stupid and unlikeable (amongst many other things), I was compensating for my lack of self esteem, self belief and confidence by creating the world’s most fucked up avatar.

I was heavily into a band called The Macc Lads back in the late 80s and early 90s. They were a punk band from Macclesfield in England and had the same effect on me that seeing the Sex Pistols or the Ramones had had on people 10 to 15 years previously. I dressed like them, spoke like them and mimicked their sense of humour. While I knew that the music they performed and the image they had was just an act, I still had a whale of a time being a clone of them because it was an avatar. After all, no one would ever really like Lance Manley as he was a creep, so why not just be a pretend person instead? I even invented a name for my avatar and called myself Liquid Goblin (I have zero recollection of where the name came from).

I had a pen friend in Ireland in 1989 and when I went to see him I never told him my real name. It was years before he found out and it was a bit of fun, but more importantly it meant I could be someone else. Lance Manley was unlikeable, unshaggable, and above all a complete idiot. It was nice to be Liquid Goblin and have a new start.

Later on in life, once uni was over, the avatars kind of failed to work. When you have hours and hours of free time, then being someone else is possible. When you have to go to work in a poxy job for a bullying boss, then your avatar needs to be put on the shelf. The most painful memory of the jobs I did from 1993 to 1995, once I’d got my Law degree, was the realisation that I was insecure, socially awkward, had zero self esteem and never stood up for myself…solely because I didn’t have my avatar any more.

Later still and I joined the police force. First of all as a Special (volunteer) cop in London and later a full time Bobby with Kent. The avatar I had imagined was of a no nonsense bully hunter who upheld the law and was there to protect people. The reality was far from this and the only positive experience to come from my 3 years, 3 months on the beat was that I got my first book from it all.

As I’ve got older I’ve had less use for avatars but they still exist. Most of the time you don’t even know they’re there. Being yourself is one of the hardest things to do. When I was at school you would meet a multitude of little fuckers who would describe themselves as wizards of Karate, or Kung Fu. When Rambo 2 was out at the cinemas, lots of kids bought the replica knives and brought them to school. Their avatars in a comprehensive education system that didn’t care for its children and let them persist in a state of eternal misery, broken only by violent fantasies.

Living as yourself is never easy. We all feel we need at the very least a mask, and maybe a complete avatar to be happy and accepted in society. The truth is that an avatar is only good to protect you from feeling anything, be it good or bad. When you can teach yourself to feel then you will grow.

And the avatar will no longer be needed.