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Archive for the ‘Money’ Category

I’m about to be a part of something really cool.  Next month, I’m going to New York with Xander and Ben for a sort of tour 2.0-type thing.  We’re calling it Man (hat on).  There’s even a logo (and the likelihood of t-shirts).  No, I’m not a musician.  My misguided adolescent foray into the world of string instruments is likely as far as I’ll ever go, musically.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because–although there will be music involved (provided mainly by Ben, obviously), this is really a tour about freedom, and doing what you like, and creating things.

We’re playing with this idea of “sustainable creativity”, you see.  It’s about using communities and ideas to sustain yourself, so that you’re able to do what you love doing.  It’s simple, on paper: if you’re a writer, you find a way to write.  If you’re a musician, you find the support you need to play gigs and write songs.  If you’re someone without a clearly defined path, someone who just likes to play with ideas—it means finding a way to do that.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t.  Creative output takes a lot of time, energy, love, and support, not only from the creator, but also from his or her community.  The problem is that many of us are saddled with a lot of extra baggage.  We have bills to pay and debts to pay off.  We have social and professional obligations that rigidly divide our days. Very likely we’re burdened with a “real job”—which we may find intellectually dull and emotionally empty, but necessary nonetheless (I mostly babysit photocopiers and answer telephones grumpily, for instance).

And in an era where time is money, how do you justify spending a few hours every day on your craft?  How do you find a few hours every day?  It’s impossible to underestimate the negative power of financial constraints.  If you constantly spend your time thinking, I should be making money, not fucking around, you quickly become creatively impotent.

So suppose we make things easier for ourselves.  Suppose, to start, we surround ourselves with other, similarly minded, creatively charged people, and become a kind of micro-community based on the idea of mutual inspiration.  This removes a number of barriers, and in their places, provides us with a number of opportunities.  It gives us an automatic audience, a built-in sounding-board, a kind of creativity support group.  It allows for collaborative effort and means that even an ordinary trip to the pub can result in a great idea.  In a way, it combines the social aspect of our lives with the creative aspect, thus gaining us time as well as emotional backing.

Well, that’s good.  That’s a source of motivation and stimulation.  But we’re still stuck with that bland job, those pesky bills, all the worries that get us down.  Even if we have a micro-community of like-minded creatives, we’re still not going anywhere. Not yet.

The next thing to do, then, is to give up the rock star dream.  Forget, for a moment, that you want to be the next superstar of the rock n’ roll, or literary, or art, or whatever world.  And remember why you started singing, or writing, or drawing, or playing with ideas, in the first place.  Innovative solo bass player Steve Lawson writes prolifically, and very well, about this: “I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star.  The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.”  And, Steve adds, “The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.”  And what we’re trying to say is: not just musicians.  Anyone who wants to make anything should be listening to Steve on this point.

It sounds cheesy, but this is an idea about survival and satisfaction, not about making a profit, not about constantly striving, clawing your way up the celebrity hierarchy.  This is an idea about how you can do what you love doing—what you would be doing anyway–and earn enough from it to justify doing it as something more than a hobby.  To earn enough from it to recoup your costs, eat a meal or two.  Eventually, to earn enough from it to pay all those bills, to live comfortably, to buy a new pair of boots (or the male equivalent) when you need to.  But to start, it’s only about getting by.

Luckily, that built-in creative community—even if it’s just a group of two or three people—is the key.  Gone are the days when any artist can continue to cling to the alcoholic outcast myth and hope that her lonely genius will be discovered.  There’s just too much stuff out there for that to be a viable tactic.  There are literally thousands of other musicians writing songs and putting them up on the Internet.  Thousands of other filmmakers uploading clips to YouTube.  Thousands of other writers with blogs.  Thousands of other painters with thousands of canvases stacked up in their basement.  And every single one of them can publicize themselves, advertise themselves, with the click of a button.  Passivity and sheer luck may work for some; but the only way to guarantee a sustainable, creative life is to actively seek one out.

So you start with a tiny community.  A few friends.  Maybe you start at the pub, where ideas can flow unchecked by the ordinariness of daily life.  And you realize that actually, there’s a lot of overlooked potential in the world.  You buy some tickets to New York.  You decide that you’re going to prove this theory by living it.

So we are three people, with different skills and ambitions but a common goal of creating things and doing cool stuff, taking a week off work.  We’re going to pack up our guitars, our laptops, our brains, and head across the Atlantic, where we’re going to do what what love, and what we’re good at, and find a way to survive.  We’re going to stay cheaply (with friends, on couches).  We’re going to earn just enough to recoup our travel expenses, and hopefully have enough left over for a few beers at the end of the day.

There are, of course, one or two things that anybody sensible might want to ask.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, there are some things that I had to ask myself as I wrote this all down:

But isn’t hunger/poverty/whatever a good creative motivator?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (see my post on this here).  But this isn’t about “making it” as an artist, necessarily (though it certainly could be); it’s about literally surviving off your own work.  It’s not about becoming great whilst (or even as a result of) stealing bread and sleeping on the street, but about using whatever greatness you already possess to buy bread, pay your rent, and get by.  It’s simply meant to be proof that you can, if that’s what you want to do.

Okay.  But by making it as much about money as the creative output itself, aren’t you somehow tainting your work?  Aren’t you basically selling out, on a minute scale?

This is really where the word “sustainability” comes in.  This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative-type, so that you can create more.  Ultimately it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money; the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

This is all very theoretical.  What’s the end result?

The end result is whatever you want it to be.  In theory this is a limitless idea.  That’s the beauty of it.  In practice, it may have more limitations than I currently anticipate.  But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to let you know.  In the meantime, please check out the Man (hat on) site, and follow our progress, and be a participant in this crazy idea.

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Zombie Comedy

I woke up on Saturday, and I was depressed.  A friend of mine recently posted a quote on her blog from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:”The blues are because you’re getting fat or because it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”  Which is exactly what happened to me.  Not  a latent, lazy sort of sadness, a seasonal affliction, perhaps, but an active force, something come over you suddenly and without warning, and possessing every atom of your body.

Being in Dublin didn’t help; it made everything worse.  I suppose I came here hoping to claim immunity from trivial worries and the sadness of shorter days; but of course the trouble is always that travel is not escape (Alain de Botton writes brilliantly about this, about “how little the place in which I stood had the power to influence what travelled through my mind”).  We always hope this when we go somewhere new: either that the unpleasantness and banalities of everyday life won’t follow us, or that we’ll become someone different in the context of a different space.  But travel is not some magical process of transformation.  At best it’s a state of mind, a way of revising our views of the world and ourselves, of exploring and watching; but it’s never the answer to all of our problems, never a method of erasing anxieties, and to a certain extent this will always be a disappointment.

What I forget, in times of minor woe, is that it’s actually freeing to know all this.  I sat in a Dublin café with the man.  I sipped my tea listlessly; I picked at my omelette; I listened to the children at the table next to us, who shouted and screamed and cried and laughed and dropped their toast on the floor and hugged their fathers and smiled at us and ran circles round the entire place.  I told the man I felt unhappy today, but that I didn’t know why–was it to do with my continual battle with my anti-anxiety medication, my desperation at being stuck in a job that a monkey could do, and do better?  Probably not, I concluded.  It was really all about money, which depressed me even more, that such a stupid thing–a philosophical construct–could make me stare so glumly at my empty plate.

It’s not a good city to worry about money in, Dublin.  Things are expensive here.  You can’t even drown your sorrows without taking out a small loan.  And the trouble with me is that once I start worrying, it’s nearly impossible to make me stop.  Even paying the small lunch bill caused a tremor of pain in my mind.

I could easily have wallowed all day.  We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, along the autumnal edges, where leaves were falling most heavily and we could avoid the stink of the pond.  A trio of teenage boys sat playing their guitars; a pregnant woman passed, with flowers in one hand and a man’s arm around her.  Lots of infants ran rampant, with parents trailing behind in helpless pursuit.  A few other lovers held hands.  I felt unoriginal and uninspired; and then I felt the whole world to be unoriginal and uninspired.

We went down Grafton Street, watched a man sculpt a sleeping dog out of sand, listened to Irish bagpipes and Beatles songs.  Past Trinity College and Temple Bar, we crossed the Liffey at O’Connell Street, into the great expanse of boulevard.  Like an abandoned Oxford Street, it sits with its handsome buildings, cheap storefronts, its absurd width and pockets of shoppers.  Gaggles of spotty teenagers in unfortunate clothing (sweatpants and faux-leather jackets, athletic shorts over leopard-print leggings with pop socks and sneakers) chased each other in zig-zags, shouted after one another, spilled their soda, lit cheeky cigarettes.  It was a glorious sun-brightened day and everything looked grey.

We went and sat at a converted church, now a café, bar, restaurant, and nightclub, overlooking an empty concrete square, a few gravestones stacked up on the fringe.  I sipped more tea.  I wanted to wallow–this is the thing.  There’s something delicious about a good wallow, most of us know this, but I was in danger of slipping from healthy wallowing into the realm of desperation.  I played with my spoon.  I said to the man: maybe you should go to the film without me.  I could sit and get some writing done. I could sit and feel sorry for myself.  He said, don’t be ridiculous.  But he said it so convincingly, and probably in a few more words, that I loosened my stranglehold on unhappiness, briefly allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was just a passing phase, and agreed to meet some Dublin friends for the afternoon showing of Zombieland.

I should mention a few things now.  The most important is that I don’t like zombie films.  I don’t like horror films of any kind.  The gorier they are, the more they make me cringe; so although it’s a comedy, and I knew, going in, that it would be funny, the title “Zombieland” didn’t bode well.  Also, I hadn”t been to the cinema in over a year.  I’d forgotten how overwhelming the endless dark corridors, the escalators, the giant bags of popcorn, the bad carpets and the flashing lights are.  I’d forgotten the thrill of anticipation; the movie-theatre smell; the crunching of bags and sipping of soda.  I’d forgotten how much I like to see the previews!  I’d mostly forgotten how huge those big screens really are.  The first few moments of splattering zombies were very, very intense.

Then something strange happened.  I started…what was this feeling?…to enjoy myself.  Really?  Yes.  I laughed at the jokes and started to feel affection (of a certain kind) for the characters.  I forgot how funny I myself was feeling; how unreasonably low, how inexcusably self-indulgent.  I had wanted to sit around like the ghost of some bleak, damned writer; to mope over coffee, to shiver outside in pursuit of quality people-watching, to envy everyone that walked by their freedom and their carefree smiles.  I thought I needed that; but what I actually needed was something else entirely (it always is, isn’t it)–in this case, some good company and a zombie comedy.  We came out into the city; we smiled, we laughed, we ate an impromptu dinner, and the evening turned to night and even if it wasn’t something I couldn’t have done at home (or maybe it was, maybe that’s the point of all this, that the travel state of mind was somehow both responsible for my mood and necessary to lift the cloud), I was grateful for the power of it.

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I’ve been back at work for three hours.  I think that’s enough, really, don’t you?

It’s such a rude re-introduction to the real world.  Hulking black PCs, lists and lists of menial tasks.  I can’t see the surface of my desk for the piles of shit on it.  Mostly it feels like an interruption of happy routine.  I like being able to read at midday, work on my book after lunch, write a blog post whenever I feel like it (so I’m writing this now just to spite the working world).

The funny thing about a really good holiday is the depression that sets in after.  This morning I threatened to avoid it altogether by nearly sleeping through all my alarms.  Now I’m staring with some chagrin at the huge map of Oxford across from my desk, thinking I probably should have slept through all my alarms, and thinking also that I’m nostalgic for something which is barely over.  The freedom.  The blue skies.  The delicious meals.  The cider.

On a more positive note, I’ve returned from holiday feeling spiritually refreshed (please contain your derisive snorts), and oddly empowered.  I have this niggling sense that I am, after all, in control of my future, and if I don’t want that future to necessarily include being paid to stare at a wall and occasionally file things, I may actually be able to do something about it.  It’s a good start, anyway, and until we can all move to a commune off the East Devon coast and sustain ourselves on creative endeavors and home-grown vegetables, it gives me incentive to keep going.

The other nice thing about coming back from a vacation is the lingering effect of “tourist eyes”.  When you go away–even if it’s just a few hours south of your usual haunt–your vision (both literally and metaphorically) is temporarily altered, and there’s a precious period of a few days after your return when you haven’t quite readjusted and you’re still seeing things in a holiday-way.  So I’m enjoying wandering through Oxford.  I’d forgotten quite how much I take it for granted.  Xander and I even dipped into the Natural History Museum on Saturday–just because we could–and spent a blissful half hour feeling like 19th century explorers.  (There is something, we find, irrevocably Victorian about a Natural History Museum).  We just don’t get that in our natural state of being.  It takes a trip–a big one, a small one, a physical one, an emotional or mental one–to make us remember our surroundings.

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DSC02624_2Just as I was finishing up yesterday’s post, the Man came upstairs into the study and said, “I want to read you something that will make you feel much better about our finances.”  He then sat down on the bed and read me this article, from the Guardian Saturday magazine.  It’s a long and excruciating tale of financial and personal meltdown, and I won’t go into great detail (yet), but the idea is this: Edmund Andrews, experienced economics reporter for the New York Times, finds himself, at the age of 48, in a bit, but not much, of a pickle.  Recently divorced, and engaged to Patty, another divorcee, he’s paying his ex-wife $4000 a month in alimony and child support, leaving him, he says “just $2,777 a month to live on.”

The Man and I exchanged a glance–if either of us had close to $3000 a month to live on we’d be beyond thrilled, but then again, we don’t have kids or years of living comfortably already behind us–and then he carried on.  Patty is a mother of four, and Andrews gets his two children at weekends, so they decide that in spite of Andrews own doubts about his financial situation and Patty’s current unemployment, they should…buy a house!  Because that’s what adults in these situations do, apparently.  Look at the price tag ($480,000, in this case), realise they’ll never be able to afford it, and then go ahead and buy it anyway.  In Andrews’ case, buying the house involved a mortgage loan officer and a few interesting snags–carrying too much debt in spite of his $130,00 salary because of a second mortgage, under his name though his ex-wife was responsible for the payments–and the assumption that Andrews would be able to refinance because the value of his house would be higher in five years.

So there he is, digging this hole.  A few months later he goes to the ATM and discovers he’s got just $196 (his allegation that “we didn’t have enough cash to cover more than a week’s worth of shopping” did puzzle the Man and I for some time–even for a family of four it seems a little extravagent to drop $200 a week on groceries), and thus begins a long few years where he and Patty spiral into debt, maxing out every credit card they can get their paws on until they owe $50,000 “in credit card debt alone.”

And so here they are, now.  Still struggling along–“I have no idea when I might be able to get credit again,” writes Andrews, “much less retire.”  He claims it hasn’t been a total loss, that having the house was good for his family, that he and Patty are as close as ever.  And at least he’s got a book out of it, which will presumably appeal to millions of credit-starved hole-diggers and victims of economic downturn alike.  And as an economics reporter he has a better handle on the situation in its wider context than most.

But I can’t help but feel a little sick reading the story.  The Man was right, at least: it did make me feel better about our own, often precarious financial situation.  Student loans aside, neither of us is in deep debt, and I berate myself when I go more than £10 into overdraft on any given month–say, £20 into overdraft.  Recently I found myself mired in credit card debt, which my parents were thankfully able to help me out of.  But I didn’t borrow the $15,000 that Andrews had to from his family–my bill was for $600.  Andrews would probably laugh at us, and our pathetic little money worries.

So I have to suppose it’s about scale: someone used to earning upwards of $100,000 a year has a completely different idea of how things work than someone who literally lives paycheck to paycheck.  The middle-aged high earner has lost all sense of what it’s like to really economize.  It’s been so long since things were stripped down to their essence, since it was survival and not luxury which mattered, that it’s impossible to revert to that primitive way of life.  Or maybe the kinds of people who find themselves $50,000 in debt at the age of 50 never lived paycheck to paycheck.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe it’s the downside to landing yourself a solid and dependable job straight out of college.  If all you’ve ever known is security, how can you make yourself think differently?

Make no mistake, the Man and I are not in an enviable financial position, but there are things about the way we comport ourselves during these lean years that make me think it’s a temporary position, and that, in fact, our having struggled as we do will ultimately turn out to be a good thing.

Because I’d like to think that even if we find ourselves struggling, twenty or thirty years down the line, with kids and needs that extend beyond eating, drinking, sleeping, and being together, we’d know when–and, more importantly, how–to stop.  Living on the edge of financial ruin–and surviving–has been an enormous experience for me.  I grew up in the lap of relative luxury.  I never thought, let alone worried, about money.  (Especially as a university student, that classically tight time, when I was earning an income from part-time jobs in addition to the allowance my parents gave me, and didn’t pay a single bill.)  But it’s been good for me to find myself where I am now, and the Man and I have mostly been alright.  I have a hard time imagining that should we come up against serious financial hardship later in life, we wouldn’t be able to sacrifice everything, just as we have now, in order to avoid descending into that dark place that Andrews and his wife find themselves now.

Or maybe that’s just my youth speaking.  In any case, the article did exactly what the Man promised it would, and as I spent the next few hours reviewing my own finances, I found myself laughing a little.  We’re all allowed some smugness, aren’t we?

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Is it better or worse to be young in a depression?  It seems unfair.  Here we are in the golden time, all bright-eyed, muscled, sharp of mind and full of ambition, stymied (they say) by a nonexistent job market and an economy made of dust and dreams gone bad.  Aren’t things hard enough–haven’t they always been hard enough?  Shouldn’t I resent the fact that I’m meeting economical adversity at every corner, that it’s no longer about glory but about staying alive?

Except that I hardly notice there’s a recession on.  I was always bound to be poor at this stage of my life.  I’m a student and a writer with an allergy to the kind of ambition that lands you prematurely in a London high-rise, rising at 5, only at home in a suit.  We could be experiencing the biggest economic boom of the last 100 years and I’d still be seated in my humble study writing for free, living off tea, love, the kindness of others, and a patchy income that falls somewhere below the poverty line.  And I’ll tell you what else.  I’d rather be struggling now, rationing extravagance and soothing myself with cheap cider, than struggling later, with a family, maybe, a career to worry over, a house, roots stretched tight.

Strange to say, but we may be lucky after all, to experience the relative poverty of youth alongside the actual poverty of this downturn, recession, depression, whatever it turns out to be.  The manor house can wait.

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This week has probably not been one of the finest of my entire existence. I promise this won’t be one of those whiny “everything’s gone to shit” posts, but I fell down the stairs at work yesterday. FELL DOWN THE STAIRS. Just saying.

I was reading the paper. I should have known not to do this, as once, when I was about six, I was reading a book whilst walking down the street with my Dad, when all the sudden a parking meter sprung from the earth and hit me in the face and I fell down, but it’s not an excuse anyway. I tripped over my own feet with about three stairs to go, and stopped my fall by hitting my head on the wall in front of me. I was so surprised by this that I couldn’t decide if I should cry or laugh or what, so I just gathered myself up and pressed a palm to the painful part of my head. After a little while it occurred to me that I was just standing on the landing with one hand clapped to my head, looking loony, and that maybe I should move, so I took my hand away from the bump and saw blood. Well, head wounds do that, I thought calmly, and I went upstairs to the staff toilet and splashed water on my face.

All well and good, but by the time I had got back down to the office again, it was bleeding again. I should mention that it wasn’t bleeding profusely, not by any means. More just…seeping. So when a co-worker asked idly if I’d hit my head, I said, yeah, I fell down the stairs, and giggled, and she said Oh my gosh, you mean right now? Because your head is bleeding.

Well, that was it. I could no longer pretend that my clumsiness was casual. Instead, I had to go across the road and get ice from the kitchen. Only they had no ice, so the chef brought me a plastic bag full of frozen corn. My boss wanted to bandage it to my head so that my arm wouldn’t get sore holding it there, but I drew the line at being an English patient lookalike. After a half hour of idleness I put a plaster over the cut and threw myself (metaphorically, not literally) back at my work.

I felt fine, and I wasn’t prepared to linger for long on the incident, especially not as it highlighted an example of stupendous ineptitude. But after ten thousand questions, expressions of sympathy, Natasha Richardson comparisons, and suggestions that I drink a little less at work (I don’t drink at all at work, in case you’re tempted to take that literally), I began to fret. It doesn’t take much to make me fret (I suffer, after all, from varying degrees of generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hypochondria, which is a common but very unfortunate combination of ailments), and the internet, let me tell you, is the jackpot of fret-fuel.

So if you ever wanted to know what could possibly happen to you if you hit your head, causing your brain to strike your skull and begin bleeding, look it up online and then PANIC. By the time I got home to the Man, I was a proper wreck. “I don’t want to die because I fell down the stairs,” I sobbed at him, in his arms. He (and everyone else) had already asked me if I felt dizzy, nauseous, if I’d blacked out, if I had any symptoms whatsoever of a series injury, and the answer was no, I don’t think so, but the problem was of course that by that time I’d worked myself up so much that I did feel a bit dizzy just from the worry.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me, after I’d convinced him to help me look up head injuries online, after we’d ruled out together the possibility of concussion, “You’re going to be fine.” I decided to start blaming everyone else for my panic. “I wasn’t worried until everyone else started saying things,” I said, which was true, to an extent.

Having dramatized the event as much as possible, I decided it was finally time to settle down, take some Paracetemol, have some dinner, relax, and practice how I was going to tell this story to people in the days to come. I decided to acknowledge the fact that actually, I hadn’t hit my head that hard; that by now, the only sore part of me (besides my ego) was the bit of broken skin at my temple. I decided all this was easier, in fact, than working myself up into an epic panic.

My relaxation was aided by a solid hour spent reading passages from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, which sounds dull until you realize that they’re riddled with gems like this one: “‘That queer-looking man seems to like Dick,’ said Anne.”

***

And then I awoke the next day and in spite of a distinct tenderness near the wound, felt good, until my spirits were dampened by the din of the bills in the study, clamoring to be paid. I would pay you, I told them sternly as I tried to find an unoccupied slice of desk on which to put my tea and branflakes, if I could pay you, but you insist on being so large as to be unmanageable. In response, they just moaned some more, and huffed, and one or two even did a little angry jig atop my computer.

To ease my guilt and shut them up, I paid my half of the rent and my portion of the gas bill, which made me feel momentarily better, until I realized that I’m just about at the end of my coping-tether. The catalyst for this realization was the knowledge that I’d been wrongly charged £20 by a broken cashpoint in Fulham. For an instant I blamed Fulham (maybe the big smoke, knowing I’ve rejected it as a place to live, is somehow out to get me), but I couldn’t hide for long from the fact that I’m a postgraduate student living in a graduate’s world. I’m ignoring the credit crunch, the recession, the big scary black monster in the corner, whatever you want to call it, because my problems are deeper than that.

Here’s how it is: I reached a point today where I no longer understood how I could go on like this. It baffled me, this realization. I actually sat down on the couch and pondered it. Because I’ve never been happier, emotionally, fundamentally. I have someone to love, and who loves me, and we live in a beautiful city and do beautiful (if not very lucrative) things, and our life is both exciting to me and soothing, gentle. But here I was on a glorious March morning wondering how we were going to pay those loud bills in the study after all, how, indeed, I was going to pay for groceries and to have the heel stuck back onto my boot and to get my coat, now impossibly soiled, dry-cleaned, how I was going to buy laundry detergent, do all of the little things that require money.

It’s not that I don’t work, it’s that I don’t work enough–but I can’t work more, without sacrificing my masters degree (and, also, the legality of my visa–not to mention my sanity). In that bleak moment I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if my fall down the stairs was not symbolic in some way, if perhaps I am not only falling but also hitting a wall in my work, my career (my career? What career?), my financial well-being.

But then, this evening at university, a successful and well-respected novelist began his chat with us by recounting how just yesterday, he’d been walking down his street, head turned, distracted by the for-sale signs on a pair of houses, when suddenly he smacked into the side of a metal pole, and look at the mark on the side of my head, he said.

So real writers have those moments too. And anyway, the really annoying thing about not having any money isn’t not being able to pay the bills; it’s not being able to buy the Man a really super birthday present.

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If I wasn’t already consumed every moment by anxiety, I would be by now. Even The Guardian had a “Crisis Special!” in its Money section. When The Man’s parents dropped by yesterday evening for tea, pizza, and some draught excluding, his mother casually wondered if the credit crunch was going to impact people’s essential curiosity (actually she’d wondered if it was going to impact the success of TV show/business QI, but as I’d just suggested that the reason such an enterprise works is because of people’s endless craving for knowledge, it was as good as).

If I played a drinking game–one sip for every time the word “crisis” comes up–I’d be pissed before breakfast. If I got a penny for every time, I’d be rich–but that wouldn’t be very credit-crunch-likely, would it.

So, all this in mind, alongside my constant awareness that I am a relatively new adult and, as such, perpetually poor, I volunteered to invigilate the SAT examination yesterday at St. Clare’s. As one of my co-workers put it: “It’s mind-numbingly boring, but by midday, you’ll have made £50.” Every word of that is true.

What my co-worker couldn’t have predicted, however, were the flashbacks. I took the SATs, you see, not so very long ago (although long enough ago for me to have forgotten how many HOURS the process takes), and trapped in a room with fifty-odd teenagers and their No. 2 pencils, it’s impossible not to remember the Dunn School edition of the same exams.

Then, I remember envying the proctors. At least they’re not taking this god-awful test, I thought. Yesterday I would gladly have taken the test. At least they’ve got something to do, I thought enviously of the students. I kept having what I believed to be brilliant wisps of thought, one-after-the-other, but as I had no way to write these thoughts down, they’ve all gone. I’m a writer, not a thinker, you see. To fill the expanses of time, I started coming up with names for the students. I played with my bracelets, my ring, my earrings, and it occured to me that possibly jewlery was actually invented not to adorn women but to give them something to amuse themselves with. I lamented the fact that my new wool tights are a full size too big, and therefore slightly saggy at the knees. I stared deep into the eyes of the two enormous drawings of handsome, well-cheekboned youths, and tried to decipher if the one on the right was a boy or a girl (the lips were all woman, but the nose unmistakably masculine). I got very, very hungry.

When I was taking the same exams at 16, I was as these students yesterday were: nervous and well-behaved. The SATS are designed, I’m convinced, to make pupils so anxious about whether or not they’re filling in the tiny answer bubbles correctly or have written their name down correctly that they forget anything they’ve ever known about reading, writing, and mathematics. “Nervous and well-behaved,” I said to my father when he asked me how the students had been (“Did you catch any cheaters?” he wanted to know, but the closest I’d come was having to tell an especially anxious-looking girl that she couldn’t have her ruler on the desk. “Why not?” she rightly asked, and for some reason, although it would have been completely out of character, I desperately wanted to tell her: “Them’s the rules, sweetheart. Them’s the rules.” Instead, I shrugged and apologized six thousand times.) “Gee, who does that sound like?” he said back.

Nervous and well-behaved. Yep, that was me at 16. For the entire third year of high school, I moved around with tiptoes and whispers. Constantly afraid. I don’t remember taking the SATs; but I remember dreading them. I remember finishing them and thinking, well, thank God that’s done, now I can actually get on with my life. I had stopped caring about my scores long ago–all that mattered was that I put the experience behind me.

Yesterday, I walked out of the testing room enveloped in an early-afternoon gust of wind, cycled into town, and flopped down exhausted next to The Man while we waited for lunch.
“I feel like I’ve just taken a test,” I told him. By evening I was so weary that I didn’t know what to do with myself. To counter my oncoming headache, I went for a run, but it started to rain middway through and by the time I’d gotten home again I was drenched, so I took a bath and finished a particularly mindless book, and ate cold pizza whilst browsing through vintage clothing online. I tried to have a glass of wine, but after a few sips I was too sleepy to go on, and crawled upstairs to wait for The Man to come home from work. Cash crisis. Energy crisis.

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