Calling occupants of writing craft

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While my offline self continues to deal with real-life situations I needn’t trouble the world with, the one who’d like to tell everyone everything was suffering writer’s block. And I’ve been revisiting my favourite science fiction universe in Firefly, the demise of which I mourn daily, just like Sheldon Cooper.

Serenity_Pierre_Drolet_06-1This sci-fi geek modeller is my favourite person right now: He’s made a model of an aircraft carrier and parked Serenity on the deck (Pierre Drolet Sci-Fi Museum)

I read an article recently on hobbies to help with anxiety and depression, and writing wasn’t one of them, which was strange, because it’s been writing that’s helped me most over time. In the beginning, it was all I had.

That was five years ago, when I begged money on the streets to buy exercise books from Poundland (and white cider), and stole some bookies pens. When I used to sit in various warm, dry and light places, I planned to turn my story into a book. Then I got over myself and realised no-one would be interested in a Charles Bukowski fan boy (although I’ve been compared to him since, and many others in fact: some of the greats in the genres I write). In any case, The Paradoxicon was a fair stab at a semi-autobiographical flash fiction novel, allowing me to move on, and I’ve written four other books since.

Much has changed since then, and life has got easier in many respects (somewhere to live helps), but without the constant distraction of life keeping you on your feet, there’s a tendency to get stuck. I’ve never lapsed back to drinking, but I know why I did, when I’d sometimes rather blank something from my mind which won’t sleep. But I’m a writer.

Unless you’re writing for a mass market, it’s a very internal affair, and prevented from writing about much in my real life (the privacy of others), my solitary offline life gave me little else to think about. Well therein lies the paradox I’d created for myself: As a writer, I can write anything. And as a blogger, that can just be a diary entry.

Right now I’m perched on a cushion on my chair, not just because I’m short but because the air canister has emptied itself, so it’s lost its power of levitation. Nevertheless, the dead chair is full of memories that I’ve written while I sat at this desk on many other late nights. I’ll keep my old seat, because I can’t afford another one anyway, but most importantly, it’s where I am now.

I’m aware of the weight distribution in my arse on the cushion, and because I think different to most, I feel speed. Because what I can feel below me – the weight of my backside on the seat – is the feeling of my own gravity in relation to that of the Earth. So in another way of thinking, the pressure I feel is not me bearing down, but the entire planet pushing up beneath me. Like this world and everyone else on it, I’m spinning at 1000 mph and hurtling through space at around fifty times that. These are the things which keep me awake at night, sometimes joyfully.

If I get it right, I can sometimes lucid dream, and within my mind I can explore the universe (there are articles dotted about this blog). It’s getting to sleep that’s the problem, but writing is good for insomnia.

I’ve got sufficient followers to guarantee at least one will be interested in what’s on my mind, because they’ve chosen to follow me and be a part of another virtual life. And in a life cut off from most human contact, for someone like me, that’s a comforting thought.

So even if I am rambling, I know that someone besides me will be reading, then I feel less alone.

This blog was originally that of a writer with depression, like so many others, and yet it was the illness which prevented me dealing with it. Such is the power of the mind when it’s cracked. But other times, living with a Kintsukorai mind (one which is more beautiful for having been broken) is one long lucid dream.

Whenever I question what’s in my head existentially, I’m reminded of a documentary Stephen Fry made about his own brand of depression. At the end, he posed a question: If there were a big red button, and hitting it would just restore you to “Normal”, would you? Same as him, I don’t have to think for long: No.

Paul Auster once said he’s happy with a day’s work if he has 500 words of perfect prose at the end. I’m happier when I’ve pumped out 850 words of pulp thoughts in an hour and cleared my mind for others to read. A problem shared, is one divided or multiplied.

Suffer in silence

Now Serenity awaits, somewhere in the universe. If I can just dream, I can hitch a ride, with friends, the captain, a shepherd, a doctor, and a companion or more.

Crosswords and headwinds

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Among my sideline interests, I compile cryptic crosswords. Some of my favourite past clues for flavour:

1. Powered flight? (9)
2. GESG (9, 4)
3. DIM (5, 8)
4. (4,3,3,1,4)

The answers are in this meandering post…

dirty_scrabble

Today is nine weeks since I had my PIP assessment, and still I’ve had nothing in writing. I eventually got to speak to someone at DWP last week, only to be told that my application was still being processed. At least I haven’t been forgotten. Still I’m on a statutory benefit, sans a payment which permitted me some independence with my special needs. One of the freedoms taken from me is the ability to visit my parents, where PIP used to cover the train fares.

Dad says it’s good to have me around, and I know that contact with others can help with dementia and other degenerative conditions (he has Parkinson’s). So if I’m denied my independence, the system has already made me much more unwell, and quite possibly my dad too. If I’m declined, I’ll be unable to spend Christmas with family (and it could always be the last for my parents or me), no gifts for my kids, and unable to see my dad while he still remembers who I am.

I borrowed money to make the monthly visit to see the kids yesterday, but without my PIP payment, those trips may have to be reduced in frequency. A life is not a singular thing and there are people denied (or spared) my company. Despite winter approaching, I’m eating less and heating less.

The day with the children was very much as usual: lunch and interesting conversation, then shopping and further debate on matters of the world, of nature, medicine and science. We question things, and yesterday I wondered how the Romans did maths, if they only had Roman numerals. An interesting aside too, as we noted that as well as having alliterative names, my eldest is taller than me (not difficult) and therefore the longest Laker; the youngest is just a little shorter than my mum, and the littlest Laker for now.

It was a day punctuated by escalators. The first was one I’d ridden hundreds of times before, and its brothers and sisters around the London Underground estate, possibly millions. And yet, after more than 30 years of working, living and just being in London, something occurred to me for the very first time: ‘Dogs must be carried’. I don’t have a dog. It’s a terrible sentence, implying that carrying a dog is compulsory for riding the moving stairs, and it will haunt this pedant for the rest of my days and every time I see it.

Back at Euston later, ‘Stand on the right’ is the first on the list of London Underground’s levitation instructions, and invariably some people don’t. I tend to walk down and float up, but I was anxious of time and chose to walk up the left of the escalator, to be greeted by a backside, talking to her friend on the right. “Excuse me,” I said, perhaps impatiently with someone too ignorant and arrogant to read signs. “How rude,” I was told.

I apologised for having excused myself so that I could travel freely and not hinder the transit of those behind me, but apparently that was rude and I should be more patient. I passed this down the line behind me, asked if she’d rather have my blood, and told her to get over herself, which elicited a tut. Finally I pointed to the signs at regular intervals on the way up: “Stand on the right,” I read aloud, and added “like fascists”. I was tired of walking by now, so I stood on the right of the escalator, in front of my verbal assailant. As I rose to ground level, I let one go silently and shared the scrambled eggs I’d had for breakfast.

I can only hope that more than nine weeks of stressing and growing more anxious by the day is enough for the dehumanising machine, that nine weeks is considered sufficient suffering, and now I can be returned to an independent life with sufficient funds to live it. If not, if I’m found undeserving for some reason (even though I’ve been on PIP for the last four years), that’s a pretty sick trick to play on someone. Those days out with my kids are about all I have now, and that may be denied by the Tory government’s social cleansing machine.

Life has changed over the last few months, ever since this benefit reapplication process started. Even if I am forced through the tribunal process again, knowing where I stand would be better than where I am at the moment. Right now I have not got a clue what the answers are.

Did you find them all?

Shooting battered cod and chips

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today is five weeks since my PIP assessment and I’ve still been told nothing. DWP acknowledged that they have all they need to assess my claim, so part of me thinks no news is good news. Based on previous experience though, most of me suspects they’ll conclude that I’m not entitled. If so, it’s taken five weeks to play a pretty sick trick on someone they know is vulnerable. But it’s all part of the Tory social cleansing machinery.

ship_shark_jaws_boat_sea_60084_2560x1600

It’s anxiety and paranoia, and the reassessment process makes it worse. It heightens my conditions, like taking a Stabilo Boss to all the Post-It notes pinned to my head. Benefits claimants are fish in barrels at the best of times, but I’m simultaneously out of the water.

I saw the kids yesterday, so I now I have separation anxiety. I do miss them, every day, but the days after I’ve seen them are the hardest as they’re fresher in my mind. Everyone but me ended up in a better place after my breakdown, over five years ago now. It’s a testament to my ex-wife and the kids’ second dad that I now have two very engaging and curious young people to share the odd Sunday with.

I can think about plans but not make them. Visiting my parents and my kids costs money, which PIP has helped with over the last four years. With my mind confused and unknowing, I can’t write, or not coherently enough to hold all but the most surreal stories together.

I know I should broaden my horizons and maybe take up a new hobby, perhaps even one which might get me out more. The problem with being outside is, there are other people there. Maybe then a solitary pursuit, like fishing. But then there’d be some tosser (one who casts lines) who’s been doing it for years, telling me I’m doing it all wrong without actually helping (you know the kind of smug, elitist type, often train conductors or lorry drivers in their day jobs). So perhaps I’d get a boat, then float alone, fishing on a lake. It’s where my name came from after all. Then I realise I don’t have the money or the courage, so I stay as I am. Less a Laker (one who fishes from lakes) and more the ponder.

gir_by_thekeyofeGir by Thekeyofe

The only thing I have patience for is poker. I’ve been coaching and playing my sole regular visitor, my kid sis Courtney (‘The Courts’, or ‘WE33 WIDOW’ at the table), and she’s holding me to a 14-14 score line in our tournament of tournaments, albeit with some handicapping earlier on. She’s 21 today, she’s come a long way and gone through as much machinery as me, and we both kept the other alive at times. Sometimes we’ll have fish with our poker chips, and PIP helps with thanking a friend for their support with a take-away (and ensuring I eat something). Playing poker relies on having someone to play with. I can play online, but not having someone to talk to means my attention wanders and I could end up playing losing games and forgetting to eat, so I stick to live play.

The Courts and me started playing poker at the squat, and in some ways, this waiting game is like being back on the streets, when my only output was transcribing a few pages of handwritten notes I’d made as I led my transient life, never able to settle anywhere. Back then, I started writing as it was all I had (no TV, not even a radio, and I daren’t borrow too many library books for fear they’d be lost or stolen), so I wrote. Now I have more to do, but no patience to do it; everything around me, but no interest in it. I’ve become even more withdrawn, and withdrawal drills into deeper thoughts. Yet after all that, after all the talk about being depressed and in a rut; because of all that, I can see something.

I read something on the train yesterday, on my way to meet the kids. Essentially it said, be grateful of your own company if it’s all you have. Don’t waste time chasing other people, less so wondering when you might hear from them. Don’t put your life on hold for too many others, live the one you have left with whomever you can.

Right now, that’s just me and my adopted sister sometimes for a game of cards. Once a month, it’s precious time with the children their mum and step dad have brought up so well. Once this period of limbo ends, it’ll be more regular trips to spend time with my parents. Until then, I wait, like I have for five weeks. And during that month and a bit, I’ve written a lot which doesn’t make sense in pieces, but I can see how it will come together.

I’ve not lost the ability to write, just the means to edit my thoughts and make them coherent. While I reconstruct myself, I can at least see ahead and know that I have a lot of stories to tell, once I can stitch them together as analogies for the horrors of going through the social cleansing machinery, and how it can be used to find things in the mind you’d normally be too busy to be troubled by.

In future fiction, within the next 2-3 years, a number of technologies could combine and reduce in cost to become something really cool:

Take an AI home assistant (Siri, Alexa…), put it in a humanoid or other robot physical form, and you’ve got home help for lifting and assisting with physical tasks.

Introduce an app to design your own personification of a home help robot, send it to a 3D printer (which will also print the circuitry), and each AI becomes even more individual and a part of the designer.

I’d like to print one of these:

shark_rex_by_heckthorShark Rex by Heckthor

To be continued…

Getting the hang of Wednesdays

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Days like these are the worst, when you wish for the emptiness of the vacuum which is a typical day with depression. These atypical days are filled with thoughts. My mind is always full, which is why I suffer insomnia, but these thoughts are the darkness escaping the vacuum. For Arthur Dent, it was Thursdays he couldn’t get the hang of, where most of my problems seem to haunt me on Wednesdays.

Arthur and MarvinHeroes of fantasy and sci-fi (Stark After Dark)

I’m looking at everything ahead and I can’t see any bright horizon, just the red glow of dusk. The optimist and the pessimist have no control over an outcome, but the optimist has the better time leading up to it. As low as I’m feeling today, the optimist is a far-away stranger in that crimson landscape.

As the Marmite filling of my family’s generational sandwich, my main thoughts are with either slice of bread. Thankfully my eldest seems to be over the worst of his recent derailment (when you’re 13, you’re just looking for somewhere to go off the tracks), which means my dad is an even greater focus.

His health isn’t improving. Long story short, he was getting a bit forgetful, culminating in him forgetting where he lived one night when he was out in his car (alone). After much debate with mum, I phoned the police. I knew someone was always going to be “The one who…” and seeing as I’m usually assumed to be, I didn’t break with stereotype. The police picked him up and got him home safely, but he subsequently had to surrender his driving license.

The whole family was disrupted as a result, and my dad’s lost a great deal of his freedom and liberty. The memory thing was found to be a build up of fluid around the base of dad’s brain. It wasn’t a degenerative condition and a simple drain should alleviate the problem.

He was admitted to hospital and the procedure was initially deemed a success. Trouble is, a succession of setbacks followed, as dad developed an infection which required intravenous antibiotics, prolonging his stay in hospital. Eventually when he returned home, he took a fall down the stairs. I can’t help thinking that I’m “The one who…”

You wouldn’t expect someone to get better after all that, but the old man’s still with us, albeit never fully recovered from the initial diagnosed condition because of these complications. Mum and dad have made adaptations to their house, but dad longs to get back to tending his garden. I’ve suggested it might be quite nice to let it meadow a bit, to attract some wildlife, which dad also loves. It’s about quality of life now, and he’s probably got some years in him yet if he’s kept engaged by people and things around him.

Which all serves to reduce the importance of my own issues, which are short-term, relatively speaking. At worst (ever the pessimist), I’ll have my PIP application declined as it was the last two times. I have no reason to think otherwise, as despite claims that mental disability is given equal consideration to physical restrictions, mental illness remains invisible. Yes, I can walk a short distance to a local shop. I have legs which work and I don’t require a physical aid to walk. Sometimes though, the anxiety and paranoia are such that I simply don’t attempt it. That can’t be seen when you’re asked to walk up and down in front of an assessor.

If my application is declined, then I’ll appeal at tribunal, as I did the last two times, and both times I won. It hardly seems worth putting me through it, but I suspect there’ll be another attempt at social cleansing by wearing me down in the hope I give up. I didn’t the last two times.

So the worst case scenario is I’ll have my benefits reduced throughout the appeal process, then reinstated and back-paid afterwards. I might just have to adjust to a lesser quality of life for a while. Then again, the ‘Medically-qualified’ PIP assessor might not be a midwife this time, they could be a psychiatrist or psychologist, who is more likely to confirm my various conditions, thereby sparing me the ordeal of the appeal process. If government out-sourcing fulfilled its function properly, a simple thing like appointing an appropriately qualified assessor would save the state considerable funds.

But it doesn’t work like that. The savings are made by getting claimants off of benefits, and subjecting them to an extended dehumanising process is one way of thinning out the numbers, when some people just don’t have it in them to fight. My last two appeal processes made me far more unwell than I’d been at the outset, but I didn’t succumb to the social cleansing machine.

Beyond the small sphere of me in my sandwich, there’s the world at large and plenty to worry about, not least of which is the rise of the right. Those of us on the left, and anyone who cares about the planet we all share, we need to find our voices. Fascists will not be reasoned with, so there’s little point trying to debate, negotiate and be democratic with the blinkered and socially-conditioned.

I’ve written of positive outcomes for humanity and our home, just as I’ve doomed them both in other stories, where the right’s solution is population reduction. Being an optimist or pessimist about such existential things might actually determine the outcome. At the end of it all, that thought strangely perks me up, as it’s more a duty than a choice.

I feel slightly more hopeful about the coming weeks and months now than I did when I started writing. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to myself as I type, just to relieve some pressure. It’s always been my only real therapy. Thanks for reading.

A hitch hiker’s guide to chemists

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Space,” notes The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster2

As an anxious introverted recluse, I don’t get out much (even going to the chemist can take planning). I never travelled far in my life (to Belfast and the in-laws half a dozen times, and once each to France and Chicago) and my children have already both accumulated more air miles than me (visits to Belfast, school trips and holidays in Europe). I’ve travelled in space, like we all have, but I think about these things more than most.

At 48 years old, I’ve travelled around the sun 48 times, which is roughly 45,120,000,000 km or 28,032,000,000 miles (and counting). To my mind, that’s forty five thousand million km, but nowadays we call it 45 billion, when that’s not what it is. A billion (in maths) is a million million, just as a million is a thousand thousand. So I’ve travelled 45 ‘billion’ km, which is roughly the distance to Neptune and back, five times.

To put that into the perspective of the universe, it’s about 0.005 light years. So in 48 years, I’ve travelled as far as light does in 42 hours: Strange how that number crops up when you’re considering your place in the universal scheme of things. Even if I’d spent my life travelling at light speed (in which case, I wouldn’t have aged), I’d only recently have reached the nearest exoplanets outside our solar system.

That’s where humans need to go, to places like the Trappist system, about 41 light years away. But we are nowhere near ready or evolved to do more than contemplate the science we need to take us there, or to terraform and colonise the moon or Mars. For whatever future is foreseeable, we will remain a one-planet race, so we have to hope we find ways of getting along as a species and being nicer to our neighbours who were here first. Those are other blog entries, already written or on my mind.

I may not have travelled much on the surface of the planet but I appreciate where I’ve been while sitting on it. It’s humbling and often emotional to place ourselves relative to something else, in space or in time, to remind ourselves not how small we are, but how big everything else is. There’s a regular mind exercise I do, sometimes exploring ideas for stories, and other times just to remember or imagine.

I think of my age now (48), then I go back to a time when my dad was that age, which would be 1990, where I remember a lot about myself. I also think forward, to when my son will be 48 (2052) and imagine what might be going on then. But first, back to a time when problems seemed far away, when I was my son’s age (I was 13 in 1983).

Both are going through changes in their own lives at the moment, yet I can only relate to the younger one, who’s where I’ve been before. My dad is way ahead of me. At 76, he’s travelled that many times around the sun and clocked up just over 71 billion km, equivalent to five return trips to Pluto and just a tiny fraction nearer the closest habitable planets. I don’t see either of them as much as I’d like, because I don’t get out much.

I’ve just put myself through the first part of the human mincing machine which is the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) bi-annual re-assessment. Filling out the form, ‘How your disability affects you’ made me realise how my own mental health has declined over the last couple of years.

When you live a life of social exclusion, depression becomes degenerative. If I’m not fully dehumanised by the whole process, having to prove my mental disability at tribunal (for a third time), then maybe I’ll have the confidence to seek further treatment, now that I’ve seen with my own eyes how bad things can get by writing it all down in an application form. Then I could see more of people.

Just remember, next time you’re looking at the night sky: You’ve been there, about 300 million km away. The Earth passed through that part of space six months ago, but that’s like a walk to the chemist’s on the universal scale. In our singular worlds, we’re much more significant in time than we are in space.