Thursday, 18 October 2012

Angst; or, sometimes I really think I should not be let out of the house

WARNING: this is all about me.

I’m generally a little leery of writing too much about myself. Heavy use of the first person singular can fall into narcissism and solipsism and other unattractive isms. On the other hand, a bit of personal revelation can be good, because of the Me Too factor. I sometimes think that Me Too are the happiest words in the English language. You are not alone; you are not the only freak or fool or goofball. Your flaws may come out in public, without having to wear the hat of shame.

It’s a fine line though, and I walk it warily. Balance must be struck.

All this started because I was thinking of human contradiction. It is a subject that fascinates me, mostly because it is so common and yet always seems slightly unexpected. There is a desire for people to be consistent. There is also the giving of labels. Sometimes it seems that the world wants you just to be one thing; into your neatly marked box you go. You may be the brain or the beauty, the jock or the geek, the loner or the life of the party. People often appear confused or even cross if you are more than one thing at once.

Generally, I like to think of myself as fairly strong-minded. (This may be a polite way of saying: stubborn as a mule.) It is partly because this is a muscle I had to build up, on account of not doing the expected thing. I am a forty-five year old female with no desire for husband or children; I live alone, from happy choice. This is, even now, considered very strange indeed. A highly educated man once said to me, in blank astonishment: ‘But you have a womb; you must use it.’ We are still in family viewing time, so I’m not going to mention the filthy rejoinder that went through my head.

It is quite difficult for women to buck social expectations. One is either sad, or bad. Women who refuse to breed are variously selfish, unnatural, misguided (poor pretty pink things who do not know their own mind) or just plain bats. A hundred years after the Pankhursts fought for autonomy and the vote, a lady without a gentleman is seen as a pitiful creature. I always think of Jennifer Aniston in this regard. There she is, lovely, highly successful, with her own production company and one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, but her life is reduced to the tired headline of Sad Jen and Her Search for Love. (This narrative is being interrupted at the moment, as she appears to have become engaged, but the yellow papers seem convinced that it will not take, and soon she shall be Sad Jen again.)

Since I took the road less travelled, I had to learn to shrug off the epithets. I had to teach myself not to mind, to understand that people will think what they will and that is their business, not mine. Each to each, I chant to myself, in the echoing halls of my cussed mind.

Then, every so often, I tumble into a craven state of caring horribly what people think, and it never ends well. This happened last night. I went for a dinner with some of the HorseBack people. I am used to seeing them in working conditions. There, I am easy as a fish in water. I wander about with my notebook, fall in and out of happy conversation, make jokes, am my utter self. But suddenly, there was a social gathering, and I lost my rhythm completely. I became unaccountably shy; talk came out in fits and starts. I heard myself mouthing platitudes, and being faintly dull. (Dull; one of my absolute terrors.) At one point, I even did an innuendo. I never do innuendo. What was I thinking? I wanted to be Dorothy Parker and instead I was channelling Terry Thomas. Now they are going to think that I am a sort of low rent Leslie Phillips.

I had angst about it for two hours afterwards. I said out loud, in the kitchen, to the dog: ‘Why did I say that?’ I felt like hiding under the bed.

There are several things about this. One is, almost certainly no one noticed, and I have created a drama in my own head, out of whole cloth. The second is that it always astonishes me that I mind so much. These moments of angst litter my entire adult life; I can almost list them for you.

I suppose it makes sense that these are people I admire and I would like them to think well of me. But how is it that I can take on an entire social construct, the one that says all those horrid things about women who do not have families, and yet fall down the rabbit hole of panic if a bad joke comes out wrong?

I start to think that I am actually very poor in social situations generally. I had another moment of crassness at dinner last Saturday night. It was with a group of people I had not met before. I felt the same constraint; I opened my mouth and something idiotic came out. I longed to be suave and charming and instead was awkward and faintly vulgar.

I realise that what I really like is seeing people in an informal way. A quick cup of coffee, a dropping in, a chance encounter; these are the easy ones. Put me in my best bib and tucker, make me sit up straight and put my lipstick on, and it’s a fifty-fifty chance that I shall screw up. Either I get over-excited and talk too much and too loudly (I have a fatal tendency to yell), or I am suddenly seized with bashfulness and can hardly form a sentence.

I especially like seeing people when there is some form of doing. The Beloved Cousin and I have easily our best conversations when we are cooking supper. The Sister and I do our finest talk when we are walking the dogs. If I am working with my horse, I appear to be able to do seamless chat at the same time.

I suppose there is something entirely unnatural in sitting round a dinner table, or standing at a cocktail party (my absolute number one worst social gathering). Humans were not really evolved to be Oscar Wilde; it takes a lot of work and concentration to acquire epigrammatic social polish.

The angst slowly subsides. Quite soon, it shall go back into its box. Happily, I am diverted by it being Frankel week over at the Racing Post. They somehow managed to get an entire troop of Household Cavalry to ride out this morning in Frankel’s colours. It is one of the funniest and loveliest and most unexpected things I’ve ever seen. There are delightful photographs of the fine sight all over the internet. Lucky Frankel, I think: there is a fellow who does not know the meaning of the word angst, nor needs to.

Vaguely, I wonder if I shall ever achieve a decent public deportment, or if I can train myself not to care. There really are more important things to worry about, like the polar bears and the national debt. How lovely it would be to reach the stage of accepting that sometimes I am an idiot, and that people may just take that as they will. Perhaps that shall be my next project. Because, as every fule no, we single ladies must have a project.


Today’s photographs:

Weather too beastly for the camera. The dour brown rain falls and falls. Instead, here is a quick selection from the archive:

18 Oct 1

18 Oct 2

18 Oct 3

18 Oct 4

A Dear Reader asked about this next view, and I rudely neglected to answer. (More low-level angst.) It is the sight I see when driving home over the Cairn O’Mount. I used to think it was the cairn itself, but in fact it is a granite tor called Clachnaben, which is Gaelic for Mountain of Stones. Even though it is still a twenty minute drive from this point to my front door, I can see this in the distance if I walk up the rise behind my house:

18 Oct 5

18 Oct 5-001

18 Oct 6


18 Oct 6-001

18 Oct 6-002

18 Oct 7

Important chicken picture for the Dear Reader who loves the chickens:

18 Oct 8

18 Oct 10-001

My happy herd:

18 Oct 10

18 Oct 14

18 Oct 16

Herself is a bit grumpy today, because of this weather. The raindrops gather in points at the end of her mane and drip onto her delicate skin and annoy her. I give her extra breakfast and love to compensate. The little Welsh pony, on the other hand, is merry as a grig, on account of her tough mountain blood, which allows her to laugh at the elements. The American Paint, in her laid back way, just puts her head down and gets on with it.

And the glorious Miss Pigeon, who has had good news from the vet. One more check on Friday, but I think we may bash on together for a while yet:

18 Oct 15


  1. Oh! Good Pigeon news! I am so happy, having been worried about her.

    And yes, the rest of this post is lovely and I nodded all the way through it, especially the part about doing things while socializing. But mainly: Pigeon! Hooray!

  2. The key word is 'unnatural'.I have just had to pretend to be natural at a wedding. My son's wedding. So many people there, all colliding from different parts of my life where I am natural but need to be just slightly differently adjusted for each one. I was either going to shatter into a thousand pieces or opt for a serene but slightly unspecific version of me. I did my best. I didn't drink because I knew I wouldn't be able to hold things together if I did, but I still have a few visibly flinching memories to contend with (mainly to do with my dancing) and must keep reminding myself that people are far more interested in themselves than they are in me. As far as I recall I didn't commit any faux pas, but I may have been neglectful in my perambulations round the room at the reception. Ah well! It does get easier as we get older and as I am 13 years older than you, that is my encouraging thought for the day.

  3. I nodded my way through this post as well, happy to remember that other people feel such anxiety in social situations. It is certainly not my strength, and I marvel at people who are so at ease with themselves, even in new environments and with new people. I simply try to survive them, but I often end up rehashing them in my head for days after, thinking of things I should've said and things I shouldn't have. Ugh. Maddening.

    PS - Happy to hear good news about Pigeon!

  4. Tania...ohhh meee toooo!!! Mary (above commenter) and I have been musing over this when faced with being new school mums (ugh;the worst kind) and trying to make new friends. We ALL have social anxiety and those who don't are lying. I think actually it is doubly hard to express oneself under pressure at a dinner when one is good (like you) at expressing things in writing. The written word is so much kinder - there are platitudes - and of course that all important 'delete' button! Society and conversation has no delete so it is entirely natural that you find yourself grasping for it after the event. Surely as a writer the action of re-writing is second nature for you and as such, it's going to be harder when the first draft of what you say, to to speak, is the ONLY draft! Imagine!

    I am delighted the pigeon looks so happy - I am going to 'pin' her...along with my favourite beech ave. Smile :-) deep breath. Lou x

  5. By 'pin' I mean Pinterest by the way!!

  6. Me too. It is much harder to make conversation at 'staged' sort of events like parties and weddings and so on.

    Such is the power of the written word that whenever I hear the word 'angst' all I can think of is

    'Tante Heidi, Ich habe Angst...'

    from Paul Gallico's 'Adventures of Hiram Holliday'.

  7. I smiled on through. In the overused but completely true phrase, it is what it is. You are loved and invited and included. If you must banish angst, look around and say "There I go again..."

    The photos of your views are magnificent and I love the tidbits thown in..."it is a granite tor called Clachnaben, which is Gaelic for Mountain of Stones." My ancestors are from both Ireland and Scotland. I know where in Ireland, but not Scotland. I do hope they looked out on mountains like yours once.

  8. Thank you for your post. I bet you are fab at dos. I love people who yell at 'dos'. I got past some of my shyness by realising so many people are never really listening anyway. Ask a few questions and the person you are talking too usually never stops talking. So glad pidge is ok. Your readers are definiitely reading and listening. You are so right about Jennifer too. Every Sad Jen article annoys me alot.

  9. And oh yes indeed, that is certainly One Important Chicken.
    Do you suppose that I am channelling a lost chicken lover?

  10. The difference is that you notice your infelicities and most people are oblivious to theirs. Glad to see the Pigeon's news

  11. Oh, me too! I agree with Lou; that all important delete button would make the cocktail party that much easier.

    So, so pleased the Darling Pidge is well. All is good. :)

  12. I'm so pleased to hear that Pigeon is doing well! And I know that you can relax about that now. Also, I love the picture of Red today - something about her eye and that she looks so hopeful (of a treat, no doubt). And here's a Me Too for you - sometimes the relaxed social chatter setting like dinner is just a minefield. I think what I've learned is not to try too hard - just be yourself. Wouldn't you rather be hated for who you are than loved for who you are not? Best, Kate

  13. Although I like to go out to eat a lot (as my ever-increasing girth will testify), I haven't been to any dinner parties in ages. Getting together with good friends around someone's table is about as "close" as it gets...which is a great relief.
    In the early years in Brussels, I used to tag along with journalist husband to "official" parties. In a receiving line, the new U.S. spokesman to NATO asked husband where he found good cleaning staff and I immediately piped up, "He married his." (Well, I thought it was funny....)
    Both my next sister & my daughter are (enviously) quick with the quip. I usually formulate mine three days later -- very frustrating. Or I goof completely like (years ago) trying to describe myself to the new school moms as a night person (versus my early bird husband), only the word in Dutch for night is too close to the word for naked...

    Very, very happy to hear the news about Pigeon!

  14. We all feel inadequate socially in some measure. I was at a friend's 80 th birthday recently. The warmth and love in the tributes from family and friends was heart warming and funny; I have thought a lot about why she is so loved.

    She keeps secrets, puts the best construction on your behaviour, has a wicked sense of humour,is always happy for your victories , has a true strength of moral character but admits her own foibles with grace.

    She would laugh at what you have said and told you that you were honest, original and wonderful company. She would have thought that any critical comments just showed that they didn't appreciate you.



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