Just a sentence, or why “Why is a pretty girl like you still single?” is pretty darn offensive

IMG_20140828_224728The following conversation between myself and someone takes place on a more-or-less weekly basis, depending on how often I find myself conversing with random men who have been fooled by my unintentional look of naivety and all those other things that apparently make me appear susceptible to halfhearted compliments:

Man (henceforth labeled ‘smooth pick-up artist’): “So, why is a pretty girl like you still single?” (if he’s really good he even swops ‘girl’ for ‘woman’, thereby hitting my vulnerable ‘please-take-me-seriously’ chord. And also reminding me of the movie, which is less of a good thing).

Hoped-for reaction:

Me:  “Gasp! You think I’m pretty?” (pull mock horrified/flattered face) “Well, to tell the truth, I’ve just been waiting for the right man to come along and ask me that question, and, you know, really see my beauty. Why don’t I just jump on your lap and kiss the living daylights out of you?” (proceed to do just that). “Also, I should warn you, from now on I shall stalk your every movement on facebook and send you desperate drunken whatsapps begging you to come and fulfill my every sexual need at odd times of the night, causing you to eventually drop dead from exhaustion.  In the meantime, though, you will have a whale of a time telling all of your friends about this chick who just can’t get enough of your body and your scintillating intellect.”

Reaction I’d really like to give:

Me: 1. “Because I don’t want to sully my gene pool or my future happiness with a condescending, unimaginative, backhanded compliment-handing chauvinistic asshole like you.”

2. “I’m celibate. And I just became a lesbian. No, drop that. I just became asexual. Also, I have a penis. And it’s bigger than yours” (grin evilly).

3. “Because being single allows me to wear dirty socks to bed, hog all the hot water in a half-an-hour shower, and allow fast food boxes under my bed to propagate at a terrifying rate.”

Reaction I really give:

Me: “Ooh…you know (mumble slightly). Life. I’m waiting for the right person to turn up and I’m not settling for anyone who’s going to bore me out of my mind in six months’ time – and, before you ask, no, I’m not going to have random sex until I find someone I actually like. Mostly because I already have and it’s boring too.” (I phrase this as nicely as I can, of course, so as to both imply that I’m not interested while in no possible way hinting that Smooth Pick-up Artist is actually causing bursts of smoldering lava to leak all over my brain. I’m nice. Blame my mom).

At this point, I should probably explain – to anyone who perhaps does not immediately find the question as offensive as I do – why such a seemingly harmless phrase leads to such mutinous thoughts:

1. The word “pretty” in that sentence (or beautiful, or lovely, or, god-forbid, sexy) implies:

– That I, being a woman, crave having my appearance validated by every male (and female), and that this simple word will unlock bountiful fountains of gratitude within me. Whereas I think, you know, that’s it’s almost like me asking a man “Why does a guy with such huge biceps still not have a girlfriend?”, hoping to thereby get him to immediately drop to one knee and propose – which would not only be insulting to him and all of the wonderful characteristics he presumably possesses, it’s insulting to my entire gender too, because I am actually saying that women are just after huge biceps. The same applies the other way around – is he saying men only want pretty girls? Isn’t he shooting his own attempts at appearing deep and sensitive in the foot?

The most horrible part of the above word is that, while seeing through the compliment, I still feel flattered. I hate it, and I ignore it, but I do. And that makes me feel manipulated. And angry at the whole wide world for propagating the myth that we need to be pretty to somehow be valid. (I have nothing against compliments. Just, you know, perhaps we could drop some more meaningful ones in, here and there. Someone asking me “why does a girl with such a pretty brain still not have a boyfriend?” would make me marginally less seething. Just marginally, though, because the rest of the question is still pretty fucked-up.

– That being pretty equals having a boyfriend, i.e. being loved. Subtext: not being pretty = not being loved.

2. The word “still” implies:

– That there is some or other race going on, and I’m late. The others are already tearing across the tracks and I’m still putting on my running shoes. All the eligible bachelors are being snatched up and I am missing out on some prime man-hunting hours which, once I have lost my youth and    beauty, I will never regain. Also, my ovaries are weeping. Furthermore, this word smacks of hinting that my primary purpose in life should be to catch a man, and be quick at it.

As for the rest of the sentence, I just find the implication that being single is somehow inadequate, less worthwhile than being in a relationship, highly offensive. It says that a (pretty or not) girl obviously wants, needs, desires desperately to be in a relationship. It overlooks whole mountains of interestingness and validity and humanness locked up in one person in a grossly oversimplifying attempt at labeling. It questions my ability to maintain meaningful human interaction; in fact, to me there is a hint in there somewhere that my being in a relationship or not is a gauge of my social desirability and ability. Yes, I read all of that in one sentence. Yes, no one thinks of all of that when they say one seemingly harmless phrase. That, however, does not mean all of this subtext doesn’t colour in their thoughts. We are subject to a whole lot of presuppositions that surface in our most harmless questions to others.

Now, in what is sometimes a second attempt to get me to consider him, or at least to sound world-wise and experienced, Smooth Pick-up Artist says:

“You’re just too fussy.” (and then he launches into a story about a friend of his who was also like me, but who finally found a beer-guzzling hunk-a-meat who somehow changed her mind and is still making her, their four children and their two Chihuahuas, happy. They now live in a lovely little face-brick house with barbed wire all around and a work-in-progress car standing smoldering in the backyard; wifey scrapbooks the heck out of all her friends’ weddings and has an exercise bike she never uses (nothing wrong with this picture. Except that it scares the hell out of me)).

Note: this has been said to me by more than just men. Some of my best friends have even told me stuff in this vein, and while I love them and I think I have good taste in friends, I consider it a big favour that I have passed over these comments with only a slight grimace. They usually tell me “you know, nobody is perfect” and “just because you’ve been hurt doesn’t mean everybody is like that”. About that: I know nobody’s perfect. I like that. I think it’s fun. Also, I think the ‘one lid for each pot’ is rubbish. And I have actually navigated the dating world, so far, with surprisingly few scars. I do not go around hating all men and checking my every possible boyfriend’s phone for signs of cheating. I am not bitter. I have given as good as I got and I have loved it, even the crying bits because they felt like good research (which might be weird, I admit). Stop being condescending, world and every-bloody-body in it (which, unfortunately, would include me more than occasionally).

The thing is, I’m not fussy enough by half. I fall in love with every brain capable of stringing together two coherent sentences, with every glimpse of a good heart peeking through a roughish exterior, with every nice pair of legs walking in front of me. I am half in love with most of mankind, actually. Being aware of this and trying to keep my head more or less steadily on my shoulders is all that stands between me and twenty well-researched novels on splitting assets and on how to choose a good lawyer.

Let me put it this way: half the bloody world is getting divorced/has gotten divorced/will be getting divorced. Of those still married, let’s not pretend that in many cases this didn’t take much burying of resentment, let alone adjusting to disappointed hopes. I am going to be optimistic and say that it is a testament to human resilience and our hopeful nature that we are still getting married at all (or it could just be a crippling fear of being alone, but whatever). I’m not bashing marriage or relationships. I’m saying that ‘being too fussy’ is not, cannot be, a bad thing. I know myself. I know what I want. And I am not going to allow a fear of being alone chase me into making rash decisions.

And no, ‘not all men’ ask the wonderfully inane question which set me on this ranting track in the first place. What’s more, many who do ask it mean well. So do my friends. Too bad – good intentions are really, truly, not enough. Ask any person who has settled down with an unreliable other in hopes of turning him/her into a saint. Ask any person who has stubbornly tried to unearth hidden intelligence in someone else while wondering why life is so unsatisfying. Ask anyone who tried to turn a kiss in a bar into a meaningful interlude. Ask anyone who thought being called pretty signaled sensitivity and kindness.

P.S. As I was writing this, I ran into a friend who asked me what I was writing. I told him about it. He replied by saying: ‘sounds to me like you’re just bitter because you don’t have a boyfriend. Why don’t you just take a compliment when it’s given?’. This made me ridiculously defensive and all of a sudden I was left wondering whether I am making a fuss over a sentence which is, after all, just a harmless sentence. But it’s not. And the fact that my objections to it can be so easily played down, be seen as the rantings of a frustrated female, that is the very problem. This is what it comes down to: if I say I am single, people hear I want a boyfriend. If I say I don’t want a boyfriend right now, people hear I secretly want a boyfriend. This is why anyone showing a hint of feminism still gets labeled as a ‘sad old maid’. Somehow there is this idea that anyone pointing out flaws in the system is suffering from one thing, and one thing only: disappointment (or bitterness, from failing at life). Sort-of a variation on the “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” adage. You know, ‘coz you’re only a feminist (i.e. a thinking human being) until you meet a good man and settle down.

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The (f)art of seduction

So recently I (tried to) read Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction. No, not because I’m planning on becoming the next Bathsheba and am in fact having a strategically placed outdoor bath installed as we speak (ever thought about the fact that Bathsheba has the word ‘bath’ in it? That suddenly struck me as pretty funny). Mostly because I got the book for free and with a title like that, it was bound not to remain unopened for very long.

Also, keeping Greene’s other books in mind (The 48 laws of power especially springing to mind, though I shan’t pretend I’ve read it either), I thought this one would be aimed at the world at large, especially the business world, meant to provide one with clues on how to charm the hell out of basically any obstacle. In fact, I rather thought Greene had picked the romantically laden title simply to seduce his readers into buying it, upon which he would inform the victim that, in fact, this book was meant to make you a business mogul. I mean, seduction? How does one write a whole (and immense) book on that with regards to personal relationships without sounding both conniving and repetitive?

Well, it turns out, you don’t. Not that the book wasn’t rather fantastic (the 300 pages I read before finally deciding I might not have seduction in me after all), peopled with larger-than-life examples like Cleopatra, Napoleon, Rasputin and Lenin (after Lenin I kept waiting for Hitler to pop up, but it turns out there are places even Robert Greene doesn’t go), seducers of individuals and seducers of whole countries enjoying equal attention. Also, its tone was gently acidic enough to make one take his frequent references to the seducee as the “prey” and “victim” not quite so very seriously. Or at least to make one suspect the author was grinning in his sleeve as he was writing.

The thing is, it seems most of the examples in there are best applied to one person, in a terrifyingly pickup-artisty manner. Now, while I rather like the idea of having some magical trick up my sleeve which can provide me with a pay-raise and perhaps even some infamy, relentlessly bashing some unfortunate person over the head with an array of tricks to thereby obtain his wholehearted attention felt pretty…empty. Here’s a choice quote:

“A perfectly satisfied person cannot be seduced. Tension and disharmony must be instilled in your targets’ minds. Stir within them feelings of discontent, an unhappiness with their circumstances and themselves. The feeling of inadequacy that you create will give you space to insinuate yourself, to make them see you as the answer to their problems. Pain and anxiety are the proper precursors to pleasure. Learn to manufacture the need that you can fill.”

Basically, what I kept thinking as I read was that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to devote such an immense amount of research to an idea where it seems a given that executing it would be unfeasible, unsustainable and lonely. I kept waiting for the moment there would be stuff I could really take seriously – and for sure, there were a few good points and even some things that might be incorporated into real life. Maybe. But seduction done the way it is in this book (and in a variety of other sources too, though those actually take themselves seriously, which is terrifyingly worse) is pretty much impossible, unless you:

  1. Urgently need to take over the world.
  2. Won’t survive the day if you can’t manage to make the emperor fall everlastingly in love with you.
  3. Relish the idea of making a desperate and insecure person your slave and companion for life (if, and only if, you can manage your end of the bargain, namely remaining elusive and unreal forever).
  4. Are basically a very bored and evil person.
  5. All of the above.

Enough with the criticism. I am not a critic. I didn’t even finish the book. Also, I don’t think everything in it was meant to be taken seriously and faithfully copied. Why I brought up The Art of Seduction was actually mostly because of the fact that it somehow echoes with an idea which I think we have all bought into at some stage, namely that we can make someone love us. Always just around the bend, in the next book, in the next magazine, in the next website, the elusive formula will be provided, making us irresistible, while of course still being loved for ourselves. We will change certain things (and yet nothing important), and, bham!, love will be achieved.

I know that I myself have often marched to the tune of “take it or leave it”, proclaiming loudly that I would never change anything for anyone. And then, upon developing the slightest crush, I would suddenly find myself agonising over every single action: Should I talk less? Should I talk more? Should I try to cultivate an air of mysterious melancholy? Or perhaps I should always look chirpy so as to make my mysterious happiness-formula the attraction? Maybe I should drink whiskey instead of beer. No, maybe I should drink beer. Maybe I should stop smoking and look responsible. No, maybe I should smoke more, and I could blow my smoke into the distance, like Katharine Hepburn, wearing a faraway look in my eyes. Maybe I should be more cute. No, wait, I want to be taken seriously – maybe I should be angry and swear a lot and hate men just enough to be a challenge. Maybe I should talk about Really Intelligent Things. Or should I let them talk about that and just gaze on admiringly?

As Solomon (master of seduction) said: Vanity, it’s all vanity. And vanity is not sustainable. It is a hollow echoing sad thing which needs to be filled again and again, emptying any poor participator of reserves (not even mentioning the exhaustion the seducer him/herself must be subject to) and offering nothing in return.

So here’s why I think seduction is like a fart: it causes a big stink and attracts attention, but before you know it, it has disappeared into thin air. There is nothing worthwhile about it except, at best, its capacity to cause a few laughs/gasps and perhaps provide a good story afterwards – it creates reaction to something you do rather than to who you are. To keep the attention you need to do it again and again, unless you can manage a clever bait and switch – in the case of a fart, substituting your flatulence with (hopefully) some more pleasant form of entertainment; in the case of seduction, sneaking in some of your worthwhile characteristics and somehow managing to get your victim addicted to these instead of to the initial allure you seemed to have. Basically, this kind of seduction stinks.

In my limited experience, being successful at seduction (where seduction implies some image of oneself being created which is not a true and at least semi-complete representation) is pretty catastrophic. I mean, what does one do after that? Just keep on fluttering those Greta Garbo lashes and muttering something benign every time real life happens? The truth is bound to come out. Wondering how to keep the interest once you’ve snared the bunny can be quite stressful. The opposite is also true – do you really want to snare that kind of bunny? And how do you get rid of it when you realise you’ve been exceedingly stupid? If insecurity is the glue, then pulling away is going to make the victim stick closer instead.

Here I should probably add that I could well imagine injecting some seductive qualities into one’s way of life as bearing fruit – and by being seductive I do not mean only towards the opposite sex, but rather being appealing to whomever you want to win over. Certainly making the best of your charms is not a bad idea – after all, why be abrasive and awkward when you can be charming? Honey catches more flies than does vinegar, they say. Besides, a certain level of seduction is pretty instinctive. We hardly need whole books to teach us.

Apart from the above, though, seduction seems to be mostly smoke and mirrors. It’s attractive because it looks like an instant cure to loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, but nothing instant is worth having. Except maybe KFC.

And besides, to actually seduce someone successfully by following the ideas held forth in many a popular magazine and website (because The Art of Seduction is at least a well-researched book, and an interesting one at that. But try visiting Cosmopolitan’s website), I know I for one would need a spreadsheet, an irrefutable mission statement which I would keep in my back pocket for inspiration, and a detailed strategy – one I would narrowly follow, ticking off items as they are successfully completed. Furthermore a tiny genie destined to accompany me for life, tapping me on the shoulder whenever I am deviating from the rules, would be a great help. And then there would still be moments of “did I make coy eye contact? Dammit, you fool, how could you forget about that?”. Basically, it’s all just very bad for your peace of mind, and if there is one thing that seems not to be good for any relationships (and when I keep referring to relationships I don’t solely speak of romantic ones), it is having unpeace among your personal mental gremlins.

There was a small point in Seduction which did ring a bell with me and which I think relationships could probably benefit from (meaning, of course, that I have not really tried this approach yet but that I do know the opposite doesn’t work all that well), namely a slight maintaining of mystery, or basically not dumping your whole being onto someone else in an overenthusiastic attempt at full disclosure. After all, familiarity breeds contempt. Contempt is definitely the opposite of what one wants, namely respect. And yet somehow I cannot imagine respect and manipulation going hand in hand for a very long time either. So perhaps somewhere there is a middle ground, a place where we can be refreshingly ourselves without being an emotional flasher or a whiney little fruit fly, where respect is created and maintained through authenticity.

A few years ago, my mom gave me advice, advice which I still remind myself of every time I catch myself debating the finer points of ways to cross my legs enchantingly or when I berate myself for having talked too much: “just be the best version of yourself.” Sounds benign but it’s actually pretty potent if you think about it. In the first place, it means knowing who that “yourself” is, while also being comfortable with the fact that it’s going to change as all things do. It means holding yourself to a high standard while also knowing your limitations. It means being both comfortable in your skin and willing to grow. There’s nothing instant about it. It doesn’t even promise you’ll thereby find someone who will love you maddeningly and think it delightful that you chew even your soup. What it does provide, however, is satisfaction, the kind you can only get from feeling as if you, just you, are enough.

The excruciating elusiveness of vulnerability

Two nights ago I watched a short video on the value of empathy which someone had shared on facebook. This led to me googling Brené Brown deep into the night (a surprisingly wonderful way to spend a Friday evening) and watching her every imaginable video. Especially her TED-talks (there’s the famous one on vulnerability, and then a newer, equally eye-opening one, on shame).

It never rains but it pours. I had spent the previous few days thinking about vulnerability, and watching these videos brought all my jumbled thoughts together in what I think Oprah would call an “Aha!-moment”. Though with me these moments tend to get lost during the next few days, when running around thinking about a million and one more immediate things tends to push isolated moments of insight away into a place where I can no longer so easily access them. So I’m jotting them down as fast as I can, right now.

I already wrote about my own ridiculously pervasive fear of making my opinion or voice heard in front of other people – a fear not so much rooted in the fact that I thought my opinions outrageous as in the fear that others would think me too pushy. I in turn thought others pushy or arrogant when they spoke as if their thoughts were at all important . And yet in other circumstances I have had tremendously little trouble ‘being myself’, so to speak: being outrageous, being loud, being funny or stupid or jaw-droppingly honest. I have found that exposing a bit of my flawedness, my own vulnerability, has caused wonderful little moments of connection between myself and others.

And yet somehow that too has been but a weak pass at being truly vulnerable. Because the moment you start cultivating a persona around being honest, the moment your honesty becomes a bit of an oddity, an idiosyncrasy, an affectation, its true vulnerability disappears. I can make funny little remarks about my most embarrassing moments, about that one time I got silly drunk and fell on my head, about my fears and failures even, and though these things would all be true and in fact rather exposing, they become cutesy. They become part of my little act.

I have, to a certain extent, cured my fear of public speaking by learning to relish the adrenaline which comes from doing something I am afraid of. I have used my absent-mindedness to make people laugh (“whoops! Dropped my pen again. Sorry people, I’m a bit nervous”) and to thereby defuse the tension. I use this sort of stage-personality to relate to others, but in the meantime it often detracts from the message. In fact, it hides me more than it reveals me. People might remember me afterwards as the rather funny one, but they won’t actually remember ME. Or what I was trying to say (whether that was an explanation on how interpreting devices work or a soliloquy on the evils of slut-shaming). This approach still works, to a certain extent, and I am not planning on quitting all of my little self-effacing comments, because they help, they truly do, in establishing rapport. But it’s not enough.

I keep on craving honesty, to such an extent that wearing makeup feels like a lie (what if someone sees me without it one day and recoils in fear?). When people compliment something about my appearance I can’t help but say “yes, but you can’t see my cellulite. Or my scarred legs”. I’m not saying these things because I can’t take a compliment – it just scares the hell out of me that people might be disappointed later when they find out about my flaws. So I wear them on my sleeve. Which, it turns out, is often the opposite of being vulnerable. It’s self-defense. It’s a preemptive strike. And it’s not honest in a real way at all.

And so, onwards. Deeper into this quest for true vulnerability which seems to be as elusive as pinning down an electron in its orbital. Because vulnerability is powerful – somehow one knows that. Somehow there is nothing as beautiful as a naked person (literally and figuratively), although: have you ever seen a perfect naked person? I haven’t, and yet that has not detracted from their beauty. In fact, it has made it more precious. It makes it more of an honour to be allowed closer, within seeing distance, within trusting distance.

And therein its power, I think: in the fact that being vulnerable implies trust, that the receiver of vulnerability is being honoured by the disclosure. Perhaps true vulnerability is something which should be handed out selectively. When it is used as a means of connecting to every single person, however random the encounter, when it is bandied about as handy ice-breaking stock, it is no longer vulnerability at all.

The problem is that true vulnerability feels and looks very needy when done wrong. In fact, it could easily be. “I told you all about my problems, now please validate me!” – isn’t that what half the world seems to be doing on facebook? ‘My boyfriend broke up with me/it was a shitty day at work/I wish someone would love me/I feel so misunderstood/today I miss you so much baby/when you have to throw out all your summer clothes ‘coz you got too fat lol #wintertimeiseatingtime’ – I’m not making fun of all of these very valid problems, and I have done my fair share of complaining on facebook too, but perhaps we are cheapening real connections with these outcries of ours, by our desperate need to expose ourselves and be told by an all-forgiving public “it is good”.

Vulnerability is not something to be thrown in people’s faces as a way of garnering attention and – if we’re lucky – approval. It is not a publicity stunt. It is not merely recounting all your flaws and hoping to be told you’re not the only one.

It is being scared, admittedly so, and yet pushing forward. It is about being raw, and emotional when the time calls for it, and open, and brave, especially brave, without expecting this openness to elicit a certain pre-determined reaction. Vulnerability is not something you extend to others in the hope of receiving a gift back, it is the gift itself. It is not a plea for attention; in its barest form it is not even a means of reaching out to others. It is what you give unconditionally. It is what you give from a place of (admittedly tenuous) security, from a place of self-acceptance, from a place of surrender.

And this vulnerability is very valuable. To such an extent that it should be handed out carefully. Trustingly, but carefully. It will always remain elusive because of this preciousness, because of its very nature. So perhaps I’ll keep my one-size fits all nuggets of self-disclosure, and carry on using them. And with a few I’ll be disarmingly honest. And with fewer still I’ll be completely vulnerable. Many may see my naked face, but precious few may see my naked body.

Speaking up – oh the unspeakable horror!

I tend to attend quite a few classes every week, it being my job and all that, and although most of my brain is rather busy trying to come up with adequate translations for all the words lecturers are spewing forth at the speed of light (or at a sleep-inducingly slow pace – I don’t know which is more terrifying), a small part of it also sits observing those around me. There are quiet students scribbling away as fast as their hands allow. There are students on whatsapp and facebook who don’t seem to be in class other than for the odd chance a class test might pop up, giving them a chance at scraping together a few highly needed marks.

There are some who sit behind me discussing last night and their love lives in ear-tingling detail (I seem to be completely see-through – in fact, I’m surprised no-one has tried to sit down on top of me yet); these are the students I send death glares to while interpreting furiously, enjoying the fact that for once in my life I can be justifiably rude and even have some semblance of authority doing so.

And then there are the students who participate. They are a tiny minority, and they are always the same ones; if you interpret a lot of subjects from the same faculty you start recognising them, even giving them nicknames (“Miley Cirus-lookalike”, “earring-dude”, “oddly sexy guy with all the weird jackets”), and, admittedly, I have often found them annoying. This might be due to the fact that it is much harder to interpret a student speaking incoherently from the back of a class than the lecturer, who is supposedly adept at enunciating and making sensible sentences.

But I must admit that in my case, it has also been due to the fact that I instinctively dislike “pushy” people. I dislike people who think that what they have to say is much more valuable than anyone else’s opinion. I dislike people who try and impress the lecturer or their classmates. While understanding the lecturer’s desperation at the masses of dead-eyed gum-chewing sheep staring at him/her, while I can’t help feeling sympathetic to the acute lack of feedback and two-directional conversation this leads to, people who repeatedly answer questions in class have always been a bit uncool in my eyes.

When I was in university, when I deigned to attend a class (which was not often, to say the least), I never ever volunteered information. I sat looking scornfully at my classmates, rolling my eyes at the hilariously stupid questions which emerged on a regular basis. I lamented the fact that classes moved at the rate of the slowest among us, thereby wasting my precious time. The only time I ever participated was when the topic was truly worthy of me, when I was sure that I was about to offer some insight no-one else had thought of (God forbid I should look so desperate to make myself heard that I was uttering some obvious argument every second student had already thought about), or when I felt so sorry for the lecturer that my mouth moved of its own accord. And even that only started happening in my fourth year. For the rest of the time I would sit in agonising frustration, sweating under my self-imposed silence, feeling rather martyr-like with these my great reserves of knowledge kept so inaccessible to anyone but a chosen few.

Oh how far the mighty have fallen. And how hard was that fall when I realised – only recently – that in fact I had not only been arrogant, but I had been afraid. Because every time I spoke, every head in class would swivel towards me (‘who’s that girl? Does she study with us?’) and I would feel the inevitable blush pushing its way up my neck, hot and red and excruciatingly visible. My hands would start shaking. My well thought-through argument would fall flat and limp to the ground like a twitching baby bird. I felt exposed. I felt completely vulnerable.

In high school it was even worse. I was so afraid of orals, though logically that didn’t make sense as I was a passably good speaker and a good writer, that my teacher on occasion allowed me to do mine after class.

And now, as a more-or-less fully functioning adult who gets paid to speak to classes full of people (though at least through the anonimity of a microphone and headsets), I still break out in a hopefully invisible sweat every time I need to address the class beforehand. During work-meetings I have learned to stay quiet and enthusiastically gorge myself on the limp sandwiches instead, partly because I strongly hope that everyone else will follow my example and the meeting will be over before we have all died of boredom, but also partly because I don’t want to draw attention to myself (which is odd because in general I rather love attention).

I wasn’t always this way, though. In primary school I was smart, and I knew it; I couldn’t wait to douse the world in my knowledge, certain that everyone would feel as enthusiastic as I did about every little thing I knew. I was that annoying little girl who always had her hand up first, volunteering answers even before the teacher had asked them. Sometimes the teacher would even say to me “I’m going to ask someone else now”, kindly but to my huge annoyance, as I was burning to speak. Perhaps I was also arrogant back then (it wouldn’t surprise me) but what I remember most was my enthusiasm about the whole world, about the copious amount of things available to us to learn about, to read about, to tell others about, about my single-minded urge to learn and have knowledge imparted to me and to impart it to others.

My classmates didn’t like it, though. They didn’t like the fact that I always knew everything – or thought I did – and that I had not yet learned how to look reluctant to impart this information, to look as modest as life demands of us: ‘above all, do not ever seem to think you know better than anyone else. In fact, don’t ever volunteer anything unless that is preceded by self-effacing mumblings and the decided air of being extremely unwilling to look knowledgeable’.

Add to that the fact that I was a South African growing up in France (and, logically, to others that also meant I definitely thought I was better than everyone else), skinny as a rail (I can’t imagine anyone being jealous of weight at the age of eight, but I could very well be wrong), and that I tended to spend my breaks reading instead of playing ball (I was abysmally bad at sports – but again, it probably looked as if I thought I was above it all), and the fact that I was ostracized to the point of hating school makes sense.

It wasn’t my classmates’ fault as much as a very human tendency to hate what we do not understand – I know that now. But when we came to South Africa, I was determined not to repeat my mistakes. I stayed quiet unless I could say something funny or entertaining or – even better – self-derogatory. I learned to be charming and fluffy and reveal any intelligence only in small doses and only to those whom I trust (though that has sometimes been abysmally unsuccessful and I often still come off as a wise-ass. But that’s another story). I hid my intensity and my curiosity as well as I could, and to a certain extent it has worked, well enough that I managed to make friends, though my true nature would eventually come out of hiding and send them running for the hills.

It is only from my teenage years and onwards that I have achieved a wobbly balance between being opinionated and being unannoying. And it is only as an adult, and so terrifyingly recently, that I have started re-recognising the value in speaking up.

Because here, sixteen years later, I have found myself propagating the very thought I instinctively rejected at eight: that speaking up means arrogance. That speaking out betrays an innate neediness. That seeming willing to make your voice heard means wanting attention to a deeply uncool level. That knowledge should be planted firmly under a bucket and carefully tended there, shared with others only if it passes all modesty-tests with flying colours.

I am changing my opinion. I am going back to being that eight-year old and I hope that I can do so without self-consciousness or that cloying humblebrag which, when seen in others, is remarkably transparent and which I still cannot help but find annoying (though having been repeatedly guilty of it too, masking it as modesty). I know that I’ll probably still end up swinging between the polar extremes of shutting up completely and hitting other people over the heads with my opinion, but I am going to give that middle-ground a much more valiant shot. I am substituting modesty for humility (see some truly wonderful things Maya Angelou said about that), passivity for involvement.

And most of all, I am cultivating an appreciation for people who seem to have navigated childhood so courageously that they still have the guts to say something when they feel like it, regardless of whether people like me sit there silently judging them. I tip my hat at them, and I hope than in future I can learn to emulate them to an extent which feels right for me. In the meantime I shall sit in class and send Miley Cirus-lookalike my silent respect every time she says something.

On connecting, not caring too much, and being weird

The fun thing about not belonging to a place is that it leaves you free to do whatever you want. What do other people’s opinions matter if you don’t much relate to them in any case, or if you view yourself as being, for some or other reason, not part of the group?

I have moved house more than 25 times in my life, and have changed towns at least half that amount. I would very much like to think that this has led to some or other wisdom about mankind, that is has given me insight and adaptability – perhaps it has, in fact, but the biggest, rather doubtful, gift it has bestowed on me has been my penchant to take most things very unseriously, usually at most unsuitable times – especially myself.

To feel like you belong in a group you need to identify with it, and for that, in my experience, you need either a shared past or shared experiences. This is something which I never quite feel fully, although at times I have indeed had that to a certain extent – for instance, my three years of being in one high school did produce a small amount of good friends whose opinions did indeed matter very much. Other than for them, though, I could simply not understand why my actions had to be subject to some internal monitor supposedly warning me when I was about to do something which did not fit the status quo in some or other manner. Not having grown up with the others also lent me an almost surreal feeling of detachment, of watching the norms and unspoken rules dominating everyone’s behaviour with complete lack of understanding, like watching a movie in Chinese with barely understandable subtitles.

The same was true, to a certain extent, at university in Potchefstroom. In fact, I think this is the disadvantage to traveling a lot that people rarely tell you about: your horisons might have been broadened, yes, but it leaves you seeing things others don’t; it leaves you feeling almost schizophrenic because of this clairvoyance which, regardless of whether you wish it to or not, causes you to laugh at little goblins no one else sees, to gasp at atrocities no one else realises. At the end of the day, what is considered to be normal is determined by the rather arbitrary rulemakings of the time and place. Fall outside of that, and it is natural to be seen as odd – after all, if there were no measures (and measures must necessarily be fashioned by the time) there would be no order. We need some kind of judgment-maker by which to shape our lives.

In Potch, at least, I made many friends who might have found me to be slightly off the beaten track but enjoyed me nonetheless. There, for the first time of my life, I also became subject to the occasional horrible awareness of what I was doing wrong, every time I was doing it wrong (or just afterwards) and that has been much, much worse than not caring. For instance, not being sure of the common references everybody else was making, or not being sure of what the limits to decent behaviour were, led to many a faux pas, such as making an inappropriate dirty joke, or mistaking people talking about things for permission to actually DO these things – in general, basically falling over my own feet at the joy of being funny or accepted and in the process enduring many an awkward silence and throat-clearing.

I shrugged the embarrassment off, but in reality each of these moments has stayed with me in excruciating detail, as insistent and nauseating as remorse. At times this has been so bad that after a night of heavy drinking (and therefore of inappropriateness the magnitude of which I cannot begin to describe) I would spend the next two days in a fever of activity, or plunge myself into two books at once, to avoid having to think for even a single moment about everything I felt stupid about.

Of course, to a certain extent, everybody does that. Everybody says and does things they are embarrassed about. To me this simply felt much more serious than it probably was because I was so unsure of what the rules were, I never knew exactly the level to which I had transgressed, I was speaking an unknown language and I strongly suspected that for every mistake in grammar that I was aware of I had made many many more which people were kind enough not to point out to me. This was not helped at all by the fact that: 1. I am impulsive by nature, and very sharp-tongued, therefore often allowing words to slip past the lazy guard at my mouth, and, 2. I could never quite understand why certain things are not allowed and therefore could not quite bring myself to conform to them.

(I asked someone if he is gay the other day. I didn’t think this weird, we were talking about the pros and cons of homosexuality and he was hanging out with two other outspoken gays. However, this seems to be a very big no-no if you don’t know each other intimately and that person has not stepped forward with the information by him/herself.)

Allow me to provide an example: pretty much everybody talks about sex in relatively general terms. In smaller groups we even tell more private stuff, such as discussing specific antics, techniques, telling funny stories to uproarious laughter. Somehow this once led to me being excruciatingly honest with people (one of whom I’d only met that very night) who perhaps did not want to know about the Russian I once slept with and the resultant three months of angst fueled by the possibility that I might have picked up something scary from him. Somehow I thought this would be a good story to tell, a case in point where the point was the value of condomising (though, if I remember correctly, I was the only one to bring up that specific point) while we were vaguely on the topic of sex in general. I only realised later that the silence which had shortly thereafter descended upon the group might have been due to the giant conversational shit I had just deposited on the table. Write what you know, they say (hence this blog), but perhaps do not speak it.

In conversation I have always wanted honesty. I have craved it at times to the extent that I prefer saying the most agonizingly embarrassing things over running the risk of having been dishonest, even inadvertently so. After all, what greater joy is there than to be actually seen, in all of one’s messy imperfection? And what greater joy, especially, than thereby telling others: “yes, me too. I am flawed too. I do that stupid thing too. I can relate.” And yet I have had to learn that regaling every possible human being with every single thought that enters my mind, my heart emblazoned on my well-worn sleeve, is perhaps not so much perceived as honesty as for a cry for attention. Which, in all honesty, it just might be, though I prefer to rather think of myself as being a charming and very self-accepting though somewhat inappropriate storyteller.

Leaving that aside (it could make for a few more blog posts, though), here’s what I learnt, and what I am practicing with great eagerness and mixed success now that I am in Stellenbosch:

-I’m not all that important. All of those incredibly embarrassing moments that keep me awake at night or writing feverishly into my diary are soon forgotten by others, replaced at best by a vague impression of me being a bit odd.

– I can choose the people whose opinions I care about, and bugger the rest – it is simply too exhausting to try and act normal all of the time in front of everybody. If the group is smaller, and the people in it are significant to me, the damage (because I will still say and do highly inappropriate things) is less. Plus, these are people whom I chose, i.e. people who share more or less the same opinions that I do, and if not, at least accept me as the person that I am. At the very worst, they laugh at me for being weird and make sure not to invite me to a party where I’ll be likely to put them to shame.

– I should drink less. Seriously, since I started planning better and becoming more aware of all the Jӓgermeisters I’ve been chugging down, my party to embarrassment ratio has become at least twice as small. The thing is, I still do stupid things, but at least I remember them fully and am not left wondering whether perhaps it was even worse than I can recall. Furthermore, I find blaming my personality rather than blaming my alcohol-levels to be, in my case, a huge relief, oddly enough. And then there is also the very real benefit of not having flashbacks while dry-heaving into an overworked toilet.

– Humour goes a long way. Laughing at myself leads to other people laughing at me too, usually turning a rather laden silence into hilarity. That in itself is fun. Also, nothing is too sacred if you can laugh about it.

– Related to the above point, something which has helped me a lot is to carefully cultivate a carefree persona. This person that other think I am (and which, to be fair, I probably am, except for the times I’m not) is random, slightly wild, not too bothered by conventions, and unpredictable. The moment you have a certain public image, people are much more willing to let you get away with things. Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton didn’t fall nearly as far from grace as, say, Obama might were he to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

This persona, however, can also be slightly limiting in the sense that people expect certain behaviour from you and deviations are rarely allowed. People like stability. They like being able to predict what will come next. As my one friend pointed out the other day, we are pattern-seeking animals. Refusing to provide a pattern might initially excite people, but in the end it leaves them cold. Another example on my favourite topic, namely sex (it’s not really my favourite topic but my friends probably think it is, them being so pattern-seeking and all): because I am very open about it, people assume I am willing to engage in all sorts of friendly activities with them too. I have had many a good friend completely flabbergasted by my lack of willingness to engage in some hanky-panky, after apparently having spent hours wooing me with talk of sex (which I assumed to be an honest conversation). That’s annoying. It’s also guilt-inducing, leading to all sorts of self-questioning and bringing me back to my original problem – did I overstep some transparent line and somehow thereby indicate my interest in something I was not at all interested in? All very confusing, this.

This has been a very convoluted post so far, meant to tell the story of a simple not at all very interesting thing that befell me yesterday. I had gone to pick up my brand spanking new second-hand laptop from a friend, which did not fit into my backpack and which I therefore carried around sticking out from it to about halfway, and went to the shops directly afterwards. Keep in mind that I was wearing my odd Indian slippers again (my feet have become very picky about footwear since I introduced them to these), a hat because my hair did not want to lie down, and I was inappropriately swaddled in clothes, having misjudged the weather. I didn’t think this too groundbreaking.

Perhaps debating the pros and cons of tuna salad versus pesto pasta out loud was weird (but come on, doesn’t everybody think aloud sometimes?), or perhaps it was when I walked down the paying aisle with a mountain of fast foods (I had to buy something for my brother too) balanced precariously in my hands, not having thought of taking a trolley. In any case, by the time I dropped my burger quite spectacularly on the floor quite a few people were looking and the guy who offered to help seemed quite grateful I didn’t say yes (my burger was fine. It had only flipped around in the plastic encasing). Upon paying, I asked the lady at the till to open my iced tea because she looked stronger than I did, and that thing was a bitch to open. This made her laugh and exchange a few words with a colleague (I am learning Xhosa. Soon. As in, within the next year), and basically by the time I walked out it felt as if everyone was looking at me.

I am very much aware of the fact that this usually happens when I go shopping, since I have a tendency to strike up conversations with any employee and exchange banalities which in my mind might make enough of a difference to change someone’s day from being boring to interesting or at least to more human. I’m not sure whether, in today’s case, the attention I received was due to my dropping stuff and being generally odd, or due to the fact that I didn’t seem to care about the fact that I looked odd.

Whatever the case, this is what I realised afterwards, walking home with my laptop still perched on my neck like a shiny pet vulture, dragging a caseload of pesto pastas: I genuinely don’t care. In fact, making everybody laugh is becoming a bit addictive. Leaving normality behind and being blissfully weird has been the most liberating experience ever. I am learning not to take myself so seriously. I am also learning that other people, though at times freaked out by this, like me this way. Striking up random conversations with strangers has been much more rewarding than I could ever have imagined, has led to friendships and even boyfriends in a case or two (though the resulting heartache might make that slightly less appealing). Trying to be socially appropriate is important within a certain time and place, but alternating this with moments of complete abandon and hilarity leads to finding islands of meaning and humanity in places that seem bereft of these.

Make yourself the experiment, is what I think. Move outside your self-imposed boundaries and see what pops out. Connecting with others is well worth the effort, though to that I must add a caveat: do not become so weird as to be completely unrelatable. I don’t quite yet know how to achieve this delicate balance, all the while also being myself (“to thine own self be true”- oh mythical words we have so repeatedly been hammered over the head with!) but so far aiming at this balance, and in the process learning not to over-identify with every single group to the point of trying to be exactly like them, has at the very least left me with more memories and tiny moments of joy than I could possibly mention.

Creatosaurus: Trying to come up with new words

You know those funny situations that are common to all of mankind (first-world problems mankind in any case), but that have no term with which to describe them? Well, I thought of a few and decided to try my hand at giving them names.

I am aware that many people have come up with much better attempts at putting experiences in words than my own rather loosely flung together creations. Nonetheless, this exercise gave me some satisfaction in the wake of experiencing a variety of things that do not seem to have a word coined to describe them yet. Should I google this, I am sure that many of the words already exist. If so, this was unintentional plagiarism. Playing with language is fun. Realising the depths of our own ineptitude when faced with the yawning chasm between language and life is rather like swimming in an ocean while being uncomfortably aware of the possibility of sharks underneath. Uncomfortable, yes, but exciting. So here goes:

– That sinking feeling you get when there’s only one cigarette left in the packet: Saddiction.

– The acute embarrassment you feel for people who do stupid things on movies/sitcoms: Cringepathy.

– When the weather report and the actual weather contradict each other completely: Shiverrage.

– The intense fear of talking in your sleep and thereby betraying all your deepest secrets:    Idiosomnaphobia.

– That garlicky/foody/completely terrifying smell which fridges (or mine in any case) tend to carry: Inexreekable.

– That complete level of exhaustion which leaves you laughing hysterically at everything:  Hilaribuzz.

– The scent of snow carried from somewhere over the mountains, which is not a smell but somehow is: Nosetalgia.

– The odd duality of missing someone and yet not missing them enough to want to see them: Guiltradiction.

– That random stone in your shoe which you can’t seem to find but which bothers you every time you walk: Plimp

– The last little bit of toothpaste left in the tube which is completely unextractible and yet feels like enough reason not to buy a new tube: Teasepaste

– The blinking message light on your phone/tablet which seems to go on the moment you decide to go to bed: Gnashwink.

– The subtle way in which you manage never to address someone directly when unsure what title would be appropriate (you/oom/sir/professor): Respecxious.

– The oddly formal voice which comes jumping out your own throat when you answer a call from someone from the bank or from your boss: Snobover.

– The self-consciously embarrassed joy you feel when sitting at home drinking beer completely by yourself: Hapward

– That jealousy you feel about others going out on a Friday night while somehow not even remotely wanting to join them: FOMOxhaustion.

– When toilet paper refuses to tear at its pre-determined seams:  Fnarging.

– The act of recycling dirty laundry by spraying it all over with deodorant and then doing the sniff test: Wishful destinkification.

– Lugging every imaginable thing you own to work only to later realise that you forgot your wallet: Scramblanger.

– The smell you carry around with you after having been repeatedly rained on and dried: Labramust

– Lying awake with a cold, trying to prevent your nose from running out onto your pillow by use of mental powers: Telebooger.

– Flowers that have by now wilted completely but which you don’t want to throw out because they used to be pretty: Wiltful.

– The intention to take an afternoon nap which never reaches fruition: Snoozeation.

– The funny green pips in a tomato that make you stare at it for ages before reluctantly taking a bite: Hypochondrungry.

– Being hungry and yet not wanting anything on the menu: Frustreated.

– The jokes you make at your own expense while digging for loose change at the shop counter, or when smoking too much, or when trying to diffuse any awkward situation: Humbledrag.

How not to quit smoking

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I love smoking. Don’t get me wrong, I also really hate it, but I love it. This, oddly enough, has made my valiant attempts at quitting this filthy hobbitses of a stinking habit much harder than the arrogant me of three years ago could ever have thought. (Oh how I miss that self-confidence!) Because yes, I only started smoking three years ago, completely sure that it was a temporary thing, that I, unlike the rest of humanity, would quit with complete ease the moment I felt like it. And maybe I could indeed quit with complete ease, if I only felt like it. The funny thing is, I never do (feel like it, I mean. Or quit, for that matter).

I love smoking for the following reasons (and I realise that writing an ode to the joys of smoking is completely politically incorrect, not to mention counter-productive, but here goes):
– It gives me something to do. No more nights of getting hopelessly smashed because I had nothing else to fill all the conversational voids while hanging out with people I only vaguely know. No more drinking because I’m bored – now I have another, slightly less hangover-inducing habit to fill my nights with. Of course, cigarettes do seem to be conducive to harsher drinking, but that’s hardly the point.

– It leads to fantastic encounters and even in some cases to fantastic friendships. Every smoker has met someone because they borrowed a lighter or a fag (I don’t know why British slang for drinking and smoking sounds so incredibly cool, but there you have it); in my case I met one of my favourite friends because he borrowed my lighter twice in a row and eventually we just smoked three cigarettes on end, respectively, while talking nonsense. Since then I think at least a third of our friendship has been built on simultaneous smoke breaks.

Two nights ago I was sitting with a few friends in a bar and I met the eyes of a random dude who looked like he might be famous. We had a silent ‘cheers’ due to the fact that we were both smoking (I was the only one in my company doing so) and ended up having at least half an hour’s conversation about all the odd things man learns about himself while in the grips of a seemingly relatively benign addiction such as nicotine. During most of the conversation, I must admit, I was wondering who he could possibly be (he looked somewhat like a weather-beaten relative of Anton Goosen or Mick Jagger, complete with leather jacket, gravelly voice, and ponytail), which added to the appeal: because of smoking I met someone who might or might not be an undercover rock star!

– This is related to the above, but smoking really keeps a conversation going. Meet another smoker and you immediately have something in common. When a conversation dies out, you share self-deprecating stories on the joys and sorrows of trying to quit; misery loves company and there are few such seemingly inexhaustible sources of joyful complaining as smoking. In fact, meet a non-smoker and you can at least entertain them with some poking fun at yourself – plus, people really love giving advice to sinners, and smokers are the one group it is still politically correct to criticize publically (admittedly, not my favourite perk of being a smoker). But look around – at training sessions, long meetings, everywhere – the smokers always end up crowding together during the tea breaks, laughing uproariously, sharing a certain devil-may-care free-spiritedness I was always jealous of when I didn’t smoke yet.

– It feels really cool. Saying this makes me decidedly uncooler, but it’s true. When I started smoking I felt as if I were handing life a giant ‘fuck you’, like Simba I was saying “I laugh in the face of danger!” (only to be shortly thereafter caught in the trap of sniggering hyenas – I’m still waiting for a great omnipotent Mufasa to come and save me from the claws of addiction). I felt as I were following in the footsteps of all the great tortured writers and philosophers who ever grinned cynically at me from the back pages of book covers, as if I were reliving Pulp Fiction and Casablanca and every other great movie from back in the glorious days when people still smoked in buildings.

– Also, it makes me look cooler. There is a slight difference between this and the above point, which one would perhaps only understand upon meeting me. I am small. I am almost inconsequential in my smallness, and definitely cutesy. If I didn’t smoke I would only be another skinny butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth type, around whom people wouldn’t dare swear, let alone speak of anything interesting, ever. I have tried many other things, but nothing automatically elevates me to a higher level of noticeability like smoking – and this applies to non-smokers’ attitudes too, by the way.

But, I am seriously and honestly quitting. No one believes me anymore, and with reason, but I am. Because it isn’t fun anymore, like it was at the start, when taking a drag was living dangerously – now, with every drag I feel my impending doom coming closer, breathing down my neck and settling in my chest with dark and sinister intent. I don’t do it because I like it anymore, I do it because else I can’t stop thinking about it, else I don’t know how to have fun anymore, else my days have an odd extra hour that I need to fill with housecleaning or something equally terrifyingly productive.

My mom phoned me the other day and asked me whether I was still “sucking on that long white stick”. After finally figuring out she wasn’t making an obscure and completely uncharacteristic reference to blow jobs, I told her that yes, I was, but “much less than I used to”. That has become my plea, my defense, and, admittedly, a complete lie which I brandish less and less triumphantly as I find myself having to increasingly smoke like a naughty school child in the darkest corners of campus, lest anyone who was under the impression that I had quit see me.

So, as has been said, I am quitting. The only thing that yet eludes me is a strategy. However, what I do know a lot about is all the ways in which NOT to quit, so I was thinking that, by making use of a little mathematical canceling out of non-viable options, I could be left with the solution. Right? Right.

1. Do not, ever ever ever, tell all your friends, family, colleagues, and random strangers on the street that you are quitting (I once told a beauty products marketer on the phone that I was indeed a smoker, but “only for another day”). There is nothing motivating about people “holding you accountable” by bombarding you with supportive whatsapps, facebook messages and sidelong looks. Also, the more people tell you they are proud of you, the more ashamed you feel when you start again.

2. Do not think telling no-one will be greatly successful either. Upon the above strategy failing me, I decided to quit and then surprise people months after the fact by saying “Hey, guess what? Haven’t smoked in aaaaages.” I never got past three days.

3. Speaking of which, do not think you’ve made it when you haven’t smoked in three days. I read on CANSA’s website that nicotine leaves your system within that amount of time. That may very well be the case, but it turns out nicotine-withdrawal is only the tiniest teensiest tip of the iceberg.

4. Do not quit on weekends. There are too many hours in a weekend begging to be filled with debauchery, suddenly you have too much money and everyone you know is tugging on a cigarette to accompany that lovely smokey (oh, even the word!) Weiss beer. Even worse is quitting on a weekend when you don’t have much to do – nothing accompanies a ‘it’s Friday and I have nowhere to go!’ pity party quite as well as a lovely full pack of cigarettes.

5. Do not quit on a Monday. Mondays are bloody awful as it is, and upon jogging to work half asleep, wondering what you might have forgotten in you rush to leave the house, you’ll curse yourself for not having at least smoked your heart into artificial beating. Also, the rest of the week, in my personal opinion, is not a good time for quitting either – not neat enough. You know, you want to pick a day that makes sense. Quitting on a Tuesday is like starting work at seven minutes to eight. Plus, as the week progresses you’ll find yourself more and more exhausted, which does not contribute to much mental fortitude.

6. Do not quit and then go out with smoker friends ever again. Especially not if going out means drinking as well. Alcohol, even a delicate sip or two, numbs all defenses, justifies all, gives you sudden and exact clarity of mind, therewith reminding you of all the wonderful reasons why you should quit much much later, like maybe when you’re dead, for instance.

7. Do not wait until you are dirt-broke to quit. The only thing that happens is that you end up starving yourself because “smoking is cheaper than eating”, and people tend to be less sympathetic to your plight when you still smell like a tobacco factory. Also, it gets really embarrassing, even when no-one can see you, to dig endlessly through pockets and discarded handbags for loose change like a junkie. Which you are. Not to mention the fact that you will end up begging, borrowing, and stealing (my unsuspecting brother chose one of my poverty-induced quittings to come and visit. He would periodically wake up to find me grinning like a Cheshire cat, holding a cup of coffee as apology, his packet of cigarettes oddly depleted).

8. Do not wait until you have bronchitis to quit. If money couldn’t make you stop, coughing won’t either. You simply end up feeling stupid, coughing as you inhale, assuring people that, no, in fact you caught the bronchitis from a neighbour and not from those Malboro’s.

How to quit then? Well. I think the solution lies in mustering all your courage, bidding your friends farewell, buying a year’s food supply, and locking yourself into a deserted woodlands cabin, after which you make sure to throw the key as far into the bushes as possible. Also, make sure there are burglar bars in front of the windows. Commence to write a soul-searching novel, or that dissertation you’ve been having nightmares about, or songs as moving as those of Eddie Vedder to accompany your very own journey into the wild recesses of your soul.