Sunday, May 24, 2009

Embracing the dress rehearsal

Under surveillance by Pants

Ever feel like whatever you do, however grand and heroic your effort to scramble to a place of relative comfort and safety, some insidious and uncombatable force masquerading as benign, or possibly even benevolent has you at the top of its ‘to screw’ list?

An ex-friend once misquoted John Lennon to me in a flurry of frustration as I racked up yet another failure to comply with her version of experiencing existence in its full and glorious magnificence. ‘Life’, she shrieked, ‘is what happens to you while you’re busy making plans.’ That salvo ended in a hail of expletives involving liberal use of the c-word on both sides, the cumulative result of which was we never uttered a civil word to each other again.

Some people it seems are unnervingly passionate about the quality of the lives of others, even if their take on the nature of that quality is entirely alien to the recipient. Where on earth do they get the time? What is going on in their own lives while they’re busy critiquing l’engagement de vivre of others?

At the risk of going all Dr Phil, I just don’t get it. I tend not to make firm plans as something invariably gets in the way of them. When plans are unavoidable, I develop a hierarchy of two or three carefully devised strategies and contingencies and even then, I prepare myself for the probability that there are enough spanners in my sphere to bollocks the lot. I’m flexible to the point of obsession about the amount of excrement any given fan pointed in my direction is capable of expelling.

Some people interpret my pragmatism as indecisive or even negative. I have seen rigid individuals rail against the inevitable to the point of apoplexy, regarding themselves positively assertive. No amount of aggression will undelete a cancelled flight, of this I’m certain. The only effective defence against the vagaries of the likes of airline accounting is a large and interesting book. I speak from experience.

Right now I have friends visiting. Domestic standards serve as their compendium of righteousness. I do not complain as I am acquiring all manner of ‘correct’ implements and ingredients, at least some of which will make certain operations infinitely more efficient. For example, I had a dim awareness that the clothes pegs I bought at The Reject Shop were fundamentally flawed in that they were not capable of attaching wet clothes to my external line for long enough to render them dry and therefore wearable. Beyond a general feeling that this was not a good thing, I had no other thoughts on the matter.

Having spent most of my adult life in a flat, I had only ever used pegs to stop sheet music from blowing away at alfresco gigs. It never occurred to me that there might be a type of plastic peg that didn’t spring apart at the slightest gust of wind, depositing your clean jeans in your newly constituted compost heap. I'm very pleased to have acquired a fully functional peg collection but less thrilled that the entire population of Larrikin’s End is now intimately acquainted with my shortcomings in the house and garden department. Mrs Visitor likes to share. Mr Visitor has brought me cases of vintage red, nicely redressing the balance. All’s well.

Getting back to John Lennon, the ex-friend and the misquote. What Lennon actually said was, ‘life is what happens when you’re planning other things.’ Now to me that doesn’t mean, as my ex-friend suggested that one should blast one’s way through life unplanned and unplugged, mowing down any and every shred of resistance until one’s will is fully satiated. I intuit a more nuanced meaning. My interpretation is something more akin to these lines from Robert Burns’s poem To A Mouse,

'The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft agley'

In other words, expect the unexpected to leap up and punch you right on the nose at the very moment you think you can finally relax.

When Rose Tremain coined the phrase ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ twenty years ago, I wonder if she imagined how ferociously it would be appropriated by our selfish gene to justify overriding others’ needs and desires in order to satisfy our own self-interest. Could she have been aware of how much this catchy and seemingly innocuous mantra would contribute to the odious ‘personal growth’ industry? Does she now realise just how much damage she's caused? Life may not be a dress rehearsal but the unavoidable inference that it should therefore be a polished performance is surely even further removed from actuality.

At best, life is improvisation and it would appear the more confident you are, the better an improviser you’re likely to appear to be. Now that seems like a bad peg to me. Just because I’m not loudly and constantly articulating desires, doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally have them. If I prefer to go quietly, minimising the risk of conflict, it doesn’t mean I willingly concede to others’ aspirations for me. Never having been a parent, ambition on behalf of others is not a concept I can readily understand. And I very, very much don’t understand people who have views on the shape of your salad bowl or the size of your coffee mugs.

Neither Ms Ex-friend nor Mrs Visitor has ever given a thought to the possibility that I just might have different priorities. Both have interpreted my habitual compliance as fecklessness.

I only refuse interference if there are clear and present disadvantages to the proposed alterations or additions. I just don’t care enough to resist and that alone guarantees I’ll lose any ensuing argument. Better to save your strength for battles that matter. If they were really that keen to see me right, they might have made it their business to become literary agents or publishers. Now that kind of intervention I could have happily gotten used to. Robert Burns has a neat little couplet just made for those too busy making other people’s plans,

'O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us'.

Having strong views about unimportant things would seem to me the very antithesis of ‘life’. Surely it’s better to have no views at all than to clog your head up with facts and figures about DVD players and hosepipe fittings. There is something hideously narcissistic and competitive about comparing your dishwasher to someone else’s dishwasher. Both Ms Ex-friend and Mrs Visitor have a worrying fascination with white goods which I’m confident I will never acquire. A fridge is a fridge is a fridge and then only so when it breaks down and needs replacing.

What does it matter if sometimes 'life' as others would have it passes you by while you’ve got your head firmly planted in a book?

Oh my, look at the time. I must go now, I have rehearsals to be getting on with.