Still locked down after all these years

Dear friends

I’m sorry it has been so long since I wrote. I haven’t written because I have been depressed. A lot of us have been depressed, probably most of us, so I make no special claim there. I don’t even really know why I’ve been depressed – I’m in a comfortable home, with enough alcohol. I have been walking far and eating well. I have lost some kilograms and watched good things and read good books and I feel loved and capable of loving. I have earned less money than usual but then again I haven’t spent as much as I normally do, and my life hasn’t changed as much as other people’s lives have changed, and yet for a couple of weeks a wave of glumness and bleakness came upon me, so long and steady that it affected my work and the balance of my heart and the quality of my living, and there was nothing I could do about it.

(I know it is one of the modern stations of the cross that a middle-class person living in relative comfort should preface everything they say with “I know how lucky and privileged I am”, but if you don’t mind, I won’t. I have a few reasons for this:

  • It has become an inert part of any utterance, neither clarifying nor truly qualifying. I think of it as a prefix that doesn’t modify the word that follows it, like the “in” in “inflammable”.
  • It feels like reciting a script of such crushing and formulaic unoriginality that any juice or value in the sentiment have long since been squeezed out, and I become itchy when I’m expected to do or say things for no better reason than that they’re expected of me.
  • I prefer to do people the courtesy of assuming they are adult enough to assume that I am adult enough to be aware of my position in the class hierarchies.
  • At this stage, it really just feels like a pointless superstitious ritual, a kind of verbal clove of garlic to protect you from the vampires of social media criticism: “If I acknowledge my privilege, no one will be able to accuse me of having unexamined privilege!” This seems to me a waste of time. I’m not saying the vampires of social media criticism don’t exist; I’m saying they’re not afraid of garlic.
  • In this context in particular, it would seem to be implying that there is some sort of necessary correlation between mental health and material wellbeing, and that furthermore, depression is only legitimate if its sufferer fails some sort of economic means test. I don’t agree with either of these thoughts.
  • If anyone has ever genuinely made themselves feel less miserable by the thought that other people have it worse than they do, I’m not one of those people.)

But it’s not good enough just to say you don’t know why you were depressed. Being depressed suggests something is out of whack, and what’s the point of having been depressed at all, if you don’t formulate some theory as to what that was?

This is my theory: when I was a younger man I was prone to these same bouts of helplessness and hopelessness and despair. I associate them, looking back, with a sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of circumstance and not being able to control my responses to those circumstances, and furthermore to not having the emotional resources and wherewithal to shape life in such a way as to de-emphasise the everyday opportunities for psychic drag.

I think part of the cause of this depression has been a kind of sense-memory of adolescence: the struggling, half-defeated awareness that my life, in small, niggling, trivial-yet-important everyday ways, is not my own any more, that it is being dictated by rules I do not always understand, with which I do not always agree, and administered by individuals I do not necessarily respect, playing out in the larger context from which there is currently no escape.

Of course, that’s not the reason why I was depressed – that’s the reason why things went out of whack with me, and when things go out of whack, a cascade starts that has its own momentum. But it’s simpler and not untrue to say that think I have been depressed because on some molecular level I am sixteen again, except now it’s even worse because I am an adult and so have had a taste of what life should be, and also, being an adult I can’t even paint my bedroom walls black or listen to The Doors. No one, over the age of eighteen, is allowed to listen to the Doors.

So there it is, I’ve been depressed. No big deal. I am sure you have too, for your own reasons, and I’m sorry that you have been feeling depressed. I hope you are not as depressed any more, or if you haven’t been depressed yet, that when it starts it won’t last too long. I think mine is lifting, and while it has done possibly irreparable damage to a couple of deadline-driven projects, well, I’ve done that before without being depressed, so who’s to say?

So not much has been happening, but here’s something I want to tell you about:

This is a story that played out partially in the media, but which I had stumbled upon myself. It’s a story that seems to contain just about everything of the local experience of the past eight or so weeks.

I have a number of routes I regularly walk, and one of those routes is along Beach Road in Mouille Point, from Three Anchor Bay to the Waterfront and back. It is very peaceful and quiet, and you are beside the sea and breathe the salty air. Every time I passed that way, I would see a man and sometimes a woman sitting in a car, a Mini Cooper, or sometimes leaning against it. I wondered what they were doing there, but these were the early days of the lockdown, when people still weren’t speaking to each other in the street.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I worked out that food must be involved. Sometimes I would see homeless people clutching food in small plastic containers, walking away, in both directions, from the man and the woman and the Mini Cooper.

This man and this woman, it turned out, were feeding people who had no food. But their neighbours were not pleased about this. They would call the police to complain, and the police would come by and tell the couple to stop feeding people. The couple would respectfully acknowledge the instruction, then continue to give food to hungry people. Soon enough a video appeared on social media, depicting a confrontation between a policeman and the couple. It is a difficult conversation to watch, because it becomes increasingly clear that the policeman does not want to be enforcing this regulation, but it is equally clear that as a working man with a boss and a job, he has no real choice. Here is the video:

It made me sad, that clip, because everyone involved in it is trying their best to do the right thing in an impossible situation. The cop is doing everything he can to avoid doing anything. The guy is trying everything he can to feed hungry people. The only villains in the story are, as usual, the ones you can’t see, the curtain-twitching neighbours who put in phone calls to the police because someone in their neighbourhood is feeding hungry people.

A week or so later, this story appeared:

https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/crime/2280877/man-who-fed-homeless-speaks-out-as-cops-hunt-pair-who-torched-his-car/

The man and the woman woke in the early hours of the morning and looked through their window to see the flames from their burning car reflecting on the sea. Someone had thrown a petrol bomb underneath the vehicle. Someone at that moment was congratulating themselves, perhaps getting a proud kiss from their wife, saying, “That will teach those people not to feed hungry people in our neighborhood.”

It shocked me. It made my heart very heavy to think of some of the people we live among. I didn’t return to Beach Road for a while. I didn’t want to see the burnt-out car and I didn’t want to look up at windows and wonder if on the other side of that window lurked the kind of person who could do this.

But all good stories come in three acts. I returned to Beach Road earlier this week. It was a cloudy day and winter, while not yet here, was coming nearer. When I reached the block where the Mini Cooper had been parked, I saw it was still there. The wheels had burnt out and the plastics had all melted and the windows had shattered. The car was a husk, and I expected to feel sad, or angry, or something like defeat, but the car did not look like a symbol of defeat. There were flowers on the back seat, and it had been decorated with bright colours and words of encouragement. People had written notes of sorrow and appreciation, and placed them under the wipers and wedged into the doors. Someone has scattered the inside with bright gold stars.

Nearby, at the bus stop, I recognised the woman who owned the car. She was handing out food to hungry people, and now she had people helping her. She told me that since the car had been burnt, she had been overwhelmed by the outpourings of support and donations. She said the children from the block came down and painted rainbows and flowers on the car. She said she had been upset on the night of the attack, but ever since then the car has become a source of hope and deep joy to her, a source of pride every time she sees it, something that reminds her that people are more good than bad. She said that to her, it is like a flower blooming.

I told her that I thought the car should be cast in bronze and turned into a permanent memorial at the side of the road, something to remind us all of this time and to make us think about how we responded to it. She said she has been approached by an artist who wants to turn it into a sculpture. I suppose what I’m saying about this is that good things can come from bad things. I’m glad I went back to Beach Road, to be reminded of that.

It rained here this morning – a brief flutter of rain that came from the sea and has already passed by, bringing thin warm sunshine behind. The air is good and cold and clean, and I am looking forward to it being winter again.

I am very happy that you are there, and that I can write to you. Thank you for being there. I send you my very warmest love.

Darrel

Letter from Lisbon

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Dear Friends

I’m sorry I haven’t written in such a long time. It isn’t that I wasn’t thinking of you, but the days run away like wild horses over the hills, as someone once said, and it was Christmas and New Year and then my friend Charlie came to stay for a while and you know how it goes.

Christmas in particular is always a difficult time for me, as it is for most of us, I think, who aren’t psychopaths or Disney characters. Christmas, for adults, is premised on loss: the loss of childhood, ourselves, innocence, our parents, whatever it is. One way or another, we are always either falling sadly into that loss, or trying to repair it and make it whole for ourselves or our children or the people around us. This year I decided to try to fixate not on what’s past but what is. It seemed to work.

I’ve been in Lisbon since the beginning of December, and will be here till February. It’s lovely here. The days are bright and sunny and the evenings are clear and crisp and fine. Lisbon is a gentle, gentle city. People are handsome and calm and kind. The only areas in which I can fault them are their fondness for salted cod, and the astonishing slowness with which they walk. Lisbon has the feel of a country town, rather than a European capital.

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This Christmas I had my first ever real tree, which I bought from a corner supermarket. We decorated it with red baubles and a green sparkly ornamental pickle and strings of cheap Christmas lights from a Chinese store near Estrela Park and crowned it with a hand-crafted star made from foolscap sheets from a yellow legal pad. I was dissatisfied with the lights, not because of how they looked, but because of a certain snootiness and built-in racism.

“What do the Chinese know about Christmas?” I huffed. “These things will break before Christmas Eve.”

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Vienna Christmas lights

We went to Vienna just before Christmas for a couple of days to see the lights. At a stall in a Christmas market beside the Rathaus I found a good sturdy Teutonic set of lights that cost a fortune and promised a ten-year warranty. That’s what you want! The Germans know Christmas! They know how to make a product that lasts! I carted them home and plugged them in. One of the bulbs briefly ignited, then fizzled and died away like Tinkerbell when no one believes in fairies. I stood there, snarling in a most unChristmassy way, holding three metres of German propaganda and lies. The cheap Chinese lights haven’t been unplugged in over a month, and are still flashing and glowing and twinkling, bright as hope.

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Lisbon living room Christmas lights

My apartment in Lisbon is on Lago de Rato, at the top of one of the seven hills, and there’s a young man who sits on the cobbled sidewalk next to my front door. He’s there all day long, every weekday, from 9am till 5pm. He’s well-dressed and clean-shaven but he has a cup in front of him for coins. He doesn’t do anything for the coins, not even look needy or pitiful: he just sits reading all day long.

Let me tell you, this guy can read. He has the concentration of a man who has never seen a smartphone screen. He reads books that he either buys or borrows from the second-hand bookstore around the corner, next to the bakery. I’ve seen him reading Dickens and Tolstoy and Pessoa, and a collection of Christmas ghost stories. He moves his lips when he reads, and sometimes he reads aloud to himself in an even, pleasing cadence.

I like leaving or coming home and seeing him there reading, and I like it when he reads aloud. There was a time when we all read aloud. Some historians think it may have been as late as the mid-18th century that we started reading silently to ourselves, rather than to the people around us. They ascribe it to a growing post-Renaissance tendency towards individualism. Before that, reading was communal, to knit together a small community, to share and pass the time together.

I like to think of that man beside my door engaging in a kind of exercise of community, like a monk in a medieval refectory, reading aloud to whoever wants to listen, sharing his inner world with the outer world around him.

But here’s what I really like about this guy: I think he sees himself as a professional, as someone doing a job. He has regular working hours, and at the end of the day, shift done, he stands and brushes himself down, solemnly pockets his coins, takes out his laminated transport pass and strides off to the corner to catch his bus home. The coins in his cup aren’t charity, they’re the community acknowledging his role as a contributing member of society.

Lisbon is a place of small, daily delights – unexpected kindnesses in shop queues; sudden glimpses of the glittering river down the hill through the alleyways; the small museums and bookstores on every block – and I am feeling a little apprehensive about leaving because my next big stop is somewhere quite different.

I’ll be spending two months or so in Los Angeles, taking meetings with studios and directors – including, somehow, with the director of one of my favourite films of all time – and generally bustling and bumbling my way down the boulevard of broken dreams. No one ever makes it in Hollywood, no one at all, except for those imaginary few who do, and I’m not intending or expecting to make it. I’m just going to be going around with my script, talking to the people who are interested in it, hopefully making some new friends and having some fun. I’m nervous about it but also excited, and I’m trying to think of it as what the philosopher James Carse called “an infinite game”.

Finite games, James Carse says, are the instrumental games that exist for the purpose of winning or losing. The infinite game is premised upon authentic interactions that exist solely for the purpose of continuing the play. I guess life, lived the right way, is an infinite game, and so are its components, and I want to keep playing it, with an infinite number of participants, for as long as I can.

I hope your year has started well. I hope you’re feeling happier and that this will be a good year for all of us, and that we’ll all have fun and feel whole. My friend Craig keeps phoning me and yelling, “It’s 20-Plenty, baby!” He can be very annoying.

With very much love to you

Darrel

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The Christmas pickle

The chicken and the egg-timer

Dear friends

I don’t mean this to sound weird, but it’s really nice to be able sit down and write to you. It’s a good feeling to write something you don’t have to write, to someone you like – writing that doesn’t require the use of an egg-timer. I don’t know if you get anything from it, but I get a lot.

I suppose you never know how letters are received, or what use they are. In his book about death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes describes the day he discovered that the leather beanbag that had been in his family lounge as long as he could remember had been stuffed not with foam or Styrofoam chips or even, I suppose, beans, but with his parents’ old love letters, ripped and torn into mouse-nest shreds. All his childhood and adolescence he had been flopping down on the macerated morsels of his parents’ words of undying devotion.

How had this happened? Had there been some sort of acrimonious parting? No, they were still bumbling along together, a practical, undemonstrative pair, sleeping in the same bed as they’d always done. It’s just, his mom explained, that they needed stuffing for the beanbag.

I suppose there are worse fates for a letter than to provide someone with a comfy place to wiggle his bottom after a hard day. I shouldn’t think these letters are anywhere near as useful as that, but at least I have something practical to share with you today.

For the past few weeks I have become convinced that I’ve discovered something new, a technology hitherto unknown that will revolutionise the world and our experience of time itself. Certainly, it has changed my working life, and I don’t exactly know how. It’s a mystifying phenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts, and I would truthfully describe it as the closest thing to magic I’ve encountered.

Not to build this up too much and then have you throw your device across the room in disgust when you discover that my invention isn’t a time-machine (although it is, in a way) or an invisibility cloak or a flying dog, let me just tell you upfront that what I discovered is a productivity technique, a way of structuring my work time. That sounds dreary and not worth the telling, and maybe it isn’t, but I find it interesting and it helps me, and you’re my friends so I want to tell you in case it helps you too.

When last we spoke I was fretting about an amount of work I had to do, with deadlines looming like serried rows of razor-backed mountains on the horizon in my way. Rather than actually doing the work, I interested myself in trying to calculate whether it was literally possible to do the work in the time available. But I didn’t have the data. How much measurable work goes into a column? How many minutes to write a speech, or a script, a treatment? I know roughly how long it takes to get things done, but how much of that time is actually working, and how much of it is spent making prank phone calls and goading English rugby supporters on Twitter? I needed to get scientific.

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I found a sort of large egg-timer that measures fifteen minutes. I sat down to a task and turned over the glass. Normally I work for six or seven minutes then stand up and wander around and try on my jacket to see if I’ve lost weight since I wore it last, but in my Marie Curie-like hunger for accurate data I worked for the full fifteen minutes, then made a little pencil mark on a piece of paper. I took a five-minute break, then sat down again.

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The idea was to work like that until the script was finished, then count up the little marks to figure out precisely how much work-time it took, but it soon became clear that something was different. Working that way wasn’t just measuring how much time the job took took – it was changing how much time it took.

If the amount of work I normally do in a minute is x, the amount of work I completed in one 15-minute block wasn’t 15x, it was more like 20 or 30x, and the effect accelerated, the more blocks I wrote. I was expecting the project to take four hours, typically spread over maybe seven hours or eight hours (it was a half-hour script for a television show) but it took 90 minutes, spread over just under two hours.

I tried it again, and again, with different projects, and the same thing happened. It’s obviously a function of enforced concentration and focus – during those fifteen minutes you cannot check messages or do anything but work – but it seems to also build a spooky internal momentum of its own. Once you push past a certain point something happens that isn’t identical to but is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s notion of Flow. Time itself seems to bend – the minutes pass faster, but more happens inside them.

I experimented with different lengths of time and intervals. Less than fifteen minutes was too short, more than fifteen and I started flagging and faltering. And the five-minute break seems to be key, not just because it gives you something to work towards, but because something happens during those five minutes when you aren’t actively thinking about the work, but the work is still in there, working itself out. The second block of fifteen is more productive than the first, and the third more than the second.

I’m sure there’s some science to this – you’re combining the benefits of active top-down focus with the deeper workings of bottom-up creativity, and probably also something about neural myelin sheaths, blah, blah, blah – but I prefer to cradle and cherish it as a kind of personal magic.

I was very excited about my discovery, but of course there’s nothing new under the sun. Some chap named Francesco Cirillo developed something called the Pomodoro Technique in the late 1980s – so called because he used a tomato-shaped pomodoro kitchen timer, instead of my elegant quarter-hour-glass.

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His timings are different to mine: he works for 25-minute blocks, with 3 to 5 minute breaks for the first four blocks, then a 15 to 30 minute break, then starting again. It sounds swell, but only a monkish monomaniac can work for 25 uninterrupted minutes at a time without needing some sort of blood transfusion afterwards.

(And not even monks. Famously, the desert fathers who took to the sands of the Egyptian desert in the first monasteries in order to consecrate their days to silence and studying religious texts and copying out the gospels struggled to get past midday. In their diaries, they all comment on how the mornings went pretty well, but then they would be struck by the afflictions and temptations of the Noonday Demon, who would try to deflect them from their holy work by making them restless, dissatisfied and causing their minds to wander. Afternoons in the desert, even for holy fathers with no Wifi, were a write-off.)

My recipe is an hour containing three blocks of fifteen minutes each, followed by an hour or so of strolling or swimming, followed by another hour of work then a good long lunch and perhaps a nap (I spend most of my year in the Greek islands, where a nap at lunchtime is a patriotic duty) and then repeat in the afternoon. No one doing mental work can do more than three or four intensive hours in a day without fooling themselves.

A total of three hours in front of the screen, using this method, gets the work done that used to take about three days of grumbling pasty-faced dissatisfaction. Maybe it won’t work for you, maybe it’s just me. I offer it to you in case it does.

Anyway, I hope you’re happy, wherever you are, and that whatever problems you may have are more interesting than wranglings with productivity and overcoming your own slothfulness.

with very great love to you

Darrel

ps. Just so you know – no egg-timer was used in the writing of this letter.