The Worst Possible Prediction for 2021

This has definitely become a sleep blog… Last night I couldn’t sleep, and then woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. Possibly the room was too cold, unless coming off olanzapine is already having an effect. I got just under six hours sleep, which isn’t bad, even if it contrasts weirdly with the eleven or twelve hours I’ve been getting the previous few nights.

The Tube was empty this morning. Tottenham Court Road Station was utterly deserted at 9.00am. I’ve seen busier stations in the middle of the night. New Year’s Eve in a plague city. Work was quiet and we left before 4pm. The roads were empty. That said, people have been firing off fireworks since 6.00pm, and non-stop for the last three quarters of an hour or so, which undermines the “plague city” feeling a bit. Are people that optimistic about 2021? Or are they symbolically blowing up 2020?

In late 1945, George Orwell said he would make the worst possible prediction for 1946: the new year would be just like the old one. (I would have thought 1945 was a good year overall, with the most destructive conflict in human history ending, but I suppose there was the arrival of the atom bomb which terrified everyone more than we remember, and the fact that Britain finished the war more or less bankrupt, with food shortages that lasted for years afterwards.) I suppose I feel a bit like that.

My 2020, as I’ve noted before, was better than a lot of people’s and I feel vaguely embarrassed about that. Mum got cancer, but she was cured too. I self-published a non-fiction book (I might even have sold copies to people I don’t know if I had the money to pay for advertising on Amazon) and wrote a hefty chunk of my first novel. I ended up in a relationship which didn’t work out, but afterwards in one that so far is working out. I worked in January, was unemployed for most of the year (which turned out for the best as I was able to help Mum) and then found some kind of work at the end of the year. It’s not ideal and I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s a job, which is precious at the moment. To be honest, finding a job in COVID times feels like Yitzchak (Isaac) sowing and reaping a hundredfold during a famine.

The Talmud says “Let the old year and its curses go out, and let the new year and its blessings come in!” That’s talking about Jewish New Year, but I’ve been thinking about it recently. I don’t believe things are magically going to get better in 2021, but hopefully they will get marginally better, even if it’s just the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Who knows?

I don’t usually celebrate New Years Eve. My parents usually go to friends, but they obviously couldn’t do that this year, so we bought takeaway and played board games: The London Game, which involves travelling around London on the Tube getting to various destinations, and Schools Out! which involves travelling around school, collecting books. To be honest, they were similar, although the former had an element of skill (which I lacked) and the latter was mostly luck. Dad won both. We had a good time.

I feel a bit peopled out now and slightly down, so I’m probably going to go to bed soon.

Interview and After

I think my job interview this morning went quite well. I got a bit put off by the multiple images on the video conference, especially when I could see myself talking. They didn’t ask any questions about my presentation, which hopefully means it was amazing and not terrible! It sounded like a nice place to work and the panel (of four) were very friendly and I think I connected with them quite well, which is good. Flexible working is a possibility, including working part-time or from home, which is very encouraging, although they sounded a bit unsure about part-time. The work sounds interesting, although I still suffer from confidence problems about accuracy in technical library jobs. I used to be really accurate, but then at jobs in unsuitable environments, I became inaccurate, and now I’ve lost my confidence. I answered all the questions in the interview, but some I definitely answered better than others. I can’t always think of responses including concrete examples from my life/work experience, which may be an autistic thing on several levels. I did try to force myself to give such examples, but one or two questions I just answered in the abstract because I couldn’t think of examples. I should hear back on 12 October.

I had therapy afterwards, but had time to kill before then. I was too tired to do much. I watched another episode of The Civil War, Ken Burns’ documentary on the American Civil War, which I started watching on DVD a few weeks ago after watching Lincoln. It’s a good documentary series, but was really too heavy-going for post-job interview viewing, especially as the episode I was watching was over an hour and a half long, and also focused mainly on the battles rather than the politics and the personalities of the major figures, which I am more interested in.

I tried to go for a walk after lunch, but literally seconds after I stepped out, it started to rain heavily so I beat a hasty retreat indoors.

I didn’t have much to say in therapy, mostly because things seem to be going well. I haven’t had much to say for a couple of weeks, as things have mostly been OK, but I don’t want to cancel the sessions just yet, as some issues may come up associated with the potential new job or dating. I brought this up in therapy and we agreed to move from a weekly session to a fortnightly one, which I think is a good idea for the moment.

I tried to do some Torah study between therapy and dinner. As I was too tired to read (again), I listened to another online shiur. It was on piyyutim (Medieval Jewish liturgical poetry) and was really designed to be listened to before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement), to prepare for the prayers, although as I davened (prayed) at home this year and skipped most of the piyyutim it probably wouldn’t have made much practical difference to me. It was an interesting shiur, but an hour on Medieval liturgical poetry was probably at least fifteen minutes too long for me, certainly on such a depleting day as today.

***

I did something I rarely do, which is to write an angry comment somewhere. It was on an article on Unherd, about mental illness in the young, which made some valid points about over-prescription of drugs and treating ordinary negative emotions as pathological, but whose author wrapped her message in a shell of stigma, using the words “mad” and “madness” to describe the mentally ill four times in one article. The author’s biography describes her as a campaigner against sexual violence; I’m really surprised that she fails to grasp that many mental illness sufferers are also survivors of violence and abuse, and that’s why they’re mentally ill. I am somewhat worried about receiving negative comments, but I had to get my thoughts off my chest because it was really annoying me.

Tisha B’Av in Auschwitz

Today I felt depressed and subdued, but it kind of goes with the territory, as it was Tisha B’Av the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, the day we’re supposed to be sad to mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.  (It might sound surprising, but we’re not supposed to be sad most of the time.)  I read some more of Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.  I’ve been reading this book for about five or six years, only on Tisha B’Av.  I can’t bear to read it on any other day, it’s too upsetting.  I hope to finish it in a couple of years.  Some of the stories did move me to tears, I admit, although I’m probably more sceptical about the supernatural than some of the people who related the stories.  I also went to some online shiurim (religious classes) via my shul (synagogue).

In the afternoon I went on a virtual tour of Auschwitz organised by a Jewish educational group.  (Thanks to Eliza for pointing me in their direction!)   I’ve never been there in person.  I feel vaguely uncomfortable about going to Holocaust sites, although I can see why it’s important for some people.  I discovered there’s not actually much there at Auschwitz any more, which I think I knew, but it had never really registered.  The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and the crematoria to hide the evidence of the Holocaust.  I was surprised how big the site it was.

It was quite moving, but sometimes with Holocaust things I feel I’m not feeling what I “should” feel, maybe because most of my family did not directly experience it.  Perhaps it’s also hard in a way for me, being frum (religious).  With some secular Jews, their entire Jewish identity is built around the Holocaust and/or Israel; whereas I have so much more to my Jewish identity than that.  There is definitely a danger of being overly-obsessed with how Jews died rather than how they lived (to paraphrase Rabbi Lord Sacks*), but Tisha B’Av is a day to confront these memories.

I still would like to feel that I’m moving on somewhere as well as just focusing on the past.  It’s easier to focus on the Holocaust rather than the destruction of the Temple, because the former is more relatable.  There hasn’t been Judaism based around the Temple ritual for nearly 2,000 years, so it’s difficult to understand what it was like.  But the Holocaust isn’t much easier to focus on, although it has the human dimension, because it’s just unlike anything else.

(As an aside, it’s depressing doing a virtual Auschwitz tour and then after the fast was over going online to see the latest iterations of the “Jews are all rich, powerful, privileged and racist” stuff that’s been coming out in the last few weeks.)

In this respect the rabbi leading the virtual tour said something similar to what my shul (synagogue) rabbi said yesterday, about trying to find areas to grow.  I’ve already said here that I want to focus more on being present in the present and not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.  That doesn’t sound a very Jewish or religious thing, but I think it is.  It’s connected with ideas like bitachon (trust in God) and kavannah (mindfulness, particularly in prayer).  But to do that, I need to be able to trust that God has my best interests at heart, even if painful things happen to me.  That’s hard on a day like today, when I confront the many tragedies of Jewish history, including the Holocaust.

It’s just an effort to focus on NOW with gratitude and mindfulness, not what I fear/hope will happen in the future.  I will try it for six or seven weeks until Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and see what happens.

***

I already mentioned I believe less in the supernatural than some Orthodox Jews, so I’m taking this with an Everest-sized mountain of salt, but at one of the shiurim today, the guest rabbi presenting told a story about a frum (religious) Jew who was in a coma four days with COVID and had a near-death experience.  He says that his soul was tried in Heaven and he discovered that although keeping all the mitzvot (commandments) are important, the afterlife primarily depends on loving other people and being kind.

As I say, I am sceptical about how true that story is, but it did make me think that while I agree that love and kindness are of the utmost importance (regardless of the afterlife), I struggle to show them the way I should.  I get irritable with my family.  I get annoyed by other people and although I don’t usually show it, I find it hard to love people sometimes (as Linus said in Peanuts, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”).  I have a some inchoate anger and resentment towards the frum (Orthodox Jewish) community sometimes because of how I feel I’ve been treated, which I need to work through in a healthier way.  I want to be kind, but so often social anxiety stops me from acting on my kind impulses, or autism means that I can see someone is in need, but don’t know how to respond correctly.  My parents say I’m kind (usually when I say I have no assets to attract a potential spouse), but I guess they would.

I know this is turning into yet another “should” and another “beat myself up” session, so I don’t want to pursue it too far, but it has been on my mind this evening, thinking about how I could be more kind and loving in the future.

 

* What he actually said was that an educationalist complained to him that at Jewish schools, students “Learn about the Greeks and how they lived, and they learn about the Romans and how they lived, and they learn about the Jews and how they died.”  Both Rabbi Sacks and the educationalist felt that with a curriculum like this, it was no wonder so many Jews are just looking to escape from their Jewish identity through assimilation.

Wanderer in the Fourth Dimension

It’s been a very difficult day.

I was feeling quite anxious on waking up this morning.  Then Mum was quite ill very suddenly.  I was going to write what happened, but then I thought she might not want me to.  She’s OK now, but I was very worried for a time and thought briefly I might have to phone for an ambulance.  It was very frightening.  So that added a new level of anxiety.  Fortunately she’s seeing her surgeon tomorrow, so she can tell him about it.  I’m not sure he’s the best person to tell, but it’s a start.  But it’s a reminder of my parents’ mortality, and of the fact that while Mum’s prognosis is good, she is still seriously ill.

After a while Mum seemed to be OK and the adrenaline rush from dealing with the situation wore off, and I drifted back into depression, possibly worse for being post-adrenaline.  I managed to work on my novel and wrote quite a bit without too much procrastination, but once I had stopped, the depression came rushing back at me again, with agitation and probably also anxiety and loneliness, although it’s hard to be sure.  I felt pretty overwhelmed.

I tried to get myself to do some Torah study without using “should” language about it, but it was hard.  It was just a slog to get through it.  Here are some things that are hard to read in the Torah, from a contemporary perspective: genealogies, descriptions of sacrificial Temple rituals and censuses, because they are all very long and repetitive and it’s hard to connect them to anything in modern spirituality.  I struggle to connect them.  And they were all in this week’s sedra (Torah reading).  There was a little bit of narrative, but not much.  I did get through it and technically I didn’t “should” myself into it, but I think that was because autistic determination/absorption took over, and not in a good way, and I sort of forgot that I had the option of stopping.

I’m also trying not to think about the future, but it’s hard.  And it’s hard not to do it without “shoulding” myself into not doing it (“I should not think about the future.”).

About 8pm it hit me that it’s been a really hard day.  I hadn’t really thought about it that way before then, I’d been too busy living through it.  I felt a bit tired, but really tense.  It was late, but I wanted to go for a run before dinner to relieve some of the tension.  Possibly there was some “shoulding” there, but I did feel that I would be tense all evening unless I went out for a bit.  I had a reasonable run, and didn’t get an exercise migraine, so that was good.  I was still feeling stressed, so I ate ice cream for dessert after dinner, which probably put back the calories I lost running.  Oh well.

***

I felt a bit bad that my sister seemed more worried about Mum than I was.  Of course, by the time Mum told her, I’d seen that Mum was feeling a lot better, whereas my sister didn’t know and was probably imagining the worst, so in some ways it’s not surprising that she was very upset while I was calm.

I spend all my time worrying about some fairly abstract things in my life and the world at large (if I’ll ever have a proper job, if I’ll ever get married, if antisemitism is getting worse), but I can be pretty detached about people who I actually care about.  I feel like it makes me a bad person, but I’m not sure what worrying would achieve; if anything, I’d rather worry less about myself than more about my family and friends.   I guess it can be hard distinguishing caring from worrying, the former being good and the latter bad.  Maybe this is another “should” to avoid.  I just wish I didn’t feel inhuman and uncaring sometimes.

Detachment can be another autism symptom too, of course.  It could be that I do care about my family and friends, I just express it in a different way to most people.

***

NB: this next isn’t really anything to do with today or anyone I mentioned here today, just something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I find it hard to understand people.  They’re… complicated.  Sometimes one person has apparently contradictory character traits.  They can be supportive to some people, but cold to others, or caring when they’re in a good mood, but unbearable when they’re angry.  I find it difficult to understand.  Maybe I’ve been an avid reader since childhood to try to get inside other people’s heads.  I know autism doesn’t make it any easier.  I wonder if I will struggle to invent believable characters in my writing because of this.  Already I think my second most important character is flat and bland, while the villain is probably too nasty.  He’s a psychopath; psychopaths are usually very charming to most people and I think I’ve struggled to show that.

I struggle to understand people on a societal level too.  I don’t feel like I belong to either twenty-first century Western society or to contemporary frum society.  I can “pass” in both, but not always very well.  I’m not good on details like slang or popular culture in either society.

Maybe I’m just afraid of opening up.  Maybe people would be OK with my idiosyncrasies if I did so.  Or maybe not.  I suspect on some level I studied history to try to understand societies better.  I’m not sure if it helped any more than reading novels helped me understand individuals.  Sometimes I try to look at our current society as if I were an outsider, a future historian.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked time-travel stories.  I’d much rather have a time machine than a spaceship.  Maybe that’s why I prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek (OK, among several other reasons).  The idea of being lost in time is scary, but sometimes that feels how I live my life.

“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?  Have you?  To be exiles…?” – Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child by Anthony Coburn

Cargo Cult

I was thinking about something for my novel, and it turned into a wider thought which is this: there is a danger, probably in any religion, but certainly in Judaism, that it could turn into a Cargo Cult.  This refers to islanders in the Pacific who saw the US armed forces build bases and airstrips in World War II and, magically (it seemed to them), after they built them, big planes would land with boxes of food and supplies.  So after the war, the tribes-people cleared airstrips and built imitation military bases, thinking planes would come and bring them food, but, of course, they didn’t.

So there’s a danger of thinking that “I keep Shabbat, I keep kosher, I pray, I learn Torah therefore I’m a good Jew.”  Whereas Shabbat, kashrut, davening, Torah etc. are preconditions for being a good Jew, they hopefully help send us on the direction to being a good Jew, but they are not the same as being a good Jew.  One needs to have a whole bunch of other emotions and intuitions towards God and towards other human beings: love, awe, compassion, enthusiasm, self-denial, generosity… the things that frum (religious) Jews label as good middot (character traits).  One needs in particular to have the emotional connection with God.

I struggle with this, partly because of alexithymia and not understanding my own emotions very well, partly because perhaps I don’t have such a road map or checklist of things to do, which is not good for my autistic mind.  Autistic mind copes fine with Shabbat, for example.  Shabbat is thirty-nine forbidden (primary) actions not to do and a couple of positive commanded actions to do.  Oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, is another matter because that’s an emotion.  It comes from keeping the forbidden and commanded actions, but it’s possible to keep all those commands without experiencing it.  As it happens, I usually do experience Oneg Shabbat these days, but there have been times in my life when I didn’t, even though I kept all the Shabbat laws, because Oneg Shabbat is an emotion, and I was not in a good place emotionally, so I had no Oneg Shabbat and Shabbat seemed more of a chore.

There are categories within the halakhah (Jewish law) that delineate these ideas, concepts like naval bereshut haTorah, a vulgar person with the permission of the Torah, meaning someone who acts over-indulgently, but within permitted bounds e.g. gluttonously eating kosher food; or the hassid shoteh, the pious fool, who focuses on the wrong issues in a clash of values, the classic hassid shoteh being a man who won’t save a drowning woman because he doesn’t want to see her in disarranged dress.

It’s something to think about anyway.  I do want to have that kind of emotional connection with God, but I’m not sure how to go about it or if it’s even possible to consciously move towards it.

***

Otherwise it’s been a slightly stressful day with religious OCD.  I’m just trying to tell myself that I’m not responsible for the behaviour of other people; that it’s unlikely that any of the things I’ve seen are a serious breach of religious laws; and that I’m trying to do the right thing and even if I’m making a mistake, it’s a genuine mistake and not a deliberate attempt to break the Pesach laws.  It’s hard though.

Off for another two days of Yom Tov (festival) now…

Pogo Stick

Today was another up and down day.  I coped with shul (synagogue) last night.  I enjoyed dinner with Mum and Dad.  I spent quite a bit of time on Torah study afterwards, including trying to prep for today’s Talmud shiur (class) after dinner at 10pm when my brain was just not working.  When I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up until 3am reading Doctor Who Magazine (some pretty good articles this month.  I just wish I had enjoyed the last series as much as the people writing in to the letters page appeared to do).

I woke up several times across the morning, but felt too depressed to get up and go to shul, or even just to get up.

I dozed after lunch again and when I woke up I again felt too depressed to want to go to shul Mincha (Afternoon Service), but forced myself to go anyway.  I probably got there late semi-deliberately to avoid being asked to lead the service.  I actually quite enjoyed Talmud shiur, although I was inwardly relieved when the rabbi admitted that even he had struggled with the sugya (discussion) in question.  It was so opaque and discursive that I’m not even going to try to summarise it here.  Talmud study is definitely better when I prep a day or so beforehand and review it a day or so afterwards, although that obviously makes a bigger time investment per page.

My sister and brother-in-law came over after Shabbat (Sabbath), mostly to see Mum post-chemo.  As my sister uses the Tube every weekday, she was wary of infecting Mum with something – not necessarily coronovirus, but some kind of virus that she might be incubating.  We had a good time, although I slipped away for a bit after a while.

Speaking of which, the coronavirus news coverage reminds me of the Tomato Flu episode of Broken News, particularly the bit where Pip Torrens warns of symptoms including “hot or cold sweats; hot or cold aches; sweaty acheyness; runny or sweaty or achey nose; tiredness; a sense of slight confusion; blinking; passing water; and, of course in extreme cases, death.”

I saw this comment in the Jewish Chronicle comparing the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu with the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion: While the Netanyahus have racked up huge bills at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer, Ben-Gurion’s greatest financial vice was his propensity to buy too many…books.”  I felt that I have something in common with him.  A few years ago I actually went to his apartment in Tel Aviv, which is a museum now, preserved as he had it, and there are books everywhere, on all kinds of topics: lots on Judaism and Jewish history, but also a lot on the sciences too, I think even on relatively obscure subjects like geology, and to my surprise a copy of The Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism (Ben-Gurion was an atheist and secularist, albeit like many early Zionists he was a keen amateur Bible scholar).

SAD, References and Eminent Victorians

This is always the worst time of year for me.  February may get more daylight than December, but it’s four months or more since we had a reasonable amount of daylight and the cumulative effect of deprivation is getting to me, even with my SAD light box.  I also have chapped hands and lips, despite using moisturiser and lip balm, although they aren’t as badly affected as they have been in the past.  I want winter to end, even though I’m aware that the end of winter brings with it the Jewish festivals of Purim and Pesach, with all their attendant difficulties of religious OCD and social anxiety, as well as sometimes depression, not to mention the usual stress of Pesach preparation (seriously, Christmas has nothing on Pesach).  It’s going to be super-hard this year, as Mum will probably in the midst of cancer treatment.  Still, like it or not, Monday is Tu B’Shvat, a very minor Jewish holiday (not really a holiday at all) that nevertheless signals the start of spring, at least in Israel.  Purim and Pesach are coming…  and so is spring, if I can hold out long enough.

***

I had a Shabbat (Sabbath) struggling with Shoulds.  I struggled to get to shul (synagogue) on Friday and Saturday evenings.  I felt this was probably a good Should, as staying at home would be giving in to social anxiety and depression and make going again next week harder.  I didn’t push myself to go to shul on Saturday morning though and let myself eat a lot of junk food, which I regret a bit now.  I drank too much Diet Coke on Friday night too, which may have been why I didn’t sleep.   After lunch today I was tired and a bit depressed and did the autistic thing I sometimes do of going back to bed and wrapping the duvet around me because it feels reassuring (I think that’s why I do that.  It’s not always easy to tell).  Inevitably, I fell asleep, although it was not my intention, and when I woke I had to eat seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) in a hurry and was still late for shul.

More troublingly, I accidentally broke Shabbat twice, which was not good.  One was too complicated to explain here and maybe not such a problem, but the other problem was that the phone woke me up this morning and my brain thought it was Friday and I answered it before realising my mistake, thinking it might be about my benefits appointment on Monday.  It wasn’t even important, just cold-calling, ambulance-chasing lawyers, “Have you been in an accident that wasn’t your fault?”  I’m not generally in favour of banning lots of things, but I wish someone would ban them.  Anyway, I felt bad about breaking Shabbat even if it was accidental.

I was given the honour of gelilah at Minchah (wrapping up the Torah scroll and putting its decorations back on it after the Torah reading in the Afternoon Service), which made me feel a bit that I was receiving some kind Divine approbation after all the stuff in the previous paragraph, but I don’t believe that worldly honour is a sign of Divine approval; one can find honoured people who are not at all worthy.  Hmm.

***

After Shabbat, I spent twenty-five minutes finishing another chapter of my novel, which I was glad to do.  I’m still unsure how good it is, but E. has liked what she has read so far (not this chapter yet).  I also spent some time (not sure how long) working on the bibliography for my Doctor Who book.  While I was writing the book I had wavered as to whether I would produce a bibliography, with the result that my note-taking for one was fairly shoddy, I’m sad to say, as a librarian and a historian.  Some references are just a title or a description, because I know my Doctor Who books and magazines well enough that I expected my future self (which is now my current self…) to be able to locate them and create proper references later if necessary without much bother.  That plan now looks slightly stupid as I’m faced with digging through piles and piles of magazines to find particular articles.  I do know where most things are, at least roughly, it’s just a pain to dig them out, especially as I have to move my bedside cabinet just to get to them.  Later on I think I realised this was stupid and started constructing proper references that can just be cut and pasted in.

I started with a couple of these more finished references.  The first to be polished and included in the bibliography happened by a nice coincidence to be an article by a friend who sometimes comments here.  More problematic was trying to create references for some pages on the BBC website that turn out not to exist any more.  I did get worried, as these were references to actual archival documentation that the BBC had scanned and put up, I think to celebrate Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary in 2013 and really should be referenced.  Obviously they had been deemed obsolete and deleted from the BBC website some time in the last year or two (not for the first time in Doctor Who‘s history).  Fortunately, I managed to find preserved versions of all the pages via the Internet Archive.  I was pleased with this, not least because I had never managed to find anything on that site before.  So in the end I got five references done, which is the daily target I have set myself.

I’m not sure whether I could/should produce a reference for every single televised Doctor Who story (nearly 300, depending on how you define “story”), on whatever format I own it, not to mention other series where I’ve referenced them (e.g. the Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers in a discussion of Sara Kingdom).  I mean, I should, but I’m going to be here FOREVER if I do and, given that it’s aimed at the fan market rather than the academic market, maybe there’s no need.  Can something this obvious be taken as a given?  Hmm…  Suggestions on a postcard (or comment) please!

***

I’m re-reading The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli on the two titanic figures of mid-nineteenth century British politics.  I had been thinking about re-reading it for a while, as I couldn’t remember much about it, but Brexit and the prospect of major political realignment in this country and perhaps elsewhere pushed it up my reading list as I wanted to read about the previous realignment that happened after the repeal of the Corn Laws fractured the Tory Party with the Whigs, radicals and free trade Tories becoming the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party formed out of the protectionist Tory rump.  I’m not sure if “It reads like a novel” is always a compliment for a history book, but in this case it is.  A very interesting and readable account of Victorian politics.

So far I don’t find either Gladstone or Disraeli particularly likeable: Gladstone was a prig and bore and emotionally constipated even by Victorian standards; Disraeli on the other hand was a cynical opportunist.  I find Gladstone easier to empathise with, though, as many of his flaws are my own: he also tended to see everything as a question of principle (once resigning from the Cabinet on a point of principle so trivial that everyone thought he had just destroyed his career for no good reason, but then voting in support of the legislation he had just resigned to oppose apparently because he thought he shouldn’t vote against his party), struggled with human contact and beat himself up endlessly about fairly normal aspects of sexuality.  Again, hmm.

What If… ?

I felt tired much of today.  I woke up around 10.00am and was lying in bed feeling exhausted when my Dad reminded me that I had a psychiatrist appointment that I had forgotten about.  I struggled to get dressed and go.  My Dad gave me a lift to the psychiatrist, but the twenty minute walk home afterwards was gruelling because I was so tired.  I suppose I could have phoned Dad for a lift, but I don’t like to ask for too many, plus I needed the exercise.  I was tired by the time I got home.

I’ve struggled to do much today.  I really want to sleep, but I felt that I shouldn’t for multiple reasons: I had to cook dinner and finish writing my devar Torah as well as going to shiur (religious class) later and I didn’t want to disrupt my sleep pattern even more.  Lately I’ve been going to my Dad’s shul (synagogue) for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) before shiur on Thursdays because they’re practically next door to each other and the times work, but today I felt too drained to do two “peopling” events, so I decided to stick to shiur.

I also managed to spend about half an hour working on my novel.  I wrote about 450 words, which was good, but I was dipping into very upsetting parts of my memory and psyche for my writing and after half an hour I felt far too depressed and tired to continue, although I would have liked to have written more.  When I told E., she felt it was a downside to writing a novel that draws so much on my personal experiences and mostly negative ones at that.  I agreed with her, but on reflection, while it is problematic in some ways, I think there are advantages.  I wouldn’t push someone with anxiety or PTSD to face their fears, but I think there are advantages to confronting your demons, if you can do it in a safe way.  Hiding behind trigger warnings and the like is ultimately a limiting existence.  Although I’m not sure if writing is the best therapy; I remember John Cleese saying in an interview that writing is therapeutic, but not very good therapy, which is why so many writers get stuck writing the same idea again and again.

***

More fun with the not-for-profit sector…  I had a meeting with my psychiatrist, which went well.  I said I’ve been feeling a lot better this week now I’ve got a new job and she was pleased with that.  She asked if I want to take anything for my anxiety, but I was reluctant to take more meds (I take three different psych meds already, all of which are multiple tablets some at multiple times of the day, plus three daily vitamin supplements).  She said I can see my GP if the anxiety gets bad and I change my mind.  I thought she was going to discharge me, but she offered me a review appointment in six months time, which I took just in case things don’t work out with my new job or for any other reason.  I always feel a bit bad taking these appointments when I might be fine, but it’s so hard to get back into the NHS system once you’ve been discharged that I usually take them when I can, which I guess in economic terms is a “perverse incentive” (when the system encourages you to do something that ought to be discouraged, in this case taking appointments that other people may need more than I do).

So that was positive.  The negative was hearing back from the charity that works with the NHS to get people with mental illnesses into work.  My case worker still wants me to sign papers and insists I have to sign them in person, and by tomorrow.  I got annoyed, but I’m basically a nice person so said I would sign them if she could meet me closer to my home than the office where I saw her (she had already suggested meeting in a coffee shop to sign).  It’s still a trip out of my way, but it’s not the end of the world and I won’t feel bad.

***

One thought I had today which is worth reflecting on and possibly expanding on in the future is that I realised that I tend to see all my mistakes as moral failings, even if they are morally neutral oversights or innocent errors (saying the wrong words, accidentally interrupting someone etc.).  If I can view simple mistakes as morally wrong, then it’s no wonder I magnify the moral enormity of genuine religious or moral failings.

***

On the way home I indulged in bad habits and went into a charity shop and bought a second-hand book.  I’m trying to cut down on my book buying as I have a stack of books to read, but most of those are heavy-going classic literature or non-fiction.  I am trying to get back into reading both of those, but I don’t think they will necessarily be suitable for work days, when I need something lighter to read on my lunch break and on the Tube on the way home (I’m trying to do Torah study during the trip there in the morning).  Plus, it was only £1.

The book, Dominion by C. J. Sansom, is a “what if the Nazis had won World War II?” alternate history.  There are rather a lot of these.  I actually own five of these now, I realise a little to my surprise, including one written before World War II had even started (it predicted what the Nazis would do if Appeasement failed to stop them); and that’s not counting two episodes of Star Trek that aren’t too far from the premise.  That’s probably not surprising, as a it’s a major and comparatively recent historical event where everyone agrees that the achieved outcome was better than most of the alternatives.  Still, it is a little surprising how relatively few other alternate history premise novels are films are out there in comparison.  There are more I think in books published for the science fiction market, but not so many mainstream ones, whereas there are a lot of mainstream “Hitler wins” novels.  Of the five I own, four (FatherlandDominion, Making History and Swastika Night) were published as mainstream novels, not specialist science fiction ones and the fifth, The Man in the High Castle, was I think originally published by a science fiction publisher, but my copy is the Penguin Modern Classics edition (so far as I know it’s the only Philip K. Dick novel to be published by that line, which is telling in itself) and of course now it’s a streamable TV series.  And that’s not counting ones I don’t own, like the Small Change series, the somewhat related The Plot Against America or the fake documentary film It Happened Here (all vaguely on my enormous ‘to read/watch’ list).

I realised I own a couple of other alternate history novels with other premises.  The novella Great Work of Time by John Crowley is a borderline time-travel/alternate history story focused on changing time to stop the British Empire falling.  It’s definitely worth a read if you like time-travel or alternate history stories.  Red Son is kind of a “what if the Communists had won the Cold  War?” story, albeit with the twist that they win because Superman lands in the Ukraine instead of Kansas.  Yes, it’s a Superman graphic novel, but an intelligent one and also worth a read.  And The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling is a steam-punk speculation on what would have happened if the Victorians had developed computers.  Strangely, Doctor Who has dealt more with threats to change history than scenarios where history has already been changed in an alternative history sense, but the parallel universe thread in Inferno is basically a “Hitler wins” type scenario, while Turn Left was a very personal alternate timeline story with major changes to the fictional narrative spiralling out from a minor difference.

It’s strange that I would not have mentioned it alternate history as a subgenre that particularly interests me until now, but my bookshelves say otherwise.  Maybe it’s not surprising, as I guess alternate history is where my interests in history and science fiction dovetail.

War and Peace

Chanukah always feels like unfinished business to me.  The festival is born of the culture war (which became a real war for a time) between Hebraic (Jewish) and Hellenistic (Greek) civilisations, but although the Jews won independence for a while, neither has ever won a decisive victory.  As Matthew Arnold noted, Western civilisation is a seesaw between the Hebraic and Hellenistic, one side being more dominant for a period, then the other.  At the moment I would say the Hellenistic is very much in the ascendant.

Maybe that’s why celebrating Chanukah can seem strangely premature.  Or maybe I just feel it more keenly than other Jews because I don’t know how to navigate the seesaw (can you navigate a seesaw?  I’m very tired).  I want to be Western/Hellenistic, but a lot of the (post)modern world terrifies me.  I want to be Jewish, but the Haredi world stifles me.  Where do I go?

***

I went to the Imperial War Museum this afternoon with my Dad.  I was slightly worried about whether it would depress me (it was really just an excuse for some father-son time), but it was OK.  We spent most of the time in the World War I section and saw quite a lot of Edwardiana and then spent a bit of time in the post-1945 galleries, which were quite sparse.  A couple of things stick in my mind: Siegfried Sassoon’s letter of protest against the war (although I’m not sure if it was the original or a copy).  A letter from a general laying out cautious battle plans for the campaign season, in the margin of which a more gung-ho general had written “BALLS!!”  A German propaganda poster (I like propaganda posters) that was supposed to encourage German civilians to trap rabbits so their pelts could be used for the war effort (how?  For clothing?  I don’t know!), which featured a rather sinister picture of a giant rabbit with red eyes like it was possessed by a demon.  I’m not sure what the artist was on.  And a lot of photos of mud and squalor.

I came home exhausted and haven’t really done much.  I’m not doing any work on the novel again today, although I did do some Torah study.  There isn’t much else to say, so this is a poem I wrote in 2014 on the centenary of the war.  It isn’t a great poem (I’m not sure if A. J. P. Taylor is really the right muse to have for a poem), but otherwise this will be a ridiculously short post.  The last line ties in with the ambiguous feelings about modernity that I mentioned in the beginning of this post.

Centenary

The long spring of nineteen-fourteen flowered

With the customary dry platitudes:

Sweet-scented flowers in such brilliant hues;

Intoxicating sunlight flowing like wine

Through the crystal glass of urban windows;

Lovers’ trysts in open parks and cheap hotels.

The streets were awash with women in lace

And men sprouting luscious thick moustaches

The Victorian age in its last bloom.

 

Summer exploded with assassination.

The rest followed swiftly, punctually,

Like the timetables of those old railways:

Gas, machine-guns, mines, shells, planes and tanks.

Factory methods applied to killing,

Slaughter by the million, industrial death.

Empires rose and fell on a conveyor belt.

Soldiers left tearful loved ones behind them,

Their trains running on across the continent

Until they were met by their C.O., Death

And his chilling, intractable greeting,

“Welcome to Modernity.”

Bridget Jones-Style

Torah studied (OK, not exactly Bridget Jones-style): 30 minutes/one essay and 2/5 of an amud (page) of Talmud.

Ironing done: 40 minutes/eight shirts and a handkerchief (I think).

Pasta cooked: 12 oz. (sauce from a bottle, sorry; I am hoping to cook properly tomorrow).

Distance jogged: 2.20 miles in 25 minutes – apparently averaging 11 minutes 38 seconds per mile.

Material submit to publishers on spec: 1 article, 1 book.

Time spent worrying about politics even though I can do NOTHING about any of it: far too much.  (I would say I could vote or protest or something, but it’s painfully clear that that achieves nothing if the Establishment isn’t listening.)  I worried about Brexit, and… I won’t say I worried about the Vietnam War (I was watching Ken Burns’ documentary series again while I did the ironing), but I pondered the lessons of that conflict and how they could apply to the Arab-Israeli Conflict and to Brexit, and I was saddened and despairing.

Also saw my sister briefly and wrote 750 more words of my novel (I don’t know how long I spent, probably somewhat more than half an hour).

I still feel that I haven’t done much.  Or at least, I have, but I wanted to do more.  I wanted to do a full hour of Torah study and finish that amud.  I wanted to write more of my novel than I did.   I forgot to clean out the fridge where I spilt pickled cucumber brine the other day, leaving the whole thing smelling a bit of pickled cucumber.  E. says I don’t give myself enough credit for the amount that I manage to do given how depressed I feel at times (I wanted to go back to bed after lunch), but I just see the list of things to do and wonder how I will ever get it all done.  At least my mood did pick up as I did more things and I stopped feeling that I wanted to go back to bed.

Careers, Autistic Organisation, Yom HaShoah and the Half-Life of a Blog

A rather long and varied post today, as it’s been a long day.  Here goes…

I had a phone interview with someone from a recruitment agency that specialises in library and information roles.  It seemed to go OK, apart from her suggesting I change something on my CV that she found inadvertently misleading, which made me feel foolish.  I don’t know why I feel such an idiot when people point out my mistakes, especially as in this case I don’t think what I wrote really was misleading.  I always feel inadequate when talking about my work experience and I fear that people will ask about the gaps on my CV or somehow intuit that I’m wondering if I’m in the right career.  And of course any personal interaction brings fears that because of my autism I’m saying too much or too little or saying the wrong thing, things that neurotypical people would manage more intuitively than I can do.  To my relief she was actually positive when I said I was ideally looking for part-time work for health reasons, as she said that those roles can be hard to fill, as most people are looking for full-time work.  The jobs she wants to put me up for now are full-time, though.

The woman who interviewed me was nice, but I always find interviews stressful and I couldn’t do any real work immediately afterwards, just processed some emails and went for lunch to recover.  Even after lunch I was procrastinating and found it hard to get down to job hunting.  It doesn’t help that looking at job specs for corporate law librarian work doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm.  I’m really just applying for these on the off chance, without relevant experience or much interest.  I just want to feel like I’m doing something, and if I waited only for jobs that I was enthusiastic about, I feel I would be waiting a long time.

Filling in job applications is almost impossible.  I did fill in a couple of simple forms, but I should have done more.  (I know people say I use ‘should’ too much and should (ha ha) be more compassionate on my self, but it’s hard when I achieve so little.)  I wasn’t feeling so depressed today, but something about these applications makes me feel depressed and I procrastinate or feel like crying.  It doesn’t help that the application I’m currently filling in (for a job at the library of a major public sector organisation) is, realistically, for a job that is far above me (the salary is about £10,000 more than I’ve been earning), so I don’t have the experience and skills they are asking for, but having told myself to fill it in, it seems wrong to back out, so I stick with it, trying to find examples of my relevant professional skills.  (It doesn’t help that I don’t always have great recall for things that don’t interest me, like work.  If ever there’s a job application that requires knowing a lot of trivia about Doctor Who, I’ll cope much better.)  But I keep getting distracted by aimless internet browsing or reading Alex or Cul de Sac comics.  Maybe I should just accept that this isn’t the job for me and give up?  But I hate giving up on things.

***

I stopped working on my Doctor Who book for a couple of weeks because of Pesach, but I’ve returned to it now.  I redrafted two chapters this week.  It’s frustrating that somehow the prose doesn’t flow as I would like, although I’ve never liked reading my own writing.  I’m always surprised that so many people have said they like my writing.  Of course, it isn’t the kind of book one would buy for the style.

I worry that it’s overlong too.  I’ve cut it down, but it’s still slightly too long, at least according to this site (which admittedly is about novels, not this particularly niche brand of non-fiction).  I’m about halfway through the third draft and ideally I would like to send out chapters to a couple of friends to look at before I try the fourth draft (somehow I’ve got the idea in my head that four drafts is about right.  I think Terry Pratchett and Steven Moffat have both said something about doing four drafts).  However, I’m wary of asking people.  Partly it’s that I don’t always take criticism well (I tend to catastrophise and assume that my work is unbearably rubbish if someone makes even a constructive suggestion), but mostly it’s that I know everyone is busy and doesn’t have time to do unpaid consultancy work, especially as the friends who I think would be most willing to help have serious real-world concerns at the moment and I don’t want to bother them with this.  So I’m not sure what to do about that.

Nevertheless, I am generally pleased at how well it’s going and that I think I’ve managed to say some new things about classic Doctor Who, which is not easy given its age and the sheer volume of stuff that has been written about it over the years.

***

As well as procrastinating, I find it harder and harder to be organised.  At school I always had the right books, did my homework on time, went to the right lessons and so on, but since leaving the more rigid environment of school and having more control over my schedule and planning it, things have gradually got harder.  I think I’ve mentioned before that my Dad says I’m a terrible planner: I draw up detailed plans, but find it impossible to stick to them.  Similarly, I keep my desk and floor tidy, but I suspect this is often at a cost of just piling things in drawers or shoving papers in folders without necessarily knowing exactly where things are going; financial papers in particular are a struggle for me to organise and I’m often vague and uninterested about my finances and need advice and help from my father to deal with them.

I used to think there was nothing wrong with my planning ability per se, I just got distracted and procrastinated because of depression while depressive exhaustion made everything take longer than I expected, but I increasingly wonder if it’s an autistic executive function issue, that I just lack something in my brain that would help me stick to my plans or fully understand my finances.  Again, it would probably help if my day was spent largely on something I enjoyed or found meaningful, instead of applying for jobs I feel equivocal about.  I wonder if autistic rigid thinking and difficulty thinking laterally or creatively about problems is a factor too, if there might be a better way of organising my time/room that I can’t see because I’m too stuck in “This is how I’ve always done it, this is how I always have to do it.”

***

What is the half-life of a blog?  This is something I’ve been wondering lately.  I used to read a lot of Jewish blogs.  I think they had a positive role in teaching me Jewish social norms and frum (religious) language, something that, as someone with autism, I struggle to learn through observation and imitation as done by most children or ba’alei teshuva (people who are ethnically Jewish, but raised non-religious and who become frum in adulthood).  Nowadays I seem to come across fewer of them and many I used to follow are updated rarely or not at all.  I thought this blog would attract mainly Jewish readers and even used Jewish terms as metadata (‘tags’ to non-librarians) to try to attract them, but most of my readers, so far as I can tell, are not Jewish.  Have all the Jews left what used to be called the J-blogosphere (the Jewish blogosphere)?

I did an experiment and went to a blog I used to follow.  It’s long defunct, but had a very long and comprehensive blogroll (remember those?) of other Jewish blogs.  I picked a dozen or so at random and clicked the links.  Only two or three have been updated in the last five years or so and many were not accessible at all, although it’s not clear for how long they have been inaccessible.  A different blogroll shows more active blogs, but often specifically Jewish food blogs (although that may simply reflect the interests of the blogroll compiler).  I know E. is very involved in Jewish food blogging, so that’s obviously still an active area.

Has everyone else migrated to Facebook and Twitter?  There seem to still be lots of general blogs out there, so where did all the Jewish blogs go?  I know some forms of social media are more popular in some communities than others (e.g. I believe Twitter took off in the UK long before it reached the USA), so maybe that applies here too and people have just left Blogger (which was where most Jewish blogs were hosted) for Facebook or Twitter.  It’s a shame as I don’t like Twitter and Facebook and feel out of the loop.  There is a similar issue with online Doctor Who fandom being increasingly based on Facebook and Twitter, but I do at least still follow a couple of Doctor Who blogs and there are more out there that I know about that I don’t like/follow for one reason or another.

***

Most Jewish festivals and fasts are very old, but at this time of year, there are four days that have been created within living memory and which are therefore somewhat controversial, with many Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews not observing and other Jews debating the best way of observing them.  These are Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim (Holocaust Day, Memorial Day, commemorating those who died as a result of war and terrorism in Israel, Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, celebrating the reunification of the city of Jerusalem).  My personal involvement in these days has varied over time.  My shul (synagogue) does not observe any of these days, but sometimes I go to events at my parents’ shul, which does observe them.

Tonight was the start of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day – distinct from International Holocaust Memorial Day in January, which is not a Jewish creation).  I went to my parents’ shul.  I was apprehensive about how I would cope, worried about being around a lot of people and having to listen to speakers for a prolonged period as much as with the subject matter, but I was mostly OK.  I did cry, but I stayed for the whole thing.  I did notice that I disassociated a bit inasmuch as I would sort of switch off from engaging directly with the speakers and start viewing the event as a historian or sociologist, thinking about how the Holocaust has been commemorated in different times and places and where the emphasis is placed or thinking about theological responses to the Holocaust and things like that.  I think I do that sometimes, particularly with large events like this where I feel uncomfortable.

Part of the event was a short talk about the Holocaust in Libya by a man who was there (albeit as a baby).  Libya was controlled by the Germans’ ally, Italy, during the early part of the war.  I’d always been led to believe that Italy’s involvement in the Holocaust was muted and half-hearted until the Nazis took control of the north of the country in about 1943, but I learnt there was a concentration camp in the Sahara desert for some Libyan Jews and others were sent to European death camps.  This was all news to me and I found it interesting.