“Everyone’s a superhero, everyone’s a Captain Kirk”: Diversity and Me

News first, please scroll down if you just want the stuff on diversity.

The last few days have been busy, although there isn’t a huge amount out of the ordinary to note here.

I forgot to mention in my last post that on Wednesday we had a Zoom call involving myself, E, my parents and E’s parents. It went pretty well, especially considering I thought there were at least three cultural divides that might be difficult to bridge. The two sets of parents even want to Zoom again soon.

On Friday, as well as my normal pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, I worked on my novel for an hour and a half. I would have liked to have worked on it even longer, but I was getting eye strain.

In shul (synagogue) on Friday night, Rabbi L came up to me and asked if we had made progress with the wedding, which was nice. Dad also told him about Mum’s recent health issue, which he was unaware of. He was shocked and concerned.

Shabbat was fairly good. I managed to avoid sleeping in the afternoon (although I did lie down for twenty minutes), going instead for a brisk walk and doing fifty minutes of Torah study. I went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) only. I tried to get to bed soon after the end of Shabbat, but still ended up going to bed at 1am. It’s difficult when Shabbat doesn’t finish until after 10.30pm.

Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).

Shul Minchah

Torah 50m

Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).

I somehow avoided eating rugelach when my sister and BIL were here. I am serious about losing some weight, despite the lack of time for running.

My sister and brother-in-law brought their wedding photo album. This has finally arrived, four and a half years after the wedding (Just. Don’t. Ask). It reminds me why I don’t like big parties, which I guess is good as E and I plan our small wedding.

My mood sank in the evening, under the weight of peopling and wedding planning. My Dad said he would do some searching for me tomorrow for plane fares, which will help me. I feel bad that when I’m struggling (like today), I find it hard to communicate with him for various reasons that aren’t really either of our faults, and we end up getting annoyed with each other.

***

(I should say that I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as I wanted to spend on the second half of the post, but I just want to vent about this anyway, even if it could be better written/argued.)

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things recently. One is about the trend towards greater diversity of representation in the media. This was partly prompted by the latest Doctor Who Magazine. The current Doctor is the first woman Doctor; her successor will be the first black Doctor, and there was recently an official Doctor Who podcast story written by a trans woman and starring a trans actress as a trans character. There was a lot in the article about the podcast about how good it is for LGBT people to see themselves represented positively. It made me think about the way I have seen myself in fiction, or not, over the years.

There is a bit more representation of autism than there used to be. I can think of The Imitation Game, which was a good film, although it left me very upset (it was one of the things that made me think I really am on the spectrum despite being initially assessed as neurotypical; it also made me feel I would be lonely and miserable forever as a result). On the other hand, I thought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a intent on making autistics look stupid and unfeeling, although the narrator was a lot less functional than I am.

There is some representation of secular Jews, mainly on American TV, where there are more Jews generally e.g. The West Wing. They aren’t allowed to show more than a little interest in Jewish ideas though. When The West Wing did an (unrealistic) plot-line about the President solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Josh and Toby didn’t seem more emotionally involved than any of the other characters, despite being Jewish. The only real time Jewishness was involved in a substantial way was an episode about capital punishment, which had Toby’s rabbi argue against it. I didn’t really watch Friends, but several characters were Jewish, but not really Jewish. They were Jewish in a safe and non-threatening way, they didn’t do weird rituals (OK, the Chanukah Armadillo was weird, but that was deliberate).

Ivanova in Babylon 5 was not very religious either, but we saw her light Chanukah candles in one episode, and there was an episode that had a sub-plot about her sitting shivah for her late father, which was quite surprising in a secular science-fiction show.

Orthodox Jews are less prominent. They are usually shown as narrow-minded and backwards. (Incidentally, pretty much all Orthodox Jews on TV and film are Hasidic, even if this makes no sense.) The Attractive Young Rabbi was a Radio 4 sitcom about a female Reform rabbi living next-door to an Orthodox rabbi. I didn’t listen to more than a little bit of it, but I think the rabbis disagreed about everything, with the Orthodox rabbi presented to the audience as reactionary and wrong. I think his wife was more understanding because feminism or something. In reality, my oldest friend is the son of two Reform rabbis, male and female, who lived next-door to the local Orthodox rabbi, noted for being quite strict. My friend said they all got on well. I guess that makes for bad drama/comedy.

An exception was the 1970s Quatermass. Quatermass was a 1950s science fiction/horror series of serials. They revived it for a mini-series in the late 70s. There were a couple of Jewish characters in the 70s version. They mishandled pretty much every ritual and mispronounced every Yiddish word shown, but in a story built on binary divisions (young/old; superstition/science; irrationality/reason), they put Judaism on the science and reason team, for which I am grateful.

There are more representations of Judaism in novels now than previously e.g. Sisters of the Winter Wood. E has read more of these than I have, and finds the presentation of Orthodox culture variable.

I definitely think there is a problem that a significant minority of fictional Jews are in Holocaust stories, which does warp how both Jews and non-Jews see Jews past and present. There’s also an increasing tendency to universalise the Holocaust. Rather than seeing it as a specific crime directed at a specific culture because of a specific historical context, there’s a sense of “It could happen to anyone” and that (as Dara Horn argued in People Love Dead Jews), killing Jews is bad because it could lead on to normal people being killed too. As Horn argues, Holocaust fiction tends to focus on survivors, whereas the majority of Jews who were in the Holocaust were murdered. I think (although I haven’t done any real research) that Holocaust fiction also tends to focus on secular, westernised Jews from Western and Central Europe, rather than religious and Orthodox Eastern European Jews, even though the latter were again the majority of Holocaust victims..

I haven’t looked at other religions, but I think there’s a trend to see ‘open’ cultural expressions of religion as OK, but more traditional and more insular religious content as negative. Yaz in the last few seasons of Doctor Who is a Muslim, but she doesn’t do or believe much that’s religious, no mention of halal food and the only mention of prayer is in the context of her receiving Islamophobic insults on her way to the mosque. There is an episode about her grandmother marrying a Hindu with tragic consequences when her husband is killed by his fundamentalist brother. That there’s a type of religious identity that holds on to religious beliefs and practices strongly in a particularistic (non-syncretic) way, but which is open and tolerant towards the rest of the world isn’t really an idea that gets shown much.

The Doctor Who episode The God Complex did have a more religious and interesting Muslim character in Rita. It’s slightly weird that the Doctor Who character I connect with most religiously is a Muslim woman, which I guess gives the lie to the idea that we can only identify with people who are exact representations of ourselves.

Then there’s Zionists, who are increasingly only presented as racist land-grabbers who don’t belong in the Middle East. In America, I guess there are still some old-fashioned Mossad super-spies, like Ziva in NCIS. I’m going to leave this paragraph at that because I don’t want to get into an argument.

It also goes without saying that anyone even vaguely conservative on film or TV is absolutely Evil and usually in cahoots with Evil Big Business or Evil Religion (usually Christian or Jewish, sometimes Muslim). Big Business is always seen as conservative, even though in real-life many businesses are falling over themselves to be woke, particularly Big Tech, which is a big contributor to Democratic Party funds.

As for long-term celibates, don’t even bother looking. I was going to say that anyone celibate or sexually unsatisfied is likely to be either autistic, misogynistic, or an oppressed minority group in a conservative religious setting in need of liberation (woman, gay, etc.), but to be honest, I’m not sure if that’s even true. I think celibate people are pretty much not shown at all (I haven’t seen Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, but it sounds like it broadly fits the “sexist liberation” narrative).

Granted, this reflects my own weird interests and viewing patterns, which is mostly skewed to stuff from decades ago, but the impression I get from what I read and hear about modern shows is that these patterns still hold.

The thing I really want to stress is that I didn’t really care about this in the past. I assumed that Jews in particular were too small a population to really be noticed and didn’t object to their absence. Now the inattention of people very focused on representation (e.g. the makers of Doctor Who) makes me feel deliberately snubbed. I feel like there’s a list of “acceptable” identities in the Western media, and that most of the aspects of my identity aren’t on it, and in some cases are seen as primarily privileged and oppressive, which is not at all how I experience them. Now not being included seems like a calculated insult, which wasn’t the case twenty years ago. It feels like being a black trans lesbian is seen as normal or even praiseworthy, but being a celibate Orthodox Jew is something abnormal and shameful, and I’m not sure where that comes from or what we do about it, or how we can even label it ‘diversity.’

Autistic Day

Today seems to have been an autism-focused day. I guess they all are, on some level, but this more than most.

In the morning, at work, the rabbi from my parents’ shul (synagogue) phoned the office and I answered. He didn’t recognise me, and in the past I might have pretended not to recognise him, but I identified myself to him, which I guess was a victory over social anxiety. However, afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about this interaction, which probably took all of two minutes and had no negative aspects. It sort of “echoed” around in my head. I’ve heard other people on the spectrum describe similar experiences of mental perseveration.

In the afternoon, I mostly corrected other people’s mistakes for a change, instead of making my own. This was when I was searching for missing data on our database. A lot of it was there, just entered wrongly (typos or names from one column on the spreadsheet transposed with those in another when entered on the database). I was a bit relieved to see it’s not just me who makes mistakes. The errors date from about five years ago, so I have no idea who made them.

J was on a video call while I was doing this and I could not concentrate at all. I had to listen to music to blot out the talking. I didn’t really want to listen to music, as it was a somewhat complicated task and I only really listen to music when doing mindless tasks, but I needed to blot it out.

Then I went to Primark to return the clothes I bought last week, because I am not a size medium any more (thank you, psych meds). I was overwhelmed with the number of people in the shop, which I still can’t get used to. It took two years of lockdown and not seeing people for me to realise how difficult I find these environments. Now I wonder how I ever coped with them. It’s strange how I just coped with things, not realising how difficult I found it. The silly thing is that I feel somehow less entitled to call myself “autistic” or “struggling” than the autistic people who would have a meltdown in the shop, or just refuse to go in.

It wasn’t just the noise and crowds that was an issue. Like lots of people on the spectrum, I seem to have some proprioception issues i.e. difficulty being aware of where my body is at times and finding it hard to get out of other people’s way. I think this is partly behind the autistic phenomenon I have written here before about autistic people wanting to help with tasks, but just getting in the way of other people.

There was something on the autism forum too today about autistic brains working fast, faster than we can follow. I do feel like that at times, although not all the time. It seems to happen most when I hyperfocus on a train of thought that I like (often about Judaism or perhaps Doctor Who) or when I’m anxious and depressed about something. Certainly when autistically fatigued/exhausted/burnt out/whatever it’s called my thoughts become slow and almost physically painful.

***

In terms of consumerism, I’ve had mixed success the last few days. The Simpsons: The Complete Seventh Season DVD box set I bought second-hand on Music Magpie (second-hand DVD/CD website) turned out to be region 1, which means it won’t play on UK DVD players. I’m not sure why they were selling it, but I didn’t think to look at what region it was for when I ordered, so I can’t swear that it was advertised wrongly. I am trying to return it.

I’ve found some real bargains on Music Magpie, but also had some problems with damaged or incorrectly-sent goods. I feel I should stop using them, but the alternative is eBay, which I have used, but don’t really like, I’m not sure why. I don’t like bidding for stuff at auction, but you can get items to buy immediately. Nevertheless, I just somehow find the site awkward to use and the items often expensive. The other alternative is Amazon, but E and I are both boycotting them over their poor employee treatment and for driving small booksellers out of business as well as underpaying authors. We were boycotting them independently, before we met — a meet-boycott-cute.

The items I’ve been buying on Music Magpie are cheap (a few pounds for a CD or DVD box set), so I’m not at risk of losing much money, but complaining and returning items is a hassle, and I worry that after I’ve made a certain number of complaints they’ll assume I’m lying. They refund damaged goods priced under £5 without asking for the item to be returned, so technically someone could steal a lot of free stuff by buying cheap items and then complaining that they were damaged and asking for a refund without it ever being checked.

On the plus side, I found a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle in the free book box, one of those books I’ve always meant to read, but never have.

***

E and I have been watching the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (1977). E was not impressed; I didn’t tell her fan wisdom sees it as a Classic, whatever that means. I see it as somewhere between Classic and E’s “ok”. It has one of my favourite Doctor Who put-downs: “You’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.” I should warn you that I tried to use it on the bullies at school and it did not work as well as it did for Tom Baker. I don’t have that air of Bohemian cool.

Not a Number

Today was mostly OK, but I struggled with some autistic stuff. I hadn’t had much time so far this week for Torah study, and much of what I had done was preparation for the Pesach seders, so I read this week’s sedra (Torah portion) on the Tube, not something I like to do as (a) you are supposed to say the words audibly (even in a whisper) and (b) even with my slim volume of Vayikra (Leviticus) only in Hebrew (as opposed to all five books of the Pentateuch in Hebrew and English) and my pocket JPS English Bible, it’s awkward reading it on a Tube train. I really need a table. I haven’t been wearing a mask on the Tube lately, but I wore one today so people wouldn’t see my lips moving as I whispered the words. (Someone once told me that his brother did this without a mask, pre-COVID; halfway through the journey he could see out of the corner of his eye the man next to him texting “Some nutter is reading to himself next to me” on his phone.)

Work was slow and I made some mistakes and felt like an idiot (again). I spent much of the afternoon comparing a spreadsheet with a database to try to work out which entries have apparently vanished from the latter and why. I have more to do on this next week. It was very dull and I became bored and somewhat depressed, but at least I realised partway through that it was mindless enough that I could listen to music on my headphones, which cheered me up a bit.

J wanted me to drop a file off at the auditors on my way home and let me leave early to do so. On the way, I went shopping in Primark on Oxford Street. This would not have been an ideal choice even pre-COVID as it was hugely busy. I had been in busy shops since COVID, but usually ones I was familiar with. I’m not sure if this was literally my first new, busy shopping experience in two years (the airports were quite busy when I went to New York), but it was harder than I remembered and more draining. I just bought what I had come for and left as soon as possible.

There is the added element with Primark of guilt knowing that their clothes are not very ethically-sourced, but as I can’t afford to shop in more upmarket shops all the time, I’m not sure what else to do. Walking around naked isn’t very healthy.

I found the auditors alright, despite nearly losing both my kippah (skullcap) and glasses to the extremely strong wind, but hesitated outside. It was a converted house with two entry buzzers and I wasn’t sure which was the right one. I hesitated, wondering if I should text J, when the door opened and someone came out and I slipped inside. The sign for reception pointed to a shut door and I wondered if I should knock or open it or try to find out if this was reception for both offices when someone came up from behind me, saw our organisation’s logo on the folder and said, “Is that for X?” He seemed to be on the same team and told me to give it to the receptionist and told her to leave it on his chair. I hope that was the right thing to do. Only afterwards did I worry whether he was who he said he was, but he had got inside the office which he should only be able to do if he worked there (except that I managed it).

There was both social anxiety here and autistic ‘new environment’ anxiety, as in Primark. By the time I got on the Tube home, I realised my heart was racing and my adrenaline rushing. I’m pretty sure this was an abnormally strong reaction to this for me. I guess COVID and lockdown have left their mark.

I came home and responded to blog comments, but I rapidly felt burnt out and went to bed, not because I wanted to sleep, but just for the comfort of wrapping myself in duvet and weighted blanket. E wonders if I should deliberately do stuff in bed. I mean like read, write, blog and so on. She things I might find it easier to get up if I was going back shortly. She may be right. Churchill spent a lot of the war in bed in his room in the Cabinet War Rooms bunker, with advisors and Cabinet ministers coming to see him.

The other excitement today was that Mum kashered the ovens for Pesach (Passover). They were cleaned by the oven cleaner the other day and now heated to remove any trace of leaven food or ‘taste’. (The Jewish dietary laws assume that taste can be absorbed and emitted by porous materials. A lot of the dietary laws, both regular and Pesach, stem from this idea. I struggled with this in the past. It’s not totally crazy, as seasoning cast iron pans and aging whiskey in sherry casks both work on the same principle, but I do sometimes wonder if the rabbis had very sensitive palates to note such subtle tastes. Still, it’s the model we have and I think there’s value in sticking with established law regardless of personal opinion.)

***

I have been thinking a lot about The Prisoner lately. The Prisoner, for those who don’t know, was a “spy-fi” (espionage/science fiction hybrid) TV series from the late sixties. They only made seventeen episodes (there was a noughties remake/re-imagining that is not without merit, but is not as compulsive). It’s about a secret agent who resigns from his job, gets knocked out, and wakes up in a weird mini-society called The Village where people have numbers instead of names. He is Number 6, although, as he declares in the title sequence, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” He wants to find out who runs The Village (the unseen Number 1; day-to-day running is invested in the ever-changing Number 2s) and escape; the Village authorities want to find out why he resigned.

It starts as a thriller with slight fantastical and weird elements (e.g. the Rover weather balloons that smoother anyone trying to escape), but by the end becomes a surreal sixties ‘happening,’ complete with Beatles soundtrack. The surrealism and the deliberate obscurity of many of the episodes, particularly the final one, Fall Out, meant that interpretations of the series are legion (political, religious, psychological, postmodern, etc.). It was one of the first TV shows that cultural and media studies academics homed in on, unsurprisingly.

Former Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts wrote an essay about The Village seeming more like Britain in the 2020s than the 1960s. That’s partly why I’ve been thinking about it. Certainly I thought today that the public announcements on the Tube, particularly the ones about mask-wearing, are very Village: officious, sanctimonious and pedantic, with an ostensible nod towards diversity while asking for conformity. But that’s only part of why I’ve been thinking about it.

Doctor Who has been my favourite TV programme since I discovered it aged eight, but when I was at Oxford and saw it for the first time, The Prisoner rapidly became the series that I identified most with. It’s a mirror for anyone who feels counter-cultural and under pressure to conform. At the time, I thought I was friendless and lonely, and stressed and eventually made depressed and suicidal by over-work. I now see I was mid-autistic burnout, struggling to fit in to an environment that I just did not understand with people who I wanted to connect with, but somehow could not.

I think autistic people would find a lot they recognise in The Prisoner. The whole idea of making people conform, that society runs better if everyone thinks and does the same thing, and the individualists who instinctively rebel against this mindset is really the source of the drama in The Prisoner, as well as in the lives of many autistics, particularly those diagnosed late and/or forced to act the way other people want instead of how they want, or how they need.

In the penultimate episode, Once Upon a Time, there’s a sequence where a hypnotised Prisoner is made to relive his schooldays. His “headmaster” (actually Number 2) has a speech that goes, “Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilisation. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must conform! It is my sworn duty to make you conform!” before beating him for disobedience. I quoted the speech here from memory; it made such an impression on me that I learnt it by heart.

One episode, Living in Harmony, is, bizarrely, a Western, with The Prisoner as a sheriff who chooses to get beaten up rather than violate his moral objections to carrying a gun. This idea of personal morals being more important than society’s rules, even at extreme personal cost, is another thing that probably resonates with many people on the spectrum (and off it, of course). Other things that might be familiar to autistics might include: the uncertainty that runs through the entire series about who you can trust and who is working for the authorities, analogous to navigating the school playground (and later the workplace) not being able to read body language, intonation, subtext and so on to tell if people are being friendly or bullying; the authorities’ hostility to questions, particularly those directed to the foundations of their society (“Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself” — another quote I learnt by heart); The Prisoner’s sense of alienation from the constant Village celebrations particularly in my favourite episode Dance of the Dead, where a fancy dress ball turns into an angry mob trying to tear him limb from limb; the sequence in A Change of Mind where The Prisoner is effectively ‘cancelled’ as the villagers shun him as an “unmutual” and refuse to engage with him for the sin of using his own gym equipment and then mocking the Village disciplinary procedures; and the general pervasive sense of paranoia, of one person against The System, of being seen as essentially, even ontologically wrong and made to be something you are not.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that “The series’ thesis may be that freedom is impossible, as is opting out.” This is something I feel strongly, and not just for autistic reasons.

I did not mean to write all of this! I went into autistic hyper-focus, and an hour had gone. I guess it shows how much it means to me. I should have a re-watch. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it (a lot; the low number of episodes facilitates that). I don’t know if E would like it, though.

One day I’ll to go Portmeirion, the strange, real-life village/holiday resort in Wales where it was filmed (also the Doctor Who story The Masque of Mandragora, which E and I watched recently) and run along the beach shouting, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”

Checking In

I struggled to sleep again last night. It was probably from being on screens too late, but after forty or fifty minutes in bed, I had some racing thoughts so took olanzapine (it was one of my ‘off’ days for olanzapine — at the moment I take every other day). It seemed to help, but maybe I was just exhausted by that point and would have fallen asleep anyway. I will try to monitor my mood and sleep and compare against olanzapine use to see if I need to return to taking it daily.

It snowed on the way to work this morning. I felt annoyed about it, until I saw a boy of about eight absolutely delighted to be out in it. It woke me up a bit to the beauty of it.

Work was a bit crazy, but I can’t write much about it here. I can say that I had an issue with a simple task that I struggled with. I had about fifteen Excel spreadsheets, all bar one with two tabs (the exception was slightly more complicated, but it doesn’t really matter here). I had to compare some statistics on the tabs and bring them up to date, then print one tab once and the other three times for each of the spreadsheets. I struggled hugely with this, forgetting to update the statistics and printing sheets too often, partly from executive function issues with changing task and partly because I kept forgetting that if I set the printer to print a document three times, it would not default back to printing once the next time I printed. I felt a bit guilty about that, although wasting twenty or thirty sheets of paper (at most) is hardly the biggest crime, but more than guilty I felt a bit stupid and incompetent. I am also worried whether I have actually performed the task properly, and may need to double-check on Monday.

I picked a bit of anger from other people today, on my blog list and the autism forum. I got a bit upset and had some quasi-anxious ruminations, but then I remembered something my therapist said about being careful not to pick up other people’s anger or anxiety, to ask myself, “Is this my problem? Do I need to be concerned about it?” That did help me to distance myself from it a bit.

I was pretty tired when I got home, but E wanted to Skype earlier than usual, so we spoke before dinner rather than later. I struggled with lack of energy in the early evening, but around 10.00pm, I suddenly had energy and concentration, so I spent nearly an hour working on my novel. It was pretty productive (over 600 words) and seemed to flow relatively easily. I haven’t checked against my previous manuscript, but the prose style seems somehow freer to me, less stilted and Victorian, more like my blog than my previous fiction. Not that I literally write fiction like a Victorian, but I feel my first novel in particular seemed a bit stilted and artificial to me.

***

I finished re-watching Twin Peaks yesterday. I was originally planning to watch one episode a week, but I sped up a while back so I would finish long before I got married.

Twin Peaks‘ third season, broadcast twenty-five years after the original run finished, seemed somewhat better second time around. The plot made more sense overall, and the weird, surreal bits seemed deliberately bizarre rather than just incoherent. And the final scene is strange and haunting as well as tantalisingly unresolved. It is a bit frustrating if you were expecting more of the same of the first two seasons, or even the prequel film, but if you can accept that it’s a very different beast only tangentially related, that most of the earlier characters are seen briefly if at all, and that although Kyle MacLachlan is in it quite a bit, he’s mostly not really playing the same character as before, then it’s an interesting addition, certainly adding a lot more overt symbolism and mystery, if you like that sort of thing.

And now I ought to go to bed before I ruin my sleep pattern again…

Racing Thoughts

This is really just a brief note. Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, but I think coming off olanzapine has given me racing thoughts, poor concentration and insomnia (all inter-related). It’s not surprising as olanzapine is an anti-psychotic. I was prescribed it because it can help antidepressants work more effectively (for reasons that I think are poorly-understood medically), but also because I was having racing negative thoughts. My racing thoughts now aren’t negative (mostly about Judaism or E), but are stopping me getting on with my life and messing up my sleep even more than previously. I’ll give it another day or two to see if things settle down, but if they don’t, I’ll go back on, albeit probably on the lower dose (2.5mg once a day) I took for the last few weeks without problems rather than the slightly higher (although still low) dose I was on before I started coming off it (2.5mg twice a day).

Other than that, Shabbat was fine. I slept a little less than usual. I did quite a bit of Torah study, staying up quite late last night (this was probably a mistake, but also due to racing thoughts). I think I’m finding Talmud study a bit easier; maybe Rav Steinsaltz z”tzl was right that studying a large quantity of Talmud helps to build up the quality of study over time, even if you don’t initially understand much. However, I do worry that I’ve just hit an atypically easy few pages of Talmud and sooner or later it will get hard again. I was trying to read one side of a page a week, studying it once slowly with the full English commentary and then two more, faster, readings to revise, only reading the commentary if I can’t remember it. I’ve been going a bit slower for the last couple of weeks, though, as I’ve cut down my overall Torah study time as I try to readjust the balance of things in my life. I don’t read the unpunctuated and unvocalised traditional (Vilna Shas) page, but the vocalised, punctuated and broken into phrases version interspersed with the English translation in the Artscroll edition. I do try to have a good go at reading the Aramaic, though. My Aramaic is definitely improving, although it is still poor.

(I didn’t mean to write all of that. You see what I mean about racing thoughts.)

I didn’t want to read The Coming of the Third Reich over Shabbat, as it didn’t seem appropriate to read something so depressing, so I read The Twilight Zone Companion, which I got unexpectedly when I ordered a second-hand DVD of The Twilight Zone season one. It’s interesting enough, but could do with more detail in both production accounts and reviews. It does make me realise how much The Twilight Zone was fighting against the ultra-conservative social and institutional cultural forces in American society in the late fifties and early sixties, with strict limits not just on political commentary and satire, but on any kind of experimental or non-realistic drama. British TV of the time was much more free to experiment in comparison. I’m often critical of the current state of the BBC, but its mandate to challenge and provoke as well as to entertain meant that British TV was way ahead of the cultural curve in the fifties, sixties and seventies in comparison with American TV, and had a positive effect on commercial television too, which had to compete.

When I wrote about Purim and autism here the other day, someone pasted an article on the subject by a frum (religious Jewish) psychotherapist. I’m hoping to forward it to the family and friends on my devar Torah distribution list. Most of them know about me, but one or two don’t, so it’s a bit of a “coming out” as autistic. I hope it goes OK. I think it’s important to start these conversations about neurodivergence and mental illness (also treated in the article) in the frum community. I had the familiar quandary about defining myself as having “Asperger’s Syndrome” or “high-functioning autism.” I wish I didn’t have a syndrome that was discovered by a Nazi sympathiser.

I should probably go, because in the state of mind I’ve been in over the last couple of days, I could just sit here all night writing stuff that just comes into my head. So much for a “brief note.”

A Perfect Storm

I feel like I’m headed for a “perfect storm.” My parents are away leaving me in the house by myself, which always brings my mood down and makes me feel lonely (for an autistic person, I’m surprisingly bad at living on my own). It’s one of the worst times of the year for me, when the weather is still cold and wet and the days are short and dark, but it’s so long since summer that it’s hard to believe that it could ever be different. I’m feeling frustrated with my excessive sleeping and low energy on waking, doubly so as I know it’s a factor delaying my wedding. My parents are away, and the cleaner can’t come as I’ll be at work, so there is more shopping, cooking and cleaning that I should do (I’m not sure how much I will do — I’m already planning to eat mostly from the freezer on Shabbat to reduce cooking). I was also aware that I hadn’t dusted my room for ages and it looked unpleasant (it takes ages because of all the bric-a-brac and wargaming miniatures that I’ve painted that I have on display. Probably some of them at least should go, I’m not sure how many “spark joy”). And to cap it all, there’s a Tube strike tomorrow, so I will have to commute to work on the bus, which will take longer and I may not be able to read on the journey because reading on buses increasingly makes me travel sick, which was not previously the case, so no catching up on Torah study on the way in or relaxing on the way home (if reading The Coming of the Third Reich counts as “relaxing” which is questionable). It’s also Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) tomorrow which means longer prayers. I only do a small fragment of the morning prayers, but I try to do a bit more for Rosh Chodesh (Hallel and Musaf), so that adds another ten minutes before I’ve even factored in the Tube strike. It just feels like a lot to have to deal with, although it’s not exactly a catastrophe (just compare with the news).

I haven’t been able to speak to the occupational therapist who might be able to help me yet. I’m waiting for her to get back to me about when we can speak. I need to wait a bit longer before I can really chase it. I am on a massive dose of vitamin D, but as yet it hasn’t improved my energy levels. My therapist said her son was also vitamin D-deprived and he was told it could take a month to have any effect. I am also still on a lower dose of olanzapine without any change in my sleep pattern. I will come off it completely when my parents get home, but I know my mood dips when they are away, so I thought I would stay on it for another week just in case.

Because of all of this, my mood has been a bit down, although I’m not depressed, exactly. I feel like I should be able to cope better on my own, given that I’m an autistic introvert who doesn’t even like most people much. For all that I get annoyed when my parents want to talk and I don’t, the brief bits of conversation probably do keep me grounded and not entirely lost inside my head. Talking to people does probably help a bit with emotional regulation too, although I’m not sure why. It’s easy to think that everything is awful and I’m a failure at life when there isn’t anyone around to call me out on that, or just distract me.

I did manage to do a few things, therapy, dusting and other housework, a little novel planning and I finished my devar Torah and got it ready so I just have to hit ‘send’ when I get home tomorrow. I didn’t have much time/energy for Torah, but I have to remind myself that I am not just wasting time. I do feel pretty useless, though, and I miss E like crazy and wonder when we will be able to live our lives together. (I find time with E restoring, which is not the case for most people I know.)

Related to the idea of activity and energy levels, Ashley’s post the other day about goals versus identifying valued directions chimed with something I’ve been doing lately. I’ve tried to stop setting targets for the things I do during the day and how long I spent on them and recording them daily (which was relevant when I was too depressed to do much at all, but less so now) and focus on doing things in a more general way without obsessing over time (although I do still tend to notice it) e.g. I try to do some Torah study and some work on my novel without setting rigid targets. Doing ten minutes of set hitbodedut (informal, spontaneous prayer, talking to God) had stopped working and it was just becoming painful sitting and not thinking of anything to say, so I just do a few minutes or none at all if I don’t feel like it. I feel OK doing this as my kavannah (usually translated at ‘concentration,’ but I feel ‘mindfulness’ is a better term) on set prayers has been better lately.

***

To cheer myself up, I watched The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash while eating dinner and then dusting my room. It’s a spoof documentary, essentially about The Beatles, written and part-performed by former Monty Python Eric Idle. I’d seen it a number of years ago, but didn’t remember much about it. It was moderately amusing, but I think I’ve grown out of Monty Python-style humour (Michael Palin also had a small role). The cleverest aspect was Neil Innes’ Beatle-pastiche songs, that sounded authentic, but not quite close enough to prompt lawsuits. Innes also played John Lennon parody Ron Nasty.

I chose to watch it as I’ve been listening to The Beatles a lot recently, particularly their early music, which I don’t listen to as much. It did make me feel a bit better, but my mood went down again afterwards. I should just go to bed soon as I have an early start and long day tomorrow…

Danse Macabre

I’ve packed for my New York trip. Well, really Mum packed. I was torn between wanting to be independent and knowing that she can pack much better than I can, and just wanting to remember how she does it so I can pack on the way home. I don’t have great ability to do things like packing that involve imagining how different objects would fit when stacked differently in a space. I’ve never seen it listed as an autism symptom, just like I’ve never seen a bad sense of direction as an autism symptom, but to me they fit logically with acknowledged autism deficits in body coordination and spatial awareness.

My mood has been up and down today. I’m really excited at the thought of seeing E, but also terrified of travelling: terrified of COVID disruptions (or simply being sent home from the airport with asymptomatic COVID), of cold weather (everyone has terrified me by saying New York is cold, but I’m not sure it’s that much colder than London right now), of problems travelling with a mask (I’m particularly worried that my usual anxiety at going through airport security combined with shallow breathing from wearing a mask will trigger some kind of panic attack), of having made some terrible mistake in booking my flights and apartment, of just being overwhelmed by EVERYTHING. At the moment, after a Skype call with E, the excitement is winning. I hope it stays that way for the next forty-eight hours!

***

On an autism forum I’ve joined, people have been discussing school days. Interestingly, a lot of people who responded had a very negative time at school, reporting poor academic achievement, friendlessness and bullying, too much noise and bustle and difficulties fitting in and following rules.

It does make a me feel a bit ‘not autistic enough’ that I did better at school than some. Some people did respond with similar experiences to me, namely good academic achievement, but social isolation and bullying. I went to a very big secondary school and I wonder how I managed to cope with it for seven years. Work wasn’t so bad, but lunch could be very busy. I used to find a quiet corner, with or without my friends. For much of my time there, I went to extra optional Jewish studies shiurim (religious classes) during lunch break, which got me away from the busy lunch halls and playgrounds. I don’t know how I came home after a long day followed by a long journey on buses and the Tube at rush hour and then did a couple of hours of homework. No wonder I was burnt out by sixteen! I was bullied too, although perhaps not severely; not as severely as some people are, anyway. And I had a couple of friends. I think the rules were a positive thing for me, they gave structure and boundaries, and protected me from other children. I couldn’t really understand why my peers wanted to break them so much. They couldn’t understand why they mattered to me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very glad I had what Tony Attwood calls a ‘mentor friend,’ a neurotypical friend who to some extent guided me and even sheltered me from some of the worst aspects of school for an autistic child. This is my oldest friend, who I’m still in contact with.

***

I watched The Old Man in the Cave, a post-apocalyptic episode of The Twilight Zone. A lot of episodes of The Twilight Zone revolve around fears of nuclear war, one way or another, as does a lot of science fiction of the fifties and sixties e.g. Philip K. Dick’s stories from the era are full of it. It’s unsurprising, given how real a threat nuclear war was (e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis), but I wonder if it’s more reassuring to depict the end of the world when it’s humans who have destroyed it. At least we had some agency.

Stories that deal with catastrophe through man-made pollution and global warming are common, but I suspect that we won’t be seeing a bunch of plague stories post-COVID (cf. Survivors, the 1970s post-apocalyptic series created by Dalek creator Terry Nation, although that was a lab leak plague, so some human agency). I don’t think people want to be reminded how puny we are in comparison with nature.

In the wake of the Black Death, European art became distinctly morbid. There were depictions of the danse macabre, showing the Grim Reaper dancing with people in the fields. Rich people were buried in two-level transi tombs, with a human form depicted on the top and a decayed skeleton underneath, often accompanied by cheery messages like, “I was like you. You will be like me.” It would probably be a good thing if we were humbled in this way by COVID, but I don’t honestly see it happening.

Exciting News and Energy Accounting

I got up before 10am (just)! I told myself I could have a doughnut if I got up by 10am twenty times in January. I guess the lure of a doughnut at the end of the month (despite my diet) is strong enough to break my usual desire to sleep in. (That’s not the exciting news, by the way.)

***

I booked tickets to New York to see E later this month! (That is the exciting news.) Because of the need to do pre-flight COVID tests; my inability to do said tests on Saturday (because of Shabbat) or Sunday (because the pharmacy I want to use is shut); my unwillingness to spend less than a week with E after travelling over 5,000km to see her; and the need to isolate on coming home until after another COVID test, my trip is going to require my taking two weeks off work, even though I’ll only be out of the country for nine and a bit days. This is rather a lot at our busy time of year. Fortunately, J is OK with it.

I did some research on COVID travel rules and restrictions. I feel more confident about them as they’ve become more familiar, although I still worry about going to get turned away at the airport for doing the wrong tests or having the wrong papers, or that I’ll get COVID and be stranded in New York for an extra fortnight. Getting COVID on the return flight doesn’t bother me so much, I’m less scared of COVID (I’m triple vaxxed) than I am of disruption to my plans and all that would entail, although it would be annoying to miss work just as my new contract starts.

***

I spoke to my rabbi mentor. He was happy that my life is going well (engagement to E, job made permanent, depression hasn’t come back despite it being winter, etc.). I did mention that I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time and that I’m struggling to get back in the shul (synagogue) habit post-COVID and that I am struggling to spend an hour a day in religious study as I was a few months ago. He felt that doing one hour of Torah study a day at my age was more than most people would manage (which made me feel vaguely bad that this was largely because I am unmarried, childless and only working part-time) and that doing less would be fine. He asked if there’s anything in my life that I could/would like to just drop and, aside from procrastinating, I said there wasn’t anything, which made me realise that most of the stuff in my life (work, prayer, Torah study, writing fiction, blogging, exercise) is important to me; I just have to work out how to balance it rather than cut anything out entirely.

On a related note, at the suggestion of someone from the National Autism Association forum, I watched a YouTube video on energy accounting by ‘Purple Ella’ (autistic content creator). To be honest, I’m still somewhat sceptical at my ability to get energy accounting to work, but she suggested just recording your activity and energy levels for a fortnight to work out what’s working well and what isn’t. This sounded like a good place to start.

Purple Ella also suggested energy accounting on a weekly basis as well as a daily one, in other words, not just making sure you balance your energy budget (intake vs. expenditure) over the course of a day, but also over the course of a week, taking extra relaxation time before or after a busy day. I do this a bit already, in terms of leaving recovery days after draining experiences, but it’s probably better to think in a weekly mindset as well as a daily one.

***

My revised article on religious OCD is up on the Jewish site. Which is good, but I need to figure out a way to get them to pay me for writing. It’s strange, I never really thought of myself as a confessional writer, but it’s definitely the way my writing has gone over the last decade. Confessional writing is different to novel writing, but I guess they both tap into the same level of emotions, or the novels I want to write do.

***

I’m watching The Twilight Zone episode The Incredible World of Horace Ford, about a man obsessed with his childhood. I could probably write a list of weirdo Twilight Zone characters who are probably on the autism spectrum. Just off the top of my head, there’s Ford, Mr Beavis (from the episode of the same name), the guy from the episode Miniature and probably several more if I thought about it properly. I’m not sure if it’s reassuring or not that they seem to avoid social conformity at the cost of living a ‘normal’ life.

Horace Ford clearly had a happier childhood than I did, as I’m not in much of a hurry to return to it. He has somehow managed to get himself married, which is strange as his wife is intelligent and attractive, yet appears to want to spend her life with a man who has a mental age of ten. His mother lives with them too, for added infantilisation. You can tell The Twilight Zone is pre-feminism, because apparently woman are falling over themselves to play housewife and mother to man-children. Although the guy from Miniature married an Edwardian doll, which probably is even less feminist.

Writing About Writing

Just a small note about today. Shul (synagogue) was OK last night, but it’s still starting quite late on Friday evenings so I got to bed late and struggled to sleep when I did get there. I woke up at 8am this morning, but could not face shul without really knowing why. I fell asleep again, woke up around 10am and fell asleep yet again, and napped in the afternoon. I didn’t go to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers). I’m not really sure why. Part of me felt “shul-ed out” after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), but I think there was more to it than that, hopefully not laziness. I feel a bit guilty now. After Shabbat (the Sabbath) I resolved to work on my writing. I added a few ideas for my next novel that came into my head over Shabbat to the document where I’m brainstorming it. I spent ten minutes on my short story before realising I was far too tired to do anything. It was nearly 10pm. Shabbat hadn’t finished until 8.15pm, then with Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and helping to tidy up I didn’t start writing until gone 9.30pm, which is probably too late to do much. I still feel vaguely guilty about that too.

I’m wondering again if my writing is good enough. Writing proceeds slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, partly because writing well is a slow process, partly because I’m fitting it in around work, family and religious obligations, as well as recurrent autistic fatigue. Self-criticism, however, runs constantly and at the speed of light. I keep reading other people’s writing and thinking mine isn’t as good. I worry that I was never able to fix the major flaw in my first novel, that the villain was too darker-than-dark for a realist novel. I keep throwing “shoulds” at myself (“I SHOULD write more often, I SHOULD read more often, I SHOULD read more current fiction, I SHOULD read more focused on the genres I want to write for, I SHOULD get on with submitting my manuscript). I’m trying not to put pressure on myself at this difficult time of the Jewish year, but it’s hard, especially as I want to try to build some kind of writing career to help E and I move our relationship on. I worry that I don’t have enough good ideas, or really know how to develop them. I worry that I don’t really know how to be a writer (what does that even mean?) and am just winging it. The world seems big and unforgiving sometimes. I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on myself; at least one big piece of the puzzle of my next novel popped into my head over Shabbat, and I remembered it until I could record it afterwards.

At least I’m a bit more understanding of myself regarding inspiration. I used to think I could never be a writer as I didn’t have good ideas. Then I thought I did have ideas, but I didn’t have the patience or ability to sit and develop them. Eventually, I realised (unconsciously) that it was confidence as much as ability that was holding me back. I didn’t think I could write anything worthwhile, so I never really tried. Even so, staring at a blank Word document is hard. Finally, I realised that planning a novel isn’t something you can do in one go, or even in a sustained way over a number of days. Not for me, anyway. Just staring at the document for hour after hour doesn’t do much. I have to let stuff percolate in my head for weeks or months, ideas distilling one at a time, at odd moments, when I’m at work or in the shops.

I really want to write stuff that’s distinctive. I worry about just churning out bland stuff. I would hate to be that kind of writer. E asked me in the week why I like Twin Peaks, as she didn’t think it would appeal to me. I don’t think I answered well, but afterwards I thought that I like TV that’s distinctive and unique. Favourite programmes like Doctor Who, Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, Sapphire and Steel and The Avengers (in its Emma Peel heyday at least) are all really distinctive. You wouldn’t stumble across them while channel-hopping and struggle to work out what they were, even if you’d never seen that episode before. It’s true that a lot of them are science fiction, and I do like the genre, but somewhat generic SF things like Star Trek or Star Wars don’t live in my head in the same way. It’s the same with prose fiction. You can’t mistake a Kafka story or a Borges story or something by Philip K. Dick for something by someone else. I really want to develop that kind of distinctive voice in my writing.

Well, I guess I SHOULD go and eat something and go to bed, as it’s late and I haven’t taken my tablets yet. I SHOULD read, but I feel too tired and too down, so it’s probably TV for me.

Fifteen Minute Blog Post

I wasn’t planning on writing today as I didn’t think I had anything to say, but I find I need to set pen to paper, metaphorically, before I can go to bed. I will try to write and post in fifteen minutes or less.

I was working from home again today. I didn’t have to do the Very Scary Task again, it was just paperwork and data entry today. I’m still hoping the VST doesn’t appear tomorrow. I had done an hour of work in advance on Tuesday because I knew it would be so hard (because it’s boring rather than difficult), but somehow I still ended up working longer than I intended. One reason, although not the whole explanation, is that I did work a bit extra because I had a strange phone call, which I won’t go into here, which left me puzzling over whether I said the right thing. I talked it through with my parents and I didn’t count this as work time, although it probably was. In terms of the phone call, this is probably another instance where I can say that I may not have acted perfectly, but I acted with integrity according to the best of my ability.

I haven’t written much fiction lately, concentrating on getting my novel ready to find an agent and then on work. I had a story idea and developed it when I went for a walk, then spent half an hour writing a plan (this, for a story that I initially thought I would try to improvise, without planning. I’m not a meticulous advance planner-type writer, but I’m not an improvising “pantser” either). I’m not sure when I will write it; the next few weeks will be hectic with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festival). The original idea was to write a story with something of the atmosphere of Twin Peaks, but a Jewish setting. Even before I wrote the plan down, it had moved a long way from that, which I guess is good.

I Skyped E. We had a fairly serious talk. At least we can talk about serious things rather than just ignoring it like some couples. Nevertheless, I feel pretty drained after doing so much ‘serious’ stuff today though, and also watching an episode of The Simpsons that was about Homer thinking he was a failure because of his inability to hold down a job to support his family. The Simpsons aside it was a good day, perhaps the best work from home one I’ve had, and probably the last for a while.

Written in sixteen minutes!

Mid-Week Twin Peaks

I woke up late, drained, but not particularly anxious, which was good. No one contacted me about the ending of the Very Scary Task today, so I guess it went OK, otherwise someone would have phoned in anger or dismay or J would have texted to say something. So that’s good. I did have a bit of a headache after lunch, which may have been a delayed stress response. J contacted me after lunch to say I may well have to do the Very Scary Task again tomorrow, which is stressful, but hopefully won’t be made more stressful by bureaucratic mistakes outside of my control as the previous one was.

***

I had therapy for the first time in a month or so as my therapist has been away. It was good, although I don’t really want to say much about it here, except we spoke a bit about acting with integrity, which is one of my core values. We spoke about thinking (with regard to work and elsewhere) that “I acted with integrity and did the best I can; I can’t blame myself for external factors or how other people reacted.” That was helpful and I will try to keep it in mind in the future, including tomorrow.

***

I mentioned on here a few days ago that I wanted to do a Twin Peaks re-watch, but didn’t want to disrupt watching Doctor Who with E, and also that I was aware that there are periods with Twin Peaks when it gets into a rut of silliness or being bizarre to the point of incoherence and that those episodes are hard to watch in one go. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I will watch one episode a week, on Wednesdays, as I’m usually at volunteering and/or therapy on Wednesdays and am exhausted by the evening and just vegetate in front of TV, so I can watch both Twin Peaks and Doctor Who. I wanted to come up with a snappy title, probably with alliteration (I’m not sure why, as I’m doing this alone), but the best I could come up with was “Mid-Week Twin Peaks” which is a rhyme, but not a very good one. If you count the feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there are forty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks, so this should take me about a year.

Today I watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. As a prequel, it adds more to the original story than the Babylon 5 prequel In the Beginning did, inasmuch as the latter doesn’t do much more than show what the original series said had happened, whereas Fire Walk with Me is interesting even if you know how Laura Palmer died from the original Twin Peaks. I’m not sure why it has such a bad reputation, although the likes of Kim Newman and Mark Kermode have pushed for positive reassessment.

It’s a sometimes disturbing film about a disturbing subject (abuse), and the surreal elements don’t really detract from that. I like that there is redemption at the end, with the dead Laura appearing in the red room (Twin Peaks‘ Heaven/Hell/Purgatory) and crying tears of joy as she becomes an angel. The film lacks humour compared with the original series and probably doesn’t have as much of a sense of place (actually the opening section which isn’t in the town of Twin Peaks probably has more of a sense of place), but I found the balance of surreal moments amidst mostly realistic drama good. There probably is some truth in the criticism that Laura Palmer isn’t enough of a character to fully hold the film together. In the original series, the late Laura was as much a symbol as a character and we don’t learn much more about her here than we already knew, that she had been abused since she was twelve and has turned to alcohol, drugs and casual sex to cope. Nevertheless, I found it intense and compelling.

(I don’t intend on doing an episode-by-episode review, I just wanted to write a few thoughts as I didn’t have much else to say today.)

Stuckness, and Television

I feel vaguely anxious and stressed. I’m not really sure why or maybe there’s over-causation. I’m worried about another week when J is away, when I’ll be struggling to get up early and do the only, boring, task I can do from home, and when I might have to do the Very Scary Task again. I’m worried about speaking to my rabbi soon about my autism/Asperger’s, and extra worried as I don’t actually know when would be a good time to speak to him. I’m just focused on getting through this coming week. I’m worried about the upcoming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), with all they entail in terms of disruption to my routine, working longer or harder to catch up afterwards and time in shul (with a mask, but around people who won’t be masked) as well as the introspection these festivals entail. I haven’t yet done a cheshbon nafesh, an assessment of how my spiritual progress over the last year. I was supposed to do it today, but ran out of time. And at the back of my mind are vague worries about E’s trip to the UK and other obstacles to our getting together, although those worries are pretty swamped by more imminent ones, which I guess is good, in a weird way. Also at the back of my mind is an awareness that I haven’t done any creative writing lately, except for jotting down book ideas haphazardly as they occur to me. I don’t think I’m going to have much time or energy for that soon either.

I have a feeling of stuckness with a lot of things: COVID, getting to move my relationship with E on, my novel(s), work… Just contemplating my cheshbon nafesh I can see things have moved on since this time last year (I’m working a bit, I’ve finished my novel and I’m in a serious relationship with someone who is more suited to me than my previous relationship), but it’s hard to remember that sometimes.

***

Things done today: Torah study for just under an hour; went to collect my new suit; was going to go for a run, switched to starting my cheshbon nafesh when it started raining, then went for a run when the rain stopped. It wasn’t a great run. I had poor stamina and had to walk a lot, and for the first few minutes I felt so unbearably awful that I thought I was going to have to give up, but I managed forty minutes and just under 5K and I did run a bit better after a while. My mood was better afterwards, even if I spent a lot of the run worrying about the state of the world and about my family.

***

I have other anxieties. When I’m worried about something that I can’t do much about, I sometimes fixate on other things, often books I want to read or DVDs I want to watch or re-watch. Lately I’ve been wanting to re-watch Twin Peaks, even though I only watched it less than a year ago and know that a lot of it is not that good, but it’s structured in a way that makes it hard to focus on just the good bits. The soap opera-style plotlines make it hard to skip whole episodes without it losing coherence. I’m also aware that I’m watching Doctor Who with E and that I’ve also recently bought The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series (I’m partway through season two) and The Simpsons season three. I feel I should finish these first, without really having a good reason why. After all, they won’t go off, and I have no qualms about reading or re-reading novels with more recent (or less recent) purchases waiting. Perhaps more pertinently I feel I shouldn’t watch so much TV (not that I watch much more than an hour or an hour and a quarter a day) and that I should read more (even though I often watch TV when too tired to read or when in a bad state mental health-wise).

The “reading not watching” question is interesting. I enjoy reading, and, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn how to write as well as for enjoyment. My favourite writers, as I’ve mentioned, are Franz Kafka (who I hardly ever re-read, as a counsellor once told me not to read him when depressed and I find it hard not to do what authority figures say – I don’t consciously do this, but I do unconsciously), Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick (who probably shouldn’t be read by the mentally ill for a whole other reason). These writers have entered my mind in way that few others have, but I’ve been affected in a similar way by television series such as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and Sapphire and Steel. The writing is important in all of these, sometimes compensating for low budget, sometimes providing or supporting a sense of menace or surrealism that would be incoherent or silly with visual cues alone.

I’ve never really understood the criticism that TV encourages passivity. While many viewers are passive, I don’t think serious fans of a TV programme watch passively, however they respond to it: analysis (what tends to be dubbed ‘meta’ these days), fanfic (writing their own fiction with the characters and setting), cosplay (dressing up as characters) and so on. Fans respond in different, personal, ways, but they are not passive. Maybe it’s because I encountered Doctor Who largely through novelisations at first, and then original novels, so it’s always been on the boundary between TV and prose for me. At any rate, I watch attentively, looking at structure and characterisation, and as much as I would like to write like Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka, I would like to write like Robert Holmes, P. J. Hammond or Steven Moffat (not with all Moffat’s “battle of the sexes” stuff though).

We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Work was dull, painfully dull, but I guess that’s OK. I’m still sorting through my predecessor’s 2,000+ emails in his inbox to weed out the obviously irrelevant and spammy. Then in the afternoon I had a lot of trouble trying to make changes to our new database, probably a result of bugs rather than anything I’m doing, but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, it was dull, but dull is OK. I practically counted the minutes until leaving, but ideas for my next writing project percolated up while I was in dull. There was one brief interlude of non-dull, going to inspect the building’s basement, owned by the organisation I work for, but leased to the business next door. It hasn’t been used since COVID started and J wanted to check it was OK and took me along too, which was good as (aside giving me a break from dull), it shows that he’s planning on having me around for the foreseeable future, although I’m still technically freelance and employed on a day-to-day basis.

***

I’m not sure whether to continue reading We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not quite a third of the way through. I knew it would be dark; it’s narrated by the mother of a school shooter. But it’s also written with a lot of metaphor and simile. It’s made me feel self-conscious about how little I use metaphorical language in my writing. My Dad says I “don’t waste a word,” which I guess is the positive way of looking at it. The language and the subject matter combined are making it very heavy-going, even if I can see that it’s objectively well-written and more daring than most novels that deal with tired tropes. “School shooters and the mothers who couldn’t love them even as babies” isn’t exactly up there with “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again” in the familiar plot stakes. It’s also hard to see where this is going. On page 130 Kevin is still a baby, but we know what he’s going to do, and that his mother doesn’t think he has any reason for doing it other than nihilistic rage at the universe, so I’m wondering what reading the next 345 pages will add.

The other thing is that reading Eva Khatchadourian’s second thoughts about having children is raising currently unanswerable questions about having children myself. E and I both want to have children, but we worry that it won’t be possible, or at least not responsible. We’re two people with the combined salary of about one well-off person, so it’s going to be hard to live together (probably impossible without parental assistance, which is uncomfortable to acknowledge) even without having extra mouths to feed. We each come with a shedload of pre-existing “issues” of our own as well as almost permanent fatigue for reasons we don’t really understand — again, not a great situation to mix in a baby or a toddler (or teenager). The sad thing is, we would both probably make good parents if we can only find a way through all of this before the biological clock chimes.

***

I finished the first season of The Twilight Zone. It was pretty good, although I was surprised by how many comedy episodes there were, most of which weren’t that funny. I preferred the eerie stories to the more overtly science fictional, which surprises me a little. I think I like ghost stories, but have mostly avoided them until now from a dislike to sudden shocks and gore, which are really more horror than ghost stories.

I think my favourite episodes were The Hitch-Hiker (about a woman haunted by a hitch-hiker who always appears ahead of her) and Mirror Image (about a woman encountering her double at a bus station). Judgment Night and Third from the Sun were also very good.

It turned out cheaper to buy the box set of seasons one to five new than to buy seasons two to five second-hand, even taking into account that I had bought season one already, so I’ll probably be staying in The Twilight Zone for a while, especially as the episodes are short so I can fit one in alongside an episode of Doctor Who with E and still not watch too much more than an hour of TV.

Odd Thoughts of an Odd Fellow

I didn’t have a great day today. I overslept, although I rushed and wasn’t particularly late for work. At work I made mistakes, or had mistakes from last week pointed out to me. Work was dull and I was glad that I don’t have to work full 9am – 5pm days in this job. I do about 9.15am – 3.45pm, and I wonder how I would cope if I had to do full days. I drank a lot of caffeine to keep going, although, perhaps worryingly, I’m not sure it was that much more than usual: three coffees, a few teas and some coke zero that J had leftover from his lunchtime meeting. I don’t normally drink fizzy drinks during the week, but I felt I needed something to try to lift my mood a little.

***

It’s weird that I am reluctant to call myself a writer. I’ve written a self-published non-fiction book, an as-yet-unpublished novel, about thirteen years’ worth of blog posts (which I conservatively estimate at around three million words, probably rather more), a few short stories, a bunch of poems and various reviews and articles (not to mention divrei Torah). Yet I feel that because I haven’t been paid more than a few pounds (£25 for an article and probably about £50 in book sales, mostly to people I know in real life) that I’m not “really” a writer.

***

I thought today that I’m impossible to satisfy. I find secular Western society too individualistic, but frum (religious Jewish) society stiflingly conformist. Is there a middle ground? In the Talmud, Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am just for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1.15) It’s surprisingly hard to put into practice.

***

I watched a mostly humorous episode of The Twilight Zone yesterday. Mr Bevis is, according to the narration, an “oddball” (he may be on the spectrum, but let’s not go there). He dresses a bit like Matt Smith as the Doctor, with a bow tie and jacket. He likes weird things like zither music, crafting model ships, driving a clapped-out thirty year old car, correcting other people’s grammar, and stuffed animals (I couldn’t work out if this meant soft toys or dead animals stuffed by taxidermists. I think the latter). He likes to play with children, but not in a creepy way, because this is 1960. He also has a racist clock, but we’ll set that aside for now.

Mr Bevis loses his job, and indeed has failed to stay in any job for more than six months since he was demobbed at the end of World War II. Not only did he lose his job, he also lost his apartment and his car on the same day. Fortunately, his guardian angel intervened to rectify this — but at a cost of making Mr Bevis lose all his personality quirks and special interests. Because this is television, Mr Bevis decides that he would rather be himself and unemployed, homeless and motor-less, than be someone else with a job, apartment and car.

I thought that this was relevant to me. I also like odd things, or things that other people seem to think are odd, or at least things that don’t fit together properly. Lots of people like Bible study, old TV science fiction or glam rock, but not usually all of them at the same time. But they matter to me. And maybe that’s OK, even if I don’t have a guardian angel.

(I also couldn’t work out why Mr Bevis is trying to get office work he’s clearly unsuited for when he should be a primary school teacher – likes children, corrects grammar, good at crafts. And this is the sixties, so he won’t be forced to do endless paperwork and continual assessment. He really needs to see a good careers advisor.)

Stuck in The Twilight Zone

I feel burnt out today. Really burnt out, not just tired. I did a lot this week (as E reminded me… she’s a good girlfriend that way), possibly too much. I need a “battery life” indicator for my body! And brain, actually, as the burnout is mental as much as physical.

The easiest way to change this is probably to stop volunteering on therapy days, despite the fact that I do get something from volunteering — as much to do with social contact in a “safe” environment, and the satisfaction of seeing a task through to its conclusion as with the actual chessed (kindness) element, although that is there. But it is exhausting on the weeks when I have therapy afterwards in the afternoon. My therapist is away for six weeks, though, and soon after that everything will be disrupted by a month of Yom Tov (Jewish festivals), and by that stage they are hoping to move volunteering to a place that I probably can’t get to easily as I don’t drive, so it’s probably academic now anyway.

Whatever the reason, I got up after noon, missed even the late time for davening Shacharit (praying Morning Prayers), struggled to get dressed and do my pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores. I worked on redrafting my novel for about half an hour. I didn’t really have the energy or time to do more than that today. I got through another chapter, but I didn’t change much, and I can’t work out if that’s good or bad. Good that it’s in a reasonable state or bad that it’s not in a good state, but I can’t work out how to change it. I don’t really have much objectivity about it any more.

I did about half an hour of Torah study too, less than I wanted, but I was running out of time before Shabbat (in the summer, Friday night dinner is so late that there isn’t time for Torah study afterwards, especially if I want to try to get up early in the morning for shul (synagogue)). I finished reading Ezra, which isn’t really a whole book. Originally it and Nehemiah formed a single book, but it was divided by Christian publishers. They also split Shmuel (Samuel), Melakhim (Kings) and Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles) in two. I can understand splitting those books, as they’re all very long, but Ezra/Nehemiah together still isn’t particularly long, much shorter than books like Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel). I feel my Tanakh study is a bit cursory when I’m reading without some kind of commentary, so I’m glad the Koren Maggid book on Nehemiah arrived yesterday.

***

I watched more Twilight Zone. I like it, but it suffers from telling stories in twenty-two minutes, to allow for adverts. The stories have a beginning and an end, but not always a middle. In Escape Clause, a narcissistic hypochondriac sells his soul to the Devil in return for eternal life and youth, unless he chooses to die, which he assumes he never will. The Devil, of course, knows that sooner or later he will bore of eternal life and especially the absence of risk, and ask to die. But we don’t see him get bored, we just jump from him signing away his soul to throwing himself under a train to see if it will kill him (it doesn’t). It was a bit jarring. That was the most extreme case, but there are other stories it affected too. (The other problem with Escape Clause, of course, was that censorship in the 50s meant that they couldn’t talk about Hell, which made the decisions seem rather less significant than they should have done.)

Packing, Watching, Reading

I went to volunteering at the food bank this morning, dragging myself somewhat unwillingly out of bed. I was glad I did go, as we were short-handed (a lot of teenagers/young adults who help are away on summer camp, I assume as camp leaders) and one of the organisers described me as an expert in sorting the large bags of non-perishable food. I’m not quite sure where expertise comes into it, as I just follow a list of what’s needed, but I was grateful for the compliment.

I also did a stock check, which made me rather nervous about miscounting, or rather mis-estimating, as I was often dealing with large quantities of food, counting packets in large plastic crates and then multiplying by the number of crates, something that would only work if all the crates had equal amounts of food in them, or if I noticed and took into account which crates had more or less than average. I think I did OK, though, and I don’t think it has to be hugely accurate, just to indicate what we need to stock up on before next week.

I did make the mistake of saying that a parking space was free when the area was supposed to be used later, which I felt bad about.

In the afternoon I spent a while working on my devar Torah. I’m not sure if my idea this week was any good, but I’m committed to it now. I also had therapy, so I didn’t have any time to work on my novel; as I said yesterday, I expected this and did some extra work yesterday to balance it. I did some ironing in the evening, so it was a pretty full day.

***

I mentioned yesterday that E and I are watching Doctor Who in sync. As she can’t watch every night, and sometimes I’m tired enough to watch more than forty-five minutes of TV, I recently bought a couple of DVDs to watch by myself. I bought somewhat on impulse some programmes I hadn’t seen before. I’m getting a little better at taking a chance on TV I haven’t seen.

When I was younger, I used to watch a lot of wildlife documentaries, but over the years I drifted away from them. I bought The Blue Planet to see if I could get back into them. I watched the first episode tonight. It was interesting, and breath-takingly filmed, but I think my attention-span was small when watching to unwind after a busy day and I didn’t take much of it in. Still, it was good to watch whales, even if they were attacking and eating other whales; I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that killer whales eat other whales (I thought they eat seals and the like), but I guess the clue is in the name.

The other DVD I bought was season one of The Twilight Zone. I thought if I’m into eerie vintage TV science fiction, then I should really give this a try, this being the urtext in many ways, at least for American television (the UK had the Quatermass serials before The Twilight Zone aired. I really like those too). So far I’ve watched the first four self-contained episodes. They held my attention, but weren’t especially eerie or scary, with the partial exception of the first episode, which might have been more mysterious if I hadn’t remembered a spoiler that I must have read years ago. To be fair, most of them weren’t trying to be scary, which makes me wonder when the programme started going down that route. I’ll probably watch at least one more episode tonight, as it’s too early for bed, but I’m too tired to read. To my surprise, the DVD came with a free book about the series which looks interesting, although it has mixed reviews on Goodreads. I’m more likely to read a physical book than to read production notes subtitles or watch a DVD special features documentary, so this seemed a nice bonus.

Speaking of reading, I started The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov at the weekend. A bit like The Twilight Zone, it’s holding my attention, but I’m not quite sure why. It feels like it’s supposed to be a comedy, but I feel I don’t quite get the author’s sense of humour, like watching Monty Python when you sort of get it, but not quite. I’ll persevere for a bit and see what happens.

***

Not that I would ever go for such a job, but I saw an advert for a “Gag Gift and Prank Product Developer”. I do wonder what you would get asked in an interview for that job! I mean, presumably you would want to seem irreverent and mischievous, but not to the extent that you would swindle the company or get them into trouble with some misconceived/offensive/dangerous idea.

Coming Out As Autistic

I didn’t watch The Favourite in the end last night. After about ten minutes of it, my parents decided that, for a comedy, it was too weird and unfunny and stopped watching. I don’t mind weird, so I carried on for another twenty minutes or so, but I felt self-conscious, like there was a voice in my head asking me all the time if I was really enjoying it. Plus, I was getting annoyed by all the anachronisms. There was no “Prime Minister” or “Loyal Opposition” in Queen Anne’s reign and, although I wasn’t sure about this, I doubted that there was grouse shooting either (it seems I was right — I think in the early eighteenth century we’re still talking about guns that are difficult to aim accurately and take ages to reload). Also, while I can see that authentic eighteenth century dialogue would be off-putting, Tory leader Robert Harley saying something was “cute” just sounded weird (I was more offended by that than by conspicuous use of another four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ which was at least more authentic). So, I stopped watching, but I do vaguely wonder if I should have persevered.

I was a little burnt out on waking today, tired and a bit low, but I did manage to get ready for work. I had a small moral dilemma at work. Nothing huge, an issue of copyright law, but I feel a bit bad thinking about how I dealt with it. Other things being equal, I would not have done what I was asked to do, but I didn’t feel it was important enough to complain about, but now I feel vaguely guilty. I feel similarly bad about not socially distancing properly when I was dating PIMOJ, which was again something I sort of went along with to avoid making a fuss. I definitely find it easier to make a stand when I’m by myself, which is not a good thing.

At work I did tell J about my Asperger’s (I used that term rather than autism, although he did mention autism as something similar and I said it was a spectrum without going into details). I mentioned it in regard to processing verbal information, multitasking and phone conversations, as they seemed to be the most relevant areas. With regard to the first point, he said it’s OK to take notes. As for the other points, I didn’t make any specific requests or suggestions. It was a bit of a non-event and I suppose he may have been wondering why I brought it up, as nothing practical really came out of it, which I guess is a lesson for when I talk to the rabbi (which I still haven’t decided about yet).

We finished work early. We were going to one of our other sites briefly and J wanted to go before the rush hour traffic started, so I had a very truncated work day.

I wrote to the Intimate Judaism podcasters. I feel rather nervous about it. I worry I said too much. I would be a useless spy, I have the urge to confess all my secrets (see also: this blog). I’m also worried they’ll remember I wrote to them a year or so ago, when my life situation was rather different. I thought they wouldn’t remember, as they get loads of emails, so didn’t mention it, but now wonder if I should have done so. I asked for tips dealing with long-term celibacy and religious guilt, as well as feeling on the fringes of the frum (religious) community because of autism and mental illness. I’m not sure if a rabbi and a sex therapist were the best people to ask about the latter, but, having mentioned that I feel on the margins of the community as both a cause and a result of being single, it seemed silly not to mention it.

I had depression group in the evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly depressed, but wanted to go to support others, although I don’t say much in these meetings, aside from when it’s my turn to speak. I do this even when they’re in person, let alone on Zoom. I can’t always think of something to say and rarely work up the courage to say it; if I manage both of those things, the moment has usually gone by the time I’m ready to say anything. But I’m glad I went. I do feel more self-conscious at these meetings now I’m talking more about autism than depression, though. I’m not entirely sure why that is.

***

Recreation-wise, I finished reading Vampire Romance (amusing, but I found there were too many characters to keep track of in such a short novella). I just started reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I’ve read all of Orwell’s essays, even the not-famous ones, but not any of his book-length non-fiction. In terms of TV, I’ve been watching The Simpsons while I still have access to Disney+, although the more recent episodes are not very funny. My Babylon 5 re-watch is on hold (at an exciting bit) as the season four DVDs needed replacing like the earlier ones (why? WHY??). I’m also watching Doctor Who: The Time Monster, probably the least successful serial from Jon Pertwee’s five years in the title role. I’m not sure why I picked it. I think I wanted to watch something with Pertwee and, because this isn’t very good, I haven’t watched it as much as some of the others. It is silly, although not in the deliberate way something like The Creature from the Pit or Love & Monsters is silly. Nevertheless, I marvel that, in 1972, dialogue like “Being without becoming — an ontological absurdity!” was deemed suitable for a family show with a large child audience.

***

Names encountered today at work: Abraham Abrahams and Nathan Nathan (genuine names, but from the nineteenth century). Reminds me of Catch-22 and Major Major.

Thoughts of a Frum Writer/Geek

I was sorting a load of papers relating to weddings from the last fifty years or more at work today. I don’t want to say too much about what and why because I don’t want to say too much about where I work. But I looked at the ages of when people got married. In the recent paperwork, there were quite a lot of people about my age, although mostly a little younger than me. So I guess that’s a bit reassuring that I haven’t totally missed the boat. But the papers also listed occupations, and most people were settled into good careers before marriage. Lots of Jewish doctors and Jewish lawyers, of both sexes.

I suppose I’ll muddle my way through life somehow, but I fear it could involve muddling through lifelong singledom and loneliness as well as lifelong financial (not to mention emotional) dependence on my parents. I guess this is one of the reasons I don’t like the term “high functional autism,” because I don’t feel that I function well when I’m this dependent and lonely.

***

Intermittently during the day (not just when dealing with marriages), I remembered PIMOJ and feel sad, but I still feel like I did the right thing in breaking up.

***

A Jewish writer whose blog I follow wrote today about her remorse at unconsciously using a trope in one of her children’s novels that she now considers racist, the “white saviour” trope. This pushed back into the forefront of my mind some issues that I have with my work-in-progress novel. One is the lack of non-white characters. It is mostly set in the London Jewish community, which is very white, but there are more peripheral characters that could be non-white. There are one or two already, but I might change the backgrounds of some others when I redraft. The other problem, which I’ve struggled with from the early stages of writing, is working out how to structure the climax of my plot so that the male protagonist contributes something meaningful to the resolution of the female secondary character’s plot without it looking like she has no agency (not so much a white saviour as a male one). I’ve changed the plot back and forth struggling to resolve this. The dynamic of the story, which requires tying A and B plots together, is at odds with my desire to show a capable and self-sufficient female character. Possibly this is where I really need feedback from an objective editor.

***

This is a very old post that I came across and read, about consumption of secular media by frum (religious) women. My personal outlook is closest to Kochava’s in the comments section. Reading the other responses, I wasn’t surprised how many were very anti-secular media. I already knew that most frum people have a negative view of secular media, even if they sometimes watch/listen to it. But I guess it did drive home to me that my novel (and perhaps the future novels I’m already planning) won’t find much of a home in the Orthodox world. My novel is not PG-rated, with suicide attempts and marital rape, as well as other sexual discussion. PIMOJ, who I think had a conservative upbringing (although not what you might think) was shocked by it. She asked me if I would want it read out in the Heavenly court and I unhesitatingly said yes, because I think what I wrote is true and needed saying. People on the spectrum and with mental health issues do suffer in the frum community. There are men in the frum community who don’t understand sexual consent in marriage. These are problems that are not going to go away if we ignore them. (Also, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is really not PG-rated either.) But I worry that I’m in effect speaking to people outside the community, which isn’t terribly helpful.

I know, I need to get the book finished and published before I worry about this…

This is also part of the reason I struggle to integrate into frum society. Even in my current, moderate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, some people have TVs, although many don’t. But to obsess over a TV programme as I do after Doctor Who and other TV science fiction is not really considered normal (it’s not considered that normal in the secular world). I’ve written and self-published a non-fiction book about Doctor Who, which is taking things to an extreme. This is out of the realm of relaxation and into the realm of autistic special interests, which can be intense and personality-shaping.

I’m pretty sure that my fondness for science fiction is rooted in my autism. I watch “outer space” programmes like Star Trek and Babylon 5, but my real interest and autistic passion is for series like Doctor Who, The Prisoner or Twin Peaks, where we see a real world that is distorted by the bizarre. Similarly for prose authors like Kafka, Borges and Philip K Dick who push the boundaries of the real. Because of my autism, I experience the world in a way that is similar to the way that neurotypical people experience it, but with weird distorting twists that make it hard to understand or cope with, so naturally I’m drawn to fiction that works like that, albeit exaggerated to an extreme. But it’s hard to explain this to people who are anti-TV or anti-secular culture, or who admit it to unwind after a tough day, but think it’s not entirely right to watch it.

Perhaps it would be easier if I went to a Modern Orthodox community, but Modern Orthodoxy in the UK means the United Synagogue, where most people are not shomer Shabbat (keeping the Sabbath, a litmus test for religious observance) and the few who are religious probably have similar ideas about TV to the people in my current community. Possibly I’m exaggerating (autistic black and white thinking), but it’s how I felt when I went to a US shul.

***

More frum thoughts: I realised I have the following thoughts a lot: I did not go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) as most frum men do on their gap year; I am not integrated into the frum community; I am not married; I am a bad Jew. It occurs to me that I present them as true and causal: I did not go to yeshiva therefore I am not integrated into the frum community therefore I am not married therefore because of all three of these things I am a bad Jew. Yet I see now that the first three statements are not causal and may have nothing to do with each other. Even if I had gone to yeshiva, I might not have integrated into the community or got married. And the “bad Jew” statement is frankly question-begging.

Which is not to say that I don’t feel like a bad Jew right now, because I do, but for different reasons.

***

Speaking of yeshiva and Talmud study, I tried to do some Talmud study this evening, reviewing the class from Shabbat. I really struggled with it. It didn’t help that I was very tired; unfortunately, after work seems the best time for Talmud study at the moment, if I want to keep up with the weekly classes, which isn’t ideal.

***

Other than, it was a fairly dull day: not much to do at work. I went for a walk when I got home, having realised that usually when working I would walk home from the station, but J has been giving me a lift, so I haven’t been exercising as much. I want to make this a routine on work days, although doing that and Talmud study might prove tricky.

Sir Galahad

I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.

Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.

It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.

Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.

Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.

I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.

I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.

***

I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.

I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.

I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.

***

In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.

***

Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.

***

All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.

Short Post, Much Angst

Today I feel less burnt out than yesterday, but still subdued and struggling to do things, like I feel after a migraine. I would be tempted to take things easy, but it’s a week and a half until Pesach and I can’t really afford to do that.

I went out and did some shopping and spent well over an hour writing my devar Torah (I wasn’t sure I would have the time or energy this week) as well as doing a few small, but time-consuming, Pesach chores. However, my Dad cleaned the sinks in the garage that we use for Pesach, which was supposed to be my job yesterday; I was too tired yesterday and did not have enough time today. I vaguely feel I should do more things around the house.

The other important thing today was therapy. We spent a while talking about my autism diagnosis and what it means for me and my sense of self. We spoke about coming to terms with it being like grieving in a way and about whether I can use it as an opportunity to work on self-regard, which I feel very nervous about as I tend to assume that any positive self thoughts will lead to narcissism. In my head, someone gave Donald Trump (for example) too much praise as a child and now he has an ego the size of a planet, and I worry about that happening to me.

After therapy I found myself getting sucked into low mood and anxious thoughts again, some about my relationship and whether it can survive several more months of COVID, let alone other stresses. Then it segued into general feelings of gloom and impending doom. I found myself thinking about bad things I’d done in the past and being sucked back into bad experiences from childhood.

I really want to crash, but, again, there are things I have to do e.g. I told Mum I would do ironing and polish the silver over the next two days. I will do the ironing and watch The Simpsons, which I haven’t seen for years. Twice in the last twenty-four hours or so I thought about the episode The Mysterious Voyager of Homer, so I figured that, as I currently have access to it on Disney+, I might as well watch it. And then maybe another Babylon 5 episode before bed; I don’t really feel up to reading.

***

Today the oven cleaner (that’s a person who cleans ovens, not a spray) came to clean our ovens before Pesach. From here on in, things become increasingly Pesach-related and stressful for the next week and a bit. It feels increasingly “real” as we get past more pre-Pesach milestones (clean fridges, buy Pesach food, clean ovens, kasher ovens etc.). My rabbi mentor said that everyone’s entitled to one pre-Pesach meltdown, and I wonder how I can cope with that (my parents’ as much as my own).

Getting Inside Other People’s Heads

Today was a difficult day. Perhaps the stress of the season is beginning to hit me, or perhaps I just did too much Zooming yesterday. I experienced intrusive thoughts of different kinds in the morning and felt overwhelmed and anxious at work. The anxiety was fairly unfocused, touching work, Pesach (Passover) preparations and my relationship (not the relationship itself but the obstacles to moving it forward). I felt an inner tension. At work, I was continuing with the inventory of relatively expensive objects and when I stood on a chair to reach those on the top shelf, I felt a bit of vertigo and anxiety about falling off the chair or dropping the objects and breaking them. I had to get J to help me get one of them down because I was worried I would shake and drop it, although I made out that I just couldn’t reach it (J is taller than me).

After that, J and I practised the new task he wants me to do and I found it difficult. There’s a lot to memorise and it requires quick thinking to follow different permutations of responses based on what the other person says. I’m unwilling to play the autism card yet, but I need to see how I can cope with it in real life rather than role play. He suggested that we role play it some more. I agreed, and also said that the next time the situation arises in real life, he should let me take the call with him in the room so he can prompt me if necessary, rather than waiting until he’s out of the office and I have to do it alone.

On the way home, J reiterated that he’d like to give me a permanent part-time job. I had thought this was dependent on finances, but it sounds like it’s more dependent on institutional politics. I couldn’t follow all of what he was saying as he had the radio on and I find it hard to tune background noise out and was too socially anxious to ask him to turn it off, but it sounds like there’s someone in the organisation who would potentially block making my job permanent, but he retires in June, so if I can stay for another four months, I’m likely to get a permanent job. This would be very good.

Otherwise the journey home was a bit stressful with more depressing news on the radio, more on misogyny and murder, as well as the withdrawal of the AstraZeneca vaccine in much of Europe. This was the vaccine I had, so I’m vaguely nervous, although I think there’s a lot of politics at work here and the number of deaths supposedly related to the vaccine seems tiny. I came home to news of another alleged abuse story, this time in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Abuse seems depressingly prevalent in all societies.

***

I could have gone to depression group tonight, but was too exhausted for more Zooming. Also, last time I spoke about my then-upcoming autism assessment, but I don’t feel ready to talk about my diagnosis yet. I can’t really explain why, I just don’t feel ready. I haven’t spoken to my therapist about it yet (my first therapy session since the diagnosis is on Wednesday) and there’s an aspect of the diagnosis that I have not told anyone else about yet that I really want to speak to my therapist about and maybe that has something to do with it.

***

I managed about twenty-five minutes of Torah study on the Tube into work and spent half an hour typing up some of my notes of things I learnt yesterday that I want to share at the seder. I’m trying to look at the average amount of time I study Torah each week rather than the amount each day; doing five or six hours yesterday should stand me in good stead for a bit.

***

I’m still watching Babylon 5. It’s very well-written, particularly the character arcs for G’Kar and Londo. How the writers (mostly J. Michael Straczynski, who wrote about 85% of the series) turn G’Kar from a violent hothead into a man of peace, and turn Londo from a washed up joke into a ruthless politician and war criminal and then give him a hint of redemption without any of this progress seeming forced or unnatural. How G’Kar and Londo go from being bitter enemies to firm friends. How neither character is unlikeable or two-dimensional even when doing terrible things. Most of this is ahead of me (I’m only halfway through season two of five), but it already makes my own writing feel inferior, reminding me how I failed to make the abuser in my novel into a rounded character and how I’m not sure how to change that.

I guess thinking myself into the head of an abuser is on my mind today because of the murder and misogyny in the news. Some of the intrusive thoughts have been around this. I’ve wondered for many years about how people can hurt other people. I find it hard to get into their heads. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about murder, how people can do it, how they can live with it. I can’t even imagine living with myself if I killed someone in self-defence or in a just war, let alone in cold blood. I guess this is the writer (and reader) in me, the part of me that wants to explore other lives, although I’m not so good at thinking it through beyond the initial revulsion, let alone writing about it.

There’s a short story by perhaps my favourite author, Jorge Luis Borges, called Deutsches Requiem, where he writes from the perspective of an unrepentant Nazi war criminal on the eve of his execution. It’s a chilling piece of writing that somehow makes you see the world through the eyes of a thoroughly evil person and feel some kind of empathy for him. I have a long way to go to get to that level of writing.

The Napoleon of Higher Education

I don’t have much to say again today, but I feel the need to write something again…

It occurred to me today that “I won.” I thought I was autistic, despite my first assessment, I fought for reassessment, I got it and I got the diagnosis I wanted. I won. I’m not sure where I go now. I thought that a diagnosis would lead to greater self-knowledge and support. I feel I’ve won, but I can’t work out where that leaves me, what I can do next. I guess I need to wait a while to see how things develop, as well as waiting for the official report from the hospital, which will contain a list of available resources. At the moment I’m pretty focused on getting through Pesach (Passover), but maybe after that I can think about my options.

***

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was pretty normal. I slept too much, considering I need to be up early tomorrow morning for the LSJS Pesach study day on Zoom. I don’t want to be up late tonight with insomnia.

My parents are out shopping. One of the kosher supermarkets opens after Shabbat around this time of year so people can do Pesach shopping and my parents like to go then, believing it’s less crowded than during the week or on Sunday. It makes me realise how rarely I’ve had the house to myself for any length of time over the last year, particularly at night. Moments alone have mostly been during the day, when Mum has been at the hospital and Dad has been going to or from the hospital (not being allowed to stay and wait for her because of COVID). It’s been a pretty tough year for all of us, but I guess it’s been a pretty tough year for the whole world. And yet somehow I’ve got a job and a girlfriend, neither of which I had this time last year.

***

I watched another episode of This is Us. I probably wouldn’t be watching if PIMOJ didn’t want to watch it with me, but it’s inoffensive enough, the type of light comedy/drama that tends to be broadcast on Sunday evenings in the UK. There’s a sense that situations that could be difficult or emotional, like abandoning your baby because of your drug addiction, or the USA’s ingrained racial tensions are dealt with in an offhand way, as if they are the same type of thing as changing your job or envying your partner’s ex, these all being ongoing plot threads at the same time. As in the various Star Trek series, no one gets angry at anyone else for more than a few minutes, leading to a stable worldview in which support networks are always there and nothing incurably bad could ever happen to anyone. This is false, on one level, but also reassuring and soothing.

***

The college I worked at in Higher Education is advertising for an Assistant Librarian (my job) again, I think for the second or third time since I left. I don’t know if it’s for a replacement for my replacement or if it’s a result of expansion. When I was there, the college had four sites and three semi-separate colleges across one side of London, but their website now lists six colleges over nine sites and the job advert says they’re intending to take over colleges in a couple of other cities too.

I am not sure what I think about that. It’s like hearing your ex has moved on when you haven’t. On the other hand, the fact that they keep advertising for the job could mean that morale is low (it wasn’t great when I was there). It was bad enough being forced to go to staff training days at [redacted place that was miles away, where one of the other sites was] occasionally, let alone going to the Midlands! The same principal is still there, and it does feel that he’s expanding aggressively. To be fair, the college has a record for taking over failing colleges in poor parts of London and turning them round. They get decent results and help teenagers from poor backgrounds get into good universities and I can’t criticise that, but I wonder if they are overstretching themselves. Certainly staff were not happy about the constant expansion when I was there.

To be honest, I don’t know, and will never know, if I made the right decision in leaving, but my life since then would be rather different if I had stayed and not necessarily for the better. Whether I made the right decision or not, the life I have now is my life, including all the social and work difficulties I had that prompted me to leave, difficulties that I can now place under the umbrella heading of ‘autism.’

Overloaded

I struggled to get up today, more than usual on a work day. I’m not sure why. I felt that I was falling asleep on the Tube too and did a lot less Torah study than I would normally manage (which I’m recording to show how tired I was more than how little Torah study I was doing). Work was mostly OK, but J was talking to me about the new task I’m going to be doing and it left me a bit panicked. Firstly, he gave over all the information verbally (although I was taking notes this time), which is not ideal for someone with autism (people on the spectrum tend to have problems processing verbal instructions). However, I have not told him about my issues and at the moment don’t feel comfortable in doing so, and in a tiny organisation realistically there isn’t really a better way to transmit the information. Secondly, the importance of the task and the relatively distressed people I will be coming into contact with is in itself anxiety-provoking, especially as they will be telephone conversations (my least favourite kind). I would like to say more, but can’t without revealing too much about the job. Also, realistically I know that in a new job or with a new task one learns from one’s mistakes, but I worry about making mistakes with distressed people.

I seemed to be quite anxious by the late afternoon. I’m not sure how much was thinking about this task and how much was anxiety about the final part of my autism assessment tomorrow morning. I was also anxious that PIMOJ asked me to message someone on her behalf. I was anxious about what to say and what his response would be. This is an ongoing thing that I’d like to talk about here, but don’t really feel able to do so yet and which provokes nuclear-level anxiety, as well as coexisting with general anxiety about whether I’m too much of an autistic loner to be able to maintain a relationship (my first relationship was probably somewhat immature, although I was in my late twenties; my second was long-distance (and on-off); and this is my third).

I came home feeling awful, terribly drained and overstimulated. I don’t think I’ve felt this overloaded since I was volunteering at the asylum seekers’ drop-in centre, where I would spent three or four hours in a very loud and busy environment, “peopling” and looking after small children and I would come home unable to do anything for hours. I did send the message and one or two other things, but I wasn’t able to do more Torah study or anything productive.

I did watch the first episode of This Is Us, the TV programme PIMOJ wanted to share with me. It was OK. I’m going to hold off from passing a verdict on it until I’ve seen more in a better state of mind, but at the moment I’m not hugely excited at the prospect of watching more episodes.

I Am Not My Thoughts and Feelings

I didn’t have much to do at work today. I haven’t had much to do for the last couple of work days. I think the usual winter rush that J told me about is over. I hope that doesn’t mean that I won’t be needed for much longer, especially as I’m nearing the end of the long-term project I’ve been working on at times when there hasn’t been any more immediate work.

***

I’m re-reading Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s book The Strife of the Spirit. I read it years ago, but can’t really remember much about it. I lent it to PIMOJ recently and she really liked it and said I should re-read it, although I think the mysticism of the early parts (it’s a collection of essays and interviews from different places) is more to her religious taste than mine.

However, today, in a chapter on the soul, Rabbi Steinsaltz says that our souls are not our thoughts or emotions. This intrigued me. I have mentioned here before that I find it very hard to have any sense of selfhood that isn’t connected to my thoughts and, to a lesser extent, my feelings. I’m very bad at meditation, mindfulness and other techniques for “switching off” our thoughts. So I was interested to see him say that our souls are not the same as our thoughts and feelings. When I try to visualise the afterlife (which in recent years I’ve found myself doing a lot for some reason), it tends to be as disembodied thought or feeling, even though I suspected (and this agreed) that disembodied being would be closer to the mark. I don’t know what that would “disembodied being” would entail, though. Maybe it’s beyond human perception in this world.

***

“The universe doesn’t give you any points for doing things that are easy” was a quote from a Babylon 5 episode I watched today (The Geometry of Shadows by J. Michael Straczynski). I’d agree with that, replacing the quasi-pantheistic “The universe” with “God” (Straczynski self-describes as atheist, but much of Babylon 5 has a vaguely mystical pantheist feel). Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so hard though. It often feels that I have to struggle just to get to the starting line, let alone to finish the race.

On which note: I’m still worrying about my autism assessment next week, worrying what will happen (practically and to my self-esteem) if I’m not held to be on the spectrum. I should really try harder not to think about it, because the psychiatrist has almost certainly already decided her diagnosis and there’s nothing I can do about it. I asked some friends and family members to pray for me, something I don’t think I’ve done before, not like this anyway. I asked them not to pray for any particular diagnosis, but just that I should have understanding and acceptance of myself and peace of mind. I did it less because of any practical effect I thought it might have and more because I thought it would help me to feel supported and cared for.

I heard the Jewish biblical scholar Dr Erica Brown talking about The Book of Esther recently and she used the image of standing on the threshold at key moments of our lives, as Queen Esther stands at the threshold of the king’s throne room, risking death if she walks in without being summoned there. I immediately saw the relevance for my own position. It really feels like Tuesday morning (the diagnosis appointment) is a threshold moment that will either concretise my self-understanding as someone on the spectrum or force me to look in a completely different direction in order to understand and accept myself.

Autism Fears

I had a usual eat/pray/Torah study/read/sleep too much Shabbat. I read more of Contact. I feel a bit like I do when I meet someone I objectively should like, but who somehow irritates me. I should like the book, and on some level I do, enough to stick with it, but part of me is getting annoyed. Maybe the feeling I’m getting from it is that the author feels that anyone who went down the humanities route at university (let alone anyone who didn’t go to university at all!) is an idiot and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Maybe even that wouldn’t annoy me if it didn’t chime with my worst fears about the “Believe science” movement. Yes, I think science (empiricism, falsifiability, repetition) is valuable and an important element in policy decisions. No, I do not think unelected scientists should be making policy decisions instead of elected policy-makers, even if that means you sometimes get an idiot in control ignoring the advice. Elected policy makers can be replaced; unelected government scientists often can’t, or not directly.

***

I just watched an episode of WandaVision followed by one of The Mandalorian, the latter along with PIMOJ (simultaneous, but in different houses). WandaVision has gone from being a strange, not really funny spoof of old television sitcoms to a fairly conventional superhero series in the space of six episodes. The Mandalorian is technically accomplished, but lacking in soul. It reminds me of the final and weakest season of Blake’s 7. I found myself struggling to care about the characters in a story when almost everyone is a ruthless killer. Also, the droid was clearly voiced by Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd, which was just weird.

***

I feel like I’m struggling to be a good boyfriend at the moment. To be fair, it’s hard. I can’t remember when the current lockdown actually started. Google says 5 January. Two months having a relationship on text and video has been difficult. It’s hard to be present and focused for someone I haven’t seen in person for months. Hopefully we’ll get to see each other soon, once the lockdown finishes on 8 March. We relate so much better in person.

***

Over the last couple of days I have been worrying a bit about my autism assessment. It’s on 9 March, a week and a half away. I worry that I’m going to be told that I’m not on the autism spectrum and I worry what that would mean for my self-esteem, when I’ve coped with work setbacks in recent years by telling myself that the environments were not suitable for someone on the spectrum. To be fair, I have done a lot better in jobs in healthier environments for me, which indicates that this is true. But the fear is there.

When I had the first part of the assessment, which consisted of me explaining to the psychiatrist why I think I’m on the spectrum, she said that it sounded like I was on the spectrum. However, after that I had to have a second assessment, where I was made to do various activities that would demonstrate whether I think in an autistic way and I have no idea how I did on this, so the fear of being told that (for example) I act autistic, but I don’t think autistic is strong. I don’t know what that would mean for me or my sense of self.

I felt on Friday that I wanted to do something I’ve never done before and ask some of my family and Jewish friends to pray for me. Praying to be autistic sounds weird and is probably against Jewish law, which says that you shouldn’t pray for things that can’t be changed, even if you don’t know what they are yet. The psychiatrist has probably decided her diagnosis, so I can’t pray for it to change. What I can pray for is to have self-understanding and acceptance. I would like others to pray for me partly, I suppose, because I think God may listen to them more than me, but also to feel supported by family and friends who were often long-distance people in my life even before COVID started, somewhat like Rav Soloveitchik’s view of prayer in The Lonely Man of Faith, where he sees it as less about asking God to do something and more about creating a “covenantal community” that includes God, but also other people. I do feel strange thinking about asking for it, though, so I’m not sure what to do.

Equanimity, and Reading

I struggled to fall asleep last night, probably as a result of having slept too much over the weekend. That’s probably the context in which the rest of this post falls, that I was a bit sleep deprived and not at my best. I think I was worrying when I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t think I was being kept awake by worry, just that with not much to think about, I worried. Again, that’s probably relevant later.

At work I spent five minutes looking for a cheque before I remembered that the person had paid twice by mistake and we posted their second cheque back to them. I had just forgotten to delete the second cheque from the incoming payments spreadsheet. Until I realised what was going on, I worried I had done something really stupid, like throw the cheque in the bin or post it back to the sender instead of their receipt, something I have nearly done on several occasions. I hope I didn’t seem too stupid to J.

In the afternoon, I worked on the inventory again. I struggled a bit emotionally. My therapist says it’s not so helpful to talk of “depression” now, given that my mood is mostly stable, and I think that’s true, but my mood did dip, perhaps because of my lack of sleep. The inventory is not a completely straightforward task, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of concentration either, which is a recipe for my mind to wander, apparently to worries and negative thoughts about myself, somewhat like last night when I couldn’t sleep. I did get through it, but I fear that my work was not particularly fast or efficient, and I’m still only about halfway through the inventory (or really through stage one of the inventory).

***

I worry a lot about not having peace of mind, including today while feeling like this, so it was interesting to see in the Jewish book I just started re-reading (The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) that peace of mind is a negative thing in Judaism. We should feel inner conflict: “there are [spiritual] goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.” (p.5) Elsewhere (The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 132) Rabbi Steinsaltz states that “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.” This is rather different from what a lot of self-help books say. Alan Morinis writes that the Jewish idea of equanimity is like a surfer on a wave, staying balanced, but aware of what is around him. This approach intrigues me. It seems more feasible than complete calm and lack of emotional upsets.

***

I feel that I’m reading less. I should qualify that and say I’m reading less recreationally. I read a lot of religious material, in Hebrew and English. But I think I’m reading less for fun. Certainly I haven’t found a novel that really grabbed me, that I became immersed in, for quite a while. And I’m not sure if my idea of mixing more non-fiction into my reading schedule is so good. I like to learn about history, economics and politics, so setting aside time to read about them is good, but then I want to be a professional author, so I should read a lot of fiction. It can also be harder to get motivated to read non-fiction than fiction. Then again, I want to write Jewish historical fantasy, so a solid grounding in Jewish and world history and mythology is also important…

I also find that it’s easier to read blogs and news articles online than books or even longform online journalism. The Jewish Review of Books periodically posts long articles that they don’t include in the print magazine and I save them, but it’s hard to get around to reading them. Sometimes I print things like that off and read it on Shabbat as it’s easier to set aside the time to read then. Despite this, I still spend hours idly surfing blogs, BBC News and other news sites.

I guess the bottom line is that I haven’t found reading so much fun lately, so I’ve been prioritising television, particularly when tired (which is a lot of the time). I’m not sure what to do about this, or if this is even something I should do anything about. Reading has been my love since I was a toddler, it will probably reassert itself at some point, maybe when I’m sufficiently at peace with my own novel to be able to read other people’s work without taking it to pieces to see how it works and what I should (or shouldn’t) learn from it, which I’ve been doing lately (mind you, I do that with TV too).

***

I don’t normally post links, but as I was complaining about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) lockdown non-compliance recently, I want to link to this interesting post that says that the data suggests Haredi compliance was greater than the community has been given credited for, at least in the first lockdown. And while I find many aspects of Haredi life personally uncomfortable, not to mention antithetical to my understanding of Judaism, I agree that demonising “Them” isn’t helpful. It opens the door to all kinds of nasty social engineering projects once you decide that some life choices are inherently wrong and need policing (or “helping”) by other groups (with obvious caveats for where those life choices affect those unable to choose, whether children or people vulnerable to COVID).

Trying Not to Get Annoyed

I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

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Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

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Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)