Thursday, March 28, 2019

Me and my Donkey

The nature of comedy friendships is tight, short bursts of intensity which spring up like flowers every few months and then return to dormant seeds. We are friends and allies for a night - sharing stories and a microphone before disappearing off to very separate lives and reuniting again in a different theatre somewhere else months down the line.

Most of my green rooms are filled with men, what with comedy still dragging its heels towards anything even close to equal representation. This green room is no different… there’s Chris -Canadian raconteur, Richard - cheeky Brummy live-wire and Ben - a regular JK47. I enter the room and exchange hugs and hellos all round. We sit and wait for the show to begin.

Richard catches my eye across the room just as Ben heads out in search of water and Chris checks his phone for road closures on the route home.

“How’s your baby?” Asks Richard.

I freeze - my smile buffering awkwardly across my cheeks.

In the freeze-frame moment, this is what my imagination has done… it’s very quickly mocked up an image of me holding a newborn - the newborn Richard is asking about - to test whether that is something familiar. A quick fact check suggests I have not had a baby and I am reminded that; I have not had a baby. I have not had a baby and so the Getty Image newborn fades from my grey matter along with it’s fluffy white blanket and the graceful crooked arm of my invented maternal self. I have not had a baby.

“I don’t have a baby.” I say, willing the smile to stay Gentle™ not Manic™. I’m trying to adjust my face so that it’s Quizzical™ without being Defensive™. Trying to remember what Danny Champion of the World’s Dad said about being an Eye Smiler. Are my eyes smiling? I’ve not had a baby.

“Yes you do! Your baby?” For reasons best known to himself, Richard is ploughing on! Baby means Baby. I must have a baby. My mind looks at the facsimile again, and we are forced to conclude that this is not a memory - this is a baby and a life I don’t currently have.

Richard looks so confused - waiting for it to dawn on me, I suppose. He’s waiting for me to slap my forehead and exclaim “Oh, bloody hell! Yeah! That baby! Silly me. Yeah, my baby is fine thanks.”

For a second I wonder whether I should do this… I remember once at primary school when a dinner lady misunderstood a story I was telling her about things I saw on the drive home. Long story short I spent the rest of my primary school years pretending I lived on a farm and keeping her updated on my favourite donkey. I’ve felt guilty about lying to that dinner lady ever since, but really, if you hate confrontation it’s the only choice. A baby is much harder to invent than a donkey though, I reckon. Also, social media didn’t exist back then so there was no need for me to mock up pictures of Donkey and Me having a great time. I look Richard in the eye and decide to take the Awkward™ route.

“Oh, Richard, I really don’t have a baby.” I am firmer, but still Danny’s Dad Eye Smiling. Perhaps I should suggest he has confused me with someone else? Kate Middleton perhaps? She’s extremely fertile. Maybe if I did more charity work or used more expensive shampoo it would happen for me? I bet Kate Middleton never had to pretend she had a donkey.

“No… you did have a baby, didn’t you?” I am full of admiration for Richard’s surety that I am the Duchess of Cambridge. He’s doubling down on his efforts to work out what’s going on, but his mode of discovery is a bulldozer going straight through me. I am definitely not swift enough to avoid the juggernaut. Danny’s Dad’s advice is slipping off my crow’s feet. The front page of Heat magazine is the Duchess of Cambridge’s mud splattered tiara posing with a hired donkey.

“I definitely didn’t Richard. I’ve spent 2 and a half years trying for a baby and not had one.”

There it is. There’s that deluxe multipack of cold awkwardness we ordered. The dump track empties it’s load all over the floor and it’s suddenly very quiet in the room. Only the donkey is vocal, braying from the corner “You twonk - why didn’t you use me? I was wide open!” 

Chris is staring hard at his phone, he must have worked out the status of the A3 by now so I assume he’s moved on to the task of downloading an app for blackhole getaways from awkward situations. I think I can hear Ben’s footsteps outside the room, wondering how long he can stretch the water retrieval task before having to return.

Richard is immediately apologetic… “Oh god, Laura… I’m so sorry.” And other such sentences come tripping out over his immensely sincere lips.

“It’s fine Richard, honestly - obviously just a mix-up somehow. I just did a show about trying for a baby so maybe you saw the poster and got confused.” I’m genuine in my consolations to the poor man… I’ve got quite used to people pushing hard questions on me that have left me making it up to them when they get the answer they didn’t want.

“How long have you been married now… do you ever think about having a family?”
“Gosh, your little sister’s child is 1 now… does it not make you think about having one?”
“You can’t focus on your career forever… so do you just not want kids?”

It’s their small talk and my huge conversation.

I’ve left donkeys up and down the country where I’ve not had the strength that day to tell them what’s really going on. I’ve put on the two piece by Expensive Designer™ and done the royal wave from my tinted windows just to keep the charade going. I’ve done this because wherever I haven’t, it’s been me left apologising. Me making them feel better for having opened my wound.

“I haven’t found out how to have a baby yet because first I ended up close to suicidal over the psychological impact of creating life and then when I got out of therapy and off medication and ready to try, we spent two years with my body not co-operating even though my mind was now on board.”

Silence.

They incessantly ask about the donkey’s eyes, how it’s feeding, how much it’s grown but when I finally stop dodging the question and tell them the damn donkey’s dead they look at me like I dragged the carcass in the room of my own volition. 

I’m left scraping, telling them it’s ok and how could they have possibly known? Why wouldn’t they think it’s ok to continue asking questions about the single most important process a living thing can go through. I pat the back of their hands and smile for the camera - glossing it all over with a squeeze of Pantene.

Ben returns and the conversation steers away into waters much calmer… how are the audience looking, are we going to start on time, are we all feeling match fit? The surface waters of the intermittent comedy friendships are still once again. Frost hasn’t killed these friends-eeds this time. Ben does his set, says his goodbyes and leaves. Chris does his, waves farewell and departs. Richard finishes up, I close the show and we both head out the door… as we leave the theatre he catches my elbow gently and looks at me with absolute regret on his face.

“Laura, I am so sorry.”
“I know, Richard. Please don’t worry. Honestly - it was absolutely fine.”
He smiles and nods sadly, walking away. He’s a lovely guy.

As I drive home with Laura_and_Baby.jpg splashed across the windscreen I make a vow to myself that from now on I can own as many donkeys as I want.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Box of Thumbs and Hearts

The theme of my week has been “social media” - from an unexpected spat with a decade-long-forgotten ex-boyfriend, to a tweet that landed me a front row chair for the “women aren’t funny” parade, to a desperate plea to instagram to refill the little rectangular box of self esteem that is my phone. 

I call it a phone, but really I never phone anyone… I communicate solely by the written word so I can prepare my utterances. I don’t know when voice to voice communication first started to make me feel so boxed in to a corner; I often see text as my saviour, but perhaps the causality is reversed and it’s actually my captor.

My phone is an innocent looking box that when opened can turn out to be jammed full of thumping pink hearts and weird blue thumbs. I open it when I need a glowing rectangle to connect me via lurid icons to the people I am avoiding meeting in flesh and blood. I know it’s vacant and shallow, but damn, sometimes in the sickly orange light of the M25 I look forward to popping it open when I reach my drive way so I can bathe in the apathetic love from these vapidly cultivated symbols.

How easy it is for us to gently scroll our thumb over the “offer positivity” icon and increase someones validation-in-a-circle-number™ for something we will never think of again. For my part as a generator, I’ve significantly contributed to thumb up inflation in my small circle by liberally sprinkling my approval across a large number of posts. I don’t suppose many of them are as addicted to the pixelated thrill of a notification as I am, but in my own way I feel like being generous online is a useless yet nice thing to do.

Generally speaking, I like social media; I am very averse to being alone and have chosen a career that has me riding solo most of the time. I’m the agoraphobic shepherd, the vertiginous window cleaner, the coeliac baker and the unionised CEO.

Social media is a way to constantly have low level company that doesn’t involve me buying a walkie talkie for my husband. He’s very grateful for its existence. I can test jokes, publicise live shows and just… chat… with whoever else is bored at the same time as me. Anywhere in the world. From my uniform hotel room with a million low light lamps and zero illumination I can crowd-source a playlist of upbeat music or chat about a TV show I’m watching as though someone is sat on the bed beside me with popcorn. The icons and symbols I’m sneering at above have all come from real people, with real interaction to offer and to write it off as meaningless because it comes via technology would be to disregard all epistolary novels because they are also simply the product of the best available remote communication at the time.

Just in the time I’ve been writing and rewriting this my phone has been constantly in and out of my hand: I’ve agreed with someone on a book about law I just finished and been able to tell the author how much I liked it, I’ve found video of an American gymnastics meet and welled up watching it, I’ve extolled the virtues of a National Trust membership with an old friend from school. There’s such a glut of the world to find and augment your day with.

I’m too reliant on my phone, and I know that; I take it all too personally. Just this week I politely asked a stranger to be less over-familiar with me when they tweeted me; the winky faces and comments on my appearance with suggestive overtones were just a bit too intrusive time after time. I could have muted or blocked but I thought a reasonable appeal to common sense might work - after all, I was unlikely to be the only one on the receiving end. I was immediately blocked from this person, and whilst, overall, it is going to make no negative impact on my life, for a few minutes afterwards I sat in shame wondering if I was at fault. I wasn’t, and reasonable Laura knows that - but when you allow the meaningless to be your boundless uplift, it follows you’ll allocate it an unreasonable downward pull.

I tweeted something this week about jobs for women in comedy and was immediately confronted with varying levels of disagreement from the predictable usual suspects. Easy to ignore were the simple “women aren’t funny”, harder to walk away from were the blatant misinterpretations of my point dressed up as straightforward explanations. The number of times this week my thumbs have raced over the glass explaining the difference between a “female” and a “female comedian”. When the anger first started trotting in I hovered over deleting the tweet just to cease the vitriol that was now swirling in my living room. I still stood by my tweet, but quite honestly I was physically shaking and not sure I wanted the fight. I sat for a bit and determined that the shaking was stupid. I looked at the likes and retweets in agreement with myself and imagined the reaction as a room full of people: an audience of 150 agreeing politely and about 20 men booing loudly. I kept the tweet up. Muted the moronic and persevered with the debate. Probably overall it was a total waste of my time, but since we developed agriculture what do we have but time, eh? Is this thing on?

On Saturday I went for a day’s shopping in Bluewater to try and find a dress… across 6 or 7 hours I was in and out of fitting rooms and clothes trying on dress after dress. Whilst I appreciate it is the first worldiest of all problems to claim that a day in a sumptuous palace of capitalist hedonism is “exhausting”, there is something curiously draining about repeatedly trying on clothes.The sight of my arse peering out through strained tights as I bent down to pick up a dress - it was a quip to my friends at the beginning of the day. By 6pm I was wondering how this trussed ham had made its way onto the back of body - stowing away like one of Theresa May’s crises and causing irreparable harm to my self-esteem. The constant temperature changes, the impairments to sight and sound as dresses are wriggled over sensory organs, the strip lighting and curtains that aren’t quite wide enough to give you privacy - it’s all a recipe for insecurity and instability.

When I pick up a dress that’s priced over £50 my brain starts a little story for me, it says “Laura, this dress was designed by geniuses and woven out of fabrics invented to compliment the human body. You are going to put this on and the invisible panels constructed by Karen Millen and NASA will whisk the parts of your body you dislike off to another dimension. While you are in this dress you will be 5’10” and won’t have all those fears about owning 2/3s of the world’s eyebrows while some people have none. Your collar bone will naturally pop to a sexy 50s level, and you will have knees made of “firm” instead of “gelatinous”. You will look, not merely “beautiful”, because that could mean any thing, you will look how you imagine you have the capability to look if only you had the money. This dress knows your aims and is made of how to get you there. This dress is rocket fuel.”

I carry the dress lovingly to the fitting room all the time marvelling at the science that must go into making these dresses worth the money. My t shirt comes off over my head causing a flurry of static electricity and ruffle to muss my hair. My skirt comes down leaving the various restrictions of my tights and underwear exposed. There’s an angry red line where my bra rubs my ribs and the mini fold under there is waving happily. Never mind, I think, rubbing distractedly at the strap welts on my shoulders, this dress is designed for these challenges. I am the snow and this dress is the tyre chains.

The dress goes back over my head pulling my fringe into a greasy curtain and smearing the remaining oily sheen of foundation towards my chin where it has gathered in a little orange huddle right by the too-dark hairs on my top lip that this light is determined to celebrate. I locate the under skirt, the second lining, the fluffy bit and the over beading and try to get them all to lie calmly before focusing on the zip. I am not double jointed, an escapologist or a jelly fish so the zip is difficult to get my hands on.

I push the curtain to one side and back out asking a free friend to get the zip for me and she begins. It’s not happening. “It’s not you,” she says, soothingly, “the fit is fine - it’s where the zip crosses the dress pattern. Hang on.” Another friend is called over to hold the material together while another one channels the force and determination of Dwayne Johnson to raise the obtuse zip to its final resting place. My friend is right of course; the dress fits fine and it is the chunky material that’s causing the problem but that doesn’t make the feeling of being a swollen joint any less real. Are other people in the fitting room looking at me and wondering why I am so deluded as to thinking this dress is the right size, how can it need two people to do a zip? But then it is on and it is indeed the right fit; it’s for another blog post to discuss why the right fit is this overtly tight one, but for now; it’s the right fit.

I stand, finally in, breathing awkwardly - feeling ashamed and embarrassed trying to assess the dress in the various mirrors around me. Bizarrely I am still only 5’1” and the science hasn’t worked so a foot of the dress is lying in a puddle around my feet, and the magical panel has done nothing to disguise the downward droop of my gaping tummy button in the stretch of the fabric. My friends have their heads cocked to one side and we are all debating the nicest way to say “not this one darling” and get me back into my clothes. The price tag has meant nothing about the dress; the dress is still only designed for one body, the magazine body, the rare body, not my body. It is not expensive because they have worked tirelessly on how to make it the best it can be for the majority, it is expensive because if you have the body for this dress you will buy it regardless just to show that off. How could you not?

The layers of dress are going back over my head, my old clothes go back on but they don’t feel pristine and carefully chosen like they did this morning when they went on - they feel stretched and crumpled and tired. So do I. We move on to the next shop where the tags will tell me the same lies. And I’ll believe them. How could I not?

In desperation as my sugar levels drop to unacceptable levels and we stop for a coffee and an affirmation of our friendships, I look back at the photo of the nice dress I found. The picture I quite like. The one dress in twenty that I looked back at the photo and felt proud of my lumps.I prepare it for instagram - one quick heroin hit of mood booster. I write something attempting humour in a bubble over the photo to lessen my attention grab’s humiliation and I carefully pose the text down one side of my body to minimise the real estate my hips take up on the screen. Post. A slow dribble of yellow faces with heart eyes, and the lovely beautiful comments from my friends about how great I look are gratefully and sociopathically consumed. I needed that. It’s fructose in place of nutrition but I know it’s not terminal. It’s not the end of days. I’ll have a lovely boost from lovely people right now, and then I’ll probably go away and stew on why I needed such a shallow reaction which will result in a lengthy, verbose blog post that I’ll then post on social media and wait for the appearance or absence of iconised reaction to that before closing my laptop and going to a job where I base my self worth on the binary reaction options of a comedy gig and wonder why approval means so much to me. C’est la vie.