Saturday, 4 March 2017

Doris Damaged My Umbrella

I see we have begun to identify individual storms, as we already do hurricanes, by giving them people’s names. It works well, especially here in Britain where we are especially inclined to converse about our weather-events: they are more memorable if they have a human identity. “You know when Eric blew in the other week? He played havoc with my roses.” It is always gratifying to be able to name and blame someone else for one’s misfortunes and this extension of the phenomenon to natural causes is amusingly human. It makes me feel better to say that Doris damaged my umbrella, despite knowing that the responsibility for its reckless deployment was mine.
It happened on the way back from the cinema where I had just seen20th Century Women in which Annette Bening plays the single mother of a teenage son (and surrogate mother to his girlfriend and a young female lodger). There’s a lot of young-person-angst in the script but it’s handled with humour, so much so that when the mother, exasperated by it all, retorts “For God’s sake, worrying about whether you’re happy is just a short cut to depression,” the audience laughed out loud. I imagined them thinking “Yeah, get a grip. Life is full of set-backs.” And how should we define happiness, anyway? Is happiness a permanent state of relative contentment or does it comprise intermittent periods of relief from misery? I think Daniel Dennett nails it when he says “the secret of happiness is to find something more important than you are and to dedicate your life to it,” though that is easier said than done.
The cinema is in an arts complex and before the movie I was drawn to a kiosk in the foyer where passers-by were invited to try a ‘virtual reality experience’ promoting a forthcoming performance. The young person in charge of the setup, sensing that I was wary of donning a blank-faced scuba-diver’s mask, gently encouraged me with phrases like “you’ll soon get used to it” and “it only lasts four minutes” so I surrendered my dignity and took the plunge. I was transported to a writer’s studio in Paris in the 1930’s with a disembodied, animated head floating in front of me delivering a monologue. It took me a while to realise that by fixing my gaze to the front I was missing stuff. You have to move your head around: turning it left and right I was able to see into the corners of the studio; tilting it up and down I could see the ceiling and, weirdly, a representation of my own hands and knees. “What did you think?” asked my facilitator at the end. I could not think of an original or incisive thing to say. “Interesting” was about it but, later, I was able to apply the experience in a very practical way. Having just acquired my first pair of varifocal specs and finding them to be disorientating, I put them away. Trying them again later, I found that, by moving my head around, I could focus on different aspects of my surroundings. It still felt a bit like VR, however: distanced from real life by an invisible shield.
A few days afterwards I found myself back at two of my old haunts – the house I had lived in but left more than 20 years ago and a pub which had been an important social hub before I ‘settled down’. My thoughts drifted back to those former times and, at first, only happiness appeared through a haze of nostalgia. But I knew this to be a misrepresentation of reality – a sort of naturally occurring VR phenomenon – and made an effort to include in my recollections those events which could not be described as happy, not all of which I could – in good conscience – avoid blame for. To Doris I owe an apology.

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