How to Die

Some people are just born restless, I guess.

They’re the baby that never slept and the toddler that always got stuck trying to fit through unexplored spaces. They’re the five year old that flooded the bathroom trying to make a swimming pool and the nine year old that broke their arm climbing the fence to see what was on the other side. They’re the pre-teen that can’t sit still in the classroom or keep their mouth shut when they need to and they’re the teenager that experiments tirelessly with all those fantastic things like sex and drugs and alcohol whilst they’re still young and blind enough to see the high gloss these first precious follies into the land of adulthood wear for a time.

It’s rebellion, they say.

A phase.

They’ll grow out of it.

Most of us learn how to suppress every exciting instinct we have by the time adulthood kicks in proper. The vast majority of these restless children figure out a way, all be it and most often subconsciously, to remove the shrouds of mystery and wonder from the even the most common of common place things. The kids that started out with safety pins in their ears and green streaks in their hair grow up and grow tired of the extraordinary amount of effort it takes to be extraordinary. Their futures suddenly begin to stretch further than the weekend and the debauched revelry crammed so tightly into those two days that used to make them salivate now makes them nauseas. The idea of spunking their weeks wages up the wall instead of squirreling some of it away for the ominous “rainy day” that they always heard their parents speaking of when they were small, terribly behaved children, now fills them with dread.

Preparation.

The Prepared Generation.

They have learned from the financial fuck ups, crashes and collisions of their fathers and their grandfathers and now owning their own house and being able to keep up with the mortgage payments is a far more seductive midnight thought than playing to a crowd of a hundred thousands fans screaming the lyrics to their songs back at them or packing a bag and hitting the road Kerouac style. That instability that used to be so ethereal and enthralling is now a nightmare of monolithic proportions.

Stability.

Safety.

And, comfort.

They don’t want the world, these people.

No, they just want a little four bedroomed piece of it with a patio out back and room for two cars on the driveway out front. They want to marry nice people and have nice children that will then go on to populate the world with more nice children. They want to leave a legacy of niceness now, instead of neurosis. They want to go on holiday, all inclusive of course, because anywhere out of the resort is dangerous, especially in all those terribly trendy places like Cape Town and Dubai. They want to drink wine with their lunch on a week day and feel like buying the bottle is a daring feat of absolute insanity. They count every calorie and work off the red playing sports that they don’t really enjoy or fully understand, like badminton, or heaven’s forbid – squash.

And when they’re not on some court or another they pay a portion of their monthly wages for all inclusive membership to some shiny shit hole known as a Health Club (always capitalised, of course, ‘for these are the only places where one can purchase Health with a capital letter) where they run on treadmills like rats in cages never really getting anywhere or anything but heart palpitations and sweat in uncomfortable places.

They spend hours cooking elaborate meals for people that they have known for years and hardly know at all and they spend more money than they ever would have spent on a ten bag and few pints down the pub in their younger years, but it’s a worthwhile expense because it’s all so dreadfully sociable and lovely. They compare their children to other peoples children, but not in a candid or even remotely honest way. If Susan just graduated from Brunel with a BA in Mathematics then Benjamin better be working on his fucking doctorate in molecular biology from Oxbridge, quick sharp. Won’t have the likes of that bastard Benjamin showing me up to Terry and June from the Health Club.

It’s all about appearance, you see.

But then again, it always has been.

And your parents did it with you.

I know it’s hard to believe but when your parents first got together, they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. Even worse, still, your mother, beloved mummy has at one point or another had your fathers cock in her mouth. Shocking, but true. What’s even more shocking is that the dirty bitch fucking loved it. Your old man probably grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged on it when he shot his load at the back of her throat and depending on what kind of woman your old lady is, she may or may not have gobbled that goo right up.

We’re all interesting when we’re young because we’re dangerous.

And we’re dangerous because we’re stupid.

And we’re stupid because, for the first twenty five years of our lives or more – we have absolutely no fucking idea what we’re doing. And I’d love to tell you that we reach an age of enlightenment when some magical light bulb dings above our heads and we suddenly know exactly what to and where to go and who to be but for many, hell, for most, it’s a slow and arduous trudge to the finish line. Some of us, crippled by the weight of this hopeless disorientation, cash our own chips and punch a one way ticket to the end of the line long before our time, but the comfortable and contented masses wander aimlessly towards death, treating it with a weird breed of apathetic inevitability like taxes or hiccups.

Everyone dies.

It happens to the best of us.

And the worst.

It’s what ties us all together, isn’t it? We’ve all got a whole heap of shit in common with each other. We’ve all got a mother and a father out there somewhere, whether we were raised by them or by wolves, at some point in time, two people came together, figuratively and literally, and boom – there we were. A cluster of tiny cells brimming with infinite potential, cooked for nine months and heaved out screaming and naked and clueless. We were all taught how to do even the simplest of things like tie our shoe laces and write our names and fry an egg and open a window. These weren’t things we were born knowing and at a time in all our lives we were novice egg fryers and amateur shoe tiers.

Repetition, if not necessarily practise, made us into the beautifully broken people we are today. We were taught tact and how to read people’s emotions. We learned slowly and through this art of subconscious repetition, the difference between angry faces and sad faces and happy faces and later on we learned a tonne of new faces like stoned faces and drunk faces and come faces. We learned how to read people around us and how to interact with them like we once learned how to interact with the building blocks we had when we still got a round of applause for shitting in a bucket with feet in the living room.

And whether you were brought up or dragged up, we all learned how to make coffee and how to make out. Some of these things were learned by the art of education, by someone showing us how to do something or by teaching us about it had been done before and hoping that we would have the same successful outcomes were we to re-enact their battles. Others were learned by the brute force of experience, trying something once, realising that you ballsed it up, rewinding and going again until you got it right, or if you couldn’t get it right, you got it better than you did the first or third or fifth time.

Some things, though, even the most intelligent and interesting of people have absolutely no idea how to do. There are some things during the course of all of our lives that no matter how much we prepare or practice for them, when those things come around, we’re just as fucking clueless as we were when we were cutting our teeth.

How to feel.

How to forgive.

How to die.

That last one is probably the most important. I mean aside from being born, the second most significant day in our lives is when we are effectively unborn – when we die. Yet no one prepares you for it. You’re not taught about it at school and your mother never sits you down when you get to an impressionable age and explains that one day you’re going to close your eyes and you’re never going to open them again or that your heart’s going to stop beating and your lungs are going to stop breathing and more than likely you’re going to shit yourself.

They never prepare you for the fact that one day you might find yourself sitting in a little magnolia office somewhere with a doctor whose name you cannot remember and couldn’t pronounce even if you could remember it, being told that you’ve got something really fucking aggressive and nasty living in your breasts or bowels or bones that’s going to kill you pretty damned soon.

And when you’re a kid and you go to bolt across the road and your old lady yanks you back just in time to save you becoming road kill, she never says – “Look, Timmy, if that car had hit you it would have killed you and we would have had to scrape your skull off of that pavement and bury you in a black bag to keep all the leftover wet bits of you together.” And because your parents never tell you that, you’re not scared of a car slamming into your tiny body at fifty and rendering your once wonderful life pedestrian pate on the side of the road. So when you’re mums not about, you cross without waiting for the green man.

That’s universally a very early and very common act of defiance.

A sign of things to come.

But if, if, your old lady had said that to you the first time you did it and put the fear of endless darkness and death into you, you’d probably have grown up to be a much more cautious kid than you were. You wouldn’t have hung upside down off of the monkey bars or climbed loose limbed trees in the sunshine to survey the forest from the heavenly plinth usually reserved for birds and squirrels. You’d never have found the biggest hill you could have and rode your bike or scooter or board down it as fast as you could. And you’d never have jumped off of countless bridges and piers into the perilously shallow waters below to cool off when the air was still and the heat was fierce.

If you’d been warned about the inherent permanence of death as a child, you never would have taken that unknown pill at that party or a bummed a drag of that strange kids long, loosely rolled cigarette in the park when you were a teenager. You wouldn’t have known the bittersweet sorrow of that first, barbarous hangover or felt the pleasant shame of coming inside someone bareback or indeed having someone else’s come drip down your thighs and as a result, you’d never have found yourself alone in your bedroom trying to make your body do what it did with someone else’s hands on your body with your own hands.

And that’s why we don’t tell kids about death.

We don’t want to scare them.

Because it’s hard to live when you’re so preoccupied with dying.

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Just Like Everyone Else.

When I was a kid I used to get called weird a hell of a lot, as I am sure most of you mutants reading this surely did. Now, I’m talking about when I was a little kid, before I knew what a bong was and during the sadder stages of my life when I would not have been able to pick Bob Dylan out of a line of old men, let alone utter a single word of Klingon. The phrase was most definitely “weird” back then, when pop music still ruled the air waves and Harry Potter was not even a movie yet.

To ask me why I was called weird I probably couldn’t tell you, because I thought I was perfectly normal. I thought that all ten year old girls had posters of Meat Loaf on their walls. I thought that all ten year old girls were teaching themselves Latin. I thought that all ten year old girls wanted to be Sherlock Holmes when they grew up. I thought all ten year old girls attempted to read the Times before school in the morning. I thought all ten year old girls wore orange jeans and BCR’s in their ears instead of little gemmed studs. I thought that all ten year old girls sat on their window sill listening to the radio and wishing they were a million miles away from where they were, who they were and what they would inevitably become. I thought I was just like everyone else.

I was oblivious (as most ten year olds are) to what adolescence would not only bring, but what it would take away. It brought all the things the things I was warned about, as I knew it would – puberty, secondary school, stress, homework, hormones – but it took away a lot more than I thought it would. It took away the innocence of the word “weird” became something all together more negative, making the now freakishness everybody spoke about more and more apparent as my friends began to grow up without me, but still I thought I was normal.

I thought that every fifteen year old girl had posters of Bob Dylan all over their walls. I thought that all fifteen year old girls were teaching themselves Klingon. I thought that all fifteen year old girls wanted to be Allen Ginsberg when they grew up. I thought all fifteen year old girls attempted to read Rousseau’s Discourses before school in the morning. I thought all fifteen year old girls wore hot rocked band t-shirts and BCR’s in their lip. I thought that all fifteen year old girls sat on their window sill listening to the radio wishing they were a million miles away from where they were, who they were and what they would inevitably become. I thought I was just like everyone else.

Then something shifted and I was no longer adorably weird or standoffishly freaky. I became this new breed of strange that still to this day I don’t understand the connotations completely of. I became a “geek”. Now I always thought that geeks were typically people with a deep and unrelenting not only appreciation, but understanding of space, time and science but somewhere the wires of definition have been crossed and sparks have begun to fly. I have found myself tirelessly unpicking the meaning of this word, that so many people label me with and I have to the conclusion that “geek” actually means “enthusiast”.

There are millions of people who think that being a geek or a reject or an outsider, a freak or weird whatever way you want to spin the barrel – they think its cool to be on the outside of the social norm. But take, lets say, a long haired, Satan worshipping metal head and put him in a room with a your typical imaged obsessed teenage drama queen. Now neither one of them are conventionally “geek” material but when placed side by side they show a remarkable reality and that is that we are all enthusiasts and therefore geeks.

The girl will know more about clothing brands, make up techniques and reality television history than the metal head, but he will know how to stretch an ear lobe the right way, why Metallica and Megadeth are linked and just how Tony Iommi lost his fingers – because what they care about, what they are enthusiastic about, they are completely obsessed with. Isn’t that what makes a geek a geek? The unrivalled and slightly unnerving obsession with their chosen fields of expertise and interest?

Now the metal head will think the girl is shallow, superficial and self righteous. The girl will think that the metal head is arrogant, should shave and wear less black but the point is the same. The popular kids bully the geeky kids, we’ve seen it a million times, but what made having knowledge about the planets more socially unacceptable than having knowledge about the price of shoes?

I think as a species, humans have failed at even the most basic of tasks the main one being social identity. Surely the human beings with the insatiable appetite for knowledge based around the advancement of the race – science, medicine, literature, philosophy, politics, law – should be at the top of the social elite, as they have the most to bring to the table. Surely they should be made reality stars, fame should wash over them, they should make headline news and they should be adored as the genuinely interesting people that they are? Why do the people, the real rejects, the real freaks, who have little or no interesting characteristics or ascertainable incentives to live, make their way into our living rooms, our newspapers and our lives with their incessant and frankly boring idiosyncrasies?

We have ended up in a world where the geeks that used to get bullied for being weird as ten year olds and freaks as fifteen years olds writing the articles about the popular kids, stuffing their chests with silicone, reporting about them side by side with war and famine – the geeks end up enabling the popular kids to remain just as egotistical and obsessed with their own enthusiasms as they were as ten year olds and fifteen year olds.

I could now start rambling about how its cool to be a reject, an outsider, a freak – but it really isn’t and those who claim to be proud of being just so, are bullshitting themselves and you my friends. No one wants to be those things and no one wants to be told that they are different. There is no strength in being in a minority and no courage found in adversity. Cynical, maybe. True, debatable. But if you have ever felt what it truly is to be one of these people, you will know exactly what I mean.

The scars of being different never heal, instead what they do is create a mangled barrier of broken flesh around you, eventually shielding you from the constant over analysis of you compared to other people. People mistake this protective layer of damage for strength, some would even say pride, but it isn’t. My friends, my loves, my fellow geeks, freaks and weirdo’s it is only our enthusiasm that gets us through life in no less than a million pieces.

Geeks are the people who never realised that they were not like everyone else. Once you realise it and wear the badge of “I am not normal” proudly, you are no longer a freak, a geek or indeed weird – because you are simply pointing out what the rest of the world already did. You have accepted that you are not normal and by that standard you have made yourself a reject, an outsider and indeed a social oddity. So those of you who claim to be proud of being any of those things, who think that to be a social retard you cannot be popular, to love video games and comic books means you cannot like football or actually want to touch a member of the opposite sex, to wear Pokemon pyjamas to bed or find Anime foodstuffs alarming adorable – you are just as normal as the rest of the world.

Truly original people, freethinkers and disbelievers do not even recognise the word “normal”. I am completely normal. All women in their twenties have posters of Stephen King on their walls. All women in their twenties are teaching themselves Elvish. All women in their twenties want to be Iron Man when they grow up. All women in their twenties attempt to translate Spanish war time transcripts before work in the morning. All women in their twenties wear peace sign shoe laces and spikes in their face. All women in their twenties sit on their window sill listening to the radio and wish that they were a million miles away from where they are, who they are and who they will inevitably become.

I am just like everyone else. Difference is, I have the balls to admit it.

Her Song.

As a child, I had a lot of friends. Now looking back on it I don’t think that this was an accident. My parents made it impossible for me not to have friends. I started school a year early, when I was three as opposed to the accustomed four, as I was the fifth of the six children and the gap between my younger brother and I stands at just two years. So the head teacher, a man named Mr Jones whom I still hold in high regard, suggested starting little Veronika a year early to let my Ma have some time at home with my brother Phillip who would have been one at the time.

So I went to school before anyone else and watched at the end of that first year as the friends I had made went up into “big school” and I stayed behind in the nursery block waiting to see who I would get to make the journey with. I grew to have a close group of seven or eight friends, the majority male as I preferred wrestling to hair braiding. I also kept some friends in the year above me and therefore, aside from the teachers knowing me and my family well simply for the expanse of Harper children that they had educated, I had a pretty sociable start in life.

I went to Brownies every Monday and made my way through the ranks, even had my own special badge made for me as there was no badge for girls who attended Brownie camp three times (my birthday is in August, so I managed to squeeze that third time out before they booted me up to Guides!) and Brown Owl, a lovely lady by the name of Margot who used to spread brown sauce on her toast in the mornings at camp, cried when I eventually left. I had some really wonderful times there, and made plenty of friends.

Sunday school on a Sunday, Bible club on a Wednesday, swimming, camping, later art clubs and science clubs (and more Bible clubs!) even landing me with a Crest award at the age of eleven (they used to matter, now people don’t know what they are!). I was head of the debate team my first year of secondary school and I headed up many other bits and bobs through out my early adolescence, all safe in the knowledge that I was confident, reasonably popular in the more unpopular places, and that I had friends that had known me since I still had baby teeth.

Then something changed. My parents got divorced and I, along with my little brother now ten years old, was ripped from the bosom of my socially exalted little town in Hertfordshire and plonked rather randomly in a leafy suburb of Surrey, known as Weybridge. And I didn’t know a soul.

It didn’t take me long to realise that maybe, just maybe, this loneliness wasn’t a bad thing. I enjoyed having the time to myself with no clubs or concerts or choirs to participate in. I liked the fact that when I walked into my new school, no body needed to know that I was head of the Bible club or that my Ma had a rather fancy looking Crest award hanging in her hallway with my name on it. I could be whomever I liked, because unlike the little town I was socialised in, this town didn’t have a clue who I was, or who my family was. I was allowed then to either fade into the distance with a novel in my hand or set fire to the system with, er, well, a novel in my hand. Books are friends for life.

This anonymity and the power that came with it got me into a lot of hot water, that’s for sure. But at the end of it all when I look back with a daughter of my own, whom like her mother, hasn’t had the very best of anything in life and a few curve balls thrown for her tiny hands to catch even in her short life, I wonder whether or not I did the right thing by not sending to her nursery or forcing her into baby groups and the like. Because I didn’t. Oh no, Molly has been with me since the day she was born (barring work of course) and if I knew how to divide anything by anything, I would have home-schooled her for sure. But we need maths apparently. Numbers aren’t my strong point, so I couldn’t tell you why we need them exactly.

Anyway it was the idea of Molly becoming a member of society, a number and a name on a register, a child on the books so to speak, before she even knew where her nose was that sat unsteady with me. And like I’ve said, I was a very sociable child and I did all the things back in the early nineties that babies and toddlers and young children still do now – the clubs, the contests, the camaraderie – but I didn’t choose to do it. This is where I kept coming unstuck with my own child when it came to putting her out there, into the big, bad world.

The vast majority of friends in my life – I’ve never chosen. They have been lumped with me because they had the misfortune of being put next to me in a seating plan or deemed a suitable friend because I met them in a club that loosely grouped together a general plethora of freaks and geeks, all with vaguely similar interests. None of my friends liked Bryan Adams or Elvis Presley, and the amount of times I got asked who “the fat man” was on my walls still angers me today. (It was Meatloaf by the way.) Most of them didn’t read the books I read, if they read at all, and almost none of them knew what it was like to grow up in a tragically dysfunctional family that was full of love, and laughter, and anger (passion, as my Ma would say). None of them knew me.

I look back on it now as an adult who can and does choose her friends, wondering now whether or not I would have picked the friends I had as a kid, now that I am older and realise that friends are, for the most part, more work than they’re worth. Let’s just face it shall we? We’re all grown ups here and most of us usually end up with one real, solid friend that carries over from school into real adult life. One. Out of the thirty or so you amass by the end of your time in that bastard place. One.

And you know why that is? It’s because you didn’t choose them. The system gave you those friends, the years aligned and made sure that you would in the same class, year group, school as them. You weren’t friends in the sense of the word now that you pay taxes and buy your own cigarettes instead of pinching them form your parents. They were friends born out of necessity. The necessity not to be alone.

But where is it written that we can’t be alone? We’re born into a house full of people, we see them everywhere – in the street, on the television, in magazines and newspapers, our neighbours, our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our distant and immediate families, and the friends of those who already have them – we’re not (or at least I hope not) locked in boxes the second we dance ourselves out of the womb and only allowed out when there is a baby group about to socialise us in. There are peopleeverywhere and there always will be.

So why do we feel the need to build these social constructs for our children so early in life? How does it possibly make sense to expose children to opinion before they have learned fact? To show them how horrible people are before they can comprehend how good they can be? And how does it make sense to hand your baby, toddler, child over to a group of complete strangers (barring when you have to work of course) so you can saunter down to the café and complain about the world with similarly like minded “friends” that you have collected over cups of horrid coffee whilst your children wonder where the hell their mother has gone? To me, none of it makes a whole heap of sense. And I am speaking as a “socialised” child.

I wasn’t locked in a box, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather have been at home with my Ma and my brothers and sisters when I was spending time at a friends house. I’d also be lying if I didn’t state now and in no uncertain terms, that I didn’t have a child to give her away at the first available opportunity. I had a child because God has a cruel sense of humour and decided to test me with the most impossible yet amazing little person I have ever met. She is not the worlds to teach. She is mine to teach. How can I raise her with any other view point of the world other than my own when in the end, I only have my eyes to see it with and my experience to draw from?

I don’t care if my daughter grows up socially awkward and introvert, and to be frank, I don’t care if I get blamed for not “socialising” her when she was smaller, because at the end of the it all, when you strip away all the shoulds and coulds of parenting you are left with one overwhelming fact of nature, that my Ma learned herself the hard way. And that is that it doesn’t matter what you do and how hard you try to make a child be a certain way, their personalities regardless of their upbringings, will end up winning in the end.

I have had hundreds of friends in my life due to these social activities and the like. And now, in my twenties and a mother myself, I can count on one hand the people who remember my birthday or know what my favourite colour is. And three of them are my Ma, my sister and my brother. I didn’t even need to leave the house for some of the best friends I’ve ever had.

And another of these best of friends is my daughter who is a living, breathing testament to how she’s been raised, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. And however she turns out, angry and angst ridden, or calm and confident, I will know, as will she, that she is the person she was meant to be and I will be able to sleep well as an old lady knowing that my daughter knew exactly who she was long before she was told who she was.

And when she feels it just to make her stand, I know she will do it on her own two feet and not propped up by a world of fools that in hindsight will seem like bad dreams. And she’ll know her song well, before she starts singing.

And maybe, just maybe, she’ll skip the horror of hitting puberty and not knowing who the hell she is. Because she’ll already know. From the start.