Wednesday 30 October 2013

Fear, Films & Fiona

I have a way of seeing connections between things which some think odd.  But it’s not my issue if people’s brains work differently.

The last two movies I’ve seen at the cinema have reminded me hugely of two dear friends called Fiona and of our experiences around fear.  Your loved ones don’t often know when you are thinking of them and missing them on the other side of the world – ‘little Fiona’ in Brisbane and ‘the other Fiona’ in LA – so I figure I may as well write a blog about them as anyone else.

The films I’m referring to were superbly made and highly recommended: Rush directed by Ron Howard, and Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass.  Both these craftsmen know how to make a great movie which girls as well as guys love, because they have human nuance and compelling narrative as well as thrilling action and speed.  I don’t even like Formula One and I was engaged by Rush from the earliest frames.  And anyone connected with the making of the brilliant Bourne Trilogy and I’m hooked. So Howard and Greengrass: in your enormous fields of achievement these were exceptional efforts.  Thank you!

As it happens I’ve never taken speed.  Apart from health or legal concerns I have absolutely no need.  It’d be like giving uppers to the Eveready Bunny.  But these films made my blood pump.  Glued to the seat, all other realities evaporated as I utterly suspended my disbelief and sank into the drama.  At the end I felt like I’d been running a marathon and was desperate to get outside into London’s chilly Autumn air, walking home with wind blowing in my face and image after image replaying in my head.  I dreamt about them too – Tom Hanks’ final scenes exquisitely moving.

So what is it about fear which is so simultaneously frightening and compelling?  I’ve sky-dived, scuba-dived, heli-skied and fallen out of a white-water raft in a most inconvenient rocky river… but I wouldn’t class myself as a high-risk sportsperson.  I never go to horror films.  Yet these movies frightened the hell out of me and I loved it.  Perhaps the characters and story-telling won me over to the extent I endured the fear as an inescapable bi-product?  Yet I suspect Howard and Greengrass are so clever they understand how to take an audience to the brink of their coping threshold - dangling us in a metaphorical bungee-jump, where a collective addiction to narrative unites with a carnal hunger for wildness and beyond-our-boundaries experiences. 

The element which really made my heart pound in Captain Phillips is the lifeboat.  That small capsule with a lid was far more frightening to me than the pirates or the prospect of a bullet.  I could intensely feel the heat and lack of air, to the point that I had to repeatedly concentrate on slowing my own breathing.  How can one survive such a long journey so confined?  It was torture.  How do people in prison cope with four close walls, especially those thrown into dark dungeons without trial or justice?  All through the film I kept thanking God for Amnesty International and promising I’d give them some more money. (Can someone please hold me to that so I don’t forget?) 

Of course, Hanks’ brilliant performance and the director’s intense building of tension are sufficient provocateurs, but my projected fears enlarged the experience.  I am a little claustrophobic.  For years I’ve had a recurring dream I am trapped in a box or a cupboard.  And time and again I’ve woken up banging the wall behind the bed trying to get out. 

In life I do whatever I can to avoid peak-hour public transport, especially undergrounds.  On planes it isn’t crashing which freaks me out, but rather waking up in an overheated cabin with insufficient oxygen.  Occasionally this has threatened a mini panic-attack, but thankfully it only seems to happen in economy; which is great incentive to fly at the front of the bus. 

Anyway thoughts about “facing one’s fears” brings me to my friend, Fiona.

When we flatted together in Bondi in our fun-filled, wonderfully courageous, it’s-all-ahead-of-you 20s, Fiona would confront any hesitance or fear she felt, by saying “there’s nothing to fear except fear itself”.  I’m inclined to forget Franklin D. Roosevelt and attribute this phrase to Fiona, for I never hear it without thinking fondly of her.

Now fast-forward to the Mediterranean in 2009 when I’m showing ‘little Fiona’ around the Cinque Terre.  Setting out on the coastal walk from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, I call out: “Walk at your own pace, Fifi, you can’t get lost, there’s only one path… I’ll wait for you somewhere on a rock”.   The wind is whistling, a delightful breeze tickles the pre-midday leaves, and hundreds of metres below steep cliffs I find the sound of crashing waves utterly invigorating.  Various parts of the path are infamously narrow and rocky but I’m in my element – out in the world, fit and free, luxuriating in the sights and smells of my beloved Italy. 

Some time later I am perched in shade admiring the infamous blues of this great sea, and I hear footsteps approach.  Turning around with my lemonade (a treat offered by neighbours on route made from delicious local lemons) my sweet but somewhat pale-looking friend walks slowly toward me.  “What’s the matter?” I ask, bewildered.  “It’s really high, Julie” she says with more shock than malice.  She then adds quietly: “I think you’ve forgotten I’m afraid of heights.”  OMG, I had COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN.  What a dreadful friend – a most awful thing to do to someone who has travelled half way across the world to visit you!

“I’m sorry.  I’m sorry” followed, but the girl with the most generous nature in the world would hear none of it: “But I did it” she said humbly.  “I was scared.  Especially the difficult parts when I thought I was going to slip off the edge.  But I did it.  I took my time and I was fine”   What can you do but hug a girl like that?!  I love her to bits, then and now.  And after a refreshing glass of lemonade we continued the walk to Vernazza, wandering quietly and contentedly together – the making of a very precious memory.

Now I’m thinking of ‘the other Fiona’, which is how I distinguished my L.A. friend from ‘little Fiona’ who my Tuscan mates had met and taken to their hearts.  I am sitting on a bar stool near San Gimignano recounting an extraordinary adventure to the Ice Hotel in Sweden with ‘the other Fiona’.  I have the whole room’s attention for this story, something I clearly enjoy, and the audience should be praised for accepting its meagre delivery in a mix of English and hand-waving Italian with conspicuously dodgy grammar.  I’m making my point anyway, sometimes jumping off the high-stool to act out various parts. But this Ferrari-loving race is hooked.  I skim over the details of meeting the chiefs of Audi while swigging vodka in the Ice Bar – a compulsory part of the Ice Hotel experience – and I’m up to the part where this divine group of ‘strangers’ have taken Fiona and I, and assorted journalists, out into the middle of a frozen lake in Lapland for the launch of a new Audi Sports Car.  (Don’t ask me which model. Not my thing.)  The sun is setting and in the far distance six spotlights cut through the haze.  Lights race toward us across a wide expanse of ice, until we recognise there are three pairs - three very fast pairs on bright red cars.  Audi has arranged for their European Racing Team to arrive… and arrive they do like James Bond or Jason Bourne… pulsing hot-rods soon inches from our twitching toes.  You’ll have to buy my book to get a full description, but suffice it to say the experience was nothing short of spectacular. 

The point about fear is this: Fiona and I were taken by each of these hot, racing-car drivers out for a spin on the enormous lake.  Scream?  Are you kidding – it’s a wonder you didn’t hear us in London!  These guys were out to give us the ride of our lives and the more we spun, the more we screamed, the faster they went… with an ocean of slippery ice between us and the nearest tree they played those cars like a Stradivarius… the little sports-steering-wheel so small yet powerful in the hands of truly great drivers.

Adrenalin pumped.  Curiosity peaked.  So much so I had to stop screaming and ask questions – while still the car spun, sped, reversed and raced while the driver calmly informed me about things I previously never thought interesting.  In love with everything Audi, everything fast, and everything stimulating, we returned to the Ice Bar for more vodka.  The anecdote has followed me around the world never failing to amuse.  And this fond and familiar sensation tugged at my heart during every scene of Ron Howard’s brilliantly rendered, Rush. 

OK, my thrilling European Rally Car had a proper roof.  I am still terrified of the risk Formula One drivers face with burns and injuries and the sheer insane noise of it.  But if my racing-car story is not about overcoming fear, it is certainly about embracing it. 

Rewards are all the richer, whatever the activity or goal, if we face the risks and do it anyway.  So thank God for friends, for my pals Fiona, and for films and experiences which take us out and beyond ourselves.


            Captain Phillips:   



Sunday 6 October 2013

What’s with all the questions?

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where he was driven mad by a girl who wouldn’t stop asking him questions? 

I remember laughing hard, at the time, but over the last few days Seinfeld’s  pain rang repeatedly in my ears while in the midst of my own torture and an overwhelming desire to scream “what’s with ALL THE QUESTIONS?!”  

To make it worse these endless questions and questionnaires were framed by boxes… confining, un-spontaneous, un-imaginative, contrived boxes.  Boxes which didn’t let you express or explore what you really wanted to say, what you might have said if you’d had enough space to breathe.  An awful limitation for someone with a huge freedom need and inclined to claustrophobia.

What was I doing?  Well, I caved in to social and psychological pressure to embark on a trial weekend with internet dating.  Friends genuinely wanted me to ‘give it a go’ as a means by which I could ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’… ‘let the cream rise to the top’… ‘eliminate a large percentage of inappropriate candidates’… ‘improve the odds’ etc.  Such is the faith people have these days in this most strange method of ‘meeting’ and forming attachments. 

I know it works well for some, but I don’t mind saying that everything in me resisted the idea of introduction and conversation via computer.  I struggle enough with Facebook, and only enjoy Twitter because it’s abbreviated and light-hearted. There’s no pretending it’s more than it is.  I am a face-to-face person who has no trouble with spontaneous meetings or talking to strangers.  

Moreover, I never admit to my age so why would I want to put it publically into print?  I don’t want to LIMIT a guy’s age or LIST what he should be, as that’s far too prescriptive for someone as flexible in her tastes as I am.  Nor do I feel in a hurry at the moment to find ‘Mr Right’.  I’ve turned down many possibilities in the last year as I’ve just not been interested in sub-standard.  I want quality not quantity.  Some friends joke I’ve got tired of being a cougar.  Others that the options in London aren’t half as sexy or eager as the Italians I met so easily while living in Tuscany.  There’s truth in both.  But I have many friends to go out with, including a lovely man who is very good to me and takes me regularly to the opera.  The bigger reason for a shift in my ‘romance antenna’ is probably that 2012 was bookended by the worst and best experiences of my dating life.  The former, so destructive I still wonder how I ever fell into it; let alone recovered. The latter, so enriching and enjoyable that it significantly raised the bar on what I felt I should expect. 

So, months after that friendship has changed course for reasons beyond our control, I found myself with a few days off work and the offer of a free trial on a dating website.  That was when the questions started.

OMG you’ve never seen so many questions!  You fill in page after page of questions so the computer can put you (and your supposed matches) in a category.  Your online profile is launched and then you have more questions – hundreds in fact – which I diligently answered thinking it was compulsory.  Then the ‘matches’ started to arrive, dozens and dozens of them, fifty in the space of three days.  It took HOURS to read so many profiles, to the extent I don’t know how anybody with a job actually does it! 

Then the real frustration started. I couldn’t see any photographs, for that was not part of the ‘free communication’ advertised. Oh well, maybe there was something positive to be had in discovering someone’s character before making judgements about looks.  Kind of like a traditional Matchmaker might have done.  But then I discovered most of these blokes hadn’t answered the 250 profile questions I had answered about behaviour, preferences and politics… or if they had they perhaps weren’t bothered to read my answers.  For in an excruciating impression of Groundhog Day, all these questions started to arrive - question after question, page after page until I felt hemmed in, under pressure, and anything but natural or relaxed.  I found my heart racing.  I was utterly overwhelmed.  And that’s saying something from someone who can sing in front of a thousand people with less nerves than most!

My mistake, of course, was that I was treating every approach from these faceless strangers as if they were real people, whose feelings needed to be considered.  I didn’t want to ignore approaches which may have been genuine.  Wouldn’t it hurt their feelings if I didn’t reply?  Send back a smile?  But the damn computer wouldn’t let me write a simple message, you had to go through the hoops, the obstacle course, with every candidate, stage after stage of differently worded QUESTIONS. 

It was all too much.  I felt like I was in the guilty seat of an Alfred Hitchcock with the spotlights pointed on my heart and inner most character.  Would I pass the test?  But what were the bloody rules?  Torture, pure torture.

So now I’m at Day 3, when one guy, who seems interesting, intelligent, sends five questions too many - the first of which is: “how often do you lose your temper?”  I am tempted to write back “NOW, you bloody idiot, because you keep sending me THE QUESTIONS!”  But the computer won’t let me answer in my own words because the computer LOVES the BOXES.  And the only people who can circumnavigate the boxes are the people with paid subscriptions (so I find out later).  I am about to lose it, as I put two and two together he is sending the questions because he LIKES them, and is probably either very guarded or a control freak.  So, with a thud, the penny drops: why am I actually answering?! 

Then, in the same ten minutes, a guy who’s pursued me vigilantly over 48 hours… and with whom I’ve made a date to meet face-to-face in Covent Garden… suddenly cancels two hours out.  The reason sounds fake; so no idea what that's about. 

As things often come in threes, before another twenty minutes has elapsed… another seemingly nice guy, suddenly BLOCKS ME.  Seriously?  Rejected by a guy I can’t see and who I’ve never met for, what I can only guess is, answering his last question incorrectly.  Well, he can seriously go **** himself.  But that doesn’t stop me feeling uncomfortable and judged.  For that question was: “how do you conduct yourself at a party?”  Do you a) set out and make your own introductions, meet new people?; b) remain glued to your date’s side all night?; c) stand in the corner and feel shy? or d) something I can’t recall.  Well, of course I answered option a)… but clearly that was not to his taste!  So he bins me without a ‘how’s your father’.   And though I am likely to be far better off never to meet someone so socially inept… it does highlight what’s wrong with the BOXES.  Real life is not as black and white as all that, because you may in fact do a mixture of a) and b) or whatever else is reasonable at the time.  Yet these artificially generated interrogations don’t allow for individuality or nuance.  And, THAT’S WHY I HATED THE ENTIRE EXPERIENCE.

You can tell I am scarred.  It was held out as the big chance, the thing you ought to do to take your love-life into your own hands. I’d resisted so long and then given in, that after the suffocation of the whole process and three rejections on the hop I felt totally inadequate and somehow at fault.  Friends said, “but you’re used to rejection… treat it like showbiz”.  But that’s the thing, I get enough obstacle courses and rejection in my profession, I don’t need it in my personal life too.

Anyway, why is acceptance of this medium so prolific there’s an inference that if you don’t ‘do it’ you are somehow responsible for not finding that someone special?  

I reject that inference of course, but it only took until the next day to see I’d gone out too hard.  I had felt overwhelmed by the volume and the weirdness of it, and I’d been making myself persevere like medicine given by the doctor.  I wasn’t approaching this strange electronic dating game with the kind of cynicism or detachment which must surely be the only way to survive it.  Well, a dose of that, and some superior discernment re the truth or otherwise of many profiles.  I was operating as if I were at a party and each person deserved a polite response.  But seriously, if I hadn’t stopped and gone with a nice neighbour to our local coffee shop where Frankie (the lovely Italian manager) gave me a cappuccino, a brownie and a cuddle in that order… then I think I’d have hyperventilated. 

Instead I had a little cry… laughed at his suggestion that perhaps the guys weren’t real men anyway, but just elaborate CGI to get people to spend money… that I got past the disappointment and the feeling that I was a fly pinned to a boy’s school experiment board…  and I made the liberating decision to cancel my membership.  It’s too time-consuming – especially for a writer who needs space and time to create.  It’s too artificial and stressful.  It’s too sad, as I feel too responsible and open in a world where you can’t judge who is also being honest.  I’d rather start up a conversation in a pub, or smile across the departure lounge at a handsome stranger; as I did in the case of the fabulous guy mentioned above.  The internet dating thing is just not for me.

Nevertheless, as I logged off for the last time, I noticed a final message from one guy who said “I can’t believe you’re X years old… you don’t look half that… what’s your secret?!” 

Hmm, perhaps not such a bad ending after all.