Naming My Phobia

I’ve never had a phobia. All of my life, I’ve been totally phobia-free. But I think I might have one now. I’m not sure, let me explain.

But, before I do, I should just say that I don’t want to have a phobia. It’s not on my bucket-list of things to have and things to do. My writing about it now is not some attempt to cement it in my brain, to legitimise it and to authorise it. If anything, it’s my attempt to purge myself of it, to shout at it in the hope it might just go away.

I mean… who wants a phobia?

My phobia has always been a ‘thing’. I’ve written about it quite a few times, often to try to raise a smile with some silly embarrassing story told against myself.

That’s enough preamble, let’s cut to the chase. This phobia I think I might have. Actually I don’t really think I might have it, in case you’re worried or anything, I’m mostly just shooting the breeze on a Sunday morning.

That’s too much preamble now. My phobia (or not) is this; I think I’ve developed a fear of names.

I’ve never been any good with names, particularly people’s names. I’ve always struggled to recall them, sometimes to comic effect. It’s always been a ‘thing’ but has it become something more? I’m starting to wonder.

I probably won’t remember your name, if we meet. I almost certainly won’t use it, even if I do remember it, because I’d be fairly convinced I would get it wrong. Instead, I will greet you over-effusively, to emphasise the fact that I definitely know who you are even though I’m patently not using your name. I say stuff like ‘Hiya’ and ‘How’s it Going?’ and I infuse them with such intent and meaning that you might worry that I was genuinely concerned for your well being when, in truth, I’m mostly just over-compensating for my own failings.

It’s always been a ‘thing’ but why would I start to think that it’s more than a ‘thing’ now?

I know a little bit about phobias. Just a little bit, I’m not pretending to be an expert here. My eldest son had a long-standing fear of loud unexpected noises, as a child and as a teen. His worry about the potential for balloons bursting and fireworks going off kept him from parties and events for quite a few years. Then he had an excellent series of sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which we both went to together. We learned how your thoughts and actions can affect the way you feel and we learned some ways of combating those negative thoughts and actions that make things worse. Thanks to some brilliant help, we sorted the noise thing out and things have been great ever since.

Along the way, as I said, I learned a little bit about these things. I learned enough to recognise what I’ve been doing with this ‘names’ thing. I have been conditioning myself to fail. By repeatedly explaining to people how I am ‘bad with names’ I have embedded the knowledge in myself that I am indeed ‘bad with names’ and I have given myself licence to fail whenever the question of a name arises. My failure is now a foregone conclusion.

Two moments from my last week.

I was at an event and I met someone I knew quite well. I knew their name and, in a rare burst of confidence, I used their name in greeting them. I used the wrong name. I knew I had done it the moment I had done it but we were just passing each other and there was no time to repair the mistake.

Even more recently, I was sitting with a friend having a coffee and I recalled another friend who had recently died. I could not summon the friend’s name. The one who had just passed away. My mind went around and round, trying to find the name as I hopelessly tried to explain who I was talking about. It seemed beyond belief that this name was not there for me on the tip of my tongue. The person I was thinking of was there in front of me, as clear as day, smiling benevolently but still the name would not come. It only took my hearing the start of the name for me to instantly have it all but, still, to not have the name of someone so in the foreground of my life is a rather disturbing thing.

I think this latter moment, in particular, is a very good example of how I have conditioned myself to fail. If someone asks me about a name, all kinds of walls and barriers shoot up in my head. These walls are plastered with graffiti that shouts things like ‘you will not remember this name’ or ‘you are bad with names’ and I get so busy reading these walls that I have no time or energy to simply say the name.

The first moment is more an example of the kind of event that adds to my conditioning. I am actually quite bad with names but every mistake I make, every failed attempt, reinforces the writing on the walls in my brain. I beat myself up quite a bit over getting that person’s name wrong. I even Facebook-Messaged them to apologise (I think they thought I was a bit deranged).

So, yes, I am now starting to think that my ‘thing’ has grown to something a little more than just that. I have conditioned myself into an active fear of having to recall a person’s name. It's a 'First World Problem', if ever there was one, but there you go.

And, as I said at the start, I’m not sitting here typing about this 'phobia' to try to make it stronger. I’m trying to weaken it, to undermine it. I witnessed how my son’s ‘loud noise’ thing was addressed. It was called-out and faced-up-to and weakened by a combination of work and consideration. I think I have the capacity to do the same for myself. I can force myself to use any name that I know. I can push myself to attempt to use names I think I know and risk some fallout whenever I get them wrong. I think I might try.

I delight in using a person’s name. It’s a compliment I pay to people that they will never even know exists. I just think I need to do it more and I should probably get on with it and stop whinging about it here in my head.

I looked it up. There is a name for my phobia, my fear of your name.

It’s called ‘Nomatophobia’.

I doubt I’ll be able to remember that.

But maybe I will.

The Moment You First Miss Someone

I did a few hours work in the office yesterday. No hardship. I wasn’t kicking down walls or drilling holes through concrete floors, like I used to do on my Saturdays many years ago. 

I had parked the car way up on the hill because my usual parking corner was occupied by the Saturday shopping folk. As I trudged up the incline, after I’d done my hours, I checked my watch and started to look forward to something in that low-wattage, back-of-the-brain sort of a way that you don’t even know is happening until after the feeling has been subverted.

It was about that time when the guy would be out sitting on his window cill.

Every day, around this time, this guy sits out on his window cill and has a leisurely smoke and studies the crossword. If he was deep in the consideration of some cryptic clue, I wouldn't say anything to him. I wouldn’t want to break his concentration or disturb his little well-deserved break from work. But if his head was up and he was looking around him, I would always say ‘hello’ and he would always say ‘hello’ back. Not much else. Maybe an occasional observation on the weather, as is customary around these parts. Nothing more than that though. A quick hello and then pass on. 

When I worked my way up the hill yesterday, at the correct time, I hadn’t done it in a month or two. Revised parking arrangements had meant that my car was now, more often than not, in that other place and the route to it didn’t take me past the guy’s shop. Perhaps that’s why I was actually looking forward to something as simple as a ‘quick’ hello and then pass on. I don’t know. It was always nice to see him there with his rollie and his folded newspaper. It was kind of reassuring or something.

But he wasn’t there. There was no sign of him. I was disappointed, in a little way.

Then, just as I walked past the place, I remembered that, of course, he wouldn’t be there. He had died, some months before. He was gone. I had known this, of course. I knew it at the time. I was sad about it and I remembered him with my friends. But I never really missed him.

Not until yesterday.

Yesterday, I missed him. I never really knew him beyond that occasional ‘hello’ but yesterday I finally identified the little gap that was left in my life as a result of his no longer being around.

I often find this. I often find that it takes quite a long time before I actually get around to missing somebody who has died.

This isn’t meant to sound all reserved and cold-hearted. I’m just like everyone else, when someone dies I am sad and I mourn them and remember them but, for me at least, missing them is something quite different to all that. You can’t choose a moment in which to decide to miss someone At least I don’t think you can. It’s like a burglar in your head that turns up when you least expect it and kicks your coffee table over.

I remember, after Dad died, I felt all the stuff you would expect to feel. In his later years, when he was on his own, I used to phone him up every night for a chat. Nothing much, just a ‘hello’ and pass on. One evening, months after he died, I had a good story to tell and I looked forward to telling him it. I knew he’d get a laugh, maybe tell the story on, with his own embellishments. I had the phone in my hand before I remembered. I missed him then. That’s how it tends to happen, to me at least.

I didn’t mean to go on about this today. It’s just the absence of the man and his ciggie and his crossword has stayed in my head so I thought that made it worth writing it down.

There are people who are gone from my life, important people, and I don’t think I’ve even really started to miss them yet. Someday, there will be some corner of a room or some conversation where that person should be and I will turn to them to see how they are and hear what they have to say and they won’t be there.

I’ll feel it then. I’ll miss them then for sure. It’s a good thing, all in all. It reminds me I care.

Fearsome Codfish and Slow Slow Planets

It’s a fabulous summer over here and, although it’s not exactly passing me by, I’m not out in it very much either. 

Work requires that I keep my head down and not take random days off to hit the beach or even seize very many spare hours to bask in the sun.

This absence from the Summer seems to make me more intent on noticing it and marking it in some small way before it shuffles off again, as it soon must. 

That makes the few minutes I get to spend out in it each day seem more intense, or ‘sensual’ if you will. Not in a ‘sexy-time’ way. Just in an increased use of the senses to gather in as much of the season as I can.

Here’s two things I noticed this week, in my attempt to make the summer my own, despite being largely absent from it.

One of the local fish and chips shops have put a sign outside their establishment, to entice the summer folk inside. It’s one of those free-standing board signs. You know the ones. They sort of block the pavement. Yes, one of those.

This one declared that freshly cooked cod is available inside and invites the passer-by to come in and partake of some forthwith. All very well. But here’s what chilled me, in my short-duration and thus heightened sensory quest for summer moments. As well as telling about the lovely cod that can be had inside, the board also boasts a brightly coloured cartoon rendition of the cook who will prepare this lovely meal for you. He is smiling and upstanding and golden-hued and he sports one of those tall chef’s hat. He has a spatula in hand and is obviously ready and able to prepare some fish to your most exact specification.

So what, Ken? So what?

Well, here’s what.

He is a fish. This cheery and willing chef with the hat and the spatula is, himself, a codfish.

In a less bright and jolly season, this might have passed me by. I may well have written it off as just another symptom of the general malaise of a winter-ridden world. But, in the bright happy sunshine, that doesn’t work. As my eye seeks out some intimate detail on which I can base my summer 2018 memories, this fish-cooking fish is a highly disturbing anomaly.

I find myself thinking about him. What does he dream of as he cheerfully hauls the bodies of his brothers from the cold cabinet and submerges their corpses in the boiling hot oil? How does he get to sleep at night? The next body he cheerfully deep-fries could be his cousin. It could be his sister.

And he is so cheery in his work. Does he not know that there could be a shortage of fresh brethren to cook, some busy day, and that he could himself end up in the oil, bubbling and mutely screaming his final awareness of his crimes and his far-too-late repentance.

This is one side effect of trying to find summer in too short a space of time. Stuff assails you. It’s better if you can find a little time to do it. Better things come to you.

The other evening, I was sitting in a chair in the living room. There was some recorded Wimbledon action on the telly but I wasn’t watching it. I was looking out the window. It was fairly late in the evening but there was still some light in the sky. It stays bright late here, in the wild west of Ireland.

It was a lovely vista, out of my window. The sky was a deepening blue colour that I wish I had a fancy name for. I could see the top of the fir trees off in the distance and the… blue sky above them, all bright and summery and nice. For some reason, it reminded me of ET, when he was out in the woodland, building his phone-home thingie. I can’t say why, it just did.

As I admired the sky, a planet appeared in it. Over on the left of my field of vision, low in the sky, just above the trees. It was bright and very well defined. It was quite red so I think it was Mars but I can’t be sure. The appearance of this planet added enormous value to my view of the trees and the sky so I just sat and watched and watched as the tennis played on, ignored, in my peripheral vision.

And, as I watched, the planet moved.

There was only a limited opportunity to see it, as it sailed left to right across my… blue sky before it became blocked by some taller firs on the right. I watched it all the way. It took about fifteen minutes, all in all, and then it was gone.

I never actually saw it move, of course, it just did. Unseeable but unstoppable too.

A little like time. A little like our lives.

So that’s my Summer so far. A lot of work, one evil codfish, and a slow slow planet in my sky. Not too bad. I’ve known worse.

I'll keep you posted.

Let Me Smell Your Bum

This morning’s walk to work had a sort of a ‘Baby’ theme to it.

But only in my own head.

First off, I saw a friend in the distance who will have her first baby soon. I gave her a wave but she didn’t see me. Then I thought a bit about how people use the word ‘baby’ like it is a cutie-pie thing, particularly people in advertising, and how that seems to annoy me a bit. Then, as I was mulling over that little conundrum and crossing the car park simultaneously, I saw a woman taking her child out of her car, presumably to go to the supermarket to do some shopping. There was another older woman too and my assumption was this this was the Mum’s own Mum. The Granny, if you will.

The Mum, not the Mum’s Mum, then proceeded to do that thing that Mums effortlessly do.

I heard her say, “I just need to check her before we go in,” and, with that, she flipped the baby almost upside down and sniffed her nappy region. 

“No,” she said to the Mum’s Mum, “she’s okay,” and off they went towards the shop.

It reminded me of the first moment I saw that routine in action and how shocked and appalled I was at that time. My brother and his wife had recently had their first kid and it was a first kid for all of us. First nephew, first grandson, all of those things. I don’t know what age the baby was when I came home from London to visit but that’s when I first caught the nappy routine. My sister in law, in the middle of a regular conversation, had a noticeable nose-twitch. She grabbed the baby, flipped it a bit, and inhaled deeply of the nappy, nose buried right in there. Whatever she detected there indicated fairly clearly that a nappy change was in order. This was all horrible enough in itself, and totally alien to me, but it was made infinitely worse by her declaiming the immortal words, “Let me smell your bum,” just before she did it.

“Let me smell your bum.”

What planet was this that I had temporarily landed on? What reduction in personal liberty and self-esteem could bring a previously composed and totally together person to the point of smelling bums effortlessly in public and, more than that, loudly declaring to the world a clear intent to do so?

Of course I eventually had to learn this the hard way and learn it I did. While I don’t think I ever got to a cheerful declaration of impending arse-inhaling activity, I too became a parent (twice over) and I too discovered, soon enough, that you couldn’t go around changing expensive nappies on instinct, routine, or timing alone. There had to be the olfactory element. 

Bums had to be sniffed.

It’s a microcosm of the whole baby business, this bum sniffing thing. At least I think it is.

When we become parents, we have to learn stuff. Just when we thought we had learned all the stuff there was to know.

As parents we have to cheerfully do things we thought we could never-ever do.

As parents, we embrace… we just embrace stuff.

This doesn’t go directly to explaining why the eternal commercial sing-song pandering of the word ‘baby’ annoys my own arse. Or maybe it does a little bit. It’s late now and I’m not entirely sure of anything anymore.

What I do know – what I think I know – is that the woman I know who is about to have her first baby is not just about to have a baby. It is so much more than that. You don’t just have a baby and then go on to do something else afterward. She is starting a family and, once started, a family doesn’t ever stop.

Doesn’t ever stop.

It changes your life forever. Long after the 'baby-gro's and the soft toys and the bum sniffing have all gone.

My children are grown now. There are no more babies bums to smell. But the thing that started with those babies, well, it continues. That amazing adventure. The pride, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the pride – did I say pride – well I’ll say it again. The pride.

That’s it, I think. You don’t just have a baby, a cute wriggly baby to have and to hold until it’s not a baby anymore. You don’t just smell its bum and then somehow move on to something else.

It’s not the beginning of something small and cute and finite, as the commercial world might have us believe.

It’s the start of something very very big.

Something that doesn’t ever stop.