Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On class, status, appearances and self-sufficiency

I had dinner with The Girl's old school friends (from a long time ago) at the weekend. I found some of them difficult, to say the least. They were utterly career-focused, in a way that is a little bit alien to me at the moment - to the point where I found myself talking about work as though I still did it, because it made them feel comfortable. Also? Let's face it. Workaholics are dull. Middle class people who are obsessed with both status and privilege are dull. People who roll their eyes when your girlfriend hints at something that suggests her family has money, but are happy to talk about their houses and travels and extremely comfortable lives that have never faced any kind of challenge are dull. Dear God I was bored... I feigned more tiredness than I was actually feeling (although they really were making me feel quite unwell) and we left before dessert. Which was going to be chocolate torte. So you will understand how distressing I found it all.

It's more than just class and status, though. Those things have always bored me. I grew up with parents who were obsessed with hanging on to their newly acquired middle-class status, though I personally found it much more interesting that they originally came from Irish farming and Welsh mining stock. (But we don't mention these things - although we're allowed to be proud that various parts of our family escaped the famine because they had their own farmhouse/got out of south Wales before the collapse of the mining industry/converted from Judaism to Anglicanism, changed the family name and ended up in a very good post in the civil service.) I have never cared much for such obsession with appearances. I hate middle class dinner parties. I hate private school attitudes (note: this does not mean everyone who has been to private school - I was educated in one for three years. I mean that attitude that *some* former private school pupils have that everyone else is beneath them). I hate bank holidays spent doing DIY; estate cars with dogs in the back; precocious children whose parents think they're an awful lot more intelligent than they actually are because they can play the piano; families in Waitrose who talk loudly, complain in the queues and treat the cashier like crap; particular ex-colleagues of mine who don't like certain black celebrities because they're "only black on the outside" (???) and have posh accents; other ex-colleagues who go to the opera for £100 a time and read the kind of literature that they can't possibly enjoy, but think I'm uncultured because I'd rather pay to see a band or a film or a fringe play that might actually cause me to have fun. But most of all (and here we get to the inevitable 'shh, Nay might finally be making a point' part of the post), I hate the illusion of self-sufficiency that is behind all of these things.

Oh yes, I'm aware that I'm as bad as my parents in all these things, since I am rejecting my background in exactly the way that they did. I'm rejecting these things for what seems to me to be the only stab at integrity that I get. All these things are, to varying degrees, about caring more about how you appear than about who you really are. In my opinion, of course. And I refuse to put appearances above happiness, health, comfort or even convenience. Perhaps even more worryingly for me, though, these attitudes are also about trying to achieve 'unshakable' self-sufficiency and independence - more concepts that I am exploring and questioning these days. My parents 'got out of' their working-class backgrounds because - on one level, at least - they were afraid of not being able to support themselves and their families. They admit to this. And of course, doing just that (supporting yourself and your family) is an admirable thing. But when that becomes an obsession? Erk.

I can't stand it when people think that their self-sufficiency is some kind of triumph. These people at the dinner last weekend were insanely career-focused; not that being focused on your career is a bad thing, but if it's all you can think and talk about, is it possible that it's taking up too much of your attention? These people couldn't even conceive of other types of careers to theirs - we tried to talk to them about books, films and the theatre and got nothing but confusion back. We couldn't even make jokes about their area of work (several of them were training for the same kind of career) without making them angry. I felt like screaming at them about how fragile their position is - how self-sufficiency doesn't last - how their careers could fall apart around them if one little element of their perfect lives dropped out of place - but I thought that would be a bit cruel. So I answered their questions about what I "do" - apparently so well that they thought I was still doing it. When I went on to make it clearer that I've had to stop work because of illness, the conversation abruptly stopped with one person, while another wanted details of what I'm going to do next, and when...

Self-sufficiency is not (I believe) the ultimate achievement in life. Neither, I'm starting to realise, is a successful career. I am having to give up my independence at the moment in exchange for care from my girlfriend (it's not supposed to go like this - we were supposed to be relying on and helping each other), reliance on medical/social services and mobility aids, support from benefits, relief from medication, assistance from strangers (when you and your Girl can't get your wheelchair up the bus ramp and three random people help by pulling you up, you know that the world hasn't quite gone to hell yet)... I haven't been able to have a shower in three days because I'm scared of falling. I have a fantastic-looking 'leccy wheelchair sitting in the hallway that I can't go anywhere in yet because I can't carry the battery pack downstairs to install it. I have letters that I desperately need to post, but I don't know whether walking to the post office will be good for me or cause a horrible crash. I keep forgetting to eat because putting food together into a meal takes too much pain and effort than it's worth. I am having to rely on others for help with all these things. Sometimes, for many very good reasons, the help isn't always forthcoming. At other times, though, I just find it hard to accept (pride is a sin with which I am ever so familiar). Since I have no choice, though, I need to start accepting it. Self-sufficiency is not the most important thing in the world. Sometimes it's better to get in a wheelchair and get where you need to go than to walk there and kill yourself. Sometimes it's better to accept help so that you can have a shower, post a letter, eat a meal. Sometimes it's better to give up - even if temporarily - that career that you love so much that you just don't know what else you're going to do with yourself. Not always, but sometimes, self-sufficiency is not the most important thing in the world.

In the general news round-up, life is as follows. I got DLA at high rate for mobility and low rate for care, and am asking them to reconsider the care rate (because I need fairly constant support), so we shall see - but I am fairly happy with what I got, so I won't worry too much if I don't get it. It would be nice to have the money to pay someone to 'check on me' when The Girl is away, though. Talking of which, she's going away for a week from Monday. I need to decide what I'm going to do with myself for that week. I'd go to my dad's, but he doesn't have half of the equipment that I use to help myself (from shower stools to kettle pourers) and I don't know whether he'd be willing to do everything I need help with. Might ask anyway. Accepting support, and all that! Oh, and the wheelchair arrived. Pictures to follow. :)