January arrived, and with it, a very unsettling sense of groundhog day. This time last year I abruptly lost a job a month shy of my probation ending, having undergone five months of very specific training as a legal secretary. The circumstances ultimately did not favour me. Cuts needed to be made and my neck was first on the line, as everyone else was permanent.
“Everyone here likes you, and no one here is doubting your intellect,” I was told. Well that was nice. Thank you. Heart and unicorns all around.
The job itself was low stress and uninteresting, the colleagues nice, if prone to talking a lot. I was once stuck standing by my desk trying to make my way to lunch when a colleague started up some long winded story that lasted an hour. I was regularly praised for my listening skills.
I maintained a sunny disposition and was commended for it. I learnt to fill out many complicated forms on antiquated online platforms, and I checked my writer’s ego at the door when editing long, boring and circuitous arguments about the uniqueness of new plugs written by pompous old German men who tried to correct my grammar by making up grammar rules of their own. I smiled my many ‘team playing’ smiles and wrote out alternative sentences on yellow post-it notes. Sometimes I added pleasant little smiley faces to clarify that there was no ill will.
In hindsight it might have been a lucky escape if the next job I’d been offered with someone who had waxed lyrical about my writing and named dropped famous authors he claimed to work with (who had seemingly disappeared from his network) only to prove impossible to work with. He also talked a headache-worthy amount. To his credit, his grammar was impeccable. Mostly because wife edited him.
And now my latest: Four months into my new contract, and a role that had felt tolerable in the sense that no one was shouting at me and I didn’t have to explain plugs to patent agencies, has abruptly ceased to exist and will be outsourced to an agency.
Again, not a reflection of my ‘attitude’ or my skills. The scope of the work was misjudged and had turned out too much for my manager to manage when managing me. I’d been left to my own devices for most of it, struggled to find anyone to greenlight anything, found myself lost in enough obfusticating wormholes to wonder if anyone really wanted anyone else to know anything, and tried, throughout, to maintain a can-do attitude.
The investigative journalist in me was able to join certain dots, but I am not sure that endeavour was welcome, if I’m honest.
Can I be hackneyed enough to say that the whole thing felt a little bit Kafkaesque? Maybe. But with cupcakes and bowls of fresh fruit.
Next steps? No fucking clue. It feels like in trying to be allowed entry into the corporate world and get under its bonnet I’ve filed down the sharp teeth I once had that might have helped me survive it.
I am trying to come up with a tangible lesson from all of this, but the only one I can arrive at is “trust nothing and no one”. It doesn’t fit in well with the wider narrative arc we have going on here, to be honest.
As the year comes to a close, our ongoing rat love story arc takes a sad turn.
On the 21st, I noticed that Kotti seemed weak and saw him take a little stumble and lie down in the fetal position. I wondered whether he might be too cold, turning the heating up and wrapping him in some cloth.
The next day he seemed even weaker. I took him in my arms, felt the limpness of his body and found his normally pristine white coat to be matted and yellowing. I fetched some of his favourite snacks and laid out a feast in front of him. He ignored it all, but rubbed affectionately against my finger with his furry little head and gave me his best blue steel.
By that evening we were in an Uber heading to a late night clinic on the other side of town. To lessen Kotti’s stress, Hermann accompanied us, but unhelpfully seemed intent on trying to sit on Kotti’s face.
By the time we saw a vet, Kotti was pretty out of it. She couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, but offered to put him on a drip overnight and have him see a specialist first thing in the morning. He passed away in his sleep in the early hours.
I can’t really overstate what a nice little guy Kotti was, and what a pleasure it’s been getting to know him this year. It’s cheesy, but there’s a line in Mary Oliver’s famous poem Wild Geese that I think now will always remind me of Kotti:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Kotti will forever represent that soft animal. A soft animal with an astonishing talent for posing for the camera. You couldn’t really take a bad picture of him. He somehow always knew to look straight into the camera like he was God’s gift to ratkind.
And, you know, Kotti didn’t have to be good, as the poem goes. But he just was really good. So good I surprised myself even with the number of tears I’ve shed over the loss. And I’m not a crier. At all.
Kotti got along with everyone, and would always come up to you just to say hi and see what you were up to. In my head (and this really does make me sound like a crazy rat lady), he talked to me in the voice of Toad from Mario Kart. Enthusiastic. Excitable. Encouraging.
“HEEEEEEY!!!! OMG CHICKPEAS!! SOOOOOOOO GREATTTTTT!!!!!”
Hermann, by contrast, sounds like the lead singer of Machine Head (in my head).
But he’s grieving, too. He’s not been himself at all since I brought him back from the vet. I would do anything to have him back to his rambunctious, knicker-chewing self. But what I have now is a rat son who will sit on my lap for hours on end like a sad cocker spaniel.
My mother, an immunologist whose love language is researching aggressive cancers of past-their-prime rats, advised against finding him a new rat friend who might just piss him off or stress him out. So instead I just have to figure out how to be his best bud while he’s still here with us. He was no spring chicken either, when he moved in.
For the year end I promised myself I’d get out of town if only for a snapshot of time. So tomorrow I’ll be on a train to Gdansk/ Danzig, a city I’ve obsessed about since reading my favourite childhood book, the Tin Drum, which is about a horrific murderous dwarf who serves as an allegory for everything bad in this world (aka the anti-Kotti).
A Guardian review would probably describe “The Danzig Trilogy” as a “grotesque tour-de-force”. My favourite part is when Oskar gets into a bizarre staring contest with an owl, in book 2. Anyway, I’m excited mostly because for the first time in years, if only for a couple of days, I’ll be alone in a city where nobody knows me.
That specific exhilaration is something I haven’t felt in years, and which, despite my best, most “grounded”, most “rationally-desirous-of-setting-down-roots self,” I just can’t wait to feel again. If only for a hot minute.
Temperatures dropped dramatically, spelling and end to The Great Hermann Revolt.
Our furry agitator/pioneer has, it seems, opted against freedom and in favour of the warmth, cuddles and companionship of a life in which the nightimes are spent behind bars, and the daytimes are punctuated with spoonfuls of peas, mascarpone and modest excursions.
His favourite hole under the kitchen counter is getting blocked up, and little by little, we’ll be blocking up all his other little hiding places. Kotti is delighted. Hermann is only moderately disgruntled.
We’ve had a couple more escape attempts, all of which have seemed almost half-hearted. Lately I’ve almost been feeling like he's pleased to see me, and appreciative of my affections. Perhaps these are projections.
I ask myself the question: Have we finally worn him down, or has he finally grown up?
In Viking Iceland, law enforcement was a relatively simple task. Citizens had to toe the line, because failing to do so meant getting cast out into a tundra in which it was impossible to survive on one’s own.
Communities were strong and pecking orders were adhered to because lives depended on one another. You either conformed or you died.
I am not sure how I would have fared in that context, to be honest. I hope at least that I would have found some witchy friends to while away those aggressively cold winters with.
Because if I had to join any club vouchsafing my survival, I imagine I could find a way to fit in with the one where people get together and draft cryptic texts that claim to ward off dark forces. That’s basically just good marketing.
I think I might actually be a witch, you know? Although I’m Googling now and it seems like Hermann’s not a very good familiar. A thread on r/Wicca claims that a familiar should be so in sync with its witch that they would put themselves on the line in battle.
If I ever found myself in any danger I doubt Hermann would lift a finger. And he would ultimately side with whoever offered him better snacks and left him in peace.
Anyway, we read his tarot recently, and apparently he should be buckling up for more companionship and less alone time. The universe never lies. I have a new rule that whoever comes round has to say hi and tell him he’s wonderful. I hope it will give him confidence.
A couple of months ago I brought up my quandary of trying to bring solitary-hero, self-isolating Hermann out of his shell. This was at a discussion at a community art event in a gallery with a grizzly/grim aesthetic where I instantly felt at home.
The works looked like death metal album covers in abstraction, and an enormous whale bone was placed at the centre of a large, Huxley-referencing door propped up to serve as a table over which to discuss the topics of migration, belonging and community.
Why did I bring up Hermann? Because he wants it all. Total freedom, life on his own terms, his favourite cheese on tap, an infinite supply of my favourite underwear to chew through. I mean, he’s a rat, so, fair enough.
I’m just not sure it’s good for him, living with this ruggedly-individualistic delusion that he’s the master of his own destiny who owes nothing to nobody and can tear up whatever he fancies, even if it’s a nice colour and has quite a high silk percentage.
Anyway, at the event I made a friend. She’s an artist, originally from Russia, who had spent the last few months carrying a very long black scarf everywhere she went, knitting it longer and longer as a way of keeping record of the emotional things going on with her.
Since then she has destroyed it, and is currently figuring out a safe way to extract a lot of her own blood as part of her next performance. I asked her how she felt now that her scarf was gone, and with this theme of creation and destruction being central to her process.
“Kind of sad, you know. But that’s how it goes. You experience things and you alchemise them.”
It’s been two weeks since Hermann’s all out rebellion began. Two weeks of trying to do whatever we can to figure out how to get him to return to his cage at bedtime. Of trying to stay vigilant to his clumsy rustling so as to determine where he is, what he is up to, where he is hiding his snacks (his regrettable enthusiasm for my underwear drawer continues), and which of the many water bowls I have left out for him he has inelegantly capsized.
Two weeks of waiting, hoping, praying for his approach only to have him tauntingly run over my feet as I’m trying to meet a deadline or look vaguely professional on a zoom call. Two weeks of meticulously cleaning everything only to find a nice little pile of droppings in the corner of the room that I’ve set out to meditate in. He is technically toilet trained, you know, but has apparently unlearned all of that just to make my life difficult.
Meanwhile, the patience of golden child Kotti as he waits lonely and forlorn in his cage for his brother’s return wears thin. He’s having a rebellion of his own, tossing his kale around and making a mess of his litter tray. The anxious attachment force with him is strong.
Kind reader, through this difficult time, I’ve even resorted to uttering obscenities.
“Do you think he thinks his name is Dickhead, now?” asks my new roommate, who moved in a couple of weeks before the great Hermann revolt began, and who has mercifully shown good humour through this Hermann-inflicted chaos.
I’m not exactly sure what has prompted his especially wayward behaviour of late, but it might have to do with all these changes. New roommate, new job, new clarity on my part about where I am and what I want to be doing and what I will and won’t tolerate in my life.
Unfortunately, when it comes to managing my mutinous rat children, I don’t really have much control over the situation, it seems. But a lot of other aspects I do have some control over. While I’ll continue to maintain a toe dipped into journalism -- a world that I wonder might always be marred with ambivalence for me -- I’ve pivoted. And a sense of freedom has come with making that call, a call that feels really healthy and right.
Working conditions have improved significantly. I can open my mouth and share my own ideas without being shut down. I can manage expectations around a feasible workload without a temper tantrum being thrown. I don’t feel any compulsion to hit anything. I haven’t touched a cigarette in three months. I can write a sentence without worrying that I’ve mis-mindread my boss, and I can close shop at a reasonable hour on Fridays knowing that I won’t be getting abusive messages over the weekend for missing a deadline that couldn’t be made because the same person who had set the deadline refused to sign off on a basic decision no one else but him was empowered to make.
Most of all, I don’t have to worry about the ethics of made-up quotes and misrepresented bylines, and I can be myself without having to play any of the verbal and intellectual hijinks and contortions I might have made in the past to survive under conditions that weren’t right, to perform in a way that didn’t fit. (For the record, this description does not characterize all the journalistic experiences I’ve had by any means).
“A lot of women have built a career around writing what their male bosses wanted them to write,” my mentor said, coaxing me to quit. “You don’t have to be one of them”.
Still, through all of this, Hermann’s revolt and everything else, I’ve had to ask myself tough questions. What is it about me that allows for all this orbiting chaos, and can I opt out? How far do my responsibilities towards other stretch, really? And with what level of nonchalance can I, like a cat with a precious vase, tip off the table other people’s shit that’s not really mine to carry?
I don’t have a straight answer to these questions, yet.
I do know that a lot feels like it’s going spookily well for me, and I don’t think I’ve stopped caring about the human race. I've volunteered for at a refugee centre. I've helped friends out who are moving here find their feet, I've cooked dinner for people I'm fond of, I've sweated over meaningful journalism produced on my own terms. I'm just not editing tirades about the world falling apart and everyone in it being an idiot. Nor am I sharing a living space with someone with permanently dilated pupils who seems to think I'm their maid.
I think I’m just rooting for myself more effectively than I have been. A year of turbulence will end with a visit to London, and the only worry I have about taking that trip is whether Hermann’s rebellious nature will show us up at the rat hotel.
September arrived, and with it, migrating bird formations, a more rat-friendly climate and the death of a queen. Times like these make me really appreciate not being in a newsroom. The sheer volume of nonsense being published. I mean, Metro ran a story about queen-shaped clouds.
This said, annoying as the coverage is, with all the freak news events that have marked the last, I don’t know, decade -- Brexit, Trump, pandemics, harbingers of climate disaster, autocracy’s rise and rise, JK Rowling being rubbish, etc. -- there’s something comforting about an event as innocuous as “very old person dies” making a lot of front pages. It almost feels quaint.
Charles’ face on all the money though? This I am uncomfortable with. There are so many other better faces to put on the money. What about Ozzy Osbourne? He’s a real national treasure.
Still, the event has made me think more about my own supposed Britishness and ties to a place I’ve managed to avoid now for seven years. That’s right, I haven’t been to London in seven years. That’s insane. My home city.
The thing is, I’ve been avoiding going back. I picked Germany as my post-Hong Kong homecoming spot, when it actually, in a way, isn’t my home at all. Here I’m an outsider looking in, as I probably would be in the U.K. now, too.
Maybe part of my resistance in finding my way back there comes from this fear of seeing everyone far more settled than I am in the lives they’ve chosen for themselves, while I’m sitting here certain of only one thing: my competence as a rat mom.
Still, though, I’ve been told I’m not the only 30-something who doesn’t have it all figured out. And even the ones that do aren’t peddling any ideas that this is the perfect way to be. I say this having been on the receiving end of a trickle of post-pandemic U.K. visitors, most notably one of my best friends from university who’s now a prominent philosopher and whose friendship has been really influential and also, really complex. If I’m honest, perhaps I was always kind of jealous of the stability and structure her life had that I don’t think I see myself having.
She’s lived in Oxford now, for well over a decade, has a small house in a village to the north Port Meadows, a husband and a little black cat, and her career is still going as well as it always was.
“I remember there was a time where it felt like my life could branch off in so many ways, and that’s not the case anymore. I’ve chosen what I’m doing. I like it and I’m good at it,” she said. As always, what I admired about her, this focus she always had on the things that mattered to her, was what I felt had always been eluding me. This even reflected itself in where we both are physically.
Seven years ago, I got her into yoga after being forced through the brutal contortions made obligatory the teachers I had in China (one of the first Chinese expressions I learnt was “body no good!”)
I have stupid, t-rex arms and very stubborn hamstrings, so I can’t say I was ever especially good, but I was definitely not as terrible as I was when I first started.
And I was interested. In all the stuff about mind and body and breathe, where there was tension in the body and how to relax it to deepen your stretch, getting out of the thinking mind through movement and all that. It appealed to her, too, and she’s said that she always associated her practice with me.
In my first years in Hong Kong I was still devoted. I joined one of those intense morning Mysore groups, where you go, nobody talks and you do the same sequence again and again, everyday, until your teacher tells you you’re ready for your next pose. And guess what? After two years he stopped giving me new poses and I got bored and stopped going.
So now, guess who, out of me and my friend, can do all the fancy stuff that happens at the end of classes, and whose Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana brings shame on their former (very quiet, but very nice) mysore clan? (yes, I had to look up that term).
This said, I can now throw a competent punch, figure out how to elude a takedown without running away from an MMA sparring scenario crying my head off, run really quite far without getting that tired, and lots of other things that I might not have learnt or experienced had my focus zeroed in on this one thing. So maybe drilling down on one specific path was never really what I was designed to do anyway, and that’s OK. (Have you read range by David Epstein? It’s quite good).
It was funny because while me and my old university friend were yoga-ing here in Berlin; I felt a faint trace of competition between us both quietly observing where the other was. Even though comparison is the biggest no-no there is in the yoga world. I noticed the smoothness of her transitions and she, presumably, noticed my now increasingly obnoxious guns.
Over drinks afterwards we talked about old friends, and caught up on all the stuff happening in the stretches of time in which we’d lost touch. My abrupt departure from Hong Kong? “Well, at this point I’m just collecting nervous breakdowns,” I joked. The thing about those is that you do come back from them stronger and more self-aware each time.
She talked about her career. “The thing about analytical philosophy is it’s like chess. It’s just a game that I’m really good at, that I don’t necessarily think everyone needs to understand or even like it, to live a good life,” she said. About embodiment. “Yep, definitely a thing”. About rats, obviously, and all the other things in our lives that felt meaningful and had made us happier people. And I guess it was just nice, to be in that moment and feel kind of at peace with all of it.
Some intense days of a freakishly hot Berlin summer are behind us and the rats are starting to look a little bit less like life is not worth living. And I almost think Hermann has forgiven me for the baths I tried to give him hoping it would cool him down. Facetious rat analysis aside, there is something quite scary about these temperatures, knowing that each summer it’s going to get just that little bit worse.
I was googling “eco-friendly air conditioning alternatives” just to see what the nerds are coming up with for a point in time when Berlin will be as hot as Canberra (that’s apparently 50 years away). I hope they are working hard on this, because it is a Big Deal. But then there are a lot of Big Deals that the nerds must be very busy with -- they might be quite overwhelmed as it is. Maybe I should email them pictures of my sad rats as motivation.
“Breaking!” screams a tweet from The Independent. “The world is woefully unprepared for the risk of life-decimating volcanic activity,” (or something to that effect). Well. I mean, first of all. Is that Breaking News? The World is Woefully Unprepared for a lot of Things. It already shut down for two whole years over a stupid virus (as in, a stupid virus that posed a very real threat to a lot of lives, obviously), completely underestimated the threat of populism, and orange-faced presidents and a horrible gnome-faced man in the Kremlin. We underestimate a lot of things, really. It’s what we do. That, and overthink the things that don’t matter.
I don’t know. The solution is obviously to ignore all these problems and focus on small wins, like finally crossing the 50kg mark on your clean and jerk after months of going down deep and dark questioning tunnels questioning everything you ever knew about how to move a barbell swiftly from your thigh to your shoulders, and building up a back muscle infrastructure along the way.
“But why would I want to do that?” This is a question that has actually come up a lot, and one that I don’t really have an answer to. Most recently one of the older guys in my building, who wears a flap cap and compliments me on my mastery of Bach (cool!), but also seems to be a bit weirded out about how fond I am of carrying Eric around. Eric is my 20kg slam ball.
I’ve been neglecting him, lately, just as I’ve been neglecting my explosive strength (the most fun of all the strengths) in favour of an astonishing dull hypertrophy-focused programme my training buddy wanted us to do that is supposed to make our muscles “pop!”. Is this really what I want? I have no idea. They are popping a lot as it is, according to an increasing influx of comments.
Anyway, back to flap cap man.”Why would you want to build more muscle?” he asked. “I don’t know,” was my response. “But if anyone is giving you trouble, you know who to call”.
Maybe flap cap man doesn’t realise that resistance training dramatically offsets osteoporosis in women and has a lot of other health and longevity benefits. Should I have explained this to him? Maybe, but the truth is I find that most social interactions are improved slightly if you leave them communicating very little except that you’re a dangerous person. It makes people more polite and less likely to offer unsolicited comments about your body.
On this note, it has come to my attention that I might need a bit more help on the communication side, both professionally and personally. So I have sought guidance. Now I know that when called upon with a question that challenges me, I have a tendency to break eye contact, sigh loudly, and waffle. I can see how this might not come across well.
The thing is I never wanted to be the kind of journalist who cares more about their presentation skills than their work. That I kind of get from my father. “Filed more memos than he did stories,” he once said of a former colleague who went on to be a hotshot lecturer. Newsrooms can be awash with them. These talkers. They talk so much and expect you to nod in awe and wonder, especially if you are female. A friend of mine stuck at a famously “boys club” newspaper struggled a lot with this. She was highly competent and couldn’t figure out why she never got promoted. It was something she complained about pretty much every time we met. For years I sat, listened, and commiserated.
Our friendship was born in a newsroom and the challenges of surviving in such macho spaces is what had united us initially (alongside my appreciation for her devilish humour). We, I suppose, “trauma bonded” over being managed by chaotic bullies. Editors who would walk up to your desk and bollock you loudly for something that was actually their fault. She would be reduced tears and I would take her out for coffee and make her promise me she wouldn’t submit and apologise.”Hold your ground, otherwise he wins,” I’d tell her, preparing my eyes for a week of glaring in her editor’s direction, contemplating whether it would be weird if I started growling whenever he approached our desk.
She in turn helped calm me down when I’d get a similar treatment from my editor. Where she’d burst into tears, I’d stand up and shout back -- a response that had every subeditor basically wanting to marry me -- but which wasn’t very strategic in the face of middle management’s endless power play.
But anyway, back to why she wasn’t getting promoted (beside the obvious sexism). After listening to what might have been her 1000th rant about it, I finally spoke up.
“You know, your problem is that you’re really not good at hiding when you’re unimpressed. I kind of like it because you’re funny and I always know where I stand. But I’m guessing your boss doesn’t.”
My Texan friend -- marathon Maria -- had a similar work problem. “I just hate kissing ass,” she used to say, also complaining about never getting a promotion despite being a total workhorse. She’d then tell me that she refused to look her CEO in the eye because she disagreed with some of his strategies (and his very Texan “ass-kissing” style of networking).
“You don’t have to marry the man, Maria. But it probably wouldn’t hurt your career prospects to not be openly hostile to him,” I said.
“That sounds like ass kissing to me, Sarah,” she replied flatly.
The thing about handing out career advice to friends is it’s way easier to do that than provide any sound judgment regarding your own life. Which is why sometimes you do have to suck it up and seek external advice on what it is you suck at so you can suck at it a little less.
Besides working on my presentation skills (there are now a billion videos on my computer of me explaining my work and I think it’s only the last three in which I don’t look like I want my audience to die suddenly of something horrible and painful), I’m getting coached on self-advocacy.
The thing is, so much of a good journalist’s toolbox is about advocating for others. But I’m learning gradually that so much of being able to have the time and energy to do anything well hinges on being able to advocate for yourself. (and, by extension, your rat children. Mama needs to buy them a little fan).
A journalist friend of mine once said that going on dates with strangers is like interviewing a source. You show up, keep things light and breezy while delicately accumulating all the data points you need. I mean, ideally, along the way, you have fun, too.
Besides storytelling, the journalistic skill that came most instinctively to me was interviewing people. I know how to ask the right questions, and how to gently and unobtrusively steer a conversation in a way that delivers the goods. I know how to build trust, how to shut up and listen, how to encourage in the right moments, and stimulate if a conversation feels to be running dry.
I know how to shoot rapid fire, sharp questions with the intellectual fast talker types who seem to need that rhythm and tension to pay attention to me, but also, when to play ‘dumb’ enough to get eloquent quotes and not convoluted jargon. And I know when to start being that little bit difficult and annoying if someone who owes me an answer is being evasive. My mentor, Joyce, who used to be White House reporter, said that when she interviewed officials, she’d often deliberately ignore social cues.
“People would get so uncomfortable, they’d just say anything to get rid of me”.
Of course, the key difference between going on dates and interviewing sources is that only one of those activities is supposed to be in service of a story with your byline on it.
Recently, I was at a bar with some friends where I wound up talking to this guy for three hours. I got that look your friends give you when they think you think you’ve met someone pretty cool -- when actually what has happened is that you’ve discovered you’re talking to a recovering firebug and DIY napalm expert and you want to learn everything you can about their little hobby.
Through the course of that evening, I found out:
For the record, I had disclosed early on in our interaction that I was a journalist, and, in fact, he was the one who pushed for the interaction to be pursued at a later date with the aim of a story coming out of it. He said he felt like I really understood him.
At that point, I felt kind of guilty. I wondered: Did I really understand him, or was I just really good at making him feel understood so that I could satiate my own curiosity about him?
As I read this back I also think, what if I was the one who was actually getting duped that whole time and he’s not a firebug but a pathological liar who’ll say all sorts of stuff to pique and sustain a journalist’s interest?
For anyone who is interested in the power games often at play between journalist and subject, I’d recommend Janet Malcolm’s The Jounalist and the Murderer, a seminal work in the murky ethics of our game and a must read for anyone in our industry who wants to do what we do with something approaching a clear conscience.
Malcom interrogates the work of a journalist, Joe McGinniss, who covered the trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, a man accused of murdering his own family.
In putting together his book, McGinniss got the convicted murderer on side by lying to him that he believed he was innocent, when in fact what he published was a damning story of a ruthless psychopath.
Malcolm meticulously interrogates the trial and how it is reported. She interviews the documents McGinniss accumulated, studied, and transformed into the material he needed to support his thesis. She also interviewed the accused murderer -- who claimed innocence -- to gauge his character herself, and found what I love about her work: no definitive answers about who he was and whether the evidence against him stood up.
She observes rather a person “characterless” enough to serve as a canvas onto which McGinniss could paint the perfect murder story, and sell a lot of books. There’s a really nice passage she has about the work journalists do in interrogating our fellow humans as we commit their story to paper.
She writes that the truth is people aren’t characters in books -- they’re a lot harder to pin down than that. They change, surprise us, confuse us, bore us, behave in different ways with different people, contradict themselves. The rules we apply in trying to make sense of them are never that stable.
Fun, isn’t it? To be one tenth of one’s way through project 100 dates and already drawing parallels between your own ‘research’ and the study of an accused murderer. The thing is, I haven’t met with any murderers, yet, I don’t think.
But my approach so far has had similarities to how I’d report a survey-style story, mostly because I’ve set myself metrics that require efficiency, and I’ve tried to maintain an open mind about my sample set. The thing I like especially about the fact that this is all happening via apps (something I haven’t really done much of before because, well, Stranger Danger), is how easy and uncomplicated it is to back out graciously.
To keep myself stimulated, I’ve tried to gamify the process and make it feel like an adventure.
“Set me a challenge for a date to go on,” I asked one of my one of closest male friends.
“I can’t. If something happened to you, I couldn’t forgive myself,” was his reply.
“I mean, don’t say “date a serial killer!” I replied.
I realised I might be being a bit too gungho about all this when I was chatting to someone about prospective cool abandoned spots to explore with only a cursory scan of their profile, which as it turned out had one of those weird contrarian rants about pronouns and vaccinations on it. Imagine that. Wandering around a decaying swimming pool with a stranger convinced that having asshole opinions makes him cool. I’d rather date a recovering firebug.
I think, the thing is, part of me feels like I am peering through my “research” with the same inconclusive interrogation Malcolm applied to her study of the “characterless” MacDonald. I.e. You can apply all sorts of forensics to the romantic realm. You can interrogate your back story, scrutinize your past traumas or whatever, talk to your friend about a date in that way that they say “oh, wow, SUCH a libra”, mull over attachment theories, write a list of pros and cons of everyone you meet: “Says he likes my brain!”, “feels like I’m at a lecture”, “agrees that Tool is more complex and interesting than Rammstein”, “sends ‘wakey, wakey!’ 7am text messages that make me want to throw my phone at the wall”.
But the reality is that there are some -- many -- questions, and some -- many -- mysteries that investigative processes just can’t resolve. And again, dating, unlike journalism, involves your having, also, to wind in the interrogation chair and face someone else’s scrutiny and investigative processes. And that, well. Maybe I should just assign myself a story about the DIY Napalm kids instead…
*I know I said I’d write something helpful about stress management. I haven’t really done that. What I will say is that one of the best lessons I’ve learnt is developing the skill of learning to distinguish between the wrong and the right discomforts and acting responsibly with regards to my own safety, despite certain “gonzo” journalistic inclinations otherwise. Might not bring the best stories, but life can’t always be about that, unfortunately.
Recently I’ve been wondering about why I've been carrying on with this blog. For sure, It helps me organise my thoughts and feel a bit like a character in an ongoing story, which I guess is nice. But surely there must be a purpose beyond that?
I thought back to why I started writing and working as a journalist in the first place. Ultimately, you want to share the things you’ve discovered and learnt in a way that helps people. I wonder, how can I make my work more helpful?
This blog began on my return to Europe from Hong Kong. In that time, I’ve lived like everyone else has through a seemingly unending pandemic. I navigated the ups and downs of a career path here that has involved trying to make comprehensible dense computer science topics, alongside a lot of other things.
I’ve studied Europe’s media landscape and tried to process the highs, lows, and frustrations and despair that came with covering one of the world’s most fascinating and maddening places in the five years that preceded my time here. And I took pains to ground myself in a city I had childhood memories of that I might be able to call “home.“ I swam in the frosty Norwegian fjord of my mother's home town, ran my first half-marathon, said goodbye to my battle-axe Mormor my brainy grandmother, and my lovely uncle Paul, and tried and failed to master a confident armbar.
I also persisted in what has been probably my most comprehensive research project to date: trying to find a way to live in harmony with my own story and all the complexities, challenges and joys that have come with that.
So what are the key learnings that I’ve uncovered since this work began? Here’s a list:
Rat’s all, folks.
Another one of those quirky dreams struck the other other night. I was wandering around a dimly lit Norwayville-style toytown without teeth. There was an operation I was meant to be at to get my face fixed that for some reason had been missed. Rather than resolve the problem I had instead chosen to wander the streets forlorn and despondent. Quite sure there’s no symbolism to be gleaned here at all.
If life is about choices, a lot of them still seem to be made entirely by my body’s visceral reactions to how I’ve been treating it. After a relatively heady but also stressful month, my body revolted in its favourite way. My “moon cycle” as the hippies call it, announced itself with a level of brutality that had me vomiting up painkillers all over my balcony after a night of agony I’d gladly swap with being pummeled by a muay thai fiend. Time to clean up my act, apparently, and clean out my system.
Out with the late nights and enraptured conversations with people I’ll probably never see again, in with the nerdy focus on health protocols, energy systems, cortisol levels, early mornings and exceptional sleep. Along the lines of saying “yes/no” to a variety of things, I experimented with a fast that lasted four days, per the suggestion of date #6 of project 100 dates. He (staunch fasting advocate who has shown temperate enthusiasm for my rats) actually suggested I shoot for seven days, but I’m still pleased with the four days that I did manage, and through which I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in years.
“And what about your performance?” asked my training buddy who had scheduled a hefty mix of hack squats and trap bar deadlifts alongside all sorts of uncomfortable lat-building exercises. This was a few days after the fast ended. Well, I guess I had lost some strength. But what is apparent is an improvement in cardiovascular endurance (or maybe just a lighter-footedness?), which I think is something I value in a way that she’s not so concerned with. I think this is because I associate it with giving me a greater resilience in bouncing back from stressors that might otherwise have floored me. And amazing sleep.
Still, if I truly wanted the engine back that I had in some points of Corona-- when I wasn’t smoking at all and when I was out running most days, had a limited social circle and lived comfortably with my nose in a lot of books-- I’d have to go all in and throw my cigarettes out of the window.
During the week, this is mostly feasible if my recovery and stress-relief protocols are on point and if I’m not calming myself down from having just sprinted up and down a very long street like a crazy person looking for the guy who has kindly found my phone and promised to hold onto it (there are some good people out there…). Or if I’ve not been triggered too much.
The logic obviously goes that in order to do away with a bad habit, you have to find a replacement for it.
Meditation or breath-work, or even punching Nigel, could work. (Nigel is the heavy bag that lies on my floor wearing a jumper with arms I’d stuffed a few months back so as to practice submissions). But sometimes this isn’t really enough. Especially when trying to put yourself through your own regimen of exposure therapy so as to refrain from doing a Hermann whenever life hits you: I.e. running away and finding a hole under a kitchen cabinet replete with all your favourite shreds of toilet paper with the aim of living there forever.
(By the way, somebody recently suggested I struggled with an avoidant attachment style (the one that has anxiety at its gooey neurotic center.) I was so annoyed I started Googling one way tickets to Timbuktu worrying about who would stay in touch if I actually did pull another disappearing act. That was a joke. Kind of.)
So I’m instead being a little bit bendy with my health protocols at least in the early stages of project 100 dates, during which I allow myself the mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke to hide behind as I am starting to “normalize the emotional intensity that comes with dating” as someone else put it.
“Project 100 dates! Love it,” said a writer friend. “What does it entail and are you writing about it?” Well, so far, it involves meeting people at basically the same turnaround rate and with the same time investment most of my single female friends have committed themselves to anyway. Compulsive note taker that I am, I am amassing the qualitative data points about myself within this context that I just haven’t gathered enough of so far, discovering that things like developing checklists are actually quite helpful.
I never really saw myself as the kind of woman who had checklists. More the kind of woman who shows up to dates with sunny, sporty types dressed like Morticia Addams and responds to the question of “hey girl, what do you like to do for fun?” from guys on the U-Bahn with the line “strangling puppies”.
But actually, romantic compatibility is a pretty complex thing to figure out when you’re trying to approach it from the position of “who would actually fit in my life” as opposed to “who kind of makes me feel bad about myself in a way that would make me feel obliged to fix them and ignore my own needs?”
So these are the questions I’m working towards answering on the field. Will I write about it? Well, not for cheap laughs and not in a way that intrudes on mine or anyone else’s privacy or dignity. Life is far too short for any of that kind of drama. However, I will caution that anyone who doesn’t articulate the utmost admiration for the two true loves of my life -- my pet rats -- will get exposed faster than you can say “Watergate”.
Berlin summer is in full swing again, but this year, everything feels quite different. This summer, Berlin has come alive.
Everyone is eager to get out and about, the rats especially. The furry and plump renegade that he is, Hermann has committed himself to several break out attempts, his most devious being enlisting Kotti in a misdirection plot that had me chasing both around our odd little vampire-inspired apartment in a nightgown like a lunatic straight out of a gothic novel.
Hermann has found a hole under the kitchen counter that he’ll retreat to, victorious, for several days, until hunger humbles him enough to return to his plush cage where the usual choice selection of mascarpone and seasonal vegetables awaits.
Sometimes, if he’s feeling especially rebellious, he’ll pull apart a roll of toilet paper and carry its shreds into his man cave with him, and I’ll leave a bowl of water out to show that we’re still friends despite his endless mutiny. I worry what will become of him if he carries on like this, though.
Beyond the confines of our testosterone-addled apartment, which has for various reasons been overrun by Irishmen alongside male rats for the last couple of months, I’ve noticed a number of graffiti tags across the district with the single word: “rat”. I am assuming he has found a gang of fellow miscreants and I wonder whether I should start saving up bail money should he get into real trouble.
Still, I have taken a leaf out of Hermann’s book and resolved to plot my own Berlin adventures to offset the years of confinement that came with pandemic life. I am trying to be a “yes” (wo)man. That is, finding excuses to say yes to the outside world and all its invitations.
That has meant: yes to: improvisational jazz concerts helmed by a friend who’s a wizard on the synth. Yes to trekking to an abandoned factory in Steglitz to help build an enormous perspect eyeball headed for Burning Man and dreamed up by a neuroscientist. Yes to boozy dates that descend into drunken bench pressing or fussball tournaments in which, I’ll admit, I perform pretty well.
And yes to being wide awake, and excited to meet the world in all its technicolor wonder with the downside that saying yes to somethings ultimately means saying no to other things. Like good sleep, and happy, tobacco-free lungs.
When my mentor, Joyce, coaxed me into taking that newspaper job in Hong Kong all those years ago, she did so with the line “life is about choices”. One area of my life that I’m experimenting with saying “no” to is the world of conflict.
Let’s not overcomplicate this or politicise it. Having initially resolved to commit myself to a summer of martial arts practice, I did a 180, and decided to see what happened if I avoided conflict altogether. As in, point blank, didn’t register it even when it was glaring at me in the face and taunting.
This was inspired by how my training buddy, a gorgeous, statuesque German with a fascination for the bodybuilding world handles small annoyances like having plates rudely claimed without our consent at our gym’s squat rack.
“If someone is rude to me, I just *blows them a kiss*. See, if I get angry at them, it shows that I care what they think. It’s better not to care about what they think.”
She’s honestly my hero.
In the absence of martial arts, I’ve -- physicality nerd that I am -- now, doubled down on the other training modalities that have helped manage my moods and energies for the last four years. I temporarily took a break from CrossFit and tried out simpler HIIT formulas. Some of these involved heart rate monitors that proved something I probably already knew:
I have a strong and resilient heart which I’ve learnt to control with my breathing so as to manage a severe anxiety disorder. The strong and resilient heart is genetic, I think. The last time my VACCINATED 67-year-old mother caught COVID, she still went skiing (even though I told her not to…) and got in about 12 k without much fuss.
The funny thing about HIIT and heart rate monitors, is that the name of the game is actively raising your heart rate, which is the opposite of what you want to do if you’re trying to circumvent a panic attack. So it feels counterintuitive if you’re used to using sports to manage anxiety.
However, through trial and error, I found that deep and intense -- but still controlled -- belly breathing mid-sprinting does raise your heart rate such that you can “win” the heart rate monitor game you play during HIIT, while maintaining a state of calm.
Anyway, with that specific problem solved, I’ve returned to CrossFit, which, to its credit, poses slightly more complex fitness problem solving games without having to get punched in the face.
The real problem that lies in front of me, now, is, how do I say yes to optimal movement, without having saying no to optimal other things?
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.