Changing Address

I’m currently in the process of moving my domain name away from WordPress and into an independently-hosted website. That means, very soon, simonslator.com will take you to nowhere in particular. For now.

What you’re reading now will still continue at it’s freebie address of:

https://slatorsblog.wordpress.com

If you are following through the WordPress App or site, it should be business as usual.

The idea is to have a specific focus for each of the two locations: the dot com site will be solely music-based, while this one will continue to be a kind-of online diary full of the right-on-feminist/political/psychological stuff I usually post.

Just keeps it all nice and neat.

See you on the other side, Ray!

Captain Paranoia: Round Two… FIGHT!

While Captain Paranoia took a bit of a beating on Sunday, I’d knocked him down, but not out. I think I just made him mad.

Last night, my wife informed me that her nan had indeed reacted to my denim skirt. Later that afternoon, she was asking my in-laws questions like “was Simon wearing a skirt?“, “why?” and the ultimate doozy “well, what does [my wife] think?“. As I tried going to sleep last night, Captain Paranoia struck back. “See – I told you it was weird. You’re going to be the laughing stock of the family now. If I were you, I’d give up now while you still have some dignity left.”

I will admit I did feel a little delayed embarrassment, but that was just the Captain preparing the ring for battle. Seconds out… Round two!

Let’s look at the evidence. All of those questions were perfectly valid and there was no hint of malice within them. After all, she’s in her 80’s, not very net-savvy (if at all), and I’m likely the first man she’s seen in a skirt this far south of Scotland. She was being curious, and nothing more. She’d have gotten more comprehensive answers had she asked me those questions rather than my in-laws, but what can you do? However, by asking that final question, I don’t believe she knows just how awesome her granddaughter is.

But “why“? Beyond comfort and temperature control, was there a deeper reason? That was the worst question I could ask myself at that time of the night, but it was worth thinking about.

I suppose, at a very low level, I’m quite open-minded and curious – I’m not complacent with the knowledge I have and there’s always room for more. I read a lot of information on-line, I ask a lot of questions, I research the answers, and I draw my own conclusions. When I asked the question “why are men allowed to wear skirts in some countries but not in England?”, the top-level answer was obviously going to be “but we can – it’s not against the law”. That then leads to the question “well, if it’s not against the law, why don’t we?”, and the first answer to that is either “because we don’t” or “because nobody else does”.

I love those sorts of questions – the one’s that don’t tend to get asked out of pure complacency and acceptance. If you look at the historical evidence, men in England did indeed wear skirted garments in previous generations, but with the advent of the industrial age, trousers became the more practical option. As generations passed, trousers became the de facto standard for men, and the reasons behind their dominance steadily faded from memory. So what’s stopping us from re-thinking the concept of a men’s skirt in the information age? Well… nothing!

One of the obstacles in the way is, I believe, pessimism. When you have a decision to make, and you weigh up the pros-and-cons, do you start by listing the pros or the cons? Do you give a con a heavier weighting than a pro? I was certainly guilty of both of those things, and the Captain is still trying to keep me doing so, but you lose sight of the positive aspects.

For me, they are more practical and comfortable because they fit me better, they provide better ventilation in warm weather, and allow greater freedom of movement (which you need when picking up after a four year-old). It’s a boost to my confidence and self-esteem because it forces me to re-think the neurotic thoughts that remain in my head, allowing me to come further out of my shell. It makes an interesting alternative and, as such, is much more fun. And yes, I also believe they can look good – it’s all down to how you feel.

Besides, I’d already put so much thought into the matter, it would be a waste of energy not to. Can’t you tell? I’ve just written a four-paragraph answer to the question that would still be answered if I’d skipped the first three. So much for not over-thinking things!

But one thing’s for certain: you won’t win this round either, Captain.

Simon 1 – 0 Captain Paranoia

There is a follow-on story to the one I posted earlier this week. Late last Sunday, long after I’d shut down any attempts at going out-and-about in a kilt, my wife made a suggestion. She said I may be better-served by going for a skirt designed for women. Same purpose, just lighter material and no pleats. I will admit, I wasn’t sure.

Fast-forward to mid-week, after I’d disassembled and re-evaluated the problem, and I felt it was worth a try. After a bit of research, I felt the best first-step was with an A-line denim midi-skirt; it would have the same flare as a kilt, the same length and in a unisex fabric.

Four days later, one arrived on my doorstep. When my wife saw it for the first time, she commented that it looked a lot better than my kilts. I must admit, it felt a lot more casual than my kilts – closer to the skirts worn by men in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Besides, it has a zip and a button at the front so, considering it’s not marketed as “unisex”, it’s still rather convenient when nature calls.

With today being Mother’s Day here in the UK, we ventured out to visit my in-laws. They’re very easy-going, and had seen me in my kilts several times last year, so I knew it wouldn’t be an issue. When we arrived, my wife noticed that her nan’s car was parked outside. Just to paint a picture, she’s close to 88 years old, a regular church attendee (and former church warden) and lives in the Tory safe-seat of Sutton Coldfield. Her reaction was, contrary to expectation, minimal. My wife said she gave me a rather odd look, but I hadn’t noticed – I give my kids rather odd looks when they do strange things or spout random nonsense, but it’s just a sign that they’ve got a good imagination.

The only comment came from my four year-old niece, who said I looked “weird” in a skirt. I took that as a compliment – after all, our culture would not be what is is today without the weirdos and oddballs of the past to stir things up.

Where I take victory from this is the fact that I didn’t talk myself out of it at any point – and there were more than a few opportunities to do so. I feel real progress has been made, and a lot sooner than I’d thought. My wife set me a challenge to wear skirts every day when we go away for the weekend in a month’s time – with the penalty of “wimping out” being not going to a local pub that serves delicious rotisserie chicken.

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Declaring War on Captain Paranoia

Even though I spent most of last year trying to reduce my stress and anxiety levels and improve self-esteem and self-confidence, I’ve not really kept up with it during the winter months. For a couple of days this week, the weather has been absolutely terrible so, rather than head into town, I’ve legged it into the car park and sat in my car for an hour. Usually, I plug my earphones in and listen to an album, but today I only sat through one side. For the remainder of the hour, I sat, I thought and I read.

Last Sunday, we were discussing going out as a family to a National Trust property or just somewhere local. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get my kilts back out and carry on where I left off last year. I went upstairs, got dressed, and when I came back down, I asked my wife “does this look all right”. Her response was along the lines of “Well, yeah, but your kilt could do with being ironed and it looks pretty windy out there. You’re going to be very cold.” – I agreed with her instantly.

Now, I recognise it was pure optimism on my part, and sensible realism on my wife’s, but it knocked me down a little – not in a toys-out-of-the-pram way, but because I felt that, by asking her opinion, I was looking for a get-out clause. I was talking myself out of it yet again. I’d always convince myself it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong weather – and when the right time, place and weather came along, I’d find some excuse, however small, to talk myself out of it. 9 times out of 10, it was the fear of embarrassment, ridicule or – in extreme cases – physical harm. It’s something I’ve carried with me since my teenage years when my internal program was instructing me that social inclusion is critical, and embarrassment leads to exclusion… so avoid it at all costs.

One thing I promised myself I’d try to do this year was to fix problems rather than avoid or accept them, and the first step is always to recognise them.

Whilst sitting in the car, I looked for various sources that showed positive experiences and reactions to men wearing skirts and kilts out in public. I actually came across quite a few. One wore them to work for a whole week as part of his normal attire, another was about singer/songwriter Will Young’s experiences, and another showed a video of three other men who took up a similar week-long challenge.

 

In the latter, all 3 felt at first as if everybody’s eyes were fixated on them – but there was one moment in the video that spoke quite loudly. One of them was told by a friend that “nobody cares that you’re wearing a skirt except you“. He was absolutely right! For all my experience last year, I experienced no negative reaction beyond a couple of immature remarks, yet here I was ignoring the facts and focusing on a hypothetical worst-case scenario. It is what Ben Elton dubbed Captain Paranoia.

BenElton
Ben Elton: The left-alignment of this photo was completely intentional.

My next stop was to find ways of dealing with paranoid thoughts. There is a Mental Health charity in the UK called MIND, and their website is a font of useful information. Reading their digital booklet on paranoia highlighted that my thoughts were just that. I was being completely over-sensitive and basing my negative thoughts on emotion rather than evidence and experience.

In addition to talking things through with my wife, I’m going to try practising Mindfulness as a means of focusing on the here-and-now, going with the flow and becoming more self-aware than self-conscious. I also feel this may help with other issues, such as when I beat myself up over mistakes I made back in my teens and early 20’s, believing they still reflect badly on me today.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but I’ll never know unless I try.

Taking the Hiss Out of Ben Elton: Preparing for my first proper cassette deck

It’s no secret that I love listening to music on vinyl, and for my birthday last week, I had no less than 9 LPs to listen to (a tenth is winging its way here from sunny Florida). After watching the various retro audio tech videos on Techmoan’s YouTube channel, I wanted to have the ability to listen to cassettes properly. I’ve had several Walkmans of varying quality in the past, and we’ve got a portable radio/cassette/CD player in the kitchen, but it’s hardly high fidelity.

Pre-recorded cassettes are very inexpensive, and there are rich pickings for a couple of quid including postage. I quite like listening to spoken word and comedy albums, and there are many of which that haven’t been released digitally. Such albums are better suited to cassette than vinyl.

On eBay last week, I found a Technics RS-BX 501 cassette deck on sale for just £30 – not fully working but only needed a replacement capstan belt. It’s a 20-25 year-old deck so it’s fair to say the rubber belt has hardened and perished over time, but you can still get compatible replacements for just a few quid. I had a look at the service manual and, while it does appear to be a bit fiddly, the process does seem fairly straight-forward. I’ve never repaired or restored any electrical or mechanical items before, so that’ll be another tick in the box for me.

It appears to be quite a decent deck, compatible with Ferro, Chrome and Metal cassettes, and supports Dolby B, C and HX-Pro. Looks in good condition too – a few scuffs and marks at the back, but the front looks pristine.

My cassette collection at present numbers just 8 – most of them I bought despite my inability to play them – so have been on eBay to add a few more titles to my collection. One of those I’m looking forward to hearing is Motormouth by Ben Elton, his first stand-up album collating some of his best routines from the early 80’s. I’ve already got his second album, Motorvation, on cassette so I had to made sure the collection was complete – and a couple of quid for an hour’s worth of comedy wasn’t to be sniffed at.

I know he gets a lot of criticism today due to his politics and principles, but I hardly think that’s fair at all: how he manages his life and his career is his own business. When you listen to his routines, there’s as much observational humour as there is political – if not more – and it’s not all stuck in the Thatcher-era. If you hunt around on YouTube, you might be able to find some old episodes of The Man from Auntie – his early-90’s stand-up show broadcast on the BBC – and you’d be surprised at how much of it is still relevant. You still can’t get a cup of coffee on a train that’s worth drinking, we’re still haunted by our own personal “Captain Paranoia”, nobody takes the blindest bit of notice of The Clothes Show, and the government is still made up of anachronistic toffs who think Downton Abbey is utopian drama.

Ooh err, bit of politics. Right on.

UPDATE: Disappointingly, the cassette deck I received was a dud. The capstan belt was perfectly fine and was driving the capstans as expected, but the poor playback was due to the pinch rollers being so old and covered in oxide that they wouldn’t rotate smoothly and freely, not even after cleaning and lubricating. In fact, the whole area around the tape heads looked rather dirty/rusty, and I couldn’t find any spares online. It’s being returned to the seller so should get a refund soon. It’s a bit of a hassle, but we live and learn. I’ve since ordered another deck – not the same one, but this one is at least fully tested and working – so I’ll just have to wait a bit longer to listen to Ben Elton!

Bowie or Barlow: Dealing with Ennui

This time last year, when I really started assessing who I was and what I wanted, it felt as if I was undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis at the age of 37. At the time, my job security was uncertain and was having to deal with a lot of extra pressure. I’ve not been writing much here in the past couple of weeks because that’s all coming back.

While I was spared from the cull, the role I moved into was not what I was expecting and, with my current objectives, I could do with having an extra brain and an extra pair of hands. I had a pre-assessment for an internal position in the Procurement department last week, which I think went pretty well, and I should know some time next week if I’ve made it through to the face-to-face interviews. A change of scenery and a fresh set of challenges and experiences would be good for me right now, so if I am invited for an interview, I want to put everything I can into it. (I was invited for an interview, but taking recent events into consideration, I felt moving roles at this time would not be a wise decision and so withdrew my application)

With the weather starting to warm up, I’m also looking forward to getting out of this winter slump. I’ve been in jeans most of the winter and I don’t find them all that comfortable, especially when you’re active. I feel so much more comfortable in looser clothing, so I’m looking forward to getting my kilts out once more.

I watched this video on LaylahTalks earlier this morning about blocking out negativity, and it did give me some food for thought. I recognise that there are still some things I over-think to extremes, particularly when they don’t conform to majority opinion, but once I actually go and do it they don’t turn out anywhere near as bad as I think. It just needs a little confidence and a bit of a reality check: I’m lucky to have the support I need.

It boils down to this question: Would you rather be a David Bowie or a Gary Barlow? Both are, without argument, successful musicians but the big difference being that Bowie was always breaking through the boundaries Barlow wouldn’t cross. Almost everything about him was chameleonic, yet always one step ahead of everybody else. He didn’t follow, he inspired. 

Let’s just say that, in my record collection, it’s Bowie 6 – 0 Barlow.

 

11 days in, and I’ve not broken any of my resolutions yet!

We’re only 11 days into the New Year, and some of the promises I made to myself have managed to survive this long. Any New Year’s Resolutions I make tend to get abandoned around dinner-time on January 1st.

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The first thing I managed to do was open up my laptop. It’s not a professional laptop so it doesn’t have those convenient panels at the bottom for accessing the RAM and Hard Disk – I had to completely unscrew the back plate and pry it off with a small screwdriver. I was no stranger to working on my old desktop computer, effectively building it from scratch, but as laptops were a whole new experience, I was a little apprehensive about making a complete cock-up of it. It took a little effort, but I managed to pry the back off and found out how the Hard Drive was connected and how many empty RAM slots I had.

As both my wife’s and my son’s laptops are similar, I now feel confident in opening them up to install replacement or upgraded parts if any of their user-replaceable parts fail. I’m just hoping my son doesn’t learn what a Solid State Drive (SSD) can do. He’ll want one just to eek out an extra few minutes playing Roblox!

20160806_151247After more than a few beers over the Christmas holiday, I’ve managed to remain tee-total from Monday to Thursday. Even on days when work has been a bit of a struggle, I’ve refrained from popping into the supermarket to get a bottle of ale to go alongside my evening meal – those occasional “nightmare day at work” or “I haven’t tried that one” beers all add up. Even on weekends when I allow myself a few beers, I’m trying to keep myself distracted so a weekend’s worth isn’t gone by Friday night: binge-watching Blackadder seems to be working at the moment! I was never one for going out at the weekends and, I’ve got to admit, I still prefer it this way: No hassle, no expense, and less noise!

There are still some things on the list I’d like to tick off, stuff I’d like to do for the first time, and stuff that will benefit my mental state in the long-term – but I won’t mention what they are until I’ve actually done them.

That would be jinxing it!

Mahler and Me: Triggering Transformation

It’s funny how something as seemingly-unimportant as a piece of music can cause such an upheaval in one’s life.

gustav-mahler-kohutYesterday, I bought a copy of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from a local charity shop, a 1987 recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), then under the direction of Simon Rattle. I used to have it as part of a CD box set, but I got rid of it. I can’t really explain why, but I found having all 10 of Mahler’s Symphonies in one set was a bit overwhelming. Hunting down and spending time with each one individually works much better.

I’ve loved this piece of music ever since I first heard it – it normally takes a symphony 4-5 times to work its magic on me, but Mahler’s 2nd slapped me in the face with its brilliance. When I listened to the final five minutes earlier this morning, I felt as if I wanted to burst out into tears. I’d never felt that way before about this music – why now?

My mind was cast back to the last time I played it in full: It was the day I learned that my paternal grandmother had died. That was just over 3 years ago. To save writing reams of family history, my parents split up when I was 8 years old and, after that, family relations got a little icy – especially towards my dad’s side of the family – so any contact I had with them was minimal. I used to visit my nan from time-to-time as I studied at Dudley College and she lived about 15 minutes walk away, a stone’s throw away from where comedian Lenny Henry grew up. I could tell back then she was showing signs of Alzheimers. When I started university and taking part-time jobs, I saw her less and less – within a few years, her memory had degenerated so far that she was moved to a local care home.

I never went to visit her at the home. When I heard she’d passed away, I felt guilty for not paying her a visit or showing her her new great-grandchildren, and for letting family politics get in the way of seeing her more before the dementia set in deeply. At the same time, I was glad I never saw her at her worst – I had some very fond memories of her, and they remain untainted. If I did go to see her at the home, she wouldn’t have recognise me: I’d heard from other family members that, in her mind, I was still a young child.

That lunchtime, I felt I needed to play Mahler 2. I don’t know why – I was just drawn to it.

It spoke to me.

That’s when the transformation began.

My then-regular church life fell apart as I tried to comprehend and validate it all. I’ve already written about that part of the story. Last year, my mental health worsened and I was signed-off for a few months with anxiety and depression, at which point I took one-on-one counselling with cognitive behavioural therapy to help improve my mood, cope with all the pressure I was under, and deal with my almost non-existent self-esteem. Earlier this year, when I was at risk of losing my job, I knew I needed to change who I was. Not so much ‘change’, but scrape away the ugly parasites clinging on to my true self. I’ve already written about that part of the story too.

But what has Malher got to do with this? Looking back at it now, the words in the final choral movement of his second symphony are quite profound:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

The music in the final five minutes of the piece is, without question, the most perfect finale I have ever heard. When I hear it, I picture music so powerful it will open the pearly gates themselves, revealing the glory of Heaven to the mortal world.

The symphony represents the finality of an old life, and the powerful creation of the new, condensed into 80 minutes of music.

The symphony represents my new life.

Critics, Trolls and Keith Emerson: The Negativity Must End

mag_005The first few months of 2016 have been quite brutal. In just two-and-a-bit months, we’ve lost David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Glenn Frey, George Gaynes (yes, I like the Police Academy movies – even the later ones) and now, sadly, Keith Emerson.

When I got the news, before all the details were known, I was quite shocked – he always looked quite fit and healthy even into his 70’s. A day later, when all the details were revealed, I was both devastated and concerned: devastated at the tragic end to a musician I’ve admired since my late teens, but also very concerned about at what drove him to it.

In case you haven’t read the news, Keith’s ability to play the keyboards was hampered by a number of operations on his arm, resulting in increasing pain and discomfort. He’d got performances in Japan on the horizon, and another keyboard player was brought in to help him out, but he was very worried these injuries would result in poor performances and disappointed fans. I can certainly see how that would upset a man like Keith – he’d been one of the premier rock keyboardists for the best part of 50 years, and still had a legion of adoring fans who loved to hear him play. From what I’ve read about him over the years, he was always very passionate about his craft, and to have that almost taken away from you would really knock you down.

What concerned me was this revelation from his girlfriend, Mari:

“He read all the criticism online and was a sensitive soul. Last year he played concerts and people posted mean comments such as ‘I wish he would stop playing’.” — Mari Kawaguchi

mag_041I’m a huge advocate of our right to freedom of speech, but while we have the freedom to express our opinions and dissent, it doesn’t automatically infer that we can say what we want, when we want and to whom without consequence. In today’s culture, it appears we’re all quick to complain but never to compliment, and although a thick skin is beneficial to work as a musician, it is by no means essential and it shouldn’t be assumed that every public figure can take whatever is thrown at them. The internet has enabled many great things, but it shows its dark side by enabling the posting of malicious criticism anonymously and in a public forum. Through social media, such bile can even be sent direct to those it’s aimed at. I know ELP has been the butt of many jokes and suffered much ridicule at the hands of a music press who just loved to hate anything they deem pretentious or intellectual – but there is a big difference here. Deriding Keith’s music just because you don’t like it can be brushed off – we all have different tastes – but deriding the man himself in public is almost like deriding him to his face; when he has done nothing personally against you, I don’t think it’s called for.

If you must critique somebody or their work, I believe there are only two tones-of-voice you should use: positive and constructive. Musicians and their artistic works are not products with a single purpose like a a toaster or kettle – they depend on personal interpretation; if you can’t find even the slightest thing positive to say, it does not mean that the musician or their work has no merit or value – it just means that you are not best-qualified to review it. A while ago, back when I wrote a few articles for Make Your Own Taste, it was on the understanding that the overall tone would be positive. We received many review submissions from independent artists, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to hamper their potential, or give them a hard lesson in resilience, by giving bad reviews. If we didn’t review a submission, it didn’t necessarily mean we didn’t like it or thought badly of it – sometimes, we just couldn’t find the right words to say.

To all the trolls out there who seem hell-bent on spreading their malice throughout the web, I hope this highlights the potential consequences of such actions.

To all the critics, be careful – you never know when you might be kicking a man when he’s down.

To everyone else, let’s try and make the Internet a more positive place. As I’ve said above, social media has made it easy to send criticism directly to artists and musicians, but the same media can be used to send compliments. If you’re on Twitter and follow some of your favourite musicians, why not compose a tweet saying what it is that about them or their music that you admire – make sure you @mention them too.

It’s time to drown out all the negativity.