All posts by Ruth

Autism, me, and How I Met Your Mother

It’s been a bit of an odd couple of months, for me. You’ll remember, perhaps, that a few years ago I was blogging about autism, and how I think I may be autistic. I still think that, though I still don’t see what benefit a formal diagnosis would offer me. The more I look back on the first 42 years of my life, the more incidents and occasions I remember, which would seem to support this theory.

At the end of August, I had a bit of a dental crisis. Not a massive one – I’ve had toothache, in the past, that made me want to remove my own head with a machete, and it wasn’t that bad. But I was in pain, and I spent a week on antibiotics, at the end of which, I had the tooth removed, leading to another few days of discomfort, and general feeling sorry for myself.

In that time, I was looking for ways to console myself, and on two separate occasions, I spent a whole day on the sofa in my pyjamas, watching Netflix. Specifically, since I was looking for gentle, comforting TV, watching the American sit-com, How I Met Your Mother.

I think I’d watched the first four or five episodes previously, one at a time, months earlier. I wasn’t particularly into it, it was just an easy way to fill twenty-two minutes. What I found, now, though, was that I was feeling stressed, and in need of comfort and reassurance, and I developed an autistic obsession with HIMYM that was more intense that anything I’ve experienced in recent times.

I watched it constantly. There are nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother, and I covered them all in less than three weeks. My HIMYM peak was August bank holiday Monday, when I watched thirty episodes in one day – roughly ten hours, give or take. On other days, my real life intervened to prevent such levels of commitment, but mostly I resented it. All I was interested in doing was watching How I Met You Mother. I dreamed about the characters, I thought about them more than I thought of any of my real-life family and friends. I was the silent, sixth member of the gang, taking my seat at the booth in MacLaren’s bar.

The thing is, I’m not an idiot. I knew this was a level of obsession way beyond anything a normal person would indulge in. And whilst I was loving the show, and wanting to spend all my time immersed in it, I was also a little ambivalent about the experience. It’s possible to love something with all your heart, but feel completely trapped by it at the same time. And I was trapped. I wanted to be able to think about other things, to do other things, with real people, without feeling permanently distracted by the current plight of Ted or Barney.

To some extent, I chose to dive into the deepest part of the obsession, with a view to ploughing through it as quickly as possible. If I spent two weeks doing nothing else, I could get to the end of season nine, and hopefully, come up for air once it was over, and I knew how it ended. So that’s what I did – I forged ahead, until one memorable Saturday morning, when I watched the season finale, and like a punch to the gut, it was over.

I was devastated, and it’s very hard to say why.

Certainly, the season finale was an emotional one, and in fact, quite difficult to take. It did not resolve the loose ends in quite the way I was hoping, and being so emotionally involved with the characters, I sobbed bitterly over the fates of Ted and Barney. I am assured by friends who have watched it since, that it’s really not that sad. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you, I cried for most of Saturday, and couldn’t really talk about it without filling up, until about Tuesday, three days later.

I suspect that part of my strong emotional reaction was to a sense of loss. HIMYM had been my waking and sleeping companions for weeks, and once the last episode had passed, I had to accept never seeing them again – or at least, never seeing them do anything new again. I could, of course, go back to the beginning, which I did, immediately, but rewatching something is a different experience to seeing it for the first time. I would never again see a new episode. I would only be able to relive what had gone before, like flicking through a photo album after someone has died.

Do I sound too dramatic? I don’t think I’m exaggerating. That’s really how I felt.

I’m now in a position to tell you how the life-cycle of an obsession like this works out – for me, at least. I watched the whole thing in three weeks, with little space in my head for anything else. Then I started to watch it again, more slowly – perhaps only devoting a couple of hours a day, on a quiet day, and less, if I had other things to do. A little way into my first rewatch, though, I had a number of Thoughts, regarding the character of Barney, and how he developed during the nine seasons. So I opened up a document in Google Docs, and started to write down some of those thoughts.

Reader, I have written 16,000 on character development in How I Met Your Mother. It’s not wildly academic, insofar as I haven’t written an academic essay of this type since I finished my MA Dissertation in 2003, and in any case, why would anyone bother with proper referencing if no-one was ever going to mark it? But yes, phase two of obsession starts with a few paragraphs of Thoughts, and turns into a dissertation-length treatise. At least I was watching less, huh?

It’s currently early November, and I’m up to my third rewatch. This time is much slower, though. It’s much more like sliding in a warm bath at the end of the day. I watch an episode, maybe two (they are only 22 minutes long, after all), then move on to something else, quite voluntarily – not because I’m forcing myself away. And this is the third phase. I’ve absorbed all there is to absorb, I’ve expressed all that I’ve got to express, and now it slips back into a core part of my being, with all the other things I once loved passionately, and will always hold in great affection. The Chalet School books, Summer Holiday, When Harry Met Sally, The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother.

Apparently, an obsessive, immersive relationship with fiction is one of the ways in which autism in women and girls presents itself differently to autism in men and boys. The depth of my obsession might have been less, if I hadn’t spent all that time feeling sorry for myself over dentistry, and if my lifestyle didn’t give me so much freedom to drop everything and live in a fantasy for three weeks. I’m not sure I would have spent any less time on it, mind – it just would have taken longer to work itself out. In the end, I chose deep and fast over long and drawn out.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting time.

Anyone want to read a 16,000 word essay about how Barney is better than Ted?

Barney – the true hero of How I Met Your Mother

And another thing

And another thing – all day, the news people have been referring the Tories’ manifesto pledge to double the entitlement to “free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds” from 15 hours a week to 30. Just a cotton-picking minute, there – “free childcare”? I thought “free early-years education” was what was available to 3 and 4 year olds? I thought it was about the children – about development, and school readiness, and a stack of child-centred things which I don’t actually agree with, in the main, but they at least represent an attempt at doing the right thing by the child. I’m pretty sure most nursery teachers would be extremely hostile to idea that what they are providing is “childcare”.

Childcare is not about what is developmentally necessary or appropriate to children. It is about keeping them safe while their parents do something else. And, by some bizarre and unlikely coincidence, the amount of time offered coincides exactly with the amount time the Department for Work and Pensions would like to oblige all parents to be out working, before they can qualify from such poverty-busting interventions as Working Tax Credit.

I’m old school. I believe that children need parents. They don’t need quality affordable childcare, they need parents who aren’t too stressed by work and money and so on, to be able to spend a bit of their own time with their own children. That’s all.

Ranty McRanterson

The election is making me ranty. Today, the Tories announced their manifesto, the most newsworthy bit of which is about extending Right to Buy – from tenants in council-owned properties, to those in Housing Association-owned properties.

Now, the ways in which is this is stupid, badly thought through, unworkable, and probably illegal, are many and varied. Allow me to summarize:

  1. I’m not sure the Tories have a very clear idea of just what a Housing Association is. They are independent businesses. Social businesses, sure, not-for-profit organisations, but that doesn’t mean they’re allowed to make a loss, and since they are not owned or controlled by either the local councils, nor central government, it seems very odd to make an announcement like this which will essentially put them in a position of being legally obliged to sell their assets at a loss. Because,
  2. Right to Buy, as I understand it, entitles tenants who have lived in one property for five years or more to choose to purchase that property at 2/3 of its market value. Now, if a housing association happened to receive that property for nothing, or as near to nothing as makes no odds, in an asset handover from the local council, one could argue that they have made a significant profit, even if they’ve spent some money on maintenance or renovation in between times. But if they built that house themselves, having borrowed money to do so, on the assumption that it would represent an income-generating asset for the foreseeable future, then they run the risk of making a significant loss. Whether that loss is enough to send them bust is entirely dependent on the balance of their property portfolio – whether the tenants who want to buy happen to be living in properties that won’t make a loss if sold, in enough numbers. No-one saw this announcement coming, so no housing association is going to have a contingency for it. There are no reserves funds sitting in the bank, to insulate against this eventuality. They will just go under.
  3. The idiocy of declaring that the shortfall will be made up by councils selling their “more expensive” council houses and passing the money to housing associations, rather beggars belief. My council owns no houses. None. They passed them ALL to a housing association, years ago, and therefore have nothing to sell, expensive or otherwise. Even if they did have some, the chances of them being anything other than the cheapest properties, in the worst states of repair, in the dodgiest neighbourhood, are slim in the extreme. Unless your council happens to be Westminster, I suppose.
  4. Since this sets a precedent for central government placing a legal obligation on private organisations to sell their property assets at a loss, if I were a private landlord, of any scale, I would be looking distinctly anxiously at this development. Because, what is to stop them subsequently applying the same rules to me? My tenants have the right to buy my house, and at a price I wouldn’t normally accept, but I have no choice. That sounds ludicrously unlikely, on the one hand, but on the other, what’s the difference? My desire to make profit? Isn’t a tenant just a tenant, irrespective of the landlord’s business model?
  5. And finally, what is to become of social housing in the UK? There is already a massive shortage of decent, affordable rental properties in many parts of the country, which is largely attributed to the policy decision NOT to spend any money brought in through Right to Buy on replacement housing stock. Which is the obvious thing to do. By consistently diminishing the available stock of social housing, we have made a general housing shortage, which has brought private landlords in a lucratively desperate marketplace, where rents can soar to meet insatiable demand. When rent is high, property value also goes up – since even expensive property stands a good chance of being profitable – which then means that even owner-occupiers are affected by the sale of council houses they may never have used. But since Thatcher’s government was essentially driven by an ideological desire to get the state out of housing altogether, one can only assume that the extraordinary housing bubble that has characterised most of the last 30 years, was the point. If you own property, you win. If you want to buy property (and that includes up-shifting for the extra bedroom/big garden/better school catchment area, which is proportionally more expensive, and therefore out of reach of your fairly ordinary salary), you lose. It’s the Haves pulling the ladder up behind them, against the Have Nots. Unless you’re one of the lucky few Have Nots who are in social housing, because you can get a house for 35% off, for no apparent reason.

The thing is, I’m not necessarily against Right to Buy, as a principle. I believe in wealth equality, and the idea of putting a system in place that could, within a generation or so, give almost everyone the option of owning their own home, seems, as even David Cameron said today, an ultimately democratic redistribution of wealth. But only if you treat it as a policy for a generation – not a one-off sale of the family silver (and how overused that phrase was of Thatcher’s government), but an on-going philosophy of investing in new, affordable homes, for people to rent, or rent with a view to later buying. If you take the money you make, and use it to build new houses. If you are prepared to invest some actual government money into making up the shortfall, so you can continue to maintain social housing stock at a certain level. If you regard the job of government to make the world fairer, more even, to spend a little in order to reduce the inequality, and actually lift people out of poverty. Imagine a world where everyone who wants a house can have one. Imagine a world where no-one lives in low-quality rented housing because it’s the best they can manage, but where only people who have actively chosen the convenience of renting (of calling the landlord when things break, or of being able to move around frequently) are doing so. Not everyone wants to own their own home, but the basic security of doing so should be available to anyone, surely?

If you replace the sold social housing, then the private rental market doesn’t explode. The former council houses don’t end up in the hands of private landlords, because the market is so much less buoyant. No-one pays over the odds to live in a house, if they can still get the identical one next door for a reasonable rent. Private landlords have to up their game in terms of housing quality and customer service, if social landlords are in the marketplace, offering more for less. The housing market is ripe, nay, desperate, for disruption, and social housing is the way to do it. Offer the right to buy, by all means, but invest in making the scheme sustainable – don’t just sell all the houses until they’re gone.

Writing Writers

They say you should write about what you know, which always makes me wonder how writers of historical fiction ever so much as get started. With the best research in the world, understanding what it was truly like to live in, say, Roman Britain, or 5th century China, is, at best, an exercise in convincing guess-work. Maybe historical fiction attracts those authors largely because no-one alive can refute their interpretation – their best guess as to what it was truly like, is as good as anyone else’s.

Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books
Joey Bettany, protagonist of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books

Today, I was struck by the frequency with which protagonists of certain types of fiction – particularly fiction aimed at girls, I suppose, that being what I’ve been reading – are carefully guided by the author into becoming writers of fiction aimed at girls. It is true in Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, where the lead character, Joey, goes from being an unpolished but clearly innately talented writer of fairy tales, to being a producer of schoolgirl fiction almost as prolific as Brent-Dyer herself (but not quite – I imagine it took her all of her time to come up with a title and plot summary for 58 real Chalet School books, without producing a similar number of pretend ones). In Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, it is the similarly-named Jo who validates the author’s life choices with her writing. Indeed, there is a clear and barely disguised influence of Alcott’s lead character over Brent-Dyer’s, right down to the choice of name. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, and I find a similar pattern. Anne is a flighty and overly imaginative child, likeable, but widely considered to be in need of containment by the other characters. As she ages, she becomes a girl who writes rather than play-acts, and into adulthood she becomes a published author in various small-scale magazines, gaining increasing acclaim for her (short) stories. So far, I am half-way through Anne’s House of Dreams, and she has yet to produce anything in the way of a full-length novel, and has just rejected a potentially interesting writing project as being unsuitable to her talents, offering it up instead to a male writer who wanders her way, and who is seeking to produce “a great Canadian novel”.

Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.
Anne Shirley, of Green Gables fame, L M Montgomery.

Now, I’m not here to pick holes in the gender stereotyping that is rife in a book written over a hundred years ago, and seeking to depict the slightly old-fashioned life of a rural, colonial community, even then. Obviously, the expectations held in those books are going to jar somewhat with my modern, sophisticated(!) 21st century reading. Mostly, I am fascinated by the apparent need for women authors to validate their own choices through the similar choices of their lead, and generally clearly favourite, characters.

Is it simply an act of self-reassurance? Are they shouting, “Look! Anne is a lovely girl, and she writes stories! And I write stories, so I can surely be lovely, too?” Are they seeking to declare that their writing is a valid activity, a reasonable choice, not an act of selfish conceit in the face of real, more womanly responsibilities? Joey Bettany continues, rather implausibly, to rattle out book after book, whilst apparently producing and adequately caring for no less than eleven children. Anne Shirley, on the other hand, spends much of her life thus far being too busy to write – too busy studying, too busy teaching, too busy keeping house for her new husband, and she spends a lot of time looking for burnaby condos for sale online. She fits it in to summer her Twiddy obx rentals vacations, and winter evenings, and doesn’t seem to fit it in at all once she is married, although her husband seems broadly encouraging. The only time that Joey is censured by the author for her writing, it is because she has become consumed by it. Clearly, Brent-Dyer saw this a serious risk. When Joey locks herself away for weeks on end, trying to produce her first full-length novel, she is described as risking her health by her inattention to the basics of food, sleep, exercise, and social interaction, and the book she produces is dismissed as being unspeakably, unsalvageably bad, to the point that she realises her mistake, and burns the manuscript.

Anne, insofar as I can say, having only read half of the series, avoids this mistake, by always allowing her domestic responsibilities to override her desire to write. So she teaches, she helps Marilla with the twins, she cooks, cleans, sews, gardens, and has no time left over for the self-indulgence of writing.

These are the protagonists of fiction for girls. They are role models. What are they trying to say to me? That all the best people write novels, as long as they are careful not to court criticism, by failing to be all the things that nice girls should be, as well? First, even? That my role as a woman is to be there for everyone else, just as women have always been expected to be, but to somehow prove myself to the the world by also doing this extra thing?

Writing is a pretty self-indulgent activity. It involves sitting quietly, preferably, as pointed out by Virginia Woolf, in a room of one’s own, with a door that doesn’t get people banging on it for one’s attention. It requires taking oneself away from the places where one can be called upon to support everyone else. It is an absenting of oneself. And that’s really, really hard. It’s hard to justify, in a 19th century culture that views women as the oil that greases the household. If you are brought up to see your job as being to facilitate, to support, to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, the act of locking yourself away from all those needs and demands might appear like the ultimate selfishness. It might seem morally bankrupt, to actually choose to make yourself unavailable.

The thing is, even now, when we all believe that women are equal to men (in theory, at least, if not always entirely in practice), look around the women you know, the ones with children, or other caring responsibilities, or jobs, and ask yourself how many of them carve out regular time to do something that makes them unavailable to those people. It’s terribly, terribly hard. All that the alleged liberation of feminism has brought many modern women, is an even longer list of things to do. Now we work AND take on most of the childcare. Change is slow in coming, and for as long as stay-at-home-dads remain the exception, and ultimate responsibility for housework remains, in most houses, the woman’s, there is no hope of what amounts to additional leisure time. Women’s lib has only liberated us to do more than ever. There are no areas in which we are free to give roles up.

Of course, what is statistically true is not universally true. I am one of the lucky ones, in some ways. I have a thoughtful, considerate husband, who works from home, and is therefore both willing and able to take on a larger domestic role. His sheer presence has increased his parenting role with the children, and he watches me flounder with the housework, and is perfectly willing to take on jobs that will, hopefully, take the pressure off me. He wants me to have time and space to write, if writing is what I want the time and space to do. That I consider it a self-indulgent triviality, that should be fitted in after I have adequately cleaned, and cooked, and educated, or not at all, is not really his fault.
The thing is, I strongly suspect that in order to do anything really well, in this world, it has to be your priority. If writing doesn’t come first, then I will never be a first rate writer. If music doesn’t come first, I will never be a first-rate musician. If I don’t practice, refine, hone my craft, if I don’t put in my 10,000 hours, as per Malcolm Gladwell, how will I ever get good enough to succeed, by whatever terms we choose to define success (a discussion for another day, I suspect, since this is becoming untenably long already – see how much I could benefit from refining my craft?!).

I would like to write more. I would like to develop the subtle talent for creating whole worlds, people, situations that chime with the reader, that seem magical and fantastic, but no less plausible for that. I would like to somehow recapture the creativity of a childhood that never struggled to pretend, to create alternative realities, but be back in time for tea. Nothing makes me want to write more than the act of reading what others have written. If only I could do that. If only I could put you inside a special, secret world that was just ours. If only I had that power. I would love that.

But the only way to get good at writing is to write. So I intend to write. More often. More regularly. More thoughtfully.

We’ll see whether it lasts.