Man of the House

I’ll start up the treadmill in the morning. Short man with paunch and baggy eyes and bed hair. And as the belt goes round, making that whining sound, I’ll think, here we go again, just a hamster on a wheel, going from meal to fucking meal. At least, that’s how it feels some days. I turned 44 last week.

But ten minutes later, a different story. This time the machine’s the only one whining. Short man is running now and snapping his fingers, elbows chopping at his sides. Singing even, in that awful headphones way. “Take me high-er!” I’m not a hamster on a wheel, I’m a hamster on a high.

My-Treadmill-1

I joke about my treadmill the way people with treadmills do. That it’s my dust-gathering experiment. My dreadmill. But it isn’t. When we moved house earlier this year, there was nowhere to put it. The yard was sloped, there wasn’t a room that would work. So I had a deck built especially at the back of the house. And when the contractor took his sweet time, I was like, fucksake Miguel, you said Wednesday! I was an asshole. But that’s how I get without my treadmill.

It’s probably just the cardio, the endorphins or whatever. I’m one of those people, if I don’t run and sweat from time to time, I end up in the hole again, shovel in hand.

But there’s something else that happens when I run: Epic flights of nostalgia. I grow young again and hopeful. Life is a garden of possibilities. My snowglobe is all shook up, and suddenly it’s raining snapshots from my past, some recent, some old, and some that never happened at all. But I don’t care. A rainbow of positivity has wiped away that bitter residue that accrues and I’m no longer the sum of my defeats. All my wrong turns were character building. So that project I can’t finish, I can finish it. That idea I never pursued, I can finish that too. The future doesn’t loom, it beckons, and I’ll get there one day, I know I will.

There’s nothing quite like running on the spot when you feel like your life’s going nowhere.

There was a cartoon when I was growing up called Mr Benn, in which a bowler-hatted Englishman would go to a costume shop, try on a toga, say, and, just like that, he’d be transported to ancient Rome. Didn’t have to be a toga, but you get the idea. And at the end, he’d always return to the changing room, back to his bowler hat life, with a little memento from his adventures. My treadmill’s a bit like that. It’s as though I’m thrown back to my youth, and I come back with a piece, a little gift shop souvenir of blind self-belief.

Mr-Benn-in-the-costume-shop

It reminds me of a thing from therapy. Yes I did therapy, it’s no secret. I never thought I’d be that guy, but then I never thought I’d have a treadmill either. I thought buying a treadmill would make me “so LA” and there was nothing worse than that. But things change. You get beat up a bit. The torments of adulthood, the plunging finances, the failure. First you flail in this country and then the next. And then the next for that matter. And you think, fucksake, I’m too old for this shit. Then you get those days of oh lord what have I done and where is the exit, so you get a therapist, some guy on the westside, who has all this good advice. Get a dog, he says. Try jogging. Remember to eat. Set a schedule. That kind of thing.

Anyway, he swore by this technique called bilateral stimulation. He would wave a baton like a windscreen wiper, and tell me to keep my eye on it like those stage hypnotists who say “you are feeling sleepy”. Except you don’t feel sleepy at all. When you stimulate the left and right sides of the brain in a rhythmic fashion, something loosens and all these feelings flood out. People cry sometimes, just burst into tears without knowing why. I went the other way – I laughed. It was embarrassing because there was nothing to laugh about other than a man waving a baton, which is kind of funny, but not really. And then I laughed because I was embarrassed. It was like those times at school when the teacher scolds you for giggling, but you can’t help yourself, and the more you laugh, the funnier it gets.

Those sessions made me feel like there was all this laughter in me the whole time, just sitting dormant on a shelf while I scowled and raged. It just needed to be unlocked somehow. A guy with a baton could do it. But it didn’t have to be a baton. Some weeks he’d have me holding electric grips in both hands that would vibrate alternately, left then right then left. The effect was the same. And he’d say – this is why you should walk or run. It’s not just the cardio, running is bilateral stimulation too, it’s one of the most primal forms.

Home-Dancefloor-2

The music is critical, of course. Nothing dredges up the nostalgia like a good tune. Not that I was thinking that way when I first started making my playlists. I chose house music, well, because I like it, no secret there, and because the tempo is optimal, the lyrics motivational etc – all these rational, boring reasons. The nostalgia came as an extra. But house is extraordinary that way – it’s so derivative and formulaic that every riff, every drop, every piano chord is familiar. All the old circuits light up again. The old triggers are triggered. I’ll listen to a newish tune like “Never Say Never” by Basement Jaxx, and it’ll send me back twenty years.

A lot of guys scoff at house. They call it trivial, commercial, repetitive. It’s for girls and gays, they say. It’s hair salon music. I don’t argue. But these men don’t dance, that’s their trouble. And I do. Or I did at one time. And I was good at it – or at least I thought I was, which is what counts. Short man didn’t care what he looked like out there. He tore it up. He thought Sister Sledge was singing about him.

And that’s where house takes me – back to a state of dancefloor rapture in my twenties. It’s me and my water bottle, in a swirl of lights. A pinnacle moment of a pinnacle night. I’ve got my hands in the air, everything is love and music. And I’m flying.

Of course most of my twenties were nothing like that. I was socially anxious, sexually frustrated and desperately afraid of being left out. I was an arrested adolescent, unsure of who I was, and how to be in the world. And while I know now that others felt that way too, at the time I thought it was just me. The narcissism of youth. Still trying to shake that off. So club nights were often the loneliest of all. Get the violin out. I’m walking home in the rain here.

But nostalgia tidies that mess up. Doesn’t just crop a bit here and there. It’s more than a spot of retouching. Nostalgia makes the past a Proustian dream that I reconstruct with each visit. House may be my musical Madeleine , but I couldn’t tell you where it takes me exactly. That pinnacle moment of a pinnacle night – I don’t know where I am or who I’m with. It’s generic. It’s shutterstock. These aren’t real flashbacks – old songs taking me back to old memories. These are new songs that take me to a dream of the old days. Those snapshots that come up – of a club in Miami maybe, a field in the west country – they’re subsumed into a deeper fantasy of youth, one that casts my twenties as not a stumbling period of angst, but instead a golden age of hope and potential.

And maybe it was at times, it’s hard to say for sure. My own memories can’t be trusted here. But I like to think that on my happiest nights in clubland, I could dance with abandon because I was cocooned in the belief, however inchoate and deluded, that the possibilities for me were still endless, and I might yet become any number of wonderful people. For now, fine, I’m a kinetic little ethnic giving it the disco large, but in the years to come, who knows, I might transform into a man of wit and distinction, someone who might be admired and desired. What a feeling, to believe in one’s potential like that. Who wouldn’t run back there if they could?

Perhaps that’s all that’s happening on the treadmill – I’m dreaming about a dream I once had. There’s no there there, and never was. It’s all just vapor and imagination. But the feelings – they’re so real that I can feel them again if I try. All I need to do is run and open that door, and they’ll come flooding out.

I have to share this tune with you. It’s not house, but it’s lovely.

I’m not alone in romanticizing my youth like this. It’s something middle aged people do. And I have a theory as to why – it’s evolution wiring us to forget the pain, the way women get over childbirth. If we recall too vividly the agonies of youth, the Morrissey of it all, the shame and the defeat, then we might lose our resolve to soldier on. And we can’t have that, not now. Because these are the doldrums, the U-Bend years. Our middle ages are the unhappiest of our lives – there was a big piece in the Atlantic recently. Rose-tinted nostalgia is just our natural defense against despair. It’s like Joan Didion said, a story we tell ourselves in order to live.

There have been a few articles lately about the middle aged malaise. Good ones too by proper New Yorker writers. There was a lovely piece on Brainpickings by Maria Popova about Megan Daum’s book, Unspeakable – it talks a lot about how we romanticize our fumbling and clueless youth. I read it and instantly wanted to write this blog. The way Daum describes her twenties is perfect: “the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

And then that Atlantic piece I mentioned, about how our happiness curve is a U, a smiley face, with middle age at the bottom. This is the sag in the sofa. The second chin. We’ve got our families now, the stress of kids and work. If we’ve achieved our goals, they didn’t make us as happy as we hoped, and if we haven’t, well we carry that failure with us. It’s just how life goes apparently. Even apes experience a slump in their middle years.

I’m grateful to the Atlantic. To all these kinds of articles. My middle age has coincided with such an era of compulsory positivity on the internet, that it’s hard to flip open the laptop in the morning. Every day, this torrent of happy platitudes, people just parading their joy and success in your face. They’ve no manners these people. Is there nothing else worth sharing? People like sad songs too you know. I’m comforted by knowing that other people out there are struggling too, that we’re in this together, especially my generation, laboring through our inevitable slump. And one way of alleviating middle aged misery is to read about the middle aged misery of others, especially richer, more successful people with wonderful careers. Yeah I said it. Schadenfreude is better than no freude at all. Of course misery loves company. Everyone loves company.

There is an upside though, to these U-bend years – wisdom. Daum calls it the “consolation prize of aging”. This is when it’s meant to kick in, after all. We have about the best perspective of our pasts and futures as we’re ever likely to have. We have our faculties, our characters have been formed. We see our youthful fantasies for what they were. And we know ourselves by now, which is both a reward and a punishment, but still, on balance…

So I know what to do on those mornings when there’s no right side of the bed. I need to drag myself to that deck Miguel built and set the treadmill to 6.5 like I’m setting the DeLorean in Back to the Future. No distractions, not if I’m serious – hence the towel covering up the treadmill display, and the Bose earbuds, the only brand that doesn’t fall out of my ears.

And as for the playlist, well, I don’t know anyone anymore who likes house the way I do. There’s one guy up in Vegas, but that’s it. So I need to put in the hours and trawl iTunes – search under Hed Kandi, Toolroom, Ministry. Peppy house not dark. No squeaking, bleeping or sawmill grinding. Give me something that soars with predictable drops. Make the hooks hummable, the production clean, the lyrics simple and uplifting. Inane is just fine.

“I’m going to rise. Nothing’s going to bring me down.” Sounds good to me.

“If it wasn’t for this and it wasn’t for that, it could be a better world.” True that.

“We’ve all just gotta be. Because answers rarely come easily.” Word!

I’ll take your pop romance, your cod spiritualism. You sing it, I’ll warble it for the neighbors.

Here’s a few tunes that brought the sun out this morning. The short man playlist. A belated happy new year.

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