Theme this week is being on the outside
“So that’s the offer. What do you think?”
I’m looking down at my cat, who has stretched himself out to his fullest length and is imitating a draught excluder. I stretch out my own arms, knowing that your height is approximately equal to the span between the fingertips of your left and right hand, and compare the distance. I am so very much bigger than him. My flat is so small to me and so great to him. What do I look like? What does he think exists beyond the balcony?
What does he make of the giants?
Each half-mile step is a brisk ten minute walk to me, and to him must seem longer still. The giants run from Manchester to London in no time at all. I have to take a train.
I look at my legs. They’re not bad legs. They’re just not long legs.
I look at my cat’s legs. They’re even shorter. They’re also twitching. He’s fallen asleep.
I sit on the cold smooth floor and stretch my legs out until they cramp. I point my toes away and then towards me. A vague memory of a mirrored practice hall surfaces accompanied by a snatch of a piano with one key out of tune.
They’re not bad legs.
They limit how fast I can go, for sure. They don’t really limit how far. I could walk almost anywhere. It would be easier if I were a giant, but going a long way quickly isn’t all there is to life.
It’s hard for cats to keep up, for starters.
Besides, there are some things about being a giant that aren’t enjoyable. Tailoring is expensive. Building a home is completely impossible. And the cannibalism…well, that might take some getting used to.
I wiggle my toes again.
“Hey, you still there? What do you think?”
I think. The cat steps over to where I’m still sitting, legs stretched. Five steps to make a journey I’d make in one. He headbutts me softly.
“I think I’m happy where I am.”
“What’s the difference between a complex and a complicated system?” she asks. We’re talking about frameworks for categorising work and I’ve been talking about cynefin for what feels like an hour. One of the important points is the difference between complicated – like chess – and complex – like battlefields.
We – people – are split over the two domains. Your body is, relatively speaking, a complicated system. There are a lot of moving parts, but applying ‘best practice’ will generally keep it ticking along. Cause and effect are a bit muddied and hard to see immediately, but they can be observed. Best practices here are things like drinking enough water, doing sufficient exercise, controlling portions and interacting with people.
That last bit though – that’s a complex system, because it includes you. It is regrettably impervious to a reductionist approach to problem solving: the question Why am I like this can’t be reduced to a single answer but also, importantly, can’t be improved or changed without impacting other parts of the system in unforeseen ways. Interacting with other people is a system where you have to keep sensing what’s going on. There’s no best practice for conversation.
Luckily I like complex problems. Unfortunately, I hate complicated problems, because frankly they’re mostly solved. One of those complicated problems is how to remain alive and a functioning human being. I know how to solve that problem. I have solved it before.
It is therefore immensely fucking galling to me that I have to keep solving it, every day, every week. I have to eat three times a day or my brain falls over, even though I did it yesterday! And the day before that!
It is an astonishing thing to realise about oneself, but I know that if I had to take a pill every day or I would die, literally, 100%, die, then I wouldn’t last a week.
“You’re weird,” she says.
“Yeah.” I say. “I like complex problems. I don’t think I’m good at them.”
She takes my hand in hers and traces the shapes of my fingers. “It’s okay,” she said at last. “I think maybe relationships are complicated problems.”
“I think you’re right.”
She takes her hand away and puts it the other, then puts both on her lap. She looks at me. “Then I think you’re right, too.”
“Express yourself” they said and their mouth was not a smile because a smile has a soul and this was just the default resting position of a skull. “Self-expression is the purest form of art. Display your scars so that we may evaluate them. Reopen them so we may lick the blood. Apply pleasure to the wound.”
I blinked, and there were no skulls, and it seemed unlikely that amidst the hiss-clunk of the coffee machine and the background chatter of people in the café that the words I thought I’d heard had really happened.
Still. “What did you say, sorry?”
The barista smiled. “I said I think it’s cool that you can express yourself. We’re all corporate here.” He pointed to a rainbow flag badge on his apron. “These are bought by head office and then sent to stores.” He did a ‘jazz-hands’ pose, arms outstretched, fingertips outstretched, waving. I noticed absently that he chewed his fingertips. “Queer,” he said, and then retracted to a stiff straight upright. “But only to the limits our employer permits.”
“That sucks,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s okay really. At least I get a little avenue for self-expression. You get to write. That’s way cooler.”
“How did you know I -“
He opened his eyes wide so his skin went taut and I could see the bones press against his cheeks. “I AM A PSYCHIC MONSTER THAT LIVES IN YOUR HEAD,” he intoned. Then he laughed, and the image collapsed. “Or, I dunno. I guessed. You drink a lot of coffee and you’re always on your laptop, and when you went to the loo a minute ago I looked at your screen.” He did the face again. “BUT MOSTLY IT’S THE PSYCHIC MONSTER THING.”
“Oh.” I said. “Thanks?”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you back here for more coffee in about half an hour?”
I struggled to come up with something clever. “You know, if you really were a psychic monster than lived in my head, you’d just come over when I needed more coffee.” I said. Well, mumbled.
I don’t think he heard me. I barely heard me. I walked back to my table, a distance that had stretched by one hundred million light years, and tried to write something funny about growing up religious.
I was just getting into the flow when I picked up my mug to find it empty. I felt exhausted again, as if the ideas I were pushing down my arms were rubbing off bits of me as well. The idea to get more coffee had barely travelled up from my fingertips when the barista appeared at my elbow and slid a fresh mug onto the table before sitting down in front of me.
I looked up. “Oh,” I said.
The skull looked back, the eye sockets full of stars, the jaw cradled in hands that ended in chewed fingernails.
“YEAH.” He leaned forward, and his breath smelled like tobacco smoke and wild flowers and earth and old blood. “AND I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE WHAT YOU WRITE NEXT.”