Advice for surviving your London rush hour commute, from someone who hasn’t been doing it very long.

Perhaps you are someone who has been commuting for a while. If that is the case, you’ve probably been lulled into thinking that commuter behaviour is normal – or, at the very least, The Way It Is, and The Way It Shall Be, Forever and Ever Amen. As a new commuter, I can tell you you’re wrong. If you are looking The Dread Commute in the face at any point in the near future, here are my top tips for surviving rush hour commute, from someone who is still morally horrified every time they get on the 8:06 from Honor Oak Park. The following is all based on my limited, subjective experience over a two week time period. I’m sure that, for most people, taking the tube Isn’t That Bad. Or so you keep telling yourself. 

Don’t believe the lies people tell you about the London Underground. These might include (and are not limited to) the following:

When you commute you have time to unwind and prepare yourself for the day ahead/get ready to go home. FALSE. When you commute the only mental exercise you should be doing is rage/stress control techniques, not trying to find enough zen to scan through the day ahead in preparedness for work. The stress of trying to do that when your face is firmly pressed into someone else’s armpit will not, oddly enough, de-stress you.

Commuting is a good time to do a bit of reading. FALSE. Admittedly, there are those exceptionally weird people who, against all odds/the laws of physics will take out a stupidly sized newspaper and attempt to read the sports section while checking which stop is next with one eye and quietly judging the person next to them with the other. These people are mad, not commuter role models. You will almost certainly not have a seat, and, anyway, unless you’re one of those absurdly lucky/wealthy people who only have to take one train to work, you won’t have time to do any significant amount of reading before you have to drag your tired, inwardly screaming body from one metal cage to another. Commuting is not a good time to do anything, other than pray for divine intervention. And if you’re not the praying type, pray anyway. For mercy on you, and all those sharing your carriage.

At least commuting doesn’t require too much mental/physical energy on your part. FALSE. When it comes to general tiredness levels, your body likes travelling even less than your brain does. Especially travel that requires multiple different forms of transport, at a time of day when you barely want to look your other half in the face, let alone Half of London and their Work Issues.

Don’t be that guy. Try not to be any of the following people: (and yes, all of these apply to women too.)

The ‘I’m late I’m late I’m so important and I’m late’ guy. We can pretty much take it as default that if you’re on the London Underground around 8.30am, you’re experiencing a small amount of anxiety about being late for work/wondering how packed the next train will be. Do not give in to this. It basically leads you to treat other people around you as though they are brainless moving obstacles or demons dressed up as office workers, deliberately sent to torment you in your busy important life. You will find it much easier to remember not to be that guy by recalling that if your job/you getting there on time was THAT important, you would have left earlier, or you would have been picked up in a car. In the grand scheme of things, you are as insignificant as the slightly sweaty, tired person next to you. Try to join in solidarity with your fellow waste-of-space human, and don’t push in.

The ‘I forgot to put on deodorant this morning’ guy. It’s summer. This is really just one for your own personal benefit, but also take a moment to spare a thought for all the vertically challenged people who spend their morning/evening commute at armpit height. Another related pro-tip: remember to take off your jacket BEFORE getting on the train. Nothing worse than feeling overheated and sweaty with arms trapped to your sides for another 5 stops. On the other side, nothing worse than the overheated, sweaty person next to you trying to struggle out of their jacket and hitting you in the face with it.

The ‘I’m tired so I’m going to drape my arms around this pole’ guy. We’re all still going to have to hold onto that pole, even if your body is on it, because some of us can’t reach the ceiling handles. And some of us don’t want to touch you. Similarly, don’t be the ‘I’m tired so I’m not going to stand up and give my seat to the pregnant lady’ guy. You’re not carrying a human in your womb. You’re not that tired.

The ‘this carriage is clearly full but I’m going to balance one foot in the door so the train can’t leave and then do the tube equivalent of crowd-surfing in the hope that the mass of bodies will keep upright when I lean back into them’ guy. See ‘you’re not that important’ for more information.

The ‘5.25pm on the London Underground on a weekday is a great time to remember I’m an aggressive drunk’ guy. If you must drink and then tube, can you pick one going somewhere no one cares about, like North-West London?

The ‘I’m a creeper and I’m not good at hiding it’ guy. Actually, not being this guy is great general life advice. But, if I had to choose, I’d rather you look at me creepily in a bar when I can choose to leave it than on the tube at 8.37am when I can’t. NO WOMAN is looking to pull at that time. STOP IT.

See you on the Jubilee line.

My First Thanksgiving (ish)

Technically, my first first Thanksgiving was age 5 in St Louis, Missouri. My only memories of this event, however, are eating more than my fair share of Pumpkin Pie and the smiles of the lovely neighbours who fed it to me (Thanks Pat and John) so we’ll treat this as my ‘first’ one. I didn’t eat any Pumpkin Pie this year. But I did wash my hands with ‘Pumpkin Spice Scented Hand Soap’ several times. If that doesn’t demonstrate the incredible power of the Pumpkin Spice meme and its plan for world domination, I don’t know what will. And I spent two days wanting to eat my own fingers.

I went to Long Island for Thanksgiving, which meant that I got to experience a key Thanksgiving tradition – combining bad weather, bad traffic, and stressed drivers gritting their teeth for a long weekend with the family. (Has anyone else noticed that the most travel heavy holidays of the year are timed to match the worst travel weather? Someone, somewhere must have written a conspiracy theory about this. Prize for whoever finds it first.) Fortunately for me, I both a) can’t drive and b) have managed to befriend generous people who can, so I pretty much snoozed my way there and back. Yes, I am that terrible human who says “yay, roadtrip!” and then promptly falls asleep.

We got there alive, thanks to Brian Barry, and then we were greeted by warmth, sofas and dogs, thanks to Brian Barry’s mother. We ordered New York pizza (after clarifying that, in the opinion of REAL Noo Yawkers, Domino’s may as well be the anti-Christ), we played Cards Against Humanity, and we lay down for a long time, letting the combined pizza sweats and the my-brain-is-a-dark-and-horrible-place guilt merge in a warm holiday glow.

Then, sleep. Then, a Thanksgiving morning spent watching other people make me an enormous lunch (seriously. The Barry’s are so nice. SO. NICE. ) while I drank Sangria and pretended that I don’t care when I lose card games.

The most important revelation of the day: Thanksgiving is basically just a food rehearsal for Christmas. America, you’ve nailed it. We de-baconed a gloriously, offensively large turkey, and I learnt about American ‘biscuits’:

DEBACONING THE TURKEY.

DEBACONING THE TURKEY.

American Biscuit

American ‘Biscuit’ – kind of like the beautiful love child of flaky pastry and a scone.

This might as well have been Christmas dinner – eating a meat I don’t eat any other time of year, watching it try to snow outside, and making little gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed potato volcanoes on my plate. Before complaining that I ate too much. The only things missing were bread sauce and mince pies, and wrestling over the crispiest roast potato.

Then more lying down. And hours of watching Thanksgiving football, while other Americans began their ‘Black Friday’ at 4pm on Thursday afternoon – what better way to say ‘thanks for all the stuff I have’ than sucker punching strangers trying to grab the same new stuff as you? (For my theology-hat perspective on this, I wrote an article called ‘How Not To Give Thanks’. You can read it here.)

So we watched the Black Friday ads.

And then, on Friday, we watched the Christmas ads. Over several hours of staring numbly at the screen, I only saw one advert with no reference to Christmas in it whatsoever. Is it too soon to be done with Christmas? I’m done with whatever hideous caricature of Christmas the TV offered me, anyway. Can we skip it this year and just do the carols bit? I had my Christmas lunch on Thursday…

(P.S. A HUGE thank you to the Barry’s for letting me lie about on their furniture, eat their food and make random, often unsubstantiated observations about the declining state of western civilization for two and half days. You are wonderful.)

One month down.

It’s been a month, America. Somehow, we’re still together. DSC_0722

As some of you may have started to gather, when it comes to writing sarcastic blog posts, ‘Murica is the gift that just keeps on giving. There’s just an incredible wealth of material – so much to mock, and so little time.

Meanwhile, people here have been remarkably tolerant of my unnecessary, almost entirely inappropriate rudeness about their country, and my insistence on operating through a lens of wide-eyed socialist judgmentalism when I notice new things/make loud, sweeping observations. To my lovely new American friends, you are all so. very. tolerant.

With that in mind, while I’ve been busy lecturing America, I’ve been learning some things – like hugging strangers, and almost enjoying it. And not asking “what’s in this?” when I’m offered food.

I’m also learning that I still have an enormous amount to learn about being a functional adult. I still can’t cross a road without looking the wrong way, almost getting killed, and horrifying whichever innocent happens to be standing next to me on the pavement/nearly driving over me in their car. (Whoops.)

And a certain dysfunctional pattern seems to emerging in my status updates – one which suggests that I should not even be left unsupervised in a padded cell, let alone in grad school:

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 07.45.19Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 07.45.05

Keep being tolerant of me, America. We’ve got 14 months to go.

Do you want to talk about it?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people”, Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”

Yesterday I found myself in a therapist’s office.

I am, as far as I can tell, a fairly self-absorbed human being – a fact fairly cogently demonstrated by this very sentence. I am highly prone to over-analysis, to navel gazing, to self-doubt/loathing/criticism, which tends to be hidden behind a façade of blunt confidence. Not an altogether attractive or useful combination. (N.B. I also take happy pills. If you know me fairly well, you probably already knew that. If you didn’t, well, now you know me a bit better.)

I do think, then, that one of the worst ways I could try to manage my depression and general self-absorption would be to, say, sit down with a stranger once a week for an hour, in which I talk almost exclusively about myself, and about how stuff makes me feel. Especially if this stranger would also only talk about me – in fact, sentences with ‘I’ in would be actively encouraged. Not only that, but we’d also dig up a bunch of stuff from my past so that I could not only dwell on present me, but also past me, and future me. A lot of me in one room, basically. Too much me.

(N.B. I’m not talking about CBT, or seeing a psychiatrist, or even seeing a therapist for depression management. These things can be highly useful and important – in fact, I have done two of them in the past, and encouraged people I know to do them. I’m just passing judgment on what is helpful for me, now. Not anyone else.)

So, anyway, the upshot of me thinking that therapy is a terrible idea is that I went to see a therapist.

Sweeping generalization alert: Americans really like therapy. They love getting all those feelings out there – really out there – and using words like ‘discern’, ‘self-care’, ‘fulfillment’, and ‘actualization’. I do not like these things. These things make me feel like a violently itchy rash is crawling across my shoulder blades. I don’t want to ‘dig deep’, or ‘open up’, or ‘let it out’. I’d like all of the things to stay nice and suppressed, thanks very much. I’m British. Just give me the pills and leave me alone.

On the other hand, I’m British, so I also really like free stuff. And therapy here is free for all Yale students (an assumption that they need it?) so of course I went to have a consultation. And I thought – well, I haven’t seen any kind of counselor/psychiatrist for a really long time, and so maybe this will be interesting. It was certainly interesting.

It’s worth saying that they were very nice to me, that it’s useful that I’m now on their system in case I need some help in the future, and it’s not their fault that I have a tiny sarcastic monkey that sits on my temporal lobe and says things. I had also already been to a ‘spiritual discernment’ meeting earlier in the day, which had involved colouring pencils and anxiety, so the monkey had had a warm up, which didn’t help. And she asked me about everything. From “can you describe exactly what happened to you during X horrible event” (yes, I can, but I don’t want to) to “were you a difficult birth” (are you trying to work out whether I resent my mother, or whether my mother resents me?) the whole thing was exhausting, and it stole an entire afternoon from me because I had to go and be foetal and whimper afterwards.

And it raised some questions. Therapy culture here seems to suggest that the best person to go and talk to about difficult things (and here, I’m really talking about ‘therapy’ outside of serious mental illness recovery/management) is a stranger, rather than a family member or friend – or a church/faith leader. Why is that? It can’t be the ‘expertise’ these people offer, because if you want coping techniques/stress relief/mindfulness, whole tsunamis of ink have been spilt on the topic, and you can ‘train’ yourself. Why is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ a key goal that the individual rather than community strives for? And how are we defining ‘happiness’? Is Oprah entirely to blame for this?

And, above all, why all the feels, Murica? Why?! Do you want to talk about it?

Conversations and De-nom-nom-nom-inations

If I were choosing a denomination based on the free food available, the Episcopalians would be winning.

Not that it would be a fair contest, given that Yale Divinity School has more Episcopalians per square foot than London has pigeons. I think I had assumed that Episcopal worship would just be Anglicanism with an American accent, but I have been surprised by how (Episcop)alien (yeah, I’m really proud of that) it is to me in many ways – and this seems to be rooted in whether the Anglican church should be top-down or not in terms of its convictions on particular issues. No prizes for guessing which side of that debate my American brethren fall.

But this is all really a side-note, since, while I’m a cradle Anglican, I tend to treat Christian denominations like the pic n’ mix aisle of a sweet shop.

Moving on from my Episco-pals to my own denominational confusion, and how that has come to the fore while being Stateside.

Before moving to America, the most religiously distinctive thing about me was identifying myself as a ‘Christian’. I am well used to revealing that piece of information and receiving curiosity, confusion or contempt in return. The response I am ill-used to is “what denomination? Are you Anglican?” Erm. Bits of me are? I like a lot of Anglican practices. I like its broadness. I even have some Anglican friends…. As a baby I was baptized in an Anglican church. Does that make me Anglican? I haven’t regularly attended an Anglican church for about 5 years – and even before that my parents chose our church based on the church itself, rather than the denomination.

“So what kind of church did you go to?” “Well. I went to a Baptist church for a bit. But I’m not really ‘Baptist’. I went to a Lutheran church for a bit. But I’m not ‘Lutheran’ with a capital L. I think the Methodists have the best hymns. I think the Orthodox church has some of the most beautiful Trinitarian theology. I like churches that clap, I like churches that don’t, I like liturgy, I like good preaching, I want a really significant Eucharist, but I get incense headache, and a lot of the time I don’t want to go to church at all.”

Normally whichever poor sod bothered to ask has stopped listening by the time I get to ‘Lutheran’. I don’t have a neat answer to the question, because I’ve never really had to define myself by my denomination before.

Which has raised an interesting question about the way we construct our religious identities. I can certainly see the draw (and the power) in constructing your religious identity around a particular denomination (or around words like ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ neither of which I feel comfortable using either), and, while my initial reaction to being asked to define my Christian faith by denomination made me feel irritated, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s quite an important identity when it comes to Joining in The Conversation. “What’s your faith perspective on this?” is so often a question that means “represent your ‘people’ for me”, and I don’t have a ‘people’, something I assumed would make it easier to dialog – but perhaps it doesn’t.

My sweeping generalization of the day: Americans like identity labels. They like stories of the self. This applies beyond faith identifiers – to race, sexuality, gender, political party, ethnic make-up, personality type…

Maybe this isn’t the restriction it feels like, but a way of helping people engage beyond messy personal emphasis. It’s certainly a different language, though, and one I’m trying to adapt to.

ADDED BONUS: Dylan Moran on Protestantism and R.C.s: 

Some lazy anthropology, some sweeping generalisations.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What things are in (this very small slice of) America: 

Bars: Mostly places you can’t hear or see anything and shouldn’t smell or taste anything if you can possibly help it.

American football: This appears to be a game designed almost exclusively to make money for people not playing it. Cunning was the man (and I’m sure it was a man) who said “yes, this looks good – but how about we make everyone stop what they’re doing every 20 seconds and cut to footage of Gillette razors instead?”

The Gym: row upon row of the most beautiful, shiny people you’ve ever seen. Effectively a training camp for a Taylor Swift music video. Utterly terrifying.

Beer: not Beer.

Rubber: Not a British rubber.

Doughnut holes: ontological proof for the existence of God.

What people mean when people say things in (this very small slice of) America:

“You’re awesome!”: Anything from ‘we just met and you didn’t spit on me’ to ‘let’s get married’.

“That’s so funny”: I’ve decided that actually laughing is a less appropriate response to your joke than verbal affirmation.

“You do you”: I find your behaviour strange and probably unacceptable, but this is a blue state.

“The Government”: ‘F*** the government’.

“The Cops”: ‘F*** the cops’

“The NSA”: ‘F*** the NSA’

“I’m non-denominational”: I’m part of a denomination.

“You’re British?”: I’m about to talk like Dick Van Dyke.

Oh, and here’s my favourite advert of this week. 

Appropriate advertising 101. This came through the door of the graduate student halls.

Appropriate advertising 101. This came through the door of the graduate student halls.