On Emperors and Dirty Wizards

Back in the day, people with desks (rich people) used to keep little skulls on them – or if not skulls, then little macabre figures carved from wood or ivory. These miniature corpses were known as memento mori, which translates from Latin as ‘remember that you have to die’. I’ve got one on my desk too – although not really on purpose.

The little wooden skull from Oaxaca grins at me while I work. I work in my bedroom, at my desk. I have to – can’t work anywhere else because my job, teaching, involves talking all day, and I’d drive everyone in my house mad if I sat in the living room. I’d rather not work in my bedroom really though, because it means that, between 8 hours teaching and 8 hours sleeping, I spend two thirds of my time in the same room (at least, during the week). It’s probably even more than this in reality, because I also play guitar in my room, and teach myself to juggle (not a euphemism), and play video games, and read books while drinking coffee. So that’s, I don’t know, maybe 20 hours a day in one room, Monday to Friday.

Not a fan of it!

But I can’t really change it, at least for now. The whole memento mori thing, the grinning skull, is a notion that has stalked my life since I entered my twenties. In Ancient Rome, when they had grand parades for the emperor – returning home from having given the barbarians a good pasting – they supposedly used to have a man stand in his chariot, just behind him, cupping his hands around the emperor’s ear and whispering over and over: you are just a man, remember that you have to die.

Now, this is cool for an emperor. It makes a ton of sense – stop him getting any grand ideas about being a god, pulling a Caligula (not that it stopped Caligula, obviously – maybe he had a wax build-up). For me, however, the notion that my life is ticking by has always driven me a bit mental. If those words are supposed to humble a god-king, draped in his finery and praised by millions, then what kind of impact can they be expected to have on a dude who spends 80% of his time stuck, out of necessity, in his bedroom?

The fear that life should pass me by has driven me to do a lot of mental things over the years. It’s funny – when people find out that you’ve travelled a lot, lived a lot of weird and wonderful lives, they usually say something like: goodness, you’re very brave. This compliment never really sat well with me though, because, as the sole audience of my bothersome and interminable inner monologue, I know the truth: I acted more out of a fear that I wasn’t living correctly than some grand, noble desire for adventure. Well, maybe a little desire for adventure too. But mostly fear.

For a very long time, I viewed life like this: imagine you meet a wizard. I dunno, maybe he’s hanging out beneath an underpass, wearing a tin foil hat. This wizard introduces himself, and he offers to show you his magical palace of wonders. So you say ‘yeah, go on then – I’ve nothing else to do this evening’. And the wizard says ‘wizard!’ and touches your hand, and you’re instantly transported to some other realm, on a cloud or whatever, and ahead of you is a big golden door.

‘Beyond this door,’ says the wizard as he sparks up, ‘is the hall of wonders and mysteries and everything cool ever. You are welcome to enter, but you may only stay for one hour.’

And you say ‘nice one’ and you push open the door.

A golden hall opens up before you, glittering with trinkets and odds and ends and sparkly bits and bobs. You pick up the thing nearest to you: a trumpet. You give it a toot. The toot sounds wonderful! You want to toot some more! But then – oh – there’s a table across the way, on which sits a delicious looking book. You run over to it, read the first few lines, and holy shit that’s some good prose. You wonder what happens next, but hang on – there’s a bloody race car idling close by. You hop in, floor it, and careen off down the hallway as everything blurs.

A glint in the corner of your eye distracts you, and you spin out and crash into a gigantic bean bag. You clamber out of the car and you find an easel, all pristine and begging to be daubed upon, and you begin to paint like you’ve never painted before – but ah! Shit! Food! There’s a gigantic banquet table behind you, and you turn around and prepare to eat, but you check the time and you’ve already lost ten minutes. Only fifty left!

And then you stop still for a moment and look around: a helicopter, a yacht, a laboratory, a catwalk, a pedestal, a cottage in a meadow, a surf shack on a beach, an orchard, a whole gleaming city – and you pause, and you think: shit. And then you feel it – the fear. You can never return here, not ever. You look back, out of the door, and you see the dirty wizard leaning against the frame, waving at you as smoke curls from his nostrils. ‘Chop chop,’ he mouths, grinning. What do you do? How do you choose?

Well – that’s what being alive is, isn’t it. You only get one go. There’s a quote I heard the other week while watching Amelie. It goes like this:

Life is but a draft, a long rehearsal for a show that will never play.

How do you do it right? I don’t know – but my bones tell me the answer isn’t ‘sitting in your bedroom’.

Good things take time. I know this, I spent a lot of time over the last year thinking about this truism, meditating on it, soothing myself with it when I felt my brain beginning to go haywire again. Still, it’s hard to repeat this mantra – and to believe it – when you turned 30 seemingly five minutes ago, and now in just a few months you’ll be 31. I know, realistically, that if I keep plugging away at teaching, if I work hard and diligently, if I am brave and enterprising, that I can make something grand and fantastic out of this. I picture the future: a school – or fuck it, loads of schools – full of happy pupils learning English, becoming friends, brightening days, improving futures. When I picture this, I picture a lot of love and laughter and compassion – helping people. It could happen, no? Why not? The only real factor is whether I’ve the guts to stick it out during this strange period where nothing much is happening and I’m not living a particularly cinematic life.

It’s hardly a new thought, but I do feel that technology has a large part to play in my feeling this way. A few decades ago, you’d sit down for work and that’d be that: you might have to contend with a few daydreams, but nothing real. Nobody ever sat in an office (or their bedroom) and looked up to see half-naked people riding past the windows on jet-skis, whooping and hollering and having the time of their lives. That, however, is the world we now live in. In any humdrum moment, often without realising I’m doing it, I can open Instagram and gaze momentarily into one of a billion parallel realities, each showing a novel and better way I could be living my life. A girl with toned abs does a perfect backflip. A man with fantastic hair shows off his swish new flairs. A boy plays catch with a monkey. A woman leaps into the bluest ocean you’ve ever seen from the deck of a superyacht. A happy couple canoodle in bed with their golden retriever. An old man falls asleep on the sofa and farts himself awake, and all his grandchildren laugh.

And then, snap: the portal closes, break over, back to work. Eesh.

It’s rough! Of course I feel this way – all things considered, it seems inevitable and very obviously a problem. But I’m not sure how to stop it. I could delete my social media accounts of course, ban myself from Youtube and television – but then, we’re expected to promote ourselves these days, to play the game, to put ourselves out there and market our careers and whatever. Plus I have a lot of friends whose lives I like to stay up to date with. I just wish they’d all stop having so much fun without me.

Comparison is the damnation of happiness – that’s a Dan Hackett original for you. Last summer I went camping with my dad and my little sister. We went to a forest and climbed trees and ran around until we (my dad and I) were wheezing and knackered. Then we lit candles and sat around the camping table listening to music and eating and talking. And it was wonderful! I thought it to myself at the time: this is wonderful! What a wholesome, memorable, gorgeous family weekend.

And then my phone buzzed and I opened a Whatsapp from my friend Sam: a picture of him, at some night-time pool party in New York, beaming beside Alex Turner – lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys, a childhood, lifetime hero of mine. And then my phone died.

I could have shat with grief. Suddenly, all the tent pegs and Doritos and pines meant nothing to me. What was I doing in comparison to that?! How did Sam, the jammy get, meet Alex Turner?! What incredible sequence of events was unfolding across the ocean? Was Alex Turner nice in person? What did he smell like? Why wasn’t I there?!

It genuinely ruined my night. I clammed up, grumbling, and got all sullen. My dad told me off: ‘stop sulking,’ he said (it infuriates me when he says that – and I think he knows it).

But there it is: comparison. It ballses everything up; it will ruin everything if you let it.

So I sit in my room, and I try not to let my imagination wander (writing this doesn’t count – that’s good wandering). I tell myself that I’m doing something to be proud of, even though it might not be sexy or glamorous. It’s like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, isn’t it: took him ages. He was knackered by the end. And imagine how much worse he’d have felt if he kept getting Facetimed by Merry and Pippin getting shitfaced by the pond back in the Shire.

Good things take time, and even though the modern world doesn’t make it any bloody easier, I have to tell myself that if I just keep focus, and celebrate the things I am doing, lovely things will come. I must be like a flower: they don’t hurry themselves along because all their mates are popping their petals. They bloom in their own time.

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