When strange rituals become rules, and rules become superstition.
I have a list in my head of things that make a good man. The ability to play a good F chord, all frets barred, no muted strings and no buzzing; crunching gravel under your feet when you walk; knowing about football in detail and being able to converse on any sport in some way; facing any crisis, personal or public, emotional or professional, with stoicism, calm and reason; not showing weakness; being prepared to talk about your emotions; treating women with respect; being good in bed; not being sleazy, sexist or prejudiced; being a good cook; being capable of physically protecting yourself and girlfriend; not fighting or being jealous; being a good son, boyfriend, brother, uncle, friend and conversationalist…
First of all, 13 is clearly unlucky, therefore stopping reading a book on page 13 is bad luck.
I am always slightly ashamed that I don’t know anything about engines, either fixing them, or how they work. Or the relative merits of different types of car. To me, they’re just more or less pretty ways of getting somewhere. Likewise my lack of ability to build or repair anything, diagnose problems with basic household issues or easily discuss any of the above with workmen is a source of man-based unease. I am also singularly unable to flirt with women unless I am absolutely sure I have no chances of success, which is an unfortunate combination, and feel that I am considered too nice by the world in general. The fact that this is also the way I wish the world to perceive me is again sub-optimal.
Respect the mountain; never leave a floating bowl; don’t have an ostentatious haircut, or one that takes too much maintenance; wear hats only with extreme care; hold doors open for others without exception; be polite to shop assistants and waiters. Tip well.
I have also undergone a large number of superstitions over the years. The longest standing, although currently only partially observed, relates to reading, and specifically to page numbers. First of all, 13 is clearly unlucky, therefore stopping reading a book on page 13 is bad luck. By extension, 113, 213, 313 are also unlucky, so you can’t close a book on any of these pages – even if only for seconds. And, since from an early age I have always stopped reading before sleep (and always read before sleep) on a multiple of ten (to do otherwise is unlucky), it also follows that any number that is 13 after a multiple of ten is also bad luck. Therefore any number ending in 3 (except 3) is to be avoided.
This is the origin of the superstition. However, it goes on. The next step is obvious – if mathematical symbols can be placed between the page numbers in order to make a complete equation, then that page is an unlucky place to stop. Ergo, 235 is out because 2 + 3 = 5 (and 2 – -3 also = 5). In fact, the 230s are a bad section, because 2 – 3 = -1, 233 and 235 are out as discussed above, 2×3 = 6, and 23 = 8. This can present difficulties when, for example, getting off a bus, as if I’m in an area with very few safe pages then I either have to stop and risk boredom, or read incredibly quickly in order not to miss my stop. And you can’t just pretend you’ve read until the next page, because if you cheat then you will be found out. Whilst I no longer stick rigidly to this particular codification of the rules, I still will not knowingly break them. And stopping on a number ending in 3 is strictly verboten and to be avoided at all costs, no matter what. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake that one.
Whilst I no longer stick rigidly to this particular codification of the rules, I still will not knowingly break them.
I think I have a thing about rules. When I was a teenager, I was militant with myself in following the ones I’d set myself (there are many more than we’ve got to so far), believing it to be the only way to live a life I could existentially be proud of. Well, not be proud of exactly, more not criticise, or present a case for to another if the need arose. Even then, I was also aware that if anyone did genuinely challenge me on any of the things that I held against myself, I would probably tell them to fuck off, and that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Same as I can say what I like about my family, but if you say anything I will be on their side, not yours. You will instantly become an adversary, even if only temporarily.
Is this an animal or social response? Is it to be adhered to, or ruthlessly suppressed? That’s always the problem – to thine self be true, but only the good bits, surely? And how do you decide which are the good bits or the bad bits, which are the “true” expressions of yourself, and which are simply the result of some fucked mental feedback loop, or the byzantine incompatibility of certain items within your personal ruling philosophy?
Another long standing superstition was to always write a line from song in the steam on the mirror after getting out of the shower/bath. It had to be a line that I hadn’t written before – although even I realised that was stupid so amended it to a line that I couldn’t consciously remember having written before. I only stopped doing this about a year ago, and three weeks later my girlfriend of 8 years left me. I’m not saying the two events are linked but at the time it gave me an insight into the religious power of coincidence.
If having a bath, I also have to dry every part of myself before getting out of the bath, and do it before the bath has finished draining completely. I still do that.
I gave up on the whole “thine own self” stuff a long time ago, figuring that it was just dumb. Also Polonius is a twat, but that’s kind of beside the point. And being in Nigeria and trying to follow the rules is like competing in a sport where not only has no one told you the aim of the game, but you don’t know who else is playing and if the match has even started yet. Best just to keep your head down and get on with it.
Be self-confident but never arrogant; don’t use a semi-colon unless you absolutely have to; always have an opinion but be willing to lose the argument if you’re in the wrong (I’m still working on that one); don’t be boring; always say yes and be willing to try anything (except incest and child abuse, as the saying goes); steer clear of multiple exclamation marks at all costs; be able to hold your drink but don’t be embarrassing when drunk, and always, always look after your friends.
I gave up on the whole “thine own self” stuff a long time ago, figuring that it was just dumb. Also Polonius is a twat, but that’s kind of beside the point.
I’m telling you all this because, well, it’s the way that I think. I am constantly engaged in a dialogue with myself, judging my own actions and second guessing the reactions of others. I’m not the unreconstructed fruitcake I was in my younger years, but I still find it very hard to believe that other people like me. Or rather, this self-reflexive internal debate is intensified when I’m with people that I don’t know, and sometimes I get so wrapped up in trying not to come across as an arse that I feel like an arse because I can’t think of anything interesting (or non-arselike) to say.
So coming to somewhere where I know no one, and have to constantly go out and socialise with people I don’t know is not exactly in line with my natural inclinations. So far it’s going better than I had any right to expect, and I feel like I’m not doing a bad job, but man, it can be stressful sometimes.
Fortunately, there’s always beer.
I have a student called Jumbo who I think is either going to be an endless source of amusement or the bane of my life, depending on the day. First of all, she lives up to her name, both in terms of the size of her physique and her personality, and so I find it incredibly difficult to say her name with a straight face. In fact, having seen it written down I refrained from saying it at all in the first week just in case I’d got the wrong end of the stick or there was some sort of pronunciation rules that I was completely missing.
But I bit the bullet in the end, and don’t seem to have insulted her, so that’s all to the good. Jumbo is a mature student and whilst she’s by no means dumb, I think she’s quite set in her ways about learning, and she’s also clearly used to dominating a room. This presents trouble on a number of fronts. Firstly, she likes to provide a muttered running commentary as we go along. At first I thought this was her chatting, or taking the piss, so I pulled her up on it a couple of times, but in fact it’s just her keeping track of what’s being said and working out what I mean.
Secondly, I encourage questions at any point, but never in my life have I encountered someone with such a readiness to ask questions, or ask such unbelievably stupid ones. A phrase I use with students in the UK all the time is “there are no stupid questions, only stupid people”, but I haven’t tried this one here yet as I think they probably wouldn’t realise I was joking. In Jumbo’s case she finds even the simplest things I’m telling her unintelligible at times – for example this morning when I told her that if a text said “There are three reasons why…” then she should expect three points to be coming up, and make sure she had it clear what all three were. I’d like to make it clear that this wasn’t intended as a major point in the lecture, but for Jumbo it was too much. She also has problems when I ask them if something is true or false, say that it is false, but then leave the statement up on the screen. She cannot seem to look at the written word as presented to her by a tutor in any other way than as fact without entering the deepest metaphysical dilemma. So this leads to a lot of debate before she accepts that what is written up there is not true.
The good thing about all this is a) it means that some genuine issues which they are all confused about are raised when others are too scared to ask, b) it shows me that 95% of the time the rest of the students are all with me because they’re either explaining things to her on my behalf, or rolling their eyes, and c) it’s hilarious.
I did a seminar with them on justice last week, and it went better than I thought it possibly could. All of them, even the shyest, chipped in, and there was some debate of a properly undergraduate standard. It gave me hope, although again, the idea that there can be more than one answer to a question seemed to be something that Jumbo has great difficulty accepting. Tomorrow I’m going to tell them that I believe the world would be a better place if no one believed in god. Given their reaction when I told them that I was an atheist the other day (one girl actually looked horrified, followed by an expression of “oh, you poor thing”), this should be interesting.
Elsewhere in life, Joy and Julius continue to provide an interesting soap opera. The other day he asked if he could borrow my car. When I asked why, he said that he wanted to wash it. I didn’t point out that this didn’t make sense but just said no. Five minutes later Joy came to tell me not to let him borrow it, and when I asked why she just shook her head and said “he will not come back”. Couldn’t get any more explanation than that, but was glad I’d already refused.
The “I want to wash it” line has made me realise how much I love Nigerian excuses. No one ever wants to tell you “no”, or get caught out doing something bad, so they’ll come up with the most transparent nonsense to cover it. When I bollocked someone for talking in class the other day they said, “I’m sorry sir, I didn’t hear you talking,” which got pretty short shrift as you can imagine. Likewise, everyone has a story of waiting for someone (usually a driver) who says “I’m on my way, I’ll be there in 15 minutes”. When you phone them an hour later they say “I’m in traffic, I’ll be with you in 5 minutes”. Another half an hour later they tell you they’re outside. When you go outside, they’re not there. At this point you can probably count on them being somewhere up to an hour away, unless it’s a severe example, in which case you’re better off just taking a cab.
Likewise if they don’t understand, they’ll just say yes. So if you order something in a restaurant you really need to make sure they’ve got what you mean, otherwise they will just bugger off and you will never eat. Even if you ask repeatedly, “is my [item that you don’t understand] on its way?” they will just say yes. And then be surprised at how angry you get either when 2 hours later you have no food, or something entirely different turns up. And they act like it’s your fault.
Ah, Nigeria, how I love thee. Except on a bad day when I want to get out of my car and explain to every other driver on the road why they are an ignorant fucktard one by one. Because, of course, driving is the worst, not least because in a car there is actual danger of death. But somehow it always fades into anecdotal amusement after a while, until you’re behind the wheel again and someone does something so monumentally stupid you actually struggle to comprehend what just happened.
Which is probably a metaphor for life here, in some ways. Frustrating and dangerous, but makes for a good story.
Images copyright of Rob Mann 2011