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I know prejudice is more often than not an error of reasoning, but I have to confess that I am inclined to harbour the occasional preconceived idea about certain types of jobs and the people who do them. The obvious example of this is the way I feel about anyone whose daily bread is earned by imposing and enforcing parking fines. I DO understand that we probably need some rules about where not to park – if we didn’t we’d probably end up with ambulances full of heart attack victims gridlocked in a sea of static hatchbacks like imaginative ideas in a democracy. And if we have rules, we probably need someone to go around and remind people what those rules are. But humans are nothing if not hypocritical, so while accepting that the system should probably exist, I still secretly think that people who work in it are inflexible, blindly obedient, bureaucratic types without a critical faculty between them.
So when, a few years ago, we received a parking ticket, I responded in my usual manner – which is to make like an ostrich and pretend it wasn’t happening. Here is the exact letter, with bits blurred out for privacy purposes:
You can tell this was some time ago because parking fines are considerably more than £40 now. But the tone of these letters hasn’t changed – all shouty and officious. You can almost imagined the stiff, grey, purse-mouthed bureaucrat who came up with that gem. Nothing here to challenge any prejudices.
Spouse was going through one of his phases at the time we received this uptight little letter (he goes through phases a lot – there’s been the Nationalist phase, the conspiracy phase, the Hindu phase and the Fungiculture phase, for example – and he has asked to have ‘Death: It’s a phase I’m going through‘ carved on his gravestone). The phase he was in at the time of the letter was his Discordian phase (if you know what that means, you will see where this is going). So he wrote the parking department a letter. Here it is (in two parts because I am rubbish at I.T.)
This letter entertained us immensely. It may have been juvenile and unlikely to achieve anything, but I particularly enjoyed the little dig, ‘those investors in people’. So we sent it off expecting no real response apart from the next computer generated demand. But this is where the story gets wonderful. I absolutely love having my worldview jiggled about occasionally, and when the next letter arrived from the council it did just that. When I opened the envelope I had to read the contents three times before I could believe what I was seeing. And when I did, it just filled me with joy. It still does, years later. Proper happiness. Somewhere in what I thought were those dusty grey corridors of blandness, there was a man who could do this:
The moral of this story is probably something to do with diamonds in lumps of coal or pearls inside oysters and books and covers and all that whatever. I just read the letter again, and it’s rendered me incoherent with pleasure. You’ll have to draw your own conclusion.
Foreword: I’ve had such fun with this post and all the ensuing chats with the lovely people of Gweek, and I am reliably informed that this pub is now under new ownership, and is being run by the best people you can possibly imagine so this story will never be repeated again. Hoorah!
* * *
If you don’t count man’s inhumanity to man, the education system and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, there’s not much that makes me angry. I’m one of those people who can placidly cruise away from driving situations that would cause many to pop a socket, and I generally smile understandingly when faced with rudeness, in the possibly deluded assumption that the poor perpetrator must be having a bad day and their attitude is nothing whatsoever to do with them being fundamentally a horrible human being.
So it’s odd that I can’t seem to let go of my simmering irritation at something that happened a short while ago in a beautiful Cornish village called Gweek.
This tiny village is the home, not only of the eveningy loveliness you see in this image, but also of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary, and it was there that my good friends and I decided to take some lovely visiting Bristolians on a cold day earlier this year.
The sanctuary was, as expected, an enjoyable experience despite the bitter sea winds and the fact that I couldn’t see over the fence when the biggest fattest seals were being fed. The enjoyableness was caused by the fact that there were baby seals and otters and penguins to gawp at. Everything is always better under those circumstances.
Here is a picture of brown spaniel and a penguin encountering each other. After all that semi-aquatic creature admiring we turned our attention to the now pressing issue of afternoon tea and cake and were delighted to find an attractive pub in the centre of the village. Here it is:
The Black Swan describes itself here as providing a “a warm and welcoming atmosphere”, and I think it’s this that makes me want to stomp around booting things instead of just laughing it all off, because when we pushed open the door of this inviting but almost empty establishment we came face to face with three men who have since transmogrified in my memory into Draco Malfoy and his two lumpen henchmen.
Malfoy was sitting at the bar, looking quite a few years older than he did in the Harry Potter films, but with exactly the same sneering look on his face.
It was clear from his proprietorial air that Malfoy was the pub owner, and Crabbe and Goyle, despite their now-long hair and more wizened faces were still the same simpleton henchmen laughing eagerly at Malfoy’s every word as they had been in their Hogwarts days.
I noted Malfoy’s sneery face immediately, but in my Polyanna-ish way I decided that the landlord was probably one of those people whose face falls into a negative shape when resting, so I began the conversation with a perky, “Hello! Is it OK to bring a dog in?” The conversation proceeded like this:
Malfoy [in a sardonic tone]: Depends on the dog.
Me [assuming this was a joke]: Would you like to inspect him first? [displaying dog in magician's assistant fashion]
Malfoy: Spaniel’s OK. [henchmen snigger] [Spaniel shakes water over floor]
Malfoy: I’ll get you a mop
Me: Yes, I’ll do that. Sorry.
Malfoy: No you won’t. [awkward silence]
Me: OK. Erm. Do you have any cake? [Henchmen laugh. Clearly cake is preposterous]
Malfoy [not making this any easier]: Kitchen’s closed. Me
[beginning to wish I'd never started this 'conversation']: Oh, OK. Do you do tea? [all laugh again - tea is preposterous too]
Malfoy: Not really, but I suppose you could have some.
Me: Great. We could get some cake from the shop opposite.
Malfoy: You could, but you’re not eating it in here.
Me: Right. OK. Is there anywhere around here that sells tea and cake?
Malfoy: This is Cornwall, luv. It’s Sunday.
Me: [relieved to be about to escape] OK. We’ll be off then.
Malfoy’s strikingly inhospitable attitude and hilarity at our expense didn’t make too much of an impact at first, until I began to wonder if that’s how he treats all his customers. We decided we’d do tea and cake at my house instead and crossed the road into the shop, laughing at his awfulness as we inspected the bakery section. One of the customers in there overheard the conversation and said, “Oh him. He’s a dick.” But we didn’t have a chance to follow up that interesting remark because Crabbe or Goyle suddenly appeared in the doorway, clearly sent over, like in a children’ playground scenario, to find out what we were saying. (I don’t know why they didn’t use extendable ears like the Weasleys did in The Order of the Phoenix, but maybe they didn’t want to use magick around Muggles). As he skulked into the shop Crabbe or Goyle joked to the lady at the counter, “don’t wind them up,” and pointed at us. This is how the next conversation went:
Me: Wind us up how?
Crabbe or Goyle: “Well… you’re all emmets, aren’t you.”
[note: 'emmets' is an uncomplimentary slang term for holiday makers in Cornwall]
Me: No. I’m from Redruth, she’s from Bodmin and these two are from St.Ives and Hayle.
Crabbe or Goyle: Oh. You don’t sound like it.
Me: But even if we were on holiday, that’s a bit of an odd way to run a hospitality business, isn’t it?
Crabbe or Goyle: You’ve taken it the wrong way.
Me: Yeah, right. Thanks.
So the moral of this story is that the target market for The Black Swan in Gweek is quite niche. If you are hoping to be spoken to in a friendly way in that establishment, you need to:
a) not be on holiday, and
b) have a Cornish accent to prove you’re not on holiday.
My friends and I have a habit of scouring the county for tea and cake, and this is the first place we’ve ever been from Saltash to the Lizard where anyone has been less than brilliantly friendly, so don’t think this is a Cornish thing. I think it’s an extra-specially Black Swan thing. When I got home later I was still ridiculously irritated so I looked at the pub reviews on Trip Advisor expecting to find some tumbleweed and raging, but I think they must have written all the reviews themselves because they are glowing. Either that, or Malfoy’s wife completely changes the atmosphere when she’s in charge. Or maybe since those reviews were written, Voldemort has taken residence in the basement and the dementors have been doing their business. Or all those customers had Cornish accents and lived in Gweek. Whatever the reasons, those reviews depict a place completely unlike the one we visited.
To top it all, turns out that Malfoy and Mrs. Malfoy aren’t from Cornwall themselves, and that their aim is “to provide a high level of customer care and service.”. Laugh.
There was a feature on the radio this morning where listeners were invited to express gratitude to people who’d done splendid things for them and who they’d never had an opportunity to thank.
As I listened to a man thanking a music teacher for introducing him to Beethoven, I suddenly remembered that I have someone I’ve never been able to thank, and this person has made a significant difference to my life. Significant indeed, because if he hadn’t happened to drive down a street in Threemilestone 38 years ago, I wouldn’t even have a life. But there’s no way I’m going to listen to my own voice on the radio, so I’m thanking him here.
When I was five or six I used to hang out a lot with Jonathan next door. We usually played Robin Hood (the cartoon fox version), but on the day in question, some workers had left the cover off a drain on our street and it was full to the brim with viscous, gloopy mud. The obvious thing to do under these circumstances is to find some long sticks, lie face down on the pavement and start stirring and sloshing and squelching. So that’s what we did. It was extremely enjoyable, as you can imagine.
After a while, Jonathan was called in for his dinner (I was mildly middle class, spouse would call it ‘tea’), and the mud and I were alone together. You can see where this is going.
I decided I was going to get my stick much deeper into the gloop now that Jonathan’s head wasn’t in the way of the hole, so I wriggled forward, reached my arm as far in as I could and slid gently face-first right into the drain with one arm outstretched in a Superman pose (not like in my erroneous illustration).
So there I was with my red shoes and white socks sticking up out of the drain hole; helpless, upside-down and presumably slowly realising that at any moment I was going to have to start inhaling mud and dying (I wasn’t a stupid child). I can’t remember how long I was there, but it couldn’t have been very long before I felt a firm grip on my ankles and an interesting sucky squelchy feeling as I was pulled rapidly backwards out of the drain.
I can only imagine the image my rescuer beheld once he’d plonked me the right way up on the pavement. I was a bewildered human-shaped mud-being with incongruously clean red shoes and knee socks.
I remember the man asking me where I lived, and me just pointing to my house because I didn’t want to open my mouth in case mud got in. Then the man took my hand-shaped appendage, led me to my front door and knocked. My mum opened the door with my wailing baby brother in her arms and encountered a strange man and a mud apparition. All I remember next is being plonked in the bath and hosed down. I don’t know if the man explained in detail or if my mum really took in what had happened, and I don’t know if she thanked him properly, but he actually did save my life. Our street was completely empty when Jonathan went in for tea; there was absolutely nobody about. I don’t know where this man appeared from, but I’m bloody glad he appeared from somewhere, because if he hadn’t, I’d have had to give in and inhale the mud.
So thank you for my life, strange man 38 years ago. I expect you’ve told the story of the pair of red shoes sticking out of a suburban drain a few times. I would if I were you because to me, you’re a hero.
SWEARING ALERT: If you are sensitive to any particular arrangements of letters, don’t read the conversation bit at the end.
If push came to shove I would identify as “feminist”, but I am very wary of some of the ways that term gets used by both other feminists and by anti-feminists. The only reason I would use it is because to say you’re not a feminist is tantamount to saying you don’t agree that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. And that would just be plain stupid.
So, I am a feminist, and ‘feminism’ to me is the idea that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Nothing more complicated than that. So that’s the standpoint from which I am writing this blog entry. It began when I happened to click on this link.
The article is about a Twitter project where women can record the instances of every day ‘sexism’ they encounter in their daily lives. When this was published, the group had just received its 20,000th entry.
At the word ‘sexism’, my Radar of Dubiousness starts whirring. I’ve started to feel an unbidden bubbling discomfort with words that end in ‘ism’. A lot of what I read around these isms nowadays seems divisive and combative and I frequently wonder if what were once useful terms are now so loaded with dogma that they are almost completely counter-productive in terms of successful debate. It seems that whenever someone is identified as a something-ist (Feminist, Humanist, Nationalist, Marxist, etc.) then everyone starts making assumptions about what the speaker/writer is saying based on what they think they know about the ism in question and not listening to exactly what is being said. This results in profoundly frustrating debates where pretty much every contributor is punching a straw man the whole time and nothing is achieved except frustrated rage and a deeper embedding of dogma on all sides.
The unlikeable term ‘sexism’ is usually used to denote male-on-female prejudice, but as a mother of two splendid sons and the spouse of an excellent man, I also cringe at least once a day at female-on-male sexism. Indeed, it’s perfectly acceptable in the media to imply that men are basically dribbling halfwits without the wherewithall to clean baths properly or know when to buy their sardonically critical wife flowers (that stupid rabbit thing advertising air freshener in between sections of Emmerdale). Perfectly lovely and intelligent women I know crack jokes about man-flu, men always being wrong, a bit stupid, useless and generally in need of the guidance of women. Even those who have great spouses do this because it’s just become part of everyday banter. These women are not being evil, they’re just not thinking how this might make men feel because there’s an assumption that men are so confident in their patriarchal power that you can’t really hurt them. Even if that were true of fully grown men (it’s not), is it also true of our small sons? Are they all born with the power to feel ok about themselves in a culture where it’s acceptable to constantly say men are a bit shit just because they are male? Is it only girls who are damaged by the repetition of negative gender stereotypes?
I was working with a group of young mums a couple of weeks ago and this conversation happened.
S: … yeah, well all men are twats aren’t they? [general agreement from all present] [pause] Me: Didn’t you say earlier that your boyfriend gets up with your son to do the night feeds so you can sleep? S: Oh yeah. Well, yeah he does… Me: So, not all men are twats then? S: Well, no, but you know what I mean… A: Mine does night feeds too, and he makes me breakfast before he goes to work…
These young women were perpetuating the stereotype of men as useless, when evidence in their own lives points to the very opposite. It’s sort of like phatic talk about the weather – nobody really thinks about what they’re saying, and nobody picks up on how damaging this could be because it’s socially acceptable to mock men.
So it was with a certain amount of dubiousness that I went to explore the everyday sexism project http://www.everydaysexism.com/ Apart from being bugged by the question, ‘if we are going to tackle sexism shouldn’t we tackle it from all sides rather than just one?’, there was the nagging feeling that many of the annoying things people say are down to basic stupidity rather than sinister sexism. There are a hell of a lot of stupid people out there, and to be honest, some of the things posted on the everyday sexism site could be shrugged off as just the spoutings of the intellectually deficient. I’ve never been certain that explaining identity politics to dribbling morons is a productive way to pass the time.
What really struck me as I read through the contributions, though, was that the majority of them were about inappropriate touching and sexually intrusive language. Comments to do with getting back in the kitchen, etc, while irritating and puerile, can often be fairly easily shrugged off, but when someone feels they have the right to touch or comment on parts of your body it feels incredibly invasive. And it seems from the site that this stuff goes on ALL the time. I’m a bit too middle aged and confident to be a victim of this kind of thing nowadays but I have some stories from my less confident past, so I showed some friends the site and asked what their experiences were. The following (edited) discussion ensued and includes anecdotes from three friends and myself. I’ve used false initials for privacy.
P: Ok, I’m reading the everyday sexism site. I hate it when boys say their shit comments are “banter”. Using a friendly word to justify being an absolute COCK.
I had one today. I might add.
J: What happened?
P: Nylon wearing man on the Underground asked me where I was getting off and if I was “the lucky girl who would be dealing with his erection tonight”. He touched my leg and I thought my gut was going to explode. Things like that scare the SHIT out of me.
S: I hope you were HORRIBLE to the disgustoman.
P: I was too scared to. Just walked away, and left the train at the next stop before boarding another. Shouldn’t have to.
S: Understandable. It makes my skin vibrate with angry. The casual sexism makes me angry. Yesterday we saw a bloke that was at a training event we went to. He was horrible to me there (and ignored us yesterday) because when he made a sex comment to me I reacted with some overt disgust. He got a bit nasty after that because I showed him up.
P: What thing did he actually say?
S: I can’t remember exactly, something about my arse, I think. But his aggression in response was visible.
P: Did he do that “you can’t take a joke”, “calm down” response? Fucking HATE that. It’s NOT a joke, I don’t know you, you’re a COCK.
S: I can’t exactly remember, but that sounds likely. He is one of those men whose pupils go too big too quickly. It makes me so very angry.
P: I get really scared when people are suggestive. I REALLY don’t like it.
S: It can be horribly intimidating. It makes me turn into the incredible hulk a bit.
P: I’m not brave enough to do Hulk. I don’t feel like I do anything to be victim of men being horribly explicit and suggestive. It’s horrible. Especially when they’re inebriateds.
S: It’s just_too_horrible.
P: Don’t really know what the answer is.
S: Eugenics. It means staying away from places. Which is EXACTLY the problem.
P: I don’t know if it’s getting worse. I think there are just more mediums to be sexist on, and information is more accessible.
P: Dislike the possessive pronoun more than the actual implication.
J: I couldn’t decide whether it was funny or not. Part of me agrees with her, and then I think ‘am I just being humorless’. But the comments under the article are horrible.
Yeah, the possessive pronoun. But is it funny? Someone wrote, “imagine if it said, give this to your black maid…”
P: Fucking Hell. Never read the comments to anything on the internet, ever. Misanthropy.
S: Yes. Fucking stupid people. Someone take their keyboards away. It’s not massively offensive exactly, but it’s not funny. It’s old hat. It took EFFORT to make that label. Effort for a shit joke. Pointless.
P: Some years ago I did a presentation on Neurophysics in front of my class (which I was graded highly for). And at the end of it some boy from the back of the room shouted
“Yeah, that’s great and all, but get back in the kitchen” and all of the boys laughed.
Sort of, an attempt to devalue everything I had said.
J: That IS the same sort of thing. Everyone knows it’s a joke, but. I suppose it’s like all irony, it’s only irony if you know it’s ironic. If you don’t, then it’s true. I used to think that about that comedy programme where they played up all the Asian stereotypes. Funny if you know they’re being ironic. But if you don’t then it just backs up stereotypes.
S: I know what you mean. It’s quite complicated when you start thinking. People should be nice to each other. But sometimes it’s hard to tell when they aren’t.
J: Yeah! And sometimes they’re not even sure they’re not either.
S: It’s just thickness that jeans thing. Really. Even just in terms of humour. Unoriginal. If you can make me laugh and the offensive is for that actual purpose then ok, but when the offensive is real and joke is shit then fuck off and die.
[topic moves back to everyday sexism site]
S: Thinking about it, I’ve never particularly experienced the ‘get back in the kitchen’ stuff. I’ve experienced people thinking I’m stupid because of being a young/girl. But mainly it’s sexual. Actual touching and/or repulsive words.
J: Yeah. You’re right. I haven’t experienced the kitchen type stuff either, I think. Only sex stuff. There was the rapey man on the beach when I was 16. Who didn’t even speak to me when he was doing it. Or after. And once a bloke tried to put his hand in my knickers and when I protested he said “fuck you then” and walked off leaving me alone in the dark somewhere scary.
P: That made my nose tingle.
S: Christ. That idea of being disposable if you aren’t willing to shag is hideous.
P: ACTUAL touching is worst. Hate.
S: I have grabbed their hands and actually screamed at them more than once when they did uninvited touching. One time I grabbed a bloke’s hand and explained to his girlfriend what he’d been doing. He did it when she was stood NEXT TO HIM. AND another time when that happened and I grabbed the bloke’s hand and did anger, he apologised to my boyfriend not me!
P: I mostly just cry and then hide under my duvet for a day with a swiss roll.
J: That apologising to the boyfriend not you makes me want to kill. My friend’s boyfriend wrote ‘slag’ all over my walls because I started going out with someone and wouldn’t shag him. And a bloke told my boyfriend he was lucky because I had good tits. I was embarrassed enough to hide under my duvet with a swiss roll.
S: Thinking it’s acceptable to say that to say that is so weird.
J: Yeah, it’s all about ownership.
P: A few weeks ago when I found myself in that horrible night club a boy came up behind me outside and picked me up from underneath with one hand. And I was wearing a dress. Then when I did some struggling he started making shushing noises so I went home.
J: Fucking hell. He was a total stranger? Was he young
P: Yes. Completely. He practically lifted me via genitals. Puke. He was about 27/28.
S: my friend’s boss, the big MD of the company tried to kiss her at the Christmas party. She refused and he did that typical ‘if you tell anyone then I’ll ruin your career…’. He got married a month later.
Someone I know was sexually assaulted by a bar tender when she was drunk and when she reported it to a policeman they said it was her fault for being drunk.
Oh, and the fact I get paid less than every man in my department despite the fact I am a manager and they are not.
J: I was sitting with a group of ‘friends’ once and a perfectly harmless bloke came in and said, “you’ve got to listen to this!” and it was (I think) a NWA song about a policewoman being raped. It had her screaming and crying for ages. Everyone thought it was really good because it was a policewoman and the police were bastards.
S: Someone put his hands down my pants on a dancefloor. Another bloke was doing repulsive finger/tongue movements right in my face, but my boyfriend headbutted him. Another man put his hand up my skirt once, I turned around and punched him in the head and he pushed me. My friends went for him and he got kicked out.
J: Our friend’s daughter was raped by a bouncer at a night club, and all the other bouncers enabled him to do it.
S: And he got away with it.
P: This all makes me feel HORRIBLE.
J: Sorry, P. Remember it depends where you hang out and there have always been shit people, but there are plenty of lovely.
S: There are LOADS of fucking brilliant people. There are. I have been in situations where people could’ve taken advantage and my lovely friends who are boys have looked after me and kept me safe.
P: Yes. There definitely are. I know that. But even ones who are potentially brilliant think with their penises when they’re my age. Learnt that shit people congregate in certain places and it’s best to just avoid them.
S: That’s true. It’s a fucking infuriating shame. But it’s true.
P: I’m under my duvet. Confused as to why it’s so difficult to accept that I’d rather strangers didn’t attempt to touch my vagina/anything without consent. I might wear a sandwich board saying so.
S: You have to put that stuff in a box and put it away. The only way it can be thought about is objectively, in a different context, in a trying to work out why people are broken way. There isn’t a simple explanation.
And eating makes the universe better. Brian Cox said so. Or something.
J: It would be funny as fuck if you did wear a sandwich board. But people would call you a crazy uptight feminist.
P: “Don’t touch my vagina please”. (I’d put “please” so they wouldn’t think I was uptight).
J: They’d think you were a lesbian.
S: I think there’s a ‘don’t touch my vagina face’ that can be developed a bit.
J: We could make Don’t touch my vagina face masks.
P: It should just be a regular face. I’ve eaten a six pack of Mars Bars since we started this.
*** J: My friend L just shared these joyous anecdotes:
” A bloke suggested he should carry me like god had intended – like a 6 pack of beer. That’s why women have 2 holes. When I told him to fuck off he said I had a fit body but a bad attitude. I should sort myself out.. Told him to go fuck himself. It made him even more outraged. Other girls actually said I should be pleased he fancied me because he was good looking…
….Oh, and Mr Day who stuck his fingers down my top every time I got a Maths question wrong and gave me an irrational hatred of Maths. Cheers for that!” S: Fuck SAKE! I hope someone shot Mr Day in the fucking face.
So. Yes. Just four random perfectly usual well(ish) balanced women, and they’ve experienced all this stuff between them. It’s quite disturbing.
There really is a serious problem here, and I don’t know how it should be addressed. But this conversation made me realise that the everyday sexism project IS doing a useful thing. I may wriggle a bit at the terminology and wish it could be a bit more inclusive of male experience as well, but this stuff needs to be talked about. I don’t want our daughters and their daughters to continue going through this shit. In fact, I can feel the latent angry feminist rise in me as I type. Time to log off.
If I’m honest, I’m with Chuck Palahniuk when he has Tyler Durden say,
“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
I may not have put it quite as grimly as that, but still, my instinct is that ‘unique’ is pretty much impossible when we’re all made up of the same basic ingredients.
So I left the word rattling around in my brainhole for a day or so while I did the hoovering, sorted the socks, cooked spaghetti bolognese, cut my toenails and other notably un-unique activities – and then my mum’s voice appeared in my idea vacuum saying that exact word – ‘unique’. She has used it on more than one occasion, I remembered, to describe my spouse and why we have managed to stay together for so many years. And lo! I thought about it and saw that it was so. If there’s anyone in the world I could describe as unique, it is definitely him.
Which is ironic since he entirely agrees with Tyler Durden’s sentiment on uniqueness, and most certainly would have put it in such a grim way. He has specifically asked to just be chucked on a compost heap when he dies. I think that may be against the law.
We’re not a family that talks about love much. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel it – not at all – just that declarations of love can seem a bit insincere to our oh-so-British ears. This is particularly so when the word ‘love’ is flung about a lot in a relationship. To us it has impact only when used sparingly; anything else smacks of insecurity to our cynical ears.
So when son 2 was born and turned out to be a little package of enthusiastic and unabashed love it was a bit of a revelation; we were used to our more reserved toddler who really only wanted cuddles when he was sad or ill, and even then accepted them graciously rather than actively engaging with them like son 2 did. It has always been very easy to give love to our second son because he was born with a nature that invited it. It is harder to be sure that son 1 knows he is loved because he has become more and more detached from us as he has grown up.
Son 1 had a more difficult time growing up than son 2. When he was born we lived in a caravan on a traveller’s site with no running water, no electricity, no sanitation and drunk people all around. I was too immature of mind to deal well with my new responsibility and knew little or nothing of the psychology of children. I became post-natally depressed and if it wasn’t for my spouse, things could have been a disaster. He faced responsibility with determination, compassion and even a little joy. He got up and did the night feeds and woke me up for the morning feeds by singing along to cheerful songs on the radio and handing me a cup of tea.
We loved son 1 tremendously, but we weren’t the finest of all parents. We were very poor, we didn’t know what we were doing and we were tired and stressed much of the time. It wasn’t the best start for a sensitive young boy, regardless of how much we adored him. We made a lot of mistakes. When we moved into a house and son 1 went to playgroup and then primary school, he was only too aware of our difference from other parents. We were still big-booted, pierced and grubby and we didn’t have fitted kitchens or smart cars. He felt this acutely, but rarely said anything about it; he instead spent his time with other families who were more securely rooted in the ‘conventional’ lifestyle that he preferred.
Our son is now 21 and at university. He is independent, clever, witty and stylish and we are incredibly proud of him. When I think of him, however, I am always a little sad because he remains quite detached. It’s nothing serious or terrible, but he wouldn’t choose to spend time with us; he doesn’t really know what to talk to us about and he resists engaging with our interests and humour. Having son 2 has shown me what a parent/child relationship can be and at the moment I don’t have this with my firstborn. It saddens me to my stomach that he was the one who had to suffer the brunt of my parenting mistakes and that son 2 received all the benefits of what we learned from them.
But, son 1 does phone us when he has a problem and he did turn to me when he had his heart broken. I take solace from this and have a secret fantasy that one day, when he has children of his own, he might understand. In my fantasy, he is a famous fashion designer or journalist or publicist or something, and he’s on Desert Island Discs. He chooses a record that has something to do with his childhood and he says, ‘I was a very different person from my parents, but I realise now how much they loved me.’
This has been an interesting photo challenge. Interesting for me, that is, not you, my poor visitor. It can’t be very interesting for you to have to sit through people-you-don’t-know’s years. Especially since people tend only to take photos of the things that make them seem shiny.
It was interesting to me though because, before I did this, if someone had asked me, “how was your 2012?” I would have said, “Totally shite. Bloody awful. One of my worst years ever.” And yet, when I looked through my photos I found that there have been brilliant things in every single month of the year. Properly brilliant things – ones that made my heart sing happy songs – even though in the background I was in the throes of work-based misery. Of course, photos are a massive edit of your life – you don’t take pictures of yourself crying for days on a sofa or going to a funeral, etc. But even so – the fact that I was able to produce such a happy set of edited highlights shows there were some very highlighty highlights.
There’s a lesson in this. Something to do with the ways we view the world, etc. I won’t write it here in case it gets all fridge magnety.
My panic attack was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Humans have this capacity to carry on in horrible situations for unlimited quantities of time unless something forces them to stop. I was unhappy in my job, I was working 70 hours a week, I was exhausted, I was disillusioned and seriously questioning whether the things I was killing myself to do were of any use to anyone.
This would have continued indefinitely if my body hadn’t said enough is enough. My breathing went wrong, I was sent to hospital, I was told that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the physical damage long-term stress and overwork can do, that I needed a long rest and that I probably need to change my life in some way.
My first month off sick was spent sleeping, crying and raging about the fact that I’d spent nearly 15 years working to get out of the travelling scene and into the ‘real’ world and overcoming all sorts of mental barriers to become the professional teacher that I am now; only to find out that I am too much of a wimp to cope with the demands of the job. I had so much to offer but the education machine had smushed me into a little weeping pulp.
In my second month off sick, in between the crying and sleeping, the world-outside-work began to edge its way back in to my life. It was a complete revelation. I found I could properly listen when spouse spoke for the first time in years – there was real space in my head for his problems and concerns. I was able to cook him meals occasionally because I was no longer home much later than him in the evenings. I could watch films with son 2 because I wasn’t marking or lesson planning. I could see my parents because I didn’t have to spend all Sunday working. I could go out in the evenings. I began to paint and draw again for the first time in years. I was home when the shops were open so I could buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. I could stay up late editing my photographs. I could read whole books which were not work related. I had time to write, and this blog took off. I started to make things again. If someone dropped in unexpectedly for a visit I no longer panicked. I could spend a whole afternoon drinking tea and chatting without that low-level depressing knowledge that I’d now have to stay up extra late to catch up on the work I should have been doing. And most of all, I had time to think about what I want from life. And to realise that living like I had been was no way to live.
A friend of mine once explained how it was she had remained in a horrifically abusive relationship with a mentally ill man for so long before escaping. What sticks in my mind is how she had started seeing the world from the point of view of her abuser. She had begun to share his delusions and feel the same paranoia as he did, losing confidence in her own opinions, and constantly doubting her own judgement. She ended up believing the same things he did, and sharing his warped value system, while at the same time knowing it was all insane. This, I realised, is how I had been working in education (minus the cruelty). The more the management earnestly promoted new impossible and/or contradictory and/or alien ways of doing things, the more I found myself in a state of rampant cognitive dissonance – questioning the system, my own responses to the system and wondering if it was me or it that was insane. I was trying very hard to make it work because I thought I loved it, but in the end I realised it didn’t love me, and it took a hospital visit to make me realise it was over.
In this third month of my being-off-sick I’ve started recovering. I feel as though the clockwork of my brain has been oiled and rewound. I am inspired again. All the clutter and worry of A Level teaching has finally cleared out and space has been made for new ideas. I have a new job for January thanks to a human/fairy godmother (much less money and security, but real purpose again and opportunities for creativity) and I have two new ideas for exciting things to do with my life on top of that.
One of my ideas involves this: And another idea involves these:
Just looking at these images and thinking about what they represent fills me with the kind of inspiration and gut wrenching happiness I haven’t felt in a very long time. So thank you panic attack. Thank you very, very much for awakening my brain.
I went for a walk in Portreath today and found this stone on the harbour. Presumably it’s a message for all those exhausted fishing folk who return after braving storms and sea monsters to bring in their catch. But it’s a message that applies to us all in one way or another. Here are some pictures of the harbour today.
And here are some of the delights the beach had in store for us.
After all that action, spouse decided to try levitating again…
… and then we were thankful as hell for a good dog-welcoming cafe. If you’re ever in Portreath, go to Tideline. You get good food, comfy chairs, water for the dog and jokes.
Something weird happened to me this week when I was standing in a shop changing room about to try on some jeans.
The woman I beheld in the mirror was wearing slightly too-loose charity shop jeans held up by a man’s belt, a pair of army-style boots, a baggy man’s jumper and a wooly scarf. Under the jumper she knew there was a roll of flesh that had not been there a few months ago. Her hair could have been used as the ‘before’ image on an advert for anti-frizz serum, and where the dye had begun to grow out there was a touch of grey at the temples. She was the sort of scruffy middle aged lady that Dorothy Perkins changing rooms are not designed for.
But instead of looking at her with the sort of helpless distress I have become accustomed to as an actual carbon-based female life-form negotiating a culture’s demands for a moulded plastic exterior, I experienced a MOST unexpected sensation: I thought she was a bit beautiful. I mean, I though that I was a bit beautiful.
I know we’re not supposed to say things like that about ourselves, and I’m certainly under no illusions about my actual looks, but what I felt was that I looked just right. The woman in the mirror was an exact reflection of what I am supposed to look like. It was as if, for the first time I can remember, my inside and my outside were in a kind of agreement with each other.
Five months ago, I didn’t feel like that. I felt like this. I was terrified, like so many people in this culture that overrates youth, of the process of visually aging. We even have a name for the fear of wrinkles: Rhytiphobia.
I put the word ‘wrinkles’ into Google and here are a couple of the first things I encountered.
“So, first of all, try to avoid these wrinkles. Always apply suncreen cream before going out. Try not to wrinkle your forehead every time you laugh, smile or cry.”
If we’re female we’re dead familiar with this sort of thing. Three imperative sentences not suggesting, but telling us we must work hard to avoid the natural marks of having been alive for more than a couple of decades. The third sentence is just plain hilarious. Remember: never move your face or nobody will ever love you. Here is the illustration that should have accompanied that advice.
On another site there was a horrified discussion about some celebrity female who had the audacity to have lines round her eyes:
I don’t understand why Lauren Conrad already has so many wrinkles around her eyes. I’m like 5 years older than her but I’m 100% certain that I–or any of my friends–have crow’s feet. It’s even noticeable when you watch her show.
You can also see LC’s wrinkles in magazine shoots too. Aren’t they supposed to photoshop them out?
Some women pass these off as “laugh lines” or “smile lines”…on women, it’s gross…but on a man? Now that’s different because men can look downright sexy with some eye wrinkles.
Hasn’t she heard of sunblock and eye cream? She’s too young to have those wrinkles.
The language is brilliant – it’s clearly morally wrong for this woman to have lines: “hasn’t she heard of sunblock”?! It’s evidently a weakness in her character. Women like that try to pretend they have lines because they’ve laughed or smiled, but we all know it’s really because there’s something wrong with them. And doesn’t the magazine know any better?! They’re supposed to Photoshop them away so that poor innocent smooth-faced people don’t have to be grossed out! It’s a bloody outrage.
Here’s a picture of the aging monstrosity of whom they speak. There is no hope for the rest of us if this woman is gross.
So clearly rhytiphobia is a real thing. People are scared of and repulsed by wrinkles. But when I looked at my face in the changing room mirror and I saw the crinkles at the sides of my eyes, and how they all go upwards as if I have been smiling a lot, I thought, I like them. I really, really like them. They made me feel like a real, valid person with a history and a character of my own; with a sense of humour and something to say; with skills and abilities and something to add to the world. And I realised that I like being older.
There’s a liberation in aging that I never expected. When I was young, strangers never took me seriously as a person – I was treated like a girl, not a human. Boys tended to speak to me if they fancied me or if I was their friend’s girlfriend – very rarely because I was a person in my own right. Younger women were (are?) always sized up in terms of their sexual attractiveness before they were seen as an individual.
But now, with my wrinkles and grey bits, I am treated with respect. I’m sure this is more to do with the confidence I project now I am grown up than it is to do with the world in general, but whatever is causing it, it’s excellent. Even when I am occasionally found attractive by a male, it is expressed in a much more respectful way than it ever was when I was young. And the outcome of this is that I finally, finally feel that I belong in the world in a way that I never did as an insecure young woman. There is a place for me as I am, with crow’s feet and unruly hair, not as I feel other people think I should be. If only we could give this kind of confidence to our daughters when they’re young, they wouldn’t have to waste time obsessing over perfectly functional bits of their bodies and what people think of them, and could spend time working out who the hell they really are instead.
I don’t know how to to give our daughters this freedom to be humans instead of girls, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.