Tag Archives: children

In Defence of Masculinity

When I was studying for my degree I discovered that gender is a social construct made up by an oppressive society to keep women in the kitchen, men out of high heels and everyone spending all their money on hob covers, fake eyelashes and customised number plates in order to feed the ravenous maw of the Grand Demon Capitalism.

I explored gender politics and learned how Patriarchal it is to assume we can label anyone as masculine or feminine based on their genitalia, and that the sin of ascribing a person any characteristics according to their gender is akin to nailing him/her to a board and hitting him/her in the brain with a Barbie until he/she begs for a boob job / off road vehicle / [insert gender-based consumable].

restroomI’m being a bit facetious really, because I do believe that a lot of our gender ideas are at least partially socially constructed, and that a significant proportion of humanity doesn’t fit neatly into these constructions . I’m not the type of female human, for example, who faints at the sight of a flat tyre or is comfortable with devoting all my life to worrying about nail polish and/or breeding, and most of my male friends don’t demonstrate the visible testosterone overload that currently seems de rigeur for the male population either.

So I’m only too aware what cans of worms – nay, buckets of snakes – I’m opening in the hideous raging world of online gender politics when I say we need to bring back masculinity – or maleness.

I know. I understand what a stupid thing that is to say. I know that in intellectual circles there is no such thing. And in one piece of my brain I agree – it’s too loose and tautologous a term to mean anything real and fixed. But in another strongly embedded piece of my brain – the piece that was once a child with a good dad living around kids with other good (or good enough) dads – maleness is a very real thing. A good thing. A thing that we need to look at again because it’s not that idea of masculinity most often presented in the media – the one that gets itself into fights, is attracted to everything with an orifice for penetrating, or is, on the other hand, too stupid to clean a bathroom. It’s a gentler, quieter and stronger thing. A thing we could all do with learning, regardless of our biological proclivities.

Being a self-identified woman (ha), I hear a lot of the things that women say about men. When I was a traveller, for example, women often used to huddle together discussing their male partners. One had a man who perpetually went out all day with other women leaving her behind to look after their child on her own with no transport, electricity, toilet, running water or firewood to stoke up the range, and then demanded food when he got home. Another had a man who tipped up the bed and threw her on the floor when she didn’t want sex with him – another had one who punched her – another, one who was always drunk – another had a man who wouldn’t let her go on nights out without him. You get the picture. You can understand why women in a community like that could fervently believe that men are shit. They saw no evidence to the contrary.

But the thing is – the travelling world we inhabited was basically a re-enactment of medieval times but with trucks instead of horses. It valued qualities such as: wearing torn up clothes, never washing, drinking all day, taking drugs, burning things and playing with vehicles. That world inevitably attracts a certain type of male, and that type of male is not likely to be the intellectual, contemplative, constructive type.

The same applies to women who hang around with men who aspire to be gangsta or various other macho cliche types. It’s not logical for them to extrapolate data about all men from the samples they are subjected to. Some men are idiots, yes, and they treat women horribly. But what we often fail to remember is that some women are idiots too. Actually, quite an embarrassing number of seemingly perfectly reasonable women hold unexamined idiot opinions about men, and they treat men horribly without even realising they’re doing it. I gave an example of the kind of everyday things women ‘think’ about men here, and I see this all the time. Women at work, for example, drink out of mugs that proclaim:

right

And we are all familiar with the ‘men are stupid’ propaganda that’s being pumped out everywhere in a massive strawmanathon by advertisers trying to appeal to the egos of women by implying we’re all married to giant children.
men are stupidI do think this unreasonable shit is some kind of backlash by women who feel they’ve been represented as useless, brainless breeding machines for generations, and is perpetuated by men who feel some kind of ancestral guilt about this. And in that sense, I think it’s a passing phase that will right itself, but  it’s still negative. What kind of message is this sending to our impressionable trainee humans? My son attended an English A Level class where young girls who had experienced very little sexism compared to their mothers and grandmothers were being politicised through the literature of the past to see sexism under every present-day stone. Son had never had a sexist thought in his life until he hit theoretical Feminism head-on at college, and found it infuriatingly simplistic coming from its fresh-faced teenage proponents. They argued, for example, the 70s Feminism idea that pregnancy was a form of oppression. What was a young man to make of that? Now he is vigorously anti-Feminist, which on some level upsets me.

And these kinds of ideas are creating a generation of women who seem to think men owe them some sort of debt for the sins of Patriarchy. Women who believe they are so very precious for just owning a vagina that they can behave however they like and men have to put up with them. You will all have seen this monstrosity floating around Facebook on the pages of apparently perfectly lovely women who seem to think it’s cute and appealing, rather than what it actually is: slightly psychopathic.

marilynNo, women. NO. How can you complain about men being nothing more than big children and then proclaim crap like this? This is not the opinion of an adult human – it’s the tantrum of a two-year-old with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It isn’t the job of the man in your life to ‘handle’ you, or yours to ‘handle’ him. It’s the job of all adult humans to handle ourselves – to overcome the stroppy toddler within and nurture the latent rational grown-up. Grown ups want to be loved because they are interesting, entertaining and good company, not because they’ll shriek and throw a frying pan if you don’t bring them flowers.

And here’s the thing I think needs to be freshly recognised about maleness – maleness of the kind that isn’t caught up in ‘gangsta’ or macho or other kinds of bullshit – ordinary everyday maleness – it’s an astonishing thing. It unassumingly does put up with those kinds of feminine histrionics (even though it shouldn’t have to), and it quietly deals with all kinds of other things that would probably make me and other lesser mortals rail against the universe.

Maleness at its best can be the unacknowledged backbone of a family. The lucky among us have dads or grandads, brothers or uncles who model this type of maleness. Men who go to work every single day, sometimes in jobs they hate, never showing frustration because they so firmly want to support their families, and are still fully involved in life at home. Men who are radioactively proud of their children but can only show it in their deeds because they’ve been conditioned not to be openly emotional. Men who drop everything to mend the washing machine or laptop or to put up shelves or build furniture they have no personal interest in. Men such as my friend’s grandad who loved his wife so much that he overlooked her affairs and devoted himself to keeping their life stable for when she needed him emotionally. Men who are not always the life and soul of the party but stand back in contentment as their loved ones sparkle and achieve because they have been given the solid foundations they need. Men such as my friend who stayed with a violent alcoholic woman he didn’t love because he wanted to protect her (not his) children and give them a bit of stability they wouldn’t have if he left. When you step outside the world of macho idiots, you find this kind of man quietly and unassumingly getting on with life, and asking for little in return apart from a happy family and a partner who loves him.

Men like these are the ones who teach their daughters to value themselves for what they are and do, not for how they look, and show them what to look for in a life partner. Men like these produce sons like themselves, with the capacity for loyalty and strength, and show their daughters that they don’t have to settle for an idiot who will mistreat them.

‘Masculinity’ may be an outdated/mythological notion, but if I was going to define it anyway, this is how I would do it. As an academic I might mock my intellectual naivety, but as a human I think these men are bloody heroes and should be celebrated.

dad-thanks-always-helping-fathers-day-ecard-someecards

Freedom of choice isn’t always freedom

My wellies have split, so yesterday I walked Porthtowan beach with my left foot sloshing about in seawater as warm as amniotic fluid. I loved my wellies, and am very sad to have to replace them. Apart from the fact that they are beautiful, what I most loved about them was that I didn’t have to choose them – my mum chose them for me – and I’ve come to realise that I hate making choices.

wellies 3I realised this after spending two hours (possibly more) inspecting wellies online. What a total waste of time; time that I could have spent pinning down where human consciousness stems from or finally sorting out a viable sustainable alternative to oil and thereby saving the world. But instead I spent that precious fraction of my life comparing prices, reviews, aesthetics and practicality of rubber footwear.

In the version of the past that I remember, when one needed wellies, one went to a shoe shop where they stocked one type of welly in a choice of dull green or black. Fancy ones had ‘Dunlop’ written on the side, but that was it. And they cost about £3.99.

Today I discovered that the welly situation in the West is very, very different now. Wellies have spread and mutated and developed all sorts of confusing added extras which resulted in  my total failure to actually buy any. I became overwhelmed and – I admit it – very slightly stressed by all the choices. If there were only dull green or black all-the-same wellies in the world, I would have purchased a pair in about 2 minutes flat and gone about the rest of my day without a care in the world knowing that shortly I would be able to walk the dog without developing Trench Foot. But all this choice leads to brain-addling indecision.

Plain wellies, to be fair, do still exist. Here they are.

basic wellyAnd if I wasn’t a spoilt brat Westerner, I would just buy these and get on with working out if there is a finite upper bound on the multiplicities of the entries greater than 1 in Pascal’s triangle.

But, how can I just contendedly buy those when THESE exist?

N_WELLYPRINT_NAVMULT_A

If I bought these, just looking at them would make me happy every day. But, apart from the fact that they are nearly £30 more than the dull ones, would I feel embarrassed sporting the ‘Joules’ logo on the front of my legs? Probably. Joules is  brand that yells “I AM QUIRKY MIDDLE CLASS! I RECYCLE AND OWN A SCRUFFY MONGREL! I EAT QUINOA AND HAVE MISMATCHED CHINA! I GROW MY OWN ARTICHOKES!” So maybe I need something a little more understated. Maybe these:

hunterThese appear quite unassuming, but they are branded too, and this brand is only pretending to be understated. People who wear Hunter wellies (especially dirty ones) are saying/trying to say, “These wellies have been in the family for generations, you know. My great, great grandfather wore them shooting with Lord Wilberforce of Durham. Have you met my labrador, Monty?” PLUS they cost nearly £80, so sod that. I read a review of these where someone had written, “I love my Hunters so much I’ve bought some for my husband and both the children”… There are people in the world who will spend £320 on rubber footwear. I am not one of those.

I can honestly say that I would not care ONE BIT if there were no choice whatsoever in the realm of the wellington boot. I wouldn’t feel the need to wield a banner proclaiming that we are being oppressed by a lack of variety in waterproof footwear. Or kettles. Or cars. Or irons. Or electric sanders. Or washing powder. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has stood in a  supermarket being trolley-bashed repeatedly while staring at the variety of washing powders stretching as far as the horizon both ways and sobbing quietly to myself, “I just want one that cleans clothes.” WHAT CRITERIA are we supposed to use to decide which one to buy? The cheapest? The prettiest? Names we have heard of? Smell? Word-of-mouth? Just PASS ME ONE and I’ll leave quietly. Same thing happened when I was buying a second hand car. They were ALL CARS. They all had steering wheels and exhaust pipes. How was I supposed to CHOOSE between them? Does it drive? Can I sit down in it? Does it stop again when I’ve finished? It happens in restaurants too. Apart from anything with seafood in, I could probably eat any of it. I usually deal with the problem by  waiting until the waiter looks at me expectantly, see what leaps into my brain, and order that. I wish they would just issue me with a meal. So long as there’s a cup of tea at some point, I’ll be happy.

When spouse and I became parents for the first time – 22 years ago – we were (cringe) Anarchists, and we believed that our young son should be given freedom to make his own choices in everything. I still believe this, I suppose, but what I didn’t see then is that we’re not really equipped to make free choices without substantial guidance until we’re much older (and in my case, never). The amount of free choice we gave him, we eventually realised, caused him great stress because he would panic even over seemingly trivial choices – if I choose this one, then I might regret it and realise that the other option was better – too much choice used to freeze his faculties with anxiety and then cause him to enjoy his final choice less than he would have under different circumstances.

I don’t know if it’s possible to draw any conclusions from this and my own experiences with choice-based distress, but I wonder if the fact that the doctrine of freedom of choice is used everywhere nowadays is really as healthy as we like to believe it is. Certainly in the area of consumerism it can be pretty distasteful, and in education I believe that choice has been at least partly responsible for a big decline in real learning as opposed to qualification-collecting. But that’s a whole other story.

While I was searching for (and failing to find) an entertaining image for this post, I found this TED talk instead. I think Barry Schwartz says it much better than I did. Damn him.

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Oh, and I’d be grateful if someone could just choose some wellies for me. Thanks.

Image by http://dannyburgess.tumblr.com/
Image by http://dannyburgess.tumblr.com/

Number 13 in my occasional series of Empty Nest coping strategies

I started a list of coping strategies here (and continued it here) as a way to deal with the fact that my last son was leaving me for a life of academic and domestic bliss in Cardiff (he’s back now, but that’s another story). 

Here are the two sons. Obviously they don’t look like this any more or son 2 would encounter significant difficulties in reaching the door handle of his flat.

So far my list has consisted of ways to forget that one is no longer needed on a day-to-day basis by one’s spawn. Today I had a breakthrough. I found a way to make a redundant parent pleased to be free of dependents.

The secret is to go to a holiday attraction at half term.

The attraction we chose today was Paradise Park in Hayle, Cornwall. We chose it because there are otters (although it’s mainly birds) and there was a money-off voucher. I tried to persuade my friend H to come, but she said it’s a long and expensive journey on public transport from Bodmin just to look at some birds flapping. She tends to prefer animals that can kill you, so we were forced to go without her.

Once our spawn are old enough to scorch their own pizzas and disappear for days at a time, we forget what a phenomenal amount of hard work it is to look after small children. I think this is an evolutionary adaptation designed to make sure we don’t stop breeding in horror. Attending family holiday attractions is a foolproof way to recharge the memory. We stood in the queue at Paradise Park watching parents juggling chubby hands, bottles, bags, pushchairs, toys, lunchboxes and their sanity while warning, cajoling, jollying, reassuring, enthusing and willing their broods through the process of entering the park. How relaxing it was to just stand there watching. Not one shriek of distress or wail of demand was aimed at me. I was the luckiest person in Paradise Park (apart from the one who gets to feed the otters).

Lunch in the cafe was a further revelation. The entire place was rammed with families sating irritable children with comestibles. I sat with P at a sunny table peacefully supping tea and watching otters cavort outside while all around me was mayhem. Pale and rumpled parents were spooning squishy substances into gaping babyholes, picking up pieces of bashed fruit from the floor, persuading errant children to eat one more bite of sausage, begging toddlers to desist from shrieking, wiping up spills and faces and promising a go on the penny-squashing machine if brother would cease hitting sister while sister finishes her fizzy toxin in a cup. The noise of family life en masse was enough to shatter a vulnerable ear drum and cause involuntary infertility.

And none of it had anything to do with me. I am free. This empty nest thing – it’s not so bad.

Here are a few photos from the park.

Girl meets boy.

Son 2 just inherited nearly £3000 for being 18.

Eighteen must surely be one of the worst possible ages to inherit some thousands. When you’re 18 you think you know everything, you want everything, you are hormonally disrupted, prone to alcoholic excess and have the foresight capacities of a gnat with short term memory loss.

Son 2 would say something along the lines of “speak for yourself” if he read that. Only he would phrase it in a more witty and entertaining way. And he would be right. I am speaking for myself.

I was a total dick when I was 18. I was sort of like a rabbit or a badger. No, not a mammal; more of a moth or a daddy long legs. I certainly wasn’t a primate of any kind because they are curious creatures, and mammals can learn things. I was the kind of creature that would fly around, do some mating, eat stuff then bang itself against a window/light bulb for 17 hours and die.

I inherited £6000 when I was a crane fly/moth combination, and £6000 was a lot then. The man who worked in Midlands bank offered me his boat when I went to pay it in. Nowadays they offer you ISAs. I should NEVER have been allowed to be in charge of £6000 and my parents knew it. They made some enquiries and discovered that the only way they could prevent me from getting my hands on it was to declare me insane, and they just couldn’t bring themselves to do that. They should have. They should have clubbed me over the head or fed me sleeping pills until I was 30 so I couldn’t make it to the bank. But no. I turned down the Midland bank man’s offer, and instead I did the following things:

1. Bought myself a double quilt

2. Bought a 1920s black lace dress, some ankle boots and various other vintage apparel

3. Bought a massive ghetto blaster

4. Lent hundreds of pounds to various dreadlocked wasters and never received a penny of it back

5. Bought a motor bike

6. Bought an ambulance and gave it to a bloke with a name like a 1930s gangster

7. Got exceedingly pissed

8. Moved to London and lived in a squat

9. Took speed

It was all gone in less than a year and all I had to show for it was a taste for Special Brew and Merrydown snakebites and an ex-boyfriend who I left because he didn’t like me going to the pub in case boys looked at me and refused to accompany me on a world tour.

So I was in London living in a series of squats and receiving the occasional letter from the ex-boyfriend who was a bit jealous that I was having a more phenomenally amazing life than he was in Cornwall. I wasn’t having a more amazing life than him, but it was dead easy to expand a visit to an Anarchist bookshop and a chat with a man with a splendid beard into a deep involvement in political activism when there’s 300 miles between you and the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.

So we began a sort of letter-based Battle of Alternativeness. I wrote to him about my arrests and protests and squat parties and whatever, and he wrote to me about being in a band and hanging out with some travellers who’d moved to Cornwall from somewhere up country and held mental drinking sessions on a bus which they’d entirely splattered in paint. I later discovered that these drinking sessions involved building fires out of tyres and other detritus, placing armchairs in the middle of them, seeing who could sit on them for the longest, and eating puppy poo.

So it was I came to encounter my first travellers in their own habitat. A couple of years earlier, I’d been watching the news with my ma one evening, not paying much attention to a story about ‘the convoy’ and how they’d been trundling around being disapproved of, getting evicted from places and generally smelling, when Ma had suddenly said, “You’ll never run away and join the Peace Convoy, will you?”  I was about 15 then and had no idea about anything apart from eye liner, ankle boots and a massive sense of unfocused dissatisfaction, so I looked at her in the way that 15 year olds look at their parents when they speak, and humphed some sort of “of course not” response. But she knew. She must have known.

So when I next visited Cornwall to grunt at my parents, I met up with the ex-boyfriend who was very keen to show off his excessively cool new acquaintances in whom I had so little interest that it was pretty much a vacuum of interestedness – a minus-interest. But he insisted, so I got into his car and drove with him through the desolate wasteland that is the old mining district of Cornwall, feeling progressively more depressed with each clunk and clank of rock against exhaust as we jerked our way up to a rocky precipice upon which was parked this old bus.

The ex-boyfriend was as enthusiastic as a puppy dog. He knocked on the bus door and someone from inside yelled some sort of consonantless sound effect which presumably meant, “do come in”, and he pushed the folding door open onto some darkness, some mud, a pile of boots and some steps.

The bus windows were mainly painted over, so it was hard at first to see in the gloom, but I followed the ex-boyfriend up the steps where we kicked our boots into the pile of others and walked onto the bus in our socks. There were three or four people lurking in the murk, but nobody spoke or seemed particularly bothered whether we were there or not. One of the humans seemed entirely unconscious, another semi-conscious with his eyes open, and two were sentient but had been away from school the week they did social skills.

Ex-boyfriend had clearly been exaggerating in his letters, just as I had been; he’d raved effusively about the hilarity of the bus’s inhabitants. I had obviously caught them on an off day, but we bravely endeavoured to uphold the traditions of social intercourse and chatted about London, Hackney, the squatting scene and whatever. All these topics of conversation were met with mild impatience by the only female inhabitant of the bus, a plain girl with short brown dreads and a lot of brown clothing who had clearly been everywhere and done everything already, and done it in a much more laid back and cool way than I had. She, for example, had never made the mistake of attending a squat party enthusiastically. No fucking way, man. Enthusiasm was a sure sign of a novice alternative type. Real ‘types’ would only ever do things nonchalantly and with visible derision. I was such a twat.

The other sentient being in the bus was a wiry male with big curly hair illuminated dimly from behind by the light leaking between the paint sploshes on the windows, making it impossible to make out his actual face. He was wearing massive, filthy trousers that seemed to be made up of about 5 ragged pairs all stuck together with grease creating a leathery trouser life-form independent of his actual legs. The male in question was drinking his way steadily through an extensive supply of Special Brew and only spoke to make sarcastic comments and laugh derisively.

This may well have been the most horrible visit I have ever made to anyone in my entire life – before or since. The atmosphere was so oppressive that it felt like I was breathing moulten lead; everything I said was met with low-level scorn, and the ex-boyfriend seemed to think everything was dead cool. I was desperate to get out of there. My friend E will recognise the horrible feeling. This was my first ever experience of the horrible feeling that was to become absolutely familiar as I became more and more embroiled in this world where everyone preached community while stabbing each other in the back.

The significance of this story? The significance of this in not just that it was my first ever encounter with the traveller existence that for some unfathomable reason was to become mine for the next ten years or so; the real significance is that the horrible curly haired man I met and despised that day on that bus has now been my husband for 22 years.

Oh, and our second son who has just turned 18; he’s putting two-thirds of his money into a savings account for university and taking his girlfriend out for dinner. He will probably never understand why I am so proud of him.