------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish

Diary of a Goldfish

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Potato Harvest

Stephen and I finally moved into our own place.  It's weirdly blissful. Weirdly because there's a lot going on and we've still got a huge amount to organise and work out. But it's so peaceful. We're very busy and very peaceful; quietly productive.

We live opposite a junction and watch a lot of agricultural traffic passing through; enormous slow but very deadly looking farm machinery, mud-splattered jeeps, the occasional horse. Every now and again, we'll be sitting quietly in our living room (our living room) and Stephen will exclaim, "Potatoes!" as a truck, bearing enough spuds to feed the village for a year, goes by.

For almost two weeks, I couldn't believe we'd really done it. We've talked about a home of our own for four and a half years. We've talked so much and planned and schemed, so that actually moving in felt like a further exercise in fantasy, as if we'd been allowed to play house for a few days before having to go home. Home - I was finally given my own key to my parents' house on the day I moved out.

This spell was broken by a new washing machine - strictly speaking, a washer-dryer. Turns out, when the machines achieve singularity, they won't take over and enslave us, they'll simply humiliate us by undermining all logical steps we might take to wash our clothes. We could have fantasised about the peace and quiet, the freedom and the flat-pack furniture (it's so satisfying). I wouldn't have fantasised about spending the best part of a day trying to get one load clean and dry(ish). So it had to be real.  It's real.

When he was a boy, Stephen heard the Strangler's Golden Brown and understood perfectly; Golden brown, texture like sun - Hugh Cornwell was quite obviously singing about his love for potatoes, a love that young Stephen could relate to.

This is one reason why I love him. I've known a few people who have survived periods of adversity by holding fast to some positive in their life; a dream for the future, a passion in the present, a pet cat. At some point, Stephen learned to find joy in the minutia; the pattern of veins on a leaf, the comfort of woolen socks or the glorious versatility of the humble spud. He's carried me through difficult times this way. Bad morning? Then let's make lunch an event. To say every day is special sounds both corny and slightly nauseating, but the truth is occasionally like that.

Manna From Potato Heaven; a large, still rather dirty
potato embraced by a pair of manly white hands.
As the potato-laden lorries turn the corner, they lose a little of their load. You often see this in the countryside, at this time of year; mostly root veg and sugar beet, scattered along the outside of sharp corners, usually cracked by the fall and crushed by the proceeding traffic. The gutter outside our house is strewn with spuds, partially-mashed.

A large specimen lands in our garden, perfectly intact. We'll have that. Vegetarian roadkill.

We've always lived in other people's homes, one way or another. Stephen has always lived with his parents. I've lived with my parents, my ex-husband and briefly, a friend, but I've always had to fit myself to other people's routines and rituals, the way other people want to do things, sometimes infuriating in their futility, sometimes just impossible to abide by fully. When I first left my ex-husband, the relative freedom was overwhelming; when you've had someone else dictating everything from what you wear to how you make a cup of tea, it's hard to know where to begin.

Something similar is happening now, although it's shared between us. We need to work out how to manage our energy, now that we can do pretty much what we like, whenever we like. Fending for ourselves, we need to use a lot of energy on the basics, but those basics don't need to accommodate anyone else, whether in terms of space or timing or anxiety that if there's food on every shelf of the fridge, it may stop working altogether.

It's a long time since I lived in a town; I've never lived in the city.  But I don't know what comes next, once all the potatoes are gathered in.  I'm sure onions came earlier - late August, early September. You could smell them, even if you couldn't see them.  Once the potato lorries drive away (Potato Merchant, one of them declares on the side), is that it, for the winter?

I'm so tremendously happy right now.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lesbian for a Year - some questions.

I've been thinking about Lesbian For A Year by Brooke Hemphill, a memoir of a straight woman who, frustrated by the single life, decided to forego men and date women for a year. I haven’t read the whole thing; this article by the author describes the basis for the book and how "Ultimately, dating women made me a better straight person."

All I seem to have here is questions:

What if a lesbian got fed up of women (it happens) and decided to date men for a year?  Would this be a marketable memoir? What would the backlash look like? Would we expect straight men to be more or less insulted to find themselves portrayed as romantic and sexual guinea pigs?

Many gay men and lesbians have spent a year or ten pretending to be straight; dating people of other genders, occasionally even marrying them. Is anyone interested in gay perspectives on the straight life and if not, why not? 

Could a woman hope to become “a better lesbian” by dating a few men? Can we only become better people by occupying marginalised spaces? If so, what hope for self-improvement among marginalised people?

Why is it that the word bisexual seems entirely unavailable to some people who experience romantic and sexual attraction or relationships with both men and women*?  Folks should be free to use whatever labels they like, but outside of single-sex environments, is it common for straight women to enjoy sex  or having romantic relationships with women? What makes a straight person straight?  

Imagine that a straight guy wrote a book, “Gay man for a year.”  He was fed up with women, finding them too demanding or fussy or whatever the stereotype may be. Then one morning after a night on the town, he wakes up in bed with a man, and decides to give gayness a go. Observing the behaviour of other men in romantic relationships, he realises something about himself before returning to the pursuit of lady-love.

Yeah, imagine that.

Why am I so certain that such a book would never happen? Why do I suspect that if a man conducted such an experiment, he might be anxious to keep it a secret from his friends, and from any future girlfriends?

Sexuality is weird and wonderful. The way our culture frames sexuality is plain weird.

C N Lester has some suggestions for alternative books they would rather read

* I assume most bisexual people are attracted to members of various genders of which men and women are but two, but in this case, it's about men and women.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Robin Williams, narratives of depression and suicide.

In the month since the death of Robin Williams, there has been a lot of social and mainstream media discussion about depression and suicide. This is a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more likely that we might move towards a position where mental illness is seen as the commonplace yet debilitating experience it is, the more likely we are to better manage these conditions as a society and the greater the hope that meaningless deaths and the devastation they cause can be avoided. 

But as with any move towards greater awareness, there are a lot of messages floating around which aren't necessarily helpful, which simplify illness and risk re-enforcing assumptions about mental illness. Emma wrote about the simplistic message that folk just need to tell someone, and I want to talk about other dominant narratives of suicide and depression.

The world at large cannot know what was going through Robin Williams’ mind when he decided to take his life. We know about some sources of stress in his life (a cancelled show, potential bankruptcy, a Parkinson's diagnosis). We know that he had bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol and substance abuse. However, there is no neat story to tell – not right now and maybe never – about what he was thinking and why he did what he did. 

However, that doesn't stop us pretending there is. 

“This is what depression feels like.”

I’ve seen so many articles with this kind of title since the death of Robin Williams and you know what?  That’s not what depression feels like. My experience of depression isn’t exactly extensive – it’s probably about eighteen months, all totted up, but even I can tell you that it feels like physical pain, also numbness, also total emptiness, also like all the colours have been toned down, also utter blackness, also a menacing figure in the corner of the room, also complete indifference, also a bell jar and a black dog. Not all at once, you understand, but it changes.  Meanwhile, symptoms vary hugely between individuals; how much a person can do, how sociable they are, whether they're sleeping all day or not at all, whether they're eating all day or not at all, and so forth. 

I think it’s immensely important to talk about our personal experiences of depression – the biggest barrier for people seeking help is the fear of judgement and misunderstanding, the belief that they are the only person who has ever felt like this (or at least the only person they know). So it really is great that people have the courage to write about their darkest experiences. 

However, framing anything as a definitive account (perhaps especially when it’s beautifully written) plays into the idea that this is a condition which looks one particular way. That readers of such accounts can know exactly how Robin Williams, or any person with depression, must have felt.  

This is especially dangerous when it comes to perceptions of functional impairment; the idea that someone with serious depression can't get out of bed, or will withdraw from the world altogether.  There's a danger of assuming our friend who is having dark thoughts but still making it into work each day will be just fine.

Fortunately, it's possible to be both respectful and compassionate without having to know exactly how a person is feeling at any given moment in time.


Yes, depression lies.  Depression can make people believe things about themselves, their lives and other people which are not true.  A truly wonderful person can come to hate themselves because of this trick. A very fortunate person surrounded by love and material comforts may hate their life because of this trick. 


Some people experience depression for random chemical reasons, as with post natal depression, but many others have depression caused or compounded by abuse, trauma, discrimination, isolation, physical illness, poverty, heartbreak, bereavement and very often, a combination of these things.  Meanwhile, depression makes a person more vulnerable to negative life events, to poverty, to exploitation, to losing supportive relationships and to other physical and mental health problems. In other words, people with depression are likely to have some very real problems in their lives. 

And people with depression are not believed.  It is much harder for people with mental ill health to get the benefits they’re entitled to.  When someone with depression takes a physical symptom to the doctor, it will often be put down to depression. When someone with depression takes a criminal case to the police, they may be told that they are an unreliable witness. When someone perceived to have a mental illness speaks out about politics, an elected official may advise them to "refrain from commenting in the public domain" as if a diagnosis discredits a person completely. 

People who live with these experiences often wind up with problems trusting themselves, rendering #depressionlies a far more complex message than can be done justice to in 140 characters. 

Meanwhile, all chronic illness lies.  Chronic pain is a lie – the point of pain is to warn you of injury or illness, so you can respond accordingly, recover and avoid whatever made you hurt in the first place. Chronic pain says that there’s a crisis now, when (often, at least) there’s no crisis at all and nothing you can do.  Chronic pain tells you to stay still when you need to move and to move when you need to stay still.

“People don’t die by suicide. They die of depression.”

Suicide is a physical act, not an internal experience. People take their lives in a great variety of circumstances. One person might plan their death a year in advance.  Another person, in the absence of any mental health problem, finds themselves in a difficult situation, panics and departs.  Suicide is not, as one commentator has it, a symptom of depression.

Suicide is a physical act at one particular moment in time - this is one reason why speculating on why Robin Williams, or any other person, died, is ridiculous. All these deaths tell us is that, at one particular moment in time, a person intended either to to gamble with their lives, to inflict severe self-injury or to end their life. Sometimes people die and those left behind have no idea what was going through their minds. Sometimes a person gets very drunk or stoned or desperate or angry and makes a dreadful mistake which would not have occurred to them the following day. The fact that a deceased person had depression doesn't mean they were in complete agony for months leading up to this event. These are tragic deaths.

I feel we desperately need to be honest about this because suicide is highly preventable. One of the great tragedies of suicide is the fact that, in very many circumstances, external events might have disrupted the act. Speak to people with a history of suicidal depression and you frequently hear stories of rescue; this event, this person, this pet, even a personal realisation that struck them at the right moment saved their life

Depression is not a simple condition and occasionally, people don't get completely better. But it's often simple kindnesses, responsibilities and thin rays of hope which enable people to survive the worst periods and regain some quality of life. 

Meanwhile, there is a hell of a lot we can do, socially, culturally and politically to help reduce the impact of depression on people's lives, so far fewer people ever get into a position of danger. Both depression and suicide are hugely influenced by sociological factors (including the way that famous suicides are reported).

Describing suicide as if it is something that just happens to depressed people is doing no-one any favours.  It patronises people with depression and renders the rest of us helpless.

Fortunately, we're not.

If you're in trouble right now, these links may be useful:

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On writing & listening to music

My iPod is rather like a vortex manipulator; the most primitive transport through time and space. Music can make me feel most like myself, my secret cool self, the self where all things are possible and then again, music can make me feel most like someone else entirely. Music in an effective way of changing gears. Music is an effective way of changing masks.

If you know what sort of music a person likes and particularly, the way they hear it, you know an awful lot about them. I find it really useful to give distinct musical tastes to characters. Outside fiction, of course, you nearly never know how other people hear music, which is why it can be so reassuring that Barrack Obama cited Ready or Not as his favourite track, yet so devastating when David Cameron professed to love the Smiths. Yet, try to consider just how David Cameron actually might listen to the Smiths. The lyrics change their meaning. The colours of the music are completely altered. Can you imagine? He hears “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” and is moved to demolish the welfare state while vilifying the poor.

The article I linked to documenting Cameron’s love for the Smiths quotes him as saying, "The lyrics – even the ones I disagree with – are great, and often amusing.”

That's interesting, because not everyone listens to pop music thinking, "Now, that's an ideological point of view I disagree with, but that cat sure be laying down some the phat rhymes."  So that's another thing to consider, when using music to tune into fictional characters; Charles Manson thought that the Beatles' White Album was all about race war. People hear and interpret lyrics differently; sometimes they don't matter and sometimes they're everything.

Tragically, David Cameron is not a fictional character, but if he were, understanding how he enjoyed the Smiths would be very useful to his creator. Playing the Smiths while writing about him would be useful. No reader need know about any of this - the subject need never be raised. But it's co-ordinates in time and space.

That having said, there's no harm in musical references. A detective with an eccentric taste in music has become a cliche in British detective fiction, but that's only because it worked so well with Morse (classical, particularly Wagner) or Rebus (rock, particularly The Rolling Stones). I’m really excited in movies and TV shows when they pick distinct music which a character actively chooses to listen to - McNulty listening to The Tokens' version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight while tailing Stringer Bell or Walter White racing along the desert highway to A Horse With No Name.

There are people – and therefore there must be fictional characters – who either can’t or don’t appreciate music (I have known a few extremely lovely and poetic people who are either deaf or just not bothered for music). In these cases, it may be necessary to plug into some other piece of culture that a character is into; a favourite movie, TV programme, a favourite painting or whatever. Only naturally, you can’t do that while writing, and it often takes more time and consideration.

Beyond the matter of character, I use music as an aid to concentration. I can only work for short spells and time, energy and peace arrive at fairly random intervals. I have to get in there as quick as I can.

This music is not music that I would particularly enjoy in other circumstances, because it has to meet the following criteria:

  1. A track has to be at least four minutes long. Longer is good.
  2. A track can't have a lot of variation - the classical music I love provides long movements, but often with too much going on.  
  3. I must be very familiar with this track for some reason, even if that reason isn't love for the music.
There's a fair amount of classic music that's good for this, as is goth music; Bauhaus' Bela Legosi's Dead goes on forever. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry's Talk About The Weather is shorter but you can play it on repeat and not notice that it's ended and started again. Dance tracks from the 1990s which became numbingly familiar on the bus to and from high school are also very useful; Adamski & Seal's Killer or What is love? by Haddaway. That kind of nonsense. 

I don't dislike this music, but if I were a fictional character, it would not be mine.  

There are dangers listening to music when writing, apart from obvious things like singing, dancing and spending half an hour rearranging a playlist before you’ve even got started.

The first is feeling it too much. When I was younger, I treated fiction-writing much as I treated dramatic performance, as if, should I only feel everything a fictional character feels, the reader would too. Only actually, feeling it all makes it impossible to write. Your tears may short the keyboard but that doesn't make for articulate prose. As music is such a catalyst to strong emotion, it’s sometimes best to listen to a tune before writing in silence. You can take notes. No, don't just copy down the lyrics - what are you? Twelve?

The second is feeling hampered by the fact that nothing you can write in words can ever be as expressive and exciting as music, because music is the bomb. You’re thinking about the way a character feels, you listen to a track and know that you cannot express their feeling better than what you just heard. It’s true, you really can’t. But music cannot tell complex narratives with all the richness that entails. It's different. You can practice your guitar later on.

The third is the temptation to nerd out about music in writing, which is always unwise when one's purpose is to get on and tell a story. There are exceptions - here is one, from Howards End

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Accessing The Future and That Movie Where The White Straight Cis Non-disabled Guy Saves The Day Despite Everything.

I wanted to join in the blog hop to raise awareness (and hopefully money) for Future Fire's latest project Accessing The Future,which they describe as an "SF anthology exploring disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality."

If you enjoy science fiction or have any interest in promoting diversity in fiction, please support this project. Also check out (and join in) their blog hop - here are Jo's and David's intriguing contributions, as well as this post by A C Buchanan on disability in speculative fiction.

I have not managed to do anything new and am soon to be invaded by small children. However, I unearthed this monster from my Drafts folder as the subject matter is not irrelevant to diversity (or the lack thereof) throughout fiction:

That movie where the white straight cis non-disabled guy saves the day despite everything. 

This is jam-packed full of spoilers – can’t work round that.

Most of the greatest films ever made feature a hero from a very narrow demographic; straight cis non-disabled white men make up around a quarter of the British population and even less of the US (where most English language movies are made). And yet this minority are often treated as a massive majority in movies; these are the faces we see most often on screen and indeed, these are the faces of some fantastic characters: James Bond, Philip Marlowe, Indiana Jones, the Man with No Name and up to a point, John McClane. 

The fact that in 2014, film-makers treat a character's whiteness, masculinity, straightness etc. as necessary criteria for a protagonist, particularly in action, science-fiction and fantasy, is disappointing. But something worse is happening. In recent years, I've seen a whole raft of movies where heroes with these qualities have very little else. They don't save the day because they behave heroically; they save the day just because they are that guy. 

This hero is not heroic.

In many cases, he is outright incompetent.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson's character is an alcoholic who was thrown off the police force for his drinking and then, miraculously, employed as a Air Marshal.  White House Down begins with Channing Tatum's character being turned down for a job at the White House because he’s unqualified and has terrible references. In Star Trek, Into Darkness, Kirk is the least talented person on the Enterprise, an incorrigible lech with a reputation for getting into brawls, a man of thirty-something they talk of sending back to the academy.

These are not men who are underestimated and come to prove themselves; in Non-Stop, our hero fannies about, upsets everyone and eventually follows protocol after the bad guys have messed up their own plans. The most pivotal action Kirk takes in the entire movie is to fix a machine by repeatedly kicking it in frustration. The hero of White House Down is good at shooting people, but he isn't crafty or cunning. He's just sufficiently violent.

I assume there must be an idea, somewhere, that movie audiences want heroes they can relate to - ordinary people who aren't particular good at anything and don't make good choices. Only, most of us are good at stuff and we do make good choices. Flawed heroes are great - we want to consume fiction featuring human beings (even if they are pixies, rabbits, crockery or whatever). But where's the entertainment in watching someone just get lucky?

He was a far greater man in the original film or book. 

It's also remarkable how this treatment has been applied to established characters. William Shatner's Captain Kirk had tremendous charisma and often made smart choices, even though his wisdom was a little inconsistent. You understood why everyone wanted to follow him into battle and/ or eat his face. Chris Pine's Captain Kirk, on the other hand, has a surprising large forehead.

Given the immense amount of time and effort they put into making The Hobbit into three - three! - movies, you'd think they would have considered the character of the eponymous hobbit, Bilbo Baggins; a small man who uses wit, cunning and the help of his friends to overcome enormous foes. In the movies so far, Bilbo is a small man who happens to be aggressive and fast. 

In the book, when the dwarves have been captured by spiders, Bilbo makes himself invisible and sings to them, freaking them out before driving them off by throwing stones. In the film, he fights them, stabbing them and waking up the dwarves so they can pull the spider's legs off. In the book, they gradually win the trust of Beorn (apparently a recluse since leaving Abba) by introducing themselves and telling stories. In the movie, the gang run away from Beorn's bear self, occupy his house and wait for him to turn human. 

If you're determined to suck the dynamism out of your heroes, you need to bring in a lot of outside help to make sure they save the day. This is done in two ways:

It is his destiny.

There's an awful lot of destiny involved in these movies; these are legends, not fairytales. The idea of an ordinary boy or man who discovers he is something significant doesn't make for a bad story - that's Harry Potter, among others. However, Harry Potter found out he was a wizard and then worked hard at being the best wizard he could be, overcoming obstacles, forming alliances, facing down his enemies.

In these movies, destiny is pretty much enough, although unlike Harry Potter, these are privileged boys and men, living very comfortable lives. In Ender's Game, Ender apparently has some skills but he is repeatedly tricked and manipulated by the people who believe it is his destiny. The same people manipulate his colleagues to like or dislike him and to follow him as a leader. He is then finally tricked into saving the world. 

Comic book superhero movies are not generally That Movie; superheroes belong to the metatext and are thus pretty reasonably-constructed characters. But the sheer number of these films and the fact that these heroes triumph because they are heroes (or in the case of Thor, because he is a god) are part of this general pattern.

In Kick Ass, good prevailed because of considerably cunning, courage and acquired skill. In Kick Ass 2, good prevails against far greater odds because... well, it just does somehow.

The other way you overcome the great gap where the hero's heroism should be is to make him adored by everyone around him.

Everybody loves this guy. Nobody knows why. 

Oz, The Great and Powerful came out of the questionable idea that there are no fairytales with strong male protagonists. So what kind of hero did they go for? Well, the first, second and third thing we learn about Oz is that he exploits women for both money and sex, he also exploits his male colleague, he continues to behave with abject cynicism even after he finds himself in a mysterious magical land. Yet everyone he meets adores him and thus he is reformed through the entirely irrational love and faith of others.  

In Non-Stop, two smart women - played by the excellent Michelle Dockery and Julianne Moore - never waver in their faith in our unreformed alcoholic Air Marshal, despite their short acquaintance, knowledge of his drunkenness and the fact he manhandles and accuses them.

In Oblivion, the Scavs risk life and limb to communicate with Jack Harper, a man who has been killing them all, just because he's started to frown and gaze into the middle distance. They already have a perfectly good plan for defeating their enemy without him - a plan that would have worked out if they hadn't brought Harper there to tell him about it. For no good reason.

The hero always gets the girl.

We've apparently moved on from having a final scene where the leading man takes the leading (often only) woman into his arms for a snog, even if they've only exchanged a few lines about nuclear fusion early in the second act. Getting the girl is now more often implied; the final scene features a moment of flirtation or a mutual look of longing. But that guy still gets the girl. Beautiful women are no longer prizes for heroic acts, they are the prize for being the protagonist in the movie, even an incompetent protagonist whose path was largely dictated by fate.

Bilbo Baggins is the one exception - he does not get the girl (although I've only slept through seen the first two movies so far), although the film-makers have invented a love story which begins when the dwarves are captured by the elves. Addressing a lady-elf, the best-looking dwarf says, "Aren't you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers!" 

At this point, Tolkein's ghost entered the room and smashed in our telly with a copy of The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

There are action, adventure and science fiction movies with black protagonists and women protagonists and those aren't all great movies. They do, however, make their heroes and heroines demonstrate some reason for us to root for them and some means by which they might have a chance at fulfilling their quests or defeating their enemies. In fact, action movies with women protagonists work hard to establish, within the first scenes, this is not just any woman; this is a special woman, with special skills. Or occasionally, this is a very ordinary woman who is about to befall a terrible fate which will force her to learn to be special.

In fact, an irony about these movies is that they are not short of competent women and people of colour. The women on the Starship Enterprise are massively qualified and brave and Sulu takes the helm with great success (let's skip past the casting of Khan). White House Down staffs the Secret Service with smart women and has Jamie Foxx as president (as he deserves to be). Most of the women in Oz, The Great and Powerful are tremendously strong and powerful, despite Oz's baffling sexual allure being enough to turn a good witch bad.

So, as well as these character's failure to engage the viewer, there's a dreadful message of entitlement here. It used to be that a white straight cis non-disabled guy could go to the movies and come away with the message that people like himself were capable of great things. Now he can come away with the message that someone like him will achieve greatness however little he actually does.

Meanwhile, the rest of us? We've got to knuckle down and rally around our hero; the whole world is at stake and he doesn't look like he can save it without us. 

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who is manipulating us on social media?

It is Apple or Lenovo? A gorgeous white man with dark
hair and glasses clutches his mysterious laptop.
When Google’s search results became personalised, anxious voices were raised about the danger of keeping individuals within their own happy filter bubble, where they only saw things in which they had an established interest, only heard opinions of which they already approved, only came into the presence of people like themselves.

Similarly, when last month it was revealed that Facebook had been conducting unethical psychological research on its users, people were outraged that they could be so manipulated. Laurie Penny said
“Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively." 
And I’m thinking, what about us?

Now, I can’t tell you how big a fan I am of social media – without it, my universe would often shrink to the size of a bed. However, the biggest danger of social media is how, quite unconsciously, we influence and are influenced by one another. None of it is terrifying but - just like bearing in mind that all our free tools belong to commercial interests with American cultural values - this is stuff we need to think about.

On-line and off-line social behaviour differs in three main respects. The first is by far the most explored; with fewer clues to social status and identity, people talk to others with an ease that doesn’t occur in the same way off-line. This is mostly a good thing. Disadvantages are obvious.

The second is that on-line, a person may socialise with a wide group of people at any time of the day or night, in almost any physical location. Things can get intense, which isn't always a problem - a lot of information can be exchanged and friendships can fuse fast. Yet equally, this social world can become psychologically inescapable. It can be hard to leave alone, whether you’re in the middle of a great conversation or a raging argument. It's in your pocket. It sleeps beside you at night.

The third is this world’s typical reliance on one central and cohesive identity for each person. Some people have a few different on-line handles, each used for a different purpose. But most people have just one. Off-line, a person may be one version of themselves with work colleagues, perhaps another with the boss, another on the train, at home, with the in-laws, at choir practice, in the football team and so forth.

In the olden days, the internet was yet another place to be where you could be another, often freer or more authentic version of yourself. It was a place marginalised people flocked to, in order to be around other people like them and to find acceptance of the versions of themselves (as members of sexual minorities, disabled people, crumhorn obsessives etc.) that wouldn't be made so welcome elsewhere. Facebook, in particular, encourages us to consolidate all our identities into one definitive self. 

We need to be aware of this and how it affects us and I don’t think we generally are.

Almost the first people I found on-line as a teenager were other young people with my chronic illness. This was a wonderful thing but after a while, I came to terms with my condition and grew disillusioned with the culture of these groups. I don’t want to tar all illness-related support groups with the same brush or slander my friends who are still part of these groups - most of my experience is with particularly vulnerable young adults. But there are groups, or cliques within these groups, which work like this:

Everything people talk about is placed in the context of illness. Every positive experience must be qualified with the cost in symptoms (probably spoons these days) – this turns a lot of positive experiences either neutral or negative; I had a lovely day today but I will now have three weeks of raging agony. Other people’s positive experiences can be celebrated but not without regret; So glad you had a lovely day; if I did half as much, I would probably collapse and die. Everything that goes wrong in life is put down to or made very much worse by illness. Outsiders can’t possibly understand.

This is a caricature, of course, and it’s very important to recognise that people who edge in this direction are not especially morbid and self-obsessed. It’s all about isolation and belonging. Folk are isolated and vulnerable to varying degrees but have found a group to which they can belong. So they cling onto that, imitating one another’s behaviour and constantly reasserting their qualifications for belonging: I am one of you, I am one of you. Did I mention I am one of you?

It’s a strong example because the common ground is very specific. However, I've seen something like this in pretty much every on-line community I've wandered into since, whether creative communities, sceptic or geek communities, political or egalitarian groups. 

Political campaign groups are particularly at risk because of the combination of passion, urgency (things must change – lives are at stake) plus the issue of public opposition. Any social media campaign will meet with dissent – Blogging Against Disablism Day has a very broad remit, more a carnival than a campaign, but still meets a few voices of derision every year. 

Campaign for something specific, something counter to the status quo or government policy and there are going to be objectors. It may even be that most people in the world basically agree with you but don't care enough to be involved - objectors care enough to let you know about it and often in abusive terms (even if it's about the faces on our banknotes). It can very quickly feel like the enemy is everywhere. This adds to a sense of isolation and increases the need to feel safe and secure within the group. 

And again, the three big difference between on-line and off-line worlds come into play:

My fingers on a keyboard. Photograph by Stephen.
Relative anonymity as well as - I think, more importantly - geographical and psychological distance allow arguments to rage. I've seen trolls, but far more often I see two people who have the same objective abandon basic civility over one small contested matter. I'm guilty of this myself. 

Someone can campaign from the moment they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night. They might be doing many other things as well, but there’s less likely to be a set time for this activity, after which they leave it alone. Without carefully managed separate accounts and a will of steel, it is difficult to socialise while staying clear of politics. There are rows in grass roots meetings in the village hall, but everyone goes home after an hour or so. 

Having a single on-line identity means that everything feels personal. It’s more difficult to differentiate between an attack on your views and an attack on your person. And then there’s personal branding.

When I first started blogging, I quickly saw that the way to get the most hits, comments and links was to be as consistent as possible; blog about the same kind of thing, or different things but from the same angle. I resisted this, not for any noble reason around authenticity or being true to myself. It’s just that this blog very quickly became a tremendously useful vent and I wanted to  use it however I fancied.

However, there was and is - now more than ever - validation to be had in consistency. There are times when I've had a spell of writing about the same kind of thing (usually gender, sexuality or disability) and it is during these times that I get the most hits, the most links and the most retweets. This naturally drives me to do more of the same. These are also times I have felt quite lonely. After all, I am not all about disability, or gender, or sexuality. Meanwhile, people agreeing with you - worse, simply retweeting or showering you with "likes" isn't engagement. It's tremendously gratifying, it's very nice. It is, in fact, successful branding. If you're a business or someone who needs to sell themselves professionally, this is exactly what you need to aspire to in your professional life. But it's applause, not social interaction. You win fans, not friends. 

Folk always got hooked on applause and I see a lot of that. Not just blogging about the same thing, but tweeting on the same subject, backing that up with Tumblr, doing the same on Facebook. I see a lot of it in political movements, but I also see it in the way someone might tell the same joke over and over, the way some parents now keep a cameraphone between themselves and their kid, the way some people apply cynicism to everything other people care about and then feel compelled to apologise for any glimmer of enthusiasm. It's so tempting, to keep coming back to what works, but when we do that, we risk denying ourselves the opportunity to do something different; it's not who we are, it's not what others expect, we're going to confuse and disappoint them.

I strongly feel we need to avoid being one brand of person - partly for our own health and happiness, but also for the health and happiness of others. We're no longer in high school; we don't have to identify ourselves as the sporty one, the diva or the nerd. We don't need to identify our tribe, fall into line and hold on tight, forsaking all the other interesting people around. 

Believing we have the strengths that others attribute to us can be a confidence boost or it can set us up for a fall. Believing we have the limitations that others attribute to us can be a killer.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Contains Strong Language

Years ago, I was in a cafe listening to a conversation between a group of builders on their break. One man was telling a story about how his family had travelled to Greece to see his cousin ordained within the Greek Orthodox Church.

“My fucking cousin,” the man declared, “a fucking priest!”

As I learnt from my eaves-dropping, being ordained is a “big fucking deal” in Greece or at least it was in this particular family, who treated the occasion much like a wedding, with “a fucking banquet” and “fucking speeches”.  But towards the end of festivities, a crisis struck:

“We couldn't find my fucking cousin – the fucking priest! We look everywhere but he’s gone fucking missing in the middle of all this. And at the same time, we realise my fucking sister’s nowhere to be seen either. We look all over this fucking hotel we’re staying at. Then finally, in this big fucking dining room where the whole family is, someone thinks to pull back the curtain. And there, behind the fucking curtain is my fucking cousin – the fucking priest – and my fucking sister, and they’re, you know, doing it.”

One of the oddities of living in two households is the effect it has on my language. My in-laws don’t swear, ever. They don’t blaspheme. They don’t make rude jokes. I’m making them sound square, but there’s a lot of laughter in the house, and very little of it is ever at the expense of other people. I don't swear around them. In fact, I barely swear in their house out of earshot. Worse, I struggle to swear in writing when I'm there. 

My parents do swear, though not very strongly - mostly the B words; bloody, bollocks, bugger, bullshit. They were more careful when we were children and even these days, Mum often tries to stop herself – she reaches for Fiddlesticks! or Gordon Bennett!, but it comes out “Fiddlebugger!” and “Gordon Bollocks!”

I swear at my parents' house. I tell rude jokes. But I can't say I feel a lot more at home or more myself. I think I tell better jokes at my in-laws' where I can't always reach for the obvious. 

I once told the story of the builder, his sister and his cousin the Greek Orthodox priest in the pub. A friend then told of a man whose car broke down outside her flat. She knew cars, so she came outside to ask if there was anything she could do. Exasperated, the man pointed in the approximate direction of the engine and exclaimed, "The fucking fucker's fucked!"

Common problem with cars that age.

One day, I was in the kitchen at my in-laws' house when a bird flew in through the window at great speed. It bounces off my head, flew in a circle than crashed against the glass of the patio door as it attempted to leave. This all happened in a few seconds and it was a shock. I spoke. I said, “Goodness!”  Not even a “Damn!” or “Crap!”

(The bird was probably okay. It was alive, though stunned and it hadn't broken its neck. We put it under a bush and it did disappear - we hope it flew away.)

The other night, here at my parents’ house, a box of chisels fell on my toe – not just any toe, but the big toe whose nail has only just recovered after an eighteen month saga of infection, threatened removal, an in-growing crisis and and recovery. I said, “Fuck.” I said it a few times. But I know, had the same thing had happened at my in-laws, I still wouldn’t have sworn.

(My toe is probably okay. The next day, it was the next toe along which was bruised.)

I almost feel like it shouldn't be possible for spontaneous reactions, exclamations of shock or pain, to vary according to social context. When people live somewhere where they must speak a second language, I wonder how often they swear or curse in their mother tongue?  What does the context have to be?

When I had post traumatic stress disorder, swearing was a major trigger. My first husband used to call me shithead, shit for brains, I talked shit, my stuff was shit, I was a bitch, sometimes a cunt, I needed to fuck off, shut the fuck up or go fuck myself, and so on and so forth. If I complained about the swearing, I was being pathetic; it was just the way he spoke. He would have never used the phrase tone argument but that was the gist. But of course, tone matters. Tone is context.

“How are you doing, shithead?” said with a smile and in a friendly tone, preferably to someone who likes to be called that and is permitted to call the speaker something equally ridiculous is quite different from, “Shut up, shithead!” said in anger, even if it happens every day. And the shit is emphatic – it’s there for a reason, shithead is not the same as airhead, let along sleepyhead. It's no coincidence that someone who used this language was physically violent. 

Even my PTSD symptoms differentiated between different types of swearing. I had to adjust my reading and cull my Twitter feed of very sweary people, even people I liked and respected in other ways. But it wasn't just about the words, but the way they were used.

If I read “Bloody hell, why doesn’t [Named Politician] go fuck himself?”  

I might think it unnecessary and maybe irritating, but it wouldn't upset me. Big difference if I read

“Bloody hell, [Named Politician], why don’t you go fuck yourself?” 

This isn't just about trauma. I've been around the usage of "Fuck off!" as a warm, friendly "Give over!" almost like "Stop tickling me!" or the wide-eyed "Shut. Up." of adolescent disbelief. But unless you grew up with that, swearing in the second person can still feel like an attack. Especially in writing where there's no voice to reassure us.

Stephen was one of these poor kids who suffered that great indulgence-neglect of a TV in his room from an early age. He's also a massive film buff and you can’t really be that if you can’t tolerate the full range of the spoken word in English. He spent his teenage years travelling by taxi to hospital school, exposing him to both typical South East taxi-driver parlance, as well as the language of those classmates who were there for behavioural reasons or in one case, because they had impaled themselves while evading the fuzz. Thus, while his parents never swear, Stephen was in no way sheltered from foul language as a child. 

Yet Stephen almost never swears. He swears perhaps once a year. And when it happens, it's an earth-shaking swear.

I have pointed out that as a non-swearer, swearing would offer a little pain relief, at least in the immediate aftermath of injury. But it’s not in him. I have suggested he invents words that sound like curses for this purpose, but he is against it in principle. He doesn't even use the substitute swearwords available to him; no sugar, darnblast or curses.

I'm not convinced this is entirely healthy. Not the not swearing, but the not even cursing, even mildly, when things hurt or go wrong. 

My swearing varies massively according to pain and stress. On a bad pain day, I can be oblivious to the amount I’m swearing, so much so that it’s disturbing to have it pointed out to me. Yet, although I'm less likely to spend time with other people on such a day, I know I still won't swear in front of anyone who might be offended. 

When I am stressed out, I become painfully aware of how much I swear. In recent weeks, our housing situation is looking to get sorted, but with no certainties and many causes of minor panic along the way. Plus there's been - there is - a family crisis afoot. I've been swearing like a trooper, I've been swearing in unhelpful ways about other people, I've been swearing in ways that would make me cringe to repeat.

And clearly, I should have a handle on this. My Granny may visit at the weekend and I won't swear in front of her, whatever happens. Burning rocks can fall from the skill and all I'll say is "Blimey!"

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