Saturday, December 24, 2011

Never Been Thirty-One Before

Today is my birthday and I can safely say this has been the happiest and most productive year of my life. This doesn't mean I've not had rubbish health, worries and a fair few minor disasters. Just that there's been so much good stuff packed around the bad. 

So my year in bullet points...
  • I absolutely loved being thirty. I hope I will love thirty-one just as much. I have never wished to be another age, but I have particularly enjoyed my age. I do now. I feel like I earned thirty-one. I have a lot of stories to tell, but I've still got everything to look forward to. Oddly, entering my thirties has coincided with being met, for the first time ever, with the assumption that I am younger than I really am. Previously, people were always adding ten or fifteen years.
  • This year, things seemed to get done. I'm amazed at what I have just got done this year. Art projects, craft projects, writing projects. This year, it seems, if I put my mind to something, it just happened. Not that I finished everything I started, achieved everything I wanted or didn't have set backs. My health is still pretty lousy and sometimes very lousy indeed. But during good periods, I painted more, wrote more, made more stuff, learnt more than I ever have before in any twelve month period.
  • I've embarked on the first tentative steps towards getting my first novel published. This has been terrifying. It is the closest thing I have ever done to applying for a job.  Fortunately, when you try to sell yourself as a writer, qualifications and work experience aren't very important, or else I'd be in real trouble. It's still very scary. It's not even fear of rejection. I can't really explain it.  
  • I've written between half and three-quarters of a non-fiction book, which will have to remain under wraps until it's done. And I've started on my second novel, which just now, I'm very excited about.  Just now, I'm thinking, "Well, this will be better than the first!" which I think is a very good thing, given that I had had so many set backs and finished the first against such tremendous odds, and that story wouldn't let me abandon it. 
  • I have continued to be brave, in all kinds of ways, many of which remain unbloggable.  However, I am rather proud that when I needed fillings for the first time in my life, I had five of them, in one go, without annaesthetic. Conclusions? Two of them hurt a lot, but it was brief and perfectly bearable.
  • I have worked through and overcome so much emotional nonsense that I carried after leaving my violent marriage last year. At the beginning of this year, I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, that's reduced to a bit of a scar which gets sore in damp weather. 
  • I've seen three plays, which is fantastic. I love going to the theatre, I always have, but it takes some doing and it was seven years since I'd last seen a play. Admittedly, the productions I saw this year were too long and pain overwhelmed me towards the end. The best was King Lear, performed in an abbey ruin in Wales, complete with realistic storm conditions throughout the second half. It was August, I was very well wrapped-up but I can't imagine I will get as cold as I was then this winter. It was a superb production, but I came to the conclusion that the play itself is overrated - it's often said to be the ultimate Shakespeare, but I can't see it myself. The oddest was Clytenmestra (the Libation Bearers) by Aeschylus performed in Ancient Greek at the Oxford Playhouse (Stephen reviewed it here) and the other, Dangerous Corner by J. B. Priestley, was fairly odd in that neither the audience nor the players seemed to know whether we were dealing with a thriller or a farce – in any case, we laughed throughout.

  • The only thing I really haven't done enough of is reading. But I did re-read the His Dark Materials trilogy with Stephen, which was an absolute joy. When we set out to take turns to read it to one another, I thought it would take a few years – especially as neither of us can read out loud for long and both of us are prone to falling asleep when we are read to. But we got through the whole thing in about six weeks. Unfortunately, my Texan accent was so bad that Stephen almost cheered when Lee Scoresby died. We also made a CD of poetry for my nephew Alexander, who is an avid reader but doesn't get exposed to much poetry.  At first he wasn't much interested, but now he listens to it so incessantly that his parents must be thoroughly fed up with Roald Dahl's Red Riding Hood, despite Stephen's critically-acclaimed performance as Grandma.
  • I'm so proud of Stephen and everything he has achieved this year. It's been the most wonderful thing to share in his life, and to share my life with him. In the spring, we both spent months totally immersed in Greek Drama as Stephen wrote essays about Aristophanian obscenity in the work of Snoop Doggy Dogg and  prepared for his final exams. He now has a 2:1 BA (Hons) in Classical Studies (Please watch his vlog if you didn't at the time). He then had to deal with both DLA and ESA forms, both of which we managed without too much trouble. He's also whizzing through learning Latin and has learnt how to play the ukulele, very well, in the space of four months. And together we've mastered the art of making Turkish Delight, pain au chocolat, chicken and black bean sauce and the world's best vegetable casserole.
  • We're making a success of the whole having to live with parents for the forseeable scenario. Making this work is an ongoing project and there have been times when we've found my parents particularly difficult.  But we're taking responsibility for things, even if we occasionally behave like the desperate parents of children who can't play nice together - like when fed up of their bickering, we sent my folks for a Segway lesson. What can I say?  It bought as a period of peace and harmony.
One of this year's negatives has been that the political situation for disabled people in the UK has deteriorated during a time when I wasn't up to doing much about it. Now, as various bills which threaten our independence and even our lives reach the end of their process in the House of Lords, Lisa has compiled a list of mostly very simple things you can do to help.

But for now, I thank you for hanging around and cheering me on these last twelve months and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! 

Monday, December 19, 2011

If I were a rich man

Last week, there was a Forbes article entitled If I were a poor black kid, in which a wealthy white guy explained how poor urban black kids might pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This side of the pond, despite being in the middle of a recession, with all the random misfortune that entails for ordinary people, the UK government, peopled (though largely manned) by extremely wealthy, privately educated, white straight non-disabled Oxbridge graduates, are constantly talking about the fecklessness of the poor and the need to send out specialist trouble-shooters to deal with troubled families (which, according to the criteria, mine would be, if I had children). All of which seem to amount to the philosophical standpoint that states
If I were poor, I wouldn't be poor any more.
Then on Friday, David Cameron professed his own vague Christianity, and the importance of Christian values to fixing the country's problems. Presumably Cameron reads the New Testament (ha! As if he had actually read it!) as a morality tale: If only Jesus had knuckled down at his academic studies as opposed to learning to make rustic garden furniture with his father, he might have appreciated what the money-lenders were up to in the temple, and may have been able to afford a decent lawyer when he got into that scrape with the Romans.

I suppose I'm lucky. New Testament Christianity, humanist virtue ethics and the moral codes of almost all other world religions, put me in a rather privileged position. My responsibilities for doing good are greatly restricted by my energy levels and finances. I have the responsibility that comes with being rich relative to most people in the world, but I am surrounded by people who are much richer and far more capable of doing good than I am. As Lady Marchmain says in Brideshead Revisited, the poor have always been the favourite of God, whereas rich people have been desperately investing in camel-moleculising technology for centuries.

So from my position of almost innate virtue and particularly in the run-up to Christmas, when the world freezes over but Scrooge's heart thaws, I thought I should offer my wealthier readers some advice on how to establish a soul as sparkly clean as my own.

If I were a rich man...

Naturally, I would biddy-biddy bong for much of the day (though perhaps not all day long, as the song suggests – I'm no hedonist). Otherwise, there are a few things I would do to make sure that I fulfilled my responsibilities to the world which made me so wealthy.

I would

Pay every penny of tax I owed, publically volunteer to pay more tax and campaign for higher taxes for people like me.

All governments waste money, but there are lots of things which it is both most efficient and desirable to achieve through tax, as opposed to individual enterprise, charity, volunteering, private armies and so forth. Quite where the balance lies between what tax should pay for and what should be left up to individuals is up for eternal debate, and having a particular position in this debate is the foundation for some of our political parties. However, some of this stuff is the basis of a civilised society – like emergency services available to everyone, free school-age education, free healthcare and the welfare safety net.

In the UK, there is no mainstream political party who argues against the sanctity of these provisions, but the quality of them is fast being diminished by the current government, because of the crash. Frankly, this lot are attempting to solve the financial crisis by taking money from the poorest people and then scapegoating them as the root of the problem. This is having only mixed success; poor people are an easy target, but it won't help the deficit because poor people are not very costly and we will pay for them, one way or another.

The most obvious answer is that the very wealthiest people should pay more tax. They can afford to. The Robin Hood tax was a brilliant idea. The idea that we risk scaring away wealthy people is just daft. The only wealthy people we risk losing through high taxes are greedy bastards. So Scotland lost Sean Connery that way, but then I never found his accent convincing.

I'd also

Use, Support and Get Involved in my Local Public Services

All too often, wealthy people deny public services their social capital by sending their children to private schools, using private healthcare, living in gated communities and so on. Public services need wealthier people in order to survive and prosper. Public services are great! They are either free or massively subsidised at the point of delivery! They are interconnected and whilst not perfect, have developed with the public interest in mind over many decades. The private alternatives only want to make money out of the people who use them, which is why private healthcare-users are persuaded to have all kinds of bits and pieces removed - wisdom teeth, foreskins, appendices, self-esteem, life savings - regardless of medical need.

It's no accident that if you drive around London, public streets inhabited by wealthier people are better kept; they are cleaner, road surfaces are in better repair, they are safer. This isn't because councils quietly decide to privilege wealthier residents. But wealthier residents are more likely to be home-owners, they are more likely to consider themselves entitled to good roads, be able to organise themselves and make a fuss if there's a problem. And they are more likely to be listened to.

When wealthy people use their social capital to make a difference to other public services, they really do make a difference.  The great tragedy for our country at the moment isn't that the coalition is dominated by the Conservatives, a party which naturally leans towards the interests of the individual, but that we have a government dominated by youngish rich people who have never had to rely on the services that the rest of us use all the time.

I would also

Have a collection of electric cars and have a home which generates electricity.

Poor people have very few options when it comes to their environmental responsibilities. Unemployed people need to heat and light their homes whilst everyone else is at work. Disabled people are often unable to use public transport and have to use the pre-packaged or disposable option. Poor people often have no option to shop ethically and, especially in cities, poor people often live in tower-block housing where household rubbish cannot be sorted and there are no easily accessible recycling facilities. However, as a rule, because poor people buy less stuff, go out less, live in closer proximity to others and have fewer holidays, they generally have a lower than average carbon footprint.

For middle-income households (£40K is apparently now average for a household with two working adults – yikes!), some environmental matters are dead easy, but the bigger investments are difficult – you might be able to afford to install solar panels, or buy an electric car, but these things have a large initial outlay, which only pays you back over a period of years (and in the UK, government grants have just vanished). Meanwhile, as people who buy more stuff and travel about more, middle-income households are usually quite bad for the environment. I think it takes a lot of strength for someone in this bracket to do the right thing – so if you are and you do, well done!

If you are seriously wealthy, however, there is no excuse. People who own extensive land and property, but are still taking power from the grid as opposed to putting  itback, people who have a collection of cars and none of them are electric? Well they are a burden on the future of humankind.

I'd also

Make sure at least 10% of my income went to charity, including some to

  • schemes which make a massive difference to people's lives. For example, Deworm the World, which keeps millions of children in good health and in school or Camfed which ensures the education of girls. If you educate girls in Africa, then they are much more likely to have healthy and comfortable lives, they are much less vulnerable to HIV, they are likely to have fewer babies, which increases the prospects for them and their children, but it helps to slow down population growth with a view to saving the world. Giving girls an education is by far the most effective form of population control – more effective than even then most draconian measures.
  • schemes which help save lives. For example, organisation such as the Against Malaria Foundation are extremely open about how money is spent and really can save a lot of lives for your lolly.

For a long time, I imagined that all working people who considered themselves Christian paid 10% to charity – I thought it was in the rules, like Zakat in Islam. The conversation that disillusioned me was with someone whose household earnings were in excess of £50K, but who explained that they had a high mortgage and nothing to spare at all.  If Cameron was, as he claims, vaguely Christian, he might consider giving up at least 10% of his massive fortune and do so very publicly, to set an example to his colleagues and associates.

Poor people can afford to give little if anything to charity, but nevertheless give a far greater proportion of their income than richer people. If you are hard up but not stony broke, one way of helping others is through Kiva loans. You can loan someone in the developing world to improve their life or business, and you will get paid back.

Finally, if I were a rich man, I would

Apply vigorous ethics to all my business and consumer choices

Poor people can not always afford to make ethical consumer choices. For example, if I couldn't afford to buy Fair Trade teabags, bananas, chocolate etc., then I could do without and I buy almost all my clothes second hand. But when I need knickers, second hand isn't an option and I can't afford £10 a pair for Fair Trade – I have to buy cheap knickers that were probably made by people working in very poor conditions, paid much less than I have to live on. But it's those knickers or no knickers. If you do spend £10 on knickers, I suggest Who Made Your Pants?.

Rich people, however, not only have the money to make all ethical consumer choices, but they often have lifestyles which allow them to make a difference in all kinds of contexts. They can choose to look after their employees, even choose to employ people who others would not. They can choose to invest in good things and withdraw their investments from bad things – or use threats to withdraw in order to improve business practices.

Rich people can afford to to do so much good and they have a responsibility to do so. Making money is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Using money to make the make the world a better place, choosing to make less money than you would if you sacrificed the interests of other people and the environment, all that leaves a much more worthy and enduring legacy than the number of digits in the profit margin.

For better responses to If I were a poor black kid which actually address the American, urban and black kid bit, see
The Atlantic - A Muscular Empathy and
Pursuit of Harpyness - Uncle Whitey Explains It All with poignant David Simon quote.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Bechdel Test & Small Furry People-Eating Aliens

Often, when we complain about inequality in popular culture, we are told that it’s just entertainment. Our expectations are way too high. In order to be light and entertaining, all kinds of isms and imbalances must prevail. The high-minded ideals of equality are incompatible with the crowd-pleasing goals of the low-brow.

But then there’s Critters.

My expectations couldn’t have been much lower than when Stephen rented the movie Critters. I read the synopsis; it’s about an invasion of small furry monsters from outer-space who eat any animal or person in their path. So I thought Gremlins rip-off and if I actually ever saw Gremlins, I've forgotten it. But it’s really all right. No, it’s fun. We ended up renting all four Critters movies. And all four of them passed the Bechdel Test.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must
(1) feature at least two women who (2) have a conversation which (3) isn’t about a man.

Glance over your DVD collection; many great movies fall at the first hurdle. Some episodes of Doctor Who, or the anachronistically-egalitarian Merlin fall at the first hurdle. The Godfather, Casablanca, all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and all nine or so hours of Lord of the Rings don't feature a single conversation between two women. Most Hitchcock movies fail the test. And the point isn’t that these individual movies are failing women – there are many brilliant movies which don’t have a single women in them (Das Boot, The Thing, The Great Escape, Shawshank Redemption etc). But given that half the world’s population are women, and real women are involved in most of life’s dramas – domestic and global – the overall pattern points to a big problem. And the fact that there are plenty of movies which don’t involve submarines, men’s prisons or small scientific expeditions in remote locations and still don’t manage to involve more than one woman, suggests that some movie-makers don’t count women as people.

When a deeply unsophisticated comedy horror movie passes the test with flying colours, it only goes to show that this is the case.

Critters 3 was the best of the quadrilogy and is notable for featuring a tiny wee Leonardo Di Caprio (he was fourteen or fifteen at the time, but looks eight). The Critters (furry alien creatures) hitch a lift to an urban apartment block, where an evil landlord is trying to force his tenants to leave so he doesn’t have to compensate them when he sells up to developers. The protagonists are the teenage daughter of one of the tenants and her new friend (Di Caprio), the stepson of the evil landlord. Loads of cliché; the girl’s mother is dead and in his grief, her father has become distant, we have grandparental elderly couple upstairs, the two teenagers have a few romantic moments together, etc.. But the girl has conversations with her neighbours and her women neighbours are complete human beings. Even the fat lady down the hall, whose size is the subject of some humour – she has her plus-size lingerie eaten by the aliens - is a complete and sympathetic character. The love interest for our heroine’s bereft father is brave, physically active and her braless sexiness is underplayed.

And nobody would have noticed. This certainly isn’t a feminist film, it’s not in any way a feminine film. There are more masculine characters than feminine characters. But it manages to treat girls and women as if they are as complete human beings as boys and man. If a film who's mere title suggests the absence of sophistication can succeed in fulfilling this most basic principle, why can't almost every movie we see?

Incidentally, Stephen said he’d not heard good things about Critters 4, and I joked it might be like the Alien 4 of the quadrilogy. Okay, so Alien: Resurrection? It’s a total rip-off of Critters 4. In Critters 4, the mercenary crew of a spaceship dock in a space station where they discover evidence of genetic experiments to create a perfect alien creature-as-weapon. They’re then chased about the station by aliens (if small furry ones). And [spoiler alert] they have to race to leave as the station self-destructs. There are entire set-pieces which look like comical versions of those from the forth Alien movie. This was made in 1992 - five years before Alien: Resurrection. It even has Brad Wormtongue Dourif in it. But it is funnier.

It’s also the weakest film. I know this because to be honest, I didn’t see all of it. The first time we sat down to watch it, I fell asleep after about half an hour. The next time, we started from where I dozed off and I was asleep again half an hour after that. But it had a woman character and a feminine talking computer and they do have conversations which are not about men. So that's something.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Dog Rest Ye, Terrier Gentleman

The Bull Terrier Nativity

So this was by far the oddest craft project of 2011. It wasn't my idea, but when people I care for were contemplating paying up to £100 on a fimo Bull Terrier Nativity Set on eBay, I had to step in and volunteer to make one myself. I used Sculpey, which is cheaper than Fimo, and probably used about £15 worth of polymer clay.

Stephen used a lathe to make wooden cones for me to build the figures around, to stop them keeling over mid-production. Originally, I'd intended to remove the cones once the clay was cooked, but then decided they made the models more stable. Also, they got stuck.

The Three Wise DogsI haven't played with polymer clay for years - perhaps seven or eight years at least - so when I volunteered I was kind of thinking the project would eat up half of December and maybe I wouldn't be able to pull it off. So, whilst it wasn't my idea and part of me keeps thinking this thing I've made could win prizes for poor taste, I'm really rather chuffed about how it turned out.

Stephen made the manger in about half an hour and his Dad made the stable backdrop in a little longer than that.

The Puppy JesusI hadn't met any bull terriers until this spring, when I made friends with two miniature bull terriers, who are rather akin to albino pig-shark hybrids. They're not nearly as bright as my border collie or poodle compadres and they move around as if there are no obstacles of any kind, anywhere – if your legs are in the way of where they want to go, they're going to go through them. But they are extremely friendly.

The nativity set is a present for someone, who at the time of writing has no idea what's in store for them. They're coming round on Saturday. I hope it makes sense to them.

More pictures on Flickr.

Image Description: Possibly defies description. Models of English Bull Terriers made out of coloured polymer clay, representing characters from the nativity (Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a Shepherd, an Angel and three Wise Men/ Dogs). In the second picture, the wise dogs are bearing gifts; sausages, a bone and a teddy. In the third picture, we see Puppy Jesus, a puppy wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a pale wooden manger with wood shavings for straw.