Archive for how people work

Merry Christmas, Fatty! and other festive conversations

The National Obesity Forum has suggested that Christmas is the perfect time to tell loved ones that they’re overweight and to suggest remedies for this. This is an excellent idea, of course. People who are fat are often completely unaware of this fact, because the general public are obviously far too polite to shout insults at them in the street. It is also very important to say things like “Have you tried eating less and exercising more?” because that will be the first time they’ve ever heard these ideas.

Since open season has now been declared on making unprovoked personal criticisms, allow me to suggest some further conversational gambits designed to make the festivities go with a bang. (The bang in question being the sound of your front door slamming behind your guests as they leave, never to return.)

“You smoke!”

This will be a huge surprise to people. When alerted to the fact that there is a lit cigarette in their hand, they may well jump back as if discovering a live snake between their fingers. At this point you may want to follow up your initial announcement by telling them that smoking is bad for them. Chances are they will never have heard of this fact, and will be wildly grateful for the information. Earn bonus points by snatching the cigarette from them, throwing it to the floor, and stamping on it while screaming “You are going to die! You are going to die!”

“You’re drinking a glass of wine while pregnant!”

Pregnant women are notoriously stupid and unable to make any choices for themselves. As such, it’s a good idea to give them a full rundown, every time you see them, of all the ways in which they can damage their future baby. Most importantly, make sure you insist on the fact that drinking one glass of wine on Christmas Day could result in them giving birth to the Antichrist. They’ll thank you for it eventually.

“You’re very shy, aren’t you?”

Shy people love being told this: it really boosts their confidence, especially if said in front of a lot of people. For extra usefulness, try telling them to dance, do a funny walk or wear an amusing hat, and mocking them if they refuse. Nothing makes a Christmas party go with more of a swing than the sight of extremely embarrassed people who just want to be left alone.

If none of the above opportunities presents itself, don’t give up: there will always be someone with funny ears or a stammer, or who’s a bit short. A handy tip is to stare at glossy magazines till you’ve memorised what people are supposed to look like, and then judge everyone you meet against this criteria.

Merry Christmas!

Don't forget to leave a Slimfast and a Weight Watcher's leaflet out for Santa!


The Dilemma Habit

[This was the original, and totally different, version of my Huffington Post Halloween article, Eight Legs No Soul.]

I love working out the answer to imaginary dilemmas. I know you only really get them in thrillers, but you can never be sure when life will imitate art. So it’s best to be prepared for the day when a masked man will break into your home and demand you choose between undergoing a bizarre torture and sacrificing the lives of your family. Otherwise you might be taken unawares and just stare at him going “What? Why? What’s in this for you? Don’t you just want to steal my TV?”

So, in a spirit of mental preparation, I have spent some time pondering the issue of whether I would I spend a day trapped in a coffin with spiders in order to save my children from being murdered. Well, yes, I would. (Parental love has a lot to answer for.)

But would I do it in order to save my partner from being murdered? Sure, although I’d need absolute proof, in writing, that he would definitely die if I didn’t do it and definitely wouldn’t if I did.

Down one notch: would I do it in order to save my partner from being beaten up? Well.. maybe. How severe would the beating be, exactly? He’s robust, he’d probably recover from most things. And anyway, maybe he’d volunteer to be beaten up in order to save me from being trapped in a coffin, in which case I think I’d accept his sacrifice (reluctantly but definitely). I’d stock up on Savlon and bandages, of course, and be prepared for a lifetime of guilt, but I’d probably cope.

Would I do it to save a friend from being murdered? Not a close friend, a friendly acquaintance, one of the people I see once a year or so and follow on Facebook but I probably couldn’t tell you the names of their children and/or pets, or what they do for a living. Um… well, I suppose so. I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I’d got someone killed because I wouldn’t spend a day doing something that wasn’t actually going to cause me damage. But I might suggest some form of financial compensation at that point, because while saving people from death is obviously very motivating, so is money. And I’d probably need some therapy to recover from that cosy spider-infested darkness.

I think the above may potentially be the basis for some kind of reality game show, by the way. Not one I’d willingly take part in, but then there aren’t any reality TV shows I’d willingly take part in.

Now I’ve thought about reality TV shows, I find myself wondering if I’d take part in a reality TV show in order to save my children from being mildly inconvenienced in some way. Maybe… Oh, damn it, I’ve fallen into the Dilemma Habit. This happens when you start turning every situation into a moral exercise. Would you drink gone-off milk in order to avoid a day of data entry at work? (No, for the record. Old milk makes me feel sick and I quite like data entry.) Would you walk a mile in uncomfortable shoes if it meant a stranger in Australia recovered from her kidney stone? (Sure.) Would you strip to your underwear in a tube train so that your sister-in-law would pass her accountancy exams? (Um…) Would you dye your hair an unflattering colour if it ensured that a colleague’s dad’s cat didn’t go blind? (What?)

After a while, you start to regret spending all this time and energy on decisions you’ll probably never have to make. You begin to yearn for some strange and interesting circumstances to arise that will force you to use your now finely calibrated sense of ethics. Perhaps what we need is a Dilemmas Agency. You pay them a retainer, and every now and then, they turn up on your doorstep or desk and make you choose between things. Not things involving death, obviously. Just small choices. And then, after you’ve opted for your next-door-neighbour to be shouted at by religious fundamentalists so you don’t have to hold a spider for three minutes, you realise that it’s the small choices that show you who you really are. But at least you didn’t have to hold a spider. God, I hate spiders.


Gendering Free: Exploring Outside the Binary

First published at the Huffington Post

So this is how I’ve started to think about gender. It is just a metaphor.

Once upon a time there was a country called Gender. The country consisted mainly of two large cities, one called Male and one called Female. Most people lived in one of the cities, and people who didn’t were frowned on, but sometimes someone would leave one city and go and live in the other, if they were allowed in. Other times, people would visit the other city and come back.

Some people didn’t want to live in the cities at all. They left and went to the space in between, or to a different part of the country altogether, and built their own houses there. They even founded villages with other people who didn’t take to city life.

Some of the people who’d left tried to persuade the city-dwellers that it was OK not to live in a city. Just because most people lived in cities, they argued, it didn’t mean that everyone had to, or that cities were better than villages, any more than villages were better than cities. But most of the city dwellers were very suspicious of the people who’d left, and often mocked them or even hurt them, because they felt that leaving the cities was weird and wrong, even though it wasn’t doing anyone any harm.

(Responsibility for this metaphor rests entirely with me. This metaphor is entirely my own opinion and is not legally binding. Use of this metaphor is at your own risk.)

I’m someone who’s always lived in the city of Female, but I know quite a few people who have gone visiting, or have rejected city life altogether*. They might describe themselves as nonbinary, non-gendered, genderqueer, genderfree, trans, androgynous or all or none of the above or something else entirely. What they have in common is that they can’t or won’t fit into a simple binary definition of male or female.

For example, when I asked some friends to describe their gender in one or two sentences, the answers included:

“Fluid, intermediate, opportunist, and very much free from gender when I am alone. It’s others who gender me. I just do what I can to work that system in work and social situations.” (Ash)

“The flip answer would be something like “Not as simple as you think it is”. The sensible answer would be something like “One of the many datapoints which combine to make the person I am.” (Klepsie)

“Indecisive tomboy feminine-in-some-ways dandy butch genderqueer woman. I think. Today, anyway.” (Yoyo)

“I’ve never really had a gender identity – I can’t decide if it’s more like being ambidextrous, or more like being tone-deaf.” (Ed)

This is obviously a world away from the way many people think about gender. It makes it clear that pink and blue aren’t the only colours in the world – no matter what toy shops may believe. So why do we feel the need to be so rigid about being male or female, and about what that means? Why do we teach young people that they have to fit neatly and naturally into one box or the other in order to be acceptable?

Rose Fox comments:
“A friend of mine has a delightful young child, M, who drew a picture of “mom’s friends” for school. M explained to her fellow classmates that the person with the short hair is Rose, who is a girl, and the person with the long hair is Dave, who is a boy. The five-year-olds had no problem with this. Why should they?

Another friend’s nine-year-old, Y, met me shortly after I’d buzzed off all my hair. “You look like a boy!” Y declared. “Thank you!” I said. Over dinner, I mentioned something I was doing that’s culturally male-coded, and Y exclaimed, “Wow, you really ARE like a boy!” I replied, “That’s right: a boy who likes to knit and wear dresses.” Other than that, gender was not at all a topic of conversation, and Y seemed perfectly comfortable hanging out with me and chatting about subway trains and origami and other items of mutual interest.

…So, no, I don’t think my mere existence poses a danger to children, nor do I think I should somehow be hidden away from them in order to protect their fragile little minds. They don’t know anything about sex or gender until we tell them, so why shouldn’t we tell them the whole story?”

Klepsie agrees: “The vast majority of things in life which are presented dualistically are in fact not so, and children are going to learn about these things one way or another – why not make sure that they get accurate information?”

Giving people more information about how other people work doesn’t spell decadence, doom or the end of civilisation as we know it. Nat of Practical Androgyny says:

It is my experience that children are happily open minded to the idea that someone could be neither [male nor female]. I often turn back the question when kids ask me if I’m a boy or a girl, asking which they think I am and if they think it matters. I’ve yet to receive a negative reaction from doing this. I was once amused to cause a group of children to argue amongst themselves shouting, “He’s a girl! No, she’s a boy!”

And Ed points out that:

“If you made everyone in the world think about their socks for ten minutes, then many people would probably decide to buy more interesting socks. But loads of people would still identify as men or women (and most people would stick with their existing socks).”

All that’s required here, to go back to my original metaphor, is more freedom for people to get out of the city if they want to, take a deep breath, and explore their surroundings.

I asked my friends other questions about gender too – read the full text here.

*This is mainly because I attend BiCon, the excellent UK annual bisexual convention/conference, which attracts any and all genders.


Gender interviews

I wrote a post about non-binary gender for the Huffington Post, and as part of that I asked some of my friends some questions. Here are the full questions and answers.

If I asked you to describe your gender in one sentence, what would you write?

f: Pretty neutral and tending to be swayed by the person I’m with (in a range of contexts).

Rose Fox: I am female-bodied and genderqueer, with highly variable gender presentation.

Ash: Fluid, intermediate, opportunist, and very much free from gender when I am alone. It’s others who gender me. I just do what I can to work that system in work and social situations.

Xtina: “I don’t particularly care about my own gender. I can’t really help you out there.”

Klepsie: The flip answer would be something like “Not as simple as you think it is”. The sensible answer would be something like “One of the many datapoints which combine to make the person I am.”

Ed: I’ve never really had a gender identity – I can’t decide if it’s more like being ambidextrous, or more like being tone-deaf.

Yoyo: Indecisive tomboy feminine-in-some-ways dandy butch genderqueer woman. I think. Today, anyway.

What pronouns do you prefer?

f: I’d like simply to have a lot to choose from and a neutral.

Rose Fox: In an ideal world where it wouldn’t make anyone blink, “they” or something else gender-neutral. This isn’t an ideal world, and I’m female-bodied with curves that are difficult to hide, so I tolerate “she/her”. The rare occasion when I’m in full-on male drag is when I’d actually most like a gender-neutral pronoun, since… I don’t quite know how to put this… it feels almost appropriative of both maleness and transness to say that I ever feel male. I have moments of desperately wishing I could have a male body, but it’s not at all the same as being male-identified. That said, I do love being called “sir” by baristas, waiters, and others who glance at me and think I’m a guy, and I love those very few moments when I actually pass as male, just as I love putting on ballgowns and pearls. Would it make my day to hear “They look really stunning in that ballgown”? It sure would.

Ash: I’m not offended by any of them, assuming they are not said with sarcasm, but I feel especially pleased when people use the singular form of “they”.

Xtina: I’m okay with female pronouns, and don’t ask people to use otherwise, really. (I have anxiety.) I prefer the singular “they” and suchlike.

Klepsie: Ones appropriate to my presentation; but if people make genuine (as opposed to deliberate) errors I no longer get bent out of shape.

Ed: I don’t mind. It’s nice to get something other than the usual (which, for me, is ‘she’).

Yoyo: “She”/”her” – but am also perfectly happy with “zie”/”hir” or similar.

Do you think most people do have a binary gender, or is it just that most people never think about it?

fI think most people do. But I also think some of us don’t think about the weird dissonance we feel because we assume others feel it to until it becomes clear they don’t.

Rose Fox: I have no idea and try not to speculate about this sort of thing. I wouldn’t want anyone speculating about my “real” gender or suggesting that I just haven’t thought hard enough about how to define myself, after all.

Ash: I don’t know. It seems to me like a matter of social conditioning (no more or less than whatever social conditioning lead me to be genderqueer – I’m not claiming to be “right” in any sense) but a lot of trans people, and indeed cis people who bother to think about such things, say they have an innate sense of their gender and their social conditioning may only have confused them because it was in such contrast. I’m not in any position to argue with their reality. If that’s how it is for most people, I accept it.

Xtina: I think gender is so embedded in everything that it’s super-hard to figure out where everything comes from and how everything goes. I mean, we start using gender-specific language when children are born, for heaven’s sake. “Oh, how [strong|sweet] little [Johnny|Suzie] is!”, respectively. It’s unsurprising that most people don’t think of it; it’s hard to tell if we are really mostly binary-gendered, or if we’re just really really good at enforcing gender.

Klepsie: I think most people do, but I also think that there are more people who don’t than currently are doing anything about it.

Ed: A bit of both – if everyone thought about it more, more people would probably identify in more complex ways. If you made everyone in the world think about their socks for ten minutes, then many people would probably decide to buy more interesting socks. But loads of people would still identify as men or women (and most people would stick with their existing socks).

Yoyo: Yes and no… I think there’s a lot more fuzzy grey area than most people stop to think about, and once I’d stopped to think about it, it became a whole lot more fuzzy. I think the majority of people fall comfortably into one of the two most well-known ballparks, though, if you’ll excuse the terrible mixture of metaphors.

Do you prefer to date people who are also non-binary-gendered, or doesn’t it matter?

f: Yes.

Rose Fox: Anyone I date needs to not just accept but enjoy all my different ways of presenting myself. They need to be comfortable telling me that my tie is crooked and that my earrings don’t really go with that dress–and, for that matter, that my tie doesn’t really go with that dress. I have found a very few, very wonderful binary-gendered people who are completely cool with this and I adore them to bits. My husband is male-bodied and male-identified and has been immensely supportive and loving without pause or question for ten years and counting.

Anyone I have a sexual relationship with needs to be bisexual/pansexual/queer, because my sense of my own sex and gender shift from day to day and of course that affects how I feel about my body and how I want others to treat my body. It’s not necessary that they also be genderqueer or gender-variant, though that can be a lot of fun!

That said, my relationships with gender-variant people are tremendously important to me not least because they know something of what it’s like to think and feel the way I do. Empathy based on shared experience is a fundamentally different thing from supportive acceptance. So I certainly seek out other genderqueer and gender-variant people to become friends with, and sometimes those friendships lead to romantic and/or sexual relationships, as friendships do.

Ash: It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s no pressure to always embody the gender expression(s) they find most attractive. That makes me feel objectified. I’d take someone like that as a lover if they paid me but I’d never let it progress into a relationship.

Xtina: It doesn’t… entirely… matter to me. I don’t tend to date people who are extremely on either end of an axis (or whatever the fuck that thing is called — pole? side? whatever), because I am already extremist cat, and cannot deal with more of the same. So I’m unlikely to date someone who is Really Feminine or Really Masculine, but I’m also unlikely to date a fierce anarcho-capitalist, so.

(The ellipses were because I’m starting to be uninterested in dating men. Cultural programming isn’t entirely their fault, but I’m kind of tired of dealing with it.)

Klepsie: Yes, I do prefer to date people who are non-binary-gendered, because they understand me better (and vice versa). However, I would like this to be less of a factor, because I’d like there to be general understanding of gender as an issue to the point where it becomes a non-issue.

Ed: I don’t mind. I quite fancy people who do their gender a bit differently.

Yoyo: It doesn’t matter. I prefer to date people who get it, but that’s not necessarily linked to their own gender identity.

Is your gender important to you? Or does it matter more to other people than it does to you?

f: Matters more to others, and matters to me mostly because of the assumptions people make.

Rose Fox: It’s important to me that I be able to express my gender and genderqueerness. I would probably feel bereft if I woke up one day and realized my gender had settled down at some point on the conventionally acceptable female-presenting end of the spectrum. So in that sense, yes, it’s very important to me and it’s a significant part of my identity. On the other hand, if I weren’t such a statistical outlier, and if the culture I live in were generally more accepting of gender-variant people, I don’t know that I would feel quite as strongly about it. I’ve had to fight for it and that necessarily creates a degree of attachment.

Ash: Ooh. Both I guess, depending on the circumstances. It’s more other people and organisations who can’t deal with me as I am who cause me the biggest problems. But I’d be lying if I didn’t have confused days where I wonder how much compromise I’m prepared to make to keep a friendship, work contract, etc.

Xtina: It matters more to others than to me. I’m more -neutral than -queer. (And more gender-apathetic than anything, when it comes to myself.)

Klepsie: It is less important to me than at any previous point in my life, and I’m happy with that.

Have you had to deal with a lot of hassle because of your gender/lack of gender? E.g. harassment, bureaucracy, bewilderment?

AshAll of those, and physical assault, and death threats… not on a regular basis but enough to know it’s pretty much passive suicide entering certain places at certain times of day.

Rose FoxI’ve never been outright hassled, because I live in New York City and people here pretty much don’t blink at anything. I’ve confused some people, and I’ve gotten occasional comments that I found borderline offensive but were probably just an expression of the other person’s confusion and discomfort. Bureaucracy hasn’t been an issue because I haven’t made it an issue, other than yelling at a lot of companies that require me to label myself “male” or “female” when filling out forms.

When I started getting my hair buzzed, I actually found that the incidence of street harassment dropped dramatically from the days when I was presenting as a conventionally attractive woman. Women get catcalled all the time because a lot of men treat a presentation of femininity as a statement of sexual availability. As soon as I dispensed with my hair – my most feminine accessory – I became insufficiently feminine/female to be of interest to those men.

That said, in most ways it’s very easy for me to pass as conventionally female, and I’m not particularly flamboyant, so I don’t get a lot of hassle for being a weirdo or a pervert. If anything has driven me to be more outrageous and overtly outside of the binary, it’s a desire to support and show solidarity for other genderqueers whose preferred presentation draws a lot of negative attention. That’s one of the reasons I buzzed my hair. I don’t want to pass as conventionally female. I want other queer and genderqueer people to know I’m “family”, and I want to diversify the world that binary-gendered people see, to make it harder for them to pretend we don’t exist or are all dangerous loonies.

Xtina: Not particularly. I am still female-bodied, and I use the female pronouns (as noted above), and I tend to at least try to “pass”, as it were, when I go on job interviews. When it comes to personal stuff (rather than work stuff), I mostly get “huh. okay.”.

Of course, I live in Portland, OR, USA, land of the weird, so.

Klepsie: I have been very fortunate in undergoing very little “hassle” (as you put it) because of my status. I don’t know whether this is simple good fortune on my part, or whether my general approach of “matter of factness” is a winning stratagem, or whether my being white and middle class has saved me from the troubles that some people experience, or what. I am quite aware that many others, especially those older than me, have had a much tougher time of things, and I have nothing but respect for those who’ve had a harder row to hoe than I have.

Ed: People get flustered when they identify me as a chap and then correct themselves – I used to say ‘Don’t worry, I don’t mind,’ but that didn’t seem to make people feel less embarrassed!

I get some abuse, but I suspect that’s because I look ‘like a lesbian’ (I wear men’s clothes a lot) – or, indeed, like a gay man (I kiss my boyfriend when I’m looking like a bloke).

I’m very open about it, but because people have rarely heard anything similar, it’s hard to ‘come out’. That’s good and bad – it’s more likely to be brushed off as a joke, but if people listen, I get more chance to explain how it works for me.

Yoyo: Some; not a lot. A little bit of hassle based on my appearance, and occasional embarrassment from strangers who read me as male and then realise that wasn’t quite right. Some bewilderment from acquaintances who live in the mainstream.

Do you think it would damage children to be made aware that some people are not uncomplicatedly male or female?

f: No.

Rose Fox: A friend of mine has a delightful young child, M, who drew a picture of “mom’s friends” for school. M explained to her fellow classmates that the person with the short hair is Rose, who is a girl, and the person with the long hair is Dave, who is a boy. The five-year-olds had no problem with this. Why should they?

Another friend’s nine-year-old, Y, met me shortly after I’d buzzed off all my hair. “You look like a boy!” Y declared. “Thank you!” I said. Over dinner, I mentioned something I was doing that’s culturally male-coded, and Y exclaimed, “Wow, you really ARE like a boy!” I replied, “That’s right: a boy who likes to knit and wear dresses.” Other than that, gender was not at all a topic of conversation, and Y seemed perfectly comfortable hanging out with me and chatting about subway trains and origami and other items of mutual interest.

A third friend introduced me to a genderqueer teen, A, who was delighted to meet a genderqueer adult. Gender-variant kids desperately need role models and mentors because we’re almost completely absent from media and cultural narratives. I was very pleased to be able to give A advice and reassurance.

So no, of course I don’t think my mere existence poses a danger to children, nor do I think I should somehow be hidden away from them in order to protect their fragile little minds. They don’t know anything about sex or gender until we tell them, so why shouldn’t we tell them the whole story? All this “protect the children” nonsense is really about protecting adults who are uncomfortable admitting to the existence of anything outside the gender binary.

Ash: So far, I think my son had FAR worse things to worry about such as various family members who sometomes use drugs and alcohol to excess. Maybe he will come to me troubled and/or with lots of questions in future. Can’t see that education could fail to help foster a more peaceful and understanding community in future.

Xtina: Do I think it would damage children to be made aware that sometimes, life is not straightforward black/white easy-peasy simple times always and forever? No, I do not.

Although I kind of want to see something based on that now.

P: It’s time I told you something — people, sometimes, get divorced.
C: *head explodes*
P: And some people aren’t cat or dog people!
C: *meltdown*
P: Finally… I saved this for last, because this is huge, but… not everyone works in the corporate world.
C: *expires*

Good lord, anyhow.

Klepsie: No more than it would damage them to know that some people are mixed race, or bisexual. The vast majority of things in life which are presented dualistically are in fact not so, and children are going to learn about these things one way or another — why not make sure that they get accurate information instead of having to rely on playground gossip?

Ed: I think it would be pretty reassuring – loads of kids worry about not being a girl/boy in the right way, not fitting in. Knowing there’s lots of ways of being a man, or a woman, or neither, would be a relief, I think.

Yoyo: No.

If you could make one gender-related change in the world, what would it be?

f: Voices. To render voices gender neutral somehow.

Rose Fox: I would love to see unisex single-occupancy restrooms become ubiquitous in public places. Unisex multiple-occupancy restrooms are great in theory but problematic in reality; our culture just isn’t ready for cis, trans, and genderqueer people of all genders and sexes to share that type of intimate space. Unfortunately, when the only options are male multiple-occupancy and female multiple-occupancy restrooms, that means that trans and genderqueer people have literally nowhere safe to go. And there is nothing more pointlessly binary-enforcing than two identical single-occupancy restrooms, one labeled M and the other labeled W. Unisex single-occupancy restrooms remove the concern of sharing intimate space with someone of a different sex or gender, and don’t require those of us outside the binary to label ourselves just so we can pee.

Ash: The US passport agency should catch up with Australia and allow the x (=other/not declared) gender on its passports.

Xtina: I’d make it less important, across the board.

Klepsie: I really don’t know, other that to say something vague and woolly like “People should get over it”.

Yoyo: (I suspect the answer to this would be different on different days and at different times…) Removal of gender markers from e.g. passports, driving licences, and doing away with the (internet age) assumption that everybody has to have a title – and making a gender-neutral title freely available to all who wanted to use it.

(You can find more information about all this, and further links, at Practical Androgny. I will soon be following up this article with another one looking in more depth at these issues, including an interview with Nat Titman of Practical Androgny.)


Be Yourself. No, Not That One, The Other One

(First published at the Huffington Post)

There’s a lot of advice out there about being yourself. It’s generally in favour of the idea, and quite right too. The opposite of being yourself is not being yourself, and who wants that? Who would you be then? You’d be somebody else. And that can’t be right.

Here is a brief summary of prevailing self-help wisdom on the subject of being yourself:

– Find yourself.
– Be true to yourself.
– Don’t try to be something you’re not.
– Result: happiness.

Finding yourself has to come first, of course, otherwise you won’t know who the self is that you’re supposed to be true to. You can achieve this through travel, yoga, meditation, a career, a family – there are so many ways to do it that it’s amazing anyone has ever managed to lose themselves at all.

Once found, cling to your true self like a leprechaun clutching a tiny precious pot of gold. (In this analogy, your true self was at the end of the rainbow. If this feels a little too fey for your tastes, please imagine that you found your true self somewhere more butch, for example under a monster truck, and that the leprechaun is actually a tiny rugby player clutching a gold rugby ball. OK? Good.) Never do anything that isn’t dictated to you by your little gold item of choice, and you will achieve health and happiness and other good things probably also beginning with ‘h’. (Harlots? Hobbycraft? Ham? Halfords? Who knows.)

The problem with all this – or rather one of the problems – is that when people tell you to be yourself, what they tend to mean is “I know what you are really like. Be that person.” They mean well. They genuinely believe they want you to be yourself. But there will always be provisos.

To give an example: earlier this year I watched the US reality show The Glee Project. This was a search to find new cast members for US show Glee (with which I am somewhat obsessed). Glee is basically about singing, dancing, high school misfits with big dreams, and the contestants were therefore in the situation of needing to fit into that trope, while also being ‘themselves’. Authenticity was praised, but so was fitting in to the existing cast. You couldn’t come across as too pliable or conformist, but you’d get kicked out for not obeying instructions or causing hassle. And all this struck me as largely being how life is: it’s ok to talk about not fitting in, as long as you also make sure you do fit in.

One of the final contestants, Alex, was flamboyantly gay: initially this worked in his favour, and then it somehow started working against him. He kept being told to ‘be his real self’, show them the person underneath the camp. But when he did what they told him to – when he performed a quieter, sober number and won applause for it – I thought: they’re telling him to be himself, but they’re also telling him what that self should be like. Is that fair? Can’t being flamboyant and camp be who you really are?

There’s this tendency to assume that the deepest layer is the real one. But they’re all real. The skin of an apple is as real as the core (and, I would point out, much tastier). Maybe you’re someone who spends most of their time as a housewife and mother, but sometimes likes to get dressed up in black eyeliner and big stompy boots, and go to goth clubs. Or you’re really shy at work, but a karaoke fiend in the evenings. Or you’re 60 but you like miniskirts, or techno, or World of Warcraft. Are you pretending to be someone you’re not? Are you being your truest self? Or are you just expressing different facets of your overall personality? Trying to be something you’re not may be a bad thing, but who’s to say what you are and what you aren’t?

And anyway, people don’t really mind you trying to be something you’re not. They mind you trying to be something they don’t think you should be. After all, many people aren’t thin and rich, but working to become those things is very much encouraged by society. But don’t act posh if you weren’t born to it, and shave your legs, and don’t wear pink if you’re a straight boy, and don’t go clubbing if you’re over 30. Why not? Because changing yourself is good, except when it isn’t. And being yourself is good, except when it’s not. All in all, it’s probably best to shrug, dust off those stompy boots, and go dancing.


Working for Ribbons

I keep thinking about that Mark Twain quote: “work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”, and trying to decide which of my activities is work and which is play. Examples from this week:

- I wrote a guest post for Choler, ranting about the idea that it should be unacceptable to be unhealthy in the workplace. Work or play? I didn’t have to do it and I didn’t get paid, but putting it in the ‘play’ column feels slightly wrong too; I did work to write it, and it gave me exposure. (In fact I achieved a personal ambition with this one and got it listed in one of Shakesville’s blog link posts.)

- I wrote my third blog for the Huffington Post. Famously, HP bloggers don’t get paid; again, you do it for the exposure. (Although the downside to that is the feeling of being exposed: I should write about that sometime.) Play, then? Or work, because I’m partly blogging in order to try to drive sales of my novel? Undecided.

- I tried to start writing a short story for a book and a non-fiction submission to a literary agent. Is that work? There’s a whole other post to be made about writing and its work/play status, so I’ll come back to that.

- An easier one: I went to my job, my actual paid job in an NHS IT department. It’s complicated though, because I don’t make any money from it; the cost of childcare plus travel almost exactly equals my net pay. I could leave and it wouldn’t affect our household income, provided I also gave up all childcare. So I’m not obliged to be there; I’m there for various reasons, one of which is that being a full-time mother is not good for my mental health, another of which is that I like it there. But my job is surely work, not play, no matter what the circumstances around it. I think.

- I did childcare. I looked after my one-year-old and my seven-year-old for various bits of the week. Work or play? Well, you’re not obliged to have kids, but once you have them, you more or less are obliged to look after them, so… work? I don’t get paid though. Does it feel like work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

- I did laundry, tidying, household admin, shopping and so on. Work? Yes, though some of the shopping was buying my one-year-old a Halloween outfit, which felt like play. And again, there’s no direct income from it; in fact it costs money.

- The bits of my week that I can categorically count as not-work: I spent time with my partner, I watched TV, I saw my friends.

Overall, the quote that best summarises how I feel at the moment isn’t that Mark Twain one. It’s from F Scott Fitzgerald’s slightly-autobiographical first novel, This Side of Paradise. Toward the end, the narrator Amory Blaine gets into an argument with an older man who believes that people are only really motivated by money. Amory believes that most people will do a surprising amount of work for non-financial reasons – for badges, memberships, honour.

“Let me tell you” – Amory became emphatic – “if there were ten men insured against either wealth or starvation, and offered a green ribbon for five hours’ work a day and a blue ribbon for ten hours’ work a day, nine out of ten of them would be trying for the blue ribbon.”

The internet has proved Amory to be right: people are capable of doing enormous amounts of work for ribbons. Ribbons of honour, ribbons of recognition, ribbons of personal satisfaction, ribbons of some kind of internal need. Sometimes work you do on the internet leads to money – Charlie Brooker came from the internet and ended up a Guardian columnist and satirical TV pundit – but mostly when someone writes a blog, makes a YouTube video replicating a film in Lego, or rewrites the bible in lolspeak, or spends hours transcribing their conversations with the angel in their head, then they’re working for ribbons. And so am I. And at the moment, I’m fine with that.


Putting gullible back in the dictionary

(First published on the Huffington Post)

In movies, if someone tells you something unbelievable, it’s best to believe it. Because the mind-controlling robot alien from the future who wants to steal your soul and use it for a healthy lifegiving snack is usually going to be real. And you don’t want to be the sceptic in that scenario. The sceptics get humiliated, at best, or eaten by giant tentacly telepathic monsters, at worst.

However, this is one of those tropes that doesn’t seem to have crept into real life (unlike, say, the movie notion that romance is best expressed through compulsive stalking of the beloved, which unfortunately has). Mostly people would still rather be Scully than Mulder, because of course, in real life the mind-controlling soul-stealing time-travelling robot is probably – probably - not going to turn out to be real. Real life is in this case the opposite of the movies: the David Ickes* of this world are fantasists and people who tell you aliens are out to get you are people who you would not want to take seriously.

The problem with this is the news. Like most people, I am not a scientist, unless having a GCSE in Physics counts, and I suspect it doesn’t. (I got an A! Surely that counts? No?) I have a basic idea how things work – I do not think electricity is magic, for example – but that’s about it.

Also like most people, I get my information about the world from the media: often via the medium of news stories I’m skimming on my phone while standing on a train in rush hour on the way to work. This is not conducive to in-depth understanding. So I have found myself very nervous about the recent slew of stories that appear to be basically science fiction. For example:

- A new plant that “bends down” to deposit its seeds has been discovered in a forest in Brazil. (As an aside, if plants are going to turn out to be this clever, vegetarianism is going to start looking almost as cruel as meat-eating. Let’s hope that, against all the odds, breatharianism turns out to be true.)

- Faster than light speeds may be possible.

- You can use 3D printers to make chocolate, car parts and articificial blood cells.

- It’s starting to be possible to record people’s brains.

OK, I sort of understand how all of these things can happen. Except the faster-than-light thing, but that’s all right: it’s accepted that top-level physics is Really Quite Hard.

The thing is though, part of me feels so gullible for believing these news stories. As though any minute now, someone is going to turn round and say “Wait, you didn’t really think all that was true, did you?” And then they’d laugh and laugh and I’d stand there muttering “well, the BBC said it was real,” like some kind of media-manipulated idiot.

Is this an argument for “everything is a bit true, really” and “well, you can’t really prove anything, can you?” Oh God no. There are many many genuinely true things and many many genuinely false things. It’s just that I don’t have time to sort out which is which. So I get the Guardian and the BBC and my Twitter feed to do it for me. It’s not ideal. But it’s all I have time for. So I’m just going to have to live with the fact that my dictionary still has the word “gullible” in it.

*An aside: Thanks to a web-editing customer service job I had ten years ago, my name was briefly featured on David Icke’s website. Thanks to the archiving powers of Google, I can still get a hit if I search for “david icke kate harrad“. As someone who makes a hobby out of internet weirdness, and then wrote a novel based on it, this makes me very happy.


Are you there, Mind? It’s me, Body

(First published on the Huffington Post)

The word “just” bridges a multitude of gaps. As in “just lose weight!”, “just be confident in yourself!” and “just stop taking heroin!”. It has that handy ability to make something difficult sound as if it should be easy, with the bonus implication that anyone who doesn’t find it easy should be a bit ashamed of themselves.

The phrase “just listen to your body”, used by a number of books, articles and people, falls into the same category for me. Assuming for the moment that you and your body are indeed different entities – and apologies to any philosophers who are choking on their mint-flavoured cappucinos at this point* – then this sounds like a perfectly sensible idea. If you listen to your body it will tell you useful things, like what you should be eating and when you should be sleeping. Maybe it even tells you what to wear to a wedding and how to mend a pair of trousers, if you listen closely enough. I’m not sure.

Because the trouble is, I’m not very good at it. I increasingly worry that where my body is concerned, I’m not really listening so much as nodding and smiling while thinking about something else. Like letting one’s long-term partner tell you about their day at work. You want to be supportive, you’re genuinely interested in how they are in a kind of overall, general sense, but specifically, at that moment, you don’t actually know what they’re talking about because you’re thinking about the latest episode of Doctor Who or wondering whether there’s any vodka in the house.**

So that’s how my communication with my body works. I let it get on with things, and presume that it’ll let me know if something’s gone wrong. In the absence of other information, I assume that what it usually wants is chocolate, sleep, and to lie on comfortable sofas alternately eating chocolate and sleeping.

But I worry that maybe sometimes my body wants other things – celery, jogging, toenail polish? – and I’m not picking up on it. I’ve never been good at reading other people’s body language; reading my own is even harder. I can’t even see my own facial expressions! How am I supposed to know what I think about anything?

Perhaps it would be easier if we formalised the whole thing and exchange a polite series of notes, like partners who work different shifts and have to leave requests on the fridge. Or, given that this is 2011, perhaps we could email or IM each other.

Body@Kate: I want to go dancing. DANCING. NOW
Mind@Kate: Are you sure? We have work in the morning.
Body@Kate: DANCING! NOW!
Mind@Kate: Oh, OK then, I guess we could manage something -
Body@Kate: Oh wait, is it 10pm already? Sleep now.
Mind@Kate: But you said you wanted -
Body@Kate: SLEEP NOW.
Mind@Kate: *sulks*

In fact, now I think about it, the problem is not just the difficulty in mind-body communication, it’s my body’s lack of consistency in what it’s trying to tell me. What it wants is frequently unclear, and often contradictory. (In this way it reminds me somewhat of my one-year-old daughter.)

For example – and this may be why this whole thing is on my mind at the moment – I was recently diagnosed with coeliac disease. This means I can’t eat anything with gluten in ever again, in case tiny wheat-flavoured goblins start building spiky hedges in my small intestine. Or something. I’m not good at medical terminology.

But the point is: if anything with flour in it is going to damage me, then why do I still want to eat cake? Where is the joined-up thinking, body? Couldn’t you have alerted me sooner – for example, by making me involuntarily spit out any pasta or bread I tried to put in my mouth? Perhaps with a little note explaining what the problem was? I could have made myself some Alphabetti Spaghetti if that made communication easier.

And as I reach the end of this train of thought, I picture myself watching in horror as my fingers construct the phrase “Don’t eat flour! It will hurt you!” out of floppy alphabet-shaped pasta, and I realise that maybe I’m happy with things the way they are. If listening to your body might result in being trapped in an internal, low-rent, mildly metaphysical horror movie, then I think I’ll just steer well clear of it all and eat a banana.

* Why do I picture philosophers drinking mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea. Can you even get mint-flavoured cappucinos? No idea.

** A note to my long-term partner: I definitely do listen very closely to everything you say about your day at work. Yes.


I wanna be…

I am currently sedated. Not very much, obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this, at least not in any form that made sense. (I’m assuming this makes sense. If what I’m actually writing is ‘Twist the elephants! Twist the elephants!’, could someone tell me?)

I’m sedated because I had an endoscopy today. You know how they say the worst bit of things is the anticipation? In this case, I can safely say that the worst bit was the actual procedure. Nevertheless, it was brief and it’s over now, and my memories of it are fading quickly.

When you have an endoscopy with the NHS, they offer you either a local anaesthetic throat spray, or the sedative. The former actually helps to numb the discomfort, the latter just makes sure you’re relaxed about it and don’t remember a lot about the experience afterwards. So is it better to have a less painful experience, or a more painful one you won’t remember? I opted for the latter, but I had a vague feeling that I should have chosen the throat spray. I think this is because a voice in my head was telling me that it was cowardly to want to wish the experience away. I should face up to reality in all its messy, retching glory.

Obviously, that was silly. Nobody blames anyone for getting sedation for a minor surgical procedure. (Actually, someone on the internet probably does, but I’m not going looking.) But I think the voice in my head was a massed choir of those people who go on about Facing the Truth and Not Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land and generally scorn the idea of smoothing life’s problems away in any form whatsover – except of course when they’re doing it. Because it’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I take a well-deserved break from the pressure, you hide from life, he’s deluded and avoidant. In fact, nobody could really handle facing up to reality all the time. Truth is like the sun: it’s a necessary thing and a good thing, but looking at it directly can send you blind.

Everyone needs a bit of sedation sometimes.

And on that note, I’m going to go and lie down somewhere while the tiny pixies in my blood work their sleep-inducing magic. (I don’t really know how medicine works. Pixies are involved somehow, yes?)