Category Archives: thoughts

The arbitrary line in the sand – end of 2015

So this year has been pretty intense.  I’ve dealt with having a cancer diagnosis and the related treatment (currently cured – hooray!).  I’ve dealt with James losing his job and supporting his mental health through that.  I’ve dealt with a really intense and stressful trip to India.  That’s just the last 6 months.  I can barely tell you what happened in the first half of this year that is almost over, because cancer pretty much overshadowed everything – unsurprisingly.  I do have vague memories that it wasn’t particularly good.

I’ve been looking forward to 1 January 2016 so I could kick 2015 in the arse as it left.  It’s an arbitrary line, New Years Day, there is no reason why Friday is the first day of a new year other than that’s what someone decided many hundreds of years ago.  It would make more sense that midwinter/midsummer – a day we have been able to predict with a high degree of accuracy for many hundreds of years – be the beginning/end of a year, but for some reason it’s not.

I’m not complaining, I just think it’s an interesting thing.

I am looking forward to 2016 being a much better year for myself and my family.  I’m looking forward to finding a new job, for James to find a new job, for our finances to even out, for travel plans that I have to resolve, for all my friends and family to have a much less stressful year, for everyone’s health to improve, and for everyone to be safe.

May 2016 be excellent to all of us.  May those of us who make new year resolutions keep them, may those of us who have hopes and dreams for 2016 achieve them, may everyone be awesome to each other.

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Tell me a story

I tweeted the other day (ok several months) ago, that I had come to a realisation about why I just don’t like some stories.  Everyone raved about Anita Heiss’s Tiddas, and was talking about how they related to the story about a close knit group of girlfriends.  I love Anita and bought the book to read, but sadly I couldn’t finish it, and I thought over the course of a few weeks why that was.

It certainly wasn’t the writing, Anita is a fantastic author, her writing is superb and her senses of place and character are powerful, so it wasn’t that.  Eventually I realised it was because of the key essence of the story – secrets.

It’s not that I don’t mind a book where the characters have to keep things from each other to keep each other safe, or because there are far more important things to do than discuss how a careless comment hurt their feelings at breakfast, but in a book where there appears to be no other reason to keep secrets from each other than to drive dramatic tension, I have a problem with that.

I’m not sure why this is a specific thing that bugs me about some stories.  I’m sure part of it is being a person who is open and honest with those I care about, and that I don’t like keeping secrets from those I care about unless they’re fun secrets like surprise presents or parties.  That said, I also hate surprises, so maybe that’s part of it too.

Stories are often told where an event happens and that drives the plot, or where conflict between people happen, and that’s the plot, or there is a journey or a game or things.  Stories where someone is fretting about whether or not they should tell someone else this thing that is going on in their life, when for all the history as far as the reader knows of this character and this other person is that they would have told the other, irritates me.  I believe it’s huge in romance books (another genre I don’t read).

It’s one thing that annoyed me most about [Rowena] Cory Daniell’s series The Last of the T’en (and now I discover she is also from Brisbane), sure initially the main character has absolutely no reason to trust the invader who demands she marry him, but they begin to understand each other, and there are all sorts of non-reasons for them to stop communicating.  The romantic tension is driven by them failing to communicate and it annoyed me.  The world, ideas, clash of cultures, rebel alliances, etc are all great, but why can’t they just talk to each other?

Really this is me having a whine because my I value openness in my relationships over many other things, and when I see fictional characters fail to communicate (this even happened in Glitch and that annoyed me too), I rage at them to just sit down and do the talking thing.  Yes it is hard, it isn’t always fun, and can take time, but it is necessary and the plot will happen anyway because you have built interesting characters, in interesting places, with interesting things happening to them.

I love a great “us against the world” story.  I love reading about people learning about themselves and other people.  I love reading about defeating evil, or slightly evil, or “oops we thought that was the bad person”.  I love reading about people who learn to communicate better with each other as they realise that one of them communicates in a different way to themselves.  I love most stories.  It turns out I am not a fan of stories about not communicating.

Today’s post prompted by this.

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I’m not afraid of dying

I’m not dying.

I was chatting with James last night, in between sleeping bouts, about things and he mentioned that he was afraid of death, the cessation of being, and I replied that I’m only afraid of dying from the viewpoint that I might leave those I care about (and for) without means to look after themselves, and as I currently have a healthy life insurance policy AND a decent amount of superannuation, this isn’t an issue.

I mean I don’t want to die, I’m quite enjoying being alive, and I’m not looking forward to dying any time soon, but I’m not afraid of dying.  I’ve been faced with my mortality twice now in the last 10 years of my life.  The first time was when I had an ecoptic pregnancy, I was in a lot of pain, I lost a lot of blood, and the whole thing was rather unpleasant (as an understatement).  Most recently it was being told I have cancer.  Sure the cancer was caught at a very early stage, but it’s still a condition that can potentially kill you.

My cancer diagnosis has been stressful, and as there are multiple paths my treatment can take I yet don’t know the exact shape of the rest of my journey, but I do know I’m going to be on the other side of the most invasive part of the treatment in the next 6 months.  I suppose a large part of not being stressed about dying from this is because I am 99.9% certain it’s not going to kill me, it’s just not going to be fun.

But even if I did die, I have done my best to make the world a better place.  I have worked hard to ensure that those I love and care for will be financially stable and secure after I have died.  I have loved and been loved, eaten good food, and travelled to fantastic places.  I haven’t done everything I want, but I have achieved a lot.

Death holds no fear for me right now.  It’s a weird, but good place to be.  I know this comes with a degree of privilege, particularly financial privilege, and I have worked hard to make this the case.  Ten years ago, I would not have been in this position, it is a very recent thing that has made this the case.

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I have one of those faces…

You might know the one – the one where people tell you things, or if you’re on the other side, the one you look at and you think, “I know, I can tell them things and it’ll all be cool”.

I have had some fascinating conversations and experiences because of the face I carry with me (no, not in my pocket, that’d be gross).  Recently I’ve been practicing the “leave me alone, I’m busy” look so I am approached less often, but when I was younger I would have all sorts of people approach me to tell me things.

I was 15 and sitting the CES (employment) office, trying to get some part-time work.  I was minding my own business in the waiting room when one of the employees walked past me, stopped, asked if I was ok, and then launched into a personal story that I was embarrassed to hear.  I can’t remember much about it now, other than it involved tights, but it was strange, and not the first or last time I had random things confided in me.

I once asked a partner why he thought people told me things.  He said that he thought it was because I looked non-judgmental, approachable, and kind.  I judge, of course, as everyone else does, but apparently back then I didn’t look like I would.  When I asked his girlfriend why I was never approached in bars (which wasn’t entirely a bad thing), she told me that I always look like I’m really busy, and shouldn’t be interrupted.

I think I’ve been focusing on the “leave me alone” look for a while – I treasure being left alone.  Also, being fat and older now means I’m almost invisible, which is good too.

Over 10 years ago now I was in Crown for a function dinner (part of a conference I was at), and as I had arrived early I sat in a random bar and started reading my book (I had my work bag with me).  A woman sat down on the table I was on and introduced herself.  She asked me if I would join her in playing a trick on her friends by pretending to be her girlfriend.  I didn’t have anything to do for the next 45 minutes or so, so joined her in walking over to the table of friends.  We sat down, she introduced me, and the conversation continued, though a bit awkwardly.  Eventually this woman, whose name I have completely forgotten, told her friends that her name was in fact [insert male name I’ve forgotten too] here and that I was not actually her girlfriend.  This was about the same time I had to leave to go to the dinner, and I never did find out what happened to her.

I have/had that face that meant that this woman felt that she could trust me to joke about with her friends, in whichever way she wanted to do so.

I’ve had my share of strange people on public transport who want to tell me their life story, or inquire if my sisters are unmarried once they discover that I’m married and most of the time I don’t mind (well except for the guys who think that hitting on my sisters is a good idea).  There really are times when I just want to be left alone to read my book, think my thoughts or plan the eventually take over of the world.

I don’t mind engaging with general strangers provided I can opt out if necessary, generally that’s where problems arise, social contracts don’t often let you opt out.  There is a certain appeal to the idea of being a little old lady who talks to strangers though.

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Post apocalyptic story-telling

I consume a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, mostly in book format, but also in films and television.  Part of it is because I enjoy sf stories, and post-apocalyptic stories look to the future and what could happen to the world and there are elements of both science fiction and fantasy in doing that.  Part of it is also because I’m a cold war kid.

I grew up in Alice Springs, which is next door to the US and Australian intelligence base Pine Gap.  I grew up when the threat of nuclear warfare was real.  I grew up reading Children of the Dust, and it was more of a case of when the war would start than if.  This mindset is hard to shake, and so I am drawn to the stories people tell about what if the world we knew ended, and what would happen next.

That said, I’m glad most stories don’t focus on the actual transition from today’s world to the newly imagined world, because that isn’t pretty at all.  I watched bits of Under the Dome on TV, and it’s not nice to watch or read about people who need medication to stay alive suffer as their access to medication disappears, or when the water runs out and people start dehydrating or drinking unsafe water, or when food sources disappear and people start starving, or when the social order we appreciate completely breaks down and those that are deemed easy prey are expendable.  I know that this happens today in many parts of the world, and it’s not what I want for anyone.

I won’t watch Under the Dome, or even The Walking Dead, because I don’t need that level of horror in my life, but it still fascinates me. What happens with race, gender and sexuality when the world we know today fractures and becomes something different?  Do the current biases and prejudices remain? (probably yes) Will people change for the better? (probably no).

Annalee Newitz doesn’t think that the rights that women have fought for and won in many countries around the world are necessarily guaranteed.

So what does that tell us about the future? As I said earlier, it can be a fairly depressing prospect. We see that women have gained freedom and lost it, over and over again. There is no smooth road from lack of freedom to total freedom. It is, as Le Tigre sang in relation to something related, “One step forward, five steps back.”

So why this post?  I want to review some of the books I’ve read recently, looking at how women, non-white people, disabled people and sexual minorities are represented, what ended the world today, and whether the future envisaged in those stories is one that I’d want to live in.

Stay tuned as I write over the next while posts about each of those books (when I’m focused and have time obviously).  All thoughts and recommendations of other books welcome.

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My feels, and why I don’t really talk about them

I’m pretty sure I have feelings, after all I get happy, sad, angry, forlorn, depressed, stressed, etc, but I don’t often talk about them – to anyone, with the occasional exception of my husband (and only one of said husbands, the other gets the high level stuff that everyone else who asks how I’m feeling tends to get).

There are “good” reasons for this, as in my childhood and adolescence primed me to be someone who struggles to communicate and understand how I feel about things at any given moment.  Childhood and adolescence are also known as our formative years, for very good reasons.  We learn how to deal with the world around us, what things are appropriate to do or to avoid, how we should communicate, what we should communicate about, how to react to things, etc.  Clearly major events during our childhood and adolescence impact on our formation as people, both positively and negatively, and those impacts last throughout our adult lives.

Now that I’ve given some background, let’s go back to me.  When I was three and a bit, my mother had a stroke and I assumed adult responsibilities in my family – which mostly involved being responsible for my sisters and providing emotional support to my dad.  Three year olds don’t actually have a very good grasp on what it means to be an adult.  I wasn’t sure how to emotionally respond to this, so I didn’t.  To an extent, this was my normal.  I didn’t know anything else, it was just something I lived, and I’m not alone in this, children who end up translating for their parents when they family migrates or flees to another country, or children who have caring responsibilities for their parents or siblings have similar issues I imagine.  Their experiences are likely to involve more trauma than mine, but my experiences have impacted me as an adult.

Combined with that is the general Australian reticence to talk about emotional things, a situation captured in “she’ll be right mate”, and my fractured relationship with my mother in the last few years before I moved out of home.  My parents, the adults I spent the most time with as a child, were themselves damaged by their own childhood. My mother’s biggest lesson from her childhood was that children lie (which is epically fucked up), and dad’s (though he hasn’t said this to me) was to be very careful in what he shared lest it be used against him.

This did impact my ability to share with my parents, my father often seemed awkward (and he still is) when feelings were discussed – apart from the high level stuff such as “I got angry when …”.  My mother didn’t believe me, and certainly didn’t believe me when I told her about serious things like being sexually assaulted or harassed at school.  She never said this until much later in my life when she apologised to me for the impact this had on me, I felt that I couldn’t tell her things, so I didn’t.  I envied my friends who had different relationships with their parents, where they could talk to them about things.

Before I moved out of home, my mother had taken to “talking with me” which was more her talking at me while I did my best to remain calm and not get upset.  Our relationship immediately before I moved out of home was incredibly toxic (it has since been repaired), and I felt that even showing the slightest bit of emotion (usually crying because the words she was using I felt were to wound), was to let her “win” whatever battle we were currently fighting.

All of this combined with bullying at school when we moved to Bendigo, because I was different to everyone else, means that the safest route is to not show much emotion, to not talk about it, and to sort stuff out myself.  Sorting stuff out myself is slow, slightly faster if my husband is available, but as he’s suffers from depression himself, that’s not always an option.  I know I avoid talking about me by talking about all the interesting things I’ve learnt, read, or seen.  It’s easier to be interesting than it is to talk about how I feel about things.

There isn’t much of a way forward in this that I can see.  The defensive mechanisms I developed as a child are incredibly hard to undo as an adult.  I know it is possible to relearn behaviours, but there needs to be motivation to do so and right now I don’t see a need.  I’m doing mostly ok right now, apart from my work being incredibly overwhelming, and feeling that I’m juggling too many things (which given the number of things I’m juggling is not surprising).  Right now, I’m doing as well as pretty much anyone else in my situation would be.

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Let’s try with some empathy

Now I understand you don’t want to engage with the angry person who is swearing over there.  You can see that they’re upset, but you’re not entirely sure why, and you’re certainly not sure why they’re this angry.  Surely such a little thing shouldn’t provoke such strong emotions in someone – they must be unhinged, or overly sensitive – surely.

After all, dealing with angry, upset, and/or sweary people isn’t pleasant and it certainly isn’t fun.  So of course the logical response is to tell them to calm down, to tell them that you won’t engage with them when they’re like this, that you feel threatened by their response, and that their language is inappropriate and that they need to be more civil.

How about instead of telling someone how they should react to something, you think a bit about why they might be reacting that way, how constant microaggressions might have worn them down, and how this might have been the final straw after they’ve been polite to everyone else whose pushed them down that day/week/month/year.  Think about how they might actually see the thing that you said or wrote, and how that might look from their position.  Actually apologise for upsetting them and then invite them to tell you what you can do to avoid upsetting them again in future – because people generally want to avoid having their feet stepped on, they will often provide you with suggestions resources on how your organisation or yourself can be more inclusive, open, and less upsetting.

But if they don’t, because it is not their job to educate you, go and find those resources yourself.  Read up on the issues, reactions, things to avoid doing, things to do, and ways to be a better person and organisation.  There are many of people out there who blog about these issues, and you can read those and learn why it is that people are upset about this issue, and decide how you can be a better person/organisation.

If you still don’t understand the issues, go and talk to people you know who identify with the person who was upset and ask for their advice.  Go and talk to organisations that represent the person who was upset and find out what you can do in future to avoid upsetting people who identify with that group.  Be empathic, care about those who are in pain, and do what you can to avoid adding to the burdens they carry.  Be a place of safety, sanctity and refuge from the rest of the places that haven’t yet learnt to be empathetic and better.

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The legacy we leave

I’m a strong believer that we should leave the world, and the people we touch (as much as possible) in a better state than we found it.  We should not pass our damage down onto our children, but lesssen or remove it as possible.  Every generation should hopefully be better than the last.  And I see that (with the exception of politics) that many of the people I know, love, interact with, and read about seem to at least feel the same way.

Fiona O’Loughlin is one of my favourite comedians.  I love her stories, her honesty and most recently her book, “Me of the Never Never“.  There was one passage in particular that resonated with me:

As you cross the Todd River, Aborigines are in full view always, sometimes drinking, sometimes fighting, but mostly just sitting.  I think it would be fair to say that it is usually in the car when you’re crossing the river that urban Alice Springs kids, black or white, will ask their parents for the first time about the Aborigines in the river.

‘Why do those people sit in the river all the time?’

To my mind it is a crucial question that requires a crucial answer and it can go either way.

‘Because they’re drunks.’

‘Because they’re bludgers.’

‘Because they’re no-hopers.’

I guess, as is often the case, racism comes as much from ignorance as malice, but right at that moment you can either pass on intolerance or not, and it’s such a heavy load to hand onto a little kid.  A kid that may well spend his or her life in Central Australia has been given with authority a very heavy sack of fat, pompous, pious prejudice.

‘Why do those people sit in the river all the time?’

‘I don’t know, maybe they’re waiting.’

‘Waiting for what?’

‘Waiting for better days, I think.’

Simple.

And I thought after reading that passage, “Yes, that’s exactly it – we shouldn’t pass racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, queerphobia, or sexism onto children.”  We should shelter them as much as possible from these things, let them know that they exist, because otherwise it’d be a nasty shock when they encounter them, but to not teach our prejudices to our children.

Of course, this is really a hard thing to do.  Easy for me to say as a woman who hasn’t managed to successfully have children, hard for a parent whose children want to know what their parents thoughts are on various issues.  I don’t envy parents in this regard.

But if we could shelter children from the structural sexism, racism, and homo, bi, trans* and queer phobias that exist in society, or at least get them to question themselves and others when these things are presented as facts wouldn’t that make the world a better place?

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The death of a tyrant

What do you do when someone who has caused harm to others and who you don’t like at all dies?  I guess singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” probably would be frowned upon.  I have a strong honesty policy and the idea that we should not speak ill of the dead, no matter how problematic they were as individuals is one that I don’t abide by.

I do find it interesting how long the philosophy of not speaking ill of the dead has been around for (wikipedia):

The Latin phrases De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, nothing unless good.”) and De mortuis nil nisi bene [dicendum] (“Of the dead, nothing [spoken] unless good.”) indicate that it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead. As a mortuary aphorism, De mortuis. . . . derives from the Latin sentence De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (“Of the dead nothing but good is to be said”), which also is abbreviated as Nil nisi bonum. In English usage, freer translations are the aphoristic phrases “Speak no ill of the dead”, “Of the dead, speak no evil”, and “Do not speak ill of the dead”.

The first recorded use of the phrase of mortuary respect, dates from the 4th century, published in the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (ca. AD 300), Book 1, Chapter 70, by Diogenes Laërtius, wherein the Greek aphorism τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (“Don’t badmouth a dead man”) is attributed to Chilon of Sparta (ca. 600 BC), one of the Seven Sages of Greece. In the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance, the humanist monk Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes’s Greek book into Latin, as Laertii Diogenis vitae et sententiae eorum qui in philosophia probati fuerunt (1433), and so popularized De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, the Latin aphorism advising respect for the dead.

So it’s a whole lot of cultural baggage for many of us to shed to speak ill of the dead.  I’m much more in favour of an honest recounting, I don’t want my enemies (if I have any) to sing my praises when I’m dead (though they’re welcome to sing the praises of my death if that works for them).

I’m not going to go out and rejoice that a tyrant is dead in front of those people who are grieving the loss of that individual, because I’m not insensitive.  I know that this person was loved by others and that their loss is mourned, I respect that.  I think that my relief and the celebration of the removal of a particular stress from my life now that this person has died should be something that I don’t feel guilty about.

I (oddly) agree with Freud on this one (Wikipedia):

We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.[2]

When Thatcher died some people were upset that others were celebrating in the streets.  Sometimes when a tyrant dies, dancing in the streets is the first thing that comes to mind.

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Let’s talk about shame

I would argue that there are two kinds of shame, the shame of realising that you’ve completely fucked up and done the wrong thing and the shame used to silence people by either making them believe that they are wrong, that something they did was against societal standards, or that they failed to live up to some imaginary standard.

I don’t want to talk about the first type other than to say being ashamed of doing the wrong thing is a powerful lesson, provided you admit it, apologise and work at not doing it again.

The second type is the one I want to talk about.  The second type of shame, the silencing one, the one that can stop you seeking help you need, finding support mechanisms, that makes you feel less because of some attribute (real or imaginary) that you do or do not possess, or stops you leaving the house.

The second type can be imposed by other people or just through societal conditioning.  As an example fat people are regularly shamed by just about everyone by virtue of being fat.  Just existing as a fat person apparently is something to be ashamed of, and something that many people will point out to your face.  Also less subtly and direct, is all the media and government “concern” about obesity and what needs to be done about it.  Being fat is apparently shameful, and in worse case scenarios, fat people won’t seek medical help for life threatening conditions because they don’t want to be shamed further, or they attribute their health status to being fat versus whatever it might actually be.  The fact that fat people are also shamed by their medical professionals adds to an incredibly unfair burden.  Kath at Fat Heffalump writes a lot about why being fat is nothing to be ashamed of.

Being a woman is something that we’re often shamed for, whether it be because we haven’t removed enough hair, we’re not wearing the right amount of makeup, we’re wearing not wearing enough, we’re wearing too much, we’re drinking, we’re not drinking, we’re too old, too young, menstruating, eating, not eating, “being emotional”, nagging, having sex, not having sex, or any other of a number of attributes that some imaginary perfect woman would not have.

I looked at the list of things I was supposed to feel ashamed about one day, while standing naked in front of a mirror, and I decided that they could, for the most part, go and fuck themselves in a fire.  Why should I stand cowered by the world because I didn’t measure up to some arbitrary standard that next to no one else measured up to either.  Just think, if there were people who measured up to this standard women’s gossip magazines (which pretty much sell shame) would be out of business.  I decided at this point that I was going to do my best to live shamelessly, to ignore other people’s attempts to shame me for being myself, and love who I was.

I’ve always found it interesting that “shameless woman” is an insult, but there is no male equivalent.  Not that men aren’t shamed either – it’s just a different set of criteria (having feels about things, not acting in an appropriately masculine manner, being perceived as weak, etc).  The phrase “shameless woman” does come from the bible though, so thanks Christianity for making life suck.

One of the things I learnt growing up was that I had to do it on my own, that I should be able to manage by myself, and that appearing as if I couldn’t cope was a weakness.  Let’s just say that was one of the worst lessons to learn.  It took me close to breaking point before I realised that I was trying to do it on my own in silence because I was ashamed to ask for help.  The bad lessons I’d learnt included the silencing of shame – because asking for help would be an admission that I wasn’t able to cope and do this on my own any more.  The relief of laying aside the shame and finding out that help was available was an amazing thing.

It’s terrible that as a society that we both unconsciously perpetuate shame by not speaking up against it, and that we let shame impact on us.  Being you should be nothing to be ashamed of.  None of us are perfect, none of us are perpetually strong, none of us have a perfect body, our emotional responses are valid, our choices to participate or not in the beauty standard are our own, our ability to cope or not cope as the situation arises is ok, your health situation is nothing to be ashamed of, your money or lack of it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Please do not let shame rule your life.  Go out there, be a proud shameless person, and speak your mind.

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