Thursday, 1 November 2012

Thursday Poem: Ode to the Colour Yellow

This morning I asked Sam what I could do today to decrease World suck. He suggested I should write a poem, so I did.

I don't do this very often, so please excuse my rhymes.

I found something yellow and cheery

Ode to the Colour Yellow

Oh Yellow! You most underused of colours,
When choosing my clothes I invariably reach for others,
Day after day I hear you cry,
Why other colours, why?
Why not me? Have I offended you in some way?
Did I upset your mother in some sort of way?
I have to answer in the negative when I reply,
Truth be told I am not quite sure why,
When I think of colours I choose the opposite of you,
For a long time now black has been my favourite hue.
Perhaps it is because you are bright and happy,
I’ve never like to draw people’s attention to me.
Perhaps it is simply because I am scared
Of drawing attention and peoples stares,
What might they say? What might they do?
The questions cause concern it is true.
But that is no reason for you to be so neglected,
While other colours in the spectrum are more respected.
I know I should reconsider my choices,
And think of all the other colours which lack voices,
I cannot promise that I will bedeck myself in bright shades,
My current habits have been formed now for decades,
But I can promise that I will try,
And think upon the reason why,
I choose to blend in instead of stand out in a crowd,
Why I choose to be subdued instead of shouting out loud,
And I will think of you, oh beautiful yellow,
When I choose my wardrobe shades more mellow,
And once in a very small while,
I’ll allow you to make me smile.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

A Personal Perspective on the New Emergency Contraceptive Pill

The Telegraph has a piece up at the moment discussing a new form of emergency contraception that can be taken up to five days after sex. I'm not going to link the article, partly because I don't like the Telegraph, but mostly because the tone of the piece is simply horrific. It's incredibly anti-woman and sees women who don't want to become pregnant as simply 'unwilling mothers'. I'm not linking to a piece that thinks that I'm simply a walking uterus waiting to be impregnated.

Much of the text is provided over at Forty Shades of Grey, and Nat Fantastic does an excellent job of covering the main problems with the piece, so I'm not going to recover any of that ground. What I want to do is provide some personal perspective as someone who has made use of the existing 72 hour form of emergency contraception.

I have used the emergency contraceptive pill a grand total of once in my life. I didn't use it as my only form of contraception, though I am certainly not condemning people who choose to do that. I want to use my personal story as a springboard for looking at why I think the availability of emergency contraception is an excellent idea in general, and why this new pill is a positive step forward.

I was in my first year at university, and in a relationship that was still relatively new. We had used a condom, but it had come off at some point during sex. My boyfriend and I thought that the condom had done its job, but didn't want to leave it up to chance. Neither of us were willing to wait until I either had my period or didn't to find out if we were right. So we made the decision to seek emergency contraception. The incident happened on a Sunday, so we knew we had to find somewhere that would give it over the counter. We checked our local pharmacies, but they either weren't open, didn't stock the pill or the pharmacist wasn't working that day. Fortunately we were pointed in the direction of a pharmacy that would be able to provide the pill.

Even though both my boyfriend and I were under 25 and we were both students and there are supposed to be various schemes for providing emergency contraception for free, we still had to pay full price. Still had to fill out forms and I still had to sit through a mini-consultation, which for the record was awkward as hell, before we could get what we were after. Even after taking the pill, and knowing that we'd obtained it well within the 72 hour period its effective, I was still utterly terrified I might still be pregnant. Things didn't get easier until after I got my period.

According to the excuse for a human being who wrote the article in the Telegraph I shouldn’t have had access to that contraception. I should have waited until the date of my next period to find out what had happened. And if I had been so unlucky as to get pregnant, I should have carried that pregnancy to term. No choice about what happens to my body.

What strikes me about the writer of this article, and pro-lifers in general, is that there's so much they don't care about. They make big noises about the sanctity of life and the rights of the foetus, but I don't hear any of that. I just hear a whole lot of "I don't give a shit".

What I hear is "I don't care about women's bodily autonomy; I don't care about their right to choose what happens to  their lives". Take my hypothetical pregnancy scenario. These people who believe in the foetus above all don't care about my education. They don't care what I had planned for my life. They don't care if I want kids at all, or if I'd just rather have them later. They don't care what kind of relationship I have with my boyfriend, whether it is stable enough to handle a pregnancy or a child; whether the relationship is intended to be serious and long term. They don't care if me and my partner are ready to be parents, or even want to be at all. They don't care whether or not we want children with each other, now or in the future. They don't care if we have the financial stability to support a child, or a support network of family of friends.

And while I know that they don't care about me, or what I want or what my rights are, I don't think pro-lifers actually care about the embryo/foetus/child either.

If they did, they would see that there are many many situations where it would not be good to bring a child into the world. If my relationship with my boyfriend were not stable, and I was not prepared to be a single mother, that would not be a good scenario to bring a child into. If we had no means of supporting a child, financially, emotionally, either ourselves or with the help of friends and family, that would not be a good scenario to bring a child into. It feels like pro-lifers never take this into consideration. The idea that a pregnancy should be carried to term no matter the life that the resulting child will be brought into says to me that these people are in fact pro-pregnancy, not necessarily pro-life. As a person who is in possession of both a life and a uterus, I find it extremely disturbing that there are people who think the rights of a tiny collection of cells or a proto-person should be held in higher regard than mine. Who is pro- my life?

And to those people who suggest giving a child up to adoption, you're no better. You aren't taking into consideration the approximately nine months between conception and birth that I would have to deal with against my will. In addition, it doesn't take into account the birth itself, which no matter which method of giving birth is used, is likely to be traumatic to a person who never wanted to be pregnant in the first place. To me, the issues of not wanting to be a parent and not wanting to be pregnant or give birth are separate but related.  Suggesting adoption as the solution not only erases that fact, but also erases the potential emotional trauma to the mother and potentially the child.

Emergency contraception is another tool that people, particularity women have at their disposal to prevent unwanted pregnancies and hence unwanted children. It is another tool which helps give women in particular more control over their bodies and their lives. Which I suspect is really the thing that scares pro-lifers.

The introduction of this new 5-day later pill is only a good thing as far as I'm concerned, and I wish it had been available when I used the 72 hour pill. If there had been nowhere in my area that sold the 72 hour pill over the counter, I would have had to wait until Monday morning to make a doctors appointment. This would already be nearly 24 hours after the condom failure; if they couldn’t fit me in Monday or Tuesday, then the 72 hour pill would have been of no use to me by the time I could take it. If the accident had occurred on Saturday, my time scale would have contracted still further.

The availability of the 72 hour emergency contraceptive is a useful fall back method, and the 5 day pill even more so. It gives you another fall-back to prevent pregnancy occurring before the question becomes one of carrying to term or having an abortion. The more tools at our disposal, the more empowered we are.

According to Twitter, the Daily Mail is calling the new pill the "promiscuity pill".  There is this idea that providing more contraceptive choices is going to make people more promiscuous. Aside from the assumption that promiscuity is inherently bad, in my experience that just isn't true. Some people will be promiscuous, some people won't. Offering more contraceptive choices simply allows both sets of people more control over their lives, whatever they choose to do with them.

There also seems to be this idea that in principle the emergency contraceptive pill is fine, but some people have a problem with it being used "incorrectly" i.e. as a primary form of contraception. I have several problems with people wanting to police how the emergency contraceptive pill is used. Firstly, it stems from the idea that we should be policing bodies, women's bodies in particular. To me this says "we'll give you this new way to control when you get pregnant, but you can only have it if you use it how we (usually men) want you to use it." That smacks of patriarchy and isn't empowering to women, nor is it a positive force in their lives. Secondly, while I am aware that emergency contraception is intended to be used in cases where primary contraception has failed or was unavailable, if people choose to use it as a primary contraceptive, that is their right. There are many reasons why what we other forms of contraception weren't used at the time sex occurred, some of which include rape and/or abuse. I fully believe that instead of judging people for using emergency contraception "incorrectly" we should be looking at the reasons why this is their chosen form of contraception. Is it a matter of education, or is there something else at work here? My final problem with this is what happens when I follow this line of thought to its conclusion. Do you know where I end up? At the notion that the majority should have their access to this form of healthcare withdrawn because a minority can’t be trusted to use it "properly". I have many problems with this idea, not least the idea that we shouldn't be trusting people with what happens to their own bodies.

I want to say a few things in conclusion. I think that people who own penises should butt out, or at the very least focus their attention more on the fact that a penis-owning person is usually also involved in the process of making pregnancies happen. I'm fed up of people without uteruses approaching this discussion from a hypothetical  moral viewpoint and ignoring the real lived experiences of people who have been directly affected by these issues. I'm fed up of penis owning people thinking that their opinion on this issue is somehow more important or more valid that the opinions or feelings of a person with a uterus. That needs to stop. I also think that we should be less concerned with some people using this form of contraception in a way that some other people think is incorrect; we should be far more concerned about what led them to using this contraception this way, and if there is action that can be taken to help those people, we should take it.

Finally, I believe that we should be providing healthcare such as the emergency contraceptive pill as widely as possible, and trusting people to make their own decisions about how they use it. And we should stop thinking that's such a radical notion.

Postscript: while I am aware that uterus-owning is not a club all women are in, nor is it a women only club, I am a woman with a uterus and can only speak from the perspective of a uterus-owning women. I don't mean to erase non-uterus owning women, nor uterus-owning men from this picture, but since I am neither I do not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences with regards to contraception. I have tried as best I can to not make the assumption that women and uterus-owning people are the same thing. If I messed up, please let me know and I'll correct it.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Self Care

It’s no secret that I've had a bit of a tough year. Getting to grips with doing a PhD, three bereavements within a month and an unwanted house move just when everything was at its peak; No, this year hasn’t been easy, but I’m starting to realise that I may have made it much harder on myself than it needed to be. In the midst of everything that’s happened, I forgot to take the time for self-care. My mum might call it looking after myself; my counsellor calls it being kind to myself. Whatever you want to call it, I haven’t been doing it, and this year has been much, much tougher than it needed to be.

As is often the case, I only realised what had been missing because I took the time to do it again. Over the last few weeks, I have tried to really been kind to myself, and I’ve found a few things that have really helped my mental and emotional well-being. And this post is as much to remind myself to keep doing them as anything else.

Over the last few years I have noticed that some of the lowest points in my life have occurred when I haven’t been actively cultivating my spiritual journey. I know that correlation and causation are not the same thing, but I’ve never liked coincidences. I feel much better in myself, much more grounded when I’m taking the time to ask questions about the universe, and to learn or ponder on the answers that feel right to me. I won’t say too much more here because I plan on doing a no holds barred post on my spiritual beliefs, but I will say that I have felt much better for taking the time to sit by myself and ponder my purpose and how I want to live my life. Two of the books that have been most useful to me of late are The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the DalaiLama and Mastery by George Leonard.

The other major component in my well-being seems to be the pursuit of some sort of creative endeavour. Last week I started work on part of my Halloween costume. It involved lots of papier mache, and I found it extremely relaxing doing a little bit every day. It reminded me of the reason I picked up painting this summer; it gives me something tactile to do, that is relatively simple and doesn’t involve my brain as strenuously as the rest of my life does. I have also found refuge in the creation of macramé or shambala bracelets. The fact I gain the same amount and kind of pleasure from a variety of crafts suggests that it is the tactile and creative nature which is most beneficial, and I should set aside some time every week, if not every day for creative pursuits.

The rest of what I’ve found seems to be on a smaller scale that the two things mentioned above, but can be exceedingly helpful in diffusing a stressful situation. Taking refuge in a cup of tea, taking time to brew it carefully and sip it slowly is of immense benefit to me. Likewise, taking the time to run and have a bath is extremely relaxing and can rescue a bad day. Other than that, my priority is to learn to expect less of myself; to be able to admit my limitations and be okay with them. And I’m learning that sometimes I just need to remove myself from a situation, take a day off and do whatever I want to do so that I can return refreshed.

That to me is self-care; the little things as well as the big that make an impact on my day to day life, my well-being and my ability to perform well in anything.

What does self-care mean to you?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Pictonaut Challenge: December 2011

I have developed something of a tradition out of either writing or posting The Rogue Verbumancer's Pictonaut challenges late.Sometimes it's because I'm busy, sometimes I just have no idea what the date is. Mostly though the prompts fail to seed ideas in my brain before the month is out. I mentioned in April that in my excitement at completing Space Junkie, I had decided to go back and attempt all Pictonauts up to date in a month. As you might guess, that never happened. I did however  complete two more Pictonauts, one of which was Falling into Fantasy. The other has been languishing on my hard drive, not entirely sure what to do with itself. I had thought of not publishing this, but what's the point in writing if no one's ever going to see it? It's a little bit risque, so be warned. Glempy called this prompt The Psychedelic Lady, but in the grand tradition of not doing what I'm supposed to, I decided to call this story A Perfect Moment.

A Perfect Moment

If there's one thing I like more than sex, it's that first cigarette afterwards.

Don't get me wrong, I fucking love sex (pun absolutely intended). I love the way sex is so dirty, so unhygienic. Two bodies (or three or four, whatever takes your fancy) mushing themselves together in defiance of the clinical and sanitary world we've built for ourselves. I love the smell of sweat, of body parts that don't get mentioned in polite conversation. I love the feel of another person's skin sliding across my own, roughly or gently, it's all the same to me. I love the feeling of controlling another person, or them controlling me, right up until that last moment when all control is lost and all you can do is feel. In that moment it's like you could reach out and touch the universe if you wanted to, but you can't because all you can do is simply be. All you can do is ride this wave that's coursing through you, taking you over and taking you to places you only know exist in that moment.

I absolutely love sex, but far more precious to me is that moment afterwards. After the ecstasy, when the world is just coming back to normal (pun also intended). When you're piled in a sweaty heap with the person or persons you've just fucked. I love the feeling of satisfaction as I sleepily, languidly reach over to pick up the packet of cigarettes. The smell of the matches, and then the smoke as it mingles with the smell of sweaty, sated bodies.

That first drag is almost as good as the orgasm that undoubtedly preceded it. Instead of allowing the world to come crowding back I stave it off by having a smoke. The blissful feeling is prolonged and I'm still master of the world.

I love watching the smoke swirl around in the air, mingling with the bodies I’ve so recently come to know so well. I love the irritated looks I sometimes get from my lovers; these are usually the ones who don't get a second visit. I love the ritual of it all; inhale, pause, exhale, repeat. I love the tingly feeling in my toes, and I love that I can never tell if it's the pleasure I just experienced or the nicotine.

There is something perfect in that moment, taking lazy drags from my cigarette as I let my gaze rove over the skin of my lover, cataloguing every imperfection. I've always thought that perfection lies in imperfection and in this moment I know nothing more.

I know that smoking is bad for me, but then the kind of sex I like to have isn't exactly healthy either. My feelings for my lover usually last until I’m down to just the filter, and then I tire of them. We get back into clothes that are always easier to take off than to put back on. Polyester doesn't like sweaty skin, and occasionally I have to hunt for the odd item or two that always seem to disappear.

After that I send them on their way, sometimes sharing a kiss on my doorstep. Sometimes I’ll let my lovers come back; some of them come back many times before I grow tired and start looking elsewhere.
I head back up to the bedroom and light another cigarette. It's not as good as the first one I had after sex, never is. But still I light it, and try to recapture some of the magic, some of the perfection of the moment. I never can.

The only way to get that feeling back is to do it all again. And again, and again, and again.

Monday, 1 October 2012

September Pictonaut: The Journey

September was a strange month for me. Not least because I spent approximately half of it in Oxford on a terrifically challenging "summer" school. One of the unfortunate side effects of this seems to have been that I thought there was more September than the poor month had to give. Consequently, though my entry for the September Pictonaut challenge was completed with approximately 15 days to spare, it has ended up being posted approximately 15 hours late. My apologies to The Rogue Verbumancer for my tardiness.

This months' entry is based on an idea which has been tormenting me for a number of months now. It actually started out as a concept for a piece of fan fiction, but when I saw the prompt for September's Pictonauts, I knew I could easily adapt to to be original. Hypothetical cookies to anyone who can guess which fandom this was originally intended for, I worked quite hard to conceal it. This piece doesn't come anywhere close to finishing the story I had in mind, so I expect we'll see more of this character's journey.

The Journey

For the first few weeks he would alternate between fitful, feverish sleep and screaming for his parents, though he could not tell them anything about them. He couldn’t remember his name, or where he was from, or how he had come to be in the desert. The weeks turned into months and still the boy’s memory did not return, he slowly stopped screaming for his parents and started picking up words in the language of the Desert People. Eventually he began to call Shand and Asis mother and father and they knew that they were his family now.  They named him Shade and took him for their own son.

Just has Shade had always known he was adopted so too had he known that he was different. His milky skin set him apart from the copper skin of the villagers. Though time spend in the sun darkened his skin, he always stood a shade apart from all the others. He was a precocious child, and worked hard to please the other villagers. His sharp wit and curious nature did him no favours in the eyes of the other children, but eventually he won them over with his kind heart and trusting soul. He worked hard, learning all he was taught and completing all tasks set him with boundless enthusiasm.
Shade grew tall and strong and showed considerable skills in tracking and hunting. He could find water and vegetation when others could not and so provided well for his village. As he grew to adolescence he showed an interest in learning what arts of war the simple Desert People possessed and he gave himself over to defending the village as well as providing for it.

Time passed and Shade was content; he loved Shand and Asis dearly, and though he was curious about his birth parents and where he had come from, his parents could not enlighten him. He put his former life out of his mind, knowing that his birth parents would have assumed him dead. Life in the desert was hard, but it was simple and fulfilling. And so it was until the eve of Shade’s nineteenth birthday, fourteen years after his parents had found him in the desert. On the eve of this anniversary, Shade began to have the strangest dreams.

At first they did not trouble him for the dreams were calming and enjoyable, views of mountains and green pastures and cool blue lakes. Slowly, the dreams became more focussed; he dreamt of a little boy running around a courtyard, of riding in the forest and swimming in the river. The blurred faces of the other people in these dreams seemed comforting and familiar to him, and slowly he realised that these were not dreams, but his own long forgotten memories. Each morning he discussed his dreams with his parents and though they were uneasy they assumed him they would be supportive should he wish to search for his birth family.

The dreams continued, though the details never sharpened. His own name continued to elude him, as did the name of the country which he was from. So too did the names of his loved ones ever eluded his grasp, though sometimes he felt as though he were about to discover an important detail just before he woke up. The people in his dreams became as familiar as those in his waking life. His father was a tall man with a bearded face, his mother a woman with long black hair. And he realised too that he had a sister, a twin sister, and he knew her smiling face and laughing eyes the same shade as his, though he never saw them in his dreams.

Suddenly, six months after they started the dreams stopped. At first Shade mourned their loss but he slowly adjusted and once again threw his efforts into providing for his village. Winter came and went, such that it is in the desert, and he dreamed of normal things. Then one night in early spring, his dreams returned. But this time they were different.

This time he dreamed of a wide, blue river on a great plain. He dreamed of a shining city on a mountain, of a tall silver tower in the morning sun. He dreamed of great white walls and a great wooden gate, beyond which there were miles and miles of fertile farmland. He dreamed of mighty banners caught high in the afternoon breeze and of the sound of silver trumpets calling him home.

And this was home, he now knew. Though he enjoyed his life in the desert village he physically ached to return to this great white city. It called to him, as though his very soul belonged in this place. His destiny was calling him. Shade spoke to his parents, to everyone in the village describing what he had seen in his dreams, but none knew of a city that matched the one in Shade’s heart. He began to despair of ever making it home, of ever finding this city that could make him whole. Then one day, a rare travelling trader passed through the village and Shade sought an audience with him. The traveller knew of this city that had haunted Shade’s dreams and was willing to guide him there.

So Shade bid farewell to his village and to Shand and Asis who had raised him as their son. They were elderly now, and though he promised to visit again if ever he could, they held no hope of seeing their boy again. For many weeks Shade and the trader travelled leagues and leagues through the desert, heading north to this city of dreams. They travelled in the cool of the night and slept through the heat of the day. Hunger and thirst they endured, and fought their way through sandstorms until Shade could not remember a time that they were not walking through the desert.

One day, at sunrise, Shade crested a mighty sand dune looking for a place to camp for before the day grew too hot. At the top of the dune he rested a while, scouting out the nearby terrain. Suddenly his breath caught in his throat; through the haze of the early morning, he spied in the distance a great mountain. And atop that mountain something glistened in the light of the rising sun. The air moved and Shade thought he could hear the sound of distant silver trumpets. They were calling him home.

The mountain was still leagues away but Shade knew that soon they would cross the great winding river. Soon enough they would begin to see fields and farms, more fertile than anything he had ever known in the desert. Some day in the near future they would spy the great silver tower in the distance and see the great banner that flew atop it. They would pass through the great wooden gates into the white city of Shade’s dreams. The trumpets would ring out clearly in the morning breeze and Shade would know he was home.

That night Shade dreamed of his family for the first time in many months. He clearly heard his father’s voice telling him he would soon be back where he belonged. He would soon be home.

He would soon be home.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The M-Word

As one of my friends pointed out to me a few weeks ago, I've been spending rather a lot of time talking about marriage. And I guess he's right. I mean, I talk about it a lot with my partner, because four and a half years into a relationship its bound to start coming up. But I've been casually throwing the topic into conversations with other people, and this apparently constitutes a cause for concern.

I never used to have any strong opinions either way on marriage, but I guess given the vehement anti marriage stance I've had the last few years, it's hardly surprising. I have somewhere in the region of eight engaged couples on Facebook, the majority of whom got engaged in the last few years. One set of friends my age who are already married, and another set getting married this month. And I went to the wedding reception of someone I used to work with at the weekend. To top it all off, I've been reading the hell out of recently, where the m-word is a regular feature. Engagement and marriage are subjects that are never far away.

Those are just some obvious examples of the societal pressure I'm feeling to get married. I mean, I'm approaching my mid twenties and in a committed long term relationship. Getting married is this thing I should be thinking about doing soon, right? And it's not so much that I don't want to, it's just that the idea completely terrifies me, and I'm not 100% sure where this level of fear came from. Although I can promising you, people actually turning around and telling me I need to get married next really doesn't help. I've been waiting for that moment since I finished university last year and I finally got it on Saturday.

I mean, I've been an adult for a while now, and I've done plenty of adult things (oh hush you!). I left home to go to university, and got a shiny degree. I've sorted out renting a house, and all the boring utilities that go along with it. I got myself a job (two in fact) last summer. I'm in a proper adult relationship where I live with him and everything. And I think that might be one of the big issues. While it is a proper adult relationship in that we live together and share bills and worry about money and stuff, it still doesn't feel like one, not really. I mean, I put used tea bags in the sink just to wind Sam up, and he uses his creepy voice way too much because he knows how much I hate it. Our default method of communication is winding each other up. I really feel you're not mature enough to be getting married if you're still giggling at each others' farts.

All the other adult things I've done felt relatively easy, like they were just the next small step on this journey through the big bad world. And while I occasionally look back and think "holy shit I've grown up a lot", each individual step was almost insignificant at the time and as such didn't feel that scary at all. Engagement and marriage on the other hand, feels like a ginormous step up, and consequently it terrifies the fuck out of me. Especially as my mum has vetoed my plan to elope and not tell anybody we got married until I'm thirty. I'd have stipulated not telling anyone until Sam turned thirty, but that's a hell of a lot closer than my big 3-0.

It feels weird to have strong feelings on this subject one way or another; I spent most of my life not really caring much about it. I was never one of those girls who were adamant they were going to grow up and get married and have kids. Nor was I one of those teens who had their ideal wedding planned in ridiculous detail. I had friends who did though. If I was ever asked about the subject I would tell them "I'd work it out if I find someone crazy enough to want to spend the rest of their life with me". (Teenage me wasn't very aware of ableist words. Twenty something me apologises). Turns out, I found someone who does seem willing to to spend the rest of their life with me. Who'd have thunk it?

And so I find myself battling this societal pressure to get hitched, my opinions on marriage changing every six months. I can go from suggesting Sam and I elope one week to telling him I never want to get married the next. And if I bring up the subject unusually often, it's because I'm trying to navigate my own thoughts and emotions. Weighing up the pros and cons, all to aware that the pressure to actually get married is nowhere near as crushing as the pressure to do it a particular way, the "right" way.

My experience of the process in media (TV, film etc.) is that the wedding is the focus point for engagement and getting married. That it has to be this utterly perfect (expensive) day where you have to keep every single person you've ever met happy. I'm not a conventional woman. All that fussing about with the dress, the hair, the make up, the bridesmaids, the flowers, the photography, the reception, none of that appeals to me. If I got married it would be for the marriage itself, not the wedding. And it seems there are too few roles models for me in that regard. At least, too few depictions of a happy marriage that doesn't involve a house, a car, and a few kids. Possibly 2.5, I don't know what the average is any more. Marriage is more or less a complete unknown to me, and that makes it scary. How the hell can I decide to make this massive, important and mostly permanent decision about my life without knowing anything about how it might be for me?

Which brings me to another thing that scares me about getting married; the prospect of getting divorced. The idea that this might happen to me is horribly distressing for me, and one possible solution is to just never get married. I'm not sure why this prospect terrifies me so much. I know the statistics, I know that it can be as big or small a deal as you choose to make it, more or less. But I honestly don't think I could cope. I've had a few boyfriends, only a few of whom I'd actually say I had a relationship with, and every time I've gotten dumped it's been devastating, no matter how long they were my boyfriend for. And I was the dumpee in all but one cases, go figure. The devastation I would feel if Sam and I broke up would be horrific, and yes, I've had a taste of what it feels like. But as much as I know it would hurt if my relationship with Sam ended, the idea of getting divorced from him feels like it would have an extra layer of horrible to it.

Having a fails marriage is in a completely different league to having a failed relationship. You made these vows, and one way or another, you've broken them. You failed to live up to your promise. Plus, there's paperwork.

When I think about it carefully, there's a bunch of reasons this subject terrifies me. And my research into the pros and cons haven't helped alleviate that. Many of the reasons to get married that I've found are tied up in religion. Many of the advantages over cohabiting seem to assume babymaking will happen at some point. I've never seen a convincing argument either way. Never seen anything to stop the idea of this big grownup thing being to damn scary.

There was more I wanted to say, but I couldn't find the words and this post has languished in drafts long enough. If I can collate my thoughts I might do another post. You have that to look forward to.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Music makes the World Go Round.

I have always been a big fan of music. But recently I have become that which all people hate; a hipster. Ok, I don't have the silly haircut or the glasses or the permanent sneer, but I do seem to have developed the taste in music. I feel I should explain a little.

When I say I've always been into music, I kind of mean it. I have stories from my mum of me dancing in utero.Which is weird. I'm guessing my genuine appreciation of music didn't start until later. Much later, since I distinctly remember the first CD I ever owned being a Boyzone album. There were cassette tapes before that, Disney and the Black Lace Party tape, but they were owned by my parents. The Boyzone album was the first that was actually mine. I had a brief fling with the Backstreet Boys before developing a debilitating obsession with Westlife. I mean, it actually got me bullied, despite the fact they were the most popular band in Britain at that time.

I don't really remember when, but sometime during my first year at secondary school I fell out with Westlife, and pop music as a whole. Over the course of a summer holiday, I went from the country's biggest Westlife fan to being a metalhead, or 'mosher' as we called them when I was young. The only step in between was a breif fling with the Gorillaz, which doesn't have much in common with either genre of music. People were understandably shocked, some people laughed, a whole bunch of people said I'd grow out of it. Well, I've been listening to metal for the last twelve years and I've not grown out of it yet.

In fact the only thing that's happened to my taste in music as I've aged is that it's gotten broader. I used to be such a music snob; I refused to listen to anything that wasn't made with 'real' instruments. Which is kind of sad, because there's a lot of very good electronic music out there. I used to have utterly contemptible views on country music, until I found a whole bunch of country pop that I liked. One of my current favourite albums is a country album. Likewise I used to hate rap, but I've recently found someone who makes excellent rap that is relevant to my interests. Yet despite adding these things to my repertoire, I remain a steadfast fan of all things metal.

My new favouritist thing in the world is instrumental metal. Something I blame Jeph Jacques for entirely. I've tried for a long time to appreciate the more extreme forms of metal and failed. Turns out what was putting me off is the screaming vocals; I can appreciate extremely heavy guitars and drums as long as there's no vocals. Instrumental metal of any variety makes me happy.

Which actually brings me nicely back to what I said at the start, about being a hipster. The reason I lay claim to that label is because I'm having tremendous fun discovering and listening to bands you've probably never heard of. I spend hours trawling through bandcamp and soundcloud, trying to find new and exciting music by smaller, oft ignored artists. And I find stuff, free a lot of the time. Amazing music that lots of people will never hear. This is what makes me a bit of a hipster, the intentional search for music that is lesser known.

I've started using 8 track to build mixes of my new found favourite music, and putting these playlists together has made me realise how much I want to make music myself. I fear it would just end up another one of  those many hobbies of mine, that get pushed aside in favour of doing crap all. Maybe it's something I'll actually stick with, I certainly have the means to do it.

Maybe I'll just stick to listening to music.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Banana Fairy Tales

In my adventures as a wannabe writer, I have done many wondrous and varied things. I have written many, many pieces of fanfiction. Some decent, some dark, some utterly ridiculous. I had no idea just how much I'd written until I found the folder containing all finished and unfinished pieces on my computer. I probably won't share any of it here, though some of it did get imported here from my livejournal. Feel free to go hunting through my archives. Most of the rest of it is written under my usual username, if you have a burning desire to read what 14-18 year old me had to offer (I'd see a doctor about that burning thing though).

One of the other strange things I used to do was write fairy stories on bananas. If you've never written on a banana, I recommend you give it a go. It's a little odd, but oddly satisfying. These fairy stories weren't your usual fare, but slightly odd. I found the transcription of one of these stories amongst my fanfiction, and since it amused me, I thought I'd share it here.

I should write more stories on bananas.

Proof that I did indeed write it on a banana.

Banana Fairytale

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a beautiful Princess.  The princess was in love with a handsome Prince, but he had a terrible secret; by the light of day he was a prince but by night he was a woman.  This was the result of a terrible curse placed on him by an evil sorceress.  The only cure for his… predicament was for him to receive love’s first kiss while he was in his female form.  Now the Prince didn’t want to live out his life with this curse, but neither did he want to tell the Princess his secret.  Somehow, he thought, I must trick her into kissing me as a woman so that I can end my curse and we can live happily ever after.  To that end, the Prince threw a huge ball, which he attended as a woman.  He/she plied the Princess with much mead and wine and… persuaded her to ‘take it upstairs’.  The two women kissed passionately and the Princess slid her hand up the Prince’s skirt, too drunk to notice he had changed back.  “I’m sure you didn’t have one of those a moment ago,” she said in surprise.  After a moment’s confusion she recognised her Prince and he told her the truth.  “But I like you as a woman was well,” wailed the Princess, having realised her true sexuality.  Just then, the Sorceress appeared, to cause mischief, and she made it so that one night a month the Prince would in fact be a princess.  The Prince married his Princess and they lived happily ever after.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Falling Into Fantasy: February's Pictonaut Overdue

After the initial euphoria of writing my first Pictonaut, I felt invincible. I decided I was going to try and write all the challenges I'd missed in a month. Well, I wrote three  before life caught up with me. This is the second of my Pictonauts, from February's challenge entitled Faces in the Woods. It's more stream of conciousness monologue stuff, only this one is a lot more stream of conciousness than Space Junkie. Also it's a little bit sweary. Still, I'm kind of proud of it. This was also published in the University of Nottingham's Science Fiction, Fantasy and Anime Society's Zine as "Fantasy vs Reality". That's what happens when I have to come up with titles on a deadline. I like the new title better.

Now someone make me write this months' challenge.

Falling into Fantasy

Why the fucking fuck do these trees have faces? I'm not joking, they've got sodding faces. Not the kind you see in pictures on the internet, where a particular combination of knots or branches combined with a clever camera angle makes it look like they have faces. These look like real human faces. Hell, they look like they could speak if they wanted to. They're so real; they look like they could open their mouths and eat me. Thinking about it, they look pretty fucking angry.

And it's not just a few of the trees that have these faces, its all of them. Every. Single. One. I've never seen trees like this in my life, and I’ve looked at a few trees in my time. It's like I've been dropped into, I don't know, Middle fucking Earth or something. I seem to recall that the trees got pretty angry in that and started ripping shit up. Fuck. Maybe Game of Thrones, there are trees with faces in that, and I don't remember those upping sticks and destroying anything. Although, come to think of it, the trees in that are worshipped as gods and are probably linked with some ancient magical power. Shit. This is what I get for reading too many fantasy novels.

Back away, slowly. Nice trees. Friendly trees. I don't want to hurt you. I’m not going to chop you down and set fire to you. I'm a nice guy, I like trees, I'm a regular tree hugger me. Er, that is, if you want to be hugged, I can totally respect your personal space if you don't want a hug.

Shit. Stop talking to the trees. Can trees the trees even hear me? If a man screams in a forest and there's no one around, are the trees listening and plotting to kill me?

Bloody smegging hell, where the fuck am I? I don't remember planning on taking a walk in a wood where the trees have faces. I don't remember taking a walk at all. How the hell did I get here? Crap, maybe I did get transported to some fantasy world. Which is not good, not good at all. Unless I'm the protagonist in this fantasy novel. That would be pretty cool. Except I'll probably have some sort of ridiculously evil baddie to kill, and there'll be lots of danger and at some point I’ll have to utterly lose hope in order to be able to triumph over evil. Shit, that doesn’t sound so good at all. I think I'll just stay right here. Maybe the story will pass me by.

Nice trees...

What was that noise? Oh hell, there are things in this forest with me. Maybe staying here is a bad idea. I should try to find my way out, or at least a clearing, then the trees won't be so damn close. Right, let’s try to find some wide open space so I can breathe.

It's really quite warm here, and sort of dank and musty. Smells a bit like my basement, only a bit more 
green. Does green have a smell? If it did, it would smell exactly like this place. Oh God, why is it so warm here? The air is really oppressive, almost like it's out to get me as well as the trees. How'd the trees even get so big anyway? This forest must be really old for them to have gotten that tall. Wonderful, sentient trees with face that want to kill me and eat me. It would hardly be fair if one of them ate me, I mean, I’ve never eaten a tree in my life. Don't think it would taste nice.

This forest must be the quietest forest I’ve ever been in. There are no birds or little furry creatures or even any little bugs crawling around. Just the noise of me thinking. And breathing and crashing through the trees with faces. Not that bugs would be any better. I don't really like bugs. Why is there no noise here? Maybe this forest is inhabited by some sort of ninja animals. Maybe some of them have really big teeth want to eat me. I'll never even hear it coming...

Awesome, trees with faces and ninja predators that want to eat me. That's really going to help fight the urge to shit my pants.

Wait a minute, it's a bit lighter up ahead. Maybe I've found a clearing at last. It would be really nice to have some extra air, so breathing doesn't hurt so much. A little breeze wouldn't go amiss either.

Shit! Voices. There are people in that clearing. I'll crawl up nice and quiet, see who they are. Maybe they're friendly and will help get me out of here. Maybe they'll want to kill me too. That wouldn't be good.  I can see them now. Maybe if I keep down nice and low they won't see me. I can't understand a word they're saying. They're definitely not speaking English. Doesn't sound like any other language I've ever heard either. Bollocks, definitely got dropped into some sort of fantasy story. It's not one I've read though, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I hope I'm not the protagonist.

Oh God, that guy has horns on his helmet. And they're all wearing black. Definitely bad guys. Those look like pretty big swords too. Nasty. I bet that's some sort of wizard staff as well. Horned helmets, all in black, big ass swords and a magic staff, outnumbered three-to-one; doesn't look too good for me if they find me. Oooh, pretty blue light; definitely a magic staff, that doesn't bode well- shit, they've seen me.
Running flailing time. Shit shit shit shit shit. Oof, hello ground will you be my friend? Ouch, didn't know that light could hurt so damn much, but I guess it is magical light. Can't move my limbs. Fuck, they've caught me. 

Nice bad guys, don't hurt me. What are you doing? No, don’t pick me up, I can walk just fine by myself if you’d just let me…

Oh, didn’t notice that big stone table before, wonder what it’s for. Oh, they’re tying me down. That’s probably not good. Fantastic, looks like I’m about to be sacrificed for something. And I seriously doubt that afterwards the table will crack and I’ll be resurrected like a ragingly obvious Jesus metaphor. I wish I could understand what these guys were saying, even just a word to know why.

Bollock, bollocks, bollocks, bollocks and bottoms.

That, that’s a pretty big knife, nice and ceremonial looking. The ropes are too tight to escape. Fuck. End of the line for little old me. And I have no idea why, or even how I got here. Maybe this is just a bad fucking dream. I know, I’ll try pinching myself awake. OW! Well, looks like I’m not dreaming. Either that or someone changed the rules of pain in dreams just to fuck me over. Which isn’t all that good either.

Yes, yes, yes chanting, mystical spells, blue light. All that shit I’ve read about a hundred times. Get it over with. If I have to die, I’d rather it happen quickly, before I actually do shit my pants. Fuck fuck fucketty fuck fuck. I didn’t want it to end like this. Maybe if I close my eyes they’ll go away. Nope, still chanting. And now the horn-helmet guy has raised his knife. This is it.


Thursday, 29 March 2012

Jamibu: Rest in Peace my Friend

Words are funny things; they fail you just when you need the most. A friend of mine passed away last week and I’ve been trying to find words to describe how I’m feeling, words to express sorrow and sympathy and support. I’ve tried lots of different words, but not a single one has felt adequate. Not even close. So I’ve decided I will just write words and not worry about whether they’re adequate, because they probably never will be.

Jamibu was a very good friend of mine. There was one time when I probably knew him better than anyone. It’s been a long time since we were that close, but that kind of friendship leaves its mark. Jamibu was a good man; he had many friends and touched many people’s lives. He was also far too young for life to be taken from him. He had been ill for a long time, but that doesn’t ease the burden.

I met James Bullock, though he will always be Jamibu to me, at University, at the Science Fiction Society. I am almost certain he was the one who signed me up, but my first proper memory of him was in the second week of term; we were stood in a group outside Hugh Stewart bar having one of those getting to know you conversations. He introduced himself as Jamibu and my friend John told me I should call him Strawberry, because it would wind him up. I never found out why he hated the nickname so much.

I lived with him, for almost two years. There’s a certain level of friendship attained by seeing someone in their slippers and dressing gown with not much underneath almost every day for that long. A certain level of friendship and ease that is never really lost.

He was delightfully good fun to wind up, which is a trait in friends I find quite appealing, whatever that says about me. He was always so wonderfully easy to talk to. We talked about everything; sci fi, romance, science. I told him some of my deepest darkest secrets, and he told me some of his. There are some things I know about that man that I don’t know how many other people know. He was the person you needed if you wanted advice on new tech, or maybe just a good (really bad) pun. He got me eating eggs after a lifetime of hating him. He urged me to push my boundaries, to go outside my comfort zone.

When I say I went through hell when he got diagnosed with cancer, I’m not really using much hyperbole. Only a few people know that I spent some time in counselling because of it. I couldn’t cope with learning cold, clinical facts about cancer drugs while my friend was living the realities every day. I couldn’t deal with the idea that I might lose him. It almost cost Sam and I our relationship, but I’m glad it didn’t. Jamibu would have never wanted that.

I have been remarkably lucky in my relatively short life, to have been relatively untouched by death. I’ve always been somehow removed from the deaths I’ve known, either by time or by distance. This is the closest it’s come and I’m dreading the day death comes closer than this.

When I found out that Jamibu had passed away, I have to be honest, my heart clenched but I wasn’t that surprised. I knew he’d been ill and the mental preparation had been made long ago and stored away. So for a while, I was alright. I had a few drinks in his honour, and gave my energy over to worrying about Sam. Part of me felt that it was some sort of elaborate hoax, some sort of horrific joke and I’d see him pop up on social media somewhere. Rationally I knew that people don’t kid around with shit like this but it had been a long time since I’d seen him every day, so his absence didn’t hurt, it just made it feel unreal.

Telling people made it harder, made it feel more real, and it started to hurt. Sometimes I’m fine, and he’s just a constant thought in the back of my mind. Most of the time it’s like there’s a dull ache in my chest. Sometimes, depending on where I am, what is happening and who has said what, the dull ache deepens to an almost physical pain in my chest. There are times when it feels like a wound, raw and bleeding. It hurts, but I have not yet shed any tears. I worry about whether that means I don’t care, but it’s entirely possible that the tears will fall during or after the funeral. It might also be something ridiculous in six months’ time that sets me off, I really don’t know.

I think human beings have a tendency to focus only on the good traits of a person after they’ve died, as if including their personality flaws somehow constitutes speaking ill of the dead. I don’t see it that way; Jamibu was a wonderful person, but he had traits that I didn’t like, disagreed with or that wound me up. And I don’t think it is disrespectful if I talk about the flaws that he had, quite the contrary; I believe it disrespects the man that he was to ignore the fact he wasn’t perfect.  I loved that man, but at times I also hated him, because he wasn’t some paragon of humanity. He wasn’t a bland action hero, he was a human being. I want to remember the whole person, as much as I can, for as long as possible.

To preserve his memory, I have done the best thing I know; I have memorialised him in my skin, in tattoo form. I had it done on Tuesday, a week to the day since his passing, which I thought was fitting. I was scared about getting it done, because although I have a number of tattoos already, this is the quickest I’ve gone from idea to actually getting it done, but it felt right. It is the perfect way to preserve his memory for me, and I just know he’d be amused (and playfully annoyed) that I have chosen to immortalise him as a strawberry.
My tattoo at a few hours old. Elvish lettering saying
 Jamibu with a strawberry underneath

One of the things that makes me saddest about his death is that I cannot share the strong faith he had. In fact, his passing to me provides evidence that the God he believed in does not exist. I wish it were otherwise. I don’t have faith or prayers to offer to those who loved him. But I do have hope. I hope that he was right and I was wrong, and that he’s up there somewhere being extremely exasperated at me for my choice of tattoo. I hope he was right so that one day we might meet again and he can say “Really Tonks, a strawberry?”  Until such a time as I can claim to have faith, I will keep this hope close to my chest.

Jamibu’s passing was sad, and tragic, but I think it is a testament to the man he was how his friends have banded together for support, especially those who knew him through Sci Fi. His life and death touched a great many people and we are all doing our best to support each other in this trying time. Last night we held a minutes’ silence at the AGM, a beautiful and fitting tribute. I’m proud of the way we’ve all come together to support each other, and I know he would be too.

James 'Jamibu' Bullock
"I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar."

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

March Pictonaut: Space Junkie

My good friend The Rogue Verbumancer aka Glempy started a fiction challenge. He dubbed it the Pictonaut challenge, and the concept is very simple; each month he provides a picture he has found somewhere on the interwebs, and our challenge is to craft a short story of around 1000 words based on or inspired by this picture. I've been meaning to take part for months, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. Partly because  I'm lazy and have far too many hobbies anyway, but mostly because none of the picture prompts got me really fired up.

Until this month. This months picture immediately set off ideas in my head, but it took reading this post from The Rogue Verbumancer with similar themes to get me started. And once I started I found I couldn't stop. Words came pouring out and I finished this in under three hours (it would have been less, but I had work to do as well). I haven't edited it all, save to correct spelling. I found I kind of like the rambling internal monologue style, so I kept it.

The picture that inspired me to get writing for the first time in well over a year? It's a picture by Chris Cold and Tobias Roetsch and is called "Any Direction".

This is the piece inspired by it.

Space Junkie

Space is really fucking beautiful. Sometimes it's so beautiful that it makes your eyes hurt, your throat close up from the sheer power of the emotions running through you. And they're never emotions you can recognise that put you in this catatonic state, oh no. It’s never anger or lust or greed or hunger. Those mundane sorts of emotions that happen every day. These are BIG emotions. Scary fucking things that you're never sure how to process. They're vast and complicated and you only recognise some elements on the edge of a big emotion like that. Some sort of pride in humanity's achievements coupled with the wonder of life itself. Big sodding emotions.

And when I say space is beautiful, I don't mean the actual space. The black never-ending void that's just waiting to suck the life out of you if you put a foot wrong. That's not beautiful, that's fucking terrifying. I mean the stuff floating around in that airless freezing void. Planets and stars and nebulae and weird stuff that we've not thought up names for yet. It never looks like the pictures we send back to Earth. Those pictures are beautiful in their own right, but they're nothing compared to the wonder of a new planet up close. There's emotion associated with these things when you're actually there. Emotions that are big and scary and complicated and add to the beauty of it. I see this shit every day. New stars and their systems, new space anomalies. Every day for the past ten years, ever since I joined the science division out here. You'd think I'd be used to it.

You never get used to it though. All this wonder and emotion and awe. Veterans on their last day before retiring still have the same gobsmacked look on their faces as the freshest new recruit on their first day.

It wears you down. Being in this constant state of awe and wonder, being constantly moved by what the universe has to offer and trying to catalogue it in a cold and clinical matter. You lose the ability to feel more mundane emotions. How are you supposed to get excited about someone's birthday when your life is filled with constant wonder? Those of us who do this job, we lose something vital in order to do it. There are 5000 people on this ship and we never talk to each other about anything except work. We don't socialise, we don't chat. We barely even remember to use manners or common courtesy anymore. Those are small, insignificant things and we have to deal with the extraordinary on an everyday basis. We've lost the ability to form meaningful relationships, every single one of use. We don't have families. Most of us never bothered to put the effort into starting one; those who had families have lost them.

Space is like a drug. The wonder and excitement is like a constant high. It's the greatest drug that ever existed and you can never quit. Going cold turkey can never work, and there is no substitute for seeing the things we see out here. We're addicts, every single one. Being on leave is more like torture than a reward. When you go back to Earth or one of the colonies, you go back to a place that is so mundane. Boring inconsequential worries fill your time, but they can never fill that hole in your chest where all those big emotions were. Your sense of wonder fades, and you can't take enjoyment in anything anymore. Nothing satisfies except the drug itself. It's not so bad when you're on leave; you know you'll be going back soon enough. A few weeks, a month maybe and then you can have another hit. You get through because you know that you'll get that high back.

But what happens when you retire? You've spent maybe thirty or forty years up here in space. Thirty or forty years on a constant high, the likes of which you cannot get anywhere else but out here on the fringes of everything we know. You go home, tell yourself you'll be okay without your drug. But nothing can ever replace the life you've known. Nothing will ever compare to the things you've seen. You can't function in regular society. You're an addict, and you've been cut off from your drug of choice. So you start experimenting with more conventional drugs. Humanity has invented all manner of powerful hallucinogens and psychotics, just for this very purpose. Even in the beginning, the high doesn't compare to the high you were on most of your life. So you ramp up the dose, start mixing them together until you can't remember your name anymore because of the cocktail of drugs rushing through your system.

Most veterans end up overdosing, those that don't commit suicide. Because nothing can replace this feeling in your chest everyday you're out here; nothing can ever fill that hole because it is as black and infinite as the void itself. That is the price for the privilege of seeing extraordinary things.

The suicide rate amongst retired science officers who've done this job is many times that of the suicide rate in the normal population. That's no secret. But the fact is that the suicide rate on science vessels like this is almost as high. Some people overdose on space; they want to get so close that they step outside the airlock without a suit. Some people just can't handle it; space is just too big, too terrifying and too wonderful for them to cope. Some people just snap. They say if you make it through your first year you're a lifer. Most don't make it through their first year out here. The families aren't told the truth of what happened; in space there are a million and one accidents waiting to happen that can be blamed for the high attrition rate.

Space is dangerous. It is infinitely beautiful and it is infinitely cold and it doesn't give a shit about humanity. Being out here isn't humanity's greatest achievement, it's their greatest folly. We're simply not built to cope with everything the universe has to offer. If you don't get killed by some space virus, or a solar storm, or a landing party gone bad, then you'll get driven mad by the sheer fucking beauty of it all. You wind up a washed out space junkie who's lost everything that made you human in the first place. People aren't meant to be out here. Life is 100% fatal, but space has a knack of killing you quicker and more inventively than any weapon the human race has ever managed to come up with.

I've still got 20 years left on my contract, but I'll be damned if I'm going to die in a pool of my own shit and vomit hopped up on enough psychotics to liquefy my brain. That's not the ending I deserve. I've seen the wonder of the universe, stared the void right in the eye; I'm a junkie, but I'm sure as hell not going to die like one.

So I've decided I'm going to take a walk. A long one, off a short pier if you will, or maybe out the airlock. Maybe I'll put a suit on, and stay out there, as close as a person can get to heaven and wait until my air runs out. Falling asleep wrapped in the sheer intoxicating wonder of the universe. It'll be like being born, only backwards and more glorious.

Yes, that sounds nice.

I'm going out. I may be some time.

Monday, 12 March 2012

International Women's Day

March 8th is International Women's Day. I spent most of the day (and the next day) being angry at people (read men) getting uppity at the fact and trying to explain why we need this day. I was going to blog along similar lines but figured I'd gotten all ranty fairly recently.

So I'm doing something different.

International Women's Day is meant to celebrate women and their achievements. So instead of a rant, you're getting a list of my achievements;

I successfully completed school with grades good enough to get me into my first choice university.

I achieved a good degree in a science related subject.

I got onto a PhD program at a time when funding is extremely tight, even in the sciences.

I have acquired a working knowledge of Unix type systems

I achieved my Grand Prior Award with St John Ambulance, the highest award achievable as a youth member.

I was chosen to be Cadet of the Year for my county, and represented the organisation at a national level.

I have successfully navigated living in my own home, away from parents, and all that entails.

I have gained, and am still working on, a healthy romantic relationship, despite the barriers society puts up.

I have nurtured a number of meaningful friendships.

I have achieved a healthy relationship with my body, despite the cultural oppression of body hate.

I learned how to juggle three balls, and then three clubs.

Achievements of any kind should always be celebrated. Achievements made by anyone. We shouldn't just celebrate the achievements of a select, supposedly elite few. But that is the reality if the world we live in. I believe we can change that, one celebration at a time.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Kony 2012, awareness and slacktivism

If you've been on the internet at all today, chances are you've heard of, seen a link to or watched a film called KONY 2012. Now, there's lots of things that have been said about this film, and the organisation that made it; some for some against. I've not seen the film, and haven't fully made up my mind about Invisible Children ,the group that made it. For now, I remain extremely sceptical, and wanted to talk about why.

I have a strong background in charity and charity work. I was a Scout for five years, and have been a member of St John Ambulance for over half my life; I've helped raise money for LEPRA, which helps fight diseases such as leprosy, and Dove House, a hospice specialising in end of life and palliative care; I've donated countless belonging to charity shops and for three horrible days I worked door to door raising money for the British Red Cross.

I have formed some very strong opinions when it comes to charity, many of which may clash with the majority, so feel free to disagree. I firmly believe that giving you time to a charity is much more valuable than simply handing over your money.

Anyone remember the Make Poverty History campaign? In 2005 it was at it's height, many of my friends were wearing the wristband, and I was extremely vocal in my opposition of it. Not the overall aim of the campaign, but I was extremely critical of the way in which they were trying to do it. It was the first time I'd ever really been sceptical of a charitable campaign and I remember telling my friends that throwing money and celebrities at a problem is never going to fix it. Fast forward to 2012, how many people are still wearing the wristbands? How many people are still actively campaigning for it and raising funds? Hopefully quite a lot, but it has lost the attention it received in its heyday of Live 8. Does anyone know where and how the money was spent? If someone knows, please link me to documents concerning this as I'd love to know how much of the money got through to where it was needed.

This is part of the reason I oppose just throwing money at a problem. There seems to be little accountability; the money could have been spent on a new mansion for Bono for all I know. And it highlights why throwing celebrities at an issue doesn't help; people only care as long as a celebrity is talking about the issue. If they stop, we forget, something else distracts us and the chance to really make a difference is lost.

Which brings me to another charity related bug bear of mine: raising awareness. This is what the Kony film is meant to be for, raising awareness, and the manner in which people have been 'raising awareness' reminds me of the various Facebook Breast Cancer awareness campaigns.

These 'campaigns' usually involve women (and only women) posting cryptic messages as their status in order to raise awareness of breast cancer. Usually something like the colour of your bra or where you leave your handbag. I find this method of raising awareness to be very problematic. Quite how cryptic messages are supposed to raise awareness I will never know. It also marginalises and excludes men who suffer from breast cancer, furthers the idea that it's a disease only women get and reduces the likelihood of men examining themselves or getting help early. Add to this the fact that the vast majority of people who can use Facebook will probably already be aware of breast cancer, and you have a campaign that seems riddles with problems and is unlikely to achieve the desired goals in my eyes.

Now, social media is a very powerful tool that can really make a difference, just look at Twitter's role in the Arab Spring. But I think it can also be very dangerous as it encourages what I've heard termed as 'slacktivism'. From what I can tell, the majority of people who post their bra colour on Facebook for Breast Cancer awareness will not go on to do other things for that cause. I would like to be proved wrong, but I see the majority of people taking part in this, and then feel that this is their good deed for charity. It allows them to feel smug that they've done their bit without really helping. This is how I see the majority of awareness raising in social media. Awareness is raised, but that only does some good if that awareness is built upon, instead of letting it fade away.

And awareness in and of itself is not always a good thing. Take any number of PETA's campaigns (none of which I am willing to link to). Many of their recent campaigns have been by turns, misogynistic, fat hating and trivialise domestic abuse. These are shock tactics they claim are designed to raise awareness of vegetarianism, veganism and the way animals are treated. For me they merely raise awareness of PETA being a bunch of twats. How many people have been converted to a meat free diet by their campaigns? I'd love to know the numbers. But even if millions of people have gone vegan because of their adverts, that doesn't take away the fact their methods were dubious at best.

Which brings me back to KONY 2012. The film is designed to bring attention to the problem of child soldiers in Uganda, and the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA. I've not seen the film, and currently do not plan to watch it. I've seen the link to the film posted many times today, and there has been a lot of discussion surrounding it. My main worry is that the people posting the video are engaging in slacktivism, and think that their efforts at raising awareness are sufficient. My other worry is that people are posting this film on without investigating further into it.

As described by this article here, Invisible Children, the creators of KONY 2012, seems to be a deeply problematic organisation. Any person who believes in human rights should be against what Joseph Kony stands for, but this does not necessarily translate to supporting Invisible Children.

We need to have more conversation on this subject, more action. And we need to investigate any organisation we choose to support before supporting them. We should never be afraid to ask questions, even when a person or organisation seems to be doing good. If the focus seems to be more about what the organisation is doing for awareness than about the actual problem or solutions to the problem, then we should be deeply suspicious. This should be about Kony, not Invisible Children.

So please, if you have seen Kony 2012 today and been affected by it's content, I urge you, don't just share the video on Facebook or Twitter. Research Joseph Kony, and everything he's done. Investigate Invisible Children; find out who they are, what they stand for and what they're trying to do out there; find out how they work and how accountable they are. Find other organisations doing work in this area; find out what has been done in Uganda, what has worked and what hasn't. If you really care about this issue then put your time into some research. If after that you're satisfied that you want to support Invisible Children, go right ahead. But please don't think you're making a difference by sharing that film. Find out how you can really make a difference.

Pressing retweet or share takes barely any effort, and that's what make it so attractive; it's easy. But the easy road isn't going to help the children of Uganda, or anyone living in poverty or animals living in horrific conditions. Thinking carefully about which causes to champion, which organisations to support and which methods of supporting them is. We can make a massive difference to this world, but lets think before we leap and let's do it right.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mountain Climbing

I hope to be able to climb walls like this. In the future.

Monday evening, Sam and I went and did a rock climbing course at the local climbing centre. We'd decided we'd like to be a little more impulsive when it comes to trying new things. Last week I had a hankering to go climbing, so I booked us in for a course.

I'd been climbing before, on exactly two occasions. Both well over five years ago. The first time I climbed was on a St John Ambulance summer camp. There were two sessions run, with the opportunity to climb either the 20 metre wall or the 40 metre wall. Of course, after carefully considering that I'd never climbed before, I chose to do the 40 metre wall. The climbing wall at this place was basically just a tall, narrow tower. Think Big Ben without the clock and the pointy bit. It was rigged up so that the guy on the ground was using a one way knot of some kind; it was impossible to fall, but also impossible to climb back down.

The idea was, you'd climb to the top, have a quick change over and abseil back down a different side of the tower. Which was all well and good, except there were a few people who decided they wanted to come back down.

I didn't have a problem with the height. My problem was twofold; lack of technique and lack of upper body strength. I wasn't using my legs to push up as much as I should and my arms weren't strong enough to drag me the whole way up. So about 10 metres from the top, my arms gave out, and I just stayed there for a bit. I was way too high to contemplate coming back down, so I had to make it to the top. I was half dragged the rest of the way up, but I made it after a few falls. Abseiling down the other side was one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done.

My second climbing session was also with St John, but at a much smaller indoor wall and was much less terrifiying.

Sam had never climbed before, and has a bit of an issue with heights, which sounds like an utterly disastrous combination for rock climbing. But he said he'd try it and along we went. I remembered how awesome climbing was and settled in quite quickly, though I didn't climb to high on the  first wall due to strength issues. Sam started off apprehensively but quickly got into the rhythm. He got to the top of the wall before I did and when he cam down he looked absolutely elated. We completed the course, and are now lifetime members of the centre. We can go back any time we want, and we plan to.

Today, I still ache in place I wasn't aware could ache. But it felt good to move my body, to exert myself and to sweat. And I want to get stronger and faster, so we'll continue to climb.

One day, we might even tackle the great outdoors.