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.