Category Archives: Observations

Learning how to read

Most of us are taught early on how to extract basic meaning from these little symbols on the page. We learn the fundamental mechanics of reading. Studying literature, we’ll likely also learn a few things about how language gets things done – tone and mood and characterisation and whatnot. If you also study history as a young human  you’ll learn something about biases, and assessing sources for reliability. That’s as much as most of us get.

Many, perhaps most adults don’t read that widely, focusing on a genre or two, an area of interest, or maybe just a few authors. Moving between genres, authors, styles and subjects can actually be hard to the point of off-putting, and not everyone picks up on their own how to approach that.

I’ve always ranged widely with the fiction. Thanks to the kind of work I do, I’ve ended up reading all kinds of things alongside that. Technical content, legal content, political content… it all has its own forms, language and assumptions and engaging with anything unfamiliar also requires you to learn how it works. The first few encounters with anything unknown can be confusing and off-putting. A great deal of writing is intentionally or unconsciously manipulative and seeing how that works depends on understanding how a community uses language in the first place. The differences between persuasive writing from scientists and persuasive writing from pseudo-scientists are considerable, for example.

Much as I love literature, I wish I’d had a lot more time at school being shown how to read more diverse kinds of writing. How to read a newspaper article and pick out what’s opinion and what is hard fact. How to read a house of commons white paper, a legal contract, a scientific paper and so forth. In my experience what makes this even harder is that often the biggest issue is what’s missing, and you need to know quite a lot to have any clue what to be looking for on that score.

Reading, like so many things we do, is considered basic and widely available. The actual skills required are many, and complicated and we’re not actually taught them. If you haven’t done science beyond A level the odds are you’ve never read a scientific paper. If you’ve not tried to work in politics, you’ve probably never read the kinds of documents that are created when policies are being developed. These are barriers to participation and understanding.

You can be incredibly skilled and informed reading in one area and have no idea how to approach another kind of writing. 

These last few years have really shown us how problematic it is when people don’t know how to scrutinise different kinds of writing and how well we need to be able to read if we are to effectively inform ourselves.

Work as a coping mechanism

I’ve always turned to work as a way of coping. That can mean paid work, volunteering, housework or making things. It’s something I can put between me and the teeth, and the teeth are very sharp and have been with me my whole life.

The theory is that if I can make enough, do enough, be good enough then I can stay out of the teeth. It doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, but I’ve never found anything that does. The problem with working as a coping mechanism is that it can add to the exhaustion and make things worse. I’d be better off with some sense of worth that doesn’t depend on doing stuff, or being validated for doing stuff but I’ve never figured out how to have that. Self help articles and books are all about increasing your self esteem, not how to start from scratch.

I suspect the trick is to have a sense of self and self worth rooted in who you are, not what you do. It’s just that I’ve never felt intrinsically good enough. It’s hard to imagine feeling good enough without having to be useful, helpful or productive. I’m also no sort of ornament.

It also doesn’t help that every single thing I might do to try and keep myself out of the teeth depends on confidence. The worse things are, the harder it is to believe that I can do anything to offset it. The more in pain I am the less able I am to feel or appreciate any wins I might achieve.

It’s not a good way to be. But here we are, and I can still write blog posts,so there’s something.

Why Terfs aren’t feminists

CW rape and domestic abuse

Trans-excluding ‘radical feminists’ are not feminist for a number of reasons. Their insistence on reducing femininity to the narrowest of biological definitions is harmful to women. Right now, the obsession with trans women as an imagined threat to female safety is distracting from some really big and genuine issues.

Abusive men don’t ‘pretend’ to be women to get access to women. If you wanted easier access, you might join the police force, or just pretend friendship or the desire for a relationship. Abuse is a common experience for women. Most of that abuse does not come from strangers in toilets – although that’s not what you’d think if you listen to the terfs.

We are all most likely to be abused or killed by someone we know. There’s no gender component to that statistic. 

In this last year we’ve seen a young woman raped and murdered in the UK, by a polic officer. At her vigil, the police were excessively aggressive towards women. Failure to take female safety seriously is a real problem, and it is a problem that needs a change of police culture to fix it. Prosecution rates for rapists are notoriously low. There are major questions to ask around what is presented in court as consent or invitation in the first place, the assumptions the courts, the media and the public make about women coming forward as victims, and the way in which we prioritise male reputations over female safety.

No group of people is free from abusers. There are women who abuse. There are non-binary folk and trans folk who abuse – it’s a people issue and no one is exempt or beyond criticism. However, there are cultural and systemic underpinnings to the ways in which men are able to abuse women. That men are also victims of male violence stems from the same cultural issues and it would take far more than one blog post to properly unpack all of that. Feminism is about taking down the patriarchal structures that support and enable male violence – for the benefit of women (cis and trans alike) for the benefit of male victims, and even for the benefit of male perpetrators. Systems of male violence do horrible things to everyone caught up in them. 

If your feminism is about making a group of people more vulnerable to violence – it’s not feminism. If your feminism doesn’t recognise that hatred towards trans-women makes all non-gender-conforming women more vulnerable, you aren’t any sort of feminist. If you think attacking trans-women is more likely to increase female safety than taking on the much more dangerous work of challenging the police… I’m not honestly sure what planet you’re living on right now.

If your feminism rests on the idea that men (or anyone who has ever had a penis) are the problem, and not that the systems of patriarchy are the problem, you’re not going to disrupt patriarchy. You may however end up co-opting it and supporting it and benefiting from it.

Notes on the pandemic

I’ve not talked much about covid since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m into science not conspiracy theories, and from the beginning I’ve been watching for the best information I could get in the hopes of both staying safe and not spreading infection to others. I consider myself fortunate to be double-jabbed even though I had strong adverse reactions both times.

I wear a mask as much as I can when indoors with unfamiliar people. I’m claustrophobic, I get panic attacks anyway and I find I have a small window of time before the mask becomes panic inducing. Longer distance journeys in a mask mean hours of fighting the panic. I can however usually get in and out of a shop before it all kicks off. Most of my strategy has been to stay away from crowded indoor spaces, to meet friends outside or in private spaces, and to ventilate spaces. When I’ve done events involving people, I’ve been home for days afterwards so as to be unlikely to pose a risk. So far, so good.

In the beginning I was deeply afraid of both the virus and the lockdown. I followed the rules, and I found them really hard. I did not do so out of blind obedience to the government, but out of a desire not to make anyone I care about sick. I have considerable rage where the government is concerned. By winter last year there was plenty of evidence that the virus doesn’t spread much outdoors. We should have been supported and encouraged in moving our lives outside as far as possible. The benefits to people’s livelihoods, and mental health, would have been huge. Instead we spent last winter being told we could only meet outside in pairs if we weren’t in our households.

I’m also furious about the lack of investment in education. Countless uninformed and half-arsed theories circulate out there. Where has been the counter message to explain what vaccines are and how they work? So much of the misunderstanding, and wilful misunderstanding comes from not getting how science works in the first place. Cautious language is normal for science. Theories change as more data comes in – that’s not science failing, it’s science working and yet this is being used to undermine confidence in the research being done. Nothing is a hundred percent. Masks, vaccines, ventilation, social distancing – nothing is one hundred percent guaranteed, but that doesn’t make it useless. 

I grieve the deeper divisions in an already divided country. I grieve the way even more people are being pushed deeper into poverty. I grieve the loss of freedom and the loss of life – we’re an island, if our government had reacted swiftly the suffering could have been greatly reduced. I grieve the culture of selfishness that seems to be growing and festering here. I rail against the double standards where regular people have been harassed by the police when they weren’t even breaking rules, and those in power have dramatically flouted the rules and got away with it. We deserved better and we should feel some moral obligation to do better.

Stealing the surface of science

“Our trials show that when people make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level with the support of … applications they can access optimal states of wholeness.” (text from an actual website trying to sell a magical machine.)

There’s a lot of this sort of thing out there. There’s a sort of illusion of science that the author of the above text is trying to conjure. Trials, quantum, applications, optimal states – it’s a language that is supposed to sound sciencey, to validate something that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual science.

I note a lot of the same approaches come up around conspiracy theories, and anti-vaxx material. Often the sources are trying to debunk actual science while trying to present their pseudo-science as more scientific than actual science done by scientists. It’s a process that depends on an audience who dislike authority and don’t know much about how science works. Thus you can end up with people persuaded that vaccines are unsafe because they are made by Big Pharma, and that horse de-wormer cures covid, which it doesn’t. Also, horse de-wormers are made by Big Pharma.

It’s difficult to know what to do in face of all of this. When you’re dealing with people who feel they can make contact with light encoded information at a quantum level… but who could not explain what ‘quantum’ actually means, rational argument is a non-starter. We’re not speaking the same language here, and the language itself is intrinsic to the whole process. 

If I read something that claims to be science, there are key words and concepts I’m looking for. I want to know what the actual data was, how the tests were organised, what kinds of numbers of people/other things were involved. I want to be offered the raw data and the methodology used to get to that data. I will be more reassured if the conclusions include some thoughts about how or where the conclusions might be flawed or in need of further research. The language of uncertainty is the language of science. I’m looking for evidence, probability, possible interpretations of the data. If I read about truth, proof, and any kind of absolute I know I’m dealing with a fraud. 

The trouble is that certainty is more persuasive, especially if you don’t habitually speak the language of uncertainty. The person who tells you that they have Proof that a thing is Real and you have been Lied To is more emotionally convincing than the person who tells you that you have 67% less chance of suffering serious side effects and that the long term implications are unclear. We like certainty and we like to feel in control. Unfortunately, being certain and wrong makes you a very long way from being in control. 

I wonder how much odds it would make if we spent more time in school learning about risk and personal outcomes in relation to probability, research stats and so forth. We’re not usually taught science and maths in ways that help us understand how, and when to take the numbers seriously in a personal way. Leaving it to chance whether a person can extrapolate from data or tell snake-oil from science doesn’t seem like a good idea, to me.

Dark but not Dystopian

I have a great love of the darker genres when it comes to films and books. I love gothic stories, and I am partial to the more psychological and monstery ends of the horror genre – relentless violence doesn’t do it for me unless it’s funny. However, I really don’t like dystopian stories and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that’s the case.

Gothic and horror stories are personal – it’s about the individuals involved. The monstrosity is personal, the horrors are perpetrated by individual people or entities or groups. This also means that the scope for overcoming the terrible things is both personal and possible, or you die trying. Stories in which there is a last girl standing, or in which someone thwarts the horror – even if they die in the process – are actually uplifting and cathartic in their own way. Stories in which people have to come to terms with the darkness comfort me in all sorts of ways.

Dystopian fiction has an impersonal quality to it. The problems are systemic and go way beyond the individual. Granted, sometimes you get stories about dystopian systems that the individual is able to take down, but for me that’s a differently shaped story. Really dystopian fiction may offer escape or reprieve to the protagonists, but the system itself remains. The surface of the story looks like a win, but nothing really changes.

There’s an additional problem here that dystopias often depend on taking something akin to the oppression suffered currently or historically by the global majority and asking what would happen if someone did that to white people.

I’m not convinced we do ourselves much good with stories in which winning is impossible and the system will crush or corrupt you. It’s something that bothers me greatly about the Aliens films, for example. A few people might survive a fight with the monsters, but the system that relentlessly brings them into contact with people while trying to capture and weaponise them, remains. At least with most monster films, there’s a point where they run out of desire to reboot and the monster stays dead.

There is of course a certain kind of comfort in dystopian stories. They tell us that it is ok not to resist, because resistance is futile. It’s ok to do nothing and accept what is done to you because fighting back changes nothing. This is a story shape that worries me.

Non-Binary Parent

In my twenties, the best term I had found was ‘psychologically androgenous’. I entered ‘motherhood’ and only then discovered that I was experiencing distress and horror around the way a gender identity was being assumed for me. I fought not to have my name replaced by ‘mummy’ – profoundly uncomfortable that adults in my life now thought I should be called that when speaking to my child. I didn’t want to go to mother and baby groups. I didn’t want a social life based on interacting with other mummies.

There’s nothing like giving birth for getting you shoved unceremoniously into other people’s gender ideas. We attach a lot of meaning to ‘motherhood’. After I gave birth, members of my own family took to sending me Mother’s Day cards, which made me feel bodily sick. I had no way of explaining what was happening to me or why it was all so difficult. I did not want all the cultural gender baggage of being a mummy. I just wanted to be a parent. It’s only in recent years that I’ve found any of the language to express this.

Gender identity isn’t a conscious choice. It’s only when your gender identity is out of kilter with how people treat you that you are likely to notice how what goes on inside does not match with social expectations. When inner experiences match how you are treated, you are likely to find your gender identity seems normal, natural and inevitable. When your inner experiences don’t match how you are treated, this can be confusing, distressing, and can make you feel very much an outsider, an ‘other’. 

 I spent my early years as a parent struggling with other people’s language, expectations and treatment of me. I struggled with assumptions about what my parent-status meant in terms who I was and what I was doing. “You don’t need to tell me what you’re doing,” my mother said. “I know what you’re doing.” At that point, the baby in my life was not the only thing going on. I’d stepped onto the Druid path and become active in my local Pagan community and that mattered too. She didn’t know what I was doing, and that my life did not 100% revolve around the child was unthinkable. I never wanted ‘parent’ to be the biggest part of my identity, I certainly never wanted ‘mother’ to be my identity.

Generally speaking our culture allows men to be parents and to also do other things. Men are not expected to give up their work, their hobbies, their social lives, to parent. Women can be under a lot of pressure to do any and all of that, and to make the child the centre of their being. My desire for children did not include a desire to mother them, or to sacrifice my life for theirs. I parented, and I kept working, and kept doing music and hanging out with people and did my best to have a life. 

I’m a person who was pregnant. I’m a person who has a womb, and for that matter a cervix. I’m a parent. I find it difficult when public discourse around gender insists that you can’t be a pregnant person, or a person with a womb, that these conditions mean woman, and mother. It feels like running face first into a wall. I have no desire to stop anyone else from identifying with femininity, womanhood,  motherhood or whatever else speaks to them. I struggle with the idea that my own discomfort with these terms somehow erases people who prefer to be identified as women.

Not all dogs

Not all dogs outside are free to just run at a cat. Not all dogs would, on getting to a cat, savage it. But some do. I’ve heard awful stories of cats killed outright by dogs, and cats left with lifelong injuries after dog attacks. I’ve been there for times when loose dogs ran at my cat. It isn’t friendly, it’s frightening.

We’re used to dogs dominating in public spaces. So many people treat dogs chasing cats as normal, natural behaviour that they clearly feel they should make no effort to deal with it. Not so long ago I watched a loose dog in a park hurtle off after a cat and chase it out onto a road. Luckily no one was hurt.

Not all dogs bite people. Most don’t. But the dog that runs at you may be big enough to knock you down if you are small, or your balance isn’t good. You don’t know, as it runs at you, whether it will bite you, or your cat, or if it might gouge your flesh when it jumps up. A large dog scrabbling at your body can tear clothing and draw blood.

Loose dogs in public spaces are normal. Dogs that seem aggressive to people who do not know the dog, are among us. Dogs whose behaviour is problematic for people, and cats who also want to use the space. But the aggressive dog paired with the indifferent owner can and will dominate the space and as a worried person, or a cat, you can run away or try to protect yourself, but what you can’t do is demand that the space be made safer for you.

The gender parallels are pronounced. To be in a public space with a female body is a lot like being a cat. To be gender non-conforming, to stand out in some way, to be unusual, is to be a cat. Not all dogs will go after you, but you can’t always tell by looking. 

I think the majority of people reading this blog would find it easy to understand why dogs need to be kept under careful control. I don’t think anyone would imagine that being a cat somehow makes it ok to be chased, frightened, bitten or maybe killed. But we still talk about female safety in terms of clothing choices, and not going out at night. Having a female body is not so very different from having a cat body – neither body is a justification for violence. Neither body is asking for it, ever.

Sharing my inspiration

Regular readers will know that I’ve been sharing a lot of art by Dr Abbey in recent months and that most weeks I put up a piece we’ve collaborated on. There’s a lot more going on in the background as we’re working on several much larger projects that will also involve Tom in the future. (For those of you who don’t stalk me thoroughly enough to know the details, Tom is my husband and co-creator on the Hopeless Maine graphic novels).

In recent months, Abbey has quite simply been my muse. I’ve had a lot of years struggling creatively, being short of ideas and energy and not getting much written. Working with Abbey has changed that dramatically. He has more ideas than I know what to do with. Most days he sends me new art he’s working on, and ideas to explore. He’s opened doors inside my head and has helped me find my way back to wanting to create, and to feeling excited about what I do. I’d missed that, and I’ve been missing it for a long time.

I’m always happiest when I’m creating with people rather than on my own, and I’ve been blessed with some fabulous creative collaborators along the way. Abbey is more than that, and has taught me a great deal about how to be myself, a process that has changed me in the last few years. Thanks to him I have a much clearer sense of who I am and where I need to be going, and a better understanding of where my creativity fits in all of that. 

Up until now, Abbey has done most of his creative sharing on Facebook, aside from what shows up here and on the Hopeless Maine blog. He’s now striking out with a ko-fi page, which means it’s easier to make his work visible to people. One of the (many) nice things about ko-fi is that you can follow people to see what they do. If you’ve found the collaborative pieces here interesting then I heartily recommend following Dr Abbey on ko-fi so that you can see and engage with more of his work.

Wander this way…

Becoming a swamp goblin

The opportunity to grow old is itself a privilege that many people will not have. But, it brings with it all kinds of things that won’t be privileges, particularly the increasing risk of illness and disability. Your life expectancy, and your quality of life as an older person will be very much informed by your wealth.

For much of human history, life expectancy was about thirty years. So here I am in my mid forties, ancient by the standards of most of my ancestors, middle aged by modern standards, and wondering what lies ahead. After a year of relentless health problems, I feel much older than I am. Thanks to those same health problems, I also don’t look it. Hypermobility often gifts people with younger looking skin, while taking away mobility. 

If you’re female-presenting, aging is traditionally a process of becoming invisible and irrelevant. There are no road maps for aging non-binary people. The menopause is cheerfully increasing my chances of growing a beard, while thinning my head hair. It’s not a very sexy take on being nonbinary, but its what I’ve got. I may have to rethink my visual presentation. I may not bother.

I’m not one of those people who will wonder if, as an older person, they will dare to wear purple. I’ve always been fairly outlandish. I’m thinking more in terms of swamp-goblin for my future self. I’m not really cute cottage-core granny material, I’m definitely on more of a scary witch in the forest trajectory. I have no intention of aging with dignity or grace, and I hope I can get more outspoken, outlandish and unreasonable as I go.

I’m fortunate in that I have spaces where my getting older will not disappear me. Writing is traditionally the work of older people, so long as I can jab a keyboard or mutter into a device, I can tell stories. The steampunk community is an all ages one and will allow me to be as outlandish as I like. The Pagan scene is pretty good at including older people even if the visuals are still far too focused on the sexy young women. As a swamp goblin, I shall be able to work on this. 

I’ve run into goblin-core as a concept and I like it greatly. Embrace the decay, the autumn, the mess. Embrace the toadstools and the cemeteries, the spiders, bugs and moths. It’s like goth, only it doesn’t call for being young and sexy – and there are increasing numbers of old goths who are no doubt moving towards more of a goblin aesthetic. 

As a child, I didn’t realise how far my maternal grandmother was from the pearl and twinset permed hair norms of old ladies at the time. She was colourful, her dress style was androgenous, she did what suited her. I’m lucky in that I have some sort of role model there. She kept going in every way she could, despite a body that was clearly very hard work to live in. She fought to keep her mind sharp and her life interesting. It’s a good set of things to aspire to.