Friday, July 23, 2021

Ten tiddlers about TFRR

When I worked as a reporter for the late, lamented Information World Review, one of my jobs was writing the tiddlers. These were c60 word news snippets drawn from press releases that arrived by post, sometimes extended to c120 words (long tiddlers) if the press release was sufficiently informative. I loved writing the tiddlers. My editor called me the tiddler machine. And (though you might not know it to read most of my blog posts these days) they taught me the art of writing to length.

I recently participated in a course called Tools for the Regenerative Renaissance, which has various ‘graduation requirements’. One of the options is a 1000+ word blog post with reflections on the course. It’s a great requirement, but where to start? I could go on forever. So I thought I’d write to length, in the form of (leaning towards long) tiddlers on ten different aspects of my experience. 

Planting the seed(s)
I found out about the course because I follow one of the organisers on Twitter. It caught my eye because I was looking for inspiration. I have a personal learning inquiry question this year about how to make my knowledge management work more systemic. Ideas were taking shape but I wanted stimuli and conversation from diverse perspectives. This seemed like a great way to get it. However… I had to then get hold of Seeds to pay for the course. Seeds are a ‘conscious cryptocurrency’. You have to buy them with Bitcoin. I very nearly fell at this hurdle, but eventually cleared it just in time. 

I have never been on a course like this. There was a lot I liked about the way it was designed and run. The pricing, while not quite pay as you feel, offered several levels, leaving you to decide which was right for you. The cohort was large, maybe a bit too large, around 200, but it was genuinely global, and diverse in many other ways too. The sessions were on Zoom, supported by a Slack workspace and a bunch of shared Google docs. For each session there were links to a lot of supporting information, a mix of video, podcast and text. The set up all worked well for me, but I am a self-directed learner and very online.

It was both refreshing and challenging to talk big ideas with such a wide range of people — in most sessions there were random break-outs with groups of 2, 3 or 4, and you never knew what kind of mix of perspectives you were going to encounter. This is so rare, and so valuable — we spend so much time in echo chambers. Part of me would change nothing about this, but I also felt it was hard to land cold into a 15 minute conversation (often with people who were speaking English as a foreign language) without any context. There was a good turnout every week (there were six sessions over seven weeks) which would indicate that most of us coped, so maybe I am the one who needs to work on this. 

The power of place
I hear the phrase ‘place-based’ a lot at the moment, and this was one of the aspects of the course content that resonated most with me. Local knowledge, indigenous wisdom, patterns that have been with us for generations and can be revived and reinvigorated. We have many of the answers, and if (it’s a big if) we can only come together in the right permutations and combinations, there is so much positive change possible. This is sitting with me in a rather bittersweet way… I made the decision to move to an intentional community ten years ago, and what I often see here is people afraid of change, or rather the work that is needed to move towards it. Maybe I am looking in the wrong place. Maybe I am in the wrong place.

Oh, I love a map. I track my thoughts in mind maps (here’s the one for this course — this is its first iteration, I will build on it). So many connections only appear when you find the right way to map them. One of the things I was struggling with initially was how does all of this work together? How does soil fit with cryptocurrency? But more importantly, how can all of this energy, this power, this thinking, be harnessed in a way that can mount any meaningful challenge to the forces currently destroying the planet? Can it, even? I still don’t know, but I absolutely loved this phrase from Daniel Wahl, one of the guest speakers: “tell the stories, and put them on the same map.” 

The aha moments
There were a few of these, but I’ll focus on two. The very first video I watched had me. Soil! Oh my god! We could fix soil! We know how to, and everything. We just… aren’t, at least not anywhere near fast enough. I have read a lot about regenerative agriculture, and I live in a place that is directly affected by the way grazing land is managed, but I hadn’t tied it all into the climate emergency in the way that first session did. And… money. The way we use money, the money we use. It’s like the patriarchy! It’s the water we swim in. We don’t even know it’s a construction till someone explains it in ways that aren’t tech bro. I am grateful for this knowledge, though I have no idea what to do with it as yet. 

The scary bits
This felt a bit like multiple glimpses into multiple possible futures. There’s a lifetime of reading in the course notes, and I’m sure all of it would be worth the time. But time is what we don’t have, as a species, and while I loved the disparity, the leaping from concept to concept, the imagination and passion and commitment of so many of the people we heard from and about, and the work that we did on ourselves in the process, I still don’t see how this coalesces into something powerful enough to be that regenerative renaissance. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but where are the tipping points? How do we get there? 

The frustrating bits
I live in the mainstream. On the edge of it, in some ways, but I have a house, I have a job, I have a gym membership, I shop at supermarkets. For 20 years I’ve worked to support a transition to a fairer / better / more just / more sustainable / more survivable world, but … it’s not cutting it, is it, the mainstream. I tried, when I moved here, to be less mainstream, but I found that a lot of people in that space were intolerant, judgemental and incredibly rigid in their thinking. To be fair, I did not experience much of that on this course, though some of the Slack chats were tricky, but I sensed it was there. I do not know how we stay open, how we stay vulnerable, in a world where many of us have the choice not to be. Also, I still don’t understand the blockchain. 

The inspiring bits
Although there were sessions that I got more from than others, all of them were inspiring, as was the whole concept behind paying for the course in Seeds: complete your graduation requirements and you receive more Seeds than you paid. You can (if you can get your head around it) use those to share more ideas, run your own project, start something amazing. One of the ideas that completely blew me away was Proof of Humanity — imagine! But someone already has! And while I fear it would take quite a bit before I would hitch my flag to a new star, I loved the deeper 1-1 conversations I had with a couple of people on the course who were in their 20s and 30s, starting from a different place, with all of the hope and energy and determination that this brings. 

The ways I am changed 
Too early to say for sure. But one thing I know about myself is that switches flick within me when I am exposed to new thinking, and eventually enough things shift that I move onto a different circuit. I am starting no-dig beds on my allotment, having previously dismissed it as kombucha style hokum (I’ve been burnt by the best), and I am grateful to have been exposed to all of these ideas in a way that my Oxbridge-educated, double vaxxed, peri-menopausal self could engage with and appreciate. Watch this space. 


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Current status: Fish Can 4

I don't know where the muddy daffodils came from

It was bluntly pointed out to me once, by someone who went right off me after I split up with my Significant Ex, that my problem is that I think too much. The implication being, I assumed, that if I'd been less of a thinker I might have realised what a sweet deal I had. But what can I say? Like all such "feedback", it had a little sting of truth in it. I do stew. I unpack and untangle and scrutinise. I wrangle and I rant and I rage. I am insanely fortunate that life gave me options, and I take my responsibility to them seriously. It *was* a sweet deal, but it was not the deal for me. All indications are that, indirectly, I made another woman very happy, and I'll take that as a win. 
But it came at a cost. Any woman who's left a long term relationship will tell you that some shoulders get pretty fucking cold pretty fucking fast. We have so much invested in the status quo, consciously or subconsciously. No one likes a disruptor, apart from the people who do. 
So there's my opener. I have always had things to say. I have not always said them. I still don't always say them: one of the things I (over?) think about is consequences. We have norms, we have social contracts, we are interdependent. I know all this. I do my cost-benefit analysis. Just so you know. 

Fish Can the first
It started during Lockdown 1 with a conversation on our allotment. One of our neighbours, who has the next allotment over, was angry about the fact that several requests for our community food store to start stocking tinned fish had been, to choose a polite word, deflected. 
We have criteria for making such requests (number of households who might be interested in buying said product, ethical sourcing, inability to purchase locally etc). Fish is, obviously, fish, and not available from our main food store supplier, Suma. But with ye olde pandemic, we had diversified to the extent of supplementing from Sainsbo's, and in fact we've always used multiple suppliers. It's a lot of work, running the food store. I know, because I was its Treasurer for several years. The team currently running it had taken on even more work in order to make sure that people, especially more vulnerable community members, could source food on site rather than having to go to shops. 
So far so lovely. But the store has a vegetarian and vegan only restriction, and most of us, actually, literally, in reality, are neither. Most of us eat fish. Most of us also eat meat, but there is a great local butcher that you can walk to, if you can walk, which most of us can. I believe he will deliver if you can't. We also have Andy, who comes to the end of our street every Tuesday with his fish van, and this meets our wet fish needs. 
But there's a gap. A sardine shaped gap. They can be sourced locally, yes, but they will be, at best, John West. We can do better than this, sustainability-wise, in the shape of brands like Fish 4 Ever, and many of us would like to. And you can't get those brands easily around here. So... hey, can we have some nice tinned fish in the food store please? 
We made a proposal to this effect, and the place went nuts. Someone asked me how I would feel if there were tins of human fingers in the food store. I mean, I wouldn't buy them, but it would also be illegal? If we *were* in the business of eating each other, I expect fingers would be quite far down the list of bits, but I didn't say that. I didn't think it would be helpful. 
Like, guys. It's fish, but it's in a tin. You can't see it, you can't smell it. You can even get vegan "tunah" these days, presumably for the vegans who can cope with the idea of tuna existing in the world, maybe even the ones who miss it. Hard to see how you can have a tunah sandwich and not be at some level ok with the idea that someone else might be having a tuna one. 
At least, it's hard for me to see. At the point where we had our "community conversation" (sounds friendlier than it is) about it, I was able to accept that there are people who feel "unsafe" sourcing their foodstuffs from a store that also contains some tins that have fish in them, even if those tins are in a cupboard that they don't have to open. I was able to accept it because they said so, and I am not about to accuse people of lying. But this is not a standard operating procedure. I know a lot of vegans, and most of them go into shops. Quite a lot of them go to fish and chip shops, where the presence of fish is kind of there on the sign. And in the air. 
But no, we prefer to make like the world is not the world, and require our pescatarian neighbours to venture out in a pandemic to buy fish that is worse for the marine environment (and likely the fish, and certainly the workers involved) than using our shared food sourcing system to bring them something better. Go us! 
This proposal did not go forward. I had several conversations during the ensuing fallout where I tried to explore what we mean by aiming to be "vegan friendly" - because my reading of it is that there has to be some space between "vegan friendly" and "vegan" or else the word 'friendly' is redundant. And I see sustainably sourced tinned fish as something that lives in that space. During the best of these conversations, my neighbour (who is not vegan) said 'well, this place doesn't feel very vegan friendly to me at the moment'. 
She was absolutely right. I still think we have to define it at some point, because I still think there are vegans I feel friendly towards and vegans I absolutely don't. And the difference is the extent to which they want to impose their veganism on me. I am on my own journey, and I think very hard about it. Too much, you might even say. 
But I took this to heart. I put an empty Fish 4 Ever can out on my windowsill, like some kind of fishy X on the door, but I also shut up for a bit. That was Fish Can 1. 

Fish Can the second
I found that the best way for me to deal with my issues, my fishues if you will, was to do all of my shopping elsewhere. In short, I went Full Supermarket, something that I have avoided for most of the last decade. During Lockdown 1 I went around sourcing from little local shops -- we ate some odd things, but we enjoyed them. By late summer I'd pivoted to Sainsbury's, and (like a lot of people I think) started in on the comfort food: jacket potatoes, spaghetti bolognese, keema curry, a *lot* of toasted sandwiches. There are so many things they sell in supermarkets that I'd forgotten about. Readymade prawn cocktail! Thai basil! Bacon flavour bits! Gnocchi! And when you're not schlepping around seeking out artisanal produce, you do save money. 
In September, two things happened. Ocado flipped from Waitrose to M&S, and the ready meal came back into our lives (can report that the M&S Best Ever Macaroni Cheese is really very good). This was not just Full Supermarket etc. Also the ready washed watercress, the little tins of refried beans, the Luchito jalapeno and pineapple salsa, some pretty sweet wine deals. That was the good part. The bad part was that M had a TIA (mini stroke) and we had to have a Big Lifestyle Chat. Exercise-wise, we started going swimming every day. Food-wise, we re-pivoted. Now it was all about the poke and the ramen. Fish, vegetables, rice, noodles, seaweed, seeds, eggs, tofu. Many kinds of chilli, sesame oil,  rice vinegar, lots of searing in griddle pans. A big order from Sous Chef. Neither of us got Covid, so we never lost our sense of taste, and I am deeply thankful for that. But it was all quite scary. I put out another fish can. It's great healthy protein, you know. 

Fish Can the third
Christmas was a bit of a write off (we had plans, we had to cancel plans) and January started with Lockdown 3 meaning we couldn't go swimming, or do anything much at all really. We were hardly alone in this of course, and luckily, like millions of others, we met Adriene, and we did another Sous Chef order. They have these incredible ramen noodles, unpasteurised soy sauce, and all manner of fancy tinned fish, especially if Galician cockles are your thing. I didn't go into a shop for the whole of January. I didn't mind. 
But there were stirrings in Ecoville. When we were still allowed to walk in packs of six, a pack of six went for a walk. Entirely coincidentally, the following week there was an offer of a takeaway communal meal (vegan and gluten free). This was followed by another offer of a takeaway communal meal (vegan and gluten free), plus some 'vegan milky drinks'. There was much public appreciation of the people putting the work in to make these meals happen. 
Jo, you might say. What can possibly be wrong with this? Why do you want to stop people having a vegan milky drink, are you some kind of monster? 
It was cold. It was dark. We were isolated in our not-actually-that-big houses. It's easy to get paranoid. I (over) thought about this. But actually, one of the things I have really liked about this pandemic is that we had to shut our Common House. There have been no communal meals. Communal meals cause me pain. I have written about this at length before so I won't go over the whole territory again, but one of the things that is absolutely the worst about them, for me, is that we are legally, contractually obliged to provide them (and clean up after them) even if we absolutely hate them. And I absolutely hate them, in their current form, and I have never been able to shift them very far towards something I don't absolutely hate -- I remain convinced that a lot of people would love them to move in at least some of the directions that I would, but it's like being that little digger on the Suez canal. Honestly, for me, when they went away it was really good for my wellbeing. And here they are, back again, and we are feting the great people who are bringing us together in this way, aren't they just the best? 
Come on, I said to myself. They aren't doing it to piss you off. Don't think you're *that* important, love. So at the end of my (over) think I decided that what I would do was say that unless and until we are able to revisit our Common Meals Policy (it's a thing, if you're new here), I will not be partaking, even though I know this puts me in contravention of my lease, thank you and goodnight. 
Some of the people did not like this. Why can't we have some time off arguing about veganism, said one of them. I did not actually mention veganism! And actually it is very much not just about veganism! I replied. You upset people! said another of them. I'm sorry that happened but I am also upset! I replied. I am just trying to take myself out of the situation, and when we're ready to talk, I am ready to talk. Let's get into it, we won't get out of it until we get into it. 
I am missing out a strand of the story here, which is that we did a community Secret Santa. I generally hate organised fun, but I had a word with myself and put my hat in the ring, and actually, it was nice. Some time over the Christmas that wasn't, Mimi the cat posted a photo on Slack thanking Secret Santa for his gift, which was a can of Happy Shopper tuna flakes from the Shop at the Top. My fave, he said. 
Oh... did Mimi get a public bollocking for that from the vegan milky drinks contingent. In fact, the human behind it was accused of abusing the cat by hiding behind him. 
I have to confess. It was me. I was impersonating a cat on this occasion, and on several other occasions before and since. If you think he gives the slightest of fucks about this, you have not met him. This is genuinely also his favourite food, he's lazy and it's already sloppy. He'd eat a can of it a day if we let him. If he could understand his digital alter ego (which he can't, on account of being a cat), then he'd love it, he's a disruptive little bastard. Some people here hate him, to the extent that a few years ago someone suggested he should be put down. How vegan friendly is that, could I say?
Anyhoo, I did totally accept the point that impersonating a cat in order to make a point was probably an indicator that I was a bit nuts my own self, and Mimi did apologise and withdraw his appreciation for Santa. And my subsequent reflection caused me to make my (I thought pretty clear and neutral even if strong) statement that here is my position, I want to be transparent about it, as and when you want to move things on, here I am. 
That week, I reached Fish Can 3. 

Fish Can the fourth
One of my kinder neighbours asked me to go for a walk. It was the time of all the snow, and it was dark for what felt like 20 hours a day, so this was really a shuffle down the river with torches, and a chat outside the hydro (where there is a light!) until our teeth started chattering. What is this about, he said. What do you need? What will fix this for you? He's an engineer, so he likes to find a fix, and is always optimistic that there is one. What I need, I said, is a process. Our system is broken. We have to talk about it. 
I do still believe that there could be a way through this. But not without some Deep Thought. We use consensus as a decision-making process, and while I was dazzled by it as a concept when I first met it, I now see that it has a couple of deeply baked in weaknesses. Firstly, it hugely favours the status quo. Creating change if there are people who feel threatened by change, or even by considering change, can be next to impossible. An intransigent minority can absolutely block progress. I used to see it as progressive, but I increasingly realise that only holds if everyone engages and assumes good intent. Secondly, you can absolutely game it if you have the skills and the energy. It can totally be facipulated as a process. Seven years ago, I was part of a team that brought some proposals to a meeting. The process itself was hijacked by someone who didn't want the proposals to be heard. Later, as part of the fallout, one of our kinder neighbours came round and tried to explain to me that the reason he'd hijacked the process was because if you make a proposal, that sets the stage, and that's what people are responding to, and he didn't (to paraphrase) want to be starting from there. I actually laughed. I learnt this from that guy. That's exactly why I did it. It didn't work, but don't think I didn't know that this exact strategy is how we got locked into something that we still haven't been able to bust out of. 
What I will say is that I have learnt a lot in the seven years since then. I have learnt about the power of community when you are experiencing loss. I have learnt about what you can ask for when you are feeling vulnerable. I have learnt about how hard it is to do that asking, and how easy it is to assume that other people are fine, or to ignore the signs that they aren't. I have learnt that people can be absolute asshats to each other, often unintentionally, but sometimes deliberately. It's a cornucopia of learning, living around here. And our collective ability to assume good intent, which is one of the things that I found so hopeful and so radical about the community that I first joined, is a bit shredded. 
It's such a delicate little thing, is trust. Mine was stamped on several times before we even moved in, and has been several times since. When it happens, I withdraw for a bit, but then I try and stick its pieces back together with different kinds of glue, wabi sabi style. When the glue takes, my trust looks different than it did before, but feels strong enough, so far anyway, for me to venture out again. 
I do this because I want to understand. What actually *are* we all doing here? What should we be aiming to provide for each other? Do we even have ambitions beyond being a bunch of neighbours living in nice eco houses by the river? I have always been so sure that we did, you don't bring something like this to fruition without a serious sense of purpose. So what should that look like in 2021, after a year of pandemic, with a climate emergency looming? 
We have a risk register, here in Ecoville (small children, big river, sharp knives), and a couple of the chewier items on it are to do with our community resilience. What if it all falls apart? What would that mean? We are entangled legally as well as socially. We run a microgrid, we have district heating, we have communal buildings and land to maintain, we don't have nearly enough parking spaces if we fuck up our ability to share cars. 
Our community resilience in large part (in my view - and you know me, I've done a lot of thinking about it) rests with a shared understanding of what we each commit to, what we can each expect, how much tolerance we can have of difference, how much we are able to see past our individual interests and look towards those of the community as a whole, and how we understand what those shared interests are. 
And that stuff... well, it takes work. Some of it is fairly low level work, you can paint a wall together, cook a meal together, attack buddleia together, drink wine and dance on the terrace together. Do this on the regular, and your understanding of each other will grow. But... what happens when you get to the point, as we have, where there are people who are in conflict with each other, or people who would never call it that but would also never join a group activity because they just can't bear to spend time with some of the other people. 
A group of us (the current directors, who 'own' these risks) decided we would put some ££ into this coming year's budget to help us address this. We proposed some £ for external facilitation, to help us with some of our thornier issues (or even to diagnose what those issues are), and some £ for general 'wellbeing' activities. Coming at it from both ends, if you like. We have a nascent wellbeing team, but they are still forming, and in the meantime, for years now, the whole issue of 'wellbeing' has been parked with directors. This is not our first go at having a wellbeing team, nor even our second, so you can maybe already see the case for giving this some attention. 
Well. The place went even more nuts. It's all very much a live issue and I don't want to make anyone I actually like's life any harder so I'll spare the really gory details, but a few weeks in to this three members of the very-clear-that-they're-not-actually-a-team-yet wellbeing team send a message out to the whole community about how they are "surprised and saddened" that we'd thought it appropriate to do this. Mmm, sure. One of them was actually literally in the (Zoom) room at the time, as she was a director herself, and she supported both the original proposal *and* the significantly reduced proposal we made based on community feedback about not putting the overall budget up. One of them lives with that one, so must have missed that memo. And the third one just thinks wellbeing should be free. I can accept that as a position, but what about the other people who would like to be able to spend some money on some nice things? Can't we think about them? Because whatever wellbeing looks like, this ain't it. 
The director who thought something she agreed to twice was now the worst thing ever resigned, in some style. As I said to my fellow remaining directors, there is an obvious point I could make about this absolutely proving the case about the conversations we need to have as a community and how it feels to be hammered for being out there saying that.
As I also said, it's not my first cohousing shithouse rodeo, but it's not great.
And so, we reach Fish Can 4. Surprised and saddened? Fuck off. Come back when you're ready. I'll be alone, dancing, you know it, baby.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Are we nearly there yet?

When I was a kid, we had a pink bathroom: pink bath, toilet and basin, pink tiles, pink bath mat, pedestal mat and toilet seat cover - and, for a long time, a pink carpet. It had a towel rail over the radiator, and our four pink towels hung on it, identical but neatly initialled by my mum -T, D, J, P - and always in the same order, so you would never use the wrong one. 
I used them all. I would get out of the bath and wrap my towel round my middle, then another round my shoulders, one round my head and the last one round my knees and feet so I was basically more towel than human. Then I would lean against the radiator, and think. Sometimes I would read. But I loved it in there, in the towels, with a hot back, with the door locked. We had to make our own fun etc. 
And my love of a good bath has never left me, nor of a good towel. By the time I left home bath sheets were a thing, and I still have the two I went off to university with. I own other towels, but I always default to these. These days I don't have a hot radiator to lean against, and it is one of the disappointments of eco-home living: no towel scorch. But on the bright side I get a very hot bath any time I want one, and I wrap myself in my bath sheet for a bit while I brush my teeth, and then fold it onto the pillow and lie on the bed to steam gently. 
So, baths. Baths are one of the things getting me through. At least one a day, and quite often two. Morning baths have Badedas in them and the main light on, night time baths have something by Kniepp or Neals Yard and have the little light on. We've painted the room dark blue. It's good. 
We did Dry January (madness, I know, but December was very wet, what with the not being able to travel to Oxford as planned and only actually realising this wasn't possible the day before we were supposed to go, that was all a bit shit, especially as we'd eaten everything in the fridge). The evening bath first made a regular appearance then, as did Yoga with Adriene. We did that every single day: yoga, dinner, Netflix, bath, bed, or sometimes yoga, bath, dinner, Netflix, bed, for a change. I had wild insomnia to start with, but it's fair to say my body has remembered how to sleep. What it's struggling with is remembering how to wake up. 
There are also books. I lost the ability to read books for about a year after my mum died. It felt extremely weird at the time, as I am generally a voracious reader. But I just couldn't make the space, even though space is what I really needed. It came back, the ability, but then it went again when M got cancer and I got made redundant and our next door neighbour died in a way that seemed to require us all to be a part of it. I lost more than the ability to read books that summer. And recovery takes time. 
During Lockdown 1 I couldn't read much (well, I read all the time, but mostly in 280 character bursts)... too much bandwidth needed to just try and make sense of the world. But by Lockdown 3 I think I'd realised that that is one of the jobs that literature does. There's nothing new under the sun, not really. Or at least no new feelings. Find the right book, and you will feel seen. 
I had a wonderful time with Convenience Store Woman -- I don't yearn to work in a convenience store but I do spend a lot of time totally baffled by people around me (#notallpeople) and I love how she works out that okay, this is how you're supposed to do it, but also entertains murderous thoughts. But I had an even better time with Housekeeping -- I got fully lost in it, a world where honestly, why would you do the things you just can't see the point of doing? It all ends in the lake anyway. I'm now reading Ducks, Newburyport, which is a full thousand pages long and I've enormously enjoyed the 150 or so I've got through so far, so I think it's safe to say I'm back in the reading game. For now at least. 
I had a lovely lockdown birthday, with a Thai meal kit from Dishpatch, which was *amazing* (also vegan, don't tell anyone), and my beloved bought me a big glass vase, into which I put flowers that arrive every month. We've got a new season of Unforgotten, we're eating as well as two people in rural Lancashire can, and we've got the broad beans in. I've started listening to Radio 3, which has surprised no one more than me, though I do remember saying years ago that there was time for classical music in my old age. I said the same about Europe though, and look what happened there. 
But it all feels very... holding pattern. I've got my first vaccine dose booked, 21 million of my fellow citizens have already had theirs, we should be landing soon, yes? 
I don't know how it's going to feel when we do, this is my current worry. I am pretty misanthropic at the best of times (though wildly fond of many people, obvs), what will it be like when we can go places? I haven't been on a bus or a train for over a year now. I've been to Lancaster maybe three times, not counting the click and collect spot in the Sainsbury's car park. I literally can't imagine going to London. On the one hand I desperately want to, but on the other, I have squirreled away into my house and my tiny list of places I go, and ... it's actually fine? 
I do realise that I am absurdly lucky on the housing front (though more on Lockdown Ecoville soon, it's making me crazy), and on the work front, and on the relationship front, and on the regularly visiting cat front -- and I am very much in need of a haircut and in want of a swimming pool, but we don't actually *have* to go anywhere, you know? When I was a teenager I met a man in Lytham who'd never been further than Preston. He was probably in his 50s, he wasn't planning to change that situation. All those people who don't have passports, even now. Imagine never having left the country. Thinking this is it. 
But I have left the country, of course. I have a mind to travel in. Maybe that's the difference. I have excellent pyjamas and a big imagination, I can go anywhere. But we just booked a weekend at Center Parcs (postponed significant birthday celebration for one of M's children) in June, and it feels absolutely momentous. Center Parcs! I am not sure this year is going to be any less weird than last year, frankly. We need to be easy on ourselves. Although my god, that first pint of real ale is going to be good. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

I don't want to ride my bicycle (and other stories)

A couple of months ago on ye olde Facebook I said that I was thinking of entering full disclosure Angry Autumn / Furious Fall (aka #aaff2020) and just saying it as I feel it. There was a bit of a 'yes we should all do this' response, but you know what, we didn't. 
I am still not sure I can really do this - as my old dad likes to say, you can't unring a bell - but I've been moving towards it as part of my wider second wave (now Lockdown 2) survival strategy. 
It's based around tiers, because, hell, what isn't right now. A long time ago, my friends A&K came up with a three-level categorisation scheme for people. You are a) a twat, b) not a twat, or c) a high quality person. Try it, it's surprisingly effective. But also a bit, you know, crude. So for the current situation, I have repurposed it. 
  • Tier 1 people: the ones you need around you right now. The ones who nourish your soul, who give you what you need, who hold you up. The ones you would be drinking negronis and eating Dishoom black dal with tonight if you could. 
  • Tier 2 people: most of the people. The ones who are muddling through and doing their best like the rest of us. The ones you are happy to help out at a basic human decency level, and who are happy to help you out. The world would be fine with just these people in it, but you would probably feel a bit lonely and misunderstood. 
  • Tier 3 people: the ones you really, really don't need in your life. The users, abusers, narcissists and manipulators who *no one* should have in their life, but also the ones who are somehow toxic to you personally. Which might not entirely be on them, but either way engaging with them is an act of self-harm. 
The first thing I did was fillet my Facebook friends list. I am lucky to have a bunch of Tier 1 Facebook friends, we all know it's an evil platform but it does bring me much joy. I also have a bazillion Tier 2 Facebook friends, some of whom I don't really know or seldom interact with, and I'm cool with that. The random likes and the posts that get a different kind of conversation happening are also part of the joy. Tier 3 though. The ones who get shitty or shirty, or I self-censor in case they do, they are gone. The White Lives Matter ex, he's gone. How did I ever think I'd make a difference there? I never could when I was 17, why assume everyone grows up to be a better person? The overt transphobe, bye. The partner of the guy who blocked me for reasons I never understood but which really upset me, gone (I always really liked her, but life is less confusing this way). A couple of people whose posts I'd unfollowed but somehow felt I might offend if I unfriended them, gone, why would they even notice? So if you get here, I'm assuming you want, at some level, to be here. I haven't stuck it in your feed. I think that's less, you know, provocative. And more freeing. What took me so long? 
The second thing I did was apply this schema more directly to my neighbours. I do this thing at night, when I can't get to sleep, where I run through an exercise in my head and align it with my breathing. It needs to be just complicated enough to take up the mind-whirring space but not enough to stop me drifting off. Going through the 13 times table can do it, for example, or the Hebrew alphabet, or the periodic table. But do all of these things often enough and they become too familiar and stop working. So I started using my street. There are 41 households and about 70 people in total, so it's a good sized dataset. Breathe in, person at #n. Pause. Breathe out, person at #n+1 . Pause. And so on. For quite a while, just populating all the houses in order was the perfect level of abstraction. But then I got too good at it, and I had to switch it up. So I'd add things like, all of the people who have *ever* lived in this house. What year the current occupants moved in. (I have a head for this kind of thing). It sent me to sleep, for a while.*  
But eventually that also wasn't enough. So I tiered them. One of these people has (indirectly and cack-handedly but still) accused me of fascism. A few of them don't quite ignore me in the street, but make the sort of acknowledgement that is only upsetting when you see them greet someone who they actually want to see. One of them seems to have ruled me out as a cool kid (and honestly, the bar is quite low, so this stings). There are the old wounds, too. We eat our young, around here. Anyway, that's Tier 3. 
This strategy is sweet in two different ways. It still helps me sleep, as neighbours occasionally shift between tiers, always worth checking (especially interesting with couples in different tiers). But also... it was so useful to enumerate the Tier 3 neighbours. There really aren't very many of them, there *really* aren't. There are more in Tier 1, but I would never have thought that till I did this. But I have done it, and if I apply my sleep science to them, I find when I am awake I can just not pay them attention
It's honestly quite a shift. As Leymah Gwobee said: "Anger is like water - the shape it takes comes from the container you put it in. Let it flow". So as I pass up and down the street, breathing, I let it flow out of the houses, into the Sustainable Urban Drainage System, into the river and out to sea. We live, and sometimes, we learn. I'm honestly feeling better for it. 
You're wanting to know where my bicycle fits into this, aren't you? Well, it's another of my pandemic learnings. With great introspection can come great enlightenment. 
I like to think that I don't do things just because I'm supposed to, but clearly that is not the case. I am supposed to cycle everywhere, and I'm supposed to like it. I'm surrounded by people who cycle out in all weathers, hauling all kinds of loads in all kinds of ways. Many of them have more than one bicycle. There is a lot of lycra, and a lot of those big bright waterproof panniers. And they just keep doing it. It's amazing. 
And I did decide to come and live here, and since I did I have done really quite a lot of cycling. But earlier this year the council dug up the off-road bike path into town in order to build up the flood defences by the river. It will be reinstated at some point, but for now, cycling into town, while still relatively traffic-free, is much more of a palaver. And suddenly... I stopped. 
All of a sudden I have realised that I hate cycling, and I have always hated cycling. I have actually only had three bikes in my adult life. There was one at Cambridge, a crappy second hand thing that I only ever used in my first year, to cycle to ballroom dancing lessons, until I realised I did not need to learn how to ballroom dance, and I stopped. Everything else I needed to do, I could walk to, and I did. I have no idea what happened to that bike. 
I lived in Oxford for four years without a bike, but I got one not long after I got together with M, because he couldn't believe I didn't have one. It came from a Cycle King sale and was probably quite a good bike, it had a lot of gears. I rode it to work sometimes. I rode it to the station sometimes. I rode it to the pub sometimes. I never, ever understood why people would choose to 'go for a bike ride' but I was talked into it once or twice. We cycled round a reservoir in the Peak District once. And we cycled out to some kind of country park when we were in the Forest of Bowland one January. It snowed on the way back, and I actually cried with misery. I was allowed to spend the afternoon drinking golden mild by a peat fire after that.
NGO X used to run the cycle to work scheme, and after I'd had my bike around 10 years I saw a demo one that I thought might actually be a bike I could love. It was Dutch style, with hub gears, and it was solid as a rock. My mum (who loved riding her bike) got it for me for my 40th birthday. It was certainly very comfortable, and pretty much maintenance free (which was handy, as I know nothing of cycle maintenance), and there was a stretch of the Oxford ring road where I could get up a good speed on the way home from the office to the Interim Bungalow. I could just about say that I was fond of that bike, but I couldn't say that I loved it. 
I thought for years, this issue is with me. I am not fit enough. I don't have the right legs. I don't have the right kit. I don't have the right bike. If I had the right fitness / legs / kit / bike, I would love cycling. I just need to try harder. 
No. I fucking hate cycling. It is shit. It is, I have realised, like camping. If you don't love it at its most basic, you can spend all the money you like (and it will be A LOT) but you will never, ever love it. I hate dealing with traffic. I hate faffing with helmets and lights and locks and waterproofs and panniers. I hate hills, I hate punctures, I hate getting pins and needles in my vulva. I hate all of it. So why would I spend what would be easily into the four figures on upgrading my infrastructure? That's a lot of bus fare, and I will still hate it. 
I gave the second bike to a project that refurbishes them for refugees. I saw it locked up at the train station about six months later and was happy it was helping someone get around. I still have the third bike. I will probably start riding it again when the cycle track re-opens, though I have also now fully got into shopping by car, mixed with Abel & Cole and the occasional M&S via Ocado. 
I also currently have two baths a day, have developed a Kiehl's habit, spend a lot of time vaporising essential oils and am washing my clothes at 60. More habits I may readdress when This Is Over, but if we've learnt anything over the last eight months it's that life can come at you fast. Take your pleasures where you can. 
*This is such an obscure reference I think only my Significant Ex is likely to get it, so on the offchance he's reading and wondered if it was a nod to Gary & Melissa, yes. 

Saturday, November 07, 2020

I hope the Tories love their children too

I wrote this before Lockdown Two but I forgot to post it. Still holds. 
If you know me at all, you'll know I'm a foodie. I have always been a foodie. My tastes have, it must be said, changed somewhat over the decades, but the basic principle is the same: good food makes life immeasurably better, bad food makes it significantly worse, and insufficient food is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and something we as a society, a species, should constantly strive to ensure does not happen to anyone. 
Which brings us, topically, to half term. When I was a kid, half term meant a trip to Lytham Kitchen with my mum. I remember it as just the two of us, but I'm guessing my sister was there too as I'm not sure where else she'd have been. By the relative sizes of things in my mind (Lytham Kitchen is still there, and not that different in most of the important ways - go there) she might have been in a pushchair. Anyway. The point is, it was a big treat, and I had spaghetti bolognaise followed by a Viennese whirl. 
What, I think, marks me out as a foodie is that I can remember this meal in such detail over 40 years on. The spaghetti was fat and soft, and came mixed in with the sauce, which was not particularly meaty but very juicy, so you would suck the strands up and it would splat on your face. It had grated cheese on it, which was in fat shreds, unlike at home, where my mum used the thin side of the grater. I don't think I was allowed to lick the plate, but I would have. The Viennese whirl was a piped shortcake biscuit that was half dipped in chocolate. I would eat the plain side first, and then the chocolate side, very, very slowly. 
It's always good to feed appreciative people, as I have learnt myself, and I hope it was obvious how much I absolutely loved these meals at the time (one hallmark of my early eating years was if it ain't broke, don't fix it, so I had this over and over again, and to be honest if they still served it I would have it tomorrow, only not the biscuit, and maybe with a glass of red). 
In the year my mum was dying, I would visit most weeks and sit by her bed, chatting to her about anything that came into either of our heads, wanting to acknowledge what was happening but without getting into the deep and dark places. She was not a great opener of cans of worms or boxes of Pandora, like many of her generation, and many of us Gen Xers have learnt to walk that line. But one night, the LKSB (Lytham Kitchen Spaghetti Bolognese) came up, somehow. And by this point there was a fair amount of morphine in the mix, and I learnt that the reason it was just me stuffing my face was because there wasn't the money for both of us to do that. 
This honestly never occurred to me at the time. I was max eight years old, so I can forgive myself, but additionally, she never gave much evidence of enjoying any foodstuffs as much as I enjoyed pretty much all of them. With soooo much hindsight, including knowledge of how her terminal cancer ultimately played out, I can see that she likely always had a vulnerable digestive system, and learnt to manage that by not really eating a lot. And we could get into the thin thing, which I will just touch on: I think my mum was a 10 because she smoked like a chimney for decades and also didn't eat much, then she stopped smoking and she hit like a 14, and then she got cancer and she went down to an 8 and then she died. She bought a tiny suit to wear to the funeral of one of her uncles who'd been a bit 'handsy'. It was her last 'fuck you' and I love her for it while also still dealing with the implications of all of that, not that I explicitly know the facts. She embodied them, as women so often do. 
*Anyway*. Half term to me means spaghetti bolognaise and Viennese whirls with your mum, or whatever the 2020 equivalent is, and to learn that life often gets worse rather than better for kids, over that time, makes me want to howl. And the thought that the government would enforce rather than relieve it, well. 
I look at those pictures of Marcus Rashford and his mum and I think, people like them should be making these decisions, not a bunch of boarding school educated posh boys, many of whom were deliberately starved of that kind of love in order to make them better heartless leaders. I live with one of those boarding school educated posh boys, and I think I can safely say they are a lil fucked up by the system, even if they never had to watch their parents choose between heating and eating. How are we still here, in 2020. 
What can you do? Well, we went swimming on Friday, then went into town and had noodles and a beer in our local Thai restaurant - use it or lose it, guys, and their Pad See Ew is *so good* - then went to Sainsbo's and spent our lunch budget on foodbank supplies, which can conveniently be deposited in between the tills and the exit. 
I have done a lot of buying foodbank supplies, and my general MO is to buy food I would want to eat myself, on the grounds that just because you are in need doesn't mean you want ham in a tin. (I will add that I never ever buy brown things for the foodbank, on the grounds that just because you're in need doesn't mean you should have to eat some do-gooders idea of healthy food). But this time I took my eight year old self shopping, and bought everything that she would want. Instant mash. Hotdogs. Tinned ravioli. Curly Wurlies. Sardines in tomato sauce. SuperNoodles. Jelly. Twenty five quids worth of joy, and I put it all in the collection box and then had a little cry on the way home. I'm so sorry. I'm so fucking sorry. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Heat and the male gaze

I dropped a note idly onto Facebook the other night. I say night, it was around 3 am, not long after I woke up on the sofa (classy, Jo, classy), tangled in my giant culottes and oversized top, and crawled upstairs to a not much cooler bedroom but one where I could starfish in my pants on my linen mix sheets and think about summers past. The note was about being told, when I was younger and it was this kind of hot, to put more clothes on. I wrote it because I often think 'I should say more about X', where X is a thing I'm thinking about, and then I forget. I even forget when I write the notes in a notes app, because when I do that, I use personal shorthand, like I'll know what I mean, but when I see it again, I generally don't. But if I say it on Facebook, it has to make sense to people, so it will make sense to me. Was my logic. Around 3 am. But actually, the sense it made to others was very different. It started an interesting conversation about the limits of being able to wear what you want, the consequences of wearing what you want, the things that affect what you want to wear. And it was a good conversation, but not the one I had been thinking about. 
Because the times I had been thinking about were the ones where the clothes they wanted me to put on were the ones *underneath* the ones I was already wearing. 
Even at my youngest and most exploitable, I never wore revealing clothing. This was partly because I have skin the colour of a milk bottle, and can *feel* it burning, even with sunblock on, and we didn't have sunblock when I was at my youngest and most exploitable. So I'm used to covering up. It was also partly because I was convinced, like many young women, that my body was deeply unattractive, not least because of the milk bottleness (these were the Miami Vice years and your tan was verrrry important). But it also became apparent to me that having a deeply unattractive body (I conceded in a diary from the time that my arms were "ok") the colour of a milk bottle did not seem to stop a certain level of attention being directed at me. I had a brutalist haircut and a totally flat chest till I was about 14, and was regularly taken for a boy, so it didn't start as soon as it might have, but start it did, as it in-evi-tab-ly does. So it was also partly to minimise that attention. 
I also identified as a feminist pretty early, became familiar with (if confused by) some of the core texts of the second wave, and was in some essential way drawn to the baggy t-shirt, leggings and DMs look. So all in all, you rarely saw my fleshy edges. 
But it was *a* look, of course, and often topped with wild, wild eyes. I'd say they were smoky but they were far less subtle than that. And my hair was enormous. I modelled myself on Robert Smith, learnt how to backcomb with an afro comb, and got through more cans of firm hold Silvikrin than the ozone layer could, it turns out, really deal with. I wore second hand men's clothes (grandad shirts from Oxfam, my dad's old suit jackets), mixed with a touch of goth and a bit of Miss Selfridge, hundreds of bangles and tons of make up. Look at me don't you dare look at me, this look said. 
I think, now, that when you're 15 or whatever, anything you wear is revealing, because you are open season for the next two decades and you're finding that out the hard way. But then, I was handling it, I thought. 
But here are three stories, the ones I was replaying the other night in the heat. 
1. I'm at school. 
My school was recently demolished. I wasn't sad. There exists some kind of vestigial presence, in the form of a) a merger with another school with a fancier building a little way down the coast, and b) the form of a Memories of Jo's School Facebook group, which I follow with some fascination. There really are people who hold those days as the best of their lives, who still have their blazers and their ties, who salvaged memorabilia up to and including the *curtains from the stage in the big hall which they made into curtains for their actual house*. I say people. I mean men. 
My school was not designed for girls. I'd personally argue it wasn't really designed for children, but I can be sure as eggs is eggs on the former statement because it had been going for the better part of a century*  before it let any of us in. And when we got there, I had the strong feeling it was under sufferance. There weren't very many of us, and they often bunched us together in lessons, especially science ones, as if we might warp some kind of laws of physics / biology / chemistry if we moved around too much. I was a proto blogger even then, and some of the things they said to us (collectively, en masse, as girls) would be genuinely fucking reportable these days. 
What they really wanted, I think (apart from our Oxbridge potential, mwa ha ha), was a sort of no mess no fuss arrangement. Girls can be such a civilising influence on the main story, no? And useful in plays. So, while there were almost no female teachers (they were an even smaller proportion of the teaching staff than we were of the school population, which is batshit if you think about it for any length of time at all), there was a Head of Girls. There was no Head of Boys, because boys were the norm. No, just Girls. For the right amount of fine wine (any) I will tell you about the Sanitary Towel Experience. But we're not here for that today, we're here for the summertime. 
The Head of Girls would call you in, if you were a Girl, for any of an unspecified number of Girl related infractions. These were almost exclusively to do with what you looked like (or occasionally, smelled like). One summer term the temperature reached the level when we were allowed to dispense with our green blazers, or, if we were in the Sixth Form, as I was by this point, our grey suit jackets. Fairly soon, I was called in. 
HoG: Do you have any idea what you look like? 
Me [I'm fifteen, I have more idea what I look like than at any point in my life before or since] : How do you mean? 
HoG: We can all see that you're not wearing a bra. 
Me: Um, ok? 
HoG: I want to see you in a bra tomorrow. 
Me: But... I don't need a bra? And it's hot? 
(I didn't need a bra. I didn't really have any bras at this point. But I did start wearing a bra. Even though it was hot). 
Some days later, I am called in again. 
HoG: What are you wearing under that shirt? 
Me: A... bra? 
HoG: It's black. We can all see it. 
Me: But... I thought the problem was that you could see that I wasn't wearing one? 
Now. I knew to a little tiny extent what I was doing here. I knew that no mess no fuss (white) girls wear nice white bras under their nice white shirts and I knew I was fucking with the HoG a bit. But I also profoundly believed that the person most upset by my lack of bra and/or visible bra was the HoG herself. I really did not *need* to wear a bra** at that point in my life. If the tiny breasts of late developers bother you, please, just don't look at them. If you want to look at them, that's on you. It's not the job of young women to police themselves. I have written about this before. 

2. I'm at work. 
I have left school, and am working in a restaurant kitchen over the summer. My job is the worst one in the building, I'm on wash up. I am very happy to have this job, as it enabled me to leave my previous job, in a bread shop which was run by sex pests. Nobody in the restaurant kitchen appears to be a sex pest, and this is progress. So I'm pretty cheerful, on the whole, as I load plates in and out of a red hot dishwasher and scrub pans in the sink. They bring me beers and fries. It's quite convivial. We all get a share of the tips. I'm gradually getting to do bits of other things - this is the place where I first see a whole cauliflower, learn how to peel garlic, and work out that I am a proper vegetarian. (This last part doesn't last, but I had to wash enough bloody chopping boards and scale enough sardines to see me through for a while). 
We all have some kind of uniform, and mine is a white overall with a long white apron. The chefs have whites, and the waiting staff are in white shirts, bow ties and the same long white apron. The aprons are also the tablecloths, from a laundry perspective it's pretty efficient. 
But it's really, really fucking hot in the wash up (which is a portacabin) that summer, and I basically stop wearing anything under my overall. (I mean, I wear pants, and usually leggings, but sometimes shorts). You can see where this is going. 
I must make it clear, I still had naff all by way of breasts. If you only met me during the last 30 years that may sound hard to believe, but honestly, they arrived fully formed the second I went on the Pill (and never went away). Before that, I used to own a badge that said 'Small Breasted Women Have Big Hearts'. (Might still be true, who knows). 
Anyway, there I am, in the sweaty Portacabin, washing up all of the things, swigging on a newly fashionable Becks, and in comes the boss. He's one of those shouty chefs, but he's not a bad man. I can sniff out the bad men by now, for I am seventeen and have met enough of them. 
Jo, he says. I need to say something. 
Sure! I say. Hot, isn't it? 
People are noticing... he says, that you're, well, not wearing anything under your overall. 
Philip! I say. I am wearing pants and leggings. 
That's not... what I mean, he says, but I know, and he knows I know. 
Who is bothered? I say. It's not like the customers see me. I'm just here, out the back, in the hottest place, doing pretty much the hottest job. 
He doesn't have an answer for me, and to his eternal credit, he leaves it be. 
Later that summer, maybe even that same week, there was a shift where it was so hot I was putting ice down the back of my neck and running my head under the tap. And then the weather broke and there was a thunderstorm and a massive downpour. I banged the dishwasher on, walked out the back door, and by the bins I pulled my overall open to the waist (it had poppers), threw my arms up to the sky and stayed there till I was rain-soaked and cold. Then I reassembled myself and went back in to get on with it. 
I imagined that I probably didn't look that different as I'd been soaked with sweat for hours (in a way that is coming back to me now in the menopause, weirdly) and I was bang-crashing away when I heard a little knock at the same back door. It was a boy maybe a year or two younger than me, absolutely scarlet faced, who'd been sent from the restaurant we shared our yard with to ask if they could borrow some garlic. I did suddenly realise that he must have seen me howling bare chested at the rain. I was really nice to him. 

3. I'm in hospital. 
Well, now I'm 22 years old. And I do have pretty decent sized breasts, I think I'm a C or D cup by this point. I'm travelling with my Significant Ex, and in Thailand we have a 'couples massage' where I take my (M&S basic, unpadded) bra off and the lady masseuses hold it up to the light and pass it around in incredulous, hilarious wonder. I have arrived, on the top half, and I dress accordingly. 
Somewhere in between Thailand and Malaysia, I contract something which may or may not be typhoid (I have had my jabs, so tests are inconclusive though my symptoms are consistent). I am actually pretty fucking ill, and after a long week of mad fever, weakness and dehydration, I end up in a teaching hospital in Kota Baharu. 
I have nothing but respect for the people who got me there (my SE himself, of course, but also the couple who ran the guest house we were staying in when I fell ill, and who cared for both of us and got me medical attention on an increasing level of intensity, including, ultimately, driving me to hospital. I sent them Christmas cards for over a decade). 
Anyway, here I am, on IV fluids and antibiotics, in a hospital ward I arrived in barely coherent. The ward is open to the air - by design - the walls are slatted, and I am starting to feel better. They have given me a hospital sarong outfit and I have worked out how to take myself to the squat toilets - the drip stand is fixed to the bed, so I have to hold the bag up with one hand and the sarong with the other (and if I get them the wrong way round and hold my bag up with my drip hand the blood comes out into the tube and I slide, faint down the wall till someone rescues me or I sort it out myself, anyway I generally manage it, and hang the drip bag on the hook in the bathroom stall and use both hands to hoik up my sarong to have a piss and then do it all again in reverse. 
It may or may not have been typhoid, as I say. One of the other things they thought it may have been is dengue fever - you get this from mosquitoes, and we'd spent a very bitey night on the floor of a train from Surat Thani. One of the symptoms of dengue fever is a rash on the chest. A steady stream of male doctors appeared at my bedside, asking to check for this. Honestly, I'd say, your colleague just looked, there's no rash. I think I'll just take a look, they'd say. Just to be sure. Fine, I'd say. I mean, it was company. 
But actually, this one isn't about my spotless breasts. On day, I don't know, three? I was in there for about a week I think, my Significant Ex turns up at visiting hour, bearing V8 juice and Marmite (I still love him for this) and I don't know... sanity? I'm definitely on the mend by this point and can see that on one level he's doing a lot of the heavy lifting, not least trying to stop my mum getting on a plane to Malaysia. We're both pretty sure that I'm not going to die, and we're kind of back in the game as a team. 
He is sitting next to my bed, and the husband of the woman opposite is sitting next to hers. She takes time every day, before visiting hour, to check her face and put a headscarf on. The husband calls my SE over. Words are exchanged. 
He comes back to me, pulling a face that says 'you're not going to like this'. 
What did he say? I ask. 
What he said was: tell your wife she is exposing herself. 
Dude. I'm in actual hospital. I'm on a drip. It's a women's ward. It's open to the actual air. I'm wearing the actual clothes they give women to wear in here. You have an issue because you can see my pants? Honestly, just don't fucking look. 
These little stories, over and over. These are just three. These are just mine. And it literally doesn't matter what you wear, so you might as well wear what you want. 
In the original conversation, someone asked me about the female gaze. I've been thinking, but I haven't got a lot to say about it really, at least not mine. Summer brings out the sort of man who likes to hang out in a beer garden with his top off. We see a lot of male flesh at this time of year. I generally mutter dear god, put some fucking clothes on, but I guess the same logic applies: if it bothers me, and often it does***, I take my gaze, and I avert it. 
* I managed to top this by attending a Cambridge college that had been going for over four centuries before admitting women, and all I can say is it can be fun being a trailblazer, but you better not bleed anywhere.   
** These days I am pleased to see there are things called bralettes. I'm way past the market for them, but when I would have been, all we really had was A cup versions of the overengineered things most of our mums wore - mine would elaborately remove hers from under her top as soon as she sat down after tea (a useful skill, which I also have). There is progress. It does exist. 
*** I'm fine with actual naturism. It's the performative tatts out look that I struggle with. But your body, your choice. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Just another sister on lockdown

Bread (not pictured) and roses, bread and roses

Just before this year's Significant Birthday, I did a little series of This Much I Know style musings on Facebook. I enjoyed it: the taking stock, the reflecting on things from the perspective of middle age. I like to think I don't feel that different to the way I did 30 years ago, when Young Joella was at her most glorious, but I must. I absolutely have to be a fully-fledged adult by now. I belong to the generation that's in charge here, terrifying as it sounds. 

But whatever any of us thought we knew has taken some punishment in the last 150 days, hey. And there's been no shortage of white middle class takes. Is there ever? But you know the drill: if you don't want mine, you really don't have to read it. Back buttons are available.

Schrodinger's Dad 
This was the big one. The big fella. Sometime in late April, it's a little blurry now, my actually quite beloved dad, my grumpy, stubborn, 20th century, pre-Israel Israeli, principled, heartbroken, sometimes inappropriate, reluctantly-but-in-the-face-of-incontrovertible-evidence evolving dad, was blue-lighted to hospital for the second time in a month. The first time, it was with a recurrence of the thing that keeps coming for him that no one has yet been able to identify. The second time, it was with the Covid-19 that he picked up the first time. I won't lie, I thought he was a goner, that it had finally come to, as he would say, Goodnight Vienna.

I know I am so far from the only person who went through this, and I know that the NHS were doing their absolute valiant best, unlike some people we could mention, but it was terrifying and awful. There were days and nights, long days and longer nights, where I just didn't know whether he was coming, going, or already gone. I couldn't go and see him, he wasn't well enough to call, there was a mega spendy phone number that went to his bedside, but they kept moving him around, so the number kept changing, and when it rang out I didn't know if he wasn't picking up, or someone else's dad wasn't picking up, or it was just ringing into the void. The ward asked for one person to call each day, morning and evening, so they weren't overwhelmed, and one day it was me and I rang in the morning and the person who answered said 'he's asleep'. 'How is he, do you think?' 'Well, he refused his breakfast'.

Two things I now know that I didn't know then: first, he'd lost his sense of smell, so food wasn't that interesting to him, but more importantly, he's vegetarian, and they kept bringing him meat. In those circumstances, refusing breakfast seems reasonable, but at the time, I thought, that's it, he's checking out. The one thing we could do was send messages online, and every morning I typed a little message into a web form, trying to say what I needed to say, and hoped that somehow it would get to him.

He survived, though is yet to fully recover, and I have since been to visit a few times. But there was some point in the 10 days or so he was out of reach where M observed that he was effectively shut in a box with a deadly virus, and until someone opened it we had no idea whether he was alive or dead. I grew that little shell around me that I remember from my mum's terminal illness. Not very much could reach me, but what could absolutely tore me apart.

He's back at Caffe Nero now, and sporting quite the beard. A couple of weeks ago, I was in his kitchen frying up some garlic for pasta puttanesca and he said 'wow, that smells great!'. I looked at him and grinned, and he said 'my god, I can smell!' He dodged the bullet that's now hit the larger part of a million people. May his luck continue to hold.

Reassessing the familiar 
I knew about the obvious key workers. My mum was a nurse. My dad worked in local government. My best friend is from a family of teachers. I have spent most of my own working life in the third sector, but many of the same values hold. It's not about you, it's about everyone. Nobody is ok till everybody is ok. Human rights apply to all humans. Pay your taxes. Vaccinate your children. Vote for progressive government. Check your privilege. Don't be evil.

But I did not fully recognise how reliant we are on the delivery drivers, the corner shops, the butchers, the bakers and the people who keep the lights on. Andy the fish man comes here on a Tuesday. He disappeared for three weeks because Fleetwood fish market closed for physical distancing adjustments. When he came back I nearly cried with happiness. In the deepest lockdown, the appearance of his van was one of the major events of the week. You can't outsource eating. We have to remember that. I can't even go there on the care worker front, I'm still too angry and sad. PAY ALL THESE PEOPLE PROPERLY. THIS IS THE REAL WORK. (Also: monkfish curry is the best).

Inequality begins at home. 
If we're going to have more pandemics, and I imagine we probably are, we need homes we can bear to stay at home in. I'm Generation X, and, broadly speaking, we got a fair deal on the housing front. I hadn't properly realised how precarious this situation is for millennials and Gen Z, and how badly and insecurely so many people are housed. Which is to say, I knew housing was fucked, but I didn't know how fucked. I learnt back in the dying days of Thatcherism that this is a problem the 'market' will never, ever solve. You want to house your citizens decently, you have to invest public money in it. May we finally learn this lesson. May we finally vote accordingly.

Son of a gun, holy cow. Turns out we need to look after ourselves. There were the sourdough waves, the crafting waves, the Zooming all evening after Zooming all day waves, the allotted hour of exercise waves, but all that passed and we were still here, looking at the walls, wondering how to climb them. And like many people, I fell back on familiar comforts.

A lot of this was around food, and I think this was also linked to where it came from. We do have food available here in Ecoville, and the team who source it bust a gut to keep it coming in, but it is very much at the wholefoods end of things, and I found that I did not want it, even more than I usually find that I do not want it. What I wanted was pie. Fish fingers. Spaghetti hoops. Cheese and pickle toasties. Tuna mayo jacket potatoes. Ham, egg and chips. Instant noodles. There wasn't a supermarket delivery slot for love nor money, and I did not want to go into town.

So I developed a whole new opportunistic way of shopping, which was a mixture of watching the Abel & Cole website like a hawk (and huge props to them for bringing us what they could bring us every single week), and buying stuff in the local villages. I can now tell you what the Halton shop at the top has (Philadelphia! Cream! Koka noodles! Limes! Chillies!) vs the Caton Co-op (Prawns! Organic wine! Refried beans! Parmesan! Parsley!) vs the Bolton le Sands Spar (Locally made pies! Barmcakes! Linguine! Salted pistachios!).

As is the way in this house, I do the sourcing and M does the cooking. So I have been appearing through the door with all kinds of things, and he has dutifully been creating glorious dinners from them. Special mention to the miso ramens topped with fish fingers (aka cheat's tempura), the tuna steaks with chips and creative salad (aka whatever we have to shred), the many and varied frittatas and omelettes (thanks to my well-connected neighbour S, we have been well supplied with local eggs throughout), the (British*) corned beef hash - now just referred to as CBH - and the absolute standby sausage and sardine pastas (these are two pastas, not one, we're not monsters). We have eaten like kings, if the kings had been teenagers in the 80s. We're a bit fatter, but I think everyone is at this point, so that's fine. Who's even looking.

Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in an old midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be eco. I have taken this a lot further than many people, to the extent that I could probably give you a list, but I won't, because then I'd sound smug, or defensive, or both, and that's not where I want to go with this. Where I want to go with this is that we all have our limits, in the places where we have a choice, and a whole myriad of factors affect those limits, as well as those choices.

When it all went tits with the Covid, a lot of those limits and those choices became really exposed, and I had a kind of dual experience of it. On the one hand there was the mainstream realisation that we are interdependent beings. Supply chains fail if even one of their links doesn't work. I had a higher than average awareness of this, partly because I'm quite old and I remember the days before you could think oh, I'd like x, and within minutes x appears in your life, as if by magic. And partly because I've spent a bit of time at the other end of those supply chains, on farms in developing countries, with small producers, with the people who don't get prioritised for anything, basically. We mostly don't know we're born, the water comes out of the taps, the lights stay on, and the shops have stuff in them. The difference between that happening and not happening is extremely finely balanced. The more of us who understand this, and make our choices accordingly, the better, and I have noticed the increasing awareness of this. Might we come out of this... better? (I'm not hugely hopeful, but there have been moments). The deep satisfaction that can come from scoring macaroni in a time of scarcity... I think, for a time there, we all appreciated that we should not take this for granted.

On the other, there was the choices that are supported here in Ecoville. I don't think we've had a good war. It's admittedly pretty challenging when you've deliberately designed a set up that relies on sharing facilities (washing machines, cars, bins, play spaces, stores, communal areas) and suddenly all of them are danger zones. There's been a lot of helping each other out, as you might expect. But as a collective, as a whole, we have not, in many instances, opened our minds to new possibilities, or extended each other generosity. In fact, we managed to weaponise the word 'generosity' a while back, which would be impressive if it weren't so depressing. 

I have instead sensed something of a hardening. The lines that have hardened are not a great surprise, maybe - I'm going to avoid the gory details, but we've had the Tinned Fish Wars, the Don't Tell Us What To Do Wars, and the Trampoline Wars. I mean, we're all a bit broken. Who can say they're at their best in "these times"? And I do, honestly, try and access my empathy (as I imagine others do too, at least those who've done even the tiniest bit of therapy) but then I boing up against its limits and ping off in the other direction. I guess you could say this is a counterpose, if the pandemic were a yoga class, which it in no way is, but we can try. 

The first sign was the washing up. I hate washing up, and we do have a dishwasher, but three meals a day at home, every day, there's stuff that needs dealing with. We ran out of washing up liquid. What's supposed to happen is you take your bottle down the street and refill it from a giant vat of Ecover. This can take a while, it's pretty viscous, but I have been dutifully doing it. And I thought no. Fuck this. I want proper washing up liquid. And I went out and bought a bottle of Fairy Eucalyptus Anti-Bacterial. Oh, the joy those bubbles brought me. I blew the little ones round the kitchen, and made giant ones with my hands. I poured it into running hot water like a cocktail waiter with a bottle of Galliano. 

I was a bit unstoppable after that. Dettol wipes. Tesco Click and Collect, feat. hash browns. Air freighted roses from Sainsbury's (see above. Fairtrade, of course, I'm not a monster). Giant bars of Cadbury's Dairy Milk. Even (and I do feel bad about this, just not bad enough) a strimmer, a whole strimmer, just for my allotment, because the communal strimmer battery went missing and I could. not. be. arsed. waiting for it to be found. So I bought a strimmer. Off Amazon.

I know these decisions are taking me in the wrong direction. We need to be doing less of this, and I have been doing more. I'm still trying to fathom why, as I'm fairly sure it's a slippery slope between this kind of thing and refusing to wear a mask because yada yada freedom. (I am not refusing to wear a mask, of course. I'm not a monster). I suspect it might be actually quite linked to the regression thing. I try and make principled choices, but actually I don't always find that easy. You have to work at it, all of the time. And when you take a kicking for not being principled *enough* (I'm not expecting medals, just not "feedback"), and then there's a *pandemic*, I think what happens is a little switch flips. I have, these last few months, rediscovered the deeeeep pleasure of driving fast, on my own, windows open, loud music playing. I thought those days were long behind me. Turns out not. Quite tempted to make a roll up at the traffic lights singing along to I Am The Resurrection, go full 90s.

If you're not angry, you're not paying attention. I started a 21 day Deepak Chopra abundance meditation thing that one of my lovely Australian half-aunts was hosting, because I thought it might do me some good. But I dropped out from fury on day... 4? Not now, Deepak, I thought. People are dying fully preventable deaths. I could say more about the anger (I could always say more about the anger) but actually, I read this on the LRB blog a long three months ago now and I can't top it. It's really very good.

And now what? 
I work with futurists, and the futurists are busy as hell. This has been like a fracture in time, a deep but sharp shifting of the tectonic plates. We have none of us any certainty about what comes next, and if we do, we're deluding ourselves. So much possibility has been revealed, as has so much vulnerability. Many of us have had the opportunity to think deeply about what really matters, and some of us have taken it. The bare brick of the structural inequalities in our world has been exposed in a way that I have never experienced before - at least, not in the country I live in. 
We could adapt -- we've had a sense of how fast things can change when the political will is there. But I am not sure that we will. We present as a democracy, and heaven knows it could be worse, but our electoral system is so unfit for its 21st century purpose that we have somehow ended up being led by amoral narcissists advised by monsters, and we might quite possibly be fucked. I watch the signals that my colleagues produce that indicate which trajectory we may be on... zero sum game competition for limited resources? trading privacy for access to goods and services? a radically different, regenerative future? something else? Who will decide? 

It's been an interesting time for those of us who straddle various divides, or, to use the new parlance, inhabit several bubbles. Not sure I'd wish these times on anyone, but they aren't boring. There is possibility, for those who are able (and allowed) to lift their heads up high enough to see it. There is a lot of bleakness for those who aren't or can't. I don't know where to put myself really. But imma stashing some tins of sardines, just in case.


*This isn't a Brexity thing, it's a rainforest thing