Thursday, 30 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, Boys - Part 4 - Down and Out

I want you to think about the time in your life when you were at your poorest. It's a relative concept, so it's different for everyone.

For us it was 1984-1985. We had two young children, and Martin's income simply wasn't enough. After we had paid the bills such as the mortgage we were left with an amount of money that wasn't really enough for food, so we went very short. We were also cold in winter as we had to ration the coal we used on the fire. But eventually I got a job, which fixed that, so we didn't suffer for too long, and of course compared to many people in the world, it didn't count as being poor at all. We had everything we needed, it was just "tight".

The important thing was that we were working poor. We did have an income, albeit not quite enough. We also did have a roof over our heads, and we were at least able to keep on top of that. We made it our priority. We went without luxuries, food came before entertainment. Had it been these days, for example, we'd have cancelled our internet service. That didn't exist at the time, so we simply never went anywhere. Martin cycled to work.

I am glad we had that experience. Nobody was harmed by it, and it gave us a tiny glimpse into the poverty experience. Enough to know I didn't like it, that's for sure.

Also enough to know it wasn't really our fault. We hadn't done anything "wrong". It was just that a tradesman's pay was not enough to support a young family, and that is where we begin to find definitions of relative poverty. Although we are all used to it now, the idea of a family needing two incomes to make ends meet is fairly modern and it looks like it's here to stay.

We can argue that modern expectations are excessive, that perhaps many families actually live beyond their means, and it's easy to pinpont an anecdotal example. We all know someone who claims to be short of money but in fact is regularly buying unnecessary things, who effectively wastes money. Forget that. What is a reasonable expectation of lifestyle, for ordinary, working-class people?

I believe it is as follows:

To be able to afford to live in a home that is not shared by another family. It may be small, it may be humble, but you shouldn't need to take in lodgers to cover the rent. (Of course, if you choose to, power to you, and bless you, it helps both of you out). If you own it, you should be able to afford to keep it, and maintain it.

To be able to heat that home in winter, cool it in summer if you live in a hot climate, and have all basic services to it, such as power, water, and, yes, a telephone. That is an essential service these days. TV, internet, etc are not essential, but a basic service for both is not outrageous. Just optional.

To be able to eat enough in quantity and quality to maintain good health. In places where fresh produce costs more than junk food, I would define poverty by being forced to eat the latter, even if it is sufficient calories. Being forced to eat food that is bad for you is an incredible societal wrong.

To be able to replace worn clothing and pay for transportation, so that the means to keeps a job doesn't become an issue. We are past the times when having shoes on your feet was considered "enough". Many employers won't look at you if you don't own a car. This seems grossly unfair, but there it is. The way cities are laid out often means that affordable housing is some distance from employment. Walking is not always an option. This is actually one of the problems of the modern world that we need to address, because it often becomes a cycle, need a car to get a job, need a job to get a car. Of course this applies even more so in rural areas.

Now that is as basic as it gets. Is this a reality for most people? Frankly no, and in many parts of the world it would actually be a luxury situation. It is sometimes a luxury in the west, and that shouldn't be happening. It doesn't need to happen. There is enough to go around. The reason there are many, many families unable to achieve those four basic areas, despite having jobs, is that there are a minority of people who have far more money than a person can even count, and they plan on keeping it.

What happened? Were the poor people foolish? Well, they did sit back and let it happen! Shall we blame them?

No. You will never hear me blaming Fred for being an ordinary working guy just trying to make ends meet. The world is run by Freds. Without them we'd still be living in caves. The Freds toiled the fields for centuries so that others could eat, and concentrate on other pursuits that gave us the modern world, and if you have any doubt about that, I suggest you go and study some social history. The world that we enjoy was made possible by the labour of ordinary people. They may never have invented anything, because they were too busy.

And, as we've stated elsewhere, they were too busy to rise up, and even if they had, would their lot have improved? Maybe temporarily. If you look back, in fact, the only time that the employers were forced to pay more was when there was a shortage of employees, such as after the Black Death, and that, like it or not, is how things work. All the time there are enough workers bees, they are not valued.

And, let's not pretend otherwise, what is called poor today would have looked very appealing in the 15th century. It's ALWAYS relative. Never forget that. Right now being poor includes not having a telephone service, rather than not having shoes. You cannot compare our modern western world to that of the middle ages, any more than you can to Somalia.

No, the definition of poverty today is measured in annual incomes that would buy a new car. But if it isn't enough to put food on the table, it doesn't matter how much it is. It is not an unreasonable expectation in a modern western nation to be able to EAT. We have moved past that. Or we thought we had. But we clearly haven't moved past kings and serfs. And we really thought we had.

We give them different names these days. We pretend there is no serfdom. We lie! That is exactly the situation we have. We have a small number of people who have money and power, and then everyone else doing their bidding.

What would happen if it was all averaged out? It varies from country to country, obviously, but within the "west" (US, Canada, most of Europe, Australia  etc) each family would have roughly $50,000 a year coming in. After taxes and other obligatory deductions there's a bit more variety of course, but it's in the $20,000-35,000 area. How do you feel about that? Is that enough? Does it cover the four basic areas of need I listed above? It should do.

But, an average of $30,000, after taxes etc, is probably not enough to comfortably cover the cost of living in some cities. And my guess is that there are many of you reading this thinking, hmm, we actually have more take-home pay than that coming in, and we're not rolling in it. If, right now, you have two wage earners in the family, even in pretty humble jobs, you're probably bringing home more than that, and could not really envisage managing on less.

In fact, one reason this equal sharing simply isn't going to happen, is that far too many people, and not just those in the billionaire's club, would have to reduce their standard of living.

But this is an average, you see. To get an average, obviously, you have some earning far more, and some far less. Far less.

In fact, in 2011 one and a half million families in the US, for example, had an earned income of less than $1,000 per annum. How can you live like that? Well, you can't, obviously, and these people would qualify for welfare, but having been given support of this kind, what is the family's income then? That varies dramatically from place to place, so it's best to consider percentages, and it is generally around half of what is considered to be a poverty income. In some cases welfare income is just 20% of what is considered to be poverty.

Let's just put that in a plainer way. People are trying to live on one-fifth of what they need. In the modern western world. Not in Bangladesh. Not in Victorian times. Where you live. Now.

Deduce from this whatever you want.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, Boys - Part 3 - The Welfare State

One of the most interesting phenomena I have experienced through discourse on the internet, with people all around the world, is how expectations vary with regard to what they can expect from their social contract. It's not about what they want, or what they don't want, but the way they see entitlement, based on how things have been during their lifetime.

When I was born in England in 1962 the welfare state was firmly established. It had been around long enough for even the generation before me to have been born into an early version of it, although the system I knew was finalized in 1948. I knew nothing else. To me, it was all "how things were done". And for those born into similar systems in other countries, it was simply the norm.

By the time I reached adulthood, I was therefore accustomed to this safety net, and I understood it, I knew how valuable it was, and I was grateful for it. Then, as I explained in the earlier post, I worked within a government department where I saw the machinations first-hand, and some of the downsides to it.

No system is perfect. There are pros and cons to any of them, and this applies here. But I do believe, strongly, in a system where the population is assured of help from the state when things go awry. We can argue the details of that endlessly, but the basic principle of it is something I hold dear. And yes, obviously that is partly because I am accustomed to it, even now, with the version that Canada offers being somewhat different. There is still a feeling of security there.

So imagine my surprise to meet Americans who oppose the whole idea. Even though they themselves are not wealthy people, and could potentially benefit from it. These are people who believe, deeply, in a level of personal responsibility that extends far beyond what a sensible person can be expected to prepare for. In their view it's every man for himself.

I could admire that if it was a personal choice. Who wouldn't. The problem is, he insists it be like that for everyone.

In some instances, it's an "I got mine", attitude. Born into some level of privilege, he simply doesn't care how others manage, he's alright. Sometimes his reason for this attitude is from dyspiety:

But in other cases, it's something else, which I never managed to put my finger on, when relatively poor struggling people, think that being poor and struggling are OK, and everyone should suffer right along with them. So when anyone mentions the government using taxpayers money to help out the poor and struggling, they oppose it. You know the rest.

Obviously some of it is fear. They've seen governments bungle so many other things, and when you see the stupidity displayed by politicians, it's quite easy to see how they could mess up any attempt at creating a better social safety net. Here in Canada corruption and bad management has effectively bankrupted the national old age pension system, and around the world there are plenty of examples of countries where the best intentions of providing for the people have been thwarted by economic failure.

But flawed use of funds isn't restricted to elected officials and civil servants. Corruption, waste, and general bad financial management can happen in the alternatives - insurance companies and charities. And let's not forget that even banks and other investment facilities can fail, taking careful personal savings with them. If it's efficiency you want from an arrangement to secure your future, there are no guarantees anywhere.

And even if the money is safe, there's no guarantee of being able to get it. Raise your hand if you've never heard of anyone having a fight with an insurance company. I see no hands. That was your money, paid in all those years, agreements signed, and then, when you needed it, the bastards tried to keep it. This is common to the point of normal, and you think this is better than governments being in control? What cloud do you live on?

So, no matter how you make your "independent" plans, they're not independent. Not unless you bury gold coins in the ground and guard it with your own private army. That sort of security, popular among South American drug barons, is simply not possible for every man and you know it. The whole "every man for himself" ideal isn't practical, and it's why we have society in the first place, see Part 1.

What is the point of having a state at all, if the people who live in it do not benefit from it, not even in hard times? What are taxes for if not to fund services for the benefit of all citizens?

I know about the problems with governments and other institutions. Everyone does. It's no secret. To get a better society, you don't do away with them, you improve them. How? Well that's the question, isn't it.

There are people with ideas:

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two Boys - Part 2 - Get Off Yer Lazy Arse

When I was growing up in the seventies, there were many powerful messages in the media and in society that made an impression on me. The economy had been booming but it started to fall apart, and towards the end of the decade we had a time of strikes and unemployment, at exactly the time I went out into the world of work. I was very cynical about it all. Politically in my teens I was somewhere left of Lenin, while not really understanding the big picture. This is awfully common in young people, for two reasons. One, they worry about their future, and two, they haven't seen the ups and downs over time that form the patterns. So everything that is NOW looks like everything there is.

It was an ugly time in British history, and it was reflected perfectly in this sort of thing:

And I related to that. I think in some ways I still do. I don't think the little punk rocker ever went away, she just calmed down.

I knew what they wanted from me, you see. It all became very clear in one short interview with a "careers offiicer" who came to my all-girl school, to help us (!) decide what to do with our lives. I was a bright student, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do after school. I did know, however, what I didn't want. I didn't want a mind-numbing office job. I wanted to travel, somehow, I wanted to do "more" than what was expected of me. But I had no idea how.

So in walked this man who was supposed to be helping me, and he looked through the subjects I was taking.

"You're taking French and German, and European Studies, which includes Italian and Spanish, that's FOUR languages!"


"You are obviously good at languages, I see you also have extremely high marks in English."


"But you are not taking typing, why not?"

"Because I have no desire to be a typist."

"But what else will you do with all those languages? There's only really bi-lingual secretarial you know"

He was a professional careers advisor, but to him the ONLY thing a girl with language ability could do was secretarial work. Well, she was just a woman, so who cares, right? Oh yes.....It was the seventies but that attitude still prevailed.

I left that interview not only still with no idea what I was going to do with by life, but utterly, totally convinced that the system didn't give a shit. I was right, of course.

What they wanted was to churn out workers. Drones. If you were not very bright, off to the factory. If you had a brain you could do office work. Nobody mentioned higher education. As if it didn't exist. None of us knew it was an option. When I tell people that now, they tell me I'm being ridiculous, but that's how it was at the time. You only know what you are taught.

As it was, my somewhat rebellious nature and a bad school clashed head-on, I was "asked to leave" and I left. I got the dreaded office job, civil service no less, and because it was military, there was a fun side to it. Still, it was terrible job, so I used my brain, and got a promotion.

I then went to work in an Unemployment Benefit Office. This was in 1981, at the time this was happening:

These images are recent, but it applied then as now. I was working among the people who were at the bottom of the pile, big burly grown men crying because they didn't know how to tell their children they were out of work AGAIN, and there were suicides of course. It cemented my left-wing heart.

We had been told all our lives that all you had to do was work hard and everything would be fine. Work hard in school, then go and get a job, and work hard, and you'll be fine. The work ethic that ordinary people are brainwashed with. You all know it.

But there was another side to it. The corruption wasn't only in government, in the established system. It was in everything. The unions were just as bad as the employers. Their leaders got rich off the workers just the same. They paid thugs to go in by the busload and beat up those who wouldn't strike.

Meanwhile, we had a busy fraud section at the UBO, as the scummier members of the working class tried to have their cake and eat it, taking jobs from their fellows, and still taking money from the system too.

And all the time, the fat cats at the top were doing just fine, thank you.

So there was the attitude of many of people...why work? We don't need to. The government will support us. The system is corrupt, fuck the system. So they did. was never the government supporting them. It was the rest of us. The money that went to the benefit recipients did not come out of the pockets of the rich, it came from the masses, the taxpayers, the friends, families, and neighbours of those who had decided they rejected the system.

My rebellion ended there. I was never a supporter of that attitude, I couldn't be. No matter what is going on among the greedy, and you'd better believe I oppose the way money flows up. There never was a trickle down.

So, it looks like a bit of a contradiction, doesn't it? I acknowledge that the system is corrupt. Yet, I continue to work within it.

I have no control over the system, I'm just one woman. I therefore have a choice of living within it or fighting it, and I choose, for now, to live within it and write about it as my form of protest, as my contribution. Each must make his own decision as to how he will face this challenge.

You can fight. Power to you. Keep up the good fight. I will approve.
You can just get on with your life. Plod on. Accept the status quo. I will approve.
You can choose to leave the system, and manage without it. I will approve.

But if you are screwing others, I will not approve. If you are corrupt, diverting resources away from those who need it, to those who already have far more than they need, I will not approve.

I will not approve of those who choose not to be part of the system, but then steal from it. And that applies at all levels of the social strata.

When I say this I always get a reaction. That's fine. If you approve of those who BY CHOICE put themselves into a situation, where they do not, will not support themselves, and call upon others for their basic needs, you go right ahead and support them.

We've all had a friend or a relative who was a sponger. They always take, take take. Relying on charity. They need a place to stay, they need a meal, they need a loan, they need........and they ask, and expect people to help them out. And people do. Because we are kind, we are generous, and we are suckers. And if they can, they claim money from the government.

If it's not their fault, if they're in a jam, when times are tough, not a problem. I'll help anyone out who is on his uppers.

But if they wilfully, continually, and shamelessly live off alms from those around them, they are parasites.

Because this system that they eschew, which none of us really like, but are stuck with, has within it already limited resources due to the greed of the elite. They are already creaming off more than their fair share. We don't need any more pressures on what we have to go round.

Fortunately, these mendicants are also a minority. No matter what the right-wing media tell you, the vast majority of those receiving government assistance of some sort, are not doing so out of choice. I hope I've stressed that enough, because if I get anyone telling me this fact, I shall simply ignore it. I am as sympathetic as anyone to the plight of those that the system has shat on.

I am also fully aware (so, again, don't bother) that FAR MORE money is stolen from the community pot by the rich than by the poor.

The fact remains that the idealists among the mendicants give long flowery political justifications for their ways, and some people buy it. I'm not sure why. Not even hippies believed in sitting around doing nothing and waiting for others to feed and clothe them, some of them worked very hard in their communes. But these people simply refuse to work. They don't approve of it. Well, I don't approve of them. They are just as bad as the idle rich avoiding taxes. They are in fact the same critter.

If you want to opt out, do it properly. Fend for yourself. Let me know how that goes.

Postscript: A wise man. Worth watching.

Monday, 27 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, Boys - Part 1 - Working For The Man

This week, I am going to do one of those blog series, where each post is a different aspect of a connected topic. The topic is "Making A Living". Several things have cropped up that I think are all connected, these are:

Traditional Work Ethic (or absence of it)
The Welfare State (mostly a British phenomenon, of course, but it's also appropriate in North America)
Poverty (as a whole)
Personal Financial Responsibility (the desire to acquire)
Real Socialism (sharing, OHMIGOD!)

There's a lot there, some political, some historical, some ethical, some common sense, and overall, a lot of Melanie's opinions. If you disagree, or have something to add, don't be afraid to use the REPLY button. It's much more interesting when it's not just me doing all the talking, and you can talk among yourselves too.

Some of you prefer to discuss things on Facebook, and that's fine. I'll be advertising the posts there. But do speak up.


Let's begin with an interesting concept that I was mulling over with a friend on Facebook last week, the idea that the very system of work itself could be changed completely. He sent me to a link, which is a very long essay (bordering on manifesto) detailing how this could be done.

I would like to offer in advance the opinion that this wouldn't work, and even if you could make it work it would take a very long time, and you'd need to do it gradually to avoid total collapse of the existing system. Which means you'd need to have other systems as a transition.

As a long-term goal, therefore I don't see it entirely unreasonable, but I have many, many questions about it, as I'm sure all readers will. The first hurdle is to read it. It is, as I said, very long and all in one piece. BUT, I think if you read it, you'll find it thought-provoking..

So, having stuck my neck out and said that it won't work, I am obliged to say why.

Well, it's because people are involved. Humans are a funny bunch, and I write about them all the time. They have a lot of negative characteristics that prevent just about any utopian ideal from working. These include (but are not limited to):


Those will look familiar to you. They are the seven deadly sins, as promoted by the early Christian church, and probably one of the wisest things that ever came out of said tradition. These are the obstacles to a perfect society, but the church never solved the problem of people having these "sins", and they never will, because these are normal, natural human failings.

I personally speak out against all of these in my own way, from time to time, not because I'm perfect myself, not by any means, but because I know harm when I see it, and all these are indeed harmful. But they are also each on a scale, by degree, of seriousness. A little lust is fun, and somewhat important too. Envy, pride, and greed can manifest as ambition, if it's not taken too far. We all need a little drive inside of us.

No, the real problem is when these occur at the greater end of the scale, for example when greed wins out over all else, so that acquisition of wealth becomes more important than any form of compassion or kindness. When money matters more than life. And this is a common situation, and one that we see quite plainly and regularly in politics and corporate policies.

When the ordinary man, who we are going to call Fred, is unable to make a basic living, because of the negative behaviour of Them In Power, whoever they are, then society simply isn't working.

You see, the whole point of society, of humans living together in some sort of co-operative arrangement, rather than "every man for himself", depends upon any individual or group who take (or are given) power allowing Fred to meet his needs.

The smallest unit in a society, after a family, is a "band". That is, a group of humans who may or may not be related, who live close to one another, who help one another when necessary, and who share resources. A big band may live in a settlement that we call a village, and when we talk about the village, we means both its physical location and structure, and those who live in it. Same applies all the way up to city state, and eventually, to nation.

These people live together for a reason. By living in groups, in addition to the benefit of "safety in numbers" we can specialize a bit. Some can concentrate on construction, some on animal husbandry, etc. We don't all have to do absolutely everything for ourselves, and therefore we don't have to become experts in everything. Indeed, as the society becomes more sophisticated, it is not possible to become an expert in everything.

It's a good system, and it's the reason humans have reached the point we are at. You don't have to like it, but modern society is an incredible achievement. The fact that you are reading this is all the example you need. Centuries of technological development have culminated in the situation where you can read the written thoughts of somebody who - with a few exceptions among my readers - you've never met, within seconds of her typing them into a keyboard in her own home, and you can even do this on a phone while you are in a cafe on the other side of the world.

While there are a few people who would prefer to live alone in the woods, making flint tools and hunting for dinner, the rest of us enjoy the benefits of this modern world, however selectively. We acknowledge the value of this arrangement of grouped resources and specialization.

What many of us don't value, is how it tends to play out, with an elite few arranging things, and everyone else being stuck in a system we have no control over. We are the proletariat. How does that happen?

In order to benefit from the group, we must be part of it, and of course there are certain commitments required. Rules. The rules are created by those within the group, by majority consent. That is the natural order of things. Consent is a funny thing though. It can simply mean lack of opposition. If the group allows some within the group to have power over the rest of them, then the group are all responsible for what happens next.

You don't need me to tell you how this goes. It works the same in small organizations and in empires. From the lead singer in a rock band making all the decisions, to a power-crazed tyrant invading other people's countries, and all of this can be nipped in the bud by solidarity among others in the group saying "no". But we don't. We hand power to them on a plate.

Which is why Sloth is actually the deadliest of all sins.

But it happens. It happens every damn time. And by the time we realize it, it's usually already too late. And if you are born into an established oligarchy (and ALL systems are oligarchies) it's awfully hard to change the system from within.

Inevitably then, you are part of the system, and if you are lucky and you work hard (and you need both luck and effort) you rise to the top and gain some power yourself, but few of us do. Most of us are just a cog in the machine, one way or another.

Most of us don't even mind too much, so long as we have our needs met. Fred doesn't mind. He has a roof over his head, food on the table, and he doen't ask for much else. If he's a bit short he goes without luxuries, and if he's in really dire straights, the system will stop him from starving to death huddled in a freezing doorway. Well, that's the theory anyway.

He doesn't like it that a tiny minority live in absolute luxury, and that often includes the luxury of "getting away with murder" (sometimes literally), but he can't do much about it, so he counts his blessings, casts his vote thinking it does some good, and just sort of muddles through.

Fred, or at least a lot of Freds do have power. Incredible power. The power of many against the few. They just don't exercise it. It's too frightening. Staging a revolution is a lot of work. There's a lot to lose. And getting everyone to join in is really, really hard. Ordinary people generally simply aren't suffering enough to risk the violence and the loss of what little they do have if they revolt. So they don't go out and man the barricades. Those in power are careful not to let the little people suffer too much, because they know that desperate people, in large numbers, are extremely dangerous.

While all the time the Freds have enough to muddle through on they will not risk damaging the status quo, and those in power know this.

No matter how rough you have it, you see, it could be worse.

The utopian dream of everyone doing whatever they enjoy, and for this to work as a society isn't completely crazy. But for it to work it has to become a system, like any other. Inevitably rules would need to be created to stop the greedy, envious, gluttonous, and lusty taking more than their fair share. Because otherwise there'd be an awful lot of wrath. And if you take pride in your output, you have no desire to see some bastard too slothful to make his own stuff, run off with it.

Sunday, 26 May 2013


This blog is not about golf.

Before I start to sound like a Magritte painting, let me explain. There are many times that what we talk about isn't what we are talking about (q.v. pragmatics). It is symbolic. In this instance golf is a placemarker for just about anything humans do for reasons other than income. So this excludes professional golf, obviously. But it includes all avocations, hobbies, passions, pastimes, interests, studies, preferences, diversions, leisure activities, and obsessions.

I chose golf because I don't think I have any ardent golfers among my readers. If I do, you'll have to forgive me for singling out your pursuit, and do try not to take it personally, read the first line again if necessary.

So, about golf. I don't play golf. I have never played golf, and I don't want to play golf. There are those who would say "you should try it", but after I've fetched them one round the back of the ear for shoulding* me, I would remind them that the maximum human lifespan is 120 years, and you can only fit in so much. My schedule does not have space for golf.

I have nothing personally against golf. I don't see it as harmful, even if some of the necessary aspects of providing for it does do some harm (requiring lots of water, even in droughts and deserts, plus incredible level of chemicals, all to keep that grass artificially pristine). There are worse things you could do. I don't see golfers themselves as bad people, even if they wear funny trousers. No, on the whole, this is a pretty harmless activity.

Just because it doesn't appeal to me is no good reason to object to it. We all have different ways to amuse ourselves, or to relax. So there's a two-way tolerance here. I won't object to you playing golf, and you, in turn, avoid the temptation to try to get me to join in, fair?

Doesn't work, does it?

If there's one thing we can be sure about with humans, they like to push their own agendas. And there are two groups of people that drive me insane.

1). Those who whine and bitch about golfers and golfing, even though it doesn't affect them in any way at all. They tease or actively criticize golfers, and they can be nasty about it. They can't mind their own business, they can't shut up, they can't leave it alone. These people are poster boys for petty intolerance, look like idiots, and are part of most of the problems in the world. They just can't live and let live. A pox on all of them.

2) Fuckin' golfers. Going on and on and on and on and on and on about golf. Boring the rest of us silly with jokes, jargon words, especially stupid abbreviations, and "in" terms, which mean nothing outside their fellow golfers, but they can't stop themselves spewing all over the outside world, even if we don't know what they are talking about. I mentioned earlier..trying to recruit more golfers. Like some cult.

Opposite agendas. Equally annoying.

I have this RADICAL suggestion. Do what you enjoy, don't do what you don't enjoy, and shut up and leave others alone.

Thank you for listening.


Friday, 24 May 2013

A Funny Thing About Me

As loyal readers know, I have a system whereby if an issue crops up on three or more occasions (THREE FLASHING RED LIGHTS) in a short space of time, I feel that I have a need to muse on it, and this is how I muse. "Out loud" as it were.

Before I begin, I want to offer a disclaimer, and a disclaimer on a disclaimer. Possibly a disclaimer on a disclaimer on a disclaimer.

We all use our blogs differently and I tend to use this, as I said, to muse out loud. Not so much to talk about personal stuff. Two reasons really: this is a public blog, and I have no desire to discuss personal stuff that will end up on a Google search, and also, well, there isn't really a lot of personal stuff to discuss. Now that makes no sense, hence the explanation, and second disclaimer.

Obviously I do have a "personal life". And it's busy and full. But, out of choice it's very peaceful (to the best of my abilities) and therefore not really exciting enough to share. I suppose that's a matter of POV, and I've had people say I should write my life story. I fail to see why.

Now I like to tell stories, don't get me wrong. Give me an audience and I will perform. But all about me? I don't think so. Sure, I'm talking about my experiences, but there's far more to a story than that (which is why you get fishermen' s tales of course), and I like to entertain. I do. I'll come back to that.

But to just talk about myself? As if I was something to examine? Ye Gods, how boring would that get for you?

No, no, no. I've read 'em. Blogs which are deep studies of the writer's bellybutton. I don't know, maybe other people like to read them, but I don't, so I don't write them. Same reason I don't write poetry (let's not even go there). I love a biography, yes I do, but I like them - different. Russell Brand's "My Booky Wook" was excellent. Stephen Fry's "Moab Is My Washpot". Very different. Very good. No bellybutton views.

Of course, this is assuming the writer has a deep bellybutton to gaze into. I am a very, very uncomplicated person. If you chat to me, in person, for about an hour, you know me. That's all there is folks. I have no surprises for ya.

Have you ever had dinner guests who got a bit tipsy and poured out all of their emotional baggage? God help us. I get confused. Women are supposed to be good at that and I'm not, I'm really not. I get a deer in headlights look. What do I do? Give her a hug? I have no idea. Out of my comfort zone.

Last night my husband was thoughtless, and my daughter has "pregnancy hormones" (I never did, but I'll take her word for it) and he made her cry. Her brothers looked startled. It was just Dad being a man, what the hell brought the tears on? Lots of shuffling of feet.

And what does Mum do? Tells him it was unnecessary and uncouth and walks out the room.

We watched an unexpectedly L-O-N-G DVD (more on that in a moment, it's one of the FLASHING RED LIGHTS, as was my husband's little oops there) and so bedtime came late. Then I was cold and took ages to get to sleep, finally giving in and finding another layer, but it kept going round in my head, why do I react (or not, in fact, as the case may be) the way I do, and could I do better?

Finally this morning I got a telling off, and probably rightly so, for my reply on somebody's FB post, for going off-topic. That was the third one.

So, here's the funny thing about me. I really do have a quirk. I don't see it as a quirk, but obviously it IS because it seems to be a minority thing. I'm not even sure how to describe it, so let's offer the examples, and you'll see what I mean (unless you've dozed off by now).

Exhibit A: Husband doing exactly the opposite of what I'm talking about. Opening his mouth before engaging his brain. What happened was this. Sian, still recuperating from the virus we've had go round here this week, couldn't finish her dinner, so she was going to put her plate on the floor, the signal to the dogs that it's open season on leftovers. Alas, Bowser is such a great clumsy brute that he was in it before it was on the floor, which tossed it in the air and it broke as it landed. Martin reacted in a split-second. I don't recall what he said, but it was loud and in such a tone that Sian burst into tears. Her brother asked her if she was OK. She said "No, I'm pregnant and when people yell at me I cry." I was annoyed at Martin for the hair-trigger reaction, and said "In any case, nobody should be yelling at anybody". It was calm, and in a very neutral tone, but a chilly silence lowered over the room, and then, as noted above, I added my "un" comments and left.

My kids have said many times that they find my calm, quiet but firm statements far more scary than their father's more excitable way of responding to stimuli. I assure you, world, that it's not done intentionally to creep anyone out. This is just who I am. I am analytical rather than reactive. Odd, for an Aries, but there it is. I think it's just the way I was brought up and having no desire to do it any differently. I don't like conflict, so I see no point on trying to put out a fire with gasoline. I seek peace and harmony, and it just comes naturally. I'm not repressing anything, I'm not judging those who boil over fast (although I think they cause themselves more problems that way, see memes about "Letting Go" currently doing the rounds on social media for advice there. State your case and move on folks) this is just me.

Exhibit B: The DVD. I bought Martin a boxed set of a 90s British TV show called Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane. Coltrane plays a criminal psychologist who works with police. It's described as a crime drama (Wikipedia says it's structured like Columbo, not sure about that) but there is a lot of humour in it, and in one scene last night I laughed so hard, it was the funniest line I've heard in a long, long time. Anyway, we're new to this, and the story we watched last night was, unbeknown to me, 3 episodes. (And also the second story, not quite sure how that happened). Beside the point.

Two things there really. One, Coltrane's character, Fitz, described as an anti-hero. His marriage is falling apart and it's obvious why. But his wife obviously still loves him very much, and, again, it's obvious why. A VERY complicated man. A genius. A very self-destructive person. Caring. Emotionally abusive. Funny. Pain in the arse. Two women crazy about him, but neither of them can bear to be with him for long. Good grief.

What I saw in him was an extreme. Nothing different per se, but a complex human in extremis. Fascinating. Wouldn't want to live with him, don't think I could even put up with him for an evening, but what an incredible person to watch. Why are such awful people so appealing?

On the other hand the two "baddies" in the story were both clinically insane, but in different ways. Also compellingly interesting, at an intellectual level, but completely unappealing. Scary. But necessary, obviously, for such a story.

So, there we were sitting watching their psychopathic behaviour, and I was paying close attention to the plot, while Martin reacted. "What a pair of sick bastards!". What went through my mind there was, why did he feel the need to say that? And out loud? I mean - it's obvious they are sick bastards.

Please understand, I am not criticizing him. Nor am I surprised. I've known the man long enough. That's how he is, he vents. And he's not alone. In fact I assume the writers want you to have that reaction.

Did he say a word about Fitz? No. Fitz is too ordinary a bloke. Extreme, yes, but just a bloke. Fitz is not a nutter. Nutters have to be commented on, apparently. Bear with me here.

Exhibit C: A friend posted an FB post about a news item. It was clearly an unjustified act. One of many. I see them all the time. Sometimes, if they are posted on a group with a lot of members there might be 100 comments underneath, all saying the same thing. I don't bother adding anything. Somebody has already echoed my thoughts. It's not that I'm not bothered by the injustice - you've seen my rants here sometimes - I feel it.

So this morning, I skipped saying anything about the post topic, and responded to a comment further down the thread. Probably should have minded my own business there too, but I felt I had a DIFFERENT angle to offer, not something that had already been said. Isn't that what group discussion is about?

Melanie, you think too much. And too quickly. But there it is.

Having been chided, gently, for going off-topic, I apologized and offered my agreement that the issue was unjustified. The other issue I'll address separately (it also a very interesting one) but graciously NOT on that thread, having been asked. Good manners, etc.

So those are the three. Can you see the connection? Because I can. It's my quirk, my attitude, my way of doing things that is different. Not wrong, and not right necessarily, either, but different.

Why have I chosen to suddenly go diving straight into my own navel and analyze myself, in public, over THIS?

I'll tell you. There is some idea out there that there really is a right or a wrong way to react. This goes, in part, back to blogs I've written recently about ideas of what is normal, and also to that whole concept of "should".

If, and I think it's so, that the majority of people react openly, vocally, etc, even if it's repetitive, or unnecessary, then that is going to be considered normal, at least within limits. And I'll tell you this, everyone has their limits. Oh yes. Every single person can be heard to accuse another of over-reacting. That pot calls that kettle black so often it takes my breath away. And because I don't react the same way, I tend to be seen with my mouth open when it happens. When I hear the words "calm down" coming from a person who is known to explode at small things. Blink blink. I hear it constantly, on and offline. Among the famous and the unknown. The young and old. All genders. All cultures. I hear people SHOUT at others to calm down.

And all of this is "OK" because that's people.

But if you do stay calm, it's different. If you do wait until a person has finished speaking before you chime in, you're an anomaly. If you give a situation time to sink in before deciding what to say or do, you're unsettling. If you check to see if your opinion has been covered before commenting, you're even possibly thought of as not caring.

Sometimes you know, I pretend. It's the thinker's equivalent of faking orgasm (something I don't do, and don't approve of, since you ask). Sometimes I gasp, or tut, or say "WOW" when really, my mind is still in "collecting data" mode. We are taught to do this, because knee-jerk emotional reactions are considered normal, and even applauded.

I'm not a robot. I can get annoyed, I can get excited, I can be shocked, horrified, and disgusted, but apparently not as readily as I'm SUPPOSED to. The automatic philosopher inside me is far, far more likely to ask further questions. And as I've said on more than one occasion to those of you who've known me a while, I will frequently forget to sympathize when it's expected, because I'm fully occupied with thinking up a solution to a problem.

Some say it's lateral thinking. Some just think I'm cold.

Some people appreciate it, which is great, but it's obviously a problem, just the same, if I am unintentionally offending people by spending more time thinking than going "OHMIGOD!".

I am aware that what we have here is neither a fault or an asset but just a personality quirk that could help or harm depending on use, and therefore by its very nature (analysis) I will make the effort to choose wisely, and try to concentrate on its positive aspects.

In the meantime, do you think you lot could calm the fuck down please?

Thursday, 23 May 2013


My new word. Woke up with it this morning, rushed to Google. NOTHING. Mine, all mine. So I published a copyright announcement on Facebook. No, I know you can't copyright a word, but I'm not letting somebody else get the credit for it. That's date-stamped for posterity.

I hereby wish it to be known, for all dictionaries and copyright purposes that I have created a new word in English, previously unused and unknown: DYSPIETY. From two elements: The prefix dys-, meaning bad (Greek), as in faulty or abnormal, leading to bad effect, and piety, meaning religious devotion (from Latin)

Is there a need for yet another word? Oh yes. In none of the comments and editorials, no matter how erudite, about atrocities committed in the name of religion, have I been able to find a single word that exactly expresses it.

It seems to me, as an independent observer, that there is a fear of telling it like it is. That if we acknowledge that religious belief is really, truly involved in acts of cruelty, we are somehow maligning the religion concerned. It has even become politically incorrect in some circles to describe a person by his religion when he commits an act of terror.

If we stopped worrying about which particular religion is involved, perhaps it would help. Because it really doesn't make any difference. Horrific acts have been committed by humans using God as an excuse since the beginning of recorded history, and I have no doubt that it went on prior to that too.

Whether you believe in God or not makes no difference either. Many do, and will continue to do so, but we have to set some ground rules. Because we simply cannot have one human's interpretation of "what God wants" having sway over another. Basic, humane rules of conduct, agreed upon by humans over millennia, absolutely must be the guiding principle behind civil and international law. There must be no exceptions. Civilization itself rests on the idea that we have to somehow live together in peace, despite ideological differences.

It is not enough to be tolerant, and in fact there are plenty of occasions where tolerance is inappropriate. Dyspiety, like any dysfunction, causes great harm, not just to those immediately involved, but makes waves throughout our society, leading inevitably to responses of fear and helplessness. A cycle of vengeance is easily to begin, and so very difficult to end.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Normal and Right

I was having a little chat about this on the subject of food but of course it covers pretty much everything.

As you know, I'm sure, I'm a foreigner:) I grew up in England, which may not exactly be Outer Mongolia or anything, but in some subtle and some glaring ways, it is different to the culture where I live now. Part of this is time, obviously. Things are not the same anywhere in the modern world compared to 50 years ago, and that has to be taken into account. But even though we share the same language, and have a shared history, my "culture" is different.

This is neither good nor bad, and one of the first things I discovered when moving to Canada, is that both cultures see themselves as normal - the default - and everyone else as different. Goes without saying, this is silly, and most people with a bit of open-mindedness, explanation, or travel if necessary, can get hold of the idea that there's no such thing as a default culture. Some people CAN'T. They grow up, travel, get an education, meet all sorts of different people and still think THEY are normal.

I'm not sure what we can do about it. It's a special type of stupid, equivalent to insisting the sky is not blue.

Over the years, I have looked at this and wondered about it. The most important thing to remember is that nobody is immune from occasionally - just a little bit - thinking their way is normal. Sometimes it's because of numbers, i.e. the majority of humans do X, so if they do X, well, at least they are some sort of mathematical normal.

Are normal and right the same thing? No. And they never were. Apart from anything else, it changes with time. Wife-beating, slavery, hanging for theft etc, were once normal, and now we rage against them, thankfully. So even if something is practiced by the majority, it doesn't necessarily make it right. But plenty of people think these ideas are synonymous.

In our enlightened times we are a bit more aware of how impossible normal is to define, and some of us have concluded that there is no such thing. Which brings problems of its own, as society thrives on certain expectations, which is why we have such things as fashion. It changes, but for a while there, it's something to use as a guide.

I think we all need something solid to hold on to. All of us. For some of us we have a deep sense of right and wrong, which, while it may not be agreed upon by all, works for our own consciences, those we care about, the circles we move in, and the places we go. We may have to adjust it a bit with a "When in Rome" attitude out of our usual zone, but it's something to refer back to.

So what exactly is the issue, with those who can't do this? Is it insecurity that causes them to cling to a set of behaviours and morals that are rigid, possibly out of step with the times?

The whole area is fascinating, especially at its most petty. And trust me, some of it is REALLY petty.

I'd like to offer hats as an example. Yeah, hats.

A hundred years ago, it was very unusual to see people outdoors without a hat. There is no real reason for this. In very cold weather, sure, it would be an insulating layer. In the very hot weather, sure, it could keep the sun off. But in Europe, and other places with very temperate climates, it actually served no practical purpose.

Some of it was fashion, obviously. But most of it was just habit, it was just what everybody did. You felt undressed without a hat, because everybody else was wearing one. This in itself is not problematic, it's amusing, but that's people for you. Fear of standing out.

However, in certain circumstances hats became an issue. If you failed to remove your hat when entering most buildings, or when greeting a superior, etc etc, it was a blunder of etiquette, and in extreme cases could get you in serious trouble.

Women who dared to go outdoors without a hat in some places at certain times were considered a bit "loose".

Some religions developed rules about head coverings. On or off as the case may be. Women had to cover their heads, men had to remove their hats in churches etc. To go against these rules was BIG trouble. Some religions (or to be accurate some movements within certain religions) required a head covering AT ALL TIMES.

So, to sum up, depending on where you were standing, your gender, and so on, having a thing on your head - or not - could become a serious problem.

The hat or not a hat, was deemed normal, and right, and woe betide anyone who broke the rules.

In more recent times some of these rules have been relaxed (others have been stepped up, obviously).

And my attitude, as a free-thinker is what a lot of fuss over nothing!

I've seen orang-utans in the zoo pick up a box and put in on their head, and quite frankly, that's how I see hats.

But this isn't about hats. That's just a convenient example. There are many, many other examples equivalent. Possibly thousands. People get so bent out of shape over things that really shouldn't matter, because they have decided it is normal. 

Decided. That's the thing. It suits them to think that it is the only way to be or to do something.

Free choice. Except - now they want others to follow them. This is where it becomes a problem. And if a group of people, with any kind of power at all, decide they are normal, and they ridicule, discriminate against or persecute those who are different, those petty things get totally out of hand.

If they have the backing of a religion (or their interpretation of it anyway) they might claim God as the arbiter of what's normal, by saying that anything else is wrong.

The funny thing is, sometimes they use a religion to further their cause even if they don't follow it. Maybe that's not funny. Maybe it's hypocritical and tragic, actually, but anyway, it happens. A lot.

There is still a power within social norms outside religion. You've all heard of the distortions of patriotism. You've all heard that something simply isn't "the American way", and I assure you this concept exists in all countries.

And yet, throughout human history we have managed to agree on some universals, such as cruelty being wrong. Why then, does this get over-ridden by silly, petty, temporary, local ideas of what is normal?

Saturday, 18 May 2013

I Am SURE I Am Missing Something

I know I promised to restrict blogs about my Coursera studies to its own blog, but this is only in reference to one aspect of one course, and I need a more general audience. I need somed feedback here (on the Facebook notice is fine).

I am taking a course called Greek and Roman Mythology. Like most people, I studied it at school, didn't pay much attention, and forgot most of it after that. The only reason, in fact, that I knew anything about it at all was that being of the Pagan persuasion, I've kept up on the deities, even though I'm not keen on them, they have "equivalents" in other traditions.

But all these heroes and their exploits never did much for me. As I've explained elsewhere, the typical derring-do sort of stories bore me silly, especially battles. The very types of tales that are supposed to be "always popular" are the ones I like the least.

So, you may well ask, why I took this course at all.

I am aware of the importance of classical mythology, how can you not be? I know I'm supposed to be familiar with it, I'm supposed to study it, I'm supposed to enjoy it.

I will say there have been snippets of the course so far (3 weeks) that have been interesting and enlightening, but can I say I enjoyed the Odyssey? Nope.

I tried. I read it exactly as instructed, in sections, at the end of the day when I wasn't thinking about other things, that is to say I gave it my full attention. It was a chore.

The professor is good. He's very enthusaiastic, he tries to show themes, he explains it all without dissecting it beyond repair. He sounds like he loves it.

The other students are enthusiastic too.

I've done well on the tests so far. I am a quick learner with a good attention span, so doing tests on material I've just learned is not hard for me.

I have an essay that must be done by tomorrow, and I don't wanna. Here are my choices:

1.     Some scholars have claimed that book 24 is a late addition to the Odyssey by a later editor and was never intended by Homer to be part of the epic. Using only Homer’s poetry as evidence, they wonder how well (or not well) it serves as a conclusion to the story and whether book 23 could serve as a better one. Weigh in yourself on this question. Would the Odyssey make more sense as a story if it ended with book 23? Why or why not? Justify your position using specific evidence from the epic. Analyze the main themes of book 23 and book 24 and evaluate how they relate or do not relate to the main themes of the story as a whole. Then construct a case either that 23 or 24 makes a better conclusion.
2.     Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Functionalism. In this theory, a myth serves to legitimize social values and norms (such as the practice of xenia). Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. What social norm does this episode legitimize? Be sure to spell out your reasoning very carefully. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.
3.     Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Structuralism. In this theory, a myth reflects the basic binary hardwiring that structures human thought. Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Structuralist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Structuralist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. Propose an answer to the question of what binary opposition lies underneath this part of the story and provides the best insight into what is really at stake in it. Remember the best candidates for structuralist binaries are anchored to the deepest parts of the “grammar” by which a culture organizes itself. Look for the most rudimentary parts of human experience. Binaries drawn from biological processes are particularly useful – for example, binaries that show the cultural "processing" of things like reproduction, kinship relations, metabolism, adolescence, death, etc. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.
4.  The Odyssey begins in the middle of a long chronological arc, and continues to play with ideas of past, present, and future throughout. However, the actual narrative limit of the epic, from the first council of the gods in book 1 through Athena’s intervention to bring an end to the violence and the end of the epic, only takes about 40 days. What does this temporal framework – with a large swath of time compressed into a finite number of days – add to the epic, or take away from it? Analyze the idea of time in the Odyssey and argue for its significance for the making of myth.

None of these enthuse me. Essays are easy to me. Like falling off a log, so why does this look like such a horrible task? I would choose #1 because I had already decided that Book 24 looks out of place, as if someone was padding it out and being paid by the word. But I am so reluctant to do this. I am not enjoying myself and I don't know why.

Friday, 17 May 2013

People Are Nuts, Frankly

I think you know, if you've been paying attention, I'm a people-watcher. Some people-watchers become psycho-analysts or variations on that theme, but I have never wanted to do it professionally, for a variety of reasons. I am more into studying humans and then stealing their personalities to create characters for stories.

People are fascinating mostly because they are weird. And the weirdest people are the ones who think they are "normal". Nobody has ever defined normal, and probably can't, nevertheless a lot of people consider themselves normal, and they are the ones whose behaviour fascinates me the most.

Sometimes, of course, their behaviour shocks or even horrifies me. They are ruder, more thoughtless, more selfish, more ignorant than should be possible, and I find myself wide-eyed and speechless.

What crops up even more often though, is that they just confuse me. The more I watch, the more I learn, the more confused I get. By now, you see, after decades of people-watching there are a few things I should "get", which I don't, and obviously it's because of my own personality quirks. Nobody ever said I was normal, after all. I tend to take people as I find them. I don't search for innuendo and layers of meaning. I assume that what you say to me is the truth, and that you are in full control of your executive functions, because....I am. Pardon my honesty, as it were.

I've  blogged about all of these before, but I'm going to put them together. Together it shows just how confusing people are.

1. People who change their minds. Or, at least at the start, people who can't make their minds up at all. That is - people who dither. As a story writer, I am well aware that quite often there would be no story if this didn't happen, and some of the greatest stories ever written revolve around a "change of heart". It's not quite the same thing. A person who is presented with a brand new set of data who them corrects his view in the light of it, is not a problem. He's just wise.

No, the ones who drive me batty are just those who "have slept on it", and come up with a new version, without any new data. They even confuse me when I much prefer the second version. Why? How? OK, yes, it's great - I like your new decision, but couldn't you have come up with that to begin with? Or, defer the whole thing until you'd had however long it takes you to make a decision.

Because what this tells me is that your ability to think on your feet is lacking. That scares me a bit. But at least I would prefer it if you said "this is a toughie, let me go away and mull that over" rather than some knee-jerk reaction you're either going to have to apologize for later, or confuse everyone completely by doing a u-turn on your thoughts. Because it could happen again now, couldn't it? Just how reliable are you?

2. Similar to this, and probably connected, but with a more severe effect are people who talk rubbish. Typically women are accused of this, but in my experience men do it more. Maybe I just surround myself with rational women and irrational men.

The last time I did a blog on this topic I was very harshly criticized for my stance. That was quite a while ago, and I have tried really hard to go easy on the rubbish-talkers, but no, I'm sorry, they do too much harm. Demanding leniency is more victim-blaming, and I'm not having it.

When you open your mouth, or increasingly in today's world, when you type with your fingers, you are 100% responsible for what you say. Oh, I well know some of it is said in the heat of the moment, but it's still said. May I respectfully suggest that you count to ten before uttering a word.

Because the person it is said to does not have any responsibility at all to interpret it. None. The most that can be asked of them is that they don't smack you in the mouth.

"I didn't mean it" just won't wash, and "Oh, you knew what I meant" is even worse. Get a grip. Say what you mean, and mean what you say, and then people will understand you.

3. While we're on the subject of decision-making I'd like to offer another great example of confusion, and that is people who transfer their rights of decision making to you, and then don't like your choice.

I think we've all had a boss like this at some point, they insist on you making the decision, but they are never satisfied with the decision that you make. You know this in advance, but it doesn't help, because they are too irrational and unpredictable.

I've experienced it in recent years with customers. People lack imagination, so they ask the designer to choose something. Most people are then satisfied with that choice, but every so often you run up against one who is not just disappointed, but furious with your choice. As they are such a minority it's not a big deal, but it is very confusing indeed.

It can happen with those much closer to you, which is why choosing expensive things, like vacations or homes, should always be done by full agreement, and not "oh, you decide", because the resentment possibilities later are endless.

My point is, if you don't know what you want, at least say what you don't want. Make it VERY clear. Or STFU when you don't get what you want.

4. The most confusing people of all are those who react differently on different days of the week. Or because  the wind is in a different direction. Or because they have a red shirt other words, there must be a reason why sometimes you get pleasantness and sometimes you get wild anger, and the response to a question can vary not just in tone but in content - but I have never figured out what it is.

Again, obviously my own personality affects my ability to understand. If you ask me a question at any time of day or night, on any day, in any situation, I may have more time to offer you at certain times, but my response will be much the same. Whereas with many people, it is well-known that you have to choose your moment. With some people it's a complete crap shoot.

Sometimes people do all four of these. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you discover that quickly, and never really get too friendly. Sometimes you get stuck with them. I know a few people with parents like that.

The most common situation though, is a person on the periphery. A friend of a friend, or an in-law. Somebody who you wouldn't actually invite to dinner, but you can never quite avoid completely, and who you may even try to be nice to. But it never goes well because....well.....frankly, they're hard to handle, bordering on the unstable.

I suppose I should say at this point before anyone chimes in with "oh come on, we all do that sometimes". Yes, of course, that's not it. For some it is habitual, regular, part of their character. Well, noticing it and pointing it out is part of my character.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Critical Thinking

Hand on my heart, I confess, I am prejudiced against stupid people. And by stupid, I mean, of average intelligence, with a reasonable education (e.g. literate) but unable to look at what's staring them right in the face and recognize it. We all have blond moments. I think it's just part of being human. To err and all that. Then there are those who just thrive on being idiots.

They must be getting something out of it. I wish I knew what. It sure as hell isn't the respect of their peers.

People collect information. They aren't always too careful where they collect it from and in fairness, it can sometimes be tricky to sort the wheat from the chaff. But that's no excuse. If you aren't sure of your facts, you say so, and allow for that. The problem is that opinions are formed based on dodgy information, and quite often from the opinions of others. Who formed their opinions on the opinions of others, and so on. It's a house of cards. 

Yesterday I ran into one of those people who reacts badly to having their opinions oppressed by facts. She didn't actually come right out and say "Well that's that I think, anyway" (*pout*) but came very close to it. She did state that we are all entitled to our opinions, which is the next best thing.

We weren't actually discussing opinions, but that never stops them. 

Since when did opinions count for anything? 

It is my considered opinion that pizza is the best food in the world. This means nothing. It doesn't mean pizza is good or bad, it does not mean that pizza haters are wrong, or that pizza lovers are right. It doesn't mean that more pizza should be eaten. It just means that I like it. A lot. Beyond that it is meaningless. Even the fact that lots of other people love pizza is irrelevant. That's simply a measure of taste. It is no proof of anything.

Data? Yeah, I can give you data. I can count pizza restaurants, worldwide. I can show you their profits, and their distribution. Still meaningless. Let's say for argument's sake 70% of humans like pizza, what does that mean? Not a lot. If you were thinking of investing in a franchise, it might be useful to know, but it still tells us nothing more than...most people like pizza. 

That is all an opinion ever is. A meaningless piece of data, which can sometimes be used to make money, etc, but otherwise of no significance at all. It is not, never has been, and never will be, a fact that pizza is good, even if 70% of people think it is. Opinions and facts are not the same thing.

Stupidity tends to revolve around not understanding this.

You see it's not enough to get facts wrong. That's just called a mistake. Anyone can make a mistake. Then, when presented with a correction, the wise person says "Oh, new evidence! That contradicts my previous position. I shall adjust it."

Ah, but I hear you say, it is a fact that 70% of people like pizza. How many do you have to have liking it before it becomes a fact that pizza is good? 80%, 90%, what about 100%?

I think you're unlikely to find anything, food or otherwise, with a consensus of preference. 100% agreement on the value of anything is probably never going to happen. Not even 100% of people think LIFE is a good thing. But even if you did, it's still only an agreement of taste, not a fact. Words like good and bad are value judgements, and nothing to do with facts.

I've never heard a serious argument about pizza in this way, but I have heard many, many situations where individual tastes become ammunition for extremely heated arguments, and where percentage is included as "evidence". It isn't.

I've heard silly arguments on which team is better, which vehicle is better, which phone is better, which singer is better, which country is better, which political group is better and which religion is better. Silly arguments on which taste and opinion are presented as facts. In the case of some of those, these silly arguments are called "wars". Hundreds of thousands of people die, in fact, because of silly arguments.

So when somebody gets opinions and facts muddled up, does it really matter?


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Patriarchy Under Threat? Good.

Among the absolute bollocks I've read recently, this report stands out:

And among the bollocks contained there, the threat to patriarchy stands out.

Well, good.

We don't need patriarchy, it can fade into history now.

Patriarchy means "rule of men". It had a good run, it's done. Bye.

In no universe was it ever necessary, and in plenty of cultures it never existed, and they managed just fine.

So, the question is, why did it become so powerful?

Well, it was essentially an institution based on "might is right". It was a right to power seized by those with the hardest hitting fists, and once established as "normal", habitual, its supporters, of both genders, kept it in place with threats of violence against anyone who opposed it. Not all of these threats of violence were in human form. Organized religion included threats of violence from God, if the established order was so much as queried.

To sugar-coat it, these religions then demanded that men protect women. And everyone went along with this.  

If you think that's too simplistic, prove me wrong.

So, a society where women are told they are property, have no rights, must do as men tell them, but they are protected. From what? Oh, from other men. Which wouldn't be necessary if.......but I'm making too much sense here. Let's look at this daft idea.

Men want a weak vulnerable thing to protect.

Oh wow! They have nurturing instincts.

Really? Closer to the truth, historically, is that many men want a weak vulnerable thing to order about, dominate, shout at, belittle, abuse and assault.

The actual view for a long time was that women were not just physically weaker than men, but mentally inferior. If you have any doubt as to all of this, I urge you to read IN FULL this report:

What patriarchy actually means, remember, is the rule of men.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Domestic Blisters

Nothing deep today boys and girls, just a few observations on some very mundane issues.

Because Tom hurt his finger, there are quite a lot of things he can't do right now, and most of them involve cleaning. The agreement we have is that in return for free board and lodgings he would be my housekeeper. It serves two purposes, it frees me up to do other things, and it teaches him valuable life skills. I'm not sure the latter is working, but I'm trying.

The problem, as I've blogged before, when kids are given housekeeping responsibilities, is that it's not theirs. The urge to do a good job isn't there. Their approach to it is to get it done as fast as possible, and just good enough that they won't actually be criticized. This applies to all employees really, and it's probably been a bone of contention since the first slave was told to sweep the cave.

It could be argued that my expectations are too great, but there's no real measure there, because we all have different standards. Mine are not perfection, I think I'm extremely lenient really, but there are certain things I do ask, that my family do know about, and the challenge seems to be not so much reminding them, but getting them to understand the objective.

If it's Michael doing it, the chances are a better job gets done. He's a stereotypical Virgo. You know, those kids who spend a lot of time on personal grooming, and who keep their rooms clean without anyone telling them to. Sometimes referred to as "a bit OCD" although that's not quite right. OCD is a genuine disorder, where real (sometimes disabling) anxiety can be caused by things being "out of order". There may sometimes be a fine line there, but it's a line just the same.

The point is Michael notices mess. He sees it. He doesn't have to have it pointed out. If you say "can you clean up the kitchen", he does so. He doesn't clean up half of it. He doesn't QUITE do the job the way I would,'s not his. I am expecting his own home to be spotless.

When you have a large family, and pets, you learn to overlook certain things or you go mad. I am not one of those people who says "oh I wouldn't want to live in a showpiece". I would. If I was wealthy and could afford staff to polish everything, yep, I'd be quite happy. I could live like that, no problem. But I don't have time to do it myself, I'm not going drive myself crazy trying to achieve it, and clearly, my current housekeeper is not up to the task.

And right now, he's not up to a lot of tasks, so I'm back to having to do much of it myself. There has been, shall we say, some catching up.

This allows me to create a list of the jobs that are getting missed, or done too quickly and not thoroughly. Tom is being presented with this, in an aim to improve his skills. It's an ongoing process, and I make no claims that I have any solutions. If you are dealing with delegating housekeeping jobs, and banging your head on the wall over it, maybe you share my confusion over a few of these.

1. Why is it so hard to clean a sink? It's a smooth surface. All it takes is something mildly abrasive - Vim, or a plastic scouring pad, or whatever, 2 minutes and it comes up like a new pin. This is not a difficult job at all. There's a hygiene issue involved too, considering raw food is often prepared in or close to the sink. It's important, and not frou frou to demand a clean sink. I have told them all that after doing dishes, you clean the sink. I must have said it thousands of times. I do not understand why this one is so hard to remember and not obvious. Why do I see a dirty sink and they don't?

2. When I vacuum, it still looks vacuumed several hours later. At this time of year the dogs shed constantly, so I am under no illusions that it will stay clear for long, but it does look reasonable later the same day. When  Tom vacuums, it needs doing again about an hour later, and I even know why. He misses a lot, and it moves in the air currents. This is a perfect example of where being thourough pays off. But no matter of saying "be more thorough" seems to sink in. I time him. He can do the entire main floor in the time it takes me to do one room. Then he wonders why I tell him to do it again.

3. We have a dishwasher, so there really should never be dirty dishes anywhere. If you put things in the dishwasher as you use them, run it when it's full, then empty it, and repeat this cycle, dirty dishes in a pile on the counter simply shouldn't happen. For some reason, I have never managed to get this cycle to work, despite all manners of encouragement. They give themselves work to do by not following the process. Makes no sense.

4. But this is the one that bugs me the most, because it always ends up being me fixing it. We have a flat-topped stove. It is the easiest thing in the world to clean up spills. But all of them, even my husband, fail to see spills and then cook on them, burning them on. It then takes a lot of scouring and scraping to get it off. I have had tantrums - DO NOT TURN ON A RING THAT HAS A SPILL ON IT. They're all deaf. It takes ten seconds to clean up a spill, but once it's burned on, it takes anything up to half an hour. I just don't get through, it's as if they can't see it.

I know, I should just be grateful for the co-operation and help I do get, I know many women get far less. It just baffles me how intelligent men suffer from the inability to recognize a mess when it's right in front of them, and "get" that it's easier, faster, less hassle all round to keep on top of it rather than leave it for later. There are four of them and one of me. I think they could do better.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Letting Go

I got into a few conversations in the last few days about Buddhist philosophy, and how many of its concepts have become popular in the west. The one that always crops up as not possible/not appropriate outside the religion itself is the whole "non-attachment" thing. People in the west either see this as something we can't do, or something pointless, or even a bad idea.

But when you actually ask them what it means, it's clear that there is a bit more going on. I've looked at this one a long time.

I started out with the attitude that the whole idea was daft. That unless you were a homeless beggar with no friends or relatives, there would be something you were attached to. And even the beggar is presumably attached to staying alive.

If you are a Buddhist monk, perhaps you do seek to rid your yourself of all attachment, even of life. In their desire to reach nirvana and ultimately moksha, all attachment is an obstacle and therefore something to be overcome. Which is fine if you are a Buddhist monk.

For most of us it's enough just to get rid of "baggage".

If I show you an image like this:

You immediately think of greed, and attachment to material possessions. I think most of us know that this never leads anywhere good. So, even in the west we do have some innate sense that there are unhealthy attachments.

It's not those we need to concern ourselves with then.

What we would do well to shake off are negative emotions. Of course, that's easier said than done, and some are more firmly attached than others.

As you go through your day, many of your decisions come as a result of these. As a result, you may make decisions that aren't necessarily the best. They may harm you.

It's easier said than done to choose to react differently than instinct tells you, but it really truly honestly is a choice. You are conditioned to react in certain ways, by upbringing, culture, and yes, your own decisions. Therefore you can train yourself to react differently.

So, when somebody shouts an insult at you YOU CAN CHOOSE not to be bothered by it.

When I discuss this with people, their first question is "why would I want to do that?". The supposition is that if you have been wronged, there is a need to address that. Is there?

I don't believe that there is a need. You may want to. You may see a value in it. You may feel it's fitting. You may consider it justified, but where's the need? What difference will it make if you shrug and move on?

Well, one answer is that the person doing the wrong, in getting away with it, will feel he can do it again. Depending on the wrong, that may not be a good idea. Children need correcting as they are learning how to be part of society. Those who commit real crimes need to be at least taken away from society, but as you know, that's NOT how our justice system works at all. So, there is a time to say "Ah, no" and there is a time to say "Meh". What we're talking about, really, is deciding which is which.

You've probably noticed that every person has a different opinion of where that dividing line is. From the smallest affronts to the most serious crimes ever committed (e.g. genocide), each person, each conscience has a different set of limits. I don't think that will ever change.

What I'm talking about here, is how we react not because we see or don't see a need to "correct" a person's behaviour towards us, but how we react based on how it affects our own feelings and sense of importance.

People aren't honest about this. In a minor incident, and I'm going to use a real example I was given recently, there may be no real harm done, but there is a wide choice of options open to the wronged party.

A landscaper was delivering soil to a wealthy and rather snooty customer. Some of it spilled on the driveway and the lawn beside it. To the snooty lady, this was a major incident. Presumably she's used to having everything just so, getting her own way, and so on. She could have asked them, nicely, to clean it up, but instead she chose to insist they leave her property, never come back, and she'd be in touch. She then called Tyler's boss to come and clean it up, and presumably she sent the bill to the other guys.

I expect her lawyer was informed, and I daresay somewhere there is paperwork using words like damages, and so on.

It was soil. It goes away in the rain, and at the most it takes 5 minutes with a broom to clean up. The obvious solution was to ask the spiller to get on that. She could have been as rude as she liked, if that's what she needs to do to satisfy her feeling of being wronged, but she opted to make a big deal of it.

My guess is that anyone reading this has little if any sympathy for her, but most people who think they are reasonable behave like that, in other ways, every day of their lives. What's worse they do it not only to strangers but to those closest to them.

It's because we are close to people that affronts become such a big deal. There is a feeling of betrayal, why would somebody we love treat us so shabbily? We get offended BECAUSE it is a person close to us. Our expectations of them are not met.

If it is a person we don't particularly like, but who is a regular and inevitable part of our lives, perhaps unavoidable, we can really build up a dossier of resentment against them for their "crimes".

Who suffers the most when we choose be be insulted or harmed? We do. Does our expression of displeasure, or even our words of censure change them for the better? No. So is anything solved by getting upset, whether we voice it or not? No.

If we are wise, the first thing we do is learn to pick our battles. If by saying or doing something we stand a chance of making a difference, then maybe it's worth it. If we approach these situations pragmatically instead of emotionally, we can decide what to do based on effectiveness rather than our own egos.

This isn't easy, especially with repeat offenders. Sometimes people are just annoying, frankly. In a situation where a person you can't avoid is consistently "difficult", rude, or in whatever way offensive, it is going to get to you. You're only human.

But if you can let it go, without actually enabling them, you'll do yourself less harm.

People behaving badly really are just dirt on your path. You can sweep it up or you can wait for the rain to wash it away. It doesn't have to eat away at you, you don't have to hold grudges, you have a choice as to how you react. The first step to letting go is that choice, and it is yours to make.

This is a very basic, and realistic aspect of non-attachment, and if you practice it, if you learn to shrug things off either because nothing you do will help, or indeed because there's nothing you can do, you will be happier, I promise you. If you choose not to be attached to your sense of having been wronged, when it is minor, and really no big deal, then you will also find it easier to cope with bigger wrongs.

Resentment harms you.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The M Word

So, first of all let's get rid of the idea that meditation is always connected to east Asian religions. The word "meditation" in English dates back 800 years, and simply means deep contemplative thought. We still use it that way ("go meditate on that") as well as a word to translate concepts like dhyana etc. As there are many different forms of meditation around the world, using a catch-all word for them can be a bit misleading, and can lead to people getting strange ideas as to what exactly is involved. On the other hand, by grouping them all together like this it means there's something for everyone.

Let's begin with the purpose, which for most of us in the west has nothing to do with attaining Buddhahood. We've come to learn that good, regular meditative techniques improve our health and happiness. It costs nothing, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere.

I find it rather amusing that a technique from antiquity comes into its own as stress-relief from modern society. But it's more than that. Yes, it will relax you, yes it will put things into perspective, but it will also "awaken" you.

Inside our heads, constantly, is a running monologue of mental chatter. We call it "thinking" but most of it is to real thinking what a tabloid newspaper is to great literature. Most of it is, in fact, rubbish. It is repetitive rubbish too. But it's very hard to quieten it, and for some, it can be such a nuisance that it causes sleep problems.

Many people think that meditation involves having no thoughts running through the head. There may some expert yogis that can do that, I really don't know, but for normal people at least, it's not possible.

The object is to change the thoughts into something else. This can be a deliberate "guided" meditation such as:

"I am standing on the beach, I can feel the sun on my skin, I can hear the waves crashing on the shore...."

Or it can be a chant or mantra.

Or it can be simply counting breaths in and out.

There are other options too, but I just want to make it very clear at this point that we are trying to CHANGE the inner monologue, not remove it.

The next myth is that you have to sit in a yoga position. You can if you like, but maybe you're not supple enough, or you're doing this where people would stare, etc, it isn't necessary. So long as you are comfortable, more or less, and preferably not standing up (although it can be done), you're good.

Finally, let's get rid of the idea that you need silence, or singing bowls, candles, incense, or any other "trappings". While these are all good, they are not necessary. If you meditate you can go elsewhere in your head, so your surroundings don't matter.

So. Find somewhere you can be comfortable. If the floor works for you, great, or a chair that can relax in, or you can lay down in bed, at this point it really doesn't matter.

Your first attempt at meditation will be a simple breathing meditation. You will breathe in slowly, wait and then breathe out slowly. You can use your mouth or nose. Breathe from your belly, not your chest, and be aware of the feelings of your ribcage rising and falling. You can put your hand on the centre of your abdomen if you like, just above your navel. This is your solar plexus, a real anatomical place and not something invented by the New Age. It will move up and down when you breathe, and that is your centre, so....

Breathe in slowly 1...2...3
Wait 1...2...3
Breathe out slowly 1...2...3

In your head as you do this, hear yourself saying:

In 1...2...3
Wait 1...2...3
Out 1...2...3...

Note I say "wait" and not "hold". If you tell somebody to hold their breath, they tend to gasp it in and clamp their mouth shut. This should be simply a pause between in and out so that it's all very smooth.

Now, you're going to need to do this a number of times. You can time it, by watching a clock (preferably with hands), but don't use any sort of alarm. Another way is to have a second count. This is why some people like to use a string of beads called a mala, as they do each repeat of the breathing they move their fingers along the string. I've heard of creative alternatives such as knots on a string, the teeth of a comb, and so on. This way you can close your eyes.

For the sake of ease for a beginner, I recommend using a soothing piece of music, of the desired length of time. You Tube has MILLIONS of choices, but most are quite long. So for absolute beginners/those whose attention span is going to make this a real challenge, I've found you a piece that lasts just one minute.

Your homework is to try this, and I don't want any excuses. Just one minute. You do have time for that.

I bet after just one minute you'll feel the benefit, and will be trying for longer.