Saturday, 27 July 2013

Soup

It has come to this. In order to find time to blog I have to get up at 5am. But I do it. I don't make excuses. I don't say "Oh I don't have time". I just sacrifice sleep. For you. This is how I love you.

Instead of a coherent piece, however, and probably because there is so much going on, this will be a collection of "shorts". Things that are too long for Facebook statuses, but not worthy of a whole blog to themselves.

1. That's it, I'm done selling Christian jewellery. You may well ask why I did in the first place. Well, despite my own Paganness, I actually do have a basic respect for all religions, yes, even though I'm rude about it in other ways. I've explained the difference, but it doesn't matter, the fact is that I was trying to offer religious jewellery for all. But no more Christian stuff. Sorry. It's the demographics of  the buyers. If I consider all of my customers over the years, and their issues and complaints, there is a disproportionate number of issues and complaints with the Christian jewellery. And when I say disproportionate, I mean it's not effing worth it. Not only are the vast majority of issues and complaints that I get from these sales, despite it being a very small part of my sales overall, I estimate that 3/4 of these customers are problem customers. Why would I bother selling something when I estimate 3/4 of its sales will be problematic?

I overlooked the appalling spelling in most of the emails I received, obviously. I overlooked the rude tone of the complaints I received, a tone I don't usually see, that seems to be exclusively from this demographic. I overlooked the complaint that the earrings called "Very Small Discreet Cross Earrings" were "very small". (NO, really?). I overlooked the complaint that several crosses sold for 99 cents were not sterling silver (I never said they were). I even overlooked the complaint that similarly priced items did not arrive in a box. I gritted my teeth and gave refunds when items had not arrived after 3 weeks during holiday mail delays. OK, it didn't arrive in time for Christmas, I get it, but you could have ordered earlier. But when I got a FURIOUS email this morning that an item shipped July 23rd has not arrived yet, I decided enough was enough. In future they can get their crosses from somebody else.

2. So, on a totally different topic, Here's a spelling/grammatical error that is easier to forgive than many, but I'd still like to teach you. Whose and who's are not the same thing, they are not interchangeable. Your confusion is understandable, sort of, but it's actually very simple.

Whose. This is a word used to show who something belongs to, and is used in questions more often than not, such as "Whose drink is this?". You also find it in phrases like "The driver whose car was hit...."

Who's. This simply means "Who is." It's a contraction. You wouldn't say "Who is drink is this?" so you don't write who's in that case. But if you say "Who's coming tonight?" it could also be said "Who is coming tonight?" so it is correct.

With all of these words that use an apostrophe to create a contraction, you can test them out by seeing if removing the contraction still works. This is how you remember its and it's.

It's not my hat. (It is not my hat). Correct. 
It's feet were covered by mud. (It is feet were covered by mud.) Wrong.

Unfortunately this doesn't work when you use the pronoun "one". This always uses an apostrophe to note possession, just as a name does. "If one has a mind of one's own." I don't think we need worry about it though, for two reasons.

1) Few people use it these days, more's the pity, and those who do tend to be more pedantic anyway, and will know about its quirk.
2) The word "ones" is obviously a plural. "Use the bigger ones". So long as you remember NEVER TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO FORM A PLURAL, you'll be fine.

3. On a personal note, here's a curious one. What's the opposite of a nightmare? I'm known for my vivid dreams (bright colours, smells, tastes, long convoluted adventures, dreams with deep and obvious messages, etc). It's fair to say I live two lives, and the nocturnal one is fascinating.

But luckily for me, it's rarely scary. Just lately however, it's gone beyond just interesting into a realm of Ultra Positive. These are not lucid dreams you understand, because there's a surprise factor. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In one dream I was standing on a small island, the only way on or off was a bridge. Suddenly coming towards me on the bridge was a large fierce predatory animal, somewhere between a cougar and a wolf. Just as I was thinking "Well, this is a right pickle and no mistake" (i.e. not fear, none at all, but more trying to problem solve it completely rationally) I was aware that beside me was a cat, just a regular tabby cat, which then attacked the beast, fearlessly and effectively.

In another one I got out of bed (in my dream) feeling thirsty, and walked into the kitchen (which is on the same floor, i.e. it's not my real home) to go and get a drink. For some reason the water was in the fridge, again not how it is in reality. I was aware at how pleasant the water was as I drank it, and then just very aware of being happy, just standing there.

There are many other versions and variations but the running theme is:
a) A problem is solved.
b) This is unexpected.
c) I'm in a strange place but this doesn't bother me.
d) I am very happy.

This is actually reflected in my waking life, of course, so I don't even know why I BOTHER dreaming it. All in all we can say my contentment levels are maxed out. I am just grateful and enjoying the ride.

P.S. I do not believe Blogger stats. I do not believe 4 people had already read this 2 minutes after I posted it.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

You Can't Go Home Again

This is my 21st summer in the New World, and increasingly it is more familiar than the old world. I watch British movies and have to look the new slang up on Urban Dictionary. I try to stay up to date with what is happening in the old country, but let's be honest, I am out of touch.

For the record, I will admit openly I am quite bitter about my mother country. We won't dwell on it, but let's just say if I never see it again, I won't shed any tears. This blog is not about explaining that, but just for now, refer to the title. The England in my heart is in a different time, and it's gone. Move on. 

I am what is known as an ex-pat. What's the difference between that and immigrant? None really, it's just a posher term. It carries with it, however, a connotation that the move is temporary, however long. While I would never return to England, unless I was a multi-millionaire, I don't intend to live in Canada for the rest of my life. It's just too cold. That's all. Great place otherwise.

After all these years, have I assimilated? No. The great crime of the ex-pat is that he is always a little island of foreignness wherever he is. He never really becomes a local. Even my son James, who came to Canada a week before his first birthday, identifies as an Englishman. You'd never know; he talks like a Canadian, dresses like a Canadian, eats Canadian food, drinks Canadian beer, and watches hockey. But get him talking and you discover something deep in there that won't ever go away.

So here's what has happened. Over the years I have (not systemically or anything you understand, just at my whim) adopted some North American habits/words/choices, and eschewed others. It's actually really rather wonderful to have multiple cultural influences to select from. I simply pick and choose. I like this, I don't like that. And, the best part is, nobody ever challenges it. If I choose the North American option, they don't even notice. If I choose the English option, they just put it down to me being a foreigner, and leave me to it.

Brilliant!

Which leads me to the List of The Chosen Ones. This is a list of those aspects of life that are different either side of the Atlantic, because not everything is, after all, we all call a book a book, the colour red is widely considered to be the same thing, and there's no cross-ocean argument that the first meal of the day is breakfast. In fact a person with more time to spare than me, could probably do some very interesting research on why some things are common to both, while others are very different. I see no pattern to it myself.

So, I have chosen to adopt, because I prefer them, the following North American "things":

Use of the letter z when spelling words ending with the sound "ize". It used to be the preferred choice in Britain too. I would not start spelling all words phonetically, but when the usage is a) traditional, and b) sensible, it wins me over.

Not having a meal called "tea". Because it's silly. 

Pronouncing tomato and vitamins as "tomayto" and "vytamins". Even though it's not logical. I like them better.

I have chosen to retain, because I prefer them, the following English "things":

Use of the u in words like colour, honour, neighbour, etc. Partly (but not wholly) because I know the removal of the u in the US dictionaries was a decision by one man - Noah Webster. Not only do I consider this linguistic tyranny, but having discovered that he was a Fundamentalist Christian of the worst kind, and, well...who wants to do what they say?

Laying the table as follows: knife to the right, fork to the left, and a dessert spoon at the top, if dessert is served. Even if I switch to right-handed fork for certain meals, I like it laid this way. I am told that this is also a correct cutlery placement in posher North American society, and that's good enough for me. 

Pronouncing the h in herb. Eddie will explain it.



Referring to children's toys as Lego (not Legos), trolls (not troll dolls), Ludo (not Parcheesi), a see-saw (not a teeter-totter).

This list will be added to, this blog will never be finished.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Why Do We Do What We do?

In my earlier blog I wanted to begin to expose the habitual nature of human behaviour. I am a long way from finished.

When it comes to individuals, there is often a question of nature or nurture, and the usual conclusion is that both are involved in who we are. I have long suspected that nature is very powerful.

The example I want to offer is that of my cousin Peter. He has been forewarned that I'm writing about him today, and he doesn't mind. Anyway, he and I are double cousins, because his father was my father's brother, and his mother was my mother's sister. Genetically we have the same DNA options as siblings.

We were raised differently in some ways. He was raised by two parents, and his mother was a traditional stay-at-home Mom. My father died young and I was raised by a working mother. He has two siblings, I have none.

As children we were close, but as we grew up our lives went the way lives do and we only heard about each other in news filtered through our mothers. Then the internet gave us the chance to reconnect and see where life had brought us.

They took very different routes. I won't dwell on the details, but I married young, it was very successful, and I am still happily married 32 years later, having raised a large family. His life has been very different.

So here we are, in our fifties, and what do we find?

First of all despite being raised by Christians, both of us have gone a very different route. While I am better defined as Pagan, and he identifies more as a Spiritualist with a Pagan flavour, we are both Tarot card readers and definitely not only not Christian, we are not mainstream ANYTHING. Not only have we gone the Pagan route we have avoided doing THAT in a "typical" way too.

Both of us write. That is to say we think of ourselves as writers. Neither is published, but both would like to be. I wonder who'll do it first.....

We both love Red Wine. We even share similar tastes in some of our favourites, J.P. Chenet to name one. We're also both rather fond of cheese.

But perhaps strangest of all, despite being of fully suburban origin, we both had the urge to move out into the country, and own farm property.

Where the bleep did all that come from?

Are those four things connected in and of themselves, and so one followed the other? Maybe, but why did two people whose only real connection was BLOOD end up living lifesyles with so much in common?

Why do we do what we do? How much is choice and how much is ancestry?

Fighting Taboos 1

When I was a child, I believed (because presumably I'd been told) that people from other countries were different.

I wasn't told they were bad, you understand. My family were rather more open-minded than that. But they were ordinary working-class English people, used to ordinary working-class English things, and in their minds that was the default, it was normal, and everything and everybody else was "different to us."

So, I got a feel for this word "different." And (importantly) not as a pejorative. It was sort of "prepare yourself" rather than "avoid." And thankfully it was never anything worse than that.

The effect of this was, I think, unintentional, but should have been obvious. It made me curious. It made me want to experience these different people.

As I got older, moved in varied social circles, and travelled around I learned they were actually the same.

Oh sure, they may speak with a different accent, or indeed in another language. They may dress differently, decorate their homes differently, eat different foods, and listen to different music. But really, they are the same. As time has gone on that has been reinforced time after time, and the cultural differences are still as interesting but even less important.

There are national attitudes, certainly. You can get past those. They are no different to individual personality quirks. People vary and some are nicer than others. Find the nice ones. They are spread all over the world.

The internet has had a powerful effect on breaking down these ideas of "different." Those who take the time and mix with people internationally will discover far more similarities than differences, while at the same time learning to look at things from another angle. Broaden their perception.

I think this is what those who stick to "their own" are afraid of. That they may be forced to see themselves through foreign eyes. That somebody may be seeing them as "different".

To paraphrase Johnny Depp, what we think of as the most normal things we do, are in fact often truly bizarre.

It is very good for us to think about our everyday behaviours, and identify which are no more than habit. And much of it is. There is nothing wrong with that, there's nothing wrong with culture generally, but it's vital to be aware of it, and not allow it to become a sacred cow. It requires awareness. It requires honesty.

You've read before, perhaps, my experience (and it was a powerful one) of growing up not following a cultural habit. I'm English, and I don't drink tea. This had a profound effect on the way I think about norms and etiquette. It taught me things you can't learn from books.

It would stop people in their tracks. I may as well have suddenly become green-skinned. They didn't know what to DO. Offering tea was a ritual. It allowed people to cover up any insecurities they had about meeting you by busying themselves with it.

And when I refused it, politely, they would desperately try to cling to the script, as it were, but you could hear the papers rustling. Their manners forbade them from reacting negatively, but now they had to DECIDE what to do next. It threw them.

If this sounds ridiculous, well, it was. Completely ridiculous. But I watched it happen over, and over, and over.

I have been told, as I'm sure you have, on the topic of travelling overseas etc, that when certain things are offered to you, it is very rude to refuse, because it is a cultural ritual. It is that same fear. It's not true hospitality either, and let's not forget this. Cultural sensitivity is a grand thing, but it's utterly ridiculous that a visitor should be obliged to eat or drink something unpleasant so as not to offend. If declining graciously is not good enough, because it bursts their ritual bubble, it's time for them to re-think their habits, and see what their objective is. Because if it is supposedly making people welcome, they may have lost the plot.

No, I don't give any leeway to my "own" people, or to anyone else either. This is NOT the same as saying "Behave like me", the old colonial thing, before anyone gets their dander up. I treat everyone equally, and logically. If we have cultural differences, that fine, that's excellent, that's interesting. But like all differences, including religious ones, there is the penis analogy. Yes, I said PENIS.

It's fine to have one.
It's fine to enjoy it and be proud of it.
But don't get it out in public.
Don't frighten the children with it.
Don't force it on anyone.

In our modern multi-cultural world, where we travel around and run into people doing things differently all the time, we're getting better, generally, at live and let live. While it hasn't actually gone away, racism is at least socially taboo. That's a start. Attitudes towards other religions...we're still working on that, and it's going to take a long time, but again, increasingly it's not considered acceptable to be a religious bigot.

It seems to be harder to deal with culture because it's not biological and it's not sacred. People often behave as if it is, but it isn't. Culture is optional. People stick to it for familiarity or comfort. They also use it as an excuse to gain or keep an advantage. "But we've always done it like that" is usually the cry from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

I'm one of those people who annoys others by saying "But you could do it like this instead." They squirm. They don't want to change. They don't want to think outside the box.

Above all, they don't want to admit that many of the things they do are nothing more than habit. They defend it as being normal behaviour (and therefore better than your weirdness, thank you very much) and make you, the iconoclastic type, out to be the bad person.

I shall continue to rock boats by forcing people to think rather then blunder along, that's what I do. I do it in writing, and I do it in person. Some people really don't like it. I think different is good. But only if that difference is genuine. If you rebel against one culture only to completely buy into another one (think of youth tribes) then you have completely missed the point.

What connects humanity is our similarities, and those are what matter. Things like real hospitality, kindness, caring, helping one another, sharing the planet's resources, and generally getting along. Those are not culturally-based and they are not dependant on ritual. All that other stuff is decorative but not fundamentally important.

Friday, 19 July 2013

ARGH

Do I really have to do this again?

I made the statement that phonetics are completely useless, and got asked why.

Grrrr.

OK, let's begin at the beginning.

We have an alphabet-based written language. That is to say, we use letters to stand for sounds, which when combined convey a rough idea of how the word we read should be pronounced. It's pretty rough in some cases, just the word rough, is a perfect example. We say it ruff. Writing ruff, is writing it phonetically, sort of. So there are those who believe that it would be better if we always used phonetic spelling.

No.

Reason #1: For those used to traditional spelling it would be incredibly frustrating. It would slow down our reading and writing drastically, until we got used to the new system, which we may never quite do. That's an entire generation effectively handicapped. It would be utterly disastrous, in fact, and could easily cause the collapse of academia and business throughout the area affected, while those unaffected would surge ahead. For this reason alone, it's a ridiculous idea.

Reason #2: You'd have to repeat it after a while. The way things are spelled traditionally, WAS phonetic originally. Spelling stayed the same while pronunciation changed, and pronunciation change is inevitable. It will happen again, as language develops. Spelling does not prescribe pronunciation.

Reason #3: We pronounce words differently depending on where we come from. Regional accents are not suddenly going to disappear overnight just because you spell something differently, so in fact when you write ruff, there are still several ways of saying it. You haven't solved anything.

The only form of phonetic writing that is of any use whatsoever is the IPA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet) which has one symbol for every possible sound humans utter. But to use that as an everyday alphabet would require learning not 26 letters, but 44 for English alone. Because English has (at least, depending on accent) 44 different phonemes. To include all dialects of English, you'd need 66. Remember, a phoneme is a single spoken sound, which cannot be broken down into anything smaller. For Reason #1 it's simply not practical to implement this as our alphabet.

I'm not sure why people have such a hard time getting this. What we write is a reminder of the word, in the same way a pictogram is. The best known Chinese character outside of China is probably

It means luck and happiness, and is a common symbol for decorations, jewellery, greetings cards, gift tags, etc etc. Many westerners who don't speak a word of Chinese recognise it. Some even know that it's pronounced Fú. How do you know that? Well, you have to memorize it. There are no real clues in the symbol. Chinese isn't like that. The symbol represents the CONCEPT. But you remember that when you see that symbol, you say Fú. There is nothing phonetic here.

If you realise that the group of symbols "rough" are to be said ruff, you are fine. Spelling and reading therefore is largely a memory skill, or in fact two different memory skills. It is possible to remember to say ruff when you see "rough", even if later on you cannot remember to spell it "rough". This is how people manage to see a word spelled correctly thousands upon thousands of times, recognize it, remember how to pronounce it, and yet fail to remember how to write it.

Writing phonetically is easier in theory, because you only need remember 44 phonemes and their symbols. But in fact, the person used to writing traditionally finds it faster to draw from his memory of thousands of spellings, because, if the spelling dictionary in his memory is functioning well, it's virtually automatic, at least most of the time. DECIDING which symbols to write would take longer.

The same applies to reading. Read both these passages, and see which takes you longer to read.

Th' jəːni from owə town too th' metropoliss, woz a jəːrny ov abowt fyv owəz. It woz a litl pahsd mid-dai wen th' fɔ̝ːhɔ̝ːss stayjkoach by wich I woz a pass'njəː, got intoo th' rav'l ov trafik fraid owt abowt the Kross Keez, Wʊ~ɵ̠d Street, Cheepssyd, Lund'n.
Wee Brit'nz had at that tym p'tikyulee setl'd that it woz treez'n'bl too dowt owə havving and owə beeing the best ov evrithing; uthəwyz, wyl I woz skɛə̯d by thee imenssitee ov Lund'n, I think I myt hav had sum faint dowts wethə it woz not rath'r ugly, krookid, naro, and dəːti.


The journey from our town to the metropolis, was a journey of about five hours. It was a little past mid-day when the fourhorse stage-coach by which I was a passenger, got into the ravel of traffic frayed out about the Cross Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside, London.
We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.



I know it took me ages to type the first part!

But what I typed out "phonetically" was for my own accent, and even I then was forced to use symbols from the IPA for absolute clarity. There is NO WAY of writing phonetically to suit everyone at once. Can't be done.

The idea of phonetics, taught to children, is still done up to a point no matter what reading method is used, but to rely on it? No. Doesn't work.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Wind Power

Something a bit different today. A topic came up in conversation yesterday about wind farms. I haven't blogged about this for years, so it's time.

I live close to the Amaranth wind farm, and there are several turbines near my house, 3 are visible. There are 133 of them altogether, spread over a wide area of flat hilltop.

Local people are sharply divided between lovers and haters. Chiefly the lovers are those who get $25,000 a year rent from having one on their farmland, and the haters are those who weren't allowed to have one, because their property wasn't suitable - there's a lot of sour grapes there.

Some of the haters will tell you that the noise is awful and some even say it's damaging their health. I'm not quite sure how they live their lives normally, because these are quieter than a fridge. They give out a rather soothing noise which would put me to sleep actually, but the fact is, you can't hear them once you are away from the property they stand on, unless there is absolute silence. So the neighbours that complain obviously don't have any small fans in their home on a hot day, for example, because that would cover the sound of the turbine.

The most amusing report of noise nuisance I heard was a lady who said she could no longer enjoy sitting in her garden because of it. She was asked, did the sound of the wind not cover the sound of the turbine? She said she was referring to windless days.

This is the top of a hill, 1800 feet up. In an average year we have maybe 2 windless days. But when there's no wind, the turbines aren't switched on. Duh.

Many other things in normal life are louder, including traffic, television, conversation, and just about any appliance you care to name.

When challenged these folk tell you that the problem noise can't actually be HEARD by humans, but it damages us physically anyway. It's odd, because it doesn't damage those whose property the turbines stand on (i.e. those closest) but only people some distance away. Some of them are as far away as I am, in fact. Doesn't hurt me. My family are bonny, thank you.

But maybe they are more sensitive flowers, and things they can't hear really do harm them. It's the vibrations, you know. Considering the amount of radio waves, wi-fi etc there are zooming about, I'm amazed they haven't fallen to bits.

If wind turbines harm humans, then it would follow they harm us all. I'm not seeing that. Multiple studies on the effect of wind turbines are not seeing that. Anecdotes by grumpy drama queens is not evidence of health hazards.

If you want something a bit more scientific, try this:

http://www.quora.com/Wind-Energy/Is-the-infrasound-emitted-by-wind-turbines-harmful-to-humans-or-animals/answer/Mike-Barnard

But there's no telling people that it's all in their imagination. As soon as they see a turbine, they suddenly feel ill. People who don't know they are there, feel fine.

The visual? Well some feel they are a blot of the landscape. I find them elegant and fascinating, like huge birds. Moreover in a rural environment they beat grain silos any day of the week. Matter of taste really.

Of course there are other complaints, about birds and bats being killed. Darwin probably has a few thoughts on that, but obviously I do care. The data on how many birds that have been killed by turbines is extremely variable, so take your pick, but what they don't tell you is how many birds are killed by OTHER human activity. In fact far more birds die flying into stationary tall buildings. And some not so tall. I've had them splatted on my second floor bedroom window, when disoriented by certain light conditions. If we are to ban wind turbines based on bird mortality, then we must also ban windows. And all vehicles. So, let's be sensible.

But the biggest question of all, surely, is what would you rather have? Would you rather have gas power stations? You don't want fracking. Coal? All that pollution. Nuclear? Have you SEEN the radiation in the Pacific? NIMBYS want power.

"Why can't we just have solar?" - I've heard this over and over. Well, because it's not always sunny enough in the right places. If you live in Arizona solar is the ideal power source. If you live in British Columbia, not so much. Wind power is ideal in certain places, because it's.....windy. I won't bore you with the data here, but it's available, if you are interested, at http://www.gwec.net/global-figures/graphs/ and other places.

Those who hate wind turbines have simply decided to hate them, and nothing we can say will placate them. You'll get anti people with just about anything. I think they have too much time on their hands.

But before you join in the cause against, VISIT a wind farm. Don't just rely on internet hearsay. Come to my house and try to hear the nearest turbine. Bring your hearing aid.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Saints and Sinners

In keeping with my current theme of human behaviour, and following other bloggers and how we sort of bounce off one another, today I'd like to explore the idea of imperfection.

To begin, I'd just like to mention a concept that's doing the rounds on social media, the idea that we should not let others define us. Indeed it's not a good idea, and this is an important thing in a world where so many people lack self-esteem, permanently or temporarily, for all sorts of reasons. It's especially important in the drive for equality that we not allow ourselves to be defined by those who would oppress us.

But at the same time, we should listen to our gentler critics, lest we miss a pattern emerging.

Or, less eloquently, if EVERYONE thinks you're an arsehole, you probably are.

The purpose of this is to at least assess how you are perceived, because it's useful. I'll give you an example.

I think of my myself as an incredibly uncomplicated person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. What you see is what you get. I'm predictable, reliable, and steady.

Some people perceive me quite differently. Rather than seeing me as confident and happy-go-lucky, they see me as intimidating. They don't see me as non-moody, rather, they see me as hiding something. In short, they think I'm inscrutable. Which is of course the opposite to how I see it.

I think they are looking for depths that just aren't there.

When we examine this, we can say "oh well, they're just reflecting their own insecurities". And the whole thing becomes a game of accusations and assumptions. Back and forth.

Here's the deal. We are all flawed.

There is no human being without faults, without quirks, without behaviours he really shouldn't have. Not one. There are no saints. There are no people who are above the rest of us. We all err. We all fuck up sometimes.

It's easy to find those who do it more often. Of course it is. So in fact what we are saying, when we judge others, is that they fuck up more than we do, or in different ways.

If we stop for a moment to ask why, it may help. They simply may not have had the advantages we've had.

When I read a book, for example, I sometimes wonder how disturbed the writer's mind is. What made him write about that? Well, obviously something did. Something in his life led to him having those thoughts I don't have. Thinking about things I don't think about. Sometimes a writer uses his personal hell to create a masterpiece. If we find it disturbing, then we should be grateful we didn't suffer it ourselves.

In conversations about this, I hear people tell me that if you have had an easy life you have nothing to write about. Which is bollocks, because I write non-stop. But it's certainly different. I write about what I observe, which often means I write about other people's experiences rather than my own. Does this mean I get it wrong? Well, that's up to me, isn't it. And up to others to judge.

I tell you this: people don't want to read "dark" all the time. And a story can be enjoyable, valuable, meaningful, even deep, without being disturbing.

I don't buy this idea that art, any art, always has to cause discomfort to be valid. I think there's quite enough discomfort in the world. Quite enough negative. I think art should inspire. I agree, that sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone to be inspired, but to always have to share the darkest corners of the mind of another? No.

There was this idea, you see, that in order to be deep and wise and all that, you had to be, essentially, emotionally scarred by something. I reject that. I know plenty of scarred people who are extremely shallow, for a start. I know others who are completely broken. I also know scarred people whose reaction to their experiences is to turn around and attack like a cornered animal. I don't think there is any intellectual advantage to suffering.

Sure, there are deep and wise scarred people, but the one does not necessarily follow the others.

Plus, some of the deepest, wisest people I know have had charmed lives. Actually. So let's forget this whole daft idea that a person's experiences to date, positive or negative, guarantee anything.

At the same time, we can say that, yes, in many cases a person reflects their experiences. This does not contradict what I just said in any way. Choice is involved, you see.

When all is said and done, only one thing emerges from examining how people respond to the cumulative effect of everything that has happened to them so far, and that is my mantra of there being a massive chasm of difference between an explanation and and excuse.

To put it in simple terms, if you hit a tree with your car, you will get a dent. How did you get a dent? You hit a tree. There's the explanation part.

But nobody in their right mind would say the car is justified in having a dent. However accurate that might be, it's a silly concept. It's just dented, because it is. That's what happens when you hit trees.

Same with people. If you hit a human, he's going to be upset about it. There's no way round that. It might leave a dent, well a bruise, anyway, but because he's a human and not a car, it hurts him emotionally too. This is inevitable.

He then has to decide, sooner or later, how he's going to respond to that. Sooner, well he might just hit you back. Later, he might hate you, press charges, or he might spend the rest of his life in fear of another such attack. There are lots of possibilities, and he may choose several of them.

Cars don't do that. They just sit there, dented. They don't have feelings or choices. Ultimately, however, the place that was dented may rust as a direct result of the damage. That can happen to people too. They can corrode following damage. But you can't see this rust because it's inside. It's in their memory and their behaviour. It's no secret that this can happen, and we can explain why.

Is it an excuse? Well, that depends. Strictly speaking the car does have an excuse. It is powerless to fix its dent. Humans are not. They can make choices.

Does this mean every human can simply choose to be philosophical about their bad experiences, their dents? No, of course not.

Some cars, when repaired, still show a bit of a crease where the dent was. And some...well, some are written off. They can't actually function as cars anymore.

When a human behaves badly, when he allows his negative past to affect him in the present, we can explain it, that's the easy part. Whether we can excuse it or not is far, far more complicated. There has to be a balance.

Oh no, not balance again Melanie, that's too hard! You're asking too much!

You bet I am. I'm asking for every case, every incident to be taken on its merits. I'm asking that we neither enable damaged people to act out in some feeble attempt to right their wrongs, or worse, nor do we pretend that they have never suffered. I'm asking that we don't excuse bad behaviour, but we do ask "why?"

We like to point fingers. We like to say "you are bad." In a way we are saying "you have sinned." We do this so much, without thinking about it, that we actually add to the problem.

I don't believe in sin. I especially do not believe in "sins of the fathers" or any other nonsense that holds a person responsible for the actions of others. I utterly reject blaming a person from a given group for the behaviour of other members of that group. But I understand why people talk about sin. It's a nice, easy, compact concept. It suggests there is a set or rules, spoken or unspoken, that we are all guided by. Unfortunately there isn't, there are just ideas we have, collectively, about how to behave. See previous blog (s) on this topic, I talk about it a lot.

There are no saints. There are no sinners. It always works both ways.

If we are to be better people, get along with one another more peacefully, strive for the best humanity can be, we have to stop seeing people as saints or sinners. We have to see every human as person with a past, that created who he is today, but at the same time we have to help him be the best he can be despite that past.

And sometimes that involves saying "No, this behaviour is not acceptable". Make sure yours is.



Monday, 15 July 2013

Helping The Scammers

You've all heard by now how Facebook pages troll for "likes" by showing pitiful photos of sick children or injured dogs. Then, when they have enough "likes" they sell the page for thousands of dollars.

You have been told many times now, by Snopes, me, other friends, and other websites that, no, Facebook DOESN'T give money to causes every time you "like" or "share", so you got wise to that, but you still click the "like" button when emotionally blackmailed to do so "just to raise awareness".

They couldn't get you one way, so they got you another way.

Then you got wise to that. And you said "I'm not a sucker. I learned. I won't be helping some scammer get money for a Facebook page with 100,000 likes, nor will I help the business who buys it get a fraudulent headstart, by having me and thousands of others already available to spam."

But you can't resist these, can you:


OH, but the answer is so easy and so obvious. You are so sure you're the only person who knows it, that you comment. "ARE" you say, and feel very pleased with yourself.

Do you not notice how many others give the same answer? Do you notice how many "likes" it's getting? How much attention, generally these pages get? They get attention because it takes seconds to show the would how good you are at answering questions a child of 6 could answer.

They couldn't prey on your sympathies, so they prey on your vanity instead.

I Don't Believe In Gay Marriage

What? What?

Ah, no it's not what you think. It's an idea put to me by my little cousin Jamie. He's a busy activist in England, and he does a series of broadcasts on You Tube. I'm very proud of him, he's becoming an extremely good broadcaster, and I think this video is right on the money.


I am putting this here, on my blog, rather than just on Facebook, so it'll stick around longer. It's short, simple, and just gets to the root of the matter. It's about two people falling in love, what's wrong with that?

Friday, 12 July 2013

Look, Really...This Getting Along With One Another Isn't Rocket Science

I'm rather keen on a very old-fashioned thing called etiquette, aka good manners. We're not talking about table cutlery here, or any structured system. I'm referring to the basic idea that courtesy to one another is a good way to run our daily affairs.

It begins with a smile. A simple human gesture that says "Hello, I'm here too, let's make the world a better place." After that are the every day "Please" and "Thank you" and so on that cost nothing, take no time at all, and remind us constantly to be grateful. Ritualistic? Sure. Sometimes insincere? Probably, but it's better than not saying it.

But it doesn't end there. Holding a door open for somebody, letting them cross in front of you in a busy place, avoiding collisions with shopping carts by a bit of attention and consideration of others is all great behaviour in a civilized world. Parking thoughtfully, not making a noise late at night, and just generally remembering that you share the planet with other people really is no great sacrifice to you, and makes life better for all of us.

If we consider other people on an ongoing basis, we gain. It's not "all give". We teach by example, and, with a few exceptions that we really can overlook, what goes around comes around.

One of the things we do, as tolerant, well-mannered people, is ignore, or at least pretend to ignore, the quirks and errors of others. We are patient with those whose stories are a bit long-winded or repetitive. We smile gently when are actually bored. We tell our friends not to worry when they spill something. We forgive lateness. We are always pleased to see uninvited guests.......

We choose to allow, in fact, behaviour that we might raise an eyebrow at, out of hospitality and politeness. This is a very good thing.

So, one of the things we do, because of good manners, is overlook the bad manners of others!

You can be sure, that there are plenty of people oblivious to the fact that they are behaving badly, or even aware of it and not caring. They take advantage of our good nature.

I'm also rather keen on a thing we think of as freedom of expression. The right to be me. To behave in a way that allows for my preferences and needs. There is a certain amount of free speech involved here, obviously, but also freedom to dress as I please, move around freely, and have a wide variety of choices as to how my day goes.

We talk about rights as if there was actually a code somewhere to refer to. While there may be civil and criminal laws that limit our behaviour, beyond that there is only manners. So, as an essentially law-abiding person by default, my options of how I conduct myself are largely based on common courtesy.

I don't find it hard. Nine times out of ten my choices fall well within other people's tolerances. There are few occasions where I have to worry about offending others by simply being myself. There are a number of reasons for that. I'm fairly easy-going and peace-seeking by nature, and I have developed a social circle of wise people who are not easily offended. I choose not to mix with those whose social expectations are a problem for me. I surround myself with others who share my preference for give and take. Plus, I live in an area where the prevailing local culture is tolerant and friendly.

But above all I approach life with a "Do as you would be done by" attitude. It's really very simple, I try to treat others as I wish to be treated myself. This has a powerful pay-it-forward effect. I know for a fact, that I have received favours throughout my life, due to this attitude, because people have told me so. In turn, I tell others the same - "I don't mind at all, because I know you'd do the same for me!"

When people don't do this, when they forget others around them, when they don't care how they behave, when they are "me, me, me" oriented, that is when problems occur. Either conflict, or the trampling of the rights of one party to accommodate the other. So, what happens is that one person's bad manners (bad behaviour) push up against another person's good manners (tolerance), and what happens next depends on how assertive the well-mannered person is.

It's like a sort of dance really, as we all try to be ourselves without pushing the limit. But this is how society develops. Rebels break the rules a little bit, and while some people react in horror, others, more aware of what's really happening, think to themselves "Well, it isn't actually doing any harm...." and expectations change.

And for me, it's a nice balance, a way to weigh things up between my natural instinct to be an iconoclast, and my other natural desire not to hurt anyone. I poke the taboos, gently, poke, poke.

And I judge others on how they do at this balance. Yes, I do. Whether they are able to get over themselves, and their ego,  and just be nice, and conversely whether they have the courage to stand up and speak out when something is genuinely ethically wrong, even if it gives people indigestion to hear it.

This stuff isn't easy. I don't think it's supposed to be. I think there's a reason we refer to such things as "social skills" because they must not only be taught, which takes time, but also some basic inherent abilities are required which not everyone has. If they mean no harm we make allowances for them, for their gaucheness, for their disorder, as we see it.

It is my considered opinion, that it is the responsibility of each and every one of us who is not compromised by a disorder, to be aware of all of this and act according. Not to make excuses. Not to blame others for our own shortcomings. Not to try to justify our failings in performing this delicate balance, but to apologize if we fail, and try harder. Awareness is the basis of it all, thinking is required. Sorry.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Long, Complicated One

I set out to write a short piece on why I identify as a feminist, and why I didn't always, but I could neither keep it short nor keep it separate from other things that I tend to have a lot to say about.

I have a lot to say about a lot of things, I'm never lost for words. Just lately there have been so many incredible things in the news, that I have so much to say it is all coming out as a squeaking noise. I mean....how do you begin to make sense of the last few weeks in the news? In the end I decided that as most of it was American politics (i.e. "consider the source") I'd just stay out of it, but there's more to it than that.

American politics is not world opinion, to be sure, but the two are not entirely separate either. Society as a whole - that is to say trends in the opinion of our species, are often highlighted in places such as that. There are obviously a few countries around the world that are either instigators, or mirrors - they tend to reflect "what's going on", generally, by their individual obsessions. Sure, if you are a Mongolian yak herder, you may not care particularly about societal trends in the developed world, but there really is such a thing as "modern society" that is international, so its effects are felt far and wide.

Then there's natural events, weather, climate, natural disasters, etc., that tend to ignore national borders anyway, so it makes no difference where you live. And so much of it feels too big, too impossible to do anything about.

So, I don't know about you but I often feel quite helpless. There are too many huge things, way beyond my control; even if I became a full-time activist, I could only tackle one, and my efforts may well be useless. In the course of human history many people have actually died for causes that went nowhere, at least long-term. In any case, we all pick and choose our causes based on what is important to us personally.

I decided many years ago that I was not cut out to be in politics. I can make speeches, I can shout at people if necessary. But I can't lie, not like they do. I am too honest for politics. So my way of "doing something" is to spread information. If I learn something that I consider to be important, I make sure I pass it on to others. The more informed we are, as a population, the better chance we have against lying politicians. The people do have power, but only if they have information. All hail the information age.

But there are two areas I have been able to have a direct impact on. Two areas I feel passionate about anyway, and two areas that are inextricably connected. I'm talking about raising children and the fate of women.

My sons and daughters were raised by a second generation feminist, and none of us knew it. Not even me. When I was busy having and raising children, I was enjoying myself so much that I did not believe I could possibly be a feminist. When people talked about feminism, I had a view of it that was not only unsympathetic, but skewed. It couldn't apply to me, I had opted for dedicated domesticity.

In fact I was criticized by some women for my choices, and the angle seemed to be that I was letting the side down. That I had "settled" for an old-fashioned lifestyle. That I had apparently handed over all my power to my husband, by being dependant on him financially and so on. Quite apart from the fact that there is a great misunderstanding of the power in that situation, there is also the idea that it's a competition. No wonder these people are unhappy with their lot.

So, let's look at the basics of human interaction.

We are a social animal. We live in groups and we do best that way. Hermits are an anomaly in our species, and had we all been oriented that way, we'd never have left the trees. Actually I'm not sure we'd have made it that far. We are apes and apes are social animals.

When you live in groups there have to be rules. They may not be written down, but they exist. They are understood. They involve give and take, co-operation, and ultimately, compromise. Not everyone gets their own way all the time, things have to be shared, and conflict has to be kept to a minimum. Somebody has to be a leader. This general arrangement is the essence of society, and in this way there is some sort of order.

To keep this order there are consequences to those who break the rules. They may be "punished". This could involve ostracism (separation from the group), or perhaps a beating - physical pain, a memory that tends to stick. One way or another they will be, er hem, encouraged to stay in line.

There can be no rule of law without coercion. There is absolutely no point to having rules if there is no consequence to breaking them. If all it took was an explanation, that would be fine, but sometimes that doesn't work. They may not understand the purpose of the rules (too young, too stupid, too stubborn) or for whatever reason, they have to be persuaded. But also, at some point, they may simply reject the rules. Because not all rules are good rules.

There are two things that most humans dislike. One is disorder. We are, at heart, a harmony-seeking creature. Even though we quarrel, it's usually with the intent to achieve peace. It's an odd thing really, but that is exactly how we are.

The other is coercion. We don't like being forced to do anything ourselves, and we tend to disapprove of the use of force when we see it. It offends our sensibilities. But contrarily at times, we are quite happy for it to happen.

Why? Because in order to achieve peace, the non-peaceful must be coerced, mustn't they.

When you look at this contradiction from outside it looks really silly. In practice it is a mess. In our modern world a teacher can be charged with assault for trying to restrain an unruly kid, because of our sensibilities about coercion, while bombs are dropped on foreign kids by US drones and nobody bats an eyelid, because..........................sorry, I have no idea why that's OK. But apparently it is because it continues.

Anyway, two extremes, and you can't begin to explain it. Luck of where you are born.

How the hell do you ever facilitate the keeping of order with a lack of coercion? It's inevitable that some folk are not going to  behave themselves and have to be persuaded to behave by others in the group. So how do you reconcile our sensibility about coercion, with that need?

There is only one way to do it, and that is called equality. In fact, if you give all people equal rights, there will be a minimum of disorder in the first place. But at the very least, by treating all people equally when sorting out problems, there should be a minimum of coercion necessary. Most people, unless there is something inherently wrong with them, are content with rules if they are fair.

Is it so much to ask for that people be treated equally? Apparently. Because in the course of human history we have managed to find every excuse in the book to treat people as "lesser".

Anyone from a different tribe.
Anyone from a different nation.
Anyone of a different skin colour.
Anyone who speaks a different language.
Anyone who follows a different religion.
Anyone who is not "one of us" in any possible way. Including poorer than us.

In fact, different in any way you care to think of, to those in power. That's what it amounts to.

We tend to think of persecuted people as "minorities" these days, but it was never to do with numbers. In feudal times the serfs outnumbered the aristocracy at least 100 to 1, but they were kept in place by threats of brutality, and there were always just enough soldiers to stop a revolution. But in any case if you keep people down enough, they simply don't have the ability to revolt.

Of course, every so often, they do. But from this order always, in time, emerges a new hierarchy, a new unevenness of rights and resources, and a new way to oppress those who are not in power.

When you study history certain patterns emerge. Empires comes and go but one group always hold the balance. Men.

There have been plenty of powerful women, don't get me wrong. But by the simple biological fact that it's women who give birth, and tend to be who raise the next generation, women have always been too busy to run the world. Whether we are waiting for the men to come home with the meat from the hunt, or come home from the office with a pay cheque, we didn't have time to join in because we were watching the kids.

There are kittens in my barn. They have no idea who their father is. Their mother goes hunting while they are left alone. She raises them into fine young cats, so what's the big deal, humans?

Well, it's not uncommon for one or more kittens in a litter to meet an untimely end as they play without supervision. One of them was almost cut in half by the rolling barn door this morning had Tyler not seen it in time. They have nine lives but they use them up fast at that age. Because of infant mortality rates in cats, nature provided a method to keep the population up. Female cats give birth to an average of four kittens at a time, so 3/4 of them can die and the mothers still replace themselves. But they can also do this 2 or more times in a year, and probably around 20 times in a lifetime. In other words, they can give birth to 80 children, and they only need TWO to survive to breed, for the population to remain stable, for cats to continue. As you may have noticed, this seems to work.

The downside to this arrangement is that a mother cat doesn't have an awful lot of opportunity to teach her children how to take over the world. She teaches them to hunt, and......that's pretty much it. Their species continues, but it isn't exactly building cities.

From a cat's perspective that isn't a problem. They sleep in the sun, hunt, and....well, that's pretty much it actually. Apart from making more cats.

Yep, those women sure are independent.

I don't know about you, but while I can see that what you've never had you never miss, and that cats are perfectly content with a life of hunting, sleeping, and occasional sex (twice a year at least), I wouldn't actually swap places with them.

The reason humans have air-conditioned cars, is because we have families. I don't mean we need them because we have families, I mean we reached that level of technology, because we have a family arrangement. Because we left Mom to raise the kids while Dad went hunting. Because of everything that led to.

It was a great arrangement in hunter-gatherer times, and it still is, and I will not hear a word against it. It worked well for me, and it's working well for my daughters. Most importantly it works well for the kids.

And for this reason, for the longest time, I could not identify as a feminist. After all, what is feminism's objective? Equality. What is my personal preference? Equality. What did I HAVE? Equality. I had no use for feminism.

As far as I was concerned, our roles were different but equal. The mother's care of the kids, and work in the home, and in my case, as traditionally quite common, around the farm, was just as important as the father bringing home the bacon. It divided the necessities of life up just fine. Everyone was doing what they do best, everyone was happy with this arrangement. What's wrong with that? Why did feminists want to mess with that? It had worked just fine for millions of years. It was an arrangement that gave rise to civilization itself.

The problem was, I was content. How is that a problem? Well, it prevented me from seeing just how lucky I was. Above all I had a good man. He treated me with respect, as an equal. In fact without ever realising it, I probably had the most equal relationship possible. The understanding and respect of one another's role and work has always gone a long way towards not only our family harmony, but our personal relationship. I was living in domestic paradise, and although I was happy and grateful, I hadn't really given any time to think about the situation of others. I was too damn busy.

Most lack of understanding in the world comes as a result of not taking the time to think about the situation of others. It's not intentional. If you aren't aware there's a question to be asked, you don't ask the question. It's the most common form of ignorance, with an ignorance of ignorance to compound it.

And it's not enough to follow the news because it's biased and selective. It might tell you about wars, and earthquakes, and crimes, and even "movements". But until you look inside that movement, and really make the effort to understand it, you will remain in a situation where you see the world from your own perspective only. Ivory towers.

I didn't go to a very good school, and my education ended at 17. But it wasn't all bad. I had one class that went beyond the "learn these facts and regurgitate them" method, and that was sociology, which opened my eyes a bit. Another advantage I had was travelling to lots of different places. And of course at home I had a good mother, and a library card. I had already begun to educate myself.

Because of the times, my focus was on war, and a bit of left-wing politics, which was soon stifled by home ownership.

So it wasn't until that great free University, the internet, became available to me in my late thirties, that I became aware of a number of other important issues. It also helped me think outside my European mindset. To many, it was a place for games and idle banter. For me it was an education. I cannot stress this enough. Thankfully I ran into those teachers who appear when the student is ready. If any of you are reading this, you must understand how grateful I am for your input, even if it was part of a massive argument. I learned so much, while fighting so hard against some of your ideas.

It's hard to be faced with ideas that seem, on the face of it, to go against everything you believe in. But it's also very useful. If you let your intellect overcome your stubbornness, you can, eventually, see things from another angle. From outside the limitations of your own experience, and your own needs.

The reason people are racist, for example, is based firmly in ignorance. That ignorance can lead to fear, and we only have two ways to cope with fear. We either attack or run away. Fight or flight. With effort it is possible to convince people not to attack. But they will still avoid. So they never learn. If you want to get past racism, you have to talk to people of a different race. You have to listen to what they have to say. Some of it makes you very uncomfortable.

But if you are white, you have another step to take, and it's the most difficult one of all.

The idea of white privilege is not an idea easily taken on board. People fight it every step of the way. We're not talking about white supremacists, no, not at all. We're talking about those who have got as far as acknowledging that a person's skin colour is just that and no more. They have stopped discriminating themselves. They have friends, employees, and so on, who are of a different race. And because they are now treating everyone equally, really feeling the equality, they think that's enough. It isn't. They have to understand the depth of their own privilege, and how it makes their own worldview and life experience different. Yes, and easier.

Because the person of another race is not treated equally. Not even by some members of his own race. Maybe not even by himself. Just because you treat him as an equal will never change that. You are only one privileged white person, in any case. There are plenty of others not as enlightened as you. You don't have to become an activist for racial equality. Oh, there are plenty of things you can do to help, and you should. But the most important thing is to be aware. That all races are NOT equal, and we cannot rest until they are. We have a long way to go, actually.

I can take this section of this blog and simply change the references to race to those of gender. Because the idea of male privilege is not easily taken on board. The belief in female equality, at least in the west, has caused a lot of complacency, but every single day we hear of yet another example of male privilege. In health care rights, in employment, in personal safety, in every possible aspect of our lives.

That doesn't mean that men have it easy, any more we would assume all white people have it easy. Life isn't easy, and depending on all the other factors involved, in fact, your life could be shit. But while you would stand up and insist "Hey! I suffer too!" because your individual situation doesn't look like privilege at all, remember, that's exactly what we're talking about here. Individual experience. When you are that individual, the statistics of average experience, the international trends, and all the data gathered that tell you you've never had it so good mean diddly squat when it doesn't apply to you.

The only way to have equality is to end privilege. Privilege is the opposite of equality. It means that whatever is on offer, and let's pretend it is beans, are not being shared out equally. If there is privilege, somebody is getting more beans than others. Which means somebody is getting less. It is a basic mathematical arrangement.

We have never arrived at a system where money and "stuff" are shared out equally among people. I'm not sure we ever will. Even if we conquer greed (unlikely) there are all sorts of other issues that prevent everyone having an equal share. Some of them make more sense than others though. If a person is lazy, despite being given every opportunity available he simply doesn't want to contribute much effort and is willing to settle for less, we will normally say, OK, leave him be. And if a person is very hard-working, and very ethical too, and winds up with more than average, we may be happy for him to have it.

But holding back money and "stuff" just because a person is different (by race, gender, or whatever) is generally frowned upon (although it still happens) and something most decent people are working on. We have laws, equal pay acts and so on.

So why are we OK with not sharing around rights in the same way?

To notice that isn't happening, one sometimes has to look very hard. The first thing you have to get past is the issue of cost. There is no dollar value on rights. For example, if women's healthcare costs more than men's, that's just too bad. The healthcare of people born with various other differences in their bodies costs more too.

But that's not the real issue that's going on in the United States, no no. It is as clear day that the twin attacks on covering the cost of contraception, and trying to make abortions difficult or impossible, is to get women out of the workforce. I wish the Republicans would just admit that, I might have a bit more respect for them. It's not right, of course, but at least they'd be laying their cards on the table. We know it's true because if you argue with right-wing people, they will always end up at this point, and how it's traditional family values, and the mother is in the home.

Which brings me back to my experience. How can I object to that?

Because I had the choice. I could have had a career instead of, or in addition to, raising a family. I opted not to. Nobody made it difficult or impossible for me to prevent the arrival of children, and I had more than my share. Choice is the key. Being in control of one's own destiny.

Our choices are limited by ability, effort, money, and sheer dumb luck. That's life. When they limited by other humans, we have lost rights. Why would we allow that?

And if we are not sharing rights out equally, why would we select, as those to withhold rights from, half the population, the half that raised us, the half we want to raise the next generation. And why would we, as part of that withholding of rights, allow lies and danger to go right alongside the inequality.

Because it benefits the traditional family to keep women down?

No. It benefits nobody. The best moms-at-home are those who are there by choice. At the same time, women who have a fundamental need to follow a career to be happy and whole and fulfilled are better mothers than if they were miserable because their life was put on hold to raise children. It is none of my business what choices other women make in this area, and the moment I realised that, I was well on my way to understanding the bigger picture.

I realised that the women who criticised me for choosing the more traditional arrangement were not feminists at all. They were opposing choice, not advocating it. I learned, gradually, that feminism is about choice, and about equality. I wasn't the only person who had to learn slowly.


A LOT of men understand the purpose (and the benefit) of feminism. I showed a few more of these catchy graphics here:  http://chovblog.blogspot.ca/2013/04/girls-short-attention-span-edition.html

And other writers have expressed it quite succinctly (something I never could do):

“As long as women’s natural body hair is called disgusting and inappropriate while men’s isn’t, I am a feminist.
As long as I can’t watch an episode of a popular sitcom without having to sit through multiple sexist comments or “jokes”, I am a feminist.
As long as women have to face the rational fear of being sexually assaulted every time they walk home past dark while men don’t, I am a feminist.
As long as misogyny exists in any country in this world, I am a feminist.
As long as women are being raped, then stoned to death or forced to marry their rapist, I am a feminist.
As long as companies promote men to manager when there are women who are equally as or better qualified, because they find that men look more authoritative, I am a feminist.
As long as women (her choice of clothes, her friendly nature, her weakness, her choice to drink alcohol) get blamed when men rape them, I am a feminist.
As long women’s opinions on online social networks are dismissed with phrases like “tits or gtfo”, “get back to the kitchen”, “are you pms’ing?”, I am a feminist.
As long as dressing like a women is degrading for men and as long as men are insulted with phrases like “you throw like a woman”, clearly implying that being like a woman is shameful, I am a feminist.
As long as both men are women are expected to work, but taking care of children and the household are still largely considered a woman’s job, I am a feminist.
As long as boys and girls are treated differently, expected to act differently, and surrounded by different toys and colours from the day they are born, I am a feminist.
As long as topless women aren’t allowed in public unless they’re on the cover of a men’s magazine, I am a feminist.
As long as women who have sex frequently are generally told they are “sluts”, “lacking self-respect” and “lacking morals” by both men and women, while men who frequently have sex are “just being men” and it’s “natural for them”, I am a feminist.
As long as there are places where women have to pay more for health insurance than men, I am a feminist.
As long as men experience situations with equal gender representation as female-dominated, and don’t consider a group discussion equal unless there are significantly more men then women participants (as has been proven), I am a feminist.
As long as there are men who think it’s their wife or girlfriend’s duty to have sex with him whenever he wants, I am a feminist.
As long as the word feminism (“the movement aimed at equal rights for women”) has a negative connotation, I am a feminist.
As long as misogynist people exist, I am a feminist.”


~ LE CHRYSANTHÉME: I am a feminist.

I was late coming to the party, but I'm here to stay.




Friday, 5 July 2013

I'm On A Roll.............

3 today. It's raining and I can't play outside.

One thing I remarked on in passing, on the previous blog, I want to go into in a bit more depth.

Many of us when discussing language indulge in a bit of gentle teasing with people we know well over our use of language. This is fine so long as you do know the person can take it, and it doesn't go too far. Same applies with all teasing. Everybody has a limit with teasing, and that limit varies according to who is teasing, and so on.

When my older daughter was very small, about two, we used to tease her very gently, by imitating her tiny voice. She would get very annoyed, and put her hands on her hips, spitting venom: "I DO NOT HAVE A FUNNY LITTLE VOICE!" which of course came out in her funny little voice, and caused more mirth. We still remind her of that, and she still gives us a look with knives in her eyes.

So a little caution is necessary. I have taken a lot of teasing over my English accent by North American friends, over the years, and it doesn't bother me. But that doesn't mean you can do it to everyone, and it also doesn't mean you can do it to anyone to an excessive level. It does get tedious after a while.

But most of all, it's annoying when somebody imitates you and gets it wrong. I choose to roll my eyes, but I wonder if anyone remembers this:


I have had to withstand people doing that at parties at me. I tend to feel sorry for them, so one smiles, and moves on, but it isn't funny, because it's pathetic. At least if you are going to be "funny" about the way somebody speaks, get it right.

Here's the thing. There is no right or wrong way to speak, with regard to accents. There is no hierarchy of accents. Your accent is your accent. Saying it is wrong is like saying your face is wrong.

Ah, you say, but people wear make-up or have surgery even, because they don't like their face. Quite so, and power to them, but that's individual choice. Plenty of people deliberately cultivate an accent they prefer too, and again, that's a matter of choice. It's not for other people to judge.

It's all about perception. Watch this:


(REMEMBER: In England "public school" means private school, and specifically an expensive, prestigious private school.)

Oh yes, how you talk DOES affect how other people perceive you. Rightly or wrongly. So we can't pretend it doesn't.

At the same time, it's simply quite wrong to consider one accent superior to another, because that's prejudice, bigotry...possibly even racism.

BUT

Within an accent there are right and wrong ways to pronounce things. That is to say that how you pronounce something is NEVER wrong, based on your accent, but still can be wrong, if other people with the same accent as you all agree on a pronunciation, and you err from THAT.

So, for example, the word vehicle.

I confess I almost die laughing when a certain Texan friend says this. Yeah, she knows. She loves me anyway. The way she says it is vee-hickle. She's not wrong. That is the correct Texan pronunciation. She is allowed to kick me if I titter.

But if you are born and raised in Toronto or London, and you say vee-hickle, it is WRONG.

See the difference? One is a bona fide regional variation, one is a mispronuciation.

In all cases, if it's not your dearest friend, it's completely inappropriate to laugh, or "correct" them, or even appear to notice at all. Etiquette requires that you ignore it. Doesn't matter if you claim to be being helpful or not. The only time it would be OK to interrupt, or point it out, is if a person has requested you do so, for example if you were a dialect coach in a theatre or movie shoot.

There is an exception to all of this, and it's when somebody pronounces your name wrong. So long as you are gentle and polite about it, it is perfectly acceptable to correct them on that. Just don't be surprised if they ignore you. Never mind writing a whole other blog about THAT, I could write a book.

Returning to my point. Correctness in speech is not the same as correctness in the written word. There are some similarities, i.e. regional spelling variations (color, colour) and some occasions where less formal speech (and slang) is best avoided (job applications, job interviews). But assuming they are both writing in semi-formal English, there is hardly any difference in text. You would never guess the person's accent from their writing. In fact often it's only the errors they make that are a clue there.

Here comes the interesting part. While we all agree that it's rude to point out a person's mistakes (in writing or in speech) unless they have asked us to, there is a different attitude over accents. Is it because accents don't (with the provisos mentioned above) show up in text?

If I think of the people who make the most fuss over their written errors being pointed out, they are the people most likely to poke fun at the way somebody talks. I can think of many examples of this, especially among the young (but not exclusively). I don't have a proper explanation for it, but it almost seems like revenge, or at least tit for tat. They are really fast to call somebody a grammar nazi, but they'll be the first to say "Ha! You talk funny!"

Harbouring some sort of insecurity perhaps.


Ö

Furthermore to my earlier blog about phonemic awareness, here's another repeat topic, and only bother with this if you genuinely enjoy the topic, this is not for the casual reader.

First, read this:

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/752/why-is-colonel-pronounced-kernel

Except that's not true, at least it's not the full story.

Never mind the spelling, the question should be "why do Americans put a R in colonel?" Answer: Because they can't say it any other way.

I can.

This does not make my accent/background/ability superior to yours, and if you ever meet a snarky English person who thinks it does, you have my full permission to punch them on the nose. This is just one of the examples of difference between the two accents.

It dates back to the Hanoverian kings taking over the United Kingdom. Until then English people said "kernal" too. But the German accent became very fashionable in England, and permanently affected the way people speak, especially in the areas nearest to London. Once a strict non-rhotic accent became fixed in the London area, it began to spread. It has spread farther even within my lifetime (and in my absence).

It started, obviously, in the royal court. It then spread both by geography and class. So today, non-rhoticity is heard in most of south-east England, and just about anywhere if people are posh. Posh people in England are non-rhotic. Period. And less and less posh too. From royals in the 18th century, to educated working-class people today. Rhoticity in much of England is now associated with being a country bumpkin, a hick.

When I was a teenager I dated a rhotic-speaking boy from the north of Essex. You wouldn't find that now, it's been pushed much farther north. And so on.

In the United States the opposite has happened. Being non-rhotic in many areas is the "old" accent, and can get you identified as "country" - I've heard this distinction especially betwen Atlanta and the rural parts of Georgia. In Boston the non-rhotic traditional accent is slowly diminishing, and seen as rather quaint, but also associated with being from the rough parts of town.

Anyway, let's get back to the point. How you say Colonel depends largely on whether you are rhotic or not, although interestingly I've been told that some non-rhotic speakers make an EXCEPTION to force an R into colonel. That's why this word is special, and why it's central to my discussion (I can dream) here today.

Now some of you, I know, are saying "HOW ELSE CAN YOU SAY IT". Well, using the magic of the internet, I'm going to show you. Go here: http://www.forvo.com/word/colonel/ and scroll down to the third example, by TopQuark, a gentleman from England, or the 7th one, a lady called x_WoofyWoo_x. Click on the little blue button, and listen carefully.

I also know that rhotic speakers have terrible trouble repeating this back, but most can get it after a few attempts, unless (DRUM ROLL) they have poor phonemic awareness (see previous post).

If, therefore, you cannot tell the difference, or can hear it but can't say it, this post will be of no use to you anyway. But those of you who said "Oh! I see!", should plod on, as I'm about to tell you what you just heard.

The title of this blog is Ö, but it could just as easily have been Ø. The former is the German letter, the latter is the Scandinavian version, but they refer to the same sound. This is the sound you just heard when the English people said "colonel". In other words, we could spell it "könel" or "kønel" to demonstrate it, but that won't help if you can't say it.

For many years I got frustrated with rhotic friends when trying to explain this. Then I learned about how rhotic speakers have what are known as r-coloured vowels. In other words, in a word like...well....WORD, the R following the vowel colours it. The speaker is already "in position" as it were, to say the R, and the vowel is affected by this.

Bet you didn't know that. Hardly anyone does unless they've studied linguistics. What it means is that a rhotic speaker finds it very difficult to remove the R-ness from the vowel.

Here's where it gets interesting. This is only a problem with the syllable ER.

In all the other ways that R follows the vowel, there is another vowel without an R that rhotic speakers can switch to.

For example, instead of AR they can say AH

Instead or OR they can say AW (rather exaggerated in some cases, but close enough)

Instead of IRE they can say EYE-A

And so on.

But with a few exceptions (and not just in Quebec) North Americans don't have a Ö. In fact they don't even have a way to WRITE IT, which is why I'm using a German letter.

And of course, they have no need for it either. It simply doesn't arise as an issue.

Until they try to copy a non-rhotic accent....or learn a language that has this sound as standard.

The funny thing is, almost every single one of them suddenly discovers they can say it when they have to. It just requires a different mouth shape. Here's proof:

BLEU

French for blue. Unless you are completely ignorant of the world (in which case you won't be reading this, so it's moot) I know you can say BLEU. I have never heard even the dumbest redneck say BLUR. (If you have, don't tell me. It would be painful.)

See?

The inability to pronounce that vowel is a delusion. Even though it's not part of the non-rhotic accent, at all, it is possible to say it. The trick is in not seeing the R, so not expecting the R, and therefore not aiming for the R.

In fact to the question "why do Americans put a R in colonel?" The REAL answer is: Because they THINK they can't say it any other way.

I wrote a poem about this....

Oh my dear, why do you taunt me so?
It is such a colourful show...
We spent a month painting the set
And it's something I don't regret
But your teasing was so hard to bear
When I wanted the balustrade vert
And the rouge of the chair legs just right
So I sat up painting all night
Oh Nelly, you were so verbose
When you opined on that shade of rose
I blame your father alone
And his ideas on where to use jaune
His army days fading - it's wrong
But he overdoes all that marron
Eye to eye, we never will see
On his preference for way too much gris
But for now I must chastise the Colonel
For refusing to let me use bleu, Nell





I Can't Say That

I was reminded today of the wonderful journey I've had through the study of language, thanks to my son getting it wrong many years ago.

When James was in Grade 6 or 7, or thereabouts, I got a call from his teacher telling me he was having a problem with rhyming words. He didn't seem to able to tell that two words rhymed, and after giving him extra help, she had decided he suffered from poor phonemic awareness. Apparently this is a known issue, along the lines of how being tone-deaf will hamper you in music class.

I didn't know what she meant, so I hit the internet. It was really very different 10 years ago. To get information like that I had to go to University websites, linguistics departments, and it was heavy, heavy going, as it was something I had not studied formally before. (You can look it all up on Wikipedia now).

But I got it, eventually, and was able to formulate my own theory, which was that because James was listening to two different accents, his parents' English at home, and a local accent at school, he had basically opted (possibly subconsciously) to ignore the difference.

I reported back to his teacher a long diatribe on accents and the shape of vowels, and she said "If you'd asked, I could have told you what a phoneme was". But she'd have given me the simple version and that's not how I get to the bottom of things.

Anyway, having really looked hard at it, I understood it at a level that was more to my tastes. Over the next few years, I continued to study phonology (which is what this was) and it just got more and more interesting.

One thing I have gleaned from all of this, is that people fall into four categories.

1. Linguistics experts. Annoying people who will pick out a rise in tone in the middle of a speech lasting an hour, and dissect it with their colleagues as if it were a slightly flat note by the 73rd violin in a symphony orchestra.

2. Linguistic enthusiasts. Me. We would gloss over the above, but we DO notice when an American actor makes just ONE error in a movie, where he's playing an English character.

3. Normal people. Might notice a bad English accent, but could ignore it, and probably couldn't really discuss it.

4. What?

The latter category are those with poor phonemic awareness. We can think of it as a sort of hearing impairment, but it's not the ears that are faulty. Same as dyslexic people have nothing wrong with their eyes. It lies somewhere else, presumably in the brain, but it's not a learning disability as such. Just a variation within the range of ability to listen to speech...accurately, I guess.

They hear the words just fine. They understand what was said. They may in fact be at genius level in comprehension. But if you ask them about the speaker's accent they may not be able to identify it, OR EVEN NOTICE IT.

Somehow the words arrive in the comprehension area of their brain without being filtered in any way through a sort of musical net.

As a result of this, if you ask them to repeat something back, they will not say it the way you did. They say it the way they always pronounce that word.

THIS is why some people fail at doing other accents.
THIS is why some people fail at pronouncing other languages correctly
THIS is why some people have what appear to have speech impediments but in fact they are not listening correctly

Note I said "correctly", because it's not lack of effort, it's a genuine fubar in the wiring.

It is possible to learn to speak without being able to hear, however. Many deaf people manage this. It requires an awareness of what the mouth is doing.

So this is how wrong pronunciation is corrected. It's a laborious thing to do, both for student and teacher, but if for example you are trying to learn the Greek letter gamma, you have to be aware of what your tongue is doing. I want you to do this with me.

First, make the sound of the letter G. Don't say the letter, make the sound. A hard g as in good. G G G. Go on, do it now. If the dog looks at you funny, look at him funny back. He barks, after all.

Now FEEL where your tongue is when you say G. Flat against the roof of your mouth to begin with, then it pulls away to let the air go through. Feel that a few times.

Now, try this. Instead of it being held hard against the roof of your mouth, let it just sort of sit just below it, so that air can get through all the time, but not freely. It's a bit like gargling, but dryer. Try that. You sound like you are being strangled. That, dear reader, is the sound of gamma in modern Greek.

I had to explain it to you that way because I'm not with you, to let you hear the noise I'm making. But in any case, you may need that specific instruction as to know what to do with your tongue to be sure you are getting it right. Most importantly, I can't just give you an example of the sound in a word, because we don't have that letter in English. We don't have gamma. We don't have that sound; we don't have that phoneme.

It is hard, at least at first, for a native English speaker to pronounce gamma. It is just as hard for a non-native English speaker to pronounce some of our sounds, the notoriously difficult one being TH. For us, pronouncing th is simple, we don't even think about it. But if your first language, your mother tongue, does not include th (and most don't) then you have to learn it as laboriously as English speakers learning gamma.

Some never quite master th. Despite being very fluent in English, even after decades of constant use. I bet everyone reading this knows somebody who says "dere and dat" or "zere and zat" instead, depending on what their first language is.

Well, I gave birth to one. Tom, despite having English as a first language needed 8 years of speech therapy to get his th together, and he still slips up if he's speaking very fast, or is excited/upset.

If I had French or Spanish as a first language they'd probably have put me in speech therapy. I can't roll an r with a gun in my back. It means my French accent is horribly flawed, even though I have worked very hard on the vowels and I actually got 100% on my French oral exam in school. We were given special dispensation for the letter r, because it's a known block.

But I'm GOOD at vowels. And accents are made up mostly of vowel differences, after all. Remember, an accent is the set of sounds you use to speak.

Certainly, consonant variations as we've mentioned above can be an issue, and there is the famous Russian L, and a few others. But on the whole what we're talking about when we talk about different accents is the vowels.

When we are describing the pronunciation of vowels, it's all about the shape of the mouth. I want you to say these words for me (YES, OUT LOUD), and FEEL the shape of your mouth when pronouncing the vowel (marked in bold).

Cat
Hot
Sit
But

I'm not going to describe it though. Because depending on where you come from, you will pronounce all of those vowels in your own, local, distinct way. That is - your mouth shape depends on your accent (because your mouth shape creates your accent). Spelling gives an approximation, a guide, but English accents vary so much that spelling is completely useless in accurately describing the expected sound.

I won't dwell on this right now, but just to give you one example. In the word Hot there, the vowel used by most North Americans could be written "ah". This would not be the case in parts of New Jersey however, in most of Britain and Australia, and so on. And in India even the following t would be different, which would in turn "colour" the vowel.

For people learning English as a second language the most important thing then is to get the vowels right. English learners overseas get to pick an accent. Most will choose English RP or Standard American. You are not going to find somebody learning a Glaswegian accent in Argentina. (Well, I suppose you might if a teacher is from Scotland, but English teachers are SUPPOSED to use a less provincial accent). So books are mostly written with their phonetic tables geared to one of those two.

The idea is that most people will understand them if they are "plain" in one of these accents.

But it's hard. Some of the vowels we take for granted are brand new to those from other parts of the world. It's fairly easy for a German speaker to adapt to English vowels. It's REALLY hard if your first language is Japanese.

The Japanese (and others) have a hurdle to overcome in the syllables we use too. Their language does not place stress on syllables, which is why it sounds "choppy" to us. We are so used to stress on syllables, that we find it hard to speak without it. You've all heard the argument:

"It's Hi - ro - SHI - ma."

"No, it's Hi - RO - shi -ma."

It's neither. It's Hi-ro-shi-ma, no stress anywhere. Virtually impossible for us to say. Well it works the other way around. When you are not used to stressed syllables, it's a pain in the bum trying to remember where the stress goes. It's hard when you are used to a language like Spanish, where the stress is regular and predictable, and diacritical marks are used if it varies. I've been listening to lectures by an esteemed Mexican professor who insists on saying "de - vel - OPE - ment", because in Spanish you would expect the stress to be on the penultimate syllable. His English accent is otherwise fantastic, but that one just leaps right out at you.

But there's yet another hurdle for speakers of some languages, such as Chinese. Their language is tonal, so the same word can be said 4 different ways, depending on tone. My attempts at learning Chinese are thwarted by the difficulty here, and I really need to go to China and be immersed to "get it". Well, that also works the other way around. Just as we have to remember to add tone, they have to try not to, and it's hard. Furthermore, because English has its own version of tone in the way our speech rises and falls within a whole sentence, it is very confusing to a tonal speaker.

So, imagine if you are learning a language very different to your own, be it the vowels, the stress, the tone, or whatever, AND you have poor phonemic awareness. It's rather like being a drummer being expected to play the violin, AND you are tone-deaf.

Bless their hearts, they keep on trying.