Personal

Electioneering

I'm after a soundtrack to this election day to get me in the mood, and its proving rather difficult. I think I may require your help- If you have any to add do let me know @SparkleWildfire. Oh, and no D:Ream please :)

Here's what I've scraped together so far:

Radiohead- Electioneering

Arcadia- Election Day. Worth it just for all that hair. 

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - Daylight Robbery

Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains- Election Song

And finally, one with a little bit of naughty language: 

The difference a year makes

“Maybe this Christmas will mean something more
Maybe this year love will appear
Deeper than ever before”
— -Tracey Thorn, Maybe This Christmas

This time last year, I was writing this post, collecting together songs that I felt best summarised why I find Christmas such an emotional time.

Of course, I’ve been listening to that playlist on repeat for weeks this year too, but it sounds different to me this time round. Its transformed from a quietly melancholic collection to one of optimism.

This time last year, I was steadfastly single. I refused to believe in love in the same way I used to do in the past. I had never even said the word to anyone else (except for friends) for years. I was stubbornly resisting the advances of a man who I knew to be very wonderful, on the basis that I would likely just mess it all up anyway and hurt him, given that I was, in my own head, such an awful and cynical heartless monster who would clearly ruin his life.

Luckily, my willpower (helped along by a fair amount of beer) failed me eventually and we went on a date in January. This is probably the best decision I have made, ever. What has followed has been better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve gone from refusing to acknowledge the L-word to telling him many, many times a day that I love him. He puts up with me and my mood swings, is happy to leave me alone when I need social recharge time, and is just really quite marvellous. He makes me laugh despite his cracker joke-level sense of humour, gives great hugs, and most importantly buys me Lego. For the first time in blummin’ yonks, I feel safe, and like I’ve come home.

“So happy new year, this is the one we talked about and
Happy New Year, this is where it all works out
This is where is comes together and everything comes through
Happy ever after all comes true”
— -Simma, Happy New Year

So going into this new year, everything seems different. We’re moving into a new house together, and I really can’t wait. The cat and the hamster have double-barrelled surnames. I have a new job lined up, though it’s in the same centre and will involve moving a mere several metres across the office to a different desk. I still worry that it’ll all come crashing down at some point, but I’m managing to keep those thoughts in check and just enjoy it all for the most part.

Hopefully I’m not sounding too smug here. I just want you all to know about the good things that happen, since I tell you probably far too much about the bad stuff. I’ve had some amazing e-mails in the past from readers who have been through similar experiences to me, and I’d like you to know that things can change and can end up even being miles better than they ever were before.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I know this time of year can be really hard for some. I send my love and hugs to you. 

Hxxx

The Prometheus Pants Problem

Prometheus. It’s the film that disappointed pretty much everyone. The internet is flooded with in depth critiques of it, many of which refer to the lack of real science, along with the deep metaphysical and philosophical issues with it. All of these posts, however, have missed what I found to be the most problematic feature of the film: Underwear.

And yes, I know it came out two years ago, and it’s a bit weird to be writing a blog post about it now, but I’ve found myself trying to explain the Prometheus Pants Problem (PPP) to a few people, both verbally and on Twitter of late. Its complexity and importance means that 140 characters will just not do, and I think it is important to have a robust reference source to refer people to when explaining all aspects of the PPP.

It is important to note, I think, that in actual fact I vaguely enjoyed Prometheus. When I saw it at the cinema, I hadn’t seen any of the Alien films (I know, I know), but I thought it was worth a shot anyway. I found the running about with lots of alien goo stuff flying about fairly entertaining. The problems came when they kept interrupting the frivolous alien romp bits with Important Thinly Veiled Stuff About God, which made me rather lose patience. And, of course, I ended up pretty fixated on the PPP, which meant that I couldn’t think about anything else in the film. I’m like that- I’ll fixate myself on one tiny thing that happens for a millisecond, and then spend the entire rest of the film thinking and internally ranting about it.

The Need for Pants At All.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. You get in from a hard day’s work. You’re not expecting anyone. You’ve got a whole night of delicious nothingness stretching ahead of you. Its toasty warm in your home. What’s the first thing you do? You take off your uncomfortable outer wear, and let it all hang out, right? I mean, no one is going to see you and you’re in the comfort of your own home, so why the hell not wander around in all of your naked birthday suited glory if you want to?

Perhaps you wear your PJs instead, or a pair of comfy pants. That’s probably because, deep down, you’re sort of somehow worried that someone might see. You might get an unexpected visitor, or the pizza man might be arriving at any point. But imagine for a second that you are the only person alive at that point in time. What’s the point in clothes then? Especially if you can absolutely, categorically be sure that you’re the only one, because you’re the person who creates lifein the first place, and you haven’t yet drank the wormy goo that you need in order to do so yet.

So, in the opening seconds of Prometheus, we’ve got our engineer guy, on a planet in which he hasn’t yet created life (except for, well, all the plant life that is already there, but I think we’re supposed to ignore that). Now, never mind your front room, imagine having an entire planet all to yourself. Would you wear pants? Of course you wouldn’t. Any sane person would be running about joyfully, jiggling here there and everywhere, enjoying the sense of freedom. You’d let every little bit hang and flop about as much as you like, because who is going to be there to judge?

The Need For Pants At All Part 2.

We don’t ever see any Female Engineers at any point in Prometheus. Thanks for that bit of everyday sexism, Ridley. The Baldy One does not seem to require any sort of sexual act to create life: just a shot of tarry goo, and that’s that.

 So on this basis, would they even have genitals at all? And even if they did, why would they be considered a special part that needs to be nestled away from prying eyes, if the reproductive act doesn’t need to take place? 

Disappointing Pant Technology

Let’s play devil’s advocate here for a while and accept that pants are required for some unknown reason. This then leads on to another problematic issue.

These engineer types appear to be pretty smart. After all, they are the purported creators of life itself, right? Yet with all of their super advanced technology and supremely high IQs, the best they can come up with is a couple of bandages wrapped around themselves, nappy-like.

That just doesn’t ring true to me. Even our lowly human selves can come up with better pant technology than that. We have all sorts of colours, fabrics, designs, access holes, fastenings, elastic etc. But no, this superior life form instead decides to wrap some bandages around its crotch. How much of a faff must those things be to get into? They’d be a right clart on to get back out of if you need a wee. Do they need someone else to help them put them on in the morning, holding the bandages while they spin themselves around? How undignified and inconvenient.

 Lack of Pant Technology Evolution

This first engineer scene is Prometheus presumably takes place thousands of years prior to all of the kerfuffle depicted in the rest of the film. And yet, we are supposed to believe that pant technology has remained starkly primitive through all of this time?

The evidence for this is Noomi, who is merrily wandering around, post-surgery, wearing what is clearly another pair of low tech bandage pants, along with a matching bra. What’s happened to underwire technology? Why are people from this time still wearing the same design of crap pants as their creators? Surely, in the intervening millennia, someone would have realised elastic exists.

And that, dear friends, is a brief examination of the Prometheus Pants Problem. I’ve seen it creeping into other films since (most recently Guardians of the Galaxy), and I won’t rest until these important questions are answered, in full.

Other things to note about Prometheus:

  • They appear to use Joseph Joseph kitchen implements. Nice to know that this mid-range kitchenware design brand is still going strong that fair into the future.
  • Wandering around important historic sites that have been sealed off for thousands of years should probably be done in a more respectful way, if you’re wanting to preserve it for proper research. One guy says at some point “We’ve changed the atmosphere in here”. Well, yes, yes you have, though its nowt to do with the inherent evilness of mankind, and everything to do with barging in, blithely breathing your modern germs all over everything. If a door has been shut for thousands of years, I’d imagine that yes, it might get a little musty in there. Opening the door and allowing a bit of fresh air in is likely to change the atmosphere somewhat.
  • The Dead Head that explodes: Apparently the theory behind this is that this head, reawakened after a very long time, can’t cope with how crap, evil and corrupt the world now is so it explodes. Now, I’m no expert in these matters, but I’m pretty sure that exposing a thousand year old corpse to all sorts of new atmospheres might well lead to a build up of some gases, which on electrocution, may well then explode.
  • The most obvious plot hole of them all, which has most probably been covered in great detail elsewhere, still annoys me. Noomi’s oxygen is about to run out, and its all very tense indeed, but then phew, she is okay. However, it appear to magically recharge itself somehow whilst she tends to her errant offspring, as when she needs it again afterwards the oxygen level in there is just fine. Grrr.

Anyway, I’ll shut up for now, though I won’t apologise for bringing this important matter to your attention. And yes, you will now be forever destined to notice intently all pants being worn in any sci-fi movie, and yes, it will probably ruin all enjoyment for you. You’re welcome :D

Hxxxxx


Thank you, Kate

I’ve still not quite been able to come up with an adequate phrase to describe having social anxiety. Sometimes the old clichés are the best, and so I go with the duck- calmly floating above the water, but paddling like mad beneath.

I can be so good at hiding the furious paddling that even my closest friends have doubts that it exists. But if I were to invite you under the water, you’d see constant, frantic movement. You'd experience my physiological reactions going mad for no reason, reacting to the unforeseen horror of merely having a pleasant conversation with someone.  You'd be hit with tidal waves of thoughts, rushing over and over in a jumble. You'd hear that nasty, mean little internal monologue of mine telling you what other people are thinking (although they are probably not), how stupid you look (although you probably don’t), how boring you are (although you’re probably not). Then you'd feel the confusion and shame of cutting all these thoughts up with a knife of rationality. You'd see how that knife then turns on yourself because you just can't keep up with all of the mean thoughts, and you feel so weak for letting them take over you. 

Eventually, this state becomes your norm. It becomes background noise, and the peaks of it get even higher in moments where you feel threatened. Our metaphorical duck spends his days thrashing relentlessly under the water every second of everyday, and the tiniest of waves sends him into free-fall. Of course, Kate, you probably know how this feels already to a degree: it is stage fright that kept you away from touring for so long.

Moments of true calm are few and far between when you reach this point. When they do occur, you start worrying about them- internal silence starts to feel alien. Constant anxiety becomes your default position, and the otherworldliness of calm feels dangerous somehow.

That’s how I was this time last year. Things have now improved somewhat- thanks to the CBT, thanks to those around me, and in no small part thanks to my own stubbornness. I’m now at a point where the peaks are still there, but they’re not quite as insurmountable. My default position is no longer fight or flight, and I'm more able to quell the thought onslaught. True moments of stillness are, however, still relatively rare.

I’m never usually able to lose myself in a moment, as this stupid anxiety makes me constantly self-aware. The other night though, I experienced several blissful hours of basically forgetting that I existed. All thanks to you, Kate.

You’ve always been able to lift me out of terrible moods. One of the joys of living on my own is that I can get home, and crank up your music as loud as I like. I can sing, I can let go, and I can dance about with the cat without anyone laughing at me. I often find that you’re able to lift me out of an approaching mist. You've been the manufacturer of one of my most reliable coping mechanisms.

I saw Before The Dawn the other night. I was scared of going in alone, but within minutes I was chatting away with other people. We couldn't believe our luck. I've honestly never seen so many utterly excited people in one place before.

I know that everyone else has loved it. I've read the reviews, and I've seen the tweets. I expected it to be good, but what I didn't expect was to be completely enraptured- with you, with the story of a woman in the water, of a dawning day, with the detail. I had expected a couple of tears, perhaps a couple of whoops if I was feeling brave. What I hadn't expected was to realise that I was so taken in by it all that I was no longer self aware. I sort of came to, whilst dancing madly away to Cloudbusting, and realised that the waves had stopped for me for 3.5 hours. Here I was, on my own, in a situation that would usually scare me, completely and utterly swept up in the world of your making.

Thank you, Kate. Thank you for that gift.

Hxxx

Lychnobite, by Simma: An album review.

There is a particular pub in Gateshead which I rather like. It’s called The Central Bar and it holds good memories for me. It’s a traditional haunt for my good friends and I on Christmas Eve, it has an excellent range of beers, and does some good nosh too.

And so it was that on one particular Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, three friends and I were in there. We were suitably adorned in tacky, sparkly Christmas attire and were festively tipsy, when a chap started playing his acoustic guitar and singing in the corner of the pub.

Given our rather jolly state at the time, we showed our appreciation of this man’s lovely voice by bellowing along to some of the songs and inventing new interpretive dance routines to others (And thus, the great Gateshead Sit Down dance was born). We were a source of amusement for the singer, who declared that he’d never had anyone invent dances for him before and patiently explained that no magic was at play when we had loudly declared that we wanted him to play Fairytale Of New York then he actually did, prompting us to look drunkenly confused. “Girls, I’m not on the radio you know. I can actually hear you.” It was a really fun afternoon, and we left giggling hysterically and wondering if we could ever show our faces in there again.

The singer in question was Simma, and I’ve since seen him play several times. He fairly recently released his new album, Lychnobite, so I snapped up a copy of it and thought I would review it for you dear people.

On first listen, it’s on the whole a cheery affair, with upbeat tunes perfect for having on in the background while you do something else. Subsequent listens via headphones reveal a more melancholic, complex side to the album.

A particular highlight for me is “Black Dog”, a song about depression which combines a nifty little toe-tapping rhythm with an almost monotonous melody. This makes for an atmospheric juxtaposition, much like the illness itself. Next up is the joyous “Sing”, a marching, uplifting little song that I tend to happily belt out when I have it on at home.

Other songs are more calmly folky, all with a touch of cleverness to the songwriting that I find really pleasing. There is a clever use of vocals throughout the album (see Whisky Highway as an example), something which I find quite pleasingly different, given my previous experience of Simma is limited to him and one guitar in the corner of the Central Bar

“The Drink” is gorgeous, plaintive, and full of feeling. Meanwhile, “Sixteen Tons” is bluesy and pleasingly cynical, managing to blend together a very American sound with tales of Benwell woe. “Happy New Year” is likely to make its way onto my Christmas Songs For The Existentially Wounded list this year, with its mix of optimism and sadness for times gone by.

The other thing that I really like about Simma is how his Geordie accent creeps into the edges of his songs, lending them a little bit of added personality. All in all, this is a lovely, complicated album which is likely to be on heavy rotation in my household, nestled in nicely between Great Lakes by John Smith and Under Mountains by Rachel Sermanni. 

Hxxx

Making it up as I go along

What better way to spend a Sunday than an eight-hour long improvised comedy workshop?

Now, I know that there are a lot of people who would jump for joy at the suggestion. I also know that I am really not one of them. I can be pretty reserved, and of course there is my social anxiety to factor in.

My good friend Shandy suggested it. She had been to similar sessions before, and thought it would be good for me. I trust her judgement, so I signed us up for it before I had a chance to regret it. And what a day it turned out to be.

Social anxiety is an odd creature. Recently, I’ve been learning about the main thing that makes it particularly odd- self-focus. It’s a weird dichotomy- the same diagnosis that ruins your confidence and makes you want to disappear also manages to persuade you that you are the entire centre of everything that exists. It simultaneously makes you completely hate yourself, and become an insufferable narcissist in your own head.

I think I’m really pretty good at challenging myself. I force myself into social situations that I don’t want to be in on a fairly regular basis. More importantly, I force myself to social situations that I really do want to be in but am completely effing terrified of. I’ll say yes to parties in London where I basically know no-one at all. I’ll arrange and go to tweet ups. I go to lots of bake clubs, and I’m out of the house on most evenings of the week, seeing various different friends and going to all sorts of different events. I’ll merrily agree to SITP talks here and there. Yet no matter how much I push myself to do things, and no matter how well these things turn out, the fear remains the same.

I know the theory. I know that anxiety is supposed to lessen the more you are in a situation, and the more you are exposed to that situation. Yet mine.. doesn’t. I know that I have been in a similar situation before, and it was absolutely fine, yet I still end up a gibbering wreck each and every time. It’s the self-focus that does that. With my social anxiety, its not the other people who are scary, it’s myself, and that can be really difficult to get around. Its this aspect that makes it refractory to exposure therapy.

One of the most exhausting parts of it is self-censoring. I constantly dismiss my own thoughts as not being worthy enough of being said out loud. I’m scared of sounding stupid, boring, of being judged, of not being interested enough. Instead of allowing the person I am speaking to make those judgements, I do it myself, and discard things that I want to say before they leave my mouth.

These things do not make me an ideal person to perform improvised comedy. I am the person who will eventually come up with a killer comedic line about six hours after the opportunity to use it has gone, then will proceed to beat myself up about it for days, weeks, sometimes months afterwards. I have never performed any sort of drama or anything like that, and the opportunities for creativity in my adult life have been pretty limited.

 Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles

Bev Fox, one of the wonderful teachers at the Improvisation Foundation and co-founder of The Suggestibles


So, you’re asking, how did it go?

Pretty well I think. I was completely exhausted and nigh-on broken afterwards, but it felt like one of the most productive things I have done so far to subdue my social anxiety monster.

The group of people attending the workshop were warm, welcoming, and kind. Bev, who was leading it, was marvellous. I didn’t feel pushed into anything at any time, though I spent the entire day not just outside my comfort zone but pretty much in another continent to it.

Luckily, my ultimate goal for the workshop fits in quite nicely with one of the fundamental basics of improv- turning off your self-filtering. I didn’t achieve it fully- I still felt pretty shy and reserved by the end of the workshop- but I did take some big steps towards it. I found myself taking part in the games much more enthusiastically than I had expected, and even managed to be funny on the odd occasion.

One of the most beneficial parts was towards the start. As part of a game, one of the guys asked who was nervous about coming today. As dictated by the game, this then led to a mass vacating of seats, followed by a scramble for another one. There followed “who has ever had stage fright”- again, mass movement.

When I found myself stuck in the middle of the circle, I went with the emotionally deep and existentially important question of “Who gets excited when they are about to eat spaghetti hoops?”

There followed a pretty amazing discussion with everyone in the group about their experiences of stage fright and nervousness. They were all so honest, and although I am constantly told that I’m not the only one, it was still good to see that perfectly well-functioning adults still suffer from the stomach-butterflies and brain-freezes just as much as I do.

There were games involving eye contact, which is something that I can sometimes struggle with. There was a really interesting part where you had to walk around in either a high status or a low status mode. It occurred to me as I was doing it that the way I naturally walk, giggle, play with my hair, hunch down etc was pretty much a text book version of the low status walk, whereas high status mode, striding around and holding eye contact with people, I felt really weird and unnatural.

So much of what we covered fits in with what I am covering in therapy. Even the terminology is the same. There was one task where we walked around the room and had to quickly name all the objects. Then we slowed down, and asked more questions about each object in turn, eventually getting to a point where we explored our feelings as well. It reminded me of mindfulness therapy- it was all about being in the moment, rather than rehearsing what might happen in the future or dwelling on what you said five minutes ago.

So it basically felt like an 8 hour long group CBT, mindfulness, and counselling session with a whole load of humour thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I have seen Paul Merton’s Improv Chums three times now and there were moments in this workshop which were just as funny.

I’m not convinced that I am destined for a comedy career, but I have taken a whole load of positivity from that one day, and I’m really pleased and proud of myself for doing it.

You can find out more about the workshops at www.thesuggestibles.com. Bev and Ian's improv group, The Suggestibles, do regular gigs in Newcastle upon Tyne so keep an eye out for a performance if you are in the area- they're a right good laugh, and a blummin' lovely people too.

Hxxx 

So this one's for the friends

"So this one's for the friends
If not so for themselves
And this new life's directing us
Remind us in a town
You made us feel at home
We broke our backs on floors of stone
But I'd rather wake there any day
Than wake up here alone"
-The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly

Today is World Mental Health Day. although this year the focus is on older people, I am in a nazel-gazing, emotional kind of a mood, and have found myself thinking a lot about my friends.

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, I know a lot of people with varying degrees of mental health problems. In fact, I would say that I probably know more people with some sort of mental health problem than those who don't. I find myself thinking of how much I wish I could change how they feel, draw out some of their pain or anxiety or depression for them and lighten their lives a little bit. I think of how wonderful and individual they are, and how amazingly brave and strong they are. The reasons for their problems are as diverse as they are- if there are reasons. I think of how badly they are treated by others, of the stereotypes that are applied to them, and want to shout from the rooftops about how wonderful all of these people are.

The other aspect is how my friends treat me. Its not big, sentimental gestures, nor is it anything to do with the length of time I have known someone. Its the bunch of flowers and bottle of wine that arrived in the post a few days after my marriage broke down. Its lending me an oil-filled radiator when the heating in my flat has broken and fixing my DVD player. Its letting me sit on the sofa in their house in silence because I don't feel like speaking but I don't want to be on my own. Its the rushing round to my flat to remove a spider because I'm too scared to do it myself. Its the constant sarcasm and good-natured banter at work. Its the tweeps who always cheer me up and check how I am when I am in a self-pitying mood, and the patient soothing of my drunken self via WhatsApp at 3am. Its the afternoons of laughter and the knowledge that, if I need to cry hysterically I could, and no one would think any worse of me. Its the quiet, unthinking hug when I am struggling to smile during someone's wedding, or the amazing poem written for my birthday.

These are the sort of things that I have built into my little emotional fortress. There are people out there who can't understand where I derive meaning from in life- I have no god, no children and no husband after all. But all of these little gestures, and all of these wonderful people form the basis of my meaning. Without them, I really don't know where I would be, but I'm pretty sure it would be an awfully dark place. This, for me, is the foundation of my humanism.

I don't tell my friends this kind of thing enough, but I'm so thankful and lucky to have them.

Hxxx

CBT: The first session

So last Friday I began a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions, to help me deal with the social anxiety that I talked about in a previous blog post. 

I don't really expect to learn anything new from the course, to be honest. I'm pretty good at accepting, rationalising and challenging myself to face my fears, but what I'm finding more and more lately is that I reach breaking point more easily. I've always been able to keep the anxiety in check and have always just thought that I am shy, but various things- the bout of psoriasis I had, being single again, stuff happening with my friends etc has meant that I've been much less able to control it of late. So much of my brain is taken up by being anxious that there is little left over for anything else. My organization skills, which were poor at best anyway, are completely shot, and even the most basic problems at work leave me feeling totally overwhelmed. 

My friends are my world, and its hard for me to describe how much I love them and how much I love spending time with them. Since my divorce, when they rallied round and were totally amazing, I have made sure that they are the centre of everything I do. But this thing is getting in the way of that, and its making me miserable as a consequence. 

The best way I can think to describe it is like an energy bar in a computer game, but instead of life force, mine is a social bar. It gradually decreases, then eventually I run out and require recharging. In more stressful situations (like going to parties or meetings where I know no-one, or-horror of all horrors- dating, for example) it runs out a lot quicker than if I am spending time with by best friends. The recharging usually involves lying on my sofa watching old episodes of Dexter and not talking to anyone, although lately I've noticed a much more scary emptiness creeping in, and I can find myself lying on my bed staring at the ceiling with no thoughts or feelings or emotions at all. These hours are terrifying and are something that has never really happened to me before. 

So, having seen my GP, I got referred onto this group CBT course. The irony of being on a group course for social anxiety has not escaped me, and of course I found myself worrying about all aspects of the course. How will I get the time off work? Will I find the place? (this sort of anxiety stems from a fear of looking stupid if I don't know where I'm going) Will I have to make awkward small talk with the other people on the course? Will they think that my reasons for going are stupid? What if I have to speak about my emotions to them? etc etc etc. One of my biggest worries is whether I was bad enough to justify being on the course. The fact that I have spent several days if not weeks worrying about whether I am anxious enough to justify it has also tickled my sense of irony.

Anyway, I managed to find the place, and staggered in red-faced, dry mouthed, sweaty and with my heart beating (irregularly) out of my chest. The other folk in the waiting room looked serene and at home. The course started late due to technical problems, which rather than giving me time to calm down made me even worse.

Once I was in there, I felt somewhat better. The initial session is all about the causes and symptoms of anxiety and how it can manifest in different people, so we didn't really cover any CBT techniques. I was very pleased to hear the trainers talking about the evidence base for CBT, and they explained the pros and cons and process of what we would be doing over the next few weeks. I was starting to feel quite settled. It was nothing I didn't know already, of course, but its always good to know that there are other people suffering from the same thing as you.

Then came the two slides on medication. The slides just covered some really general points which I agreed with, but one of the women there talked about how she didn't want to try any medication as she was so worried about side effects. The trainers said they knew very little about specific medicines, and she should speak to her GP or pharmacist. Well, I tried to keep my mouth shut, I really did, but I couldn't help myself. I thought about just trying to make out like I was someone who knew a bit about medicines, but I could tell that this woman was really worried. She was wanting to try an antidepressant, and thought it could benefit her in the short term, but she was really concerned that they could amplify her anxiety permanently. I wanted to help and reassure her, and before I knew it, I could hear myself saying "I'm a pharmacist..." I explained a bit about how the drugs work, what sort of side effects could happen, and what the sort of terms used to describe how common a side effect is actually mean. She, the other attendees, and the trainers all listened attentively and said how great it was to have it all explained in context rather than to just look at a really long list of scary words on a patient information leaflet.

I left feeling happy that I had shared some of my expertise, but sort of worried about the rest of the course. I fully expect next week to walk in and be asked various different questions about the medicines people are taking. You get used to this happening when you tell people that you're a pharmacist. The problem comes from the fact that now I feel like I need to be "on", and in professional mode, when what I actually sort of want is a place that I can switch off my forcefield and fall apart, so I can put myself back together in a more rational, calmer way.

Hxxx  

The difference of a diagnosis

I have Social Anxiety Disorder. Its all official and everything, having just come back from the doctors' surgery, where all of my rehearsed, clear and concise explanations of how I have been feeling lately descended into some soggy, disordered sentences and lots of apologies. 

What, precisely does this mean? It means I feel weird, and I don't quite know what to do with myself. It's interesting, the effect of having a label. I imagine this particular effect is broadly similar for many diagnoses, to lesser and greater degrees. It's a waveform: you just start relaxing into it, and feeling relived by it, then you think 'oh shit, there's something wrong with me!', then it all starts again.

There is a satisfying feeling of loose ends being tied up. It's the explanatory scene at the end of every episode of Poirot, the metaphorical jigsaw pieces being placed. You think of all the things that you've been feeling over the years and you squidge all of your individual experiences into the shape of the words on the leaflet you've been given.

But its weirdly hard to relinquish the long-held belief that actually you're just quite shit at life, that its your own fault and you're just not trying hard enough, to something external like an Actual Real Life Diagnosis. Bits of what I thought were my personality are instantly explained and I can't quite accept that its not just me being defective.

There is also a fear that now I have an excuse, a reason to stop berating myself, I will luxuriate in it. Will I kick back and stop pushing myself as much as I have been, and retreat? Will it take even more effort now to venture out and smile, with a diagnosis weighing me down?

People who know me may be inclined to think that this is bollocks, that I'm just going through a rough patch and will be fine in a bit. I keep telling myself that too, to be honest. I'll shake it off and it'll be fine. but this is an underlying thing that has always been there. Most of the time it lurks, but sometimes it pushes itself into the front row, knocks out the bouncers, and jumps on the stage and dances naked. In other words, its pretty damn distracting, and it takes up a fair amount of my working brain. 

There are a few cruel dichotomies that I am the victim of in life. I love nothing more than lying for hours in the sunshine, yet I have the palest, most prone to burning skin, for example. And this is one too. I love being around people. I love my friends more than anything, and I rely on them for my very existence. But this thing, this bloody diagnosis, means I can end up spending the precious time I have with them fighting with my instincts to run away from them, even though I desperately want to be with them.

You could be the one person who I want to spend the most amount of time with in the world. You could be the person that I am most interested in getting to know, or the person who I most want to impress. I might be really interested in your opinions, and desperately want to know about your life. But what will most likely happen is that I will sit in awkward silence and you will think "she hates me", or "she's not remotely sociable" or "bloody hell, she's really boring". If only you could hear the things running through my head at these times though. In my brain, I am running through all of my most sparkling, wittiest, intelligent observations and quietly discarding every one of them as being too unworthy of your consideration. Yeah, I know I should let you judge that, and I think about it constantly afterwards and how stupid I have been for not saying anything, but in the moment, none of those rational thoughts help. Conversely, you could be someone who I know I will never meet again. You could be a random person on the street who asks me directions, or a train conductor, or a waitress in a restaurant I will never visit again, and I will still have the same reactions.

I can often mask it, but my body lets me down. I can be sat having a nice chat with someone I have been friends with for years, and I am internally in full on fight-or-flight mode. My heart is pounding irregularly, my brain is rushing and I blush extravagantly. If this is how I am with people who I know love me, and who I have known for years, imagine how I am when I meet new people.

Some of you might be thinking 'why in the hell is she writing about this in public?' Some would say that this is the kind of thing that should be kept under wraps, behind closed doors, under the carpet and all that kind of thing. Well, I say bollocks to that. I have written before about how stubborn the stigma of mental health is, and I just don't subscribe to the idea that we still, in this day and age, need to be embarrassed about it. It's actually really hard and scary to write about it all in public, but it makes me feel better and I don't want to hide it away. I have enough faith in you, Dear Reader, that you wont think any less of me for it or judge me too much. 

Hxxx


 

How much of [insert drug name] do I need to take to kill myself?

I'm slightly obsessive over checking my blog stats, and I've noticed a trickle of people finding my site by using such terms as the above.

So, if you have found my site by searching for a similar phrase, I just wanted to say a few things to you. I'm not saying this in my capacity as a pharmacist, or skeptic, or anything like that, but just as a human. Don't worry, I won't keep you long. 

Firstly: I know and I understand.

Secondly: It feels like this will last forever, but it won't. Give it twenty minutes or half an hour, and in the meantime, please ring these people. No, really, please do. After all, in the grand scheme of things, a delay of a few minutes wont make a massive difference.
In the UK, the number is 08457909090. In the Republic of Ireland, its 1850609090. In the US its 1-800-273-8255. There will be similar numbers in other countries. 
If you  could just do that for me, that will be brilliant. 

Thirdly: I'm sorry, but you wont find that kind of information on this site. 

Fourthly: I care about people, and that means I care about you. If someone who has never met you at all cares about you, then its highly likely that some other people out there do too. I know that might not be enough, but it should count for something. I and many others don't want you to. 

Oceans of love, 


Hxxx


P.S. There is a lesson here for other bloggers/ website owners/ healthcare professionals too. Please be aware of what you are writing if you are covering anything about toxicology.

The Godless Matinee

A while ago I- with the help of all of you lovely lot- collected together a little playlist of songs with an atheist theme. It was a great post to write, and what I love about it is that I still get suggestions now, or will be absent mindedly listening to something and will think "ooh, I must add that to the list". I love very much that many of you now have atheist playlists on your MP3 playing devices, and that I've had a tiny part to play in that.

Its been at the back of my mind for a while that a similar list for films should be in existence, then I was kicked into action by the same suggestion from the lovely Alom Shaha. Great minds and all that, eh? So here we have it, a humble list of films with an atheist or godless theme.

Some House Rules first. Be warned that I am the sort of person who will get up halfway through a film to tell someone off for talking, or having their phone on during a film. Even minor rustling of food packaging drives me crazy. So may I politely request that you follow this Code of Conduct, and we'll all get along fine.

So, phones off? Right, well settle in, get comfy, and lets watch some films. 

Remember guys, let me know if you want anything added. email me at healthydoseofskepticism@gmail.com, tweet me @SparkleWildfire, or leave a comment. I'd love to include your reasoning for choosing the films too.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) as suggested by @krypto: "All about the goodness of people. Polar opposite of religious remake"

Winter Light (1963) as suggested by @eyeswideshut75: "Bergman was tormented by atheism all his life.  i wouldn't say he was a one who celebrated it - to him one of the great pains in life was the silence of God, and this is never more evident than in Winter Light, Bergman's most unflinching and searing portrayal of personal, emotional and spiritual suffering.  the main character is a country priest who has lost his faith, but continues the rituals and tasks of his religion out of servitude, fear, a lack of anything else to do, out of service to his (ever dwindling and hopeless) congregation, and out of any cowardice to actually face up to this.  that Bergman's father was a strict Lutheran pastor adds whole new dimensions to the film." There you go, Ian, I did use more than two sentences after all.

The Wicker Man (1973) I recently rewatched this as part of an all-nighter at my beautiful local cinema, and it struck me how differently I viewed it now, as a more self-aware atheist than the first time I saw it. It seems like an odd choice at first glance, given it is entirely about belief of one form or another. But from an outside observer's perspective, its really interesting. Staunch catholic Sergeant Howie seems utterly repressed by his Catholic faith, whereas the paganism of the Summerisle residents initially seems full of freedom, but soon becomes a clear example of cargo cult science. In the end, all parties end up looking daft- the residents useless singing  in the face of failing crops whilst Sergeant Howie cries out in vain to Jesus, who can't save him from a fiery death. Oh, and sorry for the spoiler, but lets be honest here- the title is a spoiler anyway.

Carrie (1976) I only watched Carrie for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Not the most flattering depiction of religious families really, is it?

Life of Brian (1979) "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!"

Star Trek V (1989) as suggested by @_TheGeoff.

 

Chocolat (2000). i add this on a Friday night of what has been an exhausting week. I've just watched Mother, a Korean film which is not what one would call a laugh riot, so I figured I had earned a sugary sweet, mindless film. (Mindless films are actually quite rare for me, with the exception of zombie films. I tend to shy away from anything that even vaguely resembles a rom com.) Its been over ten years since I saw this, so I had completely forgotten how atheist it is. And you can't beat a bit of Binoche.

Touching The Void (2003) as suggested by @damonayoung

Kingdom of Heaven (2005), as suggested by @JPSargeant78

Conversations with my Gardener Dialogue Avec Mon Jardinier (2007). This film has been chosen by North East Humanists as one for their film night next year. I haven't seen it yet, but am happy to take their word for it that it contains many of the sorts of values held by humanists.

Religulous (2008), as suggested by @epparry. I'm watching this as we speak, and crying laughing at the Holy Land Experience bit.

The Invention of Lying (2009) As mentioned in Alom's book.

A Serious Man (2009) as suggested by @Buster_Bear

Whatever Works (2009) I'm sure I saw somebody suggesting this but I can't find who it is, so my apologies

The Infidel (2010) in which a lapsed British Muslim finds out he is actually Jewish. Its not godless as such, but it does call into question the ridiculousness of hatred between the different factions of religion.

Four Lions (2010) because one if the only ways we have of dealing with the horrors of terrorism and religious freedom extremism is to make black comedies and laugh at it. When I saw it at the cinema I was left uncomfortable at the riotous laughter going on around me: its a film of hilarity mixed with deep sadness, but many appeared to be missing the sadness bit. Through the humour, the dangerous ridiculousness of violence based on religion is addressed, along with the manipulation it involves. In the end, you're left feeling that when it comes down to it, a belief in god is about as valid as a belief in rubber dinghy rapids.

The Ledge (2011) as suggested by Alom Shaha

Paul (2011) as suggested by @Alex250175. "beautiful moment of revelation"

Side Effects (2013) as suggested by @Dilip_Modhvadia. In his words "a good film apart from Jude Law's nauseating performance".

Philomena (2013) as suggested by the ever wonderful @obsolesence

 

Anything by Michael Bay. Because any merciful god would surely not allow such atrocities to exist.

 

Hxxx

Which Way to the Nearest Wilderness?

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau 

I was a pretty proficient reader as a child, and I have a vague memory of winning this book for some reason or another from school. I had completely forgotten about it, then for some reason, the title just popped uninvited into my head the other night, and I knew I had to read it again. I managed to find a secondhand copy, which, when delivered, turns out to be an ex-school library copy, still nestled in its plastic cover, and with a label stuck neatly into the front declaring it a gift to the school from the P.T.A. It has that beautiful, musty smell of old books and appears to have been last taken out of the library in 1991. I can't help but wonder by who, and what they thought of it. 


I remember reading this book over and over as a child. I really loved it, although I do remember not quite relating to the situations the main character, Eunice, finds herself in. She has a brother and a sister, and parents who are teetering on the brink of divorce, with a stormy home life characterized by constant arguing. I remember struggling with some of the words, but caring enough about the story to get out a dictionary and find out what they meant.

On reading it now, as an adult, I’m amazed by it. It’s a wonderful, forgotten book, and one of the best portrayals of girls and friendships as I’ve ever seen in either a children’s book, or even adult literature (although I will make an exception for Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which I’m also reading again at the moment and which is like the perfect counterpoint to this book.) I wouldn’t say its feminist as such, but it is about girls who are not defined by their looks or even their talents, but by their friendships, personalities, morals, and philosophies.

It doesn’t, like most children’s literature, shy away from difficult topics like divorce, bitterness, or mental health issues. It’s ostensibly aimed at girls, but isn’t shrouded in pink or ponies or candy-floss. Nor is it  faux-darkly serious- There isn’t a vampire in sight. It’s a Ken Loach-esque naturalistic, social realist sort of YA, I suppose. The language is actually quite challenging: on the first page, words like philosophy, hobgoblin, façade abound.

It centres around Eunice’s decision to go into the wilderness, build herself a cabin, and live as a hermit, prompted by reading Walden. In the meantime, her sister suffers-and survives- heartbreak, her parents separate and precariously reunite, her quiet, sensitive brother requires- and survives- counselling, Eunice and her best friend set up a business, fall out, and make up again. Where a lot of YA for girls is all about boys, reinforcing the belief that a girl can’t be fully whole without a relationship, this book shows Millie stepping away her boyfriend when he declares he loves her, and eventually embracing her independence, even within the context of a relationship.

Reading this now, as an adult, I’m amazed by how many important life lessons are in there. I suspect they may have seeped into me without my knowledge as a read and re-read it as a child. Is this where my love of peanut butter sandwiches comes from? My ability to deploy sarcasm liberally? My-previously unsuspected, and completely surprising to myself- ability to bounce back from my own divorce? My love of my own company and need to retreat, coupled with an overwhelming love for my friends? Although I must admit, the idea of living in the countryside on my own fills me with absolute dread.

I finished reading it in three days, and I’m slightly stunned that one hardly-known little book could have that much packed inside it. I suspect they don’t make children’s books like that anymore.  

Hxxx

Apostasy: a Heathen's perspective

Sometimes, you come across things in life that really open your eyes and you find yourself gazing into a world that you had no idea about. The Apostasy Project is one of those things. 

Being a lower-middle-class-ish white girl with a loving, secure, and easy-going family, I've never really had to think about a lot of the things I am. I can breezily make declarations about my lack of faith and no one would really bat an eyelid, even those that are more religiously inclined. Not everyone has access to this privilege. 

I know I've said this before, but I really can't thank my parents enough for their laid back -some would say lackadaisical- attitudes to my religious upbringing. They purposefully didn't force any religion on me as a child, their conviction being that it was my choice-when I was old enough to make that decision- what to believe in. They gave me the gift of a neutral baseline on which to impose my own beliefs, or lack of them, as I wished.

I went to a Christian school, but all that really meant was sitting through a couple of minutes of prayer in assembly. There were no consequences of not praying- it was just another boring part of assembly to accept and get through before the more interesting bits of the school day started. School plays were religiously themed sometimes, (but also, on one notable occasion, Neighbours themed) but none of this really had any effect on me or the rest of my life decisions and was viewed by most of us kids as vaguely ridiculous and uncool.  I have very little knowledge of any religion, to be honest, because I just don't really need it in my life- I'm a modern day heathen, in the unruly, uncivilised sense of the word, you could say. 

So I've been pretty much oblivious to the sorts of issues that people who have to walk away from a religion can experience. Recently, thanks to The Apostasy Project, I've been reading with interest the accounts of people who have walked away from their religion. It had, to be honest, never really occurred to me that 'coming out' as an atheist is potentially just as traumatic an experience for some as the more traditional version of 'coming out' that people would think of- as being gay. Like some gay people, apostates also risk losing respect, family, friends, and their whole communities simply for stating that they no longer subscribe to the same belief system. What I'm realising too is that these sorts of issues can apply across the board religion-wise too: it's not just those that people assume to be more fundamentalist.

 

Given all of this, it's amazing really that anyone ever does come out about losing their faith. But, when the alternative is living a lie, why should people have to keep their lack of faith secret? The more apostates speak out, the more normalised it becomes, and hopefully a more open, civilised and accepting society follows. Making the decision to question and walk away from a religion which shaped your childhood is an incredibly brave thing to do, and those of us who are lucky enough not to have to do so might not appreciate that.

 

The Apostasy Project has been set up to support people in this position, and its an important role to play. If any of you lovely people can help them out, please do. 

 

Atheists are, by definition, a ragtag, diverse bunch. Some would say that with only a lack of belief to unite us, it's impossible that we could build the sort of religious community one would find in, say, a church. But I don't think that's true, and I think it's important that we build a sort of atheistic extended family in order to be more visible and frankly, just because its much nicer for us all to feel that we belong somewhere. This is my little chunk of solidarity to apostates everywhere, then, for what it's worth.


Hxxx


P.S. Be sure to also read John Sargeant's account of leaving Jehovah's Witnesses, which are beautifully written: Part One and Part Two

Lessons and a legacy

On the 7th November 2007, my life changed forever.

In a very small ceremony in Toronto's Civic Hall, I married the man who completed me. Together, we embarked on a three year journey characterized by security, comfort and love. We had our moments and arguments, but we enjoyed a really good marriage. The overwhelming feeling I remember experiencing in those days is safety. 

People are often surprised when I tell them I'm divorced. In my head, I desperately tell myself this is because I look far too young to have been through this particular mill, or because I'm simply so amazingly wonderful that no-one could possibly imagine anyone wanting to divorce moi. I tell myself these things to stave off the fear that they're astounded that anyone would be daft enough to marry me in the first place. And of course, the next natural question for them to ask is "What happened?!"

I find it hard to know how to pitch my answer. Its pretty much impossible to hit the right tone in an everyday conversation. I have no idea if its even possible to convey-within a few sentences of a polite conversation- what it feels like to have your entire world shattered, being forced to give up all your hopes and dreams and worldview in the process, and yet also how you are utterly amazed at yourself for getting through it all relatively unscathed. At least I can now just give them this link and tell them to get back to me in twenty minutes

I usually find myself sounding far too dismissive of it, as if it was all a bit of a breeze and I barely even noticed it happening. But the other alternative is to sound like I'm still a gibbering wreck because of it, which I'm really not.

It was all very sudden. There was an inclination that something wasn't quite right for a week or so before, but nothing too terrible. On Christmas Eve I was feeling a bit wistful. I told him I was worried, to which he said "Don't be so daft. We'll be together for ever." That's an exact quote, by the way. I feel like its burned into the inside of my skull, and can actually see the words scrawledin sooty black. Two days later, on boxing day, he told me he wanted to divorce. He had decided he wanted children, and there was no longer any place for me, and my lack of desire for children, in his life. This was not negotiable. There was no room for trying, marriage counsellors, pleading, nothing. He'd decided that I just wasn't worth fighting for, and that was that. This may have been the best and worst part of the whole thing. Its utterly crushing to know that you're not worth any effort, but his absolute certainty that this was It meant that I was saved from having to hang on for months on end, telling myself that he might just change his mind. I was saved from limbo, but tipped into hell. 

The embarrassment is possibly the worst bit. Having to acknowledge that you've failed at what you consider to be the most important and central bit of your life- if not your entire life itself- is truly awful. To this day, I'm terrified of meeting anyone who i haven't seen since it happened. I'm going to a wedding soon in which there will be people there who I haven't seen from school, and I'm already preoccupied with how much of an utter failure they will think i am. I don't think I'll ever quite shake this feeling.

I used to honestly believe that he was my world. I used to worry about him getting ill and dying and whether or not I'd survive without him. I always concluded I wouldn't. I used to think that love was the single most important thing that could ever happen to me, and that if I didn't have it with this man then my life meant nothing at all. I thought I was quite pathetic, emotionally, and that I would never be able to cope with half of the things that most people go through as part of their daily lives. Other people could cope with divorces, but not me, I thought. I'm left both terrified that I won't ever feel like that over someone again and terrified that I will. I thought he made up for all my faults and that as part of a couple they would be forgiven, whereas on my own I wasn't worthy of anyone's consideration. 

However, approximately two weeks after that fateful Boxing Day, I had my own flat and I was absolutely loving living on my own. My friends- who I had mildly neglected during my marriage- rallied round and were and still are properly, properly amazing. All of that love that used to be directed at one man is now spread liberally over all of them. I've discovered a fierce loyalty that I didn't know I had. I've gotten myself involved in many things that I would never have dreamed about being brave enough to do during my marriage. these things would seem tiny and inconsequential to anyone else, but to me they are a lifeline.

I totally surprised myself. I didn't sail through it all, by any means, but I surpassed my own expectations of how I would cope with flying colours.  I know now that I have a capacity to cope with things that I would never have discovered if this hadn't happened to me. I have a renewed confidence that, when terrible things happen, I'll survive in my own right. I have faith in my own personality, and know that I don't need another person as a prop. A relationship is an optional extra, not a baseline requirement. My friends come first, above all things. I've learned that support comes from the most unexpected places (@eyeswideshut75, I'm looking at you, amongst others), and that asking for help is not in any way shameful. These are lessons that I'm bloody glad I now know.

I'd love to end on that positive note, I really would. But alas, its not that simple. I'm left with an inherent distrust of anything nice that's said to me. All of my beautiful ideas of love are shattered and I now know that its most definitely not All You Need. I've been unable to say and feel the word ever since in relationships, and have purposefully shied away from a few opportunities because of the terror of letting myself go. I have to fight with the cynicism that raises its ugly head every time a friend announces an engagement, or I go to a wedding. It's not the done thing to laugh bitterly out loud at the vows, I hear. This doesn't mean I'm not genuinely happy for them, I really am. I just hate the fact that my right to feel the excitement and happiness that blissful ignorance brings has been taken away from me.


If you ever visit Toronto Zoo, you'll find a little brick in the pavement just outside the gift shop which commemorates my wedding. It'll be there forever (or at least whilst the Zoo is still there), but the concept of forever has been ruined for me, and I don't think I'll ever get it back. Sometimes I think about how we have let that little brick down. 

Anyway, there you have it. I'm not one for mystery, and prefer to have things out in the open. It's cathartic to tell you all, dear readers, this sort of thing, and I'm pretty sure that if this really was just a blog about skepticism in healthcare you'd be bored shitless by now. So forgive my oversharing, and this muddy little puddle of melancholy in an otherwise bright and beautiful day.

Hxxx

Harry, who had seven hairs on his head.

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandad Harry recently. I'm not entirely sure why- it's not his birthday, or the anniversary of his death or anything in particular. I'm not going to bother trying to shoehorn this post into any recent news events or make any great points about skepticism or science in it. My intentions are purely to tell you about him, because he is a worthy subject.

 Harry.

Harry.


At school we had to do an English project on someone who had inspired us.   Of course, it being the early nineties, my English teacher found himself wading through twenty or so biographies of Michael Jackson. But I did mine on my good old Grandad. I wish I still had a copy of that project now.

He was brought up in a Catholic orphanage. I believe his mother died and his father couldn't take care of him and his siblings. I know he had a horrible time there, but the details are sketchy. I know the orphans there were very starved of love and attention. I remember him telling me how, one Christmas, the nuns had told them all how they were getting a very special treat. The boys were each presented with a bit of spice cake, which in their eyes might as well have been manna from heaven. It gave them all a tiny ray of hope, of excitement. When they bit into it, it was full of cobwebs. Those nuns must have been having a right old laugh at that. 


Despite- or perhaps because of- all of this, he vowed that his life-and the life of his family- would be filled with nothing but love and warmth and joy. Where he could so easily have been consumed with anger, he instead became what I consider to be the very pinnacle of what everyone should strive to be. He was a true gentleman. 


He met my Grandma briefly, then again through some mix-up with ration books, and so it began. (i need to check that story actually, i remember it being desperately romantic, but I can't recall the details.) Those two have taught me everything I know about love. Through some hard, poor, and difficult times they were the most loving and romantic couple I have ever encountered. You know when you're in the first flush of a relationship, and you do everything you can think of for someone before the fatigue of familiarity sets in? They seemed to be like that despite being together for many, many years. Their flat was full to the brim of knick-knacks, those little impulse purchases they had bought each other over the years just because they were thinking of each other all the time. 


He was gregarious, and would welcome anyone to his home with a massive smile and a huge hug. Whenever I took boyfriends round to meet him for the first time, he'd welcome them with "hello, bonny lad!" along with a (often to their embarrassment and my amusement) big sloppy kiss. Within about 5 minutes of arriving, he'd be offering you food, tea and whisky, and you'd be totally charmed by him.


He loved whisky, so much so that on his 80th birthday he got 18 full size bottles of it as presents from his friends. I used to go round to see him for a few hours and emerge into the afternoon staggering somewhat from all of the "wee drams" we'd share. Highland Park was his favourite: for his birthday I bought him a bottle of the expensive stuff. The next time I went round he said he had drank it all already, but later on, when he was more sick and I had to retrieve some from the cupboard for him I could see the only-half-empty bottle there, the cheeky devil. 


He had an amazing sense of humour. When he and my Grandma came to stay with me once to look after me when my parents were on holiday they told all their friends they were going to Kingston for the week, neglecting to mention the Park bit which would denote a sleepy suburb of Newcastle rather than Jamaica. He tried his best to be modern: he loved playing on the wii, pottering about on a computer, and listening to his iPod. He had a better mobile phone than me at one point. And he-and my grandma, still- also had modern attitudes. They knew the world was changing around them and they did their best to understand it, not be set in their ways and disapproving if us unruly youngsters. They didn't bat an eyelid when I would traipse in looking all sullen in my goth days, they just gave me a massive hug and told me I looked lovely all the same. 


When he became very ill, there were about four or five occasions when we seriously thought he was going to die. Each time he fought back, but became more and more frail each time. I remember his consultant pretty much saying after the first time that he shouldn't have still been with us, and that he wish he knew his secret. My auntie probably put it best: "he'll do anything he can to stay with her (my grandma)". Perversely, I actually remember the first time this happened as one of the best times I have spent with my family. Waiting in the relatives room, us assembled cousins, aunties, uncles and parents roared with raucous laughter at everything going. We made our own hilarious entertainment using nothing but an old copy of the Evening Chronicle and  some plastic packaging. Some would think that's weird, but I know Grandad would have wanted nothing less. At his wake we holed ourselves up in a room with copious amounts of port and wine, and screamed with laughter as more distant friends and relatives turned their noses in the air and probably thought we were disrespectful.


But he would want us crying tears of laughter rather than sadness.


Now, as you'll probably know by now, I don't believe in an afterlife. But I do believe in a legacy, and if I manage to have a legacy that's even a quarter as powerfully loving as Harry's, I'll know I will have led a good life. 


Hxxx


P.S. The seven hairs thing was a long standing joke. He used to count them and declare that he had seven hairs on the top of his head. No more, no less, always seven.

P.P.S. Its been requested that I mention something else also, something that I actually can't believe I forgot about: The Toilet Of Joy. I have no idea why The Toilet Of Joy came about, but it stems from a family trip to Ilkley for one of Grandad's birthdays. We had a meal in one particular area of a pub which had been roped off for us, and for reasons best known only to the god of wine, the entire family ended up spending much of the night in a toilet cubicle, in hysterics over a hand-dryer. This became known as The Toilet Of Joy. Something very odd, very noisy, and very wonderful happens when my family get together. 

Take all of it, every scrap

There are many things in life that are not black and white. There are many arguments in which I can see where all sides are coming from, and I can understand the root of why people would disagree with me. Yet there is one area which is consistently contentious, and yet my brain can genuinely not comprehend the other side of the debate.

I'm talking about organ donation.

The news yesterday was good: there has been a 50% increase in organ donation since 2008. And yet there is still a long, long way to go.

"Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate."- BBC News

I really, really struggle to understand why anyone would object to organ donation. I just cannot get my head round it. And overturning an individual's decision to donate their organs seems particularly bizarre to me. I understand that in the acutely shocking and devastating situation of a death you might not be thinking clearly, but... I really just don't get it. 

Maybe its my atheism. Maybe its the fact that I see death as just that and no more. I don't see it as the start of a new journey into the afterlife, or the first step on my way to meeting my maker. You just die and that's that. So I suppose its easy for me to disassociate myself from the shell that's left. I don't feel creepy about the idea that there could be bits of me in other people: in fact I feel positively proud that I might be able to help in any way.

Religions offer us a legacy. They give us the promise of a new beginning after our death, and so go some way to assuage the fear of nothingness that might follow. But it's a legacy that, in my opinion, is pretty useless. It might be comforting to our loved ones, but in the long term view of things on this planet, that doesn't mean a great deal when there are people whose lives could be made better by a chunk of my flesh being implanted into them when its no longer any use to me.

Not that I think every objection to organ donation is on religious grounds, but I suspect it may be a fairly important part of it for some people. Atheists are often told that we're evil, that we have no morals, and that we are going to hell, but to me it seems that organ donation is clearly the more morally good choice when the alternative is wanting to keep a dead person intact for ceremonial reasons. 

Some people just think its icky: the idea that a bit of you will be in someone else. I had an ex-boyfriend who thought organ donation was wrong "because its just weird" (he's an ex for a number of very definite reasons, and this is quite a prominent one). Well, I think a lot of things are icky, but they still get done because they have to be done. I can think of more pleasant things than having a smear test, for example, but I do it because it is a necessary evil. And, one has to remember a key point: you're dead. Things don't seem so icky or weird to you any more because you no longer exist. 

  Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

urely there is no better legacy than giving parts of ourselves to allow other people to go on living healthier, longer lives.  

And so, your homework is to (if you haven't already), think about it, speak to your loved ones about it, and sign up to the Organ Donation Register 

Hxxx

In defence of Dirty Dancing

A little while ago, I asked for feminist film suggestions on Twitter. I was almost drowned with enthusiastic responses, and will hopefully be able to categorise them all into some sort of blog post at some point. 

One suggestion really stuck out in my mind. @ayiasophia suggested Dirty Dancing, but also mentioned that she had gotten some stick for suggesting it as feminist in the past. Now I must admit, I did scoff a little myself for a few seconds. But then I thought about it. Could Dirty Dancing, in actual fact, be one of the most quietly fervent feminist films around?

  What? This blog post needed a picture. Its hardly my fault if a half-naked picture of Patrick Swayze just happened to present itself to me. Its not objectification, honest

What? This blog post needed a picture. Its hardly my fault if a half-naked picture of Patrick Swayze just happened to present itself to me. Its not objectification, honest

Firstly: allow me to declare that I love this film. I've watched it many, many times: on my own, with friends, in a packed cinema with smuggled in wine (yes, we ended up dancing in the cinema, but it's okay because everyone else in there was too), I've seen the stage show twice. Most of all, though, I remember this film from my childhood. If the weather was bad, they used to let us watch it on video instead of PE. My mum and I knew the soundtrack off by heart. To this day, She's Like The Wind makes me weak at the knees. However, it's always felt a bit guilty, loving this film. After all, it's pretty frivolous, right? or is it? 

When I was younger, the subtleties of it totally passed me by. It was, as far as I was concerned, a film entirely about kicking bridges, pretty dresses, dancing, and of course watermelons. I even remember vaguely wondering what was dirty about it. Of course, when you watch it as an adult you realise they're lolling post-coitally around in bed for a lot of the time. And they used to show us it in school! 

Baby is, it's safe to say, not defined by her looks or sexuality at the start of the film. She's smart, and she's going to change the world. She's not what would be considered particularly beautiful. Her sister, on the other hand, is defined by her looks. She's that stereotypical, air-headed woman who thinks her appearance is what matters.


My views of feminism are strengthening constantly these days. It's tempting to define it as not needing a man, but I think it's a real shame to exclude men and relationships from a working definition of feminism. In my opinion, a feminist heterosexual relationship is one in which you are free to be consumed by love at its frightening best, and yet its about not being defined by your relationship with men. 

At first glance, this film is about getting the guy (and what a guy!). But when you think about it more deeply, the reasons why she gets the guy are really important and quite admirable. It is her ideals, her intelligence, and her ability to be an all-round decent person that gets her the guy rather than how drop-dead gorgeous she is. Her sister, who does try to use her looks to get her way, fails miserably. There's also that pro-choice storyline, and who could possibly forget Jonny's speech about how he's used by rich women- he's the one who is objectified here, not Baby.  
 

So, when you think about it, its actually the perfect film for the school to have been showing us as children, and for my Mum to watch with me time and time again. It's about a young woman who learns that she'll be loved because of who she is, rather than what she looks like. It's about her learning about and pretty freely enjoying sex and love but not being defined by it. She is her own person throughout and at the end... Well, off she goes, like the wind. 

I've noticed that a few of the feminist films that were suggested centre around revenge, usually against men. But there's none of that here. There's an acknowledgement that  men are present, enriching and important, but they are not the be-all-and-end-all of being a good person. Jonny is a support to Baby, but not a crutch - and to me, that's exactly what a healthy relationship should be. 


Hxxx

A particularly awkward situation

I've written once before about my decision to be child-free, when I wrote a bit about the generic awkward conversation which invariably happens. This time I want to tell you about one particular situation in which child-free women frequently find themselves: The Holding Of The Baby.

 Attribution: Godless girl

Attribution: Godless girl


Now I'm lucky in that my friends and family are, on the whole, very supportive of my decision. It's become a running joke at work that if there Is a baby about, I get forewarned so that I can find somewhere safe to hide in time. I'm lucky in that my workmates and friends know what I'm like, and they don't tend to take it as a personal slight when I don't turn into a gooey mush at the sight of their cherubs. They even usually manage to smile politely when I refer to their child accidentally as "it".

However, I'm not always so lucky, and the Holding Of The Baby ritual can be one that is so cringe-worthy that even writing about it now sets my teeth on edge. 

I have no interest in holding a baby. I'm clumsy, and likely to break it, which apparently isn't the done thing. I also just don't see the point of it: I can see perfectly well that its a baby from where I'm standing, thank you very much. I'd go so far as to say that holding a baby or child terrifies me. I remember on one occasion being at the ex-husband's sister's house with her two kids snuggled in cuddling me. Whilst I was informed that this was a touching scene externally, I was in total, full-on terror mode internally, with cold sweats, palpitations, and adrenaline generally screeching RUN AWAAAAY!! In my ear.

At first, they act like its a game. "Ooh, let's see if we can get H to hold the baby, that'll be funny". I can cope with the joviality initially, skipping around and performing various feats of ducking, diving, and slapstick comedy to get away. And then there's a point when it's not that funny to me actually. I really, really do not want to hold it-I mean him or her- thank you.

"Oh go on"
"No, really, it's fine. I'll just break it- erm him or her I mean"
"No go on, it'll be fine"

And so, I am trapped. There is nothing At all that I can do to get out of this situation, so I'm going to have to hold the baby. And I know exactly what's coming, and I know that it's going to end up in disappointment for us all. 

So, the bundle of joy is handed over, usually with the involvement of a precarious moment in which I narrowly avoid accidentally breaking its neck, and the following happens;

......
......
......


That's it. Nothing at all. All I think about is "when will this be over?" Or 'please cry so I can hand you back' or 'if you release any form of bodily fluid onto me I will be very, very unhappy'. And then I look up to observe a sea of expectant faces, all waiting in unison to see the miraculous conversion of the child-free to broody desperation to have a thing of such perfection in my life.

'After all', the parents might have been thinking, 'my child is THE most beautifully cute, wonderful,  overwhelmingly brilliant bundle of perfect genius that has ever lived. My baby is special, and better than everyone elses' normal, run-of-the-mill babies. She probably just doesn't want children because the only children she's been introduced to so far pale in comparison to my child. "As soon as she sees my child, that's when the maternal instinct will hit' Of course, I have no idea if this actually is how parents do think, but it may be one explanation for why The Holding Of The Baby is often forced upon the child-free. 

So what is one supposed to do in this situation? Well, I could lie, but I'm a truly a terrible actress. So instead I imperceptibly shake my head sadly and try to say something bland and apologetic. I'm sorry that your child isn't special enough to convert me, I really am, but it isn't. The doting parents are left disappointed, the spectators slump away like they've just witnessed a thorough trouncing of their favourite team, and I'm left crushed and embarrassed  that I'm the reason for all this disappointment. 

It's really not a nice feeling. And it could be very easily avoided by just acknowledging that not everyone wants to hold babies, not even yours.

If you're a parent, you might think that I'm being confrontational and unfair here. But all I'm asking for is that my life choice is respected. I wouldn't bring my cat into work and force those who dislike cats to hold him, as I respect the fact that some people don't like cats or want them in their lives (I also know my cat is a particularly violent individual and I don't want any lawsuits for loss of eyes or limbs, thank you very much.). It would just be lovely to have a refusal to Hold The Baby accepted unquestioningly.

Hxxx  

What the Ancients did for me

I remember very distinctly one school trip from my days at primary school. I remember weeks of preparation as I helped my mum to convert a white bedsheet into a tunic, mum doing the sewing whilst i gave artistic and historical guidance, and I recall spending many hours lovingly painting a design of snakes and hieroglyphs along the hem. I remember in-depth discussions about the issue of my hair: a light shade of ginger simply would not cut the mustard on this occasion, and a wig of black, glossy tresses was constructed using an old headband and a bin bag. This was also the day that my lifelong love-hate relationship with eyeliner began. 

This wasn't just any old school trip. I was going to meet King Tutankhamen, and I needed to look the part of a genuine Egyptian to fit in, not to mention the fact that I had been practising for this moment for a while- I was known to have Ancient Egyptian days at home where I would wander around with an old gold necklace on my head declaring myself to be an Ancient Egyptian princess, whilst quietly cursing my more Celtic colouring and lack of servants, wealth, and ancient palace to live in. 

I was-and still am- utterly enamoured by the Ancient Egyptians. Nothing quite adequately describes the thrill of being faced with a sarcophagus or two on a museum visit. My favourite things to pore over for an inordinate amount of time are the smallest things, the charms wrapped up with mummies. Small, shiny trinkets that were so highly revered they were thought to have magical properties; it perhaps explains why I am so easily distracted by glittery shiny things to this day. 

My point is that this love of a culture so exotically distinct from my own was started in school. I have no recollection of history teaching in my primary school because memory is so bad, but I was left with a fascination of all things ancient and foreign, and that fascination still shapes my life today. Once I moved from primary school to middle school (do they even exist any more?), I can remember the thrill and excitement of starting a new subject in history, and all the possibilities it could bring. 'Ooh, the Romans!' I would think, 'there'll be people being eaten by tigers and stuff! Brilliant!' The Ancient Greeks, with their alarmingly modern gods arguing about the pettiest of things fascinated me back then and have continued to do so throughout my school and adult life. I remember a school librarian being somewhat alarmed by me dusting off and taking home the copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey to take home to read "just for fun" when obviously I should have been drinking cider on street corners instead. 

Why am I wittering on about this on a blog supposed to be about healthcare? Well, because I just happen to have been listening to a podcast discussion about Gove's proposed new history syllabus. I am very demonstrably not a teacher of young people, nor do I require any history in my daily life (nor do I actually have any idea about the details or practicalities of Gove's syllabus), but I think this may make me weirdly qualified to actually comment on this subject. Gove wants a more Britain-centric teaching of history: well guess what Gove: British history is frankly boring. Its also not particularly British, given that we are a mish-mash of Angles and Saxons. Sure, Harold got an arrow in the eye, but in the face of all that exotic otherworldly-yet-just-within-our-grasp excitement of the Egyptians, Moors, Romans and Greeks, any child in their right mind would be bored of this country's history. Not every child is going to end up a history scholar: the majority of them will, like me, end up in a job where they don't *need* any history. But the key is surely to get them to engage enough with the subject when they're young that they end up *wanting* it in their lives and seeking it out. 

So here's the thing: children at that age, before any prejudices of the state or the people surrounding them have properly kicked in, are open to and utterly interested by other cultures. When I think about it now, it would seem that my love for urbanity and multi-culturism has its roots in those days as a child learning about people different to myself. To instil some passion for history in children is to instil a thirst for looking deeper beyond surfaces and for searching for the hows and whys. It seems to me to be a real shame to politicise and manipulate this so it becomes focused on a narrower understanding of one country, and a series of dates. 

There's quite a high likelihood that none of this makes sense, given that its very early in the morning and I'm typing this on my iPod. Apologies for all the errors and/or fallacies and oversharing of my childhood geekery


Hxxx

Oh, and FYI: Elgin Marbles tour guide available to hire, for the mere price of train fare, London-based accommodation and a pint in that pub i like round the corner from the British Museum. I'm often vague on the dates and things like that, but apparently quite entertaining on the important bits. 

P.S. King Tutankhamen was very impressed with my outfit on that visit, and allowed me to do the demonstration of mummy-wrapping. I think it was the hair that did it. He was less impressed when one of the boys who had put decidedly less effort into his ancient styling kept demanding to know why King Tut had a Geordie accent and no sun tan if he was supposed to be Egyptian. 

PPS. Clearly when I was writing this I had forgotten about The Tudors. They were quite cool, particularly Elizabeth I. I still stand by my point though that British history just doesn't have the panache or history from further afield.