Wednesday, 31 December 2014

It's Not FB; It's Me

One small step for rabbitdom.
I’m about to leap into social media sacrilege.   I’m breaking up with Facebook.  There’s no ideological, political basis behind this decision.  It’s not even because the ads drive me crazy or I have to scroll through miles of ‘suggested posts’ for updates from my nearest and dearest.  It’s to counteract becoming invisible.

OMG! you say.  And does she put tin foil on the windows to stop the CIA hearing her thoughts?

Pipe down, you.  There is no psychosis here.  But I’m happy to explain if you stop interrupting me.

(Interrupting her?  I haven’t said a word.)

 You know, people can have a raucous laugh, swear like a pirate, dress like a clown, dance in public, knit outrageous socks, and still be hiding in plain sight.  You see this a lot with introverts and middle children, not to mention former therapists.  Oh, that’s me three times over, isn’t it?  I wrote about my own problem with invisibility nearly two years ago here. Haven’t made any progress, it would seem.

Invisibility doesn’t always come with lack of attention.  Humans have a great capacity to gaily interact with, but never see you.  For example . . .

When the Butler and I moved north several years ago, we thought entertaining was the way to make new friends.  It took us a while to realise that people were happy to eat his cooking, drink our grog, sleep in our beds if the need arose, but were  slow to reciprocate, if they reciprocated at all.  A few brazen souls asked us to give respite hospitality, as if we were a B&B.  An offer we readily declined. 

Those type of spongers can be quickly kicked to the curb.  Or kerb, if you live in the UK.  But if you do invisibility well enough, your close friends may believe that what they see (or don’t see) is real.  I once started a friendship during a time of relative smooth sailing in my life, not so much so in the other person’s life.  I did what good friends do, not considering what was or wasn’t reciprocated in my direction.  Then one day, I gave into a wee moan about something or the other.  No beating of breast or gnashing of teeth.  Just a wee moan.  This person made it clear that having a rough time wasn’t in my job description. 

Oh my!

Friendship implies more than one person at work.  If someone keeps their needs below the surface, that isn’t an invitation to pillage the friendship.  Yet with some people, if you don’t establish early on that you have normal human needs, then you’ve missed the opportunity to ever do that. 

So what’s this got to do with Facebook?

I used to have great friends, 3D friends, flesh and blood people who existed in the real world.  People with ethics and morals, some who even went to church, for fecksake.  Maybe having me around, put a splash of devilry in their lives. 

Something’s changed for me the last few years, though.  People who used to meet me for coffee, who cared about what happened in my life, now live only in Facebook photos, too busy for even the most decadent dessert.  Far away friends who once wrote often, now answer emails with, I follow you on Facebook!  as if we’re not supposed to have any conversation more intimate than what we’d post in a public status update.

It’s not that I blame Facebook – virtual reality destroying normal social interactions – any more than an alcoholic should blame an off-license for their own addiction.  But it’s so easy to be invisible on social media.  Facebook’s a constant exercise in Show & Tell.  I post an update.  You hit like.  I share a link.  You hit like.  I post a photo, you hit like.  I’ve noticed other people actually have conversations following their posts, but on my page, that rarely happens.  It’s Like Like Like, unless I post something real about what I’m feeling.  Then everyone ignores that little crossing of the faux pas threshold.  Even when I announced I was leaving Facebook, the most commonly used word was, vicarious.  My life, someone else’s entertainment; my invisibility complete.

And I don’t blame my Facebook friends for that.  I don’t blame anyone.  It’s very much like when the Butler started making our bread – the stuff in the shops tasted insipid after a while.  

As an ex-pat, I’ve had hundreds of moments in life when I needed someone who wasn’t family to step up to the plate and do something out of friendship, not duty.  Parties, funerals, pub crawls, covering my ass, birthdays, illness, bare faced truths, lies to the boss, dips in the ocean, scrambles up mountains, listening to dreams and fears and hopes.  These are the real things in any life.  These are the things I remember and miss.

So 2015 is the year I’m going to look for what’s real, both for me and from the people who would be my friends.  The swearing like a pirate, dancing in Tesco aisles, creating outlandish knitwear – none of that’s going to stop.  As to the rest of me, the invisible me, we’ll see what shows up at the door, won’t we?

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Inner Wolf

We got Big Nose as a rescue.  He came fully trained, was what even North Yorkshire farmers call a gentleman.  When he was the only pooch in the house, I’d take him for walks off lead down the village street, he was that reliable.

But he’s got issues. 

What, me?  Issues?
Sorry, Big Nose, it’s true.  There’s a price for having a gentleman dog.  When we got him, he didn’t know how to play with humans and really doesn’t like it much now, although dogs are fun fun fun in his eyes, which is why we got the Doodle.  There’s all sorts of rules about when and where he can be in the house, none of them known to us, so we just followed his lead. 

If we raise our voice to the Doodle, if we do a sideways arm movement in a human conversation, or God help us, have an argument amongst ourselves, then Big Nose hits the ground, plasters himself against a wall, can only be soothed if we let him out of whatever space he’s in at the moment.  Six years in a house with only positive based dog handling methods, he still waits to be beaten. 

Big Nose
His worst issue is food.  Although he came to us as a practiced beggar in the sitting room, he leaves the house when we eat and often goes for 2 days himself without eating.  We figured there must be some signal we didn’t know that told him it was okay to eat, so we tried everything we could think of, even speaking to him in Irish, since he came from Ireland.  Nothing worked. 

When he does eat, we can’t watch.  We can’t even be in the same room.  After the Doodle arrived, we started feeding Big Nose outside so he’d stand a chance at getting fed, which actually made him more comfortable.  But we can’t be in the kitchen, lest we peek out the window at him.

The Doodle
The Doodle, on the other hand, came to us as a puppy.  She’s what North Yorkshire farmers would call a dominant, an alpha, a wolf sitting in your kitchen ready to rip out your throat.  Actually, she’s an intelligent and confidant dog who’s never been smacked and seldom yelled at, (the latter mostly because of Big Nose – if you’ve ever had a Doodle, you know your favourite phrase soon becomes For The Love Of God NOOOOOOOO).

Training a smart dog is full of rewards.  Doodle is a genius at spotting a pattern, reading my body language, figuring out puzzles, so it doesn’t take her long to know what I’m trying to communicate.  She views me as her best resource and wants to please me. 

As a problem solver, she also figures out things I don’t want her to, like how to open doors and gates, how to get over or through barriers, how to pick pockets or get dirty toys out of the sink.  But she’s no more trying for world dominance than is a child who’s proud of learning a new, albeit inconvenient skill.

Get that dog under control!
Because she’s a new (and very large) puppy, I’ve been inundated with all sorts of advice, some when I’m in the middle of training her, given by people who don’t know my name, let alone anything about my dog.  Most of their advice is based on aversive conditioning (i.e. let’s do something bad to the doggie so it’ll act more like a human).  The impression I get, especially in my home village is that Doodle should be a completed product, even though she’s not had her first heat (an event I’m storing up Valium to survive).

A few days ago, I was frantically knitting the last of the Christmas projects while the Butler was out of the house.  The Tesco guy came with our Christmas delivery.  Doodle has learned that knitting is verboten, so I stashed what I was doing under a cushion, didn’t bother zipping up the yarn bag, shut the living room door on her and Big Nose so we didn’t have to worry about open doors and gates, then went to meet the Tesco guy.

When I came back, there was wall to wall yarn over the floor and furniture, a smiling Doodle wanting me to come in and play.  ‘Out!’ I yell and point to the door.  Oh, more fun, in her eyes, so out the door she goes with her poodle-sass trot.  I command her to WAIT and close the door.

Nothing like fox dung.
Big Nose is pressed against the sofa, head down, whites of his eyes showing.  Well fuck me, I’ve done it again.  I get down on my knees, speak in a play voice, try to calm him but he stays very still when I touch him, not engaged, submitting, not relating.  I let him out past the smiling Doodle who hopes it’s time to come back in to play knitting.  It takes about half an hour for Big Nose to forgive me.

As to the Doodle, it would’ve been easier to smack her, screaming obscenities so she’d become incontinent the next time she saw a skein of yarn.  But what happened was my fault.  We had company, which is as delightful as gravy to a Doodle, and I’d left her in a room with something apparently lots of fun to me – unguarded yarn.  What else was a Doodle to do?

More pertinent, that ‘easier’ method is why Big Nose has a stunted emotional life.  This lovely, docile, affectionate dog will never enjoy the full companionship of his humans because someone wanted to kill the wolf in him.  That’s not research-based training; that’s tapping into archetypal fears. 

On the job.
For twenty-five years, we’ve known that the dominance based training comes from bad science.  We teach our children to be nice to the doggie, then as adults, discuss how hard is hard enough to hit our dogs.  When we’re not hitting them, we’re scaring, dominating, confusing, maligning and transferring our own motivations onto them.  

I question even 'humane' aversion tactics which call for a loud noise whenever the dog does something we don't want it to do.  Why startle the bejeezus out of a dog when going 'Uh-huh' or a quick intake of breath or a 'Tsk' gets the same message across?  Let me suggest, if there's a wolf in the kitchen, it's inside ourselves, not our dog. 

If there’s a new dog in your house this Christmas, educate yourself on the proper research into the reason for dog behaviour, such as John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs.  Learn about relationship based training here.  Get to a positive reward based obedience class or better yet, some one-on-one training for you and your puppy.

Mostly, love your dog.
Here I come!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Knitting for Betas

I need Beta readers and am knitting to get them.  

November is recruitment month.  Reading will take place during December and early January.  A crazy time to do this, I know.  Ever the optimist, I offer this bribe:

All Betas regardless of feedback will receive token chocolate, chosen by the Butler and his discriminating taste.

Chunky and thin

Betas who submit feedback of about a page (double spaced), get chocolate and hand warmers.  

These warmers could be chunky or thin, capped or uncapped, depending on my mood, which, it should be said, is unpredictable.


Submit up to three pages (double spaced), then expect chocolate, warmers and ankle socks.  Crazy.  Normal.  Chunky.  Skinny.  God knows what I’ll inflict on you.

Ankle socks

 A thorough report will earn the lucky reader chocolate, warmers, ankle and long socks.  I cannot promise any normal You-Could-Be-Seen-On-The-Street-Without-Flinching socks in the long sock department.  By nature, they are meant to be . . . individual.

Long socks

The OCD among the Betas (a more than thorough report) can negotiate a bespoke knitted payment for their efforts.

A little blurb, to see if the manuscript interests you:

They're unlikely friends.  USN surgeon BERT STATLER is the son of a psychopath and it shows.  RAF anaesthetist CONOR O'DONOVAN the favourite in a large Irish family.  When a rug is sent anonymously to Conor, he dismisses it as the work of bored old women (aka his mother's friends).  As Conor worries about his sick cat and Bert launches a training program in London, the women slip them evidence of cover-ups, murder, and the sell-out of UK soldiers.  The solution lies in a secret from Afghanistan, a secret that Conor now regrets protecting.  Set in Afghanistan and the UK, the two time periods are told simultaneously.

Interested Betas may DM or email:

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Let's Not Celebrate TERF Week

Hurray for TERF Week!  Another celebration of rhetoric over compassion.  For those of you in the real world, TERFs are Trans Excluding Radical Feminists.

I know.  In the day-to-day, what’s the purpose of excluding trans folk?  Well, let me tell you, more than you’d ever expect.  Thank God for TERFs who are fast overtaking Anne Coulter in The Big Crazed One category.

Okay, here’s the story.  Let’s take Kellie Maloney, a recent celebrity transition.  In hir sixties, Frank Maloney was a patriarch of an incredibly macho field.  Pugilism, for fecksake!  Which brought hir happiness, right?  Nope.  Frank Maloney had one more goal to accomplish in life. 

The rape of feminism.

Yes, what you read is what I wrote.  Kellie Maloney, a figure in the public eye, a person of privilege and substance tossed all that away, underwent nasty medical procedures and risked ostracisation by not only family, but the Daily Mail in order to what?  Rape feminism.



Trans-advocacy aside, isn’t that a big fuck-you to any and all survivors of sexual assault? 

So what about trans-men, you say.  Totally crushed by the patriarchy.  A case of, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  


(For more hilarity, Google Cathy Brennan or TERF.)

Have any of these TERFS ever sat beside a trans-person before, during and after a transition?  Not saying a word, mind you, but actually experienced what is required?  Actually witnessed the utter misery that comes with being trans in western society?  The rejection.  The violence.  The hindrance to employment.  The banjaxed sex life.  The emotional zap of having two sets of hormones doing the jerk in your system until some medical person somewhere decides to fix all that with a very painful surgery.

Trans-folk are commando humanists. 

So many trans-women go stealth into male lives, become boxers, bomber pilots, racing drivers, non-paediatric doctors, mechanics, bronco busters, infantry.  They knock everyone’s socks off in these fields and then say casually, Oh by the way, I’m a woman. 

How cool is that?

So many trans-men do the same thing disguised as women, go into professions usually restricted to penis holders, survive an uphill battle filled with tomato-throwing spectators to prove they’re better than cis male peers.  When they say, Oh by the way, I’m a guy, they’re told, forget how shitty you were treated; being male’s the real reason you succeeded.  And while you’re at it, stop emoting.  Toughen up, dude. (Can I see your penis?)

Trans lives show us that the arbitrary and artificial definitions we put on people, whether for gender or race or their favourite cigar, these definitions are false.  By choosing to live, whether stealth or fully transitioned, trans folk lead us to a more genuine society where each and every person stands a better chance of reaching their potential, contributing to the greater whole. 

Stop throwing ill-informed rhetoric at other human beings and learn from these acts of heroism. 

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Gargoyle and Big Foot

A not-so-nice someone from my past quietly joined my list of followers and I just as quietly blocked the person.  No emotion.  A simple, not happening.  No further thought about it until today when out of the primordial ooze of sleep deprivation I rose . . .

Big Foot & the horse she rode in on
by Siniharraka Urban Photography
 My current WIP isn’t progressing.  I’ve been working on the same paragraph for about two days, not so much because it’s a difficult passage but because of this pickpocket, water loving, newly arrived noodle.  There are horrible and marvellous things happening in the world at large, but in the Writing Closet, there is only Big Foot.

We’d long been thinking Big Nose needed a friend, but he’s such a wonderful dog, we feared the chances of getting a canine version of the Gargoyle Possum.  You remember him.  The stray cat who turned out to be a bloodthirsty desperado with a brain tumour.

Gargoyle Possom
Big Foot is no Gargoyle Possum.  She brings all the clownery of puppyhood but inside a calm and grounded personality.  When she starts sleeping through the night, I may even begin to love her.  (Okay, so I already love her.)

 All the cats including Gargoyle have adjusted amazingly to Big Foot.  In an aura of complaisance, we noticed one of Gargoyle’s paws twitched when he slept but if you have dogs, a twitching paw doesn’t compare. 

So one afternoon, I’m snoozing on the couch with Big Foot when the slap of body part against wood wakes me up.  The Butler, who’s not really paying attention, says it’s Gargoyle twitching in his sleep.  Gargoyle is out of the Butler’s line of vision, but I see the cat’s upper body rise and slam against the floor.  The Butler’s examination makes Gargoyle march indignantly into the back garden and the incident gets swept away by Big Foot doing a flying leap onto the kitchen table.

The next morning, the Butler goes into town.  Big Foot settles into her morning nap.  There are various cat bodies scattered around making cat snore music.  I’m at the computer writing when Gargoyle goes into grand mal seizure.

If you’ve never seen a cat have a grand mal, don’t put it on your bucket list.

The vet wanted us to see if Gargoyle had another fit before medicating him.  Fuck this.  The cat has a brain tumour.  Of course he’s going to have another one.  We’re now in the stage of continued petit mals until the meds are regulated, but everyone (except, presumably Gargoyle) knows this is the last stretch for him.  We’d hoped he’d go quietly in his sleep, but he’s never been an easy cat, has he?

There’s no sense of Alpha-Omega for me in this juxtaposition of Big Foot and Gargoyle.  It’s the story that’s happening now in my anonymous little life.  While I toss tennis balls and take shoes away from Big Foot, Gargoyle’s emergency rectal dose is always within reach. 

Accepting inconsequential details
by Siniharraka Urban Photography
Every life is made up of these inconsequential details.  The heroic outburst of the Paris rose, the variety of butterflies around the buddleia, the buzzard and fox sightings, Big Nose’s hydrotherapy and Bunny Butt’s latest kill, these are the warp and weft of my existence. 

So it is that when these inconsequential details are attacked, taken from us, something so small that it seems childish to complain, that’s actually where something greater, more destructive starts.  Awards that are only allowed display in the guest bathroom.  A favourite TV show always interrupted.  A brazen hussy of a red dahlia ripped up by the roots.

The message here is that your right to small little pleasures pales in comparison to mine.  Or maybe even that this right doesn’t exist for you.  That, my friend, is a scary message.  On an interpersonal level, it’s new stepchildren insulting the bride’s friends at the wedding lunch.  On the global level, it’s the genital mutilation of all females aged 11 to 45.  Or happy dances over the most recent genocide.

by Siniharraka Urban Photography
In my garden, there grows an inconsequential detail I call trollops.  Malopes, to the uninitiated.  El Punko, who has narcoleptic episodes when I discuss the garden, took photos of them for his urban photography website.  The message here is that exercising my right to have small little pleasures actually gives him pleasure.

With people like that in my life, not-so-nice someones from my past will continue to be quietly blocked.  If only it were so easy to block the not-so-nice from doing harm on the global level.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Gauche Writer in England

Dear Playwright,

Photo by SiniHarraka
Urban Photobraphy
Living in England isn’t great for my mental health.  The dismal weather suits me fine.  It’s the social etiquette that does my head in.

Thank you for submitting your work and congratulations on making the long list.

This isn't because I'm American, but because I'm gauche.

Please forgive the vague nature of this e-mail but, as you know, the [redacted] is an anonymous prize and we are still unable to know your name.

And when I have my writer's cap on, I'm something several steps past gauche.

We wanted to know whether you'd like to discuss your work over a cup of tea?

So when I received this Dear Playwright email, my response was,

If we can change my order from tea to coffee & throw in a cake, I'll give you my real name.

The English typically react to my humour by becoming more formal and removing all sharp objects from the room.  They never say what made them uncomfortable, but make it clear it has something to do with me.  It’s not the fault of the English ­– their culture’s been around a long time and it works for them.  It’s not my fault, either.  It’s simply a bad mix of an eccentric personality in a reserved society.

But for a communicator (that would be me) to consistently be met with silence, displeased silence, anxious silence, that makes a statement about who I am.  An unacceptable who. 




I'm sorta like
a pink marzipan pig.
I, the former trauma therapist, cause innocent bystanders distress by simply being.  This gives me moments of self loathing.  Sometimes extended moments of self loathing.  It also gives me other moments.  Like when I show up with pink pig cakes from Betty’s that the Butler bought so I’ll have confidence at this meeting.  Moments when I actually think I’m pretty worthwhile.

I’ve lived in six countries and visited a few others.  While my gauchiosity has elicited various reactions, it’s never been met with stony silence except by the English.  As if what I am here is so overwhelmingly threatening, they daren’t make eye contact with me, the social Medusa. 

When I’m not occupied with self loathing over this, it seems really funny.  Being gauche and fat and badly dressed – even the fact my heart isn’t always in the right place because let me assure you, there are a handful of people I’d gladly take out if I wouldn’t get caught – being all those things isn’t scary.  It’s about on the level with having freckles.  And I’m a trained mental health professional, so guess what?  I know I’m badly socialised.  It’s not worth breaking eye contact over.

But this is me versus a whole culture.  You don’t live in multiple countries without figuring out that the culture always wins.  All things considered, England is not a place I want to grow old in.  I think the English will be relieved to hear that.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Perfectionist and the Misanthrope

Dodgy book sellers

The Butler loves community activities => pantos in the village hall, safari suppers, pop-up restaurants, carollers, table quizzes, fetes.  Me, I’m a bit of a misanthrope.  Our compromise is that if I participate, I can insult our host when he discusses his wife’s frigidity over dinner. 

Three guesses, what the Butler’s reaction was when the notice came about the open gardens. 

In preparation, our initial focus was on neat and tidy, but about five days before the dread weekend, the penny dropped that perhaps more were expected.  We’ve never really gotten the hang of June, you see.  In spring, there’s all those wonderful bulbs.  In late summer and autumn, we’re a bee and butterfly paradise, but June?  Everything holds its breath and waits. 

I laughingly told the Butler I couldn’t believe that people were paying money to see the expanse of dirt in our flower beds.  Later, I looked up from weeding the gigantic mauve thing and found myself alone.  I went inside, suggested the Butler get off his ass to help if he wanted the resident misanthrope to behave herself when company came.

After that, the Butler would jump to his feet whenever I came into a room and like a kid who hadn’t done his chores, announce he was headed to the garden.  He seldom made it outside before 2pm and seldom stayed.  The same man who loved all these goddam village events and being civil in his Irish accent to UKIP neighbours and putting his body between mine and the guy at Burns Night who said trans people were selfish.

Something weird, this way comes.
Something weird was afoot. 

The Butler hadn’t always gardened.  Presumably his superhero regime of work-by-day, single-parent-by-night had something to do with it.  I remember our first gardening projects – a dubious Butler watching from the sidelines, concerned the neighbours might look over the fence and see me showing my arse.  Figuratively, of course, although on occasion . . . well, that’s a different story altogether. 

Then a brazen hussy of a red dahlia sang its siren song to him and he believed he could make beauty happen.

To be honest, I’d led the poor Butler astray by approaching gardening the way I do manuscript drafts.  I tinker.  I toy.  I try to find the best place for ruffled basil by setting up plastic bottle mini-greenhouses in every flowerbed, only to learn there’s no best place and we really have to consider getting a life-size greenhouse one of these days.  Pansies live between the onions, and corn?  Well it grows in the meadow because it’s a grass.  The rose bed is carpeted with creeping thyme while glads preen themselves among the pumpkin vines and a nasturtium sprouts from the neck of a statue that lost her head.  Nature’s feedback means an oak grows in a pot where a passing squirrel planted it, and the feverfew knocks itself out hiding the oil tank.

Pansies & onions, o my!
People laugh, but I never think their derision is about me.  Ever.  Firstly, it’s a reflection of how rigid their minds are but also, it’s a boundary issue because the Butler and I should have a garden we enjoy, not one that meets the needs of Mr UKIP down the road. 

But with the open weekend days away, I now suspected the Butler’d taken it personally all along.  Worse, that my own laughing sent him off the ledge.  When did this stop being fun for him?  Had it ever been fun for him?

When we talked about it, the Butler reminded me of when he was off work a few years ago because of his back.  He literally convalesced while curled up in a ball, taking copious amounts of painkillers, imprisoned with his own thoughts.  During those hours of not being able to DO, he realised that he took about 80% of his self worth from what he did, and only about 20% from who he was. 

That 80/20 mentality got him through his superhero years of resuscitating patients during the day, cooking meals and ironing uniforms at night, squeezing in patient transports overseas while the kids were at school.  The open garden weekend brought this all back to him, the conviction that to be a good human being, our little space needed to be a horticultural wonderland.

Gigantic mauve thing.
Skipping forward to the weekend itself, when he and I trespassed in our neighbours’ gardens, the Butler was full of curiosity and wonder.  See how they do that!  Oh, I love that species of astrantia.  I’ll distract them, Lora, and you steal the seeds.  He didn’t have a word of criticism for anyone.

So why for himself?  Why do any of us set our own standards so mea culpa mea culpa mea maxima culpa high that we will never be enough, so that whenever the Butler’s asked to bring a covered dish, he brings two and when we go to the barbecue, I ask him later how often I embarrassed him and when either of us stand up to protest that someone has treated us Less-Than, we’re ashamed that we made such a fuss.

I could blame familial/societal indoctrination.  As a trauma therapist, I saw this over and over, that the legal system and the family and society as a whole placated the person acting out, expected the target of insanity to always keep her cool, be reasonable, never respond in a sane way to the bastard.  It boggled the mind.

But I believe we’re more than that, more than the recipients of indoctrination.  If we see that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothing, we certainly can be audible activists about the whole sordid affair but more importantly, we can take care of ourselves in the situation.  We can nurture our lives and seek out what we need, what we want, what we dream about. 

It isn’t easy.  And it isn’t a failing on your part if sometimes you hide in the house and think with dread about visitors tromping through your back garden.  It’s your back garden and it’s precious to you.  So while they’re kicking pots over and tugging branches off the buddleia, remember the lusty red dahlia you brought to life, the beauty you inspired in the space around you.

The weekend brought us lots of visitors.  I listened raptly when anyone felt compelled to say that an oak would outgrow a flowerpot.  No one who asked where I came from, then sang Country Roads got shoved ass first in the pond.  I feigned surprise that the statue had lost her head and couldn’t explain how a nasturtium took root there.  The poor creeping thyme will undoubtedly need therapy, considering the number of people who groped it to see if it were scented.

It’s thyme, people.  An herb.  Ergo . . .

Your own brazen hussy.
But there were people who were kind about annuals hastily planted in the bare spots, folk who appreciated that we’d welcomed them into our back garden – in effect, offered them hospitality.  Others shared their knowledge of pruning or species of holly or pond care.  People interested in the Latin name for the gigantic mauve thing (something only the Butler could answer) traded the Latin name for that yellow stuff we’d always called Vigorous. 

And a few people said as they left us, that we’d created a space of calm and welcome.  That’s what you want in life.  Not perfection, but a place that’s home.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A Strange Combination

Perfect Writer's Spouse
In many ways, the Butler is the perfect spouse for a writer.  Besides the fact that he does all the cooking, he’s also an incurable info junkie.

So imagine this.

You write realistically, value getting your facts straight.  Your next scene involves stalking someone through the streets of Paris (you live in North Yorkshire), then kidnapping and drugging the target, followed by psychologically informed torture interrogation.

Hours of research? 

Nope.  I go on writing, my needs submitted to the Butler.  Not only does he get to feed his habit, he later gets to tie me up so we can see exactly how much mobility the kidnap victim has.

The downside to the Butler as a writer’s spouse is that his professional world has a different social etiquette than mine.  Basically, he thinks writers should be treated better.

What’s bad about that?  Well, in order to survive emotionally as a writer, it’s not helpful to be told you’re a marginalised aspect of the overall process, because you can’t really opt out.  A writer will write regardless.  In fact, in my highly ill informed view, writers (and other artists) have a different way of perceiving and processing information in their environment than let’s say, someone with a  scientific approach to their world. 

A writer can say, ‘I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore,’ stop putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, but the brain’s still going to be working in the way a writer’s brain works.  End result => less emotional equilibrium than when you were a mistreated, undervalued artist.

The writing life
Those of us who continue to write and get rejected, ignored at best, publicly ridiculed at worst, who have learned to thrive on the slightest bit of encouragement . . . imagine what that says about us.  If I had a client who presented in that manner, we’d be doing some very serious self esteem work.

Here’s the thing that amazes me.  A writer must be acutely aware of her environment, the emotional interplays and sensitivities of people, yet be tough as fried horsemeat about whatever return she gets for her work. 

I think that’s the strangest combination in the world.  I’m not sure I understand it, even as I live it.  Do you have thoughts?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Big Deal

Fat, dumb & happy.
Right before the BIG DEAL happens, there I sit fat, dumb and happy, trying to decide if it’s harder to know or not know.  Fiction writers do this all the time.  Wonder WHAT.  WHICH.  HOW.  WHY.  The wondering of the moment is, as a novelist, which would be worse:

Worseness Option 1:  To know what you’re writing now isn’t as good as what you wrote the last time and there’s no way to drag up something better from yourself.  The point where you know it’s over, the snap of creativity gone, is that worse than =>

Worseness Option 2:  What you’re writing now is leaps and bounds better than what you wrote the last time, so you don't know why no one wants it.  The bug flying against the window experience.

So anyway, I’m thinking about this when notice of the BIG DEAL comes and swipes all Worseness Options off the table.  My leaps-and-bounds-better pleased someone in an office far, far away.  The fact that nine other writers have pleased the same office doesn’t matter.  

Last century (literally) when another BIG DEAL happened to me, the people at work threw an impromptu tea party, complete with cake.  This century, my office mates are a cat and social media.  If you have a cat, you know there are only cat BIG DEALS.  Social media, it is, so.

By the end of the day, all congrats are done and dusted, pushed out of the way by what Ted’s cooked for dinner and the latest jab at men, women, the conservatives, the liberals, and a video of a juggling hedgehog.  Virtual life lacks appropriate rituals to celebrate and cleanse the emotional palate.  Not being the sort of person to whine about the good old days, I go to bed.

The next morning, two of the other nine people loved by that office far, far away have followed me on Twitter.  How cool is that?  So I look up all nine people, find five of them and friends of two others, send my congrats, Google for anything that any of them have ever written since pre-school.  While I’m stalking them, they post congrats back to me and this is all very civilised for a battle to the death via BIG DEAL.

And then that’s over because this is virtual camaraderie.  I, who used to spend my day giving witness to people’s most intimate secrets, I’m on my own now. 

Tell me it ain't so!

That evening, there’s a Tweet from one of the others =>  Is anyone writing

It made absolute sense.  Here we all were, ten recipients of the BIG DEAL, our 15 seconds of virtual celebration over – who else knew better what we were feeling than the people we were in competition with?  And none of us able to focus or write – I, myself had spent the day in a hammock with the Edinburgh Book Festival brochure.  After jokes about becoming an instant therapy group, the virtual friendship ended.  The inevitable, I suppose, because only one of us wins. 

Four hundred people submitted for this BIG DEAL.  Four hundred voices with four hundred stories so powerful, they couldn’t give them up, draft after draft after draft.  Four hundred voices who dared sing out loud; three hundred ninety-nine will go quietly into the night.

I only know ten of those four hundred.  Here are the other nine.  Read them.  Follow them on Twitter.  Check out their blogs and websites.  Keep them writing.  Let them know we hear them singing.

The Dundee International Book Prize shortlist:

Under the Tamarand Tree                             
Rosaliene Bacchus, California                       

Daughters of the House of Love
Veronica Birch, West Country
She’s evaded my stalking efforts.

The Open Arms of the Sea
Jasper Dorgan, Wiltshire

Sea Never Dry
Ben East, Virginia

Some Things the English
Rachel Fenton, Auckland

A Village Drowned
Sheena Lamber, Dublin
Out Like a Lion
Robin Martin, New York

Amy Mason, Bristol

The Dreaming
Suzy Norman, London

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Butler’s Gift

‘Sometimes I fear for your immortal soul.’  The Butler said that early in our marriage before he’d fully grasped what living with a writer meant.  

The morning walk
 And that’s what I’m thinking about while Big Nose sniffs grass beside the path in hope my attention will lag long enough for him to sneak into the verboten copse.  Verboten because local gentry feed pheasants there so they can later blow them to smithereens.  Local poachers feed deer there for the same purpose but tend to leave carcasses behind for Big Nose’s pleasure.  The latter is more a deterrent to me than the former.

My attention is diverted to the other side of our path where a track runs through knee-high crops.  In the middle of that track, what looks like a large bird.  Not the right colour for a pheasant – about the same shade of L’Oreal that I use.  We’re a bit far afield for my neighbour’s chickens, but the oval shape and colour, a chicken is what my brain tells me it is.

Said chicken turns its head and transforms into a fox, oval because it's sitting down.  A cool metaphor, but my optical prescription’s a bit hefty, so I give the image a moment to settle and yes, it’s definitely a fox scanning the field, unaware we stand thirty yards away.

Big Nose's moral dilemma
Big Nose catches the scent and tracker extraordinaire that he is, dashes into the off-limits copse.  A cue for any responsible dog owner to bring her Big Nose into line.  Right.

Sometimes I fear for your immortal soul.  

Granted, I was plotting someone’s murder when he said it, but even so, not what you expect from a lay person. I laughed.  Not in derision, but in the pure joy of how wonderful that remark was.  Kinda sweet that after the long years of knowing me, he still believed I had a soul. 

More remarkable that he believed in any god, let alone an all-loving one, because his work routinely had him with a weapon between his legs and the hope between his ears that his aircraft wasn’t shot out of the sky a la pheasant before he could help put Humpty Dumpty pieces of young people back together again.  Or watch Afghan children die. 

So the two of us together, the Butler and me, I knew my compromises, all the pheasant and fox hunts I didn’t moon, all the plants in neighbours’ gardens untouched by midnight relocation, all the people who’d caused him pain still taking in air when I knew of places on the moors . . . what was the Butler’s experience, sharing space and a life with someone like me?  And if a wife’s plotting turned into murder, how would the Butler respond?  How would anyone?

Fortunately for the loathsome in my life, I explore these type questions via my writing rather than scientific method. 

Conor (played by Gary Goodyear, Cats in a Pipe, 2013)
Photo by SiniHarakka Urban Photography
 I created Conor O’Donovan, Irish Catholic ex-pat in a country where not his skin colour but his accent makes him a target.  Where being called his nationality equates roughly with being called stupid.  He’s the second of nine children, his mother’s favourite until his youngest brother dies.  Then he becomes the sin eater for the family.  And he continues to be the sin eater for the rest of his life because hard as he tries, he can’t be heterosexual, he can’t meet his children’s expectations, he still believes in immortal souls and an all-loving God who says if only he were a better son, a better doctor, a better officer, a better father, a better partner, everyone else around him would actually stop all this sinning.

Bert (played by John McMahon, Cats in a Pipe, 2013)
Photo by SiniHarakka Urban Photography
Enter stage right, Bert Statler, Conor’s shadow.  Bert’s also gay, but from a US military family, in the Navy himself during the death throes of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, so still living stealth.  His long-term partner has recently transitioned male to female, and though they’re still together, Bert feels abandoned.  But to Bert, that’s life, isn’t it?  You’re created by a fuck, spend your whole life getting fucked, and your funeral costs fuck someone else out of their inheritance.  The world doesn’t suck because of Bert, but because the world sucks.  Sometimes to dilute the suck quotient for someone else, you have to sin.

Conor is who we’re all told we should be.  Bert is the part of us we never admit out loud, sometimes not privately to ourselves.  Their friendship in some measure, represents the polarities between the Butler and myself, but also a polarity intrinsic to me as well – my struggle to be socially acceptable (stay out of jail), contribute to society (be able to afford the things I want), continue to grow as an individual (find new ways of staying out of jail and getting what I want).

The irony is that, before I married the Butler, I wrote about other people, my keyboard the conduit for stories gifted to me as a trauma therapist.  Once my life was shared, my writing became about me.  Disguised as a tall, lanky gay southern male who cuts people open for a living, I finally tell the truth.  And I’m able to do that because one day a long time ago, the Butler feared for my immortal soul.

The Butler & Big Nose, on the fox track headed toward the Verboten Copse

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Identity, Transition, Fox Poo

If we’re being precise, I’ve been a trans-parent (someone with a transgender child) for over thirty years, but I didn’t know that until about twelve years ago.  The only amazing thing about my part in all this is that although I accept the concept, I still don’t understand.  I often create trans characters in my writing, but I can only write what I’ve witnessed, not what I’ve felt, experienced.

Big Nose Dog and I were taking the dull walk that day, a shorter trek squeezed in between rain showers.  The venture seemed ours alone – not even the buzzards had appeared.  While Big Nose sniffed every blade of grass in Yorkshire, I walked and waited and walked until my mind wandered to identity.

When I was in undergrad learning my developmental psychology, we were taught that identity was the task for the teen years.  If we think about ourselves as teens or about teens we know, it’s all pretty embarrassing.  You might be forgiven in feeling that adolescence should happen where there are no witnesses. 

But is that really about identity?  I don’t think so.  (And Erik Erikson rolls over in his grave.)  Teens know who they are (as much as anyone can know anything in only a dozen or so years).  They aren’t exploring identity, but how that person they know themselves to be will interface with society.  Which is why there’s so much rebellion about it. 

Anyone who’s lived through raising a toddler has witnessed their surprisingly strong personality emerge from what used to be a cute, burbling enfant.  And to be honest, when my son told me he was my son, not my daughter, I felt really stupid because it was so obvious that my child had never been a little girl.

And yet what many teens learn is how to subvert their identity in order to be accepted by the society that will sustain them for the rest of their lives.  We dole out pink passes to girls and blue to boys, put more money in military than education, reward beauty and athleticism over brains or innovation.

We all make compromises in order to get on, so why transition?  Why not just suck it up?  Transitioning isn’t an easy thing.  Not physically, psychologically, medically, socially, financially.  It can be dangerous.  It can be fatal.

So Big Nose has found something delightful to roll in, making little growly sounds of joy.  I let him, because he’s a dog, not because I appreciate smelling like fox poo.  That grey, solitary landscape around us is apt for 2014 as the Year of Rejection for my writing with the only reward, a dog who smells like shit.  For a brief moment, I think perhaps I should go back to my day job.

And then somehow all this connects me to my son, fiercely brave in his right to be.  Identity is the only thing we’re given to get through life.  A divine gift, perhaps.  Something brutally inevitable, the power of ME . . . well, a person just has to do it, don’t they?