Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Big Adventure - Part Two

We hug, with great enthusiasm.

As promised, Athy lifts me clean off the ground. This makes us laugh, I’m taller but she’s definitely stronger and she’s been waiting to do that for weeks. 

Jess goes to the restroom (she probably needs a nap before the drive home) and something rather amusing happens while she is gone.
A doe-eyed young woman of about nineteen makes a timid and typically British deferential approach to Athy and I. She proffers her (UK) mobile phone - it is not working in the US. The people who were supposed to pick her up are no where to be seen and she cannot raise a connection without a service provider. She seems genuinely distressed. 

Would we, could we possibly be so good as to call a number for her? 
My phone is also a foreign one of course, but Athy obligingly fishes hers out and starts to read off the number the girl is showing from her screen. I read it over their shoulders. 

First Episcopalian Church of Hooting Dancing Singing Sweet Little Baby Jesus, address Bless You Happy Street, Zip Code, Faithtown. And the text messages - they look forward to meeting her, they will look after her, when can she come over…?

As Athy is dialling the number from her phone, I am doing the mental calculations to see if I reckon I can get out my phone and take a picture of the girl’s messages, and simultaneously composing pithy Tweets… Innocent girl induced to fly round world to join cult, begs help from the two most ardent atheists in the county shocker…

I was about to raise an objection to letting such a polite and innocent seeming young woman go off with these people, when they suddenly appeared - about ten of them, all incredibly Christian and glowing looking - smiling and greeting her as she throws many thank yous over her shoulder and becomes engulfed, leaving Athy and I to forever wonder if we have just failed to Save a victim of the Saviour. 

It was too late now, and anyway, we had a meeting of minds and souls to be getting on with.

I’m not going to describe Jess’s house to you, because if Jess wants you to see her house, you’ll be the first to know when your invitation plops through your letter box. I will say that’s it’s a pretty unique property, quirky and not necessarily very traditional, and if you know Jess at all then that will no doubt seem as fitting to you as it did to us.

She hadn’t cleaned it she said, because she had had more important things to do that day. And we accepted that as no more than the literal truth, and eminently reasonable. We had not come to be entertained by Martha Stewart, we had come to bask in the awesome power of Mrs Hood’s captivating and bewitching personality. 

Although this is a bit of a cliché, that you might justifiably feel I should be able to do better than, I have been thinking about this for days and the best way I can come up with to describe Jessica is that the woman is quite simply a force of nature. She is like no one else I have ever met, and the sheer raw power of her personality is like facing into a gale on a cliff top: which I mean in the exhilarating sense, not the life threatening one!

Jess is the first to admit that she is not everybody’s cup of tea. You wouldn’t be guaranteed to like her, and more than one of you would be downright terrified of her. She is one of those people who would make you very nervous if you sensed that she didn’t respect you. You wouldn’t fancy your chances if she downright disapproved of you. To indulge myself in another cliché, the expression ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ could have been invented to describe this woman.

She’s tall, and will I’m sure forgive me for not using the word ‘dainty’ in my top five associative words. She moves with an almost surprising easy grace and looseness to her limbs, she is highly coordinated, and you have never ever met anyone so comfortable in their own skin. She has a sonorous voice which holds you captivated, and of all the awesome aspects of hanging out with her, by far the best is that she shares the contents of her powerful and ever churning mind with a fluid, almost hypnotic fluency - downloading thoughts, facts and conclusions straight into your brain in a stream of consciousness style which holds you spellbound (even if you only understand 40% when she gets medical). 

She oozes a powerful, effortless and very dominant sexuality that she will never ever have the need to play up, use, abuse, or let you access. But you will feel the pull of it. The magnetism is inescapable. And if you think you’d like to spank her, bear with me while I roll on the floor laughing for a moment. 

On this day she is in addition also emotional and wobbly because both of her children have left her home to pursue their various Summer activities. Her nest would be empty if Athy and I had not flown in to fill it. She will cook. She is intending to eat her feelings she says, but it is also clear that she is intending to look after us, to make us welcome and comfortable in her nest. 
She does, and we are. 

As the evening progresses and we are served delicious homemade chilli and wine (that’s not homemade thank god!) we are, absolutely as expected, to no ones surprise, talking as if we have known each other for ever. We begin, all three of us, to notice a distinct interest in our meeting on Twitter. People are asking about it, they are envious. There seems to be a distinct, pervasive idea that we will indulge in some sort of sexual activity, despite the fact that all three of us are well known to be heterosexual. It’s funny the first couple of times, but then we start to raise our eyebrows at the sheer number of Tweets, sent by different people, which are along these lines. Apparently we are missing some sort of opportunity to earn some serious sex-industry cash, by confining ourselves to talking, telling, sharing, advising, commiserating, laughing, indignating (indulge me), emoting (forgive me) and not least of course, listening.

No description of Jess would be even close to accurate without mention of The Man. Of all the many wonderfully complex, impressive and dynamic things Jess is; she is also in luuuuuurve. Much like a teenager. Much like a mushy pile of goo. Much like a friend you love and admire and might just start making put a dollar in a jar every time she says ‘Martin’ so that you can buy that Porsche  you’ve always fancied yourself owning. It’s incredibly endearing, and I am also luckily enough to have met him back in January when I first met her, so I was even better able to picture everything she was describing. 
I thought he was just great. He’s a quieter person than her (which should prevent them murdering each other later), he’s an unassuming English guy, but he gives off a really good vibe. There’s something about him. He’s a still water who runs deep. An observer of life to guard over her driving force of life. I get them. I dig them. 
And when he needs to, although it’s only rarely, he knows exactly how to shut her the fuck up. 
All the best people meet on Twitter.

So on to Athy, another of the best people in the world I have met on Twitter.

Athy, Jess and I are very different. As Athy will joke to you - she is GI Jane to my Barbie - but in many ways other than physically, we have a similar kind of strength. Neither Athy nor I have the magnetism or dynamism of Jess, we are not as dominant, we are not as ostensibly fearsomely badass. Athy has a delightful girly voice which is somewhat at odds with her muscles. If she blindfolded you and carried you over her shoulder (you should be so lucky, I’ll give you a moment to subside) you would be wondering if a young girl was managing to carry you. 

Her voice is complimented by her extremely pretty face - and she looks about twelve year years old in this area. However, you would be under no illusion, this woman does not feel the need to doll herself. She doesn’t colour her hair. She doesn’t do makeup (well she doesn’t bloody need it!). She tried on some high heeled shoes and tried to have a walk. As good friends interested only in her best interests, Jess and I could hardly recommend she appear in public in them. But she wouldn’t want to. She isn’t interested in making you feel better about what she looks like by conforming to your ideas about femininity. 
(I am. I’m doing that for all three of us.) 

She is another one who is comfortable in her skin. She in another one with a personal integrity which glows strongly and is easily perceived. She has authority which is unquestionable, despite the youthful face and girly voice. (We discuss the concept of feminine allure, and it was one of the most illuminating conversations I have ever had.)

All three of us understand sexuality. This is one of the areas over which we bonded. Control of, and insight into, this aspect of ourselves is something all three of us share. We know what to take seriously, what to treat with respect and care, and what to giggle at. This is instinctive to us, and we returned to the topic many times.
But no - I’m no more telling you more about that than I am describing Jess’s house. 

As for Athy’s personality - well this is very interesting. The best word I can use to describe her mentality, is ‘masculine’ - and I mean it as a massive compliment.
She is nobel. She is protective. She is altruistic (ok, I am talking about the really good, amazing type of masculinity here. Although if you warrant a punch in the face I expect she’d be pretty fucking efficient at that too). She takes care of the people she cares about. She is independent and self-sufficient (although she has a preference for company). 

She is creative and talented - but you will see that for yourself, she doesn’t feel the need to tell you. She makes you feel wonderful because she has a way of conveying a sense that she is interested in you and cares about you, and this in turn makes you feel enormously pleased on your own behalf and rather privileged. I believe (and am correct in believing) that this is why men fall in love with her. Which they frequently do. So do women. 
She doesn’t need to take your spotlight, but only the most self obsessed and lacking in insight amongst you would underestimate her nevertheless.

She, like me, has taken her time getting to know herself, she didn’t get anything for free and her self-realisation came in later years and is all the more precious for it.
She is supportive. So supportive. She is an amazing listener, and like Jess, when she listens to you she also assimilates the various things you have said, she puts puzzle pieces together and she comes to perspicacious and sometimes startlingly perceptive conclusions. 
Jess and Athy both know me better than I know myself after just one weekend.

A weekend of food, sunshine, alcohol, alcohol, some more alcohol, a minimum amount of sleep, and talking talking talking talking talking talking talking.

A weekend spent with best friends I met on the internet, fucking knew I knew like sisters, even though I didn’t ‘know’ I knew it, and one which meant more to me than I can say, and will forever be one of my best memories ever. 

Thank you, sisters. I love you. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Big Adventure - Part One

Naturally I am a little apprehensive about this trip. It is pure madness on many levels, after all. 
I am going to America all by myself, first to Virginia, then to California and then to Las Vegas. To meet three women I know from Twitter. 

I have met one of them before, for about two hours, in London earlier this year (she has an English husband), so staying with her for the first two nights is the part I am the most confident about. The second woman is a mutual friend who heard I was coming over and arranged an already much desired and discussed visit for the same weekend. Jess (who’s house it is) and Athy have never met each other before in person either. In California I have three days staying with woman number three, before we drive six hours through the desert together to attend The Amazing Meeting 2014 in Vegas. If I make it that far in tact, then at least if Deirdre and I can’t stand each other there will be other people at the conference, and maybe I can get myself adopted. Deirdre and I are due to begin our adventure by driving the two and a half hours from Los Angels airport, where she is to pick me up, to the town she actually lives in, and I’ll tell you a secret - we have never so much as spoken on the phone… So when I say ‘madness’ I mean MADNESS…

The thing is, I already know that these women are my soul-mates. I know it. But the other thing is I don’t know it know it do I? I just think I know it. And I could be wrong.

On the flight from London to Washington Dulles I make myself extremely comfortable, in the way that only a parent of young children on a aeroplane upon which they are not, can. Across the aisle from me are a slightly older couple with a three year old, and baby twins. I have one of my charitable, humanitarian moments and think ‘hahahaha losers!’

The first indication that I am not quite as comfortable as my blanket, stretched out legs, two mini bottles of wine and headphones would suggest, occurs about two and a half hours into the eight hour flight, when my individual flip up TV monitor informs me that the time in London is 9:18 pm, the time at our destination is 3:18 am, and the local time upon landing will be 6:18 am. Don’t bother doing that math, bear with me.

We were forty-five minutes delayed from London, and I have let Jess know this. She answered that message, so I know that she knows. But as I stare at the highly convenient little screen I feel a twang of panic. I told Jess, weeks ago, that I was landing at five thirty. And like a good European I wrote it as “17:30”. Norwegians don’t use am/pm, and even after twelve years of English speaking in our home, my husband still can’t ever remember which is which, so military time is a convenient habit. 
Except it’s a really fucking inconvenient habit when you write 17:30 when you are actually landing at 05:30 (06:18 with the delay)!

After some moments frozen into horrified immobility contemplating 12 hours in an airport with great distaste, I galvanised myself into action. It wasn’t brilliantly rational, because the action was to frantically message Jess, and since I was airborne and without access to the internet there was little to no point in writing messages at all, never mind frantically hasty ones. Even if I had had the option to actually send the messages, she would surely be asleep, at best I seemed to be looking at several lonely hours before even alerting her to my unexpectedly early presence, never mind waiting for her to then drive all the way to pick me up. I was furious with myself for my own stupidity in translating the time like that, no doubt British Airways, in common with err, all other British people used am/pm and my eye had tricked me. I had forwarded Jess the flight confirmation email, so there was a tiny chance that she had read that, and not been ‘tricked’ by it, but then surely she would have contacted me about the discrepancy…

I sat there, miserable, thinking that someone who so clearly wasn’t ready to be out by herself without her mummy had surely been overly bold in flying half way around the world to meet what were essentially murderers off the internet, when at the back of my mind some clunky cogs started to turn and some reluctant maths started to work itself out. I had left London at what should have been 15:30 (but was 16:15), and had been in the air for about two and a half hours, which meant, struggle struggle, come on, you can grasp this slippery little fact that the local time at our point of departure could not possibly be after 9pm…
Could this TV monitor clock thingy be the real trickster?

At this point a Steward passed me. I enacted a labour of agitation, he looked at me sympathetically and I squeaked out the question. 
“Oh God yeah” he said, amused and indulgent, “don’t look at that thing. It’s totally wrong! Five thirty pm is what it will be”.

I was obviously going to need a lot more wine to get through this.

When I got to Washington I sailed through Immigration, collected my suitcase, went to the ‘restroom’ (where I had a pee, not a nap… Smugly adapting to the culture really very quickly there, folks, follow my lead) and promptly became embroiled in what appeared to be the tide of human flotsam and jetsam from a highly populated flight from You-can’t-pronounce-it-istan in the line for Customs. Not one person spoke English, moved forwards in an North facing orderly queue, or had one inch less luggage than would have happily competed for height superiority with The Alps. 

The Custom’s officials, numbering four, were ahead with a clearly marked exit behind them, but every family from this flight were being sent to a large, partially cordoned off area to the right. When my Customs lady handed me back  my passport and said “welcome back ma’am” I was initially confused, taking it to mean ‘you are welcome back anytime’, I’ve not even really got here yet, I thought, but then realised that my passport had been stamped beside a previous one from 2010, so she was referring to this not being my first visit to the United States. I began to move to the right, which provoked her in turn to become confused. “Ma’am you are free to exit, right behind me here”.
Ooooh. Of course. White Person Privilege. How silly of me. 
Off I skipped.

Right into the arms of @ECBlade and @DeepSouthAthy.

The End.

I’m kidding, I would never do that to you. To be continued of course!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

An Atheist Moral Victory

This is dedicated to all of you who are stuck in the non-believing closet… I don't know how any of you manage to contain your rage at this kind of provocation...

This incident may be nothing more than a drop in the ocean, but it cheered me on a winter evening last night, and I thought it might be fun to share with you all right before Christmas…

Here are two salient points of explanation to give a little back ground context – they are generalisations of course, but they are also known by me to be generally true for the families to whom I am referring.  
  1. Boiled down to essentials, just to explain the nursery school system: In Norway when you have a baby the mother chooses either nine months maternity leave at 100% pay  or alternatively roughly eleven months at 80% of pay*. The father then also has three months paternity leave in addition, at the same pay rate the mother chose. This is obviously an awesome system and I’ll give you Americans a minute to get back up off the floor… However where the relevance of this comes into this story is that once those 12-14 months are used up the child starts full-time nursery and both parents go back to work. Although obviously not true of everybody it is by far the most common way, and a ‘stay at home mum’ type situation is very unusual. So we have under two’s in full-time nursery and for some of you that will seem shocking, but your nursery becomes a very necessary and large part of your family life.
    *This is paid by the Government, not the company! You have to have worked (i.e. paid tax) six out of the preceding ten months to qualify.    
  2. We have a State Church in Norway. It is not only state funded but also regulated in the sense that the state keeps it in its place, on the whole, and prevents it dominating society.  If you don’t want to be a member then you have to opt out, and although in theory only children who get christened should be opted in as minors, in practice they use the register of births to seek children. Thus my five year old son Max gets letters addressed to him directly from them, inviting him to bring us to sing-songs and all sorts, even though he is not christened. (It’s like upstream management or something – my husband has opted out, and I was never in of course because I’m a British citizen – do they think if they appeal to Max, and he nags us to take him, that we will somehow be recruited from the bottom up??)

 The following statements are true of the majority of our friends, and this includes the families from nursery:
·         They wouldn’t describe themselves as Christians out loud, and would smirk at anyone who did. They never go to church for ordinary services and they have no personal relationship to a priest. They wouldn’t deny evolution and they understand the value of Medical Science and would thank the hospital staff, not Jesus.
·         They remain members of the State Church. They get married in church, and they do christen their children. They describe this as ‘traditional’ in a vague way and are too ambivalent/agnostic/secretly scared to have a row with older family members about this.
·        They won’t say outright that they don’t believe in God, and although uncomfortable, will admit to some degree of belief when pushed. They talk vaguely of there ‘being something more’ and then don’t quite dare not to christen the kids, even though they don’t then practice any active religion in the upbringing. It’s cosmic insurance, just in case there is a heaven…

Picture my surprise and consternation when I, yesterday – stressing as usual in and out of the nursery minutes before it closes, noticed a note pinned to the door which was a pre-Christmas activity calendar.
Next Tuesday the whole day is blocked out for a special *Nursery Children’s Christmas Service* in the local church, and this excursion is for all 2-6 year olds in the school.

It doesn’t say anything about ‘write your child’s name on the list if you would like them to attend’.

It doesn’t say anything about an alternative for children over two who are not attending- it’s just quite simply the days' activity for all the kids…

I stormed over to Max’s teacher and went off in her face like an irate blond firework: these were my exact words (in English haha- so not my exact words at all!)
“I see this thing about the church service on the plan – why the hell are you suddenly taking the children to church?”
“Oh” she said, taking a step backwards “it was just an offer we got from them, and we decided we would give it a try…”
“That is utterly beyond anything I consider to be reasonable or comprehensible!” I spat “There is no level upon which this is acceptable!” (I get kind of haughty when I’m really angry).

Of course this woman isn’t the manager of the nursery, she isn’t personally responsible, but I saw her heckles rise – much as I also saw fear in her eyes – but I don’t know was being struck by a parental bolt of lightning in general, or if it was due to her being big into church-going. Of course to be fair she wouldn't know whether my reaction stemmed from me being a Scientologist or any other religionist, but I'm guessing she assumed Atheism.

I am aware that my manner of address can best be described as ‘over vehement’ when I am stirred up, but I continued in getting in her face with no remorse.
“I am to understand that all the children over two are attending?” I asked - hoity-toitying like a champion.
“No, actually no” she said “Nellie and Elna aren’t going”
“Well neither is Max! It’s absolutely outrageous!” I yelled, and with that I stormed out of the nursery. 
(I had to creep back in another door and pick up the bag of clothes and my, um, actual children… but it’s cool, she didn’t see me…)

So by pure coincidence there was a PTA meeting at nursery last night. By another not so pure coincidence guess who has been the leader of the PTA for the last four years…???
Yeah you got it – it’s your very own glamorous hostess!! In my opinion if more PTA mothers were half naked striking ‘blows’ for positivity in feminism and the celebration of womanhood on the internet, then the world would be slightly better place… but I digress…

Initially I was a little worried about my tantrum, because I hadn’t actually discussed with my husband whether or not Max should be allowed to go, in the interests of allowing the child to experience it and decide for himself, or in the interests of encouraging him to practice some sceptical thinking as he listened maybe… I could see that there were arguments for letting him attend, but I had now gone ahead and stated that he definitely wasn’t going, to his teacher, at top volume.

Happily this turned out to be a bullet which needed no dodging as John was in nothing other than complete agreement with everything I had said, and furthermore he was also really annoyed with the school about it too. In fact what he said was “there’s absolutely no way it’s legal, the way they’ve gone about it, you should look up the law before you go to the meeting”. I did. He was right.

Just before I go on with the story – I want to sum up why in this instance I prefer to have Max not attend at all, rather than go ‘to see for himself’.

I talked to him about daddy and I being Atheists one day a few months ago, because he was singing Hallelujah and I asked him why – worried that nursery had been talking about God to them. This opened the can of worms – I told him the same thing I tell him about his willy which was ‘if anyone says anything like that to you, you tell mummy’. He was very interested in what I said about not believing in God, and did that thing you can never predict with a five year old whereby he questioned me intensely and got a lot more out of me than I had really intended to say. (When we’re in a hurry to leave the house and I’m super stressed oh then there is no getting through to him, then he exhibits a woeful lack of focus… but this chat really got his attention).

I told him that I didn’t want him to worry about God, or more specifically what other people thought about God and said that people can get very upset if you try to tell them that there isn’t one. I advised him not to get into that kind of conversation until he is a big boy. I could hear myself talking more and more over his head as I went, and when I told John about it afterwards he shook his head in a ‘Zoë Zoë Zoë, why do you get into these things?’ sort of way.

Cue Max, at the dinner table at our friends house, about two evenings later – telling his little four year old friend, in a piping voice as clear as a bell ringing that ‘no, no – your grandma isn’t in heaven. My mummy says there’s no such thing. It just goes black when you’re dead!’

This was an awkward moment and no mistake. Luckily these people are our best friends, we have bullied them about their vague (pathetic) brand of Christianity over many a bottle of whiskey for many years, so they took it really quite remarkably well. “Well we do believe in Heaven” said the girl’s mummy to Max, with, to her credit, only a minimal edge to her voice. “But we know you don’t. Isn’t it ok that everyone can believe different things and not be the same?” (I am such an ungracious bitch I was thinking ‘um no – not really – not when what you believe is super stooopid!!’ but this was two very young children, it was a dead grandmother, and it was round their table as we ate their food… I kept the lid of the box shut…)

Anyway – the point is that I feel that it is too soon to send Max into that trench to fight that battle. 
He is capable of understanding a frankly astonishing amount of what you say to him, but he is not capable of very nuanced thought, he is not capable of independent sceptical thought, and most of all he is not capable of verbally defending himself in a debate (he’ll shove you though, or get you in a head lock). Quite frankly I don’t want him falling out with his little chums over this church service, and I don’t want him telling the fucking Priest that ‘my mummy says you're full of shit’ either, at least not when I’m not there to back him up.

I also don’t trust the nursery staff to use the ‘experience’ as a teaching tool to open a debate for the children. If or when he is to be exposed to religion, it will be with John and I there to talk to him about what was said, not with a group of teachers whose personal beliefs I know nothing about, and whose attitudes are ambivalent at best -  and who are probably terrified of saying something ‘unacceptable’ and angering any overtly religious parents.

So back to the PTA meeting. Myself and the other PTA mummy met the manager of the nursery an hour before the other parents were coming. I was still fuming at this point, and not intending to be particularly tactful about bringing it up – I was armed with the relevant sections from the laws governing schools and nurseries, and also helpful text from the Humanist Society website.

Kristine, the manager, initially seemed a little taken aback when I stated that I reacted in the most strongly negative way to both the excursion, and also to the way the nursery were organising it.
  •      I demanded to know why it hadn’t been set up, if they really felt the need to go at all, for just those who wanted to.
  •          I pointed out that the law clearly states that the school cannot make faith based decisions on behalf of pupils – something they obviously did in this case in just accepting an invitation from the church on behalf of all the two - six year olds.
  •          Further the law clearly states that the child must never be placed in a conflict of loyality between their home and their school – this clearly applies in this case because the very act of being left out while all the others put on their outdoor clothes and go off to take a bus (that’s exciting shit to small kids) would cause the child to experience an intense feeling of wanting to go the church.
  •          I pointed out that being left behind with the babies because you, for whatever reason, are not allowed to attend a Christian church service is tantamount to leaving a disabled kid in the baby room with a book while all the other big kids go to play football… how is it any less discriminating to the child?

Kristine started out trying to claim that my interpretation of the laws wasn’t correct – she argued that Christianity is a ‘normal part of the why and wherefore of a normal Norwegian Christmas’ and therefore unproblematic as a participation event even for non-Christian children who live in Norway. When I had finished choking on my coffee I refuted that equally vehemently, the law states that they can present religious ideas in a societal context, including presenting Atheism as an equally common alternative, in dialogue with the children. Actually going to church and letting the Priest have access directly to the children in a PR exercise called a ‘Kids Service’ with cookies and Noah’s Ark colouring in does not fall into that category!

I asked if they would then, as a natural part of a programme of cultural religious exploration be visiting a Temple or a Mosque during the year. It was obvious that they weren’t planning any such thing, but it was also becoming increasingly obvious that the woman agreed with me more and more as I talked…

She wasn’t going to concede that it was in outright contradiction of the law, but she did suddenly say “Actually you are quite right about the children who are not going. It just didn’t occur to me that any parents would have such strong feelings* – of course we need something nice for them to do. And they should ideally still get to go on the bus, maybe we can take them to the library instead”
*ours is not a very racially diverse nursery, there are no non-European families, so I think she had just been lazily thinking that there were no Muslim kids to worry about…

At this point the atmosphere lightened considerably and we fell to a general chat about the State Church. Bodil, the other PTA mummy, revealed that whilst she didn’t have strong feelings about her daughter attending the service on Tuesday, but nevertheless has opted out of the church, and hasn’t christened her little girl. She also regularly receives invitations to events at this particular local church of ours and finds it very annoying…

Then Kristine herself launched into a story about how she has never been a Christian personally, and had to send the S.C. multiple letters before they took her off their list, her own children (now adults) are not christened either!! The bloody woman turns out to be a total atheist!!! After all those calories I burned instigating the confrontation, and she no more sends her kids to church than we do, and was more than happy to state outright that she is a non-believer! For fuck’s sake!

We started the meeting with the parent body. We went through the agenda and then I chimed in with my piece about the outing to the church. Once again I made my feelings as plain as my facts. It was clear that my objection did not arise from me being of an alternative religion, although I made a lackluster stab at pretending to respect all other faiths too.

Most people were nodding in agreement with the principal that it should be a choice to attend and not the only activity that day. Right in the front row sat a father who is married to the daughter of the Bishop of our region, who herself teaches at a deeply religious high school in town. Having said that, this father is also a heart surgeon, so I was a bit intrigued as to where he stood on it all. He just sat there with a neutral face, but he piped up about other stuff quite happily later and didn't seem miffed…

Bodil and Kristine then attempted to conclude that they would leave it for now, but if they got in any other objections, they would consider another plan. I perked upright like an indignant Meerkat
“But you already know of no less than three children who are definitely not going – whether more come along or not is irrelevant – you have those three either way!”

And then something beautiful happened – like a little Atheist miracle – the woman to my right raised her hand and said, with a becoming simplicity “Four. Four children.” Everyone turned to look at her.

“I was going to keep Guro home” she said. “I won’t have her going to church either, but because it seemed like there was no choice I wasn’t going to say anything. But now I’m really glad it’s been brought up – my family do not go to church, and you are not taking my daughter. She and Max will have each other”
(Actually Max tells me that he and Guro are getting married when they grow up, so this whole thing bodes extremely well…)

The meeting ended with Atheists United going strong and scoring all the goals, and everyone else thinking ‘fair play’ (which the possible exception of heart surgeon guy, but if he tells his wife she isn’t allowed to play with me anymore that’s actually fine, because she always comes along and then doesn’t drink, or speak…) 

The email I tweeted last night was sent out – informing the entire parent body that after complaints from parents anyone who wished to pull their children from the trip must let Kristine know asap as an alternative was being arranged. I really think that that will bring forth more who would prefer the alternative but who were too agnostic or timid to speak up first…

I spoke to the mother of the two girls who were the original ones (other than Max) not going this morning, and my suspicion that it was indeed Atheism behind it and not alternative religion was confirmed. She was delighted to hear that I had actually complained and made an issue of it and clamped my arms in hers (she’s Finnish, I try to make allowances) and thanked me very sincerely – so that was nice confirmation.

As a final note of interest all four children have siblings under two years also at the nursery – so had there not been an age limitation there would in fact have been a minimum of seven out of thirty-nine children not attending, (you do the maths) so that is a pretty encouraging number of hard-ass Atheists in a tiny area – and now we have found each other!

I must invent a secret handshake…

Happy Xmas everybody!! J

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A Sad Situation

For the last ten years or so, I have been vaguely and from a distance, watching a woman kill herself.

For the last year, since last Christmas to be exact, I have been focused, and am now watching her kill herself from only a small distance.

She is my sister-in-law. And she is anorexic. Very very very anorexic.

My husband John is one of those people who are like alien foundlings; brought up by a family of people they resemble strongly physically (shape of head and noses), but in no other ways whatsoever. Until I came along with my breezy chit-chat and lightened the atmosphere, he rarely spoke to his mother and father, and as good as never spoke to his brother or sister. They are nice enough people, but he just didn’t really have anything to say to them and felt that they had no business knowing much about his life.

However, now that we have children of our own we have learnt the true meaning of the expression ‘keep your friends close and your babysitters closer’ so these days we see a fair amount of the whole gang. We still wouldn’t invite them on a long walking holiday to debate interesting topics because interesting topics are not on their horizons, but hey, they are the most kid friendly and obliging people ever, so fair play to them.

When John and I were first together, his brother and then girlfriend (now wife) lived in the tiny attic apartment on the top floor of the parent’s house. Right from back then, and this is twelve years ago, Anna would bring her own food to family dinners – usually a square of plain white fish and a bowl of vegetables.
As she was only coming from upstairs, where her own kitchen was, it never seemed all that odd particularly, there was always some excuse as to why she wasn’t eating what the rest of us were. Since my parents-in-law rank highly amongst the world’s worst chefs, in some ways the only thing we thought back then was ‘fuck – we wish we had thought of bringing our own food!’

Anna and Jens got married about ten or eleven years ago (the family overwhelmed the new foreign girlfriend of John, the son who never told anyone about his life, so I spent the event hiding outside with his fifteen year old cousin, smoking and trying to understand her weird dialect. By the same time the next year she had had her first baby, so it was a failure on my part to act as a role model…).

Soon after the wedding they sat my parents-in-law down to tell them that Anna was being treated for an eating disorder at the special facility for such at the hospital. It wasn’t exactly a shocker to any of us, but at this point she still looked ok, and functioned normally. That was the only time they ever ever mentioned it to any of us, and is still to this date the only time Jens has ever talked about it ever.

In the eleven years since  - mainly the last five - she has become a walking corpse, and ‘functioning’ is a very strong word to use to describe her.

Since the whole situation had become the largest yet skin-and-boniest elephant in the room - last Christmas I decided that someone had to do something, and it became clear to me that that someone was me myself. I’ll get to that…

At one point Jens and Anna moved out of the apartment and into their own house, and six years ago they had a baby – my niece Elisabeth. It was all anyone could do to say ‘congratulations’ when she announced the pregnancy, because we were all chocking on the words ‘were you seriously still menstruating??’ and additionally in my case ‘do you guys seriously still have sex – how does he not kill you!!’ But, pregnant she was, and baby arrived. Jens issued orders that no one was to comment on the bump or draw any attention to her tummy while she carried – but he gave no explanation or further comment around the situation.

No sooner had they vacated the upstairs flat than John’s sister and boyfriend moved into it, complete with two little kids. This is where things get even madder… John’s whole family, apart from him but only because he exercises a lot and fights it like crazy, are really overweight. His sister had been obese since childhood, and her boyfriend was even worse. John and I got used to being the only two with a normal relationship to food at family gatherings, I used to see Anna cringing as she watched them shovel the food like they were the ones starving. Not to mention the swimming pool of Pepsi that goes with it. It was almost like they did it deliberately to highlight Anna’s miniscule portions, they were, and still are, extremely unkind about her condition behind her back.

However about two or three years ago now, the sister, Terese, had gastric bypass surgery. Naturally she lost all the weight, she has done really well on it in fact. She also had agonising surgery to excise 2.5 kilos of excess flesh as well.

The boyfriend didn’t qualify for gastric bypass when she had hers, because he weighed 5 kilos under the qualifying weight for a man to get it on the equivalent of the NHS (i.e. ‘for free’ - Obama cares people!). Luckily we are talking about a special kind of genius here so, instead of losing 5 kilos and then continuing the good work under his own steam – no no – this guy went to the nearest petrol station and ate 5 kilos worth of hotdogs – and bam – next thing you know he was also sans stomach. (And also sans type 2 diabetes… that’s right – see how that works genius?!)

Family banquets now comprised the following participants:

The parents – still over eating, from behind salt and Pepsi mountains
The former owners of stomachs – now on liquid mush
The various babies who had swelled the numbers – also on liquid mush
Jens – getting fatter by the month, although it is an unsolved mystery how?
Anna – given up all pretence that she eats at this point – glass of water
John and I – hoping for the apocalypse to save us… also seeing benefits of liquid diets: alcohol is key.

The first thing that happened last Christmas was that Elisabeth (our niece) had a birthday party at the beginning of December. She is a story in herself, Anna breastfed her until she was over two – but how she was doing it when she didn’t take in any nutrients herself is a medical mystery. Elisabeth has every food allergy under the sun, allegedly, and this was given as a reason for extending breastmilk.

Call me sceptical, but it’s funny how breastfeeding just happens to be an enormous calorie burner, and also funny how having a child with food allergies allows the mother to be really picky and obsessed with food….

Anyway – now six years old and pretty hyper, we all got invited to their house for her birthday tea, and were thus accorded a by now rare sighting of Anna. We had been there for over an hour and a half, the entire extended families on both sides, and yet Anna herself had not emerged from the kitchen. There were about 3000 different cakes on offer, but the baker was conspicuous by her absence.

Now even before she was really ill she has always been very shy, but she has also always gravitated towards me like a kind of very timid and ghostly magnet. She will always chose me to sit beside, and if we are ever out of earshot of the rest of the crew she will always try to chat to me. She is a mentally engaged mother – she talks about Elisabeth (admittedly about her dietary requirements a great deal), and other chatty things, as long as it’s a bit private. My mother-in-law (who I actually get along famously with – that woman is a darker horse than John gives her credit for being) has also noticed this, and agrees that Anna wants to be my friend but doesn’t quite know how.

So – I decided to hunt her down, and just basically barged into the kitchen to see what she was up to.
I nearly keeled over at the sight of her.

She was grey. She was bending down to a cupboard, wearing a thick woolly jumper (she always always wears the same clothes) and her shoulder blades were knifing up out of her back like shark fins. Had she not been in the act of bending over, clearly a difficult feat for a dead person, I would have been rushing over to check her pulse. I was totally totally shocked – she had looked really skeletal for quite a while, but to be fair always seemed to be basically ok, like she just lived with it - but this now was a massive downhill slide in health, I could see from the doorway that she was really in trouble.

She seemed pleased to see me, and we chatted away, but my voice was all squeaky and I didn’t know what to look at so I talked really animatedly about something related to my daughter Sofia, and fiddled agitatedly with my bracelet to avoid looking at her.  

When we got home, John and I looked at each other and I said “Did you see?” and he, who I often think wouldn’t recognise me in the street if he wasn’t expecting to see me, because he doesn’t really notice what people look like, went “Yes I fucking did. Bad. Very bad.”
I said “Someone needs to do something. What the fuck do you think Jens thinks?” John said “I don’t think Jens thinks at all. He has the emotional range of the crane he operates at work. We weren’t brought up to be good at addressing things”.
“Well I was” I said, getting a determined look in my eye. “I’m not standing at her funeral feeling just as guilty as everyone else for not saying anything out of fucking politeness”.

John knows better than anyone how sucked into other people problems I am always getting, but he kind of nodded – he saw the justice of what I had said. He too knew I was going to have to intervene if I could.

We didn’t see them again until Christmas dinner, at the parents (in-laws) house. The stomachless bunch were at the other set of parents (those of the hotdog eating boyfriend – a family who completely missed all the memos about evolution, and who make me feel like there is a strobe light going off in my head when I am confronted with them en masse).

Anna looked if possible even worse. She ate precisely two, miniature mouthfuls, at dinner – but did drink a little alcohol, which had me surreptitiously reaching for my phone and thinking about ambulances.

Now I didn’t have a fucking clue what to say to her or how to say it. After eleven years of affecting not to notice and trying strainedly to treat her like anyone else – how was I supposed to broach it? How do you bring it up without stomping your enormous feet all over the woman and her innermost psychosis? I also knew that any time my father-in-law had tried to ask Jens how she was, he had gotten angry and refused point blank to discuss it.

Well in the end I did something that you all know me fairly well for doing by this time: I took all my clothes off.

It went down something like this:
Since I was determined to initiate, but nevertheless dreading, the conversation, and since I was obviously very keen to prove to Jesus that his birthday is massively important to me – I prepared for the one, and rejoiced in the other, by imbibing my body weight in wine first. Then I simply used girl powered ESP (my eyebrows) to indicate to her that I would like to talk to her in the toilet. She followed me willingly enough, lamb to slaughter style…

I locked us into the bathroom and turned to her and said “Anna, are you all right?” She said she was, yes, in a ‘would be puzzled’ but highly unconvincing way. “I’m not going to pretend I can’t see what’s going on with you.” I continued – tactful as, well a tipsy, nosy, not-minding-own-business person. As I said that I saw something flicker across her face. It mayn’t have been actual relief, but it certainly wasn’t surprise. I saw at once that she was going to let me do this. So the conversation was officially initiated.

In my slightly wine muddled way it was occurring to me that one is always hearing these stories about women starving themselves because they want to be like celebrities or models or whoever, and the smartypantes among us are supposed to shout “Photoshop!! NO one really looks like that!!” and then we are supposed to become Feminists because society via the media is selling unrealistic ideals to vulnerable weak women, who are never you yourself, because you wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall for that – but who are nevertheless numerous, if nebulous, and amongst us.

So I thought ‘if she’s obsessed with an unrealistic and unhealthy idea of what being thin looks like, then maybe I should show her how healthy I look and maybe she’ll actually see past her distortions to see how much bigger than her I actually am’. It seemed to make sense, and there was a large mirror above the sink, so after a bit more talking very carefully around the subject (I shed my clothes fairly easily, but even I tend to perform a short warm up act before just divesting myself of garments) I asked her if she thought I was thin. 

She nodded very vigorously and said “yes yes, you look amazing’. I reached for the phone again, because the vigorous head nodding had me once more estimating how long the ambulance would take, and then I asked her if she would be interested in seeing what my body really looked like up close, no Photoshop as it were. I could see that she did want to, so with no further ado I stripped to my underwear.

Doing my best poker face, because as madly hideously inappropriate as it was, just to be really honest with you all, what I was actually thinking was ‘shit I look really fat!’ (I had a massive Xmas dinner and a vat of wine in my tummy) I faced her in the mirror and said in a really gentle voice “Can you see that I am much much bigger, everywhere, than you are?” The sound of her reply fell just short of my ear, I leaned in close and caught it as it evaporated “No” she breathed “no I can’t see that”.

I am 5’8’’. I weight 55 kilos (121 lbs according to Google) so I have a ‘too low’ BMI of about 18, that is medically underweight for my height, if you set any store by BMI measurements. It’s particularly misleading in my case because I am muscular for my weight in addition though). I wear a size 6-8 UK, which I think is 2-4 U.S? I say this to emphasise not myself, but to try to show just how skinny this woman is. Xmas dinner tummy not withstanding I looked like a mammoth whale dinosaur woman beside her. It was almost comical except it was totally tragic.

All I could see were the most enormous pair of shrunken eyes, blinking up at me in the most unspeakable pain I have ever seen in a person I have been talking to. Her voice was like the trace echo of a whisper. I felt like I was a hippo booming in a thunder voice to the most fragile petal in vague human form. I am just mixing these metaphors wildly because I felt so confused and upset at the time and this mash up sort of reflects it.

She was hooked meanwhile. I could see her looking at me like she looks at people eating dinner. I asked her if she wanted to touch me, again the vague idea was that I could get her to realise how insubstantial she was beside me, compared to me. I was trying to clear the mist of distortion from her eyes, she had been telling me that she saw a huge fat girl when she looked at herself, that she felt like she was repulsively fat.

She didn’t need asking twice to touch me. She started kind of squeezing my leg, staring and staring at my thigh and moving her hands over me like I was some kind of treasure. It was totally weird, but something was urging me on, my instincts were telling me that I was somehow on the right lines, despite being way over the limit to steer the vehicle. Then I asked her if she would show me what she looked like without clothes.
Once again I could see that she wanted to, it was like I had kind of mesmerized her, but she also demurred, and was clearly torn. Eventually she lifted up her top, and exposed her upper body to me.

I was so shocked that I literally wouldn’t sleep for the next four nights. John went on high alert, he was becoming convinced that I was going to make myself ill taking on people’s problems again. I felt ill. I felt sick to my *soul*. That woman looked like a famine relief poster. If you have never seen that with your own eyes, and more over on a person who is deliberately doing it to themselves, then I don’t think I can ever make you understand the impact. The sight of that pathetic, wasted, shrivelled skin clinging to the bird bones – well in all honesty it really was repulsive – but I felt more overwhelmed with pity and confusion.

The next morning she didn’t emerge. Jens and Elisabeth did, on apparently fine form. I slunk about avoiding him because I thought he might be furious with me. I could see that my mother-in-law, who had obviously noticed that Anna and I had been inexplicably acting like we were in a nightclub by going to the bathroom together and not emerging for ages, was salivating and desperate to get me alone to ask what it was about. I dodged her too. I was in no mood for it, and it was all I could do to cope with being shocked to my core and horrendously hungover, as well as worried that I had just pushed someone over the edge into total insanity by taking it upon myself to go all Dr. Phil on her.

At one point before we got into our car I tapped at the door of their room. A cowardly ‘please don’t hear me’ tap, but when I got no answer I cracked the door and peeped in. The heat of a fully raging furnace hit me in the face from the heater. Nothing was really visible, but a pile of bedding to rival Everest, and barely discernable under it was the deeply slumbering form of a malnourished women who no doubt craved the oblivion and temporary abating of misery engendered by passing out and allowing her body to stop screaming for the food she would literally rather die than feed it.

Independently of all of this, a plan had been hatched for them to come and visit us a couple of days later at our cabin in the mountains. This was in itself a bit unusual anyway, we never socialise with them, and never see them without it being the whole family gang gathered. Part of me was not feeling too good, because I had really been a bit too wine’ish when I spoke to her and I was worried that she would think I had been raging drunk and had just stomped on her. I really wanted to have another conversation, but I was also keenly aware that that would involve, for a second time, just blatantly confronting her with it and forcing a talk that she hadn’t asked for onto her.

Then I remembered that she is going to die. Maybe very soon. And I thought ‘pull yourself together dick. You managed to break the ice, now jump in with both feet and be the person she needs someone to be’. I was pretty confident however that they would cry off the visit. I could hardly imagine that she still entertained the previously held warm feelings towards me.

In this however, I was to be proved wrong. They turned up, and the daddies played with the bigger kids in the snow. She didn’t play. She stood there, watching, for over an hour, and I (inside with Sofia, who was only 6 months old at this point) looked through the window and thought ‘she would rather stand outside in -15 degrees than come into the living room where I am’.

Eventually she did come in. She accepted a cup of hot water, the first of six, which would be the only thing to pass her lips the whole five hours they were there. She didn’t even pee once either. We sat on the sofa and I took a deep breath and just went for it again.

This time I was clear headed, fully dressed, and had had a few days to think about it all. I looked into her eyes and said “Anna. I see you. I know you think you’re invisible, that you are trying to disappear into nothing, but I can see you. And when I look at you I can hear you too. With no sound at all, you are screaming at me”. She opened up and told me all about it.

She doesn’t know what really triggered it. Started trying to lose a couple of kilos, continued to chase a couple more. Is now terrified that if she starts to eat she will never be able to stop.

She has never felt like she could say what she really thinks to people. Had never been able to say no to anyone. (And you know what I suspected at this point, but I don’t think so – and I would have picked up on it, I’m sure. This is me afterall…).

All she does is be anorexic. She hasn’t worked for nine odd years. Her entire day goes to planning what she won’t eat and when she won’t eat it. Sometimes she is able to allow herself a little more food, and then she feels better. But she finds it very confusing to feel better, so she restricts worse than ever. I asked her if this last year had been a long bad period since I could see it, she admitted that it had been very very bad for a while now.

She has undergone out patient treatment twice, but she hates that clinic with a vengeance – why? Because the clinic signifies one thing and one thing only to her – they make her eat. She is fundamentally unable to accept their help because they are utterly unable to establish a trust relationship with her because make her eat = enemy. I made mental notes and served her hot water as if I was Martha fucking Stewart offering a delicious homemade treat, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Jens, she told me never ever brings it up with her. He gets angry and frustrated so it is a no-go subject for them. I know she spends a lot of time with her mother, we have all always assumed that’s who supports her – but when I asked she said “No, she’s given up. She tells me to eat sometimes”.

At that point I was starting to get angry as hell. He’s frustrated? He’s going to sit on his ass while the mother of his child just expires in front of their fucking faces because he finds it hard to fucking talk about? He just turns a blind eye and waits for Elisabeth, who is a candidate genetically, role model wise and not fucking least because her entire fucking existence already revolves around what she can’t eat because she’s a Celiac to go the same way?

And the mother – her only daughter has been dying by inches for over a decade and she can’t get on fucking Google and hack her way to some better advice than ‘you really should eat’.
What useless cunts.

I promised her the following things:
I would never urge her to eat, or ask her questions about her specific eating habits.
I would talk to Jens if she wanted me to, but never without her express permission.
I would come with her to the doctors if she ever would let me (I gently pressed for this, but it hasn’t happened yet).
I wouldn’t bring it up again, but the moment she feels even a slight inclination to seek help, she has my number.

For the last year I have sent her texts, just to say hi and remind her that I am here. I always hug her and try to give her some human contact whenever I see her.
She still looks like she is going to die tomorrow. She has shown no signs of seeking help because she doesn’t want help that involves eating – and that is what the help is. She wants talk therapy, but I had a long conversation with a friend of ours who is a clinical psychologist and as he pointed out, when someone's brain chemistry is badly affected by prolonged starvation and delusions you cannot begin to treat them with behaviour therapy before they achieve a semblance of physiological health again. To an anorexic that means eating, so it’s a Devil’s deal she is just not prepared to make.

The fact that I was the only one who tried to reach her is still gonna be pretty cold comfort the day the little girl loses her mother to something that should be so preventable, yet is somehow just totally impossible.

That's how it rests as of today.
If anybody has any ideas then I would really welcome them…

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Take Your Pants Off – It’s For Feminism!

If you hang around Twitter on Fridays, you will sooner or later have the pleasure of seeing a whole bunch of outgoing, freethinking, irreverent people of all genders, taking most of their clothes off and posting pictures of themselves.

It’s genius, it’s hilarious, and it’s pretty damn hot. As I understand it the credit belongs to @AtheistLauren – to whom all of the former adjectives apply.

#NoPantsFriday (and all the spin offs) are also very interesting. Firstly interesting because like umm, everyone else, I like looking at naked people and am curious. But more than that what I find interesting are the potential answers to the following question:

What possesses grown women of more than thirty summers, professionals who often have long-term partners, many of whom are mothers, and all of whom are critical thinkers who take spade loads of personal responsibility for themselves, to post half-naked pictures of themselves on a public online forum?

The simple answer for most participants would be: it’s fun, and it’s funny.

Round here however, we pride ourselves on doing a little better than just accepting ‘the simple answers’ in life don’t we, so let’s not content ourselves with that – let’s clarify a couple of germane points and then excavate further into this sexy little anthropological dig…
  •       For the purposes of this post I am not going to talk about the menfolk who participate. Many of them go even further with their pictures than the women do (and we thank them oh so kindly for it) but a) I’m not a guy so I couldn’t answer as to what motivates them and b) I want to talk about female bodies and sexuality specifically.
  •            Since my question would be very poorly answered if I only used myself as an example I went all journalistic for this post (by which I mean that I donned a raincoat with no underwear and sent two emails) and interviewed two very amazing ladies whose asses, sorry - I mean whose giant brains - you all already know from Twitter. These two prime examples of everything-a-woman-would-want-to-be if she has any sense are Jessica (@ECBlade) and Athy (@DeepSouthAthy). If anyone reading this isn’t following either of them then I guarantee that you will be within two flat seconds of finishing this post.

This then is not me speaking purely on behalf of myself, (although the anecdotes are all me) – I found, to my complete non-surprise, that they both have very similar feelings to me about this.

So suitably invigorated with a healthy dose of firmly confirmed confirmation bias, let me set about this post which will not be as well expressed as their answers were (I am undoubtedly the least qualified of the three of us to write this, but hey, I had the idea first so you’re all stuck with me). If you have looked at the pictures, but now cannot spare the time for the intellectualisation of them, then you are going to look like nothing more than a pervert – so I have you over a barrel – accept the fate that most becomes you and keep reading my friends…

It’s your only body and yes, people can see it…

I can clearly remember the first time a man ever expressed to me that he was looking at my body ‘in that way’.

Except he wasn’t a man; he, like me, was thirteen years old. At thirteen years old I looked like a pencil in a blond wig. I also looked like that at sixteen years old, although by then there was a slight suggestion that the pencil had heard the rumors about hormones, and was wondering if they were contagious, and if so who she could lick to get herself a dose… If I hadn’t been brought up an atheist anyway – not ‘blessing’ me my period until I was well past my fifteenth birthday would have had me wondering why God was such a massive bastard – had I had faith it would never have survived my first trip to buy a bra in a minus cup size…

So as a young teen I used to wear four pairs of tights (pantyhose?) These were the thick, school uniform black ones, and I wore four pairs because despite inhibiting me somewhat in my daily perambulations around the campus, they made my legs look slightly thicker. Immediately abandon any images the words ‘school uniform’ conjured up for you – if you are anywhere near Britney then you are very very far away from what I looked like. And yet here was the bold David Patterson from drama class, complimenting me on my bottom.
There’s always one weird kid walking about with a magnifying glass, lusting after pencils, I suppose…

So he told me that he liked looking at my bum. I was beside myself with embarrassment; I don’t think my face returned to its normal colour for about two days. In my naivety little did I know that I hadn’t even begun to plumb the depths of truly acute embarrassment on that day; this being as it was about four years before the evening, whilst on holiday in Spain, that my parents - in the middle of a fucking restaurant no less - put on their liberal weirdo hats and asked my brother and I if either of us had started experimenting with masturbation…
I know the Spanish spread diseases in South America and were generally a bit pirate-y, but they hardly deserved that… Anyway…

How does a person’s relationship to their own body, and specifically to having their body viewed and evaluated by other people, change from wanting to die after being glanced at by a fellow pre-pubescent (and that despite being protected not only by a skirt, but also by four pairs of tights) until they get to a point where they stick a picture of their bum onto the internet for everyone to see?

At twenty I was more than happy to have people check me out in clubs etc, but there’s no way I would have posted a picture then. Twenty-five - still no, I felt terrible about myself. At that point I couldn’t collate the undeniable fact that many people were attracted to me with the ever present criticisms I myself levelled daily at all aspects of my appearance.  Thirty – I was pregnant that year – I had surrendered my body to the process of childbirth, from which I would not emerge phoenix style for the next four years.

Yet come thirty-five – on the wrong side of the harrowing process that is childbirth, sliding, (albeit rather gracefully) right on down that slippery slope to middle age and viola - here she is – look at her ass!
My point? Owning and understanding her own sexuality is a hard won prize for a woman. We don’t get there overnight – no matter what we look like, no matter what shape or size, no matter how closely to the so called ideals we may even match up, I have never known anyone who got the gift of a liberated attitude to their own body, and by extension their own sexuality, for free.

It’s a journey on the love train…

I lost my virginity before I turned seventeen under very organised and considered circumstances. We had been together for months; we talked about it and mutually agreed to have a go. He was one year older but also a virgin. We got condoms beforehand. We were inside in a warm house (my parents were out). It was all incredibly tidy. It was not though in any way a sexual awakening.

The main goal for me, and all my friends, at that time was to lose our virginities while we were still sixteen. (You know, cos wrinkles and gravity really set in at seventeen, and before you can check to see if you even need a bra yet – you’re on the sexual shelf gathering dust!) We didn’t really think about whether it was good sex or not, our expectations in that area extended to ‘anything that didn’t hurt too badly was a bonus’. We wanted to be able to say we had done it/were doing it – we didn’t really have clearly formed ideas regarding the crucial 1.75 minutes it actually took.

I went on to have intermittent sex with two or three other guys (one, who was twenty-four when I was seventeen, broke up with me because he wasn’t into how uncomfortable I obviously was – I have always liked him so much for that decency. (Just incidentally he was also a professional skateboarder actually, yeah, cool, s’true. Just sayin’…))

Additionally during this period of my life, while I basically tried to force myself to get comfortable with the sex I was not regularly having, some vague suggestion of womanly curves peeped through and I finally felt able to dress in an amount of underwear more in accordance with accepted tradition. It was moot anyway in point of fact because somewhere around my sixteenth birthday I clad myself in a man-sized Rage Against The Machine t-shirt, in which I remained happily ensconced, apart from to shower, until I was eighteen.

I remained essentially the exact same shape and weight from then (seventeen-eighteen), right up until last year, which I’ll get to in a minute. The feelings I had about myself for these years can be summed up thus: I knew that I was considered pretty attractive and good looking from what people said and the amount of attention I received. Personally, myself - I was highly skeptical. Something did. not. compute. I didn’t feel truly confident internally, but I sort of trusted that I obviously looked ok to other people, so I contented myself with that on good days.

I say I looked and weighed the same right up until last year and of course in the intervening years, starting as I said at the age of thirty in 2008, I had three children. In my first pregnancy I coped ok with getting the bump, hardly put any weight on, constantly had to assure everyone that I wasn’t anorexic, and right at the end I even needed bras which I could now quite happily use to comfortably house my heads, were I to grow a second one, and become chilly around all four ears.  

Max ended up being born by emergency C-Section so whilst the exit designed for the purpose of ejecting babies remained pleasingly and firmly closed, I did gain a 9 inch scar during the hasty creation of the emergency exit and inflatable slide. I pinged back to my regular shape quickly, and apart from the breastfeeding (which kept those puppies looking great but feeling horrible), you couldn’t tell anything had ever happened, so it never changed the way I thought about myself. The scar is of no consequence whatsoever.

It is not my intention to bring the festive mood down by talking in any detail about my second pregnancy – but a couple of things are relevant so I will reveal them. As it turned out the baby had been dead for quite a few weeks, so I had to come to terms with the idea that I had been literally walking around with a dead body inside me. That sort of thing will sickeningly change your perspective about your body for you - you’d be looking for a while to identify a worse feeling, as I’m sure you can imagine.

The morning after I gave birth to him, I awoke to look down and discover that my body had eradicated all traces of ever having been pregnant. I had gone in with a sizeable bump (I am one of those women who can’t go into a sports shop pregnant, they immediately arrest me for stealing a basketball under my jumper) and now it was just gone. Everything was gone. In hindsight because my hormone levels had been dropping for some time, my body knew what my brain didn’t accept until much later, which was that there wasn’t going to be any more baby to grow, and it was downright eerie to go back to feeling 100% just like me so quickly without my mind managing to catch up.

The second aspect relevant to this post is this – and I urge you to just absorb this as much as you can. When your baby is dead things are a lot different than if you are having a live one. The first question people always ask (not to the grieving mother personally necessarily, I mean just when discussing the topic) is ‘why the fucking shitting hell do they not do C-Sections to spare the woman having to go into labour and push. It seems totally inhumane!’ I used to think exactly that.
But it’s wrong. It’s the process, the very act of participating, and also the fact that it takes so much longer, that are actually the essential transitioning facets of going into full labour in that situation. Honestly – if they had slabbed me onto the table and sliced him out in minutes I don’t think I would ever have come to terms with what had happened. I would have felt assaulted and mugged. As I said in my first post, and I really meant it, giving birth was the last and only thing I would ever do for him, it was necessary and important and it allowed me to come out of the hospital with my conscience on its way to processing it all, and my body whole and healed and unmutilated.

Here is a big part of why: when they induce labour they do it by dint of vaginal tablets, which dissolve and work on opening the cervix, additionally you can have pain killers in suppository form. Bear with me, there is a point… Since they don’t have to take any consideration of the baby itself, the only patient is an adult, so you are able to have a load of drugs that you can’t have with a live baby. But they have to be taken regularly, over many many hours, and naturally I was dreading all this poking and gynecological checking and all that which you put up with when you reward is a cooing bundle of joy.

In an act of supreme human decency, professional integrity, respect and empathy, to my amazement the midwife handed me the tablets, a box of surgical gloves, and said “there’s no reason I can position these any better than you can, and you won’t be wanting strange fingers up there all day and night. We’ll just leave you be as much as possible, you can do what needs to be done in private, and things will progress as they progress in their own time.”

That was bodily integrity, that was autonomy, and that was dignity in the midst of horror. And it was so much appreciated that I don’t even know how I am finding the words for it now. To me, it was quite simply, a life changing act and it allowed me to come to a peaceful understanding with my body which had let little Lucas so woefully down.

Three months later I got pregnant again and all bets were off. I am not going to tell you about forty weeks of hell on earth, wondering if this baby was dead every minute. I hated the bump, I hated the check-ups and scans. When she was born, perfect and healthy and a total sweetheart I rejoiced in her every minute, and when she was eight weeks old I set about the systematic and total re-claiming of my body. I started walking, then running, then training at the gym. 

Apart from walking, obviously, I had never done any of those things before. When Sofia was ten months old I ran a half marathon in two hours, and last summer I gained two kilos of muscle and in the process slew off all nearly all the fat on my body. The result of all of this is that I look much much better now than I did at twenty or twenty-five pre childbirth, because I was just thin, not fit, back then. And because I worked for it and did it for me, for my own very good reasons, it really means something to me and I am confident about my body in a completely new way. (Only from the neck down mind! Face was never great and it’s on the outs for every year that passes now!)

So that was how pregnancy – and please can we never say that hateful gross word again? – affected me and my body. I have been there and done that and from now on this vessel is strictly for pleasure only! Although not all women have biological children, obviously, a lot of them do, and I think every one of them would say that it is always going to fundamentally change your relationship to your body, for better or worse, unavoidably and irrevocably.

After all of that – let’s get back to the good stuff! I am now going to regale you with a story of a very different nature. This is the story of the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me. It may be the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to anybody in fact. And it also very neatly brings us to the boyfriend with whom I first had fantastic sex.

I was twenty, he was eighteen – that’s right! He was dippily in love with me, but sadly for him (although he took it quite sportingly while the good times rolled, funnily enough) I was only interested in him for one thing. I’m just going to call him Rob, because at this point neither he nor my father are dead, so real names seem a bit un-gentlemanly…

I started studying for my degree away from home in a proper shit-hole called Stirling in Scotland. That will suffice as adequate explanation for why I didn’t get on well there, so after having moved out of my parent’s house at eighteen, I moved back in three months later and continued studying in my home town. The incident I am recounting must have happened right before I moved out again and into an apartment with my friend – in fact it is probably why my parents agreed to help pay my rent.

Rob and I were at it like proper rabbits, I don’t quite know what he did, but I do know he did it in exactly the right place – so the atmosphere was pretty friendly. I should add at this point that he had a pretty shitty home-life and my father had actually given him a job, in an act of paternally inspired sympathy that I would say he came to regret, except they still work together now… Go figure.

As is the custom in British homes my parents enjoyed the luxury of wall to wall carpeting, and as is equally traditional I got drunk and spilled sticky, brown cough medicine all over mine. It made a nasty mess. A long awaited, and no doubt richly bearded, prophet was eagerly anticipated in the household in the form of a Carpet Shampoo Man – the bearer of holy machinery which would purify and cleanse the carpets. However, on the morning of his grand appearance I was informed that he wouldn’t be tackling the upstairs on that same day, so I was no longer required to tidy my room before leaving to immerse myself in a day of Paradise Lost and The Pickwick Papers.

That night I was to make a much anticipated appearance myself, in a student Dramatic Society production. Yes, I did AmDram at Uni. Fuck off – you haven’t always epitomised coolness and awesomeness yourself either!

I came home mid- afternoon and phoned my mother to make arrangements for her and my dad to pick up their tickets. She greeted me with the following icy blast: “DIS-gusting!!!! You father will never, ever, be able to look you in the face again!!!!” To say that I was astonished and bewildered would be to state it extremely mildly. I was aghast, but could make neither head nor tail of it.

It transpired that what had happened went something like this: Dad, returning home in his lunch hour to meet and greet the third wise man bearing carpet shampoo, had decided on impulse, to escort this industry expert upstairs after all, the better to canvass his opinion on my cough mixture stain. Upon entering the room my father discovered that he was to be foiled in his attempt to show anyone any carpet owing to its being buried beneath the debris of a clothing and book explosion. He dutifully began scooping these items upwards and flicking them onto the bed, hotly pursued by the carpet chief, sniffing and clucking preparatory to proclaiming well-considered expert advice.

Dad scooped and flicked his way further into the room until he encountered, right there on the floor, a condom. Instinctively he plucked it up, palming it magician style the better to conceal it from the prying eyes of the shampoo man. It was at this point, whilst maintaining eye contact and a pleasing light banter with this total stranger, all the while nestling the condom in his hand behind his back, that he discovered, to his natural and considerable horror, that this particular condom had fulfilled its contraceptive destiny, and was in fact chock full of the stickily chilled spunk shot at velocity into his daughter by a teenage lout earlier that morning.

Buggershitfuckcuntwhore. Several weeks of almost intolerable familial strain then followed.

(This was not in fact the only time my poor father was clobbered around the head by the fact that the men who shagged/wanted to shag his daughter were horrible pigs. Once, standing having a chat at a barbeque with a young Irish lad my father was highly amused to be on the offensive end of the man remarking, upon seeing me approach from the other side of the lawn – “Fuck me look at her! She’s sex on a stick!” At which point I arrived, smiling an innocent hello, allowing my father to turn to his young friend and enquire, with impeccable comic timing, “Have you met my daughter Zoë?” Everyone who was there, and it was basically all the neighbors, are still laughing about that, ten years later).

Many years later I would move to Oslo and, in a hungover and bedraggled state, literally bump into the man 
I would later marry. The intervening years between Rob and my husband were sexually characterised by me knowing what I wanted from a sexual partner and not being afraid to ask for it. You can and will observe me on Twitter, or this blog, freely and frequently discussing sexual matters and also my own sexuality – but you will not see (or read) me discussing my actual sex life. The intimacy of what I do with my husband is not for public consumption, apart from anything out of respect for him because he is far far less outgoing than I am, but also because that would be totally inappropriate. 
A friend of mine once randomly and in my opinion utterly without warrant, told me – in actual inches – how big her then boyfriend’s penis was. I couldn’t grasp why she had been so literally graphic, it was completely unnecessary and made it all very uncomfortable, when, a couple of years later and long after she had finished with him, I had to do a project with him.
He must have wondered why I was always so sympathetic. No no – I jest – it has no bearing on how much she enjoys it – calm down.

Even when operating within well defined limits for what a person will and will not participate in out-with their as-lived sex life there is room for a great deal of freedom of expression. The question is often asked ‘why do Western women need Feminism these days’ and as far as I am concerned Sex Positivity is one very compelling reason. During the years that I communicated clearly to any new partners (we are talking less than a football team here!) that I expected to enjoy it too, and here’s how, not one of them found it something to take for granted or completely natural. Most of them found it arousing, but none of them assumed a woman would be like that. DeepSouthAthy expressed it perfectly in her email to me.

There is no reason to continue this cooperative lie that women are to be objects of sexual desire, instead of participants in it. OR that unless we are perfect we are not sexually desirable, and therefore we have no worth. That's pure BS. The earlier everyone learns that, the better. Beauty is fleeting. Intellect, charm, humor...these things matter far more to both sexes over the long term, even if physical beauty serves as the initial interest. Women participate in, and are not subject to sexuality.”

And that there in a nutshell is the answer to my original question (remember – I posed it nine years ago – you have been reading this ever since…)

When women like us, willingly and gleefully participate in #NoPantsFriday or otherwise expose our sexuality on Twitter it is an expression of ownership and proactivity. A flexing of the freedoms we have won through an adult lifetime of exploring, failing, succeeding, rebelling, demanding, needing, suffering through and enjoying sex and sexual experiences.

You can’t take from someone what they willing offer. Although nobody is immune from being hurt by mean comments and nobody wants to end up a meme, and although naturally we all enjoy any compliments that come our way, at the end of the day the gesture of posting the pictures is indicative and telling of the ultimate total acceptance of ourselves. Although the net result of a picture of a half naked lady may appear to be the same as what younger and more ‘ideally’ attractive women also post – what we are doing is in fact the polar opposite. A dolled-up teenager, no matter how physically beautiful, is not claiming her right to be appreciated as a fully developed and sophisticated lover with a full understanding of, and healthy respect for, the vagrancies and subtleties of adult human sexual relations.

Here are Jessica’s highly articulate thoughts to further this:

I'm 42 years old, soon to be 43...mother of 2, and would certainly lose my job if my bath pics made it to the hospital.Well, I can get another job, but accepting myself for took too many years to get there to let something like that stand in the way.  I have found, generally, that our group of twitter friends are supportive of just about everything, and I don't think, despite the salacious comments, that people recognize these pics as anything other than expressions of open acceptance of self.  Now, of course I think there is a group that will look at my pics and think, "Oh, she's just an attention whore with ok legs." And then they'll unfollow, but, I've already tried forcing people to engage with me for just my intellectual side. It doesn't work.
I post the pics because that's what I am, too.  Yes, I write well.  Yes, I have a good blog.  Yes, I am an exceptional nurse.  I am smart, funny, witty, my own  That counts. It matters and I find that this is just an expression of what makes me feel good and comfortable.”

Jessica has been gracious enough to share the extended version of her beautiful letter to me on her own outstanding blog, with additional thoughts and moving details - do not miss out, get over there!
Nurse Unbelievable - The Scars We Carry

To sum up before we all die of old age – what I am trying to show is that behind a photo that some may mistake for an anonymous show-off asking to be objectified there is a real person with way more than that to offer; someone who might enjoy showing her bottom and getting a laugh or a compliment, but who you would be a fool to discount in a critical intellectual or sociological arena.

Proud, content, and all grown up women, who know what we are doing, and exactly why we are doing it, and also what we want, and exactly why we want it.

What could be more sexy than that?

Thank you so much to both Jessica and DeepSouthAthy for their time, their pictures and their giant overcrowded brains! xxx