Category Archives: culture

#366daysofmusic

Near the end of 2015, I read a couple of articles about people who set themselves a daily challenge for the year. One woman crafted a miniature chair; one man sought out and consumed a different flavour of taco. I had previously completed a year of collecting one-second video clips each day and was looking for a new creative but bizarrely obsessive way to mark the passing of time, so the idea of doing something a bit more engaged and therefore challenging appealed to me. So, while other people were resolving to spend 2016 reducing energy consumption and producing less waste and becoming more active in charity efforts, I pledged to listen to, and review, a new music album each day of the year. We all give back to society in different ways.

Throughout the year, people who were aware of my quest kept asking the same question: Why are you doing this? This is, really, two questions: First, Why have you decided to spend the year doing a particular thing each day? and, second, Why is the point of this thing? There are many answers to the former: I enjoy being creative, it feels good to set and achieve a goal, having a routine helps keep you motivated on days when you’re feeling lacklustre, doing this ensures I will have at least one thing to blog about this year, and so on.

I originally thought that the latter question was simpler, and had only a single answer: I have a ridiculously large music collection and this will a) justify my ownership of all those albums and b) encourage me to finally listen to things that I’ve never even played once. Almost immediately, though, I began to realise that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface. I had hoped to encourage brand new musical adventures and the revisiting of albums I didn’t feel had received sufficient attention, but I found myself pushed and pulled towards particular songs/albums/artists/genres on particular days or in particular situations. My head might say, “You should listen to the Frazey Ford you’ve never heard,” but my heart would say, “Nope. I want to wrap that Loreena McKennitt around me like a warm blanket.” Some days I could barely force myself to listen to anything at all, but on other days I had a near-continuous soundtrack from my first cup of tea until I turned out the light at bedtime. I thought perhaps there might be some sort of deep and fundamental truths I could unearth by reflecting on all this more systematically, so like a good little scientist I began to collect data. Let’s take a look, shall we?

One of the very first things I noticed–also commented upon by friends who followed the progress of my project on Facebook–was a consistent generosity in my ratings:

ratings-frequency

Over the course of the year, my ratings averaged out to 7.5 out of a possible 10, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 (not that I gave too many of either of those two extremes). The most common rating, also the median, was 8. Obviously my sample here was biased, because I was predominantly listening to music I already own–which, given the amount of research and sampling I typically do before committing to an album, probably meant I was pretty fond of the record itself, the artists, or both, by the time I made the purchase. On top of that, despite my initial interest in exploring the neglected corners of my music collection, I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards albums I knew and loved; I was cherrypicking the best ones and, for the most part, avoiding the stuff I’d deemed unworthy. Finally, I tend to be relatively generous whenever I give marks to anything, so in addition to focusing on the best of the best, I am probably guilty of inflation caused by over-enthusiasm. I know all of these things are true, but I prefer to think that I just happen to own really excellent music.

Despite the biases mentioned above, I did actually try to facilitate diversity and variation in my listening. When I’d had too many top-ranking albums in a row, and especially when I kept choosing the very same score again and again, I would deliberately select something I was less familiar with or that I’d previously dismissed as substandard.

Quality over time

To some extent, you can see this reflected in my listening pattern over the year (above). Although the bulk of ratings are clustered in the 7-8 band, you can see regular peaks and troughs, especially after a little plateau. There was more variation right at the beginning of the year, in early April when I did my painful survey of Cat Power albums, and then in early September when I was short on time while traveling and therefore chose albums predominantly based on their length (where shorter = better) rather than their quality. Basically, I think this graph shows that, despite my best intentions, I was fairly consistent in prejudicially choosing tried-and-true albums throughout the year. [It’s worth noting that the “0” towards the end of the year is actually an “n/a” associated with a novelty album. I don’t think I own anything atrocious enough to merit a real 0.]

I do feel guilty about failing to explore certain overlooked albums. When I started #366daysofmusic, there were specific records that I wanted to listen to; Joan as Police Woman’s “The Classic”, Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, and the aforementioned Frazey Ford all spring to mind. I listened to none of them. I also feel guilty about inconsistencies in my rating methodology. On the day that I picked a particular album, I might listen to it once or multiple times, after either having never heard it before or heard it many times previously; sometimes I already knew the artist and was predisposed to be positive, but other times I was unfamiliar with the performer and probably more likely to be skeptical. I knew it wasn’t really fair to consider all of these listening experiences equal, especially considering that many artists, and even entire genres of music, provide an experience that needs to be repeated and pondered–nurtured, even–before you can be fully appreciative. All those albums that have, or might have, grown on me over time were given short shrift in #366daysofmusic. Given that it wasn’t a full-blown scientific study, I think I can forgive myself, but the point remains: It pays to be a patient listener who doesn’t dismiss things too readily.

I am also all in favour of being open-minded when it comes to genres. I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic listener. There are certain genres I don’t own in droves or listen to routinely, and, on the flip side, others that I strongly prefer. I like all sorts of styles, however, including those that blend elements from different periods and disciplines and cultures. Did #366daysofmusic reflect that variety?

genre-frequency

To the best of my abilities, I assigned each of my chosen albums a genre, and the resulting graph (above) shows that I do, indeed, listen pretty widely across the musical spectrum. When people ask me what my favourite genre is, I tend to default to “Americana” because it is an easy way to summarise that I like earthy-sounding stuff that draws from predominantly country, folk, bluegrass, traditional, and early rock influences. Basically, I like what my voice sounds good singing; I am also a sucker for the haunting sound of melancholy melodies and eerie reverb. Harmonic, moody music.

I find myself groaning in aural pain every time I turn on BBC Radio 1, so I never would have guessed that I listened to so much music best categorised as “pop”; then again, “pop” is short for “popular”, so I suppose its prevalence kind of makes sense. The peaks associated with “indie” and “rock” also caught me off-guard because I though that I dislike those genres.  I suspect the mismatch results from the fact that I am inordinately fond of, and own all the albums by, certain artists within those genres–Alt-J, for example–but view those as exceptions to the rule. There are many ways to be “rock” or “indie”, after all, and it is possible to like the decor within a particular room but not like the overall style of the house in which those rooms are found. Or something.

In order to see whether my ratings were kinder in some categories than in others, I produced the following graph that breaks at least a half dozen data analysis rules:

Rating by genre

At first glance, this suggests that there is a slight gradient across the genres, with some getting consistently more favourable reviews than others. I’ve left off the label of the bottom axis because it’s a riot of words, but the genres towards the left, more favourable, side are things like “folk”, “soundtrack”, “pop”, and “indie”. The ones towards the right are things like “reggae”, “hip hop”, and “electronic”. There may be kind of a legitimate pattern here: The genre with the highest average rating is “traditional” and the genre with the lowest (discounting the “blues” outlier driven by a particular album I really dislike) is “jazz”; I do, in fact, really love traditional music and really dislike jazz, on the whole. But, as I said, this particular sample was generated by very biased data gathering techniques, so further music listening would be required to explore this pattern further.

The last graph I made looks at whether I exhibited any temporal patterns in terms of what genre I listened to when:

Genre over time

I randomly assigned each different genre a number between 1 and 22, so what you’re looking for here are clusters of neighbouring lines of the same height. For me, the most noticeable trend is that I started off with admirable variety over the first few weeks of the year, hopping from one type of music to another as I made my way through my collection. At the end of the year you can see a little cluster of genre 20, which was “holiday”. In between, you can see groupings of similar genres interspersed with brief forays into something different. As with the plot looking at quality over time, I can’t help but interpret this as evidence of a tendency to retreat into a comfort zone that I have to consciously work to prod myself out of for the sake of exploration and variety. I’m just relieved to see that there are peaks and valleys, and that I do sail off into new and uncharted waters occasionally. I hate to think that I may be missing out on something amazing simply because I’ve fallen into a rut.

The graphs are an amusing way to visualise my #366daysofmusic adventure, but they fail to capture the most interesting and important things I learned. I found that my mood really influenced what type of music I was willing to listen to. If I was feeling stressed, I wanted some soothing classical piano or Loreena McKennitt. If I was bummed, I was drawn towards Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver. If I was feeling energetic, I might play Lady Gaga or The Black Keys. I noticed that my choice of music could either reinforce how I was already feeling or help me actively combat it: Wallowing in some lugubrious Lera Lynn is perfect for savouring a sensation of gloom, whereas Mark Knopfler is balm to a suffering soul. Singing along always made the listening experience more enjoyable, and dancing around further augmented the happy mood. Even though I might not want to crank up the trance when I’m in a grump, I discovered that it’s likely to do a lot more good than drooping around with some Carla Morrison or Chelsea Wolfe (however much I may like their albums).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of my favourite places in my hometown is Hoffa’s music store, which I photographed for a blog post about the things that make Athens most dear to me.

I also noticed that I continue to have very strong associations between certain songs/artists/genres and particular memories and sensations. Once your mind has established links between specific tracks and specific people–especially people you’ve been in a romantic relationship with, and especially especially people you’ve broken up with–I think it must be nigh on impossible to erase them. I’ve gotten to the point where “The Sound of Silence” is no longer ruined by its connection to the ex-boyfriend who first played it for me, but I still can’t play it without having at least a fleeting thought of that idiot; how annoying. Country music always reminds me of summer, and hearing it makes me picture driving down a midwestern US highway with corn fields on either side. The soundtrack to The Matrix brings back scenes from my high school track meets, and “The Electric Slide” will always time-warp me to middle school dances.

If you’re lucky, you begin to know yourself better as you grow older. You refine your tastes and you hone your abilities to pinpoint exactly those experiences that will bring you the greatest pleasure. Part of this probably has to do with growing wiser, and part of this probably results from necessity: You have to spend so much time and money doing super-important grown-up things, you have to figure out ways to avoid wasting precious seconds and pennies. On the one hand, this means you can accurately predict that if you like Artist X or Album Y, you will also like Z (increasingly intelligent algorithms also help with this). On the other hand, you risk becoming blinkered and missing out on those joyous moments of unexpected discovery. It is a tricky balance to strike, and I was surprised by how reluctant I sometimes was to strike out on a little auditory adventure. If music is a microcosm representative of the rest of my life,  I will obviously have to be ever-vigilant of my feet-dragging tendencies.

The final lesson I learned is that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing–even music. After obsessing over my daily selections for the entirety of 2016, I hit a wall in 2017. I needed silence. I needed birdsong drifting in through an open window. I needed the music produced by my own instruments and not somebody else’s. I needed to focus on thoughts rather than noises. I needed to seek enlightenment and enjoyment through some other medium (hence #poetic2017). This abrupt desire to take a hiatus may have been unrelated to #366daysofmusic; I did also overindulge on the La La Land soundtrack shortly after Christmas, and perhaps that was the last straw. Regardless of its origins, the need for silence was strong and lengthy and I am only just returning to normal. I have gained a deeper appreciation for people who review music for a living; I do not know how they manage to listen as widely and deeply as they need to for their jobs without going crazy from lack of peace and quiet.

Piano
When I was young, I spent many hours at various rehearsals at Ohio University’s School of Music

What I haven’t gained a deeper appreciation for is music itself, because that would be impossible. Even when I wasn’t listening to it recently, I was still playing it (as in, on my instruments), and reading about it, and buying tickets for concerts. I don’t remember the time before I learned how to play piano, and some of our earliest family films feature me singing fearlessly and with great aplomb right into the lens. Lasting friendships have sprung up with fellow music performers, not just because of a shared excitement about particular genres and artists, but because there is a special sort of bond that develops when you join together to create beautiful sounds and rhythms using your own bodies. Music has provided a soundtrack to my life that has augmented my very highest moments and helped to rejuvenate me and fill me back up at my very lowest and emptiest. It provides a sort of spiritual sustenance.  It has been a constant companion, not just for the 366 days of 2016, but also for the approximately 12,700 days that preceded it. However many more thousands of days are left to me, I hope that they, too, are days of music.

Further reading

  • By happy chance, Susan Maury curated Real Scientists during #366daysofmusic. She has some amazing wisdom to share about music psychology.
  • Music is more portable than ever, and some researchers are looking at the role of music in daily life.
  • I’m not the only one who loves music so much. Scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent in human cultures.
  • If you want to become a better listener to music, you might want to read this article.
  • Do you have a particular fondness for the tunes of your youth? Blame your neurons for that musical nostalgia.

In case you were wondering, I am a feminist

I really love the Internet because it has so many things to offer. It’s where I go to read about current events, and find great new music and books, and search for crochet patterns, and look up tasty recipes, and learn new photographic techniques, and browse thought-provoking essays, and just generally lose myself in an amazing array of information. I have had a great deal of happiness from the Internet. But lately it has shown me some very sad things.

There’s been this:

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…and this:

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One of my favourite bloggers, The Everywhereist, recently wrote about a horrific, sexist experience she had while traveling, and earlier this week writer Sara Benincasa penned an inspirational essay after being asked by a male fan why she’d gained weight. Benincasa’s comments prompted comedian Eden Dranger to follow up with some remarks about her own appearance, and her blog post has now also gone viral.

As you might expect, all of the above have resulted in a fair amount of trolling–itself the focus of some recent online attention after Joel Stein wrote a thought-provoking piece about it in TIME. More importantly, the things I mentioned above–which, you’ll notice all involve women–have opened the floodgates to an outpouring of support and love and understanding and acceptance. Much of this involves some form of “I know how you feel because I have been there too”, which I find terribly disturbing but not at all surprising, as I myself happen to be a woman and, yes, have been there too.

A friend of mine shared something earlier that nicely summarises some of the challenges associated with being a modern lady:

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This cartoon focuses on appearances, but you could easily make another one of these that has to do with being career-focused/sporty/forthright/sexual/independent/childless/and so on versus whatever opposites of those traits women are “supposed” to be according to those who judge them. Basically, it is absolutely impossible to be a woman and do it right. This is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult to be a man and adhere to all the often-equally-imprisoning standards that society decides are appropriate for males. The problem is that women seem to be policed to a much greater extent, and hounded when they step out of line and find success and enjoyment in simply being themselves (see first photo above).

Sometimes the hounding becomes physical, and/or is targeted at the physical vessels in which we live, and to me that is a barrier that should never be breached. There are few things in this world that are well and truly mine, and even fewer things that I can control. But my body and all that it contains and makes possible–my brain, my personality, my emotions, my womb–is my domain. As far as I am concerned, it is not ever permissible or acceptable for:

  • someone to treat me unfairly or unequally because of the shape that my external shell happens to take
  • someone to make assumptions about me because my body looks the way that it does
  • someone to decide what is right or wrong for me based on the way that I look, or what is the right or wrong way for me to look
  • someone to do something to my body that is against my wishes

Those things should never happen, and yet they all have, on numerous occasions, just as they have for countless other women (and human beings in general–again, I’m focusing on ladies here because I am one and know that reality best, but I’m well aware that a range of people have been, or are, in the same boat at some point or another; it’s equally egregious no matter who suffers these indignities).

I will give you an example from my own life. This is a photo taken of me back in my high school days by a male friend of mine:

Photo Disk 2 342
(uploading photos of myself to the internet before it was cool)

He was a computer nerd and was showing me his brand new web cam, which was pretty snazzy technology at the time. I was wearing a bikini because we’d been in his hot tub with some other friends, who were also there, as were his parents, and the entire situation was completely innocent. The photo wound up online with some other photos of all of us having fun in the summer holidays, as one does when one is a teenager.

The image sat around in cyberspace doing nothing for a good year or two until someone felt the need to point it out to my mom and ask whether she wasn’t scandalised by it. She wasn’t, of course, because she is not a Puritan and knows that a) the human body isn’t anything to be afraid of, and b) you judge someone’s character by means other than photos posted online. However, having to consider this question gave her pause, just as it gave me pause when she asked me about it. For just a moment, it made me feel guilty, and dirty, as though I’d done something wrong. I was ashamed of…of…of what, exactly? Having a body? Wearing a relatively chaste two-piece bathing suit in front of others? Being comfortable enough in my own skin to allow someone to take a photo of me? Being uninhibited enough to allow that photo to be posted online without thinking anything of it?

I will give you another example. Here is a photo that I posted on my first ever personal webpage–which, incidentally, I coded from scratch because sometimes girls are computer nerds too:

Photo Disk 2 340
(i never anticipated this pose might be considered suggestive or sexy in any way)

It’s another completely innocent shot, taken (I think by my grandmother) during a moment of relaxation before heading out on a day trip somewhere. I used this image in my autobiography section, which included a link to my e-mail address in case anyone wanted to get in touch. For the longest time, I only ever received messages from my high school friends, until one day when there was a delightful missive from a (male) stranger who described all the things he’d like to do to me on that bed. My autobiography clearly indicated that I was in high school, and was underage, but of course that was of no concern to my troll, because these things never are–as Emma Watson could tell you.

I was surprised, but not hugely, because I had long since learned the rules of engagement. I was only eleven years old when I first–knowingly–received sexual attention from a man; he turned to his friend and complimented my ass in a stage whisper while both men grinned lasciviously, and threateningly, at me and the friend I was with. I was scared and, again, ashamed, feeling that somehow this encounter was one that I had brought on myself…by innocently feeding ducks at the zoo. Even at that young age, I had already absorbed this horrible notion we have in our society that the victim–particularly the female victim–is always at least partly responsible for whatever comes her way.

High school was even more educational. There was the time when (male) runners on the track team took bets about whether or not my prom date could seduce me into giving up my virginity on prom night (nope). Then there was the time I refused to perform sexual acts on a boyfriend and so he started a variety of–untrue–pornographic rumours about me. There was endless catcalling when I was out on training runs for cross country. (On an unrelated note, after receiving a call of complaint from some prude, our coach decided it was inappropriate for girls to run in sports bra tops, but totally fine for guys to run shirtless.) It was during high school that I received my first (of many) un-asked-for gropes, as well as my first full-on physical assault–pinned against a wall while someone tried to yank my clothes off.

That last one scared the bejesus out of me and made me fully aware of the perils of being smaller and weaker than approximately half the population. That’s when I enrolled in weightlifting classes with the goal of making life harder for the next–and I knew there would be a next–jerk who tried to take more than I wanted to give. I had no grand illusions that a little extra muscle would suddenly make me rape-proof, but I hoped, at least, that it would give me a fighting chance. What it actually gave me was greater athletic prowess, which was an unexpected but pleasant side effect. This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me–I promise I’ll eventually weave all these strands together into a glorious feminist tapestry.

indoor track
(mistress of the indoor track)

I didn’t know it at the time, but being good at sports was something that would come to enrich my life and keep me sane. There is nothing better than feeling your own strength, successfully guiding your muscles through complex coordinated movements, striving to push harder and achieve more and then succeeding through the force of your own willpower and stamina. My chosen arenas–the cross country course, the track, and the field–are particularly wonderful for this, because really it all just boils down to you, the athlete, and what you can do with your body. This eventually made me happy with, and proud of, my physique, but it has been a long, slow journey.

By the time I joined the running teams in college, I’d become acutely aware that my body was not like other bodies. I wasn’t shaped like the lithe long-distance runners and high-jumpers or the powerful throwers or the wiry sprinters. If you drew a Venn diagram of these three groups–the folks I spent most of my time around and knew best–I was somewhere in the overlap of all of them. This is why I eventually found a home in the heptathlon, but until I did, I just felt confused and dissatisfied. I was bigger and denser than nearly all the other runners, who seemingly subsisted solely on salads and carrot sticks and the white parts of hard-boiled eggs. Clothes didn’t fit me; my waist and my hips and my thighs were all the wrong dimensions for each other because of my musculature. I had bulgy biceps and prominent veins. When I tried on outfits in shops, things didn’t hang on me the way they hung on the mannequins. I felt like an unattractive freak.

jav
(me at peak muscle, weighing in at around 160 lbs)

None of this was helped by my boobs. I can’t forget about those, because the world won’t let me. I remember standing up in high school once to give a presentation in front of the class, and one of the guys called out, “The turkey’s ready to come out of the oven!”–referring, of course, to my nipples, because I was cold and they were mimicking a thermometer that pops up when a roast is done. Another witty phrase I heard all the time was, “Your headlights are on!”

Those were the days when my breasts were only just getting started. They kept growing and growing throughout college, to the point that I couldn’t run unless I was wearing two sports bras, and I kept having to get rid of perfectly ordinary tops that suddenly began to look pornographic. It was a major pain–sometimes literally–and brought a lot of attention that I really didn’t want. Staring. Commenting. “Accidental” brushing up against. One of my (male) coaches talked about my boobs once, and also the “junk in my trunk”, and also my menstrual cycle, as though any of these things was a topic that had any bearing on my abilities (because, unlike Fu Yuanhui, I am not and was never going to be an Olympic athlete, so analysing the potential impacts of these things on my performance–especially given the tone and terminology my coach used–was wholly unnecessary).

His remarks felt horribly inappropriate, but he’s hardly the only one to feel perfectly natural talking about my assets. Men, women, friends, strangers; over the years, many have commented on the size and shape of my bits and pieces, as though I were an animal up for auction, as though it were somehow relevant. Sometimes people even thought they were complimenting me, but, collectively, they were making me feel that I was nothing but a piece of meat.

javelin
(a bendy piece of meat)

So there I was, wanting desperately to just be an interesting, multilayered person who was valued for her intellect and talent and generosity of spirit, someone who was comfortable being herself. Instead I felt horrifically awkward in my own body and frightened of the ways in which that body made people interact with me. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, what I wore or didn’t wear, what personality and achievements and actions went along with that body. It all seemed so fraught and impossible.

Sitting here over a decade later, I’d like to say that I have learned that, in fact, it is not fraught and impossible, but I haven’t. It actually is fraught and impossible. That’s why all this recent stuff online has disturbed me and sent me off on many a meandering contemplation. I’ve worked hard to find myself a relatively safe space and am lucky to be surrounded by relatively safe people; as a result, I’ve been able to minimise the extent to which I suffer from the sorts of events and situations that plagued me in the past. Do I still get catcalled, and groped, and followed in the street, and talked down to, and ogled? Of course; it just happens less. I think this has allowed me to feel that we were making progress as a society, but I suspect it just means that I’ve been insulated.

Being a woman–especially, god forbid, a woman of colour or a lesbian woman or a trans woman or an ambiguously gendered woman or whatever extra twist you want to add–is complicated and difficult. We can achieve the same things as men, or even do better than men, and still not receive the same level of respect and attention:

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We can engage in activities associated with intellect, diplomacy, business acumen, eloquence, and other cerebral skills, but still our looks are dragged into the equation as though they impact the ability of our brains to function:

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(note: i in no way support carly fiorina, but i also don’t think her appearance would have impacted her ability to function as president)

Even if we are physically beautiful and graceful and poised and elegant, it’s often deemed insufficient or inappropriate somehow–often relative to some other feminine ideal held up on high:

michelle2
(seriously, WTF is this and why does it exist in the 21st century?)

In 30 seconds of poking around online, you will find memes that will make you want to leave the Internet forever, and they’re all about looks–women who are too fat or too skinny, with eyebrows too thin and drawn on, wearing clothes not appropriate for the body type, engaged in activities inappropriate to body type, and so on, and so on. Why? What bearing do those things have on a person’s worth or legitimacy? And why are there so many more of them for women than for men?

One last personal anecdote. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a photo studio to get my senior portrait taken. I was asked to bring a few different outfits and a couple props. Here are two of the resulting photos:

senior photo 1

senior photo 2

While taking the first of those photos, the photographer said that I looked nice in that outfit and that he hoped I was enjoying it as much as I could then, since I wouldn’t be able to wear those trousers when I was older–the implication being that I’d pop out a few kids, since that’s what women do, and get pudgy around the middle, since that’s also what women do. You can tell from the expression on my face that I was not loving the conversation. At no point during the second photo did we discuss the fact that I brought the guitar because I play it–just as I play several other instruments, sing, write music, and perform onstage. I guess those talents are irrelevant next to my ability to show off a decent figure.

I wish that I could wind up this essay with a resolution of some sort, but it’s not that kind of a piece; I don’t have the answer to this problem. Well, actually, I do–we should all be kind and treat each other with respect and realise that all humans are equal regardless of our various cultural and physical differences–but I don’t know how to make that happen. Humans have been struggling with these issues since the dawn of civilisation and I could probably write a whole book on the biological underpinnings of this but it’s outside the scope of this piece. I would like to say that we’ve made progress on these issues since, say, my mother’s era, but women still don’t earn as much as men even when we do the same jobs, we’re still fighting for rights to make decisions for our own uteri–not to mention dying because men are preventing access to appropriate facilities–and we’ve got armed policemen telling us what we can and can’t wear, as if they know what’s best for us.

So why have I written over 3,000 words just to reiterate that, yes, women have it rough? For two reasons, really. The first is that I’m sick of this debate over what feminism is and whether it’s needed and who is/isn’t a feminist and whether “feminism” isn’t just a nice way of saying “man-hating”. If only we sank as much time and effort into issues that impact women and their bodies–such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, arranged marriages of children, access to birth control, maternity leave, and, while we’re at it, legitimate prison sentences for people who attack women.

The second reason, which is more important, is that there is power in sharing. It’s not until you hear someone else’s opinions and experiences that you realise you aren’t alone. I have wasted time envying friends for being taller or thinner, having prettier hair or a better complexion, rocking a six-pack or a J-Lo booty, and meanwhile they wished  for my curves or my muscles or my earlobes or my who-knows-what. While I was obsessing over my own pet insecurities and thinking that everyone else was totally perfect, they were doing the same thing, and none of us realised that actually we all have something to be proud of because we are all gorgeous in our own ways–not just how we look, but, more importantly, how we act, what we achieve, and who we are fundamentally.

As the responses to the Everywhereist and Sara Benincasa posts show, we not only deal with the same sorts of raging insecurities about our bodies, but also the same susceptibility to attack–both physical and emotional. We ladies are resilient creatures, leaving our homes and navigating the world each day knowing what is lurking out there. We harden ourselves to the comments and the threats and the actions, and we learn rules about where we can go and when we can go there and how we can act so as to minimise the likelihood of unwanted attention or attack.

We become so used to these protective habits that it’s all too easy to forget how insane it is that we should have to cultivate these behaviours in the first place. You think it’s just you, or just that one guy, or just your town, or just your country, or just your culture, but pretty soon you hear enough of these stories from all sorts of women in all sorts of places, and suddenly you realise: This is a real thing. This thing is a problem, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.

haverford graduation party
(surround yourself with good people who inspire you to do good things)

The amazing thing about the Internet is that even though it’s highlighted some real ugliness this week, it’s also underscored the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of other people who agree that we can be better. These people are willing to provide support and encouragement and assistance in order to tackle this problem. Many of these crusaders are men, who can benefit in a variety of ways when women are treated more equally. (Incidentally, gender equality also improves education and the economy and even the environment, and leads to social changes that improve life for other disadvantaged groups as well. Yay!)

None of us knows how many days we’ve got on this earth or which one will be our last. Why waste precious time agonising over unimportant details and being cruel to others? Let us all stop being so hard on ourselves and on each other. Let us stop worrying about what we look like, and pay more attention to what we achieve and who we are. Let us look for and praise the incredible kindnesses that humans are capable of in our best moments, and then engage in more of those. Let us all be the sort of people that we would like to encounter in our own lives. It’s a miracle, really, that each of us exists at all, and that those of us who exist now happen to be doing so at the same time in the same place. Why not celebrate that miracle with a bit of kindness for our fellow man–or woman?

The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

starting point
The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
road ahead
Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

beneath the oak
This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

beeches
If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

cloudy sky
One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

ARW
He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

bridleway
We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
2014-09-06 06.03.36
Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
AT_sitting
After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
CK Ancestor's Trail
I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

the band
We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

burrs
A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

mailbox 2

mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

cait food
My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

dessert
Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.