Category Archives: culture

Heading to greener pastures: Ireland 2017 (Part I)

If you look at a map, Ireland looks so close to England. Yet, depending on how you travel and where you’re coming from, it can be a long old haul to get there. Still, it’s Ireland: “a timeless land of enchantment and mystery, breathtaking scenery, peace and tranquillity”, as the brochure says. I was also promised “uncrowded roads and lazy rivers, rugged mountains and crumbling castles and…mild Gulf Stream air”, which would “combine to make [my trip] an unforgettable experience”. Nature, ruins, and scarcity of people? As far as I’m concerned, those are definitely worth the journey, no matter how arduous.

I’d set my heart on Ireland because I wanted to go on a proper retreat in a destination that was not near home but also not too far away (travel time and money being critical factors). I wanted a place that was beautiful and relaxing and inspiring in its own right, but also that provided access to hiking and sites of historical interest. Also, green; I wanted to be surrounded by green. And where else but Ireland do you think of when you think “green”?

Quintessential Ireland

As I poked around online, I was spoiled for choice. There were spots near lakes and rivers, others on the coast and halfway up mountains; places near interesting towns and cities and others so remote I worried I might become Jack Torrance (a particularly troubling vision given that I’d pictured myself doing some writing during the trip). It was difficult to find the perfect balance between solitude and access, a decent journey time at the start of the trip and ability to take short day trips throughout, scenery that was gorgeous to look at and habitat that could actually be interacted with and enjoyed. I settled on the southwest of Ireland because it seemed to have it all: access to beautiful and dramatic terrain, trees and bodies of water, ruins and gardens. It was only a few hours’ drive from the ferry dock in Rosslare, which itself was a mere four-hour crossing from Pembroke, which was but 3.5 hours from Exeter. A negligible trip, really. Only 10 hours, at night, at the end of a long work week. The perfect way to start any vacation.

I am joking, of course, because that sounds awful and sometimes I do ponder my sanity when I pause for a moment of reflection. Despite appearances, I did actually conduct research and consider the itinerary carefully. I investigated flying and renting a car versus hopping the ferry to Dublin versus taking the ferry to Rosslare, and no matter how I looked at it, the most logical option in terms of timing and cost was the one I selected. And it worked out! It was a bit of an adventure, but that just made it exciting and interesting, and, by god, if I ever get to the point where I am not willing to try something new, then I do not deserve to be alive.

The ferry was scheduled to depart Pembroke at 2:45am, so my original plan was to leave Exeter around 8pm in order to leave plenty of time for the drive itself and for any emergencies that might crop up along the way (including the possibility that I would need to pull over and take a brief nap). However, as the week went on I began to get nervous about this because I was feeling particularly tired and worried that all the caffeine in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep me awake that late at night. I decided to leave right after dinner instead so I could get to the dock while maximally alert and then nap or read while waiting until departure. On the evening of my trip, however, the motorway suffered extreme congestion and portions of it were briefly closed, so Plan B went out the window and I reverted to Plan A so I could avoid the traffic jams. I drank two cups of tea and packed a third in a travel mug before hitting the road. Two mice dashing cross the road in front of me, and one fox lounging on the shoulder later, and I arrived in Pembroke.

I’d been worried about what sort of situation I’d find at the dock because, really, what woman traveling alone wants to go to a dock after midnight? I’d read all the Irish Ferry FAQs and even exchanged emails with friendly but unhelpful staff, and I still couldn’t visualise what I would find when I arrived; in particular, I couldn’t figure out where I would wait, how I would queue, when queuing would begin, and, most importantly, whether there would be facilities where I could use the toilet and buy another dose of caffeine.

I just had to trust that it would all make sense when I got there and, of course, it did; the company has been making this journey back and forth for years, and they know what they are doing. I pulled in around 12:00am and there were already several dozen cars lined up in rows outside the gate; those were the folks desperate to exit the ferry first on the other end, but they must have arrived at least an hour before I did and only bought themselves maybe 15 minutes at Rosslare, so I’m not sure the sacrifice was worth it. Once I had parked, I could run into the terminal, which looked just like a small airport and had toilets, a café, and plenty of seating. The entire area was lit by floodlights, so even though I kind of felt like I was in the middle of an emergency military operation, I also felt much safer than I’d imagined.

Enjoying the delightful weather at Pembroke Dock

People with vehicles could check in at 12:15am; this involved driving up to a kiosk, getting boarding passes, then going through a gated checkpoint into another parking lot where we again lined up in rows. This is where we would sit until 2am, when we would drive onto the ferry. I had anticipated setting my alarm and dozing until boarding, but I hadn’t counted on getting hungry again. Nobody packs snacks as diligently as I do, but somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would of course be hungry five hours after my last meal; it’s just not a thing you really associate with a time of day when ordinarily you would be asleep. After I’d visited the café and eaten, I only had time for a quick power nap before it was time for the next phase. Oh well; who needs sleep?

Boarding itself was pretty easy, though the official did have to stop me and ask me to turn on my headlights. That had happened also as I was passing through the earlier checkpoint, and it surprised me both times. The entire area was so well lit that I didn’t need headlights to see, plus I assumed that the ferry staff would prefer not to be blinded by the beams; I guess they just want to be extra careful about safety. Once the official waved me up the ramp onto the ship, there were no more staff until I was actually on the ferry, which freaked me out a little because there were no signs and about eight lanes and I suddenly had this feeling that I’d meandered off course (which would be practically impossible to do in the 200 or so meters that I had to cover, but give me a thing to do and I will worry whether I am doing it right). I was eventually waved down the far left-hand lane and was the very first car in line. You can’t stay in, or visit, your car during the journey, so I grabbed the essentials—which included a pillow and blanket—and headed upstairs to the passenger area.

Driving onto the ferry (full disclosure: this is actually the return trip)
Entering the parking deck of the ferry (full disclosure: also the return trip)

I am not sure what I was expecting of the ferry, but it was definitely not what I found when I alighted at the entrance / welcome area of the boat. It looked like a cross between a hotel check-in, a small casino, and a cruise ship. I guess I have spent so much time on more stripped-down vessels like Scillonian III and the little ferries that run between Falmouth and St Mawe’s, I had forgotten that a boat journey might be somewhat more posh. I hadn’t been able to get a berth for the trip, so I poked around the public seating area until I found a nice corner where I could curl up on a cushioned bench and try to get some sleep.  It feels a little weird to just bed down and nap in public, but when everyone else is doing the same thing, you just go with it. I woke up a couple times but was otherwise able to get pretty decent sleep (all things considered) until dawn. Just before 6am, a couple of boys ran by to look out a nearby window and one of them whined, “The sun’s coming up but we still have a whole hour to go!” I am not sure why (delirium from lack of proper sleep?) but that struck me funny.

Passenger deck on the ferry; this is the return trip but the guy in the right corner is sitting where I slept on the trip out

I rose shortly afterwards because my circadian rhythms refuse to allow any change in routine, no matter how tired I might be. I took the opportunity to stroll around a little and investigate the ferry. I wandered down to the restaurant for some tea and immediately noticed how much more you could feel the movement of the sea, and the ship, there at the prow; I grabbed a to-go cup and retreated to the safety of my original seat, which was positioned close to the centre where things felt much steadier and less sickening.

Once the ferry had pulled into the dock, we were given the all-clear to return to our cars, where we had to sit with our engines off until waved forward by the staff. I was at the front of the second-to-last row to leave, so I got a good view of proceedings while I waited. While looking in my rear view mirror, I saw a local bus approaching and had a little chuckle to myself thinking about a bus journey that also involved a ferry ride. I assumed it was just being delivered from the factory after a repair or something but, no, as it drove past I saw actual passengers sitting on it like it was the most normal thing in the world to hop on a bus in one country, drive onto a ferry, and then disembark in another country several hours later. Maybe that is normal, but it seemed a little surreal to me.

Waiting to leave the ferry after the crossing

After I’d been greenlighted, all I had to do was clear immigration and I was free to begin my cross-country journey to Cork. The guard asked my nationality and, for the first time ever in an official capacity, I declared myself as a British citizen. He waved me right through and I hit the road, which was extremely empty at that time of day. I briefly was stuck behind the world’s slowest tractor but otherwise had no issues thanks to the fact that I was getting a strong GPS signal and had useful directions to follow. I noticed that all the other drivers were extremely careful about driving exactly the speed limit, so I felt compelled to also be a very diligent driver.

Maybe it was the excitement of the adventure, maybe it was my amazing selection of music, maybe it was the lovely countryside, but the drive was very relaxed and enjoyable; it didn’t feel like a long and painful slog despite how little rest I’d had. I stopped briefly in Waterford for some breakfast, which I ate at the Granville Hotel because a) it was an obvious choice right across the street from the car park, and b) it reminded me of the Granville I used to visit in Ohio with my parents. Appropriately enough, this one was packed with an American tour group gearing up to visit the Waterford crystal factory that morning. I did not dally for any sightseeing, but hit the road again so I could make it to my cottage by lunch.

I stopped again outside Cork so that I could purchase groceries at a decent-sized supermarket with lots of options. I was shocked at some of the prices (€5 for a punnet of grapes??) and was glad I had packed all my own pantry items in order to save money; a full stock-up might have bankrupted me. My checkout guy was a true performance artist who scanned and handed things over with extreme flair and panache, all while maintaining a very stern demeanour; I had a hard time keeping a straight face while packing my food.

Not long after I hit the road again, I finally diverted onto the smaller routes that wound in through the hills to deliver you to secluded places like my cottage. Although the scenery had always been pleasant, it became much more so at this point; there were lots of rolling green hills with big jutting boulders, and stone walls dividing sheep fields, and, occasionally, glimpses of the coastline. The speed limit was generally 100 km/h (60 mph), which was absolutely insane given how curvy the roads were; even if you knew the route well and felt safe driving that fast, you would not have a comfortable journey if you did so. I opted to take the slow and steady approach, which not only avoided whiplash but also allowed me to appreciate the views.

I had worried that my cabin would be difficult to find, but actually it wasn’t—though the owner had given me directions from the opposite approach, so I had to drive past to the nearest town and then retrace my footsteps so that I could follow her instructions. From Kealkill, I drove approximately 3 miles, found the big white farmhouse, took the next right, and drove about a mile up a narrow, winding track until I arrived at my home away from home for the next week.

Home sweet home
The view from my cabin window. Not bad.
One of three species of tit that visited the feeders outside my cabin
Many chaffinches kept me company at the cabin

Stay tuned for the next post to find out more about my Irish adventures…

#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:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 15.26.28

…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:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 19.04.30

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:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 19.08.39
(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?