Friday, 28 February 2014

I'm going on an adventure!

A lentil-y sort of adventure anyway... I have decided to become vegan. It's been on my mind for a while since my mum became vegan last year, and this week I decided to take the plunge and just go for it. I was vegetarian for many years before getting pregnant with my eldest son (whereupon a violent aversion to cheese led me to start eating chicken and then gradually pretty much anything!) so I'm not a complete novice at avoiding particular food. 

Why vegan and not just vegetarian again then? That's the question I've been going over for some time. I spend a lot of time writing about, ranting about and worrying about human rights and the plethora of infringements we witness on a global daily basis. It struck me as just plain bizarre that I don't worry about animal welfare in the same outspoken way. It's not that I don't care; I do. It just hasn't gotten me as worked up as the stuff I've written about people. And I cannot, for the life of me, explain why. The more I pondered this, the more I realised that I've suppressed my feelings on the meat, poultry and dairy industry because, selfishly, I really like the way it all tastes. 

Unlike many vegans I've met, this is not a spiritual matter for me. I do not have an ideological problem with eating meat. Having studied human evolution, I am satisfied that our bodies are intended for the digestion of meat and that we are supposed - biologically speaking - to be omnivorous, as many animals are. I have always maintained that I would only eat meat if I knew that I would be prepared to kill an animal myself. It seems immensely disrespectful otherwise to say "Well I'll eat this piece of flesh, but only if I can distance myself from the fact that it once belonged to a living, breathing creature". No, you have to accept where your food comes from and take ownership of what you're eating. 

For the past decade, that way of thinking has enabled me to push aside the guilt I felt through eating meat. I managed to bypass the farming and industrial element of meat production in my thought process, but now I realise that is where my issue lies.

It's no secret that the meat, poultry and dairy industries are brutal. There is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that the animals in this process are not happy or comfortable. They are not treated with dignity, respect and compassion. While I don't have a problem with eating meat per se, I do take real issue with mistreating another living creature in the name of making meat, eggs and dairy more cheaply available to the masses. 

Why not just eat organic meat and free range eggs then? Because I don't trust them. The "free range" label on egg boxes is misleading. The hens who lay those eggs are not merrily meandering round a nice lush field, laying when they want to in nice, comfortable coops. In order to qualify for the "free range" label, it is only necessary for the hens to have access to outdoor space for a portion of the day. They may well never actually GO outside, because they're too scared or unwell. I'm not going to get graphic about this or post any of the emotive imagery or video on the matter, but if you really want to learn more, the internet has a vast array of footage. 

Living Vegan for Dummies
This is going to be a huge adjustment for me, basically because there is nothing I love more on a Sunday morning than a bacon, egg and cheese toastie. I've bought a 'Veganism for Dummies' book to ease myself into this lifestyle and already identified many recipes that my husband and I cook together which can be easily tweaked and made vegan-friendly. Fortunately for me, he's very supportive (although he did sulk briefly when I asked him to leave the fish sauce out of the Thai curry paste he was making). 

With any luck, I'll have lots of stuff to bore you with post as I learn more. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Big Bad Benefit Bashing Bandwagon

Indulge me; I do like a bit of alliteration...

British television's flavour of the month seems to be poverty porn - we've seen a multitude of programming dedicated to the so-called "benefits culture", purporting to present a factual analysis of life in the UK's welfare state but in reality feeding the spiraling right-wing propaganda that demonises the poor and maligns the vulnerable. 

I couldn't bring myself to watch very much of it. At most, I managed a cursory glance to establish the level of rage it would induce. For the most part, I apprehensively scanned over social media to watch the reaction of the general public to the smorgasbord of poor people circus acts that was paraded in front of them. Regrettably, the internet didn't disappoint and a plethora of "get a job", "lazy scroungers" blah blah blah, commentary poured forth.

I'm not going to rant about precisely why these programmes are both ludicrous and obscene. Many others* have already done a far more eloquent job than I could in recent weeks. I would like to organise my personal feelings on why this whole topic bothers me so much.

On one point - and one alone - I believe David Cameron and I share common ground. There IS something very wrong with the mentality of modern Britain. However, where he lays this at the feet of those at the bottom of the social food chain, the feckless and lazy, I believe we all have a part to play. This is not simply a problem of work ethic, of wanting "something for nothing". There is a massive clash of ideals in today's Britain and we are seeing more of the consequences of that each day. 

I remember sitting in an A level Sociology lecture, discussing issues of "Class" and learning how various social theorists distinguished one class from another. The notion of 'gratification' came up, and it was neatly imparted that the Working Class value instant gratification above delayed gratification; that short term gain is more appealing than working hard now for something that takes longer to come to fruition. The latter is the preserve of the Middle and Upper Classes, which of course explains social mobility - or the lack thereof - and why the poor stay poor and the rich get richer. It didn't make sense to me then, and even less so now. I was reminded of this recently, however, whilst on my soap box about the credit industry and personal debt. 

This is where I place much of the blame (for want of a better word) for the alleged crisis we face today. 

Ok, so that's a somewhat simplistic overview. I don't just hold the credit industry responsible. Rather, it represents the worst of the disposable, materialistic, instant-gratification based society we have become. We want the shiniest things NOW. We don't want to spend months or years saving up first. Why should we?? We can buy the damn thing immediately, and worry about paying for it some other time. You don't even have to be well off to do this - in fact, you don't even need a great track record for managing to pay for all the things you bought NOW (but neglected to pay for LATER). With an abundance of "poor credit lending options" there's the option to pay a premium and STILL have the shiniest of the shiny things. Because commodities matter. Advertising tells us incessantly that gadgets and gizmos are no longer the playthings of the wealthy, but more vital tools for the everyman and woman. 

Who, right now, is reading this blog on a smartphone or a home computer? Do many of you have your flatscreen tv on in the background too? Are you sitting comfortably on your 0% interest sofa? These things are NECESSARY, if you believe the advertisers - and it's pretty hard to ignore them (unless you're my mum and choose not to own a television at all!). 

We have very quickly constructed a society in which things matter more than people. And that is massively incongruous with the reemerging Victorian rhetoric of the deserving and the undeserving poor, to which it runs parallel. 

Briefly, the current economic climate is not the fault of low wage earners or those out of work altogether, despite what the mass media and the Tories would have you believe. The poor and vulnerable make a neat scapegoat precisely because they lack the means or power to speak up against the propaganda which ostracises them. Yes, benefit cheats and career claimants exist - in a negligible minority. Where there is a system, someone will play it. Fraudsters and confidence tricksters have always existed, and I suspect will always exist. They are not limited to a particular socio-economic class or faction of society. 

If we must beat our chests and shout about those who play the benefits system, let us also apply the same to the large corporations and wealthy individuals who fiddle the tax system; to the members of parliament who exploit loopholes in expenses legislation; to the workplaces who subtly discriminate against minority employees. In fact, let's take this down to the micro-level and vent spleen at everyone who ever ducked a library fine for a late book; who boarded a bus or train without a ticket; who squished their salad down inside the medium-sized plastic tub in Sainsburys to avoid paying for a large. 

Where there is a system, someone will play it. This is not new. It's not right either, but let's not allow ourselves to be duped into believing that there exists sufficient manipulation of the welfare state to explain away every financial difficulty the UK faces today. It's simply not true. More than 99% of those claiming benefits - and let's again remind ourselves that many of those people ARE working - have no nefarious agenda. They are just people trying to get from one end of the month to the other with bills paid, a roof over their heads and food on the table. 

Whenever I read a comment about a benefit claimant with a flat screen television or the latest model smartphone, I want to bang my head into the wall. Which discourse do we favour then? The one which tells us we all NEED shiny gadgets and makes them readily available to anyone and everyone, regardless of employment status or the contents of your bank account? Or the one which reduces those on incomes too low to meet the ever rising cost of living to a less than human state, and views them as mere leeches on the fine, upstanding "hard working" earners? The two cannot exist together, and until we accept that and begin to deconstruct them, we will never move beyond the selfish and resentful circle in which we are collectively currently trapped. 

*Further reading:
Ragged-Skirted Philanthropist:

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Happy New Year (eventually!)

Once again, it has been far too long since I had the time to write a post and there are dozens of topics racing round my head at the moment. Seeing as we have a whole new year to get our teeth into, I would like to say something about my hopes and thoughts for 2014.

Though it may seem twee, I do like a good New Year's Resolution and have made a few of my own. Firstly, I need to get my driving license. Milton Keynes is not the sort of place you can easily get by without a car, not least because public transport here is appallingly unreliable and hideously expensive. Secondly, I am determined to finally shift the excess 2... ok, 3.. FINE 4 stone in weight that I'm currently lugging around. Yes, I know. I've blogged at least once about body imagery and basically sticking two fingers up at a society that demands women conform to a certain size in order to be considered attractive, BUT my desire to lose weight is not about being attractive. Alright, if I'm going to be entirely honest, maybe there is an element in there of wanting to feel pretty but for the most part, this is a health issue. As I've previously blogged before, I have fibromyalgia which leaves me feeling pretty wrecked 99% of the time. Every morning I wake up and every bit of me hurts, I feel nauseous, headachey and as exhausted as though I hadn't slept in days. It's not unlike feeling epically, permanently, hungover. My doctor has told me off about my weight a few times and really believes that shifting the flab will alleviate my symptoms. It's worth a go, hey!

Here's the problem I have; it's not as though I haven't tried to lose weight before. In fact, I've spent almost the entirety of my twenties feeling self-conscious and frumpy, wanting to slim down, trying all sorts of diets and fads, and yet I suspect I'm currently bigger than ever before. This is not even slightly uncommon, and I think I've finally realised why. Typically, I'll buy low fat or fat free options wherever possible; diet coke, fat free yoghurt, light soft cheese, lean beef mince, and so on. That's the healthy option, right? Apparently not! All this stuff might be low in fat but instead it's packed full of sugar, salt and artificial flavourings to restore the taste that is lost by taking out the fat. It wasn't until people on the weight loss section of Mumsnet pointed out that fat (in food) doesn't make you fat that I started to actually think about what I've been eating and why I haven't been losing weight. I felt pretty shocked and in all honesty quite stupid. It's prompted me to start really reading the nutritional information on the food I buy and I've completely stopped buying anything marketed as fat free or low fat. Just to illustrate the point, I used to love the Activia fruit yoghurts BUT one teeny 125g pot contains over 16g of sugar. Right then, I thought. I'll go for plain yoghurt instead. Comparing the labels of the low fat and full fat options, it seems that where the full fat option has 5.1g of sugar per 100g, the fat free has a staggering 8.9g! I'm completely appalled and kicking myself for years of trying and trying to slim down, really believing that I was choosing the right foods and all the time I couldn't have been more wrong.

I'm not going to go down the path of waxing lyrical about one method of weight loss over another. Everyone's metabolism and personal tastes are different and the key is really in understanding your body and what works for you on both a physical and an emotional level. I envy people for whom food is nothing more than sustenance, but for me and many like me, my relationship with eating is very emotional and not in a good way. So my goal - or more accurately, my hope - for 2014 is to change my relationship with food, ditch the sugar addiction and eat proper, real food where I KNOW what's in it and where it has come from.

Perhaps the next time the topic of childhood obesity comes up, we could all take a moment to think about what we really know about the food we eat and how we really understand what our bodies do with fat, protein, sugar, etc. I'm a reasonably intelligent woman and I got it horribly wrong. It's not really that much of a surprise that we have an obesity epidemic on our hands when we can't trust the labels on the food we buy, particularly when that food is presented to us as the norm over buying masses of fresh ingredients to prepare each and every meal ourselves from scratch.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Money, money, money

For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. - Timothy, 6:10

It's not often that I look to the Bible for gems of wisdom, but I find this particular extract ubiquitously true. I've often heard it paraphrased as "money is the root of all evil", but I think that misses out a crucial human element. Currency in itself is neither evil nor benevolent; but the pursuit of wealth, the ease with which we exploit fellow humans in a bid to maximise profit and reduce expenditure certainly forms the foundation of pretty much every worldly evil I can think of that we visit upon one another. I've pondered this one for a while and I cannot think of one single atrocity that cannot be traced back to money. 

Periodically, I struggle with writing about humanity. I find myself drawn into existential crises, unable to justify why we spend so much of our lives worrying about things that really - in the grand scheme of things - just do not matter. I watch the news and despair at how unkind we are to each other, whether that's one person committing a violent crime against another, entire governments carrying out appalling attacks on their own citizens, or deeply ingrained social attitudes about immigration, benefit claimants, drug abusers, obesity, mental illness, etc. It alarms me even more when I put this into the grander context of civilisation and realise that we are pretty much living in a golden age of compassion, by historical standards at least. There is not a single period in history that springs to mind where human beings were habitually kind to one another and endeavoured to improve the lives of their fellow men and women for no reason other than that they could. Instead our history books are overflowing with records of war, torture, oppression, slavery, bigotry and murder. Yes, this is all punctuated with notable examples of philanthropy, but the fact remains that the instances of People Being Nice To Each Other are comparatively few and far between.

In essence, human beings, as a species, are not very nice. And that's before we get anywhere near how we treat animals and our planet. This is only dealing with how we behave towards each other. 

It all comes back to money and the acquisition of wealth. I've posted before about global corporations exploiting the poor and doing an astonishingly good job of covering it up, because they have the means to do so. Global industry is so rife with this sort of behaviour, that it's very difficult to buy "necessary" products that are 100% ethically sound. I do not wish to perpetuate the exploitation of my fellow man but the likelihood that my clothes, furniture, mod-cons and food were all manufactured by companies endeavouring to ensure that every member of staff at every level of production was properly paid, well treated and happy is slim to none. Why? Because business need to make profits. Bigger profits than their competitors. Oh, and they need to keep the costs for the end user at the lowest possible so they don't lose customers to competing companies, so profits can't come from hiking up the prices at that end. The profit margin has to be struck between minimising the cost of production and offering a attractive price to the masses. The company who can come up with a way to strike that balance will be a ground breaker indeed!

Business isn't the only culprit. Socially, we (at least in the developed world and specifically, for the purpose of this rant post, the UK) are greedy and invest far too much emotion in the value of Stuff. I read a fantastic piece a few days ago about the audacity of poor people daring to own shiny things (here) and it really brought home to me how ludicrously cyclical the whole thing is. Appearing to be well off is important, even if you're flat broke, so we have credit options for those without the actual cash to buy the latest commodities and endless upgrades to quickly outdate the latest shiny thing for those who do have this kind of disposable income. Oh, but be careful not to flash your non-existent cash too much or you risk incurring the wrath of... well... of people who think they have the right to pass judgment on whether you fall under the banner of the "deserving poor" or the "undeserving poor".

It's all changing at the moment. It used to be ok to be poor; there was a reasonably decent welfare system to stop you from hitting rock bottom and a bearable stigma to claiming from it legitimately. Then something happened, a sea change came upon us and now we face an extraordinary conundrum where even middle of the road earners cannot afford to own or rent their homes, pay their bills AND put food on the table without an income top-up from the state but our newspapers and social media chatter are filled with extreme and inflated examples of the workshy fiddling the system to fund a decadent and frivolous lifestyle. If this was your only source of information, you could be forgiven for thinking all poor people are scheming and manipulative, plotting their next move to extract cash from the hard-working wealthy upper class, all while the poor fatigued government endeavour to instil some manner of work ethic into the nation. Yes, Mr. Cameron, I'm looking at you again. 

It's not even ok to be disabled anymore. Just in case you were wondering... I have always believed that you can judge how civilised a country is by how they treat the vulnerable and the deviant. Our deviants are probably not doing too badly, compared to the rest of the world. We don't have capital punishment anymore, we don't (officially) carry out or endorse torture. There are massive gaps in the efficacy of our justice system, but I'll take it over that of the USA or China, thank you very much. 

Our vulnerable, however, are not faring so well. Thanks to New Labour's moves to reduce the number of Disability Living Allowance claimants - and let's not forget, for all that I loathe about the Conservative party, it was New Labour who brought in ATOS - even the life-limitingly unwell are targets. Got cancer? Well you can still sit in a chair and type, right? You over there - missing three limbs? Pfft! That one remaining arm could stack shelves! Mental illness? What's that?! 

Medical assessments of a person's fitness for work are being carried out by people with no medical background. Consequently, people who are utterly unemployable are told that their disability benefits are to stop and they must try to find someone who will give them a job and then hope to God that they can actually turn up to work every day and fulfil the requirements of that job without either being fired for unreliability or dropping dead from the stress and strain. 

Why are we doing this to people? Because the government need to save money and reduce what they're spending. Never mind the fact that benefits make up a TINY fraction of their annual expenditure - in fact, in the last fiscal year, more was paid out in interest on national debt than on unemployment benefits. Poor people make an easy scapegoat because we don't have the means to fight back. 

Once again, it's all about money. WHY do we accept it? The government have constructed a very helpful rhetoric, demonising those with the temerity to be poor and we are buying into it. Those who fight back are quickly dismissed as bleeding heart lefty liberals. Well I know where I would much rather align myself.

I fully intend to post again about this issue, hopefully in a less ranty capacity. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this thought:

Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3...

Hello blogworld. It's been quite a while since I posted anything, mostly because life has been a little crazy here. Things are settling down again now so I'm hoping to find the time to write a bit more about the millions* of ideas I have swimming through my head at the moment. Between the government offering monetary incentives to mothers for breastfeeding (WTAF?), to Katie Hopkins vs Peaches Geldof, from Christmas madness to crochet heaven - there's lots I want to write about. 

Right now, I'm going to make a cup of tea, deploy the electronic babysitter and get back to work on some posts that have been in the pipeline for a few weeks. 

*not literally

Monday, 2 September 2013

Meet Ted: the Duracell Bunny Baby

The concept of a Duracell Bunny Baby is something I first came across on the Analytical Armadillo blog; it is a neat term for babies who have boundless energy and Do Not Sleep. Naps, night-time - sleep does not come easily to these little fireballs. 

Fifteen month-old Theodore is one such baby. 

Do not be fooled by the cuteness. This was taken at 11pm. He is laughing at my attempts to make him SLEEP.

A year ago I wrote a post about bedsharing and how the first three months of sleeping with Ted in our bed had gone. At that point, I was still confident that within a few months, he would make the gentle transition to his cot as my three previous children have done. The theory is simple: at a certain age, my babies have each started sleeping from late evening through to the small hours of the morning. This is when they are put into the cot; when they wake, I put them in my bed until morning. That's not an ideological thing. I'm just too lazy and fond of sleep to spend hours pacing the bedroom rocking them back to sleep. Eventually, the time between putting them down and them waking again stretches out until they sleep through in their own room of their own accord.

Beautiful, yes?

The other Smalls enjoying their time snuggled in my bed.

Please explain this to Ted! At fifteen months, he still does not nap for more than half an hour at a time and even that is dependent upon being held by someone. Occasionally - rarely - we are able to put him down on the sofa. We've successfully managed an hour or two stint in the cot on fewer than half a dozen occasions but the general rule of thumb is that children one, two and three go off to bed at 7pm and are asleep by 8pm. Ted gets into his pyjamas at the same time and the attempts to make him Go To Sleep begin. It might be me feeding him, Andy walking round the room rocking him, putting him down somewhere and singing/patting/ssshing him. Ninety-per-cent of the time NOTHING WORKS and at 10pm, the little bugger is still literally bouncing round the lounge and giggling at us. 

Last night, it was midnight before he finally gave in and nodded off. 

I don't do controlled crying at all, and even if I was prepared to consider it, it would be a very bad idea for Ted as he's prone to breath holding attacks and goes blue if he cries. There are also three other children in this house who have to get up early for school, so having a crying baby around just wouldn't be fair on them. I've beaten myself up, analysed all my decisions about bedsharing and breastfeeding and blamed myself over and over again for creating the Incredible Non-Sleeping Baby, but then I remembered reading about Duracell Bunny Babies. 

Reading down the list of bullet points on the Analytical Armadillo post about DBBs, it describes Ted to a tee. I'm so relieved to be able to tell myself this is not my fault. This is not a "something wrong" or a way I've broken the baby. It does, however, mean I don't know how to put it right and get this boy sleeping in some kind of vaguely sensible pattern.

Thankfully, once Ted has given in and dozed off he stays mostly asleep as long as I lie right next to him. If I move away, all hell breaks loose but there is honestly nowhere I'd rather be at 2am than lying in my bed, so that's not an issue. It would be MARVELLOUS if he spent some time asleep in his own bed though. I was mentally prepared for six months to a year of bedsharing and breastfeeding, but Ted seems intent on continuing both. He does seem a lot younger - if that doesn't sound daft - than my other children did at this age, so maybe this is just him taking in life at his own pace. 

I must keep reminding myself to just relax and embrace all the little bits of babyhood while I still can. He will grow up soon and eventually forge his independence and then I know I'll miss his evening antics and afternoons spent with him snoozing lightly in my arms while I will the rest of the world to shut the hell up lest they wake him.

This too shall pass.... this too shall pass.... Where's the gin?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Miley Cyrus and Accidental Racism

Right then. I couldn't resist any longer. A post about Miley Cyrus' performance at the VMAs this week...

I feel I should preface this post with a couple of points:

  • Before yesterday I didn't know what "twerking" is
  • Before yesterday I only had a vague grasp of what a Miley Cyrus is
Ninety per-cent of the discussion I've read about this performance has focused on its overtly sexual nature, speculation on Cyrus' drug usage, eyebrow-raising at that really weird tongue thing she does and the inappropriateness of broadcasting this routine to an audience of impressionable children and young teenagers. Until that is, Caitlin Moran retweeted a link to a blog exploring its racial implications.

I read the blog a couple of times, trying to take in the message. In all honesty, at first I felt it was overanalysing somewhat, looking for issues that weren't there. But then I'm not a black woman; I have never had to consider that traditional feminism doesn't account for specific issues faced by women of different ethnicities. That's when I started to deconstruct my own feelings about this blog post, the VMA performance and other forms of normalised "accidental" everyday racism. 

I still don't think Miley Cyrus' dance routine (I'm being generous in calling in that!) was overtly racist in the same way it was overtly sexual. But it DOES perpetuate accepted stereotypes about black women and representations of their sexuality.

To me, being racist means a deliberate and conscious act which harms or denigrates one or more people based on the colour of their skin and/or aspects of their culture. 

I don't think that applies to Miley Cyrus in this instance. What I do see in her performance is what I've called "accidental racism"; that is, an unconscious attitude towards (in this case) black culture which stereotypes and misrepresents a key intimate aspect of black women's lives. 

The fact that the racial implications of the performance need to be highlighted is entirely the point. We don't see this as 'racist' because such representations of black women and black culture have become normalised to us. A few decades ago, it wasn't seen as sexist to market a kitchen product to women in this manner because demeaning women was normal and accepted. It has taken many years to challenge that and begin to eradicate sexism, and yet we still see adverts for cleaning products, supermarket chains, etc. that focus their preference by mothers as their unique selling point. And yes, when people complain that such adverts are sexist, we're told that we're overanalysing and looking for issues that aren't there - because attitudes that cleaning and grocery shopping is the preserve of the little wifey at home are still normalised.

It is possible to perpetuate damaging racial stereotypes without realising you're doing it. This insidious form of oppression is much more difficult to challenge because it first requires an awful lot of work to demonstrate that it even exists and that you're not grasping at straws to find it. 

A few days ago, a friend published a link to a series of "automatic preference" tests, one of which looks at whether you lean towards or away from black or white people's faces. I have NO idea how it works, but when my results were given, it also gave a breakdown of the total number of respondents and the average result. Staggeringly, the majority - over a quarter - of respondents were found to have an automatic preference for white people over black people. This means that without any conscious decision making, they found a white face more tolerable than a black face. THIS is entirely what is meant by accidental racism. 

Here are the tests if you'd like to explore for yourself:

One final thing I would like to say on this matter is that I don't hold Miley Cyrus 100% culpable for the content of her performance. There is a team of stylists, choreographers, managers and broadcasters who need to ask themselves what the hell they were thinking when they decided this was a really great routine for a young, female artist.