Death

This week I went to the funeral of a friend in the seaside town where she grew up, a town of long wide streets and a long wide beach where the salt spray carries on the wind and the cafe owners turn around a fast flat white.

She rode her bike up and down these streets and it’s easy to see her doing it again. Because now she is freed from time and age.

It was breast cancer, which came back. She was in the thick of an action-packed life, and did not reduce the pace of it till near the end. She railed at her cancer and fought back with furious living. It seemed at the time as if she was in denial, as if she believed there was still a chance to change the diagnosis.

While sympathising with her pain, part of me was challenged by her anger. Why me? is not far from Why not you? In the lottery of life, cancer is a huge, terrifying probability. We’re all afraid of it and its apparent randomness is the most unfair aspect of it. It could be any one of us. I know several women my age (early forties) who are living with it, at various stages. As mothers we are experts in evaluating and avoiding risks but this is beyond our remit, a poison that curdles the illusion of safety. It scares the s*** out of me.

The Internet is quite effective at screening us from the fragility of life; as we tweet and Instagram moments of our lives, they seem to take on an eternal quality, out there in the ether, as if they can never be changed, will always be replenished. There’s a great generous vigour to it all and even the trolls are passionate. Perhaps that’s why the deaths of our heroes resonate so far, so fast, so deeply. We belong to each other, in a way that perhaps only families have in the past. But we are not immortal. Even the strong die, even the great and the young and the beloved.

At the beautiful funeral service, in an ancient church, the minister told us the story of her life. It was a good life, lived well and it struck me how much she’d packed in, the energy she’d brought to her job and her hobbies, her faith in herself, her love of justice. She didn’t let anyone stand in her way if she thought they were wrong. In fact she could be a pain in the ass sometimes but she got away with it because she was hilariously funny.

And the church was packed. Her ranting and sharing to audiences large and small had won her so many friends for her astonishing determination to live. That was not a side-effect of the cancer. That was who she’d always been.

I see now that she was never in denial. She knew her enemy and looked it in the eye. Cancer was an intruder into her life; she knew it would kill her and was absolutely livid about it.

To those she left behind, she’ll be a voice on our shoulders, making sardonic remarks, screeching with laughter, telling us off for ducking the hard stuff.

Because there is no time to waste. And fear will only slow us down.

Lateness: the cardinal sin of modern life

And there are many of us scramblers and jugglers. I know because I’ve seen the whites of their eyes as we scan for one last Mother’s Day card.

 

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All my life I’ve been late. Since I came into the world overdue, I’ve been sliding in at the back, crafting explanations, regularly, slightly, late. I know, it is unacceptable behaviour. But hear me out.

My goal is to arrive on time, not too early or too late, which requires the  day to go as smoothly as the plan in my head. Sometimes this happens which must be why I keep attempting it. But often it doesn’t. Traffic lights are against me, people ask for help, children rebel. Life gets in the way. But that’s where the kick comes in because battling through the obstacles and beating the clock makes me feel great, as though I can take what life throws at me and still coming out winning, even if I’m in second place a fair bit of the time. The majority are against me on this, the moral compass has swung past me and my attempts to cram extra stuff into life are considered a bit, well, old-school.

It is no longer possible to buy pumpkins on Hallowe’en. Gone, all those orange heaps that were there a week before the big day. Or Valentines cards on Valentines Day. It’s quite pleasant to shop on Christmas Eve because the rush now happens the day before that. I love planning ahead as much as the next person, (over ambitious about everything, not just time) but if you can’t buy things on the actual day, where is the fun in that? And there are many of us, scramblers and jugglers. I know because I’ve seen the whites of their eyes as we hover over the greeting cards scanning for one last Mother’s Day card. The flip side of the panic is the creative cobbling-together which follows. One year I bought a selection of curiously shaped butternut squash for Halloween lanterns which worked surprisingly well, their narrow heads and bulbous bellies charming the kids and amusing the adults who thought I was being ironic. See, See? The kick! Spontaneity is its own reward.

Plain old lateness, not so much. I shoot myself in the foot and do not impress people. A dear friend recently took me to task for making her wait 45 minutes in a bar. In my defence, this was a highly unusual occurrence. I’d hosted a party for 26 six-year olds in the afternoon, and mismanaged my time. But obviously I was deeply ashamed as I’d made her feel less than valued which is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous. She’s been late for me of course, it happens to us all. But I’m the regular offender. She’s been allowing an extra 15 minutes after the time we agreed to meet before turning up herself, a system which has worked well for years. I never mind waiting on her if I’m on time, or on anyone really, it’s like the universe has given me a time bonus. But I realise this is not a truth universally acknowledged. I know it’s wrong to waste other people’s time and am not defending tardiness. My point is more that a bit of come and go makes life easier and allowing ourselves to be governed so much by the clock makes no sense, when we are all still human.

For example. Yesterday I arrived at the GP and checked in for my appointment to be met with a large red cross and the words TOO LATE. I glanced at the clock on my phone. It was six minutes after the appointment time. Not fifteen minutes, which is the point at which hairdressers and dentists cancel appointments, having obviously got together at a conference and decided that fifteen minutes should be the cut off point. Six.

This in an establishment which is set up to deal with people who are ill. The mums, derailed by unplanned pooing, sicking and tantrumming, the depressed and infirm, who have struggled to get out of the door, bipolar and schizophrenic people trying to stay in the present and control the hallucinations long enough to explain them. And what do they get met by? A computer telling them they have failed to meet the standard required.

Fortunately there are still people behind the reception desk who are able to forgive this shortcoming, after a bit of eyerolling. But seriously? Six minutes?

The appointments system has become the standard way of running a service-based business, from restaurants to shoe shops, to save us all waiting in queues for hours on end. But surely there is room for some flexibility? There are many people who regularly turn up a whole fifteen minutes early for things,which used to be rude, and are slotted in early. Why not extend the courtesy to the late, who can be slotted in when the next space becomes free? So long as everyone is seen in a reasonable time, what need have we of cancellations and judgements?  Unless of course, it is quite fun to exert the small power we have, to belittle others.

It’s worth remembering that the latecomers are sometimes needy or vulnerable, juggling demands and all too aware of their short-comings. They’re not late on purpose. Often they are trying their best. And what does the crime of lateness actually amount to? It slows the rest of us down a bit. As do long coffee queues, garrulous bosses, hungover colleagues, missed deadlines. We still have to be at work till the end of the day. Each of us messes up in some way. And in a world full of imperfect people being lazy, well-intentioned and broken-hearted under the surface, we should cut each other some slack.

 

 

 

 

 

what is gender anyway?

What is a man? And what is a woman?

So there’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about Germaine Greer and Jack Monroe and what it means to be transgender which has been illuminating and perplexing in equal measure. It’s great that people feel able to speak out and let the world know they are there and sick of being ignored, so hurrah to that.

But parts of it are puzzling. I get that someone might feel strongly that they are a man trapped in a woman’s body, or a woman trapped in a man’s body. Also, there are lots of people who have physical characteristics of both genders and are intersex. Some people feel no sexual attraction and consider themselves asexual. None of that is new and lots of it has been culturally assimilated in parts of the world where it is well known eg. the ‘penis at 12’ children in the Dominican Republic.

But the next bit is more complicated. The non-binary bit. If you feel strongly you are not a woman, not because you are a man, but because you are something else, something between the two or something wholly different, what is that?

What is gender anyway? It started out as the scientific word to classify male or female according to their physical sexual characteristics. Why only two genders? Because there are two types of genitals. There is no third type. Everyone is born with one or other or a combination of the two. I’ve understood transgender to mean people who are in transition from one gender to the other, ‘trans’ meaning ‘change’.

But non-binary people are not in transition. They have always felt they were neither man nor woman but a third gender, and want to be identified as being that. But what does it actually mean? Surely gender isn’t just a feeling of being something? It must relate to something physical or it loses all meaning. Physical sexual characteristics dictate much of how we experience the world through the effect of our hormones on our behaviour and perceptions. Then there is another layer – cultural conditioning, the reaction of people around us to how we look and behave. That shapes who we think we are but must be secondary to how we, in our own bodies, experience our lives. Transgender people have to deal with the mismatch and try to make sense of it all. But does it make it easier or harder if we concede that there is a range of other options out there, that it’s possible to be something totally new and unrelated to anything? What does that even mean?

If our gender is something unrelated to our physicality, what is it? And what is a man? And what is a woman?

Equal Pay Day

So today is #EqualPayDay and there’s a lot of chat on Twitter about equal pay for women. The Telegraph and the Independent announced that from this day on till the end of the year, women are working for free. That’s set the heather burning. Lots of people, mainly men, saying the gender pay gap is a myth.

They make some interesting points. Like, we’ve had an Equal Pay Act since the 70s which made it illegal for men to be paid less than women. Which is true. The only snag is that no one enforces it so it doesn’t work. Failure to pay equally is not a criminal matter, so the police are not going to be phoning up businesses who fail to pay women the same as men doing the same job. No one does that. Only the underpaid women have a right to take action, and these days the tribunal service is so expensive that most can’t afford to make the claim. Also, if they do, they stand a good chance of losing their job or being sidelined. Yes that’s technically illegal too but it still goes on, routinely. No one is monitoring this stuff. And the government has watered down the employment law that might have protected claimants.

So if no one in authority is preventing this and women can’t afford to do anything about it themselves, what is to stop it happening? Nothing. There are success stories. In April this year, a group of co-workers succeeded in a class action against their employer Birmingham City Council after being excluded from bonuses paid to men. There are class actions ongoing against Asda and Sainsbury’s. But most breaches of the law go unnoticed.

All of which begs the question – why? Why are women paid less than men for equivalent work? Many in the ‘myth’ camp point out that if businesses could get away with paying women less, they would just hire women over men and save money. But if businesses did so it would be obvious and would draw negative publicity. Much easier to hide different wage rates. Earners don’t generally share information about what they earn. They’re often in competition with their co-workers. And employers can also call it commercially sensitive information. In other words, they don’t want their business competitors to know what they pay. With women working more part-time jobs than men, it is easy enough to hide the fact they are on lower rates because most people throwing a cursory glance over the wages bill would think a difference in earnings between men and women is down to the differences in hours worked. Negative publicity is in many ways a more effective tool against a business than the existing law because it is free and available to all. And because it carries an effective sanction.

If a policy, whether deliberate or simply tolerated, is costing the business money, it will be changed. It can be changed. Which is why we need to acknowledge the truth of the gender pay gap and demand more action to redress it.

Perhaps it’s time for a tax on unequal pay. Put the onus back on the employers to demonstrate that they pay their employees equally. Why should it be left to women to foot the bill? This is an issue which affects society fundamentally on many levels. It’s in everyone’s interests to sort it out. It’s in the government’s interests because it would put a serious dent in their tax credit bill. Let any difference found between the wages of a woman and a man doing an equivalent job be recoverable by an appropriate authority. Let’s call it the Equal Pay Agency. Make it free and confidential. Then watch the queues form.