Feminism in the modern world

Written for a ReadWave challenge.

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” (Rebecca West)

Emotive words like feminism can be difficult to use. I would call myself a feminist, yet often find myself disagreeing with opinions professed by others who would also describe themselves in this way. For example, I do not believe that everyone should be treated equally at all times.

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There are occasions when I would not complain about a job advertisement asking for a man or a woman; for example, a play or television show that desires a particular gender for a part. For every rule there will be exceptions.

What makes me angry is misogyny, and it is unfortunate that this is alive and well in our supposedly open and free, western society. It is not always recognised or acknowledged, but one only has to look at such examples as the everyday sexism project to understand that woman are not regarded as they should be, that rape culture is prevalent and accepted by many. While this type of behaviour exists, I would argue that feminism continues to be relevant and necessary.

For me personally, feminism is about recognising ability and offering choice based on individual circumstance. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to attend and graduate from university. I studied a subject that interested me (computer science), not one that was typically chosen by women at the time. After a decade of working hard to further my career, unhindered by the fact that I was a woman, I then opted to become a stay at home mother. I do not consider, as some may, that my education and work experience are wasted. I have used all that I have learned in raising my children and conclude that I help and advise them more effectively because of my life experiences.

There are women who are happy to become an attractive accessory for a man. There are women who choose not to marry or have children and who are as capable as any of having a career that society would regard as successful. If these women are able and willing to follow these paths then I would not wish to condemn their choices. Most of us, men and women, will have a variety of aspirations and will have to make compromises along the way as limits are imposed by personal abilities, conflicting desires and individual circumstances. It is only when limitations are put in place due purely to gender that I would see cause for complaint.

Feminism exists because too many cultures have, historically, seen woman as of less value than men. They consider women to be flighty and vain, unreliable and overly emotional; whereas men are considered to be strong and determined, jolly good types to be trusted and relied upon. I suspect that men often choose a man over a woman for a job due to that natural human tendency to go with the known and familiar, to gravitate towards that which we see in ourselves.

All people are individuals and will thrive if they are not forced to conform to rigid, cultural expectations. Abilities exist on a broad spectrum and are fluid; all can learn and adapt as situations change. Problems occur when those in power seek to impose what they see as right for a section of society, when they refuse to accept those who choose a different way.

Societal expectations can be hard to oppose, but this is why feminism still matters. Men can be victims just as much as women with the expectation that they will provide, support and succeed. Feminism should not be seen as putting men down, but as a means to offer wider choice for all.

As we go through life we change. I am not the person I was at twenty or thirty. It would be sad if I was as this would suggest I had learned nothing in the intervening years. There is no ‘one rule fits all’ for men or women, any more than there is just one rule that fits an individual throughout their life.

I guess what I am fighting for is flexibility. Do not expect certain behaviours from me because I am a woman, because I am pale skinned, middle aged, middle class or British. Allow me to be me. I am both ordinary and extraordinary, as are all the people that I know.

We need feminism to stop those in power considering woman as one, homogeneous mass and deciding what is best for them. They do not know what is best for me anymore than I know what is best for you.

 

Personal preferences – a rant

I do not consider myself to be a fussy eater, but there are certain food stuffs that I prefer not to eat. I have developed and changed my preferences over a number of years as I have aged. I will try most things at least once before I decide if I wish to repeat the experience based on my enjoyment. I have no interest in what others think I should like. How could others possibly know what will please me?

Take shellfish as an example. I just adore the taste of the shellfish that I have tried, but I now refuse to eat it for a reason. When I was on my honeymoon, my husband and I stopped for lunch one day at a lovely little coastal cafe where I ordered a crab salad. This was the first chance I had ever had to try crab and it was delicious. Around fifteen minutes later, feeling decidedly unwell, both lunch and breakfast made a dramatic reappearance.

The incident reminded me of a similar experience a few years previously when I had disgraced myself at a friend’s house after consuming a yummy prawn curry, lovingly prepared by his mother. After the crab incident I decided that perhaps shellfish were not for me.

Most people will understand and tolerate such preferences. I have a similar issue with raspberries, once again discovered when I was presented with these delights in a pudding at a friend’s dinner party, and spent the next few hours miserably contemplating a toilet bowl. I realised that I had encountered similar issues on previous occasions and added these bright red fruits to my list of banned substances.

There are, however, less dramatic preferences that others seem unwilling to tolerate. Like many British people, I enjoy a nice cup of tea. As an aside, complicated political events mean that I am also Irish, a fact that gives me a certain amount of nostalgic pride. However, I have chosen to carry a British passport so claim that as my nationality rather than the land of my birth. I know a lot of Irish as well as British people who choose to drink their tea very strong.

I like my tea to be made with an ordinary teabag in a pot, with just a splash of milk at the bottom of a large mug before it is poured. I also like it weak. This seems to offend so many people who are convinced that, because they would not choose to drink weak tea, I cannot possibly wish to have mine served in this way.

It is such a simple request to make, to pour my tea before the leaves have had time to fully brew as that is the way I like it. Others look at me aghast and cannot believe that I could enjoy such a beverage, because they would not. Thus I am presented with a drink that I will not enjoy. Often when I am out this results in me asking for coffee, which I do like strong, and drinking tea only when at home and in control of the pot.

It is not just friends and acquaintances who refuse to allow me to indulge certain preferences that they cannot approve. When I am eating out in a fine restaurant the talented chefs will rarely cook my meat the way I like it, particularly beef. Despite the fact that I am paying for this meal, and ask that it be well done, it arrives pink and chewy, sometimes even bloody. In this instance it seems that the customer is not always right.

Now, I get that a piece of quality beef does not require a lot of cooking, and that connoisseurs believe that the animal need only to be shown the heat source briefly before being served. If that is how others choose to eat their beef then that is fine with me, I just wish that they would be as fine with my choices.

Fellow diners wrinkle their noses and decry my wish to spoil a delicacy by incinerating it. If that is how I wish to eat it then why does this annoy them? What is it to them how I wish to eat when I am not asking anyone else to do as I do? Once again, I will rarely order beef when out as I know I will not choose to consume what is presented to me. It is a shame as I enjoy a good piece of beef, but only when cooked through.

I would never claim to be an expert on food or wine, yet I know what I like. I am willing to try new dishes but, if I know from experience that I will not enjoy some supposed delicacy, then I see little point in eating it just because the rest of the world rates it highly.

I mentioned wine. I have lost count of the number of people who have turned up their noses at my choice of wine. In this area I am only too well aware that I am not an expert. When I have been out with others who know what they are doing I have been offered some delightful choices. I have also been offered sweet or paint stripping concoctions that ensured I went home half a glass short of sober.

I generally know which of my friends and acquaintances I can trust to choose my wine for me, those who will select a bottle of something that I will consider nectar. I also know those who have preferences that differ so markedly from mine that I will order my own bottle and leave them to enjoy theirs. This is not an insult to their taste as they sometimes seem to think, but simply a difference. Why do some people not understand that it is fine for individuals to enjoy different things?

When it is just me drinking, I choose what I know I will like, usually a Chardonnay. This may not be considered classy, but then nor am I. There is no need for others to turn up their noses, laugh at my choice, or mention some television show that mocks this widely derided grape. Wine is to be enjoyed, so I drink what I know I will like.

I feel frustrated when my children refuse to try new dishes. Once tried though, once given a decent chance, each of us will favour different things and this is okay. If my preferences lower your opinion of me then I can live with that. Just please don’t ask me to drink strong tea or sweet wine. And pressure me into eating shellfish at your peril.

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Inequality

This post was inspired by a writing prompt on Tipsy Lit.

There are so many people striving for equal rights, vocal and strident in their fight to be granted the same opportunities as others. Except we are not all the same, we are not born equal.

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Children pick up on this from an early age. Primary schools and sports clubs appear reluctant to reward youngster’s achievements, yet the children themselves are well aware of who amongst them is the best at running, football, gymnastics, maths. By rewarding all or rewarding none, hard won accomplishments go unrecognised. By trying to avoid labelling children winners and losers, none reap the benefits.

Inequality exists. Being fair does not necessarily mean demanding equality.

Should we instead be striving for an unbiased meritocracy? Allow the fastest, the strongest, the brightest to be selected for roles that require these attributes. Do not try to open up to all challenging disciplines that are unsuitable for an individual’s abilities.

Discrimination based on gender, skin colour or sexual orientation makes no sense; discrimination based on talent, strengths or ability, in certain circumstances, does.

But what of the opportunities to explore where talents may lie in order to allow them to be nurtured? The inequalities created by wealth distribution can be the hardest to overcome. In a world of stiff competition and scarce resources  it can be hard to offer opportunities for all from an early age.

It is inevitable that some who may have been great will slip through the net, but can we do better at offering opportunity to the most able based on merit rather than background and upbringing? How do we change a natural inclination to choose what is seen as a good fit when we are naturally drawn to prefer those who reflect back our own personal preferences?

Look around at your friends, those you have chosen to spend time with. Do they share your general views, opinions, interests, lifestyle or abilities? Do you enjoy their company because you have much in common and can share, laugh and commiserate with ease?

It may not matter that the talented surgeon who can return the sick to health is the antithesis of all you hold to be important, so long as he is willing and able to do his job to the best of his ability. Would you be able to look beyond what to you are repugnant views when selecting him for a job though? If you had to choose between him and another who was capable if not quite as brilliant, would you be inclined to select he who you simply liked better, who appeared more acceptable based on your own prejudices?

There are the obvious inequalities that we can all fight to eradicate because they are nonsensical, but perhaps the more insidious and equally damaging discriminations should be vying for our attention too. If we are to offer the best opportunities to the best people then selection cannot rely on the personal preferences of an homogeneous selection board. We would need to find a way of shaking up established practices and accepting those who are the most capable, even if they did not conform to an accepted type.

If we choose to strive for equality of opportunity based on defined achievements then we step into an unknown where we may be the ones who no longer fit.

Communication

As we do not have broadcast television in this house I pick up my news from the internet. Each morning I will browse the BBC News website along with a couple of free, on line, British newspapers (the Independent and the Guardian). I do not trust the media to give well researched, honest and unbiased reports. I wrote about my views on this in a previous post (The mainstream media and blogs). The media reports a lot of self promotional material that I ignore (I have no interest in Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother). When I do come across something that I consider to be news I will research it. Occasionally I find something of interest.

As well as the newsworthy story that interests me, my research often pulls up related material alongside opinion pieces written from varying perspectives. Armed with this information I am then keen to discuss my thoughts. My children are now old enough to have their own views and I will relate what I have come across to them and canvas for their opinions. These discussions are interesting; young people are just as capable of considered thought as their elders. What they lack, though, is life experience.

My husband has strong views and reads very different on line sites to me. I love to discuss issues with him as this helps to sharpen my thinking and hone my debating skills (they still need a lot of honing). The problem is his availability. He works long hours and has numerous other calls on his time. As well as helping out with child taxi services, he plays hockey for a local team (along with our elder son), goes on runs, plays football and works on his fitness at the gym. When he is at home he sometimes just wants to relax, read a book, watch a film or listen to music. I cannot expect him to fire up on a topic just because it interests me.

There are always other things that I need to pass on to him anyway, the sort of home administration stuff that he will want or need to know. Perhaps the kids have plans or achievements that will interest him; there may be maintenance issues to discuss or decisions to be made that require his input. The kids themselves seek his advice on certain subjects; there is often little time left to burden him with more.

I find it very frustrating when it seems that my husband is the last to know about a discussion I have been having that may have generated a reaction. He misses out on the hows and whys, being presented with whatever comes after with no forewarning. His views are well thought through and worth having, but the demands on his time limit how involved he can become. Perhaps this is why some long married couples still go out on dates, just to ensure that they are keeping up with each other’s worlds.

Communication is vital to any relationship. When life gets too hectic I have been known to make lists of things that I need to say to my husband just to ensure that he is kept in the loop. I know how hurt I feel when he shares an anecdote with someone that I was not aware of; I do not wish him to ever feel that he is not important to me. I want to share my life with him, all of it, but I recognise that he needs to be allowed to live his life too. I cannot complain about the limited amount of time he spends with me when the majority of what he does away from me is for all of our benefit.

There are, of course, evenings when I need quiet time for myself. I may be engrossed in a good book or simply need an early night. The rare discussions that we do manage can only happen if we are both in the mood and have no distractions; little wonder they are so rare.

When I bemoan the fact that I find it difficult to find anyone who is eager to discuss challenging topics with me it is with the knowledge that I live with someone who fits the bill perfectly. I guess I need to extend the understanding I have of his reasons for rarely engaging with me to my other friends. If I insisted that they enter into heated debate every time we got together, I suspect my small group of friends would evaporate entirely.

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Teddy Bear

I collect teddy bears. I have always had a soft spot for cuddly toys and this developed into a collection when my husband bought me a small bear, who I named Edward Gainsborough, a year or so after we got married. This delightful little companion joined my childhood bear, a few family bears that I rescued from a dusty, lonely life spent in my parent’s attic, and a number of cheaper, plush bears that I had picked up in my travels through life over the preceding years.

Before our children were born, in the days when tax rules did not make having a company car with fuel included a prohibitively expensive perk, my husband and I used to drive around Cotswold villages on free weekends visiting specialist teddy bear shops. Here I would find adorable bears who were eager to come home with me, along with accessories to make a teddy’s life more fun. I decorated one of our bedrooms and put up shelves to allow my growing collection to be displayed. A few visitors to our house thought that I was creating a nursery; at the time, children were not a part of our plans.

When my husband and I went on one of our many walks, we would enjoy taking a break at a convenient teashop. I got into the habit of bringing Edward along to share our tea and cake. He would also accompany us on picnics, travelling in the wicker hamper we kept in the boot of the car. I would photograph him and smile to myself at the looks passing strangers would give us for our unconventional behaviour.

When the children were born my focus changed and we had less time to devote to such amusing pastimes. I was still very fond of my teddy bears though. Each child was given a Steiff bear for their first birthday to ensure that they had a furry friend to guard them and chase away the monsters that lurk in the dark corners of bedrooms. Edward always sleeps by my bed at night, wherever I am staying.

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It took quite a few years to get to the point where going out did not demand that I carry a large bag full of nappies, snacks, juice and amusing distractions for the children. Once we got through this stage though, Edward once again started to accompany us on days away. I loved the fact that we were all quite happy to be seen out and about carrying a small bear, posing with him at famous landmarks and photographing him on his adventures. We certainly got some strange looks from those around us, but seemed to raise smiles from strangers with our antics, which can’t be a bad thing.

I probably have a couple of dozen teddy bears in my collection. The room that was decorated for them did eventually become our nursery so they were moved to alternative locations around our home. I am tempted to buy bears wherever I go but try hard to contain such desires. Occasionally, of course, I will give in and treat myself.

This summer I picked up a lovely little fellow from a shop in Hampshire called Bear It In Mind. The ladies running this business repair and restore toys as well as selling their signature ‘Bartie’ alongside other British made teddies. They made Edward and I very welcome and treated my passion as perfectly normal.

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Edward meets the original Bartie Bristle at Bear it in Mind.

I have grown used to having my predilection for travelling with my little bear, and photographing him wherever I go, treated kindly. I do not consider it particularly childish but accept that it is eccentric. How boring life would be though if we could not act the way we wish; if every action had to be judged on it’s compliance with cool conventionality. Showing a little love to a small, stuffed toy; conferring him with feelings and a personality; none of this causes harm to anyone else and gives me amusement and pleasure.

Teddy bears are non judgemental, comforting companions. It is my view that the world would be a better place if the same could be said for more humans.

My happiness is not just about me

Television shows and films are full of friendship groups. Whatever misadventures the protagonists must deal with, they will turn to their good friends for emotional support. Teenage girls will indulge in open and meaningful discussions as they lie around in each other’s bedrooms; women will sit down with close friends and a few bottles of wine to spill out their concerns for all to debate and put right; men will open up their hearts at a ball game or barbeque, sit down on a park bench with a long known mate at a key moment, or seek out a female friend and show an emotional side previously unknown. All can talk freely without fear of judgement. Does this ever happen in real life?

Perhaps there are plenty of people out there who can totally rely on a few individuals to always be there for them, however messed up they may be. These wonderful people will drop everything they may be involved with at any time, open their doors and their hearts to accept and forgive whatever behaviour has caused the grief. They will support without judgement, regularly and reliably wiping away the tears and helping the sufferer to move on. Whatever is happening in their personal space, they will put their own lives aside when needed.

I have and have had many, lovely friends over the years but the only person I have felt comfortable opening up entirely to is my sister. I would never expect her to drop everything in her life to support me though. I recognise that she has her own experiences to enjoy, issues to deal with and family to support. I really don’t know if I am unusual in being unable to expose my innermost feelings to friends or if this is typical. Perhaps the fictional portrayal is just another simplification for the sake of brevity and entertainment. Perhaps it is real and just beyond my ability to experience.

This past year has been challenging for me in terms of dealing with the way I am and the way I am thinking and feeling. I needed to put my thoughts in order but found when I tried to talk about what I was going through the listeners did not react as I needed. I turned to this blog instead; in writing it down I was able to understand myself a little better and the feedback I received was also helpful. In my experience, oversharing face to face causes embarrassment and the issues are too often misunderstood. I found it hard to be as open in conversation as I could be when I wrote.

During the worst days of my mini meltdown, other’s views did not penetrate. There were a few comments left that helped; these did not offer solutions but rather simple validation and support. I needed to know that I was not going mad, that I was not being unreasonable in wishing to be heard and my needs considered if not agreed with. I needed time to move on and experience the gradual improvement that, deep down, I knew would come. I was never anything like as bad as other friends are and have been. I came across this blog post on how a true depressive can feel:  http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.uk/, but it would be unhelpful to those who suffer to claim that I understand.

I value my friends highly; old, new, face to face and on line. I am grateful for their presence in my life; I hope that they will continue to be there. I also think that many of us live our lives hiding much of what we think or do from the world, even those we may feel close to. We wish to be well thought of and court good opinion. We choose to act the part we want to be, maintaining the illusion by never speaking of what goes on backstage.

Although I recognise that I am responsible for my own happiness, I would not be happy without others around. Man is a sociable creature and will thrive in a welcoming crowd. Whilst I have no wish to return to the large gatherings of cheerful, partying people that I once enjoyed; I still gain so much from meeting up with those I care about to chat and share. I may temper what I say and select topics carefully, but I still gain emotional nourishment from these encounters.

Are there people out there who can be totally open with a group of friends? Perhaps my problem is more one of feeling the need to be myself. Perhaps others get by just fine being the person that they allow the world to see.

It is unhelpful to suggest that we have failed at friendship if we have failed to find a group who live as closely together as those portrayed in fictional shows. Any friendship depends on the character of the individuals involved. In the ebb and flow of life, all are affected by their differing experiences and will react and change over time in ways unknown. True friends will weather the storms and accept the changes. How can they be there every step of the way though, when they have their own lives to live?

Friendship bracelet

To see and to be seen

It sometimes feels as though I am alone in seeing the world the way I do. So many people seem to be truly interested in sport, celebrity culture, looks and the latest health fad; topics that I try to at least keep up with so that I may understand some of the general conversation, but which fail to excite my curiosity as they seem so transient and superficial. I have no problem with other’s apparent preoccupation with these pursuits, it is their genuine interest in the subjects that perplexes me.

Occasionally though I find some book or commentary which proves that I am not alone; that there are others out there who think as I do. Just as it is good to talk with someone who shares a passionate interest, so it is comforting to discover that a particular view of the world is not so strange even when those around me seem to see things differently.

Yesterday I read ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky. The way the protagonist, Charlie, looked at the world seemed so perceptive to me; the way he was treated by his peers and how his life improved immeasurably when he found others who accepted him as he was. I could relate so closely to many of the comments he made: about how he admired girls who were unconventionally beautiful; how he wanted to be honest and himself in a relationship; his lack of knowledge about how to act around others; his bafflement at how clever and interesting girls dumbed themselves down and started showing off their cleavage when they reached a certain age. I read and reread the book and felt like shouting out Yes! Yes! Yes! so many times.

I believe that this book has been popular which makes me think that perhaps there are many others who can see life as I do. I wonder are they unwilling to behave and talk about it because they feel that they should act in a certain way in order to be accepted. I wonder if society demands that we conform to a stereotype and most are willing to comply. Of course, we are not all the same.

There are some people of my acquaintance who make me wonder about how they truly think. One of the husbands of a friend has talked about going to a pole dancing club, others have mentioned a brothel that was closed down in one of our local towns. Perhaps I am being hopelessly naive, but I was shocked by this conversation; I would not have considered the possibility that anyone I chose to befriend would want to know anything about these sorts of places let alone be willing to visit them.

How I see some of my friends and acquaintances and how they are obviously differs. I am left wondering if I really know them at all, and if this matters. We can still socialise and converse about neutral topics; we may even find some mutual interests. These occasional glimpses of another side to their character makes me wary though. It it were all openly discussed then perhaps I would grow to understand their way of thinking; it is the secret asides and half hidden meanings behind some of the exchanges that leaves me feeling baffled.

Social convention demands that we talk and act in a certain way when in public. Even amongst friends it can be hard to navigate how personal the conversation may get. I find all of this perplexing. As we get to know people better we will undoubtedly uncover sides to their character of which we were previously unaware. It is the wariness with which such discoveries are treated that I find hard; if it cannot be discussed openly then I miss the cues about how I should behave.

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ contains many quite shocking and uncomfortable revelations, but all are dealt with in an open and matter of fact way. I can relate to this approach. It is so much easier to be able to talk about topics which are known than to try to avoid or ignore an issue. Pretending that something didn’t happen will not make it go away. Unmentioned actions or events fester unhealthily in our thoughts; they are the fuel of gossip amongst those in the know.

I feel strangely elated that this book has been popular. Even if others do not feel that they can openly act outside of the diktats of society; even if they are more comfortable with and actively choose to continue with the status quo; the fact that they can feel positive about and empathise with some of the thoughts and feelings that the book’s protagonist describes gives me hope that I am not the only one to see things as I do.

In so many ways Charlie was messed up but he was also bright and perceptive. None of us who have lived our lives have got through unscathed, but how we cope with our scars determines how our character develops as much as any of the other experiences we have gone through. I am what I am. It is not just how I deal with that but also how the world deals with me that will determine how I am seen.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The pressure of official celebrations

I enjoy a good family celebration. Since my children stopped asking for big birthday parties and started telling me precisely what they wanted as regards presents, I have found organising their special day to be a pleasure. With just the five of us involved it is fun and relaxed. We do what the birthday child has asked for in terms of activity, food and cake; and can all share in the excitement and pleasure of the gift giving.

I find my husband’s birthday a little trickier as he rarely needs anything and cannot always think of a gift he would want that he is happy for me or our children to choose. Some years he is given very little, which seems a bit mean, but he prefers that to being bought stuff he neither wants nor needs. We usually go out for a meal which he enjoys so the occasion is marked. Likewise for our wedding anniversary, a special meal out will generally suffice.

We take pleasure from these occasions; there is no pressure to conform to anyone else’s ideal. The same cannot be said for officially sanctioned celebrations. I am not good at these as my natural inclination is to ignore them. I do not wish to be forced by the media or commercial marketing into declaring my love for anyone on a certain day. Those I love do, I hope, know that I care throughout the year.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day represent occasions when I must decide whether I capitulate to the demands of the card and gift manufacturers or follow my instincts. I have no wish to offend those I love, but I do object to being harassed into behaving in a certain way.

Yesterday I left it up to my children to choose if they wished to do anything for their dad. As far as I am aware, no mention was made of it being Father’s Day by anyone, including my husband who was out for much of the day anyway. We did go out for a meal the night before, but that was because it suited us to do so for other reasons. I much prefer spending time enjoying each other’s company when we wish to rather than when some marketing campaign demands.

Within our little family this suits us well; we lay no great store by these commercial events. Knowing how to deal with the wider family is a trickier situation. My mother has expressed displeasure at my lack of acknowledgement of certain occasions so I always try to remember to send her a gift,  flowers or a card on particular days. For me, the regular letters that I write to keep her updated with what we are doing as a family express my love more sincerely, but I have no wish for her to feel neglected.

If my father were on line then a quick message could have been sent yesterday, but I don’t believe he would feel the need for a card. Neither of us talks comfortably on the telephone and I had written a lengthy letter just the week before so had no news to pass on. The day came and went with no acknowledgement; we love each other just the same.

I do try hard to remember to send birthday cards to close friends and wider family. Children will be given a small contribution to funds but I rarely buy gifts for adults; I have no idea what they may want or like. If an occasion is to be marked then I wish it to be done freely and joyfully, not under pressure to provide a token that the recipient is unlikely to need. I am not good at buying presents for anyone other than those I am really close to.

Does this attitude make me miserly or neglectful? I suspect that there are those who would think so, but they probably have a low opinion of me anyway. I have come to accept that there are some people I will never be able to please.

There are as many special occasions in life as we choose to celebrate. I would never berate anyone for opting to mark a day, whether official or not, in whatever way suits them. Plenty of fathers will have enjoyed spending time with their children yesterday and this is good. What I object to is being pressurised into acting in a certain way; being made to feel guilty for not conforming to some ideal standard. When others try to impose their wishes and values, discomfort ensues; a celebration is not joyful when participation is forced.

I love my family very much and I show that throughout the year in the way I treat them and the time I spend with them. They show that their love for me is genuine and freely given when they help and support me, not by giving me a card on a stipulated Sunday in March.

The biggest, most ostentatious occasions have the dubious reputation of being times of heightened stress and subsequent bad feeling. I prefer my celebrations to be small and relaxed, spent only with those I am closest to, at times and for reasons that suit us.

There are many who enjoy big parties and get togethers, or gatherings to mark a particular day. They should be free to enjoy and celebrate as they choose, without criticism. I would appreciate being granted the same consideration.

Gifts

Reliving stupid

I go for a lot of long walks on my own. I enjoy being outside, away from people and their associated traffic. The fabulous views of the countryside spreading out before me in this beautiful corner of the world are an added bonus. It is a chance for me to relax, breathe and think my thoughts.

Sometimes these thoughts are replays of times I have spent with other people. I think about the conversation, how I acted, how I said and did things that I now look back on with embarrassment. Why do I remember the times when I made a fool of myself so much more clearly than the times when I fitted seamlessly into a social scene? There must have been good times too, times when my talk was successfully small and unremarkable.

So there I am, walking across a field or along a quiet footpath, remembering something stupid that I said at a gathering years ago. My body language would look very strange to observers. I find myself grimacing, exclaiming, crossing my arms protectively. I wonder how I can handle looking some people in the eye after behaving so idiotically. I wonder if they even remember.

I try to comfort myself, to convince myself that it doesn’t matter. I will be more aware of my behaviour than others, most of whom are unlikely to have given it much thought. If people have a lower opinion of me after our encounter then why should this concern me when I rarely see them? Perhaps my discomfort is one reason that I feel socially awkward. I enjoy watching people, but will look back on most occasions more fondly if I have managed to keep my thoughts and opinions to myself.

I have no idea why I find small talk so troublesome. Once we have greeted and discussed the weather I seem to struggle to keep things bland. I chat about my kids or what I have been doing, see a reaction of surprise or disapproval on another’s face and go into panic mode. The words that fall out of my mouth dig me deeper and deeper into the hole that I am creating. I want to jump in, cover myself up and never reappear.

I am not like this with everyone. There are people out there with whom I can truly relax; old friends or family who know me well and seem to like me as I am. I can talk naturally without fear of seeing them mentally step back from our discussion. If they disagree with what I have said or done then they will articulate their feelings and we move on. My treasured companions can laugh with me, share my tales, show interest in what I am saying. I come away from these all too rare encounters feeling happy and satisfied. I wonder if that is how others feel after most get togethers with friends.

I do not believe that the people I mix with are hugely judgemental; they do not condemn me for thinking differently to them. I guess what makes me uncomfortable is that feeling of being a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. I can only be myself, yet so often that makes me feel uncomfortable in a crowd. This discomfort provides a catalyst for my foolish talk as I struggle to blend in.

It is not good to dwell too much on past misdemeanours. The way I act will be regarded as unimportant to most. If my behaviour, conversation or attitude is disliked then I would hope that those who feel this way towards me would choose not to include me in their future social plans. We can all be so much happier only mixing with those whose company we truly enjoy.

I cannot take back foolish things that I have said or done. In processing the memories I am trying to come to terms with myself and move on. There are still people out there who choose to spend time with me; I need to make more of an effort to allow this to happen. Too much navel gazing will not make me the better person that I wish to become.

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Music and change

Having my family at home for the mid term break from school and work has once again demonstrated to me how much we have changed over the years. We often go away camping during this holiday and had hoped to do so again this week. However, the cold and wet weather limited our choices; it would not have been enjoyable to have been sleeping in a tent. How we dealt with the free time that this left us to fill has shown once again how we have all moved on with our lives.

My daughter seems to be the most able to organise her days. I suspect that she would not see it that way as she regularly despairs of her tendency to procrastinate. Nevertheless, she has managed to spend one weekend away camping with friends, a day walking with the family (the promise of a pub lunch was persuasive) and has a concert in London to look forward to this evening (Green Day, All Time Low and the Kaiser Chiefs are to perform). In between activities she has been studying for her remaining exams, working out at the gym and watching a selection of her favourite TV shows on DVD. It has looked to me as if she has struck a good balance between work, rest and play.

My sons, on the other hand, have opted to spend their time in less constructive ways. True, they were both very helpful in the garden when the weather allowed us to get outside last weekend. However, the consistently cold and wet days that followed gave them the excuse to spend rather too many hours on their computers. Although my elder son has a week of exams later this month to prepare for, he appears to have done little work; I can only hope that he has done enough. My younger son is practising hard at becoming a moody teenager.

When they were younger I used to make my children earn their screen time, which was always severely limited. If they wished to play a game on their DS or watch a DVD then I would require them to complete homework, tidy their room or help out with some other task in the house. Long walks and cycle rides were completed with the promise of an hour of screen time on our return; attendance at an activity that they had been eager to sign up for but had now tired of would be achieved with the incentive of a family viewing of a film they wished to watch. These days they help out for cash payment and, having bought their own computers with money earned and saved, cannot be easily dissuaded from using them.

Perhaps the biggest change in how free time is spent though has been with my husband. He has visited the gym each day this week but has otherwise appeared to do little when it has rained. I do not have a problem with someone opting to rest, but this is notable because it is so different from the way he used to be. He no longer shows any interest in home maintenance or decorating as he once did. Neither does he seem to wish to go out and about when the weather is inclement. Rather, he will sit at his computer for as many hours as his sons; at least this does not make him moody.

I am used to spending my time as I please so my week has been less of a novelty. I have enjoyed having my family around me, even if they have been largely occupied by their screens. I have had company on a few of my gym visits or swims, and mealtimes have been sociable occasions. I have got less done as I have tried to fit in with what plans the others have had, but the mundane tasks that occupy much of my time will always wait.

We are now forecast a sunny weekend so will try to make the most of that. With my daughter off to London with her friend it will be up to the boys to decide on activity. I suspect that we are not the only family in the area planning on lighting our barbeque this evening, and I hope for some fun in the garden before we eat. Perhaps we will even be able to persuade our shy, new chickens to accept a cuddle. They are still very wary of us.

Our family barbeques usually have a festive feel to them with lively music adding to the atmosphere. The choice of music played is as good an indicator as any as to how each of us has changed. When the children were younger they were happy to listen to the latest offerings from the pop world alongside their parent’s favourites from the eighties and nineties. As their tastes have diverged my husband has insisted on playing more of the music that he enjoys from the seventies and eighties, whereas I have found pleasure in much of my daughter’s heavy rock or my son’s classical discoveries.

Good music can bring so much pleasure. It can be cheering, relaxing, contemplative and uplifting. However, having to listen to music that I really do not enjoy can put me on edge. It is unfortunate that my husband likes a lot of artists and bands that I would put in this category. I know that I must let him choose what we listen to from time to time, but so much of what he enjoys makes me want to leave the room. Sometimes it gets on my nerves so much that I do. I try to practice tolerance but in this area find it so hard.

My favourite music is still that which my children make on the instruments they play. I love to hear them practice and perform. I quietly nurse a hope that someday they will be as good as my father, whose beautiful piano playing was the soundtrack to my childhood.

Whatever type of music we choose to listen to, it is so much easier to appreciate any genre when played live. The concert that my daughter is attending tonight is in a huge stadium, but I expect the atmosphere will help to overcome the limitations of the acoustics; that and being able to appreciate the experience with a friend.

With music and books and good company to enjoy, the distractions offered by computer games will continue to perplex me. We each have to find our own way though. People change, I know that I have. All will be happier if we can each learn to accept and enjoy what we have become; if we can relax, smile and go with the flow.

GREEN DAY