Archive for June 2012

If you love someone, rescue them

June 26, 2012

Sometimes it’s hard to live in Cambridge
Giving all your love to just one man
Being poly
Is just so jolly
Don’t want mundanes to understand

But if you’re normal, things get formal
You might just have to take a stand
One direct gaze
When the band plays
Says it’s time to make a plan

Escape the fens
Slide him right down the spectrum
Or just along an angstrom
So he can read expressions

Escape the fens
And show the world you love him
Monogamy, poetry that scans
Escape the fens

Escape the fens
Escape a night’s debating
Escape the righteousness and then
Escape the fens.

The privilege of absence

June 22, 2012

“Just you wait till your father gets home!” The old threat is based on the idea of the father as ultimate authority for the home. But the dodgy gender politics obscures something interesting: the fact that the father’s very absence helps to confer that authority. You can’t use “telling Dad” as a threat if Dad is right there. He has to be absent for the threat to work. Mum’s presence is both a result of and a reason for her lower status.

The relationship between absence, power and status is complex. It’s obvious that if Godot had turned up, he wouldn’t have got his name in the title of the play. But absence doesn’t always confer (or denote) status; it depends on how much status is available to you in the first place.

I’ve mentioned before, in passing, that being able to work from home rather than going into an office is a privilege. That may seem obvious, but we don’t always unpick quite what’s going on there.

Firstly, working from home is usually not an option for blue-collar workers; when did you last hear of a cleaner or forklift truck driver doing their job in jim-jams? The proliferation of con tricks involving “work from home opportunities” highlights just how unattainable (but desirable) this kind of work is for many people.

Another reason why it’s a privilege: those who are present bring (usually unnoticed) benefits to the office – and those who are absent don’t. If everybody in a given office worked from home all the time, there would be nobody to do the countless things that can only be done by someone in the office: take delivery of that order, scan that physical document and email it to the guy who isn’t there, dig out that physical file and look up something for the guy who isn’t there, fix the photocopier, buy toilet paper, greet visitors, make rounds of tea and generally put up with continual diversions from your “real” work for the sake of creating an office that feels like a proper workplace rather than a missing centre. People who are in the office for one day out of five probably won’t do a fifth of that work – they’re more likely to do none of it. Why should they get their hands dirty fixing a printer jam when they’re “hardly ever in”? People who say they’re “more productive away from the office” are probably telling the truth; but they are overlooking the other truth that their own productivity comes at the expense of someone else’s.

Absence, in these circumstances, is a result of higher status. Absence reinforces the idea that your time is more important than other people’s (albeit verbally expressed with terms like “I don’t have time…” rather than “I’m too important…”).

But the relationship between absence and status generally is more complex than that. The level of self-importance and resource-grabbing varies hugely among remote workers, and, as I said above, it’s to do with how much status you had in the first place. If you’ve argued for the right to work from home for childcare reasons, you’ll make fewer demands as an absentee than someone who’s not in much because their job involves a lot of travelling. (The more far-flung the place, the more justified the unreasonable demand sounds. “I need you to fax it to me NOW! I’m on my way to the AIRPORT! I don’t care that it’s 6:30pm on a Friday night and I don’t actually own a fax machine! I’m going to DUBAI!”)

Similarly, if you’ve been hired as a work-from-home freelancer so that the company can spend less than they would on hiring in-house staff, chances are your status will be pretty low and people will expect you to respond to contact as quickly as you would if you were sitting at the next desk and they said your name.

So what am I saying here? Just that I’d like more analysis of the power dynamics between people who are here and people who are not here.

Cats, like children, like other people’s stuff

June 1, 2012

I wrote a few months ago:

“Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their parents, are using than in the things that are specifically created for the child’s own use.”

I was talking about the lure of objects for adult use (like keys) and how they’re more appealing than toys designed for children, but I know from friends with kids that the same thing also applies to food: what’s on Mummy’s plate is twenty times more interesting than what’s on their own, even if it’s exactly the same thing.

A few weeks ago my partner and I got a cat. Although my mother keeps referring to it as “my first grandchild” and my in-laws blithely suggested I “get a kid instead”, the cat is NOT, repeat NOT, a substitute baby. Well, I’ll give way on that point if you also accept that babies are substitute cats. And that houses are substitute flats. And that blankets are substitute mats. And that everything in the world is a substitute something-else because nothing can signify itself because that is the nature of the signifier.

Anyway, I was amused to see that the “if it’s aimed at me, it must be inferior” thing also applies to cats.

She has a water bowl, rinsed and filled with fresh (filtered) water every morning and topped up with fresh water throughout the day. Is that her first choice for fulfilling her hydration needs? Hell no. In our cat’s view, the very best source of water is one intended for a human. If she spots a glass or mug of water around the house she will make a beeline for it and start drinking, despite the fact that the relative sizes of her head and the glass don’t make for a satisfactory drinking experience.

The second best source of water is one intended for our houseplants. She will walk past her own water bowl in order to leap onto the windowsill and lick up the water that’s drained out from underneath the tray of seedlings. Yes, it has lots of bits of soil in it. Yes, there’s the risk of licking up traces of whatever we’ve most recently cleaned the windowsill with. But hey, it’s not meant for her, so it must be the good shit, amirite? (We used to occasionally use bleach or some other heavy-duty cleaning product to clean the windowsill. This has had to stop. Now it’s namby-pamby no-better-than-water eco-stuff all the way.)

There’s no real point to this story. It just made me smile that the preference for other people’s things is actually cross-species.