Archive for March 2013

Cathy and Wyclef

March 29, 2013

And I’m on tonight
You know my hips don’t lie
And I’m starting to feel it’s right
All the attraction, the tension
Don’t you see baby, this is perfection

This isn’t about words! This is about Shakira’s body sending a message – and the body cannot lie. This is a time for breathless, passionate inarticulacy. Read the messages of her body and respond to them… Right?

Yep, Shakira’s hips are brilliant at sending out that primal message. She’s just backing it up with words to be on the safe side. Look at my hips. Are you getting the memo? Hell-o! Are you listening?

This is something I see over and over again in Shakira’s work. She enjoys playing with ideas of silence, inarticulacy, miscommunication. She enjoys playing the woman rendered submissive by the man’s superior verbal ability. But then she can’t quite bring herself to really shut up.

I think it’s quite a common fantasy among women who are attracted to men: meeting a man who is more articulate than you are, maybe even better at talking about sex and romance than you are.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a Louise Bagshawe book, or a Mills & Boon. (I did it so you don’t have to. OK, that’s a lie. I do it because I like it.) They never, ever feature a man in the hero role who’s inherently crap at communicating. Sure, the heroine’s beauty might leave him temporarily speechless. Sure, he might hide his lust under a steely facade because they have to do some kind of super-important business deal together. But he is never just a bit rubbish at talking. Never fails to parry her verbal jabs with some zingers of his own.  In a serious conversation about where the relationship is going, he won’t repeatedly fall back on “Um, I don’t know.”

It’s a fantasy because these super-articulate guys are rare. Not because men are inherently bad at talking, but because they’re trained by our culture to be bad at talking. The woman who plays the flustered, inarticulate social submissive usually ends up doing a lot of highly skilled behind-the-scenes work to keep it up. The sexual equivalent would be the sub barking orders at the dom and telling him off for tying the knots all wrong. (And I am certain that happens all the time too. “Oh, Mr Grey, you’re too strong for me! I’m just a simple virgin who – FOR GOD’S SAKE, HAVE YOU LOST THE LUBE AGAIN? WELL, WHERE DID YOU LEAVE IT LAST TIME? IT CAN’T HAVE JUST VANISHED!”)

Back to Shakira. She’s playing the silent dancer whose body does the talking. But this song is, of course, a duet with Wyclef Jean. He’s been cast in the role of the super-articulate man who overwhelms her with his verbal skills. Problem is, his actual reaction to her is hilariously inadequate.

And when you walk up on the dance floor
Nobody cannot ignore the way you move your body, girl
And everything so unexpected – the way you right and left it
So you can keep on shaking it

It’s hardly Lord Byron, is it? But the bit that makes me cringe all the way from my head to my toes is the Year 9 Spanish:

I never really knew that she could dance like this
She makes a man wants to speak Spanish
Como se llama (si), bonita (si), mi casa (si, Shakira Shakira), su casa
Shakira, Shakira

Ouch. Even if you don’t know that these words are directed at a native Spanish speaker, it’s still cringe-o-rama. I can only hope he’s having a laugh too. But Shakira gamely responds as if he’s really come out with some amazing piece of verbal seduction:

Oh baby when you talk like that
You make a woman go mad
So be wise and keep on
Reading the signs of my body

Later on in the song, Wyclef Jean does a bit of rapping, but in true girlfriend-disappointing style, it’s nothing to do with her at all. It’s all about him and his origin myth of being a refugee from Haiti. I used to wonder if Shakira was disappointed that her pal Wyclef had failed so badly. But now I think maybe she was just laughing at him all along.

My favourite piece of perfectly-honed fake inarticulacy and submission comes with these lines:

Oh boy, I can see your body moving
Half animal, half man
I don’t, don’t really know what I’m doing
But you seem to have a plan
My will and self restraint
Have come to fail now, fail now
See, I am doing what I can, but I can’t so you know
That’s a bit too hard to explain

If you actually watch the part of the Hips Don’t Lie video where she’s singing these words, you’ll see she knows exactly what she’s doing. Whenever I watch it, I don’t know whether to laugh out loud or melt into a puddle of lust.


March 28, 2013

A reader draws our attention to the German word genau. Apparently people (mainly English-speakers?) are moaning about its overuse.

Genau literally means something along the lines of “Precisely” or “Exactly”. And as in English, you can use those kinds of words to confirm what someone is saying to you.

“So you’ll be looking to switch paper-towel supplier?”

But in German colloquial use, it seems to have taken on a more casual meaning. The reader who  originally contacted me suggests that it’s used to mean something along the lines of “Yeah” or “OK” or  “Right”.

When used in this sense, the word is doing a different kind of job.That’s why it’s being overused. Repeating “genau” is phatic communication: it’s a way of saying “Yes, I’m still listening,” or “Yes, I still understand you,” or “Yes, I’m still invested in being part of this social or work group.”

(Disclaimer: I’m not German and I don’t speak any German, so my take on this could be complete rubbish. As opposed to my take on everything else in life, which is stone-cold accurate at all times.)

A question of etiquette

March 27, 2013

I have an etiquette question.

I was recently in email contact with someone, trying to fix a time for him to come round and drop off some paperwork at my house. He said he was free all day and asked me what time would be convenient for me. So I said: “I’m popping out now […] but I should be back after 3pm, so any time after then is fine.”

I was unexpectedly delayed on the way home, but I still got through the door at 2:40pm…to find the paperwork had been pushed through the letterbox while I was out. He’d apparently interpreted “any time after 3pm” to mean “before 3pm”. I see this a lot with early birds of the older generation: a failure to cope with concepts like “any time after [stated time]”.

A lot of my dealings with early birds end with me asking myself: “Does this person really not grasp the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’? Or is it just that they prefer to ignore arrangements in favour of doing things when they feel like it? And if it’s the latter, why did they go through the whole ritual of making those arrangements in the first place?”

Or maybe the open-endedness of the time window makes them feel insecure, and of course early birds always reach for extra earliness to make them feel more secure. So they hear “any time after 3pm” and think “3pm! That’s the fixed point here! Got to do it by 3pm! Pedal to the metal!”

Anyway, my etiquette question is: do I have to give the body a proper burial, or is it OK if I just throw it to the neighbourhood wolves?

JOKING. (Probably.)

Forgotten commonplaces

March 26, 2013

“And the next thing, please?”

The ridiculous phrase came unbidden into Iris’s mind and twisted her lips in a wry smile. The glib shopkeeper’s question seemed to represent so exactly her own carefully directed mental processes.

Extract from Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie, first published 1945.

It’s obvious from this that “And the next thing, please?” was what shopkeepers said in the days when they fetched things for you and you just stood there ticking off your shopping list.

I’m assuming that in the 1940s, “And the next thing, please?” was a phrase that nobody ever thought about, because they heard it so often. It would have been part of the wallpaper, part of a customer-service ritual. Now it’s gone from being spoken thousands of times a day (except for Sundays, of course) to being forgotten completely.

Of course some of these ritual phrases end up being remembered after their lifetime, often through comedy. Think of “Are you being served?” (although “Are you being helped?” was actually a more commonly used phrase). Perhaps today’s equivalent is “Unidentified item in bagging area.”

Engineering: a thought experiment

March 25, 2013

If you’re an adult woman, you might want to try this thought experiment.

Imagine you live in a world where four out of five women are engineers. When you were growing up, if the question of careers came up at all, you’d probably get the idea that you were expected to be an engineer one day. When female children tell adults that they don’t want to be engineers when they grow up, the adults laugh.

As an adult, there’s still the expectation that you’ll become an engineer one day. If you say you have no interest in engineering, most people laugh and say you’ll change your mind. Some assume your lack of interest is feigned, a cover for your secret, desperate attempts to gain your engineering qualifications.

Some people claim to believe you and you think they understand, but then you find out they assume you must hate bridges, computer software and anything else related to engineering. You can’t get anybody to believe that you’re content to drive a car without designing your own car engine.

If you point out that you have none of the skills required to become an engineer, people will wink conspiratorially at you and say “It’s different when you get your own project.” The widespread assumption is that once you’re put in charge of an engineering project, you’ll suddenly develop all those skills and blossom as a person to boot. Sure, it’ll be a “steep learning curve” but also “so rewarding” and you “can’t possibly miss out”.

People might ask you why you’re not an engineer, but they’ll interrupt or do a theatrical yawn halfway through your reply. They’re not interested in your answer,  because they’re already convinced your reasons are fake or invalid. They just want to force you into a position where you’re trying to justify yourself.

If you’re in a relationship, your parents and your partner’s parents will eventually begin sending increasingly desperate hints that they expect you to become an engineer. Your mother-in-law will send you pictures of heating and cooling systems over email. Your father-in-law will say subtle things like “When are you going to design some aircraft, then?” You’ll wish you had female siblings to take the pressure off. When you meet friends of your parents or your partner’s parents, they will always ask if you’re an engineer. When you say “no”, their next question will be about when you plan to become an engineer. A week with the older generation gives you the bruising feeling that to them, you are nothing but a failed engineer. Your poetry, the way you’ve decorated the house, that marathon you ran, your three beautiful kids – nobody’s fucking interested in any of it. They just want to know if you’ve become an engineer yet.

In this world, would you be more or less likely to become an engineer?

In my own life (the real one, not the parallel-universe one), the question of my becoming an engineer has never arisen. When I was growing up it was never presented to me as an option, still less a desirable one, and it never even crossed my mind when I was choosing a career. (Actually, I’ve given the idea more thought while writing this blog post than I did in the thirty-odd years before writing it.) I’ve also managed to get through many years of adulthood without anybody mentioning it as a possibility.

In the pro-engineering parallel universe, I probably still wouldn’t be an engineer. But I would be frequently reminded of my failure to become an engineer, frequently asked to justify or reconsider my decision, and I would feel a little bit regretful and inadequate every time.

Travelling shite

March 22, 2013

Tupperwolf points out that being rich enables you to travel light. If she had my, er, “talent” for carrying on talking after the point is thoroughly made, she might have added that being rich enables you to travel at all.

The article she’s rebutting, Living with Less. A Lot Less, inadvertently supplies a perfect example of my point: the person who thinks that abandoning possessions and increasing travel is an enlightened-person choice rather than just a wealthy-person choice. The person who thinks that reducing possessions and increasing travel somehow means living a lighter life.

It’s true that if you travel a lot, you’re probably physically slim and you probably don’t have much in the way of visible possessions. But that’s just yet more evidence that we should stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. Because if you travel a lot by plane, you’ll have an enormous carbon footprint, no matter what else you do. You might care about the environment and take steps to mitigate your impact – by “minimizing trips, combining trips and purchasing carbon offsets” – but you’re still doing a dangerous level of damage to the earth’s climate.

That’s why people who travel don’t like actually working out their carbon emissions. They’ll avoid using any of the many free calculators available. Because if you saw the figures in black and white, you might have to face up to the damage you’re doing. Aviation is the huge farting elephant in the room.

I think most of us know a person-who-travels. When you meet them, you can often mistake them for a normal person who just happens to be returning from, or about to go on, the trip of a lifetime. Only later, after several more trips-of-a-lifetime, does it dawn on you that travelling is what they do. If they’re back in this country, it’s probably because they’re trying to scrape some money together to go travelling again. You have to get out of the mindset of wondering when they’ll be “back for good”, which is hard.

People-who-travel often have a lot of stuff in storage, providing a convenient metaphor for the metaphorical hidden baggage they drag around like Marley’s chains. What I mean is that the behaviour of people-who-travel has a cost for others, for the people left behind.

I could give countless examples: the parents who worry when you don’t say you’ve arrived safe, siblings who take on your share of family-duty stuff, friends who look unprofessional because they recommended you for the job you said you wanted and then you turned it down to go travelling.

You turn up at Terminal 4 with nothing but a tote bag, sure, but the ghostly shapes behind you are your mum’s attic full of your stuff, your friend who subbed you lunch all week because you spent all your money on plane tickets, the tenants handing over cash to you because you bought a house then decided not to live in it. (That’s not forgetting the 300,000 people who die every year because people like you think a rich person’s right to convenient travel is more important than a poor person’s right to life.)

And let’s add some more unexamined privilege to the baggage allowance: the privilege of flying frequently in a world where most people have never boarded a plane, the privilege of being commitment-free enough to make the trip, too much other privilege to go into here.

Some people-who-travel are so unaware of their privilege that they even write self-congratulatory blog posts about how boring the people they left at home are, how sedentary we are, how we simply can’t understand the life-changing experience they’ve had.

And yes, maybe we have been boringly working for a living. Maybe it’s tedious being able to contact us when you want to, because we haven’t dropped our mobile phone off the back of a rickshaw.

We’re that awful brother who was around for Mum’s birthday and organised a present from both of you. We’re those boring friends who have kids and provide them with a stable home environment. We’re those predictable relatives who can put you up for the night because we’re renting a a flat with a spare room instead of sleeping in someone else’s spare room to save money to go travelling.

We’re that boss who started a company from scratch and inexplicably stayed around to watch it grow into a thriving business. Why didn’t she just sell everything, make everybody redundant and fuck off to Sri Lanka?

And we simply can’t understand that life-changing experience you had, the one where you got on a plane with a bunch of other rich white people and flew somewhere and stayed there for a bit and then flew somewhere else and got a funny tummy.

Sorry. We can’t understand it because we weren’t there, man. I guess you win. Oh, off again so soon?

It’s hard being Strawmum

March 21, 2013

I arrive at the school gates and my heart sinks. Why? I’m immaculately dressed, hair coiffed to within an inch of its life. At home and work, that’s how I usually look. Looking immaculate is my choice. But when I’m surrounded by a gaggle of other mums in jeans, their hair a mess, I feel ridiculous. I stand out, and I don’t like it. I can’t bear the judgmental looks.

I guess I’ve always been different. While other girls were content to collect insects or take engines apart, I craved dolls to play with. As we got older and my teenage pals started reading science fiction, I was the odd one out again: interested in boys and fashion.

Now I’m collecting my two bright, well-behaved children from the school gates and I can feel the other mums’ eyes burning into my Chanel suit. OK, so I look great – is that a crime? OK, so I can’t claim to be “frazzled”. Do they really hate me for being organised and looking smart? Don’t these women have anything else to do with their lives?

But who am I kidding? I’m just jealous. I’m jealous that they all get paid to write columns about how inadequate I make them feel. What’s the plural of “odd one out”, anyway? Because I’ve counted about 30 of them in the last ten minutes.

(Inspired by this.)