Archive for the ‘domestic’ category

The ableism of “on the go”

January 19, 2017

What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

Mi mesa era su mesa

August 4, 2016

Still on the topic of neighbours and awkward gift-giving: I have wondered if our neighbour was expecting some kind of gift to say thanks for the garden furniture. We decided not to bother, mostly because technically we were giving her and her husband the gift of Not Having To Take A Load Of Heavy Stuff To The Tip, which is surely one of the greatest gifts of all.

But I instinctively shied away from it anyway, because I have a totally-non-evidence-based feeling that this neighbour is the kind of person who’s way more comfortable giving gifts or favours than receiving them. I think she’s the kind of person who might actually refuse gifts because they make her so uncomfortable.

I also suspect (again, with no actual evidence) that she’s fussy. I think it’s incredibly likely that there’s at least one thing in the category of “easy gifts that everybody likes” that she will in fact not like at all. Maybe she doesn’t drink alcohol. Or maybe she only ever drinks one specific alcoholic drink. Maybe chocolate gives her migraines. Maybe she doesn’t drink tea or coffee. Maybe she never takes showers (or never takes baths, and my guess about which it is will be wrong). Maybe the smell of fresh flowers gives her a headache. Maybe there’s a long list of foods about which she utters the ominous words: “I like it, but it doesn’t like me.”

And I have a vague feeling that fussiness and being bad at accepting gifts are linked, and not just because they come under the general heading of “hard to buy for”. But right now, I can’t articulate how.

I would love to be proved wrong about my neighbour, and, failing that, I would like to be proved right. So maybe at some point I’ll find an excuse to pop round with a bottle of wine or a box of Milk Tray. It would be wonderful if she unproblematically and happily accepted it.

The curious case of the clothes-pegs

August 3, 2016

I once wrote (in one of my many posts on clutter):

[M]ost of my clutter is not made up of things I’ve made a choice to own. Most of it is actually composed of gifts from other people.

The most recent “gift” I’ve received is perhaps one of the strangest. My next-door neighbour said: “I’ve got something for you,” and disappeared inside her house to fetch something. I was hoping it would be something vaguely nice or useful, but it turned out to be lots and lots of plastic clothes pegs, lovingly packaged in a Bargain Booze carrier bag.

“You know those wooden ones with the spring?” she said.
“Yeah…?”
“Well, some of these are like that, but plastic.”

Right. Right. But why? Her explanation was that she’d got herself some new clothes pegs and so didn’t need the old ones any more. The reader might ask why someone who already had a perfectly good collection of clothes pegs would buy new ones . How exactly are the new ones better? Have there been amazing advances in clothes peg technology that I don’t know about?

However, I think the reality is actually stranger. For reasons I won’t bore you with, there is currently no boundary between our garden and this neighbour’s garden. Even before the boundary was removed, I could see into their garden from our upstairs window. So it’s been hard to avoid noticing that they don’t seem to have either a clothes-line or a rotary drier. I don’t know how they dry their clothes, but I assume it’s all done indoors. So it makes sense that they’d want to get rid of their clothes pegs…it just doesn’t make sense that they’d own clothes pegs in the first place, still less that they would replace them with more up-to-date clothes pegs.

Of course, the being-able-to-see-each-other’s-gardens thing works both ways, so they will be very well aware that my household regularly dries clothes outside. What I don’t get is why that would lead to the assumption that we don’t have enough clothes pegs already.

My partner thinks that our neighbour might be under the impression that we’re short of money, because we don’t have a car and because we cheerfully accepted a previous gift of some garden furniture they were going to throw away. (They did actually give us the option of saying ‘no’ first.) But how skint do you have to be to live without enough clothes pegs in the hope that one day someone will give you some as a gift?

I gave up on wondering why she gave us the clothes pegs and moved on to trying to work out what to do with them. The first person I offered some to (with almost zero hope) said yes! Coincidentally, she’d used up a load of her clothes pegs on garden tasks and had very recently noticed she needed more for actual laundry reasons. Success! Well, sort of. Obviously she didn’t need the whole Bargain Booze bagful, because nobody in the world needs that many clothes pegs. But she took a few.

Next, I tried with someone else. Coincidentally, she’d just noticed that she didn’t have quite enough clothes pegs. I gave her a handful.

Emboldened, I tried with some family members and got the response: “Oh my god are you telepathic?…Yes please!” This person had realised the previous day that they’d mislaid absolutely all their clothes pegs.

My usual experience of trying to give away unwanted things to friends and family is that they almost always say no, even when the thing I’m offering is valuable/useful/appealing. So getting three takers for a pile of crappy clothes pegs is astonishing.

But even though the process of trying to get rid of the clothes pegs without just throwing them in the bin has been much easier than expected, it’s still one of those gifts where

the person who gave it to me put a lot less thought into the gift than I’ve put into working out what to do with it.

It’s pretty easy to tell if the gift you’re about to give falls into this tiresome category. If you’re asking yourself “Who can I give this to?” rather than “What can I give this person?” you’re not really giving a gift, you’re passing on a chore. Sure, maybe the person will still like the thing. But why not try giving them the option of saying no?

The opposite of hoarding

July 27, 2016

This week I stumbled across an Atlantic article and learned that the opposite of hoarding can be a problem too. It seems to be called “compulsive decluttering” or “purging”. People with this problem aren’t paring their stuff down to the essentials so they can lead a carefree, meaningful life. They’re throwing out stuff they actually need because seeing it in their living space makes them anxious. Then they’re re-buying the same stuff because, y’know, they need it.

I don’t think this is really the “opposite” of hoarding. I think this behaviour has a lot in common with hoarding, and the contributing factors are the same: OCD,  perfectionism, anxiety manifesting as a disordered relationship with “stuff”, a need for control over your surroundings. I completely understand the anonymous commenter (on a different blog post, not the Atlantic article) who says: “I am uncomfortable using a lock box or storage areas because I cannot personally watch over these items.” They describe themselves as having “obsessive-compulsive spartanism”, but I think the reluctance to trust anyone else with your possessions is totally a hoarder thing too. (It’s the reason why I’ve never used a storage unit.)

Unfortunately, this problem is often masked by the current trend for competitive minimalism. There’s a narrative that says “stuff” is antithetical to “experiences”. If you have more than ten plates you can’t possibly brush a rose against your cheek, cradle a laughing child, or interfere with a woman sexually.  So the person who’s just binned their blender gets cultural approval because everybody assumes they will now go white-water rafting while writing the Great American Novel and being the best parent ever. Whereas, in reality, they’re trapped in a cycle of discarding and re-buying the same necessary items over and over again.

I can’t work out if there’s a bright line between the competitive minimalist and the compulsive declutterer, or if it’s more of a spectrum.

We all know at least one person who’s addicted to shopping but wants to keep their house super-tidy, so they’re constantly eBaying and Freegling unused past purchases. And maybe we focus on the shopping as the “real” problem because they’re in debt, but in reality the two behaviours are linked. Is that person on this spectrum?

We all know the person who can’t have anything visibly lying around in their home. Those shoes you kicked off in their hallway will be moved out of sight before you’ve taken your first sip of tea. It’s anxiety-inducing for visitors to realise that the usual not-leaving-things-behind method of doing a quick visual scan for stuff lying around simply won’t work – anything you’ve forgotten will be hidden from view. But hey, presumably it’s anxiety-inducing for the host to see a pair of shoes just CLUTTERING UP THE PLACE by VISIBLY BEING SHOES. Are they on this spectrum?

What about the person who gets anxious about receiving gifts and tries to pass them on as soon as possible, or even refuses to accept them in the first place? Again, pretty common. Are they on this spectrum?

I honestly don’t know. I’m guessing that if there is a bright line between “into minimalism” and “mentally ill”, you’d draw it by asking if the person is happy, fulfilled, relaxed in their home. But I’m inclined to think that “happy, fulfilled, relaxed” is a continuum too.

Pamela and the cult of early

May 11, 2016

(Content warning: rape, child abuse)

“You, my dear,” said he, “may better do this than half your sex, because they too generally act in such a manner, as if they seemed to think it the privilege of birth and fortune, to turn day into night, and night into day, and seldom rise till ‘tis time to sit down to dinner; and so all the good old rules are reversed: for they breakfast when they should dine; dine, when they should sup; and sup, when they should retire to rest; and, by the help of dear quadrille, sometimes go to rest when they should rise. In all things, but such as these, my dear, I expect you to be a fine lady.”

[…]

And these were his observations on the early and regular times of breakfasting, dining and supping, which he prescribed:

“I shall, in the usual course,” said he, “and generally, if not hindered by company, like to go to rest by eleven. I ordinarily now rise by six, in summer; you will, perhaps chuse to lie half an hour after me.

“Then you will have some time you may call your own, till you invite me to breakfast with you: a little after nine.

“Then again will you have several hours at your disposal, till three o’clock, when I shall like to sit down at table.

You will then have several useful hours more to employ yourself in, as you shall best like; and I would generally go to supper by nine.”

The context is a husband a few days after his wedding, telling his new bride how things will be in his household. He goes on to say that it’s not fashionable to keep such fixed and such early hours, but that everyone (by which he presumably means every man) has the power to set his own timetable, and if you stick unmovingly to yours, eventually people will stop mocking you for it and start fitting around you instead. And, in that way, maybe you can get others to fall into an earlier daily rhythm. This is someone who, despite not getting up particularly early by the standards of the average 2016 full-time worker, undoubtedly subscribes to the cult of early. He genuinely thinks he’s a better person for eating dinner at 3pm instead of 6pm.

The broader context of this extract is that the husband attempted several times to rape his now-wife when she was a 15-year-old servant in his household. He abducted her, kept her prisoner and used all his power and privilege to abuse her. He lied to her and to many other people. He hired servants to beat her up for trying to escape. He drove her to the brink of suicide. He bribed servants and neighbours to stay silent about the abuse and imprisoned the one person who spoke up about it. He was engaged to be married before, but he had sex with his previous fiance and then broke off the engagement – because who wants to marry the kind of woman who would have sex before marriage, amirite?

In other words, this man is a sociopathic shitheel. From a modern perspective, it’s a pretty fucking troubling book. The 2016 reader is screaming for Pamela to get away, get back to her family and friends, get some counselling, press charges from a safe distance. The 1740 reader doesn’t have access to concepts like consent, boundaries, Stockholm Syndrome, gaslighting and so on, let alone the still-radical-in-2016 concept that women are people, which means the focus is on her “virtue” rather than her personal autonomy. “Virtue” seems to be code for “keeping her vagina showroom fresh until marriage”, which means that if she can get a wedding ring on her finger before having sex with her abuser, that counts as a happy ending.

Reader, she marries him. And yes, she does it before sleeping with him, which means she’s still “virtuous”. Which means he becomes virtuous too! Amazing what can be accomplished through the influence of a good woman who has literally no influence.

Back to his daily timetable. He’s describing his habits as if they’re of long standing, so I think we can assume he kept to this kind of schedule in the bad old days before he suddenly became virtuous through the power of Pamela’s magic vagina. I’m guessing he felt great about getting up early for the duel in which he injured a man who later died? Maybe he also got up nice and early on the day he fled Italy to escape the man’s angry relatives? Maybe he fathered his illegitimate child in the daytime.

Who cares, though? From a 2016 perspective, I hope it seems obvious that there’s more moral difference between someone who abducts a child and someone who doesn’t, than between someone who gets up at 6am and someone who gets up at 9am. I think we can all agree that it’s better to stay up dancing quadrilles until midnight than to get up at dawn to commit grievous bodily harm…can’t we? Luckily for her, starry-eyed Pamela subscribes to her new husband’s cult-of-early beliefs just as enthusiastically as she believes everything else he says. Her response to his long diatribe on daily timetables:

“O dearest, dear sir,” said I, “have you no more of your injunctions to favour me with? They delight and improve me at the same time!”

Paper is the element of the Dragon-Goddess

February 17, 2016

Probably the most controversial part of the KonMari Method (Marie Kondo’s approach to decluttering, which I’ve mentioned a few times recently) is the bit about paperwork. Her approach has been misrepresented as “Throw away everything and damn the consequences!” which is a bit harsh when you just have to read the book to see that what she says is quite different.

My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away. My clients are stunned when I say this, but there is nothing more annoying than papers. After all, they will never inspire joy, no matter how carefully you keep them. For this reason, I recommend you throw out anything that does not fall into one of three categories: currently in use, needed for a limited period of time, and must be kept indefinitely.

So she’s talking about chucking out stuff like old gas bills, old tenancy agreements and so on – not your birth certificate or certificate of house insurance. And not “sentimental items” like old diaries or love-letters either. (They’re in a different category.)

Frankly, I think what she really writes is controversial enough without exaggerating it to misrepresent her. Throw most of your paperwork away? All at once? It is key to the KonMari Method that you tackle the job of decluttering each category of possessions in one go, while you are feeling focused and energised and excited.

All I have to say about that is…clearly Marie Kondo doesn’t have to deal with a fortnightly recycling collection. She doesn’t know about the British festival that is Bin Day and all the rituals that surround it. How we bond with each other through moaning about it, anxiously ask each other when it is and tut at the people who put their bin out too early.

The plastic shrines stand on the kerbside. (They are different colours for different areas of the country; if you tell someone from another area what colour yours is, they will immediately tell you what colour theirs is, in a tone of voice that suggests the colours for your area are wrong and barbaric.) Many households decorate their shrine with identifying marks so that the Goddess will bring their home good luck in the coming week.

And then, early in the morning, the Dragon-Goddess comes. She whines and whirs. Her joyful priests in their bright yellow jackets ride the dragon. They lift the shrines and throw the contents into the maw of the Dragon-Goddess while shouting incantations over the noise of the huffing dragon. Once empty, each household’s shrine is flung to the ground.

Later, once dawn has broken, the householders will come out to retrieve their shrines from all the different places they’ve been thrown; perhaps outside a neighbour’s house, perhaps a bit further down the street or on the opposite side of the road, perhaps simply lying in the middle of the road. Here the decorations on the shrines serve a practical as well as spiritual purpose: allowing people to identify which belong to them.

Every now and then, it just so happens that your paper & card recycling is not absolutely jam-packed when Bin Day rolls round. Perhaps it’s been a fortnight where you didn’t make any online purchases, so nothing arrived in an inconveniently large cardboard box. Whatever the reason, there is space to spare! This is a rare thing and you must take advantage now – it’s not as if you can save the extra space to use in two weeks’ time. So you rush round the house wondering what paper and card can be removed. Sweep up all the newspapers and magazines you’ve sort-of-finished reading. Take the eggs out of their cardboard box and put them in the holders in the fridge. Hey, that big box of tea has individual foil packets inside – why not take them out of the box so the box can go in the recycling? But still there is space. The Dragon-Goddess will not be sated. And that’s how my paperwork clearouts happen. Space in the box? Bye-bye, notes from that course I went on two years ago. More space in the box a fortnight later? Farewell, paperwork for a business venture I tried but failed to get off the ground.

Maybe it’s not as psychologically cleansing as doing one giant clean sweep, but it does provide sporadic nudges to get rid of stuff. And maybe by the time I reach the paperwork stage of the KonMari Method, I will already have so little unnecessary paperwork that it all makes just one offering to the Dragon-Goddess.

Marie Kondo and Miranda Priestly

February 10, 2016

I’m still working my way through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. It’s a super-quick read; the slow bit is actually putting Marie Kondo’s suggestions into practice.

And yes, her approach is not for everyone. Any regular reader of this blog will be able to guess without reading a word of the book that this professional declutterer has a lot of privilege and is writing for people who also have a lot of privilege. Her simple (but powerful) idea is that you only keep the things that “spark joy” in your heart; taken literally, that would involve getting rid of a lot of boring but essential things. Fine if you have the funds to replace them, maybe, but disastrous if you don’t. (And, actually, pretty irritating even if you do. I could afford to get rid of my boring raincoat and buy a new one, but the thought of going shopping to buy one that “sparks joy” fills me with dread.)

So every time I mention something from the book to my partner, they sing the word “Pri-vi-lege!” in the way that we imagine Geri Halliwell sings “Protein!” at lunchtime. But I have a lot of affection for the writer. For a start, she’s so clearly on the autistic spectrum. She’s been obsessed with tidying and reorganising spaces since the age of five, possibly younger. She feels as if she can relate to objects in a way she can’t relate to humans. She’s astonishingly good at rearranging objects and spaces in her mind – so good that she doesn’t need to physically be in a space to come up with ideas for organising it. In fact, she can conjure up a picture in her mind of every single house she’s worked on and tell you exactly where her former clients keep their different categories of stuff. But because her obsession is in a domestic, traditionally female area, I suspect her Aspie nature has gone completely under the radar.

Same with Miranda Priestly, the bitch boss in The Devil Wears Prada. If you read the book, you start to suspect that 99% of the nightmarish crap she puts her assistants through is because she lacks theory of mind. Time and time again, she forces Andrea (the junior assistant) to play detective by withholding some important piece of information. For example, at one point Andrea is tasked with contacting an antique furniture shop that Miranda has recently visited; all she is told is the rough area of the city it’s in, so she travels from shop to shop asking people if her boss has been in recently. It turns out that all along, Miranda has been in possession of a business card with the full address and contact details for the shop. When Andrea admits defeat, Miranda gives her the business card and insults her for not using this information in the first place. The book is full of incidents like this. Does Miranda withhold information on purpose, to make life difficult for her assistants? Or does she genuinely not grasp that not everybody will be in possession of the information she has unless she shares it with them?

At another point, Miranda throws a party. Andrea is tasked with obtaining pictures of the guests, then memorising their faces so she can identify them correctly and greet them on the night. Is Miranda just putting Andrea through another trial? Or does she in fact need Andrea to do this because she herself has big problems recognising faces? At the party itself:

I didn’t have to hear what [the guests] were saying to know that she was barely responding at the appropriate time. Social graces were not her strength […] I always enjoyed the rare occasions when I got to watch Miranda trying to impress those around her, because she wasn’t naturally charming.

Towards the end of the book, Miranda is told she’s going to receive an award and will be asked to give a short speech.

“Why the hell was I not informed that I’d be receiving some nonsense award at today’s luncheon?” she hissed, her face contorting with a hatred I’d never seen before. Displeasure? Sure. Dissatisfaction? All the time. Annoyance, frustration, generalized unhappiness? Of course, every minute of every day. But I’d never seen her look so downright pissed off.

A sudden change of plan involving having to give a speech at short notice is enough to stress most people out, but is the intensity of Miranda’s reaction because she’s on the spectrum?

You shouldn’t internet-diagnose real people, so I guess you shouldn’t internet-diagnose fictional characters. But Miranda Priestly ticks a lot of ASD boxes. And yet…she works in the frivolous, female-dominated world of fashion, so of course she must be neurotypical, right?

Miranda Priestly can tell the difference between two seemingly identical white scarves with just one glance; that must be because she’s a silly frivolous woman obsessed with fashion. She can look at a person and instantly identify the designer of every single item of clothing they’re wearing, even if she can’t reliably recognise the face of her own assistant; that must be because she’s a label snob. Don’t get me wrong, she seems like an absolutely terrible person as well as an Aspie, and it’s her awfulness that moves the book forward. But if a book depicted a male editor of a magazine about model trains and kept every other detail the same, would it take 13 years for someone to suggest that he might possibly not be neurotypical? (The book came out in 2003, the film came out in 2006, and yet as far as I know, I’m the first person to suggest that the Miranda Priestly character could be on the spectrum.)

Since a female friend of mine came out as Aspie recently, I’ve been wondering how many other women have gone undiagnosed because their Aspie traits have been masked by stereotypically female interests.