Archive for the ‘eating’ 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.

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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.

Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA

July 7, 2015

Who knew it was possible to get competitive about minimalism? There’s the challenge where you try to go three months with only 33 things to wear. There’s the woman who tried living with only 72 things. The man with only 72 things. The man who really ups the ante and only has 15 things.

It’s not-owning-things as a competitive sport. But when you look a little closer, these extravagant claims mostly rest on stretchy definitions of not-owning things.

I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing.

I suppose it’s nice that he’s so relaxed about people wandering off with his coffee cups, but that’s not really a definition of owning stuff that I’ve ever heard outside the world of competitive minimalism.

I have over 30 jars of spices in my kitchen. They’re arranged on two spice racks. In other words, a small part of my kitchen contains nearly 35 things, which is nearly half of the total possessions of the two people who claim only to own 72 things. Compared to them I am a hoarder, a compulsive accumulator of things, a stuff-glutton.

But the thing is, all those spices have been used in the past year. Most of them have been used in the past six months. Should I jettison them in the cause of minimalism and then cook bland food for the rest of my life? Or should I cleverly declare that 30+ spices plus two spice racks actually counts as “one thing”, just like an iPhone and headphones? Or maybe I should claim I don’t really own the spices, because they’re not resellable. But the thing is…what would I actually gain from any of this? Real question: what do the people who do this gain from it?

Obviously, minimalists will talk about simplicity and about rejecting consumerism and about streamlining their lives to focus on what’s truly important. But minimalism is aspirational not just because it represents these choices, but because it correlates with privilege.

Tupperwolf said it better than I ever could:

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. I linked to it in my post about the hidden baggage of people who are always travelling, and I’ll make the same point again that I made there: we need to stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. If your living space is constantly immaculate and empty-looking, are you being responsible in how you get rid of things? Do you go the extra mile to work out what the council will recycle? Do you try to repair broken things? Do you ever store items for friends? Do you allow those friends to crash on your sofa?

See, I suspect not. I suspect the life of the competitive minimalist is environmentally destructive and emotionally cold, involving a lot of hopping on planes, eating restaurant and takeaway food, generating rubbish, never settling for long enough to become part of any community. Sorry, I mean “pursuing your world-traveling ambitions while still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and bounce back from them more or less intact’”.

But that’s not even my actual point here. My point here is that that kind of “lightness” and “independence” is heavily dependent on existing structures and networks. It’s dependent on civilisation. Your passport, your Oyster card, your credit card: all light objects that depend on strong invisible networks to be of any use whatsoever. It’s great that something fitting in your jeans pocket can (literally) open doors for you. Just don’t forget that when you blip a turnstile open with your Oyster card, you are benefiting from the ideas and hard work and goodwill of thousands of other people.

When we talk about complex supply chains, it’s often in the context of terrible hidden costs for things like iPhones. But making use of things that wouldn’t exist without complex systems isn’t necessarily bad. It can be morally neutral or morally the better choice. It’s just part of signing up for human civilisation. And the more you strive for possession-free simplicity in your own life, the more dependent you become on that civilisation.

The decision to have no permanent address depends on the existence of hotels, other people’s homes, B&Bs. It depends on you having money. It depends on people’s willingness to accept that money in exchange for accommodation. Likewise the decision to have no cooking utensils, or whatever.

I rummaged through the debris scattered around the cabin floor and the surrounding land, finding remnants of life in the cabin before the siege. I picked things up – cardboard boxes containing some empty spice bottles her mother used to keep, Elisheba’s baby chair.

“What are you doing?” said Rachel. “It’s just a bunch of junk.” She laughed. “All the things that used to be important to us were junk to other people,” she said. “The books and stuff. Now it’s junk to me and important to you.”

Jon Ronson’s book THEM sets up a tension between two American ways of living. Maybe it’s reasonable, educated people versus paranoid, racist gun nuts. Maybe it’s a secretive global elite versus courageous ordinary people. You could see the division as being about class, religion, level of education, politics. But maybe it’s also about stuff.

The backstory to that quote above: when Rachel was a child, her family lived in a mountain cabin, which ended up being the location of a siege in which her mother, brother and dog were killed.

There were US marshals and FBI snipers in gas masks and face paint and camouflage, local police, state police, the BATF, the Internal Revenue Service, the US Border Patrol, Highway Patrol from four states, City Police and the Forestry Service. They had tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

If all those supposedly separate authorities ganged up to collude in the senseless murder of your family members, how much would you believe in the power of networks, communication, goodwill, civilisation generally, to keep you safe? If you’d spent eight days trapped inside your home, would you be relaxed about relying on takeaways and meals out, or would you stock up on food? If the authorities had tricked your father into committing a crime and then tried to kill him, would you rely on the police for help in emergencies or would you buy a gun?

If you don’t believe you can rely on the things that many of us take for granted, you will stock up on food and water. You’ll ramp up the security of your home, maybe with cameras and alarms, maybe with a guard dog or weapons. You’ll drive a car instead of using public transport, and probably choose the kind of car that can be driven off-road. And you won’t throw out useful things just because they’re not useful to you right now – you’ll keep them just in case.

There’s a deep tension in American culture, and it’s being expressed through stuff. And the government knows it. Having over seven days’ worth of food in your home could make you a terrorist suspect. Buying flashlights could make you a terrorist suspect. So could owning guns and owning too much gold and silver.

In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift.

But of course, in reality, only certain people will ever be prosecuted under the “too many groceries” law or the “well, flashlights are always useful in a power cut, let’s get some” law. We’re back to privilege again.

Our Manic Pixie Dream House

June 5, 2015

My partner and I have decided to sell our house. We’ve followed the conventional wisdom, as set out in a thousand telly programmes, how-to guides and magazines: tidy, declutter, deep-clean, carry out minor repairs, etc, etc. But the reality of getting your house ready for marketing photography or for a viewing is more than that: it’s about trying to hide the fact that the house is currently inhabited by humans with bodies.

To make your house into a desirable object, the evidence of your actual inhabitation must be removed from view. This means (temporarily, thank God) hiding the hundreds of tiny things that make your house a comfortable and convenient place to spend time in: the bins, the spare loo roll, the much-used appliances that normally sit on the worktop, etc. This week, as we shoved the soap-dish into a cupboard and drank straight from the tap to avoid getting any cups dirty, it came to me: selling your house turns you into a manic pixie dream girl.

For anyone who’s not up on the concept, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Twitter account will give you a good idea. She has no interior life of her own and exists as a human reward for the male protagonist. She is quirky, bubbly, attractive and in no way an actual person with needs. In other words, she’s the human equivalent of the house with no shampoo in the shining bathroom, no mugs on the coffee table, no shoes in the porch. Despite the surface quirkiness, she’s a blank canvas for you to start sketching your own character development.

Laurie Penny nails it when she writes that it’s easy for youngish women to get shunted into the manic pixie mould. Are you an attractive-ish female-identified person who can tick three or more qualities off this list?

Petite
Giggly
Creative in your spare time
In a “creative” profession
In a job you dislike but can joke amusingly about
Quirky
Pink/blue/red/green/purple-haired
Disorganised
You enjoy an unusual hobby
Tactless
Stupid
Insightful
Clumsy
Caring
Witty
New to the area/country or in the middle of travelling
Spontaneous
Eccentric
Unreliable

If so, I’m guessing that at some point in your life you’ve been mistaken for a manic pixie dream girl  (who does not exist) by some straight guy (who was slightly disappointed when you turned out to be a person). And when I say “at some point in your life”, obviously I mean “at a point in your life when you were young, attractive and probably thin”.

For others, selling your house is the first time you have to pull this crap. “Soap? Shampoo? No way! I just jump into a mountain stream! Possibly I yelp adorably while doing so and then encourage you to jump in as well. Shoes? Hell no, you won’t see any shoes when you come to view my house. I just walk barefoot to my adorable job at the quirky bakery. Or perhaps I don’t actually have feet. Maybe it’s just a cute haze from the ankle down. And before you ask, no, of course I do not eat or go to the toilet or do laundry or wash dishes or file any paperwork.

Meanwhile, the house itself backs you up. “Bins? I have no bins! (Please don’t look behind the hedge.) My floors have never witnessed cat-sick! I always have a vase of fresh flowers! I always smell of something nice like vanilla or coffee but don’t worry, no food or drink is ever prepared here because there are no human bodies here! No human bodies! None! I am here to help with your character development. Maybe you’ll be living in me when you meet your soulmate, quit your job for something better or take up snowboarding!

I haven’t felt this bad about owning a human body since I was a teenager. And – maybe coincidentally, maybe not – my body has recently been going out of its way to remind me that it’s real.

Manic Pixie Dream Girling is work. Hard work. If you’re doing it to sell a house for thousands of pounds: marvellous. If you’re doing it for no reward, because your existence has been framed as somebody else’s reward: terrible.

Read the articles about how to prep your home for viewings. Imagine they’re talking about a person and not a house. I hope the psychic violence behind the Manic Pixie Dream Girl framework jumps out at you like a murderer jumping from behind my super-clean shower curtain.

A nice thing to do in April

April 14, 2015

Last week I bought a bottle of salad dressing. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it was the second bottle of salad dressing I’ve ever bought in my life. Normally I don’t buy it, because it seems silly to buy a bottle of ready-made dressing when you can “simply” make your own from olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt, herbs and spices, mustard, honey… But last week I suddenly got tired of walking past the bottles of ready-made dressing and wondering what it’s like to be the kind of person who buys them. So I bought one. (For extra “not me” points, I chose the low-fat version.)

That’s a nice thing you might want to do in April: pick a shortcut that “other people” take and try it. That shortcut is probably less ethical and less wholesome than your usual route. Maybe it involves more packaging, more saturated fat, fewer “parent/employee/partner of the year” brownie points, more environmental pollution…whatever. If “other people” are doing it every day of their damn lives, you can try it once.

You need examples? Basically, take a tip you’ve read recently in a magazine or a lifestyle blog or piece of government-sponsored advertising and flip it on its head. Take the lift instead of the stairs. Heat up a ready meal instead of cooking something simple yet nutritious from fresh ingredients. Buy a takeaway coffee instead of making your own and un-save up to £3 a day!

I know some of this blog’s readers personally, and I know that some of you share my rage-reaction to lifestyle advice. Skip my daily latte and save enough money for a house deposit? Sounds good, but I guess first you have to start drinking lattes. Get off the bus a quarter of a mile away from the office and walk the rest of the way? OK, but doing the whole commute on foot was actually quite fun. Say no to plastic bags at the supermarket? Right…so now I have to start shopping at supermarkets?

That rage is because many of us are overachievers who set very high standards for ourselves. So we KNOW that the implied promise is a lie: if doing that tiny thing resulted in big life improvements, where is my reward for always doing that thing? Is everybody else cheating, playing the game of life on a lower difficulty setting? Why are other able-bodied people being told to feel smug about parking their damn cars a bit further away from the supermarket entrance? Why can’t I feel that smug about doing all my grocery shopping on a bike? If I’m doing all the right things, why am I not more productive, richer, thinner, calmer, healthier? Where is my reward?

But as well as being overachievers, my blog readers are very intelligent. (You people are the best!) So we understand that the link between lifestyle choices and outcomes is not a simple cause and effect thing. “Insert weekly yoga class. Simmer for five minutes. Your lasting sense of inner peace is ready to consume.” We understand that structural factors both shape our choices and shape the outcomes of those choices. And I would argue that there’s a grey area where lifestyle advice shades into victim-blaming and becomes actively unhelpful.

But I’m getting off the point here. The point is? You’re in Overachiever Club. And the first rule of Overachiever Club is that you’ve decided shortcuts are for “other people”.

You know when supermarkets do that thing of planning a meal for you? “Here are the prawn crackers, here is the rice, here is the Tsingtao beer; have a Chinese evening!” “Here is some meat that’s already been cut up, here is a Mexican sauce in a jar, here is a tortilla…do Mexican!” These meal suggestions have been firmly in the “other people” category for me. I can’t let a supermarket shape my meal planning in this blatant way! I can’t just use the idea they’re giving me and buy the things they’re trying to sell me! If I start down the slippery slope of assembling pre-chosen components while believing I’m doing something creative, next thing you know I’ll be shopping at Hobbycraft! And from Hobbycraft there is no escape but the tomb.

Well, that mindset was fine until I found myself actually crying on my way back from the shops because I wanted so badly to be the person who goes with the pre-chosen meal idea and doesn’t feel bad about it. Don’t we all sometimes want a little holiday from being Overthinky Man or Overthinky Lady or Overthinky Person Who Hasn’t Finished Overthinking Their Gender Yet? And my partner was all “well, we can just get the stupid pre-prepared Mexican thing if you want” and I was all “that’s not the POINT” before realising literally years later that it kind of is the point.

You can just buy the stupid pre-prepared Mexican meal thing. You can go to Hobbycraft and then do a cross-stitch project that has been designed by someone else. You can sit your kid down in front of Frozen again. You can take the lift. This is your nice thing to do in April: pick a shortcut that’s for “other people” and take it.

Another nice thing to do in January

January 27, 2015

You know that restaurant that wouldn’t let you book a table in December, or maybe even in November, because “we’re already into the Christmas party season” and “you should have booked earlier”? Try booking a table now.

Boring things: plates

January 13, 2015

This month’s boring-yet-confusing thing that I’ve been finding out about is… plates. I’ve already blogged about the inexplicable phenomenon of “plate rage”, but remained hazy on what size of plate “officially” corresponds to what function.

I had an actual reason for needing to become clear on this: I wanted to buy some new plates on eBay to match the plates I already have. So I measured my existing plates.

The dinner plates are pretty straightforward. I eat dinner off them and they measure 10” in diameter, which an etiquette expert tells me is about right for a modern dinner plate.

But those middle-sized plates, the ones  I mainly use for eating toast off? Are they side plates? Given that they’re the perfect size for a slice of toast, could they be bread-and-butter plates? They’re 8” in diameter. So according to our etiquette expert, they could be large salad plates. Sources seem to disagree on how big a bread-and-butter plate is, but none of the possible sizes are as large as 8”, so it’s not one of those. Plate sellers on eBay hedge their bets and call it a “dessert/salad/luncheon/salad” plate. So I guess it’s a salad plate, and now I feel a bit bad that I never use these plates for salad.

The smallest plates in our collection are 7” across. It was a surprise to me to find that they were only an inch smaller in diameter than the 8” ones, because somehow they look much smaller. Anyway. These could be:

a) small salad plates (not more salad!)
b) tea plates, designed for “holding the teacup without a saucer”. (Why not just buy a saucer?)
c) side plates (which I think are the same thing as bread-and-butter plates)
d) “small plates”

What have I gained from learning this? Well, I used to think there was a dizzying array of possible plate sizes, of which I only possessed a small sample. I had a vague worry about being in some situation where I needed to differentiate between plates and couldn’t. (The ambassador’s reception, maybe? What size plate do they use for the Ferrero Rocher?) Now I realise that the “standard” dinnerware set actually only includes dinner plates and salad plates (my “big” and “medium” plates). You might get a bread plate (my “small” plates) in a more elaborate set. And in formal dining, you get  something called a “service plate”, which has other plates put on top of it but never actually has food put directly on it. That’s a metaphor for so many things, all of them pretty heartbreaking.

I also used to think that everybody but me was perfectly clear on the uses of different-sized plates. Trying to find answers to my questions has made it obvious that isn’t the case. Even the self-proclaimed etiquette expert admitted that the only way you can tell a cheese plate is a cheese plate is by seeing if it’s got a cheese-themed pattern on it. So I feel less inferior now.

And finally: having actually taken a tape measure to my crockery, I have given myself a handy reference point for what circles of 10” diameter, 8” diameter and 7” diameter actually look like. My first foray into boring things has been successful. But I’m not sure I can bear to move on to cutlery just yet.