Caring

In 1971, Germaine Greer, debating with novelist Norman Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, destroyed the concept of the independent male artist; this year, Caring and Unpaid Work, an Irish Government study found that “45% of women and 29% of men provide [unpaid] care for others on a daily basis”; with my own experience of twice giving up fulltime paid work and relocating in order to care for elderly parents, I can corroborate what the lead author, Helen Russell of the Economic and Social Research Institute, states:

“Caring and other household work is vital for the well-being of individuals and society but because this work is unpaid, it is largely invisible”

Other than being a supportive uncle and friend, I have not had the opportunity to bring up children and I greatly admire those who do that very demanding kind of caring. At the other end of life’s journey, caring has a different aspect. Whereas the former, hopefully, ends in happy, healthy, well-adjusted children going off into the world and becoming (somewhat) independent of their parental carers, the latter situation, inevitably, ends in death.

Another difference is that, whereas unpaid caring for kids is considered (whatever the reality) both valuable and fulfilling, unpaid caring for elderly relatives is often seen as an inconvenience. While quality of life may influence decisions about care more than economics, a common view is that either those cared for at home selfishly restrict the life of their carers – or that the latter are so unsuccessful in life that they cannot afford to put their relatives into a carehome. This is even the case when there is some support at home by community professional carers.

This view of failure may be especially prevalent about (and among) men returning to live with an elderly parent in need of care. Because, at the end of the second decade of the new millennium, society still seems to judge female caring as both instinctive and praiseworthy – and male caring as both unnatural and embarrassing.

I started by referring to a famous feminist because unpaid caring is, clearly, a feminist issue. The Irish statistics show that it’s overwhelmingly done by women and I see no reason not to generalise those findings to other countries with a similar social set-up. In countries with more ‘traditional’ gender roles, I suspect the results for each sex would be even more imbalanced. And yet I feel that valorising the caring done by women is not the only answer.

We need to both make visible and socially acceptable the unpaid caring done by men. That way, more of us might do it!

Not in the way we are so used to seeing on TV: tall, dark-haired, handsome and athletic young man, in pressed white shirt and tailored suit, perfectly manicured and coiffured, gives a gleaming smile unblemished by the coffee, toast and fresh orange juice lovingly prepared by petite blonde attractive wife – in heels and apron in perfect kitchen – kisses her and their blonde girl, ruffles the dark hair of their boy and heads out to the office. He’ll kiss the smiling girl goodnight in another scene, may even read her a very short story, and most defiantly will be teaching small, dark and cute but frowning Junior to hit things, or, preferably, kill them.

That’s not caring. This is:

  • Constantly doing food shopping (with no car) cleaning, laundry and dishes.
  • Running up and down the stairs, breaking concentration, because you’re working from home and staving off domestic disasters.
  • Frequently phoning and meeting various social workers, careworkers and medical professionals.
  • Catching up on broken sleep (because you need time to get your head together before bed and are up early to let the paid carers in).
  • Not applying for fulltime work.
  • Deprioritising dates, meeting friends, practicing sports, doing creative arts and crafts.
  • Having the same conversation ten times in one hour, with decreasing length of answers, and patience.
  • Missing personal deadlines and renegotiating professional ones.
  • Not managing your own money effectively, because it’s not a priority.
  • Being unable to plan ahead.
  • Having friends (who’ve never cared one hour for anyone) give you unrealistic advice to ‘solve’ your situation.
  • Falling out with family and friends because you’re so stressed.
  • Alternating having immense patience with having none.
  • Having to apologise to people frequently for your short temper.
  • Not being able to turn your phone off when away from home.
  • Being grateful when family members arrange to take over caring for a weekend, once every few months.
  • Not going on holiday for years.
  • Suddenly bursting into tears because you realise the goalposts have moved and the situation has deteriorated.
  • Feeling guilty at feeling relieved when it’s all over.
  • Not, ever, seeing someone in your situation on TV.

Germaine Greer was right. None of us is independent. Some people provide us with services because we pay them to do so, some because they don’t feel they have a choice, some because they care about us. Society is better, more aware and more efficient, when we acknowledge the existence and unpaid labour of carers – and care about both.

(Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain)

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Candle lit in darkness

 

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10 Tasks to Survive Brexit

A clear Tory majority in the UK parliament and an eventual Brexit now seem inevitable. How do we survive? The British Left has the paralysing tendency to be so overwhelmed by corporate executive failure and structural injustice that the power of the individual, and of small self-organising groups, is neglected. We don’t have to live like that. Britain is broken, let’s fix it. And, yes, even if our constituent nations achieve independence, that won’t solve all our problems. Not now.

But here’s ten tasks that should help:

  • Plant vegetables. Study and create a backgarden permaculture in synergy with your domestic heating and plumbing systems if you can, but even sowing seeds under cover on St Valentine’s Day and potatoes on Good Friday will help. Herbs near the back door – and in pots so the dog won’t pee on them! Connect up with your nearest smallholding or community garden. Find kindred spirits and help each other out.
  • Plant flowers. Any and all and all-year round. If you think Brexit is a problem, read up on the the crisis in pollinators! You will be repaid with year-long beauty. Plant a tree too!
  • Invest in solar panels. Yes there’s enough light. Even in December and January in Scotland. There are various schemes and you need to do your homework but the Government are under pressure to commit to alleviating climate catastrophe and energy is a key component so installation fees are likely to keep coming down.
  • Go vegan. Seriously. Not only will you significantly reduce your carbon footprint (and probably your waistline) but your conscience will be a lot lighter knowing that your dinner didn’t die screaming in pain or crying with fear. Massive health benefits are a bonus and, as we can no-longer rely on there being a free NHS, you really can only afford good nutrition.
  • Get a dog or two if you can and take them out for walks three times a day. That vitamin D will perk you up and you’ll need the serotonin to stop obsessing about whatever is happening on TV, phone and computer screens.
  • Make things. Learn to knit, crochet (buy wool in charity shops) weave, make macrame and ceramics and cook if you don’t know how – and branch out if you do. Home cooking can be therapeutic, social and far cheaper (and healthier) than over-packaged store-bought ready meals with way too much sugar and salt.
  • Repair things. Google: sewing, darning, changing a fuse, changing a washer on a leaky tap, learn bicycle/ motorcycle/ car maintenance – go to local classes or workshops.
  • Teach. You know things. Share those skills.
  • Reuse, recycle, upcycle and barter. There are lots of schemes, like Freecycle.
  • Try to be happy – and help others to be. I’ve lived in countries where the economy is a joke. It’s difficult but people are resilient and you adapt. You don’t have to wait for the glorious socialist revolution in order to share planned or spontaneous moments of joy and people are all around you.

Politics is to do with the polis – that means ‘police’ in Scotland but in Greek it means the city, the place where people live together. And even if you’re on a wee croft in the Outer Hebrides, that means you and the people around you. We are the people. We don’t need anyone’s permission to thrive. Just do it.

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Thanks to Kai Stachowiak who has released the image “Brexit Background” into the public domain.

 

Writing About Sex

“Pushing her back on the veranda floor and ripping off her thin chemise, she knew she’d get more than splinters if he got his wicked way”

was how an arch undergraduate friend of mine sent up a certain popular genre of literature. But with reports of fatal ‘consensual strangulation gone wrong’ rising 90% in the last decade as a niche (gay/ solo male) porn practice became mainstream – note the massive sales of 50 Shades of Grey: book published in 2011, film released 2015 – surely writers have a moral duty to think carefully about the possible social effect of how we write about sex.

The romantic origins of “The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries” lie in my experience of flirty relationships between gay/bi and strait men. What fascinated me was that they tended to be mutually flirty. Bruno comments on this in Tricks of the Mind, where his libido-fuelled mind is playing very nasty tricks indeed!

Justin came out of the shower towel-drying his hair. With the towel he would otherwise be wearing. […] People don’t believe me that strait (sic., yes it is my revenge) men go on like this. A woman, despite a post-Freudian century of glossy shelf-fillers to the contrary, cannot convince a man of his masculinity: he needs a man for that. Prowess on the camp of Mars may simply lead to the conclusion ‘I am a good footballer/ ruggerbugger/ tiddlywinker’ but not necessarily to ‘I am a manly man’. That’s where we are called in – the ambiguous court of Mercury […] man enough to have an opinion that counts and guaranteed to fancy anything male and therefore affirm its shaky identity. And watch out if you don’t. The huff they go into!

Poor Bruno sublimates some of his frustration into massage – which Justin willingly accepts, and even asks for – but, despite his protestations of being undesirable, men do react to Bruno’s charms and, inevitably, they end up in bed.

Here I had a choice. The bookends of erotic writing are Victorian lovers sinking fully-clothed (with perhaps his necktie and her hair undone) into the long grass at the close of a chapter and blow-by-blow graphic descriptions of flushed erogenous zones and stimulated genitalia.

The first instance, in Tricks, is closer to the former:

I’d hardly slept for two days and the reason lay inches from my face. He had the perfection of an ice-cream sundae and I was the cat who’d got the cream. [He] stirred in his sleep, stretching a smooth arm over his head to rest it on the pillow, making his chest even bigger. […] I laid my head on his blond biceps, slipped an arm over the perfect plain of his waist, my nose lying next to his ear. As I drifted off I wondered if he could feel me purring.

By the time we get to Tìr nam Bàn, the fifth book, it’s definitely nearer the latter, especially in the passage immediately preceding this:

…the scene that [they] saw was no more scandalous than one of three fairly-clothed men lounging on cushions and having coffee out of earthenware demitasses. One man, admittedly, with his head on his lover’s chest having his hair tousled while the third massaged his feet (and occasionally sucked his toes). Had they entered just fifteen minutes before, the scene would have been one of three naked men covered in sweat, lube and semen lying in each others’ arms, panting and occasionally kissing.

The reason is not only that I was now less scrupulous (I’d banned my family from reading my novels and my brother, who did read this one, skipped some pages – and had the kindness to say he also did that with Ian Rankin). I also was more confident about my reasons for writing in a certain style.

The point of the passage in Tricks is (eventually) to establish Bruno as an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t know why people do things, but he thinks he does. In the later book, the details of this scene of joyful, safe and consensual adult gay sex are provided to problematise our assumptions of morality. One of the participants has just found out that unspeakable horrors are being carried out by supposedly respectable people. So the scene is meant to shock the reader into reflecting on the nature of innocence.

I don’t tend to write about heterosexual sex (with one exception and that, hopefully, written with respect). I find much of that kind of writing demeans women and, in any case, it’s hardly new. To read of gay sex, decades ago, was a part of my liberation. Some books at that time (and now) went over the score and were either just plain porn or gay sex manuals – but I believe that writing such scenes for a conscious purpose can contribute to the story in a way that writing about other biological functions does not. Sex is also social and at least has the possibility of romance.

Writing the seventh book, The Marrying Maiden, now, occasionally describing the sexual life of a couple gives me the opportunity to allude to their romantic history:

…he’d pounced on me. Taking full advantage of the thick walls of the cottage as he threw me around the bed with more than his usual display of strength. Since our painful separation last year, lasting from the previous year, he’d been markedly emotionally sensitive and physically possessive of me. His whole purpose seemed to be to avoid any possibility that I would ever feel unwanted again.

So what social effect do I want my writing on this earthy topic to have? I leave you with the prophetic and mysterious words of Imogen, in the fourth book, Qismet:

“No. You have to hear this. ‘Malkhut’ is the Creation. The world and all that’s in it. The universe. My father, G_d rest him, forgot that it’s good. The word in Hebrew is ‘tov’. It’s used seven times in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. […] The seventh use is ‘tov meod’. It describes all of Creation, including human beings, all of Creation. It’s the first description of the whole thing, in a book where words matter so much, and it’s not just a description, it’s a judgement. ‘Tov meod’. It’s such a simple phrase in Hebrew, we use it all the time. For a nice meal, for a good plan, ‘tov meod’, it just means ‘very good’.” There were tears in her eyes now. “My father forgot that Bruno. He died in Sfat, it Safed I mean, raving about the angels of the upper sefirot. He’d forgotten about the lowest one. The one where we live. The one that’s very good, in the eyes of G­_d. I know you think I’m a materialist bitch. No don’t deny it, I know. And yes we did nickname my mother ‘Imelda’ because she likes shoes. Why not Bruno? Shoes are pretty! They’re very good! You go about disdaining human handiwork and ultimately, in materials, in ingenuity, the work of G_d! But Bruno, men no longer regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence. This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the past, the present and the future, is in danger of perishing…”

A chord sounded from the guitar she was holding, and broke her trance. I sat rooted to the spot. I recognised those last words.

Tricks of the Mind is free, in various eBook formats, on Smashwords.