Last week in Charleston

Emanuel AME church

I visited Charleston, South Carolina with my husband for a couple of nights in 2008. It’s a refined, slightly prim coastal city with a colorful history, some charming architecture, good restaurants and a busy tourist trade. It was January, fresh and bright. White church spires split an azure sky. We went on a walking tour along streets lined with palmetto trees, ogling the grand houses with their distinctive side piazzas designed to let in the cool breezes coming off the sea. I remember driving back to Georgia, reflecting that there was something about our northern neighbor – and Charleston in particular – that felt more quintessentially Southern than anywhere else I’d been.

It was in the center of this small, historic city that last Wednesday a twenty-one year old man shot dead nine people in their Bible study class. Not in some strange impoverished backwater on the outskirts of the metro area, not in a housing project or a recognized no-go zone, but right there in the heart of the city, three minutes’ walk from the main public library, eight minutes’ walk from the downtown Apple Store.

And so, America grieves again. We contemplate the victims, the tragedy, the loss. We evoke God and healing and hope. And, this time, we talk about race. The victims were African-American and the shooter is a white supremacist, or a white supremacist sympathizer, or a white supremacist wannabe. This is a story about race – and race, of course, is the American story of these past months. Ferguson. Baltimore. It’s all intricately complex, painful and difficult­, but at least we can talk about it. We talk about it endlessly, in fact, and quite rightly so because the problems are real and action is needed. Anyone who thought racism in America was over when Obama made President ate their hat and their touching naïveté a good while ago.

But Charleston was also about something else that we find harder to talk about. Or maybe not harder – maybe just tiring, boring, repetitious, fruitless, frustrating, depressing, divisive, dead-end.

My British friends shake their heads in disbelief. How can they keep on letting this happen? Why aren’t they shouting and screaming about it, demanding something must be done? Do they realize how insane they look to the rest of the world?

My British friends ask: what is it with Americans and guns?

Britain has some of the most stringent gun laws in the world. Handguns are almost completely prohibited, and next to no-one keeps a firearm in their home. Regular police don’t even carry them. To many British people, merely catching sight of a gun would be shocking. A single mass shooting would be – has been, in the form of the 1996 Dunblane massacre that prompted a further tightening of the law – talked about and etched on memories forever.

Yes, Charleston was about racism, and racism is a huge issue for the US, but every country has its racists and its bigots. Every country has its disaffected youth, its mentally ill, its weak and desperate and dispossessed. But, among comparable nations, only America has the guns, in these numbers, with this level of access and public acceptance. And, among wealthy countries with relative political stability, only America has this much murder. The evidence suggests that, if Dylann Roof was the same sort of racist, with the same intensity of anger and hatred, but living in Britain instead of America, the chances of his having murdered nine people would be vastly reduced.

Now, I don’t claim any kind of expertise when it comes to explaining American gun culture. I haven’t done nearly enough reading about it to understand the nuances and complexities and historical explanations. But I have lived for the past eight years in one of the states with the most lenient gun laws in the country, a state that, in 2014, enacted a piece of legislation known as the “guns everywhere law”, which allows firearms to be carried freely in – amongst most other places – government offices, airports, places of worship and school classrooms. On that basis, for what it’s worth, I have a few thoughts on what it is with Americans and guns.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing to say is that not all Americans feel the same way about the issue. There are those who, like my British friends, feel that it’s crazy and shameful and can’t go on, and there are numerous American anti-gun campaign organizations.

But, as we all know, there is an opposite end to that spectrum, where those who love guns with a passion dwell: those who go to shows and accumulate collections; who study and cherish and polish and display; who put pictures of their weapons on Facebook and buy gun owners’ magazines. The motivations for this fervent gun-love, which is not generally regarded as especially niche or eccentric, at least here in the South, seem to be primarily symbolic and sentimental. Some see guns as representing America’s pioneer history, a patriotic symbol of resistance to oppression and anti-authoritarianism. They cite the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to bear arms so they need never be tyrannized again. It can be about class and politics too, with an overt love of firearms a defiant gesture against all the big government liberals, a howl for the sanctity of personal freedom, a cry of pride from the rural hunters aimed at the ears of the city-dwelling, soft-skinned educational and professional elites. It’s this distinction, or some version of it – this idea of ‘two Americas’ – that underpins so much of the antagonistic political discourse in this country today. And, it can be personal. The father quietly teaches the son to handle and respect a weapon; the first gun as a rite of passage; hunting trips as a bonding experience enjoyed across a lifetime. Guns as masculinity.

And finally, of course, there are reasons of fear, which have a wider reach: you don’t have to be any sort of gun-lover to want to protect yourself or your family, or to wonder whether, in a country overrun with weapons, providing that protection requires you to take up arms yourself, however reluctantly. Between the enthusiasts and the anti-gun campaigners, there’s a pragmatic space where gun ownership can reasonably seem like a real-world solution to a real-world problem. Personally, I’ve never given it serious consideration, partly, I think, because as a British person it just seems anathema to civilization. I’m fortunate to have the choice to live in a fairly safe neighborhood, and beyond that I’d rather roll the dice and take my chances ­– something which I think Americans maybe find it harder to do. But also I’ve never really followed the logic: if you keep your gun locked away, which you must in order to be safe, what are the chances that, in a real attack situation, things would unfold in such a way that owning it would make any difference? Wayne LaPierre, Executive VP of the National Rifle Association (NRA), famously said: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Assuming that good guy can get into the right room of the house, remember the combination to his safe, recall the detail of that firearms training session he attended several years ago, and sustain sufficient composure to aim accurately and pull the trigger. Oh, and be the one to do it first. Still, I understand the fear.

So there’s pride and patriotism and family and fear, and what’s really important to understand is that these feelings are all propped up by a whole industry with a vested interest in perpetuating them. The NRA and the gun manufacturers run a fantastically successful PR operation, so powerful that they manage to whitewash almost all the facts and figures, and maintain a grip on public opinion that prevents the kind of widespread outcry that might actually force legislators into making some meaningful change. In an interview earlier this week, President Obama admitted that during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, when 20 young children were brutally gunned down in their elementary classrooms and Congress responded by making no changes whatsoever, was the closest he’s come in his two terms to losing his optimism and feeling real disgust. For as long as public support maintains the awesome power of the gun lobby, only relatively minor adjustments – what politicians like to refer to as “common sense gun safety measures”, like universal background checks or tighter restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons – seem even theoretically possible. The kind of radical legislation that might bring America anywhere close to a British-style minimal firearms culture feels several worlds away.

Shootings like the one in Charleston last week are not inevitable. They are not natural disasters. They can be stopped, and have been stopped in other countries, by legislation that makes it a whole lot harder for people who are sick or angry or blinded by hate to get their hands on guns. Making it happen in America cannot be impossible, but would, I fear, require a truly profound and pervasive change of hearts and minds. Advocates for gun control would need somehow to roar louder than the behemoth pro-gun lobby to convince people that free access to firearms really does cause more death, and that, whatever their reasons for wanting to hold on to their weapons, the loss of all these innocent lives is too high a price to pay. And that might be the easy part. Statistically, it is highly questionable that owning or carrying a gun makes anyone safer but, in the face of fear, we may need more than statistics. In order to shift public opinion, we would have to persuade individuals that, while they may feel – may, it’s possible, even be – personally safer with a gun than without one, overall we are all less safe with the gun laws that we have in this country, and if we’re any sort of society, if America as an entity really means something after all, that’s what ought to matter to us most. Ultimately, real change on one untouchable subject may depend on confronting another: the individual versus the collective, the question of the greater good. It may, in the end, come down to empathy. And if it turns out that Americans simply don’t have enough, that’ll be one more tragedy.

Photo: Emanuel AME Church, Charleston SC by Howard Arnoff https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardarnoff/

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On needing more words for depression

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The word ‘depression’ can mean a whole bunch of different things – too many, in my view.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines depression as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection” and clinical depression as “a mental condition characterized by feelings of severe despondency and dejection, typically also with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, often accompanied by lack of energy and disturbance of appetite and sleep”. Both sound like a day at Disneyland, obviously, but notice that both are also very much umbrella terms: we could be talking anything from the deep sadness that follows, say, a relationship break-up, to years spent semi-catatonic, hardly able to get out of bed. The definitions say nothing about causes, triggers, duration, treatment or numerous other factors that distinguish the multifarious experiences we bundle together under this one big woolly word.

I think we need several words instead of the word depression not just because I’m a stickler for semantic orderliness (though I do totally get hot for some of that) but also because I think the breadth and vagueness of the word can often make being depressed, in whatever sense, even harder and more lonely.

It might help to consider a physical analogy – which, in itself, says quite a bit about where we are on understanding mental health, but hey. Imagine that, instead of the terms ‘asthma’, ‘chronic bronchitis’ and ‘lung cancer’ we had just one overarching term, let’s say ‘chest trouble’. Now imagine you had one of these three conditions – asthma, chronic bronchitis or lung cancer. A doctor could do the appropriate tests, discuss your symptoms in detail with you, identify the precise nature of your ‘chest trouble’, and treat you accordingly. But in normal, everyday conversation, there’d be no easy way, no quick label you could use, to tell someone precisely what you had. That might feel quite disabling, right? It could make it hard to communicate, and lead to misunderstandings and false equivalencies. It might even, by compounding your physical symptoms with feelings of frustration, isolation and confusion, make you feel materially worse. It might actually change the way you experienced your condition.

I’ve been getting treatment for what, in this sad state of lexical paucity, can best be described as ‘episodic depression’ since I was 20, though I’m pretty sure I remember the black dog – or, as a dear and sometimes-depressed friend has coined it, TOLGOD (“The One-Legged Goblin Of Doom”) – lurking around the edges of my peripheral vision back into my teens, perhaps even before. My relationship with SSRI (Prozac family) anti-depressants has been on-off and somewhat uneasy over the past 18 years. I’ve never liked the idea of being dependent on medication, it’s never sat easily with my self-image or control-freakish tendencies, and these drugs are still relatively new and we still don’t really know what the implications of their long-term use might be. Every so often, I’ve come off them just to check on my baseline state. The last time I did this was towards the end of 2013. I’d ended up on an unusually high dose, having experienced additional anxiety when my son was a baby, and started to pick up on some physical signs that caused me concern, including my periods grinding to a halt, so I wanted to clean things out, give my body a chance to reset and see how the land lay. My doctor warned me it wouldn’t be easy, and she wasn’t joking: the first day I reduced my dose was followed by a grim sleepless night of palpitations, hot flushes and lurching nausea, which only confirmed my suspicions about the strength of the stuff. Determined to persevere, I phased them out incrementally, finally stopping altogether by the end of November that year. What followed was a blighted Christmas, and three more bad, exhausting depressive episodes in the space of about ten weeks. In February, I went to my doctor and cried a lot and agreed to go back on the meds.

My doctor – a blessedly calm, pragmatic, Indian-American woman who happens to be just two months older than me – listened patiently and said some wise, illuminating things that, amazingly, after all those years, I’d never heard before. “You’ve got depression. It’s not you, it’s a condition, like high blood pressure – some people just have it and we don’t really know why. You’re unlucky, but there are things that can help”. I explained that I felt profoundly disappointed in myself; that I couldn’t escape the thought that I should be stronger and somehow capable of controlling it. Her very slight smile said: Oh, you Type As, you make me crazy. “You can’t fix a broken mind with a broken mind”, she said.

A depressive episode for me is different from sadness, and it doesn’t stop me getting out of bed. It’s not a matter of magnitude – or not primarily, anyway: while we might say some of the conditions we refer to as ‘depression’ are, in certain ways, worse than others, the main point is that they are just qualitatively different. That’s why, I think, we need different words – at least three, and probably many more.

Here’s my best attempt at describing what a depressive episode feels like for me. (Incidentally, I’ve never been able to pinpoint any triggers, and these days I‘m 99 per cent sure none exist, perhaps apart from shifts in my body chemistry). It starts with a portentously familiar feeling, like that ephemeral sense you sometimes get that you’re coming down with a cold. Sometimes I feel fatigued, like everything is harder work than usual, but it’s subtle, and often I will only realize later, when things have built up, that the feeling was there at all. Over the course of a few days or a couple of weeks, that quiet hum gradually crescendos to a roar, a cacophonic blast of rough, overwhelming emotion. The feelings are panic, fear, despair – and it’s feelings that define it, rather than thoughts, but one of its most insidious features is that it will hook on to certain negative thoughts and insecurities, and inflate them beyond any reasonable size. For example, work is a sensitive issue for me having let my career slide since having a child, but what are normally fairly calm, measured thoughts, mild worries at worst, transform during a depressive episode into Oh my god it’s all gone wrong, I’ve made a terrible mistake that’s completely unfixable, I’m a fundamentally incapable person… It’s very undermining. And there’s this kind of double consciousness that goes with it, too: on one level, I know I’m in the grip of a depressive episode and therefore that I probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to the thoughts running through my head, but at the same time the depression whispers in my ear: This bit is the truth. It’s actually now that you’re seeing clearly. After all, when you think about it, don’t you always end up here?

Once things reach their peak, it typically takes no more than a day or two for me to wear myself out with all the invisible battling – oh, and the weeping, so much weeping, endless and unstoppable, more tears than one pair of eyes ought to be able to produce. Then I enter a recovery phase, when I coddle myself like I’m frail or sick, reducing living to a series of very small, simple components, taking each slowly in turn. One. Foot. In front. Of the other. That’ll last for a week or two. It’s a fair chunk of lost time.

To me, depression feels like whatever it is that anchors me to some kind of equilibrium, some general, fundamental sense that life is under control and things are going to be basically okay, suddenly gets cast adrift, and it’s only by flailing about in the water that I’m able, somehow, eventually, to get it back in the sand.

Inevitably, that account feels inadequate, and I have no idea how much it might resonate with anyone else, but what I do know is that since my doctor helped me gain some clarity about exactly what it is – this thing I’ve got, that I’ve been dragging around with me for most of my life – I’ve taken a leap in learning to accept it and finally found some sort of peace. I’m now on a low dose of Lexapro and it’s been over a year since my last depressive episode. Maybe there’ll come a day when I don’t need the drugs, and maybe there won’t, but for now I’m glad to have stopped resisting what, for now, can help me. A better understanding has been key to that, but a more precise word – one that differentiated my experience from all those other things we call ‘depression’; one that sounded less dull and more violent; one that captured the relative brevity and painful repetition of my episodes, as well as the propensity of my particular condition to be controlled by medication – a word like that might, I think, have got me here more quickly. Crucially, a clearer label would have made it easier to communicate my experience to others, and helped me avoid some of the understandable misunderstandings that at times compounded my pain by making me feel silenced and alone. We use language to connect with one another and interpret our own experience. Better words may help us get better.

Photo: ‘Abstrato’ by Guilherme Yagui https://www.flickr.com/photos/yagui7/

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Review: the end of Mad Men*

Mad Men finale

*includes spoilers

It’s taken me more than a week to put fingers to keyboard about Mad Men’s ending because, for a while, to tell the truth it left me a little speechless.

I wish they hadn’t divided the final season into two. Stringing it out so far past its moment at the peak of the zeitgeist was less than the show deserved, and the break was so long I spent the first part of the concluding seven-episode run scrambling to catch up with where the plot had got to, and then it seemed to be over almost before it began. I never sank back into it, both because it all happened too quickly and also because those final episodes wandered outside of the main Mad Men world: instead of a big indulgent reprise of all our favorite characters and tropes, they gave us Don’s waitress, and Richard, Joan’s cravat-wearing paramour, and a roadtrip to California. Maybe we should have expected it. Unlike advertising, Mad Men never made its money giving us what we want.

My struggle to articulate an overall reaction to the conclusion of this eight-year epic also reflected the fact that the writers opted to forego any kind of final fanfare in favor of several smaller closings, which worked variably for me.

Don’s story culminated with an enigmatic smile while meditating on a cliffside at a hippie retreat, cutting to the seminal 1971 ‘Hilltop’ TV ad for Coca-Cola (“I’d like to give the world a Coke”), created in real life by his fictional employer, McCann Erickson. There’s no consensus about exactly how we were intended to interpret this. My first thought was that Peggy wrote the ad, inspired by Don’s account of his experience (there was a brief clip of her with Stan at the typewriter, looking like she’d just typed something profound), but the prevailing view seems to be that Don wrote the ad on returning to his life in New York, never really changing like he never really changed. Regardless, his ending felt as coy as the curling of his lips. I might rather have left him at that Utah bus stop, having traded his car for vicarious redemption, sitting in the sun and smiling a real, wide smile of something like unencumbered freedom.

If there was one abiding theme of Mad Men, it was surely the illusoriness of fairytales – or, to put it another way: getting real and growing up. In the final episodes, Joan, who had once advised Peggy that if she played her cards right she could nab a rich husband and never have to work again, came to understand the importance of work and career to her own identity and fulfilment, a revelation of self-discovery that, while not without its price, certainly felt like progress. Similarly, occasional villain Pete Campbell, who had always so envied Don’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude, not only identified his mistake in giving up his wife and child, humbling himself to ask their forgiveness, but also appeared to reach an understanding and acceptance of his own place in the world, acknowledging to Peggy that, while people would one day brag of having worked with her, the same was unlikely of him. And yet, he was always good at his job, for which he now reaped the rewards, boarding his Lear jet to Wichita, receding hairline flapping happily in the breeze. Their tearless, touchless goodbye was so wonderfully restrained and real.

Peggy’s own ending was more of a mixed bag. The two-hander between her (on rollerskates) and Roger Sterling in episode 12 felt slightly self-indulgent on the part of the program makers; the closest the show came, I think, to giving us a glimpse through the fourth wall. Her fabulously brazen, Sandy-at-the-end-of-Grease arrival at McCann almost made up for that, and again I might rather have left her at that point, but there was more to come when, in the final episode, she and Stan starred in an unexpected set-piece of pure rom-com fantasy. A fairytale in a tale about the hopelessness of fairytales, I’m afraid it didn’t land for me. In general, I’m not sure I buy the idea of falling in love without knowing about it, and, more to the point, her boss and close friend-or-whatever had just that moment dropped some very heavy hints that he might be about to do himself in. However much Stan might have been right that she needed to cut the cord with Don, now did not quite seem like the time – for detaching or for smooching. For me, it simply didn’t ring true. And I didn’t care much either way about their happy ending.

Much more satisfying was Betty, whose ending was more tangible than most. Facing advanced terminal cancer, her refusal to give in to despair or subject her children to the slow, painful death she’d lived through with her own mother – her gift, as she put it, to know when to move on – almost made it hard to remember the shallow, brittle, desperately aspirational ingénue we met in Season One. Her letter to Sally was full of raw honesty, in its implied respect and awkward affection as well as its unapologetic vanity, and her phonecall with Don, when she called him “honey” and told him, kindly but plainly, that his absence was an essential component of their children’s normality, was almost unbearably sad.

So, all in all, a messy end to Mad Men, perhaps fitting for a show that told us to embrace life’s essential messiness. “You can move past this”, Don counsels Stephanie, wracked with guilt about abandoning her child, “You always can”. No, she tells him, that’s not right. Sometimes we have to stop and deal with stuff. Back on the east coast, Henry asks Betty why she’s continuing with college following her diagnosis. “Why was I ever doing it?”, she replies, a flirty twinkle still in her eye. Because life’s for living, she’s saying, even when it’s going to end. No easy answers, no fairytales. As Matthew Weiner himself might have said: it’s all about the journey. That, Don Draper, legendary peddler of beautiful illusions, is what grown-ups come to know.

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On the blessing and curse of social media

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“I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

I’ve never been seriously tempted to join Twitter. For one thing, it seems like an almighty time suck and I’m distracted from gainful endeavor easily enough as it is; I dread to think how little I’d accomplish if I allowed myself access to hundreds of other people’s idly meandering thought-streams in addition to my own. Also, rightly or wrongly, I’m somewhat put off by the tendency of the so-called ‘Twitterverse’ to descend into a terrifying dystopian festival of bilious mean-spiritedness. Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, tells the stories of a number of people whose lives were nigh-on-destroyed by faceless mobs with nothing at stake on social media. One such case is that of Justine Sacco, a Twitter user with just 170 followers, who sent out a very ill-advised Tweet that was interpreted (though not, she says, intended) as racist, bringing on a storm of vicious condemnation, including some of the most heinous sexual threats ever to assault my consciousness, ultimately causing her to lose her job and flee the country. And it wasn’t just a few weirdos pursuing her with awful words, it was thousands of people, most of whom were presumably not prone to outbursts of extreme vitriol face-to-face in their everyday lives.

What might possess so many people to engage in such nasty, hurtful behavior over the internet is a perplexing and troubling question. Earlier this year, for an episode of the radio show This American Life entitled “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”, the author and columnist Lindy West confronted the worst of her internet trolls, a lovely fellow who’d gone to the trouble to create a Twitter account in the name of her dead father and post comments such as “Embarrassed father of an idiot; the other two kids are fine”. She wrote a column about how much this had hurt her, which to her surprise prompted an apology from the perpetrator, who then, presumably as an act of penance, agreed to be interviewed by her for the radio show. In the interview, he admitted that his actions, of which he now claimed to be deeply ashamed, probably reflected some misogynistic inclinations – he’d directed similar hate speech at a number of other women but no men. (While not the focus of this piece, the particular nature of the negative attention women receive online is surely a matter of major concern). He also attributed his behavior partly to his own unhappiness with himself – for example, he was dissatisfied with his weight and therefore offended by West’s declarations of fat pride. To my ears this sounded quite close to a classic bully’s mentality: part transference of your own self-loathing, part self-defense strategy (if they’re looking over there, they’re not looking at you), though the latter doesn’t really make sense in the context of the internet, with its endlessly generous potential for persecution in all directions. Thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, the ex-troll recounted that, when he posted the messages, he had somehow deluded himself into believing that his comments wouldn’t be received by an actual human being. I’m not sure this means he objectified West, denying her basic humanity, which would pretty much qualify him as a full-blown psychopath. I think maybe, rather, he’d convinced himself that what he composed on that small keyboard, all alone in his sad little room, would somehow just dissolve into nothing when he finally pressed enter.

I resist the desperate conclusion that this kind of behavior simply represents human nature under the luxury of anonymity. There may, however, be features of contemporary culture and society that could be partly accountable. One hypothesis might be that technological advances have accelerated the already-occurring breakdown of communities, ironically leading to a state-of-affairs in which social media responds to a demand for increased human interaction, while the way we use it tells of a society in which we are already so detached from one another that we hardly believe there’s anyone there at the other end of the line.

Again, the most worrying aspect of all of this is perhaps the sheer number of people engaging in online victimization, while the rest of us stand by, powerless to do anything to stop it. Ronson points out that, when asked to speculate on the impact of a negative Twitter campaign on its victim, almost everyone answers with words to the effect of: “Oh, I’m sure they’re fine”. Arguably, when any attempt to mount a defense will only fuel the witch-hunters’ fire, we’re left with little option but to try our best to wipe it from our minds.

In light of these problems, plus further controversies about issues including privacy and use of personal information, social media might appear to be struggling with a pretty lousy rep right now. And yet, we stay loyal. In September 2014, a Pew Research Center survey found that all the main social networking sites had seen steady growth in membership numbers since 2012, with 23 per cent of adult internet users in the US signed-up to Twitter and an amazing 71 per cent on Facebook. Most of these members are quite active, too. While there are some salient differences between them, most if not all social media platforms provide some potential for targeted aggression, as well as offering copious opportunities for more positive, affirming forms of interpersonal interaction. And that, of course, is why we participate. They give us a way to come together; to communicate and connect with one another; to express support, friendship and love; to exchange ideas; to have our voices heard.

I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, about nine months after it became openly available beyond a limited number of schools, colleges and employers, and shortly before I relocated from the UK to the US. For me, the timing was fortuitous. Over the past eight years, Facebook has undoubtedly kept me connected with numerous friends who would otherwise have drifted away, not through lack of care but just because daily life takes over and the time and energy involved in writing individual emails, let alone talking on the phone, would realistically have proved hard to find on either side. Thanks to Facebook, people who mean something to me know something about my son, whom most of them have never met, and I’ve used it as a vehicle to tell him about them too. During a time in my life when I could easily have felt cut-off and isolated, at home with a young child in a place where I knew almost no-one, Facebook provided me with a virtual community, which at times has brought me genuine joy. I feel no shame in admitting that a funny status update or comment, a touching photo or a handful of ‘likes’ has occasionally cast a ray of sunshine on a difficult day. It can even mimic social banter: I remember in particular one enjoyable election-day afternoon spent brainstorming with a group of mostly strangers voting-themed bands and song titles (my own top effort: Spandau Ballot. Overall winner: Gerrymander and the Pacemakers. Runner-up: Sealed With a X).

Facebook has also played a key role in helping me develop social connections in my new community. Being able to drop a friend request to someone I’ve met once or twice has led to valuable relationships that otherwise would very likely never have come into existence. It also speeds up the process of familiarization, allowing us to get to know each other from a distance and gather material we can refer to next time we meet face-to-face.

So, for all those reasons, I’m a fan. And yet, trolls and mobs aside, I can see it’s problematic. Interacting through social media can’t but alter our relationships, and the consequences of this can be bad as well as good. There’s an artificiality inherent in having just one or two channels through which we present ourselves to the diversity of people in our lives. Aside from Facebook, the only time I’ve ever communicated simultaneously with my aunt, my boss and my best friend was when I made a speech at my wedding, and that freaked me out completely for weeks. It’s not that I’m some sort of human chameleon, morphing between different personae depending on the specific social milieu, but we all tweak at least a little, if we’re honest, if only in order to grease the wheels. Moreover, it’s not always ideal for every one of my Facebook friends to read the comments of all the others, or for me to see what my friends’ various activities and interactions with their other friends reveal. Altogether, social media gives us a huge amount of information that we otherwise would not have had, some of which we may have been happier without.

And that’s the central question, really: what’s the net effect on our well-being? Facebook, as we all know, shows only the cream of people’s lives – the good times, the laughter, the sun spots on the camera lens – and it’s only natural that this aspect of it sometimes makes us feel inadequate or leads us to question ourselves and our lives, especially if the friend concerned happens to be an ex (oh don’t lie, we’ve all done it; just try not to do it more than twice a week). I know people who’ve decided to close their accounts for this reason, and once or twice I’ve considered it too but, because of all the benefits, I’ve chosen instead to endeavor to get a really firm grip on the truth that (say it with me…) Facebook Lives Are Not Real Lives. And for the most part I think I’ve succeeded. If I were lonely, or desperately wanted children, or was less satisfied than I am with the fundamentals of my life, I think it could have been harder.

Harder still to be a young person in the age of social media. While it must provide a lot of scope for fun and creativity, it also seems to deny some of the essential privileges of youth: the freedoms to make poor judgments in private and move beyond embarrassing mistakes. I’m sad to be genuinely thankful to have grown up in earlier times, and already fretful about how my son will navigate it in his adolescence. High profile cases of youth suicide connected with cyberbullying send chills down every parent’s spine. In a recent interview about his book on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Ronson recalled meeting a child therapist who alleged that every young person who nowadays came through her door had been damaged by something that had occurred on social media.

Progress always comes at a price, and the price we’ll pay for the increased connectivity that I and millions of others enjoy through Twitter, Facebook and the rest may, I fear, turn out to be quite high. For young people and other vulnerable groups, it may be higher still. There’s no going back now, of course. Now we can only work to promote the positive impacts and combat the worst uses of these powerful new tools.

 

 

 

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On something between superwoman and stay-at-home mom

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While there hasn’t been a shortage of articles over the past few years about the challenges of juggling children and work, I feel like we still have yet to get stuck in to a down-to-earth, nitty-gritty conversation on the topic. Too often the discussion seems to get sidetracked by a borderline fetishistic interest in that exceptional breed of ‘superwomen’ with their stellar careers and bands of nannies, forever pictured perching on desks, all gym-toned arms, flawless foundation and perfectly compliant hair. But it’s not just the hair that makes those women irrelevant from my perspective and the perspective of most mothers I know. We also struggle to relate to their choices. They have an irritating tendency to tell us we can do it too! They generally don’t stop to question whether we want to.

Now, I’m never going to judge anyone for their decisions about work and family, nor do I desire a world in which we all see things the same. But the simple fact is – isn’t it? – that most mothers would prefer to spend somewhat more time with their children than the superwomen do. I’m not just talking about those who are content and able to be full-time stay-at-home moms, and I’m certainly not proposing that we all become helicopter parents, hovering over our kids all day. On the contrary, many of us actively want to take on paid work, for financial, intellectual, civic, social and sanity reasons; some of us have career ambitions too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend almost all our time working. Many of us value being regularly present for some of our children’s daily routine (dinner, pick-ups, bedtimes, etc.), and also want more than just a few minutes grabbed here and there to hang out with and talk to our kids, to get to know them and their weird kid brains. Then there’s the small matter of the work required to run a family: the cleaning, the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, the scheduling, the problem-solving, the emotional counseling… the list goes on and on and on. The superwomen can of course pay to outsource a lot of that stuff, but for many of us no amount of hard work or determination will make that a realistic option – and, even if it did, we might not want to do it that way.

Discussions on this topic, at least in the US, tend to be dominated by an all-work-or-all-kids rhetoric, but what many of us really want is a mixture, a combination that involves engaging in paid work somewhere between 20 and 80 per cent of the time. It doesn’t mean we’ve lost interest in our work or careers, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect any particular ideology of parenting; it’s just a rather pragmatic matter of the optimal way to divide up our days during the period of our lives when we have children with us at home. (I’m being deliberately vague about this. I used to think it was the pre-school years; now my son is six, I think it extends at least to the end of elementary school. After that, I expect I’ll decide that it’s definitely during adolescence when he’ll need me most).

Does this preference make us less super than the superwomen, or less committed to our families than the stay-at-home moms? Aren’t we all compromising, just in different ways?

Here ­– in no particular order – is my list of the 10 things that, from my experience, many mothers want when it comes to paid work in the child-rearing years. (I say mothers, by the way, simply because I don’t know any dads who act as the main carer for their children, though there’s no reason why this list wouldn’t also apply to them).

  1. The option to work less than five full days per week (not every mother would choose this, but the option would be nice).
  2. Work that is sufficiently flexible that the whole world doesn’t fall apart if a child is sick or there’s a snow day at school.
  3. Work that is interesting and stimulating, where we can make an impact.
  4. A reasonable amount of paid leave (see below for more on what ‘reasonable’ might mean).
  5. To contribute to the family finances, or at least (given the cost of childcare) to maintain a level of earnings capability that will enable us to contribute in future.
  6. Not to be so tired or stressed out that it makes us or our families miserable on an ongoing basis.
  7. To have time left over after work and children to devote to the household tasks for which, ample evidence shows, women whether working or not almost always take main responsibility.
  8. Maybe even – heavens forfend! – to have a little time left over to spend with our partner, friends or alone.
  9. To maintain career continuity so that, when our children are older, we’ll have the choice to devote a greater proportion of our time and energy to work.
  10. Not to be disadvantaged in terms of our long-term career or earnings prospects because we are women with children.

There are, of course, exceptions. Besides the superwomen and the full-time stay-at-home moms by choice, there are those who, for financial reasons, have no alternative but to work full-time. Many single mothers fall into this group; you can take all the challenges I’m alluding to here and sextuple them for the single moms. There are also mothers whose partners work flexibly, including at home, which may offset some of the demands on them. But, for the sake of keeping focused, let me stick with this key group, just for now. I’ve found that articles on this topic often try to do too much. After all, this is complex, wide-ranging stuff – well, it’s people’s lives.

Is that wish-list really too much? What would it take to give mothers what they want? Being a Brit living in America provides me with an interesting perspective on this. Consider paid time off, for example. In the UK, almost all employees are entitled to at least 28 days’ paid leave a year, exclusive of sick leave but typically including eight public holidays. In contrast, in the US ten working days plus eight national holidays is fairly standard and, where employers offer more, they sometimes stipulate that the first few sick days of the year will be subtracted from that number – of course, for mothers, in practice that often means kids’ sick days as well as their own. In summary, the funny cousins don’t see eye-to-eye on this. There’s no strict right or wrong, of course, although research has linked paid vacation to a range of physical and mental health benefits as well as increased productivity, and of course more vacation means spending more time as a family, which may pay off in other ways too.

The flexible work agenda also has a much higher profile in the UK than the US, though many would argue that governments and employers in both countries could do much more. A lack of appropriate part-time jobs seems to be a particular issue for the American mothers I‘ve met here, forcing them into a dichotomous choice between full-time work and becoming a stay-at-home mom. In the end, if they can afford it, most opt for the relative simplicity of staying home, which is clearly a less than ideal outcome not only for them and their families’ incomes, but for employers and the wider economy as well. Women who are able, skilled and not just willing but eager to work are lost altogether to the labor force. And when, at some point in the future, they might be ready to consider re-entering work full-time, the stretch of time they’ve taken off may make it hard for them to do so.

In policy terms, the US is fundamentally on the side of the business owner, which is probably why the argument for flexible work has failed to gain much traction here. But when talented, dedicated, hardworking people are being lost to the workforce due to a lack of acceptable employment options, you don’t have to be a bleeding heart liberal to think it’s at least worth a serious, open-minded, creative conversation about ways the interests of businesses and mothers might be better aligned. This will involve some challenging questions, such as whether working part-time must always unavoidably entail a career slowdown. The answers may well be different for different industries and types of work. I don’t have the answers here. I’m just trying to make the case that the questions are worth asking.

Listen, I don’t want to be too down on the superwomen. They have an important symbolic role, because we all – including our children – need to see women in the boardroom; that visual alone counts for a lot. But we shouldn’t assume that getting more women into top jobs will automatically change the system for most mothers, any more than we should assume that men in positions of influence are unable or unwilling to make the changes mothers need. Just making more superwomen won’t be enough, because for all we might admire their success in an inhospitable system, they don’t hold the key to how most mothers can find a way to manage children and work. To make real progress on that question, we need to stop telling women they can play the men’s game if they really, really try, and start putting pressure on employers and governments to change the game in recognition of the many mothers who want to raise their children in a relatively hands-on, time-consuming way, and keep the running of their households mostly in-house, whilst also going to work. We mothers aren’t asking for the world. We’re asking for part-time, flexible jobs, with reasonable leave and the chance to continue to pursue our career goals over the long term. We’re offering to work for it, too.

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Review: Better Call Saul*

*includes minor spoilers

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Finally, we have a hero, and his name is Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman.

Rarely have my expectations been so far exceeded as they were by Better Call Saul, AMC’s spin-off prequel to the brilliant, dark and darkly comic Breaking Bad. When rumors about the new show first circulated, it sounded like a joke: Saul was Breaking Bad’s light relief, its comic turn – what sort of leading man could he make? I feared wackiness and slapstick, or an only-for-nerds fan fiction effort, stocked full of cross-references and inside baseball nods and winks. Breaking Bad had the rare distinction of a truly satisfying ending, but with this potential development its memory seemed at serious risk of being sullied.

Well, I should have had more faith in Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and their writers. The show’s calm confidence and clear-eyed, singular vision never faltered for a second. By the end of the first episode, I was able to sit back and relax. I was in safe hands.

It has great style and looks sumptuous, as you’d expect. The performances are delicious too, and all the trademark cleverness and humor is still there in the direction. (We’re behind the trashcan. We’re inside the mailbox. We’re in the ceiling with the ductwork, the joists criss-crossing to suggest to us that Jimmy’s in jail). Deftly, the writers create just enough overlap with the world of Breaking Bad to assuage our nostalgic urges (I cheered out loud in the second episode, when Jimmy/Saul finds himself on his knees at gunpoint in the desert again), while at the same time introducing us to a whole new set of surroundings: the county courthouse and its parking lot; the home of Jimmy’s troubled brother, Chuck; his ramshackle office at the back of the Vietnamese nail salon. They ease us into it gently, but Jimmy’s world is his own.

After a string of anti-heroes stretching all the way from Tony Soprano via Don Draper to Walter White, here at last is a hero-hero, an ordinary Joe whose struggles, frustrations and plain bad luck we can all relate to; a guy we can really get behind. Yes, he’s a petty conman at the start, but he was young and wayward then. Eventually (and admittedly only once cornered) he finds his way to the straight and narrow, taking a humble but respectable job in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm and secretly studying online at night to qualify as an attorney himself (with the University of American Samoa). For a moment it seems like things might finally be coming together, but the cruel fates just won’t smile on poor old Jimmy McGill. Denied a job at the fancy big law firm, he fights the good fight as a public defender, displaying all the wiliness and chutzpah we loved about him in the future, but he’s earning a pittance and somehow just can’t seem to get a break – even from the parking attendant. Turning his hand to ‘elder law’ (i.e. drafting wills for $140 a pop), he finally stumbles across the Big One: systematic over-charging of residents by a large care home chain. But the case is too big for him to handle alone and, in the process of trying to pursue it, he discovers a truth about the past that may change his life forever.

Saul, we come to realize, was always more than a comic turn. In a 2014 interview, Gilligan described him as the least hypocritical figure in Breaking Bad. His heart is large ­– he’s devoted to his brother and wants the best for his blue-rinsed clients – and the needle in his moral compass wavers roughly around the right spot, at least most of the time. He declines the gangster Nacho’s offer to cut him in on a robbery. Even his con tricks are mostly aimed at fellow crooks and chancers. The fact that one too many knockbacks will ultimately wear him down and send him wayward once more doesn’t change what we know about his fundamental nature.

In fact, there are two heroes in Better Call Saul: Mike Ehrmantraut, the taciturn, hangdog fixer also familiar from Breaking Bad, appears again here too, like Jimmy doing his best to live a quiet life below the parapet. But, as with Jimmy, the universe has other plans for old Mike. The long scene where he confesses his sins to the widow of his late son is the season’s emotional epicenter. Neither he nor Jimmy is blameless – not at all – but both their souls, at this particular point in history, are more-or-less pure.

In reversing the anti-hero trend and perhaps beginning to show the way to some form of redemption for men on TV, Better Call Saul might have forgotten about women altogether, but the character of Kim Wexler and her sincere friendship with Jimmy was a particular highlight for me. (Though what it says about our culture that a seemingly genuine male-female friendship feels like such uncharted territory I hesitate to explore). There is plainly a sexual history between them, but loyalty and mutual affection lie at the core of their relationship, and there’s a refreshing naturalness about their witty interactions that comes across as understated to a viewer accustomed to super-real, lightning-quick Sorkin-style banter.

No doubt there are those who found the pace of Better Call Saul too slow, or felt disappointed that the season stopped short of showing Jimmy undergo his big transformation, but for me it was right on the money. The careful control of the narrative feed was the antithesis of the cram-it-in-to-keep-‘em-watching approach typical of network dramas, yet the plot kept moving and kept me guessing, I never felt bored, and now I’m just glad that there’s lots of story left over to savor in Season Two.

Better Call Saul made me reflect on how we can live several lifetimes in one; and how, so often, we have no idea where – or who – people have been. Favorite show of the year so far.

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On the mutual ignorance of Britain and America

 

Since relocating from the UK to the US almost eight years ago, it has frequently struck me how poorly the people of the two countries understand one another ­­– and indeed how little I really knew about America or Americans before I lived here.

When I meet someone for the first time in the US, it’s a fair bet that within a few minutes I’ll be fielding questions on the Royal family, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey or quirky food (Yorkshire puddings, mince pies, cookies called biscuits and biscuits called scones… ) – I don’t mind, they’re only being friendly and trying to make a connection. They often compliment my accent, which apparently makes me sound intelligent. Once, a doctor followed this up with “…of course, it doesn’t mean you are. I sensed his feelings about the British were quite complex.

When I go back to England, I get something similar in reverse: half-joking and ridiculous generalizations about obesity, stupidity, brashness or that old favorite “not getting irony”. (How many Brits could readily define irony, I wonder? I confess I’ve had to look it up more than once in my adult life). The Bush years seemed to provide a license to let loose with lazy stereotypes that the collective European crush on Obama has not entirely served to revoke.

In part, I think the ignorance is willful, certainly on the American side. To many Americans, Britain is essentially a historical theme park, with real old buildings, comedy place names and a staff in desperate need of a customer service refresher course. The Royals is a long-running daytime soap, battered in the ratings lately by the titan Downton, and we prefer our British movies heavy on lace, lawns and painfully suppressed emotion, lighter on dark skin.

This attitude of Americans towards Britain became particularly clear to me following the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, directed by Danny Boyle. Every Brit I know thought it was (with the possible exception of Paul McCartney’s uh-oh Grandad’s up again finale) unequivocally wonderful: ambitious, authentic, appropriately solemn at times but also full of humor; a great big exuberant, inclusive party that paid heartfelt tribute to Britain’s past while also celebrating the modern, vibrant, multi-ethnic nation it is today. But most of the Americans I spoke to were bemused. This was not the Great BritainTM they had ordered. What were all those dancing nurses? Isn’t the healthcare terrible? I heard they take teeth out with no anesthetic and household pliers (=real claim I once heard someone make on US TV).

Americans are fond of Britain – many will tell you they’re Anglophiles – but not one time since I’ve lived here have I heard any American mention the “special relationship” between the two countries to which the British frequently refer. The truth, I think, is that when it comes to public policy, most residents of the USA spend very little time indeed thinking beyond their borders. Foreign countries are there to be visited, and studied in school, and enjoyed as entertainment, but their systems and customs have no bearing on ours. America is different, The Leader of the Free World, The Best Country on Earth. We don’t need to look outside to decide what to do. To suggest such a thing would be verging on unpatriotic.

Healthcare is an obvious example of this mindset. When the Affordable Care Act was moving through Congress, there were adverts on TV, sponsored by right-wing groups, warning of the horrors that would rapidly ensue if the US were to adopt a UK-style system of ‘socialized medicine’ (cue foreboding violins). Now, every Brit knows that the National Health Service is very, very far from perfect, but there is a reason why, 67 years after its founding, the core principle of free healthcare for all at the point of use remains a political non-negotiable. Your country takes care of you cradle to grave – most Brits get misty-eyed at the pure beauty of this idea. And it may not be the quickest or slickest service in the world, but the quality is high and, when it really matters, it gets the results – unlike in America, where far higher expenditure fails to translate into better outcomes, millions lack insurance, and some are quite literally left to die because they don’t have the money to buy it. Just stop for a second and think about that last bit. In The Best Country in the World?

The prospect of some form of public healthcare might begin to appear less scary to the average American if it were made clear that, as in the UK, they’d be able to upgrade their service by voluntarily purchasing private insurance on the open market. But they don’t get into that kind of detail, and so they remain easy targets for those who are all too ready to pull the wool over their eyes.

Of course, it’s not just the Americans who stand to learn something from paying closer attention to the folks across the puddle. For Brits, I think it’s less a lack of interest and more about the fact that the USA is simply too big and diverse a country on which to get an easy grip. Living in Georgia, I feel like I’ve seen a side to America that British commentators based in Washington DC, New York or LA generally know very little about, but still there are huge swathes of the country that remain entirely alien to me: the little Scandinavia of Minnesota, the vast empty plains of Wyoming and Nebraska, Walter White’s desert down in the south-west. In many ways, it’s more like 35 or 40 countries than one. Perhaps this also explains some of the American attitude to the rest of the world: there’s so much to understand here and only 24 hours in a day.

Living in the South, I’ve been frustrated by the British dismissal of this part of the US as full of simple, Bible-bashing rednecks – not that there’s no truth in that characterization, but it’s not exactly nuanced. In Britain, the Tea Party movement that grew up post-2008 has been treated like little more than a freak show, but from where I’m sitting it’s all very real and pretty alarming, and its origins are complicated: part genuine grassroots uprising, part Koch brothers con. I’m sure I’ll write more about that.

The British could learn much, I think, from the Americans. The same emphasis on individual self-sufficiency that can lead to uncompassionate social policies can also be empowering for people, and feed innovation and enterprise. Americans are less inclined than Brits to blame the government for their misfortunes, and more disposed to take real pride in seemingly simple achievements, such as holding down a job or providing for a family. They’re generally more grateful and optimistic. They are also far more philanthropic, arguably as a direct result of the limited welfare state. Similarly, the fervent love of country that the British so like to mock, and that admittedly gets misused here for all kinds of nonsense political point-scoring, also bonds and motivates people, supports the creation of community and pulls against the ghettoization of immigrant groups that presents such problems for Europe.

At the very least, each nation surely provides a valuable counterpoint for the other: a country that’s similar in many ways and yet so different in others, like a controlled experiment or an alternative possible world. Living in the US has made me question so many of my deep-rooted assumptions about what constituted ‘normal’: public healthcare, four plus weeks of paid leave per year, very small car parking spaces, the appropriateness of apologizing when the other person hurts you. No matter what country you come from, that kind of constructive challenge can only clarify your thinking and ultimately make you smarter. I’d like to see these two lands I love get to know each other better.

 

 

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