Trying to see the real me

One of the reasons why I’ve been posting more gender-related posts over the past week is because I’ve been trying to figure out more about myself, and it’s been at the forefront of my brain a bit too much.

As I was growing up, from adolescence through to my early 20’s, I’ve been mocked or criticised for what others perceived as wrong, abnormal or unacceptable. I had no interest in sports, so was often criticised for poor-performance when school P.E. lessons forced me into playing football and rugby. The P.E. teacher even pulled me aside once and told me I must “put more effort in”.

A word often thrown at me during those years was sad. Not sad as in unhappy, but sad as in socially-inadequate or undesirable. This was 1995/96 – in the era of Oasis and Spice Girls, I was digging 70’s Prog Rock. I couldn’t help it: I just preferred music with a lot more substance so, to me, Oasis sounded boorish and lazy while the Spice Girls were mere plastic, mass-market pop. I liked Oasis a bit more around the Heathen Chemistry era (2002), but by then it was too late.

I was also not one for “going out”. I’d go to the cinema with a couple of friends, or to a concert, but that was about my limit. I certainly wasn’t going out every weekend to the places “people my age” went to – it just didn’t appeal to me, but I was made to feel like I was abnormal for thinking so. I was even told that “I wouldn’t meet anybody” if I didn’t go out. When I got home after meeting my now-wife for the very first time, my mom asked me how we’d met; I lied to avoid the “sad” stigma she applied to dating agencies.

I’ve also had two serious bouts of depression and anxiety within the past ten years:

The first time, the expectations of others was pulling me in opposite directions. My son had only just been born, and my wife was suffering with post-natal depression – while she was trying to cope with all that, I was thirty miles away at work, trying to leave my home life at the door, as was expected of me, and pushing myself to succeed. The extra money was very-much needed with an extra mouth to feed, but to get promoted required me to overcome my introversion and become more visible – as if introversion was something that could be cured or grown out of. The pressure got too much, and I just snapped.

The second time was similar too – significant pressure from work, and a home life that left little opportunity for “me time”. I felt like I was merely existing, and failing in my duties as a husband and employee. I was also having trouble sleeping with so much whooshing around my head every night. I was off work for several weeks, taking professional counselling with a more specific focus on self-esteem. It’s not easy undoing 30+ years of criticism, mocking, social-programming and bullying, but I’m trying to keep what I learned in mind.

That brings me to today. I’ve made significant progress in regards to my self-esteem and self-confidence over the past year, but I still feel as if I’m holding myself back.

One theory I have is that it has something to do with “identity”: I don’t want to take the easy route and conduct myself according to pre-packaged, or stereotypical, identities. I want to build my own, free from the confines of arbitrary characteristics such as my race, nationality, age and sex – I didn’t choose to be born in the late 70’s as a white, British male, and I don’t want to behave like one. When I walk out of the door, I want the world to see me in the analogue way my wife does, not the digital approximation that marketers or the media would say I am.

I’m also quite concerned about the obstacles I’ll face. While I’m trying to break my programming and ditch the inauthentic parts that came from social conditioning, I recognise that there are many who rely on, or are even protective of, these unwritten social norms. They’re like a comfort blanket that keeps the world clean and organised. I’d like to be very open about myself and who I am, but I get the impression that, if I do, I risk being seen as a threat rather than an individual: a threat to society, a threat to my family and even a threat to my children. I’m aware that such people will not be in a majority, and that there will be others who believe the complete opposite, but the fear of confrontation and the risk of damaging existing relationships is still very real.

A big part of me wants to say “bollocks to all that – just do it!”… but am I ready for the big reveal?

I’ve been mad for ****ing years…

With our weekend away approaching, and my wife’s challenge along with it, I’ve been psyching myself up and trying to find attire that works for me. I’d recently gotten hold of a khaki-green cargo skirt which I find incredibly comfortable and shouldn’t draw much attention. I think it goes brilliantly with my dark grey Pink Floyd t-shirt, and found myself changing into that after work every day last week. I think that shirt will be the perfect accompaniment when I next step out – having the words PINK FLOYD in large letters, plus their iconic prism artwork, plastered across my chest should deflect any interest in the lower half.

And if anyone says I’m mad for wearing a skirt, it also gives me the perfect response:

I’ve always been mad, I know I’ve been mad like the most of us have.

(That’s one of the opening lines from Dark Side of the Moon, by the way.)

I really do need to get some more band shirts – those I bought from concerts back in my younger days have since become redundant, either faded through repeated washes or outgrown through too many ales and pies. I’ve got my Steven Wilson Hand. Cannot. Erase. shirt somewhere, but haven’t seen it in a few months.

Hmmm… will wearing a skirt impair one’s “prog-cred”? Interesting. I shall have to conduct an experiment!

Fuck Everyone and Run: The Hypocrisy of Biffers (and knobheads in general)

Aargh! That man looks foreign! I must flee to my safe space!

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with the album by Marillion – that would be one for my other blog (shameless plug intentional) – but it is related in some way.

With politics being the way it has been over the past few years, the words Project Fear have been thrown around quite a lot. I’ve written briefly about it before: when people are frightened and vulnerable, they are easier to control and exploit because their rationality has been impaired by survival instinct. Case in point: extreme-right groups like Britain First and the EDL. When terror strikes and the public become like headless chickens, up they pop, point their fingers at a scapegoat and say “Don’t worry: we fight for our country and we will protect you! This is how we’ll do it…”. This strength and fighting spirit rallies the frightened to their cause. But what is their solution?

Run.

Except, when you’re a landmass just off the European continent, you can’t run. You can’t exactly up anchor and sail the UK into the mid-Atlantic just to get further away from the Middle East. So whenever they feel even the slightest bit threatened – whether physically or culturally – their solution is to protect through isolation, suspicion and separation, policed with strict authority. Their brand of “patriotism” is just re-painted cowardice: rather than send the attackers a giant “fuck you” with a show of national solidarity, they effectively want to cower under their security blanket where the bogeyman can’t harm them.

Almost makes you want to go “awww…. there, there.”

But, let’s be fair, they are out there on the streets doing their bit for counter-terrorism. Not quite sure how marching through a neighbourhood, shoving crosses in everybody’s faces and harassing innocent women makes any positive contribution. I bet that really gets Jihadi John’s mates quaking in their shoes [sarcasm].

It all sounds ludicrous on a national scale – but what about a personal one? What do you do when some knobhead attacks your principles, your culture, your ideas or your behaviours? You can hide away in fear of further attack, or change yourself to suit your attacker, but you’ve just handed victory and control over to a complete knobhead. You can ignore them, which will starve them of the reaction and the publicity they crave. If you’re feeling confident, or if someone’s got your back, you can catch them off guard and stand up for yourself. Looks like Jeremy Corbyn’s been favouring the latter of late.

I know I’m one to talk, but after years of cowering and acquiescing to all the knobheads I’ve had to deal with over the years, enough is enough.

I’m ready.

Bring it on.

Ruffling Feathers

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Looks like I’ve ruffled a feather or two. Apparently, my wife’s grandmother is still going on about my denim skirt from last Sunday.

She’s concerned for the children.

She need not be worried: if you want to shock and confuse children these days, all you have to do is disconnect the router and give them a whole hour without the Internet!

We went down into the town centre earlier this afternoon. With the weather looking rather changeable, I opted for jeans rather than a jean-skirt. I made the right choice. No matter how confident I felt, I’m still in the early stages, and with town as busy as it was, I’d have had to stick very closely to my family. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable breaking off from the group to drop shopping bags back at the car.

There will come a time, but for now, I need to choose my battles wisely.

Captain Paranoia: Round Two… FIGHT!

While Captain Paranoia took a bit of a beating on Sunday, I’d knocked him down, but not out. I think I just made him mad.

Last night, my wife informed me that her nan had indeed reacted to my denim skirt. Later that afternoon, she was asking my in-laws questions like “was Simon wearing a skirt?“, “why?” and the ultimate doozy “well, what does [my wife] think?“. As I tried going to sleep last night, Captain Paranoia struck back. “See – I told you it was weird. You’re going to be the laughing stock of the family now. If I were you, I’d give up now while you still have some dignity left.”

I will admit I did feel a little delayed embarrassment, but that was just the Captain preparing the ring for battle. Seconds out… Round two!

Let’s look at the evidence. All of those questions were perfectly valid and there was no hint of malice within them. After all, she’s in her 80’s, not very net-savvy (if at all), and I’m likely the first man she’s seen in a skirt this far south of Scotland. She was being curious, and nothing more. She’d have gotten more comprehensive answers had she asked me those questions rather than my in-laws, but what can you do? However, by asking that final question, I don’t believe she knows just how awesome her granddaughter is.

But “why“? Beyond comfort and temperature control, was there a deeper reason? That was the worst question I could ask myself at that time of the night, but it was worth thinking about.

I suppose, at a very low level, I’m quite open-minded and curious – I’m not complacent with the knowledge I have and there’s always room for more. I read a lot of information on-line, I ask a lot of questions, I research the answers, and I draw my own conclusions. When I asked the question “why are men allowed to wear skirts in some countries but not in England?”, the top-level answer was obviously going to be “but we can – it’s not against the law”. That then leads to the question “well, if it’s not against the law, why don’t we?”, and the first answer to that is either “because we don’t” or “because nobody else does”.

I love those sorts of questions – the one’s that don’t tend to get asked out of pure complacency and acceptance. If you look at the historical evidence, men in England did indeed wear skirted garments in previous generations, but with the advent of the industrial age, trousers became the more practical option. As generations passed, trousers became the de facto standard for men, and the reasons behind their dominance steadily faded from memory. So what’s stopping us from re-thinking the concept of a men’s skirt in the information age? Well… nothing!

One of the obstacles in the way is, I believe, pessimism. When you have a decision to make, and you weigh up the pros-and-cons, do you start by listing the pros or the cons? Do you give a con a heavier weighting than a pro? I was certainly guilty of both of those things, and the Captain is still trying to keep me doing so, but you lose sight of the positive aspects.

For me, they are more practical and comfortable because they fit me better, they provide better ventilation in warm weather, and allow greater freedom of movement (which you need when picking up after a four year-old). It’s a boost to my confidence and self-esteem because it forces me to re-think the neurotic thoughts that remain in my head, allowing me to come further out of my shell. It makes an interesting alternative and, as such, is much more fun. And yes, I also believe they can look good – it’s all down to how you feel.

Besides, I’d already put so much thought into the matter, it would be a waste of energy not to. Can’t you tell? I’ve just written a four-paragraph answer to the question that would still be answered if I’d skipped the first three. So much for not over-thinking things!

But one thing’s for certain: you won’t win this round either, Captain.

Declaring War on Captain Paranoia

Even though I spent most of last year trying to reduce my stress and anxiety levels and improve self-esteem and self-confidence, I’ve not really kept up with it during the winter months. For a couple of days this week, the weather has been absolutely terrible so, rather than head into town, I’ve legged it into the car park and sat in my car for an hour. Usually, I plug my earphones in and listen to an album, but today I only sat through one side. For the remainder of the hour, I sat, I thought and I read.

Last Sunday, we were discussing going out as a family to a National Trust property or just somewhere local. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get my kilts back out and carry on where I left off last year. I went upstairs, got dressed, and when I came back down, I asked my wife “does this look all right”. Her response was along the lines of “Well, yeah, but your kilt could do with being ironed and it looks pretty windy out there. You’re going to be very cold.” – I agreed with her instantly.

Now, I recognise it was pure optimism on my part, and sensible realism on my wife’s, but it knocked me down a little – not in a toys-out-of-the-pram way, but because I felt that, by asking her opinion, I was looking for a get-out clause. I was talking myself out of it yet again. I’d always convince myself it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong weather – and when the right time, place and weather came along, I’d find some excuse, however small, to talk myself out of it. 9 times out of 10, it was the fear of embarrassment, ridicule or – in extreme cases – physical harm. It’s something I’ve carried with me since my teenage years when my internal program was instructing me that social inclusion is critical, and embarrassment leads to exclusion… so avoid it at all costs.

One thing I promised myself I’d try to do this year was to fix problems rather than avoid or accept them, and the first step is always to recognise them.

Whilst sitting in the car, I looked for various sources that showed positive experiences and reactions to men wearing skirts and kilts out in public. I actually came across quite a few. One wore them to work for a whole week as part of his normal attire, another was about singer/songwriter Will Young’s experiences, and another showed a video of three other men who took up a similar week-long challenge.

 

In the latter, all 3 felt at first as if everybody’s eyes were fixated on them – but there was one moment in the video that spoke quite loudly. One of them was told by a friend that “nobody cares that you’re wearing a skirt except you“. He was absolutely right! For all my experience last year, I experienced no negative reaction beyond a couple of immature remarks, yet here I was ignoring the facts and focusing on a hypothetical worst-case scenario. It is what Ben Elton dubbed Captain Paranoia.

BenElton
Ben Elton: The left-alignment of this photo was completely intentional.

My next stop was to find ways of dealing with paranoid thoughts. There is a Mental Health charity in the UK called MIND, and their website is a font of useful information. Reading their digital booklet on paranoia highlighted that my thoughts were just that. I was being completely over-sensitive and basing my negative thoughts on emotion rather than evidence and experience.

In addition to talking things through with my wife, I’m going to try practising Mindfulness as a means of focusing on the here-and-now, going with the flow and becoming more self-aware than self-conscious. I also feel this may help with other issues, such as when I beat myself up over mistakes I made back in my teens and early 20’s, believing they still reflect badly on me today.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but I’ll never know unless I try.

Bowie or Barlow: Dealing with Ennui

This time last year, when I really started assessing who I was and what I wanted, it felt as if I was undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis at the age of 37. At the time, my job security was uncertain and was having to deal with a lot of extra pressure. I’ve not been writing much here in the past couple of weeks because that’s all coming back.

While I was spared from the cull, the role I moved into was not what I was expecting and, with my current objectives, I could do with having an extra brain and an extra pair of hands. I had a pre-assessment for an internal position in the Procurement department last week, which I think went pretty well, and I should know some time next week if I’ve made it through to the face-to-face interviews. A change of scenery and a fresh set of challenges and experiences would be good for me right now, so if I am invited for an interview, I want to put everything I can into it. (I was invited for an interview, but taking recent events into consideration, I felt moving roles at this time would not be a wise decision and so withdrew my application)

With the weather starting to warm up, I’m also looking forward to getting out of this winter slump. I’ve been in jeans most of the winter and I don’t find them all that comfortable, especially when you’re active. I feel so much more comfortable in looser clothing, so I’m looking forward to getting my kilts out once more.

I watched this video on LaylahTalks earlier this morning about blocking out negativity, and it did give me some food for thought. I recognise that there are still some things I over-think to extremes, particularly when they don’t conform to majority opinion, but once I actually go and do it they don’t turn out anywhere near as bad as I think. It just needs a little confidence and a bit of a reality check: I’m lucky to have the support I need.

It boils down to this question: Would you rather be a David Bowie or a Gary Barlow? Both are, without argument, successful musicians but the big difference being that Bowie was always breaking through the boundaries Barlow wouldn’t cross. Almost everything about him was chameleonic, yet always one step ahead of everybody else. He didn’t follow, he inspired. 

Let’s just say that, in my record collection, it’s Bowie 6 – 0 Barlow.

 

Gender, Marketing and a New Year’s Challenge

Last Summer, as previously reported, I made quite some headway into giving society the middle finger and expressing myself the way I wanted to, disregarding the opinions of complete strangers and trying my hardest not to read their minds or interpret their body language. Compared to how I was this time last year, I ended the year more confident and secure but still recognising I’d still got some way to go. Going out and around the Midlands in a utility kilt was perhaps the most outwardly-expressive thing I did towards this, but as the winter has taken hold, doing so has not been a good idea. With management approval, I wore it to work for Children in Need day back in November (which was a bit scary and a little stoopid, but still raised £15), but still feel I’ve lapsed somewhat and fallen “out of practice”.

I’ve become more aware in recent months of how gendered marketing is and why, some examples of which are borderline comical. I found one superficial example in my own home. There are two cans of shaving cream in my bathroom – one “for him” and one “for her” – and I compared the ingredients of the two. Apart from the odd minor ingredient, the only real difference was that my wife’s had aloe vera and mine didn’t, but the mere presence of aloe vera doesn’t make an item “for her”; if I went a little upmarket as opposed to buying my toiletries from Lidl, I would find plenty of shaving creams “for him” containing aloe vera. In a nutshell, the only real difference was that her can was white and pink while mine was grey and blue.

Obviously those who deny that gender is “a social construct” are oblivious to how much money is being made gendering identical items, playing on our insecurities to prevent “him” and “her” from sharing.

If anything, I’m a pragmatist or, at least, I’d like to be – brushing marketing aside, an item’s purpose should be of higher priority than its demographic. Scroll back through the contents of this blog and you’ll see that I’ve also mentioned “Mantyhose” a couple of times. While this would enable my utility kilts to make an appearance during the winter months, and also push my bravery/confidence/not-giving-a-fuck to new levels, there are always safety concerns. I’ve heard stories about people being assaulted for not conforming to the normal expectations of male behaviour and appearance, but in the same breath, I’ve not heard about anything like that happening in the UK. Even so, such an attack would be rare. Would anyone be even remotely bothered, or am I just over-thinking and grossly underestimating the population’s open-mindedness?

2016 may have been a bit of a bastard for many, but I have to reflect on and feel proud of the progress I made. A new year means new challenges, and I want to try and blast even more neuroses and anxieties than I did last year.

“Be yourself. Give your free will a chance. You’ve got to want to succeed” — Jon Anderson

Mahler and Me: Triggering Transformation

It’s funny how something as seemingly-unimportant as a piece of music can cause such an upheaval in one’s life.

gustav-mahler-kohutYesterday, I bought a copy of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from a local charity shop, a 1987 recording by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), then under the direction of Simon Rattle. I used to have it as part of a CD box set, but I got rid of it. I can’t really explain why, but I found having all 10 of Mahler’s Symphonies in one set was a bit overwhelming. Hunting down and spending time with each one individually works much better.

I’ve loved this piece of music ever since I first heard it – it normally takes a symphony 4-5 times to work its magic on me, but Mahler’s 2nd slapped me in the face with its brilliance. When I listened to the final five minutes earlier this morning, I felt as if I wanted to burst out into tears. I’d never felt that way before about this music – why now?

My mind was cast back to the last time I played it in full: It was the day I learned that my paternal grandmother had died. That was just over 3 years ago. To save writing reams of family history, my parents split up when I was 8 years old and, after that, family relations got a little icy – especially towards my dad’s side of the family – so any contact I had with them was minimal. I used to visit my nan from time-to-time as I studied at Dudley College and she lived about 15 minutes walk away, a stone’s throw away from where comedian Lenny Henry grew up. I could tell back then she was showing signs of Alzheimers. When I started university and taking part-time jobs, I saw her less and less – within a few years, her memory had degenerated so far that she was moved to a local care home.

I never went to visit her at the home. When I heard she’d passed away, I felt guilty for not paying her a visit or showing her her new great-grandchildren, and for letting family politics get in the way of seeing her more before the dementia set in deeply. At the same time, I was glad I never saw her at her worst – I had some very fond memories of her, and they remain untainted. If I did go to see her at the home, she wouldn’t have recognise me: I’d heard from other family members that, in her mind, I was still a young child.

That lunchtime, I felt I needed to play Mahler 2. I don’t know why – I was just drawn to it.

It spoke to me.

That’s when the transformation began.

My then-regular church life fell apart as I tried to comprehend and validate it all. I’ve already written about that part of the story. Last year, my mental health worsened and I was signed-off for a few months with anxiety and depression, at which point I took one-on-one counselling with cognitive behavioural therapy to help improve my mood, cope with all the pressure I was under, and deal with my almost non-existent self-esteem. Earlier this year, when I was at risk of losing my job, I knew I needed to change who I was. Not so much ‘change’, but scrape away the ugly parasites clinging on to my true self. I’ve already written about that part of the story too.

But what has Malher got to do with this? Looking back at it now, the words in the final choral movement of his second symphony are quite profound:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!
What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!
O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You conqueror of all things,
Now, are you conquered!
With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God shall it carry you!

The music in the final five minutes of the piece is, without question, the most perfect finale I have ever heard. When I hear it, I picture music so powerful it will open the pearly gates themselves, revealing the glory of Heaven to the mortal world.

The symphony represents the finality of an old life, and the powerful creation of the new, condensed into 80 minutes of music.

The symphony represents my new life.

“Sod being gender-normative… winter is coming!” – Experiences with ‘Mantyhose’

A few months ago, I wrote a short post about reactions to what’s known as “Mantyhose” – I know there are afficionados out there that don’t like the term, but it does help avoid confusion when you happen to be writing about them in particular. Here in the UK we’re in the middle of autumn, and while it’s been relatively mild the past couple of weeks, temperatures in my neck of the woods have recently dropped to just below freezing.

I work in an office and I’m sitting down for the best part of my 8-hour shift, so I like to go for a walk at lunchtime to stretch the legs and get some fresh air. While my upper-body is protected from the elements by my shirt and winter coat, my trousers offer only a thinnish layer of cotton and polyester with which to cover my legs. When it’s both cold and windy, my legs feel like two blocks of ice. Being quite open-minded, I bought a couple of pairs of Mantyhose in anticipation. I don’t care what you think or what you say – if you haven’t tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing.

a04a1280_largeThe two pairs I bought were both made by Polish hosiery experts Adrian – I bought the footed “City” and the footless “Hunter” varieties. You’re not likely to find them on the high street, but you can get them on eBay for around £6 with free postage.

hunterBoth are incredibly comfortable under trousers. When sat in the office, they add a moderate amount of compression (you hardly notice they’re there) which helps reduce any restlessness or fatigue. Outside, in temperatures colder than my fridge, they prove their worth compared to walking with increasingly-numbing legs. The “City” pair are less bulky, but they do occasionally feel as if my shoes are too big; you need socks with the footless “Hunter” pair, which may be preferable if you’ve got new shoes rubbing your feet, but they are made of significantly thicker material. The only major difference between these varieties and women’s equivalents, as far as I can tell, is the overall sizing and the addition of a “male comfort panel” which adds extra room at the front for that place where some men keep their brains.

aec2a1c0870e27cee14e953ea11dc034Would I ever wear them visibly, for example, under a pair of shorts like the model pictured on the left? Possibly. Definitely not with the striped shorts, that’s for certain. It’s not widely-known that men’s varieties exist so, on one hand, I’d like to educate, but on the other, I’d continue to be mindful of time-manner-place:

At an Eddie Izzard gig – definitely. I likely won’t be the only one.

Visiting a National Trust property with my family – very probably.

In a busy town centre – depends on whether the local football team is at home.

In the vicinity of my local pub – definitely not. I think that would be borderline suicidal.