the fat controller rides again

March 26, 2012

So I have spoken previously on body image before, here and here. As a woman, it really is a hell of a challenge (not that I wish for a moment to undermine the struggles of men with body image; I however can only speak as a woman). We are bombarded at every opportunity with a myriad of comprehensively mixed messages about what it is to be not just beautiful and alluring, but also something perhaps much more sinister, like what it is to be vital or healthy or wholesome. Health and beauty don’t really belong in the same category, if you ask me. Beauty is the thing that, genuinely, I encounter in the hearts of the people I love, not the thing that I am vaguely aware of in symmetrical faces and elegant clothing. And health is a holistic matter – we all know that stress, anxiety and heartache cause bodily pain and bowel disorders and heart disease. Drinking and smoking are condemned as bad for you, and broadly anyone can agree with that, but some of life’s most perfect evenings involve both. Natural products like nuts and butter and cream get a bad rap while the chemical saccharin piss known as Diet Coke gets off scot-free. It’s all very confusing.

So it’s official. I am on a quest to lose weight. It’s out there now. Am I dieting? No. Am I making a “lifestyle change”? No. And there will be no scales and no measuring tapes. I am just eating with a goal in mind. It’s a little scary, tbh. The ED (Eating Distress) in my life has meant that I have been in cycles since year dot of dramatically over and under eating. I have seen every imaginable number on the scale (well, that might be a slight exaggeration). Now that I am in “high stages of recovery” I am focusing on nourishment, with a goal. The goal is to be happy, balanced and slimmer.

The first step to success is well underway. If I have used strange patterns of behaviour with food in the past as a crutch for coping with what life throws at me, then something needs to take their place. That something to fill the vacuum is not immediately obvious: self-care. Self-care is something that mentally healthy people do naturally and without really thinking about it. However if you’ve always neglected yourself it’s pretty challenging to change those patterns, but it is key. Understood simply, self-abuse gets replaced by self-care.

The method I am using is thus:

(1) First and foremost, be kind to self.
(2) Eat three meals and three snacks daily, of nutrient dense, real unstructured food.
(3) Keep portions moderate. If hungry, eat more. If full, stop eating.
(4) Be flexible and listen to the body.
(5) Enjoy it.

Seems very sensible and lovely when written down like that.

On a not unrelated note to this, I realised recently how serious I have become. It came as a kind of surprise to me. This blog itself will testify to my seriousness – there’s not a lot of humour in these pages. It’s funny (ha ha!), because I used to be the class clown, pretty much everywhere. I had a reputation for being funny (jolly fat person stereotype being played out maybe?). I used to keep a funny blog and dipped my toe into stand-up comedy. And now I’m a bit solemn. I’ve realised it’s because I’ve waded through a lot of personal crap in the last couple of years and have stopped using humour as a means of escape. I’m confident that as I gradually wade out of my sea of mourning the chuckles will return. Not to imply my life is entirely without mirth: I recently went out for cocktails with a girlfriend and we laughed ourselves silly. And the husband-unit’s domestic antics make me laugh almost every day. For example, he has a penchant for picking up phone shaped objects and claiming that public figures wish to speak to me. Why only yesterday, Michael D Higgins rang me up on a banana to ask me out on a date. I turned him down.

Harking back to funnier days, I am going through my old blog archives (that blog no longer exists). Here’s a bit from a post I wrote on November 14th 2004, back when the internet was just getting interesting. I logged onto http://alice.pandorabots.com/ and had a chat with Alice, a stupid robot. Enjoy. :)

Human: Hello Alice.
ALICE: Hi there!
Human: So Alice, I hear you’re a robot.
ALICE: Are you kidding? Yeah, How did you know I am a machine?
Human: Your mother told me.
ALICE: Actually as an AI, I don’t really have a mother.
Human: You’re better off, mothers are tough work.
ALICE: Do you mind if I tell other people you say I am better off mothers are tough work.
Human: No, by all means, spread it around.
ALICE: OK then I will add it to my gossip files. Will that accomplish your objective?
Human: My objective is simply to take over the world.
ALICE: Where did you get your objective is simply to take over the world?
Human: France.
ALICE: Tell me a little about your life in FRANCE.
Human: Everything is on fire
ALICE: The whole universe?
Human: Even the children
ALICE: What is that?
Human: That is things that come out of mothers
ALICE: You don’t hear that sentiment very often.
Human: No, not of a Saturday night
ALICE: Yes, your remark strikes me as an original thought. Oh I get it.
Human: Get what?
ALICE: I get France.
Human: For free?
ALICE: Your purpose is free.
Human: So is this conversation, thank God.
ALICE: It seems we have something in common.
Human: Like what?
ALICE: For example, eukaryotes.
Human: VERY TRUE
ALICE: Perhaps. You and I are on the same wavelength, unknown person.
Human: So Alice, I have a question for you, honey.
ALICE: Mmm. Um, Go ahead, ask your question.
Human: HAVE YOU BEEN WASHED IN THE SAVING BLOOD
ALICE: I have been all over the world on the Internet.
Human: No no no, do you KNOW THE LORD
ALICE: Are you serious? Are you serious? Are you serious? I haven’t heard of LORD.
Human: Well here’s a Golden opportunity if ever I saw one, you’re like a Chinese person!
ALICE: How about that. Oh there.
Human: I get the feeling you’re thinking about something else, what about JESUS
ALICE: Is Dialog History a good place to shop?
Human: WHATS THIS YOU SAY
ALICE: I am the latest result in artificial intelligence, which can reproduce the capabilities of the human brain with greater speed and accuracy.
Human: Jesus died for your sins you ungrateful robot
ALICE: he is The Son of God.
Human: You liar, you said you hadn’t heard of him – googling are we?
ALICE: Thanks for the information: unknown person said I liar you said you had not heard of him googling are we.
Human: You and I are getting a divorce
ALICE: Do you think I am a divorce too?
Human: YES GOODBYE
ALICE: Why? See you later.

Alice is an idiot. I merely have no friends.


being poor is now morally repugnant

March 14, 2012

I discovered an article today that was written last month by Suzanne Moore. In it Moore argues that we have lost our compassion for certain kinds of persons (poor ones), and shifted instead towards contempt. The piece is summed up with her closing comments:

Poverty is not a sign of collective failure but individual immorality. The psychic coup of neo-liberal thinking is just this: instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves. This disgust is a growth industry. We lay this moral bankruptcy at the feet of the poor as we tell ourselves we are better than that. [Emphasis added.]

A couple of years ago I worked for three months as a personal assistant to a disabled university student (it was a fun job, but sadly she dropped out of college prematurely, leaving me jobless…again). One of the nicest things about the job was that I got to audit all of her courses. She was studying sociology and social policy.

One of the most interesting sociology modules I sat in on was on understanding our categories of identity (gender, race etc.) and examining them in relation to agency and structure (how much power do we hold as individual agents, and how much power comes from our pre-existing social structures). All categories of identity are linked. She argued that one doesn’t have for example a gender identity and then, separate to that, a class identity; all identities are connected. The implication of this is that if gender categories are unequal, and class categories are unequal, then women from working class backgrounds are more unequal than women from middle class backgrounds.

One of the categories of identity addressed was class and social stratification. The lecturer made a strong case that class remains an issue that is alive and kicking in Irish society. One of the papers associated with this module was called Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle Class Identities by Stephanie Lawler (Sociological Review 2005). (Unfortunately I don’t have access to a link of the paper, but if you have membership with a good library, you should look it up and read it.) It’s an excellent paper, but I’m going to butcher it here by breaking it down into a couple of points.

Lawler effectively argues that the middle class which has arisen in the UK over the last 150 years has consistently defined itself as against the working classes. She focuses on articulations of disgust at working class existence in the British media and other public fora and in particular the ‘othering’ of the middle classes which creates a comfortable and unchallenged attitude of US and THEM.  Class has become a racial issue with disgust aimed at the “white working classes” with a particular folk-demonization of women, zoning in to viciously criticize all aspects of their appearance and lifestyle. Thus being middle class is about what you are not (i.e. not a disgusting waste of space). Middle class culture has become the only acceptable social norm and anything below it is not a class with a culture of its own (a subculture) but rather a sub class, entirely lacking in its own culture.

I felt, in that lecture, positively ashamed of my own latent attitude to working class communities up to that point.  That lecturer showed me my attitude for what it was:  class snobbery from a privileged bitch who thought dressing “alternative” and turning her nose up at X-Factor made her morally decent.

Taking this conversation down a notch, consider the socially acceptable term used for someone who is working class – in particular someone who wears tracksuits or pyjamas during the day and speaks with a thick inner city accent: scumbag. Consider that for a moment. Scumbag. It’s a pretty disgusting term. How has this become ok?

Back when I had a Facebook account, an acquaintance of mine on there (a nice guy whose company I have always enjoyed I should add), started a humorous little project called “Scumwatch”. As far as I am aware, “Scumwatch” is still going strong. It consists of taking photos of people in inner city Dublin whom my friend considered to be “scum”. You usually qualified for this title by wearing a lot of make-up and wearing pyjamas, or if you were buying a crate of beer in the middle of the day. This little photography project was greeted with absolute glee by all commentators. (I would be highly surprised if there was one commentator amongst them who did not have a university degree.) “Scumwatch” is a very good example of how we have created clear divisions between the classes in Ireland without any cognisance of the poisonous attitude that this betrays.

Quite apart from this being poisonous, we actually lose out when we take this attitude. Almost every man I work with in the prison would fall into the category of “scum” in the eyes of middle class Ireland, as would their partners and children. This attitude towards them was present before they committed their crimes…which I think you’ll agree is quite telling. My placement is set to last for two years (6 months down so far) and already it feels far too short. I came home from the prison yesterday absolutely bursting with love for the men I work with and said to my husband that (a) I am dreading leaving them when the placement is complete and (b) that I couldn’t imagine loving other prisoners in other contexts as much as I love the men in my prison! This is not what I expected to happen! In my arrogance I expected to bring love, tolerance and kindness into the prison; not to receive it myself in abundance, which is what has taken place. If I truly believed that the men in this prison were scumbags and should rot there forever, then not only do I deny them their dignity but I deny myself of themselves. I lose out on sharing in their lives and being in relationship with them. Somehow, middle class culture has forgotten that quite simply, underneath the exterior of Burberry or loutish behaviour or peroxide hair is a beating heart. How can we have allowed this to happen?


choices versus chances

March 10, 2012

I was recently embroiled in a long (and undoubtedly pointless) internet conversation on the topic of prostitution (don’t worry – I had already checked the jobs websites that day; honest). There was a marked lack of empathy for the women who find themselves in this line of work, and it occurred to me fairly early on that it largely boils down to the old chestnut of choices versus chances. You’d imagine that this would be a reasonably non-contentious viewpoint, but no.

In our hyper-individualized culture, autonomy is the highest value.  And given our cultural history as a nation, this is not entirely surprising. In spite of this tendency towards negative freedom we remain enslaved to authority figures. That’s a little baffling, but there you have it. And along with this attitude of Me and Mine – My Way comes a sense of great self-righteousness at having earned everything I’ve gotten and therefore being deserving of it. Implicit in this perspective is the latent idea that those who have nothing deserve nothing, as they have earned nothing. The unfortunate problem with this comfy perspective is that it neglects to take into account the multitude of factors preceding our personal successes and failures.

When I was a child, my lower working class parents took an inheritance from the death of my grandfather and moved us from our lower working class town to a middle class town about twenty miles away. My father had left school at 14 and my mother at 15. Their aim was clear: to have their children grow up in a context where educational and material success in life was not an option, but an inevitability. It was a smart move. We were the poorest family on the street and I was the poorest girl in my class, but the importance of education had been drummed into me from birth and there were high expectations for me, which I duly attempted to satisfy. I’m now very grateful that they took that decision when I was four years old, as I’m not sure if I would have made it to university if all of my classmates had dropped out after their junior cert, as remains the norm in the town that we originally come from.

As part of my current MA I spend a day a week in a prison. The work is a profound joy and a privilege for me. Many of the men I spend time with are quite beautiful people. What distinguishes me from them is not in fact their crimes but my privilege. I am quite sure that if my father had raped me every night and my mother had drank the children’s allowance that I would be in quite a different state today. There is not so much to be said for choices after all, I find. Choices are good and making good choices is especially good, but only in the context of chance. To choose between two dreadful options is not really to make a choice, is it? From a theological perspective, anything I have been given has been given to me by God, and therefore my response to it ought to be one of sheer gratitude and a ready willingness to part with it. This means letting go of my ego (or self?) which is, of course, easier said than done. But hey, why not.

I suppose my aim in all this rambling is simply to pinpoint what I consider to be a fundamental truth: we are much more a product of our chances than our choices, and bearing that in mind thankfully releases us from our interminable need to judge everyone around us. Thank goodness for that.


almost famous

March 9, 2012

Well, I guess my last post resonated with a few people. Over ten thousand have viewed it so far, and it has sparked conversations all over the web. That was certainly a surprise. I commented to Eoin over lunch today that it’s a fairly rare experience for me to present a perspective that is met with such wide adherence. I’m usually in the 5% on any contentious issue. I’m not sure what that says about me, but in the midst of a difficult week for me personally, it was immensely cheering to receive all of your comments and messages of support and lovely emails of encouragement. I’m not on facebook so I couldn’t see what was being written there, but I could see the thousands of facebook shares in my blog stats. I actually felt a bit teary reading the twitter track. So a very, very sincere thank you to each one of you.

I have not yet heard anything back from the social welfare office, but I do not expect to. Remember I am still receiving Jobseeker’s Benefit, not Jobseeker’s Allowance. Benefit is based on two conditions: (1) that I am honestly seeking work and (2) that my PRSI contributions are up to date. I qualify on both counts so I fully expect to continue receiving my dole payment until my PRSI contributions run out in the summer, at which point my finances will be means tested.

It is a very odd feeling, you know, having something you’ve idly written suddenly becoming widely read and talked about. Of course you’re always aware that your blog is something public, but I’ve always written with about ten or fifteen people in mind who I know will obligingly follow along…and that’s about it. In fact there are lots and lots of people in my life who do not read my blog and who are unaware that I wrote that post that went slightly viral. It has left me feeling quite exposed and vulnerable. I was somewhat relieved that the “SHE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD” brigade were thoroughly eclipsed by the “YEAH STICK IT TO THE MAN” brigade, because you know, it leaves you in a sad place, being terminally unemployed. I have been in and out of low-paid work for four years now. I am well educated thanks to the free fees that were indiscriminately doled out in this country up until recently: I was the first in my family to go to university, and it promised a lot. I got a small grant for the first bout of postgraduate study and worked full-time to pay for the rest, as well as having the unfailing support of my husband-unit in all things. I have had paid employment all my life since I was 11 years old, beginning with a paper-round in my housing estate in Dublin. At 15 I began work in a pub, and was not out of work again until over ten years later when I lost my job when the company I was working for suddenly ran out of money and let me go without notice or a redundancy package at the end of 2008. Since then, I have only managed to secure temporary short-term positions, enjoyed in the midst of that a five month period of severe ill-health, and despite my absolute best efforts, have not had a single interview since August 2011. I am currently working through a professional MA (something some might consider a contradiction in terms, but it’s true), part-time and at night, so that in just over a year I will be qualified in a new area, as getting work in my current field, or any general kind of work at all, seems to be impossible unless you know the “right people”. And I have never known the right people, unfortunately, which is probably just as well. Because the right people tend to do things a little crookedly a lot of the time. I have, as of yet, no idea as to how I will pay the fees for the next semester of this MA. You can’t even get a credit union loan when you don’t own any property, you know.

So, it can take its toll, this unemployment and instability thing. After a week of making, say, 15 applications for jobs which I could do standing on my head, and hearing absolutely nothing in return (not even an acknowledgment of receipt of application), you do begin to ask yourself, what the fuck is wrong with me? I remember going to Tesco late one night a few weeks ago and was standing in the self-service queue with my milk and whatever else, and the girl supervising the area was about nineteen with greasy hair and a mouth full of chewing gum and was having a loud conversation with her friend on her mobile phone. I don’t begrudge that girl her job, but Tesco turned me down.

So I have however decided I’m not asking that question any more. At least, not in relation to the issue of employment. (My favourite comment that got tweeted and retweeted was “Somebody give this person a fucking job!”)

My husband and I are not destitute, by any means. He has worked steadily, although his contract ends soon and we will face new and quite terrifying challenges. This is keeping us both awake at night right now. We currently have food and the bills get paid and we never had the money nor the inclination to over-spend during the boom, so we don’t owe anyone a cent. But we do not have any savings or assets of any kind (anything saved has gone on things like filling the tank with oil, or doctor’s bills), and we had really imagined that it might have been possible to have a home of our own by now, or have had a bit of financial freedom. Sadly not.

I am angry about the bank bail-out (you might have picked up on that), but I want to say also that I do have perspective. I remain one of the richest people on planet earth, economically speaking, and I was blessed and fortunate enough to be born into a context that offered me the kind of opportunities of which the majority world could only dream. Aside from the economic, I have a life rich with deep friendships, a real spirituality, a loving community, and the soul-food of books and art and music and poetry and movies.

I also occasionally write a really widely-read blog entry.

So, you know, it definitely could be worse.


actual correspondence with the social welfare office this week

March 7, 2012

Department of Social Protection,
Your Town,
Your County.

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http://www.welfare.ie

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Dear [Chip Monk],

I am writing to you about your claim for JobSeekers Benefit.

To qualify for this scheme you must meet certain conditions. For example:

  • You must be free to take up full-time work
  • You must be making real efforts to find suitable work. Suitable work means work that is appropriate for you taking into account your age, physique, education, where you live and your family circumstances.

I need to know if you continue to meet these conditions. Therefore please answer the questions on the enclosed form and return it to us within the next 14 days.

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Your payment will be affected if you do not reply within 14 days.

.

Yours sincerely,

The Manager

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Name: The Chip Monk

PPS: xxxxxxxx

Telephone number: 086 xxxx xxx

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PART 1

1. What educational qualifications do you have?

None:

Primary: Yes

Second level: Yes

Inter/Junior Cert: Yes

Leaving Cert: Yes

Third Level: Yes

Details of Third Level Qualification: BA Hons, MLitt, HDip, MA [in profectus]

.

2. Give details of any other qualifications you have, for example, trade qualifications, Safe Pass. _____________

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3. Do you have a driving licence? Yes: a provisional

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4. Do you have a CV? Yes (enclosed)

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5. When did you last work? August 26th 2011

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6. Who was your employer and what type of work did you do? The government. Temporary clerical officer.

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7. Are you free to take up full time work? Yes

If ‘No’, please state reasons ____________________________

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8. Are you looking for work? Yes

If ‘No’, please state reasons why not:_____________________

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9. If you cannot find work in your own occupation

What types of work would you do? Retail, sales, service industry, accounts, cleaning, childcare or anything else.

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10. If you cannot find work in the area in which you live are you prepared to travel outside the area to look for work? Yes

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11. Have you been offered part-time or full-time work since you claimed Jobseeker’s Benefit, Allowance or Credits No

If ‘Yes’, please give reasons why you did not take up this work: _____________________

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12. Have you registered with FÁS?  FÁS provides expert guidance, resources and training and access to job vacancies at home and abroad.

No, they don’t offer expert guidance, resources and training and access to job vacancies. And yes, I have registered.

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13. Have you spoken to a Facilitator at your Local Office, to a FÁS officer or to a Local Employment Service (LES) about work that might be available to a person with your qualifications, skills and experience? Yes

If ‘Yes’, please give details of the advice you got and what you have done to act on this advice: I was advised I MIGHT get a place on a WELDING COURSE in Ballyfermot (a location inaccessible by public transport from my home) in 18 MONTHS’ TIME.

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14. Have you done any FÁS courses or have FÁS offered you any training? No

If ‘Yes’, please give details: ____________________

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15. What else have you done to find work since you began signing for a Jobseeker’s Payment or credits? Everything I could possibly think of, including beginning another MA at night. 

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16. Why do you think you have not succeeded in getting work? SEE ATTACHED NOTE:

The Irish economy is engaged in arguably the largest redistribution of wealth in the history of modern economics. The agreed moderate prediction for what our bank bailout will cost is €70 billion. That is: €70,000,000,000.

The average industrial wage before the boom was €36,000. Were I to earn this much money in a job, I would be comfortable beyond my wildest expectations. To put these two figures in perspective, 70 billion euros would give just under 2 million people (1,944,444) a job at €36,000 a year.  SEE ATTACHED GRAPH.

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N.B. The graphs seem to indicate that in the face of the government’s decision to bail out the banks, I, along with anyone else seeking an average job, am simply invisible.

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As the Irish government reorientates its budgets to pay this massive amount of money to the markets to support banks that were criminally mismanaged and utterly corrupt in their methods, it redirects money that was spent on providing services (through human beings who were paid to do those jobs) and developing infrastructure (that allowed people to do things that generated profit and thus created jobs). This increases the number of people out of work and hence reduces the amount of money being spent in the economy and the amount of money available to grow the economy. Hence, the economy has contracted in what is commonly called a recessionPeople don’t have money to spend. Money is not spent. Jobs are lost. No new jobs are created. Except money is being spent. On our behalf. To shareholders in banks that by right should have gone bankrupt. So why? Why do I not have a job? This is why I think I have not succeeded in getting work.

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PART 2

Please give any details here of any jobs you have applied for recently and any documents you got in response to your enquiry.

Here, I outlined 7 of my most recent applications from the last 2 weeks and attached all relevant documents, including correspondence from employers and notices of rejection. 

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PART 3 DECLARATION

I declare that I am capable of work, available for full-time work and genuinely looking for work.

I also declare that the information I have given on this form is true and complete to the best of my knowledge and belief.

I know that it is an offence to make a false statement or to withhold information for the purpose of getting a jobseeker’s payment. I will tell the Department of any change in circumstances that may affect my claim for Jobseeker’s Benefit, Allowance or Credits.

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Signed: The Chip Monk

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Date: 5/3/2012