Without A Net

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This is my life

Sing it Shirley Bassey...


Sometimes when I feel afraid, I think of what a mess I've made of my life.

Sometimes when a short but intense relationship ends suddenly and without warning, and all that hope and excitement disappears in an instant, leaving you breathless and temporarily hollow, a lot of other sadness and stress creeps in to fill the vacuum.

Sometimes sleep abandons to you fight the grief and fear until morning.

Sometimes you stand by the banks of the river and wish you weren't such a coward.

Sometimes it takes a 30 mile bike ride out of London.

Sometimes it takes a good friend to tell you the sadness is normal, and that the spectre of your mother is an illusion.

Sometimes you start to realise things about your life, and make important decisions.

This is my life, and I don't give a damn for false emotion.

Today, tomorrow, love will come and find me,
But that's the way that I was born to be.

This is me.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Aliannah and Aleeah (Episode 8)

Forget romance, the most difficult and complicated relationship must be that between parent and child.

I recently - please don't judge! - have started watching 16 and Pregnant, MTV's reality show about children having to deal with the folliest of youthful follies. It sounds exploitative, and perhaps it is, but what draws me into it episode after episode is the core concept of parenting: the to and fro between love and resentment for a life lost, from longing to frustration. Some kids handle it, some kids don't; semi-frequently the baby is lofted onto the shoulders of an exhausted grandparent in order that life can continue, while in the next episode the teenagers are transformed into loving, responsible adults before our eyes.

I'm not, as those of you who know me personally would guess, drawn to this show because of any inate love for babies or impending broodiness, but rather the tense dance of obligation that makes up the parent/child relationship.

Somewhere on the other side of the ocean, right now, my mother almost certainly lies in a bed, awake and bleary, depression permeating her every pore until her body begins to crumble. It has been this way for years - only recently have I begun to suspect that she may in fact be in control of her health and is playing it for attention and pity. The stakes raise every year: of the 30 illnesses commenly feigned by people with Munchausen Syndrome, she has had 27. In the last year, she has stopped leaving the house, stopped doing her own laundry, stopped everything but caring for her tortoise - the one creature she won't be able to sway with the victim card.

Do I sound angry? Because I am. I'm very angry. I'm angry that this adult woman is choosing frantic, lonely seclusion because it offers quick pay-outs of pity. I'm angry that this woman can have a normal conversation with my brother (who won't put up with her drama) but thinks it is reasonable to leave near-daily messages on my phone moaning and warbling about suicide and desperation and horror. I'm angry that I've not been able to follow my brother's lead and find myself a secluded mountain somewhere on which to hide from her. Faced with a woman who adamently refuses to do anything to help herself, I. am. done.

Except can one ever be done with a parent?

You hear of celebrity children emancipating themselves from their parents - Macauley Culkin springs to mind - and you hear of children raising themselves successfully when the parents have fallen through or passed away, so I hardly think the active role of parent is a sacred thing. Love is not mandatory or a given, nor is loyalty or selflessness or devotion. In fact, the only thing that seems assured, be it positive or negative, is an unshakeable sense that the parent and the child are doomed to be connected forever, come what may. Even the friends of mine happily adopted to loving parents wonder sometimes about the people who brought them into the world. A colleague seethes resentment towards her lifelong absentee father, and the painful spectre of another friend's estranged brother was palpable when her father gave the welcome to the groom speech on behalf of the family.

That umbilical cord never seems to fully disappear. In many families it is a beautiful thing - an unspoken agreement that at least one person will love you unconditionally, always. In others, it is painful bondage to someone who you would rather walk away from.

My mother is seriously mentally ill and refuses treatment, and as a result has played almost no positive role in my life for years. Visit with her are week-long ordeals in which I am told in alternating moments how I am all she has and how I am a terrible, manipulative, horrible person. I do not like her, and wonder often if what I describe as love is really nothing more than filial obligation. As the months pass, my mountain hideaway beckons with increasing fervour.

In movies, mothers swear to newborn babes that they will love them and protect them forever.

In 16 and Pregnant, mothers look down a oily-eyed aliens and wonder what they've done. There is nothing solid about the relationship, nothing taken for granted except that it's going to be difficult and it's going to be complicated.

I guess I identify.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Psssst! Carrot!

Back home, many many years ago, my then-boyfriend Lance once sighed piteously and said, "If redheads knew their power, they would rule the earth."

Sadly for poor Lance, I wasn't yet a redhead when we dated, giving in the titian temptation mere months after our breakup. I've been red ever since, though, and it fits my personality and my self-identity so well that I frequently am surprised to see roots.

In Canada, red would turn a few heads. In Mexico, red made me an exotic goddess. In Britain... in Britain I have contemplated going blonde.

Britain, oh Britain! Seriously, what is your problem with the copper tops?

This is the hair colour I've been using for the past year - Nice and Easy Shade #108:

Recently, Clairol did a redesign of their box - not the product inside, just the box - and came out with this:

Weyhey, see what they did there?

This change was so significant that on three separate occasions did I stand in front of the wall of colours and think, "crap, they've stopped producing any reds!"

The bastards.

I would never go so far as to say I have experienced any gingerphobia here (although I'm hardly the carrot-haired and blonde-lashed redhead that tends to get the brunt of that). What I've witnessed is much more subtle: the depiction of an unattractive person as a redhead, debate over whether "Kick a Ginger Day" was hate speech or a good laugh, the entire slurry connotation of the word "Ginger." Most interesting of all is in St Paul's Cathedral, where a pre-apple Eve is a blonde and her cowering post-apple self is a vibrant redhead.

But why, Britain? What is the logic behind your pigmentism?

Some facts, thanks to Google:

  • In the Middle Ages, redheads and be-freckled folk were burnt at the stake for being witches. The Spanish Inquisition went so far as to equate the red colour with the fires of hell - proof of the woman's inherent evil.
  • A hundred years or so later, hair from a redheaded man was one of the key ingrediants of poison.
  • In reality, redheads on average require 20% more anaethesia to be sedated, and are prone to waking up during surgery.
  • Redheads go white, rather than grey, and tend do so much later than other hair colours.
  • Romans sold their red-headed slaves for more than all the others.
  • Aristotle didn't like redheads, considering them "emotionally not housebroken."
  • There is some evidence to suggest bees prefer stinging redheads.
  • On New Year's Eve, if the first person through your door is a redhead, you will have terrible luck all year. (Brunettes mean good luck, and blondes mean nada.)
  • Only 4% of the world are natural redheads, and that number is dropping. Fast.
And, my favourite Google factoid: "A French Proverb states that “redheaded women are either violent or false, and usually are both.” Ha!

For every creepy ginger kid, there is Vincent van Gogh.
For every ginger nerd, there is Winston Churchill.
For every unstable sexpot, there is an Elizabeth I.
For every "redheads are gross," there is a Gemma Ward, a Rita Hayworth, an Ann Margret, a Botticelli's Venus, row upon row of fetish mags, a Jessica Rabbit.

I don't get it.


(P.S. I'm not going blonde. I love my hair, damn it.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

One is the loneliest number

Nearly half my life ago, my then-boyfriend and I came up with a theory: that Hollywood romcoms are to women what pornography is to men, in that both create artificial and potentially destructive expectations of the opposite gender. It's not love, ladies, if the Empire State Building doesn't light up when he kisses you for the first time.

Now, most of us are smarter than that, and most of us are perfectly well aware that relationships take hard work and communication and patience.

I think.

See, I don't know. I mean, I vaguely remember that being true.

I had my first serious boyfriend at 16 year old - we dated for a year and half and loved well and parted with a ground-shaking amount of hurt and anger.

I dated my military boy for three years from 19 to 22, and then from 24 to 26 dated my academic.

And that's about where the serious relationships end. Oh, sure, there have been romantic trysts and traumas in between, but serious relationships? relationships with potential and with love and with that lovely worn-jeans comfort and ease? I peaked on those nearly a decade ago.

I have no lack of love in my life, but I have a serious lack of Love.

Does this bother me?

And, if so, why does it bother me?

Next year, at the ripe old age of 35, I shall be classed as a spinster. According to legal lingo, I am already a spinster, and a spinster "without issue" no less. Poor unmarried, childless thing.

This didn't bother me in the slightest until very recently. I was quite comfortable with the fact that my life decisions - moving every three years, living in Mexico - were not those of someone who sought the white picket fence and plastic-wrapped furniture life. In lieu of Love, I would have pub crawls in Edinburgh and sushi nights in Toronto and mariachis in Mexico - fair deal.

When my brother got married to his remarkable wife, and they produced their first remarkable baby, I actually felt a palpable sense of relief that the pressure was off me. I was, I think, about 27 at this time. I didn't envy their diapers and marital rows, not when the world was at my fingertips.

And then. A few months ago, my dad asked me to write a little blurb about myself on the website for a massive family reunion involving all descendents of my paternal grandfather and his siblings. He had already written his, my dad, which read something along the lines of, "[My dad] is awesomely successful and happy. His son Paul is married to the amazing lady and they have two amazing children. His daughter Erika is the world traveller."

Huh, I thought to myself. World traveller. Well, I suppose that's not a bad label, is it?

And then I read the rest of the profiles:

My cousin Kim (two years older than me) is married with a beautiful son.
My cousin Bryan (one year younger than me) is getting married in two weeks.
My cousin Lindsay (five-ish years younger than me) just got married.
My cousin Erin (eight-ish years younger than me) is getting married in October.
My cousin Jess (about the same age as Erin) is getting married this fall.
My cousin Kelly (got to be a decade younger) is getting married and becoming a stepmother.

The doubt and fear started almost immediately, like that dream we all have wherein you are about to take your final exam but you've not been to class all year: dread washing over, trying to figure out how you can turn back time.

World travelling is awesome but it's awfully chilly company on a cold winter's night, and it really sucks at taking care of you when you're ill or ageing. When I come home from a tough day at the office, world travelling rarely takes me in its arms and reminds me I'll get through this too. And when I received news of my bonus and raise yesterday, world travelling didn't really care (mostly because debt, the close companion to world travelling, was excited enough for both).

I am suddenly shudderingly aware of what I don't have in my life, and scared that it may never come to me.


Wanting to be partnered up is only one part of this issue. The fear and the desperation and the sorrow that is accompanying that desire can only be attributed to Meg Ryan and Reese Witherspoon.

For years now I have been taught that Love is something that comes to you when you're young and beautiful, and it's easy and full of radiant sunbeams and twittering bluebirds when it's right. Maxim tells me men only want girls when they're taut and young and droopy-eyelidded; Sex and the City tells me I should be in my raging prime right now, ravishing handsome boytoys every other evening.

As the years roll along, as they are wont to do, and my body begins it's rightful descent into soft, pendulous, imperfect yet flawless age, I am being hammered with messages that it's too late for me, that my life never caught up to what was expected of it, that the Empire State Building will never shatter into light for me. Meg is the perfect example of this: America's sweetheart when she was in her twenties, now she's in her fourties and can you think of the last time that pitiful, duck-lipped woman was depicted as a love interest? Age is prohibitive to love, Hollywood indirectly screams! And so are independence and experience, whispers Playboy.

But do you know what I think is even less attractive than jiggly bits? Rabid, misdirected, frantic, self-destructive, terrified desperation.

I am bursting with love, with the need to give and receive love. My fingers ache to tousle someone's hair. My arms ache to embrace another. My soul aches to know that it is not alone.

But I refuse to be defined by my lack of love, and to equate being single with being alone, even if every fibre of my body wants to believe it so.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Monkey feet

I have Morton’s Syndrome, a fairly common feature in which the second (and in my case, third) toe is longer than the big toe. My toes are so long that I regularly joke that I am most three generations away from being able to hang from a tree branch by my feet.

I’m not particularly bothered by my monkey toes, to be honest. We live in peace. They are my toes, my toes are me. They can be found on my mental list of “things that are perhaps imperfect about Erika but which don’t really bother her,” as opposed to either the “things Erika likes about herself” or the “things Erika loathes about herself” cousin lists.

Two weeks ago, I wasn’t really conscious that such lists existed, not until my stepmother reacted with unabated horror when I rejected a pair of peep-toe sandals on the grounds that it was my second toe that was doing the peeping. Again, there was no self-loathing to my logic - just, as I saw it, pure fact.

“Why do you care?!?” she wailed at me the next afternoon. “Why does it matter?!?”

And it doesn’t matter (not my toes at least) in as much as my toes are concerned. I swear it doesn’t.

But there is an underlying horrible truth her: I am aware of my TOES. My toes! And not just my toes, but my entire body, at all times, and my job and my social life and my relative success in the game of life. My brain is the synaptic equivalent of a room full of pre-schoolers hopped up on candy necklaces. If I could harness the energy I spend on micro analysis in a typical day and direct it elsewhere, I could cure cancer and the Middle East crisis by Friday.

I am a massive overthinker. “But!” as I told Lorna that afternoon, “I’m better than most of my friends!”

Which is also true, and very very sad.

An exceptionally beautiful friend was in town this weekend, and, like in some reliable social chemistry experiment, the addition of one female to one female produced a four-day gluttonous rampage of our – and everyone else’s – imperfections. Bushy hair, limp hair, wide calves, soft stomachs, grey hair, neck folds, inner things, jagged toes, aging hands, saggy breasts, cellulite, bad tans, body hair, uncut fingernails, dandruff, bad teeth, yellow teeth, crooked teeth, bad plastic surgery, good plastic surgery, too many muscles, broad shoulders, red bumps, dry skin, under-eye shadows, veins, clothes clothes clothes.

And dearie me, people, but this is one stunning girl spewing out this tirade of self-hate. Conventionally and uniquely beautiful all at once: creamy skin, brilliant blue eyes, all slender curves and radiant youth and health.

I got sensitive at one point: when she pointed out that one girl’s calves were a bit too wide for her legs to be considered “gorgeous,” I whipped out my mental tape measure and did a loop around my calves, falling silent and sad for most of the rest of the night. My calves moved from “not bothered”, to “things Erika loathes about herself” – I hadn’t previously thought of them as anything other than slightly-wide calves that fit relatively well with the rest of my frame, but now they stood in the way of my having gorgeous legs.

The agenda of crippling narcissism currently plaguing Western womenfolk (and, increasingly, menfolk) is serious stuff, and is not to be underestimated. You can find it discussed in women’s magazines, flanked by an advertisement for skin cream and an article on Scarlett Johansson’s breasts. We buy bathing suits because they flatter our figures, and shampoo because it makes our hair shiny. Sex and the City based six seasons and two movies on dissecting the daily minutia of women’s lives, in groups, over martinis. We are not allowed to be perfect yet we are not allowed to be imperfect, and always always always must we THINK ABOUT IT.

If we could harness the energy spent on micro-analysis by all women worldwide in a typical day and direct it elsewhere, we would learn how to fly.

In the first chapter of the book that, simplified and glossed over, produced the magic that is the movie The Princess Bride, William Goldman discusses Princess Buttercup’s efforts to become the most beautiful woman in the world. At the beginning of the chapter, she is perhaps sixth, but, with such polishings as slimming down one elbow and fattening up the other, she finds herself at the top of the ranks.

Goldman was being facetious when he wrote this, reflecting on the culture of ridiculousness that is the eternal question for feminine perfection. That beautiful Buttercup should feel held back by one slightly pudgy elbow is hilarious, truly – as delicious as the six-fingered man and the Rodents of Unusual Size.

Last night, I made note of soft, tiny folds above my elbows. Another jot on my “imperfect but not bothered” list.

I am sad for myself, for my beautiful friend, for the women I know, that we wade through the world with such enormous albatrosses on our backs, forever doing penance for crimes against industry-created ideals of perfection. And if that bird weighs too much, if that bird holds us back, if that bird keeps us down, well, we have no one to blame but our own brainwashed, trapped, crippled selves. We buy into this, we perpetuate it, we allow it to consume us whole.

We can stop hurting ourselves and each other.

We must stop hurting ourselves and each other.

We are in control, damn it.

We are in control.