[we’re all mad here] on the other side of now

It’s August 2014, and as I write, for the first time in my life my mental illnesses are countable as being in remission.

I’ve more or less abandoned this blog of late. It’s a shame, and I shouldn’t have, but the girl who wrote the other [we’re all mad here] entries feels like a different person. I don’t recognise her voice. I remember writing them, but six months out of the trenches and I feel like I’ve left her behind.

The past is a foreign country.

I’ve mentioned a few times, to the friends who’ve only known me as being well, that for the last five years or so I’ve felt like half a person. Clearing out my old folders last night – preparing to move cities for uni – I was struck by a powerful sadness at all the things I’ve missed; all the things I half-remember. I was so absent from my life. The first half of my twenties more or less disappeared into the fog, and the people I’ve loved and lost only got parts of me. I was so unaware of how ill I was. I was so unaware that it was even possible to live differently.

I’m not kidding myself that I am free and easy in the land of the mentally healthy. Not until recently have I dared to describe this as remission, and as for the other r-word – recovered – you won’t find me saying it any time soon. That would be invoking the Wrath of the Whatever from High Atop the Thing. It will come back. I know it will. I just feel like now, I know it can be different. I can let it wash over me, but I know that it need not necessarily consume me. For the first time I understand that the power struggle does not have to end with my concession.

It’s been awful. But I’m here. I’m alive. I’m enjoying people. I’m nervous, excited, but not petrified about starting another degree, and I’m attached enough to my life and my friends that moving is bittersweet. I need to stop starting stories with the phrase ‘so that was after my mental breakdown – well, one of them…’ – but on the other hand, it’s my history and I’ll keep talking because openness is the only way to show that it’s not shameful. Painful and at times, embarassing, but not shameful. Just one part of who I am.

Thanks-Offering for Recovery, by Robert Lowell

The airy, going house grows small
tonight, and soft enough to be crumpled up
like a handkerchief in my hand.
Here with you by this hotbed of coals,
I am the homme sensuel, free
to turn my back on the lamp, and work.
Something has been taken off,
a wooden winter shadow –
goodbye nothing. I give thanks, thanks –
thanks too for this small
Brazilian ex voto, this primitive head
sent me across the Atlantic by my friend…
a corkweight thing,
to be offered Deo gratias in church
on recovering from head-injury or migraine –
now mercifully delivered in my hands,
though shelved awhile unnoticing and unnoticed.
Free of the unshakeable terror that made me write…
I pick it up, a head holy and unholy,
tonsured or damaged,
with gross black charcoaled brows and stern eyes
frowning as if they had seen the splendor
times past counting… unspoiled,
solemn as a child is serious –
light balsa wood, the color of my skin.
It is all childcraft, especially
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
Goodbye nothing, Blockhead,
I would take you to church,
if any church would take you…
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.

[2013] time to start working on a nerdy little Xmas

Long time no blog. It’s December 1st and I’m starting to think about this year’s nerdy Xmas cards. Last year’s had some very bad cartoons, such as:

curiosityfinal

and

Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin's Christmas wishlist wasn't a bit of a wind-up.

Text: Charles wondered if Mrs. Darwin’s Christmas wishlist wasn’t a bit of a wind-up.

I also made my then-bf a Higgs Boson tree ornament.

See, it's a Higgs Boson...

See, it’s a Higgs Boson…

... but sometimes he's a bit publicity-shy.

… but sometimes he’s a bit publicity-shy.

And now for some form of inspiration to strike…

Science Grrl!

Last week I asked on Twitter if there would be interest in setting up a Dublin chapter of Science Grrl. I got a fantastic response! I’m just jotting down a quick blog post to serve as a brief introduction and statement of intent to those who’ve expressed interest, or those who are coming on this for the first time. Do feel free to get in touch!

Feminists, scientists, educators, geeks: your attention, please.

The UK-based Science Grrl organisation is about to have its first birthday, and it’s high time we had a chapter here in Dublin. Science Grrl is a volunteer-based organisation that promotes engagement in (and enjoyment of) the sciences to young women. It’s led by Dr Heather Williams and her committee, and has hundreds of members across the UK.

They’ve participated in lots of campaigns and events in the past year, including lectures, festivals, fundraisers, sponsorships, work with educators, and online events like Ada Lovelace Day. Their website has a great blog section where members write about the events in which they’ve been involved, and I’d recommend you poke around the site a bit if you want a good sense of what they do.

Currently, membership costs £5 – it’s not essential that you be a member to take part in a chapter’s activities, but it is a good way to support the organisation. I believe there are plans afoot for a shop too! If you do join and mention that you’d like to be part of the Dublin group, Liz will put you in touch with me via email.

Setting a local chapter up in Dublin would firstly involve a group of us getting together to discuss ways in which we could engage with the Irish scientific community and with young people. I say Dublin in particular because it’s my closest city, and has lots of events that we could play a part in. Obviously, if there’s interest it would be great to have other Irish groups! I’d like to try to arrange a meeting at some point in the next couple of weeks to gauge interest and start getting some ideas moving. I was thinking one evening, in the city (possibly in the Science Gallery? It’d be fitting!), and would love to hear from you if you’re interested. It would also be lovely to get some entries for Ada Lovelace Day stories from Irish people.

Get in touch! I’m on here, or over on Twitter as @pingulette.

the skeptic, the witch, and the tarot: in search of narrativium

I turn the cards. The Moon – writing, dreams, foreshadowing. The Five of Swords – depression, defeat. The Knave of Pentacles – obstinacy, but financial smarts. I’m connecting the images, trying to pull out the thread linking them. My friend is watching me, trying not to let emotions play across her face. She’s not doing well. I turn another card. The Three of Wands – sucess through hard work. Story time.

Here are some facts: tarot is cold-reading in the vein of psychics. It’s beautiful symbolism, but it’s all an act.

Some other, less obvious facts: I read tarot. I learned from a friend several years ago. I adore tarot art, and the meanings behind the cards. I love surprising people with it.

I’m an endlessly thwarted writer of fiction, and a fairly scrappy writer of non-fiction, but there’s something in the idea of bringing together links, symbols, and art to produce a narrative that I find irresistable. Add in the cold-reading and you keep yourself on the hop, but that’s not the point. The point is the story.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe, Narrativium is a natural element in the vein of earth and fire. It ensures that the world works as a story. It lies where choice turns into inevitability; lies counter to free will even as those inside the narrative imagine themselves to be acting freely. Narrativium enters both deep magic and prosaic human interactions.

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do, and is not for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination.

Isn’t that a marvellous concept? Free-flowing story. Story in the air, in the ground, in ourselves. Story functioning alone, with no purpose other than its own completion. Impassable, like evolution and the earth’s rotation.

Philip Pullman uses a similar concept in his His Dark Materials trilogy, with an elementary particle called Dust that appears when lifeforms become sentient, and inspires knowledge and consciousness. Dust we have, and unto Dust we return the lifegiving force of thought. Sentient beings inspired by the universe, and needed by that same universe. It’s a beautiful idea which taps into the intense desire our species has to feel a connection to our physical and mental places.

We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the Universe. When humans first looked at the stars, which are great flaming suns an unimaginable distance away, they saw in amongst them giant bulls, dragons, and local heroes. This human trait doesn’t affect what the rules say — not much, anyway — but it does determine which rules we are willing to contemplate in the first place. Moreover, the rules of the universe have to be able to produce everything that we humans observe, which introduce a kind of narrative imperative into science, too. Humans think in stories…

We do. We can see streaks of victory and loss in the results of a coin toss; we cheer for the gazelle or the leopard in an Attenborough documentary. Even the Higgs Boson stories from last year were written as if the universe somehow worked to produce us. We don’t like to believe we’re a blip on the record, and to stop ourselves falling into the Total Perspective Vortex of the infinite, we tell each other stories about a big man who lives in, and yet not in, the sky, or twins raised by wolves who founded a city, or cycles of reincarnation that mean our own story will go on after this life ends.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, who co-write the Science of Discworld books, refer to humans as Pan narrans – the story-telling ape. Far from the ‘wise man’ label of Homo sapiens, it is not our intelligence that marks us as different from the other branches of our evolutionary tree. It’s our imagination.

And so back to the tarot. Tarot deals with the big questions – life, love, people. There are different layouts used for various purposes, ranging from a simple one-/two-card draw on an immediate dilemma, to a full spread of past-present-future including influences and inner thoughts. You learn the meanings, you deal the cards, you watch your questioner very carefully, and you start to talk. Talking around the topic is the easiest thing to do – so you get, say, a Knave card, and you mention something about a young man. Get a Swords card next to him, and you ask if they’ve had a problem or a bad experience with a young man. Speak in generalities, and then when you see something register on your questioner’s behaviour, grab that thread and run with it.

The story is open-ended. Oh, we have banal things in common (find me someone who hasn’t had trouble with or about a young man), but we each have our incredibly disparate paths to walk. Story guides us. We live in a pattern of stories, led and gently pushed into place by the part of our brains that’s absorbed the patterns of narrative in the media we’ve consumed. The brain wants stories, wants order. The brain would dearly love to encounter some narrativium instead of just feeling like it should be there. We build ourselves castles of happily-ever-after, or models of justice in which good guys are vindicated and bad guys are punished. In a world so unpredictable, we crave certainty.

We are so curious, too. We want to know what lies ahead for us, and what’s currently going on in the minds of our peers. We consume the lives of others, real or fictional, in a voracious desire for insight. Then we play the game with ourselves: will I ever know what’s going to happen to me? Small wonder that so many people end up consulting fake fortune-tellers for a window into the future.

In another Discworld book, the old witch Granny Weatherwax disapproves of displays of magic and occult paraphernalia as being ‘myffic’. The myffic, in Granny’s estimation, includes any airy-fairy claims to, and ways of practicing, magic. Granny knows that magic exists – she is a witch, after all – but she understands that most of what people think of as magic is really ‘headology’. The trappings of magic don’t matter as much as belief.

The human brain is an amazing machine. Our need for belief and creativity (and either and both) is a deeply-rooted part of our consciousness. We’re drawn to expressions of those traits, and when we reach a point where knowledge is impossible – like predicting the future – we turn to each other to provide answers. Tarot cards are a visual language with symbolic meaning, but they’re not where the power lies. The power is in the human connection between reader and listener.

It always is.

Some interesting links about storytelling and the brain out of this article on Lifehacker.

Quotes are from The Science of Discworld books, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. I recommend His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman as well. Granny Weatherwax appears as herself. SHE ATEN’T DEAD.

through the lens

When I make a photograph, I am literally cropping out the rest of existence — its tension, its chaos, its hunger, its pain. For one small moment, I wall myself into a world of my own creation; a world where things may not make immediate narrative or logical sense, but where everything is in balance. Thin, almost pencil-drawn lines offset wide, flat spaces. The smooth hardness of glass acts as counterweight to the fine hairs of a polyester wig. I don’t have any pretensions of long-term escape. I know when I put the camera down, when I step back from the print, there will be something like an avalanche of smells and voices, car alarms and newspaper headlines, legal obligations and biological concerns.

I will be a part of things again over which I have no control. But for a moment, I have hidden long enough to take a breath.

Tim Lisko

I love this quote. He sums up the act of photography, for me. I’m not a professional, and I’m not even all that comfortable calling myself a photographer. I just love to make pictures. There’s a simplicity to viewing the world through an internal lens. There’s a real beauty to framing a scene just so; to understand the elements of a picture and work out how best to reveal that vision through my camera is a process less technical than instinctual for me.

I get asked sometimes whether photographing an event distracts me from what’s happening at the time. I don’t think it does – I actually think, sometimes, that a camera makes me more mindful of what’s going on in front of me. I recall events not as two-dimensional tableaux, but as dynamic, fired with movement, full of all the senses. A sidelong grin, a hand gesture, the colours of lights. I seal the moment in its entirely into my mind; I access it again through my images. Is it work shooting events? Sure it is. Is it a disadvantage to my overall experience? Absolutely not.

Getting that one great shot is a constant challenge. I take many more frames than I’ll ever need to use, but that one, that perfect one, is elusive. Iconic photos stay in the mind like constant zeitgeistish scenery, and you aim for one. Of course you do. You feel that Corbijn or Cartier-Bresson or Leibovitz looked at their most famous shots and thought, yep, that’s one for the record books. You can’t know either way. Do images stay iconic because they have a higher intrinsic quality than their peers, or do we self-perpetuate images as iconic?

I will probably never know that an image is the one, the most important, the absolute best it could be. Most of us will never be Carter in Rwanda; most of us will never see something that absolutely needs recording, needs to be seen. We just work on and hope that we stumble over that wily quarry at some point in our lives.

I love taking photos. I have that love that Lisko enthuses over in his artist’s statement – grabbing a moment’s peace out of chaos, finding at least one rectangle of world that is your vision and only yours. I love the instinct and the certainty of framing an image. With words, I self-edit and second-guess. With a photo, I’ll only try to change it for the better. It’s a freedom of expression granted by control – I can give of myself in photographs more than in words, because photos are, at the same time, intensely personal and entirely objective. It’s a beautiful contradiction, a beautiful balance. It’s just beautiful.

My photos live here. I’m definitely no Annie Leibovitz.

say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.

a quick run-down on DOMA

So what happened in the US Supreme Court today?

SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) handed down a judgment declaring the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. In practical effect, this means that same-sex couples can now enjoy equality in marriage with heterogeneous couples.

What is DOMA?

DOMA is an act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. It limited the definition of marriage in the US to one man and one woman. It also meant that the US would not recognise a same-sex marriage conducted elsewhere.

I have to stop you here – I’ve seen people saying not to call it ‘same-sex’ marriage.

They’re right – it should be referred to as ‘equal marriage’ as that is what it is. However, I’m going to need a way to refer to it as differentiated from the institution of marriage as it has been up to now. What’s really rather annoying is when people call it ‘gay’ marriage – that takes away the voices of bisexual or queer or trans* individuals who are also affected here.

To clarify – I am not saying that all individuals under the trans* umbrella are also queer, but that some are, and that some people identifying outside the gender binary would have had problems in wishing to marry someone of their registered-at-birth sex.

What did the SCOTUS declare?

SCOTUS decided, by the narrowest of majorities, that DOMA is unconstitutional in US law. The Court struck down the law 5-4, with Kennedy J leading for the majority. The case – United States v Windsor – involved a widow, who had been married to her partner in Canada, and who was, at the time of her wife’s death, living in New York State. New York recognised same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. If that recognition counted under federal law, Ms Windsor would not have to pay the massive estate tax on inheriting her wife’s property.

US law works on two levels – state and federal. In a nutshell, state law refers to the individual governance of each state by itself; federal law comes from Washington DC and applies everywhere. Kennedy J points out in his judgment that there are over a thousand federal laws referring to marriage or marital status, all of which Ms Windsor and others in her position could not benefit from. Traditionally, domestic status was a matter for individual states; DOMA overreached that entirely.

Kennedy J’s opinion is long enough, but worth reading. However, you can get its thrust from this lovely bit of legal writing:

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects… and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

Why did it take so long to get here? I thought Obama was going to repeal this law straight away.

The Obama administration considered DOMA to be wrong from the time of his first campaign. In 2011, his Attorney General stated that the administration would continue to enforce DOMA until it was overturned by the Courts or repealed by Congress, but that as for themselves, they considered it unconstitutional and would not defend it if a case was taken to overturn.

The legal system of the US, like our own, believes in the separation of powers between executive (administration), legislative (the parliamentary Houses), and judicial (the courts). The executive did not want to act in contravention of that system. Whether you consider that for better or for worse is up to you.

We have a similar situation in Ireland, don’t we?

We do – same-sex couples in Ireland can get a civil partnership under the 2010 Civil Partnerships and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act (CPCROCA). They cannot obtain a marriage, and therefore lose out on some benefits, including joint guardianship of children. Also, different-sex couples cannot obtain a civil partnership. It’s an entirely two-tier system and quite unfair.

I’ve seen people have reservations about the impact of this SCOTUS ruling.

I don’t think most liberals have reservations about the beneficial impact of the repeal. There are a few different viewpoints, though. One strong contention is that marriage is not the defining victory it seems – that there is still a lot of discrimination faced by LGBTQ people that won’t be corrected by allowing marriage. A vocal minority contend that they don’t want equal marriage at all; that they have no interest in buying into society’s institutions.

Conservatives will have many qualms about today, but it’s my general opinion that they’re going to end up on the wrong side of history on this one anyway, so I don’t feel too sorry about that.

What do you think?

I’m a believer in the power of a good symbolic victory. I’m also a believer in allowing all strands of people the same level of access to societal institutions, so that you may partake or not partake of them at your will. I feel the frustration of progressives that we get nothing but baby steps toward full equality (the abortion debate in Ireland being a topical example). If there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from studying law, though, it’s that most progress comes as the combined effort of many little rocks tumbling, rather than one massive avalanche. DOMA has had several challenges before now, and its time had come. Slowly but surely – that’s how we effect change.

I’m also thrilled at the strong advisory precedent this sets for other jurisdictions like our own.

Is that really all you’ve learned about legal matters?

Not really. I also know that the law is almost always an ass – but I still like when it shows its good side.