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Category Archives: Observations

Arnica, or Why I Want To Cut A Bitch

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Okay, so I’m part of an online support group for trans men, and in that group, the use of arnica is widely promoted for the healing of bruising following top surgery.

Fair enough. I’m a martial artist with competition experience, and I know what arnica gel can do. Gently rub it into the affected area, and it’ll take down the bruising so quickly that you might believe it’s magic. I fully support anyone who wants to improve their appearance post-surgery by using arnica gel.

However. I recently saw a post in which multiple users were advocating the use of “30c” arnica. Which, if you’re not familiar with the sale of snake oil, is a homeopathic dilution of 10-60, which is a mindbogglingly tiny number. In fact, you’d need to give “two billion doses per second to six billion people for four billion years” in order to get a single molecule of arnica into a single one one of those six billion people. It’s one molecule of arnica for every nondecillion molecules of water.

So. How much water is a nondecillion molecules?

Avogadro’s number is 6.022 x 1023 – the number of molecules in a mole. A mole of water weighs just 18g, and as the density of water is 1.00 g/ml, that’s 18ml. For the sake of me not bothering to get a calculator out, let’s call that half of 1024 molecules. So 1024 molecules is 36ml of water.

36 litres of water is 1027. 36 cubic metres is 1030. 36 cubic kilometres is 1039. By this point you’re probably losing your sense of scale, so let me put that into terms you might understand. That’s five times the amount of water that’s in Loch Ness. Yeah, that Scottish loch that’s famous for possibly having a gigantic fucking cryptid living in it.

1032 molecules of water makes a body ever so slightly larger than Lake Huron. Lake Superior is barely three times bigger.

Remember which number we’re trying to get to? 1060? Yeah, it’s still an awful long way off, isn’t it?

1035 water molecules in the Mediterranean Sea. (3,600,000 km3). 1037 dwarfs the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, turns out the world’s oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and icy bits only contain 1.37 billion km3 of water. Which is only 4 x 1037 water molecules.

WAIT ONE GOSHDARN MINUTE. That would mean that diluting one molecule of arnica in 1060 molecules of water is a physical impossibility. Yep. Water molecules may be fucking tiny but 1060 is a fucking huge number.

In fact, we would need 1.66 x 1033 kg of water to substantiate such a claim. And one single arnica molecule, presumably carefully placed into the water by fucking Tinkerbell. Earth weighs just shy of 6 x 1024 kg. The motherfucking Sun weighs near as damn it 2 x 1030 kg.

So. We’re looking at a quantity of water that is so huge, “a thousand times more massive than the motherflipping Sun” is the closest I could get to putting it into terms that a human can get their heads round.

It’s also more than the estimated amount of water in the entire Milky Way galaxy (1045 molecules), and in the largest single body of water ever discovered (1048 molecules).

Which should put beyond all doubt that the claims made by homeopaths are inarguably false, that their dilutions make no sense and if diluting something makes it stronger, then just apply some tap water- I definitely washed some arnica off in the shower once, and the water supply should “remember” what it looks like.

Which is why it hacks me off so much that someone, somewhere has infected the transmasculine population with the nonsense idea that a dose of nothing more or less than water will improve their surgical results.

Dysphoria fucking sucks. Some b’stard is making a pretty penny out of it.

And if I find them, I will fucking cut them.

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On Paths

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Sometimes, walking across the countryside, people don’t stick to the paths. Instead, they forge their own route, and over time, as more and more people tread the same path, it gets worn down. It starts to become a path in its own right.

That’s how I feel about gender.

I live in the UK, which like most Western societies, has these two paths, male and female. And anyone who doesn’t feel like those paths are right for them has to stomp down brambles and stinging nettles to get where they need to go.

I am nonbinary. I don’t feel female or male. “Male” might be a better fit- but it’s still not right.

But I’m too tired to have to be surmounting obstacles all the time. I have a temporary job in a crap economy and while I would love to fuck the system and dance to my own tune, I have rent to pay. I don’t have the spoons or the financial fallback to be a full-time gender outlaw.

I really want to make a video. But I’m afraid of success. I’m afraid of the video circulating, my employer finding out and then terminating me.

Because that’s legal. In the UK. In 2016.

While binary trans people have protection from all types of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, the law explicitly states that nonbinary people receive no such protection.

That makes me very afraid, and rightly so.

So, forgive people if they don’t “look” nonbinary. We’re just tired of scraping ourselves on thorns and we’ve decided to walk on a path for a little bit. It’s incredibly stressful to find your identity invalidated at every turn, and then to have the added indignity of being entirely vulnerable to the cruel whims of others.

But bit by bit, enough of us are going to walk that path for long enough that we clear the way. We will stamp down the obstacles one by one. And in our near future, someone will walk down that path, never once realising that there was a time when it wasn’t there at all.

The Long Littleness of Life

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Today, one of the year 7s at the school I work at asked me if I would rather be a gay man or a lesbian. Which, faced with having to explain my decision to a group of earnest eleven-year-olds, is a pretty hefty question.

See, having walked the twin lines of genderfluidity and bisexuality for a number of years, I am in a perfect position to answer. However, I found myself caught a little unawares.

These children are, of course, “magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life”. How the hell do I explain the hideous Venn diagram of homophobia and misogyny faced by both groups?

In the end, after a moment’s consideration, I said I’d rather be a gay man. Which is true.

Neither is a walk in the park. Neither is a choice many would make willingly. But, having seen both sides of the coin, I know what I’d pick.

I’ve been harassed in the street for being in a gay male couple and for being in a gay female couple. I know what made me feel more intimidated.

The year 7 in question kind of hit the nail on the head when he asked, “but how do lesbians even have sex?”

I replied, “I think there’s something you all need to know. I know we teach you about sex in school, so you think it’s the most important thing, but it’s not. There’s so much more to meeting a person, falling in love with them and enjoying your time with them.”

“But none of us would be here without sex!”

True, small child, true. But if the continuation of the species is the meaning of life, then all of human endeavour is ultimately pointless and we may as well build a rocket that will fire us all into the sun to save global warming the bother of killing us all off.

That’s why I felt frightened being perceived as a lesbian. Because queer people don’t love, they fuck. Type “lesbian” into a search engine, and the chances are you’ll be offered “porn” as your next word. Doubly true for the word “bisexual”.

If perceived as a lesbian, you’re inherently a sex object, there for the male gaze. It’s frightening.

When harassed as part of a gay male couple, the story is a little different.

The lone hetero Neanderthal male spots you. He frowns. He approaches your friend: are those two gay? Your friend replies in the affirmative. The Neanderthal frowns again before retreating.

It’s less darkly confrontational, less exposing. That’s not to say that horrors don’t befall gay male couples, because they do. Just- less often.

Again, you’re treated as a sexual being. But because the Neanderthal male sees himself as the object of your desires (the arrogant fuck), he’s actually afraid of you.

Not to mention the fact that he definitely couldn’t take both of you in a fight.

I couldn’t explain all of this to the kids. I explained that gay women, or women perceived as queer, are more likely to be denied jobs.

This definitely surprised them, and I wonder if any of them will think on it a little longer- why is it exactly that women get less than men when in an apparently similar position?

This is why I love working with children. They’re exposed to so much about the world, and just don’t have the experience to comprehend it. Consequently, they’re full of questions.

Questions like, “How do lesbians have sex?” are tricky, because there’s absolutely no way I’m explaining the clitoris to an eleven-year-old. I think it’s important to consider instead why these questions arise- overwhelmingly, I feel it is because relationship education in schools starts at sex and works backwards.

I know why. Because sex is easy, and love is complicated. That doesn’t mean it’s right.

I am frightened for every single child that walks through our education system, and that’s why I work in it.

Cricket: A love story

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Growing up, I probably couldn’t have cared less about cricket. I knew names- Alec Stewart, Phil Tuffnell, Nasser Hussain- but the sport itself remained an unintriguing mystery. The then brand-new Channel Five did its best to kindle some sort of curiosity in me, but questioning my mother about this alien pastime was always met with dismissal- “it’s dull,” she told me, and I believed her.

Doing the maths, it was almost certainly 1997, making me just five years old- my father came by a spare ticket to a cricket match at Old Trafford, and was away for the weekend. When he came back, I asked if England had won, which he found very amusing. “It’s not finished yet,” he told me with a smile, evidently hoping to provoke curiosity. However, I was just too bamboozled, so much so that the moment would linger with me into adulthood. It was utterly inconceivable to methat a game could be played for days without even threatening to reach a conclusion.

Football, at that time, was the centre of my world. Football, so determined to reach a conclusion that it had penalty shoot-outs, golden goals and sudden death. Cricket, in light of that, made absolutely no sense.

I remained contentedly uninterested in cricket for the next eight years, until the summer of 2005. The famous summer of 2005, which to an England cricket fan means as much as 1966 does to a football fan. We all know what happened- The Ashes. The most famous and viciously contested prize in all of cricket, unusual in that only Australia and England compete.

Every 18 and 30 months, a touring team goes out with the hope of embarrassing their respective antipodean rivals. Since 1989, Australia had been the ones doing all the embarrassing. But in 2005, something changed.

The Australians went into the 2005 series boastfully predicting a 5-0 series whitewash, and indeed came away with the first Test. However, the second test was a different story. England won the match by just two runs, the smallest margin in Ashes history. Far from being the drubbing the Australians had predicted, the 2005 Ashes was that most glorious of things- a competition.

When the third test was drawn thanks to standard English weather, it looked like the 2005 Ashes series was due to go down to the wire. The nation was wracked by “Ashes fever”; I remained unmoved. Unfortunately, the story of how I came to love cricket does not have a happy beginning at all. My second cousins and I were due to go on holiday when my dad’s cousin, their father and uncle, died. As you might expect, this rather muted our summer break, where we would usually have been chatting and playing games, we found we had little to talk about.

On went the radio. I suppose my grandmother, or my uncle, must have been interested, but I think it was very much a way of masking our quiet, unexpressed, childish grief. The Fourth Test at Trent Bridge became the background to what would end up being the last holiday we took together as children. So many of the tests that summer are talked about with hushed tones; if it hadn’t been plying third fiddle to the Edgebaston and Lord’s tests, Trent Bridge would have been a real jewel.

The way I remember the fourth test is by the way of snippets of the final day’s play, snatched as I sporadically came into the house from the garden. England had been left just 129 to chase, and it was the first sense that the Ashes could actually be won. When Trescothick started ferociously, England dared to dream.

This of course, nearly killed the dream. Wickets started to fall quickly; the English believe so patriotically in their own continual failures that winning chances unsettle them. I remember it was sort of excruciating, hoping we could chalk up a few more runs before crumbling, and finally, we did so.

England were 2-1 up, and could not lose the series. The rest is indeed history.

I still proceeded not to care about cricket, only this time, with a niggling undercurrent of wishing I cared about cricket. The following Ashes series “down under” had been lost catastrophically 5-0, and it all seemed a bit like business-as-usual. England were crap again.

In the summer of 2009, however, I had a soul-sucking job in a grey-walled office, and remembering the glorious summer of 2005, I plugged in my headphones and listened to the institution that is Test Match Special. It’s got an English schoolboy charm, with Aggers, Tuffers, Blowers etc. telling you about pretty much everything but the cricket. It was a diversion from the monotony of sitting at my desk 9-to-5. If I hadn’t had cricket that summer, I would have spent my weeks drinking endless cups of tea and going to the toilet just for something to do.

I listened to the whimsical chatter as they spent a good 20 minutes describing cake on the radio, a delightful quirk of the format. Cake, being silent, delicious and frequently ornamental, is not suitable for radio, and yet the Test Match Special team have been devoting themselves to describing cake for 35 years.

Finally, after years of trying, I understood cricket. Yes, I liked to keep track of who fielded where, run rates, batting averages and other delightfully detailed statistics. But cricket isn’t something that can be explained away by a series of numbers. There’s a reason it goes on for so long- it isn’t supposed to settle a score, it’s to pass the time. It’s about long, lazy summers, a cold drink and excellent company, watching white-clad figures work their art on a crisp green canvas.

I don’t think I’ve explained why I love cricket very well. I don’t think I ever could. There’s just something about it that captures the spirit of summer, keeps it crystalline and pure, and when faced with the horrors of modernity, I think I need it sometimes.

Long live cricket.

Teaching the Unteachable

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An article on the Guardian website yesterday claimed that, in the United Kingdom, children are being taught creative writing skills in a detrimental manner. Classrooms up and down the country echo the mantra, “Don’t say said!”, and helpful posters list “banned words” like badgoodbig and and.

The net result, argue critics, is that students are being rewarded for producing flowery, unreadable wordvomit, and penalised for actually writing in a reasonable fashion.

From the ages of four to fourteen, pupils are discouraged from using short words where a longer one would do the job, and this is actively reflected in the grades their teachers are constrained into giving them. Mark schemes are absolute; if a piece isn’t riddled with synonyms, it won’t make the grade.

Most worryingly of all, from my perspective, is that the system was already very much in place when I was in school. Which means we have an entire generation of people who were conditioned into favouring purple prose.

Purple prose, for those who have not come across the term before, is the catch-all for writing which is so obtrusively ornate that it effectively hinders reading. Therefore, we have on our hands a generation of writers who will, by habit, be unreadable.

A targets-based educational system has ushered in a Dark Age in British literature.

Personally, I fear for my own writing. I have always thought of myself as “good”, but now I see that I was looking at myself through the lens of a system which valued the atrocious. I could be atrocious.

Then again, from a young age, I despised the “said is bad” dogma, because I knew flat out that it just wasn’t true. Plenty of the books I read used the word “said” in spades, and it never once got dull. The word “got” was also exiled from the classroom for no good reason, and it riled me beyond belief. I would spend minutes trying to replace this bit of fluff, this insignificant filler word. It destroyed the flow of my writing. And for what?

It never once became dull. It never once grew dull. It never once developed the property of being dull.

That’s what happens. Very quickly, one runs out of synonyms for these perfectly adequate words and has to resort to a feat of violent contortion. The word “got”, like “said” is essentially invisible to a reader. It very deliberately adds nothing at all to a sentence, because quite often there is nothing more to be said. In real life, people do not whisper or bellow or mumble or exclaim half as much as they say, say, say and say.

To really put all this hideousness into perspective, I’m going to include an excerpt from My Immortal, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction widely touted as the worst thing ever written:

‘”Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“How dare you?” demanded Professor Snape.

And then Draco shrieked. “BECAUSE I LOVE HER!”‘

Apart from everything else, what is utterly jarring about these lines is the way the writer has inflicted significance on the manner in which every line is said.

Yet, according to the syllabus, this is not obnoxious, cloying, violently unreadable tripe, but 10 out of 10, full marks, top of the class.

So- what’s the solution? I think the trouble with trying to grade creative writing is that reading is personal. Charles Dickens is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and yet I would rather spend four hours proofreading My Immortal-calibre fanfiction than endure Great Expectations again. If I was a primary school teacher, and Dickens was in my charge, I’d have him writing lines every break and lunchtime: “I will not use twenty words where one would suffice.”

The mark scheme, then, is a necessary evil. But I challenge you to tell me what should be on it.

I have another solution. Why did I, as a child, know that “said” was good, and “good” was fine, and “and” could actually be quite a pleasant device if I used it properly? It’s because I read.

I didn’t read, as the curriculum instructs, to derive meaning about the intentions of characters. I didn’t read in a way that was assessable or useful to my teachers. I read for the sheer pleasure of it.

Reward children for reading. Give them a wide selection of books (and audiobooks!) to choose from. Encourage them to share what they enjoyed about books. Make them write less. And when they do, don’t grade them. Show them to their peers. Ask what they liked about them.

I don’t know if it would work. But surely it’s better?

What are your thoughts? How should we teach children to write?

The Politics of Unhappiness

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Yesterday, somebody on a nonbinary Facebook group that I am a part of asked a question:

“If you had the chance, would you have chosen not to be queer/nonbinary?”

Beneath that were a barrage of “no” answers.

There’s this little thing called respectability politics, where minorities have to live up to certain anti-stereotypical traits in order to be acceptable to the mainstream. Gay men cannot be too camp. Black women must not be sassy. And so on.

The cardinal sin for any queer person, of course, is not to have pride. We are not supposed to resent our lack of basic rights, our reduced access to vital services, our role as social pariahs. Because we’re supposed to be proud. In Queer As Folk (UK), Rosalie hurls homophobic abuse at Vince. She later condones her actions- Vince is not “proud”, so how can he complain?

I don’t really want to go into the reasons why queer people must be visibly happy in order to be acceptable. I haven’t researched it. So, although I have a theory that it might be necessary to assuage the guilt of privileged but sympathetic allies, I cannot say for certain.

So, what then for those who are unhappy with their lot? What then for those who are long-term unemployed, lonely, estranged from their family? What then for those to whom a pride parade is nothing more than shrouding their genuine, justified pain in all the colours of the rainbow?

Being unhappy in a culture of “pride” is agony. Not everyone has the same journey- some people’s parents are supportive, some people have a strong network of friends, some people have a stable job with an accommodating company. And others don’t. The latter are the ones that need support the most, and yet, because they don’t fit with the respectable model of what a queer person is supposed to be, they’re sidelined.

Why do we think suicide rates are so high for queer and especially trans people? Could it be that never getting to say, “I am unhappy,” might take its toll on someone?

When asked if I would have chosen to be born straight and cis, I said yes. Because although I know I am a better person because of it (more open-minded, for example), I am tired. I’m tired of fighting the good fight, of writing to my MP and MEPs, to various governing bodies, to banks, supermarkets… and for what reward? An Mx on my railcard? It’s just not enough.

Not enough when I’m so tired of slowly martyring myself so that the next generation of nonbinary people can grow up with all the privileges I grew old too quickly to enjoy.

And you know what surprised me? That my reply, the only admission of weakness in a string of proud, happy messages, got the most likes. From people who hadn’t replied on the thread themselves.

These people were watching this thread, this tirade of unending, unrelenting pride. Thinking, “what the fuck is wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy?” So the second someone stood up and said, “I am unhappy. And I have a right to be unhappy,” that broke the levee. Their pain was valid.

So, think about that this pride season. How not being proud is seen as a failing not of a society that refuses to grant gender recognition to many trans people, but of those people themselves. Respect shame.