Monday, 14 April 2014

'Compulsory amnesia': the (cowardly) art of forgetting our truths

'Compulsory amnesia' is a term I first came across while reading a Martha Medeiros' book. Medeiros is a well-known author and newspaper columnist in Brazil, who writes insightful short essays on daily life topics. 

I have been a Medeiros fan for years and often draw inspiration for my blogs from her writing. Sadly, her books are not available in translation in the UK, so I have posted my own translation here of one of her pieces from A Graça da Coisa (2013, L&PM Editores)
Medeiros got obsessed with the term 'compulsory amnesia' when a friend sent her a link to this You Tube video, where the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano touchingly reads from his book about our right to dream (of an ideal world). Galeano says we live in a time of compulsory amnesia and praises those who commemorate historical moments that ought never to be forgotten. 
Medeiros argues that amensia is at the root of much of the neuroses and unhappiness we experience. Because we so easily forget, we fail to find self-realisation. Here is an excerpt I have translated from the original Portuguese:
"We attempt to forget in order to carry on, but what kind of path do we tread when we do not face the truth?" 
"Forgetting is a survival strategy. We are all chronic forgetters. For starters, we forget a handful of neglects we suffered as children, as we are raised to consider our parents infallible. The hurts we internalise end up being labelled as tantrums, however the tantrums turn into traumas and these traumas end up undermining our trust in life while providing financial sustenance to our psychiatric clinics. Because forgetting is a way of preventing a total understanding of ourselves, and someone needs to help us remember so we can free ourselves. 
"We forget the abuses we had to swallow within a marriage or a relationship because we were taught that love must be strong enough to withstand the challenges of life as a couple, also because of fear of solitude, which gets terrible press. So, in order for us to fit in and feel loved and stoical, we forget the lies, the infidelities, the cruelties, the indifference, and we choose to keep something that just about resembles a relationship on the surface though it has ceased to be one the moment we stuck our heads in the sand. 
[...] "We forget, especially, who we are; our ideals, our wishes, our dreams, our beliefs, all in favour of fitting into our environment, as we are too lazy to undo a done deal and go searching for an alternative. We favour, instead, a cowardice that sticks to the soul and freezes all movement. Forgetting ourselves is like signing a deal with resignation."
Medeiros reminds us that amnesia is actually not obligatory. Thank goodness, we can choose not to choose it. 

We can, if we want, choose to remember that our jobs were making us feel undervalued; that loneliness made you confuse infatuation with real love for the man or woman who now shares your home; that the demands your mother/father/wife/husband has been making of you all their lives are not a sign of love but a desire to control and dominate; that the expensive car, or dress, or shoes, or television you bought with the money you earned failed to fill the void you carry inside once the novelty was over; that you are actually not okay about your dad or mum having walked out on you when you were five.

Most of us, unenlightened creatures of the world, live in elective blindness at least in some areas of our lives. But the process of coming out of that unseeing state of darkness to one of seeing is not an easy one if your default modus operandi is to avoid pain and discomfort at all cost. 

It amuses me to think that posting barefaced photos of oneself on Facebook and Twitter is commonly hailed as 'brave' by so many that a recent no make-up selfie social media campaign for Cancer Research ended up going viral and raising millions of pounds in just a few days

Living barefaced bare-souled on a daily basis requires a kind of courage that goes beyond a few days of fun picture posting. The mask that has hidden our ugly truths from the world for so long cannot be erased in one swipe with a makeup remover. Most likely, it has become part of our features, indistinguishable from the real 'I'. 

The moment we forget to forget what we do not want to know/see/hear, we are reborn into more adult versions of ourselves. I quote the delightful Medeiros again:
"We turn into grown-ups when we stop being afraid of making mistakes. We are not just the sum of our choices but also of the things we surrender. Maturity is [the ability] to make decisions then live in peace with the doubts."
May we all find the maturity and the courage to surrender. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

OH, SO, DH: why Internet abbreviations do my head in

I first started blogging, on MySpace, in the days when one had to learn a bit of HTML in order to perform the most elementary of tasks, such as changing fonts, or inserting photos or videos, for which there is now a one-click button in all blogging platforms. Compared to my non-blogging friends, I thought I was an übergeek.

It turns out I am also a relative old hand on Twitter. According to Twopchart's How Long on Twitter tool, I joined in January 2009, when it was still a novelty, and have been on it longer than 97.5% of all other users. Here is a summary of my stats:

As a regular social media user, I considered myself well versed in Internet slang and short forms. I thought knowing how to use TIA (thanks in advance) and IMHO (in my humble opinion), on top of the ubiquitious LOL (laughing out loud) and ROFL (rolling on floor laughing) was impressive enough.

But when I came across news of the hilarious penis beaker debate on Mumsnet last autumn, I realised, in shock, what an utter beginner I was in Internet-speak.

I also discovered how many words used by online communities grated with me.

The woman whose post triggered the debate kept being referred to by the Mumsnet community as OP, which for me was "operation". I had to look it up on Urban Dictionary to find out it meant "Original Poster".

Browsing the amusing chat they had had on unusual sexual habits of couples, I learned many other new abbreviations through which they referred to their partners: DH, which is "dear husband", SO for "significant other" and OH for "other half".

I had seen OH used on Twitter before and had thought it referred to the interjection "Oh", only the user had made it all caps because an exclamation mark alone did not suffice in expressing their enormous surprise. How naïve of me.

I now have the Urban Dictionary app downloaded on my phone for future emergencies.

Once I became aware of these abbreviations, however, I started noticing them literally everywhere. It still annoys me when I don't know the meaning of one and have to pull out the dictionary, but expressions such as "other half" and "significant other" make me cringe every time.

They feel like words with exaggerated significance mixed with snobbery and dubious sincerity; more hyperbole and caricature than reality.

Why can't we just say "husband" or, for cuteness, "hubby" and "wife/wifey" (maybe HBY and WFY?), and boy/girlfriends can be BF/GF? There is also the useful expression "partner", in case you don't want to reveal your marital status or the sex of your lover.

Mind, my almost hysterical objection to these expressions is probably sheer pedantry, so please indulge me in my linguistic kink.

I dislike the other terms with such semi-irrational passion that the mere sight of a quote using them tempts me to unfollow the user straight away, or if I was considering following a new person, that alone would have stopped me in my tracks:

OH: "Blah-blah-idiotic-or-funny-thing-he/she-just-said-which-is-actually-only-funny-to-you-and-no-one-else-cares." 

If I follow you on Twitter, no matter how much I may like and respect you, you can bet my trembling finger did hover over the Unfollow button for a good few seconds when you last quoted your beloved OH.

The day Twitter adds a "Meh" or a "We Don't Care" button alongside Retweet and Favourite, I am sure I will end up turning into an Internet bully.

Journalists too?
I thought journalists, being sticklers for factual accuracy, would surely share my empty-word allergy. But, alas, the other week my OH detector went off again, as loudly as the smoke alarm in my kitchen when I burn my toasts: I caught a Guardian journalist I worshipped quoting his...OH on Twitter.

Arf, Alan Rusbridger, how come the Guardian Style Guide does not ban such words from being used, even on your staffs' Twitter accounts?!

My heart was doubly broken. Now I know not only that he feels no compunction in using words that make me cringe, but he is obviously not "available" either...

Why shouldn't we be free to call our lovers anything we like, you ask? We can, yes, in private. If I am your lover, you call me "hun", "babe", "honeykins", "honeybunny", "pussy riot", "riot pussy", or anything else you fancy, and I won't complain. But if you said on Twitter: "My HB (hot babe) doesn't want me to use words like this", we may have to amicably part, not least because HB can also mean "hooker bitch". Gotcha!

The 'selfie' generation
I am not sure if terms such as "significant other" and "other half" were invented by a romantic who wanted to express how much they loved their partner, or whether they are just another way to be smug about being in a relationship.

Remember: we live in an age when we feel compelled to state our relationship status online, even if "it's complicated" or "I don't want to say", but rarely admit to being "single".

There seems to be bizarre social stigma against being single these days. If you are, couples then take pity on you, or try to set you up, as if not having a *cringe* "other half" was the worst thing that could happen to one. I shall celebrate if one day "single and perfectly happy" becomes an official status.

In Facebook people can also portray themselves to their "friends", however they'd like to be seen. A couple on the brink of a break-up may be posting happy-looking pictures of themselves with their arms around each other, and no one will suspect they sleep in separate bedrooms.

Social media has allowed us to turn into broadcasters of our own lives, with full editing rights before going live. We have become our worst photoshoppers, hiding imperfections, airbrushing any socially unacceptable traits, creating the perfect picture of bliss we want others to believe in.

We even take more photos of ourselves these days, in the form of "selfies", than let others take photos of us, so we can re-invent ourselves, however we fancy, in front of the camera. I mean, look at the dogs in this tweet...

I do not at the moment have a *cringe* "significant other" to write, or tweet about, but the day I have one again, I swear to God, I will not be calling him, in public, anything that qualifies his significance in my life (that's very personal, I would say) nor assume he and I are two halves of one perfect union.

Not that I don't believe in romance any more, but anyone who has gone through a bitter separation knows that two people can only be perfect halves when they are each other's soulmates. It can happen; I believe soulmates do exist, but let's not trivialise it.

If everyone was actually partnered with their ideal "other halves", there would be no divorces, no single-parent families, no Agony Aunt columns, and charities such as Relate would shut down for lack of business. Liz Jones would be out of work for not being able to sell self-misery stories to the Daily Mail, and Liz Taylor would have died still married to Richard Burton.

Virtuous modesty
Who, in their right mind, would want to refer to their own husband as "dear husband" (DH) anyway, unless you were one of those terribly posh English characters from a Jane Austen adapation movie? Or Downton Abbey.

To me it sounds affected, fake and totally unnecessary.

My Japanese heritage may have something to do with this perception. In Asian cultures, where modesty is highly valued as a virtue, boasting about your partner or children is considered vulgar. It is common for Japanese mothers to refer to their children as "baka-musume/musuko" (my silly/stupid daughter/son), which does not mean they actually think their progeny lack intelligence. In Japan everyone knows it is an expression of affection in reverse.

Love Letters
I am not advocating we start publicly referring to partners as "my moron of a boyfriend", or "my wife, that silly bitch", to cover up our true affection, Japanese style. But in order to preserve their special status, terms of endearment should belong to and be kept in the private world of lovers.

That, or we should all abandon Twitter, with its awkward abbreviations, and start gushing our sentiments in full to our Darling Significant Other Halves, in blush-inducing love letters again. It could be the start of a new nostalgia trend.

MDF, YHIHF ("My dear friend, you heard it here first").

Update: These denominations (OH, SO) may be specific to the English language...maybe because British people always prefer to be less direct? I speak Portuguese and Japanese, and there are no equivalents for SO or OH in either of these languages. A Hungarian friend tells me in Hungarian there're none either, and the word "partner" is expressed as "my pair". Anyone other language speakers would like to comment?

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag and lessons on Asian stereotyping

©Connie J. Sun
On Sunday evening a Twitter friend called my attention to the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick originated by freelance writer Suey Park. The tweets kickstarted an ongoing conversation on feminism, sexism, racism and stereotypes faced by the Asian-American community, and, according to AlJazeera, the hashtag was tweeted nearly 50,000 times in the space of one day.

Even the BBC picked up the trend and announced: #NotYourAsianSidekick  goes global. BuzzFeed also published a summary of tweets.

To me the discussion generated by the hashtag felt a little over-ambitious and too wide in scope to lead to any conclusive outcomes, but I guess the value of the debate was in raising awareness rather than providing immediate solutions.

Perhaps the most effective thing the hashtag did on Twitterverse was to simply highlight how much discontent lay buried underneath the seeming "quiet" façade of Asian Americans. But the discussion didn't stay contained within the US. Asians from all over the world enthusiastically jumped onto the hashtag bandwagon and aired their frustrations on Twitter.

The simmering anger within the community was palpable and really struck a chord with me.

Not every Asian is Chinese
It reminded me I recently ranted on Twitter and Facebook that I was not Chinese, that automatically calling an Asian person Chinese was racist, offensive and off-putting. Friends and colleagues found it hilarious and asked me what had happened for me to go so public with it.

Someone I had met on Twitter had sent me a patronising email about a blog post I'd written, and, to make matters worse, said they thought I was Chinese, which pushed me over the edge. On my Twitter profile I specifically state that I am Japanese Brazilian, but they still labelled me Chinese.

It wasn't the first time I was told that, nor will it be the last, but it grates with me every time.

The faux pas don't normally stop there. First dates with me are often like this:

Man: " speak Mandarin?"
Me: " I'm not Chinese. I speak Japanese. I was born and grew up in Brazil, but my parents are Japanese."
Man: "Oh wow, you must speak Spanish too then?"
Me: "No, Brazil is the only South American country where Spanish is not spoken."
Man: "Sorry, I meant Brazilian."
Me: "Erm...Brazilian is not a language... Did you mean Portuguese?"

Needless to say by this point I am so dismayed by my date's cultural ignorance, any chance of a second date has gone well down the drain. Guys, if you are ever taking an Asian woman out, do your friggin' homework first!

Sushi, kimonos and geisha fantasies
Even for those who luckily passed the first test of getting the languages right, soon comes the next pitfall question: "Can you cook sushi?"

When I was newly married, my husband also asked me if I could make sushi so he could invite and impress his friends. I asked him why they should be impressed, and he said, "Well, I now have a Japanese wife." In his head Japanese wives made sushi.

The first thing that came to my mind was this image of a geisha, clad in a kimono, delicately rolling sushi rice and serving her husband's guests, with white paint on her face, saying very little, shuffling her small feet, being quietly admired as some kind of a fetishist object of white male desire.

Please... It makes me want to puke. Are all Filipinas internet brides? If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant! I'll cook you a wicked Italian lasagne instead.

Stereotyping is often sexist, chauvinistic and insensitive, but, above all, it is a sign of gross cultural ignorance.

First of all, sushi is not the only dish in Japanese cuisine, and it is usually only made at home on special occasions. Secondly, if you are born Japanese you don't automatically know how to make sushi. You may not even necessarily speak the language (because sometimes Japanese people are born outside Japan), and you certainly don't wear kimonos all the time. In fact I have never worn one and wouldn't know how to wear one either.

Finally, Asian women are not all subservient geisha types. And geishas, by the way, are not prostitutes, in case you were thinking the two were interchangeable.

Ni hao my a*se!
One of the most irritating things that can happen when I'm outside, in the street, is someone passing by in their car, shouting "Ni Hao", which is hello in Chinese. I don't acknowledge nor respond, as I consider it a racist taunt, but I have to take a deep breath and count slowly to 10 to stop myself from shouting an expletive there and then.

Below are two tweets from Tracey (@txc84), which I endorse:

The other day a colleague asked me if a Thai publisher would translate a certain piece of text into "Thai-wanese". I did not correct them but my heart sank, as it was so representative of how little people actually know about Asian cultures and languages, which are widely different from each other.

Our joke is not your joke
Once, upon returning from a business trip to Korea, in a previous job, I was asked if I had eaten dog. A senior member of the sales team even joked at a Sales Conference about having dog for a meal in Korea, while I cringed in my seat. Had I been of Korean descent, I would have left the room.

I work in International Sales, and every single member of our team is non-British. We wind each other up with racist jokes all the time and laugh our heads off but no one takes offence. That is more or less the equivalent of a group of Muslim friends calling each other terrorists among themselves, for a laugh. Minority groups' jokes are only funny within that circle. As soon as an outsider says it, it becomes an offensive racist slur so watch out what you say and where.

Teaching acceptance
As a woman, I am often at the receiving end of unwanted attention from men who are "into Asian girls". Nine times out of 10 their illusions about Asian girlfriends/wives are completely distorted, unrealistic and, quite frankly, laughably naïve. I can smell them from miles away and avoid them like a plague.

They may think they are being non-discriminatory and non-racist, even somewhat "superior", by going to the other extreme and being obsessed with anyone and anything Asian. They are in love with a fantasy image of what they think Asians are like, often based on fiction, movies and stereotypes they grew up with.

Understanding other cultures, taking a genuine interest in their customs, their values, language and history is the only way stereotyping can be reduced, equality can be achieved and different races can freely interact without causing offence.

These changes should start, as the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick pointed out, with the media, but schools and playgrounds also need to strive for complete racial integration and a multi-cultural education for our children. If a child can be taught to be curious about and accepting of differences in others, as opposed to being judgemental, they will also learn to respect the fact that they too are unique and different from their peers and that being different is perfectly okay.

Colour blind
Living in multi-racial London opportunities abound for meeting people from every corner of the world. My own circle of friends is "borderless" and consists of people of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. When I look at them I see one colour only, the colour of human souls, but I am painfully aware most people are not like that.

People have an instinctive need to stick labels on everyone they meet, pigeonholing them into this or that stereotype, as we tend to feel uncomfortable with what we do not know. I wonder if we are uncomfortable because we were brought up to think that it is shameful to ask questions, to say "please tell me about you and show me something about your culture as I want to learn".

If you are not sure, don't assume. Ask. We may not be your Asian sidekicks but we make very good, interesting friends, lovers and...why not..wives. And, if you ever did unwittingly cause offence, have the humbleness to apologise and ask to be corrected. I promise you it will open up a whole new world for you that will enrich your life.

Whatever you do, don't cowardly walk away, and don't unfollow/block people on social networking sites just because they made you realise there are gaps in your knowledge of the world. Ask questions, talk, debate, learn.

More, not less communication, is the first step towards dispelling myths and ignorance. I thank Suey Park for reminding us.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic: a great production of a flawed adaptation

Hedda Gabler is one of my favourite plays of all times. I have read the original Ibsen play and seen it performed many times in different countries. I simply can't get enough of Hedda for reasons I will explain in a later post. When I last saw it in a small theatre in Tokyo with the stunning Japanese actress Rei Asami in the lead role, I was so overcome with emotion, I could not move for a few minutes after the curtain came down. 

Ann Mackmin's production of Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic had an stellar cast with an appropriately petit-looking Sheridan Smith doing an excellent job of playing the complex undertones in Hedda. The closing scene was also the most original I have seen so far. But – call me a purist – as an admirer of Henrik Ibsen's original text, I felt let down and irritated by some of the liberties Brian Friel had taken with the script. 

The introduction of Judge Brack's obsession with Americanisms just about works in adding a comic effect to the dialogue. But George Tesman, Hedda's well-intentioned yet utterly tedious academic husband, is caricatured to an uncomfortable extreme: his attachment to a pair of slippers embroidered by his aunt is too pathetic to be believable and the boisterous dancing around the house, only minutes before the tragic climax, as Tesman receives news of his wife's pregnancy, momentarily turns the tense crescendo scene into slapstick comedy.

The scene reminded me of the jollities in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. While Dancing at Lughnasa is set in County Donegal in Ireland and the dancing in it is in context, seeing a grown-up Doctor Tesman skip round the stage wearing a tiara made of flowers, made me cringe in my seat with embarrassment.

Perhaps the most disturbing addition in this Friel version was Hedda's confession to Judge Brack that she cannot control her impetus to be cruel, that she feels 'possessed'at times, hinting at some kind of personality disorder that could have been sorted by psychiatric treatment. Hedda is not insane, only insanely unhappy, and that is a fundamental point that should not have been tinkered with.

We despise Hedda's cruelty and selfishness but we cannot help but empathise with her loneliness and her lack of purpose. She married Tesman by choice but feels trapped and suffocated. She probably feels disempowered at a time when the only choice a woman could have in life was to marry a respectable man and bear his children. The evil in Hedda is the evil that lives in all of us. Blaming her mood swings on a mental imbalance would be oversimplifying the complexities of human nature in a character that symbolises the dilemma of many women in the past and present.

In the original Hedda Gabler, Ibsen hints but never confirms whether Hedda is actually pregnant. The production at the Old Vic was the first time I have ever seen Hedda spell out not only that she is pregnant but in her fourth months of gestation. Unless Friel assumed the audience would be so obtuse they could not have guessed otherwise, this felt like too much information. 

Not everything has to be so explicit and in your face. Subtle meaning and subtext only make a play more enjoyable to watch. I could be mistaken but I don't think Hedda is ever heard swearing in the original play. Her cruelty and contempt for others are implicit in her actions; she does not need to speak out. But when Hedda calls Tesman's aunt 'interfering bitch', she sounds rather anachronistically like a young woman from the 21st century, when she is not even dressed like one. 

Yet, for all its textual flaws, the production was still well worth seeing.

The billowing white curtains stage right created great atmosphere and Lez Brotherston's centre stage set with the glass-walled backroom worked as a wonderfully effective solution for the staging of the final scene. Hedda enclosed within the glass walls as she finds out her plans to manipulate and control other people's fates have backfired is a  most powerful metaphor to her increasing isolation – she becomes a prisoner of her own destiny. 

Explicitness suddenly works at the end. Blood splattered on the glass, the audience witnessing, through the glass, the anguished faces of Tesman and Brack as they run into the room where Hedda has shot herself, their cries of despair muffled by the closed walls, Judge Brack's hands smearing Hedda's blood on the glass; it is tragedy complete.

Outside, Mrs Elvsted, indignant and almost indifferent to the drama in the house, quietly gathering papers from the floor is superb in the screaming message it conveys. The grand finale saves the day; all flaws are forgiven. 

I am now ready for another Hedda Gabler. Bring it on.
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Monday, 23 July 2012

The apostrophe that nearly made Kate pregnant

Hats off to the The Sunday Express for their front page headline in yesterday's edition, with one very cleverly placed apostrophe, which, if unnoticed, would have given the story a an entirely new meaning: Kate & Will's Hope for Children.

At first glance, the heading sounds like an official confirmation, by Kate and William, that they are indeed trying to start a family – news which would have delighted royal womb watchers.

The placement of the apostrophe is so cheekily subtle, hooked, almost like an afterthought, on the side of the  "s" in Wills, that many readers will not have seen it and may have bought the paper hoping to read a story about Kate' Middleton's impending pregnancy.

Notice how the order of the names is also intentional: Wills and Kate's would have necessitated an "s" after the apostrophe, making it too obviously into a possessive case.

The article is actually about a charity for disadvantaged children the royal couple is supporting. A non-story with a sensational story heading.

Brilliant subbing job.

What a difference an apostrophe makes.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Cyberlove: the future of love on the internet

The Guardian Weekend Magazine published an interesting compilation of stories last week (The way we love now, 30.06.12) of couples who started their relationship online.

This is the 21st century. Relationships that start on social media sites are no longer a novelty. Among my Facebook "friends", at least two whom I have never personally met, met their other halves on MySpace, before Facebook became mainstream. Several friends of friends got married to people they met on dating sites. In fact my husband and I also met online, although, being old-fashioned, admitting it always makes me feel terribly awkward.

Cyberspace is the new clubbing scene. Cyberlove's in the air. Everyone's doing it.

Love in Second Life
Of all stories in the Guardian article, one caught my attention: the story of the couple who met in Second Life – as avatars. 

In real life, each already had a partner with whom they were not happy with. In the virtual world, they bought a land, built a house (using real money), moved in together, then he proposed. They got to know each other so intimately in Second Life, by the time they actually met in person, they were already in love and their real-life appearances didn't seem to matter. The rest is history. Staying true to their parallel lives, they got married first in Second Life, then, a year later, in real life. 

Four years and two children later, they sit in the same room and their avatars, now slightly changed in appearance, still meet in Second Life. Is this creepy? Is it sweet and innocent? Is this the new 'way we love'?

I have never immersed myself in Second Life but have seen a number of demos and videos. I know, for example, it is possible for couples to have a baby virtually. Honest to God. The boss of someone I know, who has recently had her second child, met and gave birth to one in Second Life with the man who is now her real-life husband and father of her children.

What is frightening about an immersive world like Second Life is that, unlike in Facebook and Twitter, you can acquire a new identity with a name and apperance that has nothing to do with who you actually are. You are, in effect, playing make-believe and the make-believe can sometimes spill out into the real world. Scary but tantalising.

I can relate to that. I grew up as a super-introverted, isolated child, who had far more friends in make-believe world than in real life. I can understand the attraction, the freedom that a virtual world encounter in a make-believe body can give you.

Mummy Porn
To me part of reason people pursue cyber-relationships links in with why erotica  is currently booming in the publishing industry led by the success of E L James' Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel with kinky sex everyone can't stop talking about.

Sales figures of the trilogy has surpassed the 10 million mark and made the expression "mummy porn" trend. Fifty Shades of Grey has also had some terrible reviews saying the book could not be less erotic if it tried, but women continue to buy it, either to find out what the hype is all about, or perhaps because they, to borrow the famous line from When Harry Met Sally, want to "have what she's having".  It could be a PR stunt, but stories abound of women claiming the novel spiced up their sex lives; one woman even wrote to the author saying she became pregnant as a result of reading her book.

The point is fantasy arouses women. Whereas men are turned on by visual clues, for women sex starts in the brain. Their minds need to be turned on before the body follows suit. Nothing better than a bit of erotic fantasy then to get the imagination going. The bondage and submission scenes in EL James' book may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is good escapism; it is irrelevant that the reader would never dream of using any "Ann Summers accoutrements" in real life, as Suzanne Moore cleverly put it in this column; to live the unimaginable in one's fantasy can still be a turn-on.

Out of curiosity, I googled whether it is possible for couples to have cybersex in Second Life and discovered this amusing guide to "getting started with sex in Second Life". Apparently avatars can take off their clothes, purchase genitalia and other body parts at the "Xcite store" to kit out their bodies, even have orgasms, but there can be awkward technical difficulties in manipulating the act itself. The whole idea sounds rather laughable and offputting but it may just be because I haven't got into the "spirit" of Second Life.

Starting early
If you thought befriending avatars in virtual environments was only for naughty adults, I would like to remind you that Moshi Monsters, Mind Candy's virtual world for 6 to 12-year-olds, currently boasts more than 50 million users. That means 50 million children (well, let's assume they are mosty children) are adopting a pet monster, or moshling, as an avatar, making friends with other monsters, paying for things in virtual money, playing virtual games.

The future
It cannot be that far-fetched then to think that the moshling avatar user of today may become inhabitants of Second Life tomorrow. In 20 years' time, we may all have more 'friends' online than in real life; we may be juggling real and virtual lovers.

While old schoolers will still be obsessing about their privacy settings on Facebook, the generation who grew up communicating through instant messaging and Facebook walls, casually dipping in and out of virtual environments, those young people may be setting new rules for cybercourtship, redefining concepts of loyalty.

Relationship boundaries may shift. Will we have a revival of sorts of the hippie movement of the 60s, or will virtual couples live by the same societal rules as in real life?

The future of love sounds promisingly titillating.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Dr Moncrieff on depression and drugs: dopey but not cured

Could psychiatric drugs, such a antidepressants, cause rather than cure mental disorders? Is chemical cure a myth? This was the topic of Joanna Moncrieff's talk at the Lewes Skeptics in the Pub's monthly event this week.

Dr. Moncrieff is a clinical lecturer in the department of mental health sciences at University College of London. Her book The Myth of Chemical Cure is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Her talk was centred on the current mainstream view that an emotional or mental disorder is a result of a chemical imbalance, which drugs can help correct . However, these drugs have a psychoactive effect, just like alcohol or narcotics, which create a drug-induced state, altering the way we think, feel and behave. These effects, says Dr Moncrieff, may end up numbing or masking actual psychological and emotional problems.

This short discussion on the Today programme between Joanna Moncrieff and consultant psychiatrist Trevor Turner from 2009 gives you a good taster of the controversies round this topic.

Informed consent
Joanna Moncrieff did not say drugs can't or don't help. He concern is that patients are not always being given the full picture on the unpleasant or harmful effects psychiatric drugs may have on their bodies and mind. The emphasis is heavily on the pro-drug view that they will fix some sort of underlying chemical imbalance they have in their brain.

In truth, science still knows very little about how the brain actually works, or what the chemical makeup is of emotions, elation, depression, love, what have you. Not enough research has been done on how drugs work (apparently, the effect of antidepressants have been shown not to be that different from a sugar pill's), their mental and physical impact, their long and short term side effects, side-effects, and the withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them.

A modern malaise
Statistics show that over the past decade there has been a four fold increase in the use of drugs in mental health treatment. It does not come as a surprise. We are all popping "happy pills" prescribed without hesitation by our GPs, as nonchalantly as if they were sweets.

Someone in the audience asked, "Are antidepressants overprescribed these days, or are more people depressed now?" Dr Moncrieff's answer made me sigh and prompted me to write this post:
"As a society we tend to see our problems through the prism of depression. Life now is far more demanding now than 50 years ago."
She pointed out, quite rightly, that performance expectation in all areas of our lives is much higher these days, and drugs like Prozac are even promoted as making you perform above normal levels.

Balancing act
No wonder we are all so depressed. We are balancing12-hour shifts in the office with school runs for the kids, trips to the gym (because everyone else is doing it), the obligatory visit or call to a parent, the mustn't-forget drinks with friends you haven't seen in a while, the grocery shopping, the hoovering, the laundry, the ironing, the cooking and the planing of the next holiday. All this, while looking amazing, showing top poductivity and staying emotionally balanced.

Even if you haven't got children, your parents are dead or don't talk to you, and you never cook or clean, in your head, you are still responding to someone's expectations: your boss's, your spouse's, your parents (even if they are no longer alive), society's. We do not like letting people down, and maybe therein lies the problem. Are we constantly trying – and failing – to be the perfect colleague, the perfect boss, the perfect wife or husband, someone's dutiful child or parent?

No labels
I am surrounded by people who have overstretched themeslves physically, mentally or emotionally and have suffered nervous breakdowns as a result, people who needed to take long sabbaticals before they were able to work again, others who regularly rely on drugs and/or alcohol to keep functioning in the high-speed autobahn of life. I have personally experienced a near-breakdown on a number of occasions for having demanded too much of myself. I do it again and again; I never seem to learn...

Why do we try so hard? Why can't we embrace our limitations and admit we can't please everyone all of the time? That we have widely varying stress tolerance levels, and none of us are super-heroes?

I want to applaud Joanna Moncrieff for her belief that people should not be universally labelled as "depressed" and given random chemicals to suppress its symptoms, that they ought to be seen as individuals with specific problems for which different solutions are possible. Maybe the pharmaceutical industry, colluding with pychiatrists and politicians, have bundled us all into one large nut case sac, and called us depressed, psychotic or bipolar to suit their own agendas, doping us with drugs to keep us sweet and troublefree. Who knows?

Acute cases of mental illness excepted, let's face it: we are all prone to some degree of gloom and melancholy at times. Just because pills are readily available that make you feel happy and confident, we should not shy away from a more important debate – on how we can change attitudes in society, and in ourselves, that could lead to less depression and a better understanding of ourselves and our vulnerability.

After all, being vulnerable is part of being human. Give us licence to fail.