Friday, 26 January 2018

Book Review: Alone in Berlin

Alone in BerlinAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**This review contains mild spoilers**

Alone in Berlin is billed as a novel of the German resistance during World War II. But that, in my opinion, isn't quite right. It is an account of moments of German resistance. It is heartbreaking and frustrating, and the characters are terribly, wonderfully flawed. A seed of Hannah Arendt's banal evil lurks in them all, and there are no real monsters here - just people.

Reading this against the backdrop of a Trump presidency, it is supremely easy to dismiss comparisons as a case of Godwin's Law gone crazy. But the humanity of Fallada's characters, their lack of heroism, their worry, selfishness, and sorrow, makes the comparison gentler than one might guess - and more important.

The story revolves around a middle-aged married couple, Anna & Otto Quangel, whose only son has killed in action fighting for Nazi Germany. They are a bland pair, buttoned up emotionally, never demonstrably affectionate. The Quangels have been stolid if passive supporters of the Fuhrer and the policies of the Reich. The are the types of people things happen to. Even the news of their son's death is consumed in an unnervingly blank way.

And then Anna changes everything.

She flies into a rage at her husband, and among her shouts, she says, "you and that Fuhrer of yours!"

Otto's whole universe implodes on that single phrase. For the first time, the idea of his complicity in murder abruptly enters Otto's mind, the enormity of it as a concept and how it has led to his own family's horror, and he sets himself the task of righting it through tiny acts of resistance. He both forces Anna's participation and refuses to allow her to risk herself when she is as desperate as he is to do something, anything. They work together and at odds with each other. Their campaign has unitended consquences. They fumble, they succeed, they unwittingly terrorize a population already in fear of their lives for a single misstep.

Hitler's power is already well-entrenched when the story begins, the war is already on, the Jews are already in camps by the time the Quangels have their little epiphany. Their fellow Berliners have already sacrificed their chances at freedom of thought or speech. So when they are confronted by the Quangels' guerrilla pamphletting, they don't read them with interest. They don't share them amongst likeminded conspirators. They immediately hand them in to the authorities because they are positively terrified of the messages and what it means to have one in their possession. The act of resistance is completely futile except as a catharsis for the Quangels themselves. They know they are alone, but they don't realize just how alone.

They want to weave a protective cocoon, but end up with a web that ensnares everyone around them, including their son's fiancee, their neighbors, Anna's brother, their post deliverer, Otto's coworkers, the police inspector investigating them. Frustratingly their act does have far-reaching consequences. Just not the ones they intended. When Otto finally comes face to face with this fear reaction, he is shocked. His years of work, he realizes, have been for this.

Fear is the engine oil keeping the Nazi regime running in Fallada's Berlin. He makes no attempt to pursue the lie that ordinary Germans had no idea what was happening. Instead he provides example after example of how easy it was for ordinary Germans to become complicit. The father is afraid of his son, the inspector is afraid of prison, everyone is afraid of the Jews, even when they harbor no specific animosity for them. It's not a simple case of racial hatred, though that of course is present, too. It's that Jews have been declared enemies of the German people, and punishment of the severest kind awaits those who associate with the enemy. How easy it is to simply turn away out of self and family preservation rather than intervene for another's sake. How easy when the acts one can make result in failure because of their very isolation. It's terrifyingly easy. One man tries to hide his Jewish neighbor and ends up driving her to a frenzied, delusional suicide instead, the result of trying to both help her and keep himself completely safe. You can't do both in Fallada's Berlin.

At one point, the disgraced Inspector Escherich is sent to the cells for failing to catch Otto and Anna. When he returns to his post, "it doesn't matter how he looks, what he does, what honours and praise he receives - he knows he is nothing. A single punch can turn him into a wailing, gibbering, trembling wretch..." His spirit has been completely broken. Once he worked hard out of a sense of duty, and even a love of his work, distasteful as it is. Now he works feverishly, obsessively, out of fear.

There are many moments of individual acts against the authorities. And like the Quangels', each act is singular, brave, cowardly, isolated, alone. Futile.

We are living in a time again where fear is wielded as a weapon of political control. Maybe it was ever thus, but it seems particularly front and center in the climate of the moment. Fear of foreigners, fear of police, fear even of having differing opinions from friends and family.

If Fallada's story has a moral (and it's by no means clear whether it does), it is only that waiting to resist until the crimes affect you personally is an exercise in heartbreak. Though we musn't judge too harshly those who come to the side of freedom later than ourselves, we should remember that there is such a thing as coming to the side of freedom too late. Then we, each of us, is alone.

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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Small Catharsis

A warning: Very bad language ahead. Unfunniness, too.

I have a story to tell, a rather small story, that has stayed with me for a long time. I believe I only ever confided this particular story in one trusted person in its entirety, in its detail. After that, I didn't feel like I could or should share it again, for reasons which will become clear below. But now I feel like I want to get it out of my mind and out into the world.**

**My hands shook as I typed the critical moment below. The anger is still so strong. I didn't even realize it myself until now.

Cast your mind back to antiquity, to my teenage years. I had a boyfriend with whom I had a sexual relationship. I drove him back to his after a date. It was a drop-off.

I pulled up outside. I shut the car off. Our goodnight kiss turned into a bit of a make-out session, as it does. He tried to put his hand in my crotch. I pushed it away. He tried again.

I stopped, pulled away and said, "Not that." We continued kissing. He tried again.

I stopped, pulled away and said, "No. Can't we just kiss tonight?" We continued kissing. He tried again.

I stopped, pulled away and said, "I just want to kiss you. I don't want your hands in my underwear." We continued kissing. He tried again.

I stopped, pulled away, and HE said, "You're giving me mixed signals!" He pouted. He put on an angry face. He put on a hurt face. He crossed his arms.

And reader, I lost my fucking mind.

I slammed my hands down on the steering wheel. That made him jump. "What the fuck!" I screamed at the windshield. To him, I yelled, "What the fuck are you talking about? How am I giving you mixed signals? I have been crystal fucking clear about my boundaries in this moment. I want to kiss you. I don't want you to touch my crotch. What is not clear?"

He responded. He RESPONDED, "You keep pushing me away and then coming back in for more." He said that. He didn't say any variation on "sorry".

I felt violence then, a surge of blood pressure. I had a fleeting image of smashing his stupid face into the dashboard and watching his nose bleed. I somehow got control of my voice and said, "I said no explicitly. I said the word no when you did something I didn't like. I wanted this, but not that. If you can't understand that idea, that the person you are with might want something physical but not everything, you are going to get yourself into trouble someday." Then I told him to get out of the car. He did.

I wish I could say that I dumped that motherfucker right then and never saw him again, but I didn't. He was manipulative, possessive, emotionally abusive trash, and even though I kept trying to lose him, he kept somehow worming his way back into my life. It took a long time to get him to finally go away, even after we did actually break up.

Years later, I lived somewhere else. I had another boyfriend. This new boyfriend knew a bit about old boyfriend, though he didn't know this story. I had shared some of old boyfriend's bullshit, had received some support, and I had moved on. But new boyfriend often badgered me about old boyfriend. Why, he would ask, didn't I hate him more? Why didn't I wish ill upon him for being such a shitbag? I tried to explain that I literally wanted to spend none of my energy thinking about old boyfriend in any capacity whatsoever, including hate-energy. New boyfriend would shake his head in puzzlement.

Finally at some point, I explained this episode to new boyfriend. I don't remember the exact reason, but I do remember we were talking about how common we thought sexual assault was among our friends and acquaintances. He asked me if I ever was. I started to tell this story, and of course - OF COURSE - I began with the caveat that this didn't really qualify but it was something akin to it.

I got as far as the mixed messages part, and new boyfriend interrupted me. "But you were sending mixed messages," he said. "No I wasn't," I retorted. "Yes you were!" he said incredulously, like he couldn't believe I didn't agree.

"How was it mixed messages?" I exclaimed, a bit of anxious hysteria creeping into my voice. I was afraid, you see, that I had sent mixed messages. "I was very clear!"

"But you kept going back in for more kissing."

I wish I could say that I dumped that motherfucker right then and never saw him again, but I didn't. He was manipulative, possessive, emotionally abusive trash, and even though I kept trying to lose him, he kept somehow worming his way back into my life. It took a long time to get him to finally go away, even after we did actually break up.

Now you see, don't you? How hard it is.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

A True Story of Childhood

Today, Child had a swimming lesson. But rather than the usual lesson, where she is in a class of 5 5-ish-year-olds with 2 instructors, everyone was participating in a swim-a-thon today. The little ones, like her, were guided along the lane by a series of instructors placed every 5 or 6 meters. At the end of the pool was a man, standing by the ladder, helping them out. Then they walked back to the other end and did it all again. Repeat for 1/2 an hour.

Child was doing great, in spite of not having had lessons in months. Arms and legs a go-go, dodging splashy feet from others, grinning - you know, enjoying herself. I watched from the upstairs gallery for a while. Then I watched from a poolside window. Then I went into the locker room to wait for her to finish her final length.

She came triumphantly (I thought) smiling into the locker room, all teeth on show. I congratulated her on a job well done. I pointed out something specific I had seen her do. I asked her whether she felt more comfortable with arm bands or without. We walked to the showers. She kept grinning at me. Then she said.

"One of the teachers told me I should smile better, so look." She peeled her lips back for an enormous baring of the teeth. I stopped dead en route to the showers.

"Which teacher?"

"The man helping us out of the pool at the end."

Let me stop here for a hot minute. I - yes, I - have been catcalled a few times in my life. And luckily they've never been especially explicit. More along the lines of a honk from a truck driver or a strange man on the street saying "hello" in an overly friendly way. These have been mildly embarrassing, and do not in any way cause me long term distress. I have dodged the worst of what can come in this harassment. It does me no good whatsoever to try to untangle why that may be.

One thing which has NEVER happened to me is being told by a man to smile more. This experience, if the feminist internet is any indication, is practically de rigueur when coming of age. My total lack of encountering this particular harassment made me slightly skeptical of its apparent universality. But I will concede that I often laugh to myself when walking alone, probably appearing like a deranged character out of a horror film, so perhaps that puts them off encouraging more intense smiling.

So imagine my utter shock that my NOT-YET-5-YEAR-OLD was being told by a man who looked to be in excess of 45 to smile better. As I recovered my faculties and ushered her into the shower, I said to her, at full voice volume and with no attempt to be discreet in front of other mothers and daughters, "If anyone ever tells you to smile better again, you have my permission to tell them to shove it."

I helped her get dressed, and we left. On the way to the car, with absolute fury in my tone, I told her that she can smile just as much or as little as she likes and it's no one else's business, certainly not that teacher.

She was well delighted with being told that she could tell someone to shove it. So as we got in the car, I thought I'd better explain what had  just happened to her, lest she start cheerfully telling all and sundry to shove it. The following conversation ensued:

Me: Sometimes, Child, there are men and boys who think they're in charge of women and girls. They think they are in charge of deciding things like whether you smile enough, or whether you're pretty enough or smart enough...

Child, in utter indignation: WE ARE SMART ENOUGH!

Me: I know we are! We are. But some men and boys think they get to say whether we are or we aren't. And they are wrong. They don't get to decide that. We decide it for ourselves.

Child: I can smile as much or as little as I want.

Me: Yes. Yes yes. And it's very rude for someone to tell you that you ought to do it more. Sometimes, when they say it, it sounds like they're saying something nice. They might say, "You're so pretty when you smile. You should smile more." But you are pretty whether you smile or not. Because it doesn't have anything to do with what they think. Only with what you think. And that goes for feeling brave or strong or smart or anything else. So if someone says something rude to you about how you should change to look better, you can say something rude back. You can say, "SHOVE IT."

Child: I will. I will say, fudge it!

Me: Shove. Shove it.

Child: FUDGE IT!

At that point, I conceded that she could tell them whatever the hell she wants. As we carried on, I explained that not all men think this way or act this way. Daddy being a good example. She replied by saying how awesome it would be if she and I were Supergirls and Daddy was Superman. It would be awesome.

When we got home, Husband, being the modern liberated type, had just finished the housework. As we came in and ruined it, I told him what had happened. The look on his face. Thunderous doesn't even begin to describe it. He mouthed "What the fuck?" to me. I told him what I told her about shoving it. "FUDGE IT," she shrieked.

Fudge it.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

In Which I Await the Wrath of Fellow Feminists

Photo from user GallowBoob (aptly)

When I moved to Brooklyn some years ago, back when Dubya (now the beloved elder statesman!) was sending troops into Iraq again, I was taking the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend who was moving home to save money (all very New York, thus far). When I came to see the apartment, as I was leaving she asked me if I was going to an anti-war demonstration at the UN later that week. When I said I wasn't, she was actually, literally agape. But it's important, she told me. I, being naturally politically difficult, asked her what was important about this particular demonstration. It just is, she told me like it was self evident. "There will be tons of people there."

And there it was. It was important but because lots of people were going. If lots were going, it was obviously important, and if it was important, lots would go.

I have never been a fan of protesting. Mostly this is because I feel it is used at the drop of the proverbial pussy hat in recent decades. I have what I term protest fatigue. I cannot, genuinely cannot, figure out what the truly important issues are to people anymore. Everything seems to warrant the same level of outrage.

Once upon a time, public demonstration happened rather rarely, and it was always dangerous. Violence at the hands of the police or military or bystanders was a given. If you marched, it was because there literally was no longer any other thing to be done to solve a particular problem - it could not be solved through normal democracy or the exercise of rights. It was a march in a very martial sense, heading to battle, even if you the foot soldier of your cause armed yourself with nothing more than your own words. Think of early labor regulations, women's suffrage, civil rights, the Vietnam War draft. These were moments in history when protest was a last act of desperation for a group that had nothing left to lose. And each group had a specific goal in mind and ideas on how to achieve that goal.

Lest you believe I am glorifying some kind of golden age of protesting, let me make clear: I would not return to times such as these, to an America full of large swathes of people who are unable to make the changes they want to see because of constant, conscious, deliberate dehumanization.

Are there groups of people in America who face systematic discrimination: yes. But I believe, rather unpopularly, that protest no longer holds the power it once held, and it is because it is wielded so often, and often by groups with lots of other recourse to creating change, and, I'm sorry to say it, so often incompetently. It has become difficult to take seriously, and it is even harder to pick out which protest deserves real attention from government.

I didn't march in the Women's March last week, and not just because I wasn't in the US. I wouldn't have marched there either. Here's where I trot out my credentials: I am a feminist, an intersectional one, and I have always been one. But I am also - very unpopularly amongst my fellow feminists - highly critical of feminism. Indeed, I think it is important to be so, and the Women's March in many ways illustrates why.

Intersectional feminism is a philosophy that connects all oppression. We all understand that oppression is about keeping power in the hands of some at the expense of the rest. We all innately understand who the some in power are: men. It is in the skeleton of our very language, a ribbon running through our social interactions and our assumptions about everyone we meet. It's just there, there is no point in debating it (although feel free to engage me in this conversation if you really want). Wresting that power out of the hands of the few and giving it to the many is a hard job, an act of attrition, a labor of devotion that lasts lifetimes and will probably never end completely. And yet feminists continue to chip away at this pointless construct in an attempt to improve lives.

What intersectional feminism isn't is a political party. And since it's not a political party, it doesn't have a political agenda. That might be a surprise to people. But it's true. Feminists, like any group of philosophers, cannot agree exactly on how their philosophy should manifest in real life: what equality is or should be or how it should or can be achieved or even what a feminist act is. Some people believe wearing a hijab can be a feminist act while others believe it never can be. Some feminists are pro-choice and some are pro-life. Some think all sex work is exploitation and some believe it to be empowering. The list goes on and on.

Knowing this, I couldn't help but feel a giant "Whyyyyyyyyyy" forming in my mind upon first hearing about the Women's March. It's slightly facetious. I know why. Women are angry at Trump for his disgusting remarks about women's bodies, his bizarre commentary on his own daughters, his apparent encouragement of sexual assault. The man is clearly a misogynist. It could not be clearer that however many women he employs, he believes them as a group to be inferior to men, items for men to control. It's gross. Women are right to be mad about it! Women want to show their anger. They want to believe other women feel angry. They want a reckoning for this offense, a release valve to vent their spleens. So they come together to demonstrate. So far fine - a social event essentially. But then the organizers predictably trotted out a political agenda, which anyone could see coming a mile away, and which was the cause of my existential dread.

The problem herein lies with the fact that feminism is not a political platform, as stated above. Immediately there were accusations of exclusion, there were criticisms of Linda Sarsour's hijab, etc. And the organizers couldn't - and I mean that literally, they were unable because of the very nature of feminism - settle on a single, focused political point to get their full and formidable weight behind - think of all those millions of people across the world! Instead they had to disburse their influence across many complaints with the Trump administration. All perhaps valid complaints, even, but so many of them at once that they were all drowned in the cacophony. And in the end the biggest takeaway from this historic event was that women are fucking savage sign makers. I mean there were some absolute corkers.

Meanwhile, while everyone has patted themselves on the back for a cracking good march (so many people! It must have been very important!) Trump has merrily signed his name to executive orders cutting funding to interantional NGOs providing women's health services if that includes abortion services, destroying an international trade agreement with plans to destroy others, stopping the hiring of desperately needed federal employees at places like the VA, which serves the nation's soldiers healing the physical and psychic wounds of war and giving them jobs to come to when they leave the service, limiting immigration from countries full of people desperate for the hope that comes with a ticket to America. He has hamstrung the ability of the nation's scientists to disseminate data unmanipulated by political interference. And throughout it all the only commentary about the Women's March from his people is to quibble over how many people were there. Trump is not the type of person to hear criticism and think, "Hm, maybe this needs further thought before I act." He's the type to say, "Fuck 'em."

So yes the march was perhaps a much needed spleen vent. And it perhaps brought a touch of hope to those who felt like the world was ending last week. But it also acted as a handy press distraction for an administration hell bent on doing and undoing as much as possible as quickly as possible before anyone can catch their breath.

So if you want to make real change, if you want not to be marching again in 50 years like the woman in the picture above, you'd better catch yours, quick.

Monday, 16 January 2017

On the Eve of a Trump Presidency

This week, we will find out what happens when Donald Trump becomes President of the United States. We all think we know. We all have an idea of what we believe will happen. But truthfully, for probably the first time since the very earliest days of the country, we have very little idea of what to expect from the government over the next 4 years. We have an incoming president whose main selling point during the election was that he has a complete lack of interest in diplomacy or in understanding contrasting points of view. I'm not even convinced that any of what he promised during the election was anything he strongly believed in so much as it was repeating whatever got the biggest roar from the crowd.

This particular election was so ugly, truly ugly, that I'm not surprised that people's reactions afterward are so steeped in disgust. I'm not really convinced that it would have been better in that regard if Clinton had won. It feels like people - across the political spectrum - have just been angry at everything, but very few are willing to try to actually pick apart the problems and solve them. It feels like people want to be right, at the cost of executing actual change.

So I have two challenges in 2017 for my friends and family who voted. Do you want to create a better society? Really? Or do you just want to complain about it? You, no matter how helpless you feel, can do one very small thing to enact the changes you want, no matter who you are and no matter where you fall on the spectrum. But for the sake of this exercise, I'm going to divide everyone into Trump voters and non-Trump voters.

TRUMP VOTERS - Many of you, I'm sure have felt the need to justify your vote since the election, and to trot out your credentials as a non-bigot of one sort or another. So, I'm asking you to put your money where your mouth is. I challenge you to spend at least 1 day this year volunteering for an organization in your community that serves a marginalized group that you keep telling everyone you don't mind. Easy, right? After all, you don't have anything against these people!

You don't have a problem with the gayz? Sweet. Now you can prove it to yourself and everyone else by spending a day helping out at charity that serves vulnerable LGBT youth, like The Trevor Project or the True Colors Fund .

Never had a problem with anyone who believes in god, even if they aren't the same religion as you? Excellent. Head on down to your local synagogue, mosque, Sikh or Hindu temple or any other place of worship that isn't your usual haunt and ask if you can help out their community in some way. They serve their communities in pretty much the exact same way as any Christian church would - food pantries, providing yard services to the elderly, having social days for various community members, etc. Think your town doesn't have a religious minority? Guess again - even if your exact town doesn't, a nearby one will. Get thee to a nunnery, or the equivalent in whatever religious group you're going to work with, and start helping out.

Are some of your best friends [insert racial minority here]? Well then, you won't have any problem whatsoever helping others from their community to get ahead in life. Check out The Committee for Hispanic Children and Families for ideas on how to help. Or plan a fundraiser for the Jack and Jill Foundation. Or look up what's happening locally to help racial minority groups near you. Google, people. It's so easy.

Think women are perfectly capable of handling any job a man can do? Good. Now help the next generation of women prove it to the naysayers. If you've got a talent for computers, start a Girls Who Code club in your community or volunteer with an already established one. Or mentor a girl from a disadvantaged community to help her realize a brighter future with Step Up.

You get the idea. Do it. Show everyone what a caring, inclusive, non-bigot you are.

NON-TRUMP VOTERS - You're not off the hook. Get on the phone, email, write a letter and let your Congressperson know right now that having a temper tantrum and refusing to work because the new boss is an idiot is NOT HOW SHIT GETS DONE. It's how - leftwing buzzword coming up - silos get created. If your representative has publicly stated that they:

  • are boycotting the inauguration
  • refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Trump presidency
  • aren't going to work with Republicans for the next 4 years unless they disavow their democratically elected leader
  • are unable to bring themselves to discuss anything with the incoming adminstration
  • just can't even

then you tell them that their job, the job they've been elected and are paid to do by YOU, is to suck it up and get in there and represent all the things you care about to this muppet. It's their job to ensure that Trump and his advisors are unable to ignore the problems that people like you care about. If your representative won't engage with the incoming administration, then your representative isn't able to deliver the things they promised to do for their constituents: you. So let them know that they'd better put away the duvet, take a damn shower, and get out there and work for you and for the sake of the country. It's going to be a difficult 4 years, make no mistake. But if they don't do their job, then Trump gets to enact all the terrible legislation he wants or thinks he wants without any proper opposition. Now is not the time to hide and hope it goes away. Now is the time to stand up and ensure that the spirit of the USA, the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the ridiculous optimism that has been the hallmark of American culture for so long aren't trampled to dust because of one cotton candy-headed prune and his shouty little mouth.

Don't let him do this without making it a proper fight. Don't let your representative hand over power by doing nothing.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Ushering in 2017

I had lots of plans for things I was going to write about my family in reference to immigration, religion, visa applications, and many other things as a reflection on 2016. But I think my first entry, about poverty, made all the points any further entries in a series would have made: people like to think in black and white. It's our nature. We like to believe we know who is a welfare cheat and who isn't, that hard work and discipline always lead directly to economic health, that the bad guys can be easily picked out of a crowd, that everything can be categorized as good or bad, that we all get what we deserve, and those of us in a position of privilege did something differently than others to get here. Etcetera.

But we're wrong. The world doesn't work that way, and training your brain to see beyond easy and intuitive connections and into reality is hard graft. Which means some of us can't be bothered. We'd rather swallow the blue pill and wake up in the world we've constructed in our mind than take the red one and have to face the reality that what's easy to accept is often a distraction from problems right in front of us. I don't need a whole series of blog posts to reiterate this point. I don't need to provide example after example, because there are examples literally everywhere, all around us. If we choose to examine them, we'll find a complex web of intersecting values that, in my opinion, actually indicates more good in the world than bad. People are mostly good, trying to do what's best, and sometimes getting it wrong.

It is tiring to retrain your brain. It is exhausting to question yourself as vigorously as you'd question an ideological opponent. But it's the moral and ethical thing to do. Even if you can only bear to do it in tiny doses at a time. I challenge you to incorporate this little exercise as part of your resolution.

That said, 2016 can get cast back into the horrible fires of hell, because it's New Year's Eve, and there's work to do. Coming soon, I review Moana. You know you're looking forward to that.

Happy 2017!

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

2016 End of Year Diary, Part 1

It's been a long time since I've written on here. It's not for a lack of opinions, of course, or even for a lack of time, necessarily. Perhaps a lack of sufficient cohesion of thought to create something in this format that felt worth sharing. But that time is over. I haven't felt such focus in my life in a long time. This has been a challenging year for my two countries, the US and the UK. And now that we're through the big political events of the year, I really want to share a reflection on the year through the prism of one small family's experience.

 The thing I feel an urgency to discuss in Part 1 is not misogyny or racism or xenophobia or any of the seemingly million little bigotries that have gotten the big headlines. I most want to talk about social services. Not my usual lightning rod, but particularly in the last few days, I've seen some comments on the social media of friends and family that make it clear that there is more than just the usual grumbling about freeloaders and illegal immigrants. There is a catastrophically toxic resentment that, in a tax-paying political system, some of the money you earn helps people who need help. I mean a real, deep-down anger that some people need help. It's not anger that some people scam the welfare system or anger that some people get help while others go without (the old bugbear - illegals get TONS of welfare, but veterans get nothing - being a regular on this circuit) or even the anger that some people live comfortably (how dare they?) while also collecting welfare. It's anger that people need help. This anger leads almost inevitably to a division in people's minds of the deserving and the undeserving poor. But here's the thing: everyone deserves help when they need it, and everyone needs help sometimes.

 Here's the story of my family. Firstly, we are poor. That is information that I don't normally share, but I really feel like it's important for everyone to understand what poverty means in reality. Are we as poor as some people? No. Are we eating enough? Yes. Do we have a car and a place to live? Yes. But we are still poor. Sometimes, we are desperately poor.

 Some of the reasons we are poor are down to choices we've made: We have made specific choices about education and work that have probably cut into our ability to make as much money as others in the first place [I did a Master's degree that I didn't go on to use, Husband didn't finish his degree and switched careers immediately after I had a baby, I have chosen to work in creative industries where there isn't much money, etc.]. We have spent lots of money visiting family. We like buying books.

 Some of the reasons we are poor are down to dumb luck: I have terrible health problems that, as well as costing us money, have cut into my ability to work consistently or to progress in a career path. We had a baby who was born very prematurely and needed a different type of care at the beginning than a healthy baby. Both husband and I have lost good jobs. We rented a house next to a family with a domestic violence problem and had to move. We started our careers and family life together at the beginning of an historically horrendous financial crisis that the world has yet to recover from.

 So what does poverty for us mean. It means that we have had periods of homelessness where we have had to live with our parents because we couldn't afford to live on our own. It means we have lived in homes of our own that are drafty, moldy and smelly. It means we have decided for long stretches to only heat one room in the house and to spend all our time in there. It means that our weekly menu is carefully planned down to the last scrap to ensure we eat healthfully within a tiny budget. It means we almost never go out to eat or for a drink or to see a film or anything else that costs money to do. It means that we have never ever had a television hookup. It means we make almost all the Christmas gifts we give. It means we only buy new clothes when we absolutely have to. It means that we still make the same amount of dinner as we always have, but as our child grows bigger, we just eat less and let her have more. This is our everyday existence. It is not necessarily the same experience as others who are poor. It is ours. And it sounds a bit grim. And sometimes it is.

 But would you have known this about us if we didn't tell you? Some of it, perhaps. But the truth is, we get on cheerfully enough - we work as and when and how we can. We get the car fixed and pay the rent and buy the short dated food and don't complain about it (much). We own some nice things, bought during times of "plenty". We aren't what you see on television, people with nothing, including the wherewithal to change their circumstances, people with drug and alcohol problems, people trapped in an abuse cycle or whatever else you think being poor means. 

Here's more you should know: there have been times that we have relied on government money to see us through. We have applied for and received Job Seeker's Allowance, Social Security disability, money to pay our rent (housing benefit and council tax reduction) and buy food (WIC). We have relied on socialised medical care A LOT. Not just the NHS. When I had my kidney transplant in the US, I was covered by a combination of Medicare and Masshealth, and so was my donor and so was everyone who was tested to be my donor. This was because, in part, neither Husband nor I had a job that offered private health care. I, in fact, didn't have a job at all. We have had to use each of these social services at one time or another in order to just carry on with a sense of normalcy. Not luxury. Not indulgence. Not giddiness. Normalcy.

 And like virtually everyone else collecting welfare, we didn't enjoy it. It didn't feel nice, and it didn't feel like we were getting one over on anyone, and it didn't feel easy and full of loopholes to exploit, and it didn't feel like it was money for doing nothing. Every bit of it has been a dreadful ordeal, fraught with condescension, prejudice, anger, frustration, despair, tears and shame. There were times (several) that we opted NOT to bother because it was just too horrible to face it yet again. We aren't glad that we've relied on taxpayers (including ourselves, by the way!), and we aren't glad that we're poor. We just are.

 Here's the big thing that has kept us separate from the poverty porn you see on television. It's not that we're super smart with our money (though we aren't too shabby - we love a spreadsheet or 12). It's that we have some significant privilege backing us up. We both come from families with stable foundations. We grew up in modest comfort without wanting for pretty much anything. We had both our parents around and working. We've had good educations and a network of friends and family to point us to opportunities. We have had a place to go live when we couldn't afford our own place. We have had relatives who feed us whenever we visit and send us home with food and other presents. We have friends and family who treat our daughter so very well, who are generous with their time and love. This is where we are rich, and this is why our poverty is bearable and why we are able to carry on and find happiness in life in spite of the challenges we have faced and still face. We have needed help sometimes, and our friends and family have helped us. And so have perfect strangers. And in turn we try to help our friends and family and perfect strangers however we can. And we are happy to do so.

 When I see people on facebook cheering the idea of taking away public services for people in need, when I see them getting angry at people for taking assistance, I feel extremely sad. These services have flaws. And they should be constantly reviewed and tweaked and improved and toyed with to meet the requirements of those in need. They should forever be under discussion. But when these friends and family angrily complain that people don't deserve this assistance, I want to tell them that they are talking about me. They are saying I don't deserve to provide a home for my family or to feed my family nutritious food. I don't deserve to have my transplanted kidney or the lifetime of drugs required to keep it going. I didn't deserve a spot in the NICU for my baby, and she doesn't deserve a spot at a safe and decent school. We as a family don't deserve the chance of normalcy. But we do. We all do. And sometimes we, all of us in the world, need help to achieve just that most basic threshold: normalcy.