Wednesday, 13 March 2013

On Being A Nice Girl

I found this in a dark recess of my laptop this morning.  It was written sometime in early 2012, when I was in Canada.  I imagine I didn't post it to to MapleJack!, my livejournal of the time, out of concern that my mother would transatlantically flip her biscuit at the commentary on her parenting.  Since my family don't read this blog, I'm now posting it here.  Enjoy.

During the month I turned twelve, I was given a lesson in social priorities and being a nice person.  It was a lesson I was very receptive to at the time because, like the rest of my classmates in our newly-begun senior school for girls, I was desperate to secure myself a best friend before all the potentials ‘got taken’.  Thirty eleven- and twelve-year-old girls, all scrabbling madly to partner up, each and every one terrified of being the last lonely freak left standing.  I really don’t envy the teachers who were trying to educate us throughout this colossal social earthquake of a first term.

It was around this time that I got talking to Polly, discovered that we shared a mutual appreciation for Garfield comic strips, and embarked on a friendship that has well and truly stood the test of time – I was asked to be a bridesmaid at her wedding last year.  But for a month or so before Polly and I became a solid duo, I was going about with another girl; I’ll call her Hayla.  Hayla was friendly enough but a lot of her ways quickly grew to irritate me.  I stuck with her anyway, naively hoping we would get used to each other and somehow mutate into perfect best friends, because to walk around by yourself in senior school is to issue an open invitation for harrassment from anyone and everyone you pass.  Any friend is better than no friend.  Adults often tell kids this isn’t true, but that’s because they’ve grown accustomed to living in a civilised world, and they’ve forgotten what senior school is really like.  You run in a pack if you want to live.

As time went by, I found myself less and less able to summon any enthusiasm for performing the job of being Hayla’s friend.  Everything we did had to be done the way Hayla wanted, on pain of sulks and tantrums, and it grew incredibly wearing.  Within a couple of weeks, things reached the point where I dreaded walking into the classroom and seeing her every day.  Hayla seemed to genuinely like me, and appeared to be hoping we might progress to being best friends before much longer.  But the more I got to know Polly, the less patience I had for Hayla; and the more I tried to edge tactfully away from Hayla, the more tightly she clung to me.  I remember a day when she wouldn’t let me go anywhere by myself – not even the bathroom.  This shadowing behaviour was the last straw for me.  I knew I wanted to end our friendship, but I had no idea how to go about doing such a thing.

The similarities between the common childhood drive to find an exclusive best friend, and the common adult drive to find a monogamous romantic partner, are really quite striking.  In each case we are looking for someone who will be the most important person in our lives outside of our immediate family, someone with whom we ‘just click’ and feel we can share everything.  The skills we learn in navigating these childhood couplings surely cannot fail to contribute to our lasting templates for managing our romantic relationships as teens and adults.  We schoolgirls were like fierce little kittens, tumbling each other around in a laundry basket, unknowingly preparing ourselves to be tipped out into a world where we would rely on such skills for survival.

Curious, then, that there are no accepted scripts for ending a friendship that isn’t working out, as there are for breaking off a romantic arrangement.  Standard dating endgames include such gems as ‘I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘I do love you, but only as a friend’.  We know that, much of the time, these lines are patently untrue and are simply platitudes.  However, we continue to use them because they’re polite and easy compared to the truth, and we don’t want to make our romantic rejections any more ugly and painful than they have to be.  If only we could have trial-period ‘dating’ arrangements for friendships, too, with similar socially accepted platitudes for saying ‘Thanks, but actually, no thanks’.  Alas, though, we do not; and especially not when we are eleven.  You can either lay the awkward truth all the way out there – ‘I’m sorry, I’ve realized I just don’t like you very much’ – which, at age eleven, will be the bitchiest thing anyone could possibly say ever in the eyes of all your classmates, and probably in your own eyes too.  Or, you can ‘just’ be a bit bitchy to her in a low-grade way, and hope your soon-to-be-ex friend takes the hint, unpeels herself from your unpleasantness, and attaches herself to someone else.

I might have plumped for this latter option with great gusto, if not for my concern that Hayla would run straight to a teacher with any hurt feelings, in high hopes that the teacher would see fit to be cross with me for being mean to a friend and pressure me into maintaining the status quo.  Try, if you can, to cast your mind back to what it was like to be eleven-going-on-twelve; to live in a world where ending a friendship was a thing that the teacher reacted to with stern disapproval or exasperated impatience, simply because the wailing of the wounded party made their day more difficult.  At eleven, I must confess I did not have the emotional maturity to process the concept of a teacher being self-serving; my response to any adult disapproval was to feel that I had done something dreadful and was a disgrace to myself, my family and my school.  I was an accomplished adult-pleaser (read as: keener) and had no ‘whatever face’ for being told off, although I desperately wanted to know how to acquire one.  I would usually feel tears pricking my eyelids at a mere sharp word from a teacher, and being taken aside and ‘given a quiet talking to’ reduced me to a blubbering puddle with a speed that the sermonising teacher probably found alarming (or amusing, or satisfying, depending on the teacher).  The circularised, self-reinforcing reason for and result of this fragile point in my character was that I required discipline very rarely.  My great fear was that a teacher would admonish me loudly in the middle of a wide-eyed and silent classroom, and I would not be able to hold back my tears, and I would shame myself by crying uncontrollably in front of the whole class.  That’s the kind of thing that schoolkids don’t ever stop trotting back out for laughs.

So, when I finally saw a chance to verbalise to Hayla my disinterest in continuing our friendship, in a way that was indirect and, better yet, outside of school property, I seized it.  I was still scared of the potential repercussions from both adults and peers, but things had reached the point where anything had to be better than continuing to be stuck with Hayla's controlling presence at my side day after day.  Mum and I were walking her home after a tedious evening she’d spent at our house, and I’d been trying to ignore her as much as possible the whole time, so I was talking to my mother instead.  That was when my brainwave came upon me, and I said to Mum, loudly, ‘I think I’ve finally found a best friend, by the way.  I think Polly and I are going to be best friends.  I really like her.’

My mother immediately glanced sideways at Hayla, who was studiously looking at her feet and scowling.  ‘Mmm-hmm,’ was all Mum said in that moment.  An awkward silence descended.  We dropped Hayla off at her door, she muttered her thanks for dinner without quite looking at me, and Mum and I started back home.  As soon as we were out of earshot, Mum said, ‘That wasn’t a very nice thing to say.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said, not meeting her eye.

I was given a warning look.  ‘You know exactly what I mean.  Talking about wanting Polly for your best friend, right in front of Hayla.  She looked really upset,’ Mum reproached me.  ‘You do realize, Hayla probably thought that she was your best friend?’

‘I know,’ I admitted, kicking a pile of frostbitten crunchy brown leaves.  ‘But, she’s not.  And I don’t want her to be.  She’s annoying.’

‘That doesn’t give you the right to be hurtful,’ Mum said.  ‘I raised you better than that, young lady.’

I withdrew into a sulky confusion, feeling that I had disgraced myself in some way but not understanding what I could have done differently – leastways not without committing myself to a friendship I didn’t want.  I reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that it was the very fact of my not wanting the friendship which had been cruel.  A nice girl would want to be friends with everyone who wanted to be friends with her.  If I were a nice girl, I would have liked Hayla, and there would have been no problem.  But instead, I had felt irritated and resentful, which were the feelings of a mean-spirited person.  I had selfishly prioritised my own desire to avoid spending time with someone whose company I found unpleasant and, in so doing, I had committed the cardinal sins of creating conflict and hurting someone else’s feelings.  And that was Not Nice of me.  If I were Nice, I would have been, done, said and felt as Hayla wanted.  I didn’t, so I wasn’t nice.  Her hurt feelings were my responsibility to prevent, and I didn’t prevent them, so I was bad.

At this point, I would again draw the link between learning to navigate childhood friendships and forming templates for romantic relationships.  I would like to pull your attention over to that clichéd scene where people tsk-tsk over their neighbourhood’s pregnant fourteen-year-old and say, ‘I don’t understand how it happened.  She wasn’t that kind of girl.  Her mother raised her very morally and she was always so nice.’

I did not get pregnant at fourteen.  I didn’t get the chance; I was far too hopelessly in love with the girl next door to look twice at anyone with a Y chromosome.  But I would venture a guess that a great many of those pregnant fourteen-year-old girls are precisely the ones who were told, over and over, that they must be nice, and who were shown every day in little ways that being nice means always giving other people the things they want from you.  Female children in particular are taught that nice girls always consider others first, and yet we are expected to suddenly have the skills of setting personal boundaries and being firm about them to hand, whole, as if by magic, when a boyfriend wants to have sex without a condom.  And of course, we are told to ‘just say no’ to drugs.

Having been raised in a family and a culture that rains down disapproval on girls’ heads any time they show a disinclination to serve the wants of others, I find the offhand ‘just’ in ‘just say no’ deeply enraging.  I am twenty-seven years old, and after being taught my whole childhood and youth that I must Be Nice at all costs, I am finally just beginning the necessary hard work to overcome my difficulties with the concept of saying No to people.  How on earth can we expect very young women to be able to do so, when we consistently train our girls to believe that having needs and wants, and setting personal boundaries with which they feel comfortable, makes them selfish, cruel, and unworthy of friendship and love?  When we train our girls to believe they must sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others in order to be considered Nice, what on earth do we expect to happen when they become teenagers and adults, in a world where there are people who would seek to take advantage of their enormous doubts about their own right to say ‘No’?  How can we possibly expect the next generation to develop healthy personal boundaries, an integral part of which is to make unpleasant consequences for those who seek to cross them, in a world where you can only be considered 'nice' if you consistently smooth the way for others and tiptoe around their feelings at your own expense?

If we want our girls to be able to say No to the kinds of things and people that we want them to be safe from, we need to be a lot more willing to provide a childhood space in which they can practice saying No comfortably from a young age.  If we can’t do that, if we can only tell them that they must always be nice and never consider their own feelings above those of their peers, lest their Certificate Of Niceness be torn down the middle, then we fail them terribly.  We teach them that we don’t consider their needs to be important, and – worse – that they shouldn’t count their own needs as worth anything, either.  We teach them to frame their needs as merely wants, and selfish ones at that.  We teach them to frame the wants of the people around them as needs that should be deferred to.  We teach them that their only route to gaining social confirmation of their true human value is through unending service to maintaining the comfort and happiness of others, and we teach them to downplay and disregard to themselves the personal costs of being a secondary priority in their own lives.

Really, as a culture, we should have moved beyond raising Little Cinderellas by now, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Secrets Of Time Travel

Holy hell, but I had the weirdest dream last night.

It started with a knock on the front door.  Not at the flat where I live now, but in the house in Warmley where I grew up from age nine to eighteen.  I opened the door, and found before me a stern middle-aged man, a dour middle-aged woman, and an outsized Doberman dog.  The dog was held tight on a leash of steel linked chain, and it was growling.  I didn’t invite them in exactly but somehow, the next thing I knew, we were all in the kitchen.

They stood in the middle of the small room, taking up all the space.  The couple were talking at me in a way that conveyed no small amount of menace.  The dog was showing its teeth, a string of drool hanging from its chops, and it was pulling against its chain.  Jay and I were backed up against the kitchen sink and I was protesting my innocence – whatever it was, I hadn’t done it.  There was something wrong with the dog; something bad and wrong on a deep level I could feel in my gut.  It was a few sizes too big to really be a Doberman.  The shape of its face was all wrong.  It felt a little like Cujo, the rabid killer dog from the Stephen King novel.  And at the same time, it felt a little like one of the shiny hard aliens from the Alien movies.  It wanted to eat me in a way that had nothing to do with my physical body.  It wanted to snuff me out of existence and send my soul to the dark place.

It had been broad daylight when I answered the door, but now it was a pitch night outside the kitchen window.

When I wouldn’t confess to whatever it was that I was supposed to have done, the mice appeared.  There were two of them, grey, with little red noses and little red paws.  They opened their mouths to hiss, revealing curved yellow-white teeth of impossible length.  They had the mouths of female angler fish and, once opened, their jaws wouldn’t close again over teeth so long and so many.  Jay and I sprung upwards and backwards to perch on the edge of the work surface, pulling up our feet out of reach of the mice, whose impossible mouths had started to foam at the corners.  My suspicion of rabies was confirmed as they began running wildly about the kitchen floor, occasionally pausing as their limbs were overtaken by a clockworkish series of twitches and spasms that froze them in place.  One bite from either mouse would consign the recipient to a slow descent into the same grisly fate.  Our bodies would still be here, but our minds would be utterly destroyed, and I sensed that the death of my mind was the Doberman’s goal.

But the man and the woman couldn’t prove anything, and I wouldn’t confess, so they had to scoop the mice up into little white boxes and leave, dragging the reluctant and angry dog behind them.  They would wait until I incriminated myself.  And then they would be back to clean out my brain and leave me empty.

They let themselves out the front door, and I became aware of sounds of merriment beyond the kitchen window, in the back garden.  There were people out there.  They were setting off fireworks by the garden shed and tending a barbecue.  They were bundled up warm against the cold and the dark.  I opened the window, stuck my head out, and before I could identify anyone else my vision zoomed in on one reveller in particular.  She was standing by the barbecue, waiting her turn for a hotdog, her long brown hair pulled back into a lopsided plait.  I recognised her in a way that went bone-deep.  And before I’d even thought about what I was doing, I called out to her – ‘Hey, Kate!’

The other me turned and looked at me.  My eyes locked with hers; the same brown-green eyes I see in the mirror every day.  I registered her surprise.  And then the world swooped in an overwhelming sense of vertigo and déjà vu, and a memory exploded across my mind.  It knocked the breath out of me, and suddenly I knew, this is a dream.  I know it is, because I’ve had this dream before.  It was a long, long time ago.  And back then, I was the other Kate.

With the deductive powers of my waking mind, I can estimate it was probably about four or five years ago, because that other long-ago dream was full of all the people with whom I used to spend my weekends back then.  It was a firework and barbecue party, in the back garden of the house I grew up in.  The house was dark and locked, but in the garden we were setting off rockets and catherine wheels, and having a great time.   Me and Caleb, Jam and Pip.  Ben, Rachel and Bubbles.  Becci and Meg, and Dawn and Jack.  I was standing at the barbecue when I heard someone call my name, and I looked up, and someone was hanging out of the darkness of the house through the kitchen window.  The light was all wrong – the dark of the kitchen, the glare of the fireworks – and I couldn’t be completely sure of what I was seeing.  But the girl who had called out to me…  She looked like me.

And then she was gone.

In the long-ago dream, I ran to the window, but it was closed and locked.  I rattled the back door, but it wouldn’t budge.  I couldn’t even see into the house, it was too dark inside.  So I turned and pelted down the garden, gravel crunching under my feet.  People stared as I shot past but nobody had time to move more than a step.  I jumped the gate, flew down the back lane and around the end of our terrace row, fumbling in my pocket for my front door key.  I let myself into the house and ran to the kitchen.  It was dark and empty.  I ran back through the living room and took the stairs two at a time.  I searched all through the upstairs.  I searched all through the downstairs.  I climbed up into the loft, which was bigger on the inside – a veritable warehouse, full of giant shipping containers and pulleys and cranes.  But I found no sign of the girl who had looked like me.  She must have made it out the front door before I rounded the terrace, and gotten away.  I packed a rucksack and went out in search of her, and fetched up trekking through a pine forest.  I’m not sure what happened after that, or even if the dream continued from there at all.  I think it may have progressed into something Harry Potter related, but maybe that was the same forest in a different dream.

In the dream of last night, all this memory flashed through my mind in an instant as I hung out of the kitchen window, looking into the eyes of the me from my past dream.  And then, in the same instant, I understood why the Doberman was after me.  I had travelled back in time in my sleep to a past dream to pay a visit to my past self.  I had upset the space-time continuum.  My past self would have questions about her future, and I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to tutor her.  To give her solid gold advice on who to seek out, and who to avoid; perfect guidance on what to do, and what not to do.  I would rewrite my own history, and by extension the histories of everyone affected by my choices.  It would have a butterfly effect that would rock the linear nature of time to its core, perhaps even shatter it.  I was about to break a hole in time itself and plunge the universe into madness.  That was my crime.  And the Doberman was here to seal the temporal rupture shut with my death.  He wasn’t evil.  He was the janitor of Time and he had an important job to do.  He had to save the world, from me.  And he wouldn’t just eat me; the present-day Kate.  My past dream and my present dream had merged into the same place and time, and he would have to eat my past self too.  I would cease to exist, and the other Kate would ‘wake up’ in a coma, somewhere in the reality of the past, and the last several years of my life and everything I had learned in that time would be erased from the very fabric of existence.

I had to get away from the other me.  If I found me, it would be the end of everything for both of us.  I abruptly shut the window, turned, and bolted through the dark house and out the front door.  I could hear running footsteps coming around the side of the neighbour’s house, and Leanne was telling me there wasn’t time, using her key to open the front door again, dragging me back inside.  We slammed the door shut behind us and, panicking, I bolted up the stairs.  Leanne ran the other way, to the kitchen.  Too late, I realised that hers had been the smarter choice – from the inside, I could have unbolted the back door and made a run for it into the wide open dreamiverse.  But the silhouette of my past self was already looming in the window of the front door behind and below me, and I could only go on.  I swung around the post at the top of the banister, fled into my parents’ bedroom and made a beeline for their walk-in wardrobe.  I pulled the wardrobe door shut behind me just as I heard the front door open downstairs.

I crawled up onto the highest shelf I could manage, as quietly as I could, and pulled a fluffy pink throw over myself in the hopes I might be mistaken for a crumpled pile of blankets and overlooked.  I allowed myself to pant, trying to regain my breath while the other Kate was still downstairs, so I would be able to mouth-breathe slowly and silently when she came into the bedroom.  Inwardly, I cursed myself for a fool.  There was no way she wouldn’t find me here.  This had always been our favourite hiding place, and the throw-rug cover our most practiced tactic, whenever we had played hide-and-seek as a kid.  I couldn’t remember all the details of the dream from long ago, but I was certain I must have looked in here.  It would have been one of the first places I thought of.  How had I not found me?  What had the future me done?  What should I do?  My mind was spinning.  I couldn’t think.  My past self was coming up the stairs; she was going to find me in here and then the Doberman would catch us and we would both get sucked into oblivion.

I was trying to breathe more quietly now, but to no avail.  She was coming into the bedroom.  Her hand was on the wardrobe door.  She was opening it.  The dark space I was wedged into dissolved into panic and pure blackness.  There was so much I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t, she had to learn it the long way round, and I had to get away from her.  Death is here, and she is wearing my face.  And then my panic finally overboiled.  I felt that rising sensation in the back of my brain, like swimming up through dark water, and the dream parted and I surfaced in Mimm’s spare bedroom, clutching at the edge of the borrowed duvet and staring wildly at the ceiling.

Of course, was my first thought on snapping back into reality.  That’s how the other Kate gave me the slip, in that long-ago dream.  She disappeared out of the dreamiverse.  She woke up.