Walking around Paris with my daughter I was shocked beyond reason to find that men stared at her.
This should not have been surprising - if you've read even a little bit about France you would probably guess that cultural attitudes about flirting and sundry mating rituals are specific to the place.
Heck, I'm completely oblivious to such things and even my backwards self has clocked the fact that waiters pet my hair. Elsewhere in the world nobody would dare, but in Paris strangers walk right up and touch my arm.
We talked about the phenomenon of people staring and I pointed out that the French men I know believe the attention is a compliment. I disagree, and would place the attitude somewhere between 'annoying distraction' and 'nefarious social control.' But there is a need to acknowledge the truth that when you visit other countries, you are the guest, and as such it is necessary to be polite.
But, even though we were in the city as an early twenty-first birthday present, I have a very different reaction when people pay unwanted attention to my daughter. She might be an adult now, but I still shove her behind me in crowded trains. I still scissor between her and creepy men in crowds. I still watch, vigilantly, to protect her - even when she doesn't want me to.
Beyond that I have very little advice. I take the position that if I don't notice something it didn't happen. I walk through the world with impunity because I see myself as powerful, victorious. Other people correctly judge that I would rather rip their nose off than put up with nonsense. Even those who want to date me approach with their palms open to show they do not mean any harm.
But my freedom and autonomy were earned the hard way: I grew up poor, with cancer. My life has been defined by violence, both real and metaphoric. I had to fight to survive.
I did not want my children to face the same struggles, and I succeeded: my kids are thoroughly middle-class and relatively innocent. They are now independent and encountering the world as it is, with all of the attendant brutal lessons that implies. And by keeping them safe, in some ways I have failed, because I never taught them how to fight.
I do not know what advice to give a young woman about street harassment, because there is no way to bottle and sell the toxic wisdom of my life. There is no easy way to convey "you have to show with every quivering muscle that you will commit murder rather than be insulted."
One afternoon we were standing on a busy upscale shopping street, looking in a store window and chatting idly about nothing in particular, when I realised that a stranger had walked up between us, reached out, and was caressing my child.
She looked over her shoulder in horror, I looked from the arm stroking my daughter to the face of the leering man committing the crime, and I started to scream.
"NO, NO, NO!"
The man jumped away, but faced me and started to argue - in French - as I continued shouting. He tried to mime that he meant the touch as a compliment. He stood his ground and made eye contact, making little kissing gestures.
My pointing hand turned into a fist and I advanced.
Exactly twenty-one years ago the world was introduced to madcap, marauding Mina Lavender. Hilarious, honourable, fierce, and the smartest person I've ever met: it has been an honour and a privilege to know her, and I am so excited to see what she does next!
At age twenty-five I was passionate, opinionated, adamant. I believed in an undefined Utopia, and that it could be created right there and then. In pursuit of that goal I had started nonprofits, finished graduate school, had two kids. I'd embarked on and abandoned a career in government when I realised the limits of service.
Eventually I became a first-generation web designer (before that was technically a career option), and I felt that I was part of a practical, technical revolution. We were pioneers, we were creating not just a new industry but a new way of working - and thinking.
By 1997 I had a ton of commercial work but my real interest was in setting up sites for activists, artists, and independent publishers. One day I offered to create an online community for a radical parenting zine called Hip Mama.
All of my work attempted to offer an alternative to mainstream notions of acceptable dialogue, to change the discussion, alter the rules. I wanted to create radical virtual salons, but I also wanted to encourage real change. I wanted people to use the internet to find what they truly needed: friends, allies, and sustainable communities in their own towns. Hipmama.com was the perfect receptacle of my vision, because the audience was already there: small, distinctive, and hungry.
The concept was deceptively simple: I would create a safe place for welfare mothers, disabled parents, teen parents, queer parents, anyone who feels disenfranchised and lonely.
Within a few months Hipmama.com had displaced all of my other work. The site was growing exponentially, far exceeding the circulation of the print version, and reaching a different audience. I had taken on complete financial, ethical, and editorial responsibility for every aspect of the online project. I was the publisher, editor, technology evangelist, and visionary.
My original concept was shared by an intrepid crew of volunteers scattered across a huge geographic distance, all of us committed to creating a new mode of social enquiry in an entirely uncharted medium. And what we imagined, what we hoped for, actually happened - from the very start there were remarkable examples of women helping each other with tangible resources, from sharing advice, clothing, money, and food, to literally rescuing each other from chaos.
We were also, aside from these revolutionary notions, incredibly popular.
The growth of the site was exceptional. From a core group of thirty members and a couple of hundred hits a day, it grew to hundreds then thousands of users, thousands then millions of hits. My days were largely dedicated to keeping the servers stable as the discussion boards were bombarded with ten thousand, then twenty, then thirty, then fifty thousand messages a month. All on a site hand-coded and largely maintained by one person: me. Eventually I stopped counting, and turned off the stats because they kept breaking the server.
I had always assumed that people living in the mainstream, by definition, did not need support, and that was a mistake. Hipmama.com offers daily, illuminating proof that the experience of being a parent is intrinsically alienating - for everyone.
Huge audiences sometimes translate to dollar signs; many of my friends in the industry became wealthy selling projects with substantially less traffic and press interest. Hipmama.com has been viewed, visited, debated, used, loved, and hated by numbers that go far beyond the scope of what could have been accomplished in an earlier era. The internet has revolutionised publishing - and Hipmama.com was an active part of that insurgency. The numbers are unwieldy, enormous, and from a business perspective, problematic. Because although we accept advertising, we never turn a profit; since 2001, like nearly every independent publication, we have not earned enough to cover the basic bills. When the site faces economic difficulties, I make up the difference working elsewhere.
Venture capitalists have come calling to Hipmama.com, and I listened to their bids (and accepted the occasional free trip or goodie bag), but I have never considered selling out. It might be difficult to make ends meet, but it is unacceptable to squander hope and reciprocity for a paycheck.
Throughout the years I have encouraged community members to start their own zines, sites, events, bands, books, sharing resources wherever and whenever I could. Hipmama.com became an incubator and outlet for a flurry of creative and unexpected new work from countless people, connecting and finding each other via a site with a vast global audience that somehow, through it all, managed to remain real. Raw. Handmade.
Great success has inevitable negative consequences, and one measure of our impact has been the trouble encountered. I've been subpoeaned by local law enforcement, the Canadian Mounties, the FBI. The site has been hounded by cyber-attacks, and vilified by rightwing militants. I have been stalked and slandered. I have received kidnapping and death threats.
Ultimately, I had to make the decision to slow the growth - to decide what level could be managed without any paid staff, and calibrate the site accordingly.
I went looking for a model of sustainable creative non-growth, and I found it in the projects of friends who run record labels that do not sell out to multi-national corporations. In companies that work collaboratively with artists in mutually beneficial ways. In organic farms where food is tilled by the same people who eat it. In the idea of a family, the essential building block of society: an entity that is inherently creative, sometimes breaks under duress, but can have magical restorative powers - if you are willing to do the work.
I looked at those examples and elected to follow a quixotic path. The site is self-sustaining, by necessity, in every sense, and will not grow just for growths sake. The site exists to provide a safe place for the original core audience: the people who do not fit elsewhere, the dismayed and disenfranchised. It isn't about fashion or hairstyles (though we like both) or any of the superficial stuff people use to judge each other. Hipmama.com is inclusive, not exclusive. We don't care what you look like or how you vote, we just care that you show up and try. Even when life is difficult, even when you want to give up. In a world that says no, we say yes.
The work has been brutally hard and largely thankless, but it was all worth it. Real change has happened. People have staged effective protests at the local and state level and joined with international movements. Battered women have left their abusers. Friendships have formed, true love blossomed, weddings and babies have ensued. Teenage mothers have been encouraged to feel fierce pride (and go to graduate school if they wish).
Over the years the project itself has changed, using different technology though always with the same purpose. The people have also changed. Editors, producers, moderators, and interns have contributed vast quantities of time and devotion. The community has expanded, matured, graduated, and new people have joined in natural cycles. The transition is sometimes painful, but always illuminating, because the circle of friends now extends all the way across the world. Wherever I go, I know someone, and that is a gift beyond words.
The print and online versions were always independent, and have also evolved in different directions. We are more than a zine, more than a site, more than all of us separately or collectively. We have moved beyond the original vision of two women to a whole constellation of ideas and experience. We are not a publication, we are a social movement.
Fifteen years after I started this community, I can review the facts and say that Hipmama.com began with a purpose and it has retained that directive. We are an activist tool for social change.
I'm forty now, and I no longer believe in Utopia. But I still believe in people, and in Hipmama.com.
My productivity is set by the health of my right hand, and that is determined by how often I use it.
If I rest, and keep the arm close at my side, the hand remains useful for simple tasks like opening doors. But if I do any manual activities for longer than half an hour - including but not limited to cooking, cycling, and typing - the hand blows out. Literally: the numbness starts in my smallest crooked finger and spirals up around the arm to my neck, with shooting pain following posthaste.
From the perspective of all the medical doctors I have consulted in major teaching hospitals in two countries since 1980, this is a permanent and irreversible injury. My hand, elbow, and neck were smashed beyond help and the intricate connections are (to use a technical term) ruined. Muscles, tendons, cartilage, bones, and nerves were broken or shredded. There is no cure.
But the original injury happened when I was so young there was also no option except to work through the pain. You can't really drop out of life in the fifth grade, and secondary school was somewhat compulsory - I didn't live in a place where a government agency wanted to pay my bills, and my family could not afford an adult dependent. I worked because I had to, no matter how much it hurt.
The arm injury is the least serious of my constellation of medical problems (cancer always wins that contest, even in remission) but the most visible and persistent. I am right-handed, and have never learned to switch. When I stumble I put out my right hand, when I grab or stretch or stroke I instinctively use my right hand. I've made efforts to adapt, taping classes and lectures, writing (badly) with my left hand, typing with one finger, becoming an early adopter of computers.
When my daughter was born twenty-one years ago I was too weak to hold her eight pound body with my right arm, too injured to contrive a solution. But I had to, and I did. I never became ambidextrous, but I learned to parent left-handed. And that serves as a metaphor for my life.
If I had been healthy I know that I would have chosen a different career, but I had to pick something that gave preference to intellectual skills over physical ability. I would have liked to be a welder, but instead I went to graduate school and studied public policy. My wonky brain had to take the burden for everything my body could not do, and it had to develop a plan that included health insurance: because otherwise I would have died.
Fast forward past the early career in activism and government service, through the years of writing and publishing, across the peripatetic existence traveling in search of safety and equitable public policies. Glance with repugnance at the fact I married - twice - for health insurance. At forty I am healthier than could be expected, and I have achieved a great deal more than my working class cancer stricken childhood promised. Including acquiring citizenship in a place where everyone has equal access to health care.
But there is still one permanent fact: my hand hurts.
All the time.
When I lived in Portland I could barter with friends for naturopathic care, deep tissue massage, acupuncture. When I lived in Seattle my health insurance covered a small but useful amount of alternative therapies. And, much to my surprise, the treatments helped.
The improvements were small and incremental, but real. People who are into this kind of thing talk about meridians and chi. I don't believe, I just experience, and this is the truth: one session of acupuncture reduces the pain. By the third, the pins and needles sensation is gone. If I follow the whole plan my arm is not normal but it is functional, at about half the level of my left arm - and this is something akin to a miracle.
Now I live in a country where alternative medical paradigms are frowned on, and highly adept practitioners are hard to find. I don't know anyone I could barter with, and until recently I couldn't afford the treatment. When I can't find an alternative I just work through the pain, until I can't work at all.
Recent deadlines, secret projects, and weeks of slogging through the archives had a predictable and woeful effect. I ignored the problem until my hand was flopping, useless and numb, and the pain kept me awake every night.
Then I gritted my teeth and made an acupuncture appointment. The very nice woman who examined me was visibly distressed, offering comments like "But that is horrible!" and "I don't know how you cope!"
I shrugged; I didn't know I had a choice. Objecting to chronic incurable pain is like arguing with the sunrise.
Then I subjected myself to a regimen of needles - at least thirty in each session, every week for six weeks, limited only by what the practitioner herself can tolerate. I don't flinch, I don't feel it. In fact, as soon as the needles go in I fall asleep, impervious to the jabs, and the heat, and the electrical impulses she sends across the metal.
This treatment costs £55, and one sliver of my brain is dedicated not only to multiplying the exchange rate, but also to reckoning what that amount of money would have meant to me as a poor kid or young parent. But when I walk out of the clinic flexing my hand I am endlessly thankful that I can open my wallet and pay.
Hours later I notice that while my neck feels tender something else hurts more. That secretly, against my own advice, I am filled with grief and regret - because my illnesses and injuries have prevented me from doing so much, yes. But mostly because they have taken me so far away from home.
A senior government official in the UK has stated it is wrong to tell teenagers they would make good mothers. Conflating age with income, maturity, and mental health, he went on to say social workers should not press pregnant women with personal difficulties to bring up their children.
These statements are disgusting, repulsive, and reprehensible. Tories do not care about "family values" unless family = middle class, middle aged, and married.
Beyond that, this man is simply delusional about the reality of being ALIVE. Who amongst us can claim we waited until the perfect moment to procreate? Or if we managed that trick, that the whole process was without challenges? That our extended families, communities, jobs, health, the environment, the weather, all remained stable and fixed and pleasant?
Who is this perfect family, could I meet them please? Cause I've traveled the world and I know people of all backgrounds and income brackets, and being a parent is freakishly difficult for all of us. Except, evidently, right wing politicians. Who never, ever have any problems whatsoever.
When has a social worker ever encouraged a young mom who can't cope to keep kids she can't deal with? I would be willing to bet, oh, well, NEVER. The more common story I hear (and have experienced) is social workers telling young and poor mothers they should give up all hope for a future.
If there are failings in the social care system they happen because social workers don't have enough time and funding to help the people who ask for assistance.
Adoption has decreased in the UK and the US because women have exercised their right to obtain legal contraception and abortion.
This means fewer unwanted babies are born.
This also means a greater proportion of infants are wanted.
I actually agree that there should be more support for adoption. There are vast numbers of awesome potential parents, and an even bigger number of kids who need homes. The government should focus on funding and facilitating a wider array of programs to build new and better foster and adoptive programs.
But telling a teenage mother, or a poor mother, that she isn't qualified to raise her own children, because she is young or poor?
Have you seen How to Be a Woman?
I like this writer - her column is funny, I've seen her at events, she seems great.
But I have a problem with the way the media is portraying her as she promotes the book.
For one thing, why does every single article emphasise that she is married, with children? Is that information pertinent?
I also take issue with the way the press makes a big negative deal about the fact that she grew up in an alternative (she says hippy) household and was homeschooled from age eleven.
The implied criticism is that she was somehow failed by her parents. I counter, would this witty, eclectic, and super smart girl have done better in mainstream education? I think not.
Beyond that, the interviews and articles are depressing because they are promoting Ms. Moran as the new face of feminism.
This is an incredible rebuke to those of us who have been rocking third wave rhetoric for the last twenty years. Why? Because nearly identical pieces have been written about me, and a dozen of my friends. One or the other of us has been the flavour du jour so many times you could practically copy and paste the content instead of writing new text.
This isn't Ms. Moran's fault: she makes clean, logical, and highly amusing arguments against precisely the same social stereotypes that are distorting the press attention. Did she have a catfight with Germaine Greer? No, but the press wants you to think she did. This is the reality of the media machine.
When I was young and prone to spouting political oratory whilst falling out of my dresses I received a disproportionate amount of attention compared to more restrained but equally intelligent colleagues. This was disconcerting to say the least - and contrary to the message I was trying to get across.
Yes, I do believe I can wear, say, and do whatever I like. I'm a powerful person and the world bends to my will. But I did not like it when the publicists of even my most politicised publishers asked for "sexy" press photos.
There was a tendency at the start of my career to focus on the bits of me best described as cuddly or quirky. Like the kids, and the tattoo. Later, when I published a dark and difficult memoir, the press attention changed in a subtle way. Instead of cute, I was described as "glamorous" - to the specific and hugely annoying extent that many articles insisted I wear high heels and couture. For the record, I do not, and never will.
But fundamentally, why does it matter what I look like? I'm a writer, not an actor or television personality. Heck, I don't even like appearing on the radio. I am a solitary and reserved creature, and I never intended to bolster any notion that women have to look good/right/attractive/pretty/sexual/whatever to get ahead.
When you publish work you let go of some control of how the work is represented. And it would be hypocritical of me to claim a pure and noble position here; I've refused to let my kids be used as publicity fodder, but one edition of Lessons in Taxidermy was distributed through supermarkets with a photo of me on the cover.
However, I don't want or need to know that Caitlin Moran has a boiling tap in her kitchen. I don't care that she keeps a nice garden or offers a journalist some cookies. I wish there were fewer photographs of her attached to the articles - or staring out of the poster in every tube stop in London. Why? Because a career based on youth and good looks is not sustainable: everyone gets old eventually. Caitlin Moran is a great writer, and I hope that her fame lasts for several decades.
We should not be talking about what kind of boots she wears. We should stop expecting females in a position of authority to be our friend or mother figure.
I left Portland nine years ago.
I left the United States seven years ago.
And one year ago I became a citizen of the United Kingdom.
Happy Independence Day!