Sharing is caring?

Over the past few months I’ve been taking a bit of a step back from social media use. I haven’t quit altogether, but I’ve been quieter. If you follow me, you may have noticed. In all likelihood you haven’t noticed at all. I am not offended. That’s how it goes. We scroll, press like and move on without really engaging, noticing or absorbing.

I think my retreat has been partly due to my viewing being dictated too much by the algorithms and advertisers, but it is mainly because life events have led me to turn inwards and engaging with the outside world, even friends and family, has felt too daunting and draining.

I have….stuff going on. Stuff with me and my health and stuff with my older child. Together it is a lot of stuff. In a way it’s been going on for years but it is sort of coming to a head now.

So what do you do when you have something big going on in your life but you are kind of a private person? What do you do when your main form of interaction with people apart from family and close friends is via social media?

It’s not like an announcement such as “hey I have a new job!” or “aww, my goldfish died 😦 ” it’s more that whole new dimensions have been added into my life now, that affects all aspects of my life, likely for the rest of my life.

I’m part of that generation (not sure if we have a name – after Gen X but before Millennials?) we are comfortable using technology, the internet, social media etc having used it most of our adult lives but we didn’t grow up with it. I’m old enough that it feels weird to make personal public disclosures about sort of private matters on those kind of platforms. Particularly when some of the stuff concerns my child. I’m still reluctant to put stuff out there like that. It sort of feels too big and too small at the same time.

I want to tell everyone, because it impacts everything. I can’t answer a simple “how’s things?” without thinking, “well…do you really want to know?” I might be a private person, but I’m an open one, I hope an honest one. Yet I’m not sure I’m ready to have those inevitable conversations, deal with the questions, the sympathy. That would make it real and perhaps I’m somewhat in denial. Perhaps I’m not prepared to deal with the emotions that would bring out.

Sharing personal updates on social media can be a valuable exercise. It can put you in touch with others who have been through the same experience. It can also have a downside of feeding you false, misleading or biased information. When it comes to medical matters that’s something to be extremely wary of.

There have been many times over the years that my current stuff has been active where I’ve wanted to put some feelers out there to say, “hey I’m going through this… anyone else?” I’m sure that if I had done so, many people would have responded with helpful and probably some unhelpful advice. We never want to feel like we are going through anything alone. If my immediate friends and family aren’t in the same position as me it’s quite likely that our wider network will have someone who has trodden this path before and can be of some solace and guidance.

I have found myself drafting, redrafting and discarding several posts, ultimately deciding against pressing send because either a) it would take too long to explain or b) I would end up being cryptic and not really saying anything.

Generally I think social media is a really useful tool I use Facebook primarily to keep in touch with people whose emails and phone numbers I no longer have. It allows me to share photographs and updates with friends and family all over the world. Most of my kids’ activities have closed parents groups on Facebook for news, updates and info. I was later to the party with Instagram but I enjoy sharing the odd photograph and I find it a generally more relaxed place to be, although I have fewer contacts there than anywhere else. Twitter – well everyone’s talking about Twitter these days. I started using it many moons ago to chat with people from the music scene, especially other fans of the smaller bands that I liked. I was able to connect with like minded fans and band members themselves from time to time. For a long time for me, it was a place to chat to a small group of people, most of whom I hadn’t met (although over the years I have met up with quite a few) in quite a closed circle. Over time it evolved to be a place where I would connect with people I knew in real life and people I met along the way. As the circle expanded it became less like a place for conversation and more like, well Facebook, with status updates and likes rather than real connections. Through Twitter I have been able to have exchanges with not only members of bands that I follow but a few random celebs as well who have noticed or responded to my tweets. I loved that democratising, accessible aspect of it. When I changed careers about 3 or 4 years ago, I shifted to using it primarily as a work tool. It has proven to be a fantastic networking platform. It has provided me with great contacts, networking, research findings and sharing of good practice for my work and beyond. Recently I put out a request for info on an essay topic I was considering and was overwhelmed with the amount of responses I received, including suggestions of papers to read, academics to follow, and offers to chat and discuss. These days, well who knows, along with many others I’m reconsidering my usage of the platform thanks to the bizarre actions of Elon Musk but for now I’m hanging in there although I set up an account on Mastodon just in case… I decided a while ago that I was too old for other platforms, so I’ve never touched Snapchat, Tiktok or anything of that ilk.

But it’s not real interaction, is it? It’s not having your family over for a meal and getting into the nitty gritty of your life. It’s not going out for a drink with your friends and venting about your kids/relationship/lack thereof and putting the world to rights. You never know who is going to see a post, what you miss if you don’t check it for a couple of days or whether someone is offended that you didn’t press like on their latest update. If I post about my stuff will people acknowledge, offer empathy then move on because it’s just another post in an endless succession of updates from people and companies? Will they forget as quickly as they scroll? Have I been guilty of doing that to others who I should have reached out to properly? Absolutely. I have a list in my mind of people that I mean to check in with, either because of something I’ve seen them post or just because it’s been way too long. I’m sure we all do, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok.

I fully realise that I’m being annoyingly cryptic in this post. If you know me for real, I’m actually more than happy to talk about it. Perhaps in future I’ll write about it, but for now privacy prevails…

On witnessing the change of monarch with my children

We watch the tv, aware that we are witnessing history. We feel….

We’re not sure. The news is sudden, but we are not surprised. It is sad, but not tragic. We watch and contemplate and feel a mixture of emotions and none.

We don’t believe in the principle of monarchy or the royal family. The idea that one person or family should be elevated above the rest of us based on the actions of their ancestors centuries ago is absurd. We agree that surely no-one devising a country’s system of governance these days would include a royal family, the idea is ludicrous. Yet we have them and they exist. Our preference would be for the monarchy to be phased out or abolished, but we don’t expect that to happen any time soon, possibly not in our lifetimes. We consider whether there is perhaps slightly more chance of an independent Scotland becoming a republic. We get side-tracked by constitutional questions and feel guilty that we have forgotten that the queen has died.

The queen has always been our queen, she’s always just been there. Through the entirety of my kids’ lives, the entirety of my life and the entirety of my mother’s life. We agree it’ll be strange without her. A king? That’s weird. Yeah.

We agree that getting a new monarch is a BIG DEAL, but wonder what will actually change. We think the feel of the monarchy will change with Charles but can’t see how our daily lives will change. It’s not like getting a new Prime Minister. We’ve seen plenty of them. We watch, removed, like when there’s new US President or a new Pope. Oh, interesting, but what does he have to do with me?

We talk about how we feel when someone we know, but don’t know, dies. The 13 year old recently found herself unexpectedly upset at the passing of a youtuber that she knew of. She felt it was silly or immature to feel sad because he was, essentially a stranger. We agreed it wasn’t and that we can be just as affected by the passing of those we don’t know personally as much as those we do. I still haven’t been able (willing?) to fully address my feelings on Taylor Hawkins‘ death, but have gone through shock, sadness and am sitting somewhere near anger. We don’t really feel sad about the queen but we feel sorry for the loss that her family have felt. She was a granny and a great-granny. We think about our grannies.

We talk about the Queen and her life. The 9 year old remembers learning a lot about the Queen during the Jubilee earlier this year. If not for that, she would have struggled to pick the queen out of a line-up. To her, kings and queens are from fairy tales or Disney movies and don’t relate to real life or real people in any tangible way. She is disappointed that normal princesses don’t wear ballgowns and tiaras every day and that the king wears a normal boring suit. The 13 year old is more aware, has a current fascination with Princess Diana and has high hopes that William will abdicate and end the whole ridiculous farce. She gave a lifetime of service. So do many people. She didn’t have much of a choice. We think about people who serve through choice. We think about people who have no choices. We don’t think we’d like to be born into the royal family.

We consider that the Queen was not just our head of state but that of The Commonwealth. Yes, like the Games. What’s that again? A collection of countries that we used to own. Countries that we invaded and took over. Whose culture and traditions we obliterated and replaced with our own. Whose rulers were replaced with our royal family, portraits of the Queen hanging in rooms all over the world as a reminder. Oh, that’s weird. Yeah.

We don’t really know how to navigate this time or what we should be doing. Should we be doing something? Should we not be doing stuff? Will the schools be closed? We note that companies feel compelled to preface marketing emails with condolences and adorn their websites with tributes while still trying to sell us stuff. Why? Respect. But…? Yeah.

We watch the proclamations, ceremonies, processions and corteges. We don’t quite understand the rituals, traditions or protocols but they are compelling viewing. We feel we should watch, witness, observe. We might not be royalists but we know history when we see it. We hear all the talk of how the queen loved Scotland, the importance of the union to the royal family and we get a bit annoyed. There is a lot of god and protection of religion and they lose us. Who is paying for all this? I’m not sure. Isn’t there a financial crisis happening? Well, yes.

We notice that the house over the back with the flagpole in the garden which flies a flag for every occasion is flying the union jack at half mast. We don’t remember seeing them fly the union jack ever before.

In defence of “nice”

Last weekend I took the train down to Birmingham and something nice happened. Not exciting, or especially interesting, just nice.

I used to be a frequent train traveller – you know pre-pandemic when we did stuff all the time without thinking about it. I am intimately familiar with the entire length of the West Coast Main Line all the way from Glasgow to London. Strangely, Birmingham isn’t particularly easy to reach from Glasgow so this particular journey involved multiple changes as well as the usual minor delays.

Ordinarily, once on board a train I sit back, put my earphones in and listen to music, read a book or perhaps try to do some work. This time I was all prepared for the 5 hours each way with my phone, earbuds, book and laptop. But then something strange and unusual happened. I got talking to my fellow passengers.

Not just the usual “Hi, how are you?”, “Where are you off to?” “Ah that’s nice.” We are British and polite after all. No, this time I had proper, extended conversations with multiple people on multiple trains. In fact I spent all of 10 minutes on my laptop, didn’t put my earphones in at all or read a single word of my book during the combined 10 hours of travelling.

Why did this happen? I’m honestly not sure. The delays, other train cancellations and imminent strikes certainly provided some fuel for discussion. The weather, obviously, a 30 degree heatwave had been predicted for that day which only came to fruition in half of the country. Perhaps it was the novelty of travelling and being among people again. For me this was the first long train journey I had done since early March 2020.

But all that could have just been the usual small talk, snippets of interaction before the earphones go back in, the book gets picked up again or the eyes gaze back down at the phone. People actually seemed more keen to talk, chat and converse. They were receptive to communication, not just grunting one word answers then getting back to minding their own business. Questions were asked and answered, willingly and easily, followed up on and supplemented.

The great thing about cross country trains is that you get all sorts of passengers. There were families, couples, solo travellers and even a dog. We were Scottish, English, European, Asian and South African. We were young, we were old. And for the duration of our journeys, we were friends.

An older man going to visit his daughter in Liverpool. A couple returning from a day trip to Blackpool where it unfortunately wasn’t anywhere near 30 degrees. A man coming back from his brother’s stag do. Another couple (and dog) travelling from London to Scotland about to rent a campervan and tour around for a week. Some I didn’t find out where find out where they were from or where they were going to but I did hear their views on sheep farming, mosquitoes and the RNLI.

Despite our apparent differences, it’s amazing how there’s always something that can be found in common with strangers. (More on that here) One of the men also worked in interpreting. A woman and I laughed together about how our kids freak out if there’s the tiniest of flies in the house. The merits of various Scottish football stadia was discussed with another man. It doesn’t take much to scratch scratch the surface to find some commonality, that thing that makes you go, “yes, I know!” or “hey, me too!”.

As much as I love listening to music and reading a good book, these conversations with strangers helped pass the time and made it rather enjoyable. There may have been no life changing event – I didn’t lock eyes with someone across the table and instantly fall in love – well except for Bimba the Cavapoo. I didn’t meet anyone who offered me a fantastic job or who will change my life in any way but for those few hours each day these people did make my life a little bit more interesting and pleasant.

It was nice. There’s a lot to be said for nice.

Difficult Women – Helen Lewis at the Aye Write Festival, Mitchell Library Glasgow, 20th May 2022

I would say I’m a pretty Difficult Woman. I’m sure most of you who know me would agree. Luckily, this has gone from being an insult to a badge of honour, in no small part due to Helen Lewis‘ book of that name. “Difficult Women, A History of Feminism in 11 Fights” is pretty much what it says it is. Political and legislative change in British history told through the stories of the women who made it happen. What makes Lewis’ book different from a textbook or a pop social history book is that she delves deeper into the lives, beliefs and actions of the women, discussing their shortcomings as well as their victories, their flaws as well as their virtues. I read it earlier this year and when I saw that she was due to appear as part of the “Aye Write” book festival in Glasgow (can we just take a moment to appreciate the genius of that name?) I decided to go along and hear her speak about it.

Unfortunately the friend I was due to go with had to cancel last minute due to illness, so I headed in on my own. I tried to time my entrance to arrive just at the start so I wouldn’t have to mingle or look too much like a lonely loser. It was all going well until a staff member sent me to the wrong event, I had to navigate back up the various floors and sections of the labyrinthine Mitchell Library and ended up getting to the door just as Helen Lewis was being introduced. My attempts to subtly take a seat in the back row while quietly taking off my coat were thwarted by a steward who asked, “Are you here on your own?” and requested that I move to make room for others who might arrive later. Others, presumably, with friends or partners who would want to sit together while I, Nora No-mates was just in the way. There should be a dating type app for folk who want to go to these events on their own. Maybe I’ll invent it and capitalise on my loneliness (more on that here), lemons and lemonade and all that. Anyway, I digress…

It was an interview-type affair with the host asking a series of questions which Lewis answered at length, often straying from the topic of the question or referring to other relevant matters so it felt more like a solo talk than an interview. The questions provided some structure but they weren’t strictly necessary as Lewis has a lot to say on a lot of issues and I’m sure we would all have been happy to just listen to whatever she wanted to discuss.

Helen Lewis speaks as she writes – direct, to the point and with well-researched facts liberally strewn throughout. She is eloquent and quick and funny. She writes in the kind of style that I aspire to, in fact listening to her made me almost regret not pursuing journalism as a career as I once aimed to. Ironically it was sexism and insane competition in the profession that put me off back then, but that is history without any fights. I wasn’t a fully-fledged Difficult Woman back then.

After an interesting and entertaining 45 minutes or so, it was opened up to the audience to ask a few questions. Sadly the event only lasted an hour, we could easily have gone for twice that I’m sure. Afterwards the author was at a table selling books and signing them so I queued up, purchased a paperback copy and waited my turn. I got the book signed with a personal dedication which was nice, and had a brief chat with Lewis. I told her that I already had a copy on kindle, but that I wanted a one on a shelf in my house so that my kids might pick it up one day and have a browse. We had a brief chat about the importance of teenagers today knowing about feminism, then it was time to go.

I do worry about the future of feminism. My eldest is coming up for 13 and while that age group do seem to have a strong sense of justice and equality, there is a feeling among them that feminism is a fight that has been won already. They see it as something that is part of history, not relevant to their present or future. I can see why – when I was at school girls had to wear skirts, we were segregated in PE into hockey for girls and football for boys and only girls got taught sewing. My kids won’t experience that, thankfully. They have LGBT+ clubs and gender-neutral toilets and all their tv programmes have an ethnically diverse cast. Yet the world still won’t treat them equally or fairly. They are going to need feminism and perhaps feminism will need them. The way things are going in the world just now we need as many Difficult Women as possible, not just creating hashtags and participating in social media campaigns but in protecting our legislative and constitutional rights. I hope that in 50 or 100 years time there are 11 more, in fact 50 more fights to write another book about. I hope feminism moves us all forward, that our young people take up the reigns and do revolutionary, amazing things with it.

There were several other events on in the Library and as I made my way out I saw a pile of Val McDermid’s new book on a table. I remembered that I’d bought it a wee while ago and made a mental note to read it asap. Then I saw the actual Val McDermid sitting at a table signing her book. As much as I would have loved to meet her I’m not sure she would have waited for me to run home to fetch my copy. I could have chanced my arm and asked her to sign Difficult Women, I’m sure she’d be delighted to be in the Difficult Women club. All the best ones are.

I’ve been learning Gaelic on Duolingo…but should I?

We are regular visitors to the Highlands of Scotland. After one recent trip, my eldest child expressed an interest in learning Gaelic. It turns out that Duolingo is fairly popular among her schoolfriends, so she asked if she could give it a try. This particular child gives lots of things a try and either gives up very quickly or gets very, very, extremely interested in the subject. It turned out that learning Gaelic on Duolingo was one that stuck. She practiced diligently every night, loudly and repeatedly. I had fun guessing what she was saying. Some I guessed from context, some are similar to Scots, some similar to Swedish. At first she got annoyed at me, this was her thing. Then she decided it would be good to have someone to practice with, so I was challenged to stop guessing and start learning.

Like many people living in Scotland, I’d picked up a bit of Gaelic over the years. My dad is a big Runrig fan so we spent many a car journey listening to songs in Gaelic. I could reel them off phonetically but had little idea of their meanings. We did attempt to learn when I was younger, we got some tapes and videos of the BBC series “Can Seo”. We didn’t last long, and if you watch the videos, you’ll see why…. Later there was an STV series “Speaking Our Language”. I think we tried to follow that too but with limited success. Some of those clips have been incorporated into the website for the current initiative “Learn Gaelic”. At some point in the 1990s a 5 minute news segment in Gaelic was tacked on after the main Scottish tv news, so we all learned the words for “Good afternoon” and “good evening” and “today” but not much else.

I love language and learning languages. Over the years I’ve done a bit of French, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish and British Sign Language – I now work as a BSL/English Interpreter. I suppose if I was going to learn another language it should be Gaelic, being a language native to my country. However I’ve never really felt that Gaelic was rightfully “my” language. I grew up in Dundee, in the north east of Scotland. If Gaelic was ever spoken in the region it was a very long time ago indeed. My heritage is firmly rooted in that area, none of my ancestors hailing from much further afield than Perthshire or Fife. Gaelic was never part of my background or culture, it was a Highland/north-west Scotland thing but not a Dundonian thing.

It is, of course, a Scottish thing though and the Scottish Government have been making efforts in recent years to revive and revitalise the language across the whole country. Child1 and I are not alone in our learning – recently Duolingo clocked up over 1 million users on their Scots Gaelic course, although most live in North America there are a good portion of learners here in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Is it any good though? If anyone were to tell me they were learning British Sign Language from an app or a website I would vigorously recommend that they get themselves along to a class lead by a qualified Deaf Tutor. An app or online course, no matter how well designed, can’t give anywhere near the same experience as learning in person from a native speaker, especially one who can teach about the culture and usage of the language as well as the vocabulary and grammar.

Duolingo rather notoriously teaches using weird and wonderful phrases – some excellent examples can be found here and here . All 1 million of us going through the course are learning the same phrases in the same order, and can therefore only converse about certain limited topics. If we were to find ourselves in the Highlands or Islands among actual Gaelic speakers I suspect we wouldn’t get very far and they would be somewhat concerned with our preoccupation with pigs and Irn Bru. Despite my many highland travels, I’ve only come across real Gaelic spoken by real Gaelic speakers “in the wild” once – about 25 years ago on a holiday to the Outer Hebrides. I’m certain very few of us 1 million would understand a word any locals might utter.

It all reminds me of the brilliant Eddie Izzard sketch about learning French – please do yourself a favour and watch it here, I’ll wait. I fear my only hope of practicing my new found skills would be to travel to Stornoway with a frog, 9 kittens, some herring, a bonnet and and an unfortunate friend named Iain. I may not be able to hold a conversation with locals but any fellow app users and I can all collectively give thanks that Una is wearing underpants.

It is entirely possible to go through the course without uttering a single word in the language you are learning. You are encouraged to speak along and repeat but there is no voice detection part of the process that has you say the phrases to check if you are picking them up correctly. If you are physically able to, speaking the words and forming the new sounds yourself allows you to really pick up on the difference between “an” and “ann”, to feel how accented vowels are different from unaccented and to wonder how on earth “ard” requires you to produce a “sh” and a “t” sound. You also get the great pleasure of saying the beautifully rhythmic first long phrase learned – “Cò ris a tha an t-side coltach an-diugh?” (What is the weather like today) which my daughter askes me with great relish at every opportunity. We try out phrases with each other and on the rare occasion where a phrase we have learned actually fits an everyday situation we take advantage. We got a few strange looks at the local farm when we both yelled, “Tha mi a’ cluinntinn gobhar!” (I am hearing a goat). Anyone learning via the app alone may not have that opportunity to practice with others. Why do we learn languages if not to communicate with others? There needs to be a communal, social, shared experience aspect to language learning and practice. If immersion isn’t possible then real world interaction should be sought out. Will I ever get the chance to converse with a native Gaelic speaker? Who knows. Will they be interested in yet another person blethering on about how many kittens they have or whether or not Morag has a jacket on? Unlikely.

Despite these shortcomings, credit has to be given to Duolingo for making language learning fun. The gamification of the process does add to the appeal. My daughter loves looking at her stats and charting her progress, earning the gems and trophies for various milestones. There is a sense of achievement in getting these rewards and it undoubtedly spurs you on to unlock the next topic or complete the month’s challenge.

So whilst I may not hail from a Gaelic-speaking area I do think there is merit in Scots from all places having some knowledge of Gaelic. It is a challenging but interesting language to learn and I would hate to see it further decline in Scotland or only be continued by the enthusiasm of the diaspora. Duolingo and the like aren’t ideal conduits for teaching language but it is the only method so far that has engaged me to any extent and surely some of the 1 million online users will decide to pursue their studies more formally and find a place within the Gaelic community. I’m not sure how long my daughter and I will stick at it, but for now we are having fun and learning something new and that is never a bad thing.