The accidental techie (5): Shadowing

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

The other night, our youngest had a friend over for a sleepover. It so reminded me of shadowing, known in AI as knowledge elicitation and in software design as requirements engineering. Whatever you call it, it remains my favourite time in any project because it satisfies all my nosy urges. I love to go in and see who people are, what they do, and how they use technology in their environment: A stalker by any other name.

Our young friend was obviously seeing us in our natural habitat, but in conversation I got to hear all about her life too, which is quite different yet similar to ours. I was fascinated. Even so, with my new knowledge, I still feel very disconnected these days, and like most people fundamentally, want to know: What do other people do in their own homes? Especially raising children. Am I doing it right? My children’s lives are so different from my life as a child. It all seems a bit rigid to me and a bit too nuclear-family based, these days, but a friend said to me just recently that her life was exactly like that, no people just dropping in whenever, and that was normal to her, so you know, perhaps it’s not time, it’s geography.

That said, I struggle with the idea that there’s a rigid schedule and no random event or visitors. At my mum’s funeral, some of my cousins were reminiscing about how they’d often come down to breakfast to find one of our uncles sitting in the kitchen, even though he lived four doors down. And, when I was young, I would get the bus (9p for 2 miles) to my auntie’s house and stay for days, no one had to be somewhere you couldn’t go with them, unless it was the pub, and if the house was full, then you’d wake up in the morning with more people in bed with you than before you went to sleep.

It is different in the workplace, I am not having a sleepover (my niece: Auntie Ruth, you look so cute in your sleeping mask when you are asleep) or brushing my teeth with the people I shadow, but, I am their silent witness as they go about their business, and we all spend a lot of time at work. So, it is not surprising the stories people want me to know about them often include their personal lives. People are so much more than the jobs they are doing.

I had forgotten how excited I used to get about shadowing until last Saturday night. I was at a party and had such a laugh talking about computing and tarot. And then, I rode my bicycle home, under a very cool, late-midnight sky, past people in the park drinking beer, sitting in the remnants of a very hot summer’s day. Freewheeling it took me way back, to Lausanne, to those dark cycle paths and a midnight skinny dip in lac leman during my PhD days at EPFL.

For two years I was working on a project with exhibition planners at the Palais de Beaulieu, Lausanne. It was a really nice project though slightly tangential to my PhD so I would need to stay late on Thursday nights to prepare for the next day. I would normally peddle home around 2am feeling a lovely breeze after hours of programming, long after everyone had left.

But I didn’t mind, I used to like programming alone late at night. I would sit in my bra – the offices were hot – and lean out of the window for a slinky cigarette. Not that I really smoked, but a gauloise in a lacy bra out the window of the engineering department after a boiling hot day was sometimes just what that girl felt like she needed, on occasion, when things were compiling.

Those long nights were worth it, though. I loved going round the exhibition centre on Fridays to shadow the head draughtsman and see how he went about putting together an exhibition. On exhibition days we would walk about and he tell me exactly about the things you can’t model in a computer, but we’d try anyway. We’d try to model who didn’t want to be next to whom, following the classic AI problems of the travelling salesman and the eight queens, which don’t really work in the real world. He was an amazing teacher, always truthful with a charming diplomacy. I’d follow along making notes, sampling cheese and drinking vin blanc during the quatre heures. (I still do the quatre heures #friyays) there is nothing better than sitting down at 4pm for a little glass of vino and an amuse-bouche.

The one time I had an ethnographer do shadowing for me which I wrote about over on A List Apart, I so felt like I was missing out, even though I repeated him, saying that it was tedious, even though it never was to me. I thought I had to say it, to be one of the lads. Yeah, I know, I am not one of the lads and to top it all, with him doing the shadowing, I just felt like I was getting all the information second hand. But, I did get to spend a day watching the steel roll out in massive slabs in the mills at Corus, Teesside. Wow! That was a sight.

There were some sights at ICI too, not just when I was with me auld fellas, but in places like the Caustic Soda plant – it had a big pile of salt outside – and someone once said to me: Don’t even touch the door handles when you are in there. Hilarious. I went round various places mainly to fix computers with my screwdrivers and earth bracelet but most of the shadowing I did to figure out what software someone needed to support them in their job, was drumroll, in the accounts department.

The plus side of this was that I found that in an office, it is easier to look professional, out onsite with so many unknown variables sometimes it would be hard to look sensible. If I hadn’t dressed right and got my skirt stuck on some piping, or the time I couldn’t park the site car properly then I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing at all and that could be detrimental to me being taken seriously.

I got the job onsite because I had a driving licence. But, my driving wasn’t very good. I’d never had a car, my parents never had a car, in fact the only experience of driving I had had up until that point was the 25 lessons to pass my test and one go in my big brother’s car which had left-hand drive so it made everything even more confusing. However, tenacious as ever, I didn’t let my lack of experience hold me back.

One time, I was trying to park the car back into it’s spot. It was a smallish parking space and it was on a hill, and there was a skip and a lorry, and another car not properly parked and if I had had more experience, I might have thought it was too small a space. As it was I just squeezed the car into the space by parking it up on the rim of another big car, and as the car was tilted really high, on top of, what I think was, a Bentley, I realised I couldn’t leave it like that. But no matter what I did, grinding the gears and what have you, I couldn’t get it back off the rim, it was just scraping along the side. I was there for ages, but then the blokes on the building site opposite came over and lifted my car off the Bentley and said that that it was the site boss’s car and he might not have been impressed with my parking. Luckily, there was no harm done and we laughed and laughed as they said that I was the luckiest person ever as neither of the cars had a scratch on them.

I don’t think I have really learnt my lesson, as I still squeeze my car into tiny spaces. Recently, I was parking in my street when an auld gadgie came over and told me that I had balls for parking in such a small space. And, I would know, he said and went on to explain that he had been a long distance lorry driver and in the army, and had driven many types of vehicles but he had in all his years never seen driving like mine. I may not be one of the lads but I have balls people, balls.

He might have changed his mind if he’d seen me the day I was driving round ICI whilst lying down. Such a bad idea, but the speed limit was low so it was ok. Eventually I picked up another student, who was shadowing me this time as I was soon to return back to my degree and he was taking over my job, and it was only after a while, he asked me why I was driving looking like a woman of ill repute. I explained that I couldn’t shift the seat up and it was the only way to reach the pedals. Between us we managed to move the an inch or two until I gave up and let him drive as he had longer legs and I was the one who got sit in the passenger seat and say ridiculous things.

Though the one time I did let a colleague drive the van it was a terrible idea. We had been monitoring the Pont sur la Versoix outside of Geneva airport. She was collecting data. I was shadowing so that I could write nice software to support my colleagues and demonstrate the thesis of my thesis. And, then on our way back, I said: Turn right here (actually I said: Tourne a droit ici) and dippy chick that she was, she drove straight into the wall (Me: Frein, frein, frein) and then turned into a nervous wreck so I had to deal with the police and then drive the bloody wrecked car back to the lab. Honestly. She was so bad at driving.

Another time, against my better judgement, we let her drive again and she ploughed into a Swiss-German couple when we were on our way to Lugano to see how the fibre optic cabling we used to monitor bridges was made. To be fair it was a bit of a windy Alpine road going up the hill. The Swiss-German couple didn’t think so, they’d driven on those roads for 30 years without having dippy chicks drive into them. Luckily, I was in the back and one of the two guys we were travelling with was Swiss-German so he sorted out the mess. That night we went to a nightclub called Desperados and went a bit bonkers, glad to still be all in one piece and with jobs after damaging yet another car.

I think that is why I liked the Zurich architects project I worked on. I got the train there and back nice and had breakfast on the way there in the lovely restaurant car and then a quatre heures apero on the way back. Sometimes I’d leap off the train at Berne and meet a friend for dinner before catching the last train back to Lausanne.

The project was again a constraints solver but this time using case-based reasoning to design apartment layout. And, every week I used to go to Zurich and talk to the architects there, and shadow them sometimes when they went round offices or on building sites. They designed very carefully following the building regulations hence the idea to use a constraint solver, and endless fascinating conversations about what is easy and hard to model in a computer. I spent many a happy hour up there listening to my main contact, a lovely woman with a passion for design, who said at the end of our time together, that she thought of me more as a friend than a shadow. It was completely mutual. I loved her. She was inspirational.

Not everyone felt the love though, the day I told everyone at ICI in the main office that I had been diagnosed with low blood pressure, my boss had a very unlikely outburst and said: Low blood pressure. That’s because you go around raising everyone elses’s. I thought up until that point that I blended in. But apparently not, I was told by another colleague when they were checking if a job had been done that the answer on the phone came, Oh yes that woman in the checked trousers sorted it. Imagine a woman in (checked – what can I say? It was the ’90s) trousers coming round fixing things. Though, I’d learnt my lesson, I wore trousers now, I was sick of showing my knickers after getting stuck on a pipe somewhere on site.

My ICI boss said to me on my leaving review that when they had been choosing where to put that year’s students, everyone else slotted into a role somewhere apart from me. I didn’t fit anywhere. But honestly, why would anyone slot anywhere? It’s a peculiar idea, which is why shadowing is so important. Everyone is different, and unique, and people carry out their jobs in their own ways, so why wouldn’t we all take time out to get to know people instead of forcing them to work in a certain way.

Not everyone agrees though, as my PhD supervisor said one time: I hate her, she comes in here with her own ideas and thoughts. I was a bit baffled as I thought that was the point of research, but you know, we are all different, and it seems I baffled him as much as he did me. Once, he asked me, as I was shaking a printer cartridge over my head and I may have gotten a teensy bit of ink on his face as he came back from the bin over which he’d been carefully shaking the other cartridges: How have you gotten through life like this? I honestly wonder how you are still alive.

Freewheeling, baby, that’s how, I didn’t say that to him, as he was already far too red in the face for any more of my unique insights that day.

See, I listen very carefully. I hear you, I see you. I know everything about you, and let me tell you, you are important and unique and contribute to this world, and it’s not just part of my job to tell you that. It’s who I am. Now go on, keep making lovely things and if I can help with some software, or to shake things up a bit, invite me round, but let me just grab my sleeping mask as I may be staying a while.

The accidental techie (4): Flow

Information flow diagram from serveit.com

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

I love systems analysis. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love to analyse how to share information, how things link together, what people say and do, and why, how information and conversation flows. I also love the mystical aspects of being in flow, at one with the universe, the union of yoga, following your bliss, and all that jazz. It’s magic.

This morning, in Bikram, it was hot and sweaty, and I was in the flow, loving it. Then the teacher put on a soundtrack to celebrate Glastonbury and Simply Red came on and in that moment I was transported back to the time I was invited to a Simply Red concert in Paris when I was working as a support/systems analyst during my industrial placement at ICI, Runcorn.

There was a few of us from the degree course and whilst they all ended up at HQ in the lovely offices, I was the one who was given a pair of rubber shoes, a gasmask and, my office was a prefab outside the main office block of the Castner Kellner Chemical site which I shared with two older blokes and another industrial (male) student, my age, who was painfully shy but a really lovely person.

One of the older blokes hoarded all the equipment and wasn’t great at sharing anything. He did IT security, apparently, and communicated on a need-to-know basis, but was actually quite nice if you made an immense effort to get beyond his gruff manner.

The other guy, well, we just loved each other. He was basically sitting about the prefab waiting to retire. He was supposed to man the IT help desk, but used to chat on the phone for hours and invite all his pals into our prefab for coffee. If anyone including me had a problem, he would unplug the IT help desk phone so we could talk about it at length. They would take me with them to the pub at lunch time and after the time I mentioned my dad retired early from ICI after 33 years service, they would regularly gather round when they were feeling down and say: Tell us again, Ruth, about your dad, now tell everyone how old he was, he was 53, go on tell them, Ruth.

I gave them hope that they too could retire soon and not have to retrain and do IT when they were quite happy doing what they used to do and hadn’t asked to have IT foisted on them. It was kind of like having a load of uncles in the office who didn’t really understand what you did, or indeed what they did, but admired and nodded in encouragement as you went about your business. It’s unimaginable nowadays, but back then, big companies like ICI were your employer and they looked after you for life, and your family after your death, as long as you didn’t quit, you and yours would be looked after forever.

Getting paid was fantastic, I think I was on about £10k which made me feel like I was so rich, and being 20 years old with no courseworks, deadlines and loads of cash meant that basically, I used to go out every night with people from the course or my house. I shared a house with four girls and three other blokes, it was a massive place and really cool. I went with the flow.

One night, we were out at the Cavern Club and on the dance floor, I saw someone who had been in my big brother’s year at school, he was a really popular boy that everyone loved, even though my bro and him had left before I’d even gotten to secondary school. I hadn’t seen him for years and here he was 200 miles away from our home town but he recognised me, all grown up as he later put it. We got chatting and all of the rest it. He worked as a roadie, and was on tour with Simply Red.

We kept in touch, he would ring and write to me and a few weeks later, I went to work and my men were there drinking coffee, and I told them that I was off to Paris, to watch Simply Red in concert with roadie man. I remember them not saying much at all, just the odd raised eyebrow.

Then a first class aeroplane ticket to Paris arrived in the post and for the first time, I realised what the raised eyebrow was all about. I mean, roadie man was a very nice man, but I barely knew him and the last time I had had a conversation with him before this time I had been 11 years old with a crush. I wandered into work that day and me auld fellas were there drinking coffee and I said that I wasn’t going to go to Paris. Why not, Ruth? I said that I didn’t know this bloke and what did it mean to get a ticket to Paris? Where was I supposed to be sleeping? I couldn’t go.

Now I am older, getting closer to the ages of my auld fellas, I too would unplug the IT phone and sit down but my advice to younger me would be to ask him, ask roadie man: What’s the deal with this ticket? What are you expecting to happen? As, it was, me auld fellas didn’t say that, they just slurped on their coffee and said: You are a nice girl, Ruth, a good girl.

Even at that time, it infuriated me, the patriarchal bollocks. Say, I had gone, shagged him, half of Simply Red, and all of the roadies, I would still be a nice girl, a good girl, one with healthy appetites and a lust for life. If the roles had been reversed, and they were all female and I was male, it would not have been mentioned, and there it is, the things not said, the things assumed, the patterns which are culturally inherent in our world, which I guess is why I like computing, you cannot have an ambiguous conversation with a computer. It can only do what I have asked it to do, and if I have coded it up then I know exactly what assumptions it is making, which I would have documented for everyone to see, and if they were old-fashioned assumptions we could test them and change them for the better.

Roadie man rang me up two days before I was due to go on the phone which was on the wall in the hallway in the big house in which I lived. Standing in the hallway with everyone listening in, I said I couldn’t go. I couldn’t even say why, and he didn’t try to help me out. He was cross, went on about the price of the ticket and hung up. I never heard from him ever again.

I didn’t have the skills to talk about it and neither did he which in and of itself isn’t terrible. We all like a bit of the unknown, the frisson of anything could happen, the anticipation and the things left unsaid because we feel a connection, it makes us feel alive, it makes us feel sexy. But then, I guess I didn’t really want to go and I didn’t really feel that magic in this situation. I didn’t feel the flow. Instead I felt completely out of my depth. I had been so distracted by the idea of going to Paris that I hadn’t really thought through why and how it was going to work. Had I bought my own ticket and booked my own hotel room, it would have been very different, I would have had an internal locus of control as psychologists and us HCI peeps call it.

And, I can’t help but feel this is the way a lot of people use technology nowadays, people put systems in place to make things easier and save money apparently. But, they haven’t had a conversation about what is suitable for the people these systems are supposed to be supporting. No one has designed the information flow. There is no flow and the users don’t feel like they have any control over anything. Like me auld fellas, it’s just been foisted on them, and the only thing they can do is unplug, or not turn up, I am sorry, I just can’t come to Paris.

If an analyst sits down to analyse flow, the analyst will ask what information needs to go where and sometimes, you don’t need a system, you just need to work on clearer communication skills. You may have the technology to contact me all day long but if your message is not clear, and if it doesn’t make my life easier nor does it make you or me feel better then there is absolutely no point getting in touch. None whatsoever. If you are contacting me to tell me half the facts, it is going to make me feel uneasy and I will not comply. So please, get your flow right. Get into flow.

My undergraduate degree was really really fabulous and way better than a lot of degree courses I have since taught on. It was a polytechnic degree and it was thorough. I was taught super great programming and I still manage to amaze my husband with my ideas for problem solving when we talk about software, and he codes all day long. I was grilled in software design, software reuse, legacy systems, good information flow, data in and data out – if you put garbage in garbage will come out. I was taught how and when to use the right piece of kit, and even how to put it together. How to upgrade the motherboard, add in an extra hard disk or more memory. Really I was taught how to make it flow.

After I went back to finish my degree, my office mate retired, and he invited me to his leaving do. The train was late so I guess he thought I wasn’t coming, so was thrilled when I came through the door. All the auld fellas were there and we had a good catchup and then partway through the evening, my office mate said to me that he’d never had a daughter but if he had had one, he would have wanted her to be me. Best message ever.

After his do, we went for a curry, and all the auld fellas wanted us to do a runner, to relive their youth, thankfully we didn’t. I missed the train back to Liverpool, so me pal said: Come stay with us, if you don’t trust us Ruth, you’ll never trust a man in your life, but I did trust them, I knew them all, well, we’d spent a whole year in a prefab together. So, we all went back to someone’s house, stayed up half the night drinking gin and listening to Johnny Mathis. Good times.

Years later, thinking about that night still makes me laugh and lifts my heart. That’s what life is all about, connecting with good people and having good times. When you are in the flow there’s nothing better. Technology is supposed to make that flow easier. It is supposed to be an improvement, so if it isn’t, if it’s denting your ‘do, then analyst that I am, I recommend that you unplug the phone, invite your mates round to your prefab, and tell stories to pick everyone up. The IT can wait. Meanwhile, wake up to what’s important, smell the coffee and enjoy the flow.

[ part 5 ]

The accidental techie (3): Transference California

Transfer effects, The Design of Everyday Things

 [ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 ]

In the ’90s I went to my first international conference to present some research. It was very exciting. I stayed in a hotel near Stanford University and got to walk about across the huge campus everyday.

At the drinkies on the first night, I ended up at the wrong ones. I seemed to be at a 20-year reunion which took me a while to realise as I was there thinking: I don’t remember all these people from today. They were very nice about it and we laughed as I squeezed through the hedge to the AI crowd. It turned out that my really nice wine glass stood out amongst everyone else’s plastic cups and it made for a nice ice-breaker.

At the drinks, I met two PhD students from Cambridge University who had planned a road trip when the conference was over and asked what I was going to do. Of course, I hadn’t planned anything, but I didn’t have to fly back out from L.A. for another seven days. So, they invited me to go along with them which I did and had a fabulous time. We saw everything San Francisco, Yosemite, Berkeley, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Death Valley. California, baby! It was great fun and I was sad to say goodbye when they dropped me off at the airport.

I can’t really imagine doing that now. I have been a married sensible woman and mother for so long that the idea of jumping into the back of a car to drive all round California with two men I’ve just met is just so alien to me now, set as I am in my small life in it’s routine (yawn), that I can hardly remember how it seemed so easy and so natural. I wonder what happened to them, did they finish their PhDs? Did they get jobs? Stay in academia? I can’t even remember their surnames to google them. Although, I did have a bit of a crush on one of them (the nice one), I’ll be honest I used to google – well search online, was it Yahoo? – for him a bit afterwards.

But, on the last day of the conference when they offered to take me with them, I remember getting my things together whilst feeling really stressed. What if they went without me? What if they changed their minds? What if they thought it was a terrible idea?

As it was they turned up early and helped negotiate my hotel bill, I remember the louder one of them saying: Her going I am going to charge you an extra day for no reason, is that ok? is like: I am going to punch in the face, is that ok? And I was so grateful for his loudness. He told her that no she couldn’t charge me for an extra day for no reason, and no, it was not ok.

Several days later as we were standing in Death Valley, he wanted us to run about on the sandy earth barefoot to see how it felt. I didn’t want to, but he set up a series of stepping stones, like a towel and a book and stuff, and he was like: Go on try. And, I again I didn’t really want to but since he and his mate had already, I did too. I was part way through when he removed everything and took my shoes so that I had no choice but to run all the way back to the car over the boiling hot sand, but when I got there, he drove off, and there I was left in the middle of Death Valley. It felt like an eternity and I had that ground falling away feeling and a sickness in my stomach. They drove back round and were laughing. I got into the car and asked for my shoes, I was too choked up to speak.

I grew up right at the foot of the Cleveland Hills, you could see them from my bedroom, not too far from the part known as California as the local Iron Ore Rush was a bit like the Californian Gold Rush, so the story goes. On Sundays, my dad would tell everyone to get ready for a walk up the hills. But so many times, my brothers and my dad would set off without me. I would come downstairs all ready and excited to go and they would have already gone leaving me with that ground falling away and sick feeling. My mum would say: Oh but they looked everywhere for you. Yeah, like there was anywhere to hide in the two-up two-down on the council estate we all called Cardboard City.

Years later they told me that they would say: Shhh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets downstairs, and when I said that it was cruel, my dad said: Oh but you were such a whinger, and he didn’t want to have to carry me home when I got tired. I remember everyone laughing and making it clear in no uncertain terms that my feelings and opinions didn’t matter, I was to shut up and stop crying. In fact my mother’s favourite line was: You’ll never get through life if you cry like that, Ruth.

I cannot think who I am more disappointed in: My mum for going along with it, or my dad for being so feeble as to not hold an honest conversation with his only daughter. I am amazed I trust anyone at all, or perhaps that it’s, perhaps I don’t trust anyone, really, whether I’ve known you all my life or for the last five minutes, you may still lie to me and sneak off, or pretend to leave me stranded in a place where I would die, as a joke, how funny, and then laugh at my tears.

Psychologists call it transference when you transfer a past experience to a present one. I am sitting here all a bit trembly as I think about it, about how abandoned I felt at the bottom of Death Valley, which was really just a revisiting of being left behind whilst everyone was up the hills. And, I am so sorry for baby Ruth and how her parents thought it was a good idea to make the whole family complicit in a lie whilst encouraging their baby girl to believe that it was her own fault and that she just wasn’t enough. Wow!

Not long after I started my first lecturing position, the only other woman in the department came in and asked me if she could lecture my course instead of me: But what am I supposed to do and why was I hired if you can teach my courses? It baffles me even now. She certainly didn’t go around asking the men of the department whether she could do their jobs for them. She probably thought she couldn’t, but that she could do mine, ‘cos how hard could it be, right? I remember her calling meetings and forgetting to invite me, and criticising me for the most random of things. I don’t even remember asking her why she was so focused on me? I was just so used to that feeling of being uncertain and wrong footed around other women, that it felt familiar. Like the men go about the world doing things and don’t have to explain anything to me, I don’t count, I am uninvited, and the women are in their own sub-culture not quite telling the truth, fighting over a limited amount of resources, the crumbs left over from the men, with the unsaid message: This is the way it is. I think again, my transference.

In my 2nd year undergraduate, I shared a house with three girls. One night, we went to the pub in the car. On the way home, they all went out to get the car whilst I was still in the pub looking for my umbrella. Of course, when I went to outside to get into the car, yep, you’ve guessed it, they’d left without me. That wasn’t the first time I felt wrong-footed when I lived with them but it was the last.

I moved out shortly afterwards, and another female asked me if I would get a place with her. I said that I would, glad that I had a plan. We went home for the holidays and she wrote to me several times to remind me of the plan. When I went back to Liverpool, she was unreachable. I learnt a couple of days later that she had moved into my old room. Dearie me. What is wrong with an honest conversation? The friend who was driving the car never forgave me for moving out, and told me when she bumped into me not long after that I would never have any friends, that I would be lonely and alone: You know that’s your worst fear. I didn’t know that it was my worst fear, and sitting here today, I am wondering how much did I contribute to these upsets with my transference. Ssssh let’s sneak off before Ruth gets here.

Interestingly, the woman who wanted my job wrote to me some years later to apologise for her behaviour, and wanted to meet for lunch. And, then not long after that another woman with whom I had done some consultancy wrote a similar email, I wasn’t very nice to you, she wrote, Let’s meet for lunch. I hadn’t really gotten that upset about that one, I just thought she was a bit weird, a bit frosty. I guess I was so used to that funny feeling of shifting sands around women, who are not telling you the truth but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s such a familiar feeling, that I guess it feels like home. My auntie who died recently, used to regularly phone me up and tell me that my mother didn’t like me, which I think she thought would help me.

I still get transference, why wouldn’t I? I am trying these days to be, as they say, the sacred witness to myself. I take a breath to get beyond that sinking feeling and ask for clarification. If someone has done me wrong or been unprofessional and it has a negative impact on me, I will speak up. Often I do it as an experiment because I am still grappling with that idiotic voice inside myself which tells me that my feelings and opinions don’t matter, and I am not enough. And, also I have a very firm rule: If someone laughs when I cry then they are not very nice. No flex on that one.

I wonder then, if that is why I went into tech. Is that why I find technology so comforting? You see, when I am sitting in front of a computer, it doesn’t press all my buttons, and when I press its buttons, even the wrong ones, it really doesn’t mind, we can reboot and start again, it doesn’t make me wrong about who I am, it doesn’t want my stuff, or my job, or my boyfriend, it doesn’t criticise me, or tell me not to be me, it doesn’t sneak off when I leave the room, and it definitely doesn’t lie to me.

Oh my, how I love computers.

[ part 4 ]

My grey hair two years on

When you know better, you do better – Maya Angelou

Three years ago, I went into a fancy hair salon to get my hair done. I said I would like to go grey and the hairdresser MAN doing my hair, who had grey hair tied up in a ponytail, said: Oh no you can’t go grey it will age you and it takes a lot of work to maintain it much more than dying your hair. I did not question what he said. Instead I sat there and wondered why he got to have grey hair as he put an auburn colour on my hair, ‘cos he decided I was auburn. I couldn’t possibly have been originally a brunette not with that pale ginger freckly skin. Two weeks later when my roots came through I put a brunette rinse on. Here’s a picture of me in first year at university, before I ever started dying my hair. I was brunette.

I really believed that going grey would be similar to the chemotherapy journey I had gone on and that I would love the different styles throughout the regrowth. But, it wasn’t at all like that. Looking in the mirror challenged me everyday, and I hated my hair. I just couldn’t believe that after everything I have lived through that I was still worried about the way I look. However, by not valuing my own feelings and trying to talk myself out of them, I disrespected myself as much as the male hairdresser who wasn’t listening to me but absolutely knew, without knowing me at all, what was right for me. He was the walking embodiment of the patriarchal lie that society knows what is best for me and for all women, that I have no idea myself, and I don’t need to have an input. I was so used to this sort of nonsense I didn’t even question him nor myself. It has taken a lot of soul searching.

Mass media shapes the way we think and even though I have spent a lot of time writing about women in society, social media in society and so on, I am a member of society and not immune to the beauty sick message society peddles about how women should look (sexy fertile objects for male delectation and childbearing) and how women berate thenselves for not rising above it. It is exhausting. But how can I have a solid sense of self when I am bombarded everyday about how I should show up in the world? Googling about grey hair alone gives us so many articles like this one: Going grey ages women twice as fast as men. The BBC regularly sideline older women whilst their male counterparts are allowed to age in public (I believe let themselves go is the phrase which would be used if they were female) and continue their careers.

So there it is in a nutshell, my fear when I looked in the mirror, echoed by the male hairdresser, and much of society, is this: If I don’t cover my grey hair then I may be viewed as past my sell-by-date. The world will view me as irrelevant and I will be no longer seen nor heard. I will be put out to pasture like an old crone, devalued by our patriarchal society.

Yesterday, I took the above picture of myself and added it to the gallery in the blog post Fifty Shades of My Grey Hair. It will be the last one I put there as it marks the end of the two year journey I’ve just been on. The fancy hair salon went on its own journey too. It is now a gluten-free bakery. Each time I walk by it reminds me that I am the one who decides how I show up in the world. Society cannot tell me who I am or what my worth is. I am the one to do so and let me tell you this, the way I look has nothing to do with it. That said I am beginning to feel that I no longer want to explain myself to anyone but should I want to say something, well, heaven help anyone who wants to try and stop me.

I do look older with grey hair, two years older to be precise, because I am two years older than I was when I began this journey. I am two years wiser too with the experience of two more trips around the sun. So with my extra wisdom and experience, I can tell you this: Grey is just a hair colour and I look miles better than I did when I let a double-standards bloke dye it because I was too afraid to show up as myself.

My name is Ruth

You’re the one, because you said so.
– Danielle La Porte, White Hot Truth

One night a Naomi I know and I, were contemplating the window of Ruth and Naomi (above). Naomi said that the embrace looked particularly passionate and wondered what sort of relationship Ruth and Naomi were having. Influenced by the Bible and not so much the window, I said that Ruth was passionately supporting Naomi. And I thought and still think, Ruth is one cool chick you would definitely want to be around in good times and bad.

Lately, my girls have been asking me, in the same way that I used to ask my mother, how and why they got their names. There is a story for each name. I also tell them that they are beautiful and I wanted them to have beautiful names to reflect their very essence.

My mother had no such story for me. When I used to ask her how she chose my name she used to say:

I hate the name Ruth. It was your father. He wanted that name.

When I look into my girls’ eyes I cannot even begin to imagine how she called someone she loved by a name she loathed. Although, to be fair, my dad once said: No daughter of mine was going to have the initials ARSe. So, he swapped the names around. Either way, my nickname has always been Stalker.

One auntie used to shudder as she repeated the story of how my father on the way back from registering me called in to say: We are calling the baby, Ruth. She would shake her head and tell me how she once knew an awful woman called Ruth who hung onto her husband like grim death. She didn’t like that Ruth, she didn’t like my name, and she definitely didn’t like people hanging onto their husbands like grim death. Even now, I hold my husband lightly.

A long lost friend once said she loved the name Ruth and wanted it as her confirmation name, but her Roman Catholic priest told her that it was the name of a Jezebel and not fit for the sacred act of celebrating holy communion.

Then there was that episode of friends when Rachel and Ross are deciding on baby names.

Ross: How about Ruth? I like Ruth.
Rachel: Oh I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year-old?

It seems to me that I have spent too much of life listening to what other people have to say about my name – and about me. Naomi definitely had the right idea that night in the Chapel. She was looking at what was in front of her and deciding what it meant. This is the way of semiotics and really, the only to live. No one else is an expert on me, not in the way I am. So, why would I seek an opinion from someone else?

When I offer an opinion, I wonder first whether a) I know enough, b) the other person wants my opinion, and c) will it cause offence or hurt? Then, I weigh up the need for me to say it out loud against a, b, and c. For the longest time, I really believed that everyone else did the same.

In Hebrew the name Ruth means beauty and friend. It can also mean truth and pity, and in medieval German/English: sorrow or compassion. It seems that in my thought processes around opinion giving, I live up to my name, that old, old biblical name.

The Book of Ruth has always really irritated me because it is a story conceived in a time when women were men’s possessions. Ruth’s husband dies but she remains loyal and leaves with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to go to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown, even though Ruth is a Moabite and will be leaving all she knows behind her. Ruth then works in a field gleaning wheat to support Naomi and then on Naomi’s instruction, lies at the bottom of Boaz’s bed. Eventually Ruth marries Boaz and both Naomi and Ruth are redeemed i.e. worthy and recognised once more in the patriarchal society.

The story of Ruth is often used in sermons to talk about being loyal and faithful and to love wholeheartedly, though they always skip over the other kind of loving, the lying down kind. A Lebanese female colleague once told me that she has always understood Ruth as a story of uniting tribes, and not to worry too much about the lying down.

Whatever the interpretation, we never get to hear what Ruth thinks or feels. Is she sad when her husband dies? Is Boaz sexy? Is Naomi a lovely mother-in-law? Ruth only speaks once:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…

No wonder she is synonymous with beauty and friend. Ruth lights the fire. But sometimes I wish she had said a bit more. Did she lose herself in people. Did she ever ask: How empty am I, to be so full of you?

I looked up the metaphysical interpretation of the Book of Ruth which says that Ruth represents divine love, the love of what is real and spiritual, as opposed to the unreal material world. So, Naomi leaves behind the immaterial and focuses on the only thing worth having, the only thing that is real – Ruth. This puts me in mind of the metaphysical poet Rumi:

Do you think that I know what I’m doing? That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself? As much as a pen knows what it’s writing, or the ball can guess where it’s going next.

My name is Ruth, I have no idea what I am doing, or if I belong to myself. I often worry about how easy it is to lose myself in anyone and everyone, when sometimes I don’t know where I end and another person begins. But then when I look to Ruth and Rumi, I feel that this may not be the flaw I think it is and I do not need to be any different. Perhaps like the one breath or the half-breath, my not knowing is a thing of beauty, of truth and of compassion, and even when it is full of sorrow and pity, perhaps it doesn’t matter, for perhaps, like Ruth, it is divine.