Let’s Be Honest

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For a brief period during university, I had my only ‘student’ job, face to face fundraising on the streets of London, or as its more commonly (and delightfully) referred to as, charity mugging, or chugging.

It taught me a lot. About the business side of charity, about the psychology of working for a good cause, about the actual charities I was working to raise money for. But most it all, it taught me about lies.

Like many aspects of life, it is best summed up by quoting Chandler from Friends, this time as he explains to his wife: “It’s always better to lie, than to have the complicated discussion. … except with you!”

There is no doubt that lies are convenient. Need to get off the phone? Oh, my battery is dying. Need to get out of an awkward conversation? Hang on, I just remembered I have to meet someone. Forgot to reply? I never received your email.

In psychology, these kind of lies are referred to as ‘Butlers’. They stand between you and the person you are talking to, as a middle man, making the excuses for you,. Lies are essentially buffers so that you don’t have to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth, which is more often than not simply, “I don’t want to talk to you.” And socially, there isn’t really anything wrong with that. If we went around telling everyone how boring their boyfriend drama was, or how little time we wanted to spend hearing about their kids new nursery…. We wouldn’t have many friends left to lie to.

But these white lies have become human nature. And what surprised me so much as a chugger, was how many times I was lied to daily, and for no social convention whatsoever. After all, I was never going to see these people again. I wasn’t a relative, a friend, or even an acquaintance. We share no mutual friends, I don’t know what area they live in or even their first names. We are as much strangers as you can be with another human (who you actually know exists) and we will probably spend no more than 3 or 4 seconds out of our lives in each other’s company. Additionally, I wasn’t asking them a personal question, or for their opinion on my choice of footwear or my haircut. No one needed to worry about offending me. Fundraisers are very clearly working, and while often need the sign ups quite desperately to hold onto their jobs, are rarely if ever personally offended by the 99% of people who keep on walking by. (To put this into perspective, if we achieved around 4 or 5 sign ups between 10am-6pm, the day was considered extremely successful.)

And yet without any understandable psychology behind it, 9/10 times people choose to lie. So let’s put aside all the BS for a minute and just be completely honest. I’m off duty, I’m out of the fundraising game, and to be really straight with you- I just don’t care. But whether you are reading this on a tablet or a phone, or on a computer or a laptop, at home or at work, here is a fact. The amount may vary from household to household, but we can all afford to donate per month to any given charity.

You just don’t want to.

We said it! It has been said. We’d rather have the beer with our mates, the coffee with a friend, the subscription to the magazine, the cleaner or the childcare or the wrap from the cafe across the street. In some rare cases, it may take more of a sacrifice, but we still choose to have the extra item on the grocery shop or the variation in our wardrobe choices.

And here’s the amazing thing, no one cares! No one minds. In fact, everyone agrees! We all make choices about our money and where we want it to go. These are all totally reasonable choices, necessities or extras alike. We all believe that we should treat ourselves, or our kids or friends, often before we look elsewhere. And every human on the planet weighs up whether something is a good enough cause to be worthy of our time and certainly of our money. After all, the greatest philanthropist in the world does not give arbitrarily to anyone who asks.

Everyone has their own personal soft spots, myself included. (I wouldn’t go giving me any kind of precious object to look after for example, without being aware I may well pawn it at some point to buy a homeless teenage boy a three course meal.) I am clearly not a cruel heartless person. But I will freely admit here in front of all my millions of avid readers, that I would rather go to Starbucks than save any kind of animal species on a monthly basis. If you stop me in the street and expect me to start welling up as you tell me about abandoned puppies, you have severely misjudged your audience. I am already planning on asking for extra hazelnut syrup.

And before I had worked in face to face fundraising, I probably would have done exactly what you do. Pick up an imaginary phone call, bark out that I’m late for a meeting, tell the fundraiser that I would stop and talk to them on my way back down the road. Or on the off chance that they got me in conversation for more than those few seconds, argue that I really couldn’t afford even £2 a week, which was such a shame as it sounded like an excellent cause. I would look it up on the internet when I got home, and discuss it with my other half. Did they have a brochure or a card?

Now, I save us both some time and say something revolutionary. “No thank you.” If I’ve started talking too early and don’t have to break my stride I may add, “I’d be wasting your time.”

It costs nothing, it doesn’t offend, and best of all-it’s the truth.

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Great Loss

72 years ago, a woman got married. She stood up in front of her family and her friends, and was sworn to a man for ever and ever. A ring, simple, plain, was placed on her finger. And she never took it off.

The marriage lasted less than a year. The woman became a mother, although the man left before he had the chance to be called father. This mother, raised her son by herself, and wore her ring to protect her from the cold stare of social stigma, and perhaps, in some small way to make her feel less alone when she remembered how she had lost the man she’d thought she’d have forever.

The child grew up, and grew used to the ring on his mothers finger. Perhaps took it as a small sign of her vulnerability in a world she faced alone. Bringing up a son was no easy job, especially without a partner to lean on.

Eventually, the child became a man, and got married too. He placed a ring on a lady’s finger, but was soon alone again. A second, a third time he tried to make those vows. But it was not to be, and he was soon alone again, this time forever. But he had not left before he had the chance to be called father. And his child, his daughter, they had each other. And he loved her more than he ever learned to love any other in the world.

The woman, now a Grandmother, looked on at her son, holding her granddaughter, and knew that the ring on her finger had not been for nothing, it had been for everything.

12 years later, the grandmother died, and the father, now as good as an orphan, only had his daughter in the world. He said goodbye to his mother, and took the ring off her finger, placing it onto his own. He wore it forever, perhaps as a way to feel less alone when he remembered the woman who had faced the worst of the world for him.

And the father and his daughter had each other. And the daughter, she grew used to the ring on her fathers finger, and took it as a sign of strength that he made his own way in the world without family to guide him. Bringing up a daughter was no easy job. Especially without a marriage to lean on.

Six short years later, the man was taken from this world, and was lost to his daughter forever. She said goodbye to her father, and took the ring off his finger, placing it onto her own. She wore the ring every day, perhaps as a way to remember the man who loved her most of all, to feel less alone when she couldn’t feel him watching over her or when she realised that she’d lost the man she thought she’d have forever.

And the daughter grew up, and on her own wedding day she threaded the ring onto a chain, and placed it as a necklace over her heart, and danced at her wedding with over 65 years of history, and failed marriages, and lost love around her neck. Once the day was over, the ring was moved from chain back to finger, and there it remained. She wore it every day, while she became a mother to a child whose father never strayed more than a few hours from home and his family, while she thanked God for her marriage and her family and her life, and most of all for the chance to wear that ring on behalf of both her father and grandmother, with true happiness rather than loss.

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I wish I could say the ring remained there forever, but tonight, I lost my grandmothers wedding ring. People who know me would tell you that I’m not very materialistic, and I don’t care much for sentimentality over objects. I own almost nothing of my late fathers, and I neither expect nor want my children to hoard my possessions zealously after I pass away.

But this ring.

This ring is my family history, and so much more besides.

The night I lost my grandmother, I cried like a child because I was a child. I hadn’t experienced the finality of death in any real way, and I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t going to be there the next morning.

The night I lost my father, I cried like a child because I was his child. I didn’t, and often still don’t know how to make my way in this world without his voice at the other end of the phone or his unwavering love to guide me.

Tonight, I am crying like a child for a third time. It’s illogical, and unresolvable, but without this object, this piece of metal, I feel like the child all over again. Lost without a talisman to protect me. Without the very last tangible link to my departed family, I feel alone.

Where has Carrie Bradshaw gone?

Most people like to think of this as a generation of sexual liberation. We have greater freedom to express ourselves, better laws to protect ourselves, and with the Internet-a wider forum than ever to indulge in whichever proclivities take our fancy.

But there is something strange about the way us 21st century women, us beacons of a sexually emancipated generation, read and view the act itself.

We are in a time of gay marriage, of open relationships, of fetish wear for sale right next to the frilly nighties. No one can deny how far we have come. So WHY am I surrounded by so many sexual myths in popular culture and opinion?

Like so many other issues, I believe the media has a lot to answer for, and that we haven’t really taken any steps forward in well over a decade when it comes to imitating life through the art of television, film or books.

I remember being 15 years old, given free rein for the first time on the wide world of the web, streaming episodes of Sex and the City, with one finger poised over the minimise button and one eye on the door in case my mum walked in. While the show has become less of a ‘guilty’ pleasure, it still holds a massive fan base, myself included. And I would argue that entertainment today cannot hold a candle to its honesty and realism when it comes to relationships and sex.

You’re crazy! (I hear you shout.) What about Girls? What about the 50 Shades phenomenon?

Yawn.

Is this really the next level for us in sexual expression? Shock? While SATC might not have got as far with BDSM as a descriptive spanking scene or images of nipple clamps, and while Girls may arguably present a more realistic version of financial life in our twenties, there is absolutely nothing remotely modern or real in their presentation of relationships.

There is no doubt that we’ve made leaps and bounds in the “how far can they go” factor. If you want someone to congratulate, find whoever is responsible for ratings and censorship, because they have had a hell of a time since the new millennium. It would seem nothing is too shocking, nothing is too sacred to plaster across screens and pages with abandon when the last ‘hardcore’ topic of conversation becomes old news, as everything eventually will.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s your cup of tea. Sex, as in the act itself has never been more revealed. But don’t mistake that for something entirely different. Because sex, as in the relationship gender battle? I believe it’s as hidden in entertainment as it was before the likes of Carrie Bradshaw ever hit our screens, erasing all the hard work those writers ever did.

I’m not talking about the extremes of Samantha and Charlotte, looking for complete opposites in the dating pool and there to surprise and reassure us respectively, giving us their own version of that “shock factor”. I mean the typical Carrie that is inside all of us while we are dating, or in any long term relationship for that matter. Not sure whether we’re searching for Mr Right or Mr Right Now, The One or the One that suits my current situation. Wondering how or if to fix challenges between partners, and how much to share of ourselves. Carrie’s relationships pushed the boundaries and honesty of sexuality and notably gender further than anything else has since.

It could be dispelling the myth that sex doesn’t get better, with Carrie and Burger’s self professed “quiet” first time leading to a meaningful relationship (pre post it of course), or the propaganda slaying of the opposing dragon, that your partner needs to be ‘the one’ to enjoy a physical relationship, her brief fling with the jazz man giving her the ‘most intense orgasm’ of her life. Either way, where modern culture may have screamed ‘sexually incompatible’ at Carrie and Burger, or placed a ‘happily ever after’ neon sign directly above the happily uncommitted latter duet, Carrie did nothing of the sort. She persevered with Burger, accepting that mood, nerves, lighting, and just simply getting to know one another better, all factor more than the world would let you believe, and after happily finding herself ‘life incompatible’ with physically compatible guy, bravely discarded him to the bonfire of relationships past.

She lived her life. And the men did too. Was Big always there in the background? Yes he was. And that’s okay too. Because her life wasn’t portrayed as a mess without him, or more importantly still- not a mess with him. Her choice (and his too) at the end of the day was to be together, whereas for Samantha her equally legitimate choice was staying single. For Charlotte and Miranda it was marriage and kids, all portrayed as decisions with pros and cons and strings attached, and not a happily ever after in sight. Just life, with all it’s ups and downs, regardless of gender or choice.

Entertainment is there for just that, to entertain you. It’s okay to get swept away in the story, romance or drama included, the same way as you might enjoy fantasy without looking for a vampire at every turn. But can you separate the fantasy of the supernatural in Twilight from the equally farcical nature of Bella leaning on a man at every turn to save her? Find Christian Grey sexy without craving Ana’s virginal experience?

I hope so. Because it doesn’t look like anyone’s creating any alternatives for us any time soon.

Do you need to see my tax return?

Advice please faceless crowd of the Internet. I’ve offended someone, and although I’m certainly not to blame, I’d love to try and help her if I can. My friend has approached me, armed verbatim with various comments I’ve made recently, and she’s hurt and annoyed.

As long as I’ve known her, she’s wanted to be a career woman. She worked hard in high school, studied the relevant subjects, got into a great university, got a fantastic degree, completed various summer work experiences, and obtained the certificates necessary to practise her vocation. Then began the hunt for a job.

She called me one night a few months ago, excited. She had just heard about an interview opportunity in her field. “I’m sending off the application now” she bubbled. “Hmm” I replied. “How much does that pay?” In hindsight, she deflated, and mumbled a reply. I wished her good luck, although apparently by focusing on the money I wasn’t being supportive.

Another time, she told me about some temping she was doing, picking up the odd shift here and there, honing her skills, working from home, making contacts. I was baffled. “But what are you DOING all day?” I asked genuinely. I mean come on, how can it be a REAL job if it isn’t 9-5 in an office right? That one wasn’t my fault. She’s just being over sensitive.

I didn’t see her for a while after that, and then our paths crossed at a social function. After catching her up with my life, the drudgery of finding childcare and commuting and never seeing my spouse, I asked her how her work was going? Had she found a job yet? She seemed nervous to talk about it, but told me she had a few different part time jobs going on, working for various different employers, bit of this bit of that. She told me it gave her the chance to see her kids, be home for her spouse in the evenings, make time for friends and hobbies, and that she’d never been happier.
Not wanting her to feel bad about her clearly flailing employment status, I smiled. “As long as you’re keeping yourself busy eh?” I sympathised, hoping for her sake that one of her ‘part time’ dabblings would become something concrete at last.

Later that week, I saw an admin job advertised online, and kindly sent her the link. Full time, in a proper office, with proper holiday days and benefits. Minimum wage, but beggars can’t be choosers eh? I thought she would be delighted to have someone in her corner, showing her what she was capable of if she just took the plunge into the real working world.

Now she’s sent me this email, telling me I’ve been condescending, patronising, unsupportive, rude even! But how can she call herself a professional? She never knows how much work she will have from one month to the next, she never knows how much she will be paid, she doesn’t even have real colleagues, or a desk to call her own. Sometimes she’s clearly so unfulfilled that she even works for free. But not ‘real volunteering’ for a charity or something worthwhile. She just obviously isn’t good enough at her job yet to deserve being paid.

I feel terrible for her. I’m trying not to take her harsh words to heart, as I’m sure it mainly comes from jealousy, and maybe some embarrassment that I’ve seen through the brave face she puts on when we meet.

A tragic story, I’m sure you’ll agree. And entirely not my fault.

Any leads for her gratefully received, so she can finally give up this “writing thing,” and get a real job.

“What’s worse than a Male Chauvinist Pig?”

” …A woman that won’t do what she’s told.” 

That’s an actual joke someone told me, before laughing raucously, in answer to my question “Would you call yourself a feminist?”

Until recently, I’ve never thought much of feminism. Not in a disparaging way, I mean it literally hasn’t crossed my mind that much. I suppose I’ve never noticed that much sexism taking place around me. I like to think that if I had been alive a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the women throwing myself under horses for the rights of women, but in all honesty I’d probably have been obliviously popping out babies chained to the kitchen sink like the majority of that generation.

We can vote, we can work, we have birth control at our fingertips, we can be presidents and prime ministers. (ettes?!) We pretty much have it all. Truthfully, I’ve always sighed at women’s lib organisations like Femen, and asked, what more do we want?

After all, Feminism in its original meaning doesn’t exist any more, does it? We’re not campaigning to be allowed a say in politics, or for control over our own bodies. In the western world at least, life is pretty good for women. We can have our babies and return to work. We can choose not to, and that’s fine too. We can have sex, and we can even enjoy it. Of course there is working woman’s guilt, mummy guilt, stay at home guilt, basically vagina guilt, but if we were really honest we would accept that it’s mainly self judgement, and that the rest of the world doesn’t care. Real issues still exist, the gender pay gap being a massive one, but for the most part we are doing pretty well for a gender who couldn’t even go to university when our grandparents were kids.

So if I’m happy enough to let other women deal with what’s left of inequality in the western world nowadays, what’s brought feminism to my attention lately?

Caitlin Moran (in her fabulous biography how to be a woman which you must all go out and read) discusses the kind of sexism that you don’t notice right away. You might leave a situation thinking, wow-they were a massive douche, and then it actually takes another few hours to sit bolt upright and realise that you missed the word sexist out of that description.

And since that written revelation, I’ve been absolutely bombarded by my own memory, to the point where I can’t believe quite how rife my life has been with hidden sexism. And that’s what I believe we should be fighting against.

Last month, I had the displeasure of spending a few hours in enforced company with an extreme male chauvinist. The kind you can’t help but notice. He had a mini fit when his son picked up a pink buggy to play with, complete with a baby doll inside. “Sorry” I just barely bit back from saying, “I didn’t realise you want your son to grow into the type of man who won’t care for his children or help his wife.” Later that afternoon, midway through an intellectual discussion between him and two other men, I joined the debate. After his look of shock dissipated, he continued talking, making sure to explain every word over two syllables with a condescending look in my direction and an apologetic head tilt for his superior knowledge. When I correctly answered the problem he had posed, he shook his head and basically told me I’d made a lucky guess.

I went home livid. How has he got to mid thirties without someone telling him he has a huge problem? And how can his wife let him behave that way without saying something?

Attitude. That’s what the war should be waged on. The next time someone is rude to you, stop and check the conversation. Is it rudeness, or sexism? More and more I can see that what at first glance was brushed off as ‘they’re an idiot” has a horrible undercurrent of latent sexism that maybe even the speaker isn’t aware of. Sentences like “what does your husband do?” before you’ve even asked about my own work, are not just rude, they are horribly sexist. And they paint a reality. A reality where the female intern gets the coffee while the male one assists the director of the company. A world where you plan an important speech for a meeting and two men stand up to leave before you’ve finished the first sentence. A world where it’s assumed you wont want to join everyone for lunch, so you’re left alone to answer the phones.

All of the above have happened to me in the last five years, and honestly, none of them are serious enough as stand alone events to even mention, without dealing with another sexist label, “the hormonal hysterical woman.” But put them all together and you have a quite frightening picture of a woman’s worth.

It’s easy enough to solve. And bear with me here because this is quite radical. Everyone has to see women…. as people.

That’s right. The same as any other person, male or otherwise.

It’s crazy! It’s insane! It will never work!

But taking every situation I’ve outlined above, I think it may be genius. Instead of my new favourite MCP noting that a dress and heels had joined the convo, if he had just noted that another human was now involved, the only change in conversation would have been a slight body shift to include me in the debate.

If I wasn’t immediately wife, but rather person, then obviously the first question would have been “what do you do?”

“2 interns? Flip a coin, decide between yourselves, take turns for gods sake.”

“Oh, a person is talking, I’d better wait to go powder my nose until they are finished. Perhaps I’ll even listen.”

“Ah, we’re going for lunch, every person is obviously welcome.”

I’m not for one minute downplaying the important work that feminists do for women, and I’m grateful every day for our ‘sister suffragettes’ that made my own freedom and choices possible. But the work needed nowadays is different, and I believe it is mostly down to menfolk to make the changes, although of course women can be just as guilty. To see women simply as other people who coexist side by side, separate but equal. To extend the same courtesy they would to any other person, by simply not being rude. To think about an unpleasant encounter in their day and ask themselves whether they would have made the same choices had a man been standing in front of them, or at the other end of the line.

So do me a favour, and pass on the message to the man in your life. After all, they probably will have stopped reading this by now. It’s written by a woman. 

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Why Kanye is a moron, and other stories.

“I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non reader.”

At first look, these seem like the words of a idiot. But after closer inspection, Kanye West is so much more than just your average moronic individual.

Being a ‘fan’, wanting an ‘autograph’, that language means more today than it ever has done. We have more access to celebrities, more ways to stalk them, more insight into their lives and their comings and goings than any generation before us. We aren’t standing in the front row of a concert, waving a “marry me” banner and screaming ourselves hoarse. We’re looking up info on the internet, scouting out our celeb’s home on google maps, climbing the tree outside their window and whispering subliminal messages while they sleep, carefully crouching in that blind spot between the security cameras, to film our own foundation for a heavily iMovie edited fan fiction blog.

For a celebrity himself to talk about being a fan, wanting an autograph, being proud, is dangerous language to use. If Kanye believes one tenth of the things he says about himself, being the next Nelson Mandela, the next Steve Jobs, the next sliced bread, he must be aware that he has influence. Influence over young minds and actions alike. To make the idea of being a ‘fan’ of books into a joke is not only ignorant to the billion dollar industry he is bad mouthing, but also putting an idea into motion, that books are not cool, that reading is not worth pursuing or getting excited over.

Mid twenties, I’m past the age of infatuation with celebrities, and like any generation worth it’s salt, I like to think that even if I were a teen right now, the so called music of today would not be worth my adoration. Sorry, can anyone understand what Tinchy Stryder is saying? Can someone tell Justin Beiber to get a haircut? Don’t One Direction have homework to be getting on with?

But hyperbole aside, I’m not so far gone that I don’t remember what it felt like. I had massive posters of BSB and Boyzone on my wall, and was secretly sad when I found out Steven Gately was gay. (Like that was the main obstacle to us living happily ever after). I cut out pics of unlikely teen heart-throbs Evan and Jaron (anyone?!) and stuck them in clumsily drawn hearts. I religiously read articles and interviews in Shout and Cosmo girl, just in case I ever bumped into Craig David and could wow him with my knowledge that his favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. (In case he wasn’t already aware.)

But nowadays, I fan girl in a different way. Lionel Shriver spoke at this years London book fair, and I got there an hour and a half early to save myself the best seat. I tweet authors obsessively, and get almost unbearably excited when they reply. If I had to write a list of the books I would love the autograph of? Let’s just say we would be here a while. Books have changed my life, have made me cry far more than any ex-boyfriend, have brought me to tears of uncontrollable laughter, and have taught me more about myself than any one person. I would be proud to cover my notebooks with “Mrs Elisheva Books”, heart-ing the i, and cutting out glossy pictures of libraries across the globe. Just try and stop me from stripping naked and hiding out in a book’s trailer for when the show finishes.

“I am a fan of books, I would most definitely want a books autograph. I am a proud reader.”

I don’t expect my opinion to make the youth of today run off to Foyles, and I’m sure that some of my childhood ‘heroes’ are also non readers, just like Kanye. You don’t have to be a bookworm to write or perform great music. Certainly not to write popular music. But the point is, I don’t know whether Ronan has a volume of short stories on his bedside cabinet. I’m not sure if the A1 boys like a bit of Bronte after a long day. They never lifted themselves off the 2D background of my bedroom walls to tell me. To make me less literate, to encourage me to learn less, to take less notice of better minds than my own.

Well done Kanye! you don’t read. Frankly, no one is surprised to learn that you’re not a Dickens fan, or even a Katie Price fan, with your almost agonisingly poor verbal and written skills. But you are self aware enough to know that people are listening to you, people are emulating you, for the same reason that I know that Aaron Carter’s middle name is Charles and he has a twin sister called Angel. You’re famous. And unlike many other celebrities who say they don’t want the responsibility of being a role model, you actively seek it out. It’s not just fame you’re after. “I got the answers, I understand culture, I am the nucleus.” Every word out of your mouth is another sound bite or bumper sticker for kids looking for guidance. You WANT to be a role model.

It’s an inescapable part of celebrity in this day and age that fame will almost inadvertently turn a person into a role model of sorts, whether positive or otherwise. But this kind of subtle propaganda against literacy and reading is in many ways more dangerous than any dry humping of a wrecking ball. Your average teenager might think Miley Cyrus is cool, but the furthest the adoration is likely to go is a bit of harmless twerking at a school disco. Fashions change, trends come and go, and teenage girls grow up and realise that without the help of an airbrush, they really don’t have the legs for it.

But a fatwa on books? On reading? On one of the fundamentals of any form of education?

Careful Kanye, or the next generation of easily swayed youth will be incapable of reading your mindless drivel to start wi… On second thoughts, as you were.

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That Moment

When you make her laugh and no one else could, when you see him smile across a crowded room before you’ve quite caught his eye. When you write that thought down, in fear of losing its memory, when you solve that puzzle first out of the group. How you interpret that comment as a compliment, so that no one gets hurt, how you change your mind last minute and save the day. As you remember why you loved your career all along, as you turn that final page and sit in silence. He grips your finger so tightly, that tiny person you gave life to, she asks you not to leave her alone as her breathing becomes shallow.

People like to talk about how small they feel, how infinitesimal they are in relation to the world, like that’s comforting. And maybe it is, in terms of a higher power who looks after such incredibly complex features of the universe as the tides and the planets so therefore cant have any trouble keeping you safe and happy. And maybe by feeling so small, so insignificant, your troubles become insignificant too.

But I prefer to think of those moments. That come up so rarely, but remind you, unquestionably, that you are not small.

You make an immense difference, at least in that instant, to another person. You have set into motion a sequence of events;. You’ve thought of something new, something real. That’s what’s comforting to me, the mind blowing realisation that you are one of billions, and yet you are one. In that moment, in your moment, you belong to people, you exist, and you matter.

Just don’t mention the edible glue.

I never had birthday cakes. As a kid I mean. I admit, it’s not the most often cited form of child abuse, so I can imagine you’re finding it hard to drum up appropriate sympathy. I doubt the NSPCC often whisper in hushed tones about birthday cake neglect as they try to rehouse badly cared for children. “Y’know, I heard he had to make do with cupcakes. And they weren’t even chocolate. I shudder to think.”

But it’s true nonetheless. I think the word ‘never’ might be a little harsh, as I have a couple of photos pre the age of 5 of me standing in front of store-bought rectangular monstrosities with calligraphy Happy Birthdays and chalky icing numbers that would never taste as good as they looked. After that age, I remember the odd year where I could sneak a supermarket-bought chocolate cake underneath the rest of the shopping in the trolley, once we’d checked for a V for Vegetarian of course. Our aim in life being to appear to the world as ultra-orthodox even though we were in reality nothing of the sort, these had to be eaten quickly and stealthily, and the trappings thrown in the outside bin so that no passing visitor (like my brother for example) would see that it wasn’t ‘strictly kosher.’ Eating cake in secret wasn’t something I would ever learn to enjoy, the self loathing pretty much overriding any of the butter-creamy goodness they ever had to offer.

So perhaps it’s more honest to say I never had the birthday cake ‘experience.’ No candles to blow out, no friends singing embarrassingly at me, no parents up to their elbows in fondant the night before the big day, cursing at Thomas’s funnel for refusing to stand upright. If I’m honest, it’s that last part that bothers me the most. I’m not the most creative person in the world, and a step by step recipe is going to be the least of my expectations if I’m going to make anything half recognisable, but making my son a birthday cake every year is one of the ways I say, “I know you.”

I know that before you were one, and you couldn’t even see our faces, reading the Gruffalo out loud was the only thing that could calm you down, so committing the entire book to memory was the least we could do for you. We spent the best part of that year regaling audiences across coffee shops and shopping malls and London transport whenever you were cranky. I’m pretty sure a couple people missed their stops to find out how that crafty mouse escaped consumption.

Before you were two, and you began to enjoy the world, you learned to reach out and have your own effect on your surroundings, lifting flaps and beaming at the results of your own hands. We read Dear Zoo over and over again, buying every version we could find. The devil makes work for idle hands must be based on a toddler, as keeping a book in your reach was the best way to keep our house intact.

This year, almost three, and you are making your own sentences, demanding to ‘read’ books to us, and with the patience given at birth (not mine, his) we listen to your babble with the odd word thrown in for good measure.  Each step I follow in making your cake this year is my way of showing how proud I am of your achievements.

I met a five year old recently who had been given a guitar cake for her birthday. “Amazing!” I exclaimed in my special over excited voice I reserve for children and the mentally challenged. When she shrugged I decided to probe further. “So how long have you been playing guitar?”

“I don’t.” She replied forlornly. “I play piano and recorder.”

Hello nspcc? It’s me again, I don’t think you’re understanding the gravity of the situation. She plays recorder, and the cake was in the shape of a GUITAR. That’s not even close frankly. It’s not even a wind instrument… .

It was like looking in a mirror. Over the top or not, slightly crazy or otherwise, this nugget of ‘I don’t know you’ from my own childhood has stayed with me. And so, I’m a little bit obsessed with birthday cakes. Weirdly enough, the birthday itself I can take or leave, buying random gifts last minute on Amazon, and choosing cards based on the ‘least awful one in the bargain bin’ criteria. (All I’m saying is, if I have to buy a five pound card, you aren’t getting a present. Or a card for that matter.) I’m not even a fan of the happy birthday song, as frankly I think if we all put our heads together we could do a lot better both musically and lyrically, but damn-it if I’m not going to get you double figure ‘likes’ on your cake photo on Facebook.

So it’s definitely not birthdays in general I feel passionately about. Although I’m glad I have one.  I once knew a man who had no idea when his birthday fell, or even how old he was. This to me was extremely newsworthy.

But.. but… how do you fill in forms? How do you sign up to things online? What’s life like without that oddly satisfying feeling of seeing your birthday written down on a pint of milk or a movie poster, like a private joke between you and the universe?

He seemed unperturbed, but I wasn’t interested in letting this go.

How did you ever get employed anywhere?!

“Ah, Mr Smith, lovely to meet you. Please do sit down and let me take a few pieces of basic information before we start the interview.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Full name?”
“Mr Horatio Brandon Smith.”
“Gender..? Male… Good, UK citizen?”
“Oh yes, for over three decades now.”
“Excellent. Date of Birth?”
“Ah… well actually… I’m not sure.”
“Sorry, I said date of birth. -pause- your birthday.”
“Yes, I don’t actually have that information to hand.”
“How about year of birth at least? … -awkward pause-  How OLD are you?”
“Cant help you there. Somewhere between 50 and 60 I would guess?”

It blew my mind. I mean, when does he have cake with his name on? Just randomly when he feels like it? Has he chosen a day in replacement? If so, how did he choose it? Statistically most people are born in August. Would he go with probability, or purposely choose a less likely month for fairness sake? I still have so many unanswered questions! Unfortunately, we never traded contact info, and it’s hard enough to track people down, let alone without a date of birth to go by….

This generation, birthdays have become a much bigger deal, with endless yummy mummies making their fortune with at-home bakeries sure to make even the pickiest birthday brat girl beam. And if like me, you’re a little bit hysterical and have based your worth as a parent on making the cake from start to finish by yourself, it’s much easier to be creative. Spending a mortgage payment at a shop called Sugar Shack, which is basically baking erotica, and armed with a step by step recipe pilfered from the Internet, I am now in possession of all the cheats necessary to make me a temporary Nigella. Edible markers, edible glitter, edible paint… Another plus of Sugar Shack is the ease you can convince your other half it’s a necessary investment just by reading out the names in your shopping basket. (Just don’t mention the edible glue.)

I’m not naive about the likely reception to my efforts. At the grand unveiling, I fully expect more praise from old high school friends I haven’t seen in a decade than I do from the eponymous hero of the cake itself. I imagine R looking briefly at the masterpiece, sussing it’s food and shouting ‘eat it!” before descending into a full blown tantrum. But that’s part of the magic for me. If a parent had made me a cake with half the effort that this one is going to take, I would probably be a blubbering mess of gratitude. I actually think it would be too much love to take. And while I do love cake, I’m aware that’s not a normal reaction.

Don’t get me wrong, as they grow old enough to understand both the concept of effort and the hassle of food colouring, I fully expect a heartfelt thank you for my yearly forays into domestic goddess mode. But I like the idea that birthday cakes will be the norm. Along with dinner on the table, bed times, cuddles, help with homework, and any number of other things I never had.

Probably the way my grandchildren will feel about expensive birthday cards.

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