Wednesday 20 April 2011

Who are you?

As a child and teenager, I believed that few things were more important than letting people know what you were into. Hence the ripped jeans, the beer-bottle tops on my school shoes, the plastic dummy on a string around my neck and, later, the Adidas trackie tops and Fred Perry t-shirts. My motto, I suppose, was ‘you are what you like’. And nowhere was this more apparent than at university.

I expect this is the reason why freshers-week poster sales do so well; that vital opportunity to get off on the right foot by arming yourself with Blu-Tack and a dorm room’s worth of advertisements about who you are. I became acquainted with my own undergraduate circle after lending someone my Derby County pen: an icebreaker that cemented my identity as The Derby County Fan, granting me a character name in a group that also included a ‘Taffy’, a ‘Jock’, a ‘Scouse’ and a ‘Shagger’.

Eventually, of course, you shake it off and become known for other things – your studiousness or your drinking prowess, perhaps, or the time you ran naked around the athletics track – but, by the time your graduation gallops into view, you’re already looking at other ways in which to reinvent yourself. Or, at least, I was.

I’ve always been conscious of how I’m defined. Never, perhaps, to the extent that I was as a hypersensitive 18 year old, but for as long as I can remember, it’s something with which I’ve constantly fought. And lately, in this weird transitional phase in which I no longer have cancer but am still being treated for it, and in which I no longer have a job title but am still working at much the same thing, it’s become pretty important to me yet again.

Take getting my new stationery made. At one point I found it so difficult to define what I do that I had six ‘specialisms’ listed on the draft of my business card (so, not ‘specialisms’ at all, then). That’s not me tooting my horn about how many things I’m good at, that’s me trying to find a fancy-schmancy way of saying ‘I do stuff with words’.

I dare say, though, that even without the transitional stuff, I’d be thinking about the definition of who I am. These are times, after all, in which stating who you are has arguably never been more important. And, as it is for so many metaphors, Twitter is the perfect example.

For anyone unacquainted with the social networking site, it’s a service in which users send and read micro-posts of up to 140 characters to which other folk can subscribe by ‘following’ you. The idea, then, is to make yourself ‘followable’, with the means of advertising yourself being a 160-character bio. Here’s mine.

Telling people who you are in 160 characters might seem a simple enough thing to do but, for me at least, this short sentence has kicked my ass. This is, I suspect, my 3,972rd attempt at a bio. And, for this tweeter, it’s the very definition of performance anxiety: a tiny stage on which to be interesting/entertaining/likeable/real enough to warrant a space on someone else’s timeline.

I shouldn’t care, of course. But I do. Telling me to stop worrying what other people think about me would be rather like telling Charlie Sheen to go easy on his namesake. And so, I’ve spent longer than I care to admit devouring other people’s bios, examining their definitions of themselves, their followers’ definitions, and their followers’ again. ‘Global networker, social entrepreneur and philanthropist,’ says one. ‘Husband, Father, Brother, Son, Technocrat, Traveller, Working Man, Music Lover and Christian,’ says another. ‘Just one night full of SIN and SEX.’ ‘I’m me; not sure about you.’ ‘JustinBieber want to meet you in person I also wish you to follow me.’ ‘Not John Cusack.’ ‘Hopefully I can be a wife and good mother to my family.’ It’s fair to say I’ve become more than a little fascinated by these bios. (‘Bio-curious,’ as one brilliant tweeter puts it.)

One that particularly caught my eye, though, was that which read: ‘Just diagnosed with cancer on FEB. 15TH 2011.’ The bio of ‘WorkingGirlCanc’ broke my heart for more reasons than the obvious. ‘What a shame,’ I thought, ‘being in a place where that’s how you’re having to define yourself.’ That’s not a criticism, I hasten to add – just a sighing observation of where that person is right now; a place where you can’t see beyond the diagnosis you’ve just had.

I expect and hope that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, WorkingGirlCanc will want to change both her Twitter name and bio to something that doesn’t involve The Bullshit. But when? After all, ‘breast-cancer survivor’ is part of mine, much as I loathe it being there. But how long will it be there? Begrudgingly, it’s as much a part of me as my marriage or my career. And so, much as I might want to move away from it, it would seem like denying an intrinsic part of who I am if I did.

I admitted as much this week, when I met the marvellous Kristin and Maren Hallenga, founders of CoppaFeel: an awareness-raising charity that educates young women about checking their breasts. (Speaking of which, I emphatically urge you to buy a ticket to this brilliant event.)
‘It’s weird,’ I said, when they asked me about my blog. ‘I’m struggling to know what to post. I’ve been so used to cancer being everything I write about, but I’m wrestling with how much I should move past it.’
‘But, you know, it’s always going to be a part of you,’ said Kristin, rightly.

As I’m sure you’re already aware, Kris was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at 23 and has since, along with her twin Maren, devoted her life to healing, understanding and change. They’re an intimidatingly inspiring team, and I was – and remain – in not-very-well-disguised awe at their dedication to not just skulking round the Bullshit boundary, but actively grabbing it by the tits and grappling it to the ground.

Hence, whining about the Bullshit reference in my Twitter bio is pretty shameful in light of a meeting with a brilliant young lass for whom a secondary status means it’s infinitely more difficult to distance herself from her diagnosis. (And I’ll be kicking myself about it for far longer than just these few paragraphs, believe me.)

See, as the aforementioned child and teenager, I don’t think I ever defined myself in terms of the ‘funny age’ that parents talk about. I never rebelled against my parents or brought home a lad on a motorbike or got caught with a packet of Marlboros and a bottle of Diamond White behind the bike sheds (but by ’eck, if I had my time again, I would). In fact, I always wondered what people meant by ‘that funny age’. Perhaps I’m at it now?

Maybe, then, the label of ‘breast-cancer survivor’ will be another thing that will move back around the sushi-style conveyor-belt that is my definition of myself. Once it was who I am, right now it’s who I wish I wasn’t, and maybe later it’ll be something I that simply don’t want to deny. (See also: being a dummy-wearing Take That fan, to renouncing all fandom, to finding myself with tickets to three different tour dates fifteen years later.)

I secretly like to think, though, that whenever I finally make my peace with it (and, at this rate, I suspect it’ll be a long while yet), I’ll simply store that particular label along with all the others, hanging it up beside the bottle-top shoes, the Adidas tracksuits and the Derby County shirts that make me who I am.

Monday 11 April 2011

All change.

As those who know me in person will have realised from the quietness/eye bags/increased references to gin, it’s been a stressy couple of weeks. Which, when you consider that my health is in tact and everyone around me is happy and well, is more than a bit ridiculous.

Half of me is pleased to have been able to get so het up about something other than the obvious; the other half has been rolling its eyes and telling me to snap the hell out of it. So I listened to the latter. And I’m pleased I did.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that I – nay, we – have been feeling a bit ‘what now?’. With a remaining calendar year in which I’m not due to be back in hospital for anything other than routine check-ups, the one-step-at-a-time approach to life in which P and I been forced to become so skilled suddenly seems a bit useless when you’re looking at a future of, well, what, exactly?

This was always going to happen, of course. And, actually, I’m beginning to wonder whether I’d subconsciously anticipated it happening because, since the turn of the new year, I – nay, we – have been secretly making plans for our giant question mark of a future. Given that, among our family-raising contemporaries, we feel a bit like a cryptic riddle to which there is as yet no answer, the most obvious way in which P and I have been able to assess our future, then, is through our work. Or, in this case, my work. Hence, as of later this week, I will officially be freelance, trading words for money. Or gin.

When asked why I’ve taken this decision, the best answer I’ve been able to give is ‘it’s time’. The extended version of that, I suppose, is that – much as I’d like them to be – my health issues aren’t the kind that can be contained within a specific time period. So though my tumour may have been removed and my bust may have been reinstated, I still need to dedicate as much time and energy as I’m able to keeping myself well. And given that even as little as a three-day working week in central London tends to conclude with a subsequent 24 hours in hot baths and pyjamas, I dare say that keeping well is something I’ll be able to do best while working on a freelance basis.

To the outside eye, this might look like I’m simply saying cheers and ta-ra to the company who supported me through The Bullshit at a time when I’ve been freed from worrying about it quite as much as I have during the last three years. But, in truth, while I’ve been forced to take periods of time out of the office, I’ve never actually been away from my work. That’s not me tooting my own horn and professing how marvellously productive I’ve remained during my treatment and surgery; that’s me stating, in the most ludicrously overdue fashion, that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a company who’ve allowed me to feel valued, useful and included from a distance that was caring without being smothering. So yes, this is undoubtedly the right decision. But, by ’eck, it hasn’t been an easy decision to make.

It’s doing contract publishing marvels Forward Ltd a disservice that this is the first time I’ve mentioned them on Alright Tit. But what I hope you’ll realise by the end of this post is that, actually, they’ve been here all along. They’ve been the New York in Sex and the City; the cobbles in Coronation Street; the forgettable glass door in which you check your reflection when shopping on Regent Street. (And if you think that’s soppy, you should have seen my resignation letter.)

But whether you take this post as a long-overdue message of thanks or another example of my hopelessly ass-kissing nature, what you can’t fail to agree with is that, in experiences from labour to leisure, it’s more likely that you’ll leave a negative review than a positive one. Hence few people I know have escaped my rants about the loos at Lancashire Cricket Ground or the time Tills and I found a caterpillar in a salad in Selfridges, just as I barely let any conversation go by without mentioning my relief that I wasn’t in one of my many previous jobs at the time at which I was diagnosed.

The other issue with this Great British Whinge-Off, I suspect, is that it’s simply not cool to say how lovely a time you’re having at work. Surely most pubs exist on the very basis that people will go there to moan about their employers? I mean, where’s the entertainment in telling someone how much you like your boss? Great comedies aren’t built on contentedness. Imagine the panning Fawlty Towers would have received had Basil been managing a nice little AA-Rosetted B&B from the Mr & Mrs Smith guidebook.

Another reality I ought to declare, then, is that it’s easy to find the good in things when you’ve been through something as life-changing as The Bullshit – it’s just one of the special gifts bestowed on surviving cancer patients, a bit like The Force for the broken. But I urge you to put all of the above on one side for a moment, and take at face value the fact that, if this were an Oscars acceptance speech, the recipients of the none-of-this-would-have-been-possible-without mention would have to be my employers.

As I stated in the aforementioned love-note of a resignation letter, working for Forward has been an overwhelmingly positive experience – and it’s really saying something that I’m leaving my position with only good things to say about a period of my career in which the personal life that’s gone alongside it has been, well, disproportionately shitty. They’ve allowed me the time to be ill and the time to recuperate; they’ve never minded whether my work has come from a desk or a duvet; they’ve been unquestionably supportive of my blog and book. And yet it’s taken me until now to say so.

But, in the spirit that all good things must come to an end (not to mention the spirit of feeling the fear and doing away with 90 minutes on the Piccadilly Line), I’m moving on, in the hope that I’ve done even a fraction of the justice to Forward that it has done to me. The cynical or mocking or unhappily employed among you might think that they bunged me an extra week’s holiday to say that but, in actual fact, I dare say they’ll be as embarrassed that I’m writing this as I am to have made such a tit of myself at that Halloween party on the fourth floor.

There’s not a lot that’s gone unsaid on this blog. But, until now, the place at which I worked was among the unspoken. And while it’s too late to rewrite the book and cram in mentions of my company between admissions of surgeon-crushes and descriptions of melon-twisting, it’s not too late to tell you that, if you ever get the chance to work among the fantastic folk at Forward, well – you’d be backward not to.

And if, in the meantime, you fancy hiring me to write some words… who knows, I might one day end up posting that kind of gush-fest about you too. For the requisite money, anyway. Or gin.