Delusions of Gender: the domestic sphere

[This is the 4th of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

“The managers who don’t get the promotions or salaries they deserve, the saleswomen and investment bankers who determinedly network at topless bars and lap-dancing clubs, and the corporate scientists who endure locker-room culture deserve proper acknowledgement of barriers that still have not fallen. And this includes barriers at home.”

Cordelia Fine discusses interesting statistics around the relative amounts of housework done by men and women in domestic partnerships. Apparently, the more a woman earns, the less housework she tends to do, but only up to the point where she earns a comparable amount to her partner (and even then it’s not quite equal). For women that earn more than their partners, the situation is strangely reversed: the more they earn, the more housework they do on average.

I’m sure there could be lots of reasons for this curious reversal, but one phenomenon highlighted in the book is what sociologists call “gender deviance neutralisation” – the desire to counteract the discomfort caused by the reversal of the traditional man-as-breadwinner model, by acting extra-womanly at home (or perhaps in the case of the men, asserting their masculinity by avoiding laundry and cleaning). It’s certainly interesting that the relationship between women’s earnings, their partners’ earnings and everyone’s apparent housework drive seems so complex.

It’s no revelation that women do more housework – and, especially, childcare – than men. Women are traditionally associated with being responsible for the housework and childcare, and our eagerness to express our gender identity – through the language of gender we’ve learnt from our culture – helps to perpetuate this.

Equality is, as usual, made even harder by the gendered assumptions that are made around who does what:

“While there are entire chapters – books, even – devoted to the issues of being a working mother, rare indeed is it to come across even a paragraph in a child-rearing manual that addresses the conflicts of time and responsibility that arise from being a working father. This social norm puts women in a weak negotiating position.”

I have to mention another book here, on parenthood – “All Joy and No Fun”, by Jennifer Senior – that makes a very interesting point around cultural expectations of women (in America, but relevant also to the UK). Culture has shifted over time: in the 1950s, women who didn’t work outside the home called themselves housewives; nowadays, they are usually called stay-at-home mums. The difference seems superficial but it actually reflects quite a big shift – while in the past the main expectation on women was keeping an immaculate and tidy house, now it’s on being the “perfect” mother.

Mothers now apparently spend much more time with their children than they ever did, and often deny themselves the free time to themselves that fathers seem to be able to carve out with no guilt. Anyone who thinks this is some kind of innate, inevitable motherly instinct has only to look back a few decades, or indeed to other, perhaps more healthy cultures, to find evidence that this is not the case.

Going back to Cordelia Fine’s book, it seems men can show “maternal” behaviour and feelings just as women can:

“In her study of equal sharers – that is, mothers and fathers who equally share the responsibilities and pleasures of homelife – Francine Deutsch found that equally sharing fathers had developed the kind of closeness to their children we normally associate with mothers.”

It’s not obvious from this statement whether those fathers were closer to their children as a result of practising “equal sharing”, or whether they were just naturally inclined towards both equal sharing and close relationships with their children. But if rats are anything to go by, it’s very possible that it’s the former:

“Male rats don’t experience the hormonal changes that trigger maternal behaviour in female rats. They never normally participate in infant care. Yet put a baby rat in a cage with a male adult and after a few days he will be caring for the baby almost as if he were its mother. He’ll pick it up, nestle it close to him as a nursing female would, keep the baby rat clean and comforted and even build a comfy nest for it. The parenting circuits are there in the male brain, even in a species in which paternal care doesn’t normally exist. If a male rat, without even the aid of a William Sears baby-care manual, can be inspired to parent then I would suggest that the prospects for human fathers are pretty good.”

I’ve also read that taking a couple of months of paternity leave predicts greater continued parental involvement for many years to come. Fathers who spend a period of time being the primary caregiver can form a strong bond with their babies in that time just as mothers can. Which, really, does not surprise me when I think about it. Flexibility in this regard has to have been an evolutionary advantage. Yet it’s cultural barriers that stop us utilising this biological flexibility. In Sweden, it was not until equal sharing of parental leave was incentivised that it actually started to happen routinely – but the effects have been positive.

Jennifer Senior observes stylistic differences between mothers and fathers when “on duty” at home, and concludes that women with male partners (assuming the partners do play an active part at home) would do well to take a leaf out of their partners’ books: be less perfectionistic, for example, and look after themselves a bit more. This is an interesting challenge.

It does seem reasonable to me that just as we want work environments to change with the shifting gender balance and not merely assimilate women into a masculine culture, the same principle must apply to home environments. If we want the men in science, and economics, and executive management, and so on, to be open to the possibility that women could bring something different but of equal value to these roles – to temper and rebalance ‘yang’ cultures that are out of control – perhaps it’s equally true that the ‘yin’ in the domestic sphere has become problematic and could benefit from a rebalancing.

These are huge challenges, I guess. They involve changing habits of a lifetime; overcoming the internal discomfort of acting in ways that don’t “fit” with internalised cultural notions related to your self-identified gender; and dealing with the guilt that is piled onto mothers who don’t sacrifice their whole selves for their children. Equality has a long way to go.

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Delusions of Gender: more on work cultures

[This is the 3rd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

In the previous post, I highlighted what I’ve learned around work cultures, gender, and belonging. Highly gendered work cultures tend to be a problem for people who don’t identify with the dominant stereotype. Not fitting in, apparently, can even affect a person’s interest in the very content of the work, something that seems like perhaps it should be intrinsic and not subject to social forces.

If this is really true, it suggests that interest and motivation are somewhat arbitrary. When we have a developed passion, we might think we just ‘inherently’ love solving equations or holding forth in a courtroom or whatever it is, but that’s because we don’t readily see the part this activity has played in shaping our identity, in our becoming who we want to be (in reference, of course, to the culture around us); we don’t see the extent to which social rewards have nurtured our growing interest.

(Now that I think of it, I did realise recently that my guitar interests can only be explained by a gender-related sense of ‘fit’. I’m gradually cottoning on to this. Very gradually… :-) )

But why are work cultures the way they are? Are they intimately tied to the nature of the work, or is the dominant culture of a work area also somewhat arbitrary, dependent to a large degree on the luck of history?

Work-area culture can certainly change, sometimes quite dramatically. One study Cordelia Fine describes looked at the effect of a change in the admissions policy for computer science degrees at one particular university, where the requirement for extensive prior experience in programming was dropped. This changed the dominant culture of the student cohort almost overnight, and also changed the self-perception and self-expression of the more senior students who had been selected with the old criteria:

“… as the researchers suggest, the years spent in an increasingly gender-equal environment ‘had shaped their image of themselves. We might also speculate that such a transitional culture gave the men “permission” to explore their nongeeky characteristics’.”

The association between a work area and gender also varies geographically:

“… across countries, over and above the effect of consciously reported stereotypes, the more strongly males are implicitly associated with science and females with liberal arts, the greater boys’ advantage in science and maths in the eighth grade. (In some countries, it’s worth saying, girls outscore boys.)”

I actually have first-hand experience, too, of how arbitrary the connection between a work area and a culture can really be. Starting a new, somewhat similar quantitative job in a much more gender balanced setting than my university department, has been… well, a culture shock. It has really highlighted how much my experience to date has shaped my own implicit associations. I find myself constantly surprised at how comfortable the women seem in being feminine. Even silly things like how many women wear makeup, something I’ve long abandoned myself.

I think the content of a work area can certainly play a part in determining its gender balance – in so far as it interacts with notions about gender in the wider culture. When women started to enter the workplace, they probably tended to choose (or be most accepted in) work for which the required skills overlapped with their female self-identity and its expression in British culture – caring, nurturing, supportive, or otherwise people-oriented roles, such as nursing or secretarial jobs. Meanwhile men have retained a monopoly in areas that don’t seem a natural fit for a feminine personality – such as quantum physics, or economics. (In terms of my own similar-work-area-but-different-culture experience, it probably comes down to university research being much more prestigious and competitive – and somewhat better paid – than my new public-sector career path.)

However, I think that in most work areas, there is no one ‘type’ of person who would do the work well, or best. We tend to take the dominant culture of a workplace to be representative of the traits needed to do well at the work, or to ‘belong’ in the work area, and that is often a mistake; it is not as black-and-white as that. The “luck of history” is surely a factor in the dominant culture – and history has played out differently in different places. I can imagine that in some other countries, software development has become a career in which the more feminine ‘pro-social’ and ‘supportive’ attributes are emphasised, for example.

A more diverse set of skills and approaches, I would say, would do a world of good for many work areas whose cultures are entrenched in problematic and exaggerated aspects of gender. Most work types (and human problem-solving endeavours in general) probably stand to benefit from having a reasonably diverse workforce. But diversity cannot mean assimilating the occasional token woman/man/person of colour into the dominant culture. We need to be open to our work cultures changing.

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Delusions of Gender: careers and ‘belonging’

[This is the 2nd of a series of posts discussing the book ‘Delusions of Gender’ by Cordelia Fine]

The previous post focussed on the power of gender as a social identity in influencing and organising our behaviour. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also influences our sense of belonging in a given social environment. Experiments have apparently shown that even in the very short term, subtle messages received about the genderedness of a career path – through the gender balance of professionals featured in an informational video, or even the culture of a workplace as implied by its interior design – can affect people’s sense of whether they belong in it.

This fits well with a psychology lecture I attended a while ago, in which studies were described that show very clearly that the experience of “work-life balance” is well-predicted by whether we feel like we fit in at work, whether we feel like ourselves at work. If we don’t, then long working hours are likely to feel like a huge personal sacrifice. Gender-related norms were highlighted in the lecture as a big factor in “fitting in”. It’s not actually about gender per se, but about being able to feel that there are people like you around, thriving in the job; whether the individuals identified with are male or female doesn’t matter. It’s just that, so often, work cultures and work social environments are highly gendered and people can seem almost like caricatures of the dominant sex. (Even some of those who are of the opposite sex!)

Studies reported in Cordelia Fine’s book further develop this picture: apparently, the experience of ‘lack of fit’ is also what drives lack of interest in certain degree subjects or career paths.

The idea that ‘not fitting in’ not only makes you less happy but can actually make you less interested in the content of a subject of study or work area, for some reason, was quite revelatory to me. I spent my mid- to late-twenties scratching my head trying to understand interest, or ‘passion’, since I found it so elusive. I figured it had something to do with confidence; I couldn’t figure out which came first, a lack of confidence or a lack of interest – or for that matter, why confidence seemed so hard to come by. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that both could actually be a result of just not feeling I fitted in.

I keenly remember my struggles with gendered self-expression during my physics degree, my struggles against the experience of feeling “too feminine” for physics and the need to convince myself that wearing makeup and gushing over the prettiness of crystals forming in an experiment did not mean I was doomed to failure just because nobody else was doing that. (Indeed, I achieved a first!) I didn’t make a single real friendship with a classmate in those four years. I got used to being lonely.

Little did I know just how big the struggle was going to be in the long term, and the unconscious extent to which it would affect my motivation and confidence. ‘Lack of fit’ makes perfect sense of the otherwise maddeningly inexplicable struggles I’ve had in these areas – motivation and confidence – in the face of objectively good performance.

This quotation from the book could be the story of my life:

“With horrible irony, the harder women try to succeed in quantitative domains, the greater the mental obstacles become, for several reasons. Stereotype threat [an effect where stress and anxiety is created by having to perform against a low expectation generated by a stereotype] hits hardest those who actually care about their maths skills and how they do on tests, and thus have the most to lose by doing badly, compared with women who don’t much identify with maths. Also, the more difficult and nonroutine the work, the more vulnerable its performance will be to the sapping of working memory [caused by the stress], and possibly the switch to a more cautious problem-solving strategy. There is also the problem that, as she proceeds up the career ladder, the mathematically minded woman will become increasingly outnumbered by men. … This can compound her problem in more than one way. Her sex will become more and more salient, which in itself can trigger stereotype threat processes. One study even found that the more men there are taking a maths test in the same room as a solo woman, the lower women’s performance becomes. And, surrounded by men, she herself may come to grudgingly believe that women are indeed naturally inferior in maths…

“As our mathematical woman moves up the ranks, she will also progressively lose one very effective protection against stereotype threat: a female role model to look up to. People’s self-evaluations, aspirations and performance are all enhanced by encountering the success of similar role models – and the more similar, the better.”

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Delusions of Gender: social identities are powerful

My first book of 2015 was ‘Delusions of Gender‘ by Cordelia Fine. And it was the most absorbing, paradigm-shifting, and well-written book I’ve read in a long time! I think I must have highlighted about half the book on my kindle, so there is a lot for me to digest and unpack. My intention is therefore to do this in a series of posts. It will probably take me a while – it’s already been a couple of weeks since I finished the book :)

Cordelia Fine is a research psychologist, and her book is a comprehensive review and discussion of the science around sex differences in the brain structure and functioning, thinking and behaviour. The overwhelming message of the book is that there is, in fact, no good evidence that males and females are hard-wired to be different in these ways, despite popular notions to the contrary. In fact, these “popular notions” turn out to be very powerful, and undermine some of the science in a fundamental way, as she begins to show in the first section.

She focuses on numerous experiments that show a difference in people’s behaviour or performance at tasks depending on whether gender is made ‘salient’, that is, brought into their minds in some way, at the start of the experiment. It seems people unconsciously become more inclined to act in line with cultural notions of typical male and female behaviour or abilities, as soon as their gender identity is brought into focus – by being told that it is a gender-related test, say, or even by something as simple as having to tick a box to indicate their gender before doing a test.

Indeed, this is true not just of gender but of all sorts of social identities (or ‘hats’) that we assume.

“With the right social identity for the occasion or the companion, this malleability and sensitivity to the social world helps us to fit ourselves into, as well as better perform, our current social role. No doubt the female self and the male self can be as useful as any other social identity in the right circumstances. But flexible, context-sensitive and useful is not the same as ‘hardwired’.”

These results, of course, cast serious doubt on other studies that claim to show an inherent gender difference without having accounted for or recognised this ‘priming’ effect. One prominent scientist who has produced a lot of work in support of gender differences is Simon Baron-Cohen, who also contributed to the collection of essays I read a while back on the women-in-science question. Cordelia Fine points out that self-report questionnaires, as used in some of his work, are problematic in various ways and particularly vulnerable to the effect of gender priming. It was found in subsequent research that:

“… if you want to predict people’s empathic ability you might as well save everyone’s time and get monkeys to fill out the self-report questionnaires. And so to find, as Baron-Cohen does, that women score relatively higher on the EQ [“empathy quotient”] is not terribly compelling evidence that they are, in fact, more empathic. Nor is it hard to come up with a plausible hypothesis as to why they might give themselves undeservedly higher scores. As we saw in the previous chapter, when the concept of gender is primed, people tend to perceive themselves in more stereotypical ways. The statements in the EQ could conceivably prime gender on their own.”

She describes a much more realistic experiment in which two participants are left to converse freely while waiting for the experiment to “start”, then have to watch a video of their conversation and report how they felt at certain points. They also have to state what they think the conversation partner was feeling – and this is tested against what the partner actually reports.

“There are no actors posing expressions, no narrow strips of eyes, no disembodied voices and hands, no carefully choreographed and scripted scenes. Instead, people are interacting in a natural and unscripted way that generates a stream of successive mental states to be inferred from a rich variety of clues. You might expect men to struggle with such a demanding test, but they do not. As Ickes reports in Everyday Mind Reading, much to everyone’s surprise, in the first seven studies to use this measure no gender differences were found…”

She also recounted an experiment where, as an incentive for inferring another person’s mental state,

“… they earned $2 for every correct answer. This financial incentive levelled the performance of women and men, showing that when it literally ‘pays to understand’ male insensitivity is curiously easily overcome.”

So: it’s not that there aren’t gender differences in performance at various tasks, or behaviours. It’s that our gender identities, combined with our culturally-inherited beliefs about gender, have such a strong effect that we can’t really say for sure they aren’t entirely responsible for these differences. And the effect they have is scarily hidden from our awareness (and, seemingly, from that of some high-profile researchers). It’s all too easy and natural to ascribe traits to an inherent gender-specific personality type, since we already acquire such a view from the cultural “language” of gender (e.g. the Mars and Venus thing) – and this, of course, only makes the view more deeply ingrained.

What difference does it make whether gender is innate or socially-primed, if the end result is the same? Well, when one sex is privileged over the other in society, it matters a great deal that we don’t reinforce the stereotypes that work in service of such power dynamics. If gender is a cultural language, it’s arguably a matter of social justice that it should be dismantled and redefined, to some extent. But more on that later :)

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Religion is not the issue

I think — and I speak as a British person — when I saw the towers fall on September 11, one of the many, many thoughts that went through my head was, “We helped to do this.” The way we split up these states, created these nation-states that ISIS is pulling asunder, showed absolutely no regard for the people concerned. Nationalism was completely alien to the region; they had no understanding of it. The borders were cobbled together with astonishing insouciance and self-interest on the part of the British.

Plus, a major cause of unrest and alienation has always been humiliation. Islam was, before the colonial period, the great world power, rather like the United States today. It was reduced overnight to a dependent bloc and treated by the colonialists with frank disdain. That humiliation has rankled, and it would rankle, I think, here in the States. Supposing in a few decades you are demoted by China, it may not be so pretty here.

Every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation.

Karen Armstrong interviewed in

A friend posted the above article on Facebook a few days ago. When the violence in Paris hit the headlines, having just read this interview definitely coloured my reaction to the events.

I agree with Armstrong. At this point I am frustrated with secular-minded moral superiority that ignores its own vast privilege and reduces everything to a conflict between “evil religion” and rational good sense.

The other typical liberal response, to distance religion from the issue by dismissing these perpetrators of violence as mindless criminals (and not “true” Muslims), is understandably defensive but, as such, it seems stuck on the same red herring question of whether Islam is a problem.

Religion is in some ways just a vehicle for articulating and expressing what matters most to people. Arguably, strident atheism does the same thing. Some ‘vehicles’ do seem to have a more aggressive character than others – bland statements about all religions favouring peace don’t really wash with me. (This is not to say, of course, that acts of violence such as those in France this week are condoned by Islam; just that I think ‘twisting’ a religion to find support for things like that is probably easier with some religions than others.) But to focus on critiquing a religion is to distract everyone from the wider picture of the injustices and power imbalances Muslims around the world are upset about. I’m afraid the moral indefensibility of murdering 17 people does not let us off the hook from looking at our part in those issues.

To quote a brilliant article by Ghassan Hage, in relation to the crowds marching the streets of Paris today:

So oblivious [are they] of the reality in which the Muslim other exists today that they even make a point of valiantly declaring that, unlike the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine who are being murdered at varieties of speeds with varieties of techniques by the thousands, they, the ones attacked by three armed militants are heroically looking the murderers in the eyes and telling it to them straight: they are ‘not afraid’.

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Best 2014 books

I didn’t read quite as many books this year as last, but I did find some gems all the same. Here are my ten favourite reads from the past year (in no particular order).

Dear Mummy, Welcome – Bethany Hallett
– A memoir about the author’s adoption of a 4-year-old girl. Fascinating, and touching.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson
– Let’s just say it’s been a while since a book made me laugh out loud quite so much.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – as Told by Those Who Love it, Hate it, Live it, Left it and Long for it – Craig Taylor
– A fascinating set of (true) stories from a really diverse collection of voices. Reads as though the interviewer/author has just transcribed their speech word for word, which I guess is the most faithful way of representing them, and makes it feel like each storyteller is right there in front of you.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
– I found this pretty harrowing, but it is a truly excellent and engrossing work of fiction, set around the Nigerian civil war. She uses the story to make some profound points that leave you thinking.

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
– A collection of beautiful short stories themed around Bengali American life in New England.

Economyths: How the Science of Complex Systems is Transforming Economic Thought – David Orrell
– Great introduction to economics and its problems.

The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer
– I enjoyed this classic text of second-wave feminism. I can’t say I agreed with every word, but it certainly got me thinking about some things in a profoundly different way.

Killing Rage – bell hooks
– An amazing book that I think everyone should read. It’s about anti-black racism in the USA, but the insights into how privilege and oppression work are very generalisable.

Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us – Christine Gross-Loh
– So many interesting observations about different cultures; so many “aha!” moments about things parents do in my own culture that perhaps don’t work for the best.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood – Jennifer Senior
– Very America-centric, but a lot of it is relevant to UK culture too. Incredibly well-written and thought-provoking examination of what having children is like, with a bit of a focus on the challenges for gender equality.

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Me and the violin

I took up the violin at age 9. By the time I was 14 it was a major part of my life – but I hated it, and was miserable.

It started with me being a shy, self-conscious child; the one-on-one nature of violin lessons was uncomfortable for me. I was secretly mortified at being under such close scrutiny, learning, trying. My teacher would try to draw me out of my shell; would sometimes take hold of my bowing hand and forcibly animate me, pushing and pulling in big dramatic motions, which only made me feel even less ‘safe’.

On top of this, it turned out that some aspects of music came quite naturally to me – to the excitement of several family members, who made a fuss of my supposed talent. How could this be a negative? I think the attention this generated felt nice, but it also felt seriously undeserved. Every harmless little test of my supposed ‘perfect pitch’ was an opportunity to fail, to disappoint, and I had no control over it: I guess it seemed that talent was what mattered, not effort. The prospect of failing to live up to what was expected thus held more than just embarrassment for me; it would mean that I didn’t ‘have it’ after all, and the approval would end along with the discomfort. This was very inhibiting for me.

My mathematical brain easily picked up musical notation; learned where the notes were on the violin; and could translate a desired interval into a position on a string from a given starting point, so that I could play by ear. I was sensitive enough to tuning and timing errors to be able to keep those aspects fairly accurate. Because of all this, I got through the lessons quite easily without a lot of practice effort. It was embarrassing; at one point I was sharing lessons with another girl, and when she was berated for not practising enough, for holding me back… I felt awful.

While my technique languished at beginner level, these other abilities carried me through the pieces I had to play. I even won a regional competition, beating two significantly better competitors from my own school: although it was noted that my technique was inferior, the musicality made up for it in the adjudicator’s eyes. It agonised me to win; I hadn’t wished for anything more than to not fuck up in front of a room full of people, and now here I was robbing two people of a prize that was clearly expected to go to one of them. And I didn’t understand it.

My shyness, my self-consciousness about having my learning observed, kept me from putting in the work to develop more advanced skills. As did the bad taste of undeserved success in my mouth, and the fear, either of being ‘found out’ or of generating yet more uncomfortable hype. And with such success, there was clearly no incentive, no urgency, to work hard or to improve my technique. It just didn’t seem to matter that much. What did seem to matter was this nebulous ‘talent’ thing that felt like the emperor’s new clothes. I was a fraud, constantly hiding my musical nakedness. All of the ingredients were in place for hating the whole business with a passion by the time I was in my teens, and being thoroughly confused as to why.

I’m fully aware that these are very much problems of a privileged childhood, and I feel a bit ashamed of the indulgence in writing this post. But I’ve recently been reading some old diaries from that period, and have been taken aback by how desperate and, well, depressed I sound in those writings. I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile that.

I was eventually permitted to give it all up. And I basically didn’t touch the instrument again until 2013. By then, one of its seams had opened a crack and a trip to the violin doctor was in order, but it came out of its surgery sounding gorgeous.

The first time I played it in public again was at the launch of the Sunday Assembly, on “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. It felt awkward, stilted, a little reminiscent of school orchestra. But over the course of a year of playing occasional parts in pop songs in this way, I have shed a lot of the emotional baggage associated with it. I still get more reliable enjoyment, and feel more like myself, playing guitar (an instrument I took up for fun at 17) – but I am gradually learning to have fun with the violin, too. My technique is still shit. Occasionally, horse hair, steel string, finger flesh and neurons all connect and fireworks happen in my head. I’m in another little band where I write my own parts to my band-mate’s reflective and moody songs. That is the most freeing of all, as what I’m doing there is no-one’s but mine.

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