Shake It Off: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love Taylor Swift

As a teenager, I kind of hated Taylor Swift.

I said it was because of my general dislike for country music. Which I stand by, to an extent, because I really do not like country music. But, if I’m being honest with myself, which I always try to be, I see now that it was more thanks to me begin young and dumb and judgmental with no small touch of a superiority complex.

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Taylor Swift wore sparkly dresses and make-up and sang about boys. I was interested in none of those things, and thought I was better for it. I scoffed at girls who wore short short skirts and eyeliner and curls in their hair. More often than not I dismissed them as vapid, empty-headed, insipid things, not like me. I had a brain in my head. They were pretty, but surely they couldn’t be anything more. This was definitely due to some level of jealousy – I was tall and awkward, a little pudgy and a little pimply and not that happy with myself.

It was also, undoubtedly, due to the way we teach girls to view other girls – as competition. From our earliest years, girls are taught, through both explicit instruction and more insidious whispers and gentle implications, to see other girls as challenges to be beaten and obstacles to be torn down. We are taught to be prettier and smarter, taught to fight each other academically, and later in our careers, taught to compete for male attention and not care how many other girls we trample to get it.

Taylor Swift was pretty and successful and guys loved her, and even though I didn’t know her I hated her for it.

The thing is, from what I can gather, Taylor fell prey to the same traps.

“She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts…She wears high heels I wear sneakers”. Same shit, different girl.

Then I had my feminist awakening and realised how much time I’d wasted hating and judging other girls and not appreciating the incredible, beautiful, clever, talented goddesses I was surrounded by. And not that long later, it appears, Taylor had hers, and maybe she discovered the same thing.

And then 1989 happened – an album full of incredibly slick, stupidly catchy, infectiously bubbly pop songs and not a country twang in sight – and my fate was sealed. I fell a little in love with Taylor Swift, with her music, with her perfectly winger eyeliner and adorably bad dancing and impeccable taste in heeled brogues.

Nowadays, Taylor Swift is the the of woman I hope young girls look up to. From what I can gather – as much as one can semi-reliably gather about a celebrity – she seems like a genuinely good person, happy in her own skin with a lot of love to share. She seems like the kind of woman who supports and loves other women, who revels in female friendship, who has learned to love without needing romance, and to be happy and complete in herself. The kind of woman I would want to be friends with. The kind of woman I am, I hope, becoming.

The delicious ironic misandry of the Blank Space video helps too. I can definitely get behind that particular brand of boner-killing.

I’ve learned that life becomes approximately 217% better when you stop caring what other people think and just like the things you like, do the things you want to do and be with the people who make you happy. I’ve discovered my own love of sparkly dresses and bright lipsticks and nail polish, my ability to find beauty and worth and love in every girl I meet, and my shameless adoration of bright, bubbly pop music, and I’ve never been happier.

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Absence and Apologies (Kind Of)

I have not written here in a shamefully long time. There’s a few reasons for that – work, a rather underwhelming attempt at NaNo, preparing for the holidays, and, at the top of the list, the return of a spinal injury that’s had me mostly out of action since early November. I’ve had trouble with my back for years, since a disc injury in high school that threw my senior years right off track.

I went through a long recovery back then, with months upon months of pain and physio and an awkward back brace. I took most of my classes lying on the floor, spent many hours in specialist waiting rooms and CT scanners and walked with a limp more often than I didn’t. The pain was constant and maddening and, as I recovered, something I never wanted to repeat again.

I’m learning that my back will probably be a problem, on and off, for most of my life. It’s twinges and stabbed occasionally over the years, but back at the beginning of November I tried to empty the dishwasher, bent over to retrieve a salad bowl, and felt the exact moment my back gave out. I thought I could get over it with heat packs and time, but after a week of popping pain killers and hoping for the best, I spent a Sunday unable to move, in immense pain, sobbing rather embarrassingly, and it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

I’ve been in physio a few times a week, doing my exercises and managing my pain, spending a lot of time lying on the floor or kneeling at my desk and letting other things slide more than I should. It’s hard to type lying on your belly, so what time I’ve had I’ve been trying to dedicate to my own writing.

That said, I’m going to try and get back in the habit. The holidays are coming up and I have some time off, and hopefully I’ll use it to write more than I have over the past few months. I regret not writing like I want to lately, I regret making excuses to avoid it because of pain or tiredness or laziness, but I’m going to try to turn that around.

I’m getting much better. This last week or so has been much more manageable, and hopefully things will continue to improve. I hope to be back here much sooner next time. Stick with me.

Growing Up Gifted

I am gifted. I have never been exactly fond of the term, but it’s what I am. I was identified early. Sometime between my second and third birthdays, I taught myself to read. According to my parents – who surely would have been called gifted too, had giftedness been more topical in their schooldays – this is when they knew they would have their hands full.

There was a ‘Gifted and Talented’ program at my school. Students were meant to be nominated and assessed in Year 3, but I joined it in Year 2. Three times a week I’d slip out the back of class and join the older Smart Kids for Enrichment classes. I remember learning Braille, studying Renaissance art and dissecting an eyeball. I remember my mainstream classes being very dull. I inevitably finished my work early, so I kept books on my desk so I’d have something to do. On holidays and weekends I’d go to extension courses at the University of New South Wales, where I learned about law, ancient history, forensics, philosophy and literature. I started sitting high school tests, and earned the top score in the country. I was – and am – a smart person.

A little later I starred in a rather embarrassing show called ‘Australia’s Brainiest Kid’. It was not groundbreaking television, but I had fun. I got flown around and driven places. I won some money. And when the show started screening, people suddenly wanted to talk to me about my giftedness. I spoke to newspapers, TV and radio about what it was to be a Smart Kid.

It was about this time I realised that a lot of people have no idea what words like ‘gifted’ and ‘genius’ mean.

People often assume that being ‘gifted’ means pulling top grades across the board, acing exams and generally being a teacher’s pet. I did well enough in exams but I didn’t top all my classes. I liked learning but I didn’t like assessments. I think my teachers were probably incredibly frustrated with me as often as they were impressed.

It’s difficult to talk about giftedness without feeling arrogant and obnoxious. It’s even harder to talk about the challenges of giftedness. How hard can it be to be smart? What could we have to complain about?

As a gifted kid, I faced merciless bullying. I was socially isolated for years. I was academically beyond my peers but emotionally behind older kids, which is why my parents resisted the school’s attempts to bump me up grades and prep schools’ attempts to poach me. I had a hard time making friends, I struggled with social cues and sarcasm. I was told I was bossy and snobby and talked too much, that boys don’t like smart girls. I developed anxiety and depression that went untreated for years because why would a smart kid have problems? I had constantly high expectations of myself and punished myself when I didn’t meet them. I made poor decisions, studying maths and science because that’s what a smart kid should do, rather than literate and theatre and language, which I loved. I spent years bouncing between psychologists, counsellors and behaviour specialists, telling them what they wanted to hear rather than what would help me make progress. I purposely under performed academically, hoping it would let me fade into the background. I was very smart, but I was a kid. For all my intellect, I needed help.

I was lucky in that I had support. A lot of gifted kids don’t. Most of us are left to fend for ourselves. They’re smart. They’ll be okay.

Gifted kids need support, intellectually and emotionally. It’s not enough to give them extra homework or shuffle them into a high class. They don’t need social attitudes that shun and condemn intelligence as arrogance, or education systems that treat giftedness as a problem, an inconvenience. They don’t need shows like Scorpion and The Big Bang Theory that perpetuate the idea of the gifted individual as an awkward social outcast defined by their IQ and OCD.

When I was at uni I worked as a tutor. I have students who struggled, and I had students who excelled. Like kids who struggle, gifted kids face unique challenges and have unique needs, and it was incredibly rewarding to be a small part of their support system.

I spent years being ashamed of my giftedness and trying to hide it. I’m done with that. I’m smart. Deal with it.

Elizabeth’s on King

Newtown is a pretty cool place.

If you live in Sydney and aren’t a soulless automaton, you probably already know this. If you don’t, it’s the place Coldplay filmed the video for “A Sky Full of Stars”. Go watch that, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of Newtown.

It’s an inner-city suburb full of liberal, artsy types, a healthy balance of laminate-table eateries and organic artisan bakeries, countless live music venues and competing buskers and a sprinkling of adult stores to keep things interesting. You can get vegan gelato next door to a greasy kebab place. Every light post is plastered with posters calling for the overthrow of the government, the socialist revolution. Hipsters abound. It’s a great place.

Last Sunday, Sydney had its first proper spring day, so we went into Newtown to celebrate. After seeing ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ – very good, very funny highly recommended – and having lunch at my favourite pie place, we headed to Elizabeth’s.

Elizabeth’s is my favourite bookshop. There’s a few of them around, but the Newtown store on King Street is my preferred stop for all my paperback needs. From the front it’s mostly unremarkable. It stocks your usual on-trend biographies, glossy crime fiction and old classics with new covers. There are usually bargain bins full of two dollar thrillers and old hard-boiled paperbacks rolled out onto their patch of footpath, with colourful children’s book displays in the windows and posters touting new releases. What does make it stand out is their prominent display entitled ‘Blind Date With a Book’

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A single book, wrapped in brown paper with nothing but a few key words to guide your choice. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve taken it home and unwrapped your lovely little gift to yourself (and if you’ve already read it, you can take it back). I think it’s about encouraging people to look beyond the title/author/cover of the book, but it’s also just a really cool way of selling books. And getting people into your store.

Which leads us to the back of Elizabeth’s, where shiny covers and crisp spines give way to a treasure trove of tattered, battered, dusty, pre-loved titles. The second-hand section is where the real beauty lies. Carefully sorted by genre, there are shelves upon shelves of well-worn classics and obscure special interest tomes, of sci-fi franchise novels and questionable erotica. There are plays and lit crit and anthologies and essays and old, leather-bound books with tissue-thin, yellowed pages and copies of Northanger Abbey still bearing the cursive annotation of its last owner.
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I adore second hand bookstores. I rarely buy anything, because I’m on a budget and don’t need any more books when I already have so many waiting to be read, so I avoid going into them and falling into the trap. But when I allow myself that pleasure, it is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. Many of my books came from second hand stores with broken spines and dog-eared pages, and while some might object, I almost enjoy this more than the crisp corners and faded glue smell of brand new books.

I think second hand books, apart from being recycled, which is always good, are a call back to the oral storytelling traditions of days long gone, when stories were passed from one to the next and ever carrier left their mark on the words. I’m a strong believer in stories belonging to their audience, being shaped by their readers and shaping them in return. A second hand book isn’t just a story on pages – it bears snippets of the stories of its owners gone by. I hardly dare say it, lest I start turning into a rabid Newtown hipster myself – they have character.

Also, second hand book stores like Elizabeth’s are really really fun.

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I didn’t buy anything this trip – budget, lack of shelf space, too many books – but I’ve enjoyed some great finds in the past. My copy of The Princess Bride came from here, as did my Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (half way through the former, working on the latter). Maybe once I’ve finished those I’ll let myself buy a few more.

Most cities have a Newtown. You probably know where yours is. On your next sunny weekend, I can strongly recommend eating pie and bookshop browsing. Two thumbs up, would go again.

Let’s Put Things In Perspective

In the interest of transparency, I’ll begin by saying I am a U2 fan. I’ve talked about it here. I own their entire catalogue, so you can bet I was excited to have them drop another album, with no warning, last week. I’ve been playing ‘Songs of Innocence’ for days, and I’m loving it. It is, in my humble opinion, a fantastic album, perhaps their best since Achtung Baby. It’s been a great week to be a U2 fan.

If you’re not a U2 fan, having their new album drop, with no warning, for free, into your iTunes was probably an unexpected, and not entirely welcome, surprise. There are a few ways you could handle the free album. You could ignore it, delete it and move on with your day. You could say ‘hey, free music’ and give it a listen. You might hate it. See step one. You might like it. Fantastic. Reactions have been varied. I get that.

What I don’t get – what I simply cannot fathom – is the stupendously bitter backlash against what is nothing more than a free gift from Apple (not U2. Apple).

People have been raging about about ‘lack of consent’, invasions of privacy, about ‘facism’ (????), about the fact that they simply don’t like U2. The reactions have been, frankly, ridiculously disproportionate. If you are seriously getting this angry about getting some free music, I’m a little concerned for your blood pressure.

We did agree to this – we all did – when we created our iTunes accounts. Nothing about this was illegal, so let’s put that argument aside. I know no of us ever read the terms and conditions, but Apple is not stupid enough to have done this if they were not completely within their rights.

On a side note, if I see one more person comparing some free music to rape – “Apple raped my iTunes”, “I feel like I’ve been raped” – I will roll off the planet and fly into the sun. Rape is never, ever a punchline. You’re not funny. All you’re doing is displaying a spectacular lack of empathy for the suffering of real people.

“But I don’t want it!!” Ok. Delete it. Apple’s even made a handy, one-click tool for those who couldn’t figure out how to. Off you go.

This was not a massive security breach or some international cyber crime. This is Apple buying an album from a successful band and giving it as a gift to their users. One you can embrace or ignore. And while I agree aspects of it could have been better handled – many people had no idea what was happening when the album appeared in iTunes – the response has been disproportionate. While I generally dislike the term, this is a #firstworldproblem if ever I saw one.

I for one am excited for what this could mean for music and musicians. I’m excited at the idea of a service that could introduce me to new music, for free, without me having to look for it. That could drop music into my collection just because I might like it. That could help me discover new artists and new albums I would otherwise have ignored, or never even have known about, that could challenges me to try new things. They could theoretically do the same for books and apps, even movies and TV. Imagine a world where entertainment gets dropped into your pocket – for free – just for you to sample and explore and enjoy. I don’t get how people could not be excited by that.

Ten years ago, when the music industry begged us to stop downloading music for free, we laughed at them. Now, they offer us music for free and it’s the Worst Thing Ever? “This isn’t the music I didn’t want to pay for!”

Most importantly, the anger that’s been directed at Apple and U2 this week could actually have been productive if redirected to something that actually matters. Get angry about the Ebola pandemic, about the atrocities occurring in Syria, about the murders of innocent people at the hands of IS extremists. Get angry about the drought in California or the looming famine in Sudan or the fact that Mike Brown’s murderer is still walking free. Get angry about AIDS or marriage equality, climate change, the plight of asylum seekers, corrupt cops and politicians. Get angry about unjust wars, about domestic violence, about food shortages and endangered species and our over-reliance on non-renewable energy sources.

If the biggest, baddest thing you have to get angry over is some free music you don’t particularly enjoy, you probably need to re-evaluate your priorities.

Enjoy some free music. Then go and get angry about something real.

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PS. Given that tens of millions of people, give or take, have downloaded the album, and that 17 albums from their back catalogue reappeared in the Top 100 charts, that they’re coming of the back of the most successful concert tour of all time – and that they’re very rich and very famous – I don’t think U2 care. Apple certainly don’t. We can all stop yelling at clouds now.

Weekend Writeaway

Last weekend I went on an adventure.

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(Image from bwf.org.au)

That may be overstating it, but it was a small kind of adventure to me. I left work, hopped a train to the airport and jetted off to Queensland for the weekend for the Brisbane Writers Festival. My godmother, who lives up there, had all but begged me to come and visit. I have a job now, a regular pay check to make fun things like whirlwind trips north possible. I didn’t have any reason not to go, so I went. And I had a fantastic time.

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to sit in on the ‘Women and Prizes’ panel, where incredible female authors such as Karen Joy Fowler and Sophie Cunningham and Claire Wright discussed the lack of mainstream recognition of the achievements of female writers.

Afterwards I attended ‘So You Want To Write A Book’, where, as the name suggests, a group of aspiring authors had the opportunity to learn from the advice and experience of authors from different genres and backgrounds

My final panel for Saturday was ‘The Bond of Women’, which sounded promising and began well, but, I felt, lost its way towards the end, straying off topic and losing its focus. While entertaining, with moments of quick wit and worthwhile wisdom, it was the least memorable session of my weekend. However, considering the overall quality of my weekend, being the least memorable is still a worthwhile achievement.

Sunday morning I attended Lauren Beukes’ discussion of her new novel “Broken Monsters”. While I think the title is a little on the nose, the insight into her research was fascinating. She travelled deep into the urban wilds of Detroit, learned from the locals and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure authenticity in her book. It was wonderful to learn about her process.

The highlight of my weekend was ‘The Fictional Woman’, where Tara Moss, Caroline Overington and Anne Manne discussed the challenges women face, the labels that are pinned on them and the fictions that are widely believe about women and womanhood. It was a privilege to hear such wonderful women discussing issues that are becoming more and more relevant to my life, issues such as sexual and domestic violence, the debilitating impact of everyday sexism and the unique obstacle put before women in the workforce. When I was younger, such ideas seemed abstract and exaggerated – they couldn’t possibly affect me, not in Australia – but as I’ve reached adulthood, I’ve realised how widespread and harmful these ‘fiction’ are. To hear these problems discussed frankly – and without the predictable injection of ‘not all men’ or ‘stop playing the gender card’ – was delightfully refreshing and just a little vindicating.

I finished up my festival trip with ‘The Laws of Magic’. As I’m currently working on an urban fantasy project, it was very interesting – and very helpful – to see how other authors approach writing about magic, the rules and restrictions they place on it and how it interacts with their world.

On a personal note, I managed to squeeze in drinks with my cousin. We’ve been growing closer over the past few years, and we try to catch up when we’re in the same city. I always worry that it will be awkward, that we’ll have nothing to say, but my worries never eventuate. I was the baby of a big family, but I’m enjoying closer bonds with my many cousins now that I’m older, and I’m really glad I was able to spend that time with her.

And, of course, I shared some lovely meals and late night pots of tea with my godmother, who is an incredible woman. I’ve always looked up to her, and to have her welcome me so warmly and devote so much of her already limited time to me – without the buffer of my parents – was wonderful. And I got a good deal of my own writing done. I came away from my weekend, short as it was, feel refreshed and inspired and very very loved.

I’ve discovered that I’m quite the fan of the weekend getaway. Which is good, because I’m off to Canberra in a couple of weeks for another little adventure. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

The Times They Are a-Changing

I haven’t written in a few weeks. I’ve been a little sidetracked. I’ve had some rather big changes happen in my life, and they’ve all happened rather quickly. I’ve had some adjusting to do, and it’s kept me pretty busy.

Firstly, I got a job.

*cue applause*

It took a while – in hindsight, probably not a long as it felt when I was going through it – but I got a job. I’m now a copywriter with an online retail site. It’s not the most glamourous occupation, but it is a job that pays me and actually utilises my degree, in a good office that’s only a reasonable commute away, working with nice people and not answering phones all day. As a graduate, that’s pretty much the ideal.

I’m enjoying employment. Regular pay goes miles towards relieving anxiety. I don’t have to worry about when my phone bill is due, or if I can afford to go to dinner with my family. But aside form the obvious financial benefits, I’m enjoying the sense of purpose and freedom it brings. During my unemployment, there were mornings when I awoke with no idea what I was doing that day, and as a result, I did nothing. I struggled with the lack of structure. I had a lot of free time, but I wasted it more than I should have. I felt guilty about every free moment I didn’t spend looking for a job.

Now, not only do I not have to worry as much about money, my evenings feel like my own again. When I come home from work, I can write for my own pleasure, or read my vast collection of unread books, or bake or go out with friends or do absolutely nothing – and it’s all right. That freedom is delicious, and aside from financial freedom, it’s the greatest thing about being employed.

It helps that I can say I’m honestly enjoying my work, that I like my colleagues and the environment of our office. Moving into full time work is a big adjustment – I cannot deny I was nervous, and I’ve only been there a week, but I think I’m doing pretty well

Secondly, I’m healthier.

A few months ago I was diagnosed with PCOS, a deceptively common condition with a whole host of symptoms, from the negligible to the nasty. My case is not terrible, which is why it went unnoticed for so long, but it does explain a lot, from my lethargy to my headaches, my undulating anxiety and my occasionally skewy blood sugar.

Diagnosis meant I could begin treating the issue, and after a few months I’m happy to say just about every aspect of my general well-being has improved. I feel better. I have more energy. I sleep better. Anxiety, when it hits, is easier to handle. While being told you have such a condition, even a less severe case like mine, is never easy, it is good to have an explanation, to know what’s going on. Knowing what’s wrong – and what you can do to fix it – makes a huge difference.

Thirdly, I got a nasty case of lock neck a week or so back and that just made it really hard to type for a while.

My life is changing, and changing fast, but it’s changing for the better. For now, at least, things are looking up.