Thursday, 7 November 2019

In praise (and criticism) of the overflow bag

Today it's my mum's birthday. (And it doesn't factor into any of my PINs or passwords, so don't even try.) She is one of my favourite people in the world. On her recent visit to Berlin, she introduced the concept of the "overflow bag" to me:

If you have your usual handbag, shoulder bag, or rucksack, an overflow bag — often a tote bag — can easily be stuffed away inside. It serves as a way to catch the unforeseen things you might pick up or cast off over the course of the day, during spontaneous trips to the library or supermarket, or when admitting it is in fact too warm to wear a scarf or jumper but there's no room to stow it away in your primary bag.

This reminded me that last year, I workshopped a piece about tote bags with my writing group. I sent the pitch to a lot of places, but they rejected it. However, I still want to get it out there, and dedicate it to my wonderful mum who has always championed my writing practice. She has played a major role in making me the resourceful person I am today, in turn learning that from her own mother, who sadly passed away this summer. This is for you too, Grandma.


Tote bags are the new slogan T-shirts: that is, an unshakeable symbol of identity that represents our throwaway society rather than counteracting it. Roomy and handy, I believe it was roughly 2013 when they started to appear everywhere, thereby becoming a vital part of the collective consciousness. For all their ubiquity, though, I'm a bit suspicious.

It’s an icon for the ages. There are the ones with sassy slogans or cult designs that seamlessly blend into an outfit; a fashion statement. There are also fancy ones, with slightly thicker, hardier straps, but most of the ones I own have been freebies when spending above a certain amount of money at a bookshop. Part of the appeal of the tote bag is its versatility. I’ve taken these better-quality ones to job interviews, when I want to show off a bit of my personality — or personal brand, if you will — and still be smart. I can show off how I have collected them from various cultural establishments in Quebec, Vermont, Austria, and Lithuania. I even have The New Yorker bag, despite the fact I do not own a subscription to the magazine, much less have I been to New York. That hardly matters, though; the point is, I can send out a message that I’m learned, that I’m bookish, that I’m even willing to make friends due to the fact that we both know. When I took this bag to the doctor's, she assumed I was American, not British, and I cannot help but feel that my choice of bag, which I saw her looking at, influenced this.

But then there are the bog-standard ones. Last year, I attended an educational event and among the countless freebies on offer was, of course, was a tote bag from one of the sponsors, a music production software company with its headquarters in my city. I looked inside and the label said Werbetasche (advertising bag), followed by a number you could call if you wanted to order more.
Within a mere moment, the illusion was shattered. I realised that before this moment, I'd considered the tote bag a purely benevolent item. It shouldn’t have really come as a surprise, though, seeing as these bags are literally emblazoned with names of organisations. You become a walking advert without even thinking twice about it. I’ve been known to google a name off someone’s bag that looks interesting, so it must work. But you can pledge allegiance to a brand just as easily as you can then discard it.

At a guess, I have accrued about 15 current tote bags, many of which are stuffed into — you guessed it — one giant one. With a couple of notable exceptions in my roster, I have never paid money for a tote bag. They tend to be handed out for free at educational and networking events, which, as everyone knows, are the ultimate freebie hubs. But this in itself leads me to question the path that has led to my life of totes. It’s no Oscars goodie bag, but privilege is afforded even to a complimentary item: you need to first be a student, and by extension, usually, then have access to these events. That’s not to mention the obstacles hindering certain demographic groups from getting a foot in the door in the start-up world, what with its "bro" reputation. The companies that peddle promotional tote bags are often start-ups or established companies now adopting a youth-oriented approach, recruiting youngsters for what would have been known as white-collar jobs before the tech boom.

Tote bags aren’t just ersatz handbags, of course; their additional role of carrying groceries has opened up a new dialogue about sustainability. Whenever I go back and visit the rural English town I grew up in, where you have to travel many miles before you’ll encounter an office block, I rarely see people with the "cool" type of tote bag; however, I do see them with the large, cheerfully-branded supermarket totes that you can invest in for less than £1. The flimsier ones now cost a fraction of the price, starting at 5p. When I went to England the week this was implemented, a shop assistant apologised for it before I had even had a chance to complain. Last year (when I wrote this piece) after reading headlines about cases of physical violence and verbal abuse from customers towards shop staff when a fee was placed on carrier bags in certain Australian states, I now understand why. Service jobs are never a walk in the park, but the entitlement towards this particular item — as well as the misplaced rage — only highlights its perceived expendable nature, kowtowing to capitalism. No wonder it's something we can’t live without.

But maybe in the same way we’re all being coerced into eating “clean” and encouraged to say no to straws, we convince ourselves a slightly more expensive, environmentally sustainable one is worth the investment, allowing us to feel like we are telling the world we’re not filthy ocean-polluters.

Sadly, sustainability does not mean that mass production grinds to a halt. AUK Environment Agency study found that a polypropylene plastic was about the same global warming potential as a cotton one.
Moreover, these Werbetaschen straddle the line between fashion and practicality. We use them for our own mundane, personal purposes — to carry around our things — but the ones that we reach for in various situations are controlled by something outside ourselves. We become agents of these companies — and if it’s from a charity or other non-profit organisation, people may even question our intentions, assuming our intentions are not genuine but that we are virtue-signalling; that is, casting a message to those around us that we are Good People, rather than actually doing anything to effect change.

In my small, subletted flat, I’m acutely aware of the need to cut down on things in order to conserve both physical and mental space, and to clear mental space. It is easy to turf out threadbare clothes or disappointing books. Tote bags, though? Thanks to the fallacy of usefulness, I can’t part with them. Sometimes the thought crosses my mind, but I blow it away, choosing instead to focus on more pressing tasks like cleaning the kitchen or paying that dreaded bill.

When I was younger, I would snip motifs out from T-shirts I had grown out of and stitch them onto new ones so that they could live on forever (or at least until I felt too embarrassed to wear them). Recently, I cut up a bag in a similar way. Its straps were too thin, so I could hardly use it for all the things I generally need to carry around, of which the minimum is a water bottle, a book, my purse, keys. (Most of the time I’ll bring a notebook and pen, too, because I can hardly call myself a writer without one, can I?) I stitched it onto a top whose sleeves, in turn, I had cut off in an attempt to make a trendy cold-shoulder piece. Before that, I had dyed it black with drugstore machine dye, guzzling electricity and water, because the dirty-white hue had been ruined by an inscrutable stain on the front.

I can’t let go of these bags because I can’t help but think that they are part of my life, my story. I even keep the one from the company that fired me because I developed in more than one way while I was there; besides, who would actually take the bag if they didn’t have a connection to the company? The straps of the tote bag I have spent the most money on, Stay Home Club’s “Stay Home and Watch Buffy”, finally started to disintegrate last Christmas. It is still hanging up on a hook in my hallway, still safety-pinned from the day it broke. I can’t throw it away, yet I can’t think of a way to recycle the motif, either. Perhaps a bag is for life after all, Kondo-ing be damned.

In all the conversations at the moment about plastic and sustainability, the infallibility of the tote bag is seldom if ever addressed. It is made of cotton, and even though that’s often cited as an environmentally friendly material, nobody knows how to recycle it — especially since cotton items so often form part of our own stories. In that sense, they’d have a hard time fitting into anyone else’s.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The future of this blog (and my career)

I've gone back to a bog-standard domain. As you will have no doubt gathered if you've tried to access this blog from the old address, I have not given up the domain entirely. But the thing was about to expire and due to recent changes in my life, I didn't really fancy spending actual money on this. Here, I will delve a bit deeper into why.

First of all, I don't really care about blogging anymore. Blogging meant something entirely different 10 years ago to what it does today. I related very deeply to this piece in the New Statesman last month:
I created a secluded cove for myself on the internet, one that allowed me to cultivate selfhood at a comfortable pace. While the world moved dangerously fast, on Tumblr we nurtured our virtual spaces tenderly.
Sponsored content? Lifestyle envy? Facebook ads? Business account on Instagram? It's not for me.
Sure, I could "rebel" and create the kind of "genuine" content that cultivated a community of outsiders when I was in my teens and early twenties. The 2019 reality, though, is that life is expensive and my free time comes at a premium, so I simply cannot do this on a regular schedule. I still have a whole lot of half-finished drafts on here, which will probably take me years to publish. That's okay. If anything is going to make me feel under pressure, I definitely don't want it to be this entirely voluntary undertaking. My two books in progress hold that spot.

Secondly, this is not actually a professional website where I offer services in exchange for payment — if that's what you're after, head on over here! — so I actually don't want to keep paying the annual domain renewal fee when I'm not getting a ROI. (I have been very pleased with the service offered by iwantmyname, though, and can definitely recommend them. Incidentally, they didn't pay me to say that.)

The third and perhaps biggest reason: I don't want writing to be a job anymore. I want to be free to enjoy both high and low culture without thinking, "Hmm, is there a pitch in there?". I have had a lot of crappy experiences, including multiple rejections of pitches and even solicited drafts of pieces I poured my heart and soul into. Yes, of course this is part and parcel of being a writer, but I am fed up of the hustle. The normalisation of the exploitation you get in return for your efforts. The way that such sought-after yet low-regarded work is automatically going to privilege those who are well-off in the first place. The rejection aspect is just the tip of the iceberg; there are also the gigs that shave years off your life.

I will always be a writer, and it's always going to be a more significant part of my life than a mere hobby, but there are so many directions I haven't explored. It's a bit scary to publish this, because I can't shake the feeling that I'm burning bridges with the good clients I've had, or potential good clients.
I'll just say this: writing and translation are talents that I possess and they require a not-to-be-sniffed-at skillset. I might come back to it someday, but it's not my main focus at the moment. However, if you are considering offering me money to write or translate something for you, feel free to hit me up and let's see if it's a good fit!

No industry is perfect, but I've undergone an epiphany this summer that allowed me to see my full potential and gave me the courage to pursue it. I've had a challenging but great year working as a content manager at a web agency, and it's exposed me to parts of websites that I'd not given much thought to before (or considered to be "too hard"). I chatted with my boss, who gave me the go-ahead to do a bit of company-endorsed self-study. I work on the periphery of web development at that job, but now I'm pursuing it myself! It's not easy, but I am excited to be a student again, of sorts, and I have wonderful figures I can turn to when I'm stuck. I'm currently writing a dedicated blog post about my journey.

If you are a career-pivoter or career-changer — into dev/programming or otherwise — let's chat! 🤗

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

My Year in Books: First Half of 2019

Just as I did last year, here's a half-time breakdown of what I've read so far in 2019. I'd been hoping to finish a few more, to be honest, but we'll see. Quality not quantity.

EDIT: Absolutely lol at me originally posting this before the end of June... the change in weather must have got to me. BRB, changing my name. Have now added the books I read between 12th-30th June.

1. Roland Schimmelpfennig - An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts (3/5)
2. Jordan Ferguson - 33⅓: J Dilla's 'Donuts' (4/5)
3. Anna Lucy Scott - Mindful Thoughts for City Dwellers: The Joy of Urban Living (5/5)
4. Dani Couture - Algoma (5/5)
5. Sally Thorne - The Hating Game (4/5)
6. Sakaya Murata - Convenience Store Woman (4/5)
7. Bianca Jankovska - Das Millennial-Manifest (3/5)
8. Angela Garbes - Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy (3/5)
9. Jeffrey Eugenides - Fresh Complaint (2/5)
10. Kabi Nagata - My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness (5/5)
11. Barry McDonagh - Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks (3/5)
12. Sophie Tanner - Reader, I Married Me! (3/5)
13. Bri Lee - Eggshell Skull (4/5)
14. Caroline Church - I Blame the Hormones: A Raw and Honest Account of One Woman's Fight Against Depression (1/5)
15. Patti Smith - Woolgathering (2/5)
16. W.G. Sebald - The Rings of Saturn (4/5)
17. Sally Rooney - Normal People (3/5)
18. Hattie C. Cooper - The Anxious Girl's Guide to Dating: How to Find Romance While Also Being Really, Really Nervous (4/5)
19. Armando Lucas Correa - The German Girl (4/5)
20. Lori Gottlieb - Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed (5/5)
21. Saskia Vogel - Permission (4/5)
22. Gabriella Goliger - Girl Unwrapped (3/5)