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Respect

15 Sep

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I had an interesting conversation with a fellow guest at a friend’s 50th birthday party/20th anniversary celebration this weekend. We were making polite small talk when I noticed a rather spare, yet beautiful silver ring on her finger. As she talked about it she revealed that this was one of the few jewels she had left following a recent burglary. She threw her chin up jauntily and remarked “It is funny what one values, it was only stuff after all”. I liked the cut of her jib.

I responded by saying that the most valuable things I possessed were the memories of surprising things people had said to me.

To explain, I relayed a memory of my first teaching practise  in a school in a rather deprived area of Gateshead in 1990.

I had been tasked with teaching ‘the skeleton’ to a class of 12 year olds. A keen student, I brought my first wife’s real human skeleton to school to show my class, allowing them to assemble it respectfully from it’s box on a laboratory bench. The school technician had also brought out a 1/5th scale mounted model of a human skeleton for us to compare. I and the pupils loved the experience, they were attentive, respectful and full of curiosity.

A few weeks later, just before I was due to leave, a lad from this class came up to me at the beginning of the lesson and said:

“Sir, can we see the Ethiopian again?”

I was a bit nonplussed, but soon realised that he meant, the 5th size model skeleton.

Undernourished.

The boy himself was underweight, and under sized for his age as many of his class mates were. His mum could not afford a uniform shirt AND a pullover, so she had sewn a shirt collar into a pullover. To my mind, the thinking of this boy showed true compassion, and deep thinking. It wasn’t long since the disastrous famine of Ethiopia 1983 – 1985 with shocking scenes of human suffering filling our television screens.

I still remember his Geordie lilt, his serious face, and the blinding realisation that teaching was a two way educational transaction. He had changed me from a student of teaching to a student of education.

Soon afterwards, in my first teaching job in the Tyne Valley, I was gifted another treasure.

There was a boy in a particular class, who, at 15, was a complete pain in the arse. My established colleagues told me he was unteachable. This coupled with the fact that he was in my class with his non-identical twin sister – a bottom science set – meant that they were able to torpedo all of my lessons. He was disruptive to the point of anarchy and, in the end, in desperation I asked him to stay behind at the end of the lesson. I decided to sanction him with a homework essay entitled “The Symmetry of Nature”.

He looked at me askance, picked up the paper and next morning returned this pearl:

‘The Symmetry of Nature is where pets go when they are dead’

Straight faced, I congratulated him on a fine essay and said no more. When he had left me alone in my lab I burst out laughing. From then on we got along fine, and the class became cooperative.

His poetic gift to me – not to take myself, or my role to seriously, and just because I was standing at the front of the class did not make me the top dog.

Courage, insight and humour. Priceless treasures all, are not innate, they are gifts bestowed by those who have experience, but only to those who show respect to their teachers.

The picture shows me aged 4 at my first school in Takoradi, Ghana 1962 (I am second from left, back row). My first teacher (centre front) told me I should be an artist. Respect.

Mu

16 May

In honour of  Mental Health Awareness Week I give you a scoop. Carved from a branch of Rowan over about 2 hours, it represents pretty much everything I do to stay mentally healthy.

Work with the grain, keep going, pare away everything that isn’t helping, use a tool  correctly, repeat.

If I get it the process right, I end up with a nice tea caddy scoop (I only use leaf tea, and drink a lot of tea) and everyone is happy. If I get it wrong I end up with a pile of shavings and a rough stick to beat myself with.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness will recognise some of these elements.

Work with the grain:

A measure of mental health is the ease with which we ‘fit’ in socially. Taking meds, applying behavioural strategies, listening carefully to other people are like working away with a tool on a piece of wood – keeping sympathetic to the direction of the grain and the nature of the wood. My natural instinct has always been to go against the grain.

Keep Going:

Mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder are inherently destabilising. For no reason at all I can become depressed and lose function and motivation. It happened today, so instead of working on a big (valuable) commission I made a small piece for a client wanting a towel hanger for her bathroom. I just kept going, trusting that eventually my dark mood would lift.

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Pare away everything that isn’t helping:

In order to make the piece above, I had to turn a large disc of walnut, turn it further to make an annulus, then carve the annulus into a ‘shamrock’ aperture to hold the towels. This process involves removing material in different ways to leave the desired shape. Paring.

I do this with my behaviour. I am not the same person I was before I was diagnosed with manic depression. I edit myself – though constantly tempted to perform, be funny (puns), be clever, witty, inventive, or judgemental. I pare these impulses back, where I can, by avoiding meetings, audiences, attention seekers, the terminally needy, focussing on facilitating, rather than being facile.

Use a tool correctly

My sharpest tool is my intellect. But just because you have the capacity and can perform to a high level does not mean you should do it. I park my intellect where I can do most good. Take it out when it is needed, confident that it will work to solve an appropriate problem, and help me and others when needed and not before.

Repeat

When you are feeling well, it is easy to become complacent.

Just as the diabetic must monitor her or his blood sugar levels constantly, I need to monitor my emotional state and act to stabilise it all the time. Woodwork is all bout cyclical repetitive strokes of a tool, not taking too much off, because you can’t put it back. So I keep taking the tablets, keep listening, keep walking away when something makes me feel uncomfortable, and keep being honest.

Mu means ‘without’, or ‘not have’ and it is the condition ‘before creation’ implied in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. It is central to Zen Buddhist philosophy.

It is a condition I try to move towards – the best way to describe the feeling I get when I am in the midst of making. Not have, not there, no thing.

I introduced a visitor to my studio to spoon making at the weekend. Sung Jin is an architecture student who has been visiting my studio as part of his learning journey. I asked him about the concept of ‘mu’ in Korean culture, where it is represented as 무.

“Same idea” he said “‘mu’ means not have”

He then went to the trouble of breaking down the ideogram for mu for me using the Japanese symbol 無 

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I was rather amazed by his pictographic analysis.

You can’t get more ‘not have’ than a crematorium.

You cannot be emotionally more ‘not have’ than when you are profoundly, suicidally, depressed and intent on ending up in the crematorium.

For me, woodwork is a meditation, a state where the ego disappears.

It is ‘not have’……yet.

Delayed gratification, keeping going until the end, not seeking the end.

The mind is so powerful, it needs to be taught to be still. There are many ways to achieve this, iterative movement and listening/feeling are the ways that work for me.

‘Mu’ yields stillness of the mind.

It is the emptiness of the scoop which gives it utility.

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Path

28 Apr
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In 2010, the Artist, Andy Goldsworthy made this lovely meandering path called ‘Wood Line’ from the huge stems of invasive Eucalyptus trees in the Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco. The path is over a quarter of a mile long and my Dad and I wandered down it together in 2013.
It makes me think about the paths we take as we meander through our lives.
This famous poem by Robert Frost encapsulates the dilemma we all face when we are forced to chose between one direction or another at significant moments of our lives.
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

 

At this time of year young people all over the land are studying hard for their school and University exams: GCSE, A’Level, Degrees are the prize they seek. The better the grade/degree the greater the choice of direction. Many of them studying for high academic qualifications will have a good idea of the career path they want to take. Engineering (not enough sadly), Science (again not enough), Medicine and Law (too many), Nursing, Teaching and so on – vocational careers. Very few will decide to follow the path of an Artist. In my school, this was considered ‘failure’ with a capital ‘F’. Art was my best subject, followed by Biology.

At 16 I hadn’t a clue what path to take until I met a Zoologist in 1974 at Lee Green Field Centre in Derbyshire. Teenagers from schools all over the county were given the opportunity to spend a week in the Field studying Ecology with an expert. I was completely entranced by transects, mark and recapture methods, butterfly nets and earthworm population numbers and the mind blowing diversity of planktonic life in a pond as seen under a microscope.

As Baloo the Bear declared to Mowgli in Disney’s The Jungle Book, when he heard the Primo Levi track ‘I’m the King of the Swingers’, I was gone man, solid gone…!

I spent the rest of my sixth form focussed on getting sufficient grades to get in to University to study Zoology. At a parent’s evening my Head Master asked me “What use is  Zoology Littlewood?” my mother, quick as a flash said “So he can develop a new strain of deadly mosquitos and called them Aedes littlewoodi” – with her on your side everyone else was Royally screwed. She was like Boudicca on acid.

Path chosen for about about 15 years. I made a good living studying centipede behaviour, termite piss (I kid you not) and then a long time trying to figure our how locusts brains work whilst supporting my little family in Newcastle upon Tyne. A graduate parent and visitor to my lab once asked me “Why do you do that?” ‘Because I can’, was my answer.

History repeatedly tells us that this is a bad reason.

Research Zoology satisfied a number of cravings – a vast variety of living forms to discover, an esoteric discipline, fresh air and knowledge for an insatiable appetite. It also encouraged my ability to draw, describe and write. Comparative morphology and anatomy were a delight for me. The shape of a claw, a bone, the feeding appendage of a Bryozoan – you name it, I was allowed to stare at it, examine it, draw it and marvel at it how it came to be.

Unfortunately it was not easy to find a permanent job. I quit in 1989 and trained to teach science so I could continue to support daughter and first wife.

New path. Bloody good holidays wherein I could watch my daughter grow up, entertainment dreaming up ways to make basic science concepts understandable for young people and a reasonable income. Downside? Yes – huge stress, mostly emotional.

The path came to a dead end in 2001 after a mental breakdown.

By Great Good Fortune I met someone who shone a light and led me slowly back to the Little Wood. It was a very long a scary journey, but she was by my side the whole way. She took me for long walks and made me read Harry Potter. I began to take myself and less seriously. I learned to listen and she taught me how to love myself. How to find the path back to myself.

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I have had the odd wobble on this path, but, by and large I have rediscovered who I am:

A very curious boy, who like to draw and make and write, preferably alone, who loves to be entertained by funny, lively people. A good example would be my niece, Hazel Littlewood, who lives near not far from Goldsworthy’s sculpture and is busy finding her own path.

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Hazel

Just think, I would not have been around to meet her, had I not been led from the dark path.

These days I have re-adopted my youthful dog-like strategy of checking out every path, before committing to the long route, this way I can locate chose the ‘road least taken’.

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Here is one I followed today – it made all the difference.

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The path of Earthly Delights, where fresh badger diggings, bluebells and (un) coppiced Hazel can be found by and in the Littlewood.

May you find your path, and, more importantly the means of finding it.

 

For Geoff Smith, Art Teacher, Ernest Bailey Grammar School, Matlock (1970’s). Who taught me that only I was the judge of the true quality of my work. A great teacher.

Faith

21 Apr

I’m sure everyone has been asked the question “Do you have Faith”.  Perhaps we ask it of ourselves at difficult times? Until recently, I have taken the question to mean ‘do I believe in a God?’

Children are so full of wonder, for them belief is easy. Belief allows us to trust in the existence of treasure just around the next corner. Faith takes our hand and leads us to it.

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Joseph, my grandson was so excited at the London Museum of Transport the other day he kept squatting down, pursing his lips and declaring;

“Oooh…BUS! Opa…….BUS!”

Big vintage red London Routemaster buses could be this small boy’s version of a Deity.

My own response to anyone asking the question “do you have Faith?” usually elicits this response:

“Do you believe in Santa, The Tooth Fairy or Ghosts?”

If they answer ‘no’ – then I respond by saying that I do not believe that there is an old geezer in the sky who knows all our sins, transgressions and wickedness and if we would just but BELIEVE in him – we could ask for forgiveness, and be absolved of all of the above.

If they answer “Yes” then I can politely say “Good for you!” and drink my tea in peace.

Perhaps because I have been a professional scientist, and I was trained to ask searching questions in order to establish fact and truth, I would say I am skeptical about organised religion. Probably more so than most because manic depression (BiPolar Type 1) can lead one to become highly suggestible in the hypomanic state.

Old Testament God, really does not excite me as a concept because the contents of The Good Book can be neither proven nor disproven – the wisdom contained therein requires an act of blind faith and total acceptance in the mind of a believer.

Belief in a received truth, rather than  explicit scientific, philosophical or mathematical proof is not truth.

However, I do respect an individual’s right to believe whatever they wish. Religion per se can be a very powerful positive force for many.

Faith itself, however, is a completely different kettle of fish.

Without the faith of my beloved I would not have recovered from a serious breakdown, without the faith of a child I would not have become a father, without the faith of family and true friends I wouldn’t have rediscovered my true self. Artist, woodworker.

In my humble opinion Faith is what the people who love you, give to you.

It is their faith in your humanity and the possibility that you will stop being a monumental fool and start behaving like a socialised individual that redeems us. Their faith gives one the inspiration needed to live fully.

Your parents ought to be the first people to give you Faith. My Dad, seen here with his granddaughter and great grandson (Joseph again) had tremendous faith in me.

I miss him terribly, but I can repay his memory by having faith in my loved ones.

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Faith is what we all need.

Given freely it is the quintessence of love’s light.

If you are in receipt, acknowledge it, be thankfull and believe you are worthy.

Please do not throw it away.

 

HL

 

 

 

 

Waterfall

11 Apr

 

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Dad and Mam 1960

Memory is fickle. It is bad enough that we cannot always be sure of our senses (spending time in a psychiatric hospital will profoundly shake one’s faith in reality) and the store of impressions, knowledge and experiences we call memory can be most troubling.

My wife and I cared for and supported my Mam in the last years of her life as her memory gradually unravelled due to vascular dementia. Her condition was compounded by macular degeneration and a bone headed refusal to adapt. When she finally agreed to be cared for professionally, Clare and I uncovered archeological layers of unread sticky labels and notes in her house amidst mountains of hoarded stuff, written to remind Mam of where the other note was to indicate the location of the marmite (12 pots), disinfectant (20 bottles filled with water??) you get the idea. She even hid money in black socks – throughout her wardrobe.

“Look Henk! A Dobby sock!” Clare, my lady of the wicked mirth, referring to the JK Rowling elf character in the Harry Potter books.

Living on her own. Mam must have been slowly becoming more and more lost in her own maze of the Minotaur, walking through a thickening fog without any string.

At the end what was left of her memory were the deepest associations and very revealing. During her last 18 months in care she constantly called me ‘David’ my dad, her ex husband’s name. During this time I realised just how much she adored him despite belittling, criticising and disrespecting his name in all the years prior and since their divorce in 1966. I did not correct her.

This is Grace and I am humbled by it’s Memory.

When my Dad was alive, he and I used to love going on road trips. We would invent a spurious reason, jump in the car with a hold-all each and head for the hills. He used to say “Got some loose change in your pocket? A pair of clean underpants and a vest? Right-ho, we’re good to go!”

Take Dad anywhere and there would always be a tale, a funny association with his own memories and experiences and a riotous adventure.

Take, for example, the time we went to Ireland in his old Ford Sierra, travelling to Waterford to trace his mother, Annie Wilde’s roots, all the way up to Dublin. We found no trace, but a great deal of mirth – in a bar in Dublin we were drinking beer and eating a big meat pie each when onto a crude stage wafted a vision in electric blue taffeta. An aged chanteuse plugged the hammond organ in, switch it on and proceeded to sing.

“It’s Margarita Pracatan!” my dad declared.

The eponymous singer was regular guest on Clive James’ chat show during the 90’s.

I nearly choked on my pie.

Landscape, architecture and movement have always flowed like a waterfall for father and son.

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A rush of pure association, comedy and utter delight.

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This piece is called ‘Waterfall’ and was commissioned by a couple who have that rare gift – they have kept their curiosity alive through mutual love and affection all the way to retirement.

They had discovered this timber – English Yew – in a small local woodyard near Hillsborough in Sheffield (Albion Timber), the mill owner, David Smythe had put them on to me as a someone who might be able to make them something useful from them.

It was the wildness of the waney, or live edges that excited them. They couldn’t know what lay under the rough sawn, blood red surface of the six boards.

Now, the problem with having an ‘unquiet mind’ (manic depression) is that there is never any shortage of ideas. Almost anything can set my brain haring off like a collie after a rabbit.

So I was grateful that my clients were quite specific in their requirements – a set of shelves with a small cabinet.

It was an artist friend, who said “It’s a waterfall” as I was completing it in my studio. Aye, lad.

During a family reunion, on Christmas Day in Devon with my dad and I were paired up for a word association quiz

Dad: “A Lake, ‘like you are not son’.”

“Placid”, I said.

We were unbeaten. My memory was sound.

The ravens had returned, to Odin.

 

 

For the giver of the Dobby Sock.

HL

 

Mother’s Day

31 Mar

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During the summer vacation of 1969 I turned 11. Before I went up to the grammar school, my Mam suggested I was perhaps a bit too old to be playing with my Steiff Rabbit – ‘Bunny’.   I pointed out that all the other kids in the street had ‘Action Men’, and I did not so what was the problem?

This is what the rabbit looked like when my Mum bought him in 1957 when she was expecting me.

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A 1957 vintage Steiff Rabbit in mint condition.

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This is my 61 year old playmate.

As you can see, I had an Action Bunny.

In 1969 my mum had Bunny photographed resplendent in crocheted chain mail, cardboard armour astride his noble steed, a donkey. His Bassinet was made from gold card, the shield likewise, a lance and sword of balsa wood. Don Lagomorpha Quixote. Nothing phased this dude.

Between the ages of 7 and 13,  I didn’t really have much contact with my father (he was working in West Africa so only came back on leave once in a blue moon). When I did see him he did his level best to inject a little of the divine masculine into his two boys. It must have been bloody hard for him as Mam made access to us very difficult.

When he could, Dad would invariably take my brother, Tim and I to the very latest James Bond Movie.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is most memorable and formed my blueprint for the ideal woman – Diana Rigg – cool, brainy, brunette.

Goldfinger was another – he bought Tim an amazing Dinky Aston Martin complete with working ejector seat.

Bond “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger “I expect you to die Mr Bond”.

Upon our return from the rare trip with Dad, Mam would reprogram us with this mantra – “I am you mother, your legal guardian AND YOUR FATHER, and don’t you forget it!”

A few years later my Dad remarried, to a lovely young woman called Mollie Moore.  As we are in ‘film star’ mode, just imagine actress Jill Ireland. Fair and sunny (but in this case from Shaftesbury) Mollie gave birth to a very bright baby girl called Abigail.

Dad and his new family came back to live in the UK permanently, which meant I could begin to spend more time with my father, as I grew into a man.

Mollie always made me feel welcome and part of her family, even as her brood grew to three children; Abigail, Nathan and Simon. I gained two more brothers along with a sister.

So what of mother’s day?
Well every mother’s day, my Mother made Tim and I breakfast.
Every other day of the year I made breakfast, did the housework and welcomed Mam home.
I listened to her daily adventures with school pupils and colleagues, worries and financial woes, giving support where I could. I also looked after my younger brother.
That seemed fair to me at the time.
It all seems absurd now.
Mother’s day was 364 days a year for me.
I’m really glad that shit is over.

 

 

 

Manly

24 Mar

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I like a spot of flower arranging from time to time, and my wife lets me express my ‘feminine side’ by practising floristry in her little Tea Shop, Tea with Percie. I’m not sure the average bloke would approve.

The florist did offer to wrap my bouquet discretely before I left the shop. I declined.

“I wouldn’t be seen dead carrying flowers!” I here Manly Man say.

Well you will eventually pal,  lilies and a nice spray of maidenhair on your casket.

I also like a well parsed poem, especially sonnets by the late Gerard Manley Hopkin – a scholar and Jesuit Priest – and a genius of prosody and rhythm.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

“Pied Beauty”

Gerard Manley Hopkins 1877

 

In the Victorian Era, it was not considered effete in a man to wax lyrical about Nature’s Bounty if God was being praised – an opportunity for men to show their ‘passionate’ side without being classed as a sissy.

When I chose flowers for my wife today I was in a speckled, fickle mood. The underlying rhythm of BiPolar disorder – the interstices between depression and mania.

I sought a bloom – a dominant colour to build a happier mood around.

The florist greeted me and asked “May I help you?”

At first, I was drawn to some fiery orange blooms  – “These look like peonies”, I said.

“They are actually peony tulips so you’re on the right track” said she diplomatically.

But then I thought, as these flowers are not for me, but, rather for my beloved – I needed to recalibrate, because my mental health is absolutely not just about me, me, me.

I saw a tall stemmed rose of subtle Jacobean Violet (always a hint of black for her) and started from there, adding cerulean blue, blood red and some spiky sea holly. Our neighbour, Hassan who owns a small Computer Engineering Shop called ‘All Wired’ passed the shop as I was placing the arrangement in the window and seemed to approve. No Northern Manly reserve here.

Like me, Hassan was born under an Africa sky (Yemen), me slightly closer to the equator in Nigeria both places where the sun will fry an egg on an exposed rock or car bonnet.

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So why are many men so funny about overt displays of love, or about expressing emotion?

Grayson Perry in his book “The Descent of Man” examines ‘Default Man’ as he calls the ruling masculine archetype of modern Western Society, and cleverly lampoons many overt and subtle forms of dominant alpha male traits. Here are some of his many pithy quotes:

“Fulfilment of masculinity is often sold on the strength of peak experiences: winning battles, pulling women, pure adrenaline, moments of ecstasy. But life ain’t like that. We rarely, if ever, take our car (masculinity) on to a racetrack, so maybe we need a version that works doing the everyday things. We need a masculinity that’s easy to park, with a big boot, child seats and low fuel consumption. Men need to learn to equip themselves for peace.”

“All of us males need to look at ourselves with a clear eye and ask what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone.”

“Men might need to work less on their biceps and more on their intuition.”
Grayson Perry, 

It is an exceedingly well written book, written by a masculine man, an artist, who just happens to like dressing up in women’s clothes. It shines a very powerful spotlight on the problem of what it is to be ‘manly’ in a rapidly changing world where gender fluidity is a natural byproduct of a digital world in which ‘being’ is binary encoded.

In this spirit of masculine recalibration asked my wife what traits a man should learn and she offered:

Positive traits

Thoughtfulness

Ability to show emotion

Caring

Good sense of humour

Respect

 

Negative traits

Arrogance

Machismo

Rudeness

Aggression

Chauvinism

So for Heaven’s sake lads, open the door for her, help her with her heavy bags and do it with a smile and a little playfulness so that the bouquet on your coffin will overtop the stupid mountain you want to conquer in your head, and reflect your real worth to humankind much more than the shiny motor you bequeath to your grandson or the size of your wallet.

Feminism is not a threat to masculinity, nor will gentleness make you less manly.