Shah Mix-a-Lot

“It’s like, you can’t tell people they don’t belong in America. America was made up only a few hundred years ago– I mean America isn’t even a thing!”

I am oversimplifying my views on national identity to a woman I have met just a few hours before on a walking tour of Old Delhi, India.

She laughs. She has already mentioned being born in Spain and going on to live in several other places including London, Paris, New York, and Santiago. She speaks Spanish with her mother, who is also on the tour with us. I try to piece together the pieces from what she’s told me– “So you are… Chilean, American, and Spanish?”

“Yes,” she says, “I was born in Madrid to Chilean parents, but I was raised in New Jersey. It wasn’t until I moved to Chile while working for the UN that I realised that, no, actually when it comes down to it, I am American.” I tell her I was also raised in New Jersey, and when I tell her where she knows it exactly. “Near Short Hills Mall!” she exclaims.

We are walking around the Red Fort now. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it combines aspects of Timurid and Persian design with otherwise traditional Mughal design elements, combinations that would continue to be mixed and perfected until becoming trademarks of Indian architecture. Once over, the Red Fort was home to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which now presides in the Tower of London as part of the British Crown Jewels (the British Crown has always maintained it was obtained legally; several countries, including India, disagree). “I decided to move back to New Jersey partly because my parents are there, and partly because Chile is so far from the rest of the world. But it’s also the sort of country people don’t leave, which makes it really difficult to ingratiate yourself into. I was getting to the point where I had to decide if I wanted that, if I wanted to really commit to Chile and to stay and to try and really become Chilean. And I decided the answer was no.”

When we leave the Red Fort, we go our separate ways, wishing each other luck. It seems everyone is in India thinking in some ways about their identity, their opportunities; who they want to be and have the chance to become. A Filipino-Canadian woman on our tour is about to begin a yoga retreat run by monks in a remote part of India. “I was overwhelmed at work,” she tells me. “All the women– all of whom I got on with– were concerned with what handbags they carried, their clothes, how many hours they were putting in. It was getting to be too much.”

A few days later Sam and I are in Agra, having just been to the Taj Mahal. Our guide has brought us unknowingly to a shop that sells marble inlaid with carefully filed pieces of precious stones in intricate designs, much like those that adorn the famous mausoleum. I’m immediately suspicious– we didn’t ask to be brought here and it’s a cheeky trick if you ask me– but our salesperson Sunny is charming and interested and immediately puts us at ease.

“Which one of you is more English?” he asks us at one point. Sam and I look at each other, wondering if it’s a trick question. “Sam?” I suggest, not sure if that’s the right answer. “He’s lived all his life in London, whereas I’ve had a good run in the States.”

Sunny shrugs. “See, I would have said you’re more English,” he says to me, before looking back at Sam, “I’d have guessed you were more eastern.” Sam confirms that his ancestors are a mix of Russians and Irish. “Aha, see,” says Sunny, vindicated. “I see a lot of people in this job, from all over the world.” At this stage in history I’m sure that every one of us is a different combination of a multitude of places. You can rarely tell where, and you can never guess the whole story. To get at that, you have to go, explore, ask.

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The Clue period app is sciencey

I throw down my phone in disgust.

“This app is talking to me like it’s my friend. It’s not my friend, it’s a period app!”

“You have never sounded more like you were on your period than just then,” Sam says, crossing his arms, unsure how to proceed. Whatever move he’s about to make, he thinks better of it and extricates himself completely.

One of my favourite apps is Clue. It’s a period tracking app that helps women and people who menstruate predict their menstrual cycle, PMS, and fertile window, but it’s led by science and design and as a result is clear, easy to use, and beautiful. Based in Berlin, Clue was founded by Ida Tin in 2013, a woman who before starting Clue used to lead motorcycle tours around the world.

But since I have been using it since January 2014, I did wonder if there was something better.

So I downloaded Eve. And Eve tried to be my gal pal.

If Eve was a flesh and blood woman, she would read Cosmopolitan, drink white wine spritzers and claim Kim Kardashian as her spirit animal. Now I love Kim K as much as the next person (and the occasional white wine spritzer), but I don’t need pep talks from my period apps (“You are capable of handling anything that comes your way!” shouts my so-called Cycle Scope) or quizzed (“FACT OR FICTION: Having sex can help regulate your menstrual cycle.”) Eve’s point of differentiation is its community where women can share stories and ask advice. There are a lot of selfies involved.

I have plenty of people to talk about my period with. Actually, periods are quite a common topic of discussion among women, because we literally spend a quarter of our time dealing with them. I found out about menstrual cups from my friends, for example. I’ve also noticed the topic appearing more often in art and entertainment (“Period Sex” is a recurring song in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and in John, a play by Annie Baker, one character’s debilitating period pains help steer the play in its wonderful direction). So I’m not looking for that in a period tracking app.

I did try others, briefly, too. But none were as good as Clue.

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Diversity by design

Many of Clue’s users are transgender men, and there are transgender men on the team who give their input into use of gendered language. “The transgender community is really important to us,” Tin told the Guardian. “But being truly inclusive is really hard. I think we’ve done a better job than anyone out there, but we still have a lot to do.”

They are definitely making progress. When I started using Clue, the icons used to track sexual activity suggested a male partner, the assumption being that all users were heterosexual women concerned entirely with their fertility. Now, however, the icons are ungendered: flip flops for unprotected and a boot for protected. Clue’s Creative Director Katrin Friedmann describes the design journey in a blog post, saying the results is in keeping with “what we are moving towards in terms of design: humor, but with emotional intelligence.”

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I appreciate that although I am a heteronormative woman, Clue’s vision includes everyone in it. Clue is not a pink, frilly app, and although it has made assumptions about its users in the past, the team at Clue always seems to be revisiting their app with openness, understanding, and a willingness to improve.

What comes next

Clue still clearly has a lot of scope to reach new users. “Our single biggest market is the US and we have a pretty young demographic, which is basically as a result of our acquisition channels more than as a result of the product,” says Tin. “I think we could, and will have in the future, a much more diverse age group.”

App Store Optimisation forms a core part of their current strategy, and informs not just their performance marketing but also other marketing campaigns and branding as well.

But the most interesting thing about the direction Clue is going in is how they’re utilising the vast data sets they’ve collected to empower their users in bigger and better ways.

The app can be a powerful tool when monitoring your own health, which is the direction Tin wants to continue going in. I’ve pulled up Clue in my doctor’s office when asked when my last period was, and I can see how it would be a useful tool to share if there was anything of concern to discuss. Clue is creating a way to use the tracked data to inform conversations with doctors, as well as chosen individuals.

As Clue continues to add function and emotion to its product, it’s now also adding its own ecosystem: you can now share your data with friends and family, creating an easy and secure way to begin conversations about periods, fertility and health, or as, Danielle Henderson writes, just because “SOMEONE has to know when it’s a good time to surprise you with a pizza.” 

Clue has also released an integration with Fitbit in order to see if there is a correlation between heart rate and the menstrual cycle.

Beyond that, Tin has ideas to build a device that can be optimised for each user and that is more powerful than the wearables currently on the market. “I feel there is so much potential with building sensors that can go into the body on a molecular level.”

I love Clue. I love that Ida Tin is at the forefront, leading with big ideas. I love that they are serious about periods and female health, but also approach them with a mixture of humour and integrity. I love that Clue has created something that is clear, easy to use, and constantly improving.

Being a woman can be really confusing. But it’s also really fascinating. It’s good to know that serious innovations are happening in the world of femtech giving us a better grasp of– and therefore more control over– our own bodies.

Shots for India

I am good at the overarching plans but not at the small details. I am your ideas person. “Let’s go to India for a week, for Holi,” was one of my more recent ideas. It had been on my “list” for ages, by which I do not mean an actual list, not even a bucket list, but a mental list. The kind of list that really only has one thing on it, like Go to India for Holi, because I can’t remember more than that without writing it down.

Sam said yes, and I booked flights, and then felt like I’d already accomplished my goal. It was only in stages that we realised that we needed to make sure certain things were in place, like a visa, and vaccinations. Sam made us an appointment at the Boots in Dalston, but when we arrived they didn’t have any of the shots we needed. “You can go to the Boots in Wood Green,” the man behind the counter said, helpfully, forgetting that no one wants to go to Wood Green, not even the people who live there.

Instead, the next day we agreed to meet at our local Clockwork Pharmacy after work, which incidentally is owned by the same people who own the freehold of our building, Clockwork Mews. The sign outside our flat is the same as for the pharmacy: a blue and orange tablet.

I have cycled as ferociously as I can muster after a day spent in the stark glow of artificial lighting, and I arrive at 5:44. A small elderly Indian man is locking up. I am off my bike, looking both ways down the street, for either a place to lock up my bike quickly or for Sam. I see neither, but my frantic behaviour has caught the attention of the pharmacy manager.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” he asks, tentatively. It’s not advisable to start provoking crazed individuals in Hackney.

“I need vaccines!” I blurt out, doing nothing to allay his fears. “For travel, to India,” I add quietly.

He shakes his head and continues to pull down the shutters over the storefront.

“Ah, you’re too late,” he says, regrettably. “My pharmacist is sick and needs to go home. Usually we close at 7pm, but tonight, 6!”

I’m envious of anyone who can make these kind of executive decisions over their working lives. I remember I haven’t yet found Sam. The manager is happily chatting to me now, comfortable in the knowledge that if I’m crazy, it’s in one of the socially-acceptable sorts of ways. I rest my bike against a section of the window he hasn’t yet shuttered and pull out my phone. Sam has messaged to say he’s inside.

“Aha!” I said, as if this is a trump card. “My husband is already inside getting his vaccinations.”

The manager’s face changes.

“Your husband is inside?” He looks around suspiciously as if I’ve pulled some kind of trick on him, sneaking a Trojan horse into his pharmacy under his very nose.

“Ok, you can go in, but I’m not sure they’ll still be willing to give you what you need.”

I open the door, with my bike, the lights still flashing, and lean it up against a shelf at the front of the shop. “Can I leave this here?” I ask no one in particular, and walk to the back without waiting for an answer. As I approach the counter I find Sam walking towards me. “I’m done!” he announces, not quite as competitively as I would have, had it been me who had been seen to first.

After filling in a form and following a young Indian man to the back room, I too am sufficiently inoculated against Delhi’s microbes.

On the way out, we say goodbye to the old manager. He is jovially waiting for us to make our way out so he can finally finish the job of locking up for the night, but he doesn’t seem put out.

“You’re going to love Delhi!” he says. “When I finish with India, only then will I go somewhere else,” and I take him to mean on holidays because he has clearly made it to Clapton, “but I will never be finished with India!”

I haven’t even started with India yet and already I think I know what he means.

John McClane is a Feminist

On the ‘Sweatpants and Casseroles‘ episode of the Call Your Girlfriend, back in December, co-host Ann Friedman admitted to having never watched the film Die Hard. WHAT?! I thought. Ann Friedman, who is such an important feminist voice both in her writing and her other projects, has to know that Die Hard is one of the earliest and most powerful feminist influences I had. So I dashed off a quick email to her, making my case.

She replied the next day. Was it ok to use my email in the next edition of the CYG newsletter? The December edition of the newsletter was sent out later that month and included my email to Ann; you can read it in full in the archive here. (I recommend subscribing, too.)

Here is my email:

Just listened to the latest episode of CYG. Omg I can’t believe you haven’t seen Die Hard! It’s the greatest film of all time (yes, greatest film, not greatest Christmas film). I talked about it in my wedding speech and my husband bought me jewellery engraved with ‘now I have a machine gun ho ho ho’. I’m kind of a big fan.

But wait! Let me tell you why.

1. It challenges traditional ideas of masculinity without discounting them completely

The whole premise is that John McClane is travelling to see his wife, Holly Gennero, who moved across the country because, as John himself puts it, “she had a good job. Turned into a great career.” And he’s being kind of a dick about the whole situation– her life is taking off without him and as a white man in the 80s he’s just not ready for that. But give him credit where credit is due: he kind of gets that he’s being a dick… later, when John is running around an office building fighting terrorists, Holly is managing the relationship between said terrorists and the hostages, and doing a baller job. Both play really important, and very different, roles in how the situation unfolds. And there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in there, a lot of navigating relationships. It’s actually really heartwarming!

2. A lot of the conflict is just office politics

Everyone in Die Hard is at work. Argyle the limo driver, the Nakotomi Corp employees, Sgt Al Powell on the ground, the news anchors, the terrorists, and then of course John McClane himself (although he did not intend to be working on Christmas Eve dammit!). There’s some great examples of good managers (Hans Gruber) and really terrible ones (Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson) if you look for them. Watch it and see if you see any of your former bosses in there.

3. It really holds up in 2017… maybe too well

I mean, this film was made in 1989.There’s touchscreen technology, cybercrime, and women just trying to get along in a world where men aren’t quite ready to give up their privilege. There’s several really smart, pivotal black characters who are not playing black characters, just characters, in the truest Grey’s Anatomy sense. If I’m being honest, I can’t believe a film hasn’t replaced Die Hard in my top spot, where it’s been since I was 11, but there we go. 

Plus it’s a lot of fun. The one-liners are excellent (“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like”) and obviously there is action. The plot is simple and clever at the same time. It’s perfect.

Just don’t ever watch Die Hard 2, 4 or 5. They will ruin everything for you. Die Hard 3 is pretty good. Recommended.

If you haven’t seen Die Hard, please, do yourself a favour and make some time to watch it. Yippe-kai-yay!

Technically Sound

“Do you think I could be an actor?” I cut a glance at Sam in such a way to ensure that he knows this is a test. It’s a game we play, usually when we’re at the theatre, like we are now. I am old enough to know how much work goes into becoming an actor, how highly skilled they are, but young enough to still think I could do anything, and why not this? I also think people who assume they can do anything are perhaps also the sort who don’t need endless reassurance, but I do. Sam is an actor, so I trust his opinion on this one, and also my fiancé, so I rely on him to always see the potential in me that I hope is really there.

“Well, you’d need to learn to project, for one,” he says, matter-of-factly, “and you’d need to overcome your mannerisms.” I pull back in mock-horror. My mannerisms! Sam proceeds to mime, bending his arms at the elbows and sharply punctuating the air with his hands, in which I find a nuanced sense of both beauty and humour, but not myself. “I do not do that!,” I object, and quickly cover myself: “And even if I did, that would mean I couldn’t be an actor?” I would hate to think my obstacles are things I cannot even see.

“No, you would just have to learn these things about yourself, and then how not to do them.” His response is reasonable, and after all, I am interested in finding out how swaths of people behave, and why. I should at the very least be able to do this for myself. And from what I can see, actors possess all the speaking, performance, communication, empathetic and analytical skills that are becoming increasingly necessary in the age of digital connection and virtual reality.

We have just installed Google Home, and now I can demand the lights go on and off, the temperature go up and down, media begin and end, on a whim like a spoiled child, and without moving a muscle. It’s a funny thing to grow up with a parent who remembers having to walk to the TV to change the channel, and now I don’t even have to hunt through the sofa cushions to find a remote. I think, this will help me learn to project.

Google Home is a smart assistant, but what I really need is a smart coach. There is economic value is outsourcing or automating mundane tasks– the reason why robots are replacing jobs at alarming rates— but what about personal value? The people who are losing jobs to machines do not have better lives because of it. They are being removed from the workplace altogether, so as we become more accepting of robots we have a responsibility to understand how that will effect the world around us.

So I understand that Google Home could quite possibly pick up on my mannerisms too. And when it does, will it use that knowledge just to sell me better things? My hope for technology is that it doesn’t just make my life more convenient, but that it can also help me become a better version of myself. My hope is that technology offers me more opportunities rather than just taking some away.