Wednesday, 6 March 2013

How of-fence-ive - 6.3.13

Last year I built a fence, all on my own.  There are several very simple reasons why I did it.  I needed a new fence because the existing one got sheared at the base by high winds, so that I found it, still upright, several feet from where it once stood.  As it had been originally built out of crap, spit and hope, there was absolutely no point in trying to fix it.  I’m plagued by dogs, so I need a secure fence.  I took on the job myself because I could not find a bloody workman to do it for me.  Many a burly man scratched his chin and sucked his teeth in the approved manner taught at Handyman School, and then said that it was a big job and they were too busy at the moment but they’d be in touch asap.  After weeks of chasing them, I gave up.  I asked a few friends but everyone was busy.  Lastly, but not least importantly, I was poorer than a church mouse who’d been mugged on its way back from mass.  As I had done a fair bit of fencing work a couple of incarnations ago, it seemed appropriate for me to have a stab at it if it could save me some money.

I did not jump into the project lightly.  I was forced to do the work, because it needed to be done.  However, I was not at all sure at the start that I could manage it.  It was, indeed, a pretty big job, and I am a very small person.  While I was fully aware of what I needed to do and how, I did not know if I was going to be physically strong enough to do it.  All the technical knowledge in the world is no use whatsoever when you are struggling with weights you can’t lift.  I procrastinated as long as I could, but the sodding thing simply refused to build itself.  Eventually I simply had to bite the bullet.  Two things helped me get started.  Firstly, desperate times call for desperate measures and I really needed a fence that wasn’t held up by string.  Secondly, a kindly elderly gentleman, having noticed the heap of materials, chortled and told me that I would not even be able to paint the panels on my own.

Now, I believe I am not deluded in assessing my abilities.  I know that I am not as strong as the average male adult, as I am a female and a runt.  Biology is against me.  However, don’t you go telling me that I can’t paint a frigging fence panel, because I know that to be bullshit.  The comment and the manner in which it was delivered annoyed me so much that I clenched my tiny fists, puffed out my chest and decided that I’d show him.  Darn, but I would show him.  I would not be beaten by a fence!

As it happens, the project wasn’t half as bad as I feared.  I was indeed unable to lift a fair bit of the materials for the simple reason that they seemed to weigh more than me.  However, I realised that I did not need to.  For the first time in my life I was glad I had been forced into taking high school physics.  I could not recall a single formula if my life depended on it but I remember my fulcrums and levers.  I could not lift the stuff, so I levered it and rolled it and dragged it and wheelbarrowed it instead.  I made the darn stuff move, whether it liked it or not, by any means possible.  It was hard work, but it was doable.

Once I got in the swing of it I started to enjoy myself.  There is a huge sense of achievement in managing to do something you did not think you could do.  As an under-five-foot person, to look up at an over-six-foot fence you have just forced into existence is rather satisfying.  Also, if I say so myself, it is a rather fine fence.  It would have been a fine fence whoever put it up.  As I managed to do it - little me, alone and unaided - I was chuffed to smithereens.

I had to put a picture up on Facebook.  I just could not resist.  I was proud of what I had achieved and I wanted to share it with my friends.  Other than that, however, I did not make a big promotion of it.  I did not brag.  I did not stick a big sign at the front stating “this fence was erected by Anna – be impressed!”  I kept my trap shut about it, really.  However, as it happens, I did not need to tell anyone about it.  The world was watching.  Much to my surprise, it wasn’t watching in amazement at my achievements.  It wasn’t watching because it was concerned that might overdo it or hurt myself.  It wasn’t even watching to make sure that I was doing a good job.  It was watching in disgust.  The world was downright offended and was not going to be shy about letting me now.

People who saw me working at it just had to stop and discuss it.  Why was I building a fence?  I would give them the reasons, but they apparently weren’t good enough.  I should quite simply not be doing it.  It was wrong of me to try, even though it was becoming increasingly obvious that the task, however arduous, was well within my capabilities.  I clearly could do it, as amply demonstrated by the fact that I was doing it, and doing it well.  This, however, didn’t wash.  As I was told quite clearly, this was “just not a job for little girls.”  Kid you not.  At the ripe age of thirtymumblemumble, I was told I should not be doing something because I was a little girl.  Just to prove that the suffragettes truly died in vain, this comment was made by a woman.

I really couldn’t get it.  I understand how male chauvinists may feel emasculated by the sight of a female half their size doing “their” work, and I must admit that I enjoyed being the one doing the emasculation.  I am not a feminist, not by a long shot, but boys who still believe in the “weaker sex” get my goat.  As for the man who told me that I could not even paint the fence, I took an almost obscene degree of delight in watching his face fall after I told him that it was me who had built it.  I was evil enough to get him to tell me what he thought of it (very impressed) before dropping the bomb on him.  Oh, how I enjoyed his reaction.  Not that he believed me – a few weeks later, when I finally managed to find a reliable builder for some other works, he asked him, behind my back, whether it was him who’d put it up.  Clearly it must be a really good fence, hey.

I could totally understand his reaction.  He firmly believes that, purely by virtue of being a woman, I have certain limitations that cannot be overcome.  There is “man’s work” and “woman’s work” and that is how the world is.  What I managed to do upset this concept.  Why would fellow females, however, find the fence so damned offensive?  I would have expected either no reaction whatsoever, it being just a damned fence after all, or possibly some sort of delight in this manifestation of “girl power”.  But no, the women were the most offended.  Did the ladies feel that I was showing them up?  By demonstrating what I could do, did they feel that I was making a statement about what they were not even trying to do?

To this day, I am not sure what all the fuss and upset were about.  Not being a mind reader, the only way to find out for sure would have been to ask, and I didn’t.  I did not ask partly because I was genuinely taken aback and temporarily rendered speechless[1] but largely, much to my shame, because I did not want to stir more trouble.  In fairness, though, I think that even if I had asked I would have been unlikely to get an accurate answer.  I am not entirely sure that the people involved would have been self-aware enough to be able to formulate that.

I can only guess at what the issue or issues may be.  It is unlikely to be purely a size thing, although that probably did not help.  A small man carrying out the same task would have probably been complimented for his disproportionate strength.  Alternatively, or additionally, the task might have been reviewed in the watcher’s mind to something not as difficult.  After all, if a little person can do it, it can’t be that hard, can it.  Those posts must just look heavy.  With a little bit of mental juggling, a tiny bit of pushing in one direction and pulling in the other, it would have all fitted quite neatly into most people’s worldview.

The gender issue is more likely to have been a problem.  Gender stereotypes are alive and well, despite of the fact that we like to say otherwise.  I have come smack bang against them repeatedly in past careers and overcome them by the simple means of ignoring the fact that they were there.  Had I been a tall, built woman, though, I am sure people would not have been as offended on this occasion.  They might have filed me under “butch”, as unfeminine and slightly inappropriate, and left it at that.  I am not butch, though[2].  I wonder whether I fall under an unofficial archetype.  Am I the little girl who never grows up, the female Peter Pan?  Am I expected to be fluttering about enthusiastically yet ineffectually?  Or am I allowed to be tomboyish but only up to a point?  Little girls should not build fences.

There have been plenty of times in my past when I did things that I know people would not approve off.  Even when very young, I never did anything just to piss people off, for which I am proud.  I am forever disappointed at people who do stuff purely to shock or disgust other people, even when it is in the course of art[3].  If you truly believe in it, if it really is what you want to do, go ahead and I’ll be right behind you[4].  If you are just doing it to rock someone else’s apple cart, though, I have very little respect for that.  I guess it might provide enlightenment for some, but I believe people should be true to themselves first and foremost. 

This was definitely not one of those situations, though; not even close.  The one time I do not try to piss someone off deliberately, the one time I’m just doing my thang, out of necessity, I seemed to have such a disproportionate impact.  I just can’t work it out.  I’d like to say that I don’t care but it would be a lie.  I wish I had got to the bottom of it.  I wish I had had the guts to engage in rational discussions about the issue, rather than just take the comments away and file them in my brain under “you what?!?”  But I didn’t.  This is probably going to annoy me for years to come, most likely well after the fence has come to the end of its natural life.  If you have any ideas, answers on a postcard, please.

[1] See?  Miracles do happen.
[2] Believe me, I checked.  I actually asked a friend, for the purpose of this blog, just to make sure.
[3] Ask me about Marilyn Manson one of these days.  I can almost promise you an argument.
[4] Well, no, I want, because I will hopefully be busy doing what I truly want to do, but you know what I mean.

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