Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bare chests and exposed breasts.

I’m stuck on an issue which on the surface seems lightweight but for the moment it won’t leave me alone.  I’ve mentioned before the No place for sheep blog, where its curator, Jennifer Wilson,  puts up posts from time to time on controversial and to me fascinating topics. 

Recently she posted a picture of one Damon Young, philosopher from Melbourne university and a chap who has of late developed a reputation as a social commentator and thinker at the forefront of our community.  In other words his popularity is on the rise.  He’s also the father of two young children, with an accomplished wife.  An all round good guy.

Damon put up a photo of himself, which he took with his i-phone, and posted it on his website and on twitter.  In this photo he is naked from the waist up.  It seems he took the picture almost as an experiment but casually and I gather it might have something to do with the furore raging here in Melbourne over the rights of women to breastfeed in public.

I suppose it comes down to the business of bearing your breasts in public. Damon can expose his chest comfortably with little fear of derision,  but women as a rule do not feel as free and easy about exposing theirs. 

In her beautifully written blog post, Jennifer Wilson wonders about why this might be. 

This post has hooked into my preoccupations of late with the ways in which many men seem so much more comfortable in commanding the limelight, not all of them mind you, but as a group in contrast to the majority of women who command the limelight in a different way, if at all, primarily as objects of beauty. 

I could go on for ages about this but it’s not what troubles me. 

I’m troubled by the fuss that erupted in the comments stream of Jennifer Wilson’s blog when I dared to suggest that the conversation about what to me was an important topic seemed to have become derailed into banter, light mockery and what I thought of as a sort of posturing, which I ascribed to the largely male commenters –like a posse of ‘bare-chested Damons’. 

This need to make light of the topic I thought might have to do with infantile anxiety aroused in relation to the notion of female breasts and I said as much, politely I hope. 

I do not know in fact whether the commenters on Jennifer’s blog are male or female because they do not represent themselves as a rule by their own blogs.  Many comment only and hide behind avatars and often unusual names. 

But they are forceful in their views and dare I say they clobbered me, at least one person clobbered me, in my feeble attempts at protest.

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself risking decapitation for daring to speak out, and it’s not the first time I’ve wondered why it is that the very thing I’m protesting about seems to happen. 

It’s not the first time I’ve found myself in trouble in the blogosphere and no doubt it won't be the last. 

I remember my timidity when I first dared to speak on line, how fearful I was of upsetting anyone.  Now I’m less fearful but still conflict can cut through me even as I tell myself it does not matter a jot. 

These people are virtual people.  If I met them in real life I might find myself drawn to them, even though online we have crossed swords.  These people might in real life be more timid and shy than they are on the page.

It could be worse.  I could be living in a country where women are not allowed to speak at all.  Not just women, but people of particular classes, religions or sects.  It need not simply be between the men and the women. 

It reminds me of the war between the big endians and the little endians in Gullivers Travels.  The big endians believed we should approach our boiled eggs from the big end, while the little endians had formed the view you can only eat an egg from the little end down.  This was enough to cause a war. 

I have answered my own question.  I shall regard this dispute on line as akin to the one in Gulliver’s Travels.  It is such a trivial concern in the scheme of things however much it points to bigger and more concerning issues.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More than our ovaries

My husband and I are about to become empty nesters.  I first heard the term, empty nester,  many moons ago when I was studying psychology and social work at university.  Then I shuddered at the thought. 

In those days I found the idea of living in a quiet, largely empty house daunting. 
How do people do it?  Live alone? 

For all her struggles my mother gave the impression that she too preferred to live in company.  In the hubbub of family life when her every minute was circumscribed by some one else’s needs and her own wishes and desires fitted further down at the bottom of the hierarchy, only after other people’s needs had been met. 

For the past thirty or so years I have viewed my own life similarly, though in recent years I have become more ‘selfish’ to use a word I loathe.  More like a man, perhaps. 

Ever since I can remember I marvelled at the way the men in my life, beginning with my father and my brothers, my husband too, never seemed to need to take their leave in the same way we women and daughters have needed to. 

Why is this ?  A relic of the patriarchal ways, where men are seemingly self determined and women tied to the apron strings of children and the so-called kitchen sink.  We women must account for ourselves and beg for leave. 

The phone rings.  I answer.

My youngest who left home last night for her first night away in college asks if I can be around at 12.30 today to be there for her friend who plans to drop in to collect her camping equipment which she had left with us as far back as January. 

I had planned to go off to do my Keiser weight training at 12.00, something I try to fit in every Sunday before the place closes.
‘If I’m not back yet your dad’ll be here,’ I say. 
‘But he doesn’t know where everything is.’

Even away from home my daughter has needs, small needs but they intrude on the timetable of my day.

No matter, I tell myself.  I have always told myself.  I enjoy these incursions into my day.  I am driven by the need/desire to help others, beginning with my children, but sometimes my generosity wears thin and resentment creeps in.

Be careful of what you wish for, they say.  If you’re not careful you might be left alone, a lonely old thing with no one to care about. 

Once years ago my mother complained to me that she could no longer do anything for me, not like when I was a child.  When I was a child I had needed things from her, but not as an adult, not in the same way.   

And so we had grown apart as if our relationship was based entirely on her looking after me.
Now it’s in reverse. 

I’d like to think there is another state whereby two adult women, mother and daughter, can relate in a type of friendship.  The pull of the past as mother and daughter will never disappear entirely but maybe a different sort of give and take might exist rather than the hard core mother to baby, daughter to elderly mother experience of yesteryear and today. 

My daughters teach me new things about the world.  They teach me so much.  They keep me young.  Without them I fear my mind might shut down.  They lead me in new directions. 

For instance:
Jo Wainer the wife of a doctor, Bertram Wainer, who was once repeatedly harassed by antiabortionists and politicians gave Ted Talk in Melbourne called Sex and the God trick.  In the talk among other things Jo discussed the ways in which most medicine is based on the male body, as if women were males, too, only with ovaries.  She gave an example that stays with me. 

Most of us have heard or read about the typical signs of a heart attack.  Tingling in the arms.  A crushing sensation in the chest, as if, as one doctor once told me, an elephant is sitting on your chest.  These turn out to be typical symptoms for a man suffering a heart attack and a man suffering these symptoms, if he knows about the signs and is not too far into denial and fear, will call an ambulance and shift straight into cardiac care where he might well be saved with less damage done, of course depending on the severity of said heart attack. 

A woman, on the other hand, is likely to feel nauseous and sweaty at the onset of her heartattack, very much off colour, and her first impulse might be to call her daughter who will come over and make her a cup of tea. 

In other words, it will take much longer for the woman to call for an ambulance, by which time the consequences of her heart attack are likely to be far more serious.

They do not teach these distinctions to the general public or at medical school, says Jo Wainer.  When a man comes home from work after a stressful day she reckons, he is likely to scream and yell, or put a fist through the wall, whether literally or metaphorically.  

In other words he is likely to act out his rage and frustration in some way or another. 

A woman, on the other hand, is likely to act out her frustration and rage after a hard day by her tendency, as Jo Wainer puts it, to ‘tend and befriend’. 

This notion rings bells for me.  I am one who tends and befriends, while my husband gets more into the out-with-it-rage variety or a total withdrawal like a sleeping volcano.  And I have often wondered why. 

Is it our hormones, our education, our socialisation, or in our stars? 

I expect there are exceptions and plenty with much in between but this dichotomy resonates for me.  
What do you think?  I ask.

The masculine and the feminine, the yin and the yang and we all have a  bit of both, only some tend to have more of one than the other, and not only because of our gonads or ovaries. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The family frown

I dropped my youngest daughter at her work this morning.  The sky was overcast and we rejoiced together in the rain that fell over night. It has been so dry in Melbourne since before Christmas and the plants are wilting. 

On the way home I caught the beginning of a programme, 360 Documentaries, devoted to the humble frown.  It has set me thinking. 

The presenter argues in favour of the frown in this age of forced happiness when even the slightest hint of sorrow gets shunned. 

Rachel Kohn one of the programme's guests speculated that the mark of Cain as described in the book of Genesis might in fact be a frown.  A mark etched on Cain’s forehead after he had killed his younger brother through jealousy and was then sent by God to wander the earth forever.

Apparently Cain feared that if he were a fugitive people would want to murder him as he had murdered his brother, and so it seems, at least according to Rachel Kohn, God struck him with the mark of Cain as a warning for people to keep away.  It was perhaps an attempt at curbing retaliation from vigilantes.  

We joke in my family about the family frown.  My father had one, my brothers and certainly I have a pronounced frown that deepens for me when I concentrate.  And this was another point made in the programme that people do not frown simply to express displeasure when they are sad or angry or when they disapprove, they frown when they concentrate. 

It  is akin to the way your mouth might move when working on something fiddly with your fingers. I’ve seen it in my husband.  He pries loose the clasp on a piece of broken jewellery, or something else small that requires concentration and fine eye hand coordination.  As he wriggles the pliers his mouth moves in unison.  My sister too when we were younger opened her mouth wide into a full circle whenever she applied mascara.

I thought about frowning first in adolescence.  I thought about it as a way of alerting the nuns that I was not as happy at home.  I practised being bright and cheerful at school.  This seemed the best way to win the nun’s approval but in between times I frowned.  

I enjoyed the way the two sides of my forehead came together, skin on skin, to form that vertical line in the middle above my nose. The nuns might take me more seriously I reckoned and they might know that despite my happy go lucky exterior things were not right. 

A frown is a form of communication.  The Radio National presenter talked about the tendency these days to use botox and surgery to eliminate  frown lines, to eliminate the mark of Cain perhaps, or to hide our occasional murderous impulses.

One of my brothers once accused me of writing in such a way as to make people unhappy.  As if I strive to cultivate a frown for sympathy perhaps or to offload my own sorrow.  I’m not sure about this. 

On Face Book there are many opportunities to feel happy: the lol cats; the sudden performances of musicians in shopping centres who burst into song; the happy stories of down and outs who make it against all odds. 

I scroll through and occasionally download these as they pop up on the pages of my friends.  They have a sweet flavour like eating sugar on cereal.  They help me through the day.  But it is the sad stories, the stories of hardship and of loss that tend to stay with me. 

So perhaps my brother is right.  Perhaps I want to linger longer on the exquisite pleasure of melancholy, the way it weaves its way into my life like a thread that I might follow for sometime until it comes time to change threads and then I can feel happy again for a while.  Always glad to be alive, however deep the sadness.  

To feel is to be alive. 

To feel nothing, to suffer boredom, to sense the absolute deadness of despair, the unbearable lightness of being, is something I can entertain, but only occasionally- like last week.  Like a small dollop of Hot English mustard, it infuses the taste but too much would blow off my head.  Take away my frown. 

Years ago I saw my father-in-law minutes after he had died and his whole face, once a bag of wrinkles and harsh lines, was softened such that I almost could not recognise him.  

The slack face of death is something that will come to us all one day but while we are alive, I’m all for the occasional frown mixed in with plenty of laughter lines. 

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Don't despair

Today is the ninety fifth anniversary of my father’s birth.  He’s been dead now for nigh on thirty years.  Gone from this world for so long and yet he still seems alive to me.  

Maybe the fact that he died from a series of heart attacks in his sixty-fifth year has made me toey and fearful that I too will cop a heart attack simply by association.

What did the doctor first ask me last week when I visited her and told her of my fears of having a stroke? 

‘Is it in the family?’ 

Stroke is not in my family, I said, but heart attack is.

I’m late to writing this morning because I spent over an hour waiting in the doctor’s rooms to have three vials of blood taken for measuring and an ECG to help me overcome my fears.  The doctor last week was confident that all was well, but still I’m having these tests for good measure.   

This morning the practice nurse took blood from my left arm.  I watched as she applied the tourniquet to plump up my vein.  I watched as she scrabbled about my arm much like a cat plumping up a cushion until she was satisfied.  Then I watched as she plunged in the needle, a slight prick and no other sensation, not even a twinge as the blood raced into the syringes, one, two and three. 

The whole procedure took only a matter of minutes, but the paperwork took twice as long.  The nurse checked and double checked the spelling of my name, my date of birth, my address.  She was determined it should be exactly so.  And fair enough, too.  I would not want my blood mixed up with someone else's. 

Then the nurse lined me up for an ECG.  I was naked from the top to my middle.  I froze on the examination table until she offered me a blanket, almost by way of accusation.
‘I don’t want you cold,’ she said.  ‘It can interfere with your reading.' 

I huddled under the thick layers of the hospital type blanket, which she had folded over my middle.  She left enough naked skin exposed for the plastic pads which she stuck strategically across my torso, concentrating on my heart side.  

This procedure also took only a few minutes and the paper work was less dramatic, once only instead of three times to be certain all details were correct. 

I have felt miserable ever since.  The morning’s wait in the doctor’s rooms for over an hour interfered with my Saturday morning writing routine, but more than that it has addled my mind.  

While I waited I read crap magazines when I could have plucked the novel from within my handbag and launched into more of William Maxwell.  I’ve been carrying him around with me for weeks now.  But serious writing seemed too heavy and magazine writing too light.  

This Goldilocks cannot settle into anything.  I have washing to hang out.  I have bills to draw up and pay.  I have a blog post to write and all of this weighs heavily.  

Worst of all is the sense that my writing has turned to mush overnight.  I’m swamped with jealousy by the success of a recently found writing friend, Kate Richards, and her wonderful book, Madness. 

This feeling will pass, I tell myself and I hear Mr Bennett’s voice in my head.  Mr Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when he tells his second daughter Elizabeth how heartily ashamed he feels for allowing his youngest daughter, Lydia to go off to camp with the militia at Brighton.  Lydia leaves the militia to elope with the scurrilous Captain Wickham and the entire family of Bennett girls are threatened with the shame and disapproval that pursued young women whose connections were tarnished by a fallen sister in those days.

‘I'm heartily ashamed of myself, Lizzie,’ he says.  ‘But don't despair.  It'll pass and no doubt more quickly than it should.’

I wish Kate well.  I want her book to succeed, but oh how I wish it were my turn to have a book out there, ready for the readers' judgement. 

Mine’s not ready yet and I fear now it never will be.