Saturday, August 24, 2013

The things we do to our bodies

During the week on Radio National I heard the story of Princess Alexandra Amalie from Bavaria.  She lived for forty nine years from 1826 to 1875.  

One day when Alexandra was in her twenties her parents became alarmed at the strange sideways walk she had adopted to climb the stairs.  They called her in for a talk and there she told them how when she was small she had swallowed a glass grand piano whole.  She worried then if she were not careful she might bash into something and the piano would shatter.  

The story has stayed with me all week. As a delusion, as a state of mind, as a way of imagining a person’s internal world.  

Cruising through Facebook the other day I saw the shadowy xray of a man’s penis and read the caption below which described how this man had inserted a fork up into his urethra. You can see the fork in the xray opaque against the shadowy grey of his xrayed flesh.  Someone commented below that it was a good thing that the man had inserted his fork handle-side first.

In my social work days I heard that it was not uncommon for people to arrive in emergency with all manner of objects inserted into their various orifices, particularly their genitals. 

The worst I ever did as a child was to shove a small bead up my nose.  I was watching television and fiddling with this bead which I had found on the floor.  I tested it for size in one of my nostrils and before I knew it had slipped from my touch.  I did not feel it roll through my nostril back down my throat but I expect it went through to my oesophagus and down into my stomach. 

I never saw it again but that is not to say I did not panic about its presence.  I told my mother who told my father.  My father examined my nose for good measure and decided to do nothing.
If it had been my child I imagine I’d have taken her to emergency for an xray to be sure the bead was not lodged in her lungs, but times were different then.  It took more than a bead in the nose or belly to get you into hospital. 

Most of the awful insertions into body orifices we hear of these days are those performed as part of some perverse sexual practise and their meanings range from fetishistic behaviour all the way along to sadism.  And of course it is one thing to do it to yourself, another to do it to another, particularly if that other is unwilling or a child. 

The things we do to our bodies…

I went to hear Susie Orbach speak on the topic of bodies earlier this week and she too is aware of the ways in which our bodies can be colonized by others more powerful, for example by the so-called beauty industry for the purpose of extracting money from us.

In another radio program Orbach’s interwiewer, Natasha Mitchell at one point referred to the cosmetic surgery possibilities on offer as being given choices, but Susie Orbach reckons it’s more like a tyranny of choice. 

For example for young women who feel compelled to shave off their pubic hair in order to match some ideal that has been established in their minds. 

The same applies to the recent rise in women who have surgery to correct the size and shape of their labia, as if there is anything wrong with their labia in the first place. 

Susie Orbach talked of how she had visited a number of cosmetic surgeon’s websites and in one she saw a series of labia, one after the other, all shapes and sizes.  Wonderful, she thought, so much diversity in bodies, only to read a little further on that each of these labia was 'wrong' in some way. 
They were considered aesthetically displeasing, at least to the cosmetic surgeon who advocated a shape and size along the lines of what I think of as ‘MacDonald’s labia’.  Prepubescent.

Thus it seems corporate interests encourage us to go back in shape and size to our childhood selves, as though our hairy and angular, lumpy, squat and variously shaped adult bodies are no longer desirable.
Susie Orbach also talked of Botox mums, those who use so much Botox that their faces lose their ability to be expressive.  Researchers reckon the babies who look at their Botoxed mums get confused.  After all babies look to their mothers or primary caregivers, whoever they might be, for emotional signs first registered on their faces. 

If none are visible or if they are distorted through the Botox grin, a face stretched to rid it of its wrinkles into a mask, then how can a baby begin to find himself in the mirror of his mother’s face.

And so I think back to the princess and her glass grand piano.  Is hers part of a confusion of existence that she wound up feeling huge and fragile like a glass baby grand such that it stopped her moving about and made it hard for her to play?   

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Beneath the marzipan

I did not notice the waitress cut up our cake after we had stuck a knife into it on our wedding day, but I remember going through a dummy run of cutting the cake before the reception began.  Our wedding cake had two tiers arranged bigger to smaller.  

‘This'll be an interesting shot,’ our photographer said in the lull between wedding and reception.  ‘I’d like to get the candles' reflection in your eyes.’  She asked us to hold empty wine glasses up to one another as if by way of a toast.  Then asked that we hold the sharp edged cake knife, which she managed to get from the kitchen, over the dark red fake rose in the centre of the top tier of our cake.  

After the wedding we kept the smaller top tier to eat another day.  It has travelled with us in an old cake tin my husband’s mother gave us after the wedding.  

It was she who took responsibility for the cake in the first place.  She who baked it, and she who organised a friend and neighbour to ice it, one thick layer of marzipan on top of which she stretched the ordinary sugary icing.  It was she who chose the single artificial red rose as an embellishment, she who designed the shape and size.  

I look forward one day to opening the lid of the cake to see what lies concealed beneath.   But I cannot imagine doing this yet.  Some have joked that if we were to open the cake tin, it would signal the end of our marriage, after over thirty years.  Others reckon it might be like an omen. 

No one imagines that the cake will be edible, or that it could taste good.  Though a friend once told me, a couple of years after their wedding, her mother took their cake, peeled off the by then yellow icing and recovered it.  They then ate the cake at the christening of their first child - a tradition, I understand -  but given our irreligiosity and our failure to christen any of our children, we have not been able to take such an opportunity to cut our cake.  

I had considered the occasion of one of the wedding anniversaries, the big ones, maybe the first, the fifth, the tenth, twentieth, all those multiples of five would be a good time to get out the cake, to cut it up and see what lies beneath but as the years go by I become more and more reluctant to take a look.  

The cake stands, still heavy, sealed in its faded tin.  The paint on the tin is pale red and yellow, a traditional hunting scene, hounds, horses and men in red breeches with riding crops, leaping over logs in pursuit of a fox.  In places the paint is worn down to a faint silver glow.  

About twenty-five years ago my husband sealed the cake tin with silver masking tape after we'd endured a plague of kitchen moths and weevils.  I was worried they’d get inside.  

Even then I did not have the heart to look.  I peeled away the fat little bug bodies clinging to the underside of the tin and wiped the whole thing with a damp cloth.  After my husband had sealed it, I sprayed the tin with insect spray.  I've not looked at it since. 

Today the cake sits in the far topmost corner of the kitchen pantry, a place that's difficult to reach and each year it waits for some decision to determine its fate.  I do not want to die without looking inside but I’m superstitious enough to think I should not look yet.  I fear it might be like the surgeon who cuts open a body only to discover it's riddled with cancer - the looking signifies the death knell.  

 If I outlive my husband then I might look, but not while the two of us go on together, or at least not yet, not while we are still in the busy rush of our lives.  It’s too soon to see.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

An untimely death

My cousin died ten days ago from leukemia.  She was only three weeks older than me with twin sons, my youngest daughter’s age, and an older daughter.  

In my book she was too young to die and her family are in a state of shock.
We were close as children.  My sister and I stayed with my cousin's family often during the holidays, holidays that for me were some of the best times of my life - to be away from the troubles in my own family, to be free of fear, and for once, however briefly, to live with a ‘normal’ family, or so my cousin's family seemed to me at the time. 

The best of it, in my child’s mind, my cousin's family lived in a double storey house with a laundry chute in the upstairs bathroom that ran all the way downstairs and outside into a washing basket under the back veranda.
I never dared, but I liked to imagine myself crawling into the chute and sliding down through the house into the ether.  

The chute began as a box on the bathroom floor with a flat lid.  It held a mysterious quality.  From outside in the laundry I could look up at the exit.  To me it offered a whole other dimension, rather like a sanitised poo hole.

To add to it, my cousin's father kept indoor tropical fish.  He installed a rectangular fish tank in an internal wall between two rooms so that,  as if by magic, you could see into the tank from two directions.  

My sister and I spent what now seems like hours watching these tropical fish in iridescent blues, turquoise and yellow as they swam in everlasting circles through their fish tank life. 

 I felt a strange thrill whenever one of the fish released a thin black strand from what I imagined to be its bottom.  Fish shitting.  The longer the strand the better.

My cousin was older than me by only three weeks and yet she seemed much older.  She was a first born and assumed an authority I lacked as sixth born.  She bossed us all around, not in an awful way as I recall but with the clear authority of her first born and sisterly status.  

I might have resented it at times but in those days I was too timid to stand up to anyone outside of my own family.
I can see the fish tank still and my aunt giving instructions to my cousin to whip the cream for dessert.  My cousin was masterful in her ability to whip cream; to get it just right, the firm texture with just enough sugar and a splash of vanilla essence, but now she is gone and all I have are my mottled memories.  

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Among the chosen

A young woman came to my door just now and interrupted my morning writing reverie.  She tells me she’s doing a door knock in the area because she and others who live nearby object to the application for a four storey block of flats over the road from us that is about to go before the planning tribunal. The plans do not include space for visitors and the neighboring streets are already overcrowded. 

I understand her distress and yet I wonder about these things.  To make room for the flats, they will pull down a single storey dwelling called the Dance Studio.  It’s an old and unprepossessing house that has been here for at least the past forty years. 

The house is striking only because of its fence - now ripped down - wrought iron and shaped like a musical scale with the first few notes of what could be The blue Danube or some other such waltz.  It also has a round driveway so that cars can turn in and go out onto busy Riversdale road.  

The house has not yet sold but I expect the owner might fetch more if he sells to developers who can make a large profit out of four storeys of fifteen flats.

Once upon a time I resented this use of land but these days I reckon we might need to build on top of ourselves to make more room for others.  

The urban sprawl has its drawbacks.  More dense dwelling up to a point is perhaps better.  Look to France and Germany where many people live comfortable lives in apartments cheek by jowl and they do not need all the accoutrements of a free standing dwelling with back yard and front garden. 

Maybe we can make better use of our space and make room for more people as well.  

When I was young and growing up in the Catholic church, I took it as a given that Catholics were the only ones headed for heaven.  It did not strike me as odd that there were many people around me who seemed to live  decent lives who would not get to heaven simply because they did not belong to the right religion.

I felt sorry for a protestant girl down the road whose father was the local fruiterer. Come Sunday she wore the same sorts of clothes as she wore on Saturday.  She never needed to dress up for Mass, but I did.  She never had the pleasure of knowing there was at least one special day of the week every week.  She missed out, while I was among the chosen.  

Maybe it’s that sense of us and them that I find myself railing against now.  If only there were some way of finding a compromise.  Likewise for the young woman who came to the door.  Her complaints might well be a start if they can be acknowledged and heard.

My fear is she does not want any new establishment at all and money being the powerful persuader that it is, she will lose out to the developers.  

The same might apply to new ideas.  As I get older I try to make myself tackle things that at first glace seem uncomfortable.  I try to look at people or ideas that I would once have thought unacceptable from a different perspective.  But it's not easy.  Old ideas die hard and it's comforting to imagine I have reached some level of certainty about things.  And discomforting to realise I may be have had it wrong all along.