Frugal Fun

On Sunday, I invited friends and family (and some family of friends) over to our house for a “Book Swap”. Given my history of frantically cooking army-loads of food  as people are still arriving, and then spending the rest of the party setting it out, I didn’t do too badly. I relied on the leek-and-onion quiche I knew was in the freezer; the also-frozen chocolate cupcakes leftover from two batches of hospitality the week before, and the relative speed of scones. Beautiful fruit and purple muffins were also provided by E and M, so we had a feast!

I had spent the night before setting up the house to look as much like a second-hand bookshop as possible, although I didn’t have the years of gentle mouldering or the layers and layers of mezzanine that the best second-hand bookshops require.

Still, it looked the part:

The best bookshops have babies breastfeeding ...Friend after friend staggered in with a box or a giant plastic container, and how the books stacked up! Everyone had decided, too, that what they most wanted was new Shelf Space so I don’t think anyone took more than one or two or three treasures with them!

Sitting in our stairwell there is currently a (refilled) giant plastic container and a (large) cardboard box, packed with books waiting to be be dropped into the yellow plastic bins outside Good Sammy’s in Subiaco.

A couple of friends also brought around some clothes, figuring that we were already in the swapping spirit. So I got to play at clothes-shop lady, second-hand bookshop eccentric, and barista, all in one afternoon!

The next day S picked me up so that we could do another of our all-time favourite activities – tip diving!
Well, OK, so technically the Council calls it the Recycling Centre and we actually went to the tip shop, where the stuff is mostly already sorted, but it still counts as treasure-hunting. We didn’t get there until around 12, and the sun was ferocious, and we sweltered even under the corrugated-iron roof of the tip shop’s sheds. I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when S admitted she was a bit too hot to start heaving paving stones into the car, so after a complicated game of Clothes Rack Car Tetris, we took our finds home again.

My combined tip shops finds cost me $20, which includes the exact Ikea clothes rack I was planning to buy new! Here is a picture of my total loot for the weekend:

The clothes rack, pink hatstand, and fake flowers will feature in a future post, when Field Notes from Fairyland goes to the Melville Swapmeet …

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No Princess

I caught the circleroute yesterday, to go into uni, to pick up a new set of academic transcripts.  Just opposite the uni,  a grey Nissan Pulsar passed my 98, zooming along Stirling Highway to Mounts Bay Road. Across the top half of the Pulsar’s back windshield was one of those stickers made all of glitter, and it gleamed at me staring through the bus window. The sun flashed along the sticker, highlighting the silver-purple-silver words: “I’m No Princess.”

This heartened me.

Not that I would have heaped any disdain on the glimpsed figure of the driver if the sticker had instead proclaimed that she (or the vehicle itself? Who is the sticker describing?) was indeed “Princess”, as I seem to remember seeing in a pink-silvery-pink sticker on a car once before. And not just because anyone whose ability to point and propel a car as a matter of everyday, unnoticed skill, rather than a matter of concentration divided between the traffic, speedometer, car’s movement, crunching gears, painfully tense legs and cramping feet and aching clenched hands and the sweating and quick breathing of just-under-control anxiousness is a heroine to me. (My last driving lesson did not improve my confidence).

It doesn’t make sense to me to be disgusted by anyone in my generation, or aroundthereabouts, being the possessor of a proclaimation of princesshood. It’s almost a matter of subjectivity, the princess is the heroine, the protagonist, the main character, the person who things happen to, or, depending on the slant of the story, the person who does the things. If the no princess sticker makes my inner old lady (Get off my lawn! What’s the young wimmen of today coming to, I ask you?) feel a little relieved, it’s due I think to narrative conditioning.  The Pulsar driver’s declaration feels right and true, and necessary even, rather than simply bizzare, because one of the most memorable parts of every princess story I was ever exposed to is the part about being no princess.

Have you been exposed to any of the rash of movies out recently where the heroic field of action has been the imagined wedding? The competition, or rather, the cautionary tale, is played out between the bride who disqualifies herself, by wanting to be one, and the woman who proves her worth by ritually denying her desire for the role, the ritual, or the money and status that accrue. It’s as effective a trap of double-think as any other created for women; true lovers and real partners are those who prove absolutely that they are not concerned with – cannot even benefit from – the financial and social advantages of true love and partnership.

Princesses too are a cautionary tale, but perhaps not the one that you  think. The figure of the princess teaches us that it is safer, and pleasanter by far, to be bourgeois.

My thinking is influenced more than a little by the volume by which I measure all princesses, Sally Patrick Johnson’s A Book of Princesses. Here is a picture of the cover of my 1965 Puffin edition. I made it huge so you can see the lovely detail on the dresses:

Front Cover Illustrations by Fritz Wegner

And here is the back:(Two of the princesses seem to have used the same material: sale at the Godmothering Gladly Warehouse and Emporium in Fairyland, perhaps?)

This is one of the very first books I ever remember reading. I paid no attention to the names of the writers of the stories, and they wouldn’t have meant anything to me anyway. I had no significance to attach to the names of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, or Charles Dickens, and I was so little when I read this book that I didn’t even recognise the name Edith Nesbit.

My favourite story in the collection without a doubt is Mary De Morgan’s A Toy Princess, in which the real princess is exchanged for a mechanical automaton with a stock set of phrases.

...the fairy interrupted him.

This story is wonderfully executed, but even without the way that De Morgan characterises the king’s court as repressive and foolishly fearful of any hint of real emotions, the image of a soulless princess robot would have been just right.

A Toy Princess

All the other stories of princesses contain within them an apologetic parenthesis, an explanation of how this princess, with whom we are concerned, is, unlike her cool and aristocratic and fabricated sisters, warm and real and courageous and unconventional enough to earn our interest.

The curse of a too-long nose, exponential hair, or a literal lack of gravity -or even a serious case of rudeness – is exactly what is needed to escape and inhabit princesshood at the same time, which the irascible fairies, of course, well know.

These are stories in which the princesses must negotiate a place for personality within their princesshood. And this is why I say that these stories are stories of the middle class, because even though they are brief and often allegorical with nebulous settings and stock characters, they are nonetheless stories of individuality, a very important middle-class value.

These princesses also tend to find it difficult to secure their own comfort as well as happiness. Success is helped along by a bourgeois  hero, who is not so much the quick-witted trickster of folktales as a rational engineer or an entrepreneur . It’s better to marry the retired soldier, the son of a potter, the rational and mathematically-minded prince who can solve a logic puzzle, or the son of the fisherman in whose family you have lived happily for years.

That most of the writers of princess-stories were are the bourgeois could have something to do with their tendency to favour low suits, of course (In Charles Dickens’ The Magic Fishbone, the King is a bourgeois clerk waiting for “quarter day” to come around). Or maybe I have it wrong, and it’s the buyers of princess stories I’m thinking of.

The collection deals with nineteenth-century ideas of womanhood,

Princess Alicia from Charles Dickens' The Magic Fishbone

"Bring me in the Royal rag bag. I must snip and stitch and cut and contrive."

as the list of authors I just quoted suggests. It opens with The “Princess on the Pea”, by Hans Christian Anderson, which is a story that fails by the thinnest margin to satirize the pretensions of and for women’s genteel fragility. I say it fails because while I remember being a little taken aback by the princess’s rough night and extreme propensity to bruising, it couldn’t help but feel entirely appropriate to my six-or-seven year old self to know that a real princess would be bruised black an blue by the presence of a pea. And I still can’t help but feel convinced that there is a trueness to her, although perhaps that’s more to do with the fact that the princess enters the story as a lone and persecuted figure, drenched by a rainstorm. This princess, although she wins I suppose in the end, is a little disappointing in that she is confirmed as a princess by conforming to a standard, instead of proving her right to walk at the centre of the story by the quirk that seems to shake her out of it.

I’ve often heard people bemoan the wrong kind of fairy tale, the twee fairytale, the one where the heroine is meek, and polite, and obedient to the wrong people (obedience to the right people – to the Baba Yaga or the animals in the wood – is a kind of intelligence in itself, as a recent writer’s workshop with Juliet Marillier revealed to me at Swancon last week). But these fairytales with their insipid princesses and their cardboard princess are a very necessary part of our training in reading and understanding stories, as, without them, we wouldn’t be able to listen to a story and feel the righteous thrill of transgression. Or correction, or satire, depending on the teller.

While it is technically a far greater expression of democratic freedom to never mention or think about princesses at all, I can’t help but find pleasure, along with the driver of the car who passed me today, in the narrative act of declaring oneself “no princess”.

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Summing-up

I wrote this post two weeks ago; when I had three weeks to go before finishing and submitting my thesis. The nature of thesis submission being what it is, it remained locked in some notesy-sentences until now. Now I’ve had some wine, and it’s late, and I am secure in the knowledge that if I tried to do any editing work now I would be sure to mis something, so I might as well write about writing.

I am at the stage now of my PhD where I am summing-up.

Blank Parchement

It’s about all I have left to do. Oh, I do have to chase some references down through the labyrythine plots of the 8 fantasy series I’ve written about, but after that, I have two last tasks on my to do list, that each in their different ways seem unimaginably difficult. I still need to write the conclusion, and the acknowledgements.

I think that the stage of having to sum everything up was a stage I was (subliminally) terrified of, which may be why I managed to put it off past the point of professional proofreading. Over the last few days I have tackled the long-delayed task of writing “proper” conclusions for the chapters; when the thesis went to the proofreaders these mammoth documents just came, abruptly, to an exhausted stop.

What I am finding, to my surprise, is that I can do it, that the words seem to come.  I don’t really like it when writing is mysterious like this, when I feel that my conscious mind is perhaps not fully engaged.

I totally hate hearing fiction writers talking about how they mused and dreamt their book, or how the characters just went and took over from them (I understand that it might happen that way, or genuinely feel as if it does, there’s just something about that as a narrative about fiction-writing that gets under my skin).

It is a little uncanny when the thoughts only seem to be there in the writing, not before and not after, either. Before the moment of writing the concluding point, I didn’t know what I was going to write, and after, if I have the guts to squint anxiously out of one almost-closed eye at it, I don’t really know what I meant. Most of the thesis has had an existence separate from the page, being carried around in my head and carried on in conversations. It’s creepy when I write something, that, reading back over it later, I can’t even remember thinking in the first place. But in another way it is the thought of the chapter, or the thought that was underneath the chapter, all along.

This kind of alchemical process of finding out what you know as you write happens all the time, but it’s usually a matter of the timbre of the sentence , an inflection, a clarification as you realise that you have tangled two ideas together, or feeling that you’ve actually just made a contradictory point resolving into the realisation that what you thought was contradiction was just clarification.

Now I have done the conclusions for the chapters, so there is at least some indication for the reader that the very, very long discussion will soon be rolling to a stop.

Now I have to open the word document I’ve called “Overall Conclusion.” It has about 50 words in it. In rhyming couplets, oddly enough.

So obviously this is not an uncommon response to the writing of the thesis but in a different way from usual I don’t want to do it! I have been avoiding for so long thinking about what I am thinking, I hate people asking me what my topic is, my mind just stutters to a halt when they do. But I guess that questions about “the topic” are answered by the abstract. The conclusion goes deeper than that, it’s not about what the thesis is “on”, but about what it means.

The conclusion is – in 2000 words – the reason why scholarship of this kind is important, why choosing to do this work, which is in many ways very luxurious and work, was worth doing.

I can’t even write a birthday card. I hate having to compress down large emotions into tiny phrases, I hate being sentimental, and while I think that a birthday card with a joke is much more touching and thoughtful, I can never actually think of one, and to be frank I hate the effort of making something not sound twee or cliched or tired or sentimental.

A conclusion is not a birthday card. But the acknowledgements kinda are. I want to do justice to my debt to others, and be sincere, and hopefully funny, but I feel self-conscious too, that  in putting in words my debt to others, I’ll actually sound kind of self-aggrandising. You know like an Oscars speech. – Plus unlike the begowned ones I don’t actually have the excuse of having won anything, or I won’t at that point anyway!

I think that to free up my writing-mind I need to take up my pen, a real black felt pen and a notebook that have lately only been used for to do lists. I need to sit in a loud cafe, with a coffee, and then another, in front of me, focusing my world in to the table and the page and the cup. And then I won’t be embarrassed; I can write the most self-indulgent or emotional or ranting or metaphor-laden prose and I my looping asymmetrical handwriting will cover over the thoughts straight away; I won’t have to look at them, metaphorically, or be able to, literally.

I still can’t picture where or with what colour pen or quite how I will write the acknowledgements though… but before long, those too will be concluded.

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Fairy Sighting

I saw a fairy at the Perth train station this evening, coming home.

He had dark bare feet, and stretchy thai fisherman’s pants in green and purple, and a stretchy burnt-orange tunic top. He had a big bulky backpack, with plastic clips, that he slung between his feet when he sat on the train, in the seat next to the seat that you have to give up, squashed in by people on all sides, where he fell asleep. He had vivid green facepaint curling in long tapered leaves and stalks around the features of his face, and there were leaf-shaped leaves, bigger than your hand, and early branches, yellow and pale green, sprouting from his head and his tunic. When he walked on to the train, as rushed and then as slowly as the rest of us, he jangled faintly, as his steps moved the line of bells that hung from his waist.

I wasn’t fooled by the plastic leaves and branches tied onto his clothes, or by the birght green facepaint. I recognised him as a fairy out flitting the city for the night, heading home on the train.

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A sizeable post on Australian fashion

The Body Shop's former mascot "Ruby"

As a postscript to my previous post on having to endure the apologies of sales assistants that my bum requires a size 14/16, can I just suggest to the general Australian public that it’s clothes, not women, that come in “size 16”.

Have just been reading a post on Jezebel in which an Australian designer mouths off about sizes over 14 not being healthy; I find it a little hard to believe that someone could actually be that stupid, and think that maybe she was just inventing a reason not to do something she didn’t really want to do. But then why wouldn’t she want to make more of her clothes, if there’s a market? Is there an idea in the fashion world that you are less hip (they say hip right?) or less the highest example of fashion art if you make clothes for, you know, everyone? Actually someone mentions this in one of the comments on the Jezebel post. But that’s what pissed me off, if you want to make money by being exclusive then just admit to that, don’t try to give some made-up and very insulting reason because you’re drunk on the power of being a designer at a fashion show interviewed by a newspaper!

The original article from the SMH in which the designer’s comments were made is here. The article mentions that the designer in question‘s clothes are stocked by Myer; I think I am offended enough to write to Myer and ask that they no longer stock her clothes. (*NB I did and SMH weren’t quite right; Myer had already “de-ranged” nevenka some time ago).

Something in this article in the SMH that made me grind my teeth is this sentence:

“Professor Joseph Proietto, a professor of medicine at Melbourne University and head of the weight control clinic at Austin Health, adds that a woman can be a size 16 or 18 and still be healthy.”

It annoys me more than a little that this news article is taking such pains to point this out – as if it must come as a surprise to all the paper’s readers? And furthermore, thanks, ta, for finding a male professor of medicine assuring me that the size clothing I & many of my friends wear (conflated into our body’s “size” without hesitation) doesn’t mean that our bodies are deviant or unhealthy. Thanks SMH.

Mind you, this article did make me pause and think – they have a list of Australian labels & the clothes sizes they go up to, and while I’ve never been able to afford most of those labels, I did spend all my teenage and undergrad years in and out of Sportsgirl and Portmans. I had no idea that those shops didn’t go up past size 16. And why would I? It never occurred to me, I never needed to look further along the rack, so I never realised that the numbers to the right wouldn’t have continued going up. I can’t imagine having been a teenager and not actually being able to spend all my Christmas/Birthday/sulking money at Sportsgirl on the clothes you could be sure were in fashion.

I love Alannah Hill, I think her clothes are poetry hanging on racks and I ghost through the Claremont store from time to time, wearing the kind of defiant but hunched look I wear walking into an art gallery to look at art I could never afford, which is what I’m doing. I have often noticed that the top I occasionally dare to shift a bit along the rack to look at it better doesn’t come in my size, but for some reason I always thought it was a coincidence. It did contribute, though, to me retreating out of the shop in some confusion, when I might otherwise have tried on one of her gorgeous and whimsical prints or bow-scattered cardies just for fun. I sort of don’t want to find out, now, whether she really does make size 14 stuff, because I love her stuff and kind of hope I could afford/squash down conscience enough to spend $600 on a dress one day…

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It’s not you, it’s this zip

On separating your feminist objection to your body becoming an object of scrutiny from the assumption that you’re just embarrassed by your waistline.

I went to be fitted for a bridesmaid’s dress this morning. I bounced quite eagerly into the clinical glitter of the chanderlier’d bridal dress shop, but sadly, the nifty little number that the canny bride had managed to select out of all the high school ball sack-shaped (ah, that phrase didn’t come out as I quite intended) offerings had in the meantime been sold, so I didn’t actually get to try on any version of the actual dress. I was going in so that they could take my measurements, and with tendrils of caffeine withdrawal curling across my consciousness I was a little confused as to why I had to put on one of their other dresses before they took my measurements, but I obliged, and climbed into the ball-sack.

I remember now something I didn’t notice at the time, but which the sexism-filter that lets me get through the day without turning into a Valkyrie of rage must have edited for me, which is that when “the lady” (as, like a five year-old I always think of and refer to an actual grown-up of a shop assistant) asked me what size I was, “12?” and I replied, “twelve, fourteen, often sixteen on the bottom” and unnoticed by me at the time was how her nod at my “twelve, fourteen” turned into a “tsk” as I added “sixteen on the bottom.” It was a “tsk” of disapproval, denial, and reassurance, all in one – it’s like that scene at the opening of Pygmailion when Henry Higgins discerns like a hundred different vowel sounds packed into Eliza’s “’Garn” (for similar, go to a football game and record a “CAAAAARRNN!” and then play it in slow motion to detect the building resonance of hope, eagerness, excitement, discontent, outright disappointment, multidirectional rage, triumph, and final smack of smugness in the “n”).

Tell me, gentle readers, that I am making that up and adding extra dipthongs of significance to that noise, or tell me that I am pretty much right, and you’ve had the strange contradictory sound of “oh I’m sure you’re not a sixteen dear you’re lovely” condensed into a “tsk” and directed at you. See, I feel that I understood this monosyllabic language because I have had that phrase, in its extended version, directed at me many times, and have always found it extremely difficult to negotiate a response.

Here are some other examples of encounters in a dress shop when I have found it impossible to frame the terms of my disapproval.

One is from today, when, in trying on the dress that wasn’t actually my bridesmaid dress, I couldn’t pull up the zip, so I stopped tugging it before I broke something and asked the assistant to do the dress up for me. She tugged at it and squinched the sides of the dress together and couldn’t do it up over my waist, and I waited patiently, but all the while she kept repeating, “it’s not you, it’s this zip.” Don’t worry dear, it’s not you, it’s this invisible zip, it’s the way they’re made, they never do up over the waist.  Her attempt to forestall my distress at the zip not doing up only taught me that I it was somehow wrong not to be the creature that the invisible zip would smoothly and effortlessly encase. And this stuck in the sieve of my sexism-filter, as a large and jagged lump of irritation, because it’s just so irritating to have anyone assume that you will actually be upset that a dress can’t quite perform its function of cinching your waist.

It didn’t help, of course, that it was a magnificently ugly dress. A hideous creation all the worse for being clearly made from expensive materials and those extras that I always associate with a kind of “tailored”, finished look, linings and panels and piping and an invisible zip.

It was the kind of dress that is an insinuating attempt at modernist elegance as you see in some over-designed chairs sometimes, that for a moment almost convince you that they are spare and striking, until you realise that in trying to gesture towards a minimalist style they have only made a cartoon mockery of it. This was a dress to set your teeth on edge, expensive, tailored, and horrible. Grey, a kind of mid between light and dark grey, but not exactly metallic, the material was shiny and plasticy feeling but the colour itself was matt. The bodice was sort-of structured, and yet had a kind of extra layer of puffiness to it, and there was a panel between the bust and the hips that somehow was neither long nor short enough, I wasn’t quite sure what it was there for, except to make my body look sort of segmented, like an insect’s. The dress was adorned with painful inexplicableness, with some grey-coloured roses, also oddly puffy, in a triangle on the front, and had grey straps hanging down like limp pasta that could go over the shoulders, or not. I don’t think I remember what the skirt was like, I think that it was an a-line skirt with panels, that fell to that awkward mid-calf height that admittedly most off-the-rack party dresses do fall to. “WOW this is an ugly dress I started to say to the shop assistant, and then tried to subvocalise it as I remembered that she, you know, made a living selling it.

My description of the ugliness of the dress by the way is entirely beside the point of this post, except that it shows that I do care very passionately about the relative beauty and ugliness of frocks.

I was a little uncomfortable with the way the lady in the shop pulled the dress across my hips and bum and said that I “needed” the breadth along there, with a firm determinedness and an appealing glance at me, and a repeated sketching of my hips in the air, as if there was some mystery to the dress goes over legs and bum/dress doesn’t go down over legs and bum dichotomy into which I tend to place my frocks (I actually own quite a few in the latter category, from markets without changerooms, but even though they physically don’t fit me I can’t quite bear to give them away). Maybe my discomfort when she was saying all this was a little unfair, and was not what she meant at all, but it stemmed from memories of previous encounters, such as:

Another fitting for another bridesmaid’s dress, in which the shop-lady (another proper grown-up) threw her tape around my bust and then around my waist and then as she wrapped the tape around my hips she announced, to me and my friends around me, “and now this is the bit that we don’t like.” I actually had the presence of mind to say “speak for yourself” at this but again my programmed impulse not to be rude made me subvocalise it again. My boyfriend, I have to point out, overheard and was enraged, but even though he’s usually an articulate feminist I think there was too much appreciation there of the area in question’s specific shape for him to have been properly outraged at the idea that I would just agree that there is a part of the female body that is inherently lacking. “This is the part that none of us like.”

And the thing is, is that her dresses that she had in that shop were all saying that too, they all of them stretched a little and didn’t quite fit over the hips and bum if they did fit at the bust and the waist, so that they did look a little silly. I guess it would be bad business to admit, “and this is the part that none of our dresses are properly cut to accommodate for.”

But there it is, the essential idea in the apology of the sales clerk, I’m sorry, I apologise, that I have to draw attention and say out loud the fact I would rather not say, that your body doesn’t seem to fit the dress. Perhaps that’s why they are in superstitious hopefulness called change rooms – perhaps the shop owners hope that their potential customers will come out magically moulded into the shape that is correct.

And see, here, in this post, I encounter the same problem that I encounter in the world when I try to respond to such comments, which is that I’m not complaining about the fact that the dress doesn’t fit. I’m not demanding that all women’s clothes should be bigger on the bottom than the top, that is silly, and not really you know a thing I want to be responsible for, and like anyone else I can buy a dress that’s mostly my size and have it altered if it doesn’t fit in one way or another. I am mentally capable of accepting that everyone is different sizes but if many dresses are going to be made at once, they won’t fit everyone; they may not even fit anyone. I don’t really care. What I care about, what offends and irritates me, is the assumption that I will want, will desire a shape that fits into the dress, and therefore, usually, into a pretty specific idea of what a woman’s body looks like in a dress.

That’s what I feel underlies half-an-hour of stammered apology for the mistake of thinking I was pregnant, or an anxious and harried reassurance that the zip was naturally inclined to stick, or the cheerful deprecation of the existence of hips.

But then what do I say? Any sign of offence at these comments is interpreted, or I feel it is interpreted, as offence in relation to my body – a feeling of personal insult – rather than the feminist recognition that the specificity of my body’s shape and mass should not be a matter for such scrutiny, should not, really, come into it at all.

This is why I try to reject the compliment that a particular piece of my wardrobe is “flattering”; I know it’s always well-meant but what there ever such a back-handed compliment? I’m not an insecure royal. It’s funny and irritating in equal parts to think that a dress or a pair of jeans or a kind of sleeve could flatten my calves or lengthen my earlobes or widen the space between my toes while making my index fingers appear longer. Or, as is much less amusing, flatten my “tummy” (such a nice word really, so abused by the sentences it gets put into), hide my arms and narrow my waist, which is what I have in my life been told over and over again, in the form of a compliment, it is the duty of my clothes to do to my body.

I like my arms; they lift things, and I can wrap both of them around a golden retriever and squeeze him while he barks. I like my tummy; my friends’ babies practiced standing on it when I was awkwardly learning to cuddle them. I like my waist, it’s good for putting belts around so I can tuck my thumbs into them, and of course is generally useful as somewhere to rest my hands when I don’t have a drink at parties.

Apart from shading my skin from the sun and I guess also keeping the laws about public nudity, my clothes aren’t really that related to my body’s form, not nearly as much so as the other objects around me, that are all designed for the human body to use or move around or rest on.

The thing is, the counter-intuitive thing that I want somehow to get across, is that the clothes I wear are not “about” my body. I like clothes, I love clothes, but I like their shape and colour and fabric and pattern, and the time periods or activities or subcultures they can call to mind, not their optically illusive effect on my shape.

It does not really occur to me to think of the dress as somehow shaping my body, indeed, how could it be anything but the other way around? And yet how can I continue to ignore the thought, of how I fit the dress, when everyone assumes it will be my first thought?

It is strange to me to talk that way, about a piece of cloth magically stretching and reducing and transforming me.

But that strangeness, so obvious to me, has proven difficult to communicate, especially on the spot, and I find myself reaching to find some strategic phrase that would create the right sense of alienation or estrangement in the person that I’m talking to – that I am interested in clothes and therefore, yes, in the look of the dress or shorts or hat, but that the aesthetics of clothes are not necessarily linked to size (another word that should be general and arbitrary and isn’t) an or ideaistic image.

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Animals in times of crisis

I have said it on facebook and I will say it here again; please consider donating to the RSPCA in Queensland to help them deal with looking after some of the animals stranded or injured in the floods. Like everyone else, they will likely need support for quite some time.

My thoughts are with Queensland so much at the moment, and something I notice is that those of you in Queensland are too busy coping to be doing the reflecting and commenting that the rest of the nation is doing – so forgive me for the luxury of sitting here and thinking and commenting and analysing news reports, but it is a way of connecting with you all, and I hope that I can find a way to translate my thoughts into practical help in the near future.

I suppose many of you will have seen this? It is an article accompanying a striking picture of a frog riding out the floods on a snake’s tail. The man interviewed in the article mentions anecdotes in which animals have been seen helping animals in disasters.  It’s something I would love to hear more about, although a cursory Google search didn’t reveal much – maybe because they are the sorts of stories we just tell to a person who tells it to someone else.

It makes me wonder though, is altruism something we want to see in animals? Many books I’ve read suggest so. I have been writing about the way that fantasy books rely upon representing animals who have the impulse to band together and help humans; an aspect of this is also the way that the animals are shown to be united already in common cause, all understanding each other and willing to help each other, at least in the case of a fight against catastrophe.

I am a little suspicious that there in in these kind of stories an aspect of paternalism towards nature.

When I read this article on Wikipedia, why was I so pleased whenever I read that one species of animal helped another? Why was I even more thrilled at the thought that the action was not mutually beneficial, not “symbiotic”, but actually altruism, as I felt I understood it?

For when I read about one member of a species dying or sacrificing time or food or whatever for another, it seems to make sense, to hit the button that I guess is programmed by my vague notion of the survival of the fittest. It makes me realise that if I stop to think about it, I have made the assumption that nature is cruel, and that sympathy exists only amongst kind. It is worth wondering where do these received ideas of mine come from?

At any rate, for animals helping animals: the experts are here.

I was interested as well to read this article about people calling for there to be changes to the law to account for pets and other animals in a crisis. I found it noticeable that the RSPCA take the human angle here, justifiying their argument with the idea that pets are important because of what they mean to us. I can understand that – I feel like Ned is a golden retriever member of the family, and it is true – or at least I think that it is true – that much of the distress is on the human family member’s side, we are the ones who can think out and imagine terrible things.  I hope, though I am not sure that many animals were in a way protected, in a way,  by a lack of cognition, by instinct taking over, and that when they did die the deaths were simple, and had no agony of emotion.

The article is interesting in what it says about our domestic animals, what they mean to us, and the strangely liminal place they have in our families. They are so important in the private space of the family home that we love them as we do people and we grieve for them as we do people, and yet in the public sphere we cannot admit or ask for bereavement space because of a lost pet. People with pets of their own understand but it is a kind of secret understanding, I think, one that you hesitate to share.

Perhaps these floods will allow us a kind of public mourning of our beloved animals, perhaps we can crack through our embarrassment, our reserve, and the scale of the shared experience will let us re-examine the rights of pets, their importanc ein our lives, but also the extremely liminal, uncertain, ambivalent place they have in law and in culture.

Also: Holy CRAP there are ancient man-eating dinosaurs in the floodwater along with venomous snakes.

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