Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A year ago

This time last year it was blustery, cold and wet. One of those typical winter days that Melbourne does so well. I felt like a wet piece of cardboard, barely able to keep my shape as I strode to the bus stop. Outwardly I didn't look as if I was about to break, but it wouldn't have taken much: an ill-timed step, a missed tablet.

The symptoms I'd accumulated over the decades - the tremors in my hands, the repeatedly dislocating pelvic bones, the rapid heartbeat and excessive temperature, the insomnia - were obvious now, even me.

In hindsight, other symptoms were clearly present years before. Excessive yawning and fatigue. Muscle weakness and wastage (my physiotherapist could feel my spine through my stomach). The kind of appetite that would put an elite athlete to shame. ("Well, yes, I can eat another block of Camembert".)

But all this seemed minor. I'd been gravely ill just a few years before, with two pregnancies before that. I thought that this was what getting older felt like.

It was Perth that did it. Arriving in the western city on one of the hottest days of summer, after a Melbourne heatwave. I could not cool down or calm down. There was no chilling with the kids. I was uncharacteristically short-tempered and miserable. Something was very wrong.

By July, I knew the friendly faces of the pathology nurses, their spiels, the lighthearted ones and the serious ones. When the radiologist came, I recognised her from a previous scan. One of the serious ones. I had half a mind to run home, but my docile body wouldn't obey. Instead, I followed her down the pale blue corridor, with its multi-lingual yellow and black warnings, and I reluctantly took my medicine.

A year on, the difference is stark: in body and mind. I'd weighed the same at 14 as I did at 39. I am now a robust and sustained 10 kg heavier. My face is no longer skeletal. I am strong. I can, cautiously, jog and lift my five year old. My patience for people, thinking and listening has returned. I can read and write and remember people. (And write I have: here and here and here).

These might seem trivial observations, and perhaps they are: attempts to note down the 'horrible surprise' before I forget its insights:  how it feels to lose five years to two illnesses and what it means to feel better. For now.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Casser Maison

"Leaving an apartment. Vacating the scene. Decamping. Clearing up. Clearing out.
Making an inventory  tidying up  sorting out  going through
Eliminating.  throwing away  palming off  on
- Georges Perec, 'Moving Out'

Casser maison. Breaking the house. Trust the French to have a phrase for it. The stomach-churning, sleep-depriving anxiety that comes with pulling up stumps, packing up the house, and moving.

In our case, it is hopefully nothing more than a few streets away, as we've no desire to move anywhere - we love this place but our landlord needs to sell. Still, less than a year in, boxing up the books and rationalising the kids' proliferation of drawings is less than joyful.

This is my ninth move since I left my childhood home, and I've finally learnt a thing or two. This time, the assortment of fragile objects are out the door first. The ceramic pots collected from op shops across the country. Interesting bits of driftwood, shells and stones from holidays. My childhood jewellery box and Australiana elf ornament.

In previous moves I've left packing these objects to almost last, reasoning that they'd get broken if packed too early. I also suspect some sort of denial was at work - the sense that the move wouldn't really be happening until these things were boxed up and hidden from sight. This time, they're first out the door, off to the safety of my mother's house.

It's somewhat strange to be without these familiar touchstones. I realise how much I use them everyday: the vases for handpicked flowers, the ornaments for holding everyday jewellery and pins, the arrangements made with sticks and stones. I had assumed they were much more of a passive backdrop to life, rather than everyday presences.

And when we've found a new home, they'll be back again: a select few narrative and aesthetic markers of my life so far - possessions to help me settle in.

"Cleaning  checking  trying out  changing  fitting  signing  waiting  imagining inventing  investing  deciding...entering  breathing hard
settling in
living in
- Georges Perec, 'Moving in'

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Detested Object & Behavioural Residue

A dead, giant, plastic spider?
I'm guessing that quite a few of you have one of these detested objects in your homes, right?

Usually, it's gathering dust somewhere, under a bed, or blocking up the garage.

If you're like me, it is next to your bed to remind you to use it, but in fact being used as a temporary clothes horse for someone lazy (me).

Its proper function is, of course, as a support for doing core exercises. In our house it is known as the 'sit-up machine'.

I confess it hasn't had a heap of use in that role - I've been too sick, my muscles too wasted, to use it as I once did in my early 20s for toned abs. Instead, it has done time as an impromptu toy for the kids (the best kind), as a material reminder to do my physio exercises (fail), and, finally, as a place for draping whatever was in my hands, like clothes (ahem). My husband describes it in this last role as: "A dead, giant, plastic spider curled up on the floor, hiding under clothes." Yes, he hates it (in case you didn't infer that already).

The particular problem this object highlights is what psychologist Sam Gosling calls 'behavioural residue'. It reveals my habits, which in turn reveal the lack of time and energy I devote in my own space to putting things away in their proper place.

Most of the time, I do clear up mess, especially for the little people who live in my house. But the clutter around this sit-up machine shows up my personal lapses. As Gosling puts it: "the residue of actions that do leave their mark can tell us a lot about a person's traits, values and goals."

James Laver, theorist of taste and fashion, made a similar point about observation, decades earlier, when he wrote of what can be learned behind the scenes: "A more urban observer might... pick up from a woman's dressing table, or from the floor of her bedroom, no matter what trifle. It would tell him more of woman than most of the sages can..."

Why are these lapses important?

Sociologist Erving Goffman thought we were all trying to present ourselves to others in a particular (usually flattering) light. We are all like actors upon the stage, following scripts and trying to manage others' impressions of us - trying not to let anything slip that might discredit us.

In the glimpses backstage, we are exposed. The things we hide or cannot see are revealed to us and others. It's no coincidence that the sit-up machine sits in my bedroom where I get ready for the day's performance.

Of course, there is a degree of subjectivity to the interpretation of behavioural residue. These might not be big things, or even the slightest bit discrediting - one person's 'mess' and 'disorder' is another's idea of 'cosy' and 'warm' - but they often can point up a blind spot in our character. The spot where the normally consciousness person is slapdash.

As an experiment, I've sent the detested sit-up machine on its way to the garage. What will happen to my behavioural residue? Watch this slightly bigger, neater space.

Look at all that space waiting to be claimed!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sociology of Taste

Even French vintage little cafe au lait bowls on Etsy tell a story about us.

"Taste classifies", writes French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, "and it classifies the classifier."

It's easy to think of taste as a very personal thing. As in food, something tastes good to us or it doesn't. Some of us have the gift of good taste, while some of us don't.

But is this true? Are we born with innate style?

Bourdieu, unsurprisingly as a sociologist, doesn't agree. For him, taste is always learnt, cultivated, developed, even if we forget this learning. It is an often implicit code by which we read paintings, judge rooms and value objects.

Without this code, Bourdieu says we feel "lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, without rhyme or reason." The code gives us language and concepts to talk about objects.

Without this code, we won't feel at ease talking about what we like, for example, in an object's colour or texture or shape.

This lack of a shared code often means that the taste of 'ordinary' folk, living 'ordinary lives' is present "in itself" but not "for itself". This is taste as passively following trends or 'style' as the debris of routine or behavioural residue. It happens without discernment as opposed to carefully curated style.

Take the French green vintage bowls at the top of this blog. At one time they might have been valued for their beautiful colour, but I suspect in most homes they would chiefly have been a practical object, for serving milk.

Skip forward half a century, and they are signs of 'good' taste. These once common objects are now valued aesthetically for their distance from the world's necessity. They are intentionaly chosen, actively sought out - distinctively and deliberately vintage in a world of alternatives. They are an expression of taste 'for itself'.

Whatever our taste is - good or bad or non-descript - it is defining of us as individuals. It classifies and announces us to the world.

Photo Source

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Parenthood and Biography

Vanessa Bell and her son Julian
on the beach at Studland, Dorset, 1910,
 with Clive Bell and Mabel Selwood,
their maid, in the background.
With my two children now at school, this February was a solid month of writing, writing and more writing. Now I'm having a few days break to read and research for the next lot of writing.

Today I'm again reading about Vanessa Bell - painter, mother, Bloomsbury figure, Virginia's sister.

Vanessa's aesthetic confidence intrigues me, but she is a puzzle, an enigma, not quite rendered in print.

While her sister celebrated her as a natural mother-figure, this has always struck a wrong note somehow. So I was relieved to read of her very familiar parental ambivalence before the birth of her first child, and her later celebration of meeting this baby, Julian, as a grown man in Paris 20 years later. It not only made good on the idealised mother claims, but also gave Vanessa substance and feeling - an inner life.

These two quotes below - from Frances Spalding's Vanessa Bell biography - are good examples: of fears and questions about parenting, answered years later in her obvious pride and surprise in Julian the man.

In 1907, Vanessa was pregnant and worried. Living with her in-laws and
"reminded of how iniquitous family life could be. Having recently discovered that she was pregnant, she asked Virginia: 'What shall I do with my family of 4 when they grow up? I'm beginning to think 2 will be enough. Do you think we shall gradually fall into the old abuses and that I shan't have any idea what my children are like or what they want to do?'"
 In 1927, meeting Julian in Paris, her fears were replaced by the comfort that the parenting gig had worked. Despite her early concerns, she really knew her son:
"She chose to linger a couple of days in the city in order to see Julian at her leisure. In foreign surroundings he struck her as now fully grown up... 'I found it almost impossible to believe I was his mother,' Vanessa told Roger [Fry], 'it was so exactly like talking to a friend of one's choosing only more intimate in many ways than most friends.' Now that her formerly dependent son had become an independent equal, Vanessa felt her affection for him change and deepen." Vanessa Bell in 1927, p.206.

It is partly for these glimpses behind 'the lace curtain' that I read biography for. I don't expect the full story, but occasionally something so honest and affecting and familiar of what it is like to live a life in progress.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The White Bicycle

Note: Footpath cycling with kids
It is mine. Finally. Yes, folk, I am once again a bike-owner. This time with a difference: I am also a bike-rider. (A rather daggy one, but a cyclist nonethess).

Despite ongoing injuries, I'm getting stronger, riding every day. Nothing too ambitious, just along the quiet, tree-lined suburban streets near home, avoiding the busier main roads. On the road alone, on the footpaths when cycling with the kids.

My bike is nothing special - no vintage cred, or ultralight frame, but it's perfect for riding the few kilometres with my kids to school, off to the library, cafe, and art class. Which makes me wonder why more folk don't do it too.

I suspect it has to do with legitimate fears of riding on busy roads - which research suggests is mostly practised by confident male cyclists - and grown-up forgetfulness. Forgetting what it feels like to ride - its immediacy, speed and general lack of difficulty. (Like learning to ride a...)

But if my photographs of the city's bicycles yesterday are any indication, not everyone is forgetting. There are some beautiful bikes out there, and lots of women of all ages using the city's safe bike paths. Here are a couple of my favourite drop-bar bicycles.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Bowl of Ideas

When we moved to this new house, with its ample kitchen pantry, there was no longer any need for the many wooden bowls I've collected. We still have a couple on the bench - with bananas and apples within easy reach for the kids. This downsizing meant that this attractive, smaller wooden bowl was a leftover.

Somehow, though, it found its way onto my desk. And, without thinking much about it, it became the repository of the little lists I write. Some are lists of things to do and new years resolutions, but mostly they are lists of ideas that I don't have time to work. I've always been a list-writer, a planner, so this isn't surprising. What is, is that I've steadily been working through these ideas, developing these thoughts in my writing - when they could just as easily have been lost.

This bowl of ideas is, in fact, one of those ideas I once read about and always meant to get around to trying. It wasn't a bowl that I read about - it was a shoebox. Feminist and activist for housework equality, Selma James credits her husband with the original idea:

‘The way to do it,’ he said, ‘is to take a shoebox and make a slit at the top; then whenever you have an idea jot it down and slip the piece of paper into the shoebox. After a while, you open the box, put all these sentences in order and you have a draft’ … I knew that if I stayed home from work to put the draft together, I would end up cleaning the cooker or doing some other major piece of housework, so I arranged to spend the day at a friend’s house … I had no distractions or excuses. I opened the shoebox, and by six or seven that evening, just as he’d said, I had the draft of a pamphlet."
All I can add to this is: it works!

(James cited in Jenny Turner's excellent LRB essay, 'As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes').