Monthly Archives: December 2009

What to do on New Year’s Eve

It’s New Year’s Eve, so as has become my custom in recent years, I will have a quiet drink with the lovely Mr Strange Land, go to bed early, and welcome the new year with the fresh light of a new day. I haven’t stayed up to watch the new year in since 1999/2000, and even then, it was a bit of a fizzer, despite spending the evening with dear friends of ours. Mr Strange Land and one of our friends had terrible colds, and by about 11.30pm, they could manage no more, so off to bed we all went. We were all Kiwis living in Australia at the time; if only we had thought of it, we could have marked the millennium at 12am NZ time, which was 10pm in New South Wales, and then gone quietly to bed.

As for New Year’s resolutions… I have decided that it’s time for a dry month, ‘though I am not an old man (the honour of your peers if you can identify that particular literary reference). I grow old, I grow old, and my body no longer copes with everything I throw at it in quite the same way any more. I think it needs a little rest. Unfortunately, my birthday is in the middle of January. However, Ms Eleven suggested that we could designate January 14 a special day, and I could have a glass or two of wine to celebrate. Mr Strange Land and I immediately wondered how many other special days there might be in January…

That’s all I’m resolving to do. Apparently, one resolution at a time is the way to go. That seems just fine to me.

Thank you for reading my blog in 2009. Thank you to the people who’ve agreed with me, and the people who’ve disagreed with me (I know, some of you have fall into both of these categories), to the people who’ve commented, and to the people who have contacted me off-blog, and to the people who come by and read, even if they don’t comment, and my family members and friends who read too. I’ve had an interesting year on the blog, and I have been enjoying the particular community that gathers here, many of whom I see at other blogs around the place too. I’ve found some new blogs to read when people have commented here – NwN and Mama in Macondo – I’m looking at you! (And some other people too, who I know I’ve found through comments, but NwN and MiM are the most recent, as far as I can recall.) May 2010 be a good year for you all.

Ka kite ano! See you on the other side on midnight.

A quick note of correction for the SMH

The Sydney Morning Herald is running a story saying that Helen Clark and Peter Jackson have been given New Year’s honours in New Zealand, and with respect to Helen Clark especially, this is a baaaddd thing, because her government abolished New Year’s honours a few years ago. [link]

Ahh…. wrong.

During Helen Clark’s time as prime minister, her government abolished the titles “Sir” and “Dame” and introduced a set of honours specific to New Zealand. Honours themselves were never abolished – just the head-bowing regressive titles that purported to come from the English monarchy. Miss Clark and her colleagues thought that New Zealanders and New Zealand were sufficiently secure to be able to nominate and name those who were recognised as having mae extraordinary contributions to the community all by themselves. But then when the blue-rinse National party came to power in late 2008, in a fit of cultural cringe they re-introduced the titles.

Helen Clark has been admitted to the Order of New Zealand, which is limited to 20 living New Zealanders (there are 17 members at present). I’m delighted by this. Although she was not our first female prime minister, she was the first woman who was chosen by the electorate to fill this role, and during her time as leader she normalised the idea of women being leaders. I don’t think anyone would even bother to comment on having female political leaders in New Zealand any more. She was only the second post-war prime minister to stay in power for three terms.

Because the Sydney Morning Herald reporters didn’t bother to research their story carefully enough, they make Helen Clark seem like a hypocrite for accepting an honour. She is not. The honour has existed since 1987, and it does not carry a title. The SMH should apologise to Helen Clark for its petty story.

So, how was your Christmas?

Mine was excellent, thank you.

Our daughters woke at 5.50am, but didn’t start opening presents until 6am, bless them. A couple of years ago, we found that there were no atheists in foxholes on Christmas Eve, but by this year, they had given up even strategic belief in Santa. However, by negotiation we agreed that we would leave some presents at the ends of their beds to open at 6am (no earlier!), and they would get the rest when everyone (read, all the adults) were awake. That worked very well for everyone.

My brother and his son came over for breakfast, which we finished around midday. Then my brother took his son over to his mother’s place, and headed back to his own home for a few quiet hours before coming back to my parents’ place for dinner with his partner and their other children. We had ham and kumara and new potatoes from Mum’s garden and asparagus, followed by raspberry semifreddo and pannacotta and panforte and berries and black doris plum spoom and Christmas mince tarts and limoncello icecream and chocolate macaroons. All home made, of course. My mother outdid herself in the matter of desserts. We finished off with Christmas cake, made by my mum using her mother’s recipe, and iced by me, as has become our custom in the last twenty years or so (for the Christmasses when we are at my parents’ place). For pictures of a beautifully iced Christmas cake, see Christmas Eve cake post at Still Life with Cat.

I so enjoyed spending the day with my family, ‘though I missed the two brothers and their families who were not there this time.

As for my haul of presents, I got Jane Austen DVDs as requested, books and chocolates. I was particularly pleased to be given Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, The Lacuna, which I have been coveting. There was a quiet discussion between my mother and my partner as to who should give it to me (my mother did), which mirrored the conversation between my father and me as to who should give it to Mum (my father did). So we each clutched our copies of The Lacuna and chuckled with delight.

If you celebrate it, how was your Christmas?

Other Christmas reports: Holidays to date at Fuck Politeness, A very good day at Elsewoman, Xmas Day open thread at Hoyden about Town, Christmas 2009 at Blue Milk

Friday Feminist – Jane Austen

It’s stretching several points to call the divine Jane a feminist, but it’s Christmas Day, so indulge me.

“…. Well, Miss Elliot,” (lowering his voice) “as I was saying, we shall never agree I suppose upon this point. No man and woman, would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you–all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818

Carnival reading

The new edition of the Carnival of Feminists, and the last one for the year, is up at Penny Red.

Pompeii

We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision.

Pliny the Younger, Letter 6.20, to Tacitus, describing the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii.

There is a magnificent exhibition on at Te Papa, about Pompeii, the Roman town destroyed by Vesuvius in 79AD. If you are in Wellington, you should go to it. Now. We visited it last Saturday when it opened, and it has been in my mind ever since.*

The artefacts recovered from Pompeii and on display are fascinating. But it was the plaster casts of bodies of people who died in the eruption that moved me most. Two women lying together, a dog chained to a wall and a prisoner shackled, a man crouching in a corner, cloak over his mouth. My children were oddly matter-of-fact about them, but I was not, and I mourned for the deaths of these unknown people over 1900 years ago.

The exhibition includes a 3D video reconstruction of what the eruption would have looked like from from the time of the first rumbling earthquakes through to the pyroclastic flows that would have killed any people who still remained alive in Pompeii, to the final fall of ash. I found it fascinating, and horrifying; te maunga, Mount Taranaki, under which my parents live is a stratovolcano, like Vesuvius.

Pliny the Younger wrote an eye-witness account of it, so accurate that similar eruptions are called Plinian eruptions. There are some quotes from his letters on the walls, including the one at start of this post, which grabbed me. And this one moved me:

Then my mother began to beg and urge and order me to flee however I might, saying that a young man could make it, that she, weighed down in years and body, would die happy if she escaped being the cause of my death. I replied that I wouldn’t save myself without her…

As we entered the exhibition, there was a contemporary artefact that gives a glimpse into life in 21st century New Zealand. The first panel describing the exhibition, and setting the scene, is accompanied by a translation, into Te Reo, Maori language.

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* The cost for a family to go to the exhibition is $35, but to my relief, a “family” is defined as two adults and up to three children.

Drawing a line

At what point is it fair enough to criticise other women for the choices they make about their bodies?

I’ve been turning the question over for the last month or two, ever since I made a negative post about women injecting their feet with botox in order to wear what I regard as “silly shoes” [link], and in comments at Hoyden about Town, Tigtog and the Queen of Thorns had an extended discussion about whether it was fair to make such comments [link]. In particular, QoT was concerned about linking “silly shoes” and health.

Nobody owes staying in perfect health to anybody, or maintaining “natural” feet, or not bleaching their hair because “it’ll dry it out”, or any other number of “harmful” things we do.

Well… hmmm… I don’t know. As in, I am in epistemic doubt, not that I am trying to indicate that I disagree with QoT (‘though I may well do, but if I disagree with someone, I prefer to say, “I disagree with you” rather than faff around with weasel words). You will see that this is a rambly, thinky piece, and I don’t think I’ve even answered the question, but that’s because actually, I really don’t know what I think about this. I’m hoping that people will have more thoughts to add in comments.

I think it is a moral failing to neglect to take reasonable care of yourself if that then means that other people near to you will be required to turn around and look after you. For example, a few years ago, a young man in New Zealand got some cheap cats-eye contact lenses to wear for a party. He left them in for three days without changing them, and got an eye-infection. He didn’t use the medication that his doctor prescribed, and eventually, ended up having surgery on that eye. And then he neglected to look after his eye post surgery, and ended up losing his sight in that eye. [link] I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the young man should not be given as much assistance as he needs in order to function as well as possible in the world. But all other things being equal (there could after all, be some other reason that we don’t know about that explains why he so neglected his own health), I think that it is reasonable to at least make a moral judgment that he was negligent. (NB: In New Zealand, his health care would have been paid for by taxpayers.)

And even if we can make a charge of negligence with respect to health, it’s still not going to give me the machinery I need to defend the claim I made about silly shoes and botox. As far as I know, botox administered properly has no long term effects. It does however, entail a certain amount of pain. So the question becomes, for me, to what extent it is reasonable to endure pain in order achieve a particular fashion look?

I have tried to think through what I do for the sake of ‘beauty’. I use cleanser, toner and moisturiser, and wear a small amount of makeup (I buy foundation and loose powder, and use the freebies that come with the regular ‘gift packs’). And I choose my clothes carefully. All aimed at making me feel as though I look good, of course. Otherwise jeans and t-shirts and jumpers would be just fine, n’est ce pas? All temporary, and able to be changed at a whim.

But then there’s beauty techiques that have a longer lasting effect I got my ears pierced when I was 14. My earlobes were numbed with ice, and the piercing studs were shot through. It was momentarily painful. I get my legs waxed, which is momentarily painful. And I get my hair coloured – sometimes the dye stings my scalp, also momentarily painful, and I suppose that in the longer term, it may damage my hair. I see these as minor and trivial pains, a nuisance and nothing more.

That’s it. I’ve not considered cosmetic surgery, and I don’t think I’m likely to. With the exception of ear piercing, I’ve had nothing done that has a permanent effect on my body. I don’t necessarily reject permanent body adornment; although tattoos are not for me, if another woman wants to get them, well, whatever. The same thing goes with piercings – not my thing, but if someone else wants them, fine. It’s her body, her choice.

But somehow, I still want to reject botox and ‘silly shoes’. I think it’s for two reasons. One is that those amazing high heeled shoes, beautiful though they can be, do seem to have a negative affect on longer term health. [link] [link] The other is that even without the effects on bones and joints, high heeled shoes prevent women from moving naturally, from swinging their legs freely, from standing with ease. They hobble women, with all the subtexts and overtones and secondary meanings implied by that, all for the sake of appearing a certain way. It seems to me to be a step too far.

As you can see, what I am trying to do is to draw a line, between appearance related activities that are, for want of a better word, acceptable, and those that are not. I don’t think it’s an easy line to draw, and by no means do I want to claim that I’ve got it right. But I do think that I have a conceptual tool that gives me a way of distinguishing one end of the line from the other i.e. the effect on health. That’s why tattoos and piercings and make-up don’t worry me, but very high heeled shoes do. I also think that is possible to make a moral claim about one end of the line, that is, that someone who engages in beauty practices that have a long term deleterious effect on health is negligent.

Having said all that, if you choose to wear high-heeled shoes on occasion, well, then, that’s your business. I’m not at all interested in stopping you, even if you wear them all the time. Your body, your choice. I simply reserve the right to make a judgement about it. It’s not a judgement based on my own beauty preferences; it’s a judgement about neglect. And even if I think that it is your own behaviour that has caused health related problems, I will happily pay my taxes to support any medical assistance and treatment for you. That’s the price of of living in a liberal democracy.

I do understand what QoT says about making judgements about other people’s choices. There’s not just a line to be drawn here, but a fine line to be walked, between making a judgement about someone’s behaviour, and forcing that person to behave in certain ways. Perhaps over the longer time social disapproval will make very high heeled shoes disappear, along with some other distorting beauty practices (extreme thinness achieved through stringent dieting, for example). My hope is that such disapproval would be based on a rational understanding of health and healthiness, on considered arguments and above all on strong evidence about what is, and what is not healthy. It certainly should not be based on simple ‘I don’t like this’ reactions. One way to avoid coercing people’s behaviour is to refuse to make moral judgements as all, but to my mind, that’s as much a failure as falling into prejudice and coercion. We actually need to do the hard work, to think hard about what reasons underpin our judgements, to amass the evidence and then make our judgements on that basis. And even then, that in no way means that we should not help that person as best we can. Not because she or he deserves or doesn’t deserve it, but because that’s what decent human beings do.

As for me, given that I don’t approve of very high heeled shoes, you will not find me wearing them. I will admire yours, if they are particularly delicious (I recommend Dr Isis and Megan for pictures of gorgeous shoes), especially if you wear them as an ornament from time to time, just as I wear earrings in my pierced ears, and dye my hair to match my car*, just for fun. If however, you insist on wearing them all the time, to the extent that it damages your body, then I will think that you are negligent in that regard.

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* Given recent events, there is some concern in my family about what colour my replacement car will be.