Thursday, December 17, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
"It's like the fifth circle of Hell", Clever Colleague suggested helpfully.
"What gets punished in the fifth circle?" I asked, warily.
CC furrowed her brows. "Actually, I don't know. It just seemed like a good, mid-level sort of Hell. Would you prefer the seventh circle?"
Unknowingly, CC was right on the money. The fifth circle of Dante's Inferno is where the wrathful and slothful are sent for punishment. (I'm a prime candidate in both departments, alternating my spare afternoon hours between road rage and siestas.) Of course, that's not the only place that us lazy bums can end up. The other is Purgatorio.
Dante envisioned purgatory as an island of concentric terraces rising upwards out of the Southern Oceans. Each sin gets its own terrace, where the wicked endure various degrees of tortuous suffering in the name of spiritual growth. The punishments, ironically, fit the crimes, and therefore we find the Proud struggling to hold their shoulders up under the weight of huge boulders, the Gluttonous abstaining from food and drink... and the slothful, running in perpetuity to atone for their laziness on Earth.
I was struck by the comparison. Rather than being Hell, moving house is basically a form of Purgatory on Earth, where we are forced to confront our months or years of slothful housekeeping and haphazard storage. Thus, for over a month, Clever Partner and I were constantly running to atone for our sins. We marvelled with the hindsight of a soul in Purgatory - didn't we know that the oven should have been cleaned every six months? Could we not have forseen the problems inherent in simply shoving unwanted items out of the way to the top of bookshelves or underneath tables? Should we not have realised that our failure to properly clean out five years' worth of accumulated junk from various expat flatmates would result in a mountain of detritus that would take the council three collections to dispose of?
Well, apparently not. We didn't, and, considering the degree to which comparisons between moving house and Hell are readily accepted, nobody else does, either. And now that we have worked out way through Purgatory to the Paradise of the New House, let us bow our heads and pray:
"May we always remember to scrub the grout,
Have the wisdom to unblock the downspout.
Free us from rising damp and insect hordes,
From leaking taps and rotten old floorboards.
May we never seek to store things overhead
Atop shelves and cupboards, or below our bed.
Deliver us from black-spot mould
And, please, before this house is sold
Shall we ever strive to clean, and then
Roll up our sleeves and clean again."
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The conversation followed the normal gyrations - first, he put it to me that evolution was "just a theory", which didn't comprehensively account for the complexity of the human body - a creation so marvellous that it must warrant a designer. Ignoring the logical follow-up question ("who designed the designer?"), I argued that there was no real evidence against the theory of evolution, other than the spurious claim that anything complex must have been consciously created or designed rather than having painstakingly evolved via natural selection. Finally, he turned the accusation around. "What evidence is there, looking at the extraordinary complexity of the human body, that it wasn't designed by a higher intelligence?", he challenged.
And this is where it got fun. The human body is a veritable laundry list of unintelligent features, just a few of which are provided below for your consideration.
Appendixes: First on the list would have to be an organ which, despite serving no discernible function, can explode, flood our bodies with poison, and kill us in a matter of days. Intelligent Design disciples have consistently had difficulty providing any explanation for the inclusion of this vestigial organ in an intelligently-designed human body.
Hemorrhoids: Yes, hemorrhoids. Apart from being painful, the humble hemorrhoid is renowned for occurring exclusively in humans. As the only truly bipedal mammals, humans have evolved in one distinctly unintelligent way. Think about it - can you name another mammal whose anus is directly below its centre of gravity?
Semen Allergy: Referred to in medical circles as Human Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity, this condition causes around 5% of women to have an allergic reaction to proteins in their partner's semen. The reaction can involve anything from redness and itching, to hives, blisters, and even anaphylactic shock. It's hard to think of a less intelligent factor to include in human reproduction.
Maternal Mortality: On the note of women's health, the WHO estimates that the lifetime risk of death caused by pregnancy and childbirth is a whopping 1 in 16 for women who don't have access to modern medical techniques such as Caesarean sections and blood transfusions. This rate is a great deal higher in humans than in other mammals. It's easy to see why. Our brains and heads have evolved rapidly to become much larger than the heads of any other ape, whilst our pelvises are disproportionately small.
Wisdom Teeth: This item should come as no surprise to anyone who's visited their dentist for the painfully expensive, and just plain painful experience of having these yanked out of your head. These teeth are thought to be vestigial remnants of a larger human jaw, containing more teeth for crushing and chewing plant matter, but now they essentially serve the function of creating wealth in the dental industry, and providing mortifying pain and infection to a large proportion of human adults. Archaeologists examining mass graves from the middle ages have surmised that the majority of (non-accidental) adolescent deaths from the period were probably caused by major impaction of the third molars. In terms of the debate at hand, it seems ironic that they're called wisdom teeth.
The Human Spine: In the course of their lives, up to 90% of adults will experience back pain. For many, the pain will be severe, and debilitating enough to cause significant problems with mobility, work, leisure and sleep. As far back as 1951, the late-great anthropologist and anatomist W.M. Krogman argued that the high incidence of vertebral problems in humans, which is not observed in other animals, can be attributed to the failure of the human spine to adequately adapt to walking upright. As he noted in Scientific American "the result is some ingenious adaptations, not all of them successful".
Cancer: It's hard to argue that there's anything intelligent about cells which can be genetically programmed to turn into fatal tumours.
Grinning Devotee was amused, but unconvinced by the evidence of poor planning entailed in the human body. He said;
"You can't get pissed at God for everything that can go wrong with a good design."
"On the plus side", I said, "if you believe in evolution, then you don't need to get pissed with God at all."
"Ah," said Grinning Devotee. "Now you're just trying to be clever."
How intelligent is Intelligent Design?
Sunday, September 27, 2009
This is not their story.
This is the story of a man whose life was also laid down to advance the lot of women. His name was Ignaz Semmelweis, and his name should be better known than it is, because women out there, everywhere, owe him big time.
Incidentally, "strewn with carcasses" is a good way to start this story, because Semmelweis was a doctor in a time when medicine wasn't too advanced. In the 1830s, a time before antisepsis, anaesthetics, germ-theory, or any of today's medical trimmings and trappings, Ignaz made his way from his native Hungary to study medicine in Vienna. By 1846, he was the head of Vienna's General Obstetric Hospital, where, incidentally, maternal deaths averaged at about 10% of admissions. They all seemed to display the same symptoms; a high fever, abdominal swelling, and skin pustules. Semmelweis wrote that he was perplexed by the death rate - even women delivering in the streets were dying less often than women in the clinic. But by 1847, he had discovered something brilliant - and unprecedented.
A colleague of old Ignaz had cut his hand whilst conducting an autopsy, and within a few days died with the same presenting symptoms as the mothers in the clinic. So Ignaz Semmelweis concluded that "cadaverous particles" carried on the hands might actually be causing the deaths. He instituted a policy which was to see him hounded out of the medical profession: compulsory hand-washing in a chlorine solution.
Within a few months of his policy's implementation, two things had occurred in a noticeable fashion. Firstly, women were dying at radically lower rates - the death rate had dropped from 10% to less than 2%. Secondly, Ignaz's popularity and credibility had plummeted. Many doctors considered the idea that they carried disease-causing particles on their hands to be both nonsensical and the highest form of insult. Semmelweis was dismissed from his post at the hospital in 1848 on the spurious accusation of political activism, and openly ridiculed by the medical profession to the point where he returned to Budapest.
As his credibility wore through, so did his sanity. Semmelweis began writing angry letters to anyone who would read them, and eventually published in 1961 a book of "Open Letters" lambasting the entire medical profession as well as many famous individuals. In the last decades of his life, he became a man obsessed. All conversations were turned to childbed fever. He began stopping unknown couples in the street and tearfully begging them to ensure, should they ever have children, that the doctor washed his hands. He began drinking heavily and visiting prostitutes. Some believed that his brain may have been succumbing to syphilis.
Eventually, in 1865, he was sold out. A colleague persuaded his wife to allow Semmelweis to be committed to a mental institution, where he was subjected to beatings, placed in a straitjacket, and administered laxatives and enemas in the customary style of the day. A slight wound sustained in a beating from the guards turned gangrenous, and in an ironic twist which would be glorious were it not so terrible, Semmelweis died from precisely the disease he had spent his lifetime attempting to beat; septicaemia.
Had he only lived a little longer, Semmelweis would have seem himself vindicated by history. With the work of Pasteur and Lister, germ-theory became accepted and the sensible policy of handwashing made compulsory practice. Semmelweis' name now graces a university, a museum, and several medical facilities, whilst his visage has graced European coins and postage stamps. In Hungary he is known as "the saviour of mothers". Oddly enough, the psychological catchphrase "the Semmelweis Reflex" is sometimes used to denote the kind of knee-jerk reaction people take to things that fall outside their accepted frame of reference.
I guess the take home lesson here is that it's hard to be right when nobody will listen. Ignaz Semmelweis was by no means the first person to find that out (just ask Socrates), but his story is particularly ironic and painful because he wasn't actually asking that much. The man lost his life and his sanity because people didn't want to wash their hands.
So, like I said, we owe him big time.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
10. William S. Burroughs and Joan Vollmer
The Background: Vollmer met Burroughs, an up-and-coming writer and drug dealer, in 1944, left her husband for him, and became addicted to benzedrine.
Collateral Damage: In 1951, Burroughs famously shot Vollmer in the head whilst drunkenly re-enacting William Tell. He fled to Morocco to write tortured novels including Naked Lunch.
9. Romeo and Juliet
The Background: This story apparently dates back to antiquity, so I thought I'd include it for mythological value. It might be the quintessential example of when it's better to just not go there.
Collateral Damage: Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris die painful deaths.
8. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill
The Background: The famous poet Sylvia battled depression for much of her life, and it seems that Ted didn't help... anybody.
Collateral Damage: Ted's affair with Assia destroyed his relationship with Sylvia, who put her head in the oven in 1963. In the following years, as Assia's mental health broke down under the stress of her social ostracism following Sylvia's death, Ted began dalliances with much younger women. In 1969, Assia murdered her daughter and committed suicide by the same method as Sylvia had used.
7. O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson
The Background: O.J. was a famous football player and comedic actor, who beat the crap out of his wife Nicole for a number of years. When she left him, she ended up dead, but he managed to dodge a conviction thanks to some very convenient jury filtering.
Collateral Damage: Nicole's life, Johnny Cochrane's reputation, the Naked Gun trilogy, and everybody's faith in the US justice system.
6. Heloise and Abelard
The Background: When Abelard was appointed as a tutor to the young scholar Heloise in the 12th century, they soon began a passionate sexual affair, were secretly married, and had a child. Fear of retaliation from her family caused Abelard to place Heloise in a convent for protection.
Collateral Damage: The family did retaliate, castrating Abelard, who retreated to a monastery to spend the rest of his life as a scholar and hermit. Heloise unfortunately suffered the same fate, but an increasingly tortuous series of letters between the two former lovers more than hints at her loneliness, sexual frustration, and grief. For his part, he writes that he was only in it for the sex.
5. Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo
The Background: These two charming individuals met in 1987 and married in 1989, just as he began a spree which lead him to be known as the Scarborough Rapist. Karla always encouraged his sadistic sexual fantasies, but later on, she starting assisting him in fulfilling them.
Collateral Damage: The pair raped, mutilated and murdered at least four girls between 1991 and 1993, including Karla's 15 year old sister Tammy, whose virginity was a "Christmas present" to Paul from Karla. Paul Bernardo remains in prison and is unlikely to be released, however, a clever plea-bargain resulted in Karla's being released in 2005.
4. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
The Background: Both from poor backgrounds in the midst of the Depression, these two progressed up the crime food-chain from petty thugs to full-blown bank-robbing, cop-killing fugitives.
Collateral Damage: Nine police, four civilians, and Bonnie and Clyde themselves ate lead.
3. Oedipus and Jocasta
The Background: In a spectacularly self-fulfilling prophecy, Oedipus is foretold to kill his father and marry his mother.
Collateral Damage: The city of Thebes is ravaged by a plague of infertility as nature backlashes against the royal match. Oedipus eventually discovers the truth about his ancestry after having four children with his mother. She hangs herself in shame, he gouges his eyes out and wanders in blindness until death. Complications of this incestuous legacy result in the deaths of three of Oedipus' children.
2. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
The Background: Henry needed an heir, and of six children born to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, only one daughter had survived - Princess Mary. In order to get around the Catholic Church's disapproval of divorce, Henry created his own Church of England.
Collateral Damage: Anne was charged with incest, witchcraft, adultery and treason after bearing a female child instead of the promised heir. She was convicted and beheaded in 1536. Henry's defection to the Church of England resulted in the Marian Persecutions, enacted by Henry's eventual heir Mary I. She attempted to revert the population to Catholicism by force, burning over 300 Protestants at the stake between 1555 and 1558.
1. Helen and Paris of Troy
The Background: Helen's father was Zeus, who raped her mother Leda in the form of a giant swan. "The face that launched a thousand ships", Helen was married off to the brutish King Menelaus of Sparta, but ran off on a whim with Prince Paris of Troy.
Collateral Damage: The seige and sack of Troy, thousands of Greek and Trojan deaths, several dreadful TV miniseries, and the complete loss of Brad Pitt's credibility.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
10- The Love You Take Equals The Love You Make So Baby Let Me Bang Your Box by TISM
The cultural cringe - writ large. Three cheers for TISM.
9- See Her Pee by NOFX
This is actually almost cute. He falls in love with a girl, adores her, thinks about her all the time... and just really, really wants to see her pee.
8-Please Stop Fucking My Mom by NOFX
This is comparatively self-explanatory.
7- The Art of Sucking Dick by N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude)
These guys apparently do consider this in all seriousness to be an instruction manual.
6- Dick Sandwich by Frenzal Rhomb
This is actually the title of an EP, not a song, but I couldn't resist.
5- Shoved Up Your Pisshole by Blood Duster
Shoved what exactly...?
4- Bishop = Handjob by TISM
There are a few good reasons that all members of TISM choose to remain anonymous...
3- Fisting the Dead by Blood Duster
The funny thing is, I found one or two song titles by these guys that were actually worse than this. This is just the worst one I was willing to reproduce.
2 - Defecate on my face by TISM
This song, as far as I'm aware, broke two records. It's the only rock song in history to feature coprophilia as principal subject matter - and it's the only rock song in history that's written in the first person point of view of Adolf Hitler.
1 - The Pope's Cock Makes Baby Jesus Cry by C*ntbutcher.
My asterisk. No comment.
Got any others?
CB would like to thank Clever Friend for his help with the Top 10.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
It's not just a word that some guy scrawled in chalk on Sydney landmarks. It's a word that, in fact, defies human logic altogether. Trying to think about the longest amount of time possible still doesn't approach it. Billions of years, aeons, space-time - they all dwindle away to nothingness against the concept of eternity.
So now let's consider another concept: An eternity of torture. It's impossible to imagine, but this is exactly what a number of major religions specify as the punishment for earthly transgressions. An. Eternity. Of. Torture.
This concept was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, upon watching Sam Raimi's latest offering, Drag Me To Hell (superb - go see it!). The plot goes something like this: Christine Brown, an essentially nice young woman, covets a promotion at the bank she works at, but is told that she may miss out due to her inability to make "tough decisions". A old, sick, Gypsy woman, Mrs Ganush, shows up the same day and begs for an extension on her mortgage repayments. Christine could help her, but instead chooses to do the wrong thing, foreclosing on the mortgage to prove she can make a tough decision. Mrs Ganush begs, but Christine shames her, so Mrs Ganush places a Gypsy curse on Christine in which she will be tormented for a mere three days by a goat-legged demon before being dragged to Hell for an eternity of suffering. It's a rollicking good story with not a bad twist at the end, but left me feeling overwhelmingly depressed - not to mention confused about the interesting convolutions of moral reasoning that a belief in Hell requires.
Firstly, I find it impossible to accept that any crime, no matter how awful, could merit an eternity of torture. Even the most incredibly enormous crime is finite, and therefore the punishment should also be finite, whether or not it was to involve elements of extreme cruelty or torture, as would exist in Hell.
However, this is by no means the biggest problem. Even if were to accept that particular crimes were so severe as to warrant an eternity of torture, we're left with the issue of what this says about God. (I'm working under the premise that, if Hell existed, then so would Heaven and/or a God). In the context of Drag Me To Hell, we are left with the disturbing consideration that Christine's (admittedly dreadful) act of foreclosing on Mrs Ganush's mortgage warrants an eternity of torture, but somehow Mrs Ganush's ultimate act of bloody vengeance (sending Christine to Hell for eternity) does not attract the same penalty - it is implied that Mrs Ganush's soul is free and clear, so to speak. So, those who sin in a finite way, on Earth, may face horrible torture for eternity, but those who condemn others to such torture are let off scot-free. God doesn't intervene to save Christine, or apparently to punish Mrs Ganush, which leaves us with the most disturbing of possibilities.
1 - That God isn't capable of intervention: i.e. a soul in Hell (or about to be dragged there) is "out of His hands" - meaning that he is not in fact omnipotent.
2- (and more probable, considering the tone of the Old Testament) That God is the biggest bastard of them all, the cruellest tyrant, the most bloodthirsty and retributive of dictators. Except, instead of condemning His enemies to death against the wall, He condemns them to torture, without reprieve or hope of reprieve, for all of eternity.
Surely, God's moral compass would have to be a bit out of whack to allow this state of affairs. The only remaining possibility is that He would have to condemn Himself to Hell, in retribution for all the suffering He caused by sending people to Hell in the first place.
Your thoughts? Do any actions merit Hell?
Monday, July 20, 2009
The Northern Territory is, in many ways, a confusing place. Laws exist that actively discriminate between indigenous and non-indigenous Australias. White people find that there are wide tracts of land which they cannot enter without a permit from local elders, whilst in other areas, Aboriginal people may find that they (and they alone) are not allowed to purchase alcohol due to tribal edicts. Tourists at Uluru are faced with a complicated and subtle consideration when they discover that, although a clearly marked climb exists, with requisite safety rails, an array of signs at the bottom of the rock ask that "you respect the wishes of the Anangu people, and do not climb Uluru".
The reason isn't (entirely) one of whether "white" people should be on "black" land - the Anangu people are clear in stating that they are concerned for the safety of climbers, and that deaths or injuries sustained at Uluru cause the local people to experience "great sadness", and a feeling of responsibility for the casualties. Yet, the locals are also angry that the track exists in what is considered to be a sacred place of great spiritual significance. Recent calls have been made that the track be closed, and that visitors be banned from climbing Uluru out of respect for local customs.
I didn't climb Uluru, but it wasn't out of cultural sensitivity (frankly, it looked like a death wish, and before I'd gone fifty metres up, my shoes were slipping against the sheer rock in an alarming fashion). However, it's something that tens of thousands of people, from around the world, do every year. The question of whether they should be allowed to continue to do so is often, falsely, posed as a clear-cut one, by boths sides of the debate. Anti-climbers shrilly insist that cultural sensitivity is paramount, and frequently throw in, for good measure, a reference to the Stolen Generations, Invasion Day, or any other of the numerous and grave injustices against Aborigines over the last two centuries, to back up the point that concessions must be made in the name of reconciliation and cultural respect.
Pro-climbers often fallaciously argue that land cannot be owned, (as it pre-exists its owners, and isn't man made),and claim that the rock is a "national treasure" which all Australians (and foreigners) should be able to access, and decide whether or not to climb. An Editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald described the move to ban climbers from Uluru as "insular", whilst Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opposed the move, claiming that it would be "very sad if... Australians and... our guests from abroad weren't able to enjoy that experience". And whilst nobody is saying it too loudly, closing the climb could have serious effects upon the local tourism industry.
A good part of the argument boils down to whether it is appropriate or fair for the government to make one law for one ethnic group, and another law for the rest. Some Australians have already argued that the permit system of "closed communities" reinforces ethnic and cultural segregation, as well as effectively disenfranchising non-indigenous Australians (about 97.5% of the population) from entering large areas of their home country*. The permit system is often justified on the basis that "we took their land to start with", and therefore non-indigenous people have only a vicarious and fragile right to live in Australia, whilst indigenous groups have an inviolate historical right. For many non-indigenous Australians, this begs the question of where we should be living, as this is the only home we have known. If this country is somebody's sacred, ancestral land, then where on Earth is my sacred, ancestral land? Those of mixed heritage (like myself) don't seem to have much recourse to claim the right to live anywhere, if the right to do so is determined by belonging to a distinct ethnic, cultural and linguistic group.
Considering the extremely long odds on the fact that non-indigenous groups are going to abandon living in Australia**, it doesn't seem useful to perpetuate the idea that some of us have more rights to the land, or are more Australian than others. Being a citizen should be a consideration which trumps all others, including race and culture. True reconciliation can only be achieved when indigenous and non-indigenous people stand together as friends, instead of self-segregating in distrust and misunderstanding. True cultural respect can never be forced by means of a ban.
*Of course, claims to white victimhood in the debate over access to land are generally dismissed as being ridiculous, naive, and ignorant of historical facts - but on the other hand, it's easy to see the way that the policy may be depicted if it were reversed, in that it was white people telling Aboriginal people where they could and could not visit.
** I'd rate this as just slightly more likely than Paris Hilton ever winning an Oscar.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
One thing that they will tell you without hesitation is that they cannot conceive of any reason that non-believers (such as myself) should feel the need to act morally. An old friend of mine, "Rebecca" was a prime example. "Why," she said, "would you worry about being a good person if it's all chaos out there? If you're not trying to get into Heaven, or to avoid Hell, then what reason have you got to be a good person? You can do anything you want, and nothing will happen after you're dead." Rebecca's chubby jowls wobbled as she shook her head obstinately. "If it wasn't for God, why would people bother to lead good lives?"
I didn't break it to Rebecca that she had just identified herself as both a moral and an intellectual weakling. What Rebecca still doesn't know, is that morality comes about in stages, and that she's stuck on the very bottom rungs.
Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist who theorised that there are six stages (which can be divided into 3 levels) of moral development. In level 1 (pre-conventional), people orient their behaviour in such as way as to avoid punishment (stage 1) and then to reap rewards (stage 2). These two stages are known as Pre-conventional morality. In level 2, people come to an understanding of rules as social norms which allow them to fit in (3) and then as important in terms of preserving authory, law and order (4). Stages 4 and 5 can be termed as Conventional morality. Finally, an individual surmounts these orientations by first recognising the importance of social contracts of behaviour (5) and finally, universal ethical principles which can be applied for the greatest good (6). These are known as Post-conventional morality.
Worryingly, although all children start at Pre-conventional levels, only a minority of individuals reach Post-conventional morality. My friend Rebecca certainly didn't. Her argument (which, to give her the benefit of the doubt, she probably learned at Sunday School rather than formulating for herself) only served to show that she had no fundamental understanding of what morality is. Allowing fear of punishment and hope of reward to shape behaviour has nothing to do with morality at all - it's pure self interest along the lines of the carrot and stick approach. And, frankly, you can teach a rat to behave that way.
Poor Rebecca. She was not only stuck in pre-conventional moral development, she assumed everyone else is, too. She found it impossible to believe that I, as an unbeliever, would wish to behave morally, as there was no overt incentive to do so, or disincentive for running psychopathically amok. Far from religion being conducive to morality in this case, it actually stunted Rebecca's moral development by leading her to believe that the reason for being good is going to Heaven. Amen. Have a carrot.
I like to think that most religious people out there are smarter than Rebecca, and do good for its own sake rather than merely to moderate the consequences. Putting God into the equation doesn't have to cancel out morality in its true sense, but it can frighteningly distort the picture if the motives become mixed. In the end, how can you claim to be acting morally if the driving force behind your behaviour is self-interest?
Do you think religion is conducive to morality?
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
About the age of twenty, the girl on the street was very beautiful, and very drugged. She was struggling to pull the shreds of her top far enough together to cover her breasts, muttering to herself and crying inconsolably.
"What happened here?" I asked my friend, seizing a jacket.
"I'm not sure," said Christine. "I was just heading to the station when a guy pulled up and pushed this girl out of his car." Christine's voice lowered. "One of the guys up at the station said he reckoned she had just turned a trick - her first trick. It's awful."
"Christ, I just fucking love my neighborhood, don't you?" I growled, as we emerged onto the street and towards the girl, who was now slumped on the ground with her head in her hands. As she raised her face, I could see blood coagulating around her nose and mouth. Her pupils were pin-pricks, her eyes running into little rivers of black mascara. She sat mutely as we draped the jacket around her shoulders. When we asked what we could do, she murmured "ciggie" without meeting our eyes.
Christine and I helped the girl, "Mia" into my flat, feeling that we couldn't leave her out in the literal cold and rain. Our enquiries were fairly pointless - Mia didn't want to talk, let alone about what awful experience she had just been through. After Christine went on her way, I did what I could for Mia- but beyond a steady supply of cigarettes, that didn't turn out to be much. She ate only a little of the food I heated up, and refused the offer of a shower or clean clothes. I offered to take her to the hospital, or the police station, and nearly sent her flying out the door in terror. I soon ascertained that she had nobody she could call, and nowhere she could safely go.
I started calling women's shelters. Youth shelters. Family assistance centres. I called every number listed in the phone book under Crisis Accomodation, but there was no room at the inn. And, with each phone call that I made, and each time I was told that there were no beds for Mia, the little voice in my head grew louder; Why don't you let her stay here?
I have a spare bed. My fridge is full of food and my cupboard full of spare linen. I have more clothes than I really need. There's more than enough room here to support Mia - but I didn't offer. I was afraid that she would rob me. I was afraid she might trash my house. I was afraid that when she came off whatever she was on, she might punch my lights out. I was afraid for all the reasons that prejudice against her situation dictated. She came from the street.
In the end, that's where she returned. That is, for all I know. After about two hours, she announced her intention of going to the Cross. All I could do was to give her a bag of food and beg her to be careful. I never saw or heard from her again.
Christine tried to cheer me up the following day. "You did enough" she said. "You can't save the world, you know. You did what you could." But I doubted it. I hadn't offered Christine a bed. I'd never turned my back on her for a moment while she was in my house. Even the jacket I gave her was a tatty old thing that I didn't want.
Every day, I walk down my street and see more people like Mia, who need the sort of basic, practical help I could provide, like a hot meal or a bed for the night. But instead, I toss some change, or a piece of fruit from my grocery shopping. Like so many of us, too selfish to risk what is mine in order to give another their rightful due. And, like so many of us, pretending that what I do is good enough.
How far should we go to help someone in need?
Thursday, April 30, 2009
It must have come as a big surprise to this young man that his friends didn't think his idea to be as clever and revolutionary as he did. Rather than congratulating his creativity, they merely pissed themselves laughing, dubbed him "Hoover", and continued to call him that until the end of high school.
My Very Clever Polyamorous Friend notes a similar situation which arose in his single-sex boarding school. Apparently a young man was overheard telling an unknown party on his mobile phone that; "I've had a look around, and I'm pretty sure I've got the biggest one in year 9". The unfortunate youth was evermore known as "Lotto" (The Big One).
High school was riddled with bizarre and cruel nomenclature, which prompts me to wonder; what would you do if the world at large knew your high school nickname? Could Hoover, an attorney nowadays, still hold up his head at the office if his colleagues knew?
Here are a few other examples which might be difficult to explain:
- Clever Sister's friend "Babs" (thus named for looking "like he works in a kebab shop")
- Clever Bitch's ex-boyfriend "Scrotum" (so named, ironically, by a peer support leader who looked down on the shivering year 7 and guffawed; "Hey, this kid looks like a scrotum!").
- Clever Bitch's friend "Bald Eagle" (a word to the wise - never let your friends see your junk until there's some grass on the pitch).
Luckily, Babs had a shave and Eagle grew some pubes. Scrotum still looks a little like one, but is a financial adviser nowadays. Still, I wonder if any of them live in vague unrest, fearing the day that someone finds out their high-school nicknames. Those things stuck for five years - if you let them back in now, they could be for life.
What are the worst nicknames you recall from your high school?
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
It did. Someone had, apparently without shame, publicly stated their unwillingness to consider a gay person as a flatmate. Not content with simply meeting some applicants and having a chat, the advertiser was so uncomfortable with or afraid of homosexuality that he felt the need to deter gay applicants at the first opportunity.
To some minds, this is fair enough, as the advertiser has a right to choose their new flatmate, and that they might as well get their prejudices out in the open in order to spare any potential gay applicants the time and trouble.* To me, it feels like plain old discrimination. Let's not forget that we have laws against this type of thing; if the advertiser had have been looking for an employee rather than a flatmate, his eligibility criteria would have gotten him into a lot of trouble. However it appears that whilst his prejudice would not be tolerated in a professional context, it is entirely acceptable in his personal life. And the fact that he didn't hesitate to post a discriminatory advertisement in an inner-city coffee shop speaks volumes about the attitudes towards homosexuality in our society.
The elephant in the room here is that discrimination against homosexuals has in recent years become far more socially acceptable than the old-school bastions of racism or sexism. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Opinion pages of the broadsheet newspapers. Whereas no respectable paper would dream of publishing a radical treatise on why women are inferior to men, or white people smarter than black people, it is all too common to flick the papers open and find a long-winded article or letter defining homosexuality as a sin, linking it to paedophilia, or declaring it a mental illness. Despite our legislation, it seems that gays are an easy target, particularly when you invoke your religion as an excuse for your prejudice.
Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do about the kind of person who has a blanket opposition to gays, or any other minority group other than tolerate them in the way that they refuse to tolerate others.
Or maybe just scribble "Hate Criminal!" at the bottom of their advertisement.
* The situation is similar at my university, where international students commonly advertise for flatmates, specifying "Asian preferred" on the posters. If this is defensible, it is so on the basis that people may feel more comfortable living with people who are from culturally similar backgrounds, however I somehow doubt that this argument would save me from being called racist if I had posted an advertisement stating "white preferred".
Is it reasonable to specify your preference for a particular racial group or sexual orientation when advertising for flatmates, or is it just discrimination?
Friday, April 17, 2009
Dr John Harvey Kellogg (born 1852) was a man of peculiar fixations. A man of his day, he warned his patients against novel-reading, the waltz, honeymoons, and the consumption of meat or alcohol in order to protect against sexual excitation and its most deplorable handmaiden - masturbation. His particular obsession was eradicating the scourge of female masturbation, which would apparently destroy both body and mind. He made a twelve-point list of symptoms which would denote a young woman's descent into this "vicious habit", including everything from a marked change in disposition, to a fondness for spices and vinegars, to nail-biting, languor and lassitude, heart palpitations, ulcerated hands and nails - and, my personal favourites; "unnatural baldness", "loose or easy manner in company with boys", and "a blank, dull, expressionless eye surrounded by a dark ring".
Kellogg's obsession with preventing "self-abuse" led him to prescribe some pretty interesting preventions and cures. Mothers were urged to "instruct their daughters respecting the importance of regularly relieving the bowels and bladder at a certain time each day", as failing to do so would lead to the organs becoming "irritable" and would induce "abnormal excitement". He urged vegetarianism and vigorous exercise coupled with Bible reading, and occasionally cool enemas or salt baths. When these failed, he urged (and often carried out) a clitoridectomy.
At some point, Kellogg must have realised that there wasn't time for him to excise the sexual organs of every masturbating woman in America, and produced the brainchild which the world best remembers - a bland and inoffensive breakfast cereal which would help patients keep their hands from straying below the belt; Cornflakes.
And here's the kicker. If a patient doesn't want to actually eat them, they can also be administered in enema form.
Thankfully, most of Kellogg's recommendations for female sexuality followed him to his grave, but we may have to suspect that he was onto something about cornflakes and exercise. John Kellogg died at age 91. Now - who wants breakfast?
-- All direct quotations from History Laid Bare by Richard Zacks.
Any thoughts on masturbation, quack cures, or breakfast cereals?
Friday, April 10, 2009
I've never had a Brazilian, less on moral grounds than due to the triple deterrents of pain, expense, and humiliation (think getting down on all fours so that a stranger can rip hairs out of your arse-crack - then paying for the privilege). However, a girl I know (let's called her "Christine") marches into the beauty salon every fourth Tuesday and parts with forty-five dollars to have her pubic hair ripped out with hot wax. I've met Christine a few times after emerging from her ordeal - wiping her eyes, muttering in a horrified tone of the expense and wincing in recollection of the pain. Yet, Christine insists, she has the Brazilian for herself. I've never been brave enough to point out to her that she never used to wax "for herself", until she started dating Angry Restauranteur.
So, why precisely do both women and men want to wipe Tassie off the map? It's not a modern phenomenon- ancient Greek women depilated their entire bodies, including pubic hair, and various cultures have been doing the same ever since. It's as popular in high art as low-grade porn, with solicitors and strippers, with mothers and maidens. The artist John Ruskin never consummated his marriage with his first wife due to a general disgust with her body, and in particular her pubic hair. In all his years examining art, he had never seen such a thing depicted in a statue or painting and found it repulsive on his wedding-night. From these fascinations spring an entire industry to groom women's pubes into submission - but why?
Desmond Morris, the author of The Naked Ape and The Naked Woman amongst others, writes that women's bodies have evolved to be more neotonous - that is, resembling their childlike forms - than men's. Women's bodies are softer and rounder, our body hair finer, sparser, and paler in colour. Because males are instinctively protective towards children, they are suckers for women who look like children. Most women and men have even played this card consciously - women love men's clothes both for the comfort and also because they point out to the man just how little we are in comparison to them - just how vulnerable and cute - the little woman drowning in the giant track-pants.
So what about pubic hair? Morris also dispels the myth that pubic hair serves a protective or hygienic function. In fact, he states that pubic hair is entirely useless to a woman - it is there solely as a "flag" to indicate sexual maturity to males, much as the man's beard indicates maturity to females.
So, here we find ourselves at an impasse - men love women who look like children, but use pubic hair as a marker that they're not in fact children and can be approached in a sexual manner. Women want to look neotonous, so they shave their legs and underarms, and wax off their maturity flag. Bringing us back to Miranda's question - is the net result of all the pain, effort and trouble anything other than to look like a little girl?
Ladies and gentlemen - what do you think about Brazilians? What are your reasons for getting one or not getting one?
Friday, April 3, 2009
You're afraid for your life, but soon it becomes evident that the head guerilla, Paco, has taken a shine to you. He likes you, he says. He likes scientists. He likes foreigners. And he's in a good mood today. So, he'll cut you a deal. He was about to summarily shoot these twenty locals as a warning to the rest of the population, who he claims have been a bit hard to control during the guerilla takeover. But, and here he hands you a pistol - if YOU would like to shoot one, you know, to show your support for the cause, he'll let the rest of them go as a show of goodwill. You look at Paco, then the terrified villagers, and then the gun in your hand. What do you do?
I first came across a version of this classic ethics vignette some years ago, in an undergraduate philosophy class. And it genuinely seemed a no-brainer. I'd shoot one of the Indians to save the other nineteen. I would have thought that almost everyone would agree with me on the point that it was unacceptable to let nineteen people die, just to keep your hands clean. How wrong I was.
A couple of girls from the Campus Bible Study group countered me that killing a person, any person, under any circumstances was murder, against the ten commandments, against God, and merited eternal suffering in hell. Other people, who didn't invoke the will of God, said that they would not be able to live with themselves after killing a person - however they seemed to have no problem with their inaction leading to nineteen further deaths. Jim would apparently show a great deal of moral backbone by refusing to lend ideological support, and watch twenty Indians be shot to death rather than only one.
It largely comes down to how you weigh up sins of commission vs. sins of omission - whether you weigh up things you didn't do as being as morally weighty as the things you did. For me, the consequences of commission were less than the consequences of omission, so I could not fail to act. For others, the actual action of firing the gun made them murderers in a way that walking away and leaving twenty people to die could never make them.
My consistent standpoint that I would shoot one of the Indians led to further questions. Which Indian I would shoot? The nearest one? The oldest one? The one who looked the bravest? And then, the question of whether the remaining Indians would view me as a saviour or a murderer. Would they understand that I committed an awful crime to prevent further awful crimes, or pillion me as a guerilla sympathiser?
This vignette is strikingly similar to one that is often posed to vegetarians; namely, would you eat a chicken if it would save the lives of five other chickens? I once posed both vignettes to a vegetarian flatmate, who paradoxically put it to me that he would shoot a person to save the other nineteen, but would never, ever, under any circumstances consider eating an animal. He preferred blood on his hands, as it were, to blood in his mouth.
Each person has their own feelings about sins of omission, but in my view, no matter what Jim does, he is complicit in murder. His choice is whether the screams of one person keep him awake at night, or the screams of twenty.
What would you do in Jim's place and why?
(And, for the vegetarians out there, would you eat a chicken to save another chicken's life?)
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
As far as pornography stashes go, it wasn't a big one. Maybe a dozen DVDs, no magazines. But the DVDs themselves... suffice to say that sample titles included CumDripperz and Meat Holes. The back covers variously promised "the best ass-pounding anal-action!", "rim-jobs!", "chicks choking on huge dicks!" and more.
A thousand questions began to formulate in my mind. Where had he gotten these? When had he been watching them? How could he have been aroused by such degrading images and misogynistic titles? I was weakly outraged - too shocked and hurt to really process the reality that the man I had married had apparently been jerking-off in secret to images of women being pounded and choked to within an inch of their ability to breathe.
Several days later, when he called about having his things shipped, I coldly intoned that I had found The Stash. Trying to keep my voice level, I asked if he had any explanation for why he had brought such hateful material into my house.
"Well, yeah," he laughed in high merriment. "I'm a bloke!"
Ah yes, that old chestnut. Men are men, and women are women, and never the twain shall meet. My distaste at his conduct was to be laughed off - a woman couldn't understand the kinds of sexual frustration that men apparently endure, or his means of addressing them. She has no right to judge a man's sexual tastes, even if she is having sex with him.
A lot of things fell into place. I remembered how Ex-Husband had degraded me as a "stupid c---", how he had sometimes been violent towards me and destructive of our possessions. I remembered how he revered his alcoholic, absent father, but consistently denigrated his mother, who had raised him on her own. I remember doing most or all of the housework, even when he was unemployed (which was often). But somehow, the porn hurt worst of all.
Ex-husband had given himself a carte blanche to watch women in a situation which was at best degrading, and at worst bordering upon violent, without the need to question his motives.
In the years since that day, I have increasingly wondered how many men feel a similar way. I am lucky enough to have found a Clever Partner who largely finds pornography to be unsettling rather than arousing, and to have friends who share my viewpoint that watching misogynistic pornography (as opposed to "couples porn") is a sign of bad taste, under-developed sexuality and latent or overt disrespect towards women. However, other friends claim that films like Meat Holes are a bit of a laugh, and that men can watch them without taking on negative attitudes about women. Women, they claim, will have to learn to take it less seriously and accept that their partners will watch it.
I, for one, won't be accepting that. I find it very difficult to believe that a man could simultaneously enjoy a film depicting female orifices as Cum-Dripping Meat Holes and respect me as a sexual partner.
Is it a man's right to watch porn?
Is it a woman's right to be angry if he does?
Does watching pornography imply a man's disrespect for women?
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Cue the flood of letters to the Sydney Morning Herald. Most were supportive of the leglislation change, but then we have the predictable response from one Kevin Hogan, who opined that it was: "a betrayal of all women... (the government is) forcing these poor people into Western-funded abortion clinics rather than addressing the real issues."
My immediate reaction to this statement was one of annoyance at a man who considered himself a commentator on the needs of women. Ignoring the fact that nobody is forcing abortions on these women (there has been a long-standing need and desire for family planning services in the regions in question), and that the "real issues" are overpopulation, poverty, lack of effective contraception and lack of female autonomy over reproduction, I wondered how appropriate it is for a man to weigh into this debate at all.
A close male friend of mine consistently refuses to participate in these arguments. He once told me that he didn't think men should. "It's not up to us," he said. "No man will ever have to have an abortion, so they shouldn't be making the laws for women who will. It's up to women to decide." Unknowingly, he echoed the words of a Planned Parenthood advertisement, which reads that "Seventy-seven percent of anti-abortion leaders are male. One hundred percent of them will never be pregnant."
It's a fraught issue. Yes, men won't have to undergo it personally, but as abortion is a public health matter, it can be argued that men shouldn't be excluded from the public debate where standards are set. And, there's no indication that women are more likely than men to bring reasoned debate to the table when it comes to abortion - some of the most vociferous emotional blackmail thrown around actually comes from women, vis a vis Nancy Reagan's public statement that "if you have an abortion, you are committing murder". However, there is something inherently and undeniably distasteful about men attempting to morally dictate to women who are walking in shoes that the men will never wear.
I have to admit, however, that there's an element here of hypocrisy. I am only too happy to hear male politicians and commentators expouse their pro-choice views. It's only when they take the anti-abortion stance that I get angry at men weighing into a domain that does not concern them. Perhaps it comes down to the element of judgment present. Men who support legal abortion are not condemning women for their reproductive choices, whereas the so-called "pro-life" lobby are doing just that.
To what extent should men have a say in abortion law?
Is it fair for men to condemn women who undergo abortions?
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It might be easy to argue that there isn't much sense in thanking a dead person, if it weren't for the fact that other acceptance speeches are rife with nods towards deceased relatives, friends, mentors and "late-greats". Penelope Cruz, accepting the award this year for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, thanked her dear friend "who is no longer with us". And it appears that being alive does not guarantee you thanks from the highly-paid actor or actress that portrayed you in a successful film. Just ask Erin Brockovich, who Julia Roberts failed to acknowledge after winning Best Actress for portraying her in Erin Brockovich. That must have really hurt.
Surely, amidst all the tears and laughter and congratulations thrown around the auditorium, there was something forgotten, when the inspirational figures whose lives were the fodder for Hollywood films are ignored.
Friday, February 20, 2009
"So what did they say?"
"They told me that, if that was my attitude, I shouldn't bother coming to the next meeting." Her face hints at the world of frustration she is feeling. At the moment, my friend Clever Lawyer is in a world of shit at her high-end law firm. And it all comes down to the question of charity. HighEnd LawFirm is having a charity gig, and has appointed a committee to allocate the funds to deserving recipients. There are so many of these out there that several long meetings have been neccessary in order to whittle down the list to something manageable. For the most part, the committee agreed on the merits of charities coming their way - until this one.
"It was a charity that organises wheelchair sports", says Clever Lawyer, "and I didn't have a problem until I read what $50 will buy."
Fifty dollars, it turns out, will buy one player, from one team, bottled water for an entire sporting season. This is where Clever Lawyer got her back up. In front of her were brochures from charities that feed the starving, house the homeless, provide basic medical supplies for women giving birth in villages without running water. Here were horrible diseases that needed a cure, here were political prisoners being tortured and disappeared. And here were a bunch of people who needed bottled water in order to play sport ?
In a fatigued aside, Clever Lawyer sarcastically mutters, "And it's not as though bottled water is one of the biggest rorts of our time, is it?" She has a point - we are lucky enough to live in a place where potable water comes out of the tap, with the added bonus that it is cheap and doesn't hamper the world with yet another disposable plastic bottle. Clever Lawyer asks the charity committee if it wouldn't perhaps be reasonable for sports players to refill drink bottles from the tap, rather than drinking $50 worth of charity-funded bottled water in a season.
Deadly silence descends. One committee member, high on her own self-righteousness, asks:
"So - because they're disabled, they don't deserve bottled water?"
Clever Lawyer, a handful of charity fliers in each hand, desperately tries to explain that she thinks they could find a charity with a more pressing need for the money. Maybe it's her use of the word "outrageous" - or maybe not, but she is shot down from every angle. Political correctness reigns supreme, and she leaves the meeting feeling demoralised, her head pounding from the lashings of political correctness which doesn't allow her to admit that feeding a famine victim, providing childhood vaccinations, housing a homeless person or saving an endangered species is more important than supporting sporting endeavours (complete with bottled water) for a group of wheelchair-bound Australians who, despite their disabilites, have homes to go to, food to eat, clean water to drink, and healthcare provided by the state.
Now, neither she, I, or anyone else I know would claim that disabled athletes don't deserve support. Their experiences of marginalisation from society are probably at least as painful as the conditions which rendered them disabled, and any scheme which assists them to participate in a team sport is laudable. But it's a question of priorities. Charity funds are finite, and the fact remains that they are urgently required for more pressing problems both here and overseas. All the politically-correct posturing in the world won't change the fact that spending $50 on bottled water for one player, in one team, during one season, is money that is, quite literally, being pissed away for no actual benefit.
And, in answer to Clever Lawyer's query - $50 constitutes about one-twentieth of the money required to dig a well in a developing country, supplying an entire village with clean water. Stack that up against 20 team-sports players drinking expensive water that they could get for free out of a tap, and the contrast is exactly what Clever Lawyer dubbed it: outrageous.
Are some charities more deserving than others?
Do you think it is in bad-taste to spend charity funds on bottled water for sport?
What is the best/worst use of charitable funds you know of?
Sunday, February 8, 2009
Horoscopes, and other such pseudo-scientific chicanery, have somehow wormed their way into our most respectable newspapers, as well as our most flimsy tabloids and glossy magazines. I don't remember a time when one could pick up a publication and not be faced with shrew-faced con-women with pseudo-mystical names such as Athena Starwoman posturing their "talent" through writing "predictions" so nebulous as to be applicable to virtually everyone. That is, unless one was leafing through a publication which is aimed exclusively at men. It seems to the publishers that the exclusive consumers of this brain-rotting diet must be women.
It doesn't even seem to matter what type of woman you are. Everything from the celebrity rags (e.g. New Idea, Woman's Day, Who) to the fasion-and-sex glossies (Cosmopolitan and Cleo) to the brick-heavy mixes of journalism and haute-couture (Marie-Claire, Madison, Vogue) contain pseudo-scientific content as regular features. Whether women are bored housewives, teenage schoolgirls, high-powered executives, or anything in between, the horoscopes are provided.
Now, I can't really blame the celebrity rags - even their "factual" content is a heady mix of lies, conjecture, and inside information from anonymous "pals", "insiders" and "neighbours". Cosmo and Cleo can't be blamed either - they would be unreadable even without the inclusion of astrology (well - that's unless you want to know about 58 babe-a-licious ways to make him climax using only a feather, an ice cube and your elbow). The real villains are the top-shelf women's mags, that target young professionals, and apparently credit women with independent incomes as well as independent thought. They present dense, well-written articles on important issues - but expect that after you've read about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo, or female circumcision in Somalia, signed their tear-off petition and sent it to Amnesty International - well, what else would you desire but to read your horoscope?
Flipping through equivalent men's magazines such as GQ one finds no such equivalent patronisation of their readership (unless it's the pages of advertisements for sex toys - but you'll find those in women's magazines too). And, I can't help but wonder, are millions of young women around the world developing interests (and often expending precious time, money and energy) in pseudo-science just because it continues to be shoved down their throats? In a bizarre twist of usual economic principles, it looks like demand is actually being driven by supply. In effect, we read - and believe - our horoscopes, just because they are there.
Naomi Wolf, in her incredible, seminal work The Beauty Myth, points out that as women have become more independent and gained more rights, new ways have to be found by patriarchal structures in which to keep women subjugated. She argues that the focus upon physical beauty, which requires massive expenditure of time, money, physical effort and psychological energy, effectively allows women to subjugate themselves more effectively than men have done for centuries.
Would it be too much of a stretch to apply this argument to the presentation of pseudo-science in women's magazines? Perhaps horoscopes, moon-calendars, feng-shui charts, numerology and so-called clairvoyants are yet another insidious way of keeping women's minds from the important issues at hand, or misplacing our energies in fixing them. Who cares if you're not earning as much as your male colleagues at work, when moving a pot-plant into your Money Corner will see you rolling in the bucks? Why end a relationship with an abusive or inattentive partner, when Venus is on the rise, bringing with it a mystical new age of love and mutual respect?
At best, the magazines are patronising us with facile explanations for the complexities of our lives.
At worst, they're deliberately dumbing us down.
Do you read your horoscope? Does it annoy you that publications targeted at intelligent women still expect us to be interested?
Or is the Bitch just being a Bitch this week?
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Ridiculous child-naming practices are de rigueur nowadays, apparently in every social sphere from billionaire celebrities to dole-queuing teenage mothers.
Below, I've attempted to list some of the most egregious trends in child nomenclature.
1- The Boy's Name For Girls
Step 1: Find a boy's name that you like, such as James, William, or Charles.
Step 2: Give birth to a girl instead.
Step 3: Call her Jamie, Billie or Charlie and congratulate yourself upon your individuality.
2 - The Surname
Hands up who has recently met a child named "Mackenzie"? What about "Taylor"? If I had ten hands, they would all be up. In celebrity-land, Brooke Shields and Nicole Ritchie have jumped on this bandwagon as well, naming their daughters (respectively) Grier and Harlow.
3- The Name You Spell Yourself
Tay-lah, Tayla, Tailagh, Taylhar... oh, excuse me but I think your bourgeois pretensions might be showing...
4 - The Mis-spelled Foreign Name
A girl I know named her daughter "Channelle". Yes, that's right. Like Chanel, but with some extra letters thrown in so that the child can feel individual despite her obvious namesake. (In fact - this one breaks the surname rule as well - but I guess it's preferable to calling a child Coco. Are you reading this, Courtney Cox and David Arquette?). Another friend of mine, apparently shying away from all the boring normality implied by Chantelle introduced me to her daughter Shontel. I weep for the future.
5 - The Name You Invent Yourself
Mnemonics are bad enough (think "Taome" - The Apple Of My Eye), but the worst of the worst must be the laughable attempt of those bastions of elegance and understatement, Peter Andre and Katie Price (AKA Jordan) to create a name for their daughter. Princess Tiaamii, the poor brat's name, is a merging of the names of Andre's mother (Thea) and Price's mother (Amy), with "Princess" whacked in front for good measure. In the words of Price herself; "we added some extra letters to make it unique, and some accents to make it look interesting". A class act all the way.
Apologies - My computer does not seem to have the functional capacity to include the various accents over vowels in Tiaamii.
6 - The Common Noun
Apart from the names of flowers and jewels, common nouns as names are, thank goodness, largely restricted to celebrities (who could forget baby Apple Martin?). However, we will know that common nouns-as-names have crossed over to the common domain when we eventually meet a child named Wingnut or Ashtray.
7 - The Celebrity Tribute Name
Apart from the aforementioned Harlow, dishonourable mentions go to Geri Halliwell for naming her daughter Bluebell Madonna (extra demerit points for Bluebell), and to the US couple who couldn't get a birthday cake inscribed to their son Adolf Hitler Campbell.
8 - The Celebrity-Offspring Tribute Name
Until Lleyton and Bec Hewitt named their daughter Mia, it wasn't a name you heard very often. Now it's in the top 5 most popular baby names in Australia, and overused to the point of sticking in your throat. Ditto Bindi (Irwin). Ditto Matilda (Ledger). But not, strangely enough, Sunday Rose...
9 - The Reminiscent-of-Conception Name
Whenever my friend Airlie tells someone her name, it's as likely as not that they will make the same joke I did; "What, were you conceived at Airlie Beach?". The answer is yes. The New Zealand registry of Births revealed that in recent years, it has barred parents from naming their newborns such epithets as "Midnight Chardonnay" and "Number 16 Bus Shelter". Please. We don't need to know the details of the conception. The baby's enough proof that you had sex. Ok?
10 - The Joke Name
Those New Zealanders are at it again! A few months ago, a judge allowed 13-year old Tallulah Does The Hula From Hawaii (last name suppressed) to change her given name, ruling that her parents were irresponsible to give it to her in the first place. In France, a court refused to allow Mr and Mrs DeFrance to name their daughter Marie-Antoinette Reine, which would have rendered her (in English) "Marie Antoinette, Queen of France".
I've been assured that Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz's baby, Bronx Mowgli, is not a joke. However, I remain to be convinced.
Anything to add to the list? Anything you would remove?
What's the worst name you've heard someone give a child?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
What the modern fairy-tales don't omit, however, is what I consider to be the most dangerous device of all - the notion of innate royalty. And, more frighteningly, how royalty is operationalised to children to, socialised by ideas of tiaras, pretty dresses, castles and white horses, are taught to aspire to it.
The Princess and the Pea instructs young readers that a Princess can easily be identified from a "commoner" through the application of a simple test - a Princess Litmus Test - where she is put to bed on a boiled pea beneath twenty mattresses and twenty feathered-eiderdowns. The take-home points from this engaging story, regarding the properties of a Princess (that is, as repeatedly emphasised, a true Princess), are as follows:
a) She will be beautiful (with tiny hands and feet, flaxen hair, and skin as white as milk, in most translations), mild-mannered, and pliable enough to allow herself to be subjected to bizarre experiments designed to determine her lineage.
b) She will be "delicate" - to the point where she is unable to sleep on a boiled pea, even when this pea is underneath twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns.
c) She will suffer from a bizarre skin condition which will cause her to break out in bruises after spending a sleepless night in said pea/mattress/eiderdown arrangement.
d) She will complain heartily of her mental and physical stress from the event, in front of the people who did her a favour by putting her up for the night.
ERGO: This will hook her a royal wedding and "happily ever after", as only a true Princess could exhibit such delicacy and fragility.
Take-home points for little girls (who are taught to idolise Princesses) include:
a) Princesses really are a whole different species to you and me.
b) Princesses are, without question, beautiful (and blonde, and thin, and white).
c) Princesses should not be able to cope with anything.
ERGO: The ultimate aspiration presented to little girls is to be pretty, wear a nice dress, and marry a prince after demonstrating the ultimate in physical inferiority and self-indulgent hysteria over creature comforts.
Recently, when I asked some little girls I was taking care of for the afternoon what they wanted to play. The answer was, of course, "Princesses!", and was the same when I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. I caught myself, for one moment, trying to explain to a five-year old in a pink tulle dress-up skirt that Princesses are just like you and me, but with more expensive outfits.
"They're not," I explained,"really any different to other people. You're just the same as them."
The little girl didn't believe me. Why would she, when everyday, imagined princesses are presented to her in their rosy, golden glory, complete with storybook Prince. I suddenly had a sneaky idea. I pulled out a glossy magazine from another room, and flicked through until I found a royal; Princess Beatrice, looking pallid and unattractive at a London event.
The little girls were unanimous in declaring that she didn't look like a Princess at all. Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, playing with her children in a parka on a beach, was judged the same way. In fact, the only person that the little girls agreed did look like a Princess was Hilary Duff, in a pink dress on a red carpet.
Even real Princesses were failing the Litmus Test.
In the end, I don't think I managed to rid those little girls of their illusions about royalty. In their hearts, they know quite well that Princesses are beautiful, pink-clad, and better than real people. Instead, I think that the only take-home point I provided to the little girls that day was that they wanted to be Hilary Duff. OK by me, so long as it doesn't imply skin trauma from sleeping on a boiled legume.
Monday, January 19, 2009
-- Paul Gaugain
Just recently, I came across a short story by Roald Dahl entitled "Vengeance Is Mine, Inc.". The story centres around a couple of guys who think they can make a quick buck by carrying out revenge on behalf of third parties. You even get your choice of vengeance - with options ranging from a punch in the nose to letting a de-venomed rattlesnake loose in the car of the person who wronged you. Even though the scheme ultimately fails and drives the guys out of town, I couldn't help but think it was a bloody good idea for a business. It's probably a sad indictment of my personality that when Clever Boyfriend asked me if I had any New Year's Resolutions, I immediately thought of revenging myself upon an ex-boss who ruined my finances and self-esteem in 2008.
Clever Father usually pledges the Eastern solution - don't fuck your karma up with hate, and forgive your enemies. In theory. He got the best quick revenge I've ever seen done - and enjoyed it enough to cast some serious doubt upon Juvenal's little theory of gender disparity.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, my parents lived in a semi-rural area, where you have to go up a long bush driveway to the house. It also happens to be near a church, so on Sundays the quiet little street is packed with cars. And one Sunday night there was a vicious thunderstorm. I had driven my old banger back from uni, squinting through the rain, only to find that someone had parked across our driveway, blocking access in and out as completely as if the road didn't exist. I swore and cursed a lot as I tried to rain-proof myself and my textbooks for the long walk up the driveway.
I needn't have bothered. I was soaked before I was halfway up. It was pitch dark, and impossible to avoid the ankle-deep puddles snaking through the mud driveway, which was half demolished with rain. By the time I got to the house, my books were stuck together. Clever Father opened the door for me with a bemused smile.
"Dad. Some complete prick has parked across our driveway."
"I know," he says, continuing to smile. "Did you get a look at his tyres?"
Dad hadn't gone so far as slashing them, but it turns out he had let them all down. We had a great laugh over that as I wrung the rain out of my hair and spread my notes in front of the heater to dry. Revenge can be extremely satisfying. Just watch Kill Bill. In this case though, revenge was best served smokin' hot.
So, would you be tempted to use a service such as Vengeance Is Mine Inc.?
And is Juvenal correct when he says that women enjoy vengeance more than men?
Saturday, January 10, 2009
I've seen my share of shit around here. I have a lot of stories. The young, crying girl with the ripped shirt and methadone-smeared eyes who took refuge in my house for a few hours after turning her first trick is one. The guy who tried to sell me heroin which he pulled out of his three-year old son's pocket is another. Then, there's nearly getting pole-axed by an umbrella-wielding teenager after she ripped me off for weed. There's watching a married couple in their fifties fight in the street until a heavy blow split her face open like a plum. There's finding the little girl outside the pub, begging me to get her mother off the pokies for her. And, of course, there's my occasional porch-sleeper, but that's another blog.
You might call my neighborhood "colourful". In a strange way, I fit right in here.
So it's not surprising that I started to occasionally patronise the clusters of pushers up on the corner. They sell bad pot at high prices in small quantities, but at least they're close. And they're there when you stumble home drunk, at midnight.
The summer drought always bodes badly for the weed supply, and times have been tight recently around here. The cops landed a huge raid a couple of weeks ago, which didn't improve the lot of the local dealers much. So, a few nights ago, I found myself waiting in the most dangerous part of town for my "fella" to show back up and slip me a gram. A young guy, unusual only for having white skin in this part of town, gestures me over with a standard;
I sidle over and smile. Maybe he's holding. He immediately disabuses me of that belief.
"Are you holding, sista?"
I apologise. I'm not holding.
"Do you use?" he asks.
I look down at his face. He has a junkie complexion - greyish skin, sheened with sour sweat and dotted all over with greasy pimples. Mostly it's the hollows under the eyes, and the twisted, bitten lips which betray how much pain this guy is in. He's suffering.
"No mate," I reply. "Not anymore, anyway. Dodged that bullet." I shrug.
He looks at me more intently, searching.
"I know you from somewhere," he says.
"I'm local. You've probably seen me around."
"No... somewhere else." He pauses and stares at me, grasping for recognition. Suddenly he seems to work it out.
"Did you work?" he asks. "Ever work ... at all?"
It takes me a moment to process the peculiar emphasis on the word "work". Then I get it.
"No, mate. Not in that industry, anyway."
"I'm sure that's how I know you," he nods to himself, apparently sure that he has known me in the Biblical sense. And for cash.
I'm not offended at being taken for a prostitute. It's not even the first time. So many people here operate on a completely different plane around here, and ethics hardly come into it. It's a matter of survival.
The guy's head drops back and he stops talking to me. I'm not in a position to fuck him or score for him, so our conversation is over. He doesn't look older than twenty-five. I look around at the milieu of pushers, pimps and users lining the alleyway, waiting for a score. This scene can be intense - maybe too intense to justify going through it just to score a gram of weed. I think about how close I was to being a fixture in it, a few years ago. But for the grace of God, they say.
But maybe I am a fixture. At least, apparently I look like one.
I head back home empty-handed, thinking about all the bullets I've dodged.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
At a recent funeral for a dearly-loved friend, I couldn't help but grieve for his tattoos as well as the body they were about to cremate. He had some fantastic ink, and, I caught myself wondering somewhat perversely whether they might not be worth keeping. It seemed like such a waste. My friend's tattoos were the only parts of him which he had created himself, and chosen to present to the world. It seemed like we were going to burn a piece of his mind along with his body.
Perhaps it was the grief, or perhaps it was mainly the booze we had thickly laid on as a salve to that grief, but a few days later, I found myself slurring some particularly politically-incorrect sentiments at a family gathering.
"I want you to preserve my tattoo after I die."
The silence was tangible. My mother snorted and attempted to pass off my comment as a joke.
"No, I'm serious. When I die, I want you to cut it off my back, have it stretched and preserved like leather. You could mount it and hang it."
"Can you do that to human skin?" Clever Little Sister asked, her gore-hound glands pricking.
"Course you can. The Nazis did it heaps. Made collectibles. Couches, books, lampshades. That sort of thing. Apparently it was quite a thing to show your guest a Jew-skin lampshade."
This was probably a cruel topic to bring up. One side of my family were refugees from the Holocaust. I can see my mother's face growing whiter as she realises I'm serious. Wine-fuelled, I garble on, providing my own momentum.
"Come on Mum. I'm a Jew. Sort of. You could show all your friends your Jew-Skin artwork."
I don't know why, but I was being deliberately cruel. Maybe it comes down to being in grief and shock. I was the only person at the gathering who knew the deceased. It can be self-indulgently fun to act the part of the ennui-ridden nihilist at a time like that. But, at the same time, I actually believed what I was saying. I believe in organ donation - based on the logic that I won't need my organs after death. I don't believe in an afterlife, so I won't be needing my tattoos there. Wouldn't my family want to keep the best part of my skin, indelibly printed with something that came from my heart and mind?
My mother's face answers that one for me. She looks shocked, and more than a little nauseated. Her lips have twisted around as though she sucked something sour. I can see her picturing a patch of my dead, dried leather mounted in a little frame between her prints of cherubs and French maisons. Skin that she carried around inside of her for months. A piece of her, on the wall.
The idea of saving my ink still appeals to me, but I'll keep it to myself next time.
Would you preserve your tattoos (or someone else's) after death?