Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Princess Litmus Test

I'm by no means the first person to note the problems with what fairy-tales could be teaching kids. Veritably, fairy-tales are rife with infanticide (Hansel and Gretel), incest (Many Furs), cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel again), genetic determinism based on birth order (anything featuring a Seventh-Son or -Daughter) and maleficent or outright murderous step-family (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.). Some of the more unpalatable devices have been omitted from public consumption in recent years; for instance, it's difficult to find a current copy of Cinderella, which depicts the public torture of the evil-stepmother and -stepsisters which featured at the end of original versions. In another act of housekeeping by Disney, Ariel the Little Mermaid traded her voice for legs, whilst Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid endured legs which were paid for in agonising pain - every step she took on them was enchanted to feel that she was walking on upturned knives.

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

Vengeance Is Mine Inc.

Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.
-- 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.

I've been warned that revenge is unsatisfying, but then again it can't be universally unsatisfying thanks to the numerous immortal quotes on the subject. For example, the Japanese say that revenge is a dish best served cold. The Talmud says that living well is the best revenge, and even JFK said "don't get mad, get even". Many others disagree, including Juvenal, who stated that revenge is for fools - but did express his belief that "noone rejoices in revenge more than woman".

Oh, snap.

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

Working Girls - and being mistaken for one

I live in a certain part of a certain city that is commonly described as "notorious". It has all the hallmarks that polite society attempts to avoid - such as dark, syringe-littered alleyways, spaced-out locals begging outside the train station, and a certain baked, dead look about the few patches of trees and grass clinging to the concrete. If this place has seen better days, it hasn't been for a long, long time.

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;

"Hey! Sista!"

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

Jew-Skin Lampshade

For ten years, since the death of the first Family Dog, Family Dog's collar has been lying gently in a place of honour on my parents' mantlepiece. It's much harder, I realised, to create that sort of touching monument to a person. People don't wear collars.

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?