Saturday, September 24, 2005

"The Birthmark"

I'm reading this story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is a dark tale of man's dissatisfaction with the "imperfections" of Nature. Looking for it online, I found a page that references how Leon Kass, who'd been named to head the president's committee on bioethics, recommended "The Birthmark" to the committee.

The writer of this page works himself into a near-hysterical frenzy over how soon, thanks to birth control, etc., there will be a handful of young people supporting hoards of elderly, there will be competition among men for the declining number of women in places like China, etc. Of course, this is the fault of all non-right thinking people, people like Aylmer of "The Birthmark," which story really has little relationship to birth control, managing populations, or anything like that, but is focused on a more Frankensteinish horror. (It's quite a stretch to apply this story's moral to what this writer is trying to get it to fit.)

Then he says something about leftists and libertarians "chattering" about women's rights. "Chattering." What a fashionable, in way to belittle your opposition without having to actually address their issues—use a word that implies they are mindless little twitterers. Of course, I could say this writer drools his way through his argument. But I'll stick to "near-hysterical." It has its ironies with reference to his argument.

I can't help but think the only way to address the issues is to take them seriously. This habit of avoiding the issues by demeaning the opposition ain't it.

Dream: Dorm room

I had just moved into my dormitory room. I was looking around and noticing my roommate's things didn't look like stuff she would have. Too much, too girly. I'd also just read a flyer about a tree-planting social in the courtyard but for some reason avoided it, knowing that I'd regret missing it.

I was pulling smiley nightlights out of my bag or box and putting them on the bed when a friend arrived with my birthday present—a pumpkin smiley nightlight. I was hoping she didn't notice the others, although I kept thinking that my birthday really couldn't be at this time of year. More girls burst in, and one insisted on making my bed, although she mixed together my flowered sheets with hideous grey-striped ones that matched the ugly mattress, despite the fact I told her I had sheets and a bedspread. She covered the bed with an ugly red blanket, so I had layers of blankets and sheets although I like to sleep with nothing over me when possible, or very little.

I discussed the mystery of the roommate with the friend, who agreed that it didn't look like my roommate's things—then I realised I may not have remembered to ask for her as a roommate. I also noticed I'd forgotten hangers. And that there was a curved wooden bar with mismatched wooden chairs.

Just then I heard my parents say something, the girls in the room laughed derisively and whatever it was they'd said, and then I saw them walking away, my dad in sock feet and shorts! They were so unlike anyone else's parents.

Then I woke up, wondering and not knowing if my mother had ever traveled beyond central Pennsylvania and western New York.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Review: The Outermost House

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod by Henry Beston. Highly recommended.

In his chronicles of a year spent in a tiny house on Cape Cod's great beach, on a dune between ocean and dunes and marsh, Henry Beston recognises something of which many of us are no longer aware—the cyclical nature of life.

Even the beach itself, embattled between land and ocean, wind and wave, is the result of a cycle. Beston vividly describes the many others that take place during his year, for example, the advance and retreat of the varied plant life upon the dunes and the corresponding changes in colour and tone. Even when the dunes seem dead, Beston finds life lurking in the development phase of its cycle; of the insects he says, " . . . yet one feels them here, the trillion, trillion tiny eggs in grass and marsh and sand, all faithfully spun from the vibrant flesh of innumerable mothers, all faithfully sealed away, all waiting for the rush of this earth through this space and the resurgence of the sun."

The cycle of night and day had been lost to most by 1925, the year of the outermost house, as Beston notes. He says, "Primitive people, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power . . . having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, [we] now have a dislike of night itself." On the beach, however, Beston can experience the "poetry of night"—beach-combing skunks, frolicking deer, stranded skates and dogfish, and great tempests and storms that ground boats and ships and drown or carry off their crews.

Of course, life and death are part of the cycle, eloquently illustrated through tales of shipwrecks (past and present), but perhaps most poignantly shown after a great summer storm, when all that Beston finds of a least tern colony is an eggshell fragment, then, upon further exploration, discovers the song sparrow determinedly sitting on her nest, which is now only inches above the wind-piled sand. Like the Lord, the sea giveth and the sea taketh away, a way of life that is most clear when predators drive in schools of fish to feast on, only to find themselves stranded by the relentless surf.

Immersed in all these cycles and rituals—the seasons, day and night, life and death, migration and hibernation— Beston, perhaps unconsciously, creates his own, including not only the practical such as weekly visits to town for supplies, but also the equally necessary—the regular seeking out of the Nauset light and the companionship of the Coast Guardsmen who man it and who patrol the coastline. These human contacts become the ritual of Beston's own human life, when it is not involved in observing the world and the life around him.

Beston did not write The Outermost House with a purpose, other than to please his fiancée; that is, his intent was not to preach or persuade but to observe and chronicle. At times, the passages ramble accordingly, but at other moments they sing, as when he says of animals, "They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Given the constant flux of the world, where a thriving colony of terns may be replaced by a storm-tossed sand dune in the course of one night, it seems appropriate that the Fo'castle, the outermost house, along with its beach, was reclaimed by the ocean during a winter storm in 1978. Knowing the ocean and the land as he did, Beston may have been surprised that the house survived as long as it did. Beston does not have to resort to preachiness for the outermost house—and its fate—to make a point about our tenuous connection to our frail world and its rhythms. The outermost house is gone. Discover, explore, and preserve what remains.

Sunday, 18 September 2005.
© 2005 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hair product

Today I went to a neighbourhood salon I hadn't visited in years. I needed a haircut and was tired of the constant commentary I received at the place I have been going to. Of course, I was assaulted with the usual questions and comments:

How long ago did you get a haircut? [The polite way of saying, When was the last time you had this MESS cut?]

How much do you want taken off?

The ends are pretty dry. It will be at least this much. That okay?


Halfway through the cut today, she suggested I consider having my hair cut short. What is this fascination of hair stylists with short hair? Each and every one tells me I should think about getting a short haircut. Well, I'm 44 years old, which I think is old enough now to know what I want and don't want, and I don't want a short haircut, which is why I didn't ask for one.

Today I had to explain why not. I've had short haircuts. I look hideous in short haircuts. Short haircuts are a great way to scream, "Look, this woman has an oval face, no neck, and no chin! Look! And a small head on a huge body! Look! There's no hair to impair your view!" I told her this, in slightly different terms, and she looked at me disapprovingly, silently saying, "I don't believe you. Everyone secretly desires to have a short, chic haircut, especially women with no chin and no neck. I belong to the secret 'Women must have short hair' society,' and you are foiling our plans for world domination. And you'd look so cute in short hair." Except I would look (and have looked) terrible in short hair. So—no short hair!

"I don't really mean short hair; I mean, to here [indicating shoulder length]." And, ta da—she cut my hair to shoulder length, as it turns out. But apparently it's not short enough to meet the society's nefarious goals.

Then she asked me if I use "product." I deduced she meant gel. Yes, I use gel to flatten the bangs that no one will cut short enough and that are forever in my way. "No, I mean on the rest of your hair." "No. Why?" "Does your hair curl mostly or frizz? Product would help with the frizz." "I don't mind frizz." "But you have such beautiful hair." Apparently, frizz impairs its "beauty." Too bad because, as I told her, I really don't care if it frizzes. No, really. I don't. Why is this so hard to believe? Do I look vain to you? And is there a gene that make frizz look hideous to the rest of the world? If so, why do so many women spend a gazillion dollars on permanents that look frizzy? So they can achieve what I have naturally. Frizz. Love it or look away. I don't care.

We got into a discussion over curl, and when it became clear to her I just don't get it, what she was asking me about how my hair curls, she sighed and said, "You don't understand. I mean . . ." No, you don't understand. I don't care if my hair curls or frizzes. I simply want the split, dry ends cut off. That's all. A cut. No commentary. No fluffing, drying, gelling, or primping. Just a haircut.

Anyone know a good barber? Maybe he can give me a shave, too.