Margaret’s Magazines

Margaret's-Magazines

As a Canadian writer, I find it appropriate that my mother’s name was Margaret, as in Atwood, Avison, and Laurence. Though she had some talent in drawing and became a school-teacher, she made a last contribution to the cultural world: the preservation of what librarians call ‘women’s ephemerae.’

When I was a girl in the 1980s, my mother would sometimes show me women’s magazines from the 1950s or 60s. As a 14-year-old, I was familiar enough with the more modern ones and I poured over the older pages of the old-fashioned or frankly crazy fashions, and the familiar sections: crafts, recipes, Dear Lois, and Can this Marriage be Saved? I often had scissors in my hands then, and I used these images again after art school, when I no longer had to earn marks from my abstract expressionist professors, and could make art that had more personal meaning for me.

These magazines showed me what women – my mother, and eventually, me — were supposed to be. Often my silent response was “you’ve got to be kidding,” but I have no way of knowing how much this constant barrage of information lodged in my subconscious. My mother seemed to accept it uncritically, but then, she was born in 1925, and had been formed before the feminism of the later 20th century.

She bought new magazines all the time, looked them over and filed them away in boxes in the basement, boxes that mounted over the years, that filled the space until there were only passageways to the furnace, and the washer and the dryer, the deep freezes, and the potato bin. It seemed she couldn’t let anything go – any words that might explain her life or her world, or allow her to get along in it better.

After she died, my father slowly emptied the basement box by box, to the recycler and to the charity shop. It took him two years. After he was finished he found more magazines, this time on the high shelf in the bedroom closet.

These were very old — from 1909 to 1941, messages from my grandmothers’ world. They were magazines that were no longer in print: The Modern Priscilla, and Home Arts. My father said he would take them to the recycler unless I wanted them.

Some of them were in the boxes they’d been mailed in, postmarked about the time my brother and I were born. It seemed to be some kind of trading system among women. Many of the magazines had holes where they had been bound and held as back issues in libraries. My mother had never shown me any of these.

Inside the covers I found scholarly articles about traditional women’s arts in far off countries, embroidery and crochet patterns, June Bride issues from the 1920s, and an interview with Amelia Earhart on aircraft – and needlecraft. There were ads for Campbell’s Soup, Pepsodent, weight-loss, and creams for bleaching away freckles.

Some things never change, but some things do; I found a recipe for “halibut palmettes” that involved cutting the fillets into hearts, squashing all the juice out, frying them stiff as a board, and then covering them with a kind of fish mousse icing. Modern foodies would run screaming, and I don’t think the fish cookies would fool the kids.

I brought the magazines home and sorted them. There were over five hundred: about 350 different copies, plus duplicates and a few triplicates. 

My family and I donated most of them to Special Collections at the University of Saskatchewan Library. The librarian we worked with told us it was the biggest collection of its kind in Canada, and would benefit the Art Department and Women’s Studies. And then the library threw us a party.

We set up a display of photos of my mother, her own needlework, and her high school graduation gown, and of course, we named the collection after her.

My mother was shy and didn’t want people to know much about her, so she wouldn’t be comfortable with the name of the collection. I do know she would be glad that what she saved and valued is now be saved and valued by many in perpetuity.

You can see the covers of the Margaret Friesen-Labach Collection of Early 20th Century Women’s Magazines on line at http://library2.usask.ca/earlywomensmags/

The library plans to scan every page to make the collection available to researchers around the world.

I kept the third copies — the rattiest ones – about ten of them bound up in a large envelope I made out of acid-free rag paper.

I look at them with my children, both the boy and the girl, and we talk about how things have changed, and how these sorts of magazines still tell women what the culture wants them to be, a much narrower definition of who they really are.

Posted in Digital Art, Feminism, Mixed Media, Revisionary Design | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fits Like a Glove

fits-like-a-glove-small

This is an image that I made for my digital magazine project, WöM, by harvesting images from my mother’s collection of 1940-60s women’s magazines. This was the era when it was cool to get your feet X-rayed in the shoe store and use spray-on bandages, when the world would be created a better place by chemical companies, and spending money made even women a part of the grand new world — especially if she wore high heels, cooked a lot of meat, smiled in spite of her corset, and cleaned her toilet in heels.

The magazines eventually let me imagine my mother’s experiences, and imagine her as a (not just my mother) human being. She always got angry if someone dropped by unannounced because of her shame at whatever “state” the house was in. If one of my friends went into a room she didn’t want them to go in, I was in trouble, because she thought it was my job to police them. This would have been a little more reasonable if she had informed them which rooms they were not allowed to go in. Once, my mother was in an agony of rage (How could you? Don’t you know how I feel????) because I had opened a door and an uncle was there and he saw into the utility room.

I didn’t, of course, know how she felt, but I tried very hard to guess, from moment to moment. In my mid-twenties, when I came back to visit, I found I was still watching her face at mealtimes to know if there was some emotional storm there that would be blamed on me, and that I would believe was my fault; I would have to try, somehow, to change the weather. It took me a long time to learn that her emotions were not my fault, and I stopped watching her.

I sometimes did try to fit into my mother’s shoes. A pair of her rust-brown pumps are the most painful shoes in my experience, even though my feet are slightly smaller than hers. This must have been the way a lot of women tried to fit themselves into the 1950s. The shoes are very pointy at the toe, and very curvy in the rear, and they are completely rigid in form, the leather backed by a woody lining that makes sure what’s inside isn’t seen, or ( horrors!) change the shape of its mold.

Also, with each step, you walk on a nail. A stiletto is really the name of a narrow Italian dagger.

I still wear my mother’s dresses on occasion, and they still make me think. As I get older, what I think has been changing.

This image, too, means something quite different to me now, than it did when I made it. In October, it will be my 8th anniversary of receiving my final clear CT scan after 8 months of chemotherapy. I only recently found out what, exactly, these scans are – a large number of stacked 2D cross-section X-rays. Why didn’t I know this before? Perhaps because the term “CT scan” is not very descriptive. If people knew how many X-rays they were undergoing per minute, they would be even more frightened than they are.

The pot scourer part of the image is appropriate. Makes me feel raw.

BOOKSOh, I’m losing track, after this long summer of kids and travel and moving and camping and renovations…

Testament of Youth    Vera Brittain

Everyone should read this to know what war is. Vera Brittain lost her brother and all the young men she knew in World War I, and joined as a VAD ‘nurse.’ Trained a mere six weeks, she saw as much ground up human flesh as any soldier.

The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu     Sax Rohmer

Crackers, racist, the 1913 male id — or is it ego? Entertaining as sociology. For God’s sake, Manchu! Kill the heros finally, so they can stop escaping your dungeons in order to lengthen the book!

Did people really think some members of the so-called “yellow” races had nictitating membranes?

The Boys in the Trees     Mary Swan

An unusual book, tracing the shudder that goes through a small town after a man annihilates his family. The author does not attempt to imagine him beyond the age of about 9. The book works, but is this man’s head really a place no one can imagine? Is this one of those things impossible in literature because people will not want to read it so publishers will not publish it?

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A Fish Called Wanda (Part of the One Ton Collage, now officially the Two Ton Collage)

A-Fish-Called-WandaPergola-Patio

­It’s a good thing I’m used to this – or I at least remember this feeling from art school.

You do some piece of art, and as you’re doing it, it seems to be the greatest thing on the planet.

But then, it isn’t anymore, and then you really hate it.

And, there it is.

This time in concrete.

I don’t actually hate it enough to get the pic-axe and start swinging. I knew I was relying on my beginners luck in doing this vast mosaic project, and I wanted to try to do something figurative, because I admire old Roman mosaics, but… it didn’t expect it to look like something a seven-year-old might have done.

And of course, after having had the experience of doing a mosaic in such very small stones, I know what I would rather have in that big empty triangle that I filled with cement and a fish.

I should have continued the circles and triangles theme, and filled the centre with the concentric waves of many raindrops in the different colours of stone, overlapping, interfering with each other.

And now, I have to live with Wanda the fish. She took seven hours, and many expletives were uttered, and now my muscles are sore, and I wish she wasn’t curing under the plastic so I could give her nasty looks, and maybe try to convince myself she doesn’t look that bad. This problem doesn’t exist in writing because you can edit to your heart’s content until it’s as close to perfection as you can imagine.

It’s almost as bad as if I’d set Spongebob Squarepants in stone. I suppose I could put a nice big potted plant on top of her.

Maybe she’ll grow on me. I told my husband that I’ll let this mosaic wear out, and put the raindrop mosaic in after that.

Posted in Landscape, Visual Art | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Funny Bunny

FunnyBunny

Okay, it’s not art, but I made it, and am proud of it. And I fell in love with power tools.

My daughter’s Funny Bunny was driving me crazy gnawing on her cage in the house, and she’s much happier living outside, munching on the dandelions and grass that grow up through the floor wire, sniffing the air, listening to the rest of nature with her long ears, touching noses with the dog, fearless under a sky where bald eagles and osprey fly. She happily sits in the rain or on the roof of her little house.

Though I took woodworking in grade eight instead of home-economics, this is the biggest thing I’ve made with hammer and nails, and it’s just whacked together scraps. I made it movable by two people, and to be able to fit in the back of the truck. The little house has a sliding removable floor-wall that I invented so it could be cleaned easily.

Unfortunately, its resident isn’t co-operating with the logic of this idea. She seems to think its’ a good idea to sh-t in her house and nest rather than the great outdoors – perhaps from culinary interests — so I may have to cut out the bottom of her house and wire it up.

It’s just me against the rabbit, matching wits.

My father had a similar contest with a squirrel once, and I can’t remember who won.

 

Books:

Infidel, Ayan Hirsi Ali.

The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, Ayan Hirsi Ali.

Both Hirsi Ali’s books a must for anyone who believes in human rights. The mutilation of the genitals of little girls by the family that should love them is unspeakable. Forced “marriage” is rape and slavery, and there is no word that describes forced child-bearing. It is becoming more and more difficult for me to like my own species.

 

God: A Biography, Jack Miles.

Written by an ex-Jesuit, this book explores what taking the Bible literally really means concerning the development of God’s personality as the main character. Puts the fun back in fundamentalist, at least if you have my kind of sense of humour.

A Virtuous Woman: Sex Life in Relation to The Christian Life, Oscar Lowry.

From the Recycling Depot. Truly the most horrify addition to my “how to behave yourself shelf.” 1930’s Pentecostal American advocacy for female genital mutilation among other things – so we North Americans have little to be proud of either.

Apocalypses: Prophercies, Cults, and Millenial Beliefs through the Ages, Eugene Weber.

Garbo Laughs, Elizabeth Hay.

Midnight Salvage, Adrienne Rich.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith. (Lots of Rabbis. Gave it to a Rabbi)

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Squid Truck

Squid-truck

Here is the Squid Truck, photographed in installation at my show at he the Hornby Island Co-op. It somehow seems to fit with the pineapples, and especially with the sign that says Bag of Lemons.

It was inspired by a trip to the Saskatoon Exhibition over twenty years ago, where, among the stalls for Dukhobor bread and spudnuts, the sheep-dog trials and the carnival rides, were still side-shows in semi-trailers. On the windshield of the Squid Truck is a photograph I took of one side-show I could have entered, where I supposedly could have viewed the still living body of the Marilyn-Monroe-wannabe and sadly decapitated Jane Mansfield.

Decapitated, unfortunately, by driving under a semi-trailer truck.

I wonder if the exhibitors noted this irony.

I acknowledge the whimsicality of the side-show Squid Truck, but it’s surely less weird than the side-show that inspired it.

After finding the cab at the Salvation Army toy section, after twenty years, I’m still looking for back wheels — then it would actually be a working toy.

As an art object it seems to hold its own with the fruit and vegetables, which are brightly coloured and in classic form. Maybe, like there are rules about never being on screen beside kids or animals — because they always upstage you — there should be rules about never exhibiting art-works beside bananas. What could compete with the silliness, whimsicality, form, colour and sheer cultural baggage of the banana?

Most of us have much less connection with the giant squid.

And fortunately, the semi-trailer truck.

Books:

The People’s Act of Love, James Meek.

Brilliant. I’m reading it again.

Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Mixed Media, Visual Art | Leave a comment

Coat-Poem in Progress

Coat-Poem-Unifinished

I am post-first-draft of a new novel, and my children have had only two normal weeks of school (meaning four days per week) in almost 2 ½ months, since the beginning of December due to illness, power outage, ferry shut-down, and the Christmas holidays. And yesterday was the B.C. legislated Family Day. There is no power in earth or the cosmos that can legislate a real mother holiday in which we do nothing in our own homes. I am nearly brain-dead.

Fortunately I’m going to spend a week at St. Peter’s Abbey, Meunster, Saskatchewan for an annual stay with the Saskatchewan Artist-Writers Retreats.

And I’ve been gathering materials, making black and purple velvet roses, so far 152.

I try to take pictures of the clothes I destroy in the process of making new ones of Revisionary Design, but I haven’t shown them until now. Here is the work-in-progress – my first combined art-writing garment, a coat-poem which I will be working on at St. Pete’s.

The Astrakhan lamb coat belonged to my Ukrainian grandmother, my Baba. I cut off most of the bottom, to use in the making the Red Velvet Waterfall Scarf — and also just because the coat was so heavy, it felt as if I was wearing the entire sheep. I combined it with a velvet A-line opera coat from the 1950’s, my mother’s era. A 1960’s black velvet dress and a 1980’s purple velvet dress have vanished into roses, and I’m planning to use the pink-gold material and beads from the Indian cameez.

And there’s a developing poem, of course, which will be sewn in.

My Baba came to North America when she was 10 years old, and was “married” to a 30 year old man when she was 15. He died before I was born. No one over talked about him. The silence is frightening.

I’m going to cover myself in this.

I’m going to wear this coat.

Posted in Feminism, Poetry, Revisionary Design | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Loyalty of a Woman in Love

­

This is one of my found-text digital image from my magazine satire “WöM.” The article is from a 1950 British magazine, and praises the only women who for sure, really love their husbands – the ones who get beat up, and keep coming back for more. If the man didn’t beat them, after all, how would people know she wasn’t just staying with him because he was nice to her?

No questions were asked about the “love” these men have for their wives. None was apparently necessary. And it is the women who are compared to leeches, not the men. This was the world my children’s grandmothers had to live in.

Lately, the air around me seems filled with questions about how to teach boys and girls about feminism. My children, too, have been asking me questions that naturally lead there. I’ve always talked about prejudice, whether skin colour, age, or sex. Children know when people are ignoring them because they are little; they’ve already experienced prejudice. Lately my daughter has been asking me to tell her about my past boyfriends. It’s a good place to start – and stories are always a better idea than axioms or advise from authority.

I’ve told her about the man who broke up with me with the words “So long – been nice playing with you.” I told her I later watched him sprain another woman’s arm, and confronted him about it, which chased him away after he’d started hanging around again.

I’ve told her about the one I dumped because he let me know he was considering leaving me to find a woman with better breasts.

I’ve told her about the one I left because he demanded I commit to bearing two of his children in exchange for any commitment from him. I told her of reading about his arrest 19 years later for possession of child pornography.

I’ve told her about how all these men made me feel – like I was a thing, a collection of parts to be toyed with, judged, and discarded; a walking womb for someone else to use.

I’ve told her about leaving the men I couldn’t think of a good reason to stay with.

I told her I married the man who loved me so much, he wanted to spend his life with me to matter what, who was willing to re-write all the rules, and be an equal in building our lives together. I told her his love gave me the security and courage I needed to overcome fears of motherhood, in order to give birth to her and her brother.

My son and I had this conversation three years before, when he was about her age.

My children have always known everything about where babies come from. I read to them and showed them pictures from books on childbirth so they will know what miracles they are, and what miracles women are. I love re-making clothes and look at fashion magazines with my daughter for reasons of design, yet find a lot of material there to talk about prevalent cultural abuses – commercial requirements to buy a lot of cosmetics and spend your life superficially – as well as anorexia, underage models, and plastic surgery. Very early, I taught my children that not all dogs are friendly, and they have to ask permission from the owner to pet a strange dog because some dogs bite. This naturally lead me, sometimes, to talking about people in the same way. Not all people are friendly. Some will hurt others. There are such things as war, and mental illness. Not all grown-ups will behave like Mommy and Daddy. Not all grown-ups deserve their respect or know more about right and wrong than children do.

It’s hard to know how much reality to reveal at what age, but I think that if the news is on and if children are old enough to be bullied at school, then stories of past realities which have been learned from and lived through can only be a good counter to the fairy tales of Prince Charming and happily ever after – or of James Bond and his long list of expendable sex-partners. Boys need to know the kinds of things that women are subject to so they will know why so many women are afraid of them – are prejudiced against men, too, for obvious reasons. They need to know what some men are like – men they will meet someday. I also feel I need to counter our collective family adoration of all babies; women aren’t required to bear them to gain happiness.

My son recently initiated a conversation with me about how some Muslim women are treated, perhaps spurred by recent news items about fathers and brothers murdering their daughters and sisters. I did speak of the killing part. I took him to Malala Yousafzai’s Facebook page, a girl not much older than him, who fundamentalists attempted to murder for speaking up for the right of women to get an education. I must admit I shied away (for the moment) from the horror of female circumcision – practiced by a sub-set of Muslims, as well as many Africans.

I showed my son this image – The Loyalty of a Woman in Love, which I reproduce in full at the bottom of this blog — to show him how western culture commits and has committed crimes against women also.

I want my children to know that they are in charge of how they are treated. They draw their lines in the sand, must clearly demand equality and respect, and have to expect to fight for their rights sometimes, even with people they love; no one is born perfect or into a perfect world and we all retain prejudices. I want my children to be capable of separating themselves from those they may love, but who are incapable of loving them back. Abuse must be the sign of the abuser’s inability to love properly, or to love at all.

Some might consider all this too much information for children this age – almost 9 and 12– but they both had to live through my cancer treatment and the possibility that I might die, though only the oldest remembers. They live in the real world and they should know it.

This much information might not be right for other parents. Many feel they will be destroying their child’s innocence by letting them know certain things. I say there is a difference between innocence and ignorance. Being innocent is the opposite of being guilty. Knowledge makes no once guilty.

I was an excessively sheltered child. My ignorance made me feel stupid.

I remember my shock as a teenager, finding out about how people deliberately hurt and killed each other. My anger and disillusionment lasting for years. The standards I had been taught the world possessed were lies. Suddenly, to me, the world was a bad place rather than a place filled with both good and evil.

Maybe if my children know that the world is half good and half bad, and the same is true of people, they will be able to adjust to adulthood better than I did.

Much of this sounds like advice. I wonder if there’s a way to turn this all into a story. It would have to be many stories.

Posted in Digital Art, Feminism, Visual Art | Tagged , | 2 Comments

One Ton Collage

small-ComboImage1TonCollage

Now for something completely different. It’s 14 feet in diameter and is the weightiest thing I’ve ever done entirely on my own, right down to the hoiking of the slate, some pieces weighing around a hundred pounds. I leveled the slates in the circle and the triangle first, trying to work with Zen hands, making a ching in the ‘roof’ of the triangle.

It became a kind of battle between circles and triangles on different levels, and before I filled in the rest of the slate and basalt, looked like I was trying to signal for alien space ships to land, or call down the wrath of religious fundamentalists who dislike triangles. Now I’m in the process of filling in the ‘water’ made of green and black beach stones and cement — and I find it hard to restrain myself, keep from adding a red or yellow stone here or there. I can do about one 25kg. bag of cement in a day of other demands and duties, when it’s not raining.

And suddenly, the rainy season has begun, and it feels as if I’m living in a big green sponge.

As I worked, I realized there were so many paths and destinations in the area, it wasn’t going to be a gin-and-tonic patio, but a kind of entry piazza. This is fine, though the place I put the thinnest slates has become the main thoroughfare, so I’ve laid them in cement also.

The work in the central triangle will have to wait for the dry season, because I’m going to be doing a mosaic with smaller beach stones in dry sand and mortar — a slamon in the water — with fish-scales made of the wonderful carnelian red, ochre, and pink stones I’ve guiltily picked off the beach.

I’ve unexpectedly fallen in love, love, love, with working in cement. It’s such a wonderful way of displaying beautiful rocks, and ti’s such a durable thing to mess with — and it’s exciting, bizarrely enough. Yes, really.

There’s a kind of exalted terror from working in an art form with a time constraint — even more so when I’ve never done it before. I suppose the only remedy for doing cement badly is getting out the jackhammer.

Of course, that might be fun, too.

BOOKS

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles    Freeman.
It took hundreds of years for the Catholics to become good Catholics (under orders and patronage from various pagan Roman Emperors).

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks.

Ethics and Human Reproduction: A Feminist Analysis, Christine Overall.

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), Bart D. Ehrman.

Sonnets From the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, Joseph Campbell.

No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Fawn M. Brodie.
God told me to read this. Actually, I told God to tell me to read this. Really, I told everybody that God told me to read this.
I loved the strange nineteenth century names: Obadiah Dogberry, Dr. W.P. Purple, Professor Hugh Nibbley, and Phinlastus Hurlbut, the latter sending my son into giggle fits.

Posted in Landscape, Mixed Media, Visual Art | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Chinese Dress

Chinese Dress

I’ve always thought red brocade Chinese dresses were beautiful, but they’re made for hipless women about 30 cm. shorter than I am. I found one second-hand for two dollars, and cut it straight up the back, inserting a kind of narrow origami cape made from a second-hand scarf, which I beaded to match the dress. At once point I found out that I had actually sewn the wooden embroidery frame into the dress, and had to break it in order to get it out – one of the crazy hazards of doing something you’ve never done before. I’ve had the sash since I was a teenager. I think it may have been part of an ecclesiastical outfit.

When I was about eight, I decided I didn’t like wearing dresses because I couldn’t climb trees in them, and the same holds true today, almost thirty-eight years later. This is why I rarely make dresses in Revisionary Design, or wear dresses, though I knuckle under for certain occasions.

I, and many other women, think a lot about clothes. This has been part of our traditional role and division of labour– clothing the family, knitting, sewing, and weaving, and it is one of the maligned arts – superficial, unimportant – in the way misogyny maligns everything to do with women.

Clothing has usually been traditional tribal uniform, whether of goatskin and beads, or lace caps and dresses, or instruments of oppression, like purdah or foot-bindings. Now, in western culture, the going myth is that women express themselves with their clothes – at least that’s what the fashion magazines tell us — while encouraging us to buy new manufactured inventions every season, which we did not invent; the uniform of consumer culture. And then there’s the plastic surgery phenomenon.

The idea of personal expression is still true in a smaller way. Some women do make their own clothes. Gandhi encouraged his nation to make its own clothes as part of its liberation from international oppression. It is true, that, if a woman lives in a culture that allows her to own her body, her body is likely going to be the only personal exhibition space she will ever have. Most women don’t actually say much with their clothes. There is little that is personal. They don’t tell their stories.

Much is said about what people are supposedly “saying” by wearing certain things: the closet rebel in the dark suit who still wears bright red socks — the punk girl with the fishnets and the army boots. If clothing is a language, then it can supposedly be read – but it means different things to different people, and is often misread, sometimes intentionally. Victims were often blamed for the crimes committed against them because they wore the wrong thing – but how could clothes be so dangerous if they were also so trivial?

When I was a teenager, I was told that I shouldn’t wear what I was wearing – gym shorts that all the girls I knew were wearing because, “you know what men will think.”

But I didn’t know what men thought. I didn’t understand why I was expected to read anyone’s mind, let alone a grown up’s, a man’s – someone so completely alien.

I was given more information about this once, by a friend who came from part of the world not known for it’s human rights; I shouldn’t wear what I was wearing because men couldn’t control themselves. I thought this was ridiculous. Surely if men couldn’t control themselves, they wouldn’t be allowed to be things like doctors and lawyers and the heads of corporations. They would all be locked up somewhere, right?

I was wearing these particular clothes because the other girls were wearing the clothes – it was tribal; it meant I belonged. I was told that men would “read” something else. I found this profoundly disturbing; I had no control of what people were reading into my clothes.

I wore dresses now and then, but in addition to being uncomfortable, and feeling like I was masquerading, I didn’t like the way people looked at me. They looked at me more intensely, sometimes with the self-satisfied smile that I was doing something appropriately feminine (perhaps these people were mostly my relatives), but sometimes with looks on their faces I couldn’t fathom. I’ve never been comfortable with men staring, but what about the women? Sometimes they seemed to look angry. Why? Did they want to get stared at too? Did they like the dress? Did they think the dress was weird?

Entering art school was a relief, because artists weren’t supposed to dress in any traditional manner, and certainly not in dresses. If you paid any attention at all to your clothes – which were usually covered in paint – you dressed to divide yourself from suburbia. You didn’t even realize you were dressing to be included in the new tribe.

I felt much more in control of what was speaking out from my body. I was beginning to feel more in control of how people read me… or at least I was confusing them good and hard.

I remember one evening I went to an automated teller at a bank on campus, on the way to some artsy event. Two cops came in as I was leaving, and I heard them burst into laughter as soon as they though I wouldn’t be able to hear them.

So? I was wearing cut-off jeans belted with a green scarf and orange and pink paisley psychedelic tights with elephants all over them. Good for them, I thought – I don’t mind bringing joy (or whatever) to the world.

After art school, I worked in a small city on the prairies, and tamed down the outfits. It didn’t take much to freak out small town Saskatchewan, anyway – just a couple of weird earrings – a different one in each ear — and a man’s coat; as I’ve said before, that’s my size: men’s medium. Someone told me I looked just like they imagined lesbians would look. Once, a little old lady followed me around in the grocery store convinced I was KD Lang, and this could have been dangerous, since the prairies were currently up in arms about her stance against eating meat.

Eventually, I didn’t even bother with the earrings anymore because I was too busy being an artist, and then a writer. Dressing weird is time and effort, and most of the serious artists in art school didn’t have time for that kind of nonsense. I liked the invisibility of dressing more normally, more asexually – jeans and t-shirts.

As a writer and a visual artist, I’ve always felt it was my role to be the watcher, not the watched. I’d sat through too many drawing tutorials where some poverty-stricken woman posed nude for money, and we all took her in in detail, and put her down on the paper. I won’t partake of the local nude beach on the west coast island I live on because, not only have I had radiation, and the sun shouldn’t see me naked, I’ve also read too much feminist-socialist art history.

I got married, had children, had cancer, had a lot of medication and surgery, and decided to start dressing out there again, to get over thinking of myself as a corpse, a way to cherish my body and feel good about it for the rest of the time I have here on earth. This was the beginning of my Revisionary designs, and a way to channel my compulsive making of things.

I still sometimes have to get up the courage for the masquerade, of being at one with the art object, of being looked at, of not being in total control of what others might think of me because of the material on my back. People’s assumptions change with the age of the woman they’re judging, too, and now I’m more concerned people will think I’m some rich anti-environmental animal slaughterer.

I still don’t wear dresses much. It’s too complicated, and also calls up too much of my mother’s post-war generation, and all the expectations of being that sort of female: corseted… heeled.

Clothing isn’t shallow for me — I can barely fight my way through all these myths and implications and expectations that are also laid over the female body.

I could go on and on.

It’s only a dress, I tell myself. Calm down.

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Reading: Mae West Does Eve

If I don’t do ridiculous things before I die, when will I do them?

Let me assure you, these are the first falsies I’ve ever worn – the eyelashes I mean. Actually I’m lying. I won’t even attempt the costume. From a physical standpoint, I don’t make a good Mae West; I’m much too tall.

And More Reading:

Bodily Harm, Margaret Atwood.

The Last Cowboy, Lee Gowan.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charlie Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool.

La Belle Otero: the Last Great Courtesan, Charlie Castle.

The Comforts of Madness, Paul Sayer.

Volume 9 from the Harvard Classics five-foot shelf of books.

Skipped through Cicero. Pliny can be interesting, even though I haven’t gotten to Vesuvius yet. Culture shock: all the careful morality and love of purity and honour, and then the casual mention of their slaves.

Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing: Great Writers on Good Times, Ed. Sara Nicklés

Oddly dull in places and very American.

The Mother Zone, Marni Jackson.

To be saved for my children to read when they contemplate having children.

Fox in Socks, Dr. Seuss.

Again. I will get this trick of staying in each word as I read it, forgetting the one before, not anticipating the one after, not even listening to myself.

Fox in socks on box on Knox. Now, Let’s have a little talk about tweetle beetles…

The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi.

“…we the survivors, are not the true witnesses.”

“… the undernourished brain suffers from a specific hunger of its own.”

“… the slave who breaks his chains is rhetorical; his chains are broken by comrades whose shackles are lighter and looser.”

Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature, William Jordan.

“… you can believe almost anything and still survive.”

“… the rational mind serves the four Fs: fleeing, fighting, feeding, etc.”

“The human brain is a clever replacement for the tail.”

Homo sapiens is not a rational animal: It is a rationalizing one.”

The Goebbels Diaries 1942 – 1943, Trans. Louis p. Lochner.

Goebbels, the right-hand man of a delusional messiah, is amused by certain Allied prisoners of war, who casually make anti-Semitic remarks, yet somehow aren’t politically canny, in his opinion; what good is being a racist, he thinks, if you don’t go all the way?

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