03 August 2018

Cluny Brown

There's a periodic book column in the New York Times, called "The Enthusiast", described as "an occasional column dedicated to the books we love to read and reread." Several months ago, the column's subject was Margery Sharp - an author heretofore unknown to me (despite a whole mess of children's books that seem like books I should know). Charmed by the description of "Cluny Brown", I put it on hold at the library. And waited. And read some other books. And finally, a couple of weeks ago, "Cluny Brown" was mine to borrow.

I picked it up and was irrationally pleased to find that it was in that increasingly rare library binding: indestructible buckram. The cover is brown on beige, in a sort of feathered marble pattern.

The title is stamped on the spine in no-nonsense capitals.

And best, because it's a book that's been in circulation since about 1972, it's got a due date card pocket inside the back cover. Which, in my considered opinion, is the best place to store your bookmark.

So much pleasure from the merely physical aspects of the book. And! But! Happily, it is a wonderful book. Cluny is an idiosyncratic character of the highest order, and moves through life in a rather different plane than those around her. A plumber's niece, she has the temerity to take herself to tea at the Ritz "all on her own, to see what it was like."

At the end of Chapter 4, a foreign visitor has arrived at the Devon country house at which Cluny is now in service as a parlormaid.

Thus layer by layer, without any conscious effort, the oyster that was Friars Carmel smoothed and overlaid its grain of sand, producing, like a pearl, a distinguished Professor, met at a British Embassy, recovering from an operation, and fond of horses.

No such process, naturally, was applied to the new parlormaid.

Indeed, her entrance, at the beginning of Chapter 5, is spectacular and distinctly unparlourmaidlike:

Cluny Brown arrived at Friars Carmel in a Rolls-Royce.

Cluny simply doesn't act in the ways in which people expect a plumber's niece parlourmaid to act. She's delightful, and so is the book.

01 August 2018

Yes. Yes I have.

For reasons of my own, I changed my diet a couple of months ago. Mind you, I am not dieting, I am not on a diet. If I were on a diet, I wouldn’t be having that glass of Sauvignon Blanc with Rachel Maddow every night, now would I?

No, I changed my diet to address a health situation. I’ve done this before - I went on a strict low-fat diet when I was pregnant because my gall bladder up and rebelled and a low-fat diet is what held surgery at bay, because like any sane person I was trying to avoid a gall bladder removal while enceinte. It’s one of those things that’s doable, but better to avoid, IYKWIM.

The inadvertent side effect of the change in diet is that I’ve lost weight. I don’t know really know how much, because I don’t own a scale, but several pairs of jeans are now sporting Frankensteinian alterations. (Let’s put it this way: I can’t go out in public with my shirt tucked in, unless I’m wearing a cardigan, if I’m wearing those jeans.) And people - friends, co-workers, acquaintances - have commented. “Have you lost weight?” “You’ve lost weight.” “Hey, skinny!” “You look great!”

And here’s what makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Every time I hear that “you’ve lost weight”, I also hear an unstated condemnation. “You needed to lose weight.” “You were too fat.” Telling me I look great means I didn’t look great before?

It is unsettling.

Mind you, I’m not unhappy about the weight loss. It’s not because of a “bad” “condition” like cachexia - it’s because of the food choices I’ve been making. I’m down to something like how much I was when I got pregnant 15 years ago, and I’ve been higher than my delivery weight for a few years now.

But, like friend on Facebook said recently, “The assumption that any weight loss is chosen freely and a cause for celebration is a big cultural enshrinement of fatphobia and I'm so done with it.”

Not too long ago, I came across a blog post that talked about this very issue: weight loss is not always desired, not always healthy, not always good. Thinner is not necessarily better. Kim Bongiorno says “Why feel shame about our beautiful bodies? Each is different, and it’s wonderful”.

She says it a lot better than I can, and I urge you to read her post.

Or read Roxane Gay. She curated a series on Medium, called Unruly Bodies, exploring all of this stuff.

If you’d rather, read Gay’s book Hunger. She writes beautifully about so many things: race, privilege, body image, personhood, education, intelligence. But how she talks about being fat - really fat - is powerful stuff, especially at the intersection of public opinion and internal struggle.

p. 120 (chapter 31) - "When you're overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects"...[people make comments]..."They forget you are a person. You are your body, nothing more, and your body should damn well become less."

p. 137 - "What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?"

p. 175 (chapter 51) - "I have two wardrobes." "...every day...These are the clothes I feel safe in." "My other wardrobe, the one that dominates most of my closet, is full of the clothes I don't have the courage to wear." "When I slide back into my uniform, that cloak of safety returns."

p. 205 - "This is no way to live but this is how I live."

Our bodies are ours. Think twice before you say something about weight loss or weight gain. Do you really want to mention the dark circles under someone's eyes? Like my niece said once, “Commentary on my looks or anyone's is not welcome banter.”

Although, I’ll not be unhappy if you notice that my hair is a little bit purple, because that - dying my hair an eccentric color - amuses the hell out of me.