Sunday, 12 May 2013

Tittooing: A New Cultural Phenomenon

I may be accused of many things, but I can say with complete confidence that I can never be accused of being a person of broad culture. I wouldn’t recognise culture if it jumped on me in a dark alley and bit me in the ass. When I was growing up the only contact I had with culture was at the bottom of the tub of rancid yoghurt. Some years ago I heard the Pulitzer award winner Junot Diaz (he was, at that time, several months away from his Pulitzer triumph) in a literary programme. Diaz recounted the story of his first generation, Dominican father, who, upon learning that his third born had published a collection of short stories and intended to make a career as a writer, asked him with genuine concern whether he was gay. I have the satisfaction of knowing that while I drove my progenitors to distraction over many things I never gave them a cause for concern about my sexuality (come to think of it I have never asked my parents their position—so to speak—on homosexuality) probably because I showed no inclination (because I had no talent) towards pursuing a literary profession.

What is a culture, anyway?  When I looked up the definition of culture on the Net, several popped up. The definitions could be broadly divided into two categories. A culture can be understood as patterns, behaviours, traits, belief systems, and predominant attitudes that characterize a particular period or society. Or you may define culture as any activity that can be construed as artistic or intellectual or both.

Within a culture there may be subcultures, if one follows the first definition of culture given above. Thus there may be patterns of behaviours and attitudes specific to communities or geographical areas within a culture, which may not be shared by other communities or areas. It may be perfectly acceptable in New Castle to squat by the roadside on a Friday night, outside a kebab shop, on your way to the fourth dance club of the evening (after you’ve been thrown out by the third dance club in a row for being disruptive and foul-mouthed) and urinate, stuffing the donar kebab down your cleavage (or in your mouth, if you are snobbish about hygiene), but the class-enemies in Chelsea may look down on this practice.

Keeping in mind the above, how can one attempt to understand the nipple tattooing that is allegedly spreading faster than Foot and Mouth Disease in Liverpool, England, if the reports in some British newspapers are to be believed?

Apparently women in Liverpool are craving for perfect nipples. Their idea of perfect nipples (apparently) is that the nipples should not only be of perfect shape but should also be darker in colour. This suggests that the alleged women allegedly living in Liverpool (allegedly in Britain) and allegedly craving for allegedly darker nipples are white. According to a report published in the world renowned British scientific journal, Daily Mail, it’s not just the nipples but the surrounding skin, called areola, that is reconstructed in this procedure (called areola reconstruction), which, the journal advises its readers, should be performed only by medical tattooist rather than the geezer in your local tattoo parlour who will not have the higher qualifications required before you are allowed to mess with women’s (or for that matter anybody’s) nipples. The procedure can be painful in more ways than one. Apparently the areola skin is more sensitive than the surrounding breast skin and without adequate local anaesthesia (which, I guess, would involve, by necessity, a sharp needle being inserted into the areola (ouch!), but after that everything will go numb) can be more painful than the chopping off the foreskin of your todger. And the cost! Don’t even ask how much it costs. An arm and a leg do not even come into it; we are talking about quadriplegic damage here.

When I read that Liverpudian women were more into nipple tattooing, also called (predictably enough) tittooing, than Tom Cruise was into Katie Holmes (before he went off her), I didn’t know what to feel. Should I be glad that they have found a less harmful way of mutilating their bodies than injecting gear? Should I be in despair that just when you think standards couldn’t get any lower in this country Liverpool proves you (yet again) wrong? Should I be happy that women (so far only in Liverpool, though Essex is likely to follow suit according to rumours) have declared that they are in charge of their nipples and will do to them what they wish? Should I be amazed that piss-poor Liverpudians have got thousands of pounds to spend on restructuring their nipples when half of the city is on dole? Should I be sceptical about the veracityof the report concocted by a trainee reporter, who probably decided (with good reason) that a sensational, titillating report would be her ticket to fame? Should I be outraged on behalf of the Liverpudians that such malicious media reports maliciously add to the malicious stereotype of Liverpool birds as a-little-bit-slutty-and-little-bit-nutty, ridiculous, over the top, tits-bigger-than-brains creatures with less sense of aesthetic than a Jehovah Witness’s understanding of human evolution? Should I give a flying f**k what these women in Liverpool, who obviously have more time on their hands than they know what to do with it, get up to?

Assuming that there are some reported cases (though not amounting to a pandemic) in, let’s say for the sake of argument, Liverpool (although there is no reason to assume that women in Islington wouldn’t want to inject local anaesthetics into their areolas), why might they want to change the shape and colour of their nipples? The obvious answer is that for the same reason some people want to change the shapes of their noses, eyebrows, breasts or the length (usually an increase) of their cocks (applicable only to men). They are not happy with what God has given them. 

But why nipples? How is changing the appearance of the part of your anatomy which remains covered for the best part of your waking (and in most cases sleeping) hours (unless you are a nudist or like to sleep in the nude) going to make a difference? But this, I suppose, is not how people beyond your or my way of reasoning think.

The scientific journal Daily Mail attempts to throw some light on the matter in its case report. The Mail reports the case of one Claire Jagger (who happens to be from Liverpool, although she could be from anywhere). Claire is 38. Is that important? Probably not, although the term ‘midlife crisis arriving early’ comes to mind. 38 years old Claire Jagger, according to Daily Mail, has had her jugs upgraded. But Claire did not stop at just a boob job. “My nipples,” Claire Jagger told Daily Mail, “were quite fair in colour, no different from any ordinary girl.” But Claire wanted to enhance them. How? By making them darker. And now Claire Jagger feels great because “I have absolutely perfect nipples.”  So here we have, Claire, an ordinary Scouser (allegedly) with ordinary nipples (self-report) and (presumably) less than ordinary tits (hence the boob job), who wanted to be less ordinary and decided that she was going to change the size, shape and colour of her nipples in her quest to achieve anatomical perfection and become less ordinary. It was, she readily admitted, the finishing touch to her boob job.

Daily Mail gives another example. Michelle, a 32 year old Liverpudian and mother of a two-year old, had her nipples done to make them bigger and darker. Her nipples, she helpfully informed, were “very small and made her feel childlike”. As Michelle grew so did her breasts, but—alas!— not her nipples. And, to compound Michelle’s misery, “they didn’t have rings”, which made them look wrong (apparently). What Michelle wanted were nipples the size you could hang your coat on; what she got, instead, were nipples smaller than a processed pea. She might have accepted her less than perfect nipples, with deep expressions of regret, as her fate, if she were, say, from one of the horrific Third World countries where women are shamefully repressed by medieval cultures which expect people to accept their bodily foibles just because they are born with them. But not in Liverpool, I shall thank you to keep in mind. In Liverpool Michelle has the choice of changing the colour and shape of her nipples if she is not happy with them. The result? She is happy, as is her partner. Michelle can now go swimming without feeling self-conscious that her nipples might be showing through her bikini (please note: Michelle was not self-conscious about her nipples showing through her bikini top, she was self conscious about her small nipples showing through her bikini); she can (for the same reason) take her bra off in front of her partner without feeling self-conscious. Their relationship is “so much better”, which is probably a codeword for their improved sex life. (“Darling, you look lovely and desirable tonight,” Michelle’s partner might say as he sucks back the saliva dripping from his mouth on to Michelle’s magnificent nipples pointing to the left and right; or, if the sight of the large, dark nipples sends him into an ultra-romantic mood, he might get poetic. If he is a reader of Joseph Connolly novels (although, seeing as the partner is from Liverpool, it is more than likely that his literary appetites are whetted by Nuts), he might break into a song, going something like “Roses are red, violets are blue—turn over darling ‘cos I’m going to do you”; but I doubt it. More likely, he tugs with his eager hands at those oh-God-are-they-for-real tits, moving them this way and that, as if granted free access to the control panel of Starship Enterprise, the only precaution he having to take is to shift his head out of the way in time so that the central knobs on each side do not take his eye out).  Michelle says she feels more outgoing, and more self-confident. Everyone is happy. 

I once read that people who owned Apple i-phones felt happier, more satisfied and contented. 
Perhaps someone should do a case-control study of happiness amongst Liverpudian women, comparing what Claire Jagger would describe as ‘ordinary women with ordinary nipples’ and those who used to be ‘ordinary women with ordinary, fair nipples but now are proud owners of larger and darker nipples’ for their  happiness quotient. Who knows? Nipple job may come to replace happy pills as a bona fide treatment for depression.

Are there any long term effects of the procedure? The British Journal Daily Mail cautions that there could be. An Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon (!) was quoted in the journal as advising women to consider how their nipples might look in the long term, because breasts change their appearance over time (who would have thought that?) Another revelation from the surgeon was that the “nipple-areola complex” changes with pregnancy, which, surely, will come as a shock to most. The women, therefore (the surgeon advised), would do well to think about their future. 

I would agree wholeheartedly with this. Years ago I used to go out with a woman who asked me how I would feel if she were to have a butterfly tattooed on her inner thigh. By that time I had had enough of her. She had large breasts but very pale nipples; but, honestly, that wasn’t the problem. The breasts bounced provocatively in her brassiere when she walked, but, disappointingly, didn’t retain their shape once she was horizontal, requiring to be scooped out from under her armpits, but, honestly, that wasn’t a problem either. The problem was—how shall I put this?— the woman didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions, wanting—demanding— that their existence (and importance) be confirmed (by me) frequently. I didn’t have problem with that per se, except that her emotions most of the time were about as pleasurable as a low-grade fever. In particular her tendency towards theatricality, accompanied by a pretension of underplaying her emotions, especially when she was pretending to be not hurt by some imaginary insult I didn’t remember hurling at her, was wearing me down. The woman was not easy to live with, no doubt about it; but I have to say that she wasn’t bothered about her nipples, which, if my memory serves me right, in addition to being very pale, didn’t have well defined borders and merged imperceptibly into the pallor of her soft, squishy breasts.  It wasn’t as if the woman didn’t have hang-ups; she was the kind of neurotic an analyst waits for all his life. Most mornings I would be woken up by theatrical sighs and confronted with the sight of her sitting up in bed and holding her soft stomach. Once she was sure that my sleep was ruined she would declare that she was becoming fat and look at me accusingly as if I was, somehow, to blamed for this calamitous state of affairs. It was impossible to say anything that did not offend her. If I agreed I was a shallow, superficial man who did not appreciate inner beauty; if I disagreed I was a liar; If I kept quiet I was indifferent and uncaring; if I told her it didn’t matter I was patronising; if I asked her what she expected me to say I was an emotional retard. But even this woman, who was a living, breathing museum of neuroticism, didn’t complain about her nipples. Thinking back would I have—not that I had any say in the matter—liked her nipples to be darker? Not really. Dark nipples would have looked very odd against the backdrop of pasty white flesh. There is an old Eddie Murphy film in which he is a prince in an African principality, and, as per the custom in the imaginary principality, needs to be bathed by semi-naked African beauties, all of whom have perfect small, chocolate brown nipples, exactly the right size for the stupendous breasts from the exact centre of which they wink at you. You couldn’t imagine these women with pale, pink nipples; they simply wouldn’t have matched their perfect mahogany breasts.  By the same token very dark nipples against the white skin would somehow look out of place, from the aesthetic point of view. Anyway my ex-girlfriend wanted to know my views about the butterfly tattoo on her inner thigh, which she hadn’t yet made. I reminded her (like the Aesthetic plastic surgeon) that she should think of future; she did not want the butterfly, in fullness of time, to become a moth flying out of a purse. We split up soon after.

Back to the original question: the alleged rampant tittooing in Liverpool: is it just a fad amongst a handful of probably not very bright women in Liverpool (so very stupid in comparison with the rest of the country)? Is it a feminist statement of sort (women choosing what they want to do to their anatomy)? Or—is this a possibility?—is Liverpool at the vanguard of a movement that might become an important strand in British culture?

Once I heard, at the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde park, London, a man wearing a skull-cap and a very bushy beard, shouting, his spit flying in every which direction, that Britain was a culture of homosexuals, paedophiles, other sexual deviants, degenerates, capitalists, imperial aggressors, blood-sucking insects, hypocrites, hooligans, rogues, scoundrels, damned  racists, and xenophobes. He prayed every day that the all merciful Allah struck him dead there and then because he did not want to breathe the polluted air of this infidel country where women did not wear a hijab, people indulged in shameless carnal activities strictly forbidden by the Quran, and where every last man was surely going to end up in hell for not following the path shown by Muhammad (peace be upon him). 

I wonder whether this man, in all probabilities still condemned to breathe the air of this kafr country unless the merciful Allah has granted him his fervent wish (he cannot be deported back to his country of origin, where he is bound to be tortured by the ruthless regime because he is a freedom fighter), has read the Daily Mail (not very likely). If he has, he would have no trouble, I suspect, adding tittooing to the list of behaviour characteristics and traits he so eloquently described that afternoon in Hyde Park, which distinguish what he understands to be British culture.  

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Book of the Month: Sleeping Arrangements (Laura Shaine Cunningham)

‘I began my life waiting for him. When other children asked, “Where is your father?” I had my mother’s answer: “He is fighting in the war.”’ 

Thus starts Laura Shaine Cunningham’s memoir, Sleeping Arrangements.  Shaine Cunningham never knew who her father was. Her mother, Rosie, had told her that her father was a handsome blonde fighter pilot, and his name was Larry Moore. He was fighting in the Second World War, and Laura, or Lily as she was called, was waiting for the war to be over, so that she could at last reunite with him. Until then there was only a black and white, overexposed photograph, taken in an army office, of him and his mother—Lily’s mother would hide it and rotate its hiding place every night—that was the proof that he existed. The trouble was the war was long since over, and Larry was not coming back.  By instinct, young Lily learnt to lie, as the fabric of her mother’s story began to fray, even though she did not (and would never) know the truth.

Lily’s first conscious memories are of her and her mother leading an evanescent, shadowy existence, in the living rooms and kitchens of various relatives, before they move into their own apartment in Bronx, in a building called AnaMor Towers. This building would be her home for the next decade, and it would be a witness to the vicissitudes in young Lily’s life. Lily soon becomes a latch-key kid, learning to cook and keep dinner ready for her mother, before she returns from work, from the age of five. She is also running wild with a couple of neighbourhood girls: Diana, a Catholic, and Susan, who, like Lily, is Jewish. Lily plays truant from school in Diana’s company and worships pagan Gods; and, in the bedroom of Susan’s parents, she plays elaborate sex-games, which these days would get social workers knocking on your door. Then Rosie dies after a brief illness that turns out to be cancer. Lily is eight, and the large extended family—Rosie is one of many siblings—gathers to decide what is to become of the orphaned child. It is expected that her uncle ‘Norm’, who is married and issueless, would take on the responsibility. But ‘Norm’ and his shiksa wife, who live down South, neatly side-step the subject and leave without Lily. It is left to her two bachelor uncles, Gabe and Lane, to raise their niece who never knew her father and now has lost her mother.

Uncles Gabe and Len move into their dead sister’s rented apartment.

What follows is a bitter-sweet, at times comic, at times sad, but ultimately life-affirming tale of how these two bachelors, with absolutely no child-rearing experience, bring up their niece, who grows into, belying the Cassandric predictions of their neighbours, a well-rounded young woman.

Sleeping Arrangements is a coming of age story of a parentless young girl in the 1950s’ Bronx. Shain Cunningham looks back with warmth and affection on the eight years she spent with her two uncles, who gave up their bachelor- lifestyles and took up the challenge of looking after their parentless niece. Although it is not spelled out explicitly, both the uncles give up their own accommodations, and the autonomy that goes with them, and move into the apartment little Lilly has lived in, so that the girl can have a sense of continuity—school, friends, ambiance—in her life. This means that each of them has to make a two hour journey to reach their work-places. They also take turns in returning to the apartment during Lily’s lunch hour—so that on alternate days it is a four hour journey for them—to give her company. At home the two uncles divide the household chores between them. Lane cooks while Gabe cleans. Hard as they try, the two bachelors have very little clue about housekeeping. Uncle Len is the more eccentric of the two, and does not believe in always towing the conventional line (he is also probably not a very good cook); he adheres to no timetable, and serves pop corns or hamburgers for breakfast. He also insists on wearing his ‘uniform’ while cooking: a pith helmet and an apron.  Soon he earns the sobriquet of ‘The King of Pressure Cooker’. The other uncle, Geb, declares war against dirt and attacks grime, a mop and pail in hand, with an enthusiasm that borders on violence. The trouble is Gabe is as clueless about cleaning and the functions of everyday cleaning products as his brother is about cooking, and uses bathroom scouring powder to clean the wooden floor in their living room. The brothers’ solution to the laundry problem is to send their clothes to a professional laundry which sends back the clothes fiercely compressed and full of creases.

‘Uncle Len’ is a private investigator. He is also a giant who wears size 13 shoes and, at six feet four, is a cross between Abraham Lincoln (he is convinced Lincoln had an undiagnosed medical condition that made him so tall) and Sam Spade. Uncle, Gabe, is a librarian. Both the uncles have literary inclinations. Uncle Len has academic ambitions and carries with him massive manuscripts on the Lincoln administration written from the Secretary of War Stanton’s point of view, his, Len’s, aim being to give the unsung hero, Stanton, his due credit. This is Len’s serious work. He also writes short stories ‘to make money’. His stories always include dashing men in trenchcoats who rescue damsels in distress from exotic locations. Uncle Len carries the secrecy that must have been required in his line of working to all aspects of his life. He writes at ‘another location’, which he never discloses. He has a steady girl-friend, with whom he spends most weekends—announcing, as he leaves, that he is going on a secret mission—but the lady is never invited to the apartment and Lily never actually meets her. He bestows an air of mystique and suspense to every day mundane tasks, whether out of habit or eccentricity or a wish to keep his little niece entertained, is not clear. He never raises his voice and is excessively formal in all his addresses. ‘Uncle Gabe’, the librarian, is a song writer in his spare time. A devout Jew, he writes gospel songs and attends shul very regularly. He is less secretive in his romantic liaisons than his brother, but none of them comes to fruition, probably, you suspect, because of his insistence on wrapping up the evenings by singing love songs he has written. He also has a dream of converting nonreligious women to his deep orthodox faith. ‘Uncle Len’ describes Gabe’s courting style as unrealistic.

This is without doubt an odd household. And it gets even odder when Lily’s grandmother—her uncles’ and her mother’s mother—comes to live with them. Her name is ‘Esther in Hebrew’, ‘Edna in English’, and ‘Etka in Russian’. She prefers the Russian name and refers to herself as ‘Etka from Minsk’. It soon dawns upon young Lily that ‘Etka from Minsk’ is, if not entirely out of her mind, not entirely within it either. She sings non-stop in Russian, Hebrew, and German; and chants tunelessly her own praise—she is the most beautiful, the most intelligent, and (above all) has the most perfect legs (she is eighty years old). And this is not her only idiosyncrasy. She insists on covering everything in black, and balances saucers on top of glasses. She goes through periods when she gets obsessed with ideas, and does not let go of them—once, in the grip of a mania for frugality, she cuts everything, including blankets, into half. She steals Lily’s clothes and other trinkets, and wears them herself, insisting that they are her own. ‘Arteriosclerosis’ is the word ‘uncle Len’ conspiratorially mutters into Lily’s ears to explain his mother’s very odd behaviour and habits. Lily realises that ‘Etka from Minsk’, in addition to being deaf in one ear, is also very forgetful. She seems to think at times that she is in a hotel, and does not appear to be aware that her daughter, Rosie, Lily’s mother, is dead. Rosie, according to Etka, got a promotion and is working in Washington. Soon Etka and Lily not only learn to tolerate each other, they also work out a scheme for peaceful co-existence. Lily’s part of the bargain is to edit Etka’s memoirs. Like her two sons—and, we learn later, her late husband—Etka too has literary ambitions, and she is not prepared to let go of them even in her senility. She is writing her memoirs, ‘The Philosophy for Women’, in which most sentences begin with the words ‘I believe’ and which are levered by the tenet, repeated throughout the memoirs (that fill more than hundred spiral pages of a notebook), that she was meant to do ‘brainwork’ and not ‘housework’. The ambition of Etka’s life is to get a college diploma—she has even composed a poem (‘A college diploma beats a lifetime of toil / For every boy and goil’) to express the high premium she puts on these certificates—, and when she attends the graduation ceremony of her son, ‘Uncle Len’—he has been quietly attending a Night School has earned his final credit for his master’s degree—she wants one too. The two brothers and their niece then prepare a fake diploma certificate, and, in a ceremony that seems too surreal to be true, they solemnly present to Etka the diploma certificate one evening in the local public garden, under a statue.

The ingenuity of the uncles is severely put to test as Lily reaches adolescence. Bound by the traditional etiquettes in these matters, common, no doubt, to men of their generation, both Len and Gabe are severely ill at ease in discussing what Len euphemistically refers to as ‘the facts of life’ with their niece. Since ‘Etka from Minsk’ proves to be of little use, they send for her younger sister, the great aunt Dora, whose strategy is to present Lily with a brassiere from the tsarist era and leave it to her to figure out the rest. Her uncles, in an act of utter desperation, slip a copy of ‘Facts of Love and Life for Teenagers’ under her pillow. In the end, Lily learns about ‘the facts of life’ in the same way as many teenagers from her generation: from her friends.

The unlikely happy family continues in this fashion for more than eight years, during which period hey change first apartments and, later, when Bronx becomes too violent, area. The family unit breaks when Lily leaves home to start University. We learn, in the Afterword, that the two brothers carried on looking after their ‘arteriosclerotic’ mother till she died at the great age of eighty eight. After that Uncle Gabe immigrated to Israel and promptly settled into matrimony, while Uncle Len retired to a Southern state; he continued to see his girl-friend of years, but the two did not marry. Shaine Cunningham tried to search for her absentee father off and on for a number of years without getting anywhere, before finally giving up the search. The memoir ends with Shaine Cunningham declaring that she is not his (her birth father’s) child; she is the child of her two uncles who raised her against convention.

Sleeping Arrangement is more than just another coming of age story. It is more than a memoir. It is an ode of love and gratitude to the two men who devoted the best years of their lives, and quietly and uncomplainingly sacrificed their personal interests in order to look after the daughter of their dead sister.  This is a vividly remembered childhood—the details provided of the fierce childhood games and associated activities with playmates are astonishing. Whether the events happened exactly the way they are recounted or whether an artistic license has been taken is beside the point. Shaine Cunningham has successfully portrayed the atmosphere, the ambiance, of the times she grew up in, both within and outside of her home. In simple, direct, and pellucid prose she intensifies the impact of all the things that went on to shape her childhood and, no doubt, contributed to the development of her emerging personality. When Lily begins to avoid school in her fifth grade because of her terror of the new class-teacher, Uncle Lane takes her on a ‘secret mission’ to an island. The island is Cuba, and Castro has usurped power only a few weeks ago. They spend a few days (in a deserted Five Star hotel) on the island that is still in the midst of a revolution. On their way back, Len says to her, ‘Now, doesn’t this give you a perspective on Mrs. Aventuro?’

The writing of Sleeping Arrangements  is very atmospheric. Such is the power of narration that you are instantly transported to Lily’s apartment in Bronx and ‘see’  ‘Uncle Lane’ trying out his recipes in the kitchenette, with a pith helmet on his head, uncle Gabe going over his gospel songs in the dinette, and Etka humming to herself in the bedroom window. This is an affectionate memoir, but at no time does Shaine Cunningham wallows in mawkish sentimentality. The personalities of her two generous-hearted uncles and eccentric grandmother—‘Etka from Minsk’ is one of the most memorable characters to have been depicted, both in fiction and non-fiction—come across very distinctly, as do their love and concern for orphaned niece. Against all odds and conventions they managed to be a happy family. And the warm glow of the felicity stays with you long after you come to its end.

Laura Shaine Cunningham is not a familiar name in Britain, but she is apparently well known in her native America as a writer and play-write of distinction. She has published another book of memoirs (A Place in the Country), several plays and a few novels. Sleeping Arrangements was published in the United States in 1989, and it took another sixteen years for it to be published in the United Kingdom. Judging from this enchanting, tender, warm-hearted, and very moving memoir her reputation ought to cross the Atlantic.