Monday, 31 May 2010

Make Love, Not War

I have always had a soft spot for other countries' national holidays and/or other important dates. I find that they tell an awful lot about any given society's values and attitudes. Today is Memorial Day here in the United States, and all I really knew about it beforehand was that it had something to do with war, and that you are not supposed to wear white shoes before it. It turns out that Memorial Day is the day when Americans remember those who have died while in military service since the Civil War.

The tombstone above is of a young man who fell (alongside 600 000 others) while fighting in the Civil War. As important as it might be to remember those who fought (as it is to remember any person who ever lived), I often find war-related national celebrations quite literally macabre. Independence Day in Finland, for example, celebrates not the actual peaceful process of gaining independence in 1917, but maintaining it with the help of war later on. It almost goes without saying that countries ought to celebrate their victories in war: no one confesses to liking war, but it is in our societal make-up to admire and remember them once they are successfully concluded. Hungarians even celebrate wars they lost, probably because they haven't done much winning in their 1000 years of existence as a nation. Win or lose, all nations dwell in their violent pasts. Wars and their interpretations can shape an entire nation's understanding of its history, or its very existence. (An interesting example is the commonly used Finnish term "torjuntavoitto", or "victory through repelling". With the help of the term Finns have grown to think of the Winter War of 1939-40 as a victorious one, even though Finland lost the war.)

War is destructive, and it makes people do horrible things. The values we attach to war range from the emotionally-jam-packed term 'independence' in Finland to the equally elusive 'freedom' in the United States. We rarely stop and question what these words have come to mean to us, and take them at face value instead. If we look closely, we might realise that these words don't really mean an awful lot, and that they are cultural constructs instead. They tend to exist as a backbone to our patriotic feelings of belonging. We feel comfortable remembering the lives we have lost in war because these words help us do so. They make us feel noble and proud while facing suffering and loss of the past.

I struggle with the idea that some wars are necessary, and that good things can come out of war. I fundamentally reject the Hobbesian characterisation of man as a creature of violence. As people in this country go about their family picnics and perhaps visiting a cemetary today, I hope that their thoughts are with peace, not war.

Dress: Liberty of London for Target
Shoes: F-Troupe / Beamhill
Vintage earrings / present from Chris

Friday, 28 May 2010

Women and Choices

I have been thinking about choices recently - from all sorts of viewpoints. I loved Rad's fascinating take on hemlines and the economic times. It has always amazed me how the way women wear skirts could ever be considered "economy-driven" - that when times are good we all wear mini-skirts, and when the economy plummets we supposedly opt for maxi-dresses. It is almost as if we didn't have a choice when we look into our wardrobes in the morning, trying to find something to wear: the Dow is down - grab something, anything that reaches our ankles. This implies that either women are mindless sheep who unconsciously follow bigger economic forces, or that we simply can't decide for ourselves and wear what is expected of us. Puhh-lease.

Sal's wonderful post on the weird supposed separation between feminism and style sort of touches upon the same theme. Fashion- or style-conscious women are often labeled superficial by definition, regardless of what goes on in their heads. If a woman is intelligent, she must not care about the way she looks. (Double it, if the woman in question is a feminist.) Again, it is as if we don't even have a choice in the matter. Love clothes or be intelligent, because you can't have both. The universe has spoken on our behalf.

I got so angry this morning while reading a NYT article about forced pre-abortion ultrasounds in certain states. I know abortion is a very thorny topic in this country, but it really is insulting to force a woman to go through an invasive medical procedure that, according to at least one study, is completely ineffective in preventing abortions in the first place. Again, it is as if women didn't have the intellectual or emotional means to question their own life-altering decisions. (I can only imagine the uproar if it was men instead of women being subjected to this type of treatment.)

Luckily I have some positive things to say about women and choices alongside my angry rantings above. The same NYT featured a very interesting art review regarding The Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography". The material in exhibition reaches back to 1850s, when only a handful of women carried a camera and captured images of the world the way they saw it. I am sure a bunch of people told women like Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Kasebier (whose works are shown at MoMA, alongside over a hundred others) that they didn't have a choice. They were probably told that they were born into a sex that was societally constructed to lack the ability to make choices. Luckily for them, and for us, they chose to have a choice anyway.

Top: second hand / UFF
Skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Necklace and earrings: second hand / Lynn's leftovers
Lack of shoes: due to blisters - have I mentioned that I hate wearing shoes in the summertime?

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Upstate New York, The Beautiful

Chris and I took a daytrip to Chris's childhood hometown, Oneonta, here in upstate New York. There are times when I feel I know Chris as well as I know myself, and other times it just hits me that it really isn't the case. As we were driving around Oneonta and its surroundings, Chris was telling me about his prom night. He showed me his favourite library, the places where he used to play baseball, and the beautiful house he used to live in as a child. We drove past a real drive-in movie theatre. He told me about having gone to (a different) one with his family when he was a child, wearing his pyjamas while sitting at the back seat, falling asleep in the middle of the movie. I had never even seen a drive-in movie theatre before today. (Chris tells me that the drive-in movie theatre we drove by is one of the last remaining ones in upstate New York.)

Like probably all international couples, occasionally Chris and I run into cultural and language-related misunderstandings. Those times we sit back and try to make sense of each other's preconceived notions, funny phrases and habits. It is hard for me to watch Chris turning right when the traffic light is red, and the way I use my knife and fork reminds Chris of the way cowboys eat their pork-and-beans in old Westerns. (I am not exactly sure what this says about my eating habits.)

There are times when I forget that Chris is an American who has lived an American childhood. There are times when I forget how different everyday life is in different countries, and how differently we see things because of our roots and our realities. It comes down to small things: that for Chris it was perfectly natural to have had to address his neighbours "Mr and Mrs So-and-so" when he was growing up. I grew up calling our neighbours by their first names in Finland.

Upstate New York is really beautiful. The rolling hill tops seem to go on forever. Small farms and a-hundred-year-old houses sit next to lush meadows and narrow creeks. Even trailer parks have a view worth a million dollars. Compared to my current surroundings, Finland seems small. But I miss the summer daylight reaching way into midnight, and I miss the dry air. I miss being able to walk in a forest, without having to worry about "Private Property, Keep Out"-signs. Luckily I don't have to wait too long. I received my authorization to travel on Monday, and will be able to visit Finland come midsummer.

Dress: second hand / Salvation Army
Shoes: Bronx
Seahorse pendant: second hand / America's Attic
Bag: MaxMara Weekend

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Summertime issues

1) It is too warm to do layers. My clothes feel sticky either because of perspiration or sunscreen, or often both.

2) I don't like wearing shoes in the summer. Today I stepped on a slug. It was not pretty.

3) I don't own summer tops (hence the Muppet Show tank top, style circa 1998). Investing in summer tops always seemed silly to me in Finland because I never got the chance to wear them: if it was warm and sunny, I'd want to wear a dress instead. It seems to be very warm and sunny here a lot more often, meaning that I could use some cool summer tops to pair with skirts and shorts, because every day is not a dress day.

(4) In case it sounds like I am complaining about the weather, I am not!)

Check out my spinach, salads and zucchini (and a slug trap - those slimy creatures love their beer)! I realised today that I might have made some mistakes planting my seedlings - this container is fine, but I just put my cucumbers, beans and peas in another container that doesn't get quite enough sun. I hope this doesn't mean that nothing grows! What does "full sun" mean anyway? They say in seed bags and gardening books that almost every veggie needs "full sun", but if I gave full sun to my cucumbers, they'd die of heat exhaustion within hours, and I'd have to stand next to them with a watering can all day long. To me, even the recommended "at least 6 hours" sounds a bit much, but hey, I am new to this and I guess I'll learn what it is all about!

Muppet Show top: Zara
Skirt: self-made
Vintage brooch: America's Attic

Saturday, 22 May 2010

One stupid envelope, and jewellery

I had high hopes for an envelope that arrived from Homeland Security this morning. After realising that they just wanted to let me know that my green card case has been forwarded to a service centre in California (?!?) I figured out that I had two options: 1) to get depressed and start feeling sorry for myself, or 2) decide that I wasn't going to. I chose the latter.

I spent a fun afternoon with Lynn yesterday. We are getting Lynn's jewellery (I keep switching between 'jewellery' and 'jewelry' - I just can't decide which one I like better) ready for a big craft show in Ithaca and have a lot to do before we hit the road in two weeks from today. We didn't get too much work done yesterday because we were busy going through a huge bunch of vintage jewellery Lynn had acquired from EBay and a local second hand store. This is what she didn't want to keep and gave me:

I don't really know much about vintage jewellery, and I have no idea how old these things are. My guess is that the oldest ones are probably from the 1960s.

Some of it is clearly cheap 1980s stuff which I wouldn't call vintage, but some of it was fun anyway, and that really is all that matters.

I have no idea how much of this stuff I'll end up wearing, but I'll see what it all looks like after I've cleaned it.

Top: Urban Outfitters
Skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Belt: second hand / Salvation Army
Sandals: H&M

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Pale, with Books

I bought this dress years ago at a second hand store in Helsinki. It came with a little jacket that I really wanted, and since the owner of the shop wouldn't let me buy just the jacket, I was stuck with the dress too. It wasn't that I didn't like the dress, but I figured that it would be one of those "can-only-wear-with-a-tan" dresses that had accumulated into my wardrobe over the years.

For as long as I can remember being pale was something I really disliked. When I was younger I tried tanning old school style knowing what the risks were. I'd burn myself, then wait to see my skin peel off. More recently I tried self-tan lotions and sprays, only to be disgusted with the smell of the stuff, and the realisation that they always ended up looking orange on me. I have learned my lesson when it comes to sun exposure, and these days I protect myself with sun block more carefully than ever before. I have also come to realise that being pale isn't all that bad. I have decided to wear this dress, despite it making me look even paler than I already am. Sometimes you just have to give yourself the permission to say "f**k it". This is the skin I'm in, and so be it, and it is not going to stop me from wearing a dress I like.

I spent yesterday in Owego with Rose, and as you might be able to tell by the stuff I am wearing in the picture above, it was a lot colder than today. Owego has many cute small stores (we probably went into every single one), but instead of going for hand-crafted jewelry and antique porcelain, I ended up coming home with old books from a fantastic second hand bookshop called Riverow. I could have spent the entire day browsing through the old art and architecture books they had, as well as the section of antique prints and photos. I got stuck at the psychiatry shelf though, and spent my money on two wonderful additions to my research material.

Albert Deutch's The Mentally Ill in America was published in 1937, at the time when great hopes were lingering in the air in regard to insulin shock treatment. It is one of the first histories of the treatment of the mentally ill in the United States, and certainly the first whose author was not trained in psychiatry. In 1948 Deutch went on to publish The Shame of the States, which revealed the horrible conditions of state hospitals in the United States.

Clinical Lectures on Mental Diseases by T.S. Clouston was published in the United States in 1884. The author was the superintendent of the Edinburg Asylum for the Insane in Scotland. This American edition comes with US-specific information about the legislation and treatment of the mentally ill in each state. The book has chapters on issues such as epileptic insanity, insanity of masturbation, as well as on the mental diseases that threaten women due to menstruation, breast-feeding and giving birth. It features numerous case studies, treatment plans (among other things, diet of a dozen eggs and six pints of milk a day for melancholiacs) and advice to psychiatrists as to how to diagnose their patients.

The copy I bought used to belong to a doctor working at Ward's Island Insane Asylum in New York (now known as Manhattan Psychiatric Center) in the late 1880s.

Jacket: Urban Outfitters
Stripy sweater: Diesel
Skirt: American Apparel tube dress
Tights: H&M
Shoes: F-Troupe / Beamhill
Scarf: flea market

Dress: second hand / Ruutu-Rouva
Belt: second hand / UFF
Hat: Gap
Sunglasses: Max&Co.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The I in Ourselves

I used to have a Virginia Woolf quote attached to this blog. It was from my favourite book of hers, The Waves, and since I can't seem to find the book this very second, I have to paraphrase: it is only through the illumination of the eyes of others that we can see ourselves. I got to thinking about this after I finished reading Siri Hustvedt's The Shaking Woman the other day. It seems that there is some biological foundation to Woolf's claim.

I had never thought of this before, but the word "I" appears late in children's speech. They refer to themselves in the third person ("Chris wants chocolate." rather than "I want chocolate". - although trust me, we both do), and their first words and expressions come about in a process of copying those of parents. Like Hustvedt argues, "the beginnings of language are in imitation. We are mirrors of one another." It is almost as if we have to copy others in order to become aware of ourselves.

I wonder whether this tendency to copy could be at the heart of our body image issues. After we learn to think of ourselves as subjects, we soon learn to abstract, objectify and generalize. We begin to create and re-create memories once we learn to speak. We cut and paste familiar words, environments, norms and people in order to create meanings for ourselves. And we keep doing it. Hustvedt says that "[a]ll meaning is generated through repetition." However we see ourselves and our bodies, it is a mash-up of what we have learned, chosen and keep choosing every day.

I guess that despite us having the biological tendency to copy our surroundings, we still need to seek out the material we copy, and we still somehow choose the meanings we create. We could be surrounded by fashion magazines that tell us that we don't look good enough, but we would still have to make the jump to letting it influence us. We construct and re-construct our lives, our memories, and all the meanings that surround us. It doesn't necessarily make us weak because that is how we are. Being influenced by the world is probably how the humankind has learned to survive. But it would be fatalistic to assume that we didn't have any say in the matter.

I know I am simplifying something very complex here, but if meaning is something we make and create for ourselves, and if human beings have free will, we should be able to create the very mental framework of the world we inhabit. Essentially our societies are made of individuals. Group dynamics and the development of societal norms and practices are tough to pin down, and a lot of times these things seem to exist somewhere beyond our grasp. I don't believe this is the case though.

My guess is that what is lost is the voice of "I", the subject. Our positivist, science-loving minds have tended to disregard our own personal narratives for a long time. Maybe we just stopped listening to our own voices at some point because there was something out there that seemed so much more meaningful. One human being is so small, so fragile in the big framework of our universe. We have, at some point in time, begun to reject "I", and what "I" has to say. We easily forget that essentially, without "I", there'd be no meaning. Maybe that is why I love the blogosphere. We are all "I"s, and we all have things to say. We are not creating new science here, but I do think we are changing the way we see ourselves and each other. We have the right to create narratives in order to make sense of the world. And not just create, but also to say them out loud.

Now for something completely different: I feel awful for not having had the time to visit people's blogs recently. I just wanted to give a shout-out to all of my lovely readers. You mean the world to me! And then to a brief Q&A:

Charlotte asked me a while back whether my friend Lynn has an Etsy shop: she used to, but she wasn't able to find an audience. At the moment she is only selling her jewelry at local craft fairs, at-home-parties and in a small art gallery in Johnson City, NY. I hope that she will give another go at online sales at some point, because her stuff is amazing! I also wanted to thank Charlotte for suggesting essay writing. I will certainly look into it!

Modesty is Pretty asked me if I had decided what I was going to do about my hair... and as you might be able to tell by now, I haven't! I am just letting it grow until I get the urge to do something about it.

Velma Vex commented on my faulty use of personal pronouns, and I was relieved to hear that my "language ear" wasn't completely wrong. Ever since I got advice on "X and me", it hasn't always sounded right to me. Thank you for clarifying what the problem was! For future reference: I LOVE receiving comments regarding bad grammar and/or mistakes as weird as that might sound. It is always exciting to weed out my persistent mistakes and try to figure out where they come from. More often than not there is an explanation!

One last thing: in case you haven't already, check out my last week's guest post at Sal's Already Pretty. Sal is such an inspiration, and I felt really lucky to be able to write something for her.

T-shirt: H&M
Skirt: second hand / Salvation Army
Shoes: Steve Madden
Necklace: Lynn's grandmother's old

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Mad in Buffalo

A couple of weeks back Chris and me drove over to Buffalo to visit Chris's sister and her family. Terry and Josh made my day when they agreed to drive us over to see the remains of the old Buffalo psychiatric centre, or, as it was known when it first opened in 1895, the Buffalo State Hospital for the Insane. This National Historic Landmark was designed in 1870 by the famous Henry Hobson Richardson, and its design is characteristic of 'Richardsonian Romanesque'. What made our visit to the complex exteremely interesting to me was the fact that I had never seen a Kirkbride Plan asylum before. T. S. Kirkbride gave his name to an asylum type that became popular in the mid-1850s: the typical structure resembles a shallow V, with a central administrative building in the middle and wards progressively set on each side like wings. This floor plan is not of the Buffalo asylum, but you get the idea:

Like in all Kirkbride buildings, patients were segregated according to sex: male patients were located on the east side wards, females on the west. The most well-behaved patients were located close to the administrative building at the centre of the complex, violent and noisy ones at the end wards. The logic behind these asylums was based on the principles of Moral Treatment (moral meaning psychological). It was believed then that mental illness could be cured by placing the patient in a peaceful, well-structured, orderly environment that the asylum provided. The architectural plans were drawn in order to support this view. At the time of their popularity the Kirkbride buildings were extremely progressive in terms of ventilation, plumbing and heating. Carefully designed asylum grounds and gardens offered the possibility for the patient to be close to nature, and to take part in agricultural work. Some asylums had golf courses, theatres and libraries for their patients. The superintendents visited every patient daily, and sometimes patients and staff dined together.

The golden age of Moral Treatment lasted for a couple of decades, during which dozens of asylums were built in the United States according to the Kirkbride plan. As institutionalization of the mentally ill became the norm, the admission rates soared. Due to non-existent financial planning and lack of cohesive social policy, the asylums soon became over-crowded and unsustainable. Moral Treatment was abandoned, and Kirkbride asylums started to serve the purpose of mass-confinement. The original Kirkbride Plan promoted small, secluded asylums (the original recommendation was 250 patients per asylum), but by the time this asylum in Buffalo was built, it was designed to host somewhere around a thousand patients.

In 1948 it was estimated that one in every 263 US citizens was institutionalized. The Buffalo asylum hosted patients until 1970s, and the building was used for administrative purposes until 1994. It is now closed (like almost all Kirkbride asylums) and its future remains uncertain. Its sheer size (not to mention its gloomy history) makes one feel awfully small.

T-shirt: Gina Tricot
Cardigan: second hand / Plato's Closet
Linen trousers: Benetton sample sale
Shoes: F-Troupe / Beamhill